Chapter One: Breathe

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

The most profound experience that ever happened to me was in a dorm room of a hostel in Dublin, December 1999. But to explain its significance, I need first to go back.

All my life I’d been diagnosed as asthmatic, and from the dawn of my existence had been in and out of hospital with bouts varying from mild to life threatening. Apparently I flatlined when I was three years old.

But I was never saddened by my condition, as I’d never known life without it. As a kid, I’d run around playing cricket, footy, climbing trees, get subsequently wheezy, have a puff of my inhaler and get straight back out there amongst all the sights, sounds, and smells that constituted boyhood.

It was a similar story throughout my teen years. But around the age of eighteen, just as I finished high school, and, ironically enough, when young people are thrust into the pressures of adult life, the asthma medications that had served me until this point appeared to no longer work.

Standing in front of the mirror, I’d look myself square in the eye and puff and puff with all my might. But no relief would come. I assumed I’d become immune to the old medications, and I sought the advice of countless doctors and specialists who, for the most part, would scratch their heads and prescribe the same old stuff over and over.

Five or more very difficult years passed during which I continued to feel, quite literally, permanently unable to breathe, or at least unable to catch my breath fully as I could when I was younger.

In June 1999, I decided I was going overseas, independently, for the first time. Seven years earlier I’d visited Irish relatives in America with Dad and my older brother Stephen, but this trip was to have no guardian or restrictions.

My main objective was to reach the motherland of Malta and the fatherland of Ireland, where I had numerous relatives whose names were like folklore to us first-generation Australians down in Oz. The trip also included a chocolate-box tour of mainland Europe. But with the unwanted extra of permanent breathlessness, I less so relished sites such as the Eiffel Tower, St Mark’s Square in Venice, and the Alps of Switzerland, as I gazed at them with strained eyes and accelerated heartbeat.

I reached Ireland by December that year, and having caught an asthmatic’s nightmare—the flu—my breathing was at such a record low that I considered cancelling the rest of my trip and flying back to Australia. But barely having the strength to make the phone call, as opposed to that to endure the long haul flight, I settled into a dorm room in a hostel in Dublin.

With countless anonymous backpackers checking in and out, my makeshift ward was far from private, and taking my inhaler up to 30 times a day—which, although it would “work” by way of making my hands go shaky, but never would it relieve my breathing—I spent most of the daylight hours in bed. This was the first time in my adult life when I actually fretted for my parents. But as much as I was here, they were in Melbourne.

I’d been there for almost a week, successfully avoiding social contact, when an unsought voice made its way into my ear. ‘What’s wrong with you? You look terrible.’

‘Nothing. I’m fine.’ I said, wishing this man would catch the soonest bus to the universe’s outermost corner.

‘You’re not fine. I would know.’

‘How would you know?’

To this day his name eludes me. He was Indian, about middle-aged, and he was proud to tell me that he was a general practitioner in London.

‘Do you have asthma?’ he asked.

‘I do, but—’

‘—And have you taken your Ventolin today?’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t seem to—’

‘—Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I do, I’ve probably taken it over twenty times today, but it doesn’t—’

‘—Son, you have oversensitive airways. The inhalers relax them so as to facilitate natural breathing. This is why it’s so important you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ve been taking them all my life! But for the last five years I seem to have become immune to—’

‘—Son, another remedy is to wear an undershirt at all times, to avoid sudden changes of temperature getting into your chest.’

‘I sometimes do, but—’

‘—But more important is that you take two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening. In fact, it’s getting dark, you should take it right now!’ he said, gesturing towards the dorm bathroom.

I felt the ‘v’ of my forehead increase from lowercase to capital. ‘I’m not taking those stupid inhalers, mate! All they do is make my hands shake—’

‘—Son, come on! Take it right now. No more backchat!’

Feeling like a child being sent to his room, I snatched my inhaler from my backpack and stomped into the bathroom. I flicked on the light, belligerently; the only trace of compensation being that the door was heavy enough that I could grumble without him being able to hear me.

‘Stupid inhaler.’

I turned towards the mirror and looked myself square in the eye.

‘I should just change my flight and go home.’

I exhaled until my lungs were almost empty.

‘One more taste of this evil shit and I’ll vomit.’

I put the inhaler to my mouth, pressed and inhaled mightily.

What happened next was the closest thing to a miracle I’d ever experienced.

As though an invisible corset had been unfastened, or a padlock on my ribcage suddenly unlocked, I felt a massive pressure fall away from my chest where from one neighbouring second to the next, I could breathe! I could breathe! My god, I could breathe!

Propelled into a state of natural ecstasy, it was as though I’d swapped bodies, or had reverted to the blissful state of childhood. I stood there for some seconds, gazing with disbelief into the mirror, breathing deeply, freely, and relishing each full inhalation like a smoker does with a cigarette.

In disbelief, I walked back into the dorm room where my Indian friend was waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘It worked!’

‘Of course it bloody worked!’

‘Yeah, but… it hasn’t worked for like five years, and, like, I mean, it really worked!’

‘Son, if we meet in 50 years, I want to hear you tell me that you take your inhaler two puffs in the morning and two puffs in the evening.’

‘I’ll do that. I really will!’

I went to bed soon after, and as though an unconscious curse had been miraculously lifted, I remember waking through the night—in my squeaky top bunk bed—in such a state of bliss that it brought tears to my eyes. I woke the next morning feeling more rested and energised than I could remember ever, and just as the doctor ordered, I took my morning puffs.

I walked all around Dublin that day in what was, I guess, the closest state of enlightenment I’d ever known.

As though a veil, or constriction, had been removed from my senses, I could see, hear, taste, smell, and most of all feel with a heightened awareness that, for the first time in my life, made me realise I wasn’t a separate entity floating aimlessly in a callous universe, but an intrinsic part of some sort of singular collective consciousness that forms the universe and all life in it. Be it the collective squawking of the seagulls reeling above, sounding, to me, as pure as dripping glass, or the icy sea breeze blowing off the Irish Sea feeling like a life-giving coverlet brushing against my face, or the white rays of the winter sun feeling as though they were stirring me on a cellular level, every sensory experience seemed so amplified that it rendered me in awe of all life and the very concept of it.

Where there was once great heaviness, there was now tingling lightness, and as though doing away with an age of pain and blockage, I wandered until dusk through the streets of Dublin, and up and down the length of the River Liffey, coughing up an indescribable amount of rubbish from my lungs. Each fragment discarded making way for even more glorious capacity to breathe.

It was no mystery that my new condition was bequeathed via the portal of good breathing, but how the breathing had unlocked was an utter mystery. I mean, all I’d done, as I’d been doing hourly for however many years previously, was take a whack from my inhaler, and—bang!—I was fast-tracked to comparative enlightenment. The spiritually inclined would later suggest that through some sort of trick of the mind occurring inadvertently by the doctor having taken control, I’d had a massive release from my heart chakra. Whatever that meant.

I left Dublin the next day on the ferry, and as the only soul standing on its stern side; I watched the small windblown city, with its famous Poolbeg chimneys, diminishing in the distance. It had truly been the scene of a miracle.

I arrived in London the next day, to be told vivaciously by my friends how well they thought I looked. I told them the story, sparing the details, to which with faces that suggested they had no personal experience with such matters, they made a sincere effort to show interest. My victory was a personal one, though cherished nonetheless.

I lived in London for the next twelve months, existing day and night in a continual state of bliss.

Saturday mornings were a particular treasure—where I’d lie on my bed in Tooting, relishing the ability to breathe as though with every breath I was having a sort of healing-conditioner massaged through my soul.

With my head, my body, and most importantly, my heart, now completely clear, it was as though I’d become who I really was: my true untainted self according to spiritual hypothesis, which at the time I knew little about.

Around 7.30 a.m., I’d open my bedroom door, which opened onto the backyard, and wait, ritually, for the sun’s rays to creep around the brick wall corner. While listening to the sounds of Hindu music wafting from the shops of Upper Tooting Road, I’d sit on my floor and be filled with ecstasy by seemingly nothing—or equally—by something as inconsequential as watching an ant crawl up a wall. Along with meeting my doctor-friend in Dublin, it was perhaps here that my interest in going to India began.

There was no amount of money on Earth I could be offered to revert back to my pre-Dublin condition, which I referred to as the “cursed me”. As now, able to feel it in the very air around me, I resided in a permanent state of love; love for all life, love for all matter, and most importantly, love for myself. I would smirk at the thought of the old me as I would at the thought of a bumbling child, who, lost in the perpetual state of fear and tension that I was, would battle my emotions via my head as successfully as one dodges machinegun fire. I was hereby at the summit of health and happiness; for by whatever means people were trying to acquire it, I now had it. But all of this was about to be lost. I went back to Australia.

* Excerpt from Man, Dog, Bike. Now available on Amazon!

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