How a Weird Illness Became My Awakening

Sometimes a little health scare can put life into perspective

I recently developed a condition called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). It’s a condition triggered by tiny calcium “crystals” inside your inner ear that help keep you balanced. But on the off chance they move into an area called the semicircular canal, they can trigger a feeling of dizziness. As the name suggests, it is “benign” — but this condition turned my life upside down, and perhaps in a good way.

We’ve all heard stories of people making ‘major life-changing decisions’ after or during periods of chronic illness. For some, it’s akin to a midlife crisis where they may have a sudden revelation to scale a mountain or sail around the world. It’s the only time when an illness (providing it’s not life-threatening) can be a blessing in disguise. You either become a victim or rise above it with a deeper appreciation of life.

During the first day of my affliction, I felt a dull headache and was a little dizzy, and chalked it off as dehydration. But it was the second day it hit me. I woke up to the entire room spinning. I couldn’t eat and whatever I had eaten I couldn’t keep down. Walking was a challenge. I had suddenly turned 93 overnight — walking slowly, bumping into everything. Suddenly, simple everyday tasks like cooking and brushing my teeth became impossible. It was a waking nightmare.

Benign my ass.

I wondered if I had experienced some kind of rare stroke and immediately checked in to see a doctor (had to call an Uber because I couldn’t walk down the street). When I arrived the doctor took one look at me and diagnosed me with BPPV, then he gave me a shot to help with the dizziness and prescribed some nausea medication.

The dizziness continued. It wasn’t as severe as the first few days but I felt like I was walking around in some dream, as my sense of spatial distance was distorted. Imagine you take a step forward but your head feels as if it’s inside a fishbowl. Each movement felt exaggerated and overwhelming, which caused me to feel tired quickly.

Sometimes we need a little forced perspective

Often with illness comes a life lesson, and this life lesson was simple: I had been taking normality for granted. And we do take the basics for granted — to walk down the street, steady and upright, our brains doing what they should do. I had been so oblivious to living a relatively normal existence, it wasn’t until I lost my ability to function like a regular person that I realized… each one of us is privileged to be a healthy, functioning individual. I had been so caught up in the internal existential dramas of everyday life that I had failed to notice how blessed I was.

We take normality for granted, that is until normality is removed from our lives. My brother took normal for granted until he had a motorbike accident that ruptured his spine and made him a paraplegic. Goodbye normal. His life will never be normal again. For my brother, getting dressed is a major effort that requires assistance, personal struggle and commitment. It only takes a freak accident or an unforeseen illness to shake us from our slumber.

During the worst of my illness, I couldn’t write. When I looked at a screen all the words moved around like alphabet soup, causing instant nausea. I had taken even the simple pleasure of writing for granted too. After three weeks I was still dizzy. I began a new job contract teaching English to a group of Saudi students, but I couldn’t focus for more than an hour before I became exhausted and the dizziness returned. I’ve always been proud of my teaching skills and my ability to connect with my students, so this was a professional blow.

Slowly over the following weeks, my equilibrium began to return but I was still disorientated. When I returned to see my doctor he seemed immediately concerned that I had not yet fully recovered. He furrowed and said, ‘I’m concerned you may have had a mini-stroke.’ A mini-stroke? Are you kidding me? I thought. ‘But it’s probably nothing serious,’ he added, noticing my alarm. Then he organized some blood tests and an MRI scan. The following week, while waiting for my results, I prayed it wasn’t a brain tumor. I told myself, I will never take life for granted again. Please let me be normal. I was raised Christian, but for most of my life I have been somewhat agnostic, but during this illness, I prayed.

Sometimes that’s what we do when we are faced with a crisis, we reach out to an unseen benevolent force, in the form of hope, or religion, or to desperately connect with a higher part of ourselves. Often we already know the answer. Mine was:you’ve been wasting too much time on empty pursuits, you’ve been lazy and allowed procrastination to slow you down.My illness was the wake-up call I needed. It was a reminder that life is short, and anything can happen at any time.

How much time do we really have?

I once attended a seminar with Trav Bell, AKA The Bucket List Guy. To be honest I found his showmanship level of optimism rather annoying. I kept thinking, we can’t all Jetset around the world and live off our passive incomes can we now Trav? Easier said than done. But the more I listened, the more I realized that a lot of what he was saying was true.

Then Trav got everyone to do a simple yet effective task. He distributed a worksheet that included approx. one hundred boxes — each one symbolized a year. Then he asked us to cross out all the years we had lived thus far. If you’re in your late 30s or 40s, or older, this can be pretty daunting. I crossed out all my boxes until I had a little over half left (assuming I won’t live much past 90 … I certainly hope not) and gazed at those remaining boxes for a long time, trying to conceptualize the rest of my time on earth.

“Time is an excellent servant but a poor master; you have to take time to make time, by intentionally creating some space in the pace.” — Lama Surya Das

But it was my recent episode of BPPV that put my existence into perspective. It reminded me … we are all racing along to the speedometer of modern society, rarely stopping to consider, there is no guarantee we will actually live long enough to tick all our boxes. We simply do not (and can not) know our expiry date. But not knowing when our time is up should be all the more reason to squeeze the pulp out of life.

My recent illness shook me awake. It reminded me that there is so much more I want to do: meaningful work with people, schools, orgs, stories to write, connections to make, a gamut of human emotions to experience. I want to meet my future wife, study for a Ph.D., publish novels, poetry. It’s enough to cause an existential crisis, but this would just amount to more wasted time.

Cultivate the attitude, ‘time is a commodity’

An awareness of time is needed in today’s time-poor society. The bucket list worksheet may not have given me the answers I needed, as to what goals were most important, but it certainly provided some awareness of how precious time is. It was Jim Mitchell who said …

“Time is the scarcity, and it’s the commodity we can’t create any more of.”

But how often do we view time like money? We act as if there is a limitless supply of time until we arrive at midlife to realize a whole new generation has grown into adults and are hungry for jobs, our jobs. Then it won’t be long before we hear the conductor on the bullet train of life yell, “Alright, last stop! Everybody off!” Then what? The pension? (shudder).

It’s important to be mindful of our time usage — what we fill our days with and who we spend time with. Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I don’t think Dillard is suggesting that we cram in as much as we can into our day, but to be more mindful and more disciplined with what we do with our precious time. It is also the quality of our time that is important, not just the quantity. With anxiety becoming a growing phenomenon, desperate over-scheduling may not be the answer. A simple leisurely stroll with a friend or a hike may be just as important as your next career milestone.

And if our time is limited, then what about our daily distractions? Is Netflix still OK? Should you still play The Witcher 3? Well it depends, are you comfortable with pouring 100 plus hours of your life into a videogame, or is there perhaps something (or someone) more important that deserves your attention? If you’re prone to procrastination like me, then perhaps it’s time to remove some distractions. A decade will pass by quicker than a daydream, and you may be left wondering … where did all that time go? Trust me on this.

It is now 2020. It may be time to decide … am I going to master my time, or be its slave? It’s easy to drift through life in a kind of reverie, repeating old habits. It’s much harder to live a life of intention, to be consciously aware of the sacredness of time — the holy now. I am stricter with my schedule now, only committing to what I deem important while trying to strike a balance between commitments, spontaneous play and passion projects. Consider this … are you going to invest your time wisely? What deserves your time and what doesn’t? Now all you have to do is fill in the boxes