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The Plight of Guys (Like Me) Who Can’t Stop Coughing

Trust me, we're even more annoyed than you are

I wasn’t always this way. I was once like you. I inhaled and exhaled without a hitch, automatically and evenly. In short, my respiratory system was in just about perfect order. And I took it for granted.

Now, I cough — a lot, and noticeably, throughout the day.

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This week, we all snickered at video of President Trump reprimanding his (acting) chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, for coughing during an interview he gave to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Was this a more important a moment than when, in that same interview, Trump essentially welcomed continued foreign interference in our elections? No! Is it funny when Trump humiliates his own people, all of whom deserve eternal diarrhea for their complicity in a crusade against basic human rights? Yes! Should people always start coughing when the president, a feeble germaphobe, opens his puckered lie-hole? Absolutely! Is Mulvaney so dumb that he thinks he can cough four feet away from a microphone and the audio recording won’t pick it up? Apparently so!

But, finally: Should the serial coughers of our society be shamed and shunned? Speaking as one myself, I’m not so sure. This isn’t an easy person to be: You’re constantly singling yourself out as the weakest, most irritating member of the herd.

Several jobs ago, my chronic coughing proved such an annoyance that there was a whole email thread about it, with anyone in earshot of me invited to complain. I know this because one of my least favorite co-workers passive-aggressively forwarded the entire correspondence to me, as if to say: Look here, will you finally cut this out, please? I had to laugh: If only! Did they think I wanted to be audibly struggling for a normal intake of oxygen, slowly driving myself mad with my own repetitive tic? People in nearby cubicles were free of my cough by 5 p.m., whereas I faithfully took it home with me.  

No, if anyone suffers from the cough as much as I do, it’s my girlfriend, Maddie, whose leisure hours are too frequently punctuated by it. She was the one to force me into a medical appointment after I sheepishly admitted I’d had the affliction for years; my cobbled-together explanation for the symptom, a mix of allergies, habitual pot-smoking and unfortunate genetics (everyone in my family seems to cough as I do), did not satisfy.

And so I found myself in the care of a nice doctor who quickly diagnosed “vasomotor rhinitis,” a nonallergic response to, among other things, particulate matter in the air. With a nasal steroid spray, she said, I could see a 60 to 70 percent improvement in the cough —  a continual throat-clearing, really, but the people who have to put up with it aren’t likely to care about the distinction. There’s no actual “cure,” per se. So I still cough, or harrumph, or scratch the persistent tickle in my throat. Whatever you want to call it.

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Thankfully, Maddie has more or less accepted my tracheal noisemaking, apart from the gentle suggestion here and there that I get a second doctor’s opinion on the cause. And I haven’t heard any gripes from colleagues who sit near me here at MEL, though one could attribute that to self-imposed exile at an island of desks where others rarely sit.

My brother, the sole immediate relative who escaped the curse of faulty respiration (the fortunate bastard doesn’t need glasses, either), is probably the last person roasting me for the cough, which he imitates with a distinctly moist hacking, as if I’m consumptive.

Even so, I live in the fear of being called out elsewhere. I stifle the sound at the movie theater or try to hold the little spasm in check, eventually focused more on this than anything happening on the screen. I worry that cab drivers think I’m infecting their cars with a rare swine flu, and that in a group conversation I come across as trying to interrupt the speaker, or like I keep choking on the pale witticism I’d hoped to come out with. It’s a paranoid, embarrassing existence, I tell ya — good thing I’m awkward in almost every other way, just to balance things out. [Glances around, coughs quietly.]

So no, you don’t have to feel sympathy for Mick Mulvaney, a corrupt jagoff who must have been named after some 19th-century piece of anti-Irish propaganda — but you should appreciate my plight as a perpetual cougher and ruiner of quiet, serene atmospheres. I’m aware that each cough registers as the slight malfunction of an ordered universe, the squeaky cog that will eventually bring the whole thing to collapse. That’s my part to play. Be glad it isn’t yours! I know you’re tired of hearing the sickly rattle; trust me, I’m exhausted by it. Leave me to face the misery alone, and whatever you do, forgo the chance to recommend I cut out spicy foods or dairy; I’d sooner die.

But not without one last horrible cough.