In 1986, when I was 16, I was hired at a fast food spot called A&W. One of my new coworkers was a girl named Tiffany who had picked on me in school years earlier.
One night we got to talking, and I revealed that I had severe asthma and allergies. She told me, “If I had known that when we were kids, I never would have picked on you.”
That conversation was a turning point in my life.
A childhood of bullying
I often wondered why so many kids picked on me when I was younger. I was picked on by the big kids who picked on all the little kids. The “nice” kids — girls like Tiffany — picked on me. Sometimes, even my friends picked on me.
I was ripe to be picked on: I was a shy, nervous kid who mostly kept to myself. I was also short and scrawny and wore thick-rimmed glasses fixed with black electrical tape. At least eye surgery put an end to my glasses when I was ten, but that didn’t stop the bullying.
Poorly controlled asthma and allergies to thank
Growing up with bad asthma and allergies didn’t help my plight. I was allergic to pretty much everything: cats, dogs, trees, grasses, molds. That, combined with my asthma symptoms seemed to make me an easy target for the bullies. My nose was usually red and I was always scratching it. I was often sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing. My breathing was also very loud.
Asthma medicines did exist at the time, but I was only prescribed them when I experienced symptoms. And, being a young kid, I rarely took my medicines properly, which only exacerbated my asthma — and possibly my bullying problem, too.
Teachers who didn’t know how to help
My gym teachers were aware of my asthma, and they’d let me sit on the sidelines when my asthma was acting up — but only if I said something.
Remember, I was a shy kid. I had to work up the nerve to speak up, but nerve often eluded me. I didn’t need any extra attention from my classmates, so instead of letting a teacher know how I was feeling, I’d just play awkwardly as I struggled to breathe.
I’m not sure if my other teachers were aware of my asthma — or that I was being bullied — but there are times that I can remember struggling with allergies or asthma in class. You can bet this affected my ability to pay attention. It’s not easy asking for help when you’re feeling sick, especially when you’re young.
A gradual improvement
Thankfully, things got better as I got older. I became less self-conscious about my asthma and started being more proactive. My doctors began treating asthma as a chronic disease and told me to regularly use asthma medications. I was encouraged to take asthma controller medicines every day instead of just taking medicine when I had symptoms. This shift helped me to breathe easier most days.
With my asthma under control, my confidence improved. I was finally able to make some friends. When I turned 16, I applied for that job at A&W, where I got to make a friend out of a former bully. Tiffany and I sometimes talked about our experiences in elementary school. But mostly we talked about regular things teenagers talk about.
Today asthma and allergy care has improved
Fortunately, most of the kids I work with today as a respiratory therapist are able to keep their asthma symptoms under control. Luckily they don’t have to miss out on activities or worry about falling behind in school, like I did.
The world’s leading asthma experts have also created new asthma guidelines. These guide doctors to the best strategies for managing their asthmatic kids. It’s safe to say that asthma treatment has come a long way since I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s!
Schools are better at managing healthcare and bullies
Teachers today are also better equipped today for managing both bullying and chronic health conditions like asthma. School asthma action plans inform teachers if a child has the condition, and help educate teachers what to do about it. The plans list the signs of asthma to watch out for and what to do when these signs are spotted.
Teachers can also rely on bully awareness programs that offer strategies to nip bullying in the bud. Some research even suggests that bullying is on the decline.
Today I have four kids. One is in college, one is in high school, and two are in elementary school. My youngest three all had to deal with asthma, allergies, and/or eczema.
Thankfully, none of my kids have had to deal with bullying. I like to think this is because we’ve put systems in place to protect kids that didn’t exist when I was growing up.
For more information on how to manage asthma, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
NPS-US-NP-00553 DECEMBER 2019