Surviving my Health Crisis

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 my health had deteriorated steadily for about five years. The move itself was so difficult that I got much sicker and practically stayed in bed for just over three months. I occasionally thought I was dying (slowly… but surely), and the persistent stomach pain for several years layered on top of a dozen other symptoms nearly drove me to the edge.

I may never know for sure what happened to me, but I can say a couple of things. I wasn’t suffering from one single problem but rather from the combination of several, which include among other things mold allergy, chemical sensitivity, low cholesterol, sleep disturbance including sleep apnea, and side effects from medications. Any of them taken by itself might have been just an annoyance but taken all together my situation grew serious.

My cholesterol has been low all my life. I always thought that was a good thing and never realized that it could cause health problems. About eight years ago after experiencing fatigue I learned that I had poor sugar control. I changed my diet to adapt — giving up sugar, alcohol, caffeine and high glycemic foods. I also started using many supplements that eventually gave me stomach pain. But I didn’t know it was the supplements causing my stomach problems, 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 ninety-nine). 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. Mold allergy can also come from chemical exposure, which I suffered for a period of about seven 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 five hundred whereas Florida is at about five thousand 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 five thousand feet above sea level.

About three months before I left for Colorado, 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 five 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.

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 still had not completely recovered six months later. Here’s what the data sheet for Ambiensays:

“The U.S. clinical trial experience from zolpidem does not reveal any clear evidence for withdrawal syndrome. Nevertheless, the following adverse events were reported during U.S. clinical trials following placebo substitution: 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, 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 eleven 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. While I was on Ativan, I experienced withdrawal anxiety every morning and every afternoon because of Ativan’s very short half-life. I also became very weak physically 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.

How did I get through this? My beautiful wife, daughters and parents pulled me through it. My wife took over my responsibilities with the business and bought me lots of great books in which I lost myself. She and my daughters hugged me a lot when the anxiety surged through me. I got coaching from a very talented therapist who showed me how to accept anxiety rather than resist it. My parents did a lot of grocery shopping, cooking and research for me.

Our dedicated team kept the business rolling during my absence. I tried to keep my head down and think about nothing but what was right in front of me in each moment. Some of the books I read were influential. I treasure the book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. A Walk in the Woods is a very cheerful funny story. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could make anyone and I mean anyone feel lucky. I also thoroughly enjoyed and was motivated by Assault on Lake Casitas.

There were many other great books, but the most influential book I read was Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. From it, I learned to ‘be here now’ and yet to ‘stay focused on the next correct action’ at the same time… that in order to survive, one must surrender to circumstances, yet not give in. One must have a sheer raw determination to win the game, yet an acceptance of possibly losing, which paradoxically, gives you an edge.

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.

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. I did my own research, planned my taper and within six months was virtually free of side effects.

Fortunately for me, my therapy seems to be healthy living – a well varied diet with lots of good fats, clean air and exercise. Last fall I started hiking, just about one hundred 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. 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.

I went for a hike after fresh snow fell during the night. The temperature was one degree Fahrenheit 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 thirty-five degrees. Here are some pictures of this hike on Hogback Trail, which starts a few blocks from where we live.

As you can see, my illness has had a spectacular silver lining. I wake up every day loving Boulder and am frequently 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 my wife take over many or most of my responsibilities and watching the LatPro team thrive with minimal guidance has given me deeper feelings of appreciation for them. 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 force.

It has been almost a year since my breakdown and about nine months 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 two to four times every night to eat, and though I get about enough total hours, I am sometimes sleep deprived from the disruptions. Still, I’m confident that gradually this obstacle will melt away as the others have.

See you on the path.

Eric Shannon

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