By Caroline Leavitt
When I was writing my novel Pictures of You, I never intended to write about childhood asthma. My own asthma was practically non-existent and I hadn’t wanted to revisit that terrible time when it was not, an era of ERs and hospitals and bullying. But sometimes what you want to write about isn’t what you need to write about and so I ended up creating 9-year old Sam, a severely asthmatic little boy.
Pictures of You is now a New York Times bestseller and I’ve been touring the country talking about it—27 different events so far! I always talk about the asthma in the book and I talk, too, about how my childhood asthma turned me into a writer. As a little girl I had lots of time to be inside libraries and schoolrooms while my friends played outside, and I read everything I could, and I began to write. I wasn’t that little girl with asthma anymore when I wrote. I was a lion tamer in Spain or a skydiver in France. Writing opened up my world for me and taught me that there were so many other things I could be than an asthmatic little girl.
I wasn’t sure how people were going to take the asthma portion of my novel. Truthfully, one asthma organization was furious with me for hinting there was a correlation between asthma and emotions. (Trust me, there is.) Would it be boring? Would people want to hear about it?
I began to hear from people after my talks. People would come up shyly and say quietly. “I have asthma, too.” Or “My son has terrible asthma.” They told me that they, too, had been bullied as children. That their children had hard times. And most importantly, they told me, “You got it right.” One woman came up to me and she couldn’t speak. She was crying and she grabbed my hand. “That story, about the little asthmatic girl who became a writer? That moved me,” she said. “It made me feel I can go back to school and be a nurse.” When I heard that, I was almost crying, too. A principal at a United Teacher’s Organization told me he was going to use that story in his class, to show kids they could be anything, that disease didn’t have to define them.
“I have asthma, too,” I heard. “I know what it’s like.” More and more people began telling me their asthma stories and thanking me for writing one. People were also really interested in the fact that the more I wrote about my asthma, the better I felt. Of course, writing doesn’t heal the disease. But it does put it into a context. It made me calmer, and that made me handle my asthma better—and feel better, too. Readers began telling me they were going to start writing about their feelings about having asthma, too. “Who knows, maybe it will help,” someone told me.
I’m not the poster girl for asthma. I’m not an expert. But what I do offer is my own very personal story and in telling it, I am amazed and delighted that I’ve helped others.
While I know that asthma care has improved since Sam and I were growing up, my experience on the road has taught me that even with all the information out there, people still have fear and mortification about being asthmatics, they still feel alone even in this age of the internet, and they still feel better when they are able to talk about asthma with others.