Posted by: emjb | August 21, 2005

Breathless

The first time it happened I was maybe 5. We were visiting my dad in Taif, Saudi Arabia, where he was working as an electrician. It was hard on him to be away from us so much, but the money was very good. In the summers, my mom took off work (and I’m just now wondering: how did she afford that?) and took me and sometimes my brother to go stay with him.

On this day, we went to a church revival meeting with my dad, in a building that had little or no air conditioning. It was packed, and very hot, and we did a lot of standing and praying. After a while, I started to feel sleepy, yawning repeatedly. I was breathing rapidly, but it still seemed hard to catch my breath. My vision started to darken; my eyes started closing on their own. We were standing up at this point, in front of our folding chairs. There wasn’t enough room to lay down on just my chair, so I asked the lady next to me “Can I lay down across your chair?” “No!” she said to me, startled and angry. But the feeling got worse, and before she could stop me, I moved her Bible onto the floor and laid down across her chair and mine. I just wanted to go to sleep.

The next thing I remember is being in my parents’ truck being driven home, told to drink some water. “You passed out,” my mom said. “You look all green.” “You must have locked your knees, that’s what happened when I was in the Air Force, guys locked their knees and then passed out in the heat,” my dad told me. Confused, I promised not to lock my knees anymore. I felt a little guilty, but also glad to be out of that stuffy church.

It happened the next time during a trip to a water park when I was 10 or so; the yawning, the strange sleepiness, not getting enough air, the eyes shutting of their own accord. It was a hot day, I was probably sunburnt. My friend’s mom made me sit down, taught me how to put my head between my knees, breathe slowly and deeply, put my hands on top of my head, put ice behind my neck. She told me it was called hyperventilating, that it had nothing to do with locking your knees, and that I’d be ok, and I soon was.

Ever since, I’ve known to watch myself for those signs. Passing out is frightening, and being in a crowded, overheated place always holds that danger for me. If I exert myself too much in the heat, if I don’t drink enough water (but sometimes that doesn’t help either) if I start feeling trapped and claustrophobic, and especially if I start to yawn, I know I’m not far from it. Heat is my enemy but especially humidity, or any place without moving air. Unless it’s really cold, I can’t sleep well without some kind of breeze from a fan, some feeling that air is moving and that I won’t run out of it.

Nothing makes hyperventilation worse than panic, so at an early age, you learn to calm yourself down, to not let yourself think the panicky thoughts, to not freak out that you don’t see a way out of the crowd. To distract yourself so that you don’t trigger the rapid breathing that will doom you. You become skilled at finding the quiet spot, the place to sit, the bit of shade.

Many people have remarked on my calmness during a crisis from time to time; maybe having an overactive panic mechanism that I’m used to fighting against has taught me that. I don’t panic because I can’t afford to.

Still, however skilled I am at taking care of myself, days like today are my enemy; hot and still, damp, too little breeze. Long walks to get anywhere…the store, the subway. Climbing up long flights of stairs, waiting on hot platforms, sitting in inadequately air-conditioned cars (which are moving, anyway, giving me nausea as well). When I’m not pregnant, I can deal with the heat, by moving slower and drinking more water, but as I get bigger I find I’m always a little breathless and overheated anyway. I become more and more reluctant to risk the heat and the walk, even though I’m getting a little stir crazy. I planned to go out today, but then the sun came out, and I just couldn’t deal with the idea of the three long hot blocks to the train. I don’t trust my body like I usually do; I don’t trust my lungs to handle the stress. On the weekdays I manage because I leave in the morning and come home in the evening, when it’s cooler and less rushed, but even then, I have what feel like close calls.

I don’t like it, I don’t like this weakness. It’s kept me from doing much in the way of sports, it keeps me from running faster or working harder on hot days. It’s an excuse too, I’m sure, to not try sometimes. But no-one knows what causes it. It’s just something you have to learn to live with and work around. Most of the time, I do. But I’ll be glad when it’s colder and I’m not pregnant anymore, when I can take a deep breath again and do some good with it.

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