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The All-Encompassing Impact Vertigo Has Had on My Life


For most us, an experience of being truly terrified is something we never forget. It is etched into our memories for years, maybe decades, perhaps even our whole lives. Fear can be so overwhelming that it changes our thoughts and feelings about particular people, places and situations. Ultimately, it may change how we live our lives.

Vertigo – a sensation of either you or everything around you spinning – did just that to me for many years. The attacks I experienced due to having migraine associated vertigo (MAV) changed how I lived my life for a long time. They still do to this today, albeit to a much lesser extent. Talking to others with MAV or vestibular migraine, I know this is not uncommon. Many of us ended up virtually housebound for weeks, months or even years. So when I think about how vertigo “feels,” it is not enough to describe the physical symptoms of spinning and movement. Instead, it is necessary, fundamental even, to also think about how a vertigo attack feels in the sense of the emotional impact it has on a person.

While many of my more minor attacks have faded from memory now, the “big ones” are still there at the back of my mind making me cautious and nervous about doing particular activities. One of those “big” attacks happened on a Sunday afternoon in Greenwich, London. A relaxing walk around the town on a warm summer’s day changed how I viewed my health, and my life to some degree, immeasurably. Before that day my attacks were frequent but comparably fairly mild. They were awful and scary, but manageable. This one was a whole new ball game. As I absentmindedly picked something off a supermarket shelf my previously steady world suddenly changed into an irrational, topsy-turvy, spinning cyclone. Without any warning at all, nothing made sense any more. There was movement everywhere, and nothing was still. Not me, not my surroundings. The floor didn’t feel as though it was a flat stable force beneath my feet anymore, it was tilting up and down. The shelves were jumping around so I didn’t want to reach out to hold them to steady myself because I thought they would make the movement worse. I could see people around me but they seemed somehow distant and close all at once. I didn’t know exactly where I was, in this bizarre rollercoaster world, or how to make it all stop.

Eventually it did stop of course. Breathless from fear, my heart racing, I stumbled down the road and went home. Once in the safety of my own home I immediately called my doctor in a panic and booked an appointment, terrified that this attack meant something new was wrong or that my medication had stopped working. Even though I knew deep down that the attack was just part and parcel of my condition, it just didn’t seem possible to me that this was the kind of experience I would have to learn to live with. I saw the doctor a few weeks later. Nothing new was wrong, he said in a gentle manner. But perhaps trying a new treatment may be a good idea. Thankfully it was.

But still, despite more effective medication and fewer attacks, it took me about four years to go back to Greenwich. Yes, you read that right, four years. When I did, it was a deliberate and thought-out attempt to face my fear, rather than a relaxing day out. My stomach was in knots the whole way there, and for most of my time in the town. While I knew the place hadn’t caused my attack, the memory of it was too ingrained in my mind to contemplate “returning to the scene of the crime” so-to-speak for a long time. It was too frightening to go back to a place where something so terrifying had happened. It seemed too risky, too dangerous. It seemed like tempting fate for it to happen again.

So while vertigo attacks may feel like spinning and movement in a physical sense, they also make you feel certain emotions due to that experience. Most of all, these attacks have changed my life by exposing me to a new physical sensation that caused me to experience fear as I had never done so before. This fear is grounded in suddenly not feeling safe, and not knowing what is happening to me or when it will stop. The security of the floor feeling flat under my feet, and the things around me either being still or moving in a way that they should, are things most people take for granted. But that sense of security and safety disappears during a vertigo attack. Suddenly all bets are off as to how the world around you is experienced. One minute everything is as it should be, the next you are immersed in an Alice-in-Wonderland type world where life is lived on a rollercoaster and objects spin around your head at dizzying speed.

That sense of fear, for many people with vertigo I would imagine, may lead to anxiety about leaving the house or even just walking to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It makes you “on guard” or “on alert” to potential triggers, and for me at least, learned behaviors of not moving my head in particular ways. Years of physiotherapy, still ongoing, have (almost) reversed that problematic habit. The fear of vertigo makes you turn down invitations due to the possibility of having another attack, or stop using public transport. It can have an impact on work commitments or school/university. For me personally, it used to prevent me from joining friends for a night out, or spending time with family outside the house. To this day it makes me nervous to sit on a squashy sofa chair that has a movement to it, or go on a swing or slide with my little nieces. I can’t imagine going on a boat or ship, or a real rollercoaster at a fairground or theme park.

The fear of vertigo has an all-encompassing emotional and physical impact. It changes a life, and so changes a person. So when I think about how vertigo “feels,” all of those things are involved in trying to understand the impact of this condition. Spinning may be the symptom, but an altered life is the outcome.

Many years later I am fortunate to only experience a few vertigo attacks a year, and fairly mild ones at that, as my current medical treatment has thankfully proven very effective. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t forget the fear. Or that I am not still “on guard” in certain situations. There’s still a moment of doubt, debate and trepidation when I move my head in particular ways. An uncertainty as to whether I will follow in the footsteps of Alice if I look too quickly to my left or right when crossing the street and fall through the looking glass back to wonderland.

This story originally appeared on Through the Fibro Fog.

Getty Image by AH86