With a Sickness

I get up early, and the sky is dark and the wife is fast asleep. I grab a glass of water and sit at the computer to get some editing done and catch up on the news.

The world outside starts to brighten and wake up, and one of the dogs runs to the back door and barks at something. I look over at him, look back, and the whole world spins in a nasty little circle.

What the hell was that?


The doctor says I have a stomach bug that’s been going around, but I’ve got an extra special bonus version: the virus has set up a secondary infection in my inner ear. This is a fascinating and disturbing turn of events, and I don’t really want to think too hard about how an intestinal virus finds its way to your ear.

Doc hooks me up with some nausea meds that work immediately, but the world keeps spinning and jumping.


Nicole is pretty worried. I violated my only health care rule, the Three Day Rule: If it hurts or feels bad, wait three days before going to the doctor. It’s amazing how many minor aches and pains and illnesses can be treated with some rest and food, and it saves a lot of expensive trips to the doctor.

That first morning, I sat on the couch with the walls scrolling past for half an hour before I begged for a doctor.


New vertigo meds come and go after my second doctor appointment in two days, and they don’t make a dent. What I’ve got is called Labyrinth syndrome, and the inflammation in my inner ear is screwing up my equilibrium in a fantastic and debilitating way. I’ve become a permanent fixture on the couch, my head firmly pressed against the armrest in an effort to keep Earth from bouncing around so goddamn much.


It’s closing day for our new house, so I take some pills and sit in the car with my eyes closed while Nicole drives carefully across town.

We walk with her arm around my waist, which would be sweet if she wasn’t holding my belt loops to keep me from falling into a lusty kiss with the sidewalk.

I sign a paper that says we will pay a monthly mortgage until April 2043, but I can’t make sure that everything is in order because the words are dancing around the page, a private and unwanted performance of the short from Fantasia where the sheet music comes alive.


I can’t move. Breathing makes me nauseated. The frantic thud of my heart makes my skeleton pulse, and the movement is like going over a speed bump sideways, one tire at a time.

I’m lying on the floor because I couldn’t make it to bed. The sky falls around me from right to left only to lurch back to the start and fall again. Nicole puts a blanket over me and we talk about going to the ER.


After I assure the technician that I don’t have any body piercings or metallic implants, he sits me on a cheap plastic bench that slides effortlessly into a billion-dollar supermagnet. I keep my head perfectly still so the tumors or whatever it is that is eating my brain will show up clearly in the contrast. I think about my dad’s many, many MRI scans during his aggressive cancer treatments and the fourteen-hour surgery that saved his life. I think about the day that he asked me to write his eulogy if he never woke up, and in the claustrophobic beige body coffin I listen to the machines taking pictures of my skull.

Steel plates whir and click and set off a machine-gun rattle, an atonal dubstep that never drops the base. After each round of clanking and slamming, the rattling of Jacob Marley’s hellish chains pauses for a message from the Windows XP alert tone, a sunny little bong so incongruous and insane that I have to bite back a laugh.


No tumors are found and I try not to feel ridiculous for my freak-out. The fears of the MRI chamber fade quickly, and I’m cleared to go on a powerful string of steroids. A few hours after the first dose, I open my eyes to find that, for the first time in three days, the earth stands still.

The steroids keep me awake for almost two days straight, but since I’m awake I can enjoy the fact that the ground stays flat below my feet and the walls never melt around me. I stay up all night writing and reading while the sky is dark and the wife is fast asleep.


3 thoughts on “With a Sickness

  1. Pingback: A Sublime Self-Isolation | Ian Birnbaum vs. The World

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