2018: Wintering Over

Notes from Whiteboard in Studio: (see below for text)

“…Tent in yard – Bad spot…moved it. (Lissa) Sleeping in Guest Room on air (mattress) still. 8/14: Back in studio for the past week. Tent blew away… blown out grommet and hole in it now. Soaked by rain. Discovered 5 days ago – that attic is compromised as well. Both sicker when in house. Cats are lethargic. At wits end on how to save the house – where to go. As it stands, we don’t have the $ to do this on our own. Need HELP. The ******* failed us. Now need a complete do-over for all they fucked up. The STRESS is BEYOND. The ENTIRE house needs to be rebuilt.”

By late August, we realized that basically living outside: cooking on the side porch, and sleeping in the studio and/or a tent for weeks on end, was not enough to make a difference in our health.  Winter was coming, and we were under tremendous pressure, being forced to leave the property, yet again. We found a short term rental for the winter, and moved into an apartment in South Burlington – which added 30 minutes to David’s commute. To add to the insanity, we still had to deal with all the regular yard work, mowing, and snow clearing, etc., back at the house.

Of course, the house had lost its value – being mostly gutted already, but still needing the remainder to be dismantled further. We had gotten sicker trying to live there and work on it ourselves for the past 3 months. Now we were back to exactly what we dealt with last spring: paying rent, AND the mortgage. This time in addition, we also had to pay to have the house professionally winterized. Our plan was to hunker down at the new apartment so we could figure out what we should do for the long term. All the while, hoping to get a bounce in our health from having left the property, AGAIN.

Post-holing up the Driveway – So We Can Clear Oodles of Snow (from the toxic home we can’t live in….)

We were torn because saving the house was overwhelming. But it had a lot going for it, radiant heat on slab, no basement, great location, etc. The problems were ALL created by a horrible builder who had screwed everything up during the initial construction. Theoretically, putting it back together correctly would fix the issues, and we’d know what we have because we did it ourselves. I shuddered to think of dumping the house and becoming vagabonds — certainly, we’d be terrified to get involved in real estate again, but would still need a roof over our heads somehow.

Essentially, for months – we’d been swirling in circles like a stalled-out hurricane. We felt like we were in the “Cone of Uncertainty”, trying to figure out how to save our house after the massively failed remediation. Paying for a second remediation, AND materials for a rebuild, AND labor— was beyond our means. It equated to pick 2, but not all 3.  We were both too sick for a total DIY project — it would take us 10 years!

Originally, we had investigated filing for bankruptcy with a lawyer, but our only real debt was the mortgage, so it made zero sense in our case. We had owned the house for 7 years, and it was only 16 yrs old. Since there were multiple parties who had either failed to disclose known issues, or made enough mistakes to have made the perfect storm out of the situation – the idea of bankruptcy at their collective hands was a hard pill to swallow.

Winter 2018: Art Studio at Night

We, in good faith, had been going about our lives as homeowners, upgrading the property and our house in reasonable DIY increments. Including a massive renovation to turn an old beat up shed into a cute little art studio. All the while, unbeknownst to us, we were getting sicker from all the hidden mold. It was crazy making to think we might lose what we thought was our dream home because of other people’s deception and negligence…. and on top of it, to find that it seems that we have no recourse!! We felt like lost souls without a clue how to solve this conundrum.

Did I mention that our insurance didn’t cover a penny?!   It turns out that insurance companies will say… “A slow issue is YOUR problem”.  The irony being that if we’d forgotten to winterize a vacation home, and the pipes burst, the “damages due to ‘operator error'”, would have been covered, with virtually zero accountability expected of the homeowner. Yet – unseen and undetectable damage, not caused by lack of maintenance is readily excluded – placing the homeowner with full culpability for something beyond their control.

It was also incredibly difficult to find a lawyer to take our case on contingency.  We couldn’t afford to put our house back together, let alone pay a legal team out of pocket. Thus, we spent months on end going from firm to firm, trying to find a lawyer that would be interested in helping us with the debacle.

UGH. So, special thanks goes to the incompetent builder, the seller who didn’t fully disclose certain issues, and the state of Vermont for not having any building codes. Oh, and a very special kind of thank you for home insurance – those bastards who write the specific clauses to exclude mold. Haven’t we all trusted that we have insurance for a reason? Nearly everyone we have talked to naturally presumes that it would have been covered. It sure is an ugly surprise when you find out it isn’t!

Lissa – May 2017: On the Road to Recovery

In any case, we had both improved after leaving the house and moving to the first apartment in the spring of 2017.  I seem to have had the most significant gains overall.  Although David felt somewhat better too, he was more compromised by his acute exposure, and he also happens to have the double whammy HLA genetics.  Unfortunately, as of this writing – because we are super sensitized now, and still being exposed – even at minute levels, we are both still struggling to make better progress.

For an example of quantifiable improvements made, I had kept ME/CFS symptom records for years, and also had been using a Vivofit fitness watch to record my activity (or rather lack of). This would also help me avoid crash-inducing over-exertion.  For the past two years that I’d worn it, living in the compromised house, I had averaged about 4,000 steps a day.  Since getting out of the mold, I was regularly doubling that count, and I’d even had a few days where I had topped 14,000 steps.  The amazing part was that I wasn’t even thinking about it or trying! 

I’d been doing most of the cooking, even without a real kitchen for three months! I’d also been able to chip in by running errands, do some grocery shopping, and to help with some of the more minor projects around the house. Although I was tired, by necessity, I’d have to get up and do it all again the next day – and I was ABLE to.  My brain fog had significantly cleared, unless I was around mycotoxins… then things would shut down again.  Body aches, stiffness, and gut problems also would fluctuate in proximity to mold. Now that we know what to look for and are paying attention, we both notice the correlations.  This is a critical lesson for one and all… pay attention to HOW you feel – and WHERE you are!

Local Example of Sodden Apartment Construction in Progress

After we’d been in the new apartment for about a month, we noticed that we were definitely doing better than at the house.  However – we were not in the clear by any means.  Somehow we were still not feeling as well as we did the first time we got out.  We weren’t able to determine precisely why. When we’d had the apartment tested, it came back positive for different species of molds that had NOT come from our house.  There were far too many variables still… was it cross contamination?  Slow detoxing?  VOC’s from the new apartment?  Was it contamination from neighbors?  Shared laundry facilities?  Was it something from the pine woods behind the apartment complex? Or was it because the complex had been built hastily during a rainy season, locking moisture within the walls? (See example in photo above. This was just blocks away from our complex.) It was, and still is, truly crazy making. 

On a lighter note, we are so lucky to have each other — and to have the same mind-set about working together to get our lives back.   David has seen me through thick and thin, and now that he is experiencing some of the same, he has an even fuller understanding of all I’ve endured for the past decade, and vice versa.  With both of us having similar health issues, I know exactly what he’s going through too. Thankfully we have been weathering the storm as well as we can.  The glimmers of health we’ve seen already from avoiding mold have brought us much hope for the future. 

Big Decisions