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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Poole

Vertigo as a Metaphor

It came out of nowhere two Saturday mornings ago. My husband and I were vacationing in Florida, and staying there to attend a four-day singer/songwriter festival. We may be aging, but we’re still rockin’ in the free world!

As it turns out, the Universe had other plans for me that Saturday. I woke up around 8:30 and opened my eyes to discover that the world around me was literally spinning on its axis. No warning, and no mercy. I have never experienced anything so disorienting, and got a quick lesson in the vast difference between garden-variety dizziness and vertigo.

We had made plans to see an artist we were excited about play at a brunch nearby that morning. My stomach said ‘no’ to food, my head said ‘no to movement’ and all of me said ‘no way’ to crawling out of bed, much less showering, dressing and heading out to brunch. Like the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans…”

In the two weeks that have ensued, I have been to an ear, nose and throat doctor and a physical therapist, and have learned a ton about something called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, or BPPV for short. It seems a little absurd to me to call something that so upends your world, at least in the moment, “benign.” However, the good news is that it’s actually fairly common in folks over 60 and stems from the displacement of the little otoliths in the inner ear. Add it to the list of things I never knew, but have quickly become schooled in by necessity.

It has taken me all of the past two weeks to regain most of my equilibrium, but I’m grateful that this little episode is now mostly resolved. I’m sitting here at the keyboard typing this out, not dictating, so you know the horizon line is back on my side again.

But I have to say, that Saturday morning was a real show-stopper, and it wasn’t playing around. Nor was there anything I could really do about it in the moment except be with it and try to remain calm.

Enter the comparison to the chaos of the times in which we are living. I don’t want to be melodramatic and suggest that the country has a bad case of vertigo right now, but I do know that I’ve experienced a sense that we have seriously lost our equilibrium more than a time or two in the past couple of years. My point is not to engage a political debate (although I’m often up for that…). Rather, it is to consider the question of how to cope with chaos, whether caused by the imbalance of vertigo or the larger forces of our shared sociopolitical climate.

So what to do when confronted with the uncontrollable thing we know as chaos or disequilibrium?

1. Acknowledge it. I come from a long line of people whose pat response when asked how they are doing is, “I’m fine.” Sometimes we are not fine, and simply owning and acknowledging that truth is the first step toward moving through it. There’s wisdom to the notion that, “What we resist persists.”

2. Be with it. What I learned from vertigo is that it’s sort of like being in an alternate reality. What should be down is up, and rules of the physical world seem to be temporarily suspended in a tilt-a-whirl space. So when on a wild ride, check it out. Be curious. Notice the patterns it reveals, what makes it better, what makes it worse, what brings you momentary comfort in the storm.

3. Work with it. Not only does what we resist persist, resistance, by itself, accomplishes nothing. I think that’s why I have such a visceral response to the term, “the resistance,” which has come to characterize a lot of political philosophies I support, but which also seems limited in scope. In a field out beyond resistance, there is a place for problem-solving. Whether it’s focusing on a vertical plane for a measure of symptom relief, or getting past absolutes and unyielding stances in a negotiation. Work on the things that work.

4. Learn from it. My quick education in vertigo has taught me that this is one of those squirrely things that can reoccur. If it happens again, it will be no less disconcerting, but I’ll be armed with a little tool called the Epley Maneuver and a better sense of how to move through the chaos. My hope for the world is that along the way to working though the chaos that is our current reality, we are alert, astute, and humble enough to gather a few lessons learned, and wise enough to heed the call.

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