Shaping Identity: Breathing

by Karen Bjork Kubin

This butterfly is going to sit on your arm for a while, okay? I’m sure I nodded, but I don’t remember. The idea of the butterfly gracing my arm with all its pink translucence was just the sort of magical thing I’ve always been drawn to. It was attached to a thick needle, though, that the man—nurse, technician, I don’t know—slid into a vein in my arm and then covered round and round with white tape. I was barely four, but I understood something about euphemism in that moment, even though it would be years before I learned the word.

I remember my parents there with me in the hospital, and then the sudden understanding that they had to go home, and I had to stay. I remember the strangeness of the hospital bed, the clear plastic of the oxygen tent, the way I felt separated from everything even though I could see out. I remember a long, long night and the open door to my hospital room. I believed firmly at the time that I slept with my eyes open—after all, I had never caught myself sleeping with my eyes closed—but I suspected this was strange, so I shut my eyes every time someone walked past in the corridor. I remember realizing I needed to go to the bathroom, and how do you do that when you are closed into your bed with plastic and bars, a tube attached to your arm, and how do you ask for help in an empty room? I remember the shame and confusion I felt in the morning, telling my mom that I had wet the bed, and how a nice lady came and changed the sheets. She and my mother told me—again, probably—that all I needed to do was ask for help if I needed it. I think there was a button somewhere, and I don’t think I ever used it.

There’s a lot I don’t remember besides these moments. The things my parents have told me about that hospital stay, though, are almost as deeply ingrained. How when my mother took me to the emergency room the doctor asked if I was having trouble breathing and how I looked up at him and said quietly, between gasps for air, No. How the doctor scolded my mom for letting me get so dehydrated, even though she had tried her best—it was, in my mind, a voluntary drowning to steal time from breathing in order to take in water, and while I was a pretty compliant kid, I had my limits. How I wasn’t one for complaining. You just sat at your little table and colored and drew, as if nothing was wrong at all, my mom still tells me with amazement.

Being uncomfortable was a fact of life, inescapable. I was 15 months old when my parents and I came home from an extended stay in Japan, all of us coughing up black mucus from the coal stoves that heated the apartment we’d lived in. I never stopped coughing. I was hospitalized with asthmatic bronchitis soon after my fourth birthday. I was twelve when a doctor introduced me to an albuterol inhaler that could open up my airways and stop an attack in minutes, and thirty-three when a doctor first wrote a prescription for a maintenance medication. Although the new medication could reduce inflammation in my lungs and prevent permanent damage, the prescription went unfilled when I found out what it cost without insurance prescription coverage. I was thirty-nine before I tried again, when everything came together with health insurance and the time and energy to seek out medical care for myself and not just my children. Getting my asthma under control was a revelation. Was this how other people lived? I ran two half marathons before I turned forty.

I have read that it is a particular characteristic of my Myers-Briggs type to not be super in touch with my physical body. I think my history with asthma intensified the separation. I was not exactly lying when I told the ER doctor I wasn’t having trouble breathing. In general, asthma attacks snuck up on me. I might feel a tightness in my chest, but it was gradual, and terribly familiar. As long as I was still getting air, how bad could it really be? Just that last part of each breath was missing—nothing measurable, just a constant not-enough. How do you complain about that, exactly? Besides that, trouble breathing was often linked to enjoyable experiences. Visiting my grandparents’ house or sleeping over at friends’ houses meant my dog allergy would trigger an attack. This in turn meant so very many good things combined with wheezy laughter, little energy, and medicine that made my legs feel like rubber. Best to turn down that kind of noise as much as possible. Being still and turning inward were important coping skills. Wearing my body lightly, staying quiet, living in my head—these things served me well.

My natural introversion was well-suited for the circumstances, and I practiced those tendencies of my personality thoroughly. They became a refuge. I sat at my little art table coloring happily, yes—because I loved to color, but also because when I was coloring I did not have to think about or even notice the fact that breathing was hard. When I immersed myself in my imagination or in making things, it did not matter how my body felt. I had the power to exist in any world of my choosing.

So I have learned that I can bear up, despite how I feel. That is knowledge I have drawn on countless times physically, emotionally, spiritually. But this knowledge also taught me to ignore what hurts. That can be dangerous. I do not always pay attention when I need to. I tend to put up with physical and emotional discomfort and pain much longer than necessary, pushing aside the warning signs my body sends me rather than listening to them and responding. Sometimes I really need to just take a stupid Tylenol, or go to bed early, or listen to that intuition that something is wrong rather than crawl into that space in my head where body doesn’t matter, where the outside world can’t touch. Sometimes I need to learn to ask for help. Sometimes I need to seek change instead of coping. I am slowly learning to pay better attention now, to make conscious decisions instead of unconscious about when to go on, despite, and when to stop, because.

And these lessons in transcendence and transformation, I think, are the riches I carry with me from those early years with asthma. The things we practice become a part of us with time, and I got to practice going beyond how my body felt, beyond this present world. I learned my imagination well, found refuge there. I learned that I could not stay in that place indefinitely. Gradually I learned that what I gained within did the most good, and gave me the most strength, when I came back out of myself and shared it, giving light and air to this beyond-ness and letting it become something solid and new. If finding refuge was a gift (it was) then creating a way to bring it back with me and share it has been one of the most important tasks of my adult life.

To me, this is How To Live as much as it is How To Create. To me, this is another form of breathing, a kind of alchemy: in first, then out. Over and over. See beyond, re-create, share. Straw into gold. Scarcity into abundance. Who is to say, I’m wondering now, what scarcity even means? Maybe there’s been a butterfly sitting on my arm all this time.

A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician and teacher in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, the Main Street Rag Anthology: Of Burgers and BarroomsHow to Pack for Church CampAmerican Suzuki Journaland Spillway, among other publications. More of her writing as well as links can be found at


3 thoughts on “Shaping Identity: Breathing

      1. Your welcome!😊 Do come and visit my blog, I hope you will like it. I have started writing poems, I would be glad if you guide me to improve my skills.😊😊

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