What’s It Like Living With Asthma (An Invisible Illness)?

What’s It Like Living With Asthma (An Invisible Illness)?

Last updated: May 2018

In her post “What Does An Asthma Attack Feel Like?”, Theresa, a fellow asthmatic and asthma writer, explains -- and quite well I must add -- what it’s like having an asthma attack. In this post, I would like to make an attempt at articulating what it’s like living day after day with a chronic disease like asthma.

Growing up with asthma

I do not have any memory of not having asthma. Because I grew up with it, there was no adjustment period; there was no learning curve. Asthma was just part of my life. Asthma was me. I just adjusted to it by default. It’s not like I was diagnosed halfway through my life and had to make stressful lifestyle changes.

My point is that it was always there. And I could say that having asthma, like having an asthma attack, is like having an elephant sitting on your chest, but it’s not. Asthma is more than just being short of breath; it’s more than just having asthma symptoms. This is because, on most days, for most asthmatics, your breathing is just fine.

When you have a chronic condition, you learn to cope

When you have a chronic disease, any chronic disease, you don’t walk around saying, “Woe is me!” You just don’t do that. What you do is you learn to cope. You make adjustments in your life. You make lifestyle changes when you need to. But the key is that you learn to cope. You learn how to go on with your life and to live as normal of a life as you can with that chronic disease, which in my case is asthma.

I remember the days when I was a child and I would participate in whatever fun event my brothers participated in. On most such occasions, my breathing was normal and what we did didn’t bother my asthma. For instance, we rode our bikes and played “Dukes of Hazzard” or “Cowboys and Indians” on the trails we made through the woods.

Then there were things I sometimes participated in and did just fine, although at times I had to explain why I couldn’t participate. For instance, we played football during football season. Most days I was just another player as we played two on two. Most days this went great.

Of course, as football season moves into November, the weather changes quite a bit. I would play football on a cold, wintry day when smoke was billowing from the chimneys. This would cause severe asthma attacks, but I didn’t care: I just continued to play -- even if it meant constantly puffing on my inhaler, or even going inside to take breathing treatments.

Then there came the day of maturation: the day you realize you can’t keep living like this. The day you realize you can still play football, but you can’t play when it’s cold outside and when there’s smoke in the air. That all this does is make you feel miserable.

Telling others about your asthma

So, then you have to explain yourself to your brothers. You have to, in effect, explain what it’s like to have asthma. And I found myself saying, “You know what, I would love to play, but I can’t play right now. How about if we do something else. How about we play Monopoly or something.” And my brothers were always disappointed.

I don’t hold this against my brothers. It never really upset me. I mean, it’s human nature. My brothers were naturally competitive. They saw me play every other day with no problem. So it only made sense that they’d be irritated that I couldn’t play this day.

But in the end, they understood and played Monopoly or whatever it was.

Asthma: an invisible illness

And, besides, I didn’t look any different. It’s not like I had a broken leg and had a cast. There is no cast over asthma. There is no giant “A” printed on my forehead to indicate "Asthma.” The truth is, you cannot see asthma. And, short of a full-fledged asthma attack it is invisible.

So, I looked on this day the same as I did the last time we played football. You see, you cannot see asthma. You cannot see the asthma genes, nor the abundance of abnormal immune cells and chemicals that would have caused asthma if I would have played football that day.

Then a week later they would want to play football again. There was still snow on the ground. There was still smoke in the air. There were still asthma genes in me. They had to have known I still had asthma. And it was only a week earlier that I explained why I couldn’t play. But here I found myself explaining what it’s like to have asthma all over again.

You see, I don’t blame my brothers. It’s human nature for them to want to play football and for them to expect me to participate. I mean, for crying out loud, I played on most days. In fact, I would have been more disappointed if they didn’t attempt to get me to play than to have to explain again why I can’t.

Still, because I have it, because I experience it, I knew what would happen if I played football on those days. I could never forget what it’s like. But they don’t have it, so they cannot conceive of what it’s like. And this is true despite the fact that they saw what asthma did to me, and even despite the fact I just explained what it was like a week earlier.

This is not a criticism of my brothers, it’s just me stating what I have observed. They don’t have it; they have never experienced it, so they cannot fathom what it’s like. So they forget. And so I have to explain it again and again. And I don’t fault them because they are just being normal guys of competitive nature.

I’m picking on my brothers here, but I can give many similar examples, of which I do in my post, "What's it like to have asthma." Still, it never gets old, attempting to explain what it’s like to have asthma; why I can’t do certain things at certain times. It never got old. In fact, I never even realized I did it until I started writing these posts about what it’s like living with it.

So, what’s it like living with asthma? How would you describe it? Let us know in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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