In early June 2017, a medical test gone awry left me with a brain injury that I am still healing from today. Among many other cognitive and behavioral changes, I temporarily lost my sense of balance. These observations came directly from notes I began about two weeks after the injury.
1. Lack of balance takes you by surprise. We assume the proper functioning of our sense of balance, not giving it a single thought in the typical course of a typical day. But imagine having the rug pulled out from under you. Seriously, try to visualize the shock of discovering that the ground beneath your feet was no longer reliable, that it could rise up from the left or right, or leave you sitting on the floor in a heap. Without a good sense of balance, every step is a reminder of our fragility.
2. Lack of balance is exhausting. I had the straightforward, can’t-walk-a-straight-line kind of balance problem. It took enormous effort to navigate from one room to another. The challenge is exponentially worse for people who have vertigo, when the room is spinning like a ride at an amusement park.
3. You should stake out a “command center.” I claimed a big, comfy chair in the family room. Since I could no longer easily leap up to grab the phone or TV remote control, I gathered everything around me. The longer the condition lasted, the bigger the pile of stuff got. With a big enough chair and a small table nearby, I could fit a pad of paper and pen for jotting down observations like this, all the entertainment remotes, a box of tissues, a small brown lunch bag for garbage, a bottle of water, a cup of tea, snacks, a blanket, a pillow, and a cell phone. My chair looked like a 5-foot square garbage heap, but it served me well.
4. Animals do not respect balance problems. My dog figured out pretty quickly that I could no longer chase her to retrieve some forbidden item, so she flaunted socks stolen from the laundry room and nabbed snacks off my big chair. My cats, happy to finally have me unmoving, settled in for long periods of “cat lap.”
5. It gets boring. Because the event that caused my dizziness also rattled other parts of my brain, I can’t enjoy quiet time with a good book the way I used to. The words don’t always make sense, and my memory problems made it difficult to keep track of characters. My speech was also affected, so I couldn’t make phone calls to friends. It pains me to admit, but TV became my everything. But even with access to all the streaming videos I wanted, watching got old.
6. You become infinitely more aware of your home and surroundings. I spent several days maneuvering through my home by holding onto walls, chairs, door knobs, tables, and anything else I could grab to stay upright. At first, it was like learning a rock-climbing wall, figuring out how to move from one bolster to the next. Eventually I found the most expedient routes to anywhere I needed to go.
7. You learn to value walking aids. When my balance problem didn’t resolve after a week, I gave in and bought a four-wheeled walker with lockable brakes and a seat that doubled as a carrying tray. It still took me an unbearably long time to move from room to room, but walking required less energy (reducing the exhaustion factor) and I didn’t have to rely so much on others to fetch things for me. I really should have gotten the walker sooner than I did. If your balance issues aren’t as severe, you may be able to sport a cane instead. Either way, don’t make my mistake of choosing vanity over mobility.
8. You will be tempted to ditch the walker as quickly as possible. Don’t. Once my balance began to recover, I discovered what I thought was a brilliant strategy for walking on my own. If I placed my feet farther apart horizontally, turned my toes inward, and locked my knees, I could walk a relatively straight line. I looked like a stiff-legged, pigeon-toed Frankenstein, but I was able to move on my own. This came back to haunt me in the form of back pain and a strained leg muscle. Use the walker or cane until your usual smooth gait returns.
9. You learn that there are two types of people in the world. (I know there are more than two, but go with me on this.) When I was finally strong enough to venture out into the world, my sister drove me to the supermarket. As pathetic as it sounds, this was the most thrilling thing I had done since my injury. I also took my newly mobile self to my local streets. In both environments, I found that some people—often strangers—would stop and ask why such a relatively young person needed a walker, and I was happy for the conversation. But others didn’t even acknowledge that the walker existed, even neighbors I used to see everyday and had considered “friendly.” Were they afraid of offending me by discussing my new disability? This behavior baffles me still. I learned not to be surprised by any reaction.
In future blogs, I’ll reveal what I learned during my 18-month immersion into the fascinating world of vestibular research. As terrifying and uncomfortable as my own balance problem has been, it gave me a more focused perspective, and I am grateful for that. Would I do it again? No. Never. Not for anything.