Opening scene: I am sitting on the weird squishy bench bed that seems to be a staple in every doctor’s office. I wonder what it would be like to tell people you work at the Weird Squishy Bench Bed factory. My doctor is a chiropractor who recently got his medical license, so I’m really just looking forward to the end of actual appointment because he’s going to give me a free back cracking to entice me to employ his back cracking services. It’s like the free food samples at a grocery store. I’m definitely in alignment with the marketing plan for his chiropractic practice (disclaimer: my puns are so bad they will send chills down your spine).
I’m getting tested for asthma. I’m telling the doctor about my lungs and blowing into a breathalyzer that judges lung capacity rather than alcohol capacity. My lungs seem to not be functioning completely correctly and I hint towards the possibility of asthma, wanting the appointments and speculations to be over, wanting an easy breezy beautiful solution to my problems. He tells me, “You’re too fit to have asthma.”
I’m keeping that statement on the record, for the record. It made my ego flex so hard.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think asthma is easy, breezy, or beautiful. I don’t want to have asthma. If I filled out a Tinder profile, after “likes dogs, long walks on the beach, and being single” it would say “enjoys breathing”. Breathing is a fine art. It is an act of rushing air, parts expanding, blood flowing. I dropped out of science when I was like 16 so I hope you weren’t expecting an actual definition. But I can write poetry all day, man:
©opyright Ally Brennan.
As strange as it sounds, I haven’t always liked breathing. When I was in my mid-teens, I started becoming very aware of the process of breathing. Like, it became such a noticable activity that it isolated itself and was the only thing I could focus on at times. It was incredibly annoying, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s like when you think or say a word over and over so many times it becomes a foreign object. My favorite word to do that with is refrigerator. Refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator refrigerator.
I had to open an actual paper dictionary to look up the spelling of that word, because after typing it twenty-six times it started looking so abnormal I thought my spellcheck was broken.
After a while the IBS (irritable breathing syndrome) became so frustrating that my body decided to take that vital function away from me so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Like, I would subconsciously hold my breath and not even realize it until the corner of my brain that’s wired to keep me alive would tell me, “Yo, you need to inhale rn rn.” For all the non-millennials who are reading my blog (hi Mom), “rn rn” is a phrase which here means “right now, right now”. The repetition is used to convey urgency in the case of not breathing. Another way to explain “rn rn” is this: I’m not necessarily too lazy to spell out the entirety of those words and must therefore revert to text talk—shortening them like that attempts to make my blog post quirkier and more relatable to my peers, and shows them that I don’t take myself too seriously, which is a necessary quality in today’s standards of People You Want To Be Affiliated With™.
It was during this time that it became easier to breathe in the water than on land.
Contrary to my embellished drawing [see above] and dramatic sentence preceding it [see even more above], I didn’t jump into a vat of toxic waste and suddenly develop the ability to breathe water. I joined swim team.
The monotonous day in and day out of swimming back and forth gave me a rhythm in my lungs. The water was my zen mode. It was the one place where my mind stilled, the pounding thoughts of wonderings about the universe quieted, and all I could hear was stroke stroke stroke breathe. It wasn’t an over-analysis of the process of air moving in and out of my lungs—breathing simply became instinct again. It got to be that the only time I felt at peace was when I was in the water, because it was the best place to breathe.
What a shame it is that I fell in love with smoking when I turned the legal age of twenty-one.
“Fell in love” isn’t the right phrase. I fell in like with smoking—there, that’s better. Smoking was never a vice for me. I made sure of that by only allowing myself to smoke when I was happy and when I was with friends who were also happy. When I was a kid it was bubble pipes and candy cigarettes. I guess I was always intrigued with the idea of exhaling something other than air.
Perhaps occasionally smoking cigarettes or pipes or cigars or loose leaf tea rolled up in paper is ruining my lungs. But it wasn’t what made me lose my ability to breathe (again). That came from the first time I ever swam in the ocean.
I grew up going to the Oregon coast. People don’t swim in the Oregon coast because (1) sharks and (2) cold. We would jump in up to our knees and chase the waves and pick up shells and climb on rocks and build driftwood bonfires, but we would run back up to the condo swimming pool to actually submerge. It was three years ago on the coast of southern California where I had my first experience swimming in the ocean.
My two guy friends ran out into the ocean and I chased after them, feeding off their excitement. I followed them until I couldn’t touch the sand anymore. And then I couldn’t touch the sky anymore because the waves were covering it and I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. Every time I pushed my head up to take a breath, a big hand of water would slap me back down. It was relentless. Maybe the ocean was just playing with me, but I wasn’t having fun.
When I made it back to the shore, I sat on the sand and coughed up actual saltwater. That was freaking scary—not the realization that I had some stupid near-death experience, but the fact that as a strong swimmer and certified lifeguard, I struggled for my life. I’d never been near the water and felt anything other than exhilaration before. Most people assume when I say I’m scared of the ocean that it’s because of sharks or the dark depths. But it’s simply because the ocean waves have a mind of their own and I can’t navigate them.
Unfortunately, to this day I’m still a wuss when I go near the ocean, and I won’t go in further than my knees. The water laps at me, inviting me to come in, and I stubbornly shake my head and take a step back.
I took a couple years off from lifeguarding after that incident—not directly because of it as I had other opportunities open up, but there was a definite shake in my confidence. I am lifeguarding again here in Nevada. It gives me something to do in a town I find very underwhelming as an adventure-loving millennial.
A pool can be a great place to eavesdrop, especially as lifeguarding is a job that mostly involves sitting and looking cool while clutching a fat red noodle. One time I overheard someone saying there should have been a mandatory draft after 9/11. It was the same guy who a few weeks later tried to convince me to join the military. I almost preferred talking to the wrinkly old guy in the skimpy speedo than Mandatory Draft dude.
On my first week of lifeguarding, I was approached by a tall guy with bright red hair who stuck his hand out and introduced himself as “Isaiah, Head Guard.” I had to shake the water out of my ears and ask him to repeat his opening line because I thought I had instead heard “Percy, Head Boy”.
Besides when swim team practices, most of the swimmers who come to the pool are old. I love old people the same way others love babies. I think they’re so freaking cute and I greatly enjoy talking to them. They have miles of experience and wisdom and love tucked under their winkles and grey. It’s scary to think that someday someone at the pool might need my air. Like, their lungs could stop working and I’ll need to manually breathe for them, as per my job description. There’s always the thought in my mind that maybe because of all my breathing issues, my lungs aren’t even capable of such a feat.
I thought that my ocean incident only affected my experience of the ocean, but as the years have passed since then, I’ve noticed that I’m different in the water in general.When I swim in a lane at the pool, I start off strongly, focusing on speed and precision. But after a couple laps, my thoughts race with the fact that I’m underwater and I can’t breathe and OH GOD I CAN’T BREATHE. I usually have to stop at the wall after every 100 meters just to calm myself. Is this called PTSD?
I’m slowly growing back into my zone in the water. This one time at the pool I was in the bathroom washing my hands. I had just finished swimming laps on my break and was getting ready to go back out to the guard stand. A girl in a wheelchair slowly extricated herself from the handicapped stall. I watched as she maneuvered without offering to assist. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this as someone who works as an emergency rescuer, but I’m not instinctually a person who rushes to help. I’m referring to non-emergency situations only (obviously). The other day I saw a lady and a little kid at the grocery store and the lady was distracted talking to the guy at the meat counter and the little boy grabbed the cart and started pushing it, headed directly for a precarious display. Instead of walking ten feet to divert the kid, my curiosity took over and I watched to see what would happen.
So this wheelchair girl makes her way over to me and asks me something about swimming, perhaps noticing my wet guard suit. I say yes, say something about loving being in the water.
“Me too,” says Wheels. “It helps take the pain away.” And with that bomb dropped, she rolls on out of there leaving me staring at her again.
I like it best when there’s no one else in the water around me. This one time I was swimming outside in a retirement community pool in Eugene, Oregon. There was nobody around but it was fall and the colors were lovely and the temperature was perfect and it was just me and the water. I was eighteen years old but I was twirling around in the water, pretending to be a mermaid.
Later that day, my uncle told me he saw me swimming on the video cameras in the office he worked at on the grounds. “You looked like you were having fun,” he chuckled.
It will take time for my mind to accept the water again like it once did, but I know it will come. I was raised to love the water by my mom. She’s taught hundreds how to swim, including me and all of my siblings. She’s the reason I need water in my life.
My earliest memory in the water is being in a pool at my aunt’s house. It was before I could swim. I remember my little sister holding onto the side of the wall, creeping along the edge away from the safety of the shallow end towards the deep end. And then she slipped or let go or something and I lunged toward her. But I couldn’t swim either, so instead of a heroic rescue we both flailed in the water, trying to keep our heads up. And right when I didn’t think I could struggle anymore, out of the depths flew my mother, arms outstretched like whale fins, capturing both my sister and me in one graceful swoop.
She saved my life that day. She’s saved my life hundreds of times, as is the nature of a mother.
I made my own save once. It was this summer actually, in Oregon. I’ve assisted tons of people struggling in the water, but this little boy was the first “real” one. That first real rescue was something most lifeguards I knew fretted about. But when the time came, I ran, I jumped, I rescued—it really was as instinctual as breathing.
Closing scene: I have a follow-up appointment with the back cracker doctor. He reads me the results of my blood work. It’s all written on some sort of secret code on a fateful piece of paper. We’re pretty much just paying the doctor to translate runes. He translates this: “You have laughter-induced asthma. It’s no joke.”
Breathing issues are nothing new for me. He hands me a prescription to go get an inhaler. In this case, my inhaler is for those emergencies when I…feel the need to laugh?
“Whoa, better watch out. Ally’s coming! Don’t say anything funny or you’ll trigger her asthma.”
HAHAHAHAHA. I can’t wait.