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The Struggle to Breathe


I’ve started to practice breathing again. It seems like something I should be expert in, after so many decades of doing it every day, but I’m still a beginner. I was inspired to look for breathing exercises because of the opera singer who stood behind me in the synagogue choir for the high holidays. His Baritone was so secure and well-supported that even the sound of his voice made me feel like I had more air in my lungs. But I’ve also been feeling breathless more often lately, and that worried me. I was diagnosed with some kind of minor respiratory issue a few years ago, but the inhaler only made me cough more, so I decided to ignore the problem for the most part.

54 - wow, what's next

“My breathing is fine, damn it!”

Years ago, when I had more energy, and less pain, I used to do Yoga and Pilates regularly, and breathing exercises were a regular part of the process, without much extra effort from me. And recently I realized that, even though I can’t do yoga anymore, maybe I should still be able to breathe.

I went online and chose three exercises from a long list of options: one breathing through the nose, one breathing through the mouth (like sipping from a straw), and one breathing in until my lungs were as full as possible. That last exercises felt impossible and I gave up on it pretty quickly, but I got used to doing the other two, ten repetitions each, every day.

It was really hard, though. I felt like I was drowning when I had to hold my breath. Even when I gradually built up to longer times, inhaling more slowly, exhaling more slowly, and holding my breath without collapsing, I still felt uncomfortable. And then one day it got really hard again. I could barely breathe in, or hold my breath for two seconds, let alone five, or six, or seven. And I got scared and started to picture a future of carrying around an oxygen tank everywhere I go and gasping for breath between each word. But I persisted with the breathing exercises, and after a few days it got easier again. Not easy, but back to five or six or seven seconds of holding my breath without feeling like I was going to die at any moment. And that’s when I realized that my new exercise routine could not only help me build my lung capacity (and my patience, and my voice), but it could also help me recognize the days when trying harder wouldn’t help. That’s a hard one for me. I tend to forget that weakness is real. I tend to believe that if I fail at something it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. But I knew that wasn’t the case here. I knew that I was trying just as hard to do the exercises, or even harder, but my body just couldn’t do it. And when that happens, rest is the right choice. It’s not laziness, or giving up, it’s about listening to my body.


“I always listen to my body, Mommy. That’s why I can’t hear you.”

I still can’t manage a breathing practice that leads to long meditation sessions, and I’m not singing arias at the Met, but I’m more aware of my breathing now, and the ways my body reacts when I have more and less breath available. And maybe I can tolerate one more second of that drowning feeling than I could before, because I trust myself not to let it go on too long. I’m learning, slowly, what’s real and what’s possible, instead of what I think should be true.

Now, if only I could remember the lesson from one day to the next and not have to relearn it every single day.


“You probably have dementia, Mommy. And by the way, you forgot to give me my treats.”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?



A Study of Sleep



I had to do a sleep study for the new Pulmonologist. He did breathing tests, and x-rays, and walking-while-breathing tests, and inhaling-vile-stuff-while-breathing tests, and then he wanted a sleep study to see if sleep apnea was causing my exhaustion and shortness of breath. Each new doctor has his own set of tests you have to take, it’s their thing, and if you want them to take anything you say seriously, you have to jump through all of their hoops. I’d done a sleep study years ago that came out normal, but he wanted to check again.

I was really anxious that this new sleep study, which would be done at home, would be like the ambulatory EEG, which involved having a video camera pointed at me at all times, and wires glued to my head. But there was no video camera or glue this time, thank God. I had to wear monitors, but they were small and wrapped around my chest and abdomen with elastic, and a nasal cannula was stuffed into my nostrils, and there was a monitor on my wrist and middle finger to keep track of the oxygenation of my blood. It wasn’t especially humiliating, though neither of the dogs chose to sleep near me that night. I’m sure that was just a coincidence.

The results of the sleep study were, as I’d expected, normal. I do not have sleep apnea. The thing I don’t understand is, if you are going to study sleep to try to discover more about my overall health, why would you only focus on a limited area like sleep apnea? Isn’t there anything else about sleep that is worthy of attention?

I have always had trouble with sleep. Even as a kid, I would wander around, go to my Mom, visit the bathroom a few times, and then stare at the ceiling and count the circles in the asbestos tiles for hours. Every creak of the house made me worry about monsters under the bed. But even now, even when I get to sleep on time and wake up on time, I still don’t feel rested.

The dogs are champion sleepers. Cricket can pull a blanket off the couch and smush it into cozy nest for herself on the floor and take a short daytime nap any time she pleases. Butterfly will find one of the stuffed toys, anywhere Cricket has left it on the floor, and stretch out for nap right next to it. Cricket can stretch into all manner of unimagined yoga poses to vary her sleep style and keep it interesting.


“Platypus needs this blanket more than you do, Mommy. “


Two toys are better than one.

In fact, the dogs change sleep positions very frequently. I think I do this too, except that I don’t have as much room for variation as they do. I’ll turn over, or kick my blankets away, or curl up, or stretch out, but they actually move from place to place and alter the whole landscape of sleep. I only sleep on my bed, but they can sleep on my bed, on the hard floor, on their pet beds, on carpets, on couches, under couches, chin on a shelf, or chin on my leg. But no matter how they sleep, or when or where they sleep, the dogs wake up raring to go, and ready to go outside and pee, and then ready to eat, and then ready to get back to sleep. They can wake up and fall asleep so quickly!


Platypus is a very accommodating sleep partner.


But so are my shoes.


Cricket can’t decide which bed to sleep on.


Or maybe she should sleep on the floor.

It seems like the sleep study should have looked at some of the practical issues of sleep. Maybe along with the heart rate monitors and oxygen concentrations monitors and such, they could have asked me questions, like, was I too hot or too cold? Did I wake up during the night? Did I have bad dreams, or nightmares? Did I feel rested in the morning? But they don’t want to know if I kick or turn a lot when I sleep, or if I’m in pain when I wake up. They don’t want to know about problems they don’t know how to solve. All they want to know is if my breathing is interrupted when I sleep, because they have a machine for that.

Maybe if each doctor took a more detailed interest, in each area of testing, they could have figured out something by now. But instead they choose the easiest thing, for them, and the hardest thing for me, and come up with nothing. I bet if Cricket could read medical journals, she’d have me fully diagnosed by now. She could use Butterfly to monitor my skin temperature, and flavor, overnight, and she herself could test my reflexes with her patented Jump-On-Mommy-While-She’s-Still-Sleeping test. Both dogs watch me very carefully, and I’m sure if they could write they’d fill many notebooks with all of their trenchant observations. And yet none of my doctors have asked for their input in making a diagnosis.



Diagnostic exam in process.


Cricket consults with Butterfly before delivering her diagnosis.