Vertigo is the conflict between the fear of falling & the desire to fall.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie either has vertigo or he loves roller coasters; because that is the most accurate and honest description of vertigo I’ve ever read. If you like roller coasters, you like vertigo. Like roller coasters, vertigo is fearsome (when you’re on a staircase, or driving) and also seductive. Like when you’re lying on your back about to fall asleep and you feel like you are actually falling…down through the mattress, floor, basement. But you can’t keep picking that scab; the wound won’t heal.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vertigo as:

  • a sensation of motion in which the individual or the individual’s surroundings seem to whirl dizzyingly.
  • a dizzy confused state of mind.

So vertigo (a) causes vertigo (b).


            About a year after brain surgery and radiation, my hair was growing back and I was walking pretty well. There was a gala at a fancy ballroom and Tom (husband extraordinaire) was sure I was ready to return to the social side of life outside of our apartment. I like dressing up and getting all beautified. I even went out an got a new dress: a one shoulder, pin-tucked Greek goddess kind of dress. Very Marilyn.

The thing is, you can’t wear a bombshell goddess gown with ballet flats. I hadn’t worn heels since surgery, but – I told myself – I used to wear heels nearly every day, I’d be just fine. I wore my faves for good luck (gold peep-toe 2 1/2 inch heels if you must know).

The elevator doors opened and we stepped out into the atrium: sparkling chandeliers, plush regally patterned carpet, music and happy champagne glass clinking attendees. I knew immediately I’d made a mistake.

My heels sunk ever-so-slightly into the carpet, my brain sloshed and my stomach fluttered. The lights twinkled and the room faintly swayed. Tom threaded my arm through his and led me across the room full of people who’d been asking him how I was doing for the past year and now wanted to see for themselves…the floor did a little spin and I clutched Tom’s arm in panic. He led me to our table – in the dark dining room, illuminated by fake flickering candlelight. A band was cranking out gawd-awful ‘tunes’ and the carpeting was even more plush than the one in the atrium. I felt like I was walking a squashy tightrope in a Cirque du Soleil strobe-lighted tent. I needed help not just to walk, but to sit in my seat, I was so discombobulated.

A few minutes later one of Tom’s colleagues came over to say hello and introduce me to one of the top editors of Canada’s national newspaper. He’d read the little piece I’d written about being diagnosed with brain cancer and wanted to know if that’s what I wanted to do – write essays. Hell yeah! But my brain did sort of a stutter step, what? did he say write…I stared at him unable to find words. He asked again. I searched what was left of my mind and stammered, “um…yeah?” He blinked in that way that signals this conversation is over because it is a complete waste of time. He nodded and he was gone. And with him, the opportunity of my writing lifetime.

Messrs Merriam and Webster are right. Vertigo is both (a) a sensation of motion where the surroundings or person whirls dizzyingly and (b) a dizzy confused state of mind …and (c) often at the same time.

But what to do!?

Survival first: find something or someone to hold onto, or at least stop what you are doing. Good. Now take a breath. Okay… mind over matter. This is your brain — gone rogue, yes but it is still yours and you can influence its behaviour. Find the horizon, just like you were on a boat and seasick. If you’re indoors, look to the place where the ceiling meets the wall. Anything stable that you can focus on. Visualization also works for me: whenever I feel my stomach drop, or my head floating off my shoulders, I visualize a hot-air balloon landing in a forest clearing – I don’t know why it’s that image it just is, you can make-up your own or use mine — and as the balloon touches down, my vertigo dissolves.

Sometimes the vertigo is so bad that I get nauseous. I’ve never actually thrown-up but I get close. To prevent the barfiness I keep ginger lozenges, ginger ale or plain old ginger on hand. It’s a good idea if you’re at the beginning of battling the vertigo monster or, later on provoking the beast.

That’s right, provoking it – deliberately taunting it, luring it out of its hidey-hole so you can slay it. I started early,  spinning in my desk chair – the room always spun for longer than I did; after a few weeks it stopped when I stopped. Then standing with my eyes closed…walking and turning my head…yoga (always with ginger lozenges)…sometimes sprinting to the loo certain I was going to lose my lunch. It was worth all the discomfort. I’m not exactly as strong as I was (balance-wise) before surgery, but I’m leagues better that I was after surgery. I can skate, ride a bike, ski and I’m learning to tap dance — reawakening the beast with every new combination of steps.

This is your vertigo and your journey. Go as far and as fast as you want. And ,as I was told when I was lamenting the limitations of my vertigo, have patience and compassion for yourself…

…and carry ginger (and maybe barf bags).

I shall state silences more competently that ever a better man spangled the butterflies of vertigo.

Samuel Beckett




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