We said goodbye to our charming little adobe home on the 10th of July. It all happened rather abruptly. Without warning, our landlord and the buyer started tearing up and repairing a water damaged wall in the building next door. This made the property intolerable to me. Whatever spores were released into the air caused heavy weakness and fatigue.
Just like that, our home of two months was no longer the sweet and inviting home it had been. We left that very day. The air would have cleared after several days but we didn’t have time to leave and come back. We were supposed to be moved out by that weekend.
We packed up our few belongings in a couple hours, left behind what we couldn’t fit in our vehicle, turned over the keys and drove away. I thought I didn’t care anymore. I felt more angry than sad. Brett reminded me that anger could be another form of grief.
He was right. When we reached our favorite landmark, a rock shaped like an elephant, I started crying. All the the times I thought I’d found ”the answer” or “turned a corner” only to be disappointed came flooding back into that moment. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine a better situation than living in one of the hottest and most remote deserts in the country. It’s just that the stability, good health, and sense of home, had provided a context for envisioning a hopeful future and now that imaginary future was gone. The hope didn’t need to go with it. But for the time being, I sure felt like it had.
We were officially wanderers again. Extended camping and exploring can be fun when you have a good set-up like we had with our cargo van. Unfortunately, we no longer have such a set-up. We sold the cargo van before moving into the little house and recently purchased a used Honda Element to replace it. So we spent two nights sleeping in the front seats of the Honda with our two dogs. Then we found a campground and set up our tent. Then, about 10 days later, when we couldn’t handle the camping anymore, we spent two nights in a hotel.
But we didn’t wait to tackle the monumental task of finding another rental house. We started on that right away. We made a list of four possible houses and eliminated all four of them on our first day. The first one had great outdoor air but the house and neighborhood looked so broken down that we knew we couldn’t live there. The second two were in a location with bad outdoor air. We found that out pretty quickly when I got a headache and nausea just driving into town. The last one was near a Superfund site. We eliminated that one without even driving to the area. Then we called my parents so I could cry while Brett told them how discouraged we were. We wanted to give up but couldn’t even figure out what giving up would look like. It’s not like there was an easy way out!
The next morning Brett was reading in his Bible from Deuteronomy chapter 8 where Moses is speaking to the Israelites.
“He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end.”
Our hearts were strengthened by these words. We resolved to pass our own tests and trust that God would do good for us in the end too. By the next day, we had a few promising leads. We looked at four more houses. Two of them didn’t work out for various reasons.
That left us with two more. One was a beautiful adobe house that is being remodeled and won’t be available until September. We loved both the location and the house! The property is beautiful with lots of trees and a little creek. It would be a dream come true to live there!
The other one was a cheaply built modular home that felt surprisingly good. The outdoor air was wonderful and only one corner of the house produced very mild symptoms. We decided to pursue a short-term lease in the hopes that we could stay in the modular house until the adobe home was ready for new tenants. The cheap construction, drywall and dirty carpet made us doubtful that the house could stay good indefinitely. But it felt good when we visited and we’ve learned that success in mold avoidance is about trusting your instincts. It’s NOT about avoiding things based on theory or fear.
Unfortunately, interacting with the landlord was like pulling teeth. We spent days waiting for him to get back to us about the lease agreement. One evening, we waited four hours to meet with him to sign the lease before we gave up and left. His mother was the one who showed us the house and she helped us to finally sign a two-month lease a couple days later.
We moved in on July 23. That was when everything started going wrong. It was infuriating but also comical. It felt like we had some clown demon trying to trip us up every step of the way. The first night, we had no power or water and our cots got rained on while they were out sunning. They didn’t dry in time so we had to sleep on the ground. We actually set up our tent inside the house so that we wouldn’t have to lay directly on the carpet.
The next day the electric company came to turn on our power and water while we were out shopping. We returned to find the shower handle in the master bathroom leaking and water was seeping out from behind the wall and under the bathroom floor. We shut off the water again and contacted our landlord. It was hours before the plumbers finally came. They cut holes in the wall to fix the leak and found two additional leaks under the house.
We were relieved to see that there was no mold inside the wall but there were plenty of other nasty things in there. Including a dead mouse, mouse droppings and assorted pieces of trash that the builders hadn’t bothered to take care of, things like small pieces of wood and cut up pipe ends.
Since our good shower now had a big hole in it, I set to work on cleaning the bathroom on the other side of the house. The one in the corner that didn’t feel quite so good to me. I cleaned the bathtub, shower and sink. I felt a little fatigued and lightheaded but I wasn’t really worried about it. When I lifted the lid to start cleaning the toilet… I was horrified! Large circles of disgusting mold greeted me. Mold growing in the toilet water? I had never seen anything like it!
Brett sealed the toilet up with tape until we could ask our mold expert friends what to do. It was storming outside, and by the time we decided that flushing it was a better course of action than scooping it out, it was too late. Our power had gone out and the pump for the well won’t operate without power. We couldn’t even flush the mold down the toilet!
That was the same day we drove an hour to the grocery store only to find that they were closing early because of a lightning strike. They couldn’t get power to all of their refrigerators. We were completely out of food and I had a huge grocery list in my hand. I was excited to finally start cooking healthy meals again. When we explained our situation they let us in to quickly buy some dry cereal. All we could do was laugh!
When we finally did buy real food, we found we couldn’t get the gas stove to light. It took us a whole 24 hours before we were finally able to get it to light. By Saturday night, I was crying about how much I hated the house. Nothing works properly! It’s so huge and ugly! It smells so mousy! The carpets are so gross!
I really missed the warmth and beauty of our charming adobe home.
Sunday was the first day we didn’t have to go anywhere. We spent the whole day in the house. By evening, I was having some unexplained anxiety. General anxiety that isn’t attached to anything in particular is always a warning sign for me. Monday morning I woke up with a swollen face and sore throat. I couldn’t stop vomiting. I didn’t want to think it was the house so came up with other theories. Maybe it was a stomach virus?
The neurological symptoms started a few hours later and by the next day I was completely irrational and an emotional wreck. I had the worst panic attack I’ve had in over a year. Nothing helped. It only stopped when we drove away and Brett told me to change my shirt.
We ended up in a hotel for three nights. Like the flip of a switch, I was myself again. We weren’t writing off the house entirely. We just needed to get away so I could recover from the exposure and Brett could focus on work without worrying about me. Then we could return to assess the situation and problem-solve. Mold avoidance is all about repeating experiments, leaving and coming back.
When we returned, I started feeling poorly just from going into the house to use the bathroom. We had hoped that, worst case scenario, we could camp outside and use the house for the toilet, shower and refrigerator. But just being near the house brought on muscle weakness, fatigue and depression. This is what Dr. Shoemaker calls the “sicker quicker” phenomenon. It’s quite common for the body to respond more strongly and more immediately upon re-exposure to a problematic environment. It was clear that the house was over tolerance for me. We slept in the car at a hiking trail the next two nights and then we ended up at another hotel.
My confidence in my ability to assess environments took a blow. How could I make such a huge mistake? Had I been overconfident? Had I ignored warning signs?
The house really did feel good before they turned on the water. Even the first night, I slept peacefully and deeply and woke up with plenty of energy. Still, I should have been more cautious. We should have come back to test it several times before deciding. I should have spent an hour or two sitting on the questionable side of the house to see if my mild symptoms would escalate. I should have had the guts to lay down with my face on the floor and inhale a few times like Erik Johnson has often recommended. More than anything, we should have asked them to turn on the water before we signed the lease. These are hard lessons, but they are important lessons.
House hunting in a rush just isn’t a good idea, especially not for mold-sensitive people. But sometimes you don’t have a choice.
Thankfully, our landlord is letting us out of the second month. So our loss isn’t as bad as it could have been. And God is already providing for us. Some friends, who live in a great house where I do well, have generously offered their home to us for the next two and a half weeks. We’re housesitting while they’re traveling but we all know they don’t really need someone to housesit. It’s just kindness, and we’re very grateful.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next but surprisingly, I’m not freaking out. We’re asking God for the beautiful adobe house that will be ready in September. We probably should go check it out a few more times, turn on some faucets and look inside the toilets before we decide. 😉