Daily Archives: April 25, 2012

V is for Vertigo


A sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness, dizziness, a reeling sensation, a feeling that you are about to fall, a feeling of motion when one is stationary.

I have Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder that affects balance and hearing. One of the main symptoms is vertigo. There are four symptoms altogether: varying degrees of hearing loss, pressure in the ear, ringing or roaring in the affected ear, and vertigo.

The vertigo symptom of Ménière’s feels as though you are spinning or moving, or that the world is spinning around you. You also can have:

  • Severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and sweating.
  • Worsening symptoms with sudden movement.
  • The need to lie down–NOW and for a long time.
  • A feeling of dizziness and being off-balance that lasts from about 20 minutes to a few hours, (or in my case, at its worst, it can last for days).

In my case, this disease is hereditary. My maternal grandmother had it, my mother has it too. It’s thought to be primarily inner ear issue, but it, at least for me, is also closely tied to visual information, (or as my brain interprets it, misinformation).

image by jacopo

Heights trigger it, can put me in this strange state of frozen shock where I can’t move or breathe. My eyes see how far down, how impossible the situation, and cannot process why I am where I am, sees it as incongruous and gets stuck.

It happened once on the steep side of a hill at Eight Lakes Basin in Oregon, a talus slope that you could hike, but only as it continually shifted under your feet. Half way through, I had to stop and sit down. I couldn’t move, was having trouble breathing. Eric stayed with me like that for almost a half an hour. This was before we were married, and before I knew I had Ménière’s, before I understood I wasn’t simply afraid of heights, but was afraid that the dizziness I felt in that moment would make me fall, possibly to my death.

It happened again on a tour of the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in Newport, Oregon. On the spiral staircase leading to the second floor, I turned to look out the window, down a cliff and into the ocean, and I froze. It was too much information at once–2nd floor; spiraling, steep, tight stairway; cliff with an ocean at the bottom of it all. I felt like I was going to pass out, kept my sweaty hand on Eric’s shoulder as he walked a few steps ahead of me, tried not to panic, to keep breathing.

image by jojo nicdao

It’s not just heights that trigger it. Movement, especially the kind where my body is clearly in a different state than the environment, can wreak havoc on my system. I get car sick very easily. It took me months to learn to walk on a treadmill. I had to walk really close to the front so that the movement of the track would be hidden by the control panel.

The vertigo was triggered on a day when the temperature was 100+ and I was driving a windy road from Colorado to Oregon in a car stuffed with half of everything I owned but no air-conditioning. Eric was in the car behind me, with the other half of everything we owned, and a river was raging in a shallow canyon to our right. I had to pull over, get out of the car and stand with it between me and the water. I told Eric I didn’t know if I could keep going. The vertigo was raging like the river, my stomach felt as windy as the route, and my mind was convinced the act of staying on the road, out of the water, was impossible. I was dizzy and nauseous. I drank lots of water and took deep breaths, waiting for the feeling to pass. With Eric’s loving encouragement, time, and pure guts, I was able to get back in the car.

poudre river, image by charles willgren

I also can’t watch more than a few minutes of movies made with handheld cameras. The shaking of the scene in contrast to the stillness of the viewer triggers the vertigo almost immediately. After going to see Blair Witch Project, I had to lie on my mother-in-law’s couch for two hours before the spinning and stomach ache stopped enough for me to stand.

I found out a few summers ago that even dosed with Dramamine, I can no longer go on amusement park rides, even the tamer roller coasters. I went to Six Flags and rode the Mind Eraser, where your torso is locked in but your feet dangle, and the name was pretty close to the outcome for me, an accurate description of my experience. For those few minutes, I was utterly convinced I was going to die, and angry it was going to happen that way. Even on the old wooden roller coaster, when it went through a dark tunnel, giving my brain the input that there was simultaneously nothing while my body was clearly hurtling through space–it was just too much.

mind eraser in winter, by chris bartle

The Ménière’s is also triggered by physical weakness, such as exhaustion or hunger, or ill health. A cold, the congestion specifically, always gives me fits of it. Something as simple as not getting enough sleep, and I have to be especially careful how fast I move the whole next day. There are also certain poses in yoga that practically make me pass out and various twirling or spinning movements my trainer has suggested that while I’ve tried, I’ve had to ultimately refuse to perform.

I am already a person who is emotionally highly sensitive, easily and deeply affected by other people’s energy and moods, overwhelmed by loud noises and bright lights or too many people in a small space. It feels cosmically unfair that I would be cursed with this, yet another sensitivity. I feel everything, acutely and sometimes painfully–but I suppose I’m also lucky because I am tender, soft, and open to joy and love, feeling them just as acutely and sometimes painfully.

You have a soft spot. Contrary to popular belief, it is not where you are weak, it is the gateway to indestructible power. ~Susan Piver