The albuterol hose gently hissed. I breathed deeply. The twitching in my lungs that coughing couldn't reach finally stopped, but my brain kept obsessively rehashing events. Was I faking it? I don't think I was, I thought. I really couldn't breathe at work. I couldn't.
It started as a cold. Then it migrated to my lungs. And lingered. And lingered.
My boss had sent me home early because the coughing would not stop. She asked me if my parents could give me a ride. "I can make it home," I told her. If I called for a ride when I had my car with me, my dad would pretend to be okay for a couple of days before blowing up about something and then yelling at me for an hour and guilting me for wasting mom's and his time and for being ungrateful. Plus then they would have to drive me to work the next day because my car would still be there. No. It wasn't worth calling them.
Besides, when I got home, dad openly cast aspersions on my cough and inability to breathe. "she's breathing right now, isn't she?" I heard him tell Mom. I was acting. Making it worse on purpose. Trying to get attention. Mom was still worried, and finally he said she could take me to the hospital.
"I'm not sure you need this, but I'm going to give you albuterol just in case" the nurse said, before turning the machine on. "It seemed like you calmed down a lot once you came in."
A wave of fear came over me. I tried to avoid my mom's gaze.
"Are you stressed out at home?" the nurse asked. I hesitated, looking at Mom. "No," I said, trying to be non-nonchalant. "I've just been busy with school and work." Yes, I have nightmares every night about my dad. I get migraines and his rages makes it worse. It's like we're walking on eggshells all the time then he blows up then he buys us a lot of stuff and pretends to be happy, then he gets tense and then he blows up again. I stay at college all day to stay away from home as much as possible. The thoughts fell on deaf ears. The nurse gave us both a meaningful look, waiting for either of us to come out with the truth. Then she left the room.
My doctor gave me antibiotics and steroid pills every time I visited, when the cough didn't get better.
A coworker suggested small sips of warm water. My boyfriend suggested Coke when I started coughing uncontrollably during a tornado warning. A professor excused me from class so I could get some water. Except I knew it wouldn't stop, so I would try to suppress the cough until my face resembled a crying tomato because I didn't want to interrupt the author who visited our class to talk about her newest book.
Meanwhile, everything irritating still set me off--freshly mown grass, dust, cigarette smoke, they all made it tickle deep inside my lungs where coughing could never reach.
I was given an albuterol inhaler.
I was thinking about the research for one of my high school papers and washing the dishes while everyone else watched TV. Normally it felt unfair because I wanted to watch TV too, but this time, the act of cleaning felt therapeutic.
I suddenly doubled over. It felt like a cold knife went right through my heart. I tried to work through it, but it was sharp and painful I needed to sit down. Then when it was gone, I could continue to do the dishes. I would tell dad that. I hoped he would understand. I tried breathing through the pain. What was wrong with me?
Mom noticed. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. My heart just hurts really bad." I grimaced, trying to be stoic. How could I prove it, anyway? Maybe it will go away.
After whispering with dad, she took me to the hospital. The pain started subsiding, so I looked at the stars, trying to identify the constellations, telling Mom which ones I thought I saw. Draco. Cassiopeia. She asked me if I was exaggerating the pain. I promised her I wasn't, and paid more attention to my heart, which hurt strongly again. I'm not faking it, am I? I'm not crazy. Maybe I am? I hoped the doctors would find something wrong so I could give Mom a knowing look: See, I wasn't faking it.
Several tests later, they couldn't find anything. The doctors asked about my stress levels. How was home? I looked to Mom, and then told them I was homeschooled and didn't have any stress. They didn't look like they believed me. At home, my parents gave me the same look.
Dad opened up the bill from the hospital that was addressed to me, and told me I was expensive. His voice said it like a joke, but his eyes were serious. I felt ashamed.
After the ER visit, I was sent to the allergist. My mom went with me. She held my hands when they pricked little allergens all over my back--only the histamine produced the "real" bump. My lung capacity was also perfectly normal. My lungs started twitching again, but I didn't need to cough. Yet.
My boyfriend, who does have asthma, recommended this allergist. He did warn me that she is very direct, but I wasn't expecting this.
"You don't have asthma," she said in a thick Indian accent. "You are using the inhaler like a pacifier. Stop using it."
Oh great. Now my parents really will think I was faking it all along.
"How are your stress levels at home?"
My lungs started twitching again. I did want that pacifier to keep me from going into another coughing fit. My mom said things were fine at home, and I added that I'm just stressed with school, telling her that I was working two jobs and going to school full time. I didn't mention that I was looking for an apartment with a friend and getting ready to move out, because my parents didn't know yet. The doctor gave us both a suspicious look, not believing us. I wanted her to pretend everything was fine, too.
"You do have some scarring in the lungs,"
"and I am going to prescribe you three months of Advair. That will help heal your lungs."
The Advair finally did calm the twitching. and I was able to move out without devolving into a coughing fit. Some irritants still made me cough for a few years after, particularly cigarette smoke, but that is finally healed, too. At my last check-up visit with the allergist, she told me to make sure that my fiance took double his medicine when his asthma was worse, to keep him from getting too sick. Especially in the spring and in the fall.
I still make sure he follows her instructions.
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