Breathe

One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about for the last month or so is breathing. It’s nice. I’m grateful for being able to do so. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately.

One of the reasons I don’t take breathing for granted is that I was diagnosed with asthma just over a year ago, after years of seasonal allergies and a nagging little cough that never really went away. I’d learned over time to cope with being run down and vaguely short of breath all the time, believing what I’d been told: that there wasn’t anything wrong with me except that I was fat and out of shape and needed to exercise more. I’d heard that since puberty; it was my normal – a marginally adequate normal that deteriorated slowly over time. And I didn’t really complain much about it, because it was probably my fault for being fat and lazy and out of shape. Of course I was lazy; exertion made the shortness of breath worse, so I avoided it. I wasn’t stupid. But since I’d stop exercising long before I got winded or dizzy, I never had an obvious emergency. So clearly there wasn’t anything really wrong with me. After all, someone would surely have noticed if there was a real problem, and whenever I mentioned it, I was assured that I was just out of shape, or it was just my allergies. I’m sure that being long-term un- and under-insured didn’t help my credibility either.

Last year I finally switched doctors and got in with somebody who was willing to listen to my frustration long enough to wonder if there might possibly be something else going on besides fat and out of shape. And it turned out there was.

The first time I used a rescue inhaler I cried. I’d had no idea breathing was supposed to be that easy. I’d worked hard for enough air all my adult life. It seemed almost like cheating. I panicked and resolved I’d put it away and only use it for real emergencies, which I hadn’t had yet. Except for that time I almost passed out at the office (but I hadn’t, so it wasn’t a real emergency because nobody noticed.)

I worried about being imperfectly healthy. I worried about taking too many drugs. I worried that I’d become dependent on them somehow, or that I was weak for needing help or self-indulgent for allowing myself to ask for better than I could manage on my own. I’d been able to cope without them for a long time; did I really need this?

Then I got some sense and decided that dependent on medication and fully functional was a better gig than schlepping around exhausted all the damn time, and that I felt better being under treatment for a chronic illness than I ever had when I was just fat, lazy and out of shape with “nothing was really wrong.” I decided that I could live with imperfectly healthy because hey, management of this illness is relatively easy and the results are quick and feel pretty damn good.

Then I got angry at everyone who had ever told me I wasn’t working hard enough. Or everyone who was sure, without being me and being in my experience, that there wasn’t anything wrong with me and I was probably just looking for special attention I didn’t need or deserve.

I still feel that way sometimes – that maybe I don’t really need my meds and maybe I’m just a little self-indulgent for taking them, for having the nerve to expect more than the bare minimum amount of oxygen it takes to survive – but I am trying to learn that I deserve to be taken good care of. That I work better – and get more done – with proper maintenance. That this is the body I live in, and this is what it takes to work properly, and that keeping the meat machine functioning as well as possible is an important part of doing what I need to do in the world.

I am coming also to see echoes of the same process in my spiritual journey, and I’m trying to receive the lessons of this condition and apply them more broadly. If I am the only person who knows what my breathing feels like, am I not also the only person who knows what my soul feels like? At least it’s possible to observe, empirically, a physical condition like asthma. It can be documented, it can be measured, if someone is looking and knows what to look for. When I doubt my spiritual experience is real, I need to remember that just because something does not show on the outside doesn’t make it unworthy of attention. I am writing this in public so I have something to go back to when I need reminding.

It seems I am needing a lot of reminding on this point lately.

Why do I expect my experience to be discounted and disbelieved? How do I learn to own the truth of my experience and to let it out into the world? Why is it always such a surprise when someone believes me? I always expect to need hard evidence or supporting documentation or reasonable justification – I expect to have to work to be believed, and when I push hard and there’s no resistance, I end up off balance. It feels like cheating, somehow.

I want to say that having faith should be as easy as breathing. But what would that mean from me? I don’t expect breathing to be easy, either.

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