A month ago, I tried to haul myself out of bed and the room spun. Violent, sudden, a ship hit by a giant wave.
My business partner has vertigo and I recognized it immediately. I laid still, searching on my phone for what to do, tried the epley manoeuvre, made it to the bathroom and fought nausea while brushing my teeth. Because Danny has this, I knew that this is something that can be treated by a physiotherapist, and I called the specialist clinic and — magically — there was a cancellation. I took motion sickness meds and made it to the clinic, had my head and body moved around at different angles while wearing a virtual-reality-like set of goggles that measured my eye movements, felt like I was falling, felt better.
I left with two diagnoses: benign paroxysysmal positional vertigo (the sudden, overwhelming world spinning) and unilateral vestibular hypofunction (more chronic, the signs of which I’d been noticing for a couple of years now). I also left with some eye exercises, a greater appreciation for physiotherapy and with an unfamiliar sense of fragility. Every time I moved my head for a couple of days, I felt a whirl, felt something in my brain, felt like I had to move very carefully.
I’m not used to that, feeling my brain and my body from the inside out. Like I can feel the shell of my brain outlined inside my skull, feel gravity outlining a force around my body.
For the next few days, I walked through my workdays as if I was underwater. “My multi-tasker is broken!” I lamented. I had literal vertigo, but was conscious of the metaphorical vertigo – life moving fast, in fragments. So much work, so many screens, so much input, pace of life.
Four days later, I took my fragile, gravity-heavy self on a plane for a two part trip: Uganda for a wedding and the Kyrgyzstan to visit friends who are living there temporarily and to attend the world nomad games. (More about the games next week). I’ve written before about how much I love to run when I’m traveling, and I’m in the middle of my “218 workouts in 2018” challenge. But when the world moves around you every time you nod your head (and apparently I nod my head a lot — I’m so agreeable!), you have to adjust. I’m not the best adjuster. I had to rethink what I take for granted, how I orient myself to moving my body in new spaces.
Moment 1: Running in rural Uganda
I run a learning and development project for youth in Uganda, and our social worker was getting married. The first few days were a lot of driving, a lot of celebration, a lot of meetings, a lot of dancing. Dancing felt safer than I expected.
Then, the morning I was leaving, I had a spare hour — and I was able to go out for a run. I was in Kasese in the western part of Uganda, nestled in the base of the soft, unsung Rwenzori mountains.
I started out from town down the road to Kilembe, one of my favourite runs in the world. It’s gently uphill for the first couple of kilometres, few cars, just people walking and riding on small motorcycles about their business. I ran through loud singing from the large church as I left town, and then suddenly, I had company. Three kids.
Zavier, Juliet, Kenneth. Sometimes kids run with me when I’m traveling, but usually only for a minute or two. These three stayed with me for 15 minutes until I paused for water, then rejoined me on my route back. I pulled the headphones out of my phone and played music with a strong drumbeat to accompany us. Another two older girls, in dresses and “slippers” (flip flops) joined in for a kilometre or so. They all split off, suddenly, with a quick “bye.” I jogged back to my hotel, physically grounded for the first time in weeks, ready for a nine hour drive.
Moment 2: Dancing in Kyrgyzstan
One of our first nights in Kyrgyzstan, we were having dinner in an Uzbek restaurant that had a tiny dance floor. A song came on that — rarely, bizarrely — prompted me to jump up and dance. A guy was doing very specific moves, which I imitated. Unbelievably exhilarating.
Several days later, we were walking around the cultural village at one of the sites of the World Nomad Games. “My” song came on. I had my friend’s two year old on my back but I started jiggling around anyway. Felix loved it and kept cackling his toddler laugh. I did some of the moves I’d learned and suddenly I was surrounded by a group of Kyrgyz kids and young people — videotaping me on their phones. I laughed and danced harder. I think I’m on kyrgyz youtube now.
A bit later, the same day, the same song. I started to move my arms and an older woman laughed and started nodding. Within seconds I was surrounded by a bunch of women dancing with me, all of them laughing and applauding. When it ended, they hugged me.
I later found the song and discovered that the lyrics translate as “dance the song of the land you are in.” I can’t imagine a better mantra.
Moment 3: Walking the seawall in Vancouver
I flew home 24 hours to Toronto, then three days later flew to Vancouver for work. The edges of my vertigo are still with me, a dizzying shadow following me when I stand up quickly, really feel my butt in my chair, move my head quickly. I’m doing my gaze training exercises, but I can barely locate my body in time and space, sleep all over the map.
After I did the prep I needed to do for my work, I went out to the seawall in Stanley Park for a walk. I knew I didn’t have a long run in me, but I wanted to feel the full span of the city where it juts into the sea. I knew it would take about two hours, and I started out with podcasts in my ears, listening for “something inspiring.”
About two kilometres in, I pull my earbuds out. I let the soundscape wrap around me. Quick lapping of the waves. A soft burr of seaplanes. The squeaking of a bike coming in the other direction. The whish of bike tires. Different languages rising and ebbing as I pass people.
The harder I listen, the more dimensions I hear. My own feet. Snippets of conversation. Boats in the distance. I look more deeply into the beach. Big herring gulls, a crouch of grey heron, the caw of crows. I remember birding with my ex and learning to notice the small, invisible birds. I look closely at a gull and realize it’s trying to swallow a purple seastar whole. “What on earth are you going to do with that?”
I walk the 11 kilometres around, jog two more so I can meet my friend for coffee on time. My body shifts as I run, working hard, working well, but no longer listening. Brushing past the world.
I pay attention to that. When I need to slow down and listen, when I should dance, when I should run and move fast past the world. When I should pull out the earbuds and just breathe.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto when she’s not roaming the world. She blogs here the second Friday and third Saturday of every month.