Medicine Shaming | Confessions of a Severe Asthmatic

While sitting at a restaurant with friends, enjoying a delicious meal, great company and beautiful atmosphere; one of your wittier friends tells a great joke which sends everyone, but you, into fits of laughter. What starts off as laughter for you quickly turns into a coughing fit, which your friends interpret as you choking on your food or drink. You are unable to stop coughing, unable to reach for your purse to grab your emergency spray until you catch a breath and are completely embarrassed because the coughing fit has captured an audience – the restaurant is watching you. It all happens so fast.

Finally able to reach your spray, you quickly exhale, inhale and press the spray to release medication into your lungs and repeat one more time. Taking the emergency spray will open the airways in the lungs so you can exhale a little easier. You inhale to the count of two and exhale to the count of four, which makes you dizzy but you need to do it to be able to breathe better again. You feel your face is red and it’s hot, the constant coughing is to blame but you’re just happy it’s not turning blue. You also feel many pairs of concerned eyes focused on you as they wait for everything to get back to normal. It’s just asthma, folks…nothing to see here.

I usually try to escape the table before the embarrassing coughing fits happen but there are times where it just catches you. You end up feeling yourself stuck at a table that was full of laughter a moment before become a table with split opinions, where the stronger opinions begin ‘medicine shaming’ because I needed my emergency spray. It almost feels worse than the coughing fit endured moments before. The conversation turns judgmental pretty quick and while friends are not intentionally trying to be hurtful, that’s exactly what happens.

Medicine Shaming
Chronic illness is met with mixed emotions from many people:

  • The ones who view us chronically ill people with disdain and disgust because it’s our fault that healthcare is expensive, our fault that pharmaceuticals are expensive, our existence alone is a nuisance.
  • The ones who have true empathy and concern, knowing what you need in order to have a ‘regular’ day and are always in your corner – I’m lucky to have a lot of these people in my life.
  • The ones who are holier than thou and actually judge you for your use of medication to maintain your chronic illness.

Since society is so keen on labeling people, I’ve decided to call the act of what the last group of people do “medicine shaming” and it’s exhausting.

Medication is Required
Asthma is not a forgiving illness, in fact, chronic illness is not forgiving period. When you have chronic asthma, it’s always with you and it will decide when to rear its ugly head, usually at the most inconvenient times. For many years I have taken medicines to help me maintain my asthma, meaning to prevent asthma attacks and keep my airways as open as possible. I listed the medications I use in a previous post called Asthma Medications so you’re able to understand how much medication goes into my system to keep me seeming to be as normal as a person who doesn’t have any illnesses, chronic or other.

Because I am a “regular” patient at my Lung Doctor’s office, I am always checked and asked how I’m doing. On the days when my lungs are not responding well or I’m showing signs of an infection, my doctor and I discuss introducing antibiotics and / or oral steroids (prednisone) to prevent a worse illness from attacking my system. After so many years of being a chronic asthmatic, I’m pretty good at determining if I truly need this medication or not. For the most part, my doctor will call in my prescription and I’ll make the decision to pick it up / fill it within a couple of days of being at their office and send an email to let them know I began taking the medication. There are other times where the pursed lips and shake of the head let me know I’ll be picking up my prescription on my way home.

It’s part of my life, part of my world and I have managed it for so long it doesn’t bother me too much.

What does bother me is when people who know better (you know, the ones who’ve never suffered asthma and equate a common cold with asthma) will take the opportunity to have me as their audience to hear their constant “I WOULD NEVER take as much medications as YOU if I had asthma….” And are quick to say “I NEVER take medication, even pain killers. I don’t know why doctors prescribe pain killers. They are to blame for the addiction problem we have today…isn’t YOUR medication ADDICTIVE and that’s why you take it so much?” These types of interactions are sometimes triggers for my lungs and I can feel my lungs constrict in a way that I could visualize myself squeezing the person’s neck with my hands because they have irritated me that much.

Yes, some asthma medication can be emotionally addictive or habitually addictive. There are patients who constantly take their medication when no asthma symptoms are present, but it’s not that common. To be honest, I try NOT to use my Berodual spray because I have to get it delivered from Germany. I’m on my last two at the moment and will need to get more sent.

For most of us living with asthma, we don’t like to be irritable, not breathe, feel exhausted, have constant headaches, have sore backs from coughing and pain in the chest. We also don’t like to have asthma attacks. To avoid all this, we take PREVENTATIVE medicines to live relatively normal lives so shaming us about the medications we take is really not the most supportive thing people can do.

Education is Support
Asthma symptoms can erupt at any given time and include such things as:

  • the coughing fit I described earlier
  • a cold that gets worse, any infection really
  • work / life stress
  • the scent of a cleaning detergent
  • allergens
  • weather

Without the proper medicine plan created with your specialist, these symptoms can quickly turn into an attack. It’s important to have preventative medication to avoid this.

The next time you’re sitting across the table from someone who suffers with any chronic illness, be careful how you talk about their condition. Don’t judge or shame them for an illness they were never able to choose. Don’t judge them for the medication they take or the fact that they need more rest than the average Joe. See their unseen for a change. Ask the right questions and learn more so you can understand what your friend is going through should they ever have something go wrong and you’re the person standing between them and their medicine.


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