Breath

Several nights ago as I was having trouble going to sleep I started doing what I often do to bore myself to sleep: I counted my breaths. After I reached about 30 I noticed that I was feeling like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Uh-oh. I tried breathing more deeply but it wasn’t enough. I still felt like I was gasping for breath.

But I wasn’t gasping. My body was just doing its normal breathing. My body said I was fine, it was fine. And yet I had the feeling that I wasn’t getting quite enough oxygen with each breath.

Feeling like a hypochondriac, I checked my pulse. A little high but my pulse is normally high. And it could have been affected by my worrying about, of all things, oxygen. I thought about whether I should order one of those little devices to clip onto your finger that gives an instant readout on your pulse and blood oxygen level. Nah. That would be really hypochondriachy.

Two years ago I acquired a massive set of blood clots in my lungs, the result of a genetic condition that I didn’t know about before I keeled over in yoga class. I have been on anticoagulant medication ever since. I am fine in every way and I don’t even think about the possibility of pulmonary embolisms any more, most of the time. Except when I have trouble breathing. That is one of the symptoms–along with other things, which I was not experiencing.

But was I really having trouble breathing? I got up and moved around. I was fine. My breath didn’t seem labored. I went back to bed. The moment I focused on my breath, I felt that lack of oxygen again.

I eventually went back to sleep and woke up alive, that’s what counts. But it happened again the next night. And the next. I was pretty sure that this feeling of inadequate oxygen was psychological because I went through whole days in between without feeling short of breath. Maybe my psyche was focusing on the second anniversary of that traumatic event, which is coming up December 7.

But what happens when you suddenly doubt the reliability of one of your major body systems–breathing— which operates almost entirely automatically, but over which you have some influence? The conscious part of you begins to distrust the unconscious and the automatic and then the system develops a hiccup.

Although it may not be all in your head, that is where it starts, so get over it. But that is easier said than done.

This morning we were awakened at 2:30 a.m. by a phone call. Caller “Unknown” hung up before I got to the phone. I answered the phone because Vic, who was closer, couldn’t get up quickly. Yesterday he developed a back spasm–another case of a hiccup in the system. A perfectly normal back, which carries in wood, shovels snow, and tosses a grandchild in the air, goes into seizure when he stands on one leg to put on a sock.

I went back to bed but not to sleep. I thought about my husband’s back and my lungs, these bodies that we depend on and take for granted until they malfunction. I thought of children and temper tantrums. Our bodies need a little attention, and acting out is the only way they know how to get it.

I decided to try reverse psychology on my lungs. Instead of worrying about them, I expressed gratitude for their miraculous ability to extract a single life-giving element from the invisible blanket of gases that surround me. I did this for a few breaths. And then a marvelous thing happened. I began to feel the magical exchange at work. I felt the oxygen going in my airways and being swept into my blood, the breath of life, the tiny renewal. I felt the release of the things my body didn’t need. The pause. The tireless repetition, again and again. It was enough, no more, no less.

Now when the yoga instructor says, “Be grateful for your breath,” I’ll know what she means.

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