During my senior year of college, I got very sick from solvents and developed a series of sensitivities that grew worse every year.
The severity of the problem eventually led to 4 years of near-total isolation, where I learned to re-wire my damaged amygdala enough to return to civilization. Then I spent another 5 years healing the PTSD.
I did this because I had a mantra, a dream that I carried forward in my heart. I wanted to be healthy, happy and free.
In the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is described in two words: 'Mostly Harmless'.
I would describe my life growing up as 'Things Kids Should Never Ever See or Experience'.
I dropped out of high school, took a year to figure my life out -- then I adapted and overcame.
I discovered my creative heart, and wrote about it on my website:
“I am a dreamer. My heart beats strong with curiosity, star-eyed wonder and anxious hope.
Our lives are redeemed by our divine gift for creativity, which is born of fire.
It is the simple act of creation that gives meaning to life. We create our own reason for being.
Do nothing by half; find passion in the quiet exploration of the whole.
My path leads to the sun.
It speaks to me! I hear its laughter!
For life is but the dawning of adventure.”
That’s what I felt in my heart at age 22!
I went back to school and got straight As in college, I learned how to get in shape and lost 80# in a single summer.
In college, they pushed me into leadership classes. I won several major writing awards, and I was asked to publish my undergraduate papers in legitimate research publications.
I interned at the Minnesota state legislature for two years. I was asked to seek co-signers on new legislation at age 20, I met lots of people and they seemed to like me. My resume was handed to the Governor of Minnesota on a fishing trip by the House Minority Leader.
I built my own computer from spare parts, started a website design company called Rising Design, and I never lacked for interesting work. My online name was ‘Daedalus Rising’, the inventor who pushed his creative edge and always found a way to rise.
In retrospect, people saw potential inside of me that I didn’t see.
And then I fell, very very hard.
I became very sick at age 23, I developed sensitivities to … well, pretty much everything ranging from common cleaning chemicals, to car exhaust, to mold and (eventually) the majority of edible food species. That illness dramatically changed the course of my life.
In school, I changed my intended college path to be a Physics major ... because my brain couldn’t handle the math required for Physics anymore.
My social life was shattered. After finally making friends and finding that I was actually quite good at making friends, after a life of not having many friends … I become very isolated again. Being around perfume and paint and a host of other things made my brain turn to mush, and it got worse every year.
My career trajectory also changed, I lost my job and had to find a new career path as an entrepreneur. I had created an innovative technology-assisted-learning classroom at the alternative high school I graduated from, but the program was shut down because the district board didn’t want to accommodate my disability any longer …. even though the program turned a net profit for the school district and was promoted as a model program to nearby school districts.
Over the course of 10+ years I slowly lost most of the things that I valued or cared about — and most of all, I missed seeing my friends.
I had fought so hard to be positive and find friends and be more active outside the walls of my computer screen, and my illness took that part of my life away from me. That’s what hurt the most. I cried a lot.
I missed my friends. A lot.
Years of Isolation and Pain
I got sicker and sicker, and my life became harder every year. My sensitivities eventually became so severe by the time I was 33 years old that I had to move to a cabin in northern Wisconsin and spent 4 years in near-complete isolation.
I found a way to keep my furniture business running remotely, and I played a lot of online games. Killing orcs and goblins wasn’t therapeutic, but at least I was interacting with other people.
That was a very difficult time for me. My brain barely worked, my life was very difficult, and based on what my doctors told me I was entirely without hope for anything better.
I was in constant pain, and constant fear of more pain. It was a viscious cycle and I didn’t expect that I’d live very long.
How did I Heal Myself?
I spent 10+ years listening to doctors tell me what to do, including a full week being tested at the Mayo Clinic. The best a conference table full of doctors could do is tell me that they didn’t understand my illness and that I should learn to live with the pain.
Eventually I stopped relying on Western medicine. I decided to turn off my scientific reticence in trying alternative healing modalities, and I dove into it with an open heart. I wanted to give it a chance because I wanted my life back, I wanted to see my friends again. I wanted to be healthy, happy and free.
I spent a total of 9 years healing myself using a variety of methods ranging from ~10,000 hours of intense self-administered amygdala reprogramming, Paleo fitness and nutrition, biofeedback training, trauma release practices, meditation and energy healing therapies.
It was a trial and error approach with a lot of rabbit holes. When I found something that worked, I leaned into it. Then I’d hit diminishing returns, and move onto the next modality. My goal was “I want to be healthy, happy and free” and I made that my catechism.
The key for me was accepting that I had to heal myself, that no one else could do it for me.
It was incredibly difficult and took focused willpower, because reprogramming my nervous system and limbic system was far from a linear curve.
My healing process involved a lot of painful ups and downs.
Blog Post Excerpt from 2014: When Crawling is an Act of Courage
“Progress is not a linear curve, it is a slow and erratic climb. Change is difficult. It will require strength, bravery and hope.
Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is pick yourself up off the floor, and crawl a few inches.
Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to is pick yourself up off the floor and crawl, after you’ve gotten knocked down for the fifteenth time in a row.
But the hardest and most powerful thing that you can do is open your heart up to belief. To believe in your heart that if you keep crawling and crawling and crawling, that you’ll finally reach the point where you will never ever ever have to crawl again. And to never, ever give up until you make that reality come true.
The moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice or fairness, but it does brim with potential.
It is our task in this life to embrace that potential, to make the most of our time on Earth, and to be the most amazing person that we can be. Even if that means crawling.”
Completing My Healing Process
After I was healthy enough to leave the cabin, I settled into Austin and focused on healing. I made new friends and life was increasingly good!
My 40th birthday was a big day for me — I asked my friends that day “how the hell did I survive what I went through AND build a business at the same time?”
To my rational mind, the 2+2 of my surviving and thriving kept adding up to 7. So I wanted to know what the missing 3 variables were.
The answers seemed to lie in another realm of knowledge, in the areas of spirituality and religion. I dove in and learned that spirituality and religion are well-suited to answer the question of meaning, and that finding meaning often leads you towards healing.
I traveled to Japan and was drawn to Mount Kurama (my Kyoto Airbnb host suggested that I go), and I found profound healing there.
This is what the guides handed me as I approached the mountain:
I really like that last part — to create a world where all lives shine.
After a recent trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, I consider my healing process to be complete. I’m ready for the next part of my journey.
My healing process has helped me to understand myself much better, both my limitations and capabilities. Since I’ve been in a state of shock in some form for most of my life, this period of reflection has proven to be very beneficial for me.
I’ve learned that operating in a healthy, harmonious, and low-chaos space is essential for me to thrive and reach peak efficiency. I’ve learned to lean into this, because life is a lot more fun when you’re in harmonious creative flow!
My Hard-Won Wisdom
I was born aspirational, I see the best in people and no matter how many times life knocks me down I always get back up stronger than ever.
I always come back to seeing the beauty and high potential of life.
Because life is elevated by quiet moments by the fire with white wine and good company.
Life is celebrated in the gaps between the highs and the lows, the heights to which we Rise.
And the strength of our character is measured by how much cynicism we carry forward, to infect and affect others.
Blog Excerpt from 2014: The Pit
“I reclaimed my life through healing myself, but sometimes it’s hard for my friends to understand how bad things were for me a few years ago. I’ve worked very, very hard to reclaim my health. I’ve also worked very, very hard to restore a sense of normality to my life.
In other words, I don’t look or sound like someone who has been to Hell and back. 🙂
What did that trip to Hell look like?
- From age 19-23, I shook off the depression and anger that I had experienced as a kid. I began to take a lot of awesome steps forward in my life: I lost 80 pounds, started strength training 5-6x per week, did great in college, and started to take a really active role in directing my life to where I wanted it to go. In short, I was on the road to awesomeness.
- At age 23, I sealed and painted up the basement without proper ventilation and became very sick. I was nearly bedridden for a year. I saw doctor after doctor, who couldn’t come up with any good answers for me. I learned how profoundly even a tiny, tiny exposure to paint would affect me: walking into a place that had been recently painted, smelling the paint, and then immediately leaving meant that I’d be in bed for another week with flu-like symptoms and severe cognitive impairment.
- My symptoms increased, year after year, in a process called ‘spreading’ whereby people who are sensitive to one chemical come to be sensitive to additional chemicals (and food). Although I got into the gym whenever I was healthy enough to do so, and I maintained a pretty constant weight, my body continued to deteriorate in frightening ways. My joints were in pain (especially the tendons in my hands), my eyesight got worse every year, and I became more and more unable to do ‘normal’ things due to my increasing sensitivities. Going out with friends for a few hours would mean that I’d be sick and bedridden for a few days afterwords.
I searched for some rational explanation for what was happening to me for over a decade. I consulted with dozens of doctors and specialists, including a week’s worth of testing and probing at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. I asked my doctor to pull copies of medical journal articles for me, I studied and read and asked and inquired. I did everything I could to find an answer! What I found is that there was no scientific theory to explain how the body can become sensitized to a wide variety of foods, chemicals and allergens.
After 10+ years of deteriorating health, it came to the point where I realized that I had to move out of the city and find a place with clean air and water. The only people I knew of that healed from these sorts of injuries were people who reduced their toxin load to the point where the body could slowly heal itself. For me, that meant getting out of the city.
This move nearly killed me.
I found an isolated cabin in Northern Wisconsin, which needed some work to become safer for me to live in. A friend applied a product applied to the flooring (shellac) that I had previously tested on a small strip of wood. The full-scale application was much more problematic, it was probably the xylene solvent (at a few parts per million) that got to me.
I checked out the cabin briefly, after the work was completed. When I walked out of the cabin, I fainted. I fell face-first onto the gravel driveway. I’ve never fainted before, or since … that was scary. But what happened next was even scarier.
I was in incredible pain, I was running a fever, and I was crapping out toxic black tar. My brain barely functioned. I lost almost all of my motor control, I had to exert enormous effort just to move my body a few inches. I was literally crawling … a few inches at a time. It took an enormous act of will simply to move a few inches.
I was exquisitely sensitive to *everything*. I slept on the tile floor, next to an electric space heater, freezing. I was very grateful when my mother hand-washed a sheet about 15x, so I had something to cover up with.
I couldn’t eat anything for a week. Around week two, I started eating white rice and fruit. My skin turned pale, and then it turned pale-and-green. Over the next 3 weeks I lost around 80#, much of it muscle (all those years of bulking up in the gym undoubtedly saved my life). When I started to regain a bit of strength, my mother picked up a turkey dinner at a local diner and I wolfed it down. After 13 years of veganism, my body was clearly telling me to ‘eat some damned meat’! And so I listened to my body. 🙂
I had planned to crash in a small trailer in the driveway for a few weeks until the cabin aired out, but that small trailer became my home for the next few months. A few friends and family came up to help when I was sick, including my mother — who stayed with me for a few weeks to nurse me back to health. They saved my life. The trailer also saved my life. I was very, very close to death. And with as sensitive as I was, going to a hospital with its host of chemical solvents wouldn’t have been an option. I was so close to the edge, that experience would have killed me.
This experience increased my sensitivities enormously. After this event I was advised by my doctor that the best I could hope for was to stabilize my medical condition by living in that cabin, seldom leaving. This meant a life of severe isolation. I barely saw another human being for 4 years.
I was in near-constant pain, my diet was severely limited, and my mind was clouded by severe cognitive impairment. I couldn’t exercise, due to the stress it would add to my body.
Life was very, very difficult: the main heater broke in the cabin and I couldn’t replace it with a new one, I had to send my cats to live with my uncle, I had to work extremely hard to acquire safe beddings and clothing, and the extreme cold of Northern Wisconsin didn’t mesh well with my impaired ability to regulate my own body temperature.
In short: I was in extreme pain, my brain barely worked, my life was very difficult, and I was entirely without hope for anything better. I didn’t expect that I’d live very long.
July 2nd, 2011 is the day I escaped the cabin.
I had been hacking my brain intensely for a year and a half, and at that point I was barely well enough to spend a full day in the city (I was making enormous progress, but I had a very large hill to climb).
July 1st is the day a big storm came through and knocked down a lot of trees in the area. Many of my neighbors had their roofs caved in; I was very, very lucky. The storm was so intense, that the National Guard was called in to provide assistance.
Although my back yard was full of snapped trees, and my driveway was full of snapped trees, my garage was narrowly missed by a tree that fell about 2 feet from the garage roof. The front door of the cabin would have been crushed if I hadn’t put a weight set out there a few weeks earlier. Like I said — lucky! 🙂
My friend John found someone to clear the driveway of trees, and I escaped the cabin. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in over a decade. It took an enormous effort of will to stay the night, and I did every brain hacking technique I knew over and over and over again to keep my body and brain from collapsing into some sort of toxic Erik puddle (because I knew damned well how dangerous that could be). I made it through the night. That was momentous! I was ready to leave the cabin on July 2nd, but barely.
About 6 weeks later, I was on my way to Austin Texas to find somewhere warm to spend the winter. I had never driven across the country before! It was amazing, to enter states I’d never been to before — I was doing something I never thought I’d be able to do! As difficult as this was, the adrenaline and pure joy that I experienced on this trip made it possible for me to bodge on through and make it to Texas.
Why Austin, Texas? I had some friends in the area, it seemed like a cool city, it was easy to drive to along Interstate 35, and it was WARM. Did I mention that Texas is warm in the winter? Did I mention how tired I was of -20 degree weather?
Did I mention how awesome it was to escape that pit?
When I left the cabin I was over 330#, I had very little muscle left, I could barely walk a mile without getting completely exhausted for a few days. My body was easily injured by even mild weight training. I’ve made enormous gains in my physical prowess in the past two and a half years. It’s amazing, all of it.
I climbed out of that pit, and here I am today.