Last month, the hallucinogenic nature of a really bad bout of bronchitis brought me back to my childhood in Queens. My Catholic school teachers always used to tell my mother every year they wanted to skip me ahead a grade—if only I hadn’t missed half of my elementary years sequestered in my bedroom with a vaporizer.
Forty years later and until last month, I only remembered the highlights of being a bronchially challenged youth. Three colds a year for two weeks at a time. Going to school with a Vicks inhaler in one pocket and Primatene Mist in the other. Always excused from gym class. Always afraid to run or over-exert myself. If it hadn’t been for Star Wars toys, I would have had no fun at all as a kid. (Speaking of which, my inner child has a bone to pick with J.J. Abrams, but that’s another story…)
But the perilous details of all those weeks home from school were lost to me before last month. At the beginning of December, Ryan came down with a case of viral bronchitis so intense, it required a midnight trip to the E.R. and an overnight hospital stay. Two weeks later (happy weeks that saw Ryan finally go on the patch and quit the smoking that had exacerbated his symptoms), having not gotten sick, myself, I thought I was in the clear. Then one mid-month evening during Ryan’s ongoing conversion class, I leaned over to him and told him I didn’t feel well.
The next morning I was in bed with a high fever that stayed for three days. I didn’t get out of bed for a week. I didn’t leave the house until a few days before Christmas. When I finally thought it was over, I coughed and wheezed for another two weeks. Aside from the existential suck of swine flu in 2009, it was the worst cold I’ve ever had as an adult—and the only time I’ve had full-blown bronchitis since I was that kid missing class back in Queens.
And just like when I was a little kid, it was all in my chest. No sneezing. No runny nose. Just the week-long feeling that you were about to asphyxiate from lying in bed, followed by the weeks-long feeling that you were about to asphyxiate from walking across your house. For forty years I hadn’t remembered how badly chest colds had terrified me as a child. Yet here I was, 45-years-old, but feeling that if I closed my eyes, I’d hear my mother yelling at me to take my medicine.
Last month, I pined for her to bring me endless cups of tea and bowls of soup during the day, my grandmother to sit on the edge of my bed and rock me so I could catch my breath at night. There’s a reason I can name any episode of Gilligan’s Island in the first three seconds—I spent half of the 1970s sweating into my pillow under the steam cloud from a Hankscraft by Gerber hot-steam vaporizer watching the best 1960s reruns WNEW, WWOR, and WPIX had to offer.
But it wasn’t just the congestion and reruns that the unexpected bronchitis brought back for me. I remembered the humiliation, too.
Last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about my miraculous family reunion, the long-ago hurt and pain that led to my self-imposed 20-year separation, and the forgiveness and compassion and love I feel on this side of three philosophical traditions, two decades, and one religious conversion. There has been a lot to let go of to allow in the good stuff again. In December, as I was taking care of Ryan, I finally realized just what it was I was letting go of.
My family of origin spent a lot of time humiliating each other. To receive love or caring, to hope for success or abundance, first and always, there was a penance of humiliation to pay. The implicit message: I won’t abide your existence unless I make sure you feel as bad about your life as I feel about mine. I no longer blame my family for the hurt and pain that they suffered and perpetuated on themselves from generation to generation.
But as a child, the lesson sank in. Last month, it occurred to me that I’ve been expecting—or even ensuring through my own actions—that negative, humiliating experiences would be part of any otherwise positive payoff in my life. Love, friendship, material success? The lesson from my childhood has so often rung in my head: the price of admission is high; and the length of the show will be lacking.
For a Sethian like myself, who has long believed that our expectations create our realities (the most audaciously literal interpretation of God helping those who help themselves), the realization was profound. In hindsight, I could see clearly my own, unconscious hand in short-circuiting much that has been good in my life. Without understanding what I was doing, for decades I refused to allow the good in unless it came with a sufficiently big side order of bad.
You can’t get rid of damaging beliefs unless you know they’re there. So maybe the more profound part of realizing I’ve been perpetuating my family’s inter-generational emotional self-immolation all these years is that now I get to stop doing that. What’s interesting is that as I’ve made decisions and connections, and moved forward since that realization, there’s a palpable weight that no longer exists in my life, silently dragging me down like an invisible, unfortunate molasses. Personally and professionally, I no longer feel myself tighten up when I think about the future. I just feel really excited.
Those times in your life when you realize something so momentous, it just stops you in your tracks? Maybe once every few years? Maybe once a decade? Maybe less often than that? That was this for me. It launched me right into my personal way-back machine, where I spent several days trying to put myself in my long-forgotten emotional shoes to make sure I wasn’t misremembering things. I was pretty sure I wasn’t. But I was hoping for a sign.
And then, to my surprise, I spent two weeks in bed, an eight-year-old kid again, reliving the same symptoms that haunted so much of my childhood. But the bigger shock was remembering that in a way, I actually looked forward to the experience. Because all those weeks away in my room with Robitussin and reruns were my only respite from being in the middle of the ongoing battles of my unfulfilled family. Last month, I didn’t just remember the ways in which my family had been broken. I remembered that I had known it all along.
It’s interesting that an illness I hadn’t experienced in decades returned at the precise moment I needed to be reminded of the same things about my life that it used to remind me of as a child. An illness like bronchitis isn’t holy, but this time I’m well aware that my experience of it was. Like an old friend choosing the right time to return something important, something that you needed and that you didn’t know you had lost.
In this case, the freedom to breathe free.