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?