Eighteen months ago, I decided to leave my beloved Lisbon home.
I adored Portugal. After five years of full-time travel, I had been searching for the perfect place to base myself between adventures, and I couldn’t have chosen better. As I transitioned from nomad to an entirely different identity, Portugal provided a safe and welcoming environment in which to figure it all out. Lisbon was an incredible place to live.
So why did I leave?
Looking back now, I worry my decision was based around greed, but back then, I’d hoped I could build a better life elsewhere. Because despite loving so much about Lisbon, there were downsides to life in Portugal, too. I wanted to be closer to family, for the most part.
My life was great but I was convinced it could be even more wonderful.
So, I moved to Bristol. Back to the U.K. in search of what I hoped would be a significant life upgrade.
Instead, I found myself battling through the worst year of my life.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a personal update online.
Half a year, in fact. The last time I published a monthly summary was way back in February.
Sadly, I haven’t been in a position where I’ve had anything positive to write about. I really, really, really didn’t want to be that person who shared nothing but bad news and depressing updates.
So I shared nothing at all.
Over the past year, I’ve been dropping hints about some health problems I’ve been dealing with, but not going into much detail beyond that. Nobody likes to read about somebody else’s woes — and honestly, I was feeling disheartened by being called a whining-blogger-who-can’t-stop-complaining in the comments whenever I dared to write something negative on the site — so I kept it all wrapped up inside.
And that, my friends, is why I’ve written 12 blog posts in eight months.
I’ll attempt to keep this as brief as possible, because I could write 50,000 words on the insanity of my life over the past year, but tl;dr: I have a strong suspicion that my apartment in Bristol has been making me unwell.
Within weeks of moving to the city, I developed a cluster of strange digestive problems.
I ignored them at first.
I mean, I’d just returned from a trip to Borneo where I suspected I’d contracted cholera, and I’d been struck down for weeks by the aftereffects. My doctor ordered a handful of tests and when they came back negative, we figured I had some kind of post-infectious IBS that’d hopefully improve over time.
I spent that summer inside, for the most part, trying extreme elimination diets and esoteric remedies, jumping on water fasts and taking all manner of supplements. I had just moved to Bristol — a city I loved and wanted to get to know — but my stomach cramps were so painful, I struggled to work up the strength to go outside. I wanted to meet people and make friends, but I was so debilitated by these pains that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with a stranger.
Most of my time was spent in bed.
You may remember that last September, I stepped on a plane to Greece and found myself miraculously healed. At the time, I gleefully announced it was the Stansted Airport Travelodge that had healed my gut, but I believe I know better now.
Because when I returned to Bristol a month later, my symptoms all returned.
Not only was I back to dealing with never-ending stomach cramps, but I also developed what I thought was a sinus infection. A constant ache in my forehead coupled with such extreme pressure that I felt like my face might explode. You know that sensation when you’re on a flight during the descent and the g-forces make you feel like your face and ears are all pressurised? Imagine constantly having that feeling but popping your ears giving no relief.
Weirdly, I had no real symptoms of a sinus infection.
There was no congestion, no mucus, no swollen glands, no fever. Just a relentless sensation that my pressurised face was about to burst open.
Doctors were baffled. My symptoms refused to respond to countless courses of strong antibiotics. I tried four different types of steroid. Numerous antihistamines and decongestants and anti-inflammatories and neti pots and bucketfuls of CBD.
I convinced myself it was due to stress. I’d been so relaxed while in Greece that I decided it was the pressure of work that was making me sick. I deleted my Instagram account. I deactivated Twitter and Facebook. Meditated for an hour a day. Took up yoga. Went to the gym every day. Stopped writing blog posts.
My symptoms only worsened.
Towards the end of last year, I spent several weeks at my parents’ place.
I was going to be travelling to India in January and in preparation for the trip, had ordered a bundle of peppermint capsules to be delivered to their house. The last thing I needed was to catch dysentery in India, so I’d researched ways to stay healthy in the country. Travellers had raved about these capsules, so I ordered a hundred, tried them out, and was shocked when my stomach cramps disappeared.
My sinus pressure dissipated, too.
I couldn’t believe it: peppermint was a miracle drug and had healed me. EsSeNtIaL OiLs ReAlLy WoRk, YoU gUyS!!!
I returned to Bristol and weirdly, the capsules stopped working.
My sinus pressure returned, too.
I returned to my doctor and he prescribed a month-long course of antibiotics to see if they would do the trick. I’d taken penicillin and felt no improvement, but he insisted I try clarithromycin for a month, and told me I could be referred to a specialist if I took them.
It was frustrating because both my doctor and I knew this wasn’t an infection. What kind of infection disappears whenever you head to a new city? And yet, he told me a specialist would refuse to see me until I’d taken them.
Plus: there was this small part of me that was desperate for them to work. I had been so sick for so long — nine months at this point — that I just wanted to be well again.
I wish I hadn’t taken them.
Taking them was like having a heart attack.
Within a few hours of taking the first pill, I had a stabbing pain in my chest, upper back, and left arm. My left wrist went numb. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly.
I called my doctor and he told me to only stop taking the antibiotics if the symptoms got worse.
Surely I’d know if it was a heart attack? I reasoned with myself. But there are so many articles out there about how women’s heart attacks feel different. About how some women have heart attacks and just get on with their day and power through it.
Even worse: whenever I tried to find out if this was a common side effect of clarithromycin, I’d find nothing but articles about how taking it increases your risk of having a heart attack.
I ignored the symptoms and finished the course, but the pain didn’t go away. And, of course, my sinus pressure remained.
Every day, I had a chest pains and a sensation that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen into my lungs. I’d just sit at home gasping at air because it felt like I was being suffocated. I bought those dorky nasal strips that open your nostrils to help me breathe better.
My doctor was concerned I had a pulmonary embolism, and sent me for tests and scans and X-rays that all came back clear.
It was a relief to find out I was okay.
Except, I really wasn’t okay.
I haven’t even mentioned the depression yet.
I’ve always considered myself fortunate to have never experienced depression, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that’s what I was dealing with. I didn’t feel particularly sad. I wasn’t crying everyday. I didn’t feel in any way suicidal.
I just didn’t. care. about. anything.
All of my friends who have dealt with depression have been suicidal. I didn’t want to die. I just spent much of the past year lying in bed for weeks on end, staring at the walls or watching Youtube for 15 hours a day.
What was the point in doing anything else? I was going to die eventually so why would I bother going out and having fun and making myself happy? It was all so meaningless in the end. Nothing mattered. Who even cared? I didn’t see the point in caring about anything when life was just a waste of time and then it was over. I saw people sharing messages on Twitter about how you should always check on your friends! Make sure your friends are okay! but nobody ever checked on me — nobody had reached out to me in months, possibly even a year — so I continued to lie in bed.
This wasn’t me.
I knew this wasn’t me.
I knew this wasn’t the person who people loved to be around. The person who always had a smile on their face. The person who turned every downside into a laughable moment. The person who was in love with exploring the world; who couldn’t stop trying to learn everything about everything; who was filled with joy at the thought of achieving the life she once dreamed of having.
But how could I get back to being that person when I was so, so broken?
When clueless doctors would shrug and fend me off with nothing but further courses of antibiotics and steroids?
When I was in a vicious circle where I felt too unwell to leave my house but it was my house that was making me unwell in the first place?
Because finally, I figured out the connection.
For months I’d known the link between Bristol and my health, but it felt too absurd to be real. It felt ridiculous to be even consider that I was allergic to Bristol. I’d travelled to hundreds of cities over my five years of travel and never once been allergic to a place; never had this reaction before.
I wasn’t allergic to Bristol, though. I was reacting to something in my apartment.
When I left Bristol, I felt better — I already knew that. But I also tended to experience fewer symptoms during summer than winter. During warmer months, when I would have every window and door in my apartment open? I would feel slightly better. In winter, when I’d shut myself up away from the cold? That’s when I’d find myself dealing with more and more health issues.
I didn’t know what to do next.
I was part-way through a year-long lease, so moving out wasn’t an option.
I thought about trying to convince my landlord to arrange a house inspection for signs of mould, but there weren’t any signs of mould. I had no evidence. Dave was healthy in the apartment and I just had a dozen unexplainable symptoms. I’d read that black mould can grow behind the walls of apartments, but I couldn’t see how I could get the landlord to smash through his walls on the basis of no evidence.
Still, I had my suspicions. Our landlord had always seemed oddly paranoid about us always leaving the fan on in the bathroom and making sure we switched off the water before we left town, which made me believe the apartment had suffered water damage at some point.
Our house was ridiculously insulated, too. We didn’t need to switch the heating on for more than three hours total over the winter months in Bristol — it was so warm in our place that we clearly weren’t getting much outside air into our rooms, if at all. And the problem was, we lived on a very busy road, so keeping the windows open overnight wasn’t possible. I didn’t know how to ventilate our apartment better. Instead, I bought 18 houseplants in a fit of desperation.
So, was it mould?
Or was it something else? A chemical in the paint? Something in the carpet? A dust mite allergy? Some kind of toxin? Was it my furniture? My mattress? I wondered if I was allergic to memory foam because that’s apparently a thing.
Whatever it was, it felt like something obscure. After all, I travelled for five years and never once had this reaction to anywhere I’d stayed — I’ve lived in mould-filled places before, slept on Casper mattresses before.
It’s enough to make you lose your mind. I read an article about Sick Building Syndrome and came to the conclusion that the sufferers were making themselves sick, so did that mean that I was doing the same? And if so, how could I drag myself out of this hole?
Obviously the solution was to spend time outside of the Death House, but I struggled to do so when I was so depressed and dealing with so many weird symptoms. When you’ve got stomach cramps and sinus pressure and can’t breathe and have a stabbing pain in your chest, you don’t really want to go and sit in a cafe for 15 hours, and I still had to sleep in my apartment anyway.
And while all of this was going on, I was trying to run a business at the same time.
Things… are not going great.
My traffic has halved over the past year and as someone whose income has a somewhat proportional relationship with my audience size, that means my finances have taken a hit. It’s not surprising, of course, that abandoning my site for an entire year would cause it to crumble, but it’s heartbreaking nonetheless.
Oh, and I also suffer from an auto-immune condition that’s known to be one of the most painful conditions in the world. I haven’t even started to delve into that rabbit hole. And I won’t because I think we’ve had enough navel-gazing for one blog post.
Needless to say, I had to take control of my life because at that point, it was a mess.
So that’s what I did.
I started looking at new apartments in Bristol, giggling as I filtered out anywhere with perfect energy efficiency ratings and specifically hunted down places that seemed a little draughty.
I planned a week away from my apartment, too, spending eight days walking the South Downs Way across southern England. I shouldn’t have been surprised when, three days into our walk, my chest pains completely disappeared for the first time in five months, taking with them my stomach cramps, nausea, and sinus pressure. My depression faded, too, and I found myself feeling like the happy, optimistic person I’ve always been.
And then I moved.
Things are better now. A lot better.
I’m in a house I love and dealing with a positive frame of mind for the first time in over a year.
I won’t say that my ridiculous symptoms have entirely disappeared, but they’re around 20% of what they used to be. My chest pains and stomach cramps and depression have stayed away, and my sinus pressure has improved a lot. I can deal with that for now.
This past year has been the worst of my life.
It’s kind of unbelievable that a body can react in such extreme ways to… well, whatever it was reacting to.
But for now, I’m grateful.
I’m hopeful for the future.
I’m looking forward to healing, to getting this site back on track, to heading out on adventures again, and to building a community in Bristol because damn, I’m lonely.
No, wait! I promise I’m feeling more optimistic.
I’d love to end this post with some ToP tIpS on how to avoid suffering from the same issues as I did, but I don’t have any real idea of what was causing my sickness. Be cautious of any house you move into because it might make you unwell but you won’t know why and then your life will fall apart? Never trust a house with an energy efficiency rating of A?
My friends, I urge you not to take your health for granted because you never know when something will take it all away.
That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from all of this.
And now, it’s time to get back to work.