Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Vestibular neuronitis, My Judas Iscariot

So I woke up a week ago Friday, opened my eyes, and closed them again. Then I tried again. Yup, everything in the room – the pictures on the wall, the curtains, the piles of books and other assorted clutter – was spinning around and around.

After a quick mental inventory, I concluded that there was nothing wrong with me - I knew where I was, remembered my name, my responsibilities.

It was just that something had released me, set me free from the bonds that normally keep me in a close and easy interface with the world around me.

Because of my son’s sensory integration issues I’ve learned a few things about how such things work. My difficulty in getting up to walk to the bathroom pinpointed a faulty vestibular function as the culprit.

I then postulated that, overnight, a golfball-sized tumor had grown in my brain, pressing on the inner ear/vestibular nerve area, and that I would be dead within the month. The only other option might be some exotic disease picked up…well, sitting at my desk? or perhaps at the grocery store or on Metro?

In any case, I figured, I was clearly going to die, so I’d better get myself downstairs and let my husband know before he left for work.

Somehow I managed to do just that. But within a few hours I couldn’t sit up without retching horribly. In fact, I really couldn’t even open my eyes without feeling the most intense nausea. For the first few days watching someone speak was pure torture; there was simply too much unmediated sensory information entering my brain and no way for the brain to exert any organizing or integrating control.

As it turns out, I don’t have a tumor or an exotic disease. I have vestibular neuronitis, in which some virus, medievally speaking, shoots its little iron arrows at my vestibular nerve, causing an inflammation. The treatment involves a tapering dose of steroids and an awesome shaman-drum-style depiction of the "virus vs steroid" battle drawn by my seven-year-old nephew. Hopefully within a few weeks this illness will be nothing more than a nauseating memory.


But it begs the question, especially for the author of the spindlewhorl blog: Why the spinning? What causes us, when our fragile hardware becomes damaged, to perceive our world as spinning? Why don’t we perceive it as bouncing up and down, or going wavey like things do when cartoon characters reminisce?

You know me, I’d like to believe that there’s some cosmic reason. It would be cool if, when I was released from my neurological moorings I was, in addition to barfing, entering some purer state, in tune with the spinning of the cosmos. But that’s probably not the case, and even if it is, I’m here to tell you that it’s hardly worth it.

The day before this happened to me I went to hear a talk by religious historian Elaine Pagels. Her latest book, with Karen L. King, is Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. In it she suggests that Jesus chose Judas to “betray” him so that, through his crucifixion, he could demonstrate for humanity that the suffering of the flesh is transitory and insignificant. Well, sure it’s insignificant if you happen to be Jesus!

But seriously, folks, any illness which allows you to be back on your feet, however unsteadily, and on the mend within a week, is not that bad.

But if you know, or care to theorize, why the spinning, please do share! I’m still way too dizzy to google it.