I said I was sick, but that’s not really true. Well, not true in the sense of how we usually think of sick. Infection, fever, bleeding, swelling, pain, I had none of that. Instead I had rocks in my ears.
Otoliths are what they’re called technically, but that’s just Greek for ear rocks. Calcium crystals that get dislodged from the vestibule of the inner ear and drift into one of the semicircular canals, like refugees displaced from their home and wandering about in a new land. Or rather, like the bits of white plastic ‘snow’ that whirl about and then ever so slowly float down in the glycerol-spiked water of a snowglobe. (As a kid I had a wonderful snowglobe with a miniature of the Statue of Liberty. I kept it on my desk long after the appeal of such a toy would normally have worn off. It wasn’t the scene I liked so much as the memories it encased of a rare family trip to Liberty Island, which was the occasion for my father’s buying me the snowglobe in the first place.) In any event, the end result of this displacement is intense episodes of vertigo whenever the position of the head tilts up or back or shifts abruptly.
The ENT doctor who diagnosed this as BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo) called them calcium crystals, but the truth is, they’re really just debris. In most cases the garbage just flows back out of the canal and back to where they do no damage, but in my case, and in that of what I later discovered from online forums and YouTube videos a significant number of other people, they get stuck in the canal, where they float around and mess with the signals that the hair cells send to the brain whenever you shift position. Essentially they prolong the signals, so there’s no longer any correspondence between what the brain interprets and what is actually happening. Like a shark asleep when it’s actually zigzagging its way through the water, only in reverse: the brain thinks you’re moving when you’re really not.
It came on without warning. One morning I woke up and turned my head to one side, and suddenly I felt the bed tilt and rotate, spinning faster and faster and with such frightening speed that I actually gripped the edge of the bed to hold on. Though lying perfectly still, I felt I was racing (if only in circles), the equivalent in motion of hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. My bed was a flying carpet of a mad whirling dervish. Mercifully it lasted less than a minute, and the room slowly stopped spinning. Although gone for the moment, the vertigo left me with nausea throughout the day and came back again later that afternoon and the next morning and the day after.
I quickly learned that looking up or down or quickly tilting my head could bring on an episode. If I dropped something on the floor I’d squat down but keep my gaze fixed on an imaginary point straight ahead of me and sweep the floor with my extended arm until I found what I had dropped. If it was a coin, I didn’t even bother. I more or less forgot about the top shelves in the kitchen cabinets. But there are a lot of interesting things going on above and below eye level that you can’t or shouldn’t avoid, like the gap between platform and subway car. Or sockets. Not to mention that the enormous concentration required for this state of constant watchfulness is very taxing.
I decided that this was not going to go away on its own and went to see my GP, who put through me a series of tests, including an MRI scan, all of which were negative. He eventually referred me to an ENT doctor for more tests.
This guy I liked from the moment I saw him. He was one of those short guys with a fire-hydrant build look—broad shoulders, a long, lean torso and shortish legs—who look much taller than they are. He had the eagerness of the young doctor that stems from the need to prove himself in the eyes of his more senior colleagues or simply from the enthusiasm of finally practicing medicine. After a few questions about the when, where and how of my symptoms, he took the list of ear tests my GP had prescribed for me and scanned the items. “Well, this one isn’t going to tell us anything interesting,” he said and scratched it off. “And why would we want to do this?” he continued, scratching off another. “This one, well, since you’re here, we might as well do it. But first let’s take a look at you.”
He sat me on the examining table with my face towards the head of the bed. Standing at my side, he cradled the small of my back in his left arm and nestled the back of my skull in his right hand. He then tilted my head to the right and lowered me down quickly to the point where I was lying on my back with my head drooping backwards like a heavy ripe fruit ready to drop from the limb. The vertigo came back in all its fury, the muscles of my eyes twitching wildly as if being strummed by a demon, but the yawing and pitching and rolling quickly spent itself as it had before. He then maneuvered my head to the left, paused, tilted my head down, paused and then lifted me up.
And a minute after sitting up I felt better. And a few days later, having followed his instructions to sleep sitting up, I felt fine. And it didn’t come back for months.
I tend to think of the laying on of hands as something only Pentecostals, Roman Catholic priests, shamans and New Age spiritualists practiced; at best it evoked the ritual of ordination or blessing but more often it brought to mind images of faith healers and exorcists, of a country woman in a polka-dot dress writhing on the wooden floor of a clapboard church waiting for the preacher to cast out the demon within her.
But I now recall how deeply I felt ministered to as I lay splayed out on the table with his arm around me and my head resting in his hand. His were a shaman-father’s hands, different from those of a friend or lover, mother or nurse; they incarnated the power of his knowledge, and it was a power which I gladly surrendered to. Maybe this feeling of surrender was healing in itself, this yielding to being taken care of.
Of course I know it was just gravity. He shook my head and the rocks in my ear drifted back to where they could do no harm, like bits of plastic snow in a half-globe of water floating to settle on the crown of a small leaden statue.
Image: Salvador Dali, Vertigo, 1939