By Anthony M. Costello
Ménière's disease initially presented itself to me 20 years ago in a violent and unfortunate manner. I was 16 attending a New England boarding school when I experienced a vestibular (balance) episode, and it changed my health and life forever.
I remember vividly the vertigo that, without warning, controlled me. I remember the incredible pressure and fullness in my ears and the overwhelming sense of nausea. Realizing I could not stand I sought refuge in my bed, where the sensation of spinning intensified and I vomited profusely.
The school staff could only assume I was intoxicated and took disciplinary action. As I could not yet explain or understand that my behavior was caused by Ménière's disease, I had little recourse to justice. Faced by more unfair treatment, I left the school at the end of the academic year.
For the remainder of high school, I continued to struggle with bouts of vertigo, dizziness, and imbalance. These symptoms impacted my athletic performance, my ability to concentrate on my schoolwork, and my general quality of life. It was a difficult and confusing time as I appeared fine on the outside but I was internally battling a miserable existence that I could not fully understand or control. That paradox has since defined my life.
When I received a formal diagnosis, my thoughts, priorities, and routines obsessively revolved around managing my wellness. This new mindset made it difficult to relate to the life I once had or to the lives of those around me. I made great efforts to hide my symptoms and protect loved ones from the negative emotional and physical effects of my disease. I made excuses to avoid social events just because of my illness.
Ménière's disease has repeatedly left me in states of hopeless despair. While it can be perceived as “strong” to persevere through one’s condition independently, I have learned this only leads to more isolation. Ménière's takes so much from its sufferers; it attacks their bodies, tests their spirits, and consumes their thoughts. This is why it is so important to reach out, be honest, and bring others into your world that you trust while you are living with Ménière's. Otherwise, you deprive yourself of not only your health but the relationships you deserve.
The etiology of Ménière's disease remains scientifically disputed and I do not claim to have the answer. But I do know the condition does not respond well to stress. I’ve spent every day of my life carefully crafting my decisions and actions based on how my Ménière's may react. In the process, I’ve come to master handling and mitigating stress. In fact, at 30 I went back to school for a master’s in psychotherapy in part to study stress and the human mind. I now licensed psychotherapist, a career change inspired by my conversations with newly diagnosed Ménière's patients in the waiting room of my ear, nose, and throat doctor’s office.
I have been fortunate to have had periods of relative remission with reduced vertigo. But there is a misconception that Ménière's just comes and goes, allowing the sufferer to return to normalcy in the interim. In reality, part of it is always there, be it the tinnitus, the difficulty hearing people in a crowded room, or the feeling the floor will start moving. There is always the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring.
Using mindfulness—a meditation technique that helps one maintain in the present without judgment—has been helpful in calming my anxiety. Mindfulness is especially useful when my tinnitus feels overwhelming, and I sometimes I combine the practice with music, a white noise machine, or masking using a hearing aid.
I try to live my life in a manner in which Ménière's never wins. This disease will bring me to my knees—both literally and figuratively—but I just keep getting up. You can’t think your way out of this disease and spending all your time in a web of negative thoughts can be as toxic to your mind as Ménière's is to your inner ears. In my hopelessness, I try to stop my mind from plunging into the abyss and use every tool I can—making plans see friends and family, finding glimpses of joy in the midst of darkness, or being physically active. You have to retain some control when you feel like you have none.
The only gift that Ménière's has given me is a level of introspection and awareness that I could not have attained in 10 lifetimes. It has stripped me down to my core and forced me to explore what is truly important and made me a better person. I don’t know who I would be without this disease, but I’m positive that person could not fathom the joy or gratitude I find in a moment of health.
Anthony M. Costello, LMFT, lives in Byfield, Massachusetts with his wife, daughter, and 2 dogs. He has a private practice and specializes in helping others with chronic illness. For more, see www.costellopsychotherapy.com.