Understanding and Your Experience

abby jean’s post, “How Do We Understand This Experience?,” spun my brain off on a tangent about how disability issues are framed in the media and pop culture. Specifically, I read her post and then picked up a book I was in the process of reading and I came across the line “I couldn’t breathe. My heart skipped a beat.” And I thought about the fact that the author was using this line to convey a sense of tension and shock, and probably didn’t mean it literally.

Because I actually have had the experience of being unable to breathe. Of having my heart skip a beat. And my experience of that situation certainly is not like the experience described in this book. The author was using the phrase to convey a sense of numbness in response to an overwhelming situation. As a reader who has been unable to breathe, though, I just found the line slightly puzzling, and very inappropriate for a description of what the character was experiencing, since she obviously could breathe and her heart was working, or she wouldn’t be able to take the course of action she embarks on right after that line.

Here’s the thing about your heart and lungs: They’re a critical part of you, but you don’t realize it until they aren’t working. You don’t realize how noisy they are until there’s a sudden silence. And you don’t realize how important they are until suddenly they aren’t there. Then, they become the most important thing in the world, your all-consuming focus, and your priority is dealing with it, not thinking about anything else happening around you. Until, of course, you lose consciousness.

What happens when you can’t breathe is that you panic. Your panic makes the situation even worse. You are most certainly not numb, you are fighting with every fiber of your being to find air. You want to rip your chest open and shovel air into it. You are gasping like a fish out of water. You can feel your airways stubbornly remaining closed despite the fact that you are pleading with them to open. There is bubbling and creaking and hissing. You start to feel lightheaded. A rush of adrenaline surges through you, depleting your body’s oxygen resources even more quickly. Spots appear in your vision.

If you’re lucky, your rescue inhaler works.

And when your heart skips a beat? It is terrifying. You are waiting and hoping that your heart will pick up at the next beat, that the rhythm will be normal again. If you’re lucky, it does. If you’re unlucky, a cascading series of reactions is going to happen to you, and you have to hope that the people around you will know what to do, and will do it right. And will do it fast. Because, if they don’t, you die.

Which is, you know, not the same thing as being shocked by an event and feeling momentarily thrown. At all. “I couldn’t breathe. My heart skipped a beat.” is a classical rhetorical tactic used in books all over the world; it’s a shorthand which people are supposed to understand because it’s so widely used, but, in fact, for people who have lived through that, it’s a pretty poor shorthand. Would it be possible for authors to perhaps come up with a more accurate depiction of the response to surprise, stress, tension, shock, horror, etc?


  1. I’d only thought of clichés like “I couldn’t breathe” and “My heart skipped a beat” as just really bad writing–I’d never connected them to ableism before. Thank you for making that connection.

    I think when people say they “couldn’t breathe” in situations where they were shocked, horrified, etc., what they’re most likely talking about is the sharp intake of breath that sometimes happens when you’re surprised. (“Gasp!” as Bugs Bunny would say). Which has nothing whatsoever to do with not being able to breathe.

    These shorthand phrases remind me of what lauredhel (hi, lauredhel!) wrote about in 101: A note to able-bodied readers:

    When I tag a post “disability”, which is right up top there, would able-bodied (AFAIK) people please not centre their concerns by talking about how they had a runny nose or a headache once, please? Treat this as you would any other post about being in an oppressed group of which you are not a member. You’re welcome to comment, but just keep in mind what we’re actually talking about, eh? Stops you looking like a numpty.

    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  2. I love this post. Like, a lot. I get these really serious anaphylactic reactions from time to time, and they are friggin’ TERRIFYING. As in, I literally cannot breathe because my throat has swollen to the point where it is closed.

    Anyway, this post is thought-provoking and awesome.

  3. I’ve never had anaphylactic reaction, but I’ve had asthma attacks and panic attacks (especially the latter) stop or impede my breathing. Seriously, the feeling of gasping for air, or breathing in as deeply as you can and still not feeling like you have enough oxygen… terrifying.

    Thanks for this post. I hadn’t actually considered the ableist connotations before.
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..The Spoon Theory: How Does It Affect You? =-.

  4. It’s been a long time since I was in a position where I couldn’t breath, and I agree, ‘numb’ most certainly doesn’t describe it. I’ve felt a lot of apprehension and panic in those situations, but only nothing once, and that’s because I hit my head in a swimming pool at the time and was in a bit of shock, but that wasn’t the same as numb. This post reminds me of a lot of things. Particularly the phrase “Oh, I’m blind without my glasses.” and its multiple kissing cousins. I keep wanting to smack people who say that. There’s a difference between “Well, that’s a little blurry.” and everything else. And they set it up as an either/or dichotomy, too, which is especially irritating. It’s always either perfect vision or blind, gods forbid someone acknowledge a middle ground. That and they don’t even know what blind is, apparently. Sure, some of it is total lack of sight, but quite a lot of people have some sort of vision. And then there’s the “so-n-so’s blind” as an offhand excuse for why you do something …and that’s just as bad. I tell ’em I’ve got vision, tyvm, and then they try and – correct – me. Twenty-odd years of family and friends trying to correct me, long before I ever got acknowledged as needing a smidge of assistance. At this point I’d pay money if someone could tell me how to get ’em to quit.

  5. Re: A.W:

    Yes, this dichotomy annoys me in general, but especially when it comes to the word “depressed”. Whenever I say “I’m depressed” people assume I’m just in a bid of a bad mood that can be cured by a nice hot bath, a walk in the park or taking a day off. Well, no. I’m depressed. Like really depressed, not just feeling a bit down today. Feeling a bit down is what I feel on my good days. By using these hyperboles, people take away the words other people need to talk about themselves. Someone on the verge of not being able to breathe croaks out “I can’t breathe” – nice joke. Or at least I bet that will be the first reaction of some people if the person doesn’t have a known condition. I vaguely remember my sports teacher’s doubtfull look when I croaked that and then shook my head when he asked me if I had asthma. I still don’t know why I could hardly get any air into my lungs that day, but that look didn’t help with the panic at all.