One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is sitting in the bathroom, in my pyjamas, on the edge of the tub, while behind the curtain a hot shower ran loudly. The door would be closed, and the steam would be filling up the room quickly. My mother would be there next to me, looking at me with concern, and repeating the word, “breathe.”
My pediatrician diagnosed my childhood asthma as severe, which meant that I spent a good chunk of my early years taking puffers and popping cortico-steroid pills. I was no stranger to the hospital, where I would be put on a ventilator for a few hours and then sent home. Eventually, we got a home ventilator so we could avoid the emergency room visits in the middle of the night.
On days when I was short of breath or coughing a lot, but didn’t need the ventilator, my mom would run the shower and take me in the bathroom to sit there while the mirrors fogged up around me. The steam was good for me: it slowed down my breathing and soothed my throat. Mom would sit there next to me, telling me I’d be okay. She’d pat my back and hold my hand, all the while reminding me, “breathe.”
Breathing is the most autonomous of actions: we do it unconsciously, mostly unknowingly. It is only when something interrupts its autonomy that we notice our breath, only when something breaks with our natural rhythm that we have to remind ourselves to keep breathing.
Asthma is an obvious interruption. When the coughing was bad and my chest was tightening up, it was important to have my mother there to remind me, “breathe.”
Victor, my personal trainer, often pushes me past my self-imposed limits. He knows that I can work harder, lift heavier, run longer than I think I can. When I feel like I’m ready to explode from the pressure, he is there to remind me, “breathe.”
Three years ago, when I was struggling with panic attacks regularly and I would sometimes find myself gasping for air on the sidewalk in the middle of the day, it was nice to have friends and bystanders rush to my aid and remind me, “breathe.”
Earlier this year, when I was singing in choir, my section-mates and conductor would encourage me to put in little markings in my music, markings that, as I got carried away in song, would remind me, “breathe.”
There are many moments that take my breath away, good and bad. In each of those moments, something is always there to remind me, “breathe.”
In 2015, I’m going to remind myself to breathe.
Consciously taking a breath allows us to pause, take stock, assess, experience, and recover. A breath is the punctuation at the end of one of life’s phrases, and a conscious breath is an opportunity to go back over that sentence, that experience, and understand it for what it was.
Breathe is an apt word for the year ahead: I am entering a year full of lots of big changes. It will be easy to breeze through those changes without taking a moment to reflect on what they mean, to assess where I was and where I am going. A reminder to breathe will give me that pause.
When something goes wrong, a breath will remind me that there is always resolution to a problem. When something frustrates me, a breath will remind me to be patient. When something delights me, a breath will remind me to enjoy that delight, in that moment.
I will remind myself to pause, to reflect, and to be intentional. I will take a breath before I speak, before I act, before I decide, before I move on.
I have mostly outgrown my asthma, now. The only remnant of the ailment surfaces on days like today, when I catch a cold: even when the cold has passed and I feel much better, I have a lingering, hacking chest cough that stays with me for weeks after I am back to good health. It is worse at when I lie down to go to bed; Lise calls it the “death cough” when it keeps her up at night. Other than that, however, the asthma has passed. I do not rely on puffers and steroids and ventilators. I no longer have to sit in the bathroom with the shower running and remind myself to breathe.
I may not need to anymore, but I will remind myself to breathe, anyway.
The year ahead will contain many moments that will take my breath away — I will breathe deeply, resonantly, and consciously.