Two winters ago, after a foot surgery that left me essentially bed-ridden for some weeks, I started experiencing spells of vertigo.
It's not hard to describe what vertigo feels like—the world literally spins. But I suppose it's somewhat harder to understand what that means if you haven't experienced it yourself, since everyone I mentioned it to would interrogate me about the sensation—what does it really feel like? Are you spinning or is the room spinning? Do you feel dizzy? And so on. But there was no better description I could give. I'd tilt my head a certain way, usually while laying down in bed, and the spinning would commence.
The feeling generally faded after one or two revolutions, but for some seconds afterward I'd be lightheaded and a little disoriented. Sometimes it was pleasant, like being tipsy without any of the other side effects consuming alcohol visits upon me. But other times it was an inconvenience and an annoyance, and I worried often that it would happen while I was doing something potentially dangerous, like driving.
The vertigo faded in a few weeks, and returned sporadically in the years that followed, in no pattern that I could decipher, except that it bestowed its presence on me at least a couple times a year. A week or two ago, it returned again. Having vertigo in the midst of everything else that has already happened this year—the pandemic and the attendant shuttered storefronts and empty streets, the protests and lootings and cities burning, the wildfires and the apocalyptic orange skies and the air so terrible we couldn't go outside—felt like a fitting (if slightly ludicrous) addition to the rollercoaster that's been 2020. The world has spun around and around, sometimes dizzyingly fast, and it's been a struggle just to keep up.
And then, a few days after the vertigo returned, my world spun on its axis again. R and I had been having conversations about whether we were the right match for each other, and I knew that he had some doubts, but nonetheless, when he said he wanted to end things, it felt like I'd inadvertently gone and tilted my head the wrong way again. Some sort of spinning had been set in motion, and as ever I was powerless to stop it.
I spent the first few hours in denial. "I don't want to do this," I said, over and over. And he said, regretfully, but also over and over, that something was missing, and that he didn't think that would ever change. He held me as I tried to process that something I had thought was wonderful and special had felt fundamentally wrong to him. We wept. And then he packed up all his things, every trace of him left in my apartment, and walked out of my life.
In the days that followed I tried my hardest to grieve, to let go and move on. But every time I thought I was making progress, an immense wave of loss would come crashing, sweeping me under and holding me down beneath its tremendous weight. I was trying to come to terms with not only losing him in the present—the warmth of his body in the bed next to mine, the knowledge of his presence in the other room throughout the work day, the feeling of absolute comfort that enveloped me when we pressed our faces close—but also in the longer term. A future without him seemed considerably darker, almost opaque. I couldn't imagine it, and didn't want to.
Around that time I started reading Sigrid Nunez's The Friend, which is relevant only in that I mark much of my life by what I'm reading at any given time. It's billed as a book predominantly about grief, but I found it to be a meditation on many other things—writing, repression, death and endings, the ties that bind...the stories, in essence, that we tell ourselves in order to live. It was less a book about grieving than one through which grief permeated.
We talk about grieving often as if it's an act you engage in, but you don't grieve for someone in the same way that you can cook for someone, or comfort them. Maybe grieving is less an act than a state of being—you live through a period of grief, and one day it ends, and the grieving is over. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that time heals all wounds. That this, too, shall pass.
I repeat these cliches to myself throughout the day and hope that they will make me feel better. They do not. But then again, barely any time has passed. It still feels like the world is spinning around me, like I'm lying in bed helplessly waiting for the latest spell of vertigo to pass. Except that this time, I don't know that it will pass. At least, not for some time. I would like more than anything to see into the future—to know that some day soon, I will no longer feel crushed by loss and thoughts of what could have been, that the cloud of grief hanging over me will have dissipated, that happiness will feel within reach again. Unfortunately prescience has never been one of my talents, so, as with the rest of this terrible year, I suppose there's no way out but through.