I’m a chronic asthmatic, I have suffered from attacks since I was three so that’s fifty years of coping with the disease.
When I was a small child the only way of controlling asthma was oral steroids, before even Intal let alone today’s advanced inhaled steroids, and they didn’t do a great job so attacks were frequent. You can usually feel a bad asthma attack coming on for at least an hour, sometimes longer. If you are careful, calm and experienced it’s possible to stop or mitigate the worst of an attack, a skill that even a small child can learn.
My mother and I sat through a lot of those attacks and for many years my constant companion was a “baby pillow”, a small pillow meant for a crib. I can only remember the second one, filled with chunky bits of foam and made from a black and white check cotton.
The first baby pillow caused a huge rumpus; when my mother was at the University studying one weekend my father had to call the doctor and he mentioned how dirty my baby pillow was. My Dad took it upon himself to get rid of it. After he had thrown it into the incinerator my mother came home to discover a four year old frantic and screaming so the sewing machine came out and with an old throw pillow contributing the filling and a tablecloth contributing the black and white check cotton a new one (with one of the old baby pillowcases on it) was rushed into service. Mum said she first spent ten minutes telling my father exactly what she thought of his intelligence and thinking then not talking to him for two days.
Why was the pillow so important to that four year old boy, then and in the next five or six years?
It had a few purposes. It was a talisman and a security blanket but more important was it provided the core of the way I coped with my an asthma attack.
When I first felt an attack come on I would go to my room and read while holding the pillow to my chest. It allowed me to relax and forget. If an attack got worse then I couldn’t read and the pillow became more vital.
The tiny boy, thin to the point of emaciation, would sit on his bed knees folded under him, with the small pillow on the crown of his head held in place by his arms loosely folded on top, rocking backwards and forwards in time with every forced breath.
The rocking and raised arms made it easier to breathe but the rocking had another purpose, just as important. That five year old boy had learnt through his own experience the fundamentals of meditation. As he rocked in time with his breathing the world was almost gone, the pain of every breath could be ignored and he entered a state of relaxation where the body was forgotten.
It’s strange that in that state the world was there, it sometimes felt like his senses were heightened. He could hear his mother moving through the house. In his calm he would often hear his mother talking to the doctor and telling him to come but it was as if the world was not connected, he was detached from it. He was in a place of little thought.
The relaxation of that meditative state kept panic at bay and calm would keep him at peace until the attack stopped or the doctor arrived to give him the adrenaline injection. Nobody had told him, nobody had taught him, he had discovered his own way of calm and coping that harkened back thousands of years, outside the advice of a GP and specialists.
Of course small children are often capable of learning and discovering many things that are much harder for adults. For one, because we are such information sponges at that age and second we are unencumbered by the preconceptions about “this is the way the world works” that we force upon ourselves as adults.
So I do vividly remember that pillow. I remember the pillowcases my mother made for it to keep it relatively clean, my favourite one was a pale blue but others were white and the lightest of pale yellow. I remember clutching it to my body as I went to sleep, often to the smell of clean washing rising from it in my nose but most of all I remember it on my head as I rocked backwards and forwards keeping as calm and controlled as possible while my chest was racked by wheezing.
This post was inspired by the Plinky question Describe an item you were incredibly attached to as a child. What became of it?.