One of my favorite herbal teas is Dandelion spice. It has a slightly bitter, warm flavor and the label boasts of “detoxifying” qualities. When I drink it I feel productive. I can convince myself that I am not only detoxing my body, but my entire spirit. Breathing Lessons is essentially a portrait of Tyler’s protagonist Maggie drinking a cup of Dandelion tea. Maggie and Ira use their road trip as a way to identify and eventually detox the relationships that no longer serve a purpose in their lives. Breathing lessons is a manual to the most beneficial detox diet of all time: ridding yourself of toxic relationships. Breathing Lessons introduces the reader to a broader definition. In short it is a relationship that no longer serves to benefit the members of that relationship. Throughout the book, the reader learns how to distinguish a subtly toxic relationship from those that we must keep. Maggie and I are similar in that we both needed a detox period to understand which relationships were meaningful to us and which were better off discarded.
For the characters in Breathing Lessons detoxing and discarding are connected. To discard the initial action of what I am calling “the detoxing process.” Discarding happens in an instant: you give something away and then it disappears. Detoxing, is a process in which something negative gradually leaves the body. Although “detoxing” is only popular is the realm of alternative medicine and has no real clinical backing, I am using the term in the context of Breathing Lessons as a process by which a character discards something negative in their lives and takes time to remove that negative thing from their system.
Maggie’s initial moment of discard comes when she half-heartedly attempts to discard her husband and the life attached to him when she decides to stay at a convenience store on the way to Max’s funeral. Although she is drawn back into her relationship with Ira she discards the fantasy attached to Mr. Gabriel, a patient she had gained validation from at the nursing home. She goes on the realize, “She grew numbly, wearily certain that there was no such thing on this earth as real change. You could change husbands, but not the situation. You could change who, but not what. We’re all just spinning here, she thought…” From that moment Maggie is propelled into a detox period. She attempts to rid herself of the fantasies that keep her fixated on the possibility of having power over her own life.
What follows is a series of Maggie discovering which relationships are healthy and which are potentially dangerous. Self help author, Hara Estroff Marano claims that, “Healthy relationships are based on mutual caring. Whether it’s friendship or marriage, there has to be giving and receiving. We reach out to friends who could use support, make an effort to understand what they need and often go out of our way to give them what we sense they need.” In her period of detox, Maggie begins to learn which relationships consist of mutual caring and which no longer serve the members of that relationship.
As Maggie attempts to disregard her fantasies, she attempts to reconstruct a real relationship with Fiona, her ex-daughter-in-law. With Ira’s help, she learns that this relationship is another fantasy that needs to be discarded. Maggie’s involvement in Fiona’s life requires that Fiona reconnects with Jesse, a situation that would only causes pain for both characters. Ira calls Maggie out on this fantasy when he brings her plot to a halt, “Look here, Maggie, you can’t keep engineering other people’s lives this way. Face facts! Wake up and smell the coffee!” (308). Maggie later thinks, “So here she was all alone… She was in trouble with everyone in this house and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome”(309). Through her need to control her relationships she had ended up alienating herself. With Ira’s help, Maggie realizes that this fantasy will never become a reality and therefore needs to be removed. In the process of detoxing herself from the fantasies that keep her seeking to control what cannot be controlled, she learns that certain relationships will never return to reality in a productive way.
Serena, in her discarding binge, misidentifies her relationship with Maggie as toxic and neglects the mutual reassurance the two would gain in their respective periods of loss. Until Maggie’s awaking after the loss of Fiona, she accepts this as part of the process of her detox. Serena brings light to the idea of discarding when she says:
That’s what it comes down to in the end, willy-nilly: just pruning and disposing. Why you’ve been doing it all along, right? You start shucking your children off from the day you give birth; that’s the whole point. A big, big moment is when you can look at them and say, ‘Now if I died they could get along without me. I’m free to die,’ you say. ‘What a relief! Discard, Discard!’(80).
On one hand, she touches on truth when she claims that things, including certain aspects of your children’s lives, must be discarded in order to complete a thorough detox period. Maggie discovers this when she realizes that she must let go of her fantasies regarding Fiona and her granddaughter, Leroy. On the other hand, Serena and Maggie also learn that discarding can be dangerous, especially when one attempt to discard their support system in times of change. After a mishap at her husband’s funeral, Serena rasahly discards Maggie and although Maggie does not actively discard Serena, she spends the rest of the novel seeking reconnect Fiona and Jesse (contrary to Serena’s advice). While these women have been friends for so long, their falling out could easily be mistaken as a relationship running its course, Yet the reader learns that the two women need each other for support in times of change. When Maggie calls Serena to apologize after she lets go of Fiona she is quickly forgiven. Both women take the opportunity to check up on one another and the reader sees a foundation for a healthy relationship.
My moment of discard was when I decided to abandon the faith I was raised with. This left a gaping hole in my life. My detox consisted largely of me deciding which people, practices and beliefs still served me in my new agnostic state. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how my close relationships would change as I made this massive change. I wanted to maintain healthy relationships with as many people as possible, but I was also aware that a mutually caring relationship might not be possible without the faith foundation my family and friends had grown accustomed to.
Similarly to Maggie realizing that she and Fiona served a purpose in each other’s lives, after leaving Christianity I was faced with people that I no longer needed in my life. I expected to struggle connecting with my church friends, but I was not anticipating the difficulty I had connecting to my friends who had no religious past. One of my close high school friends in particular had a difficult time restructuring our relationship in the face of change. When I was a christian, I would often bring God into the conversation when she was dealing with difficult things. Although she had never believed in said God, I think the idea of religion comforted her. The idea of having a Christian on her side seemed to give her confidence to move forward. The latter stages of our friendship consisted of her unloading on me for emotional support and me receiving little support in return. We stopped hanging out for fun and essentially used each other as emotional barf bags. While we had provided each other emotional support in the past, but it had always felt more productive. Eventually, in the same way that Maggie realizes that Fiona no longer serves a purpose in her life, I realized that Sage had only become a source of stress. We have mutually distanced ourselves from each other. We both have new friends that take care of our emotional needs in a much more productive way.
As I coped with changes, Maggie and I both attempted to discard relationships that still serve a purpose to us. I also have a friend like Serena, who seemed lost until we realized the value we bring to each other. I had grown up with this particular friend. We had mostly stuck together because we were two devout Christians at a public school. We went to youth group and sunday church services together. When I left the church I was unsure of how my long-time friend would take the news. We never had a real confrontation, but we both began acting differently around one another. I kept her at a distance, unsure of what we could talk about any more. She avoided any topics that could lead to controversial ideas. On the surface this friendship seemed as if it lacked the foundation to continue existing. However, recently we have began to reconnect. Her faith is inspiring, even if I don’t believe the same things as her. She is still an enjoyable person to be around and offers me a faith-based perspective that I often forget. Although our relationship might have seemed as if it would be better off discarded, as I detoxed my faith, I realized that she was still a person I cared about and who cared about me.
Taking stock of the relationships in a person’s life can be challenging. Like Maggie, we often get attached to the fantasies we have about people rather than considering how they affect us or we affect them, but once we discard something big, like a religious tradition or a bad habit, it can aid in deciding the people we value most. The relationships we establish should bring good things into the lives of both participants, sometimes a person needs a change to realize that is the case.
Estroff Marano, Hara. “Give and Take: Mutual Caring among Partners.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 4 Mar. 2003,
Tyler, Anne. Breathing Lessons. Ballantine Books, 1988.