My vertigo came on suddenly. It was past midnight, and I was listening to Coltrane for Lovers and doing the dishes when I began to wobble.
Will I fall over? Do I have a brain tumor?
These were my first two questions.
But I did not fall over, so I continued washing a bowl, bracing my legs. And I remembered I’d had water in my right ear lately. So probably a brain tumor was not my fate.
Actually, doing the dishes with vertigo is quite easy. You can rest your torso against the sink and, if necessary, steady yourself with your hands. When the dishes were clean, however, I had to walk across the room with nothing to lean against. I set off, suddenly conscious of the pull of gravity. John Coltrane was playing “My Little Brown Book” with exquisite finesse. As I passed the CD player, I turned him off.
Reaching the stairway, I noticed the wooden handrail as if for the first time. What an intelligent architectural design! If only the whole world had a handrail!
I went to bed that night hoping to be cured by sleep.
In the morning I opened my eyes and beheld the room. Was my vertigo gone? It was difficult to tell while sitting up in bed. The room was not spinning.
But when I rose to my feet, I felt my balance disappear again.
These are vertiginous times: global warming, Middle Eastern wars, the economy collapsing faster than a cardboard clubhouse in a thunderstorm.
My wife, Violet, walked into the room.
“I’m having some kind of vertigo,” I told her.
“Really?” Violet replied in the neutral tone she adopts when hearing bad news.
“Yeah, since last night,” I continued. “I’m pretty sure it’s an ear infection.”
“If only I had ground ivy!” she said, half to herself. Violet is an herbalist. Looking pensive, she left.
My balance wasn’t completely gone. Vestiges of it remained. But each time I took a step, I could feel my brain making sixty separate calculations. (And what if my brain made a mistake?) I wobbled toward the stairway’s reassuring handrail.
I never take drugs or drink alcohol — ever. I don’t even drink caffeinated tea. Now I experienced one of the effects of drunkenness without the expense of vodka or whiskey.
I successfully reached the computer and began editing my new book. In the world of words on a page, I had no health crisis. Nothing had changed.
“If you want to take a walk later, I’ll help you,” Violet offered.
How kind! When you’re dizzy all the time, you discover what a consolation marriage is.
Time to stand up! The handrail guided me back upstairs. I began to make my bed, as I do each day, but it was a battle. Pulling on the blankets threw off my balance, and every time I reached forward, I almost fell on my face. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make the covers lie flat. When I finished, they were like an unruly sea.
Violet reappeared: “I found an exercise for you on the Internet.”
I followed her back downstairs. Should I ask her to hold my arm? No, too embarrassing.
Violet showed me a website with the word labyrinthitis in large print. (Labyrinthitis, of course, means “inflammation of the labyrinth.”) The exercise involved sitting on a bed, turning your head forty-five degrees one way, and quickly lying down on your opposite side, head still turned. You hold this position for about thirty seconds, then repeat it to the other side, doing six to ten repetitions.
I maneuvered unsteadily to our living-room sofa and followed the instructions. Believe it or not, they helped! For every human infirmity, selfless researchers have invented an exercise. And no one ever thanks them. If any exercise inventors are reading this, I bow to thee.
Of course, I was not cured, but I felt my balance improving. “I’m ready for that walk,” I told Violet.
We bundled up against the November wind and walked down the avenue arm in arm. I was conscious of how we appeared to the drivers of passing cars. What seemed to them like intimacy was actually vertigo.
Every evening I read selections from fourteen books, then mark my place in each with a pencil. That night I encountered this maxim from the French philosopher La Rochefoucauld: “To realize how much misery we must face is itself a kind of happiness.”
Then I did my meditation and went to sleep.
The next morning my vertigo had vanished. I walked downstairs, oblivious of the handrail.