It started when I was carrying a laundry basket from the dryer to the couch. Time began to slow, thickening like cooling wax. A pounding heartbeat accompanied a heaviness in my chest and a weakness in my legs. Next, what felt like invisible strings were pulling me down and sewing me to the wooden floor—my feet, then my hips, then my hands.
Not a big deal, I thought. As a mother of two, I’d long relied on adrenaline to ride out the effects of hypervigilant, shallow sleep. Light-headedness from hustling around the house was neither alarming nor unusual. I deeply inhaled and slowly exhaled, expecting that I’d resurface as usual, eager to sort everyone’s underwear.
But it wasn’t happening after two breaths, or four, or ten. Maybe because of my deteriorating state, I didn’t have the capacity to panic. My seven-year-old, Nick, was watching the cartoon Wild Kratts that Saturday morning, appropriately oblivious. My husband George was bringing my ten-year-old, Mia, home from her soccer game. I phoned him from the floor with a brief, passive-aggressive update along the lines of: “Don’t worry, but just so you know, I’m about to pass out.” Then I handed Nick my cell, instructing him to call 911 if I drifted out of consciousness. Nick had never been given responsibility over a phone, never mind a human being, but he had seen movies featuring kid heroes, and his rigid posture made clear that he was psyched.
The spinning started about ten minutes later—gentle at first, then increasingly turbulent. By the time George burst through the door, I felt like a stuffed animal tossed into violent ocean waves. The floor was folding and churning, and as he walked directly toward me, he seemed unflappably graceful, capable of performing ballet on a battleship.
With my arm flung over his shoulders, George stretched me upright, dragged me out the front door, and hoisted me into the passenger seat of his car. Anticipating what might come, he grabbed a plastic bucket from the yard and planted it firmly onto my lap. Then he drove at what felt like bone-splitting speed from our Austin home. I closed my eyes and gripped the bucket tightly until I hurled, oblivious to the hole cracked in its base.
The staff at the St. David’s emergency room rolled me in at 11:28 a.m. on May 12, 2018, according to the records on file. There I submitted to a gravitational pull that beckoned from beyond the bed or the floor. I plunged into what felt like a velvet sock. My awareness withdrew from my body into a dreamlike space that extended behind my shoulder blades about two feet.
I wasn’t unconscious. I felt snug and aware, psychically swaddled, if almost completely nonresponsive. When nurses lifted me onto a slab for a CT scan, my motor skills were so feeble that I almost rolled off and fell to the floor. To summon my focus, doctors had to shout in my face, like cops snapping their fingers in front of a drunk. With my eyes shut, it sounded as though they were addressing me from somewhere down the hall. After the scan, someone asked, “Can you sit up, ma’am? Ma’am? Can you sit? Ma’am?” Responding to this simple request required the level of energy I might have summoned to climb a ladder and shout into a megaphone. My answer came out as a whisper: “Nope.”
Three hours later, a urinalysis, chest X-ray, EKG, and the CT scan had eliminated the possibilities requiring urgent action. I’d shown no evidence of a tumor or hemorrhage in my brain. Just one doctor remained with me, prying open and examining each of my eyes with a flashlight before he confidently laid out his diagnosis. My right eye flickered with an uncontrollable quiver called a nystagmus. I was, he said, experiencing an episode of benign vertigo.
Just plain old run-of-the-mill vertigo, a condition nearly 40 percent of Americans experience at least once in their lives. From the depths of the velvet sock, I was coherent enough to understand that the condition normally lasts a few minutes or hours and leaves no lasting damage. Later, I learned the details: that in my case, either small crystals in my inner ear called otoconia—vital to maintaining balance—had gotten loose and would need to work their way back into place, or an inner ear infection was wreaking havoc and would have to run its course.
I should have been grateful for a lame diagnosis, but as George wheeled me back to the parking lot with a prescription for the nausea medication Diazepam, I felt embarrassed for causing a scene and frustrated that the episode would probably cost us thousands of dollars. But this was going to wrap up soon, I thought, and the crazy part was over. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since my nausea soon subsided, I never even took the Diazepam, though I was hardly recovered. Back at home, I emerged from the velvet sock but continued to feel tossed about. I wasn’t just “dizzy,” a word often associated with vertigo. I was incapacitated. My motor skills reverted to those of a sleepy six-month-old baby. About all I could manage was lying on our living room couch with my eyes closed, carefully chewing tiny bits of food so I wouldn’t choke.
I required near complete darkness and silence, as any stimulation felt cartoonishly intense. I could hear light bulbs droning. I could hear a fly move down the hall, get stuck in a corner, and circle the room searching for a perch. So long as I kept my eyes closed, I could focus on precious emptiness—no thoughts entering my head except “hold on, hold on, hold on.” Until about day three.
That’s when the pulses began, emanating from some quiet location, independent of the chaos surrounding me. These weren’t physical sensations. Some carried messages—distinct from thoughts, as they occurred repeatedly, without variation, and did not feel invited, encouraged, or scripted by me. One message was, “Everyone I love alive and dead lives inside of me.” Another was, “I am the result of millions of years of evolution.”
Other pulses brought perceptions that unseen others were with me. The presence of a hundred-year-old version of me lingered nearby. I didn’t visualize any figure, and she didn’t offer advice, but I had an unmistakable feeling of a guard keeping a protective watch over me. On other days, I experienced recurring visits from my grandmother, my namesake aunt, and a close friend—all of whom had died. Sometimes they came together, sometimes separately. Their vibe was encouraging and sympathetic and affectionate, like relatives entertaining a bored toddler in church.
Strangely, I also developed an interest in the color orange, as a concept. I didn’t see the color; I just thought about it. I identified with it. Its hue seemed like a mirror of me, but without my history, personality, name, body, or geography attached.
Later came a broader sensation—waves of contentment and bliss. Time dissolved. Sunlight came through the windows—then it didn’t, then it did. Then another shimmering wave of joy rushed in, lasting about fifteen seconds before subsiding.
After a week, I could scoot or army-crawl from the couch through the kitchen to the bathroom. After two weeks, I could sit in the bathtub without a helper to keep my head from slipping under the water—which nearly happened once, when George left me alone so he could attend to one of the kids. I began to eat more than bite-size food. Eventually, I could propel myself forward and walk like the kids did when they were toddlers, holding onto everything within reach—the table, the chair, the wall. Then, tired from that exercise, I’d crawl back to the couch and take a nap.
One day, thinking I could use a change of scenery and some vitamin D, I scooted out onto my back porch and sat in the sun for fifteen minutes. But taking in light again proved overstimulating, and I army-crawled my way back to the couch and slept for six hours.
George tried to keep the kids away from me, to give me the silence I required, though I could hear them complain because he’d said their friends couldn’t visit.
“Why can’t she come over?”
“Because Mom can’t move and playing is too loud.”
“We’d be quiet.”
“She’ll be better soon.”
Would I? They weren’t convinced. They would stroke my hair and sweetly ask if I was better yet. When I said no, they’d feign patience that I couldn’t locate their shoes or drive them somewhere. Once, after Nick begged me to help him change the channel on the TV in the other room, I rolled off the couch, scooted to the other room, changed the channel, and collapsed on the floor. Nick showered me with thanks and covered me with a blue throw blanket, too preoccupied with his success to realize that he’d covered my face. There I remained, in the darkness, for I don’t even know how long.
I could hear normal life taking place nearby, as friends whispered their worries to George in the kitchen. Did she have dizzy spells before? Have you ever seen anything like this? But engaging with their concerns would have required me to shift fully back into my body, where the vertigo remained debilitating.
Because the universal laws of motion didn’t seem to be functioning, my brain squeezed my selfhood into a kind of bunker: the still center of the tornado. I wasn’t asleep or unconscious. But I wasn’t exactly awake, as days turned into weeks.
Twenty-four days in, I braved a ride—at just thirty miles an hour, but still harrowing to me—to visit the balance therapists, who treated my condition with the confidence of a boxing coach pushing a broken nose back into place. A diagnostician furnished me with tinted glasses that were outfitted with cameras aimed at my eyeballs. While she used a tube to blow warm and cool air into each ear—imagine blasting your brain with a leaf-blower—she watched the glasses’ video feed, which projected a black-and-white image of my eyes onto the wall like a dystopian art project.
My left eye bounced when the air vibrated the inner ear, indicating healthy functioning. My right eye, on the other hand, “demonstrated a 50 percent right peripheral vestibular weakness,” according to their file. In an attempt to reset my balance, the therapist took my head in her hands and turned it this way and that in a sequence called the Epley maneuver, unsuccessfully trying multiple times to knock any loose otoconia crystals back into place. Imagine a BB maze in which the crystal is the BB and the maze is your ear canal.
The therapists’ conclusion was vestibular neuritis, an inflammation of my inner ear’s vestibular nerve, which relays information about the body’s position and acceleration to the brain. Thought to be caused by a virus, a flare-up of vestibular neuritis is known to affect 4 out of 100,000 Americans. My balance would return on its own, they said, helped along by physical therapy to resynchronize my brain to my limbs and the geography around me.
This treatment required great effort at first, as I turned my chin to the right and left while my eyes focused on a smiling yellow pineapple cartoon in the middle of a sheet of paper dotted with various black letters and numbers. A few days later, I graduated to turning my gaze to the right, then to the left. Next I was challenged to stand and walk while looking to the right, then do it again while looking to the left. Eventually, in what felt like holding a ballet pose en pointe, I could stand on a pillow barefoot and negotiate its stuffing to reacquaint myself with gravity. As my brain found “down” again, I could focus my vision on increasing distances: first my hands, then the table in front of me, then a photo hanging across the room.
I didn’t discuss the more offbeat effects of my condition with the therapists. My general practitioner, on the other hand, had known me for a few years and had shown a steady hand, an inquiring mind, and a much-appreciated sense of humor. A week or so after my first visit to the balance center, I told her I was feeling an overwhelming surplus of joy. Her expression showed relief, at first. Then a flicker of concern, as if she were searching her internal index of terrifying and unusual brain maladies.
About week six, I decided I was ready to get back to work. Never mind that I couldn’t read more than a few sentences or focus on a story in any medium for more than a few minutes; I could talk and I could sit, which seemed like significant enough progress at the time. I suspect I was feeling isolated—and curious to see who I was outside of the living room, now that the pulses and other sensations had faded.
In their wake, two effects lingered: a lack of ego and an increase in affection. When I announced that I was on the mend in my first email to my coworkers, many of them were confused. I later learned they hadn’t known of my ailment and had assumed I was on an extended reporting trip. Imagine, then, their reactions to: “Hello, friends! Good news: I am not dead and I am not dying soon!… Love you all! xo—Katy”
Since I couldn’t focus on a stop sign without an awful lot of effort, a colleague drove me to the office. I rolled my desk chair up to my computer and looked at it like it was some museum piece. This, I remember thinking, is what I do for a living. I put my fingertips on this thing and pound out words using an alphabet. It felt a little ridiculous. I felt like an imposter, or a stoner character in a movie.
No one could sustain this vulnerability for long. I knew the wall would rebuild, and it did. Enough anxiety wormed back into my thinking to provide structure, clarity, and initiative. But I was not the same person anymore. There would be no returning to anything “normal” for a long time. Maybe never.
What happened to me, exactly? Look up the symptoms of vertigo or vestibular neuritis and you’d be hard-pressed to find an explanation for all of what I experienced. Every so often, in the intervening years, a friend of a friend suffering a bout of vertigo has called, complaining of spinning, and asked me how I got over it. I’ve had to refrain from telling them that it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. The episode became one of my life’s mysteries, and a lonely one at that. Google “vertigo” and “bliss” together, and all you come up with is a 2003 album by an obscure Scottish rock band.
I didn’t beg for an investigation at the time because bliss wasn’t exactly a problem. I needed to focus on finding down again, to end the churning. I also felt protective of this raw, meaningful experience. I didn’t want a concrete explanation to shatter the enchantment.
Still, in the months after, I thought about it all the time. I wondered what would have happened if I’d had this episode a thousand years ago. Would I have been locked into an asylum? Would I have started a religion? I checked out books from writers such as the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who interrogated mystical experiences of the past through a lens of modern medicine: Joan of Arc’s epilepsy and ecstatic auras; the polymath Hildegard von Bingen’s migraine visions; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s seizures that brought him transcendent joy and injected deeper meaning into his work.
While I felt like I had come close to such an epiphany, I told a friend in late 2019, any larger revelations had eluded me. He connected me with a longtime associate, a researcher who’d been studying hallucinations and their transformative effects for decades.
On a warm fall day, at a friend’s backyard picnic table, the researcher listened as I recounted those swirling, joyous weeks. My rapture was common enough in his field—though not for five weeks straight, and not generated through vertigo. He told me that any pharmacological attempt to reproduce my experience could prove as debilitating as my 2018 episode, or worse. So I asked him how I should finish what I started. He snorted, in response, “What does that mean? You never finish.”
Late last year, the time finally felt right to put on my reporter’s hat and seek answers. I called some neurologists, all of whom stressed the critical role of the vestibular system, which sends information from the inner ear to important areas of the brain: the brainstem (which manages breathing, digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure), cerebellum (walking, posture, balance, eye movements, speech), and somatic sensory cortices (light, touch, vibration, pressure, pain, temperature). Scientists still don’t fully understand how the 80 to 100 billion neurons involved in this incredibly complex organ process information. I should not have been surprised that most doctors, when I described my symptoms, limited their insights to the likes of “interesting” and “who knows?”
The first who recognized my more unusual symptoms was Shin Beh, at the Beh Center for Vestibular and Migraine Disorders, in Frisco. Because of my light sensitivity and superhuman hearing, Beh suspected that I’d had a vestibular migraine—dizziness caused from a migraine—or some combination of virus-initiated vestibular neuritis and a migraine attack.
He attributed the pulses to a phenomenon called the Alice in Wonderland effect, a subject on which he and others have written. Migraines can cause all manner of phenomena, he explained, and despite the migraine’s association with headaches, a headache isn’t required. (I never got one during my incapacitated period—or before, or after.) Some migraine sufferers see strange lights or hear voices. They can feel an intense sense of déjà vu or, in some cases, a disorienting awareness of a doppelgänger—two selves in different places, simultaneously. I could be in my office, typing these words on a laptop, and also on a beach in Italy, unsure of which experience was real.
One of my favorite phenomena associated with migraines is the Lilliputian hallucination: visions of little people, like gnomes, hard at work. (The Lilliputian hallucination’s opposite, you might guess, is the Brobdingnagian hallucination, though not much is written about it. I can’t imagine it’s as funny.) “Some people feel as if they become larger, smaller, or body parts can go missing,” Beh said. “I have one patient who experiences something very unusual: She feels as if all her selves from the past, present, and future are meeting at the same time, communing with each other.” (Unfortunately, he said he couldn’t recall her name to put me in contact with her.)
Because rapture can emanate from other brain phenomena, I also reached out to Kevin Nelson, a prominent national researcher in near-death experiences, in Lexington, Kentucky. In his book The Spiritual Doorway to the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience, Nelson wrote that a temporary interruption of blood flow or oxygen to the brain is a frequent precursor to an ecstatic episode. Ten of Nelson’s 55 research subjects had blacked out or almost fainted—just as I had the day of the initial incident.
Nelson began our phone conversation with a caveat: “I don’t have an explanation for all your symptoms; I don’t pretend to.” But he was game to offer theories. Hearing an overview of my journey, he leaned toward the diagnosis of vestibular neuritis. The euphoric hallucinations, he thought, might be explained by a domino effect stemming from the agitated vestibular nerve that maintained—or in this case, didn’t maintain—my balance.
First in the line of toppling dominoes, my vestibular nerve may have affected its home, the brain’s temporal lobe, which handles memory and could account for my summoning loved ones. The stimulated temporal lobe, in turn, may have then jostled the limbic system, which is responsible for feelings and could account for my joy and the messages delivered by pulses. “Anatomically,” he said, “[the regions are] next-door neighbors, and they’re intertwined.”
A seizure originating in the temporal lobe can foster phenomena similar to my own experience, including strong emotions and phantom smells and sounds. These same vestibular nerve neighbors could have projected the feeling that I wasn’t alone.
“There are two basic ways in which the brain gets wacky,” Nelson said. “One is: an area gets overexcited and overactive. But really just as important, because it causes stuff like out-of-body experiences, is that part of the brain can just turn off.” After someone has a seizure, for example, the portion of the brain that triggered the activity can become depressed. “This experience you were having—I don’t think it was triggering seizures, but it could have been triggering abnormal brain activity that then exhausted itself.”
For a few years, I’d been referring to the experience as my personal Apollo 13—the NASA mission that required a spacecraft shutdown and improvisational engineering to get the astronauts home to Earth. In my case, the energy-saving shutdown and retreat into a sort of lifeboat within my own brain was followed by a massive rewiring to compensate for an inoperative inner ear.
I don’t remember where this metaphor came from—it’s entirely possible I just fabricated it, based solely on how the incident felt. Turns out, I may have been close.
Just as anyone might bristle at the notion of love as a neurochemical reaction, so too with the mystical experience. In his book, Nelson defends his attempts to scientifically explain what many would simply prefer to consider unknowably sacred. “My research points to the idea that spiritual experience erupts in the borderlands between consciousness, unconsciousness, and dreaming,” he writes. “Perhaps this notion of borderlands, so dubbed by Oliver Sacks, is simply another way of expressing a conscious state that is ‘higher,’ ‘transcendent,’ or ‘expanded,’ a consciousness that touches God or the Universe.”
One friend suggested, “Maybe you just had something you needed to tell yourself.” If that’s the case, I’m OK with it. Why would I require a message from beyond to tell me that everything that matters is already inside of me?
It’s hard to say now exactly how this experience changed me, though five weeks of constant disorientation has a way of unhitching one’s sense of self from one’s body. I’ve come to think of my body much as I would a car, a vehicle in which I travel through the world. I suspect this uncoupling has made me less afraid of death, and the dissolved barrier between the internal and external worlds has made me more empathetic. I see my former self as a different person, a character I have committed to memory but whose role I no longer play.
Maybe I needed to disengage in order to properly reengage. I remember how, in the final weeks of my recovery, my distance vision strengthened incrementally. First, I could see only about a foot in front of me. Then I could spot a chair across the room, then a tree outside the window. By week six, I could see the stop sign at the end of the street, then a building on the next block. The connection to the pulses slowly atrophied, like an umbilical cord, and dropped away, leaving just memories.
Visually, the last remaining struggle was with clouds. Sitting at an outdoor table with a friend, I looked up at a dusting of cirrus clouds that remained blurry. I tried to focus on them, but they remained elusive. I teared up, blinked hard, and finally looked away.
Then one day, I looked up, and they were clear.