That Time I Had Asthma for 30 Years

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.

“Over 175?”

Just me and that kid who always had that white crud at the corners of his mouth.

“Over 200?”

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?

Thanks for nothing, asshole!

I’m sorry, television.  I didn’t mean it.  I’ll never say another unkind word about you again.

40 thoughts on “That Time I Had Asthma for 30 Years

  1. uhhh… I think I have asthma too? I thought I just lived in a shitty apartment and secretly curse my landlord for the no-evidence-black-mold I assume the place is infested with. But… high heartbeat, coughing fits, woozy on stairs or inclines. Girl, you just got your MD, think my insurance will pay for this post? I need an inhaler, apparently.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Well hell, isn’t that special? Ugh, your entire story of how you never knew you had asthma probably will relate to everyone that grew up in the 80’s. I mean it! Like, what the hell were our parents thinking? Yes, okay it was the 80’s and if your mom was like mine, she dismissed any illness I had. Case in point, when I was in 4th grade I fell down some concrete stairs at school (after being pushed out of the way by some jackhole who wanted to be first in line at the cafeteria.) The nurse came and got me, put a huge towel on my left knee and called my mom. When she removed the towel, I was bleeding so bad, skin scraped off that I sure I could see bone, I almost fainted. My mom came for me and took me home, which was across the street. I stayed home for a week because I couldn’t straighten my leg to walk right AND my mom never took me to the doctor.

    Fast forward to 2017, I go to the doctor because my knee began to hurt while I was taking kick-boxing classes, he takes x-rays and low and behold he tells me I have an old fracture of my knee cap and it healed back in four different places. Which in turn ground the cartridge in my knee to dust! THANKS MOM! At least you have some remedy for your asthma, now you can use your inhaler and think of your PE coach and call her the C-word because your heart rate was over 200, *dramatic eye roll* adults in the 80’s WTF?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good lord! Can you imagine that shit happening today? We really were expected to suck it up and “just deal” with that sort of stuff. Hellllll no, were any of us being taken to a hospital. That shit gets ingrained in you, too. Even once I became an adult, I laid in bed one night with a broken foot thinking, “If it still hurts in the morning, maybe I’ll stop by an urgent care?”

      I swear, every kid I knew in the 80s was more likely to end up in jail than at a doctor’s office. You just weren’t going, and that was that. Mothers had to work, fathers lived elsewhere, and workplaces had no policies in place for parents who had to care for children. I went to the doctor when I was 6 when I had the worst case of the chicken pox, and then didn’t see a doctor again until I was in the emergency room almost ten years later after being hit by a car. Dentist? First time I went in my life, I was 23. We had insurance – there was just no way for parents to take time off work to tend to any of that stuff without fear of losing their jobs. Thank god times are finally changing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hear ya sister, and yes thank god times are changing. To prove a point one day my mom asked me to take time off from work to take her to her ortho surgeon, I asked why?

        She said her knee replacement wasn’t feeling right, and I told her “Nope, just wash it out and put Bactine on it, you should be fine” because that’s what she told me to do when I fell at school. Yes that sounds mean, but I was making a point damn it! lol

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I feel this in my angry lungs. After years of dealing with the embarrassing diagnosis of “exercise-induced asthma”, which feels like “just run more and you’ll adapt”, I have finally started a daily med. Jury is still out, but your story gives me hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so crazy, isn’t it? For years and years, I was told to “pick up the pace” trying to even jog around the track at school, not one of my teachers ever noticing that I couldn’t run any faster because I couldn’t freaking BREATHE.

      I hope your daily meds work out for you! If I were more active, I’d consider them myself! Let me know how it goes – I’m so curious!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh the 80’s. I heard ‘you’ll be fine’ or ‘then just don’t bend it’ all the time.

    I just started allergy shots for seasonal allergies. My 3rd grade teacher told my mom that I could not even read aloud in class because my eyes hardly opened when they were so itchy. I could barely see. Mom was like ‘yeah. She has hayfever.’ My brother had SERIOUS allergies. Spent time in an oxygen text when hospitalized as a tot. Everything else paled in comparison. Plus I did not have a penis and in my family that mattered.

    In college I saw an allergist on my own. They scratch tested me for 100 things. Reacted to most everything. My back blew up like the hunchback of Notre Dame. My folks decided the doctor’s proposal was too intense. Too many shots. Did they seek a 2nd opinion? Ask the doc to dial it back a bit? Nope. I continued to suffer thru 2 seasons every year. I make the roof of my mouth bleed with all the itching.

    I just recently went and got tested again. Started shots too. I have been suffering forever. Guess how convenient it is NOW to squeeze in time for shots!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s amazing any of us survived to adulthood. I’m pretty sure all of our parents would have been thrown in jail by today’s parenting standards. People call the cops if someone leaves their 10 year old in a running car outside Walgreens for five minutes. When I was a 8, I used to hang out alone in my mother’s broken down car in the driveway while she was at work, pop it into reverse, and let it roll down the driveway for fun. Nobody cared.

      I don’t know how anyone can live with those kinds of allergies! That’s so awful! I would lose my freaking mind. If I can’t breathe out of my nose for a single hour when I have a cold, I start contemplating throwing myself in front of a train.


  5. You’ve gotta lotta nerve not breathing like that! Start runnin’ kid! Get in shape!
    Sounds like most negligent parents I ever knew. We had to grow up tough and impervious to pain and discomfort. The results of that are like a now dead friend, who at age 50 went to the doctor to complain about having a constant constipation issue. It had been going on for months and he was tough, but couldn’t take it anymore. Diagnosis? Stage 4 rectal cancer. He died a year later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Any health complaints kids had growing up in my neighborhood back then were considered “whining”. Suck it up! Rub some dirt on it! It sucks how much that carries into adulthood – just like with your friend. That’s so awful and I’m so sorry that happened.

      Old school parenting makes you think you’re some kind of failure if you “give up” and go to the doctor for something. Even now, when I go to the dentist for a regular cleaning and checkup, my mother asks, “Why did you go to the dentist? Is something wrong?” No. Nothing’s wrong. There’s a thing called “routine dental care” that people feel inclined to partake in every six months or so!

      It’s amazing to see the difference with parents today. Of course, they’ve taken it way too far and rush to the doctor every time their kid yawns, but I’d still take that over never being taken to a doctor at all.


      1. I babysit in my house and a baby I sit for had a fever. The next day the mom told me she called the doctor. Then they called the doc back because the fever went a 2nd day. Baby was eating fine. Sleeping fine. I need my job so I had to bite my tongue so I did not say ‘What the ef are you calling the doc for?’ FREAKS.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, there is a happy medium and many of today’s “helicopter” parents have yet to grasp that concept. A little maintenance (lube, oil change, teeth cleaning, PSA level) can help prevent an early death.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have asthma and anxiety. Both make my resting heart rate average in the low 100s. It always makes me feel like shit because lower heart rates are supposed to be optimal, right? I don’t even bother with bpm trackers any more while exercising because it just makes me feel like an 90 year old smoker trying to climb some stairs. lol

    I’m glad you were able to get that treated and under control. I’m thankful that mine is mostly under control unless I’m being really active or if I get sick (then it automatically turns into bronchitis at some point).

    Best of luck for the future!

    Xo Steph

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anxiety and asthma are like peanut butter and chocolate – they really are besties. Two problems that go great together!

      “Am I having an asthma attack or am I just ruminating too much about that thing that happened in the third grade?” There goes another night’s sleep! I’m sorry to hear you’re a member of the club, but it’s comforting to know I’m not alone!

      I used to think my high heart rate meant that I needed to work harder on cardio, to make my heart more efficient! Now that I know better, when I exercise and it gets over 150, I slow the hell down, no matter how slow I was moving in the first place!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Asthma just… UGH. Hate it.

    Growing up I had a Nebulizer for treatment for those times I turned blue, got to have a sassy 45 minutes sitting and breathing in a mask while dying of boredom. Used my rescue inhalers multiple times a day. Cold set me off. Allergies set me off. Exercise set me off. It’s awful.

    I have a new steroid inhaler right now that has made a HUGE difference. I haven’t used the Nebulizer this year, and I’m down to once a week or so for the emergency inhaler. Just do my nightly steroid inhaler, rinse my mouth well so I don’t grow stuff (charming, but it’s a side effect I don’t want to experience), and success! I’ve been getting up to a brisk walk!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds awful – you’ve got that mega-asthma that I’ve only heard stories about! It sounds like the freaking worst. Ugh.

      I fear I have to google about this “grow stuff” business, which can only lead to shock and horror. Which I’m into sometimes, so it works out.


    1. The inhaler is not without its magical perks. I had to use it last week right around that 3pm slump at work, and it was like drinking two espressos. I considered just using it instead of coffee from now on. No spills in the car, no coffee stains on the Invisalign trays!


  9. That is the ONLY episode I remember from Punky Brewster. I’m still scarred from it! And to this day when I see a broken down fridge on the side of the road I think to myself about the possibility of someone suffocating in a refrigerator.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dang Maggie, glad you’ve finally been properly diagnosed! All hail rescue inhalers! Also, I guess I’m glad I mostly grew up in the 70’s. Yes, I was a latchkey kid and yes my mother beat my brothers’ and my asses because we did go out of our way to get into trouble, and yes, she smoked when she was pregnant with us in the 60’s and smoked around all of us until she was diagnosed with COPD in the 90’s, which is why I was probably diagnosed with asthma at 2 yrs. old. But at least we went to the doctor on occasion, if for no other reason than to stay caught up on vaccinations and get told by the pediatrician that we needed an enema, which is what he prescribed for colds and broken bones alike — not that any of us ever wanted to go see that creep of a sonofabitch doctor! I still have an aversion to doctors unless I can’t stand the pain! Shudder! Mona

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My daughter just had to take her girlfriend to the hospital because of an asthma attack due to being at one of her family events where yet again, everyone was smoking even though they know it will trigger her asthma. The hospital put her on oxygen right away–it was really scary!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so awful! It never ceases to amaze me how many people get mistreated by family at family events. Like you get a pass to be a jerk just because you’re family and just assume people have to put up with it!


  12. ME TOO.

    A sibling had asthma when we were kids, and it was always *bad*. What I had seemed nothing like that. What was described to me felt nothing like what I experienced. But then, one day, I was somewhere with a lot of smokers, and I couldn’t breath for coughing. It was scary. And even though I knew from then on I had asthma, I believed it was an only-very-occasionally sort of asthma. I’m still discovering odd things I experience regularly and never considered asthma are, in fact, asthma. Most recently I realised that asthma is the reason my lungs hurt and I breath so hard when I exercise–not because I’m unfit, like I was always told when I was a kid. A puffer doesn’t fix unfit. That was a revelation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it infuriating when I look back at all the PE teachers who chastised me for being lazy because I couldn’t even keep up a jog without nearly fainting. You would think there would be some kind of training for them to spot when a kid can’t breathe!


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