This is a view from our balcony of the morning sun on the front range. We moved to Boulder Colorado last year from Florida after seeing my health deteriorate steadily for about five years. The move itself was so difficult that I got much sicker and practically stayed in bed for three months. Since I know people are curious and I want everyone to know I don’t have anything life threatening, I’ll try to explain a little more about my illness and show you some more pictures of Boulder.
I still don’t know absolutely for sure what happened to me but I do know a couple of things. I’m not suffering from one single problem but rather from the combination of several which include among other things mold allergy, chemical sensitivity, low cholesterol, sleep apnea and side effects from medications. Any of them taken by itself might have been just an annoyance, but taken all together it became serious.
Ever since high school, my cholesterol has been unusually low. I always thought that was a good thing and never realized that it could cause health problems. It was in high school that I first saw a doctor for fatigue. Fifteen years later I was starting to understand I had poor sugar control and seeing my sleep progressively more disrupted. I changed my diet to adapt — giving up sugar, alcohol, caffeine and high glycemic foods. I also started using many supplements which eventually gave me gastritis. But I didn’t know it was the supplements causing my stomach problems and so… I kept taking them. I did, however, stop eating fatty foods almost completely as they aggravated my stomach.
What I didn’t know is that cholesterol is the precursor for making key hormones that regulate the immune system, metabolism, nervous system and many other critical functions like bone density and muscle repair. So, by not eating any fat for a couple years I may have aggravated an inherited error of metabolism causing my cholesterol to drop abnormally (down to 99). In so doing I deprived my body of essential nutrients.
This alone might not have been enough to throw me, but I’m also allergic to mold, dust-mites, ragweed, etc. This could be linked to the cholesterol deficiency, but mold allergy can also come from chemical exposure which I suffered for a period of about 7 years growing up. It turns out that the toxins emitted by mold are VOCs, the same chemicals that I was exposed to and that commonly cause illness and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in Industrial settings.
Either way, living on the east coast all my life was not helpful. Mold levels are high year round all up and down the coast. Florida may have the highest mold counts of all. But whatever the cause, I was collapsing in Florida. As it turns out, the front range in Colorado (pictured above) has the lowest mold counts in the country (rising to just 500 whereas Florida is at about 5,000 year round). This is because the winds predominantly blow from the west bringing clean dry mold-free air off the Rockies down into Boulder. Furthermore dust-mites can’t live over 5,000 feet above sea level.
About three months before I left for Colorado, in the middle of my growing problems, a doctor recommended I use Ambien thinking that most of my health problems might evaporate with better sleep. Ambien did help me sleep much better and so I used it for about 5 months when, one day, my prescription ran out and I didn’t refill it. I was already in Colorado and my health had improved a lot so I was feeling confident.
But I found out the hard way that Ambien can cause dependence and stopping it suddenly can have dramatic lasting side effects. That night when I didn’t take my Ambien, my nervous system went berserk and has still not completely recovered five months later. Here’s what the data sheet says:
“The U.S. clinical trial experience from zolpidem does not reveal any clear evidence for withdrawal syndrome. Nevertheless, the following adverse events included in DSM-III-R criteria for uncomplicated sedative/hypnotic withdrawal were reported during U.S. clinical trials following placebo substitution occurring within 48 hours following last zolpidem treatment: fatigue, nausea, flushing, lightheadedness, uncontrolled crying, emesis, stomach cramps, panic attack, nervousness, and abdominal discomfort.
After reading what patients say about Ambien on the Internet in forums and in places like AskAPatient.com, it seems clear to me that the FDA has some serious problems with truth telling. However, I did notice eventually that the safety sheet says not to take Ambien for more than 11 days consecutively. Why then did my doctor prescribe enough for me to take every day for as long as I wished?
After my ‘crash’, my doctor switched me to Ativan which I used for a couple months before switching to Diazepam to taper off more easily. Both the side effects and withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines were unpleasant too, so it’s probably not surprising that I became very weak. While I was on the benzodiazepines, I was so weak I couldn’t walk more than a few blocks and just speaking wore me out.
Over the years I’ve seen good doctors and bad. Many things recommended by doctors aggravated my situation and some helped. I learned that there’s just too much to know about the body and how medications can affect it for any one Doctor to be reliably helpful and to avoid hurting a patient with complex problems.
So I’ve learned to always research side effects before taking any medication or supplement and to remember that my doctors have not actually taken the medications themselves that they are offering. It took me almost three months to ween myself off benzodiazepines and it was a very unpleasant process complicated by a series of severely challenging circumstances. If you ever get in trouble with a benzodiazepine, don’t trust your doctor to know what to do — read this.
Fortunately for me, my therapy seems to be healthy living – a well varied diet with lots of good fats, clean air and exercise. In the fall I started hiking, just about 100 yards on the first day (but uphill) and going a little further each day. I was worried about the winter thinking I might be shut inside shivering for months.
It didn’t happen. It gets cold and windy sometimes, but the sun shines a lot here and good gear is everywhere in Boulder at stores like The North Face, Mont Bell, Helly Hansen, REI, etc. So, I’ve learned there’s no such thing as cold weather, just inadequate clothing. And I’m completely in awe of the beauty of the Boulder winter.
To prove the point, I went for a hike after fresh snow fell during the night. The temperature was 1 degree F while I was making breakfast. The snow sparkled brilliantly in the sun and was very dry and crunchy in the crisp cold but halfway up my hike I was already sweating and by noon the temperature was above 35 degrees. Here are some pictures of this hike on Hogback Trail which starts a few blocks from where we live.
Above is the first plateau on the hike and this view is of Boulder’s famous Flatirons in the distance. This is about twenty minutes from the trailhead. From here the trail climbs steeply up a set of stairs and the view gets even better:
Look closely in the foreground and you can see the trail I’ve come up. This is about 30 minutes up for me. There are mountain lions up here, so most people avoid hiking this trail at dusk when lions are looking for deer. The view of Boulder is supberb here:
Boulder is a relatively small city with a population of 100,000 so you can see just about the whole thing in this view. I put a red dot about where we’re living on the north end. Here’s another look at the Flatirons towards the South:
And finally, looking North this is Dakota Ridge:
This trail is difficult to hike in snow and ice. I’ve only hiked all the way around once and it took me 90 minutes and knocked me out for a week. It is a climb of somewhere between 800 and 1,000 feet. Even so, Boulder being what it is, a couple of nuts passed me by jogging up in the snow that day. In the Spring, I hope to be doing it in about an hour and ten minutes and hopefully several times a week.
As you can see, my illness has had a spectacular silver lining. I wake up every day loving Boulder and frequently am struck by the beauty of the mountains while pumping gas or coming out of the grocery store as those views are sometimes even more dramatic than the close ups.
My illness and distance from the business has had other benefits too. Watching Carolina take over many or most of my responsibilities and watching the LatPro team thrive with minimal guidance has given me deeper feelings of appreciation and respect for all. But most importantly, I’m so thankful for the chance to spend time outdoors with my family and for the changes in myself that only deep suffering could have forced.
It has been just over 100 days since I started eating fats again and I feel my strength growing steadily. I still face challenges, though. My biggest hurdle is sleep — I wake up 4 or 5 times every night to eat and though I get about enough total hours, I almost never sleep continuously for 3 hours. That’s holding my recovery back more than anything else. Still, I’m confidant that gradually this obstacle will melt away too.
See you on the trail.