Asthma defined me, and it’s not all bad

I don’t know how many people know this about me. It feels like I share pretty openly and freely, but it’s still so outside of how I come across now (yet so deeply shaped my identity and how I approach my life) that it feels worth repeating.

I had chronic asthma as a kid. Due to frequent hospitalizations, cut with recovering at home and big/tapering doses of prednisone and all of those thrilling side effect, I was often unable to participate in life stuff growing up. One year I missed 130 out of 180 days of school.

What that looked like in real time was a lot of quality time in the world bound by the four walls of my bedroom, with its daytime TV, landline phone, desktop computer, journals, sketchbooks, books, and magazines.

Some of the stuff I was by and large okay with not participating in, like, oh I don’t know: school. I got my assignments and completed them at home. But when it came to the social stuff – field trips, sports, what have you – I felt apart. I was apart, and I was occasionally brutally reminded of that thanks to the kindness of high school peers (read the sarcasm between the lines). Luckily, I had some good, close friends.

Still, there was a lot of space to fill; big open days of not being in school. In my early teens, I focused much of my attention inward because it had to go somewhere. I filled my journals and sketchbooks, made the most of what was then AOL Instant Messenger, wrote and read poetry, cultivated my burgeoning interest in music by taping songs off the radio and making mixes. I attached great significance to those moments that I was healthy and asthma-free enough to be present for: the sleepovers, movie and mall trips, vacations, and even a backpacking trip my then-stepdad schlepped a battery-operated nebulizer for so that I could participate. Normal stuff, but it was so outside my daily reality that those experiences were uniquely meaningful.

When my asthma disappeared nearly overnight after I changed school environments, I found myself suddenly…self-less. Who was I without asthma as my core identity? Without that black-hole center of everything I “could not do” wheezing and sucking in all of the possibilities, it meant all of the pieces of my self were in free form, with no gravitational pull. I was free, sure, but that was confusing and scary. If I could do anything, what did I want?

It turned out I wanted a lot of things, but most fervently I wanted to be as fully engaged in the world as I could muster. I looked around me for some ways people seemed to do that – be engaged, be present – and I happened to see a lot of hikers and runners.

The idea of me, as an asthmatic, as a hiker or runner was so antithetical to my life experience so far, yet so representative of engaging the world in a way I’d previously been largely unable to, I was drawn to it. Could I do that? Could I be that?

There is a lot of middle here between then and now, but ultimately the answer continues to astonish me because, apparently, it’s yes.

These days perhaps I come off as a fitness fiend. I am active. I’ve been on a pushups kick in the past few years, and recently discovered dumbbell workouts. Me?! Enjoy lifting weights?! Apparently, yup. I hike and backpack competently, if not quickly; ditto with running. Mountain biking is thrilling. I’ve been swimming laps again recently, dipping my toe in the proverbial waters of joining a friend for a triathlon race.

I like working out because it gives me freedom. Fitness enables me to say “yes” to things I want to do, and to do those things comfortably and with enjoyment. I am still acutely aware of that having spent so much time as a kid experiencing the opposite.

I love being able to go do a hard run because it’s there; go on a big backpacking trip, ride a bike in the mountains. I never EVER take that for granted. Every time I’m out there, or every time I lift a weight, there’s the voice in the back of my head that marvels I’m able to do this at all. The awe is, I think, healthy – it’s not a nagging, “you’ll never be this” imposter voice. It’s a feeling of overarching gratitude and appreciation for life’s longevity and my own physical health and presence, with acute understanding of what it means to inhabit the opposite. When you perceive my awe or my “extra” approach to life, this perspective is, I think, at its root.

That feeling bleeds over. It’s good for my art. It’s good for my mental health and perspective on life. It’s good for my connections to the world and to others. I share it here because it is so intrinsic to who I am and my every day, even if the origin story is from an entire lifetime ago. It’s amazing how much we carry throughout our lives, and how much change is possible.

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