Vertigo: a disordered condition in which a person feels that he or his surroundings are whirling about. (RandomHouse Dictionary)

You don't want it. Trust me.

I think the girls knew before I did that something was seriously wrong with me.

Last week I acquired a case of vertigo. I was visiting a friend in Boise. My first hint was early on Thursday morning when I rolled over in bed. I completed my roll, but the world kept on rolling. It took several seconds for everything to stop. Odd, I thought, but went back to sleep. I got up and went about my routine that morning. I fed the girls, which required some bending over and straightening up, then turning to go outside. Standing on an elevated porch, the world suddenly started spinning around me, and despite my best efforts, I could not stop stumbling and losing my balance. If anyone had observed me, they would surely have tsk tsk'd at the crazy drunken woman.

This porch I was attempting to stand upon lacks railings, having only potted plants lining its sides. It's a good five foot drop to concrete below. I spied a large BBQ on this lower level, backed against the porch side, and aimed for it. With more grace than I would have imagined possible under the circumstances, I managed to use my right hand and arm to brace off the BBQ while I twisted so my feet hit the lower level of concrete first, followed in quick succession by my butt and hands. Even after my body stopped moving, the world didn't, continuing to spin sickeningly around me. I closed my eyes and did a mental assessment of my limbs - nothing broken. Except one big potted plant that I took down with me.

I was stunned - that I'd fallen, that I was unhurt, and that the universe I thought I knew well was suddenly topsy turvy and not doing what I expected.

With well-honed skills in denial when it comes to my body, I waited for the spinning to stop, carefully got up, and climbed the stairs back into the house. I told my friend about the fall (poor guy, he was horrified), then went back to bed to lie down. Wishful thinking convinced me that if I just kept still for a bit, it would all go away.

It didn't. Every time I moved my head any small amount, the world lurched for several seconds. My brain screamed out to me: Danger! Danger! I simply could not figure out what was causing this sudden change. Was I dehydrated? No. Hungry? No again. I'd had a perfectly normal day the day before. My years of endurance running had taught me what dehydration and hunger felt like; this wasn't it. I wasn't nauseous. And while I'd had a cold recently, it had resolved itself a couple of days earlier. I didn't feel sick.

I was stumped. And a little scared. I allowed frightening scenarios to flit through my brain: tumor; stroke.

Now here's the truly fascinating part: the girls stayed very close to me. They wouldn't leave me. While Meadow often sleeps in the bedroom with me for part of the night, Maia rarely does anymore, preferring to sleep outside. Yet on this morning, after I fell off the porch and returned to bed, both girls came right up to me, sniffing my face, Meadow planting a shy lick on my mouth and nose. They both planted themselves on either side of the bed. Watching me. Guarding me. Comforting me.

That's when it truly hit me: something really is wrong with me. Some internal thing is off; this isn't just a transient case of dizziness due to lack of food or fluids, or illness. Truly, it was the girls' reactions to me that got it through my thick head and disbelieving brain that I wasn't going to just spontaneously get better.

Dogs know. Trust them.

As the morning wore on, the swirlies, as I came to call them, got much worse. Eventually, I dreaded moving my head, and I couldn't stand or walk without falling down. Perhaps the most difficult thing, for me, was that even though I wasn't in pain, my brain kept sending alarm signals as if I was. It was strange. I started obsessing on the worst possible causes.

I finally listened to my friend when he urged me to go to the ER. I admitted to myself that I needed help. Tough thing for me to do.

I felt awful leaving the girls behind. They followed my friend and me as he walked me through the house to the door. They both had looks of total concern on their faces. There was nothing I could do or say to reassure them. They wanted to follow us to the car. They simply had to wait, alone.

I was diagnosed with benign positional vertigo. The fix? Quite simple and cheap, actually: Antivert, also known as Dramamine II, the sea sickness drug. Worked like a charm. Within half an hour of taking the first pill, I felt 95% normal and could walk (slowly) without falling down. Over the next two days, as long as I took another pill every six hours, I was OK. By the fourth day, I no longer needed the drug.

When I returned from the hospital, the girls and I had a very happy reunion. They still hung pretty close to me that first day, but eventually returned to a more normal routine, giving me the usual amount of space.

According to the ER doc, vertigo isn't uncommon at the tail end of a bad cold, which can affect one's inner ear. The usual course is one week, so I feel fortunate to have had to deal with it for only four days.

My brush with vertigo taught me this: My girls - these special creatures I'm so fortunate to have in my life - know me so intimately, and care for me so deeply, that they recognize when I'm not quite myself and take what measures they can to protect me.

What a lucky woman I am to have them in my life.

(Photo: the girls - my protectors - on my bed, Meadow with her teddy bear, taken October 2007.)