In a place called Vertigo

In honor of the release of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray, which includes what BFI film critics now name the greatest movie every made: Vertigo (yes, move over Citizen Kane), I had the delightful experience of getting to know just what this condition is all about.

It’s your worst nightmare.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and casually turning your head from one side on the pillow to the next, and suddenly the room, the world and everything is spinning uncontrollably around you. So violently, that just to move is to get instantly nauseated. You try to stand up, but it’s like you’re falling over and down from a great distance. You hold on to the walls just to keep from falling over. You think you’re brain is exploding. The first thing that comes to mind is that you’re having an aneurysm – some vein in your brain has popped and you must be bleeding internally. Or a tumor suddenly pushed somewhere to make its presence known. What other explanation could there be for something so shockingly horrifying? You are completely incapacitated. Just the thought of an ambulance taking you to the hospital fills you with dread. Just moving terrifies you.

So this is what happened to me, and I just remember going “Oh, God, oh God, this is bad, this is REALLY bad,” over and over again thinking the worse. And, being a writer with a vivid imagination, when we think the worse, we can REALLY think the worse. Somehow my wife got me to the ER and I’m just slumped over in a wheelchair looking like I must be tripping out of my skull, trying not to move an inch, but my eyes betray the stillness and are spinning around out of touch with where my head is.

Where’s the CT scan to confirm my worst fears? After more than an hour of hearing gagging and vomiting and crying from behind other curtains in the ER, they finally come to take me to the CT and just moving me to the table causes me to become violently nauseous. But I get through the scan – it only takes a minute or so, and I’m wheeled back to the ER, the universe still spinning around me.

An hour later the ER physician comes back, tells me all the tests were negative and it’s just a bad case of vertigo, here’s some Meclizine and your discharge papers to sign. So that’s it? That’s all modern medicine can do for one of the most terrifying things you can experience – the world spinning mad around you uncontrollably.


You go home and collapse on the sofa and remain as motionless as possible for the next 24 hours and, mercifully, try to keep your eyes closed.

Gradually, the dizziness subsides enough that you can make a phone call, talk to friends and relatives, even glance at a website to begin to understand what’s going on.

Tiny little crystals in your inner ear called otoliths suddenly got out of place and threw off the delicate balance between what your head feels is upright and where your eyes are. These tiny little frickin’ bastard crystals have messed your world up beyond recognition. What do you do?

Go to a chiropractor and have him put you through a series of exercises to try to shift the crystals? At this point you’ll try anything.

Another long, queasy drive, and you find an empathetic ear (and one with their otoliths still in place), and he puts you through the motions. Turning your head one way makes you very dizzy. But your eyes settle down a bit. You leave somewhat better. The sheer relief of knowing you don’t have an aneurysm or brain tumor should have been enough, but you’re very greedy at this point. You want to be able to… function.

You have lousy insurance with a high deductible, but you’re so miserable, you go for the big bucks guy – the ear and balance specialist. By this time a couple days have passed and you’re almost 75% better anyway, but that’s not enough, you want the whole ball of stationary earwax.

The doctor tells you what you already know; you have Positional Vertigo. He can fix it. He has a machine. Lead me to it.

The machine can only be described as a human gyroscope. It’s the same type of thing you might see at a carnival, on Coney Island, or in the tourist corridor along I-Drive here in Orlando. It’s the same type of machine teenage boys PAY to ride in. Well, I’m sure I’ll pay my adjusted fee as well in the long run.

They strap you in, put blackout goggles over your eyes with cameras pointing at your pupils to measure eye movements, and then begin tilting you this way and that. It’s not so bad. I can do this. You’re in total blackness gripping two handles turning on one side, then the other. The flip from left to right gets my head spinning. The therapist measures the eyes shifting and explains that the purpose of the chair is to find the spots that trigger the shifting of the crystals and to dislodge them so they get back in place. Sounds reasonable. She puts me through the same flip from left to right until my eye stops shifting. I can really do this.

Then, just to be sure, she tilts me straight down upside down, and then back up again. Suddenly I’m in a F-16 fighter jet in pitch black skies spinning horribly out of control plunging to me death thousands of feet below. Or so it felt like. My entire body breaks out into a cold sweat and I’m instantly drenched. You literally have been put through what an out-of-control tailspin plane crash must be like except for that final bad part. She knows by my anxiety, shudders and groans that we hit the OMG-spot. She’s almost happy about it. Hey, we found ANOTHER spot where the crystals are out. We better try it again.

I don’t know what part of masochistic impulse lets me think this is a good idea, but I’m so determined to be completely cured in one fell swoop, I agree to one more swooping fell. And bang, I’m spinning again, but not as bad. She stops the machine. I’m exhausted. Bathed in sweat. She says we better stop for now, and try again in a couple days. Oh, great, I can’t wait.

I actually drive myself home completely wiped out, queasy, exhausted, dizzy, but not spinning so much that I’m a threat to other drivers. But I am going about 10 miles below the speed limit crawling home in the slow lane. I get home and pass out.

And I flip my head on the pillow that night and the spinning resumes.

I wake up worse than the day before, and in a panic. Oh, shit, what did I just do to my otoliths? I was ALMOST there. I almost had those bastards back in place, but NOW…NOW I’ve gone and done what impatient, gotta-fix-it-now over-thinking guys do every day… FUCK THE SITUATION UP.

The therapist calls the next day asking if I’m coming in for the next session.

Not on your damn life. I’ll take my chances.

And, sure enough, it gets better over the next few days, and I’m like 90% now.

I’m buying peaches at Costco and I run into an acupuncturist who my wife and I have been treated by in the past and she asks me how we’re doing and I casually mention the vertigo. And she says, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had a lot of patients who get that, and sometimes it’s triggered by a virus. It lasts a week or two and it passes. But if you want me to try and speed it up, I can do something for you.”

Thanks. But, no thanks. I’ll live with it. For now.

Cue Jimmy Stewart hanging from the roof in the opening sequence to Vertigo, trying not to look down for fear of triggering the world spinning around him.

I know how you feel, bro’.

My advice? Stay away from the Gyroscope.

And Kim Novak isn’t such a good idea either.

— A. Wayne Carter

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