Monday 11 November 2019

Migraine Associated Vertigo and Attending University

Robbie shares the experience of living with a balance disorder

- Robbie Millross

Balance isn’t something that most people consider when they wake up. It’s something we just expect our body to grant us. Moving objects and vertigo: they’re symptoms of hangovers or flu…aren’t they? Certainly not signs of long-term illness! At 18, I felt pretty untouchable. I enjoyed football, socialising, girlfriends: the usual experiences of someone my age. 

One day I went for lunch at work when I suddenly felt unwell. A weakness, dizziness and spaced-out feeling. Walking down the street, I felt like I had leaned too far back on a chair and was about to fall. I put my hands out and grabbed the nearest thing – a bus stop. I sat down and composed myself. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins as I sat there wondering what had just happened. After calming down, I returned to work and thought no more of it. But, as the months went on, I gradually found it difficult to stand for long periods. I wasn’t feeling well. Everyday felt like I was hungover. I was avoiding people and situations. Even my friends. I went to the GP several times and kept being misdiagnosed: I wasn’t getting better, I was feeling worse. Customers, colleagues, family and friends now commented on my declining personal appearance. I started to fear that something was seriously wrong, and I started experiencing panic and anxiety attacks for the first time. It became impossible to work my shifts…eventually, I lost my job.

Around 15 months after this first episode, I discovered a specialist while watching Embarrassing Bodies. I went to see him in London. He diagnosed me with Migraine Associated Vertigo: a vestibular disorder affecting the brain. He prescribed medication, therapy and head exercises, and I was signed off work. At last I had a diagnosis. I was nearly 20, unable to function and isolated from who I used to be. When I was 21, 3 years after my first vertigo attack, I returned to work. I felt healthier than I had for a long time. Not symptom free, but functioning. Still doing head exercises, and on medication, but rebuilding my life. I also knew I wanted to be a paramedic.

I decided to move to Newcastle alone and do a Higher Education Pathway at college so I could study paramedic science. It was a huge step. I was healthy enough to move across the country. Support myself through work. Educate myself. By now, my mental health had also improved. I completed 18 months in Newcastle, I even travelled to America with my family. I was also offered a place on Bristol’s paramedic course. Now, at 25, I had nearly stopped my medication as per my specialist’s instructions. My recovery, after 7 years, was nearly completed. 

Before moving to Bristol for university, I noticed I was feeling dizzy again. A few experiences here and there. I ignored them. I felt anxious, but I considered it normal given my current situation. I moved to Bristol and couldn’t focus. I had anxiety worse than ever. My balance issues were back. In truth, they  returned slowly in the months leading up to Bristol, but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I  phoned friends and family numerous times in the 2 days I had been in Bristol, seeking reassurance. After hours in my room planning how I would cope going out with my housemates, I finally managed. I drunk a fair amount and the next day I could hardly stand. I was scared. I knew what it meant. I returned to London that evening and withdrew from my course the next day. My dream of being a paramedic lasted 3 dizzy days. 

Back in London, I saw my specialist. I was put back on medication and head exercises and advised that doing a course as ‘strenuous’ as paramedic science wasn’t realistic for someone with my condition. I moved back home with my family, worked a quiet night job and restarted recovery. I soon decided that I still wanted to pursue higher education, this time in politics. In 2019, now 27, I received and accepted an offer at the University of Hull to study PPE. I still take medication, do head exercises and experience anxiety which is too regular for me to be comfortable or happy. My specialist and I are still aiming to reduce symptoms again and hopefully my full recovery will eventually happen.

I started my course in September and have lasted more than 3 days. University is a great environment for many reasons, but it’s also a pressured environment: pressure to be social, pressure to be healthy enough to attend lectures and achieve your potential, etc.  Being ill throughout most your 20s is extremely challenging and disheartening. Everyday there’s a barrier of some sort. When mental health difficulties are also involved, the challenge becomes even greater. Often, we look at the person next to us and think: 'Why aren’t I like them?' 

Men definitely don’t talk about mental health enough. Men don’t talk about health enough. Actually people in general don’t talk about their health enough. If you've had similar experiences or are feeling isolated and alone at university , there are ways to seek help. Either through the variety of university support, or through your local GP or Helplines. Things can always be improved. One thing I’ve learned: Never assume you know what people are going through in their lives.

Find out more about support for your mental health on the Student Minds website. 

I'm a 27-year-old student at the University of Hull. I have been diagnosed with MAV (Migraine Associated Vertigo) since my late teens and want to share my experiences of attending university with this diagnosis. This diagnosis has also led to experiences of panic attacks and anxiety. Here is a link to my Twitter.

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