I’m in LA with my mother while my sister is on vacation and floods ravage the Midwest. Twice a week, Mom goes to a pulmonary rehabilitation class. Everybody else in the class appears substantially younger than she and was a heavy smoker. Several have had multiple hospitalizations after which they returned to smoking. I know this is sort of dumb of me, but I never smoked and it was only recently that I realized that the reason smoking is so addictive is that it makes people feel good. Mom never smoked, and her diagnosis is “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” which means they don’t know what caused the scarring in her lungs. It could be heritable, so I can worry about it. It might have been affected by the dust from her years of doing ceramics/pottery. Who knows? A biopsy to try to find a cause would just create more pain and something else to recover from. Anyway, the class is helping a lot and she is much better than in March. Besides strengthening exercises and serious aerobic workouts while being carefully monitored, class participants get lessons in breathing, stress management, nutrition, coughing effectively (deep breaths first, then cough), tips for doing household chores with about 5% of normal strength, and the like. Mom is still on oxygen full time and still pretty much housebound, but she is now able with assistance to walk around the block or go to a restaurant for lunch. We went to the mall today for the first time since her collapse in early February. She has hopes of getting strong enough to be relatively independent again.
About breathing, another one of those things I hadn’t thought about. Mom has needed to learn to breathe more deeply, to slow down and breathe more slowly when she is feeling short of breath, to spend more time exhaling than inhaling. What sort of surprised me is that she needed to learn this. Somehow I thought this was something everyone knew or could figure out for themselves. But then I remembered that I was taught it, and under conditions that would not have applied to her. When I first took up jogging in college, my brother the runner told me to focus on exhaling. Then when I was pregnant, we did a lot breathing training in LaMaze classes. I’ve also gone on a number of religious retreats over the years where cleansing breaths or centered slow breathing was part of some exercise or other. My brother does yoga seriously as a religious discipline, my sister has had meditation and stress reduction lessons, and my dad has done retreats, classes and yoga. Only my Mom has not been exposed to breathing lessons. She was more focused on booking international travel – she has flying privileges from her stint as an accounting clerk for an airline and traveled everywhere on passes and discount fares – and on art and craft classes.
When we get stressed out, our muscles tighten up, we breathe shallowly and rapidly. “Remember to breathe,” people in my circle tell each other when one is describing stressful life circumstances. Breathing deeply forces you to relax a bit, to slow down, to reduce panic, to think about what needs to be done, to get a sense of perspective.
Remember to breathe.