Thursday, October 7, 2010


I'm home, sans car, grounded because an old enemy is back--vertigo. I suffer from Meniere's Disease. For the uninitiated this involves tinnitis (ringing in the ears), a sense of fullness in the ear (like when you get water in your ear while swimming and can still feel it when you step out of the pool) and, worst of all, "the spins". I've had the ringing in my ear since highschool when I endured a battery of tests including something I think was an early version of an mri. I lay on a table with my head in a vice while a machine rotated around my head for 30 minutes taking pictures. I had hearing tests where I was supposed to try to match the pitch of the persistent whine in my left ear. In the end I wasn't diagnosed with anything.
Years later I suffered a sudden, intense dizzy spell while working as a receptionist at a health insurance company. I had to answer 12 incoming phone lines--mostly people with complaints because their claims had been denied. It was stressful. At the end of the day, standing at the bus stop I would "hear" a phantom phone ringing. This sound could persist for hours.One day I turned my head to answer the phone and had the sudden sensation that the room was spinning. I was as dizzy as if I'd just got off my favorite carnival ride--the tiltowhirl--but this was definitely not fun. This was a dizzy spell I had not invited and could not get rid of even by sitting still for a few minutes. The sensation of spinning made me sick to my stomach. I couldn't drive, so I had to leave the car there and have a co-worker take me home.
These bouts of feeling "sick" came and went over that next year, always striking me quite suddenly. I'd need to sleep for a day and then I'd be fine. I had come to accept the ringing in my ears as normal for me. I sometimes thought it was the price of being a musician since it started at the point in my life when I had become very serious about getting into music school and was practicing every spare minute--even working on the band room piano during my lunch break. But the spinning was much worse, impossible to get used to or ignore. Hearing phantom sine tones 24/7 didn't affect my life much because I was so used to them I was hardly ever conciously aware of them. But this made it impossible to work, drive, cook or function. I went through another battery of tests. Doctors hooked me up to some electrodes and measured my brain waves while "stressing" me with a difficult math exercise. ("As fast as you can, count backwards from 100 by sevens.") The end results were the same as before. The cause was unknown. Their best guess was that I had a mold allergy.
Two years later, in Texas with my new husband I finally went to an allergist for an answer. He discovered several allergies--to dust mites, various grasses and a few tree pollens--but no allergy to mold. I was given nasal sprays and allergy medicine. When I had the occasional dizzy spell I accepted it as my own body's reaction to allergens. They were annoying, but affected me at most once or twice a year for 24 hours. A little sleep and I was back to normal.
Last spring my little dizzies returned. I spent the day resting and fully expected to be back to normal the next day. It didn't happen. This spell lasted for three weeks during which time I was completely miserable. Even sitting still in a chair, I had the sensation that I was spinning like a top, or that the room was spinning around me. I took dramamine--which had helped in the past--but it made me so sleepy I could barely function, and I still felt the spinning. I read everything I could find online about Meniere's Disease, because though I'd never been diagnosed, I was pretty sure that's what it was. But I had to take breaks. Looking at the computer screen, or the tv, made me feel even dizzier. At last, completely flummoxed and desparate, I made an appointment with my doctor. I had to take my daughter with me, a scary prospect since I had to drive a good 30 minutes to get his office. I had always avoided driving when I had the spins because just turning a corner made me feel ill, or even like I might black out.Now I had my precious daughter in the car. I went painfully slow--especially around corners. We took back streets and made our ginger way.
After two visits to the doctor and one to the allergist I had a bag full of drugs and a treatment protocol. When the dramamine no longer worked the physician gave me valium. That was the only pill that stopped the spinning sensation. I had meclizine (a strong antivertigo drug) to take at bedtime and a heavy duty nasal spray, Astepro, to use twice a day. I was instructed to drink lemon water to flush fluids out of my body and to avoid salt since one suspected cause was swollen eustachian tubes. I used a netipot to clean out my sinuses and kept the dramamine handy for mild and sudden bouts. I cancelled piano lessons for a whole week since I read that rest was an important part of recovery. When the spins stopped three weeks later I was given Nasocort to use during allergy season to try to keep my symptoms under control. I was given a referal to an ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat Doctor). I tucked the card away in my planner, but with the end of the school year and a long summer of stay-at-home motherhood, I put off going.
Last Monday, on the way to an appointment, I started to black out. It came without warning. I assumed I was tired, or dehydrated. I turned on the air full blast, breathed deeply and made it home. There I drank a couple of large glasses of water and tried to take a nap. I thought it was better, but two days later, once again while driving somewhere, I had the sensation I was going to pass out. I talked to myself and made it safely to a parking lot near a rec center where I sat for an hour drinking water and getting a grip. But once in the car again I felt dizzy. It was a long, hard drive home with me pulling off to the curb after every turn around a corner. Now I knew this wasn't just fatigue or dehydration. My old spins are back with a vengance.
This time I feel mostly ok in my house. I can move around and work on the computer, I can walk with my friend, but the minute I turn a corner in the car I feel like I'm spinning on that horrible merry-go-round that I can't stop.
The symbolism of vertigo is not lost on me. I live a confusing, lively, busy and sometimes frenetic life trying to balance writing and music, friends and family, hobbies and chores. Like every modern woman I have many roles and multiple demands on my time. It's easy for things like doctor visits to get put off while I attend to business. But now I'm left without a choice. This spell has forced me to stay home, take stock, put first things first. I'm aware again how every illness has the potential to instruct us, every life challenge is an opportunity to learn, every set back a chance to grow. I don't know how long I'll be in this place. But I'll make the best of it. I have to.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Myth of Multi-tasking

Having a restless muse may mean I am never bored, but I do find myself overwhelmed at times and torn in too many directions when deadlines overlap and suddenly everything is due all at once. It definitely isn't for the faint of heart, or the organizationally challenged. The goal as with most aspects of life is an easy grace, an organic vacillation between one task and another. This is not the same as multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking is the mythological ability to do mutliple things at one time. The truth is, you can only be conciously aware of whatever you're doing right this minute. So while it is true you can balance a baby on your hip while you stir the soup, or let the printer run while you answer the phone, your conciousness will move back and forth between the baby and the stove, the printer and the telephone. Too much of this is exhausting, especially when the multiple tasks are, in themselves, complicated and demanding. Ask any receptionist or secretary--and I've been both, so just ask me--it is really, really hard to keep track of what everyone is calling about and who is holding for whom when you have 12 incoming phone lines, and even harder if you are supposed to open and sort the mail, make photocopies and format a document at the same time. I managed by jotting down on scratch paper the names of all the holding callers and whom they were holding for. But I left the day with my ears buzzing, and as I waited at the bus stop I'd continue to hear a non-existent phone ringing. I could do it, but it took a toll.

Contrary to what the current generation may think, it is patently impossible to listen to the person before you while you are texting some one else. Your companion suffers because you are not listening in the deep way that validates what she is saying. Neither the person you are texting nor the person you are with can expect your response to be thoughtful or sensitive. And you suffer too--from the fatigue that comes with switching focus constantly and quickly from one thing to another, from the shallowness of remarks and responses that are absent of careful reflection, and from the paradoxical disconnection of a society that is exchanging words at an exponential rate without really communicating anything worthwhile. For can there be real communication without communion? Can our souls connect when we are only half-attending one another?

Children know the difference and are quick to point it out. "Mommy, mommy, mommy" the young child chants until you finally turn from what you are doing to focus on them and their needs. "You are not listening!" the adolescent accuses when we "Mmhm" without looking away from the computer screen.

My restless muse challenges me to honor all the creative energy and talents that are my gifts and which I should and need to share. It challenges me most of all to choose where my attention should be in this moment. I have discovered by trying to be and do everything at once, that it is impossible to be a writer and musician at the same time. Right now I am a writer working on this blog. In an hour I will be a housewife cleaning, mending clothes or running errands, then a mother picking my child up from school, then a piano teacher with six little students trooping in one-by-one, then a wife helping my husband with the dishes, then a tired lady ready for a bubble bath and a comfy bed. This is what people mean by "juggling". The juggler is only conciously aware of the ball she has to throw this spit-second, or the one she has to catch in the next. She can't think about the ones hanging in the air. If I am playing a complicated piece, I can't worry about the wrong note I just hit, or the difficult passage coming up. If I do, if my concentration leaves the current phrase, I will not be present and I will not play the notes in the way I intend to play them. I also can't be thinking about what to make for dinner or how to sew a Halloween costume or how to respond to a difficult email. In the moment of the present measure, all other voices must be silenced.

It isn't easy and I don't always get it right. But I keep trying knowing that it's the only way to do what I was put here to do, to be what I was meant to be. For my life is like an enormous wheel. It takes all the spokes to keep it turning.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Magic of Little Things

Reading Gretchin Rubin's The Happiness Project this morning, I'm struck again by what I call "the magic of little things". By this I mean how doing something small can make a big difference. I'm in the first chapter where she describes the mental and physical energy boost she got out of gradually cleaning out closets and surfaces. Dedicating herself to the "one minute rule" (always and without delay doing any task that took a minute or less to complete) and the "ten minute rule" (straightening the house for ten minutes before bedtime) helped her keep the clutter tamed with minimal effort.

As a long-time sufferer of depression and bipolar disorder I have lived through many bad bouts of low energy and mood. What got me through many of them (while waiting for meds to kick in) was a little maxim I invented: "When you can't do a lot, do a little". For me that meant I must make my bed and get a shower everyday no matter what, even when I was so severely depressed it might take me all day to do those two minimal things. Somehow, these two simple actions made me feel less like a failure. A made bed detered my climbing in and staying there. If I had no energy at least I could sit in a chair. Getting--and staying--out of bed, showering and dressing meant I was awake and alive and part of the human race which was a start! (Though I haven't finished the book, I read in Woman's Day magazine that one of the pieces of Rubin's happiness advice that her readers claim is most effective is making the bed every day.)

If overwhelmed by the clutter I can at least clean out ONE file (whichever I'm using at the moment). On the same principle, Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, recommended cleaning out one drawer every day. If I'm cleaning up after supper and I see mysterious yellow spots on the refrigerator door, it takes less than 30 seconds to wipe them up with the dish rag in my hand. If I am washing hands after a bathroom break, I can wipe out the sink with a disposable potty wipe. It's amazing how these simple, perpetual straightening and cleaning tasks help me feel more in control of my house. AND it cuts down on hated housework.

As a post Feminine Mystique, second wave feminist, I resent housework with particular ferocity. It doesn't help that I put myself through college as an apartment cleaner and spent two summers as a live-in maid on Long Island. After you've cleaned twenty ovens in one day, or spent an hour six days a week dusting and scrubbing things that haven't even had time to get truly dirty, you come to feel you've done enough housework for one solid lifetime. So anything that cuts grundge work makes me, well, happy.

After complaining that I never have time to write, agonizing over starting this blog because my "to do" list was already too long, I finally decided that the 15 minutes it takes to get my thoughts out of my head and on-line is worth it. And having now opined on the virtues of "little things", I can focus on my next task, a very long overdue book review....

So I wave my magic wand (my favorite pen) and bestow upon my current and future readers (only one follower so far) the magic of little things.....