The Unexplained Illness
I drag myself out of bed at 9am. Still exhausted despite sleeping for more than 11 hours. I prepare a bowl of food for Lumen (my dog), and as I put it down on the floor, she looks up at me. She’s not eating. Again.
I wander into the bathroom and peer in the mirror – the stupid rash around my eyes has spread even further. There are dark circles under my eyes that look like I haven’t slept in days. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve been sleeping more than 10 hours a night for the last week – and every morning I wake up more tired than ever.
My body aches, my hair looks stringy, oily and limp no matter how much I wash it. I have zero motivation to get out of bed let alone get to work. I can’t think straight. Even stringing a sentence together is hard these days. I feel like I’m losing IQ points every second.
I’ve gone off food. Green smoothies aren’t helping – everything I eat upsets my stomach so it’s getting easier to just not eat at all. I’ve dropped five kilos in the last month without trying.
I’m sick – really sick. And I have no idea what was wrong with me.
I’d been to the doctor four times in the last 2 months – each time I went in I was given another drug.
“Oh you’ve got a rash around your eyes? Here, use this steroid cream for a week. Come back in a week if it doesn’t work.”
“Yeah, but – what’s causing the rash? I’ve never had skin problems.” I ask.
“Oh nothing. These things just happen.”
REALLY DUDE? Really? A week later I’m back.
“It didn’t work.”
“Okay, try this cream – it’s stronger. Don’t use it for more than a week though. Steroid cream thins your skin and is dangerous to use around your eyes.”
I used the stronger cream for a week. The rash fades. As soon as I stop the cream it comes back with a vengeance. Worse than ever.
I have no idea what’s going on.
Lumen (my dog) is sick too. She’s lost weight, is throwing up daily and refusing to eat her food for days at a time.
My motivation to do anything fades. Staying in bed all day seems like the best option. I fall deeper and deeper into a hole.
“Maybe I’m just really burnt out?” I tell myself. I’m in the midst of doing 100 Talks in 100 Days. Maybe that’s hurting me?
I take four days off, sleep for 10 – 12 hours a night. Do nothing but binge watch TV. And still, every morning, I wake up feeling worse. Looking worse. The rash keeps spreading. The dark circles get darker.
I have no idea what’s going on. My brain feels like it’s short circuiting. I have a single thought that will loop on repeat for hours at a time – and I can’t stop it. I fall into a depressive state deeper than I ever knew was possible. I’m either completely numb, crying or emotionally explosive.
I’ve been through some tough shit – but THIS was a place I’d never been.
What. The. Hell.
After months of deteriorating health, I reached my breaking point.
I woke up one morning, called my dad and sobbed.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never felt so terrible. I can barely get out of bed.”
“Shonnie, you need help. Go back to the doctor.”
So hat in hand, I made ANOTHER visit to the doctor. She recommends antidepressants.
Now, I’m not against antidepressants – I know that depression causes all kinds of chemical imbalances in your brain and that for many people they are absolute life savers. For me personally, I’ve always chosen alternative ways of taking care of my mental health, so the idea of taking a drug to ‘fix’ me was terrifying.
But that’s how low I was. I had no idea what else to do. I started to take the anti-depressants. But it felt SO wrong.
In a few short months, I’d gone from an insanely healthy, green smoothie drinking, basketball playing, yogini – to now rubbing chemicals on my face and taking anti-depressants to fix my brain.
This wasn’t me.
I needed a second opinion. So on day 2 of my anti-depressant adventures, I booked in to see a Naturopath.
It was a completely different experience to the doctors. Rather than slapping me with some bandaid drugs, she asked questions.
“When did the rash first appear? Have there been times when it went away? Have you changed your diet? Your face creams? What’s been going on in your personal life? Could this all be stress? Are you sleeping?”
After an hour of talking we’d pulled out some interesting points. The time when I’d felt most healthy was when I’d gone to America. My rash had disappeared, my energy picked up, my stomach settled, I could think again and I felt healthy. Within days of getting back to Australia, it had started again.
“Is there something in your house?” She asked.
“No. I don’t think so.” I said.
“When my symptoms first started appearing, I thought maybe I was having an allergic reaction. But I’ve changed my laundry detergent, purchased new sheets, I’m using the same creams and shampoos as I always have. I gave my dog away for a weekend because I thought I might be allergic to her. But I’ve never been allergic to much before.”
And so I left. With a bag full of supplements to help get my stomach back on track and a new diet plan (I needed to start eating again).
But her question had sparked something.
Is there something in my house that is making me sick? I’d only moved in five months prior – right when my health took a turn. And if so, what the hell is it?
I wandered back into my tiny studio apartment and began to look around. I noticed a few small orange dots on the roof in the kitchen. I wandered into the bathroom, more orange dots near the door frame. I looked at the walls in the bathroom – they were bubbling and looked damp.
And then I typed a question into Google that would finally give me the answer I’d been looking for.
“Can Mould Make you Sick?”
YES. Mould can make you sicker than you ever thought possible.
And if you’re exposed to it for long enough, it has the ability to shut down your entire immune system and organs one by one, eventually resulting in death.
I know. Crazy right? WHO THE HELL KNEW?!
I’d found my nemesis in my small, ground floor studio apartment. A silent, invisible enemy. Stagnant Air. Rising Damp. Poor ventilation. No sunlight. And Mould.
Mould in the bathroom stuck behind fittings. Mould under the sink due to a leaky pipe. Moisture forming on door frames and walls. I lifted a box next to my bed, there was mould growing under the box even though I’d never spilt anything there. The walls looked damp. Moisture was everywhere.
My symptoms had accelerated since I returned from America, because my apartment had been locked up for 2 weeks. Perfect time for the mould to spread and release more poison spores into the air.
And because I lived in a studio – mould in the kitchen and bathroom means it spreads everywhere. There was no escape.
You won’t believe the possible side effects of mould toxicity and exposure. Here’s one of the shorter lists of some of the symptoms you can display..
- Respiratory distress, coughing, sneezing, sinusitis
- Difficulty swallowing, choking, spitting up (vomiting) mucous
- Burning in the throat and lungs (similar to acid reflux and often misdiagnosed as such)
- Asthmatic signs; wheezing, shortness in breath, coughing, burning in lungs, etc.
- Irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, diarrhea, sharp abdominal pains, stomach lesions
- Food allergies/leaky gut syndrome/altered immunity
- Memory loss; brain fog, slurred speech, occasionally leading to dementia
- Vision problems
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Thyroid irregularities, sometimes leading to complete dysfunction; adrenal problems
- Anxiety/depression, heart palpitations – confusion, PTSD
- Extreme blood pressure, cholesterol, or triglycerides irregularities
- Ringing in ears, balance problems (very common), dizziness, loss of hearing (aspergillus niger)
- Chronic fatigue (also included under this classification directional confusion)
- Night head sweats, and drooling while sleeping, profuse sweating
- Multiple chemical sensitivity; only upon exposure to Stachybotrys and Chaetomium
- Nose bleeds (stachybotrys)
- Bruising/scarring easily; rash or hives, bloody lesions all over the skin (Often systemic, see images; skin)
- Reproductive system complications; infertility, changes in menstrual cycles, miscarriage
- Sudden weight changes (Detoxifier genotypes tend to gain weight, non-detoxifier genotypes tend to lose weight)
- Hair loss, very brittle nails, temporary loss of fingerprints (in rare cases)
- Joint/muscle stiffness and pain
- Irregular heart beat/heart attack
- Seizures, inadvertent body jerking, twitching, inadvertent facial movements or numbness in face
- Hypersensitivity when re-exposed to molds, which can lead to anaphylaxis
- Anaphylaxis upon re-exposure to mycotoxin producing molds
- Death, in extreme cases
I don’t know how else to say it – except Mould is FUCKED. If this hadn’t happened to me – I wouldn’t have believed it.
When Mould is growing, it’s constantly releasing mould spores into the air called mycotoxins – these mycotoxins are one of the most toxic materials on the planet.
In fact they’ve been used by countries to create biological weapons for chemical warfare.
And the worst part about it – getting sick takes time.
So you know that analogy of the frog in the saucepan, and if you slowly boil the water it will never jump out?
Same thing with mould. It starts with sneezing and perhaps you’re coughing a bit more. Then a little rash appears. Then you start feeling anxious. And so on. Over time it shuts down your immune system. So you just get sicker and sicker.
Every single symptom I’d been experiencing was on that list. I knew I couldn’t stay there. This HAD to be it. What else could explain what I’d experienced?
So I picked up my vomiting puppy, and hauled ass out of that apartment as fast as we could go.
The turn around was extraordinary.
Understanding my illness and a long road to recovery.
After 2 days out of the house, Lumen stopped vomiting. She even began eating again.
In that same short time, I felt 50% better. I ditched the antidepressants, the rash of my face began to clear and I was starting to be able to string a sentence together again. I’m not kidding when I say my brain function was so low, I’d be half way through a sentence and forget what I was saying. My brain was shutting down.
But the road to recovery is a long one.
There are levels of illness when it comes to mould exposure.
Level 1 – is your basic allergic reaction or cold symptoms. Sneezing, sinuses, rashes (often diagnosed as eczema), trouble breathing etc.
Level 2 – is where it gets more interesting. This is when it progresses to serious health issues and it becomes systemic. The mycotoxins get into your blood stream so every person will present different symptoms. And because you are presenting with so many issues that it’s difficult for doctors to diagnose the source – so you’re given lots of bandaid drugs for a variety of symptoms.
I was at level two. For me this meant..
Brain problems - Anxiety, depression, confusion, brain fog. Hence why I felt like I’d lost 40 IQ points and was going mad. My pre-frontal cortex was fried as I was spending hours a day breathing this crap in through my nose. I had no ability to problem solve, I was forgetting what I was saying half way through a sentence, and even the most basic of tasks seemed like climbing Everest. (You can read more about the impact of mould on your brain here).
Skin problems – although the visible rash was localized around my eyes – the skin over my entire body felt constantly prickly. I was either itchy or burning. My skin ‘looked’ sick. It reminded me of the days when I was a smoker. My skin was dry and my complexion was sallow. I looked ill.
Gut problems – exposure to fungus destroys your gut flora, which then allows toxins to flourish. My stomach was so full toxins that it wasn’t digesting food properly or getting any nutrients from what I was eating. I’d get stomach pains whenever I ate – so I stopped eating. (As did my dog).
Exposure to mould can cause an overgrowth of yeast in the stomach, which then causes the lining of the large intestine’s to break down and you end up with ‘leaky gut’. This means toxins from your intestines leak out into your blood stream and that’s when the illness becomes systemic.
Constant tiredness - I was ALWAYS tired. I’d sleep for 12 hours and wake up more tired than ever (because I was breathing in the toxic air in my apartment).
Aches and pains – This was constant. Most of my aches and pains came in the form of headaches, neck aches and shoulder aches.
Level 3 – This is when you’ve been exposed to poisonous environment for an extended amount of time. The toxins from mould are so powerful that with prolonged exposure you can end up with permenant brain damage, changes to your DNA structure and damage to your organs. In extreme cases it can cause death. Yep, mould is not something you want to mess with.
Who knew huh? WHO THE HELL KNEW?
Once I discovered what I thought was the cause, I became obsessed with healing myself. That meant reading everything I could on mould exposure and the best way to heal.
For me, I had to leave the house completely. I did attempt to do some cleaning (stupid I know – that can make you more sick) – and after I left the house for a few days I felt 50% better.
There are tonnes of blogs on mould removal and dealing with that. So if you’re worried, google for that. I am certainly no expert.
The Long Road to Recovery – Healing yourself.
Once you’re out of the house, it’s time to heal your body. And this is where the fun begins.
Recovering from mould toxicity and exposure takes time. A lot of time.
And unfortunately you can’t rush it. Trust me, I tried. I got progressively sicker from June – October. That’s 5 months. You can’t undo 5 months of poisoning with a 1 week detox and a few pills.
Prolonged mould exposure means that you’re immune system has slowly been shut down. Mycotoxins act as an immunosuppressant – and if the doctor has recommended that you use steroid creams to treat any of your symptoms (like mine did) – you’ve actually suppressed your immune system even more.
It took more than 1 and half months for me to regain my brain function and even longer for my rash to clear up. They were my two priorities.
I’ve read every article and book I could get my hands on about recovering from mould exposure – what I know is that everyone’s experience is different, so what worked for me, may not work for others.
I tried a variety of pills, foods and supplements to support my detox. I scoured every website imaginable trying to figure out what would help. Some made no difference at all, whilst others improved my health very quickly. There is a great book called “Mold, The War Within”– which reiterates that everyone’s recovery will be different. I found the techniques in this book worked wonders for me though.
I also decided to go an almost entirely natural route. I’d been pumping my body full of enough chemicals that hadn’t made a difference. So here is what worked for me.
I’m not going to go into the science behind it all – the book I mentioned above will explain it all in great detail – I’m just sharing what worked to help get my body back to a state where I could function.
- High strength garlic tablets at least twice a day. Garlic is a potent anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Initially I was using raw garlic – but this was a lot of work and my breath wasn’t exactly smelling great. I’ve switched to garlic tablets and they are still doing the job. Garlic helps kill any fungus and toxins in your body.
- 4 x 1000mg Vitamin C tablets. I take 2 in the morning, 2 at night. Mould acts as an immunosuppressant – so your immune system needs a major boost.
- A strong probiotic. This will help repair your gut flora, and when that starts to return it can fight off all the nasties in your stomach. I started with a special one from the naturopath, and now I buy them over the counter (refrigerated probiotics) from the local organic store.
- Organic Unpastuerised Noni juice. I imported this from America. An organic, unpastuerised version from Hawaiian Herbal Blessings. I’ve improved significantly since drinking this twice a day. It tastes terrible – but it’s helping. The science and all the reasons why can be found in the book I mentioned above.
- Tumeric and Fish Oil – This supposedly helps support the return of brain function. Mind you, I took these twice a day for 2 weeks and there wasn’t a noticeable difference like there was with the other items mentioned above. I’m still taking Fish Oil tablets.
In the early days, my body was hypersensitive to certain types of food. If I ate dairy, processed sugar, or any corn or wheat based products – I’d pay for it big time. Severe stomach craps (like doubling over) and other upsets.
In the early days of your recovery, it’s best to completely avoid alcohol, peanuts, corn products, dairy and wheat-based products.
Many of these items have a very high mould content because of the way that they’re processed and grown – and your entire system is already hyper sensitive to mould. It doesn’t need anymore of it the food you’re eating.
Mould mycotoxins kill gut flora, which allows yeast and other nasty organisms to grow in your gut. All those foods listed above will feed the nasties, so cutting them out will help you big time.
Focus on lots of fresh green vegetables – and try to limit the amount of fruit your eating. It still has a lot of natural sugars in it which can feed the nasties. If you want to go really in depth you can try the Candida diet. I haven’t been disciplined enough to stick to it, but I’ve tried to follow it as closely as I can.
I try and cook everything I can with Virgin unrefined Coconut oil – this is another natural anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. I use this for my cooking and it helped with the rash on my face too.
One of the joys of detoxing from mould exposure is that new symptoms will appear randomly and without warning. Just a few weeks ago my stomach became incredibly sensitive and severe cramps started. But I’m not talking just regular cramps, I’m talking I can’t walk or function because they’re so painful cramps.
So again, I didn’t want to eat. Eating meant pain. So I stopped. Obviously that’s not a long term solution – so juicing became my friend.
For breakfast I would have huge glass of carrot and ginger juice (freshly juiced in the morning) – for lunch I have a green smoothie. Usually made from spinach, banana, lemon, apple and mint. For dinner I was having soup.
By juicing, I’m also reducing the work my gut has to do to digest the food. I noticed a signficiant improvement in my health when I started having juices for at least two meals.
If there is one thing this experience has taught me, it’s how attached I am to the way I look. I’ve always taken my clear skin for granted. I’m used to having beautiful, clear, glowing skin. By the time I left the house of mould, I had a terrible reoccurring rash around my eyes, the skin all over my body was prickly and burning, and the rest of the skin on my face was blotchy and red.
I felt self-conscious. Awkward.
So what can fix the skin? Again, I tried a variety of techniques – here’s what worked the best.
- Diet – start juicing. As soon as I began to have juices for breakfast and lunch, my skin improved significantly. Gut health is directly linked with skin health.
- Tea-tree oil directly onto rash areas. It stings. Especially because mine was around the eyes. But again, it’s a natural anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. I wanted to kill any toxins.
- Exfoliate – I was exfoliating the skin on my face twice a day for a week. Usually a big no no, but after trying every cream under the sun and getting no result, I figured scrubbing couldn’t hurt. It did improve it. Now I exfoliate once or twice a week.
- Anti-fungal cream (Lamisil) – this is another cream I got from the doctor. I was using this for the rash around my eyes, in conjunction with tea-tree oil and exfoliation. I used it for 4 weeks, and it helped reduce the rash but not remove it entirely.
- Virgin unrefined Coconut oil – use it sparingly. I used it at the start and it quickly cleared the rash up, but then the rash reappeared.
And sorry to break it to you – but things may get worse before they get better.
When you’re going through such an intense detox, your symptoms can sometimes get worse before they get better, and that was certainly the case for me.
I improved quickly after leaving the house, but as soon as I began my detox all my symptoms returned. My face rash got as bad as it had ever been.
But I persisted. I had one incredibly painful week, and then after that, I turned a corner. My brain was working again, my rash was improving, I could concentrate, my body stopped aching and I began to feel like my old self.
Recovery is possible. It just takes time. And symptoms may appear for months (or even years) after you’re out of the house. I was exposed for about 5 months, so I expect it will take at least 5 months to get better. My lungs seemed to have suffered the most, so I expect that may take longer. Everyone is different though.
I’ve given up trying to predict what my body will do next. Last week certain parts of my body were aching and I felt as bloated as a balloon. The week before that it was stomach cramps. All I can do is stick to the eating healthy, exercise, take the suppliments, treat myself well and trust that my body will do the rest.
It’s going to take time.
And now we move forward.
I’ve been out of the house for over three months now. Dark circles are gone, my brain fog has disappeared, I can think again, I’m not feeling anxious or depressed and my skin has cleared up.
I can eat food without feeling insanely sick and my body aches and pains are gone. I’m still sensitive to certain foods – but at least I can eat again.
And as horrendous as this experience was, I know I will NEVER take my health for granted again.
My immune system is still recovering. After eating blue cheese (high mould content) in Bali just a week or so ago, I broke out in a rash again. Not long after that I came down with bronchitis and then pleurisy, some crazy painful lung infection that makes it difficult to breathe.
My immune system is still pretty wobbly so I seem to get sicker much faster than I used too, but hey – this is NOTHING compared to last year.
This whole experience has been like something out of the twilight zone – I NEVER knew that mould could make you so sick.
And now, I’m just glad to be on the mend.
The Hidden Gift
And as you may know – some of our greatest gifts come from moments of extreme darkness. And for me, 2014 was dark.
For the first month out of the house I just wanted two things back – my face (rash free) and my brain. I wanted to be able to finish a sentence without forgetting what I was saying half way through. I wanted to have ideas again. To be excited. It’s terrifying to feel like you’re losing your ability to think, but have no idea what’s causing it.
These days I’m grateful for the tiniest things. I am so grateful that I can think – I have a fast moving, idea generating, capable brain – I’m so grateful for that.
I’m grateful that my skin is clear. That I don’t suffer from skin problems on a daily basis.
I’m grateful for my body – it’s ability to heal itself (with a little help), despite months of being poisoned is nothing short of extraordinary. I try to remind myself of how amazing my body is every time I get hung up on the size of my thighs or bum.
For some reason, I was nervous about sharing this story. When I tell people about what happened, the most common reaction is disbelief – it sounds SO surreal. I get it. It IS surreal. But mould is freaking dangerous – it has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.
I’ve now read so many blogs like these. People who were lucky enough to discover what was making them so sick. Those blogs gave me hope – so hopefully, this will provide a bit of hope to else who has been through a similar experience. Recovery takes time. It may be months or even years before you recover. But it’s possible.
A Final Thank You
I’m grateful for the people in my life. I wouldn’t have made it without Alex (my dad), Lucy (his girlfriend), Kelly (older sister) and Martina (my new house mate). Dad and Lucy helped get a building inspector to my apartment so he could deem it unsafe and get me out of there ASAP with minimal financial impact.
They were there for me every weekend as I got sicker and sicker. Offering to visit the doctor with me, cooking dinners, going for walks and looking after Lumen.
Anything to make my life a little bit easier.
Kelly (my older sister) who said no matter what happens I’d always have a place to stay with her. She gave me a week at her house when I couldn’t go back to my house of mould.
And the wonderful Martina, thank you for our conversations and for giving me a beautiful room in your house with just a few hours notice. I had nowhere to go that first weekend and you took both me and Lumen in! And not long after that, you became my new housemate. I love my new home and am so grateful to have you in my life.
So Thank You. My guardian angels! x