Waiting for My Sea Legs: A Story of Vestibular Migraine

I’m on a boat. I can feel the movements of the ship, rocking back and forth in the water. My legs, when I stand, work to compensate for the swaying, doing their best to keep me upright through the motions. My eyes striving for balance, try to focus on a single spot in the distance, but the horizon swings from one spot to another like a child on a seesaw. My stomach churns from the undulations.

I want to get off this ship and walk on steady ground. Settle my stomach. Establish focus.

Except I can’t, because I’m not on a boat. I’m at my desk. The same place I’ve sat for the past six days. And, like the six days before, the boat won’t stop rocking.

Vertigo at your desk

Whether we call it vestibular migraine or migraine-associated vertigo*, the feeling is the same. The room rocks. The computer sways. The words in front of me won’t stay still.

When I rise to refill my glass of water, I reach for the chair next to me—my great grandmother’s Victorian princess chair—and wrap my right hand around its embellished wooden frame. If I don’t, I will fall. Swaying ships don’t allow for unsupported movements.

Walking on swaying ground

When I walk down the hall to the bathroom, I drag my right shoulder against the side wall for balance. If I try to walk down the middle, I will tip, crashing into the wall to my right. It is easiest, I’ve found, to start pressed against the wall instead. Moving ships make unexpected turns.

When I pick up my affectionate, rambunctious son and hug him to me, I make sure it is at the foot of a couch or bed. If I fall, I fall backward, squeezing him tightly, and we giggle as we land. He thinks it is a game. Swaying ships don’t rock for our amusement.

At some point, the ship will dock, and I will disembark, surprised and delighted to find the ground stable beneath my feet. The horizon will return to its usual place—a clear line in the Texas sky. My eyes will once again be able to focus. My stomach will rest.

This always happens, eventually.

Finding support

For now, though, while the boat is at sea, every movement I make is in response to the movements of the ship. I ask: What can I hold? Where can I walk? What supports do I have? There is always something.

I move more slowly. Sit more often. Recruit help for driving and walking the dog. And I wait.

For, as sure as the vestibular symptoms intensified, they will also abate. It is the cyclical nature of this disease. I just have to wait for the boat to dock.

*Note: The ICHD-3 does not categorize vestibular migraine as its own diagnosis. It is categorized instead as one of several "episodic syndromes that may be associated with migraine." For some patients, there may be some overlap with what the ICHD-3 refers to as "migraine with brainstem," though this is not true for most.

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