An Unexplainable Illness – My College Health Journey Part 2

Preface

This is the sequel to Part 1 of my college health journey. At the article’s end I provide a summary of symptoms from and measures that helped with unknown mold exposure. If you suspect you are being affected by mold exposure, or are on the journey of recovering from mold toxicity, I hope these anecdotes are helpful. 

 

Year 2 – Out of the frying pan, into the fire

In Part 1 I discussed how living in an old moldy dorm caused me symptoms like sensory overload that made living in the presence of other people intolerable. This pushed me to move to a small condo off-campus to live in alone. Unfortunately, my health only declined further in this building. At the time I had no idea that there was toxic mold lurking inside the AC system. I never knew that this was even a thing that existed, let alone be concerned about.

“Why doesn’t my brain work anymore?”

The summer after my first year, my health improved once again. And just like before, my symptoms – the fatigue, anxiety, sensory issues – came back upon returning to Houston. This time around, not only was my brain riddled with anxiety – it was slowly starting to fail. 

The issues started off minor. Once a diligent student, my focus began slipping. I found myself losing hours to mindlessly browsing random sites. When I could muster focus for academics, it took longer and longer for me to read my textbooks or get through assignments. Even with much energy and effort I often missed content that professors said in lecture.

I had less energy to think about other parts of my life beyond academics. During the finals period of the first semester, I fasted for 72 hours. I was so overloaded with academic work that I didn’t have the mental energy for thinking about grocery shopping or cooking. 

By the spring semester, my brain was slowing to a halt.

I’d have to re-read things over and over again, because my brain just didn’t have the processing power to comprehend things the first time around. In basic science lab courses I was always the last person there, sometimes taking twice as long as my peers, because I just could not comprehend basic lab manual instructions. It could take me half a day to finish a simple assignment that my peers could complete in under an hour.

This was all so frightening. I had been a lifelong gifted student. Why was this happening to me?!

And it couldn’t have been a worse time. For many pre-medical students like me, the second year of college is the most academically intense, with many challenging and competitive science courses taken simultaneously. 

The one thing my brain was still capable of was crippling anxiety. At times my life felt like one giant panic attack, with a pervasive sense of fear underlying my days. Even deciding what brand of item to get at the grocery store was nerve-wracking. The other customers must have wondered what the heck was going on with the weird disheveled guy standing in the middle of the aisle thinking for 5 minutes.

© 2016 Azzah B.A. Licensed under CC-BY.

“Dang, my body isn’t what it used to be. Well, I’m not 18 anymore.”

I found myself uttering these words around the time I turned 20 years old, in March of my second college year. My health had never been great since starting college, but I was beginning to hit rock bottom with no idea why, grasping at straws for any explanation no matter how ridiculous. 

I never knew my energy could get lower, but it did. An ‘easy’ 1 mile bike ride from the house to campus was absolutely gutting. I had difficulty drawing deep breaths during activity. I would also feel exhausted after eating, like the energy had been sucked out of me. Sometimes I’d be working at my standing desk, space out, and then wake up on the floor a few moments later. Even when chronically sleep-deprived back in high school, I was never a napper. Yet now I often found myself needing to lie down and nap for a couple of hours in the afternoon just to remain functional.

Related to the fatigue was debilitating insomnia. My light sensitivity became even worse. I started sleeping with the blanket drawn over my face. Then I started needing an eye mask and blackout curtains when that stopped working. This produced relief, albeit temporarily. Every night I’d wake up with my heart pounding and mind racing. In the morning, I still woke up exhausted, earlier than I needed or wanted to (before 7 am). I alternated between sleeping 4 hours and 11 hours night each night. My night-time urination got even worse. If I only woke up once a night to pee, I considered it a good night. Restricting my water intake to just 750 mL a day did not help at all! 

The rest of my body was starting to fail too. I’d get odd rashes and skin irritation. The worst areas were my elbows. They got so dry and itchy that the pain would often wake me up from my sleep. Sometimes my belly would get so bloated it would look like that of a woman 4-5 months pregnant (at the time I was barely 135 lb at 5’9″). And the kicker – at age 19, I had mild erectile dysfunction. I was too young to be this sick!

 

Mind games

No one feels great all the time. Highs and lows are a natural part of life. But this was something else. I wondered what the heck was happening to me. Yes, I wasn’t 18 anymore, but 20 was still too young of an age to be feeling this beat down.

Of all people, why was this happening to me? I ate a super clean diet, never had a sip of alcohol, made sure to block out enough time for sleep, and was physically active. Many of my peers ate diets high in junk and fast food, blasted their livers with alcohol, and only slept several hours a night. Yet I was the one facing all these fatigue and cognitive problems. It didn’t seem logical or fair.

I began seriously questioning my sanity. All these health problems shouldn’t be happening to me, but they were. In less than two years I went from the picture of health to an exhausted shut-in. Was this all from stress caused by school? My parents certainly thought so. They didn’t think anything else was wrong. But in a lifetime of being a top student in high pressure situations, I’d never felt like this. At times I wondered if I was just going crazy, because there was no way stress could cause all this. But deep down, I began realizing that something was deeply wrong. I just had no idea what.

 

Turning things around

My body and mind were slowing down, but my academic demands were not. Getting a C on a physics exam during my second semester was a real wake-up call. There was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t make the grades I needed to enter medical school (which has a high GPA requirement). This was my goal since the start of college. My major was selected with this in mind. If medical school didn’t pan out, my major would not offer many other good employment prospects. My first two years of classwork may have been all for nothing.

At first I panicked. But after taking moments to pause and reflect, I realized I could still turn things around. If I didn’t do something now to address my symptoms, everything I’d been working towards since starting college would crash and burn. 

The first step was calming my mind.

if I was frantic with anxiety I wouldn’t be able to study or plan out other measures to help my health. Around this time I stumbled across Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness podcast. The lessons from these interviews were invaluable. I learned that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t give things my best and full effort (instead of procrastinating the time away). That even though what I’m doing right now may not be the most fun or gratifying, it’s worth it because there are better things on the horizon.

I framed my struggles, mental and physical, as noble. If this was what it took to become a doctor and be in a position to help others, then so be it. With some clarity regarding my purpose and meaning to the suffering, and images of a compelling future in mind, the suffering became more tolerable.

Yes, I still had debilitating bouts of anxiety. However, they no longer ran on for hours or days. I was able to snap myself out of them sooner, and channel the frantic energy towards productive tasks that would improve my grades and health. For the first time in a long time, I had moments of calm and peace. I finally felt capable of bettering my situation. 

After finding purpose and motivation, I began exploring ways to compensate for my symptoms.

My next priority was tackling the insomnia. I was spurred to further reduce light entry into my bedroom when I woke up energetic and ready to tackle the day one night. Based on the amount of light coming in through the window (even through blackout curtains), I thought it was around 7 am. I hurriedly descended the stairs to my kitchen, only to see the clock reading 4 am!

I realized if I reduced the light coming in at night, I’d have less chance of waking up too early and often while sleeping. This led me to develop a very intense room blackout procedure, involving multiple layers of materials, that later became The Better Blackout Method (article coming out soon). I also discovered that taking magnesium L-threonate before bed helped me sleep sooner and better – this was the first time I’d taken any supplement.

While my sleep was still not great, these measures did produce improvements. I woke up less during the night, and had more energy come morning time. Actually waking up feeling refreshed gave me hope that I could improve my other symptoms and meet my high academic demands.

Next, I figured out how to meet my academic demands. Yes, my brain still barely functioned. But I could make up for it by out-working everyone else.

I had many a long study day where outside of sleeping, eating, and going to the bathroom, I spent all hours at my desk studying. I used instrumental music that I only listened to for studying to get me into a flow state. This helped give me the energy to keep going when I was tired. It felt like a video game or movie soundtrack for a hero preparing for an epic battle, and made the repetitive tasks less monotonous. 

I realized that feeling exhausted after meals was cutting down on the productive hours I had in a day. This led me to shorten my period of time where I’d eat to just four hours a day. I additionally figured that drinking tap water with all the chlorine and pollutants was not doing me any favors. Switching to water bottled in glass helped reduce my bloating and belching immensely, further aiding my ability to focus on schoolwork.

With these tricks, my health was still not great. But it was the best it had been in a long time. I found myself regaining focus, mental stamina, and energy. Though I still knew something was wrong with me, I felt more capable than I had in a while and was optimistic about the future, when there would be less stress from academics. With much white-knuckling I was able to maintain enough function to successfully finish the semester with all As.

 

Summertime, but the living’s not easy.

Coming home for the beginning of summer break produced the same trend as usual. I felt better almost immediately, and was back to my energetic, driven self. But this wouldn’t last for long.

After a few weeks I began working an internship in Baltimore, Maryland. The first week saw a rocky start – I was kicked out of the AirBNB I’d originally booked because the vegetarian host didn’t like that I cooked steaks for breakfast each morning. In my scramble to find new housing, I stumbled upon an apartment listed at $900 for 5 weeks. It seemed too good to be true, but I wasn’t in a position to question much so I went for it.

The lease had an odd clause that tenants were not to go into the basement. One time the landlord came by and happened to leave the basement door open, so I took a peek. There were gray blotches covering the walls. At the time I just thought it was dirt and grime, but in retrospect this was very severe mold growth. 

Of all the places I’ve lived, this house was the most damaging to my health.

Not only did my symptoms come roaring back, they went to new heights. My light sensitivity was causing me to wake up at 5 am every day without an alarm. The internship was around the time of the summer solstice, when the sun rose very early. Even though I’d blacked out the bedroom window to the point where no light got through, the sunlight coming in through the cracks between the door and the door-frame was enough to wake me up. I compensated by going to bed no later than 8:30 pm each night without fail.

My fatigue reached unprecedented levels. I constantly felt an aching tiredness behind my eyes. My body felt sluggish and heavy, like there was extra strong gravity pulling down on me. Despite sleeping ‘enough’ hours each night (9-10) I was still very sleepy during the days. At my internship I’d often be in the middle of a group discussion with some world-renown neuroscientist, yet not taking in any information because I was trying so hard just to keep my eyes open. 

Anxiety was strong as usual, but a new player entered the game – depression.

In particular, I’d ruminate about all the upsetting things in my life – my poor health, the lack of friends I’d made in college due to this, the challenges my autistic younger brother had brought to my family for years, the challenges he would face going forward for the rest of his life. I felt such profound sadness for myself, and those I cared about. These thoughts would often keep me up at night, or wake me from my slumber.

While I greatly enjoyed the internship itself, my poor health living in Baltimore meant it couldn’t have ended soon enough. I wondered why my old tricks like mindset and room blackout were not as effective anymore. Maybe trying to make a good impression at my internship was causing me stress?

I was dismayed to find that this time around, I didn’t bounce back as quickly as usual once returning to my family home in New Jersey. The fatigue, poor sleep, and depression, still plagued me. I did find that staring at bright parts of the sky, or outdoor objects in the distance, first thing in the morning until my pupils stopped adjusting to the brightness, did improve my energy and sleep quality. 

 

Cries for help left unanswered

The worst part about all this was realizing deep down that something was seriously wrong, yet not getting any help from anyone. My parents meant well, but their suggestions were not helpful. “Oh, just calm down and relax. Don’t worry so much. Think happy thoughts.” When it came to my light sensitivity and need for bedroom blackout, my father was actually dismissive. He thought that I started ‘needing’ extreme bedroom blackout to sleep because of being too influenced by random people on the Internet. If only he knew that back then there was no one writing about bedroom blackout as extreme as I did it. His suggestions for sleeping better came down to doing more cardio during the day. 

My pediatrician also couldn’t offer any help. They thought what I used to think – that since I got better when at home on break, that all my health problems were just caused by stress from school. But never mind the erectile dysfunction at age 19 – testosterone just wasn’t a test that they saw as necessary for my age. They did do ‘standard’ thyroid testing on account of my severe fatigue, but only tested for the inactive form of thyroid hormone (T4), which came up as ‘normal’. I later learned that thyroid function can be impaired long before T4 levels will appear abnormal.

By the standard blood panels they drew, I was ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’.

I may have looked ‘fine’ on the outside, but these were two words that clearly did not describe me. I wanted answers, but my conventional physician could not offer them. Would I ever get back to my previous state of health? Little did I know, I would shortly discover the cause of my suffering…

In Part 3 I will go over discovering the mold in my Houston condo, escaping that situation, and finding a new place to live. 

 

Summary of symptoms from unknown mold exposure

  • Brain fog – feeling like your brain is slower, or that you’ve lost intelligence, or having difficulty focusing
  • Anxiety, panic
  • Sense of fear or doom, appearance or exacerbation of obsessive tendencies
  • Ruminative depression
  • Desire to self-isolate from social situations
  • Physical fatigue and muscle weakness, slow recovery from physical activity
  • Fatigue behind the eyes, persistent dark under-eye bags no matter how much time you spent in bed sleeping
  • Feelings of heaviness or sinking, like a strong pull from gravity
  • Never feeling rested, even if you spend a long time in bed trying to sleep
  • Insomnia – difficulty falling or staying asleep, sleeping lightly
  • Sensitivities to lights, sounds, and/or smells
  • Feeling better (mentally and physically) when in other buildings or locations away from your home
  • Odd rashes or other skin problems like dryness
  • Gut problems – indigestion, bloating, gas/belching, etc.
  • Feeling tired after eating, or developing new intolerances to foods
  • Changes in weight – either gain or loss
  • Chronic sinus issues or respiratory weakness
  • Low libido, potentially erectile dysfunction
  • Frequent urination – especially being woken up in the middle of the night by a strong urge to pee

Summary of measures that helped during unknown mold exposure

  • Good diet – my good health from starting a paleo style diet before college buffered a lot of damage caused by my mold exposures. Mark’s Daily Apple is a great resource.
  • Sleep sufficiency – even if my sleep quality wasn’t great I prioritized blocking out enough time for sleep. If that was 11 hours, then so be it. As soon as I intentionally skimped on sleep, my ability to function went out the window
  • Going to bed early (before 10 pm)
  • Extreme bedroom blackout
  • Napping whenever needed
  • Magnesium L-threonate – helped sleep quality
  • Motivational music to maintain productivity and energy
  • Motivational mindsets, cognitive reframing of struggles, finding purpose and meaning out of hardship

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