The Year in Breathing

Cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. But cool, I learned, may have been killing me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small.

Life lately has been very embarrassing for me, a formerly cool person. For starters, consider the Crocs, a pair of tie-dyed clown shoes I’ve worn near-daily since summer. It’s not that I was ever cool like I could pull off a pair of denim panties or whatever. But I was cool like I could look comfortable even when I wasn’t. Cool like when someone told me a while ago that I was hard to read, I felt warm with pride.

For reasons equally personal, cultural, and political, cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. Cool was permission to slink. Cool was not flopping around in a pair of plastic shoes just because they felt good on my feet.

But cool, I learned last year, may have been killing me. I fainted on the A train on my way to work one morning. Some days, blood leaked from my nose spontaneously. My memory, known among friends for being obnoxiously sharp, started to flag. I felt deep pain most of the time. My orbital bone throbbed with migraine several days out of the week. It finally got bad enough that I took myself to get a check-up, a completely mundane exercise for which I had secretly believed myself too cool.

Within weeks, seven different specialists had investigated my body. I was severely anemic. My septum was deviated. Polyps lined my nasal passages. My heartbeat was faint. There was a 2 mm growth at the base of my skull. But the real problem, the doctors determined, was unmanaged stress. It made my jaw tense and my neck stiff. It made my brain fog up. It made simple tasks feel like missions. A neurologist prescribed a triptan, half a dozen supplements, and deep breathing. I laughed. Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician.

But then this spring, I found myself in a belly flop of a depression. A few months earlier, I had quit a job around which I’d organized my personal and professional identities. A relationship I’d emptied myself into had begun to show cracks. I was unmoored and pathetic. Bored, I would pad through Instagram’s recommended page. The algorithm, which typically served me an equal mix of Kardashian children and satisfying slime videos, had read the room. Mindfulness memes colonized the app: 10 ways to maintain your boundaries. How to sit with discomfort. Affirmations for anxiety. Good reasons to put down your phone. (Irony is lost on the algorithm.) I felt moved, and strangely inspired. I didn’t recognize the instinct in myself but I craved more of the warmth and clarity and comfort that came from accounts with names like @notesfromyourtherapist.

Around the same time, I went to a lecture given by a friend about yoga. It was specific to her experiences and family history, but I wanted everything she described her practice to be: grounding, challenging, expansive. The next morning, I borrowed my mom’s mat and went to my first yoga class in years. And then I went a couple more times that week. I wasn’t very good. But miraculously, I didn’t care. I didn’t feel self-conscious needing to reach for a block; I didn’t feel competitive when I had to reset in a child’s pose before anyone else. Depression had humbled me.

Nearly all the instructors talked in riddles about breathing, and I thought of my doctor’s directive. Is a hot fire going up and a cool water going down what she had in mind when she had encouraged me to breathe? I became more aware of the tightness in my chest, the rigid shrug that turned my shoulders into little mountain peaks, the empty pocket formed by my tongue pressing into the roof of mouth. I had subconsciously trained myself to hold my breath. It’s possible that my brain and my body have gone years without receiving the oxygen they deserved. I had been too cool for the most elementary of human functions.

I spent the fall breathing, and deeply. In for four, hold for four, out for four. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. In through the right, hold at the top, out through the left; reverse. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 30 times quickly; in again and hold for 10. Hand on belly, hand on chest, in until you’re saturated, out until you’re empty.

Soon, everything looked different. My hips were in communion. My toes unclenched. I stopped shaving my head. I no longer needed the friction, the erasing my barber could do with a set of clippers. I wanted the softness of my curls to return, even when they made me look like Justin Timberlake. I started flashing deep smiles at strangers, letting them talk to me even when I had somewhere to be. I understood what people had meant all these years when they said it’s the small things. Every breath was a victory.

I became the most embarrassing version of myself possible, a walking cliché. I also leaned into my worst nightmare: a pair of Uggs for when the weather rules out Crocs. I feel humiliated sometimes. But more so, I feel good.