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Lessons Learned from a Health Journey: From Chronic Pain to Renewed Vitality

November 03, 202311 min read

Mold. Ugh. A bit of a trigger word for me, but there are some important things about it that I need to share with you. In 2012 a lot was happening in my life. Many amazing things! I moved back to Rhode Island to take a new job, got engaged, bought a house, and got married all within a year. Incredible, exciting life events! But another series of events led to some years of chronic pain. I am happy to share that today I feel better than I did a decade ago. I hope that the lessons I share here will one day help you, your daughter or son, your friend, or your colleague to protect or restore your health.

The Storm

The perfect storm was a combination of stress and poor diet in previous years, a tick bite that summer, and buying a house that had mold hidden behind the walls – which we would not discover until a couple of years and many doctor’s appointments later. I would not consider myself a skilled laborer, so I volunteered myself for painting and light demo work at our new home. During the first few weeks after purchasing it, I ripped out the carpet that led down to a lower-level garage. The walls at the base of the stairs were blistering from moisture and I knew that carpet had to GO.

The Gear

Safety Glasses and Mask

As I started this simple carpet demo project, I wore a simple fabric face mask and some poorly fitting safety glasses that I kept lifting from the fog. My eyes, my lungs, my skin – so unprotected. If only I knew how dangerous that actually was. We would later discover this stairway had multiple types of mold strains known to be toxic, such as Stachybotrys and Chaetomium.

The Medication

Then there was that tick bite situation. Thankfully I did not get Lyme Disease, but the two ticks were still cause for concern. They had been attached for about a day. There was no bull’s eye around the bite when I went to the doctor. His concern though was that Lyme Disease is typically transmitted about 24 hours after a tick is attached. My doctor was worried that it was too early for the test to pick up Lyme, and as a precaution prescribed the intense antibiotic Doxycycline. I was on this medication for something like 4-6 weeks.

The Side Effects

That medicine really threw a wrench in things. I met others who’ve felt the same about it. I remember it was giving me such intense dry mouth leading up to the wedding day no matter how much I drank. On that special day during our first dance I remember having to cut the dance short. I was experiencing a feeling of choking from such extreme dryness, like I was choking on air from the lack of moisture in my system. Feeling embarrassed I rushed off for water signaling to the DJ to end the song early. But on a positive note, overall it was a magical day! The lesson learned here though is to pay attention to times in your life that you had reactions to past medications or exposure to something.

The Symptoms

Graphic of woman holding head in pain with thought bubbles

Following this, that’s when all the weird symptoms ramped up. The migraines were becoming more problematic, happening sometimes 2-3 times a week. If I started to sweat, my head felt like it was on fire. Not just a mosquito bite itch, but an extreme fiery itch. I was absolutely exhausted – all of the time.

I was having joint pain, nerve pain, head pain, muscle pain – essentially head to toe symptoms. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being short of breath. My legs felt heavy. My eyes burned intensely no matter how many eye drops I applied. I had developed reactions to many foods that had to be eliminated. I started having chemical sensitivities. The brain fog was intense. My memory felt glitchy.

Fast forward to the end of 2014. At this point I’d seen many specialists, had many lab tests, scans, sleep study, and more, to rule out a number of things. The discoveries to that point were that yes, my spine had “significant arthritis” of the facet joints, so maybe that explained the back pain. A nerve study showed my signal on the right side was being interrupted on the return. So that must be the cause of the sciatic pain. My IGG4 allergy test showed many sensitivities to common foods. So maybe this explained the painful bloating, the itchy eyes and scalp, and even the arthritis pain. Maybe the reason I was so tired all of the time. Why I always felt so short of breath. Blood work showed I had nutrient imbalances. The sleep study indicated something was happening during REM sleep. Maybe that is why I was so tired? The GI testing showed I needed to heal my gut. Other specialist appointments determined I had joint hypermobility, and could be cause for the joint and muscle pain. These were all clues, but most could not piece together the cause.

The Variety Pack

That first winter at the new house I had a fall on ice and started receiving chiropractic treatment and physical therapy to alleviate the physical pains I had even before the fall. I learned that whiplash injuries can contribute to migraines and cervicogenic headaches, which mimic migraine symptoms. Over the years I've had a variety pack of injuries and had some surgeries. I even walked around on a broken bone in my foot for a couple years when the break was not captured in an x-ray. I wrongfully believed there was “nothing I could do” since I was under the impression it was just a sprain that was going to haunt me forever.

That was a lesson to not settle for things as they are, and to get a second opinion or ask for more testing when things feel too off. I share about these various pains to also disclose that I don’t have a clean case when it comes to identifying any one cause of the pains I experienced during those years. Your own health history might be a similar situation, but look back at the past since it does leave clues. When did your strange symptoms start? Might it tie in to something from years ago?

The Toolbox

While trying to get through life in the corporate world, it felt like every lunch break at work was spent visiting a doctor or receiving some type of therapy. I used to walk out of the building and say, “another day, another co-pay.” Then one day back at home I pushed a toolbox against the laundry room wall and it caved right in. I pushed a little more, and the lower section of the wall was moving all too easily. I then held a chunk of it in my hand and the backside was covered in dark mold. After being plagued by health issues for a couple years at this point I thought, “well, maybe this is the problem.”

The Professionals

We then had professional mold testing completed to know what we were up against. Those dreaded mold strains mentioned earlier were discovered throughout areas of our first floor living space, along with other types of typically harmless, naturally occurring molds.  The potentially toxic strains are always recommended to be remediated by a professional mold remediation company.  It’s not a DIY situation.

Now during this time, we had amazing friends and neighbors that rented an in-law apartment at our home. It seemed though that I was the only one to get so sick. My husband was not having all these crazy symptoms either. But remember, I volunteered myself to remove that nasty carpet in the garage stairway and had worked on other small projects like this too after moving into our home. I had no idea the risk that came with exposing myself to those mold spores.

The Blood-Brain Barrier

Sample of mold growth in tray

I believe I got so sick from my naïve decision to do demo work with improper protective gear. Not only that but also the Doxycycline medicine took all my defenses down right from the start. Then there’s that messy history of mine and it created the perfect storm for chronic pain. When the professionals came to remediate our dearly beloved home, they wore full hazmat suits to remediate those particular mold strains given their toxic nature. Again, some strains are naturally occurring and others are less harmful. Those types might only cause allergy symptoms for some individuals. Potentially toxic strains can cross the blood-brain barrier, and you sure don’t want that to happen!

The DIYer

If you or someone you know runs into mold in your home, work with professionals. They set up containment walls in areas being remediated, they ran large industrial HEPA filters throughout the house, and wiped down surfaces because mold spores were airborne throughout the home. You’ll want to do a final retest of the air to make sure all is clear. The first test after remediation failed the acceptable range for air quality, and the company continued additional treatments to pass the second test. With certain mold strains, or even with high amounts of those less harmful strains, you do NOT want to DIY this situation and risk your health. I was struggling with major depression from the pains I was experiencing during that time. I struggled with the thought of accepting that I may feel like this for the rest of my life.

The Absence

It got to the point that I had to take a leave of absence from work for several weeks while I underwent treatments with a naturopathic doctor. My pain, migraines, and depression were at their worst. My stress was at an all time high given the financial impacts of the house repairs, the medical bills, and feeling so sickly all the time. I felt compelled to share my story because recently my cousin bought a house, and mentioned the mold they saw on the walls. I went on to share everything I could think of for their safety, starting first with testing by a professional. I wanted to protect her, her husband, and anyone else working on the renovations from getting as sick as I did. Just as I want to protect you or someone you know who may run into this one day too. Find a trusted professional in your area and start there.

The Cup

Cup overflowing as representation of symptoms and triggers for physical pain

For those years when I was waking up daily with back pain, I thought it was strange how the pain happened overnight. I know that arthritis doesn’t just develop in a matter of weeks or months. It certainly existed in 2011, but I had no pain then. A nutritionist shared an analogy with me to help me understand what was happening. Think of an empty cup. You start filling it with all these loads on your body. At some point the cup overflows. The overflow is the triggering of these bodily reactions – your symptoms. Reducing your triggers to decrease the water level can stop the cup from overflowing. By eliminating and minimizing your triggers you may prevent those reactions that are paining you. Once your body can heal, those triggers might not even affect you anymore – at least speaking from my experience with them.

The Onion

So guess what? I still have arthritis up my spine. But today, I don’t even think of it. I wake up nearly every day of the year without the arthritic pain that was once part of my daily life. With the help of holistic care methods, the inflammation in my body dissipated, as did my symptoms. Most of my food sensitivities have been resolved. Migraines are infrequent. The nerve pain I had is gone. No more fiery itchy scalp or eyes. I can breathe easily. Although some of my past injuries can still flare up, I’ve found many ways to alleviate the pain quickly.

Our individual health history and life stories are complex. In my case was the mold exposure contributing to these pains? Likely yes. The doxycycline? Likely yes. And everything else from my past? Likely yes. It is like peeling back the layers of the onion. I can’t blame any one thing as solely responsible for that time of suffering.  Just as I can’t point to any one solution that helped me heal, but I will continue to share about what worked for me in the hopes that something will help you too. My recovery included a variety of methods. Keep in mind that you know your past better than anyone else, and that information is an asset in your healing journey. Piece together the puzzle of your past. Some solutions may work for many people but they don’t work for everyone. It may take some experimentation to find the right solutions tailored to you (consulting with your various healthcare professionals of course).

The Restoration

This whole experience fueled my passion to support our health and healthy buildings. I want to leave you with this message. You can likely restore your health to a better place and feel more energized. You can restore your home to the safe haven it deserves to be. If you or someone you know has been dealing with chronic pain, I hope my story will serve as encouragement to never give up on yourself and your healing journey. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. I want to help others avoid going through the pains I went through. If you’re in that place too, I want to help you find healing to experience a life full of vitality.

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Beth Manteuffel

Beth Manteuffel is a sustainability and health enthusiast sharing knowledge from her professional work and personal life experiences.

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