The Relentless Files — Week 2
*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I am stubborn. I imagine anyone who knows me is chuckling after reading that statement. They’re not the least bit surprised by this declaration. The thing is that over the past week I’ve had to stare at the extent of my stubbornness. I had a mirror forced in front of me to make me stare at it. At myself.
I’ve been experiencing a bad asthma exacerbation for the past few weeks. Well, not few, longer than that. If I sit and think about it, which I have been doing all week while in bed healing (finally), it’s been months but…I digress. On Saturday evening, after an especially difficult breathing day, where my love later confessed, “I saw the light leave you for a little bit,” she said, “I guess you’ll just let me know when you ‘re tired of feeling like this.” I gave her the touché face which is really the “I ain’t got nothing to say in response because dammit you’re right” face. I woke up breathless twice that night. In the morning I finally agreed to go to the ER. Now that I can breathe deeply without chest pain or a gurgling sound coming from my lungs, I have time to really think about this thing I do.
Sometimes you need someone who loves you to hold up a mirror and make you look at your shit. That’s what my babe did with that one sentence: “I guess you’ll just let me know when you‘re tired of feeling like this.”
She’s slept next to me most days and has witnessed me struggling for breath, the coughing fits, the inability to do anything strenuous without having to pull out my inhaler. I’m normally a very active person—I hike, I like to take long walks, I rollerblade, bike ride, go to the gym and really enjoy weight training (there’s nothing like squats when you’re really fuckin angry)—so not being able to walk a block without getting winded was taking its toll. I was using my Albuterol pump far too much (just in December I went through a 204 dosage inhaler in under three weeks) and for months now, my nebulizer has been stationed by my bed and traveled with me when I went anywhere overnight.
So what made me not get help? Lack of health insurance is a factor but I’ve had insurance while I was sick before and still didn’t get treatment. I was doing what I always do—putting myself second and third; looking out and taking care of everyone and everything else. Didn’t I say I wasn’t going to do that self-sacrificing thing anymore? Yeah…it’s in hindsight that you realize the many ways you’ve learned to do this.
The last time I had an exacerbation like this was in 2013 after my brother died. It was bad. So bad there were a few times I had to talk myself through an attack so I wouldn’t pass out. My inhaler didn’t work and I was far from my nebulizer. I don’t say this with any sort of pride at having survived it. I realize now how stupid and irresponsible it sounds. Dangerous, even. I’m just writing the facts here. I’m reflecting on what I did.
One time, on the cruise I went on with my family in August of 2013, two months after my brother died in June, my lungs seized while I was working out in the gym on the upper deck. My cabin was in the lower levels, a long ways away. That cruise was torture on my lungs. When your breathing is compromised, you learn quickly that the strong ass detergents used on those ships are really fuckin harsh.
I made my way slowly to my room, talking to myself silently as I walked, I repeated, “You can make it,” as the elevator stopped on every fuckin floor. Tears streaked my face as I walked the long hallway which at that point felt like some shit out of a horror film. Endless. As luck would have it, they were cleaning my floor so the chemicals slapped me hard, making my already shallow breathing even more labored.
When I opened the door to my cabin, I dropped on all fours and crawled to the nebulizer next to my bed. I flung the mask over my face, grateful that I’d known to fill the chamber with medicine before I left to eat breakfast that morning. I’m not sure I would have had it in me to do much more, not even refill the medicine. After finally finding my breath, I curled up in a ball, exhausted, and didn’t leave my cabin again until hours later.
I never went to the hospital or doctor. I rode it out.
I’m grieving, I told myself. An herbalist friend had recently shared that grief is centered in the lungs. I used this information to convince myself that it would pass. I told myself the same shit when my lungs seized again that fall while doing interval training in the park, running up and down a hill at top speed. I barely made it to the top before stripping off my sweatshirt hastily. I pulled out my inhaler but it didn’t work, so I sat down with my head between my knees and started chanting, “You’re okay. You’re okay,” over and over until I was.
It happened again a few weeks later while on a hike in the forest. I told myself that it was because it was such a cold morning. That I was pushing too hard. I stopped hiking until the following spring.
I never did go see a doctor. I rode it out. Was that smart? No… I see that now. I have my girlfriend as my mirror to help me see that now. I have my daughter too. She slept on the couch next to my bed for two days this week while I’ve been healing. She doesn’t say much; she just stares with worried eyes. Last week, when I got a full blown attack while bathing our dog Napoleon, she ran and got my inhaler from my bag. When that didn’t work, she filled the chamber of my nebulizer with medicine and handed me the mask. She finished bathing the dog then came to sit next to me and rubbed my back.
When I posted an FB status about finally going to the ER, my VONA sister LN responded, “Yup, single mama bears (wolves) get into the habit of standing strong and facing down shit. I can remember thinking I didn’t have time for pneumonia and telling that to a doctor.
Someone shared a story of how his lung collapsed when he was eleven due to asthma, but it was LN’s comment that really stayed with me. “You get it,” I told her. She helped me see what I’ve been doing.
My mind goes to an essay I read a while back, “Writing the Wrongs of Identity,” by Meri Nan-Ama Danquah: “In the lies [of history] black women are strong. Strong enough to work two jobs while single-handedly raising twice as many children. Black women can cook, they can clean, they can sew, they can type, they can scrub, they can mop, and they can pray… [B]lack women are always doing. They are always servicing everyone’s needs, except their own. Their doing is what defines their being. This is supposed to be wellness?”
I lived and worked for months while having this exacerbated asthma condition. I taught four straight 50 minute personal narrative classes to third graders every Tuesday. I climbed four flights of stairs to teach those classes. I taught two back to back one-and-half hour college application essay classes to seniors twice a week. I taught a poetry class on Wednesdays and my five hour Writing Our Lives class on Saturdays. I read and wrote and graded and edited and lesson planned. I cooked and I helped my daughter with homework and brushed her hair and had heart to hearts with her about life and love and the world we live in. I went to Parent-Teacher Conference at her school (climbing another four flights) to hear her teachers gush about what an amazing young lady she is. On Thanksgiving, we had an especially beautiful and eye-opening conversation about the depression I went through after my brother died. She started it by remarking, “Remember last year when you didn’t eat or sleep?” That day she shared that she was relieved when I finally cried in front of her “because then I felt like I could cry.” Up to then, I’d been hiding my grief from her, waiting until she was in bed every night to fall apart. I was trying to protect her.
While enduring exacerbated asthma symptoms, I spent time with my partner, went out to eat and to the movies, met her best friends, attended social gatherings and the spiritual center. I went shopping for holiday gifts, searching high and low for thoughtful gifts on a paltry budget. My albuterol inhaler was always close by; my nebulizer stationed by my bed. I did a lot while enduring this asthma condition that had me feeling breathless after walking just a block or daring to do anything semi-strenuous. I serviced everyone’s needs except my own. This is not wellness…
In the ER, the nurse placed a small plastic clip on the tip of my finger to check my blood oxygen level (it’s called the pulse oximetry test). She raised her eyebrow at the oxygen level. I sneaked a peak and saw it read 67 (normal is between 95 & 100). The nurse took the clip off my finger and rubbed my nail. “Is that acrylic?” she asked about my red nail polish. “No, it’s not.” She placed the clip back on my finger and raised her brow again when the machine read 67. “Well, at least your blood pressure is normal,” she said. Then she turned to the registering nurse. “Get her in quickly, please,” and motioned to the O2 reading. I was out of the waiting room and receiving inhaled meds minutes later. Shortly thereafter, I received a pill of prednisone.
I was that bad and it took me weeks, no, months, to finally admit it to myself and get help. This is not wellness.
After my first ever debilitating migraine where I couldn’t keep my eyes open and threw up several times (how do you chronic sufferers survive it?), I called out sick Monday and Tuesday of this week. I canceled a reading in a Nonfiction series I’d really been looking forward to participating in. I confess, on Monday I still made a huge caldero of beef bone (neck and shin) soup with vegetables and herbs, because I needed the nutrients and if I didn’t do it, who would? When I got home from buying the ingredients, I had to sit down because I was so out of breath. I took the prednisone steroid after eating and while my chest opened up, the meds made my hands and legs shake. I got up and started cleaning to calm myself. I wheezed throughout but couldn’t really stop because it’s the only thing that counteracted the effects of the steroids. Tuesday morning I remembered a Mindful Adult Coloring Book my girlfriend bought me, and that helped with the anxiety that was a side-effect of the steroids. I called out again on Wednesday and Thursday and have spent much of the past few days reflecting and coloring birds in bright colors. It’s been a lifesaver, I must say. The anxiety has felt like an elephant is sitting on my chest and the only relief has been the coloring. But even with that, there have been moments where my heart has felt like it’s going to leap out of my chest. These asthma meds are really no joke, but, shit, at least I can breathe now.
Illness has made me look at my shit in very deep, interesting ways. Where did I learn to keep pushing when my lungs are crying? Where did I learn to feel guilty for self-care? Where did I learn to so stubbornly resist receiving health advice given lovingly? My girlfriend told me several times that my lungs were gurgling and that’s not normal. I brushed her concern off repeatedly. For weeks. Months. Why do I have to get to the point of near collapse to get help?
I’ve been a single mom for ten years. I’m in a relationship now but breaking old habits and remembering that I’m not alone anymore is hard. My VONA sis LN responded to a status, saying: “At some point we think we need to keep going, because there is no one else. It is so difficult to believe that we don’t have to be Atlas.” I teared up at the profound truth in these words.
You learn a lot about yourself when you’re bedridden due to illness. It’s only been a few days and I’ve had some serious cabin fever, anxiety and sadness come up. I’ve made myself deal with it, however I can. I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole “doing” thing. Why must we always be doing something? What’s the anxiety around constant motion about? Why have I felt so useless and lazy over these past few days when I know in my mind that I’m not? When I know logically that I need this time to heal? Why do I feel so much guilt around allowing myself this time? So much is gained when we stop and take stock and just sit with ourselves. I hope to do this more and not only when asthma knocks me on my ass and makes me…
I hadn’t linked my behavior, my “deal with it and keep pushing” bullshit, to being unmothered until LN inboxed me: “When so much falls to you at a very young age, before our brains and hearts get the notion of balance and receiving help, accepting care, even from ourselves, diligence becomes habit. It is a job, letting go, letting kindness happen, learning to receive. Even after we discover it is our due, that we are worth it, it takes some doing some practice, to accept the quiet. Keep practicing… Any single mother who came to mothering without the experience of tender loving support to fashion ourselves knows, even if we don’t like knowing. And any woman who was once a girl who didn’t feel worthy for whatever reason gets what you’re saying, even if we don’t want to get it. Holding ourselves together for fear that the vulnerability will split us wide open. And we, like old Humpty Dumpty, will never get put back together again.”
I’m still discovering the many intricate ways being unmothered has shaped me. I go, go, go. I work my ass off. I write. I teach. I mother. I support. I cook. I clean. I love. I am self-sufficient, yes. I am relentless, yes. But I can’t be these things to the point of collapse. I tell myself and my loved ones that we can’t take care of anyone unless we take care of ourselves. I have to start really practicing that shit. This week asthma taught me that it will choke me, literally, if it needs to, to check me on it. I consider myself checked.