I thought I was having a heart attack.
My chest was tight. My breathing was labored and it felt almost impossible to take in each breath.
I’d been having trouble catching my breath for awhile but blamed it on peri-menopausal weight gain. On this day, it scared me.
I walked myself around the corner to my local doctor. Noticing the color draining from my face, she rushed me into the examination room.
"You are having trouble breathing...for how long?" she asked, concerned. I told her that today it became unbearable, but my chest had been hurting for some time and my breathing, thinking back, had been shallow for months.
"I will do an EKG," she said. "But I can tell you right now - you are having an asthma attack."
"Asthma attack?" I was stunned. "I don't have asthma."
"Now you do," she said.
Thus began my journey through adult onset asthma, and a health crisis-turned-healing experience that would change my life.
I had no idea you could just "get" this at my age. And as a spiritual person, I knew that asthma for me was not just a diagnosis – it was a message from my soul.
Asthma constricts breathing and, among other things, causes chest pain. The diagnosis, to me, was symbolic of a number of things. First, each breath we take represents the taking in of life; hindered breathing, on a metaphysical level, represents fear and a rejection of life. Secondly, the chest represents the area known in holistic thought as the “heart chakra”; pain in that area signals a heart ache of some kind. And finally, even if I did not believe there was an underlying emotional and spiritual cause, there had to be something in me that had become imbalanced enough to make me vulnerable to this condition.
I suspected this was some sort of call to better health that would require me to take a mind, body, spirit approach to finding out why there was a part of me that resisted breathing in life and why my heart (chakra) was aching.
Ultimately, it would lead me to take better care of myself and to deal with issues that were very painful to own up to.
Choosing Medical treatment ... and Spiritual Growth
I know God works through good doctors and I respect, honor and bless traditional medicine. But my preference, always, is to treat things as holistically as possible. I believe in finding out the medical facts and reasons for a condition when possible, but prefer to combine traditional medicine with complementary healing.
When my doctor insisted on giving me a steroid shot to help me breathe that day, I did not want it! But I am glad I allowed it. Although it felt like my chest and lungs were cracking open at first, the shot almost magically gave me deep access to my own breathing. In that moment, it was clear to me it had been a long time since I’d been able to take in air fully and efficiently.
The doctor suggested the asthma was being caused by intense allergies or allergic reactions, but to what exactly, she could not say. A full allergy work up was called for. Before I left, she told me to immediately change my diet and give up dairy, yeast, sugar, fried foods and coffee, all of which can all be severe asthma irritants. I made the commitment to do so.
I asked her for the tiny, empty bottle of Solu-medrol she used for the shot in my arm. To me, it was a symbol of my opened-airways. It represented my prayer that God would restore my breathing to its best, the way that medicine had. I wrapped it in my sacred mala beads, and created a “health altar” in my living room. I set it in the northeast area of my home, which in Feng Shui represents health and family. The health altar would become a sacred place where I would bless prescriptions, medicines, doctor's business cards and anything related to my health care.
What's Causing It?
I should point out that I'm in the love and blessings business, and breathing well is required. As a wedding officiant, I have to be able to deliver a wedding ceremony without choking and coughing as I pronounce a couple "husband and wife."
My asthma diagnosis came last May, the start of wedding season. I had 40 weddings scheduled, which meant I would be around flowers constantly and in nature doing weddings regularly -- numerous potentially devastating occupational hazards seemed to loom before me.
So I had to find out, fast, exactly what caused my asthma and how to manage it.
First stop was my primary health care practitioner, who referred me to many specialists, including a cardiologist, gastroenterologist and allergy doc.
Every time I set up medical appointment, I made sure to balance it with something more spiritual or holistic, such as: a worship service, reflexology, shamanic healing, hypnotherapy and a new Feng Shui training. A clergy friend told me she cured her asthma with Tibetan chimes, so I bought a big Tibetan singing bowl and bells and rang them. I began a chanting practice and meditated every morning to a recorded chant of “Open my heart.” None of these were “cures” but they all helped me understand my illness from a spiritual perspective. I did all this while following doctor’s orders to completely change my diet and start changing my lifestyle. Eating healthy and losing weight was a great help.
I had to surrender to the medical world, too, and I felt lost there for a while. I saw nine medical specialists and had scopes, scans, sonograms, echoes, exams, blood work, and multiple tests. I also got multiple medications; every doc put me on a different protocol. By the end of the summer, I felt sicker (from all the medical visits, meds, tests, and shots) and was turning fearful. As I was learning to adjust to my medicines, there were a few occasions when I had to struggle to breathe fully and it scared me. During the worst of it, I used seven different asthma meds to control symptoms. It was insane.
In the end, it turned out I was allergic to my then 15-year-old son's beloved dog, Kismet.
My allergist believed strongly that the dog was causing my asthma and chronic irritation from the dog was making me sensitive to everything else.
"You'll have to get rid of her," the allergist said. "Or have allergy shots." These shots would be once a week for six months and then once a month for four half years -- five years of shots made from a specially concocted dog-cat vaccine. She and every other doctor in my posse concurred that to keep the dog I had to have the shots.
Under duress, I let them mix my special serum and inject me weekly. Each week they increased the potency. I also took the multiple prescribed medicines. The asthma was under control but my life was not. There was too much medicine in my body.
One day after an allergy shot I saw a little blessing stone that had an image of a dog on it. On the back it said "loyal." It reminded me of Kismet. I bought it and placed it on the health altar. I asked God to please heal this situation and help me think clearly about my next steps.
The Heart of the Matter
We had rescued Kismet from Hurricane Katrina in late 2005. She was a beautiful dog of some mysterious hound and possibly Australian Shepherd mix. It was love at first sight for my son. My husband and I loved her too, and we took really good care of her, but in retrospect, I don’t think I truly knew what I was getting myself into.
When I was honest with myself I realized I had lost my sense of balance because the dog required so much of my energy and attention. I had come to resent her.
She was six months old when we got her. She had the sweetest, kindest nature, yet she was rambunctious, big and destroyed everything in her wake – couches, shoes, and clothing. We paid so much for dog training yet we humans somehow fell short on keeping her trained.
Her presence in our lives changed everything. We could no longer travel, or have company or business meetings at home- she jumped on everyone. If I left the house for a few hours I had to get her to doggie day care so she wouldn’t be alone, or have a chance to eat the furniture. When we were home, she was disruptive, needy and stole food off the table in the middle of dinner. When I kissed my husband, she’d jump up between us and simply would not allow us to embrace without her. She was bigger than my son and began to weigh more, and I was afraid she would knock him over. She pooped up our back yard. She barked like crazy and my neighbor was complaining constantly. Oy, it was so stressful.
But she was such a sweet, loyal friend for my son and made him so happy. How could I ever take that away from him? I couldn't.
I decided to adapt as best I could. In addition to taking my asthma medications, I followed the asthma/allergy protocol for removing irritants. Not the main irritant – the dog -- but rugs and fabric furniture she frequented. I stopped our catnaps together. I started cleaning like crazy, and reduced dog dander.
I also stopped petting her and playing with her. When she touched me with her paw my skin would blotch and itch. When she was close, it was hard to breath. Being hyper- aware also made me hyper-sensitive, so I disconnected from her. I found myself yelling at her a lot and blaming her for anything that wasn’t working in my life. Even with these extreme actions – reducing allergens and venting -- I felt worse and worse as summer went on. I felt traumatized by the notion that the dog was making me sick. Everyone told me to let her go, "get rid of her." But I absolutely could not. We always believed Kismet came to use for a reason. I knew I had to be able to work this out between Kismet and me.
My rejection was making her sad. And my behavior was creating family friction. On top of everything else, my husband, Rev. Vic Fuhrman, and I had written a book a book called Pet Prayers and Blessings just months before. It came back for a final edit that summer. When I began to re-read it, it was devastating. I felt like a complete hypocrite. Kismet had inspired so many of the beautiful blessings in the book and now, I was afraid to touch her.
I began to pray and reflect on the circumstances and it dawned on me that, perhaps, my rejection of the dog in the first place was creating this condition in me. I began to own up to the truth – that I really didn't want her there. Asthma was a way to have an excuse to push her away. I began to recognize that as I was going through the “change in life” the change the dog brought to our lives completely overwhelmed me. In my overwhelm, I felt stifled and just couldn’t breath anymore. The physical manifestation for me was asthma.
These epiphanies helped me take responsibility for my own part in getting unhealthy. And in thus doing so, I could start to create a healthier life. I knew that Kismet was the irritant that brought this all to my attention, but she was not responsible all of my issues. All my doctors had suggested that my asthmatic condition would improve if I loose weight, exercise more, reduce stress, and stop taking care of the world and take better care of me.
Letting Nature Take its Course
This “healing crisis” and experience pressed me to get rid of a lot of irritants in my life – things in my house, my work and my relationships. It pressed me to choose better health and to re-prioritize my well-being. I had to open my heart to myself.
I put asthma into perspective and learned how to manage it. One of my doctors helped dispel my fear. “You are not going to die from this. You may feel you are, but you will not. Take good care of your self, and this will be very manageable."
Kismet was not in my life to hurt me. She was there as protector and friend. As a “working breed” dog, that was her job in our family and she needed some coaching on how to do that in the human world. Time healed, and as she matured into a calmer, more secure dog. I matured into a calmer dog mommy.
I re-bonded again with our dog. She would come right up to me and lay her body on mine, putting her head right on my chest. For months I had pushed her away. But I realized she was trying to comfort me. Honestly, the more I connected with her, the less compromised my breathing felt. My heart was opening up again. I stopped feeling that asthma was “an issue.”
I am blessed that my condition is treatable and is manageable. And lucky to have a furry friend to help me heal. It is so important to not “become” your diagnosis. Honor the things that hurt and stifle us, but remember that even in times of suffering and difficult life lessons, we can find joy, pace and new possibilities for breathing in all that life have to offer!