I’m often asked about my personal history that has led me to care so much about environmental illness topics. For my first two years of college I lived in moldy buildings, which set off a host of problems. In this series I will outline my detailed story, and summarize symptoms and important contributors to my health (negative and positive).
I remember what it’s like to watch your mind and body slowly start failing with no idea why. I hope that these posts are helpful if you have mysterious unexplained symptoms, suspect mold is affecting you, or are dealing with environmental illness. If you recognize any of these patterns in yourself, please consult my other articles, and feel welcome to comment or contact me. Recognize these patterns in family or friends? Please share this series with them. If I can help even just one person, this will all have been worth it.
Prologue – Life before college
Growing up in a northern New Jersey suburb, I was pretty ‘normal’ with no major health problems outside of some allergies and skin sensitivity. But I had the ‘normal’ problems that it seems like everyone deals with. I accepted struggles like watching my weight, chronic sleep deprivation, and inconsistent energy as a part of life.
After a stressful third year of high school, I decided I wasn’t going to settle for ‘normal’. I followed a lot of popular health advice regarding diet, exercise, and sleep. It worked wonders. Switching to a paleo style diet made great body composition almost effortless. My energy was more consistent. I made sure to get enough sleep and consistently woke up refreshed in the morning.
For the first time in my life, I was consistently healthy and happy. The future was bright. I had worked hard during high school to the point of extreme burnout. I looked forward to having fun in college – meeting friends, making lifelong fun memories, dating around.
Year 1 – Something in the air
“What happened to you? You look a decade older!”
This was how my father greeted me upon coming home after my first semester of college.
My father has a tendency to be dramatic, but in this case he was right. That first semester of college had really done a number on me.
The days leading up to orientation week were optimistic. Yes, starting college was intimidating, but I was really looking forward to meeting my friends for the next four years. I’d chosen to attend a university in Houston, Texas, figuring the sunlight would do me good.
However, as soon as I entered my dorm room (in a hundred year old building) I started feeling off. In retrospect, this was the beginning of my living in moldy buildings. Within 48 hours I went from excited to engage in college activities and meet people, to feeling so exhausted that all I wanted to do was sleep whenever I got a chance. I already felt myself dragging to keep up with my peers in a packed schedule of orientation activities.
3 am, and I was groggily stumbling through the dark to the bathroom yet again.
As the semester went on, new symptoms started popping up. One month in, I started having to wake up at least once a night (sometimes multiple times) to urinate, every night. This would continue for years. My muscles, once my pride and joy, began to fail me. I started minimizing trips to buy groceries – even 1.5 miles of slow biking was starting to leave me winded. Once a calisthenics junkie, my hopes of progressing towards more complex exercises were slipping as struggled to keep up with my pre-existing workout routines. I didn’t have the energy to go to social events or party. The dark under-eye bags that persisted no matter how much sleep I’d gotten the previous night betrayed my fatigue.
Then came the muscle wasting. I maintained my physique until around 2 months in. In fact, my body fat seemed to be getting even lower. But when there was not much fat left to burn, the weight kept coming off. I actually lost the freshman 15. I entered college at 140 lb and ~10% body fat (I’m 5’9″). By the end of my first semester I was 125 lb soaking wet. All this was despite my eating the same food in the same quantities as before college. From the start of college I shopped and cooked for myself, so I knew what was going into my body.
Throughout all this, abnormally intense anxiety started setting in. Self doubt and panicked thoughts about worst outcomes started popping up in my mind at all hours of the day, even while sleeping. For example, the night after an exam, my dreams would torture me with thoughts of missed questions or incorrect answers. The calm that was once my everyday reality, began eluding me.
“Wow, it feels so good to be home!”
Within a day of coming home for winter break, I instantly felt better. I returned to being happy and calm again, my body more energized. My weight started normalizing. With this rapid improvement when off from school, the most logical explanation for my health decline was academic stress. I was a pre-medical student, taking difficult science courses designed to narrow the pool of future medical school applicants. Unhealthy anxiety levels were part of the job description!
A week into my second semester, and it was back to business as usual.
The health gains I’d made over a month of winter break blew away like a transient summer breeze. I was back to being tired and anxious. My fatigue worsened. At one point I didn’t shower for two weeks because after hard days of classes and studying I couldn’t muster up the energy to gather my toiletries and go across the hall to the bathroom. In retrospect, my body was likely subconsciously avoiding the humid moldy bathrooms as well. I began isolating myself, lacking energy to leave my room for anything besides going to class or buying and preparing food.
As if that wasn’t enough, more symptoms began piling on. My hair, once dense, thick, and luscious, was beginning to noticeably thin and fall out (an early warning of the hypothyroidism I would discover years later). ‘Normal’ amounts of light and sound started bothering me. The sound of people opening and closing the doors to the dorm stairwell would prevent me from falling asleep or would wake me up. I began a habit of early rising, because the sunlight coming in through the closed window shades would consistently wake me up by 7 am. Even the small lights from my room-mates various electronic appliances would bother me at night, to the point where I had to sleep facing the wall because it was darker.
These sensory issues drove me crazy, leading me to move out of the dorms into off-campus housing. Yet as I’ll go over in Part 2, this brought some further complications…