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Vertigo-Induced Panic is Terrible

We clambered into the car, half of the backseat piled with our stuff so that the dog could have the back. We’re all isolated these days, and since we were able and the infection data in the states we’d be in looked ok, we got on the interstate for a family visit (with careful precautions). Two months after the passing of my grandfather from COVID-19, the family was feeling the distance. We made it in 14 hours, a new record for the journey we’ve made dozens of times.

I’ve always gotten motion sickness in cars, so road trips can be a boring affair for me. Hour after hour, I look out the window, listen to music, and let the movement of the car lull me into a drowsy stupor. As a child on this trip, I would fall asleep for a while and wake to the car slowing down as we took an exit to a gas station or a rest stop. As an adult, I find it hard to disengage from the road; I’m always paying attention to the other cars and looking out for danger in our lane.

Traveling during a pandemic made us uneasy. We stopped as little as possible, only getting off the highway for gas and careful bathroom breaks. Few people wore masks, and we got odd looks and a wide berth on our way through the doors to the little convenience store in Nebraska. In Iowa, we took a side door past families eating at outdoor picnic tables, used the facilities, and beelined it back to the car. Illinois was busier, and by then we were exhausted. Despite spending the entire time sitting, long road trips are remarkably draining.

We left home at 5 A.M. and arrived at our destination at 8 P.M. After unloading the car, supervising Stella’s obligatory investigation of all smells contained in the house, and eating some real food, we each turned in for the night.

Coming from semi-arid Colorado, I’m unaccustomed to the humidity. I was instantly too hot under the blankets. After I threw off the covers, I tried to relax and put my sweaty discomfort out of my mind. When I closed my eyes, I felt the world moving beneath me — gently but unpredictably. I’ve had mild vertigo before. Boats, amusement park rides, and treadmills all produce a similiar feeling of unsteadiness for me. This, however, did not subside as my previous spells have tended to do. Instead, it only became more intense. I sat up and tried to take deep breaths through the rising nausea. The room was jostling around me, and I felt very high up on my bed. I slid to the floor and started to panic; it was only getting worse, and at this point, I didn’t think I could get up without falling over. Realizing there was no trash can in my room, I decided that I might have to throw up in the dog bowl. (Thankfully, that was avoided.)

In an attempt to convince my brain that my body was stationary, I lay flat on the floor, pressing my palms and heels against the hard surface. Truly panicking now, I took gasping breaths and tried to keep my gaze locked on something still. It was not working. I crawled to the wall and sat with my back pressed against it, crying, shaking, and trying to get my breathing under control. I felt like I was in a rickety wagon, speeding along a track while bumping and swaying dramatically. Even when sitting completely still and looking only at one point, the world around me continued to move.

I don’t know how long it took — I’m sure it felt like longer than it was — but the panic subsided and I eventually felt capable of making it downstairs to the kitchen. I sat at the table and looked at a spot on the tablecloth for over an hour. Slowly, the vertigo improved. Moving my head as little as possible, I got up to get a snack, hoping it would settle my stomach. I shuffled two small steps forward, then stopped to wait for things to slow down, then repeated as I moved through the kitchen and back to the table with some crackers.

Part of the anxiety came from the overwhelming disorientation, which then produced more anxiety because I instantly thought “how will I get home?” Sitting in a car for 14 hours created horrific vertigo and a subsequent panic attack, so the thought of doing the same thing a week later worried me.

Thankfully, our trip home was uneventful. I took Dramamine and we made more lengthy stops. I also hogged the front seat for part of the drive. The vertigo I noticed upon getting home was much less intense and didn’t stop me from swiftly falling asleep. Human beings are not well-suited to spending an entire day in a moving vehicle, but it was more than worth it to see family. Even with the masks, the social distance, and the little Lysol wipes wrapped around the serving utensils, we managed to fully enjoy our time together.

3 thoughts on “Vertigo-Induced Panic is Terrible

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