Ashamed of Asthma: Emergency Inhalers in Movie Storytelling

Last weekend I was helping clear out my dad’s garage when I came across something I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty-years: my nebulizer.

Asthma nebulizers, or breath machines, are really easy to use. You pour the medicine into a container, flip a switch, and then breathe through a tube. I spent my childhood on this machine; probably twice a day for eight years I sat for a long time doing nothing but breathing.

I was, and am, very sick. I grew older and switched off the nebulizer to an emergency inhaler. Good ol’ albuterol. These inhalers have kept me safe and breathing through my worst asthma attacks. However, as I grew up I wanted nothing to do with my emergency inhaler. I avoided taking any asthma medicine unless I really felt I couldn’t breathe, much to the chagrin of my doctors. As an adult, I returned to using my daily inhaler, but I still rarely carry my emergency inhaler with me when I leave home.

Not carrying my inhaler at all times is stupid and dangerous. Asthma attacks are horrible and life threatening. My asthma attacks feel like my lungs are on fire. Two voices scream in my head as I wheeze and cough and choke on nothing. The first voice yells, “YOU NEED TO BREATHE,” while the second, louder voice yells back, “I CAN’T BREATHE. I CAN’T BREATHE.”

During an attack, I’ll sit down and concentrate on the burning pain as my airflow feels completely cut off. It’s a little surreal—like everyone else, I take breathing for granted. My heart begins beating so hard it feels like it’ll crack ribs, while my bewildered brain cannot rationalize why air isn’t entering my lungs. Afterwards my upper body is sore and feels bruised, like getting punched in the chest.

It’s horrible. It can kill people. An asthma attack could kill me. My emergency inhaler can save my life. I’ve experienced asthma attacks both with and without having my inhaler on me. Taking albuterol immediately opens on my lungs and I can finally gulp down deep breaths. Without the inhaler, all I can do is sit down and focus on breathing and trying to relax (anxiety spikes your asthma attacks, so calming down is a second priority to, you know, the whole breathing thing…). If I can speak, I’ll ask someone to buy me a soda. Even that doesn’t do much, because only some studies believe that a large dose of caffeine can help with asthma, but nowhere near what you need to control your breathing. It’s no excuse.

So what is my excuse? Why do I stupidly live so dangerously when a change in my environment can cause an asthma attack at any time?

Truthfully, I don’t want to use my emergency inhaler, even when I need it. In my mind, I’d rather risk not having it and hoping that deep breathing techniques and caffeine is enough to get me through any trouble breathing I experience. This is a naive approach to dealing with a serious medical condition, and I’m working on keeping my inhaler on me at all times. So why don’t I naturally carry around my life saving medication which can absolutely fit inside my pocket?

There’s a lot that goes into it. Most of it is on me and my personality. I want to be fine, to feel okay. I don’t want people watching me, worrying about me. My condition is an invisible condition—and honestly, I’d like to keep it that way. I want my life to be as free as possible from asthma. There are other factors though, some that I’m just beginning to realize. The main one I want to talk about though is the one we’ve all seen on the big screen.

Movie portrayals of asthmatics is rather depressing. In most movies and shows, when a character uses an inhaler on screen it’s a sign they are a coward. These characters use inhalers as a safety net—like a small kid with a blanket. Let’s take a look at a few of the more memorable examples:

  • In the cartoon show Jimmy Neutron there’s a character who’s literally named Carl Wheezer. If you grew up watching Nickelodeon as I did, you know that this character is basically a caricature of the nervous, awkward, loser nerd with asthma.
  • In the rom-com Hitch, we meet Albert, who’s awkwardness and lack of self-confidence is directly tied to his inhaler. His character is helped by Will Smith to get the girl of his dreams by forsaking his fears and becoming a better man. At one scene, Albert leaves the girl at her door, clearly nervous about whether or not he should kiss her. He pulls out his inhaler and is about to take a puff when he decides it’s time to “man up” and kiss the girl. He calls her name, chucks the inhaler, and marches over to give her a big awkward smooch while the romance music blasts in the background.
  • Probably the most famous instance though is The Goonies. At the end of the movie, Mikey watches Brand and Andy kiss before pulling out his inhaler and saying, “Aw, who needs it?” before tossing it away.
  • And recently, the 2017 remake of It portrayed inhalers in a similar way, though this time with a twist. Eddie Kasbrak uses his inhaler throughout the movie, especially when he’s afraid. As the story goes on, we learn that apparently Eddie doesn’t have asthma, which is a relief given how irresponsibly he uses his inhaler. The turning point for the character occurs when he confronts his mom about all the fake medication she’s giving him with a terrific line: “They’re Gazebos! They’re bullshit!”

It is both the most recent example and odd man out of the list given it’s gazebos conundrum, but even if Eddie’s mom is tricking him into taking placebos, Eddie’s manning up moment is seen by rejecting medicine that’s holding him back. In this case it’s fake medicine, but it still falls into that same trope.

Regardless of placebo subplot in It, the concept is clear in all these movies: medicine, particularly inhalers, keeps you from being brave, from being masculine, from being strong, from being heroic. Inhalers are what keeps these characters nerdy and socially awkward, or at least represent all that holds them back from being socially acceptable.

While it was a really good line in a fun movie, emergency inhalers like albuterol aren’t placebos (or gazebos, for that matter) for actual asthmatics. For us, emergency medication isn’t what keeps us from being manly or cool or whatever word you want to use. At least, that’s not my experience.

My experience is that medicine doesn’t keep me from being the best I can be. Rather, medicine is the only reason I can be myself.

With how widespread a condition asthma is (over 24 million people have asthma in the United States alone), it’s a little discomforting to see storytellers continue to use inhalers as a go-to symbol for weakness. What are we saying through these stories to people who need to keep a watchful eye on their ability to breathe?

Eddie’s, Mikey’s, and Albert’s character arcs all rely on the action of discarding a life-saving medication, which says a lot about how we view asthmatic medication as American storytellers.

I mean think about it. Would you cheer a diabetic who’s “manned up” by tossing away their insulin? Would you feel a sense of accomplishment for a character who’s deathly allergic to bees if they smashed their EpiPen?

Of course not. So why do we use inhalers as a storytelling crutch for cowardice? From a writing perspective, an emergency inhaler is easy imagery that conveys your message quickly. There’s a sense of victory and self-confidence when Albert from Hitch ditches the inhaler and kisses the girl. So too when Eddie quits hiding behind his sickness and rejoins the team to take on Pennywise.

In that vein, these scenes are akin to when a wounded character lets go of the leg crutches and begins to walk again on his own. Or the wheelchair-bound character stands on his own two feet. These scenes write themselves.

But just because it’s easy to convey doesn’t make it good storytelling. Just because the message is clear doesn’t mean it’s a helpful message to your audience. Does watching someone escape the confines of a wheelchair in a movie help those of us who are permanently wheelchair bound? I don’t know.

I do know that each time I watch one of these movies, I’m reminded why I don’t carry my emergency inhaler: why I stupidly risk my life for the pointlessness of pretending to be okay.

I guess that’s the real problem I have with It and other movies who use inhalers in this way. My medication keeps me being me. As a kid, I didn’t think it was out of the norm to be on that nebulizer or take allergy and asthma medicine. Rather, over time I was taught to feel ostracized due to my physical limitations. These shows and movies changed my mind; they told me that heroes don’t have health issues. In most movies this representation is meant in good fun. It’s just comedy, right?

But it’s not just comedy. The truth is I didn’t know I was sick until they told me to be ashamed of it. I’m a super nerd, so I don’t mind the association for the most part. For some people though, it’s probably more problematic—only shut ins and awkward folks have problems breathing, right?—but for me the major issue wasn’t that…it was the other characteristics. The sense of cowardice and man-less-ness that still plagues the back of my mind in an irrational and annoying way.

Dammit, it’d be nice if just once a protagonist used an inhaler and kept being a regular person. It’d be nice to see medication used on screen for what it is—not the resource of cowards, but the resource of functionality, of humanity.

Asthma is a nuanced disease, but regardless of how good or bad your asthma is, being macho isn’t gonna solve your breathing problem. Our treatment of asthma in stories must be as we see it in real life: nuanced and difficult, but controllable through medication.

It would’ve been a better movie if Eddie was an asthmatic. It would’ve been better if Eddie stood atop the dark well where Pennywise lurked, used his inhaler, then turned to his friends and said, “Let’s go.”

Staying medicated allows those of us who feel behind to keep up with healthy folks. It allows us to be human. We must stop stigmatizing sickness, mistakingly representing lifelong conditions as oversimplified cowardice. We must write better stories that show how people succeed and thrive not despite of, but alongside their illnesses.