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Wakeup Call: Hitting the Wall

Sunday, May 20, 2018

I've been waking up early this spring. Like 4 AM early. So it was no biggie when I opened my eyes in my hotel room in Hendersonville, NC at 4:45 AM on Sunday, April 29. What was a big deal was seeing the ceiling moving.  It was disconcerting to have the room spinning crazily around me, and no fun alcohol overindulgence to explain it. I closed my eyes and somehow drifted back to sleep. Opened them again at 6 to find the room still spinning. I mean, spinning so hard I couldn't stand up. 

How inconvenient. I had been planning to drive the 8 hours home this morning. Wanted to get an early start.

I thought, lying flat with my eyes closed. I knew what had happened. I had overdone it yesterday, gotten dehydrated again. I'd hiked around in the mountains for most of the day. Capped it off with bending and stooping and lifting heavy boxes, giving a talk, then bending and stooping and lifting more heavy boxes, and I hadn't drunk nearly enough water to get me through it all. If water even could save me. This time of year I drink pediatric electrolyte by the quart. I dehydrate easily. I know this about myself.

I had been stricken, again, with BPPV (Benign  Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo). A little crystal, which naturally floats around in your inner ear fluid, had dislodged and gotten stuck in my cochlear canal, where it was affecting the normal flow of fluid in my inner ear. It's that fluid that tells your brain where you are in space. When the fluid doesn't move right, your brain responds by sending your eyes into uncontrolled motion.  Mine were darting rapidly all the way to the right over and over again.  I couldn't stop it.
This was bad. Because not only was I horribly dizzy, but I was nauseated, too. 

I crawled to the sink for an ice bucket, then crawled back to bed with the bucket on my chest. Why wouldn't it stop? 

I rested for awhile (being that dizzy is absolutely exhausting), then crawled to my laptop and Googled "Julie Zickefoose Vertigo." 

Not coincidentally, as explained in the link above,  I'd had this before, after a day in the hot sun bending and lifting muck buckets full of cow manure. But that vertigo, which went on for a couple of days, was nothing like this. This was incapacitating, devastating, violent beyond description. There was really no living with this. There was just surviving.

I found the link in the post to a very simple video that told me what to do--hang my head off a pillow and roll it around, then sit up quickly. This is supposed to move the crystal and dislodge it. Sitting up after the  maneuver would cause it to fall out of my cochlear canal. Easier said than done. 

I did the Epley Maneuver twice on each side, because I was so disoriented I couldn't even tell which ear was affected. 

It didn't work. 

It. Didn't. Work.

The maneuvers actually seemed to make the vertigo worse. Now I was retching regularly, as well as spinning. "Abject" is one word I'd use to describe my condition.

I sent an SOS text to Shila, who had turned me on to the Epley Maneuver in the first place. I can't tell you how comforting it is to have a friend answer your text at 6 something AM when you are nine hours from home, in a hotel room alone, on a Sunday, and the ceiling is spinning over you. And it's sinking in on you that the only way you have to get home is to drive your car. And you can't even make it to the bathroom, much less get behind the wheel. Oh man. I was really screwed.

I put my phone on speaker and Shila and I talked about what might be going on. It seemed that the Epley Maneuver had moved the crystal, all right, but now the vertigo was so bad I could neither stand up nor lie down. The only way I could get any relief was to sit bolt upright! Try doing that when you feel like collapsing.

Shila rooted around and found a vertigo clinic in Hendersonville! Makes sense, because BPPV and other types of vertigo affect older people more, and a lot of people are retiring to this part of NC. I called the number she sent, and left a message on their "hotline." I told them I was desperate and alone at the Mountain Lodge right there in their town. That I had severe vertigo and needed help, preferably NOW. I'm still waiting for that callback. It was Sunday morning,  yes, but you'd think they'd have called me back by now, just to see if I was still needing help, or was just a pile of dizzy bones in a hotel room with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Nope.

I'd hit a wall and was plastered flat against it.  This was about as bad as it gets. Shila kept me from freaking all the way out while she figured out what to have me do. She was working on a theory that the crystal was lodged in a posterior canal, and was about to take me through some different exercises to address that. I wasn't looking forward to that. I had barely pulled off the Epley maneuver. It took me about an hour and a half of sitting bolt upright to work up the strength to think about lying down. I know that sounds weird, but the vertigo was so bad, if I so much as leaned back against the pillows I started retching again. 

Finally I called Shila and told her I was ready for the test, which would involve lying back on a couple of pillows, letting my head hang down behind me, and turning my head to the right, and then to the left. If the vertigo came back on either turn, we'd know which ear was affected.

Terrified that the retching would start again, I started to lean back. I lay down. Shila told me to turn my head to the right. Nothing happened.

Then I turned my head left. Nothing happened. 

The vertigo was gone. The crystal must have finally dropped out of my ear canal during that hour and a half of sitting bolt upright. In the end, my body told me what I had to do: roll my head around some, then sit up, and stay sitting up. Anything else: violently contraindicated.

Here's a link to the best, simplest video on The Epley Maneuver. It has comforting music and no razzmatazz.

That was about the worst six hours of my life, but I got through it, with a lot of help from my friend. It was 11:30 AM before I could even think about getting behind the wheel. Eating? Forget it. I limped back home, taking about 10 hours for a 7.5 hour drive. I stopped every hour or two and rested, feeling weak and woozy but grateful that I was on the road at all. Finally ate breakfast at 4:30 PM at Tamarack: The Art of West Virginia, ever my favorite highway rest stop in the universe. They play homemade string music, show WV artists in a gallery, and sell glorious hand-made work from WV artists and writers. And the food is catered by The Greenbriar. So you must stop there.

When I was going through Bristol, Virginia, I saw a gigantic Confederate flag on a hilltop, stark red against a blazing blue sky. I didn't photograph that.

But soon after, in Abingdon, I saw a very large dogwood tree on the edge of a cow pasture that was as white as a thunderhead. Not a leaf on it--just snow-white flowers, piling up against the sky. It was so beautiful I wept. Granted, I was tired and shaky, but I think I would have anyway. That is something, to see something so beautiful you just break down. And a native tree at that.

I stopped to take a nap and appreciate the dogwoods at the rest stop, since I couldn't stop for that one. I thought of Xerxes, who is said to have halted his Greek army's march for several days so that he might admire the beauty of a sycamore tree they encountered along the way. I could have lain under that lovely dogwood tree, looking up at the sky through its bracts, all afternoon. But I had to get home.

I felt the same about this magnificent redbud, but it was a bit close to the highway for lounging while admiring. See, I'm full of excuses for not stopping. I will always be that way.

 The light coming through new spring leaves was dazzling.

I felt so very, very lucky to be coming home under my own power, and not lying in a Hendersonville ER full of anti-nausea medication, waiting in line for a bunch of hugely expensive and unnecessary tests, probably starting with an electroencephalogram.  I had narrowly avoided putting myself in the medical machine, the diagnostic sausage grinder that eats your time and money for all the world as if it were an industry designed to do just that. The simple, elegant Epley Maneuver had come through. I had, with Shila's help, fixed myself.

 It just took a few hours longer than I'd have liked.

 I wondered why my weekend of hard work, sharing with like-minded souls, and taking joy in nature had ended so badly. Shrugged and decided that it just did, that's all, and there was no preventing it and no feeling sorry for myself. There was only taking the message. And that message is to stop doing so much. I've gotten that hint a number of times, but there's nothing like being grabbed, shaken hard, whirled in circles and turned upside down to get one's attention. It was a cosmic smackdown.

It was time to pay attention.

To the afternoon light running down the flanks of the Appalachian foothills. 

To the familiar shapes of the Three Graces, waiting to leaf out still, at the end of April. 


To the Hereford, looking over at her new calf.

To the freshly-washed white of its face, and the slow drain of a long day into peach.

To the full moon rising, getting caught in the arms of an heirloom pear tree, home at last.


Shila- saint, guardian angel, best friend ever. Suzanne, my yoga teacher dropped this one on me in April. “Ideas + energy - focus= chaos.” Chaos, thy name is Janet ( and Julie?). Thank GOD for girlfriends who got your back, who pick up at 6 am, who are there when it’s inconvienet but when you need them most. I wore myself to a nub and invited Shingles in! Thank GOD for anti viralmeds. Take away? We need to be kind to ourselves, practice self care. If we don’t care for ourselves, nobody will..

the ER would have given you an anti emetic thru an IV probably after just a CAT scan. I was driving when I was hit with drop vertigo. went in an ambulance to the hospital. Turns out it was Menieres Disease. I vomited so much I aspirated and burned my vocal cords. Had no voice and I was soaked with ice cold sweat. Also gave me the trots. With Menieres you sustain hearing loss with every attack. When you are experiencing it you pray for the sweet relief of death.

I get this also. My youngest daughter Audiologist @ OSU has a different method .Slams me down on bed/ turn head right 1 min then slowly left 1 min. So far it works. Ive learned to slam myself. Might be headed that way as I woke up “ dizzy”. Thinking not allergies as antivert hasn’t worked..

Reading about this again has given me that guilty feeling that we drove away and left you in that condition, not that we knew and not that we could have done much if we had known. i am thankful that you had a friend who knew how to help you.
Life being full of odd coincidences, I will share my story.
I have an old cat named Chuckie. I got him when he was about 3 weeks old when his mother was killed by a raccoon. Now he is 16 years old and has thyroid and renal issues. This past week he took a bad turn and when I found him under the hot water heater on the back porch with just one foot and his tail visible I made arrangements with his vet and took him in. I waited all day for that call that would take me there to say good-bye. Instead, it was a call to come and get him. He was JUST dehydrated. They pumped him full of water and he was a new cat. It seems that old cats like old women sometimes forget to drink.

I have been afraid to drive since the end of March, when I started having vertigo for the first time ever. Epley doesn't work. It's only violent sometimes, otherwise it's low grade, but always. Worst when I lie down. So many docs. So many tests. So much money!

I can say that I have this problem now and again too. It is sickening and I feel wasted after an episode. I hope you have fully recovered. It would be so scary to be by yourself far from home. You are blessed to have such a friend.

Yay Shila! Give her a big head-pat for me. I've never had vertigo but I've heard about this simple contraption some guy invented that allows someone to strap you in and roll you around in any direction, but in a particular order, to get the crystal out. Still don't know why the crystal is in there in the first place, or what overworking does to make it show up. Although I would always root for slowing down and smelling the mock orange. Fortunately, you're REAL good at that.

I hear you about not getting caught in the "medical machine." Going to the doctor is always the last resort for me, after research on my own doesn't find anything relevant. I favor quality of life over quantity. We all die; I don't want to do so confined to a hospital bed, being pumped full of drugs. I so admire an uncle of mine, who when told he had cancer that metastasized to many organs, refused chemo. Instead of spending his final days in bed and drugged up, he spent them driving around, going places until two weeks before he died.

Posted by Anonymous May 20, 2018 at 9:49 AM

Holy lord that sounds terrifying. Thank goodness for Sheila. I expect even just having a hand to hold is some help till you recover. Glad you were reborn again to independence and could enjoy your trip home safe.


Please keep in mind, the Box Turtle. They move slowly and with intent. They also must stay close to water. Water is life, to all of us. Our bodies were not meant to push so close to breaking. We are wonderfully made but fragile. Handle yourself as you would a very expensive treasure, for that is what you are.

Ramona Jackson
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Yikes! So glad you found relief and had such a good support person like Shila. Hope you never experience a vertigo like that again. Take care and may the world be steady always.

I add my relief and gladness to everyone else's that you came through this episode OK and had the invaluable Shila to help.

And if I may add some unsolicited advice: You've pretty much maxed out the Holmes and Rahe stress scale this year, from the evidence on the blog. Take as much time off as you can manage, and take the time and space you need to regroup. Your family and your fans need you.

Never heard of this vicious ailment! Filled with gratitude for your friend & that you made it home safely. Glad my home state of WV gave you some beauty...was your husband out of town?

I will follow your links on BPPV--as I am getting older, I notice I am dizzy more. Yesterday, I bent over to get something on the floor and did a complete face plant. While bending over, I suddenly could not right myself, and just went down. Fortunately, I had bee kneeling, so didn't have far to go. GLAD you made it home.

Your photos of sky slowly turning to peach--one of my favorite things to see, And it's so hard to capture in a photo.

Slow down, a bit. Drink more water. Let's see--what other self-evident advice do I have?

Oh my. My experience with this has been via my elderly mom and MIL. It puts them out for a day or 2. My mom's episodes, like yours were quite violent, rendering her immobile and frightened. They created so much fear she linked it with her hair washing in the shower and now only does sponge baths and I wash her hair over the sink. Maybe a coincidence but no episodes in a long while. So gald you had friend Shila available and a safe trip home. I remember most of your drivng route and Tamarack was always a stop. Hoping you're back to 100% and guzzling a gallon of water! Definitely going to click the Epley link again, time for a refresher. Kim in PA

I've had this off and on for years but never as bad as this. It's always resolved in a few hours, but one time I took off driving feeling fine to suddenly have one last crysyal shake loose and send the car twirling, or so it seemed...luckily it quit just as suddenly, before a disaster. An ENT doc gave me a handout for a preventative manoever, done sitting on the bed. Similar to parts if the Epley. Beware, though, because other things can cause dizziness, like a heart problem! One person I know was finally diagnosed with a tiny hole in one of her semi-circular canals, requiring surgery.

So glad you made it home safely.

My husband has gone to the ENT for this, though not as bad as yours. The doctor held a little vibrating thing against his skull and the crystals jiggled themselves back into place.

I had vertigo for the first time in my life last year after my mom died. I was so exhausted dealing with her estate and cleaning out her condo to sell it. I remembered you wrote about it but couldn't find the blog - didn't even occur to me to google it. It wasn't as violent and I'm sorry you had to go through that. I am going to bookmark this just in case, plus sending it to a friend that has vertigo more frequently. Going to drink more water now.

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