Western lecturer explores life in perpetual motion

Western News file photo

Meredith Levine, a Western Journalism lecturer and former CBC producer, has published a multimedia project covering chronic vertigo on cbcnews.ca. Levine, who suffered from vertigo, sees the project as a bridge between the academy and the public, facilitating knowledge transfer on an issue of consequence.

What’s missing from Meredith Levine’s new multimedia project on chronic vertigo is her own story.

The project, comprised of three text and five video stories, alongside photos and audio clips, published on cbcnews.ca earlier this month, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and supported by Levine’s home faculty – the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS).

It took more than two years of research, interviews, writing and production to complete – while Levine, a Western Journalism lecturer and former CBC producer, was teaching full-time.

The project sheds light on chronic vertigo, an ailment affecting an estimated 1.5 million Canadians. It provides a sympathetic and extensively informative outlet for the physical, emotional and psychological struggles of its subjects. Yet, Levine’s story, though similar to theirs in many respects, is absent.

“I really feel like one of the lucky ones in that I was able to reclaim my life pretty well,” Levine said of her initial hesitation. “I didn’t want to go back there – it is a really challenging time when you’re living with this and I wanted the distance.”

It took Levine the better part of three years to even consider working on the project. She needed space to recover and digest her own experience.

In 2007, what doctors diagnosed as a bad sinus infection struck Levine while she was working on her master’s thesis. She had just started working at Western. Once her fever broke, she was left with vertigo – the infection had spread from her sinus to her inner ear, she was told.

She took medication, sought out inner ear specialists in Toronto, even tried vestibular physiotherapy. Nothing worked. The vertigo was proving itself a permanent accessory in her daily life.

“I had bed spins, curtain-type spinning all the time. I was nauseous. As the symptoms set in, they got worse – more intense dizziness, ringing in the ear, loss of balance, blurred vision, incredible sensitivity to noise and light, furious headaches, mental fog,” Levine explained.

The experience was incessant. After a year of dealing with the symptoms, her doctor told her, ‘This might be the new normal for you.’

Levine couldn’t work. Watching TV, reading, going in the car, any sensation of movement made the day-to-day impossible. Facing vertigo as a life sentence, she was devastated.

“People in my life encouraged me to find activities I really enjoyed and could continue with, even though I was feeling really sick and dizzy,” Levine said.

She tried to train her brain to watch TV, to read, a little bit at a time. She credits a ‘pleasure principle’ for helping her find a way out.

“I tried reading magazines, but it wasn’t enough. But really good fiction, where you wanted to know what happened next, worked. I’d read, get sick and dizzy and I knew when I put down the book, there would be hell to pay. Going out into nature, even for a 15-minute drive to the park – slowly those kinds of activities got better,” Levine continued.

Her symptoms subsided and, slowly, Levine regained her life. But not everyone who suffers from chronic vertigo is as fortunate. That’s why she put the time and effort into the CBC project.

“I don’t know what separates my story from Lisa’s (one of the interviewees) story,” Levine said. “I was just lucky.”

“My friends and family sacrificed a lot for me,” she continued as her voice quieted.

“My deans were amazing, Tom Carmichael and Nick Dyer-Witheford. I was pretty new to the faculty when I got sick, and they had just stepped into the job. They stayed with me and worked with me and allowed incredibly supportive accommodation,” Levine said.

“I started five hours a week from home and worked up. It was over a long period. And they handled that with incredible sensitivity. I am forever grateful for that because I know for other people in my situation, they didn’t have employers who really were on their side in the way those two were for me.”

As for the project, Levine sees it as having the potential to open the channel between the academy and the public in terms of knowledge translation and engagement.

“I think we can make a huge impact in terms of examining issues that are consequential, and translating them into narrative to fill the gap that is getting wider and wider in the media landscape, which sees its primary duty not as profit, but to inform the public of issues that are consequential.”