One Puff At A Time

By: Avigayil Bachrach

On my twentieth birthday, I committed to a not-so-new New Year’s resolution as 2013’s end ominously approached. A dangerous smoking habit, complete lack of exercise and dispensation to disregard both mealtimes and ingredients in the food I did eat were all components of my wildly cliche goal, a healthier lifestyle. My resolution lasted, as they are wont to do, about a week. Maybe less. I became intransigent about my smoking; exercise reverted to its status as my bête noire.


When cold weather commenced and I frequently found myself short-of-breath, I paid no attention except briefly berating myself. Classic, I reprimanded, another resolution come and gone. That is until a momentous Octobertime walk home from a lecture in Chelsea. The theoretically short trip ended with my companion cabbing me home as I attractively wheezed, futilely attempting to catch my breath. Two hours later and no breath caught, she firmly suggested a visit to a specialist and I reluctantly complied.


To my shock and nobody else’s, I was promptly diagnosed with severe dust allergies coupled with acute, seasonally-induced asthma, inhaler not included. The trouble walking long distances, constant cold and respiratory issues and tightness in my chest were not just my unhealthy lifestyle. Instead I had a disease.


My diagnosis forced the drastic lifestyle change that never bore fruition. Asthma, declared the doctor, was my fait accompli. In his emphatic words, smoking of any kind was “completely out of the question.” Exercise was banished with an order I carry around like the detective badge held by my favorite characters on Law and Order: SVU. It says in a group of connected squiggly lines that resemble English, “Abigail should avoid strenuous physical activity until her asthma attacks subside” and it is my favorite thing besides my inhaler.


Newly acquainted with my lungs, I now breathe the polluted air of NYC’s Midtown streets through a Qvar cloud (twice daily) and Nasonex-ed nostrils (two squeezes in the morning). Sometimes I spice it up with prescription-strength Claritin (take out of package, swallow, discard packaging on floor) and on bad days I have Zatador-affected eyes (two drops, only every 24-hours) and generic cough spray (stare at box with bemusement, spray and miss mouth – does anyone really know what to do with cough spray?) Other New Yorkers can stand outside buildings and puff on their cigarettes, but two puffs of Albuterol (shake, exhale, press down while inhaling, repeat) is the only thing my badass lungs crave.


“Take it slow,” said my allergist; my parents reiterated the same. Friends viewed my diagnosis as an amusing development in my life, a few offered pity, others less so “Is that an inhaler?” classmates inquired when I let the incriminatingly crimson plastic peek out of a pocket. A caring friend who abhorred my smoking habit refused to indulge me. “You’re a walking statistic,” she cackled, “They should put your face on a billboard.” “Don’t use that in public,” snapped my teenage sister, “You’re embarrassing me.”


With the support of friends and family I embarked on my newly changed life, breathing never a challenge again. Or so I thought. My initial attitude, parts amusement, part dismissal, of my diagnosis lasted until I had what are colloquially referred to as asthma attacks. This lovely experience ranges from wheezing and coughing to an inability to breathe and can lead all the way to throat closing – sometimes in a public college library without one’s inhaler and surrounded by wholly useless undergraduates whose only idea of assistance is to request you “don’t die.” I stopped forgetting my inhaler and began my search to recognize triggers. It wasn’t hard to find them everywhere I went – the very air of the city I adored was polluting my lungs on the daily.


Having asthma is something I did not plan for. If I had been warned of my asthma before my diagnosis, I would have mocked the ridiculousness of the thought, blowing smoke in the air with my laughter or maybe swallowing my RedBull breakfast the wrong way. Way back when, my imagination envisioned the billboard mentioned by the friend who’d graciously deemed me a statistic.  My mind conceptualized a (flattering) picture of my face, looming amidst stark white background and ominous words that warn its viewer, “I am Avigayil. I am asthma.” My inhaler’s comforting weight in my pocket serves as a constant reminder of my place as a member of a growing statistic, yes a statistic. Because, like it or not, I am part of something bigger than me – I am Avigayil, but I also have asthma.


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