In 2014 I was working, travelling, writing a thesis and doing all the usual wife and mother things. I had what I would consider one of my most successful and productive years ever.
In 2015 I completed another course and worked through the year, but I did notice I picked up a bug every time I worked. I took some vitamins and thought nothing more of it.
In 2016 I started the year feeling good, confident of going back to work after the summer break, I’d been accepted to study at a Ph.D level and had my sights on moving up the ladder at work. I was also writing up a storm and getting published. What could go wrong?
In March, just as the nights start to cool down, if you’re a bit of a reptile like me, you reach for the heating. From here on I managed to get two publications to my name, very small pieces, one had even been written some years ago so it was nice to find it a home. I left work in May and didn’t go back.
It was around this time that my once a month migraines started happening more often, I was giddy a lot, often felt extreme emotions from what I imagine mania must feel like to the very depths of depression where I felt life was a joke and it wasn’t funny. I started avoiding going out. I blamed it on the stress of starting a Ph.D, but I couldn’t read properly as the words swam and made me nauseous. I wondered if I could be pregnant but the stick said no, and besides I was in peri-menopause. I lost weight and my BMI was 17. Obviously it was my diet and the change of life that was upon me, right?
I worked with two dieticians and my GP and in late September I started to put on weight, and what could have been an irritable bowel became normal again. With my senses regained I noted the older cat had suddenly lost a lot of weight and developed a head tremor occasionally. Caught on video I was able to show the vet when I took him in. She definitely believed the cause was neurological but without further examination she couldn’t say for sure. My poor cat was subjected to blood tests and aesthetics that gave him a look of distrust in his eyes when I’d pick him up, certain he was going back in the transport cage. And my bank account took a significant blow.
It was suggested, that at 13 it might be time to put him to sleep. Cats in our family lived to 21, to 19, to great ages. He was too young and hadn’t gradually gone down hill as he aged, this had been quite sudden. I bargained for a couple of weeks, she gave me a month. In four weeks I fed him every brand of cat food, tempted him with every cut of meat suitable for a cat and bought him all the treats I could find. And he started to fill out. He had kitten moments and played tag with my younger cat.
Excited, I took him back to the vet where his signs of recovery were nothing short of amazing. The vet nurse teared up saying, ‘It must be some bond you guys have.’ Indeed. And I felt on top of the world with our small achievement.
So much so I applied to return to my unfinished Ph.D, and started asking around about a return to work. Both cat and I were feeling fine again.
The summer of 2016-2017 was uneventful. I was ever expectant of losing the cat to the next hot day but he seemed to cope fine. He turned 14 and at 14 and a half the dreaded day arrived. It was just after Easter, the nights were getting cold again and his weight had dropped drastically as we watched him expel everything he could from both ends simultaneously. We’d bought him time. There was nothing more we could do. The routine had been to wake early with him and take him to the garden, to feed him up to ten times a day in small portions so he’d keep it in, and to alway turn on the central heating so he could sit over the lounge room duct and warm himself. He lived in that spot most of the time, unless the sun was out and then so was he, rolling in the dirt and bark, pouncing on little bugs.
Then the nights got chilly and the heating was back on in the evenings. Soon I was agitated and anxious, refusing to go out even to buy food. Imodium became my best friend and the doctor suggested that it was time to look for something like cancer – every other test had shown nothing was wrong with me physically.
I cried easily. Then I cried most days. Now I was also seeing a psychiatrist, because when they can’t find a physical cause in someone with a history of mental health issues they always blame it on mental health.
My weight was falling from a BMI of 22 back towards its low of 17. I had migraines for three days on and one day off on a continuous loop. The psychiatrist introduced a new pill to the already long list and I felt worse.
Inside I gave up.
For now there would be no more new tablets. No new foods. A steady bedtime and daily mindfulness meditation. We would start small.
Come September I started to feel different. With each passing week I picked up a little bit more. There was fresh talk about a return to study.
The summer of 2017-2018 went by quickly. I was accepted back to study and I did some freelance writing. Things were looking up again.
Not long after I started to question whether I was made out of the right material to study anymore. I quit. I’d become good at quitting.
That winter the younger cat, an indoor pedigree, started to have the odd loose bowel motion, she lost her appetite and lost weight. She slept all day and woke around 4am to run laps of the house, jump onto us from the bedhead and meow with gusto until we finally got up the next morning. Or afternoon. We often spent up to 14 hours in bed. I blamed the pills. The doctor agreed that they all had sedative effects and combined would make anyone tired.
The vet couldn’t find anything wrong with the cat so we just took her home and crossed our fingers that she would come good.
Despite giving up and crying daily I was always thinking of things that could cause me to feel like this, to give me so many migraines. I noticed my husband going down hill too and put it down to him feeding off my bleak mood. I Googled random things from cat hair to Bakelite to wi-fi to central heating’s effect on humidity.
And there it was. A string of search results for carbon monoxide (CO) leaks and the effects of long term low level exposure. We ticked every box. But the house wasn’t that old, granted we’d lived in it for six years and not once had the landlord or property manager suggested it should be checked. The state government website recommends at least ever two years.
I booked a servicing, and checked in with my property manager, who was fine with me paying for a service as it was ‘for my piece of mind’. I wasn’t aware that I could ask for this service to be paid for by my landlord at the time.
The day the plumber arrived I expected all sorts of tests but instead we were simply informed that under the law he could not leave our heating connected. He was used to seeing one or two cracks but we had about five and two that made circles, something he’d never seen before. He suggested it would take approximately one hour of use for the house to start filling up with CO. From there, he explained, the air is sucked back to pass through the heat exchange box and then be pumped back into the house. In theory, increasing the level of CO in the house each cycle.
I informed the property manager, who informed the landlord, who requested a mate of his check it out. He wanted to hook it back up and suggested we knew nothing of CO poisoning. We were learning fast. One thing I had learned from all the study I had completed was to research well and I did. There is an abundance of research on acute CO poisoning which is the kind that makes the news because it wipes out entire families in one night. Chronic long term exposure to CO, is lacking in major studies but this much we know, it can cause headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss, neurological symptoms, long term effects on memory and even long term effects on the electrical responses of the heart. (Edit: October 2018 my husband suffered a heart attack, requiring a pacemaker and two stents. His heart’s electrical function was off and each night he was in ICU he effectively ‘died’ in his sleep).
Another plumber came out and was awarded the job of replacing the entire unit.
Approximately a month later our rent went up by $20 a week, we were assured it had nothing to do with the CO leak and costly replacement of the unit. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…
The remaining cat now sleeps through the night, she had been noisy at night because that was when the gas wore off. She’s put on weight and is playful during the day – all the things she had stopped being. I can’t help but feel robbed over losing my other pet, and that his suffering was for nothing.
Both my husband and myself are having medications slowly withdrawn – pills we should never have had polluting our bodies in the first place. I’m a healthy weight, not nauseous, have a mild migraine about every three weeks that lasts around 36 hours.
Make sure your gas heating is checked. There’s a lot of emphasis on CO being the silent killer because as we all know exposure can kill and kill fast but here’s the less publicised side – chronic exposure, where you feel better when you are away from the exposure for a few hours, where your pets or children are effected too, where multiple members of the household have similar symptoms.
This is a slow and tortuous death that can take years. It’s not given any press. We are still at risk of long-term neurological problems, only time will tell there, but I do hope to finish my Ph.D and work on a more regular basis once more.
I invite you to read this information from Harvard Health – Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
And this article from Issue 10 Volume 59 of BMJ Journals entitled: Effects on Health of Prolonged Exposure to Low Concentrations of Carbon Monoxide.
I don’t know if we would have survived another winter. I consider myself lucky to be here to write this at all.