When you're looking back twenty years from an event, things devolve into pictures, vague sensations, and disorganized “anchor” memories that keep one from even being sure what year things happened in, let alone the order the images belong in. What I can remember is the day I went to my first allergist's appointment; I remember being vaguely happy to get out of my first grade classes, that day, and I remember the look of the main office as I waited for my mother to pick me up, with its lights and its secretaries tapping away at a typewriter. For some reason, that sense of waiting for the unknown remains one of my strongest memories tied to my struggle with asthma, a day on which I began the long road to where I am today. Yet even this monumental occasion only came about after one of the most defining moments of my life; Christmas Day of that year.
We don't really know what triggered it; it might have been a comfy, multi-colored bean-bag chair my Grandmother gave me, but it could just as well have been any particular environmental allergen or even simply an errant blast of cold, holiday air. Whatever the case, I went on to experience the most severe asthma attack of my life – and, at six years old, I almost experienced the very final one, to boot. I'd had them before, and I'd been in the hospital for them previously, but this one was critical. I recall having no idea whether I was going to meet my maker, and I can almost feel the midnight injections of what I now can only assume to have been steroids; painful pinches intended to stabilize my breathing. There were no concrete answers to that night, and at the time even my survival wasn't certain; I pulled through, however, and this second memory directly caused the first.
I know I felt incredibly helpless, and I can only imagine how my parents felt given that, to be blunt, we were. This was at a time when asthma was only beginning to be understood. The allergist I saw was a young lady, newly entering the medical field, I'm sure; new or not, she was good. We quickly identified that I was allergic to the standard fare; some kinds of trees and their pollen, birds and their feathers, dust mites and dust, cats, dogs, horses, and the like. We had a dog, but I was allowed to keep him as long as I kept a reasonable distance and washed my hands after playing with him; my stuffed animals? Not so lucky, as they attracted dust and required relocation as a result.
I received the worst news a child can probably hear – that I'd be getting “allergy shots,” one needle a week, until I was better. That was probably one of the least pleasant bits of news I've ever heard, though in retrospect it was actually some of the best. I was proscribed various pumps and inhalers to help in the event of a crisis. After a particularly unpleasant incident in a car, I began to travel with a small black bag that I took everywhere and always had within arm's reach; it contained a rescue inhaler that would keep me from having an attack.
There was a book, the title of which long escaped me, that was monumentally helpful in adapting to my circumstances. What I do remember was the vividly drawn pictures of a child pointing at his favorite stuffed animals behind a glass case – the best compromise the little one could anticipate. Another source of information about this illness (to the six-year-old me at least) was the Chuck Norris movie “Sidekicks,” a slick bit of fiction in which a little boy with asthma overcomes all of the odds and fulfills his dream of becoming a martial artist; even getting to hang out with his idol, Mr. Norris, himself.
I suppose there were small up-sides to the situation, however. I might not have been able to hang out with my friends one day a week, but my mom made it far more palatable through the 1980's equivalent of childhood bribery. That's right, after my allergy shots she would buy me a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure. I still have many of them lying about, collecting dust and, hopefully, value. As far as I ever understood it, it was just a reward for enduring the situation without complaining too loudly. Today, I have a much deeper grasp of the psychological fencing that took place.
As I grew up, the once-a-week shots moved to twice-a-week ones. I went from being six to twelve, or so it seemed, with less symptoms of asthma and more physical ability as a result. As great as they were, Ninja Turtle toys weren't the way for teenage boys to play - sports were, especially in a town that has put out more than one professional athlete. As children in Freeport, New York age, they're almost universally exposed to sporting events. My parents and I decided that I wasn't going to let this asthma thing get in my way.
I began to compete on a local swim team once I hit fifth grade. I had imagined that my background in the water would make me an unimaginable asset to the team; I was sadly mistaken, as competitive swimming was far more arduous than recreational wading. Fortunately, I found I had just as much trouble keeping up as a result of my form and my strength, and not simply because my lungs weren't suited for it. I didn't need long to be able to swim without getting winded. My asthma limited me, perhaps, but I never let it stop me.
There were other sports I started to play, as well. I had varying degrees of success. I was horrible at football and only average at lacrosse; the first due mostly to my size, the latter due to a comparative lack of coordination. I discovered a talent for tennis far too late for my own good, but I was pleasantly surprised that my asthma had all but left me by this point! I was able to run back and forth across a court at full speed and, at most, need a puff of my inhaler on a very hot day. I was honored in my senior year when I received recognition as an all-division player, a feat only two other on the team (one being my doubles partner) managed to execute that season. I even began to work as a lifeguard; now, I was going to be the one responsible for saving lives! Forget about needing an inhaler; I'd long ago stopped getting allergy shots, and now I didn't even bother to check in with a pulmonologist. For some time, I never thought twice about the fact that I didn't have a rescue inhaler with me at all times. I fantasized that my battles were in the past.
This was a colossal mistake.
Muscles grow weak without constant use, and as the years went by my physical activity declined almost out of necessity. I was in college, and with an overstuffed course load scheduled to achieve a six-year degree in five, my routine of daily exercise fell to a far less frequent pattern. I focused less on aerobic training and more on muscle development. Little did I consider that my lungs were the muscle that needed the most work – and this error in judgment became a serious burden.
It began when I was in Upstate New York. I found myself getting runny noses on a regular basis. I loaded up on the medicine I'd been recommended, Claritin, but somehow I didn't feel like everything was in control. I began to get headaches, then; sinus ones, clearly, and they faded with the addition of Sudafed tablets. This was well and good until I'd been exposed to a particularly dusty alcove or a heavy day of pollen – then, I'd need to reach for my inhaler, which I'd begun to wisely carry around in my pocket at all times. Even then, I dismissed it as a random hiccup in an otherwise flawless plan.
I kept thinking that way until I began to wake up in the middle of the night, at 3:00 AM, gasping for air and fumbling about for the pair of pants I'd worn that day, hoping that in the darkness I'd isolate that left pocket where I knew it rested – unless I'd moved it, that day, to a different location. I'd reach for it on the nightstand (an old, converted chair), on the floor right next to my bed, or any other location where it might conceivably be. This set off alarm bells, but they were silenced once my breathing returned to normal and sleep regained control of my mind.
It wasn't until a few months ago that I decided enough was enough. There was a strange vibration of masculinity I'd gotten from being able to walk around, show off my half-empty inhaler, and quip, “Yeah, but I don't need it.” The problem was that sentence should have ended with, “...Except when I do.” It was a false sense of security, and I noticed it had led to other changes in my lifestyle. I began to find my rescue inhalers popping up like weeds throughout my house – two in my room, one in my car, one upstate, one at my girlfriend's house, one in my pocket, and two fresh ones, lost for months on end until they were needed, somewhere downstairs. In attempting to control it, my Asthma had taken control of me – or, at least my house!
It took a lot for me to summon up the courage to see my doctor about the troubles I was having. I'd prized myself on self-control for so long that I didn't really know how to say I would need to improve my routine. I was proscribed a single, simple burden: A new inhaler with a two-puff, twice-a-day mandate. Can I say I've always stuck to it? Not religiously, no. Its easy to write off a simple “I forgot,” or “I had to run out the door,” but could I afford to let one or two “oopsies” become a habit of neglect? I didn't intend to find out – and, I haven't.
Now, for the most part, things are back under my control, and I have accepted the need for true discipline and not just illusory domination of a chronic illness. Sometimes, when I exercise, sure, I find myself needing a puff of my rescue inhaler; but even today I take care to ensure I take my medication when I need it and to not take it when I don't. I know, now, the principle behind those hundred little pricks I got as a child – that the immune system begins to recognize an allergen and stops over-reacting in the face of it. In a sense, I'm actually depending on this; I recently moved in with my girlfriend and, somehow even more dangerously, her cat. I police my medicine schedule far more carefully, as a result, but so far I've encountered little more than a two-day period of runny noses and headaches. Will I adapt to the cat fully? Probably not; but as long as I keep myself from attracting too much loose fur, wash my hands carefully, and remember to take my daily medication there's pretty good odds that he won't leave me reaching for that left pocket again – and I'll never have to worry about seeing him locked behind a pane of glass (or, far less alarmingly, in a room of his own) for my safety.