‘Like a Phoenix, I will rise from the ashes’, sang Conchita Wurst, the bearded drag queen who stunned Eurovision 2014.
It used to be there were ‘accepted’ or orthodox sources of ‘correct’ information. First our parents and teachers, then the church, the government, our employers, doctors, the police.
My trust betrayed many times over by politicians and priests, I realise God indeed works in mysterious ways and speaks through unlikely instruments: Noah, Mary Magdalene, the thief on the cross, the leper, shepherds, fishermen . . . drag queens. So I like to keep an ear out for men and women who are channelling wisdom, however unlikely they seem as instruments of ‘divine inspiration’. I’ll take my inspiration (or breath) from anyone and every one—human, plant, planet or animal.
Conchita Wurst caught my eye for her audacity and style and for a great anthemic song.
For a long time we hide our breathlessness with a bag of tricks. When walking with friends I would stop and intently inspect a flower or some doodad, while really catching my breath, ‘Oh, look everybody, a 28 spotted ladybird’!
I would start off ahead of people. I would illegally park as near as possible to a venue and get fines. I would arrive way early and get a seat and sit tight. Once a taxi driver asked me for $20 just to carry my bags a few metres from his cab into the airport.
Now I am a woman remade in the image and likeness of lung disease, if you like. It has altered my life, my appearance and narrowed my choices, along with my airways. As the wise and kind blogger Sheri de Grom (http://sheridegrom.wordpress.com/) says about chronic disease, ‘you can live or you can die’.
You can also transform yourself. And rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.
Who of us is not changed by our disease? We know the deficits; the red ink that includes breathlessness, fatigue, wheezing, wasting, isolation, fear, panic, depression, pain, incapacity and premature death.
So every day I need to balance the books and to count the ways in which having a progressive, terminal lung disease has brought blessings into my life. Everything in my world has meaning.
My journal from May 2002 records my lung capacity as 29%. I am then aged 45 and have moved from Sydney to the coast on the advice of a lung specialist. I am angry, sad, scared, bewildered and continuously breathless. I will never use my tennis racquet, 10-speed bike or my surfboard again.
Today, 12 years on, my lung capacity is 12%. I have a kayak. I sleep like a baby, eat like a king, have an optimistic outlook and actively purge anger from my life. (See post ‘An Open Letter to Big Tobacco’). Not only is life too short to sweat the small stuff, resentment makes me breathless.
I practice gratitude, I exercise, and I sing along to music, every day. (See post ‘Songs on Script’).
I remember vividly the day it all fell down. I was 38 and my partner Frances Rand and I, who owned a thriving small business, were booked to holiday on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Instead of palm trees, grass huts and Mai-Tais, I had what I now know was a severe exacerbation and I spent Christmas and New Year alone in the lung ward of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. It was the beginning of my ‘new normal’, being out of step with what was average for a person my age. I had left the world of wellness and entered the world of illness. They are as different as orient and occident.
Now, I am a spectacle, a bit like the bearded drag queen.
I’ve had to come out.
I cannot hide in the farmer’s market with my nose hose and my portable oxygen. I have lost the anonymity of being an ordinary shopper, but I have broken the silence around an invisible disease. A disease that untold millions of us suffer from worldwide; a disease that’s a giant killer…yet is barely seen in public.
People certainly feel shame for having Copd. You rarely find people with heart disease or diabetes eaten up with guilt over their diets. People getting sports injuries repaired on the public dime have no shame. But ex-smokers feel they deserve everything they get.
And we are second-class citizens when it comes to research dollars despite having contributed mightily through taxes on cigarettes.
It would be a lie to tell you I relish coming out with Copd. I do not, and I hid it for the longest time. The Copd closet is full of sad, guilty, sick people putting off getting help. I’d much rather advocate for rich, middle-aged mountaineers, or global roaming organic foodies, or mad old chicks on motorbikes, but here it is! I am what I am, I tell myself, as I leave the house with my lungs in a backpack.
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