As I write this, my hands are shaking. Not because I'm distressed. Not because I'm tired or hungry or my blood sugar is low. They're shaking because I took my inhaler. I woke up this morning, and for some reason, I couldn't take in a full breath.
When I was little, I desperately wanted to do sports, any sports really, but that wasn’t a thing I could do. Exercise was one of my triggers. From what my family has told me, there was a time where walking across the room would trigger me into an asthma attack, so running up and down a court or field for two hours was pretty much a no-go.
It’s actually kind of amazing how someone so disadvantaged in something can also want something so badly.
I was obsessed with basketball. I collected basketball cards. I played basketball video games. I watched basketball. I watched fucking Space Jam because the greatest basketball player ever--Michael Motherfucking Jordan--was playing basketball alongside the Looney Toons.
I don’t know if all of this was because I was actually that into basketball, or if I just liked it because my step-brother was into it and I looked up to him and thought he was cool. I wanted very much to be like him.
The why I wanted it doesn’t really matter because the why I couldn’t didn’t change.
When I was in the seventh grade, I finally joined the school sports team. It took some convincing, but my mom let me do it. During football season, we basketball kids that weren’t also doing football were supposed to run laps around the field while the football team practiced. I got teased a lot. I was slow. Chubby. I plodded more than I ran. But I did everything I could to get my laps done. I was always the last one done, but I did it.
Basketball season came. I thought I was ready. I’d already done so much running during football season!
First, we started by running laps. And then I realized how bad this was going to be. Most guys weren’t bothered at all. I was gasping.
Then we did more running drills.
Then we did line drills.
Then defensive stance drills.
Eventually, I was so out of breath, my vision narrowed to a pinprick before going black completely, like the end of a Looney Toons cartoon.
I was gasping, coughing, in a bad way. I hurried as fast as I could to the locker room, grabbed my inhaler. Once the medicine took effect, I headed back to practice.
Run, slap the court line, come back, run, slap the further court line, come back, run, slap the further court line, come back. Come on, ladies, let’s go let’s go let’s go!
All the while, I was trying with everything I had to keep up with my teammates. Eventually, I had to go back to the locker room again. Take my inhaler again.
This time, I knew better than to go back out there. Besides trembling from the exhaustion and side-effects of the medicine, I was also scared. I couldn’t remember ever having to take my inhaler twice in an hour. I decided it was safer to just sit out the rest of practice, hope nobody would notice.
Specifically, the coach did, and called me out for it by name.
I heard the whistle blow and the coach call for everyone to line up. As I came out of the locker room, he shouted, “Well, now that Dow is back from hiding out in the locker room, looks like we can end this.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more embarrassed. It confirmed what I already knew: I was a loser, and I’d never be a part of that world.
Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire features a main character that has asthma. I'm only about 100 pages into the book, but so far, this girl is my favorite character. Because she's got a strong spirit, she's brave as fuck, and she gets shit done.
But when things get real, when she has to physically exert herself--climbing stairs, fleeing bad guys, etc., she gets wheezy; she gets short of breath. She has a hard time getting around. She's not going to be a bruiser of a character or some soldier with bottomless stamina, like James Bond, so she has to be crafty about things. She's also headstrong and stubborn and often doesn’t do what people tell her, even when it would be safer to just listen to them. She’s not defined by her disability, but she is strongly informed by it. Which makes her very interesting.
Asthma is a many-headed hydra. Different things trigger the disease in different people--exercise, a multitude of different allergens, etc. I'm sure the science has changed a bunch since the late 80's and early 90's when I was in Prime Wheezy State, but in my experience, you can't just press through an asthma attack. Something bad will happen and you will collapse.
It’s weird for me to write a post like this BEFORE finishing a book, but this book is already so loaded with interesting things that I would love to talk about that I figure I need to get them out now before I forget. One thing is this asthma-ridden heroine.
Asthma isn’t an uncommon disease. Say “asthma” to someone, they immediately know what you’re talking about. And yet, despite it being so common, you rarely see a well-written character with asthma.
I’m particularly interested in how Hurley handles this character because all my life, I was told by movies and TV that people with asthma were nerds. They were geeks, dweebs, losers. Pathetic little wastes that fly into a wheezing, gasping fit when things get difficult while, meanwhile, the HERO goes and kicks the bad guys ass and handles his shit.
Asthmatics are things to be pitied. And basically never the main character.
I can only think of two other books that I’ve ever read that featured a main character with asthma.
One was either a middle-grade book, or a middle-grade book of short stories. The main character had asthma--the story actually starts with him having an asthma attack and needing his inhaler. He and his family move to a new town where everyone is very well behaved. Eventually, his parents start acting the same way. Only he and one other girl aren’t affected.
Eventually, they realize that the town is pumping some sort of mind-control drug in through the vents, and the reason he and the girl aren’t affected are because they have to take medicine that counteracts the mind-control drug--his inhaler and her pills for...something...that I don’t remember...
The other book featuring an asthmatic main character was Eddie Kasbrak from It. And he…doesn’t exactly buck those stereotypes, even if he does get the badass moment of standing up to It with his “battery acid.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown out of my asthma somewhat, which is common, but mine will probably never go away because when I was born, I had a hole in my lung. I spent several weeks in an incubator with a chest tube that I still have a scar from, and I very nearly died.
Most of the time, I can forget that I have asthma. I’m lucky that it doesn’t factor into my life constantly. But with winter comes colds that could develop into pneumonia if I’m not careful, flu shots I need to get because I’m high risk, etc. And since I’ve been running, I’ve had to watch myself very carefully. It’s important to push yourself when you’re exercising, but it’s a fine line to walk,
“Am I out of breath right now because I’m working my ass off, or am I about to have an asthma attack and black out?”
I'll be interested to see how Hurley handles the kid with asthma as the book progresses. How does she deal with physical confrontations? With fleeing? What does she do if she does trigger an asthma attack in the middle of a dire situation--while physical activity was always the most common reason, a good hardcore scare or panic could trigger one when I was little.
In the past, sometimes sitting down and just breathing as slowly and deeply as possible could stave off a full-on attack, but if you have an attack happening, you need immediate attention. Caffeine was helpful. The cold winter air could help in a pinch, too. And, of course, my inhaler.
I’m very interested to see how Lilia will deal.