A balcony collapsed with me on it last year, making me nervous about climbing the ladder to get to the top of the cherry tree next to my house in the countryside. But I wanted to pick the ripe cherries, so from the ground, I reached for the branches, bent them down, clip-clip, and then put the green and red bits into the giant bag at my feet. I looked up to see the amazing clusters of red balls, and my head started swimming. I stretched out my arms like a ballerina to balance myself, but I was in dizzy-land. No one heard me announce, ‘I am going to pass out.’
I was right, as usual. It was only a second of unconsciousness. Mist replaced the scenery, I tottered to the side, and I was on the flat on the dirt. When the fog cleared, my mind was working efficiently, and I evaluated the situation. I was happy to see that the closest boulder was two feet away from my head, and the gardening shears were not stabbing me in the gut. I was lucky, as usual. It didn’t seem like a stroke; more like a plain old dizzy spell. I got up, decided the cherries on the tree could rot, and took my sac of fruit clippings into the house.
For a couple of decades, I’ve had dizzy spells, maybe one or two times a year, though I have never passed out before. I had read that crystals can form in the inner ear, causing havoc with equilibrium. The simplest way to correct the problem is to ‘shake’ the crystals out, by lying on a bed, arms out, with my head over the edge of the mattress, slowly lifting and rotating my head, left to right, in a circle, up and down. The dizziness during the head exercise is extreme, nauseating even, but after three or four sessions over the course of a couple of days, my equilibrium has always returned.
This time, though, losing my balance enough to pass out and fall down caught my attention. I wasn’t frightened, just on alert. I did my head-bed routine for a couple of days and regained stability, but the occasional wavering inside my head persuaded me to make an appointment with my GP. I told the receptionist that there was no rush – it wasn’t Covid or heart failure – and 10 days later, I showed up at the doctor’s office.
Dr Smith (not her real name) has been my doctor for several years. I give her a box of Christmas chocolates every year. She knows that I’m a non-pill taker, a stoic when it comes to feeling bad, and always downplaying my problems; health or otherwise.
Our appointment was at the end of her day, 6:30 p.m. Before we started our session, the doctor complained to me about her previous patient refusing to wear a mask. Then, I filled her in on my progress from the accident I’d had the previous year and showed her the new x-rays. Finally, we got to the main subject: my periodic dizziness. I mentioned that my blurred vision/migraines were happening more often, though, at the moment, neither problem was present.
She asked how I was sleeping. ‘Not great,’ I said, ‘because I get up to pee every three hours, but it’s no problem.’
She wanted to know if I was nervous about walking or climbing steps. ‘A bit,’ I answered. ‘Since the balcony collapsed, I use a step ladder, but I avoid the seven-step ladder.’
We went to the exam room where she took my blood pressure. It was perfectly normal, as usual. She had me hold out my arms, and then touch my nose first with the left forefinger, followed by the right. With my eyes closed, I repeated the procedure. She asked me to stand up, and take two steps forward and two back. I did the same thing with my eyes closed.
We went back to her office where she tapped on her computer and then said: ‘There is no neurological problem. But here is the name of a psychologist I think you should call. You see, sometimes physical problems have a mental cause.’
I spent my adult life in New York City where 25,000 therapists keep the population steady and aware of themselves – myself included. I know about the therapeutic process, PTSD, and about psychosomatic illnesses, but I hadn’t considered these as the source of my dizziness or vision problems. As soon as Dr Smith said it, there was a logic to the idea, a very Louise Hay perspective.
I took the psychologist’s name and left.
During dinner that evening I noticed I felt uneasy. Before bed, I took the time to take inventory of myself to find the source of that anxiety, and ah ha, I found it!
Dr Smith had basically said to me: ‘You’re imagining it.’
The doctor’s version of this sentence had set off a flashing red light in my head. For two years, I’ve been noting that ‘You’re imagining it is engraved in my response system.
I had used this phrase all my life with simple things. I pulled change out of my pocket for a coffee, and found 50 cents, instead of $2.50. ‘I must have imagined putting the other coins in my pocket,’ I told myself. That afternoon, when I changed clothes, the extra change fell out of my pocket.
I opened a jar of pasta sauce, and instead of red, it looked brown as if it were rancid. I checked the expiration date on the jar, and it was certified good for another month. ‘You’re imagining it,’ I told myself about the colour. I tasted a smidge of the sauce; it probably just needed heating. I boiled the pasta and added the sauce. And OMG the taste was terrible, like eating vinegar and motor oil mixed together.
I reached into my purse to pull out a tissue, and it wasn’t there; I searched and searched, and couldn’t find it; though I was positive I’d tucked one in before I left the flat. ‘Oh you just imagined you put it in,’ and I waved my hand in the air like it wasn’t important. Later, paying for lunch, there it was, hiding in the fold of my wallet.
And there was the confirmation email the company didn’t receive from me. ‘I probably imagined I sent it,’ I told myself – until the company called to say the email had been found in the spam folder.
I told myself I was imagining most things that seemed off, or not right, or messed up, or on the verge of disintegrating.
I repeated: ‘You’re imagining it,’ even with important things: ‘You’re imagining that your husband twitches with delight when he’s around 15-year-old girls,’ and ‘You’re imagining that the man in the Mustang is following you.’ As it turned out, I was not imagining these things.
Finally, it dawned on me I was lying to myself instead of imagining things. Evidently, I did not trust myself, didn’t trust my eyes and ears, my intellect or my instincts. I was more at ease blaming myself, or my stupidity, or my fear, or my vivid creativity than I was looking at reality.
So I started listening to the phrase ‘You’re imagining it’ in my head. There were other versions of it: ‘Don’t be silly,’ or ‘That can’t be,’ or ‘You’re remembering it wrong,’ or ‘It must have slipped your mind,’ or ‘You made it up.’
I paused each time I heard the phrase or its imitators in my mind and took a mini-inventory of the moment. What was actually going on? What was the reality? Was my memory faulty? Had I been paying attention? Could I wait/ask for confirmation?
I learned that, in fact, the small things, as well as the big things, were true. The reality was all around me if I stopped denying it.
For example, during my examination, Dr Smith was tired at the end of her day. Maybe she was hungry. She was certainly irritable from her previous patient. She did not look at my eyes, throat, or ears. She did not ask for examples of my dizziness. She didn’t order a blood test or blood sugar reading. She didn’t listen to my carotid arteries. She didn’t think an appointment with a neurologist was necessary, and also she didn’t suggest a visit with an ophthalmologist or otolaryngologist. She did not ask me to keep a log of when/how the episodes happened. Somehow she drew a conclusion before the exam that my symptoms originated from an emotional reaction to my accident last year, and she left it at that.
But I was the one in charge of the meeting, and I failed myself. I assumed she was right, and I ignored my reality. It was so easy to agree with her gentle tone and kind diagnosis: ‘You’re imagining it.’
The truth was, no matter what Dr Smith said, I had not imagined passing out and falling down under the cherry tree, and my vision problems had been happening long before my accident. I confirmed these realities until after our medical appointment.
Happily, this situation was easy to fix. I made appointments with the eye doctor and the ear doctor. I went to a clinic to get my blood work done. I began keeping a list of times and dates when my symptoms recur. I will wait for the results; probably the cause is not serious, but either way, I am taking care of myself. It’s easy to take care of myself if I take note of reality instead of dismissing it with ‘You’re imagining it.’
My dismissal of reality is a life-long habit, and it didn’t take deep analysis to know its source.
As a child, I was told: ‘This hurts me more than you,’ when I was being hit for disobeying. I believed it. In fact, I believed everything my parents said. After all, they loved me. They told me they loved me: ‘I wouldn’t need to do this if I didn’t love you.’ Whack. ‘I work so you can have everything,’ ‘If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care what you do,’ ‘I’m doing this because I love you.’
I understand in retrospect that ‘doing this’ included physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, but at the time because I had no basis for comparison, my life was defined by what I was told by my family. One of the things I was told was ‘You’re imagining it,’ for everything from disliking the taste of eggs to disliking what my mother did to me in bed. I heard the phrase often, and I learned it well to erase my reality.
The first cracks in my habitual habit of denial began during my first divorce. When my mother, father, and sister sided with my ex-husband in our child-custody case, I needed help and made an appointment with the psychologist who worked at the university where I taught.
The psychologist listened and offered no opinions except to suggest that I let him administer an IQ test. I agreed because ‘no’ was not a word I knew how to say, literally; my parents had taught me well that I could not refuse or contradict.
The shrink tested me, the written part, the oral part, the manual-dexterity part, and when he concluded and calculated the results, he looked at me sideways. I waited. Finally, he said, ‘Your total isn’t correct,’ pushing a paper towards me with a score of 152. ‘You were just trying to please me with your answers. Pleasing others, that’s your problem.’
I left his office more confused than when I had entered. IQ of 152? I researched the score and understood it was very high. Me?
So here’s another story: I grew up thinking I was retarded. So often, my parents looked at me sideways, with puzzlement in their expressions. When I did something or said something at home or in public, my father grunted and shook his head. He smiled and ridiculed me until I ducked my head and was quiet. In similar situations, my mother chuckled nervously and walked away. I learned from them that I was an oddball, that I didn’t understand, that I should be left alone, that I’d never get it right, whatever ‘it’ was.
My parents’ evaluation of my worth was more convincing to me than all the feedback from outside my home. I was a straight-A student and was the high school salutatorian. I was popular, I was in plays and participated in art shows, I sang in the chorus, ran track, and played tennis. I had a best friend and a circle of other friends, I dated boys, and on and on. I earned a PhD and found a job at a university. And yet, I had a bedrock belief that I was stupid. More than stupid; I was retarded.
I developed an explanation for people outside my family who were nice to me: they were being kind to the poor retarded girl. My parents’ actions and attitudes confirmed this; they tried to hide me, made excuses for me, and seemed relieved when I was in the back of a room.
My first Christmas after high school, my mother urged me to drop out of university. She introduced me to ‘her friend’ who was a psychiatrist. It was clear that my mother thought I was crazy as well as retarded. My response was immediate: I shrank, withdrew, became as silent as I had been as a child, and smiled. This satisfied my mother and the psychiatrist both. The smile was an important element. I knew that I had to look happy about my family’s version of reality and meld into it well, or I would be whisked to an asylum.
152 IQ? A faulty score based on trying to please the shrink? I chewed on this scenario for several years, until I decided to accept the score rather than the psychologist’s sideways glance and his interpretation of my test. I wasn’t retarded after all. Maybe, in fact, the world’s response to me was closer to reality than my family’s.
I was smart but so slow to learn. Decades of therapy, of writing about the past, of self-care and self-analysis, brought me to the finish line: ‘You’re imagining it,’ helped them and hurt me.
I do not want to continue hurting myself, so when that old phrase pops up in my thoughts, I replace it with ‘You are not imagining it’. Then I try to understand the circumstances and see the reality which triggered my response.
Will I keep Dr Smith as my GP? I don’t know. Her ‘diagnosis’ could have been a one-time error, as we all make the occasional error. But what a lucky opportunity for me to have visited her and heard her response. It gave me an opportunity to feel anxious, take note of the anxiety, and realise again, ‘I am not imagining it’.
M. D. Poole has had perspective and academic pieces published in 25 books and journals. She earned a PhD in English Language and Literature from TCU and served as the director of the Deep South Writers Conference.