Updated: Jan 30, 2019
In February of 2017 I was dizzy. Abruptly, suddenly, and with little warning, my life took an interesting wavy, curvy, disruptive course. I routinely drive the same route to work, like most of you. My commute is about 30 minutes one way and I can do it with my eyes closed (please do not try that at home folks). On this particular day, when I pulled up to my parking space at work, I stumbled out of the car (there was no alcohol involved, I swear). It was weird and scary because I actually stumbled and I do not use that word for dramatic effect. It didn’t stop me in my tracks, but it gave me significant pause. I pushed through it, made my way from the parking garage, up a flight of stairs, to an elevator, up 23 floors, then to my office. You know that feeling you get when you first step off a merry-go-round? Yeah, so that feeling was with me the entire time that I made the short journey from my car to the office. I began to panic, as in a panic attack. My heart was racing, I experienced hot flashes, and my anxiety was through the roof. I called my doctor to see if I could come in. Something wasn’t right. The visit to my doctor led to a series of three doctor visits within a 3- or 4-week time span. This path included, my primary doctor, an ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) doctor and finally a Neurologist.
The culprit that caused the above dizziness, inability to drive a car more than 1 mile, inability to work, panic attacks, and the countless subsequent episodes was severe Vertigo caused by a vestibular disorder. For time’s sake, I won’t be able to take you on the full journey of what the experience of having this level of vertigo was like because it lasted for months and is still with me today. What I want to do instead is show you how an unexpected disruption to your daily life functioning, can impact your mental health.
Once I accepted what was happening to me was an actual “thing”, I went to physical therapy for about 2 months to get better. Yes, there is physical therapy for vestibular deficits. Who knew? And it actually worked. Aside from the physical effects of the impact this level of Vertigo was having on me, there was also a profound mental health impact. I felt frustrated that this was happening and I didn’t quite understand why. The cause was illusive and at the time, I was obsessed with trying to understand the cause of why this was happening to me. I would spend most of the night hours researching on the Internet (Google tells you everything you need or don’t need to know) trying to figure out the why. I got all kinds of possibilities of causes and wrote down the ones that seemed to make the most sense to me…. and of course, I proceeded to take that list to my Neurologist to show him I figured out the probable causes. After a patient sigh, a slight eye roll, and a “bless your heart” type of a shoulder pat, he asked me to focus on sleep in lieu of researching something I will be unlikely to find the exact answer to. Well that was frustrating!
I felt anxious, which is also synonymous with scared. I was in a constant state of fear. I didn’t want to move. Like literally, not move my body at all. I figured out that if I just sat still, I wouldn’t experience an episode (that is how I began to refer to the experiences of Vertigo). Brilliant! Just sit still. I had the solution. This fear paralyzed me. I went days without stepping outside of the house (no sitting on the deck, no walking to the mailbox, no going to the garage, no looking out a window that was not from my bedroom). All of those activities required that I get out of the bed and walk….and remember walking was the cause (per me) and I would just avoid that. I would go from my bed, bathroom, bed, bathroom, kitchen (that was a stretch) and repeat. During these days, the street my house is on was paved and I had no idea it had happened. I was constantly anxious and on the verge of a panic attack at any minute all the time.
When I reflect back on this time period, I would say to people “I was light weight depressed”. I would often laugh behind it to make it not sound soo bad. The truth was I was depressed. If I wasn’t anxious, I was sad. If neither of those, I was sleep. The sadness was because I felt like my whole life had been stopped in its tracks and I could not do the things I loved……or even just the “normal” things. There was a long period from diagnosis to completion of physical therapy, so months went by when I was just trying to adapt and cope to the weirdness of being in a constant state of imbalance, motion sickness, dizziness, depression, high anxiety and just feeling weird. It was exhausting.
What was happening to me was internal. You could look at me, and I would seem normal (especially if I just sat still). It was an odd dichotomy that made me feel that verbalizing how I was feeling would make me seem weird or crazy. I felt crazy to me so surely, I would to others. I had a wonderful support system at home and at work, but I still felt isolated, crazy, depressed and was a constant ball of high anxiety. Google led me to what started to give me hope. One night I googled some key words (I have no idea what they were) but it led me to https://vestibular.org/finding-help-support . Hold the phone, there are others like me? Others that use the same words to describe their experiences that I do. I am not alone? I read, read and re-read. The more I read the more I could feel myself coming back to life. Finally.
I am a trained mental health professional. I am a licensed therapist. I have over 20 years of experience working in mental health and I understand what anxiety and depression are. In spite of this, in the midst of my own challenges, I was not immune to experiencing a change in my own mental health wellness. A significant shift. People often think about mental health as an illness only. I would challenge us to think about mental health as a continuum of health in the way we think about physical health. A part of why there is such stigma associated with mental health is because of the shame we attach to it. Look back to my honest reflection of how I was feeling above. I was “afraid” people would think I was crazy. That is stigma. Every single person reading this will or has experienced something that has impacted their mental health functioning. If we begin to talk more openly about changes to your health status for your mental health it will change the perception. Instead, we tend to talk about the most intensive, severe, dramatically portrayed on tv versions of mental health. I say to you it is in all of our best interest to start understanding and being more mindful of taking care of your mental health just as much as your physical health. It may not be you today, but eventually you will be faced with managing your mental health wellness. Start today by being more cognizant of your own wellness and supportive of others suffering a decline or shift in their mental health. Every day life factors impact your mental health wellness, take the time to take care of yours so when life throws you a curve ball you are ready for it all. Physically and Mentally.