Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Don’t take breathing for granted

As I type this on my phone, I’m using a borrowed nebuliser, waiting for the Ventolin to take effect. The steam is fogging up my glasses, making it hard to see what I’m doing. Autocorrect is having a field day: when I make a typo, leaving out the l in “bronchodilator”, it offers “neon Jedi storage” (great name for a band, says somebody on Twitter). I’ve had a nasty bout of bronchitis for the past week and I’m tired of wheezing like a granny who’s smoked 40 Winstons a day for the past 50 years. It’s so boring though to sit for 30 minutes next to a machine that sounds like a small generator inhaling a mix of salbutamol and saline but it must be done.

Most people take breathing for granted. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve been doing it since birth. Not me though. I take breathing seriously. There’s nothing like not being able to breathe to persuade you to appreciate this most simple, most reflex of actions.

When you have asthma, though, the simple act of breathing becomes an act of determined concentration and I’ve had asthma for as long as I can remember. In fact, some of my most vivid childhood memories involve being bundled into the back of my mother’s car and driven to Sandton Clinic, where I’d be put on a drip and shoved inside an oxygen tent for a week or so. I hated the oxygen tent because it made it impossible to see the TV screen, an essential respite from hospital boredom. I remember how the South African Broadcasting Corporation showed Clash of the Titans and how much I loved it.

My life revolved around having asthma. The ever-present possibility that I might not be able to breathe has shaped me in ways so profound that I forget. I didn’t have a normal childhood at all. I was sickly and delicate, and marked as different. You learn very quickly that something as simple as running can trigger an attack, that you will be in pain and you will suffer, so you do anything to avoid it. Funnily enough, though asthma can be deadly — it features in the top 20 causes of death in South Africa in this table (which makes for fascinating reading) from the Medical Research Council — I never worried that I might actually die. Death seemed too abstract, even though, in reality it lurked in the background all the time.

Nonetheless, I learned to hate physical activity in general and PT in particular. Swimming was the worst. My mother kept telling me it was good for asthma but experience taught me otherwise. I hated swimming at school with a passion that surprises me still. Hated the burn of the chlorine in my nose, hated the dry stinging eyes, hated the wet roar of water in my ears and the humiliation of being the worst in the class. Right next to the swimming pool at Bryanston Primary School was a water tower and to this day I cannot hear the thin twittering calls of the swifts which nested there without feeling a cold chill within. The hum of the filter, the gentle slap of water at the concrete edge, the screech of the PE teacher’s whistle: all of these constituted the noise of hell.

I hated swimming so much that I took fairly drastic action to avoid it, routinely taking overdoses of the pills I took for the asthma. Microphyllin, they were called; they contained theophylline. I didn’t want to fake being sick so the heart palpitations and nausea caused by the drug were a perfect solution. I was careful not to do it every single time there was swimming at school or it would have raised suspicions and my mother and my teachers never noticed that Tuesdays had a curiously deleterious effect on my health.

(My mother found out about the overdosing only a few years ago, when I mentioned it in passing. She was appalled, but I pointed out that my bad habit had an unexpected benefit: I never got sucked into the drugs scene because I ingested so much medication in various forms as a child that the allure was lost on me.)

Eventually, the asthma specialist took me off the Microphyllin. He seemed to be happy with my progress — progress, which, like the Tuesday nausea, I faked. Asthma was an admin-intensive illness, requiring the daily filling in of a form recording my lung capacity measured with a contraption called a peak flow meter. It was a precursor to the timesheets I would have to fill in many years later and naturally I never remembered to jot anything down. So just before my visit to the specialist, I would write hundreds of numbers on the yellow sheets of cardboard with which I had been supplied, varying them just enough to look convincing. In hindsight, I don’t know why I bothered, since the specialist never gave them more than a passing glance. But when you’re nine-years-old and conscientious, you take the duping of adults very seriously: if you’re going to do it, you have to do it properly.

Years later, when I encountered theophylline again, it was the active ingredient in a cellulite cream somebody was flogging at the gym. Last year, I discovered a bottle of the stuff at my then-boyfriend’s place; he explained that bodybuilders take theophylline and another asthma drug, salbutamol, for their fat-burning properties. Who knew that Venteze could help you look like Arnie. (If you want to know about a pill, don’t ask the pharmacist. Ask one of the okies who hang out at the gym.)

The specialist told me I would grow out of the asthma eventually. It hasn’t happened. Though I haven’t had a serious attack in years, I live on chronic medication — steroids for inflammation, bronchodilators for emergencies . The moment the weather changes, or I travel, or I go too long without my medication, I get found out. Respiratory infections are especially risky. I’m showing no signs of improvement despite forking out nearly R1000 for treatment which Discovery won’t cover. Last night when I took my parents out for dinner, I had to duck out to the loo at regular intervals in order to cough in private and at one point my mother had to order me a very strong cup of coffee. I thought the caffeine might help — it did.

So, next time you do a bit of breathing, pay attention. Marvel at the unfussiness of its quiet continuity. Don’t take breathing for granted, because it really is a wonderful thing. Trust me.