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Vertigo, Google, And Being “Flayed Alive”
A Tale of Self-Diagnosis and Shame
My wife recently reminded me of a rather shameful episode where I thought, yet again, that I had terminal cancer.
It had all started with a sudden head spin in an elevator, as if for a second or two, a wave had just lifted me from my feet. Like a sense of slight vertigo coming and going. I didn’t pay attention to it at first. Weird things happen, right? But it came again, that very same day, stronger and longer, and this time, it decided to stay. In the space of a few hours, I had seemingly gone from completely normal to having constant head spins. It was chilling. I spoke to my wife and she tried to reassure me, suggesting we should see how it went for a while. I tried to heed her advice but days passed, and it only got worse.
It didn’t take very long for me to give in to panic and attempt to self diagnose on Google. I don’t know about you, but in my case, this always leads to the conclusion that I’m terminally ill. My wife, despite being the most hypochondriac individual I know, once again waved my concerns away, assuring me that I was fine. But my hopes that ‘this too would pass’ were running low.
And I was right.
Soon, I was experiencing, sudden, acute bouts of what was quickly taking over my every thoughts... It was like the early stages of a trip on NDMA, but permanent. A warm buzz, building up to a climax that went in shivers down my spine.
Sometimes, I had to literally stop moving and wait for it to pass. In bed at night, I would struggle to fall asleep. My head spins would get so bad when lying down that I was convinced it was my imagined tumour sliding. I scoured the internet, feebly clinging to the hope that it might be one of the less harmful conditions on a shrinking list of possibilities. One affliction that I eyed with envy was called Labyrinthitis. Inner ear balance dysfunction. How I yearned to have this! I had had a nasty Covid episode previously, and apparently infections could cause it! I set my hopes high and started doing daily inner ear balance exercises, like a yogi, slowly looking one direction, following up with the head. Right, left, up, down. Ten times a day, putting all my will into it. It did nothing at all.
Watching my quick transformation into a rag of despair, my wife ordered a visit to a neurologist. My resistance was fierce. I had already resolved to see my last days without a clock ticking. She was pretty mad at me by then, and my mood was getting to her. It’s quite hard to write all this without feeling a deep sense of embarrassment.
In French, we have an interesting expression to describe someone over-sensitive. We say ‘écorché vif’, the literal translation of which is ‘flayed alive’. It basically means hypersensitive, but I find the French version rather more vivid. Well, I was very much ‘flayed alive’ back then. I started writing my will and sat, prostrated, listening to Bach all day, which drove my wife insane. One of the unspoken rules of my marriage (beyond the fact that my wife should not go insane) is that she always wins in the end. So eventually, I yielded and accepted the appointment with the neurologist.
Days passed and the dreaded meeting approached. My mood degraded even further as I visualised the charcoal hand of impending doom ticking over my head. I almost cancelled fifty times, begged, roared, howled... I wanted to flee, to climb on top of Mount Everest and yell my bitterness at not believing in God. The vertigo got awful. Debilitating. It got to the point where I couldn’t think of anything else…
Until a grim morning, when the day finally came.
I left the flat like a condemned man going to the scaffold. We made our way through town to the neurologist and I made sure to look at the city one last time as a man not officially dying.
At the clinic, I gathered as much dignity as I could muster, stepped into the doctor’s office and explained my problem. My heart pounded, my brain waltzed, but I had decided to be strong. I expected him to jump up like in the movies, bark a request for an urgent scan and wheel me out on a stretcher.
But there was no scan. Just a few tests and a dull questionnaire. The doc then declared that it was a psychiatric issue. A general anxiety disorder. I refused to believe him and asked again as many times as politeness allowed, if he was truly sure. He patiently repeated it, over and over, and his visible boredom finished to convince me.
My relief was so profound, my sense of shame so deep that I didn’t have words. My wife laughed a bit, and the doctor hid a thin smile while scribbling down some notes. I looked at the bizarre statue on his desk, thinking that someone, somewhere, would be in a similar office, and actually get the shit news I had dreaded so much…
I was left confused by the idea of this ‘psychiatric issue’... I interpreted it as if the head spins were imaginary. My psychological and depression issues were not new, but these couldn’t be a fruit of my imagination surely…
No, no! The doctor insisted that the vertigos were real. My brain was dysfunctioning, but the cause was my depression, my anxiety.
Now, general anxiety disorder is a condition a lot of us live with. It’s so banal that most people never seek help for it. I’ve discovered recently that I also have other issues (BPD), but at the time I somehow couldn’t accept even that diagnosis. I felt weak somehow. There was, however, also a sense of secret relief deep in me: it wasn’t entirely my fault after all.
The doctor prescribed me some medications, but I didn’t believe that it would solve my issues. Meds have always been a worry of mine, but they worked and my head spins slowly disappeared. Now, I still get them sometimes when I’m highly stressed, but I take them as a reminder to slow down.
I think what I’ve learned from all this, even if it took me another two years to act on it, is that some cases really require medical intervention. For long, I had relied on strength and refused help. It’s a pretty scary realisation when you see your body sending out warnings like these. It makes you feel really fragile. Right now, after consulting a psychiatrist, I’m on a long journey towards getting better. I’m still helplessly neurotic, but things feel less… Wild somehow. (and I’m way more productive).
So if you read these words and feel awful, hopeless, if you’re ‘flayed alive’ in some way, don’t lose hope. Don’t waste time like I did and seek professional help before your head starts spinning.