The first time I started coughing and couldn’t stop was in the fifth grade. I was sitting in class when the first cough came. Then the second. Then the twentieth. Then I had to leave class and be taken to the nurse’s office, my face purple, tears and snot running like a fountain. I literally could not stop coughing and I could barely get any air.
I stopped coughing a few minutes later, and everything returned to normal. I went back to class. Nobody thought much of it now that I was fine, and also because it was the 80s and kid ailments were mostly treated by adults with, “It’s probably nothing. Let me know if you die in the middle of the night, because if I have to miss even thirty minutes of work to take you to a doctor, they’ll dock my pay.” Then everybody in the house would light up cigarettes, pop on a Revenge of The Nerds movie, and call it a night.
I had these coughing attacks four or five times every year for the next thirty-some-odd years.
That same year as my first coughing attack, we had a P.E. teacher who taught us how to take our heart rates by taking our pulses while she timed it with a stopwatch. At the end of class, after we’d been running around for thirty minutes, she’d say, “Okay, show of hands, whose heart rate is over 100?”
Almost all the hands would go up.
Then she’d say, “Whose heart rate is over 125?”
Half the hands would go down.
“Whose heart rate is over 150?”
A few hands stayed up.
Just me and that kid who always had that white crud at the corners of his mouth.
My hand was the only one still up.
She said, “Sweetie, I think you’re probably just not calculating it right. What’s your heart rate?”
I said, “220.” (Also, don’t ever, ever, ever call me Sweetie.)
She told me I was definitely calculating it wrong because that number was impossible, and then that was the end of the discussion about it. Because 1980s.
I felt so embarrassed that she had basically called me an idiot who didn’t know how to count – in front of the whole class, no less – I never mentioned my crazy high heart rate again. For the rest of the year after that, I just put my hand down when she said, “Anyone over 150?” even though my heart rate was sometimes as high as 240.
I wasn’t calculating it wrong. Every time I checked it after even mild cardio activity, it was well over 200. Put a FitBit on me today and have me jog for even fifty feet. You’ll get a big, fat 220+ heart rate staring back at you, along with an extremely pale face and a sheen of cold sweat.
For as long as I can remember, walking up a single flight of stairs has always caused me to get woozy and see stars, my heart pounding out of my chest. I’d always been told that we just have rapid heartbeats and shitty endurance in our family, and that was just the way it was.
I started having one of my coughing attacks at work last year, and a coworker said, “I didn’t realize you had asthma. I have it, too!”
I shook my head no at her, and when I finally stopped coughing and tearing and snotting and my face returned to a normal shade of not-purple two minutes later, I told her I didn’t have asthma.
“I just get these coughing attacks sometimes,” I told her, wiping off all the mascara and eyeliner that had run completely down my face.
She raised an eyebrow at me, “Your coughing sounds exactly like me when I’m having an asthma attack. You’re coughing because your airway is constricted. Have you asked your doctor about this?”
I know it seems silly, but I only really thought about these coughing attacks while I was in the midst of one. After one was over, it immediately left my mind. I would have had to have one while standing in my doctor’s office to have thought to mention it to him.
So I went to the doctor and he ran some tests.
While waiting for the results, he asked me to describe my coughing attacks and when I had first started experiencing them. I gave him all the details and told him that I was ten years old when they’d started.
He said, “Right. Those are asthma attacks. This has gone untreated for thirty years?”
I left his office with a prescription for a rescue inhaler, but I still had my doubts for some reason? It just seemed impossible that all this time, I’d actually had asthma.
I’d seen actors on television pretending to have an asthma attack, and they just politely gasped for air, put one hand on their chest and pointed towards their bag so that their friend would get them their inhaler. There was never any coughing! And as for my rapid heartbeat and terrible endurance, well, that was a family trait! Especially with, you know, the fact that everybody who walked through our front door lit a cigarette before they even put their keys down, and then lit their next cigarette off of that one.
The next time I had a coughing attack, I took a hit from the inhaler to debunk this alleged asthma myth.
It stopped the coughing instantly.
Well, shit. Coughing attack = asthma attack. I guess my doctor wasn’t playing the trickery that I thought he was. I had imagined he’d gone home the night that he diagnosed me and told his wife, “I told this idiot she had asthma and she totally just has coughing attacks! I love being both a doctor AND a trickster!”
A couple months later, I was walking up a long, steep walkway on vacation in Vermont, when I started to get woozy and see stars. I was panting so hard that I had to keep taking breaks to catch my breath, and my heart was beating so fast that it felt like a horse race was happening in my chest. Nothing new, basically.
Bobby said I should really think about using my inhaler. I told him I just needed to catch my breath. I always got really short of breath when I had to walk up an incline.
He persisted. Then I thought, “Meh, what the hell,” and took a hit off the inhaler.
I stopped panting immediately, stopped feeling woozy, stopped seeing stars, and my heart rate returned to a normal human heart rate. I felt FINE.
It all sounds so, so dumb, I know. How could I have had asthma for over thirty years and not known it? What am I, a moron?
I blame television’s wildly inaccurate portrayal of asthma attacks for this particular oversight in my life. They couldn’t devote one single episode of The Facts of Life to someone having a realistic asthma attack? Hell, they had that whole episode of Punky Brewster devoted to one kid suffocating in an empty refrigerator while playing hide-and-seek and how often does that actually happen? To, like, two kids a year? They couldn’t do ONE asthma episode?
I’m sorry, television. I didn’t mean it. I’ll never say another unkind word about you again.