Pulling Through Illness: How to Transform Sickness & Breath Deeply
Updated: Mar 10
Twelve years ago, I was hospitalized for seventeen days with a bout of severe pneumonia. The organism living in my lungs had grown steadily over weeks, taking up more and more space and inviting fluid to slosh where air should have been. By early fall of that year I was gasping for breath as I struggled to climb the stairs out of the New York City subway, gripping the handrail as crowds bustled by my 85-year-old’s pace.
At the time, I could barely be convinced to slow down and see a doctor. I was desperately consumed with a job that had me feeding press releases to reporters on the steps of City Hall, a new love affair that had me staying up regularly until 3am, and an active social life in Brooklyn where pushing hard and getting sick were practically badges of honor, hallmarks of my exciting existence.
But that fall something changed. My new relationship was costing me more than sleep: In the throws of early love, I blindly pushed long past my body's warnings to slow down and rest, wildly confident in my ability to bounce back from any sickness. Little did I know that this would create a blueprint of unhealthy self-sacrifice that would continue for the better part of a decade.
By the time I finally saw a doctor, I had trouble taking a full breath. The doctor's face was ashen when she listened to my chest through a stethoscope, measuring my CO2 output and ordering a scan. I remember pulling my black turtleneck over my head when they found my chest was three-quarters full with fluid and still not completely understanding why I couldn't return to work.
Instead, I was directed to check into the hospital immediately.
Throughout my ordeal with pneumonia, I never remember being scared. I tolerated with some discomfort nurses coming into my room to take blood in the middle of the night, the oxygen tank that had to be wheeled into the bathroom with me, and the endless days of testing to try to determine first what, then how, we would combat the thing that was stopping my breath (turned out ‘the thing’ was fungal, and steroids finally helped me get rid of it).
My community manifested around me with flowers, cards, pizza boxes and an impromptu Thanksgiving celebration, complete with paper turkeys and Zabar's takeout. My parents flew 3,000 miles to live out of a hotel room across the street from the hospital. I watched endless hours of daytime TV, which suited me just fine, and made friends with the revolving nursing staff.
For most of that time, I felt calm. I had started meditating the year before: A handful of visits to the local Buddhist center in Chelsea had helped me create an oasis of calm among the bustling Manhattan streets. There I learned that my mind was responsible for creating my world, and my experience of my world could be transformed by first calming my mind and focusing on - ironically - my breath. I built foundational practices around gratitude and compassion that helped me open my heart and heal without fear while lying in those long hours in the hospital bed.
I learned that even in the midst of pain, physical discomfort and prolonged illness, we can still cultivate love and acceptance.
For months and even years afterwards, a full breath was an experience to be savored.
Today, fully recovered, I can forget to appreciate each breath. I can slip into old habits and push my body too hard. But now I know that the experience was a gift. I feel more connected to the many people who don't have easy access to medical care, a strong young body, a loving caring community or proper health insurance to fall back on. My dedication to training my mind to deal with life's difficulties - including the big ones we know are coming for us all like sickness, aging and death - has only grown.
And I notice that my mediation practice now helps me weather life's small storms better, too. I continue to try to choose love in the face of fear, calm in the face of group panic, and positive and creative responsibility for the thoughts and actions I want to be putting out in the world.
Today with every cough, ache and sniffle, it's easy for our minds to go to a place of panic and worst-case-scenario. Instead, take it as a moment to return to your breath, calm your mind and find a strong and resilient place to move into action, making peace with whatever comes forward.
Usually these mindsets are just one deep breath away.