At another time he said that he contracted the illness “by eating a hundred golden pippins at a time, at Richmond,” adding that the first attack of deafness came on several years later after he fell asleep outdoors. For a while the nausea and vertigo seemed to come on independently, but eventually they tended to coincide, and Swift was often tormented by “a hundred oceans roaring in my ears.” He became progressively deaf as well, first in one ear and later in both. The dizziness affected his balance, and he referred to it variously as “tottering” and “vertigo.”
…Due to a disturbance of the labyrinthine canals in the inner ear, Ménière’s syndrome produces four classic symptoms, and Swift had them all: irregular attacks of “rotational vertigo” that can last for weeks; progressive hearing loss, especially in the lower frequencies; tinnitus (the roaring noise); and a feeling of fullness and pressure in the ears. It is common for sufferers to feel deep depression, and as the years went by and the symptoms worsened, that is indeed what Swift felt, lively and energetic though he had been in his prime. Referring to himself in a late poem, he lamented, “That old vertigo in his head/Will never leave him till he’s dead.”
— Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: His Life and World
Swift was convinced that eating too much fruit was the cause of his torment, but it turns out that excess salt is the culprit. I know because I was diagnosed with the cochlear version of Ménière’s several years ago after having suffered symptoms since around the year 2000. In my case, the vertigo which is the hallmark of the classic version is apparently rare; I’ve only had a few fleeting episodes of it. Mostly, it consists of the feeling of fullness and pressure in the ear with the accompanying loss of hearing. Episodes could last for weeks or months with varying intensity, and would usually end with vomiting and a need to lie down and sleep it off.
My primary physician didn’t seem to think much of my complaints early on, suggesting that I just blow my nose while pinching my nostrils shut to clear the pressure. The otolaryngologist he referred me to, though, whom you would expect to recognize the symptoms of Ménière’s right away, diagnosed me as being allergic to newspaper dust (I worked in the newspaper business at the time) and put a tympanostomy tube in one ear. Seven years later, it was the Internet which would be my savior where professional medicine had failed me, when a French fellow I knew online described his symptoms along with their name. Armed with this new information, I went to a different specialist and was prescribed a diuretic along with the injunction to keep my sodium intake to 1500 mg or lower per day.
My otolaryngologist is overweight, 260 pounds and probably 5’9” or so. I appreciate that insouciance about him somehow. I mention it because he joked to me that if he got Ménière’s, he’d probably lose a lot of weight because of all the foods he would no longer be able to eat. Well, there are salt-free versions of many dishes to be found, but you will definitely end up making a lot more food from scratch than you would otherwise. Most prepackaged grocery items and restaurant dishes are ridiculously salty, and the less accustomed you become to it, the less you can tolerate it. A couple years ago, we ate at a diner during a trip to Maryland. The soup that came with the meal was a tiny cup of chicken noodle. I figured I could handle it, since I routinely come in under-budget on my sodium consumption, thus allowing me to cheat a bit on occasion. Well, my ears were fine afterward, but my god, my lips were on fire the rest of the day! I must have guzzled four bottles of water afterward in a vain attempt to quell the burning. It makes me shudder to think of how many people eat probably around three to four thousand milligrams of salt a day and then try to quench their thirst with soft drinks, which are, of course, useless for anything but delivering sugar and caffeine (which is another contributor to Ménière’s).
Over the past few months, I had started eating omelettes more often, though I’d never really been fond of eggs as a rule. The high-protein/low-sodium combination, though, made them ideal for me. At first, I used mostly Swiss cheese (the lowest in sodium) with some cheddar for flavor, but complacency snuck in, and I started using a spicier variety of cheese for extra tanginess without checking the sodium levels. After a few weeks, I started to notice my symptoms coming back, and it was only then that I checked and realized, to my horror, that I’d been getting almost my entire 1500 mg daily allowance from my omelettes. I immediately put myself under a strict sodium embargo, hoping to avoid a full-blown attack, and mostly succeeded. But yesterday, as my inner ear finally started to recalibrate, I got one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like someone had stuck their thumb up inside my right eyesocket with their fingers drilling down into the top of my skull. I was completely useless for the rest of the day, just lying in bed with an ice pack on my head, mewling and whimpering and longing for Death’s sweet embrace.
Earlier this year, I had to see my otolaryngologist to renew my diuretic prescription, and he complimented me on my discipline in living within my sodium means, having gone a few years without any flare-ups. I was shocked to hear that most of his patients, having been given clear instructions on how to relieve their misery, would ignore it or practice it halfheartedly. The Lady of the House laughs and calls me naïve, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go through that routinely if they could do anything at all to avoid it. As for me, this latest brush with my old enemy has scared me straight and renewed my determination to rout the saline menace from my diet. My family can rant about politics all they want at Thanksgiving next month, as long as the stuffing is made from scratch.