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Updated Photography and Vertigo PSA

I’ve just updated the photography page with some images from this summer. Go give them a look because both the Lego shoot and the Glen Coe hike were incredibly fun and I think that comes out in the photos.

I’m about to head out to the Luxembourg office next week for the New Space Europe conference. Flashback two weeks and I wasn’t sure I was going to be getting on a plane this Sunday. I’ve had vertigo off and on throughout the years. It never dawned on me that it was something that could be cured. I had gotten so used to being a little bit dizzy most of the time, that I moved to California figuring that’s how my life was.

A couple weeks ago, I had a little cold. I woke up on a Sunday with a bit more dizzy than usual. I worked from home Monday and Tuesday. Things got a bit better and I went in to work on Wednesday. I came home on Wednesday night, brought something into the garage, turned around for the door and could feel the world starting to spin. I made up the 5 stairs to the kitchen and to a chair before the entire world went “whoosh”.

It’s a bit hard to describe the sensation to someone who has never felt it. The entire world spins diagonally from the top right corner of your vision towards the bottom left. A weight comes over your entire body - you FEEL the world spinning. Your eyes involuntarily twitch back and forth as they try to keep up with the spinning. Your adrenaline surges. Heart rate goes through the roof. You tense up and need to remind yourself to keep breathing. Closing your eyes makes it worse.

Eventually (1 minute or so), things slow down. Then you look up (or down) and the sensation begins again. You snap back to looking straight forward. Nope, not going to look up or down.

For three nights, I slept sitting up on the couch. I had to take a few sick days. No sleep and debilitating dizziness that makes it near impossible to tie your shoes, wash your hair, and do nearly any day to day activity. Think about all the times you move your head up or down. Try shaving without lifting your chin. To the rest of the world, you look fine. You’re not pale. You’re not sneezing. What’s wrong with you? What do you mean you can’t drive or exercise?

After some research, I went straight to getting an appointment with an ENT (ear nose throat doctor). I took a Lyft both ways because driving was out. I figured that at the very least, they would be able to help. I got a near immediate diagnosis of Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) but the only thing the doctor could do for me was give me a referral for physical therapy. There’s no drugs that help. No quick fix from your local pharmacy.

The physical therapy is called Vestibular Rehabilitation and the referral took 3 business days to process. I called the office and their next appointment was going to be in December. Mind you, this was the first week of November. I explained that I had a trip coming up and that if there were ANY cancellations, I wanted that slot.

Things got a tiny bit better. I was able to lay down (with 2 pillows) and drive (slowly) but tying my shoes was still tough. I went gingerly back to work for a few days. Then I got a call.

“We can take you today at 1pm if you’re available.”

I AM THERE.

So I left work, cancelled a meeting, and went to get help. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was the worst torture I’ve ever had in my life. It started innocently with a couple of tests to verify the BPPV diagnosis and to see how badly my brain was being affected by my dizziness. See, your inner ear has 3 loops and little bulb filled with fluid and tiny hairs. The hairs sense the motion of the fluid and send that info to your brain. BBPV is caused by a calcium crystal falling off and taking a trip where it bangs around on those sensitive hairs.

Every time you move a certain way, the crystal hits some hairs or restricts the motion of that fluid. Your body senses motion in quite a few ways and suddenly one of the important ones is completely broken.

Your brain does an amazing job of compensating. Unfortunately, that compensation also becomes a problem. The PT asked me to close my eyes and march in place. Key phrase being “in place”. I took a trip around the room in a wide semicircle.

So far, not so bad. But then came the point where she said “okay, let’s go see if we can fix you.”

Ever played with one of those marble toys where you move the toy to get the marble into the hole? That’s the game we played with my head. The motions are designed to move the lost crystals around your inner ear until the fall back to where they belong. There’s a test (to determine which ear and which canal they are stuck in) then a series of prescribed motions based on the test.

Sounds simple, right? In practice, these motions induce the same body-shocking sensations that I described earlier turned up to 11. I’m not actually sure how many times the PT said “I’m so sorry”, but it was a lot. My lost crystals were in one of the more difficult places. That meant about double the movements. After an hour of working on me, I was a bit woozy and felt like I had run a marathon.

Was I fixed? No. However, I was given a tutorial on what I needed to do at home (essentially the same motions) until the world stopped spinning. A healthy person can do the motions fine without getting dizzy. Sitting on a bed, knowing that you’re about to throw yourself in a mode of extreme dizziness isn’t easy. It’s not like ripping off a band-aid. A band-aid is a moment of pain. This is 5-8 minutes. 25 if you sit there for 20 trying to psych yourself up into doing it.

But here’s the wonderful thing: at some point, you psych yourself up and then lay back with your head angled and you wait. And nothing spins.

And you think “when is it going to spin?” but it doesn’t.

You’ve done it. You’ve beaten the marble game.

I had a follow up appointment a week after the original PT. No more symptoms. With their help, I did it. I can look up. And down. And stand on my head (not that I want to). I still march in a bit of circle with my eyes closed and have trouble walking in the dark, but that’s getting better quickly as my brain relearns how to trust my ears. Sunday, I’ll get on a plane to Luxembourg without worrying about my shoe coming untied.

Long post, but here’s the PSA: If anyone ever tells you they have vertigo (or bppv), don’t assume that since they look fine or sound fine that they are fine. You take the ability to interact with the world in a normal way for granted but they’re cut off. I’ve never had depression but I would assume that this is every bit as isolating. Their routine is gone. Looking up into the cabinet to get a plate brings a surge of adrenaline and a feeling like it’s never going to get better. There are a couple of known things that cause BPPV: head trauma and bad luck. I had the latter but no one really asks for either.

Nick Allain