Breath and Breathless

My latest in the Christian Courier…


It is good to celebrate our embodied life in God’s creation.

The men (they are mostly men) arrive at the clinic and take their seats in the waiting room. It’s a nondescript medical office with a busy receptionist, examination rooms and various types of medical equipment. This clinic is unique, however, because the patients all arrive with a black nylon bag over their shoulders. Some of them look like lunch boxes while others could easily be laptop bags. It reminds me of something out of a Mysterious Benedict Society novel. Are these the nefarious Ten Men bringing their disguised, deadly devices for retooling, all the better to threaten adventurous children!? Alas, the reality isn’t so interesting. These patients are being treated for sleep apnea and are bringing their CPAP machines to their consults with a respiratory therapist. They are fantastic gizmos, no doubt, but wouldn’t make an appearance in children’s literature.

Maybe it’s only my perception or projection, but I sense an eye-averting awkwardness among patients. Would that be unusual? We humans are awkward about our bodies at the best of times. More so, perhaps, when the apparatus carried, surreptitiously, is all tubes and headgear and mask. It’s not the kind of thing you’d be keen to acknowledge in just anyone’s presence.

A medical device you wear on your face, and to bed, gets very close to the most private dimensions of our lives. It’s also about your breath, and what is more intimate? And contrary to the impulses of contemporary culture, public sharing of the private isn’t always meaningfully therapeutic. Sometimes it’s worth keeping private things, well, private.

Given our fraught relationships in and with our bodies and our physical vulnerabilities, awkwardness crosses easily into the realm of shame – an embodied experience of disgrace or dishonour at our physical selves, the sense that my body and its limitations diminish me, whether in my own eyes or the eyes of others. Many of us are also loath, of course, to project anything other than strength and competence.

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes a person’s breathing to stop and then recommence many times through the night. The symptoms include snoring, daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating, irritability or depression, sore throat and headaches. It can also lead to significant longer-term harms such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Well, then. . .

The CPAP machine is one therapeutic response to sleep apnea, and can be as disruptive to life and sleep as the symptoms of the disorder. The treatment uses air pressure, by way of a nose or face mask, to prevent the relaxation of muscles that causes the airway to close. Like most therapies, some find it a straightforward device to use while others find it challenging – some are good at staying with the regimen, others not so much. Our patterns of breath are unique to us, and not always easily reshaped by therapy.

In daily life, many of us are oblivious to our bodies – we inhabit them without much thought. The risk of this unreflective mode is not only that we will inevitably, one day, be rudely introduced to our bodies; the risk is also that we remain unreflective about our vulnerability, our awkwardness and the potential for shame in ourselves and with others. It is very good to celebrate our embodied life in God’s creation, and it is also good to celebrate this embodiment with honesty and with care.

girl turns off the alarm clock waking up in the morning from a call

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