I Literally Can’t Look At Screens Without Being Sick — And I’m Glad

A vestibular disorder, which leaves me nauseated every time I so much as glance at my laptop or phone, has turned my life upside down. Thank goodness.

I am writing this by hand. Not out of nostalgia or in an attempt to unleash my subconscious mind. I’m writing with pen and paper because I can’t use a computer. Six months ago, I was diagnosed with a vestibular disorder caused by a virus that sends me into nauseating bouts of dizziness every time I glance at a screen. That means no laptop, no cellphone, no live news updates, and no social media.

“Basically, your eyes and the part of your brain that processes motion aren’t playing nice together,” explained my ENT. “You’re over-processing movement, which is why the normally imperceptible flickering of a screen bothers you so much.”

I would love to joke about my heightened senses — how X-Men, right? — but the reality of it is too bleak. There is no treatment for my condition, and I’ve had to take a disability leave from my job as an advertising copywriter. When I am going through an especially bad episode, I’m plagued by deep fatigue. I can’t even read a book. If I make the odd attempt to scroll through Instagram or post on Facebook like the true addict I am, I’m dizzy within seconds.

At 29, I Was In The Best Shape Of My Life. At 30, I Was Diagnosed With A Degenerative Illness
At 29, I Was In The Best Shape Of My Life. At 30, I Was Diagnosed With A Degenerative Illness

I went from a life full of meetings, phone calls, interviews, and message alerts to radio silence. The isolation I’ve felt — and for a while, the constant fear that I have a brain tumour — has had me RSVP-ing “yes” to too many pity parties. I gulp down salty tears and melt into the floor in my finest sweatpants, the only other attendee our dog, who lies with her chin on the ground and her paws over her eyes as if to say: “Lame.”

I recover from an episode just long enough to think I’m ready to go back to work, but as soon as I get on a computer, the dizziness obscures my usually bright, clear mind. Like a lion lying in wait, the dark swirl of vertigo is always there, ready to sink its claws into me once again. An episode lasts two to four weeks, and during those periods there are days when getting out of bed seems pointless. I can barely muster the energy for a short walk around the neighbourhood, much less function normally in a social setting. The things that usually help me reduce stress, like getting lost in a good novel or sweating it out in a yoga class, are off the table. According to my doctors, it’s a matter of time (how much, they can’t say) until the issue resolves itself, or one of the other specialists I’m on a waiting list for, including a neurologist and ophthalmologist, has new information.

I’ve tried everything. From the regular roster of Western medical tests, including an MRI — no brain tumour, phew — to acupuncture, magic crystals, and an energy healer. As the healer moved her hands over my body in an attempt to reset my energy centres, she explained that my root chakra (the energy centre at the base of the spine associated with security and stability) was imbalanced. “You have too much movement in your life,” she said. “You need to work on grounding yourself.” Could she be right? Was my perpetually on-the-go, multi-tasking life literally making me dizzy? “Maybe the universe is just telling you that you need to be offline for a while,” said a friend.

Here's why it's only going to get harder to put down your phone
Here's why it's only going to get harder to put down your phone

One morning, a couple of months ago, I scraped myself off the floor in tears and made my way over to the dog-hair-covered meditation cushion in the spare bedroom (something I’d bought months earlier in a failed attempt to start a daily 5 a.m. meditation practice before work). As I used deep breaths to calm my body, I remembered the words of a favourite yoga teacher, and let my fearful, anxious thoughts drift by in my mind, acknowledging them, but not giving them undue power. Now, whenever I feel a wave of desperation coming on, I make my way to that cushion.

The toughest days have started to feel a bit easier. During one of my upswings this past summer, I stopped to smell the heady wafts of lavender as my partner and I walked our dog along the mountainside lake near our house. “Is it just me, or is that water a deeper shade of aquamarine than it used to be?” I asked. He smiled and shrugged. Now, when I wait in line at the coffee shop, I make eye contact with the people around me instead of checking all my social media updates. The other day I saw a mother offer her little girl a sip of what appeared to be — from the look of sheer delight that sparkled in the girl’s eyes as she looked up with her frothy mustache — her first taste of a sweet, velvety latte. When was the last time I felt like that?

I find I don’t need cup after cup of coffee in the morning anymore, because I really taste and smell the first one I drink. I’m no longer lost in the mesmerizing blue light of my phone as I scarf down toast with one hand and scroll through emails with the other. I imagine an early-20th-century time traveller being plunked down in one of our cities, wondering what strange leader we serve as we walk about with single-minded devotion to our devices. Does it really take an illness for us to digitally unplug?

“Living in the moment” always sounded like dime-store wisdom to me — until now. Over the past six months, I’ve been forced to be in the now more than I ever would have liked. It’s been devastating in some ways, but it’s also changed how I live for the better.

During the times I’ve felt well enough, I’ve been able to do some hiking with my partner. As we scrambled up the final summit of a trail near Whistler, B.C., the glassy, azure water of a glacier lake came into view and we both let out a breathless, “Wow.” I stood there taking in the mountains and was reminded that nothing is forever — not the moments of soaring elation or plummeting despair, not my disorder, not even me.

A view of Wedgemount Lake, near Whistler, B.C.

A view of Wedgemount Lake, near Whistler, B.C.

Our natural inclination is to resist and protest when life hands us something that feels insurmountable. But if we have the courage to see it as an invitation, our hearts might just crack open wide enough to let in a grace and humanity we never expected. I have full confidence that one day I will get back to “normal life,” but as I looked up at the sky to catch a whisper of the new moon, I prayed to never forget that life wasn’t happening behind a computer at the office, on Instagram, or in thoughts about yesterday or tomorrow. My life was right here in front of me, and it was beautiful, wild, and real.

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