Life with Asthma – The Never Ending Game of Chess

Life with asthma is like a game of chess. My game of chess started at 18 months of age, when I was first diagnosed with asthma. That was the day the chessboard was set up. My parents took me home with medication samples and prescriptions from my allergist. At that time, there wasn’t much movement with the game. In chess you can start the game with an opening strategy, however being young as I was; there was no strategy to my game. The strategy would come with time, as I encountered new situations and learned to adapt to my changing health circumstances. In the early stages of the game, my parents were the ones taking care of me and making decisions for me.

The only pieces I moved for the first few years were the pawns. Pawns, being the shortest pieces in the game, have always represented my support network – my immediate family, friends, allergist and family doctor. My support network was growing as my parents learned how to manage my asthma. I first moved a pawn for my parents. Until my parents purchased a nebulizer, we went to the hospital every time I had a cold as my asthma would flare up from allergies to dust, mold, pet dander, smoke, chemicals and pollens.

The second pawn I moved represented my allergist, as he first diagnosed me with asthma. My allergist had become a part of my support network. Over the years he would help manage my asthma and keep it controlled. Though a few pawns were moved, frequent hospital visits and daily use of a compressor one to three times a day, at a young age caused the game to reach a bit of a standstill.

Pawns are thought to be weak, however they have the ability to take another chess piece the same way the rook, bishop, knight queen or king does. Pawns have always reminded me of family members who support me and do whatever it takes to help keep me healthy. They have my back. My allergist, another important pawn, has tried to find better treatments for me.

The special play when a pawn reaches the other end of the board and can be promoted to a stronger piece in the game is a great analogy for what happens as my support network grows stronger. In time, trusted friends and family who truly understand what I am going through, help me on a deeper level with my emotions, anxieties and frustrations of living with asthma.

Once I entered kindergarten, I moved a knight. The knight has always been my favorite piece as it involves strategic thinking to place, since it can only move in an “L-shape”. I moved the knight as my parents had to strategize and plan how I could attend school safely, while maintaining my asthma treatment regime. After discussions with the teacher and principal, they accommodated my need to use my nebulizer at lunch time on a daily basis.  Because the knight is also the only piece that can jump over other pieces, even though it can never capture the pieces it jumps over, it represents my resilience to overcome the obstacles that may be in my way. I have had to move the knight a few times over the years.

As the years went by and my chess game progressed, I began to understand the strategy and purpose of the game I was playing. I finally made sense of what capturing the king would mean for me and my health. It would mean that I had outgrown my asthma. Over time, my strategy became to get as close as possible to the king as somehow it has always felt impossible to get to checkmate.  That is the reason this game never ends.  With time, I learned the rules of chess in the same way I have learned things in my day to day life. Each move I’ve made has taken me closer or farther away from capturing the king. I began to understand that the rook, bishop, knight, queen and king represented the actions I would take, my internal conflicts and my determination to stay healthy. The moves made by these pieces helped control my asthma and get me closer to placing the king in check. Depending on my moves, there has often been pressure from the opposing team, my asthma, challenging me and my objectives.

During high school, a few pieces were moved.  I moved a pawn forward as I made a new friend who tried very hard to understand and support me and moved the queen a few times. The queen is the most powerful piece in chess as it can move like the rook and the bishop. This piece represents perseverance, desire and motivation to find solutions to be as healthy as I can. I was a competitive cross-country skier in high school and had decided to join the school swim team as training. The chlorine triggered my asthma. Because this was negatively impacting my cross-country skiing I gave up swimming. Like the queen, being motivated to stay healthy, lead me to the right decision. In the past, I have challenged situations which seemed tough to overcome and found my way around them, similar to the moves of the queen. If something stands in my way, I look for a way to come out on top.

Each move has required thought.  What’s my next move?  Will one move be better than the other? Where do I position myself, on this very turn, to get closer to capturing the king? These are only a few of the questions that have crossed my mind. In my life, there have been many occasions where I have wondered which medications might be more beneficial to me or which actions to take. I have often been really close to capturing the king, but would then suffer an asthma attack which forced me to change my strategy. I have had the king in check most of the time, meaning my asthma is controlled. My daily medications have helped me maintain healthy airways.

In my college and university years, I can think of a few times when I have moved the bishop. The moves the bishops make in my game of chess are ones that can be considered “short-cuts.” Because the bishop can move diagonally, it is fair to say it covers more ground in less time, unless of course another piece stands in its way. This piece represents those times that I’ve opted for the easier solution. When I have decided it was easier to cancel an evening with friends because I was uncertain if my asthma would be triggered by the environment, rather than trying to find a way to make it work. It also represents occasions when I have chosen not to explain the severity of my asthma to others. I can think of one instance when friends at a dinner party didn’t know cats would trigger a severe asthma attack and I would need to go to the hospital. So when I didn’t know my friends had a cat, and I reacted, my friends didn’t know what to do.

The rook which looks like a small tower only allows me to move in straight lines. It represents the decisions I make and then take back. I had once decided to watch a show which is in an old, dusty building clouded by second-hand smoke from people who light up right outside the doors. On the day of the event, I changed my mind and opted out.  I knew the building would trigger my asthma and it did not make sense to attend, knowing I’d have to suffer the consequences. I knew I’d be coughing, wheezing and up all night due to the asthma. It would then take a few days for my lungs to return to the healthy condition they were prior to the show. Often, certain situations are just not worth it. The cost outweighs the benefit.

To this date I have not had to move the king more than a few times. The king is the most important piece in chess. Like the actions I take when I have a serious asthma attack or flare-up, the king can move in any direction; however, it can only move one square at a time. When I have tried to treat an asthma attack, there are only a few things I can do to make it better. One thing is to take my rescue inhaler. But if my asthma gets worse, I need to be taken to the emergency.

This is why my goal is to keep the king in check or as close to check as I can. One day, I would hope to get the king into checkmate; however there is no way of knowing if I will outgrow my asthma. Only time will tell. For now, all I can do is play the game as strategically as I can.

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