It’s World Asthma Day, today.
And this is my story.
When I discovered that certain smells made me feel like I was suffocating; that I couldn’t run even short distances, without becoming painfully out of breath; that something (not food particles, or a bone) would feel stuck in my throat, and it would take a while to dislodge it – I knew I had a problem.
There are different kinds of problems, but this one requires me to take a tiny, purple-looking tablet whenever I have been exposed to certain smells, fumes and situations. This is to be accompanied by a similarly-sized, yellow tablet – which has the effect of knocking me out, so I can sleep without getting chest pains, or wheezing.
I am asthmatic.
I have been, since childhood.
I hated not being sporty – it’s not like I would have aimed to become an Olympic athlete. On second thoughts, how do I know?
I hate knowing that beautiful Persian rugs are a no-no, because rugs have a tendency to collect dust.
And I hate having to deal with the fact that I will never feel wet and salty kisses, as my other half kisses me in the rain. Because being asthmatic means that I need to avoid just standing in the rain, kiss or no kiss.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think my life is horrible because I suffer asthma. There are some who have it worse; literally speaking, some asthma cases are worse than others. And I have been told that I am a compelling, passionate and fearless storyteller; you do tend to lose your fear of certain things and give it your all, after your life has flashed before your eyes … at least a hundred times, before your thirtieth birthday.
Which is what happened, when I found out I’d been nominated for my first BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion Television and Arts) award, in the ‘Best Author’ category, in the United Kingdom. I was so shocked when I was told I’d been nominated, that it actually accelerated an attack.
It was my fourth asthmatic attack in two weeks – the same length of time I’d been in Nigeria, after being away, for nearly a decade.
The first attack I had upon my return, took me completely unawares. I had not had an attack in the previous four years. So, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what was happening. I think I actually forgot I was asthmatic. It took a second attack, for my brain to actually compute what was going on. Even then, I was confused. A part of me went into denial. And I didn’t have an inhaler – these are prescription items in the United Kingdom; my last one hadn’t even been used, before it expired. I hadn’t needed any asthma medication, for years. So, this was a pretty brutal re-introduction to the country where I was born. Getting an inhaler from a pharmacy in the Nigerian capital where I was at the time, didn’t actually stop the attacks.
During those attacks, news reports about a veteran of Nollywood – Nigeria’s entertainment industry – losing her life to asthma, a short while before, constantly played in my head.
I remember willing myself back to life, more than once, that fortnight. The friend I was with, was terrified, as she thought I was dying.
I recall badly wanting to sleep – anything to not feel the pain – yet, being concerned that I might not open my eyes again, if I slept.
I saw all the things I would never get to do – if I died. Including kiss in the rain – even though it might be warm rain, that’s been engineered somehow. From what I hear, it’s not that unusual to see things you won’t get to do, when you think you’re dying …
I think this inconvenient condition has contributed to my dogged determination, which has itself influenced my writing. I believe it means I can tap into certain things that surprise a lot of people – especially pain. Plus, there’s something that being aware of your mortality, does for you. OK, it will do one of two things – you will either think What do I have to lose? or Everything is conspiring to kill me. I chose … choose the former. Some call me reckless, because of it. No, I don’t take unnecessary or foolish risks. Why engage in basically suicidal activities, just because we’re all going to die, someday?
Yes, it has had an impact on both my career and its trajectory.
But, don’t get me wrong – asthma is not a blessing. There is no spiritual lesson, or deep revelation associated with it. It’s an unfortunate, insidious, inconvenient condition that I did not cause or inherit. I count myself fortunate that with an inhaler, medication and a healthy lifestyle, I don’t have to live apologetically. I feel even more lucky, that it’s not written on my forehead.
The ignorance and prejudice around asthma, is shocking.
I have had people act like I had the plague, when they learned I have asthma. Yes, some are scared about how it might impact them – especially if I slept over at their house, and had an attack that turned fatal. To be honest, I don’t blame them.
The religious atmosphere pervading a nation like Nigeria, doesn’t help, either. I have been told by people with absolutely no medical training that asthma is in my mind – I don’t really have it; that I need to change my confession – apparently, if I say I don’t have asthma, it will disappear because it won’t be mine any more; that I need to exercise faith in the midst of an attack – I should upset the devil, by refusing to use an inhaler or other medication. I am fairly confident that people who go around, giving this kind of unsolicited advice have never even held their breath for seven consecutive minutes. I have also been told that the asthma is a result of an ancestral curse – divine punishment for something that an ancestor of mine, may have done. There has also been a theory that I committed the sin. yes, I’m rolling my eyes. Bearing in mind that I’ve had this from childhood, possibly from birth, I’m not sure when I’m supposed to have committed the sin. There are few things which are insensitive, yet paradoxically hilarious, at the same time.
These are things that some people, with varying degrees of seriousness as far as symptoms of asthma go, have had to deal with.
The judgement. The insinuations. The ‘bush doctor’ advice. The ignorance that is both dangerous and pitiable.
I am one of Africa’s most fearless storytellers; I write and produce.
I am reasonably healthy; I take good care of myself.
I hope for a cure. Not just for myself, but for little babies who struggle with breathing.
And I still hope for my kiss in the rain – even if it is warm rain, engineered for that purpose.
All Rights Reserved, Chioma Nnani