My Brooklyn apartment is dryer than Death Valley, literally.
On Christmas Eve I woke up wheezing. My chest felt inflated, and I couldn’t breathe properly. The sound of my breath was high pitched, pathetic, and down right, as Trump would twhine: “sad!”
I stayed calm. This had been happening lately. Sleeping was out of the question. It was around 3am. My diffuser was pumping peppermint mist into the air, to no avail. I remembered a girlfriend in Panama swearing that no one in her family could sleep without Bicky bicky, aka Vicks vaporub. I melted coconut oil in my hand, mixed in a few drops of Eucalyptus oil, rubbed it into my chest, and lay back down. It was no use.
I remembered having a similar thing when I was a kid that they called the croup. It made your your voice sound like death was coming, otherwise everything was normal. The fix was to run hot as can be water in the sink, drape a towel over your head, lean in, and breathe. In minutes, everything was cool. It was scary the first time, and then it was just an exercise. I decided to take a hot shower. That felt good. I could breathe better. When I got back in bed and lay down, the wheezing started again.
I was cool headed enough not to get annoyed and start fake coughing and getting dramatic. I had pulled that a few nights before and it just made things worse. I’m not sure why did it in the first place, because there’s no one to impress. I sleep alone. I began to google asthma attack, night asthma, etc. The basic advice was to sit upright. Stay calm and so long as you can talk, you’ll be fine, just hit your inhaler. Of course I don’t have an inhaler. If you can’t talk, call an ambuldance, as my brother used to say when he was learning to talk.
So I lay with my back against the wall, the down comforter over me. Breathing calmly, eyes closed. Was it the down comforter? Oh god, don’t start down this road. It could be anything, invisible mold, pillows, a miasma seeping in from outside underneath the door. My head dropped and woke me. I lay down and somehow drifted off, exhausted.
The strange thing is, during the day, I felt super. No wheezing, no coughing, no problems riding a skateboard, or working inside. A few days back I had walked into one of my favorite herb shops in East Village, Flower Power. A woman behind the counter asked if she could help, and I described my problem. I mentioned that the closest thing I knew was slippery elm, but that I didn’t have a sore throat. Rather than sell me a bundle of dried nostrum root, she asked a logical question: is your apartment dry?
Great question, I replied. Of course it was, all New York apartments are.. Even those with leaky steam heaters. I thanked her and wandered a bit, wishing I could carry something away. But she’d armed me sufficiently. I promptly Amazon primed a little usb powered diffuser-mister. It takes water and drops of essential oil. I had read about a few that were antihistamines, like peppermint. So I ordered a little assortment of essential oils.
This little $15 purchase was barely smaller than a can of Coke and made what looked identical to smoke, but it was just water vapor. It was mesmerizing. I loved watching it. It’s nearly silent and has an ultrasonic piece that vibrates as fast as.. An old wifi router? Wait, no it’s 2.4 megahertz not gigahertz. After letting loose 3 drops of peppermint, it smelled amazing. It even had a little light and you could choose the color. I set it next to my bed and slept well. But the next night I had the wheezing episode again. I amazon primed a little $25 digital thermometer-hygrometer or hygro-thermometer.
Finally, I would let science speak. The hygrometer registered 17% humidity. At first I struggled mentally with the unit of measurement, relative humidity. From entomological work, I remembered, it’s sort of tricky. What it’s related to is temperature. So as temperature changes, even if humidity stays constant, relative humidity changes too. Oh fuck it, the hydrometer says anything up to 30% is dry. So I amazon primed a larger humidifier.
At $60 it was my biggest purchase of the debacle, and I couldn’t wait to get it. Meanwhile, I thought of ways to bolster my current measures. I had been draping wet towels in the living area of my studio. Yea, btw, it’s a studio not a real apartment. It’s all one room. So I opened the bathroom door, waited till the bath faucet was hot af and then pulled the trigger to divert to the shower head. I dropped the bathtub plug. I turned on the pressure cooker full of water and just made steam. In minutes I had 30% relative humidity and a hot bath. People had been telling me that they leave pots of water around. But to my amazement, by morning, the humidity was back to 15%, and that’s with a bathtub full of water. Towels were always bone dry by morning.
So the day after Christmas, still waiting on the bigger humidifier to arrive, I resolved to make an appointment with a doctor to get an inhaler. I couldn’t bare another night like Christmas Eve. But all day I felt great. The pharmacist at Duane Reade recommended a walk-in clinic with a nurse practitioner, but couldn’t be bothered to go all the way to fidi. Why did I need a prescription for an inhaler anyway? Why couldn’t I just buy one? My friends told me that inhalers were for athletes what ritalin and adderall is for students, everyone has them. All you have to say to the doctor is “I have trouble concentrating / breathing” and you get the prescription. This made me even more meh.
I bailed. Fuck it. And my humidifier arrived. When I walked into my apartment, it was 10% humidity and 68 degrees. I fired up the humidifier and watched as the magic water smaper curled into a cloud and then sank dissipating. Then I pulled up my fav weather app Dark Sky. I had no idea what 10% humidity really meant. All I know is it’s about 40% outside in New York. My brother lives in Avon, Colorado and talks about nose bleeds from the dry air, so I checked there. It’s 18 to 30%. Damn, so I think what’s the driest place in the USA? May be Death Valley? The low is 11%. Wow, I’ve been sleeping in Death Valley.
So today I look around to for comparisons and recommendations. NYC gov recommends indoor humidity between 30–60%.¹ Above 60% is when mold is likely, especially in summer. But what about below 30%? Apparently, I have stumbled onto cutting edge science. A 2017 study by the NIH titled Indoor temperature and humidity in New York City apartments during winter says that, “Concerns about indoor residential humidity have largely centered on dampness prevention. Overly dry air, however, may favor the survival of some viruses and hence respiratory infections.”² Awww ffs. Really? Let me guess, should I take get a prescription for steroids now? But despite the fact that this study is funded by government grants, civilians are not qualified to read anything beyond the summary, so I’ll never know.
This morning, my humidity read 27%. I slept quite well. I wrote long passages in my fledgling dream log, complete with environmental readings for each entry. Excited, I take my hygrometer to the office, quite curious to compare the relative humidity to home. To my bewilderment, my office is 78 degrees and.. 10% humidity. I have been working and sleeping in Death Valley- and survived to buy a hygrometer and humidifier! Can you imagine stumbling across a man in the middle of the desert, nearly dead, wacked on black market steroids, clinging to his essential oils and homemade vapo rub.. Babbling in a high pitched wheeze about how he can’t get a proper prescription for an inhaler? And somehow he’s missed the fact that he’s just thirsty? He’s lungs are just drying out. All he needs is water. Yes I am this man. Thank you kind and wise healer in the east village herb shop for your priceless remedy.
¹“Air Quality Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) — NYC.gov.” https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/health/health-topics/air-quality-indoor-air-quality-iaq.page. Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.
²“Indoor temperature and humidity in New York City … — NCBI — NIH.” 17 Jan. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28108095. Accessed 28 Dec. 2017.