A 21 year old me stood in the shower, carefully drawing the razor up the back of my leg, across the soft skin behind the knee, the way you do when you’re a girl who’s knicked herself within an inch of bleeding out at age 15. My head twirled on its neck, and a loud pi-n-n-n-n-g-g-g-g-g filled my ears as water rushed side-to-side in my skull. The razor slid from my fingers, echoing a click-clack-click as it cascaded to the tub floor and the world went black.
My awareness dawned slowly from some grey muffled foggy pit millennia or seconds later, slumped over the edge of the bathtub, ribs throbbing, crying for no reason at all and all the reasons in the world. I looked around. Is this my bathroom? Do I live here?
And then I remembered—shaving cream slid down my leg, water dripped from my hair, tears leaked from my eyes.
I had fainted. It was the first time, but not the last. I would faint every few years—in bathrooms, at a friend’s house, once while trying to buy a newly killed chicken at a crowded stall in Morocco while 7 months pregnant! I have a scar on my nose from smashing into the diaper pail 21 years ago.
The distinctive feature of each faint, though—one I came to know and respect—vertigo. My doctor gave the syndrome a fancy Latin moniker, but translated meant: We don’t know why you have this unnamed sort of vertigo but clearly you do.
He ripped off a scribbled prescription from his white pad: “Get sleep. Stay hydrated. Pay attention to signs, sit down, and protect yourself with a pillow.”
But it’s what I do. There’s no cure. It’s enough, weirdly.
I tried to “cure myself” many times. I read books, studied vertigo syndromes. I have been known to crawl on all fours across a living room floor to avoid having to stop supervising small children because standing would have “brought it on.” My then-husband gave me a dose of niacin once (his dad took it to help with fainting). Being that neither of us are medically trained, the dose was too high and my skin became an inferno trap for my soul. My fleshy surface glowed red like Mars, and my ears wheezed smoke like a minion of Satan. I can still remember the scary trapped feeling… but I didn’t pass out! Still, not worth it.
I don’t know when it happened, but I realized eventually that I had a condition; I could befriend and live with it (or at least, not slam the door in its face when it turned up unannounced) or I could go on fighting it and agonizing over why or how or what it meant.
The thing about vertigo is that it screws with your basic assumptions about life on planet earth. Gravity is no longer the reliable old friend, gluing your feet to the floor. Instead, your body, untethered, floats or zig-zags, your head lurches sideways, and your limbs grab hold of whatever outstretched object pretends assistance. Coaching doesn’t fix it: “Hold my hand Julie! Lean on me. Don’t give in!”
The only help is awareness of the warning signs, and preparing for the crash landing. Which I do now: As the pi-n-n-n-n-g-g-g-g-g begins its whisper and drives to crescendo, as my eyes drain the color from the room, as my head wheels its merry-go-round spin, I grab the nearest pillow and get on the ground. I lean my forehead into the cushion, breathing, eyes-closed, until all symptoms pass. And they do pass. And I don’t faint. My nose has no new scars in the last 20+ years.
It’s tempting to force an analogy about homeschool burn out, or the exhaustion of mothering, or the uneasiness in your marriage, or the frightening spectre of your own unexplained illness. I esteem you more highly. I recently looked at a photo of my family taken in 2005 on our family trip to Italy. I couldn’t know then what I know now——how my life would flip upside-down, how what I knew to be sure and true could change lickety-split, how my basic assumptions about what made sense or what was right would be turned on their heads. I didn’t yet know how to protect myself from crash-landings.
But I’ve learned. Each of us does, in our own way, in our own time. You know what helps me the most after I faint and I’m crying like I’m a channel for all the suffering of the whole world? Kindness and cookies and a hug and reminders that the people I love, love me. Lectures about fainting—not so much.
Wishing you safe passage through whatever vertigo you face today.