I hate being unable to control my own body — life with asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition that is life-controlling.

“Twelve times a minute, I force air in, gasping like a fish out of water. Seven hundred and twenty times per hour. My hands start to shake uncontrollably after six hours in my prison. My eyes feel gritty from lack of sleep, and my head is throbbing from Julian’s blow and the hypoxia.”

— Lydia Kang, “Catalyst”

After at least 13 years, I recognize all of the signs. First, my lungs feel heavy, as if I’d swallowed a chunk of lead. Then, my throat constricts, trying to keep out some foreign invader — sometimes pollen, or dust, or smoke. The worst part comes if my inhaler doesn’t work. It feels like my desperate lungs are shaking, and my hands follow soon after. My head spins, my vision blurs, and I have to stop what I’m doing — no matter what it is — to stop my body’s violent attack on itself.

Just another day in the life of an asthmatic.

I hardly ever talk about my asthma in real life or online. It’s not exactly an amazing conversation starter. “BTW, I could start hyperventilating at any moment!”

I assure you, during a real asthma attack it’s difficult to whisper, let alone yell.

But Wednesday was one of those days that made me resent my dysfunctional respiratory system more than usual, so I’m making myself feel better the only way I know how: another pump of my inhaler and an emotionally charged blog post.

It’s ironic — not in the funny way, of course — how asthma has become a stereotypical geek characteristic in fiction. The life-threatening, life-controlling chronic lung disease has been reduced to a joke at the expense of the socially inept.

Until “Control” and “Catalyst” by Lydia Kang, I’d never read a book that captures the exact feeling of despair, resent and resignation of being limited by one’s own body and knowing that there is only treatment, no cure. The protagonist of the series, Zelia, is afflicted with Ondine’s curse, a rare and serious disorder that causes failure of autonomic respiration. Essentially, Zelia cannot breathe automatically and must wear a device that mechanically controls her breathing. If she falls asleep without the device, she will stop breathing and die.

My asthma is the unfortunate result of genetic inheritance. My dad’s asthma is even more severe than mine, and he has gone to the emergency room before, the most memorable occasion being a severe asthma attack during Thanksgiving break. I was in middle school at the time.

I’ve carried a rescue inhaler since I was about 4-years old. Doctors told my parents that I’d probably grow out of it — or at least improve — during my teenage years. That turned out to be false. Last year, my doctor prescribed a longer-lasting preventive inhaler to keep my airways necessary.

Asthma has prevented me from doing so much, especially recently. Last year, I forfeited one tennis match because I couldn’t breathe halfway through the match. On two other occasions, I forced myself through the rest of the singles match, but had to go home before I could play doubles. My dad has made me wear a mask to practice a few times to slow the rate at which I breathe in the allergens; it makes me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable and, in the end, I usually opt to stay home instead.

On many occasions, I’ve had to sign out of class early because my lungs tightened and I got dizzy. Every once in a while, I can’t go to school at all and my mom has to stay home with me because my parents are scared I’ll have a severe attack in their absence.

The worst part isn’t the missed opportunities or the interference with my education and extracurricular activities. It’s the bitterness of knowing that a natural mechanism intended to protect my body is rebelling against me. It’s the frustration of knowing that I can’t control my own lungs.

Do you ever get angry about the things you can’t control?


  • Em @ Books & Cleverness

    I can’t imagine what it must be like living with asthma, but from how you’ve described its affect on your life I can relate. I get terrible migraines, and they’ve unfortunately worsened with time. I’m on preventatives to help, but I still get them often, and when I have them, it’s horrible. Lately I’ve been getting just regular headaches more frequently and I’ve been out of school for a bit because of it. The sensations of dizziness and nausea they cause are often unbearable. It’s definitely taken a toll on my social life, friendships, and ability to do what I want, when I want to. I hate that there’s nothing I can really do to change that. :/

    • Dana

      I have really bad allergies — which frequently trigger asthma attacks — that often cause migraines, but I’ve never had a migraine that was bad enough to make me dizzy and nauseated. I can’t imagine how that must feel. Usually, when I have a migraine, I just experience a throbbing sensation and some light/sound sensitivity. Ibuprofen is usually enough to mitigate the headache enough to continue whatever I’m doing.

      Sometimes, I’d like to blame my asthma for my limited social life, but to be honest I’m just introverted. Asthma definitely gets in the way of going places I want, however. When I start feeling a heaviness in my chest, I don’t like leaving the house because I never know if it’s going to get worse. I never want to end up in the emergency room because of asthma after seeing it happen to my dad.

  • Holly @ Nut Free Nerd

    I’ve always had asthma, but it’s been pretty easy to control with a daily inhaler. I do have really severe allergies, though, specifically to nuts. I’ve had it since I was two and I carry epi-pens with me everywhere I go. Allergies and asthma can be tough to deal with, but it’s nice to know that we’re not alone!

    • Dana

      Ah, your blog name is very appropriate. Luckily, I have no food allergies, but I’m allergic to a lot of types of pollen. I’m also allergic to my guinea pig, so I have to be careful when I play with her.

  • Charlie Anderson

    Yes, Dana. I understand your anger about not being able to control your asthma and lungs. I recently underwent lung testing to see if I did have asthma, as every doctor visit since I turned 18 included asking that question. Supposedly I don’t, but it takes me 15-30 minutes to truly catch my breath following what is considered normal exercise for others.

    Last week I received an EPI Pen for severe allergy to certain things, and I will go back on my birthday for the environmental skin test to find out more.

    For the last five years I have been on the borderline of cervical cancer. I continually go in every six months for monitoring purposes, and yearly I have a very painful biopsy done. This past fall, my doctor told me there was a new test that essentially identifies if the cells are getting better or worse. Mine are getting worse. I go again to see her in March. This was something I was told when I was first diagnosed that would go away on its own in two years because the body will regenerate and slough off the cells naturally. Apparently not.

    I also was diagnosed with a plethora of spinal issues a couple of years ago and underwent four months of intensive PT. The pain can flare at any time at any place along my spinal column. I am actually not supposed to sit in a chair at all. When we have staff meetings, I have to sit facing the speaker, not in a chair is place to force me to turn my head to view the speaker. I have had coworkers rudely refuse to trade places with me, even though these things are medically documented with my employer and supervisor. They are asshats.

    I am so sorry you have such trouble with your asthma that it does keep you from participating and enjoying things you love to do. It is something many people do not understand. For example, I have been scoffed at by people I care about and had rude comments made about certain foods that I refuse to eat, such as avocado and Asian. Turns out I’m allergic to all of those things, and I wasn’t just “not liking” a food. It is a battle.

    • Dana

      Wow, Charlie, I’m amazed and grateful that you shared all of this. I know that saying “I’m sorry” never makes things better, but as someone who can empathize, I really am sorry that you’ve gone through so much. I hope things will improve for you and that you eventually will be able to stop having your health control you. I understand what you mean about rude, unsympathetic people. I’ve had so many people think that I exaggerate my breathlessness for some ulterior motive. It’s ridiculous. It’s not like I enjoy carrying two prescription inhalers everywhere I go.

  • Cait @ Paper Fury

    I don’t have asthma but…I still relate a LOT to this. Erk. I have a lot of allergies, coupled with a ton of anxiety, so I totally get the “feeling out of control” thing and having no way to stop it. D: It sucks. I did have asthma when I was little (my dad has it) but I was lucky enough to grow out of it. And I also hate how it’s a “joke” in a lot of books/movies these days! IT’S DEFINITELY NOT A JOKE. *sighs*

    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    • Dana

      Agh, I totally empathize. Allergies suck. All the coughing, and watery eyes. My skin is really sensitive to allergens, too. Sometimes, the insides of my wrists break out into rashes when I pick up tennis balls during practice. I don’t think I’m going to grow out of my asthma, unfortunately :(.
      I get really annoyed when I see an asthma joke on TV. If you wouldn’t make a joke about diabetes, you shouldn’t make a joke about asthma. Both are chronic conditions that cause strain on the people who have them.

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