For the past two years, my chest has been much healthier – and my childhood afflictions of asthma and winter chest infections have been absent. In fact, I have barely used the blue, for emergencies, inhaler at all since 2015.
So, my decision to book an appointment at the local surgery was based upon my gravelly, mostly absent, voice alone – and, to be frank, I was expecting to be told that I had a virus, and to be spending the next few days, head under a towel, breathing in the fumes of Eucalyptus seeped in boiling water issuing from a large bowl.
The doctor listened to my chest – and, to my surprise, said she could hear rattling in my left lung. Bronchitis, in other words, for which I am now on a week-long course of antibiotics.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, this is par for the course: Emotions (and any opportunistic bugs) have gone straight to my chest ever since I was thirteen months old – and the past five and a half months have been exceptionally wearing on the emotional front.
The muting of my physical voice has been confronting and upsetting. But something has shifted. Last night, I was coughing a lot and started to feel a bit wheezy. Panic set immediately as my life-long fear of breathlessness overwhelmed all logic.
I let my mind drift – and, clear as clear can be, was five once more, sitting wrapped in a tartan rug on my mother’s lap, fighting for every breath and waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Then, I was lying in an oxygen tent in The Slade Hospital, in Headington, feeling absolutely terrified and alone.
These two images arrested me for a while – and then my brain kicked in. That happened in late 1963. The treatment for asthma has changed out of all recognition since those days. Heavy unwieldy inhalers and the hallucinatory Franol have given way to a whole range of nebulizers and specialist inhalers in all colours of the spectrum. This has meant that I have never again been hospitalised with asthma – and can live almost unaware of it for months, even years, at a time.
But the memories explain the strong link between breathing and panic with me. Do I know what kicked the asthma off in the first place? For I am the only one of my parents’ five children to have got it. Yes, I think I do. On the physical level, it was almost certainly dust mites. On the emotional, a sense of terrified powerlessness during a time of sturm und drang in the parental marriage, and a period of alarming diabetic instability in my father’s case. I internalised both.
My parents were, in a sense, victims of their generation. Emotions were not discussed, and their open expression was positively frowned upon. Divorce was seen as analogous to a sin, and certainly a sign of failure. It was deemed better to live in semi-hostile unhappiness than to break up the family unit. My question would be this one: But whom did this actually benefit? Individual families? I think not.
My parents were not evil; they just weren’t right for one another – and their union was, in many ways, a mistake. It is a shame, and a waste, that they did not part and find the happiness both deserved with someone different. The example of staying in an unhappy marriage has been a very pervasive one – and so tempting not to question, let alone break.
Many of us marry when we are, psychologically, still children. But we grow up – and what appeared fairy tale fabulous and prince and princess magical when we were little may not bear the light of adult day.
Fear and powerlessness are the keys with me. I suspect that many psychosomatic disorders originate in situations where children’s voices are silenced and they feel completely out of control and unsafe in a volatile home situation.
But I also, last night, had this thought: Many of us seek, at the unconscious level, to replicate something of the original home background in our adult relationships, partly because it is all we know and partly because, at a deep level, we recognise that this is an opportunity for a different ending, a better outcome, an assertion of our own strengths.
My parents’ marriage was a simmering cauldron of dislike, contempt and resentment, with croutons of Divide and Rule fried up and added to the mix. The aggression of the early sixties became a constant broth of unspoken anger and bottled up emotion, in which they secretly – and openly – looked down upon one another’s beliefs, upbringing and choices in life.
My choice of life partner, under those circumstances, was never going to be a healthy one! But my decision to leave the bubbling pan of resentment, hostility and passive-aggression did break the mould. And my work with various counsellors and therapists over the years has allowed me to see that my psychosomatic manifestations are my body’s attempt to prompt a proper emotional response – screaming, crying, getting openly angry, risking my own fury and tears – and to acknowledge that I have the right to express my feelings in these ways.
The past thirteen months have been an eerie echo of a dominant strand of my childhood experience in that I have felt I had almost no say over events and that control was being taken out of my hands, and that nothing I did made any difference. My body fought back with abscesses, intense pains and panic attacks. Amazingly, wonderfully, this inner sense of being muted came to a head on Friday, at which point I shrieked and verbalised and questioned – and lost my voice in the process!
By losing it, I have learned that I do have a voice. I have also finally seen that, by using that voice, by openly expressing my emotions – especially anger and sadness – I can limit my own bodily habit of going immediately into psychosomatic illness.