Drowning victims and caregivers share more than one might think. In this five-part series we explore the phenomena of “Drowning in Plain Sight.” As you read, whether you’re a caregiver or someone who loves a caregiver, think about the people in your ‘pool’–is anyone drowning?
“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.” Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response–On Scene, The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue
The doctor adjusted his stethoscope on my back and told me to take a deep breath. I breathed in, and sat, not paying much attention to what was happening. The stethoscope didn’t move. “Again,” he ordered softly.
I let out the air I’d been holding and took another breath while my mind skipped to what I needed to grab from the store before I headed home from this appointment.
The stethoscope still had not journeyed to a new spot.
“Carol,” he reprimanded, “take a de-e-e-p breath!”
I reached deep and breathed properly. This I could do. My life might be falling apart and things running out of control, but I could breathe deep. I’m a flute player. My flute teacher used to make me practice breathing and taught me how to breathe deeply from the abdomen. I drew a deep breath and found that my air seemed to have nowhere to go. I pretended to myself that all was normal and waited for the stethoscope to go to the next spot.
The stethoscope dropped while the doctor felt along my back.
What was the deal? He’d only listened to my breaths at the top of my back, that wasn’t normal, was it? Oh really. Who cares? I wonder if I mixed Andrew’s nasty medicine with chocolate pudding, would that help him get it down? Swallowing posed the problems…pudding is soft, maybe he could get it down that way. Oh, and besides the pudding, I should get some shaving cream. Karina needed to study her spelling words and writing in shaving cream is a fun way. Yeah, and my grades are due next week, so while she’s practicing spelling, I should get those tests graded. Man, I wish this headache would go away.
“Have you ever had asthma?” the question came out of nowhere.
“Asthma?” Was he kidding? “No, I’ve never had asthma. My breathing is fine—I’ve never had any problem.”
“Why, is there a problem?” I finally thought to ask.
“Well, Carol. If you don’t have asthma…then…you’re not breathing.”
I laughed out loud. “I assure you I’m breathing. I’m alive.”
He smiled kindly and explained to me that the muscles in my back felt like the slightly atrophied muscles of an asthmatic patient; showing signs of not breathing deeply enough. I sighed and the very act of doing so proved to me that this doctor was way off.
Not breathing – who ever heard of that. Of COURSE I was breathing. One has to breathe to live.
He explained more fully that while he was listening, I took a decent breath, but then half the time forgot to let it back out. I needed to practice breathing by taking in big breaths, holding it to the count of three and blowing it, hard, all the way out. Then push even more out if I could. I was holding too much in.
Brother! I’m holding too much in, all right, but it’s not air. It’s panic, it’s fear, it’s responsibilities, it’s life. But breaths? I was doing fine!
I left the doctor’s office slightly miffed that I hadn’t gone in for breathing issues at all, yet he’d spent valuable time obsessing about my breathing. Frankly, the doctor had scared me a little bit with his pronouncement about my back. This was the same doctor who kept telling me I needed to get some help; to stop carrying things on my own and to allow people to give me some relief. The same doctor who had, just the week before, reminded me that in order to keep caring for my leukemic boy I would need to eat a little better, drink more water and maybe begin exercising.
Again I snorted with disgust. Like I have time to exercise and eat better…I’d like to see him get up at 3 to get to chemo and return home after dark and still get Larissa to her club meeting and read with Karina and get papers graded. Drink more water? That’d be great, but who has time to count drinks and really, I’d just have to use the bathroom more often. But yeah…we all know those health rules and just as soon as I could, I would follow them like I used to do.
All the way along the one-hour highway route my mind berated that silly doctor who could never just treat what I was asking for, but continually reminded me of taking care of not just my sick boy, but me. My thoughts bounced around wildly like they had come into the habit of doing, and I drove steadily onward. Suddenly breath gusted out of my mouth as dizziness hit.
Whoa. That was weird. I think maybe I was holding my breath while I was thinking! No, one doesn’t just hold a breath – no one thinks about breathing, they just do it and it works! It’s natural! I continued homeward, thoughts flying in a different direction. Out of nowhere another breath blew out. Oh my goodness, my shoulders are up and I had been holding my breath!
Catching myself holding my breath three more times on the way home convinced me that, indeed, my life had become so crazy that I was now holding my breath, along with my shoulders and my fears, in an effort to accomplish more than I could handle.
I had quit reaching out to friends, feeling that I didn’t have time.
I had quit all the things I most enjoyed doing in an effort to help my kids be “normal”.
I had quit walking in the morning, using that time to get a head start to my day.
I was no longer doing all the things to take care of myself, in order to care for my family.
And I was no longer breathing.
Have you ever found yourself ‘not breathing’ and unable to communicate with others about your inability to breathe?
The series continues with Breathing Lessons.