2016 was a hard year for a lot of people, and I was no exception. I'd like to share my health journey with you, in the hopes that you will find a gem of knowledge or wisdom that helps.
This story actually starts the day after Thanksgiving 2015. I had just returned from traveling, and woke up hacking green phlegm. I was surprised and a little frustrated because this was my third cold that Fall.
This cold quickly progressed to a raging sore throat, severe enough to send me to urgent care. I shared with nurse practitioner that I felt like I had Epstein Barr again, something I had dealt with about 4 years earlier. She swabbed my throat and assured me that I did not have a throat infection, and that I'd likely be better within a week. She also said that there are a couple strains of Epstein Barr virus, and once we get them we don't get them again (I'd also had Epstein Barr at 17).
In a week I was not better, despite swallowing and spraying several expensive herbal remedies. I went this time to another urgent care, and the physician there could visibly see the infection happily thriving in my throat. I left with my first course of antibiotics in over 20 years.
This all was poor timing as I had just hired a new acupuncturist to take my place at the clinic I own, Blue Sky Wellness Studio in Portland, Oregon. I hired her so that I could focus on my online business, especially to prepare for a big online event I was hosting in April 2016, Hormones: A Women's Wellness Summit.
I was embarrassed that I was too sick to finish training the new acupuncturist, but I was determined to get well for this new exciting phase of my career. The antibiotics had worked for my throat but done a number on my gut. And I was tired all the time.
I returned to a therapy I had used with success when I last had Epstein Barr: intravenous vitamins. This treatment can be get for supporting the immune system, energizing the body, and getting nutrients to your cells directly. I got these treatments at the National University of Natural Medicine clinic in Portland, OR.
The IV clinic is mainly for administration of treatment and not for diagnosis. But after 2-3 treatments and no improvement, I asked the physician (and her interns, as it’s a teaching clinic) if they could help figure out what was going on with me.
I had recently gotten my first positive antibodies for Hashimoto's, which freaked me out but they did not seem too concerned. If you have autoimmune antibodies out of range, that is always significant, so don’t listen if it’s dismissed. They also ran some new tests of autoimmunity, a test for cat allergies (I had a new cat) and an Epstein Barr screening.
They had to run a second type of test for Epstein Barr, and the physician said it was inconclusive. For some reason I never saw the test, and that was a mistake. When you have a test run, always get a copy. If you don't know how to interpret it, get online and research, or find a functional medicine doctor who specializes in that area and get help.
One thing the physician asked about that proved very helpful and also life-changing was about our house. I can't recall all her questions, but I recall answering, “yes, I had a musty basement that had recently gotten a new wet area due to heavy rains last month.” I was also visiting the basement more often, as our new cat's things were down there. She suggested we could test for mold.
I shared this with my husband and he was keen to test. He had felt this was a strong possibility, and he wondered if this had contributed to illnesses in both of us. I was less keen to test, knowing there would be major implications if we found mold. We tested, there was mold, and that was the beginning of the end.
Our inspector, Garrett Dayfield from Mold Testing Services of Oregon, was great. He searched all over and found lots of stuff we didn't know about. Our front gutters were on wrong, and that caused the new wet spot in the basement. We had mold in a basement closet we didn't know about, and the source of that leak was still unknown. We also had moisture under the siding of our house, and he suggested we look into that at some point. Per test results, we had three types of toxic mold in our home: aspergillus, penicillum, and stachybotrys.
We hired a mold remediator to begin to remove the damaged carpet and drywall in the basement. He told us he would section off the area in plastic and use an air scrubber so that the toxic mold spores would not get into the rest of the house. We now know this doesn't really work. It may contain most of the spores, but the spores release toxins- which are really what makes you sick- and these release in droves when the mold is disturbed.
We also didn't know to move out of the house during this process, so we were still living there. Once the mold remediator was done in the basement, he took me downstairs to show me his work. My throat immediately closed up. He assured me all the mold was gone and he seemed genuinely confused by my reaction.
After all this, and busy with my event planning, I was not interested in removing our siding. But my husband was, and he took out a huge loan so we can afford to do this. I was now working full-time in our home, our toxic home, and my symptom list was growing.
I was more tired than ever, my eye twitched, and I could barely think straight. I would look for the eggs in the dishes cabinet, realize they weren't there, and then do it all over again. One day I had an important phone call and couldn't find my phone. I circled the house like a maniac for 25 minutes before finding it tucked away in the tea drawer.
Amazingly I still hosted a successful event in this state. It was based on sheer willpower, financial necessity, and adapting to the way my brain worked under the influence of mold. Once the siding work started, it was noisy and not ideal for recording videos for my event. But still I didn't want to move. I know have learned this is common when a person is under the influence of toxic mold. We are too sick, tired and unmotivated to want to make the effort.
My husband was again more motivated than I was, and we moved into my parents' home about 30 minutes away. This initially was good for our health- to be away from the mold. But we still did not really understand mold toxins then, and made the mistake of bringing too many of our toxic belongings into a clean environment.
By May 2016, my event was over and I had a bit more time to learn about mold. My husband had been saying that his clothes made him sick, that his car made him sick. To be honest I thought he was being paranoid. He started making us take off our clothes at the door, and other new habits that were completely annoying.
It turns out he was right. I finally started to learn about the toxins that are released from mold, and how these toxins contaminate everything. My husband was very sensitive to his clothes. I was very sensitive to papers. These toxins can't be washed or scrubbed out. They can be reduced a bit, and I bought some special cleaning products to wash our clothes and clean my parents' houseIt would help our symptoms temporarily to clean the house with these products, but then the feelings of confusion and fatigue would return.
Beyond confusion and fatigue, I had a few suicidal thoughts. This is called "suicidal ideation", which I think would be great name for a band. All jokes aside, it's pretty scary to have thoughts of ending your life. For me, I think I was just so exhausted to the core that there was a part of me that wanted to sleep forever.
I never actually tried to execute these fleeting ideas, thankfully. I think I spent January - May being in my first true state of depression. I was emotionless despite the fact that I was going through a very stressful time. I was usually quite emotional, so it was a weird feeling!
I finally admitted these suicidal ideas to my husband, crying as I did so. I figured he would be shocked and scared. Turns out that he'd been seeing things that weren't there, so he wasn't too surprised by my suicidal ideation.
My husband and I had a good number of arguments about what to do with the house and our health. But I am thankful, in a way, that he was sick too, because at least we could relate to each other.
I think we were both getting sick slowly for many years in that home. I had had Esptein Barr, insomnia and mood swings. He had had a gut infection and extreme fatigue. The symptoms would ebb and flow, and I regret beating myself up for not being "healthy enough", when really I had these unknown or poorly understood sources of illness.
With my new study of mold toxins, I was able to learn of a mold toxic test for the body. My husband, who kept having strong instincts about what to do about this mold, wanted us to get away for the summer to a dry climate. So we ran a urine test from Real Time Laboratories to see if we could document his mold illness and get him a medical leave from work.
He did have gliotoxins per his urine test (a mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus fumigatus), and we scheduled with a new naturopathic physician that had experience treating mold. To my surprise, she was very focused on treating mold through treating Epstein Barr virus. She said that when you have mold, you often have chronic Epstein Barr virus taxing your system and not allowing your body to clear the mold toxins. She confirmed that I was indeed having an acute Epstein Barr episode.
My husband was able to get a medical leave pretty easily, and we probably didn’t even need the $700 urine test after all! With his new found freedom, he was able to work on overseeing the remodeling of our house. Our house had lovely new siding now, but needed new gutters, a new deck and a new carpet to get ready to sell it. Yes, we had decided it wasn’t worth risking moving back into it.
We also had decided to get rid of most of our belongings. Every time we were back at the house we could feel the toxic effects. We ordered a huge dumpster and used it dispose of many of our things. We also gave books to the library and items to Goodwill. We sold things on Craig’s List and had many yard sales. We became yard sale experts.
You might be thinking, “why did you sell that moldy stuff?” To other people, these items were fine and caused no reaction. It was just for us that it was so bad.
It was difficult to part with so many of our things. For our 7 year old son, it was hard too. We really could not keep his stuffed animals, which were like magnets for toxins. We also had found a motherhood of a mold colony literally under the floorboards where his bed was. So we were not too interested in keeping items from his room. But we did keep two small storage units of our prized possessions, in the hopes that we could have them again.
I am very thankful that my son displayed no symptoms, and believed and had true concern for his mom and dad.
By now we were really in debt, and my husband was on a reduced salary. I wasn’t able to work much because of the house ordeal and my brain fog. We were also preparing to go away for the summer, so I didn’t see how I could take on new work projects.
I would estimate that, at the time of writing this, we spent $60,000 on the house, lost $15,000 in value of our belongings, lost $5,000 in having to trade in two cars that had been exposed to mold, and spent $8,000 on our health. $88,000 and counting.
It’s a lot of money, and it was stressful, but at least we can be grateful that we able to manage it and take out loans. We were lucky to have my parents’ house to stay in, even though it made for a horrible commute for us.
Our house went on the market on July 6, 2016. We were counting on our house selling for a good profit and quickly, and luckily it did. We didn’t get the money for another two months, but it was a load off our shoulders.
We were already out of town when our house went up for sale. We had bought a used mini-van and hit the road. Our first stop was Bend, Oregon. We have some family there, but they were out of town. That was probably for the best, because we had a big detox reaction in Bend and were having ‘mold rage’ and headaches.
We had spent the last few weeks of June with a lot of time in our old house. That was not our ideal plan, but we really didn’t have the resources to hire someone to clean out our entire house. So we got up close and personal with the mold toxins all over again. I’ve since learned that altitude change is a trigger for toxins dislodging, and we had plenty of that coming over the Cascade mountains.
After this we spent a month in Phoenix, and then another month traveling. I had some stresses dealing with my clinic back in Portland, and it was hard to keep on with my online business while on the road. But looking back now, these two months were a true gift. Our little family was together nearly all the time, seeing new places, visiting old friends and sharing laughs.
Our health definitely improved while we were gone. We took some supplements for Epstein Barr and mold, but really we didn’t have our recovery too dialed in yet, as we would soon learn.
In early August I had to come back to Portland to take care of my clinic affairs for a few days. I immediately got a urinary tract infection, my first ever. My husband theorized it was because I was back at my parents’ house. At the time I disagreed, but I think he may have been right. The mold re-exposure weakened my immunity, and I couldn’t kick the infection with herbs and supplements. I was back on antibiotics, and the first course I took didn’t work, and I had to get on a stronger second course.
This nagging issue left me feeling fatigued, but we were still having fun exploring the Western states in our family van. When we got back to Portland in late August, the sh*t hit the fan all over again.
Back in Portland, our plan was to live at my parents’ until we could find a mold-free rental home. But my husband soon felt that their house was making him sick again, and he insisted on moving out.
The day this move went down happened to be my birthday. My parents had some friends over, and they were in full entertainment mode. The friends, who knew me since I was a baby, wanted to hear that we were now all better. That’s basically what everyone wanted to hear after witnessing our ordeal over the last 9 months.
But instead we were looking for a cheap hotel that could take pets and awkwardly making our exit. I was extremely embarrassed. The next day was the first day of school for our son. I was balling my eyes out at Target as I tried to buy him school supplies and snacks at the last minute. We ate my birthday dinner at a nearby Ikea store and it was the start of a rough couple weeks.
My husband started back to work and felt that his work building, and especially his computer lab, were making him sick. Meanwhile I was driving around in our old car we had gotten out of storage, and it was making me sick.
My son did not like living in a hotel (nor did I), and my parents took over his care. I was house-hunting and not finding many options in a city full of old houses that we no longer found charming. It was expensive to stay in a hotel day after day, and my husband was changing his opinion on a daily basis on whether we should stay or go.
Emotionally it was an extremely hard time. Over the summer we had escaped the hardship of the mold, and now we were right back in it. My husband, who was always had a better nose for mold, was not happy. His friends and family suggested he had PTSD. We probably both did.
We spent our anniversary arguing about which rental to choose and whether or not to buy furniture. I said I needed nice furniture to feel grounded and at home again. He didn’t want to invest in nice furniture in case we’d have to move, or get rid of all our belongings again.
We had a small miracle in finding a beautiful new townhouse to rent in the 11th hour. We moved in, but did not commit to much furniture.
I started therapy to help process all that had happened. I had basically been absent from my life in Portland as I dealt with sickness, a water-damaged house, a big event, living far out of town, and then traveling all summer. I had disappeared from the people in my life and felt that asking to be let back in again was too hard.
The subject of buying a couch or not came up a lot in therapy, and one day I had a severe panic attack about couch issue. The couch was a symbol of commitment to a new life here, and it was so hard to make that commitment after all we had gone through.
My husband and I struggled with the ‘stay or go’ question. He started to work in a new building, but still had some doubts and bad days. We traded in the car I was driving, but I was sicker than I had been in months. My glands were swollen, I had a sore throat and chills most of the time. I felt like I could barely leave the house because I was so overwhelmed and ill.
The therapy really helped me, though my health was still off. I made a breakthrough though, when I read this article, The Mysteries of the Thyroid, by Anthony William. The article described how Epstein Barr virus lives in the body and goes through different stages of dormancy and activity, and affects different organs. It sounded just like me.
I was taking some supplements and herbs for Epstein Barr but was still sick all the time. I remembered that over the summer our doctor had prescribed me some medication to take for the virus. I tried it then and it made me wired, so I figured I’d stick with the herbs. But after reading this article, I wanted to try again.
After the first week on the Valacyclovir, the side effects minimized and I started to feel better- better than I had in a long, long time. I wasn't having those constant flu-like symptoms and my energy was way better. My brain wasn’t working fully yet, but I was thrilled to have found this medication. I was finally able to get out a bit more, and even go to yoga class for the first time in a year.
Meanwhile my husband started therapy, and started avoiding me. I knew something was up, and he finally admitted that he hadn’t been happy in our marriage ‘in years’ and that he thought that a trial separation might help.
I was floored. I was just starting to get some grounding in ‘our new life’, even if it wasn’t complete. We were spending more time with friends, and I was able to think and work better. The thought of losing my family now was too much. I had suicidal thoughts again, and this time for a different reason.
But I also knew that, despite his deep wounds and our arguments, we weren’t a bad couple. It was painful at times to discuss this with him, but I kept at it. I felt like I needed to be a champion for our family and our relationship. This is hardest thing to share of this whole story, but I know that many people struggle in marriage; it’s a challenging thing to have two lives so intertwined, especially with careers and kids and sickness.
The story of 2016, of our health and home and marriage, is not over. We may move to the desert next summer. We found out we have a MARCONS infection in our noses and we have to treat for that. Our marriage is feeling better, but it still feels scary at times.
So why in the world am I calling this my ‘best’ worst year?
As I write this I am filled with gratitude for this year. It was a year that I was completely pulled out of my imperfect comfort zone, and forced to consider what I really valued.
This year my husband and I had to make many hard decisions and to re-evaluate how we interact, but we did it together and I am proud of us. I think we have the chance to make something much better of our lives together.
This year I had a lot of tough experiences with my businesses (some I did not share here) and these made me stronger and more self-reliant. But I did not give up on collaborating and identifying the people that will support me in my next chapter. I am slowly getting better at forgiving and moving on from perceived hurts.
I also was forced to spend a lot of time away from my businesses, and it made me less obsessed and more balanced. Now when I have a snow day with my kid, I know it’s not the end of the world.
As a health care practitioner, I took a whole year away from treating clients. I honestly did not know if I could ever go back, since I was so exhausted from it all. But as I start to have energy again, I find I have a fresh perspective thanks to my time away. I put less pressure on myself to ‘fix everything’ and instead appreciate my healing presence.
I also learned a lot about the ‘weird’ causes of disease that I did not know about. I am learning about genetics, heavy metals, mold toxins, Lyme disease and Epstein Barr virus. I am anxious to know as much as I can to help clients and teach practitioners.
Having been through a hard-to-diagnosis disease, I have a lot of sympathy for those going through it. I know that not everything is an easy fix. I know it takes time to learn and find the right solutions. I know you have to thankful for the good days and endure the bad days as best you can. I know that having community and people to help and listen in really important.
I know that having hard times is when you find best yourself. I am encouraged to take more risks now because, hey, I made it through all this alright. I have found a quiet, true confidence I had been looking for for years.
Bring it, 2017.
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Bridgit Danner is the founder of Women's Wellness Collaborative. She is an acupuncturist, a functional medicine practitioner, and a avid researcher. To keep up with Bridgit, please subscribe to our newsletter here. If you are interested in mold illness and recovery, you can join our Facebook group on the topic here.