Lost in a Labyrinth

About a year ago, I woke up dizzy. Not the manageable kind of dizzy you get when you’re tipsy or running a fever: I was too dizzy to move. Even turning over in bed made the world spin and my stomach lurch. I woke John up because it scared the living wits out of me.

He googled home remedies for vertigo and performed the Epley maneuver for me. It didn’t give me instant relief, but I took some migraine medicine, thinking that might be the problem, and went back to sleep. When I woke up again, the dizziness had receded, much to my relief. I still felt off, but I had plans to go help a friend look at wedding dresses, and I was not going to miss that for anything less than a major medical emergency.

Which is exactly what I woke up with the following morning.

The dizziness had returned, so I had John drive me to the walk-in clinic. The P.A. also performed the Epley maneuver, which did nothing for me. She concluded that I either had a minor illness that would sort itself out, or a lifelong issue with Benign Paroxsymal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), for which there is treatment to alleviate symptoms, but no actual cure. She told me to do the Epley maneuver periodically, pick up some meclizine, and head to the emergency room if it got worse.

We drove home, stopping at the pharmacy for meclizine, and I took some, starting to feel panicky at the possibility that I’d never be able to drive again. Relatives on both side of my family have BPPV, and even though they’re not close enough to be counted in the people who are used to assess family history and risk factors, it scared me. I only know a little of their struggles, but BPPV is intermittently crippling and can be severely hampering of your activities. Lying down, head spinning, thoughts racing, and the meclizine wasn’t helping. I got sick to my stomach.

I’ve been sick with flus and migraines in the past, and this was nothing like that. An hour past emptying my stomach of its meager breakfast, I could barely catch a breath between dry heaves. John decided this qualified as “worse” and shepherded my increasingly incoherent self to the emergency room, where they preceded to get me rehydrated and no longer puking before telling me the exact same thing the P.A. had at the clinic. The hope they left me with was that, if the Epley maneuver wasn’t giving me any immediate relief, it was more likely that I was dealing with labyrinthitis, which is a viral infection of the inner ear that will usually sort itself out within a week or two.

I lost a solid week of work to lying on my couch trying not to puke while medicated in a nearly catatonic state. Meclizine, which is the generic name for the more recognizable Dramamine, has the tendency to put you to sleep, and I felt that effect hard. I would wake up long enough to sip at a lukewarm electrolyte beverage, watch half an episode of Adventure Time, and pass out again. I’m still not sure if the last three seasons of Adventure Time are completely incomprehensible or if it just felt that way because I was missing the bits that tied everything together.

The dizziness passed after five or six days, and I was able to go into my scheduled vacation feeling well enough to sit up and read and play one of those online cooperative town management games with my mother’s league. As I was recovering, my aunt got in touch with her experience of being knocked out by labyrinthitis, and she gave me a smart piece of advice: get a referral to an Ear, Nose, Throat specialist immediately to be put on steroids to reduce my risk of permanent hearing loss. I was flabbergasted. No one in the emergency room had suggested this might be a risk, but when I called my PCP, her office put the referral through immediately and managed to get me in quickly.

The ENT doctors’ office in my network is awful. It’s in an old house with carpets that need replacing and a lack of adequate air quality management for the heat we were dealing with, and after five minutes in the office, I was going pale and the doctor asked me if I needed an emesis bin. Gritting my teeth, I managed to say, “I just need some air,” and he cracked open the door, letting in the AC which, mysteriously, did not penetrate the treatment rooms at all. I’m not sure if I was really overheating, or if the slight discomfort from the warmth and the chemical smells of their disinfectants was making me panic about a recurrence of the labyrinthitis. John was waiting for me in the waiting room, because I had been forbidden to drive until I was dizziness-free for two weeks, and the specter of dizziness possibly returning had me on edge.

I felt like my ear was plugged up with wax, but the ENT doctor told me it was perfectly clear and that the feeling of being stuffed up was mild hearing loss. He put me on a very short, quickly tapered course of steroids immediately, wished me luck with the discomfort of that experience, told me to call if I didn’t think I could stand it, and told me to come back in a few weeks for a hearing test.

I took the steroids. I stuck to the course. It was unpleasant. I did, however, pass my hearing test. More or less. The results came back as within normal ranges with an insignificant imbalance between my ears, the weaker culprit being my right ear, and that ear still doesn’t fell 100% right, so I’m pretty sure I suffered a very little bit of hearing loss and got fairly lucky that I had a relative to point me to the ENT doctor, because if I hadn’t had her insight from having been through it, the hearing loss could have been substantially worse.

And here’s another thing: John and I had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without success and were on the brink of seeking medical advice/insight on what might be getting in the way. The course of steroids happened to coincide with the beginning of my cycle and finished right before my fertile window. I was tracking a bunch of fertility signs, and they all went from “yeah, they’re there, I guess?” to “clear as a bell, yes, all signs point to fertile,” and four weeks later, the pregnancy test read positive. No medical person has backed up this theory in the slightest, but I’m convinced I must have been dealing with some mild inflammation making conception a little less likely, and the steroids, in treating my ears, managed to give us a shot at parenthood.

What I Learned

I decided to share this medical episode in extreme detail partly because shared anecdotes freely available can be helpful to other people dealing with the same weird issues and partly as part of my long-promised, long-neglected series on learning things. These are the things I took away from that challenging bit of life experience:

  • Every day of bed rest will take three days to recover from in terms of stamina and muscle use.
  • If you’re dealing with a medical issue, make sure you’ve got someone with you who will know and think to ask, “What other potential complications should we follow up on, and who should we talk to?
  • Vertigo is no joking matter.
  • There are easier ways to learn things than having semi-major medical emergencies.
  • ENT offices should not contain carpet and they should be thoroughly air-conditioned.
  • Having a good partner when you’re seriously unwell is everything.
  • Sometimes, if you get incredibly lucky, a bad thing might just clear the path to a good thing.