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.