Don’t Breathe a Word
What should I say? That the term itself—my life—is a desperate overstatement.
-- Don DeLillo, Valparaiso
I can make it happen. Just by concentrating, I can ignite the symptoms. A web catches in my chest. Something burbles in there, some viscid carbonation. Something syncopated, like toads colluding in a dark tree. A false fever—false because it does not register on the thermometer—spreads over my skin like a gas fire. I can do nothing to stop it, but just by thinking about it, I can set it off.
Beneath Doctor K.’s fingers, my ribs feel exotic as a crop circle. All that intimate delving he does—he’s as earnest as a D.A.R.E. cop at a junior high assembly. By reflex I seize up--he’s violating my air space, my Fair Use laws—and it takes an act of will to unclench for him. Ultimately, I give him every access to my every access. I cede my entire inscape to Doctor K. And I am heartened and dismayed when after a series of expensive assaults, he pronounces me fit.
“There is nothing wrong with you that I can see. Medically, you’re normal.” This is like telling a corpse who’s been dressed in his best clothes for the coffin that sartorially, he’s looking good. I actually have the presence of mind to say this to Doctor K., who does not react. Melodrama and analogy: favored habitats of patients who cannot find themselves indexed anywhere in the manual or accounted for on-line.
As I see it, as I sense it, the problem is, I can’t seem to get my respiration in line. Some laundry has balled and blocked the chute. And that sets off everything else. Mutinous grumbling begins in all my body’s colonies. A quaking spreads through my shoulders. Something akin to a slipped clutch in my stomach. (Oh, God. My somnolent, impervious guts!) A shudder in the loins engendered there, wherever “there” is. Etiology is on the move like a floating crap game. (“Floating crap” says it just about as well as any other phrase could.) I have to try to talk down my tremors from the ledge and bargain with my blood, vow an extra hour’s sleep each night (video rentals and student papers be damned!), but my symptoms have all the spirit of compromise of a zoning committee. Mine’s an entire system immune to counsel.
How can I make myself more penetrable than I already feel, naked and compliant and culpable as I am? Shameful to be so ambiguously sick. Shameful, in the context of this detoxified office (whose sanitation no microbe could survive) and Doctor K.’s rigid solicitude, to be sick at all.
It’s basically a bait-and-switch scam, being born. How many durable goods endure according to their original design? You never stop buying the house you’ve bought; every termite trail and patch of rust, every leak, creak, and crevice that appears after your realtor has turned the corner on you is as much yours as the house itself. Your car dealer has dealt you a hand you have to keep drawing to forever, with no alternative but to meet each raise. Your refrigerator, your furnace, your central air—all are humming blithely away, each concealing some mortal coil or other. Entropy is at the core of every contract. Just so, the body you inhabit is from the beginning a breakdown waiting to happen.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Frantic gets you nowhere but frantic. I tell the doctor that it feels as though my lungs are plugged. “’Plugged’ as in stopped up or as in perforated?” he asks. He wants to be clear. Either, I tell him. Both. Maybe that’s it: I might have swallowed a contronym. I’ve come down with a figure of speech. It seems as if my lungs—here, I say, indicating with all ten fingers perched on my chest—are chockablock (but the X-rays show nothing) or chewed (again, nothing shows up). But not exactly. I want to be clear.
“Too bad you don’t smoke,” he says. “That would give you something to give up, right? A condition you would know how to be better off than.” I’ve played racquetball with this man, which I suppose grants him the license to talk to me like this. I’ve been naked before him in another venue.
Easy for him. Just look at that man breathe. In, out, in, out. Now that’s breathing! A Platonic template for respiration, beautiful to behold. He should put out a damn video.
He jests at cigars that never felt a fume.
Literally, I have disease. Dis-ease. My ease has been dissed. For lack of more precise terminology, mine is one unidentifiable brand of invisible afflictions commonly known as anxiety disorders. This is not to say that my anxiety is not functioning; in fact, its practice is thriving, so much so that it is considering opening up branch neuroses in other aspects of my daily life. “Of course, telling someone to cut down on his stress usually increases it, doesn’t it? What good does that do? Why not tell me to get taller while you’re at it?”
Doctor K., ruthlessly professional, ignores this. Doctor K. is the most proper noun I know. He continues instead to interview my illness directly, teasing out its conditions and qualities, identifying them like the stratified notes of a sophisticated perfume.
“Disorder” implies order—respiratory propriety and a regimental heart. Once we figure out what template my body has strayed from, it might be urged back to normal. Unfortunately for us, this disorder prefers to travel incognito. It forges its signature, masquerades as other maladies—some contradictory, some overlapping—and flouts his medical abilities and my metaphorical ones. Call me a clumsy function of the Physician’s Desk Reference. He’ll have to red-shirt his diagnosis for now, junk the a priori, and just keep probing.
Just thinking about it makes it happen, so it is a risk trying to define it. Before I convinced myself to make the appointment, I determined that thinking the worst was a viable defensive strategy against the eventuality: first, fastidiously docket every inner fillip and glitch, then subtract my fears one at a time. That was the plan—to lay in logic brick by irrefutable brick like a retaining wall. But I’d be hit by an indigestible image out of tenth grade—the Tinker Toy scaffolding covering all of Mr. Welch’s chalkboard to depict chemical reactions—and the thought of trying to swallow down a double helix did my jerry-rigged serenity in. Down went the wall. Down I’d toboggan down the slippery slope to a vague, fantastic doom.
So here I am thinking about it, and thinking only stirs it up. The sleeping animal catches my scent. Then, a fit of esophageal juking: gasp and misgiving, gasp and misgiving—one embalmed breath after another. And so it goes, or just barely does, only just so fur and no further, as Huck Finn might say. You can’t breathe a lie—I found that out.
My limbs have gone buttery. As Doctor K. looks me over like a used car he’s considering, I wax nostalgic over the notion of perfect fitness I probably never had. I resume old negotiations, promising God I’ll lay off processed sugar and sleepless nights, get off caffeine and on the treadmill, if only He’ll restore my buffed, unblemished presence, the immaculate preserve of my physiology. Lead to the Promised Land of impeccable health, restore my constitution to Canaan’s clement inner weather—I’ll lay off milk, I’ll lay off honey—and I am Yours.
He slides the test results out of the massive manila envelope, along with the X-rays they interpret, which look like siding samples to renovate a house in a ghost story. The hospital visit did not help, did not find anything that needed helping. I had come in with arrhythmia to light up the switchboard and, like a savvy dabbler in the stock market, got out while the numbers were still high. Making my way out of the hospital, I passed a post-surgical patient who hugged the walls as he went. He progressed by hunching forward as if his body were a machine he had to learn to operate like someone else’s car—the gears were positioned differently, or they slipped at unexpected stages; the shifts felt funny, and it would take time to accustom himself to the diminished dash. Is it possible to walk amok? He was walking amok.
Leaving the hospital, I felt like those students who know they’ve blown the midterm. “He never said this would be on the test!” they complain as they slink away, amok. Lowing the last-ditch lament of the done-for.
“I’ll give you two choices, Doctor.” I could call him David, claiming a right of familiarity earned in the locker room and secured by my having taken two of three from him in last week’s match, but I want to be reassured from a higher elevation than “David” looks down from. “I want you to chuckle over my chart and tell me how obvious and easily corrected the thing is. Otherwise, I want you to tell me there is nothing whatsoever wrong with me and to stop acting crazy. Let me in on my outcomes, Doc. Bring that certain slant of light of yours to bear. Give me one of those grooved commentaries doctors give to hypochondriacs and hinky kids afraid of the needle. Tell me I’m boring you with symptoms you’ve seen half a dozen times this week alone. Say my organs are naughty and that you’ll put them in detention until they’ve learned their lesson. Say that there’s some minor insurgency in my lymph system, wherever that is, whatever that is, that you can put down without bothering to alert the media or to call up the National Guard. Say that some corpuscles that should be pounding a beat near my heart are slumming by the lungs, and that you’ll have a squad car do a drive-by to clear out the neighborhood. GIVE ME A PILL! Is that asking too much?”
The air enters in cellophane and departs in parentheses. It’s as if the oxygen has been in someone else’s mouth before mine. Like that, only not quite. Better Communication Means a Better Haircut. I noticed that sign the last time I got a trim and scoffed: everyone’s a professional these days. At Jiffy Lube you see a consultant, who sits down with you on the waiting room couch to brace you through the bad news. (“Are you here for Chevy Impala? I’m afraid it’s the transmission. All we can do now is make her comfortable. Is there anyone you need to call?”) At Subway you are served by a sandwich artist. (“He has worked almost exclusively in oils, of course, but he has taken the occasional aesthetic risk with shredded lettuce.”) All that soothing euphemism and sunny expertise. Meanwhile, Doctor K. looms and hedges and sidles like a bandit. The others are salesmen, you tell yourself, whose mission is to make you want what you do not want. Then it occurs to you: the doctor, ticking off your body’s delinquencies in the file you cannot see, is no different.
About as congenial as a gauge, is Doctor K.
But just as your car won’t make the noise for the mechanic that it makes for you, the sensation you’ve raved about doesn’t show up. “Fresh air, and it’s as if I have to gulp the stuff like slag, like someone’s shoved mulch in there.” But it isn’t mulch or slag exactly, and I’d rather he’d said it for himself. It’s not necessarily even a specific organ that needs tuning so much as a queasiness in the pit of my being, wherever that is. A yin-yang yo-yoing, in a manner of speaking, which is what I fall back on.
“When it’s happening, I think, What I wouldn’t trade for a few unobstructed, unconflicted breaths right about now.” He eavesdrops once again on my heart and lungs from every conceivable angle.
“Something slimy and sliding about in there, it feels like?” I offer. Some viscera bidding oily valediction, say. He tracks my pulse at several points and surveys the bends and intersections of moving blood, monitoring my internal traffic, anticipating gridlock. I am trembling before the conjecture to come like bait on a hook. I intuit bruises within me, bruises due to some unrecalled damage I’ve done or some forgotten wrong done me. I gird myself for the unstinting, irresolvable, inconvenient results, which he will undoubtedly have to shove down my uncooperative gullet like wadding down the barrel of a gun. But nothing shows up.
“Just concentrate on breathing naturally,” he tells me, implying that this requires no special talent or dispensation, even for somebody with a roll of bubble wrap wedged in his chest. Nor am I in my own practice above resorting to paradox on occasion to parry objections: “If you knew it was going to be on the test, it wouldn’t really have been a test, now would it?”
“You know how you build a hesitation into the titles of each of your articles?” I said to Pat. She had been good enough to agree to cover a class for me during my doctor’s appointment, so I owed her specifics. “You know: silly title, colon, real title? Take a look at your vita—seven published articles plus nine conference papers equal sixteen colons. Your publication list reads like the proceedings of a urologists’ convention. ‘Scribbling in the Margin colon The Refiguration of the Female in Aurora Leigh.’ ‘Clocking Out colon The Challenge of the Temporal in Victorian Women’s Fiction.’ Or how about all of that stick-and-move business in the title of your Bronte article, all that punctuational scaffolding? ‘Infer/in fear-I/or-icity,’ or something like that. It’s like Duchamps’ ‘Critic Descending a Staircase.’”
“Well?” Already I was losing her.
“Well, that’s what it feels like. More or less. It’s more or lessness.”
“You don’t like the titles?”
Some disabilities are poignant and grand, compelling telethons and ready tears. Others are just plain irritating. “On the contrary. I like your titles just fine. I just don’t like feeling as if I’ve swallowed one.”
Demoralizing, all the blunted, blighted breaths. When it’s under way, for anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, I can’t manage one uninspected breath. Not one breath that is unselfconscious, that is less formal than a transaction with the atmosphere. (And just how many consecutive sentences will have my bad breath on them?) The main channel’s on the fritz. The fittings have slipped. I’m misfit. You know O’Connor’s Misfit? “Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor.” Preached at all his life, he couldn’t get past the fact that he existed utterly in his own body, whose walls kept pressing in. A confinement and claustrophobia to last a lifetime. Who could be expected to breathe naturally in there?
“When it comes, the Landscape listens -- / Shadows—hold their breath.” With every inhalation, I think nope. Nope, nope. Not that one. Not that one either. How I crave good old-fashioned breathing, pastoral breathing, Wordsworthian inspiration, its natural legato, its unruffled intake and downy flowing out! During an episode I dream of being unobsessed. As well as my panting allows me to, I plead with the empty air. Grant me one really good one, one really deep one. I fantasize about one voluptuous breath the way others long for chocolate or guilt-free sex. Let me smuggle just one past. But until it subsides—always unpredictably and of its own mysterious accord—my breaths are all ungovernable. They pack my throat like subway passengers. “When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance / On the look of Death.”
Inebriate of Air am I, too, Emily, unless it’s simply hyperventilation that makes me woozy.
Doctor K. ticks off the odds against various gruesome ends I’ve imagined. Although the instruments insist there’s nothing there, half the time I’m gagging on the very air. I start drowning in my own office chair. That something undetectable sticks in my craw sticks in my craw, wherever that is. My chest feels like it’s shut up in a chafing dish, Doc, or it’s playing the part of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. (You must know the play.) I’m a paper bag choked at the throat. Trying to catch my breath is like trying to catch the puppy when it’s got hold of the sleeve of your only clean shirt.
It’s a tangible attack force on the move in there. Just because your figures can’t touch it . . .
Doctor K. listens in again. It’s like trying to pass counterfeit twenties, my breathing. So go droll. Go oblivious. Go numb.
“So? How am I doing? How do your data like me so far?”
“Quiet,” he says. Is he admonishing or reporting?
For English teachers, too, interpretation can get pretty frustrating; it certainly puts off the non-majors in the class. I wonder what is worse: being obviously afflicted, plagued by cliché, or elliptically so. On the one hand, I have to brace myself against the implacable judgment of finally recognized disease, replete with fatal stats drawn from funded studies; on the other hand, I have to withstand the inscrutable. For now, because Doctor K. has to explicate me, because he cannot digest my meanings at a glance, appraise my cadences or fully appreciate my read-outs after a single reading—because he cannot take my face at face value, I am a poem to him.
And in short, I was afraid.
“It is a strange set of symptoms, I admit,” concludes Doctor K., but he does not speculate further.
“Great. At least I’m not trite.” Presuming I need not breathe iambically to impress him. Presuming I need not be comparable to survive.
“That’s right,” he says. “It helps to joke about it. After all, whatever it is, if it’s anything—and I’m not saying it is yet--it isn’t going to kill you, no matter how rotten you feel during.” He is undeterred and never, never betrays anything. I particularly like the picture of him in the local Yellow Pages. Whereas every other physician settles for a head shot or the typical swat team of consonants announcing his credentials, Doctor K. is revealed down to the waist. His arms are folded, his shoulders are judiciously set, and his expression reads dismissiveness. It says, “Illness? Hah! I dare any body to defy my erudition.” It is only a matter of time before he puts a name to the perpetrator hiding inside me—probably using a Latin alias, clever bastard—and brings it to justice.
Doctor K. absolutely seethes composure. And yet, he’s been vetting my essence for a high-priced half an hour, and all he has to say for himself—for myself, that is—is that I’m enigmatic. Do chicks dig enigma?
“They didn’t have any answers for me in the emergency room, either. Four of them watched the monitor play my outtakes for twenty minutes, then they said I should see you. I guess I’m a passed buck, huh?”
Still nothing registering on Doctor K.’s face or in his posture. What a poker player he’d be. Hook him up to that hospital monitor: would there be any readout at all? Hard to believe at this moment that we’ve competed on the court together. We have showered at adjacent spigots and shared the same bar of soap without flinching or flicking off imbedded hairs. “Hey, could you plumb me, buddy?” That’s all it should take. Just us guys giving each other a game. And when a ball gets away, it’s just common courtesy to retrieve it and flip it back into play. That’s all I’m asking for: the medical equivalent of “Ball up!”
We are a couple of carbon-based life forms. So if I tell him, earthling to earthling, that while he’s smoothly ingesting the proper molecules, my portion is riddled with little bones . . . surely we are not so different that we should be incapable of communicating.
But Doctor K. is as charismatic as a clipboard, and about as forthcoming.
“Do you feel anything now?”
Every breath pinched like a criminal, snagged like a duffel off the conveyor at baggage claim. My body’s involuntary actions are devolving. I would insist on other imagery. I wish to be put on other terms. I’m dealing with a kinked pipe here, a throttled progress, a glottal stop. Something’s clogging the ducts, Doc, no matter what your dials say. You’d think I’d gulped one of those rubber gloves. Well, I don’t feel it now—the flue flutters shut, then it opens up again--but when I do, it’s like a delta of mucous has developed all of a sudden. A mucky undertow. I. can’t. get. a. damn. sentence. out! Got it? It’s like a cotton crop. Hostages are bound and squatting down there, whatever they are, wherever that is. My wind’s been waylaid. Something vital’s been headed off at the pass, knocked cold and stuffed in a culvert.
“How about now?”
I expect another internal putsch any time now. Armed guards escort each targeted breath out of the compound.
All right. That’s the lot of it. I’ve forked over all the analogy I’ve got.
I imagine that if he could just slide some sort of snake down my gullet or drop a pharmaceutical depth charge, he could unblock the whole business like a sinus. “Hey, could it be sinuses? I mean, how far do they reach, anyway? Maybe histamine’s behind it all?”
Samuel Beckett’s Breath is a play that lasts all of fifteen seconds. There is an amplified inhaling offstage, during which the light comes up on debris; the light subsides as the breath is released. Fade in, fade out: a dismal circuit bracketed by screams. It could have been any breath anywhere in Beckett, I bet. The same suffocation pervades everything he does.
“Strictly speaking, it’s not a breathing problem at all, you see? Don’t get me wrong. The anxiety manifests that way, but the cause -- causes, most likely -- lie elsewhere. Which is to say that an inhaler probably isn’t the answer.” The epicenter of my suffering is somewhere else. Unidentifiable leaks in unlocatable gaskets. Yet there’s no denying my misguided experience of whatever it really is that’s the matter. All the blocked and blunted breaths, making their ragged way like wounded soldiers returning from the front. All the stippled, shredded, stifled, stymied breaths.
“Is it nerves, then?” What a disappointment. What an old lady’s malady. Nerves are what the members of Aunt Bea’s flower committee suffer from. Nerves are what they secretly subdue with elderberry wine, kept in a nippy bottle under the porch swing. “I don’t feel anxious. I mean, once I feel it coming on, then I feel anxious, but not before.”
He regards me as if he’s caught me at some mischief, as if he’s recognized the kid who spray-painted obscenities on his garage door. “Nerves aren’t the problem, either, although nerves do make it worse.” In any event, he’ll prescribe something to comb out the tangled dendrites. Replace the synaptic spark plugs. Whatever.
“Don’t get me wrong, Doctor.”
He is at least a little worried about me. Rather, he is worried that I am worried about me, which triggers and intensifies the anxiety, if it is anxiety, that is. He asks about my appetites for food, work, company, exercise, sex, checking for impending panic or trying to define it by its wake. It strikes me that the signs of suicidal tendencies and signs of recovery from them are frequently identical. Such as losing weight, making amends with those you’ve flummoxed or offended, clearing your desk. Getting out from under: the effort is either suspicious or sound. The peeling off and away from the past, the stripping of bones. “There are moments a man turns from us / Whom we have all known until now,” writes James Dickey in “Drowning with Others.” “Upgathered, we watch him grow, / Unshipping his shoulder bones // Like human, everyday wings / That he has not ever used.” Peculiar or inspiring, the dispossession that allows one to soar, or at least enjoy a little more altitude for a change, for a while.
When I’m sick, or think I am—the results are ambiguous—the world implodes. I go stertorous, gag like a lawnmower fed the wrong fuel, and the whole species seems endangered. Existence is suddenly up to me. Existence suddenly comes down to me.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” says Doctor K, leaning back.
“Okay. Should I?”
I went around my department confiding my predicament and appearing, I suppose, like a hit-and-run victim trying to gather witnesses. When I told Jeff about my physical situation, he offered uplifting quotations to me—bromides from better breathers. Jeff is a fan of human potential. Jeff is a fan of the power of positive thinking. (“Do you have to work tonight?” I asked him one afternoon. “No, I get to work tonight,” he corrected me.) Telling Jeff was a mistake. So was telling Pat, but I needed someone to cover. Like in every other war picture: “Cover me. I’m going in.”
At the very least, I expect Doctor K. to give me several multi-syllabic prescriptions, accompanied by the suggestion that I’m lacking half the alphabet’s worth of vitamins. Instead, he sets me up with just the one tranquilizer -- nothing far-flung or newfangled about it, either—and tells me to check back with him in a few weeks. He has other patients stashed in other examining rooms, so as I ease off the table to fasten my pants, he lifts a couple of elegant fingers in lieu of a handshake in the manner of Michelangelo’s Lord bidding Adam rouse himself and get on with Genesis.
“What about meditation, Doctor? Maybe I should try that?”
“Why not? No harm in it.” Not surprising that Doctor K. is inveterately Western hemisphere in his orientation. “So,” he says, ungloving, “is there anything else on your mind today?”
“You mean, as in ‘Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?’ No, there’s nothing else on my mind. That’s the problem.”
At the pharmacy I’ll look up the drug I’ve begun and discover that there are only two sorts of problems associated with it. One is related to what could happen when it doesn’t work the way it is designed to; the other is related to what could happen when it does.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” asks Mary Oliver in “The Summer Day.” With my one wild life, I plan my routines. With my one precious life, I plan to keep my appointments and to stay on my medication. I plan to keep writing although writing can make it happen. I plan to breathe in, breathe out, then do it again until I’ve got it right. Then do it again.
Here is where doctor and muse conspire: they issue consecutive life sentences. Conspire: literally, to breathe together. I’m told it helps to joke about it. A man walks into a doctor’s office. “Doctor,” he says, “it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that,” the doctor replies. “Next?”
In this one wild and precious life, the poet is right to find loveliness while I labor at my ease, although I cannot say for certain which of us is distracted, she in her inspiration or me in mine. (There it goes.) She raises her arms to pray and to praise, to take it all in; I raise mine when I feel myself going under. (There it goes.) You can see how we make similar gestures.
Until it ends, we haven’t much more than words to go on.