Breathing and Expectations: Observation Notes 31-52

These latest Observations have been written sporadically over the last five months. When I started blogging over 10 years ago, I had decided to place strict boundaries on my posts. I felt comfortable to express my feelings towards my work, my reading with the occasional discussion of family but those have mostly been of the happiness in my life. I decided I didn’t want to talk about my worries. But I’m putting it all out there with this post. I am aware of all my mixed tenses which I have chosen to not correct as each Note is an indication of how I felt at the time I was writing.

The TLDR is my asthma got bad, I cried, I stopped going to uni. My asthma got better.

So here goes: Last time I posted I wrote that “I faceplant every Saturday so it has taken me a while to write”. My Saturday faceplant in March has now lasted 3 (now nearly 4) months. 

Note 31: Breathing. I had my first asthma attack when I was 9 months old. I have no memory of it. Just the stories my mother tells me of the event. It was on the day of my christening. It was the feast day of St Peter and St Paul and my mum says that after the church service, she and my father threw the party of all parties. With over a hundred people congregating at their large home only 2 blocks from the church. This was a double celebration as it was also my father’s name day (a Greek Orthodox cultural tradition where you celebrate the Holy Day that you are named for). In the Orthodox tradition, you are christened and baptised at the same time. Babies are dunked naked into a baptismal font and fully immersed underwater 3 times, symbolising a rebirth, before being dressed in fancy, new baptismal clothes. The photographs of the event show me first being held up high by my godmother, absolutely starkers (I adore/d this photograph as she is glowing with joy and I’m laughing and babykicking away) and then me in Winter clothing including a thick coat lined with wool/cotton. This warm clothing was not enough. Though the day was warmish (21C/77F) by nighttime the temperatures had plummeted to 8C/43F. The young girls who were in charge of “Beba” (me) went and got my parents as I was turning blue and unable to breathe. An ambulance was called, I had developed bronchial asthma due to the cold air exposure, and it has since turned into an allergic asthma. I do not know life without asthma, and unlike many people in the world, I did not grow out of it.

Note 32: Breathing and work. When I last posted Observations in February, I was finally finding my feet after a rather tumultuous previous year. Well, that only lasted for a few months. Early in March, I found myself wheezing, a lot. I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without wheezing. I could barely walk the 400 metres from my home to the train station without triggering an asthma attack. I was put on preventative medication for 10 days which eased my breathing, but once I was taken off the drugs, my breathing became worse, very quickly. To the point that by early April I was in asthma crisis. I was having long drawn out attacks that weren’t responding to my Ventolin. I was often unable to speak in phrases, my skin would become pallid and my attacks were so savage that I missed a lot of work, and all of uni in April.

Note 33: Reflection: In retrospect, and through the process of rethinking my emergency asthma plan, every time I had an asthma attack, I should have called an ambulance – something that I have not needed since my baptism. The thing is, I am not good at making decisions when I am oxygen deprived. Yet each time, the people around me have deferred the “call the ambulance” decision to me. When I have spoken to my doctor about this, she has told me to not depend on anyone. Just call the ambulance myself. Make the decision before I am in crisis.

Note 34: Constriction. The thing is with asthma attacks, they aren’t just as simple as getting over the wheezing. Wheezing means having difficulty breathing. Even though your mouth may be open, the air is not passing into your lungs. The constriction scares me. The older I get, the more I dread an attack as I am not bouncing back as easily. With every attack, I become more anxious. Is this the attack that I won’t recover from? I found that I was barely able to function. Each attack would send me exhausted to bed for several days. If I wasn’t wheezing, I was sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying. Not big, gulping, ugly crying. Just tears running uncontrollably down my face. I would talk and tears just rolled. Quiet weeping that I just can’t stop. Each time I would see my doctor, I would try to be stoic, but instead, as I would describe my symptoms, those tears just plumped and dropped. Fat, full, thick and watery splashes. I was a total mess. I am a total mess.

Note 35. When it rains. In April, along with all the wheezing and crying, I also came down with the flu which lasted a few weeks, and then leading into May, I got feverish, painful cold sores and once they went, I got a second bout of the flu. I also had become so ill that I now had a number of deeply upsetting physical side-effects from both the illnesses as well as from the medications, as well as several other ailments that predated all the the asthma crisis. I got to the point that some of my ailments rendered me housebound. I couldn’t bear to leave my bedroom, let alone the house.

Note 36: Pretty. Thankfully, my bedroom is rather aesthetically pleasing. I love how it looks. I have floral curtains with butterflies imprinted amongst the flowers. I have my favourite books in a long, low bookshelf that serves as the foot of the bed. An armchair with plush bottle-green velvet upholstery embossed with flowers whose stuffing is peeking out of one side. As well as white bed linens and blankets with various deep and light pink throws and pillows. All this makes it easy to be housebound, but it also makes it easy to not want to leave. Anyway, apparently, refusing to leave your room is supposedly bad for you (who knew?!), and that it is a sign of depression (wha-whaaaaattttt!? How can this be when I have such pretty pillowcases). Anyway, at another doctor’s appointment, with tears pouring down my face, after admiring my lovely delicately crocheted necklace, my kindly doctor tells me that it is time for me to get some mental health care. Because, apparently, pretty pillowcases and butterfly curtains just don’t have the ability to give you strategies for recovery.

Note 37: Seeing a therapist. So I am now seeing a psychologist. I have had on and off counselling over the years, but I have never seen a psychologist before. She is lovely and, you know, I’m trying to work out what to say/not say. I guess the first session is to work out how bad I was. Understandably. Was I self-harming – No. Did I want to self-harm – ummm, no. Did I look forward to things – yes. Can I leave my room? Do I have to???  She says that I do not have depression but I have burn out. Everything all got too much. After 4 years of working 6 days a week (3-4 days in the library and 3-2 days on my thesis), my Saturday faceplant had decided to longterm take over.

Note 38: Quiet in the library. Much of the general public’s perception of librarians is one where it is viewed as a sedentary, reading and shushing profession. Libraries are seen as a public space where the steadfastness of shelving systems, the image of readers immersed in their books, students studying, and where quiet contemplation is a user expectation (one that often is not met). For our users, the library will most often be a place where they find and expect to have time for deep thought, quiet(ish) discovery and exploration. As that is the feeling that they have whilst being in a library, they conflate their experience as also being the staff experience.

Note 39: Librarians doing the do. But being a librarian is not a quiet or immersed-in-thought profession. It takes a lot of work to present to the public the sense of place that users have in a library. But, when you work in a library, you are always on the go. The work is a neverendingstory. Every few minutes you are troubleshooting a new query, sorting shelves, responding to stakeholder needs, dealing with complaints, dealing with compliments, finding, seeking, writing, answering, selecting, weeding, teaching, directing and more. It is endless, it is constant and it is varied and it all needs to be done from the position of understanding the user needs and their experiences. I find this constant go-go-go energising. I thrive on it. I absolutely love it. One of my managers, in a performance review, told me she considered the way I “work the [public library] floor” incredible. And that really is what I do. I work the floor, I find my flow and I do it well. But once my librarian role for the week ends, I find it difficult to shift my thoughts to the more subdued and quiet needs of scholarly practice especially after a frenetic number of days just doing. I feel that if I am not busy-busying, that I am sedentary and lazy.

Note 40: Slow Movement. It has taken me a while, but I had to embrace the culture of Slow. Since March, I am forcing myself to not try to do all the things. I had to just try to do one thing a day. And often that one thing was to just be well enough to get dressed and leave my room.

Note 41: Recovery. After my horror month of April, where I took sick leave and annual leave, I spent the month of May doing nothing other than going to work for 2 days a week and just sleeping and resting the rest of the time. I then started getting a bit anxious about my uni work which I had basically dropped the ball on in March. In late May, I resumed tiny tasks such as checking emails, editing bits and pieces here and there, usually only for half an hour at a time but even that can at times be too onerous and I will find myself crying just at the simple task of opening a document.

Note 42: Getting better. By late May, my breathing had improved. I am now able to walk a flight of stairs without triggering an attack, I can go for a drive on my own without taking my Ventolin before I start driving, I can go to work and back on my own without my husband or son needing to drive me. I’m still struggling with aspects of leaving the house. Other than my work days, I manage to leave the house on most Wednesdays and Thursdays. But by Fridays, I struggle to make it to the lounge room. I cave to the allure of my pretty pillowcases.

Note 43: Unspoken. There are a number of other issues that are constantly in my life that I cannot change which upset and trouble me. But these are not issues that I can discuss as they are not directly mine. However, they are onerous, they cripple my soul and I struggle to talk about them. I have a couple of deeply trusted people that I talk to but I have mostly given up doing even that. Helplessness vexes me.

Note 44: Weak. I know that I am supposed to take all this in my stride, that I should be strong, and powerful and that I should conquer all these problems. I know that everyone is different, and that we all have our graces, but frankly I am annoyed and deeply embarrassed by what I consider weak. This weakness, this inability to keep up with what seems to be easy for other people, other asthmatics too, angers and frustrates me. This is not the first time that my asthma has floored me, and I was frustrated the other two times. Once when I was 20 as well as 8 years ago. I am also embarrassed that I cannot funnel my emotions and leave the tears and anxiety to the side and just soldier on. I am embarrassed because I honestly don’t consider these things ample enough to bring me to my knees. I look towards my Amazonian mother and grandmother who both sustained trauma and hard labour and grief and bombings and so many shocking events yet continued to work work work. Yet I flounder because of a manageable (albeit at times chronic) illness alongside struggling to articulate a thesis. But here I am, whining, privileged, entitled. Embarrassed to be embracing my limitations.

Note 44.1 Please don’t write to say “But Oh you are strong!” and that “Strength is defined in so many ways”. Not that you would be wrong or that I don’t have my own unique areas of strength and ability but the way I feel at the moment, I would read any comments like that as dismissive platitudes even if they were not meant that way. I currently do not feel strong. I will get better. I know this. But meanwhile, I need to strategise out of my feelings of weakness.

Note 44.2 My apologies for dictating to you how to respond. Write whatever you want.

Note 45: Complexity. One of the things that I see a lot of people doing in their discussions of female characters is an insistence on writing women as strong. This concept of “strong” characters, and “strong” women gives me pause. Years ago, I saw someone tweet that it isn’t strong women but complex women that we need to see represented in our fiction and our media. This has continuously resonated with me. Not having kick-ass strength and bad-ass fortitude is not a bad thing. It takes all types of people to live in our world. I think complex, multi-dimensional women is a better. I read the word “strong” and I have visions of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator, or a sweaty Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. That is totally not me. I cannot lift incredible weights, I can’t tackle anyone to the ground, I can’t take on giant monsters.

…But I can open jars barehanded, refusing to use a bottle-opener to break the seal.

Note 46: Anticipation. In the months that have passed, I have discussed with a few of my friends about leaving my thesis to never return to it. The jury is out though. With the exception of one friend who is telling me to quit (I love her dearly for this), everyone else tells me that I need to make the decision on my own. I feel that just like my asthma, the Phd has crippled me. I’m riddled with insecurities and doubt. Not of the veracity of my research, but of its reception. I reached a point where I felt that the thesis was depleted of oxygen and I was unable to make a decision as to how to go forward. I am still struggling with this decision.

Note 47: Opening. At the beginning of this month, I managed to submit writing and administrative work for my PhD. Things I had been tweaking, and ruminating over for a long time. They were onerous weights that I couldn’t overcome. I felt like they were the jars that I had left in the corner of my pantry, knowingly defeated, no longer strong enough to open. I started with the hardest and most stubborn jar. The one that has vexed me the longest. I gave up on any show of strength and used a bottle-opener and even then, I still had some trouble finding the sweet spot that breaks the seal. Then I did a second one and a third one. I do not feel jubilant about these achievements. I just felt exhausted. Rather than wait for someone to call the ambulance for me, I made the decision myself that I needed to give myself time to recover and that I should wait this one out.

Note 48: Breathing. I walked too far yesterday. I was not alone, I was with my husband. I walked just over 6kms. I stopped for two substantial breaks, I wheezed a few times when the cold air would hit my lungs but I recovered quickly. I had a doctor’s appointment and then I was going to spend a few hours at uni trying to return to doing some work. The appointment was not straightforward. My medications needed to be increased, and I had a procedure that left me in need of another specialist referral which just left me weeping for half an hour before making the decision for myself that I needed help. I texted my husband who came and got me and took me home. I sat on the couch and cried and cried. Again, fat, full, thick and watery splashes. It’s like one step forward, two steps back.

Note 49: Family. My husband knows everything that is going on. Unlike Sherrilyn Kenyon, I don’t suspect him of any nefarious plotting or being the cause of my crumbling teeth (if this has you scratching your head, just do a search) and I have not hidden much of this from my sons. Certain physical problems, I have kept to myself. But for the most part, I have been open about being ill, about seeing a psychologist, about my anxieties and flailing thesis. Someone told me that they hated seeing their mum feeling vulnerable so they go out of their way to makes sure that their child never sees them upset. I was aghast at this. My sons see me in my full emotional range. Happy, funny, angry, sad. I don’t hide from them. They each have their own way of relating to my meltdowns. Today, my youngest spent the day with me. He’s the one that I lose my patience with the most. Yet he is much more gentle and kind in dealing with my problems. We went for a few short walks, we had some lunch and we laughed about our polar opinions on Ross from Friends, and my son’s obsessive recounting of football games he has played (kill me now!). My older son is funny beyond belief. He thinks he gets it from his dad, but I keep telling him that mums are funny too. His retort is “Look at you. You can’t be funny if you can’t breathe”. Damn him. He’s right. Somewhere along the way, I lost my funny. And I want it back.

Note 50: Saint Peter and Saint Paul. On Saturday, it will be my dad’s name day, as well as my sons. I plan on going to church, the same one I was baptised in and married in. I will sit with my mum in the back row where as an elderly matriarch she rules with fierce censure that she mostly reserves for her children and grandchildren arriving late (though occasionally for a mouthy youngling priest who speaks out of line, or puffed peacock parishioners prancing rather than praying). Everyone greets her with a kiss or a nod. She looks gentle and kindly with those rosy cheeks, her white bobbed hair and gray-green eyes. But don’t be fooled. She may be frail, but she is terrifying.

Note 51: Parents say the darnedest things. Mum is aware of my current asthma problems but I have not told her any of the rest. She still blames herself for not taking better care of me on the day of my christening. Growing up though I have memories of her being one part compassion and care, especially her constantly doing reverberation on my back just like my paediatric physiotherapist had taught her. However, another part of her (the tired, exhausted mother of four, running a boarding house and having 2 cleaning jobs) was constantly frustrated with me wheezing and exclaiming “You’re sickly, again!” as though I had control over this and couldn’t breathe to spite her. She even had a name for me. Hlioubou. Χλιουμπου. I have Greek googled the shit out of that term and nothing comes up. Maybe it is some parochial Vlach word meaning “Shit! She’s dying again”. My sisters fed off this (as is their sibling right) and called me Darth Vader as they could hear me breathing as I moved through the house. I can’t remember ever feeling bad about mum, but I will always feel angry-bitter rage (as is my taunted-one’s right) towards my sisters calling me Darth. Who wants to be Vader when freakin’ Carrie Fisher is in the house! *shakes fist*

Note 52: Expectations. So Mum and I will sit silently in the back pew, gazing towards the small chapel beside the main altar of our church (it is such a huge church that it has a church within it – like a baboushka church) where the scene of my first faulted breathing began. Having been jacked up on my preventative ‘roids for many months now, I will take a deep breath and hope it is clear. My mum has been traumatised enough through her life, she doesn’t need to see me in an asthma crisis again. After church ends, I will offer to drive her home. She will say no. She will walk the three blocks home socialising with all the other women, accepting their well-wishes for her 5 grandsons who are all celebrating their name day. Once home, phone calls will come from uncles and aunts and cousins and friends wishing blessings on all the Pauls and Peters and remembering my dad. Mum will pass on their good wishes. We will have coffee. She will serve up kourabiedes or melomakarona. At some point she will pause and remember,

It was a big party, your christening.

Yes, it was, Mum.

You were so sick.

I know, Mum.

Are you OK. Are you taking your medicine?

Yes. I’m OK, Mum.

But I can’t tell her anything else. I just have to be OK until I get home, go to my pretty, flowery room so I can take a deep breath forward.


10 thoughts on “Breathing and Expectations: Observation Notes 31-52

  1. I’m so sorry to find out you’ve been so ill! I’m glad it’s getting a bit better.

    For what it’s worth, I know I’m weak. I read books about strong heroines (in the Urban-Fantasy heroine sense and that of the heroine who can bake cookies, keep a house tidy and look after lots of children while still looking serene) and I feel exhausted and inadequate. It would be better if we weren’t told (implicitly) that we’re of most value and most loveable if we’re strong. But being weak doesn’t necessarily make you less loved or less valued – it sounds like your husband and son love you a lot.

    Re the PhD, I’m more on the side of the friend who says to quit, albeit I don’t know all the details so I’m hesitant to say that for definite. I have the impression that you did the research to find things out and share your findings. It seems to me you’ve already reached that goal (at least partly) by writing papers and giving presentations. You’re not necessarily going to reach more people by finishing the PhD. So if you do stop, it might not make that much difference to your goals, and it could mean a lot less stress for you.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind and considered words, Laura. I deeply value them.

    Knowing someone else feels the same way about being weak makes me feel less of an outlier. I too feel exhausted and inadequate when I read these over-the-top characters. Somehow I can suspend disbelief at incredulous plot lines, but I am finding I am finding it harder to extend that disbelief to the characters. And maybe it isn’t an either/or weak/strong situation. So much of the world seems so polarised lately, that perhaps trying to just be muddled up strong/weak/flailing/coping is fine too.

    As for the PhD, I somehow am still just hanging in here. As much as I want to walk, and I completely agree with you and my friend (another PhD), I think that in the long-term, leaving will make me feel worse and give me more feelings of inadequacy than just struggling through my current frame of mind. I don’t even think it is about the thesis anymore but about making sure I feel healthy in 5, 10, 20 years time.

    • I’ve been reading a lot of paranormal romance/fantasy because the characters in those are so different from me (I’m never going to be a werewolf, for example) that I don’t compare myself to them in the same way I might if reading a contemporary or historical. Also, I don’t have to wonder about how the characters relate to contemporary or historical politics (I am not at all keen on reading about billionaires, for example, and Dukes fall into the same category).

      If giving up on the PhD would make you feel worse, then that’s a good reason to continue, but maybe there’s a way to pace things differently, so you don’t end up under so much pressure that you burn out?

      Anyway, big hugs!

      • I have found myself feeling the same way. I have always cringed at the Duke, Earl etc books as a staunch anti-monarchist but I read them once Kat from Bookthingo pointed out to me that I can’t wear the romance fiction librarian hat if I don’t engage with all aspects of it. However, I quite happily ignored all the connotations around milionaires/billionaires until the last 3-4 years. Now I struggle to find books that don’t bring up negative thoughts.

        I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novel memoirs, Greek Mythology (lots of paranormal romance in that!) but I am also obsessively reading on Greek histories of the mountain klephts of Roumeli. Realllly specific stuff based on my family history (we are Roumeliots – Continental Greeks rather than island Greeks or Greeks from the Peloponnese) and I have found that my Greek language skills are not up to scratch.

        The psychologist I am seeing specialises in PhD students. She too is getting me to change my focus and paces things, as you say, differently. It is this strategy that helped me submit a pile of work at the end of May. I am now trying to take the next lot of steps. So I would quietly say, this is a strategy that is really helping me.

        And thank you so much for the big hugs and our ensuing discussion from this post. It has really helped me think through some of the problems I have to work through.

  3. More hugs! Also, it sounds like you’ve got a really useful psychologist and I’m very glad for you about that.

  4. Dear V! I’m catching up to blogs today and just read yours. .I AM SO SORRY to read that you’ve been having such a hard time with your health and life in general. I am so far away but otherwise I would’ve come over and given you a hug. You don’t need anyone telling you to do or be anything other than saying that you will get better, life does get better, but for now, be gentle with yourself and honor how you’re feeling. Glad you’re seeing a psychologist and taking medications to take care of yourself.

    As far as kick-ass heroines go: Like you and Laura, I’m much more in the category of complex heroines. I read all kinds of heroines these days, from the quiet to the kick-ass, but the only type of heroine I can’t stand the helpless kind. I find competence very attractive and it doesn’t have to come in a “saving the world” kind of manner. The emphasis on writing strong heroines have had authors make unrealistic choices in what they have their characters do.

    • Thank you so much, Keira. Virtual hugs are wonderful too especially when we don’t really have other options. I am having some success with the psychologist. Especially in finding the focus and ability to write when there is chaos around me. I have had a good week. And I think that putting the post up helped me get the thoughts out of my head.

      As for complex heroines, kick-ass heroines and quiet and helpless ones – I keep having this thought about the saying of “it takes a village to raise a child” and I think that what sometimes is missing in romance (that I get in women’s fiction) is that it sometimes takes a village to raise a heroine. I prefer romance protagonists who can turn to others for some help rather than do it all on their own.

  5. VV
    You are a complex ass kicker and you ask for help, you offer help, and you step in to help when you see someone struggling— wheezing if you like— and you’ve given support to many, to me. I’ve haven’t thanked you enough for that. Thank you for supporting me. Thank you for the addiction to Cheds. Thank you for being my friend. I’m sorry I don’t live closer and that haven’t been more help and haven’t reminded you enough that PhD’s are fucked up and good enough is enough.

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