Maggie A's Meanderings




 Dec 28, 2014

Breathing Is Fundamental

When it comes to medical problems, anti-tobacco ads like to portray the horror stories. Often they show people --- sometimes young people -- disfigured by tobacco in ways I've never even seen in my everyday life with a large chunk of face missing or both legs gone or the permanently distorted face of a former high school cheerleader.

The problem with those extremes is that if you've never seen anyone like that, it's hard to imagine you're going to end up like that.

So let me tell you a non-horror story. I have asthma. It's never been bad. I've never had to be hospitalized, never had to be put on oxygen.
This is an ordinary story of what it's like not being able to breathe normally. Asthma has made me appreciate breathing in a way most people do not, appreciate breathing in a way that smokers don't seem to as they take breathing for granted. Since having asthma has made me understand what it would be like to not be able to breathe and to spend the rest of my life not being able to breath, I know it's not the way I want to live my life. I've never smoked --- I'd never risk my lungs like that. So I've wondered about smokers is if they understood what it was like to have their breathing impaired ---- not seriously impaired, not rolling an oxygen tank with you impaired ---- but just everyday, somewhat impaired would they really risk it?

So I thought I would tell my story. 

Now if you're not familiar with asthma then I have to tell that asthma attacks are not like you see on TV. You don't have an asthma attack, take a couple of puffs from your inhaler and you're fine in a few minutes. Even with your inhaler, asthma attacks can go on for days, weeks, even months. The last prolonged asthma attack I had was years ago when I visited Los Angeles for three weeks. Breathing the polluted LA air for three weeks, it was three months, three very long months, before I could breathe normally again. 

So I know what it's like to have my breathing impaired for extended periods of time. Now the thing about non-serious asthma attacks is eventually you will get better. So I knew that in weeks or, at most, in a few months I would eventually get better and my life would return to normal. This is not a hope that smokers get to share. Smokers get to face getting worse and worse until their condition becomes full-time.

This story is for the smokers out there. To tell you what it's like to have your lungs, your breathing, not badly impaired.................

People talk about food as fuel. Food as fuel? You can go weeks without food. You'll die in minutes without air. Air is fuel ----- in a way that most people don't understand. During my asthma attacks here's what I learned about fuel usage:
  • The least amount of fuel is consumed by quietly sitting/lying semi-upright
  • Standing takes more fuel than sitting
  • And walking.............the fuel usage for walking was sky-high.
I used to have to plan my walks. And by walks, I don't mean some long stroll in the country. I mean my walk across a room. I would think, "Okay, I'm sitting in a chair here. If I walk across the room, there's a chair on the other side where I can sit to catch my breath." I would not shop at the super-stores. Those parking lots are huge (remember this is a non-horror story so I never had a handicap parking sticker and those spots are usually full anyway). There's no way I'd have enough fuel to walk from the parking lot to the store. And they always put the milk in back corner in the stores --- too far to walk. If I had gone to one of the super-stores, I would have ended up sitting on the floor in the store completely out of breath, my chest heaving, making a spectacle of myself. So I would shop at stores where I could park right in front of the store and quickly get to what I needed............because that's all I had the fuel for.

But here's the story I tell when I really want to point out my "Air is fuel" philosophy. During the asthma attacks, I'd have to brush my teeth sitting in the bathtub. Why? Because I literally did not have enough air to stand at the sink and move my hand in a
n up-and-down brushing motion at the same time. I could do one or the other, but not both at once. And brushing your teeth normally requires you stand and do the brushing motion simultaneously. Not having a chair in my small bathroom, the only way for me to brush my teeth was to sit in the bathtub.

The other thing about air as fuel is that even breathing takes fuel. Most people don't think about that. But it's true. It takes more energy than you realize just to do the simple in-out motion of the diaphragm. And it's not actually in-out. What most people have never noticed about their breathing is that the pattern is actually in-out-pause, in-out-pause. Try it. If you're at rest, put your hand on your diaphragm and feel that you inhale, exhale, then your diaphragm rests before it inhales again (if you've haven't already started to impair your breathing). When you can't take in enough air with an inhale, you can forget that pause. You're going to be breathing faster and you're going to be breathing harder. I've had times where I'm not doing anything and I'm exhausted simply from breathing. There's no energy for anything else. In-out. In-out. The in-out movement of my diaphragm is all there is to me. I'm so exhausted from the mechanics of breathing, breathing is my entire life. And I wait wearily for the attack to finally ease so I can have the rest of my life back again.

But at least I know that I will get the rest of my life back again --- that there will be more to my life than just breathing. And when I do, when my breathing finally returns to normal and I can do things without considering how much fuel it's going to take, I'm revitalized. Reborn. Simple everyday things are a joy.

I imagine what it would be like to not get my life back. To spend the rest of my days like that. I would never risk it. I would never want to live that way. That kind of life wouldn't be worth living to me. I had a dear friend who did end up that way (she never smoked, but she had early lung problems and then spent a lifetime surrounded by people who chain smoked around her). She would talk about how she didn't want to live like this. No one else knew what she was talking about. But I did. And I would tell her that I understood perfectly. I knew what it was like when simply trying to breathe drained all the energy out of you and there wasn't energy for anything else in your life beyond the mechanics of breathing.

Yet that is what smokers risk. And I wonder do they really understand what they're risking?

So tonight, if you're a smoker, tonight when you brush your teeth, instead of standing at the sink to brush your teeth, brush them while sitting in your bathtub/shower stall. Then try imagining what it would be like to have to brush your teeth like that ---- because you don't have enough air to brush them while standing at the sink. Then think about everything in your life that you like doing that can't be done while sitting quietly. And ask yourself if you really like smoking better than you like all of that.


The world or smoking. It's your choice.


Dedicated to Patricia (Patty) Walton the dear friend of mine who died earlier this year after a lifetime of lung problems aggravated by other people's smoking. You're missed. And I hope you can breathe easy now.

Hmm, I don't normally write health related topics. There's "In Celebration of Disease Carriers" and "The Devotion of a Cat" which is about a time I was very ill and what my cat did about it. For short-sighted decisions made by large numbers of people, there's "As Dumb as Deer."

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