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Beautiful facades, ugly truths

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JULY 17, 2023

“Here, watch.”

My gaze followed the movement of my dad’s fingers — the way they wrapped around the inhaler and pushed down on the button at the top. 

“You put it in your mouth and then you press down on the button. Breathe in and hold for 10 seconds.” 

His fingers slowly fanned out to count down.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 

I waited expectantly. My dad then popped the inhaler out. 

“Then you would do it again, but only once more. Every time you need your inhaler, two puffs. That’s all it takes. No more. No less.”

My asthma was never something serious; it wasn’t even significant to me at all. 

But, one humid afternoon in fifth grade physical education, after I had just finished running my laps, I felt my chest rising and falling a little quicker than usual. With steady hands, I unzipped the front pocket of my backpack and pulled out the red, L-shaped device, popped off its lid and put it in my mouth for the suggested two puffs.

I hadn’t meant to, but I had piqued the interest of half of the kids in my class, causing a hoard of neon blue, pink and purple shoes to come pattering over. They thought that I was dying, or something. 

I waved them all off and told them I just got a little winded. Nevertheless, they all kept their eyes on the device, asking questions about how I managed to run so well even if I had breathing problems, how often I had to use my inhaler and how it affected my daily life. 

I didn’t really know how to respond; I don’t think I really responded at all. 

I simply noticed the peculiar, pleasant sensation coiling in the bottom of my stomach. I hadn’t meant to attract the attention of all my classmates, but I did. 

And I liked it. A lot.

Slowly, I found myself using my inhaler more and more often. Even if I wasn’t exerted enough to feel like I needed it, I would loudly unzip my backpack and pull it out, making sure it was visible to everyone around me. 

Sometimes, I wouldn’t even be wheezy at all. 

I would put my tiny palm over my heart as if I was a melancholy, pitiful girl in pain and exhaustion who simply needed the extra breaths her inhaler supplied her with. My classmates ate it up every single time. 

They would watch and tell me how it must suck to have asthma. 

This little act continued throughout sixth grade as well, and it would’ve through seventh if it weren’t for one unfortunate day when we were running our timed mile in P.E. After my mile, I was ready to perform my usual show of popping the lid off my inhaler with a crisp popping sound — ready to puff, not one, not two but three consecutive puffs to deeply inhale the medicine I did not need. 

I would not count to 10. I would not count at all. I would only watch as eyes fell on me again, curious and intrigued. There was just something so appealing about having something wrong with me; it felt like I was unique, different, cool. 

But as I was about to frivolously pull out my inhaler, I saw a small boy clutching the railway of the stairs, hunched over, his face slicked with sweat and redness. Even from several feet away, I could hear the rough musicality of his breaths, the way they were choppy and short, rushed and desperate in an unpredictable and frenzied manner. 

His back was arched slightly like a cat, rising and rising, only to drop for a moment, but immediately arch back up. The teacher rushed over to him, asking him if he was OK. 

He nodded his head, but asked if he could go grab his inhaler. He practically couldn’t even make out the question, but the teacher understood and sent him back to the locker rooms to go grab it from his backpack. 

Suddenly, my fingers, which were previously curled around the nook of my inhaler, unwrapped themselves, letting the inhaler drop and hide within the shallow depths of my pocket once again. 

I couldn’t bear the idea of using my inhaler at that moment. Not then. Not in front of everyone. Not when they had all just seen what a need for an inhaler really looks like. 

An issue I have noticed in some of my peers is an odd tendency to find beauty in the wrong things, a large one being illness — physical and mental. 

However, after seeing that boy in my class struggling so hard with his asthma, always on the verge of collapsing after tough runs, always in a frenzy of tears, sweat and redness, I couldn’t bear to use my inhaler for show anymore or to continue with my foolish, overdramatic facade. 

But that feeling was the first step toward moving in the right direction. 

It is crucial that we all take the time to live life with awareness. I believe it is imperative we realize we should not only perceive the beauty of things, but the harsh, ugly truths of them as well, for that is what will allow us to live life with gratitude, empathy and true beauty.

Naomi Hsu writes the Monday column on childhood comforts that have shaped the person she is today. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

AUGUST 05, 2023