Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The freezer debacle

After we moved, my health took a sharp downward turn. There were a lot of changes that happened all at once, and so it was difficult to pinpoint any one particular cause. I thought most of it was just pushing myself too hard in the moving process, or maybe the fact that we had been in survival mode for so long and now I was allowed to give myself some more time for self-care. But that wasn't it.

Shortly after we moved into our apartment, we noticed that a couple of our food items were freeze burned. We put it down to the old freezer which was not well-maintained, or some abuse during moving, and ignored it. Then we discovered brand-new food items were getting freezer burned. We checked to see if a vent was getting blocked, and checked for excess ice crystals. I checked the seal on the gasket on the door. We adjusted the temperature gauge with no change in temps or results. As time went on, I started noticing a metallic, almost anti-freeze flavor going on in our food. Everything became flavorless. I was getting sick after every meal; exhausted, headaches, stomach aches, constant food aversion. We ate out a few times, and I thought it was less sickening because it was comfort food or because I didn't have to smell the food cooking in the house.

I called my dad. He has more experience with refrigerator repairs than I do, though to be fair working in budget kitchens for so long (and all those years of science fair projects and managing my health care!) I'm pretty good at observing symptoms of a problem and coming up with a logical solution. He confirmed a suspicion that we probably had a fridge coolant leak.

I did some research. I found out that not all refrigerators these days have freon in them, but I also found out that it almost doesn't matter. The symptoms of a coolant leak are the same:

  • Foods that are frozen solid but feel warm to the touch and getting visibly freezer burned. 
  • Foods that have metallic flavors. 
  • Foods that rot in a ridiculously fast timeframe, especially from the inside out (like cucumbers that look fine on the outside but have slimy seed cores). 
  • Food outside the fridge, especially in the path of the air when the door is open, rotting more quickly (like the freshly purchased bottle of olive oil that went rancid, but the larger bottle it came out of was tucked away in a cupboard and fine).
  • Stomachaches, and intestinal distress after eating contaminated food.
  • Intense, incurable heartburn that is especially bad after eating contaminated food. 
  • Headaches after contaminated food, but the coolant leaking causes chronic symptoms unrelated to food intake. 
  • Trouble with concentration and focus.
  • Body aches, muscle pain, joint stiffness due to the leaking in the atmosphere and eating contaminated food. 
  • Lethargy, general weakness, and exhaustion with difficulty sleeping. 
  • Photo- (light), smell-, and sound- sensitivities that get worse over time. 
  • Aversion to food in general but our subconscious brains put it together first that the food in our home is making us sick, so it often starts as a strong desire to "just order in" or "let's go out"--but as for the latter, see the aversion to smells and sounds. 
  • As time goes on and the poison keeps getting introduced, ulcers will develop in the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, colon and bladder. Blood in the stool and urine become more noticeable. 
  • The aerated coolant will also irritate the sinuses and lungs, causing allergy and asthma symptoms/aggravation. 

Health-wise, everything there is a symptom I deal with regularly, so I didn't notice at first. Mr. Moon wasn't feeling anywhere near as poorly, which makes sense as I have a weaker immune system and the fact that he got a significant break from the coolant in the apartment's air supply by going to work almost every day. It was the incurable heartburn that finally got my attention that this was serious, and not simple user error. One day it was so bad that I ended up with chemical burns on my tongue and throat. My voice was hoarse for days, speaking and swallowing were intolerable. That was when I called my dad and eventually put all this together.

Within a couple days of the worst of the horrible heartburn, we woke up (at 10am on a Wednesday) and I realized that food we had purchased the day before was completely freezer burned, and the smell of the coolant was finally noticeable in the freezer. The coolant leak was officially confirmed. We called our landlord who said he would be over within 2 hours, cleared out the freezer (I calculated about $200 in food thrown out), and sat around the house feeling miserable, getting sicker by the hour. Eventually (9pm when the landlord hadn't shown up yet) we went to the store to pick up some fridge thermometers so we could see what the temperatures in the machine were, and some ice so we could salvage our food in the fridge, and while we were gone our landlord called to say he was bringing us a 3/4 size fridge to move our food into. He said if we needed a new fridge it would take a few days to get to us.

We didn't realize at the time that the leak was contaminating all our fridge food too, we just thought it was the freezer at first. We moved all the fridge food, turned off the old machine to let it defrost because the landlord was convinced it was just ice on the coils. Without the coolant being pumped, the smell seemed to dissipate a bit. He was supposed to be over at 10am the next morning to check to see how much ice melted off (hint: none, there was no puddle). He never showed, but the fried stayed at a steady 45 degrees F while the freezer was a solid 20F. So it was not an issue with the defrost cycle taking too long or heating up the food At noon on Friday, Mr. Moon called to find out when the landlord would be over to deal with this broken fridge. He asked us to find out if the defrost cycle was not working by temping the freezer with ice cubes, and could not seem to understand that we had already done that no matter how many times we told him that the temps were fine, and our food tastes like fridge coolant. We did his test with the ice cubes, confirmed they were freezing, barely, but tasting like nasty coolant, and I had to turn off the fridge. I could feel what it was doing to me just by being on. Without food inside to absorb the gas, it was even worse than before.

Saturday passed. Sunday passed. We started realizing how badly the food in the fridge had been contaminated, and increased our food loss to $300 by throwing out everything that was not contained in glass. The glass jars seemed to be fine.

Finally on Wednesday, we got ahold of our landlord again. We finally managed to convince him that the machine was busted, and it was time to replace it. A new one was purchased, but then he called to have me take measurements and it wouldn't have fit under the cupboard that was above it. He ordered a new one, to be delivered on Sunday. I asked him if he would be removing the old fridge before then and he said he would call me before he could stop by so we wouldn't have two fridges sitting around. Surprise surprise, he never did. That was the day before Thanksgiving.

Sunday came, and the delivery truck came by. They moved the broken machine out, and in the process a gelatinous glob of rotten STUFF fell out of the internal workings (onto my carpet no less), despite the entire thing having been cleaned twice already. I've since found out that the coolant will gelatinize around the leak sometimes, which is why it doesn't all go at once, and I can only imagine that's what this glob of nastiness was.

I got the glob all cleaned up with homemade enzyme cleaner, which seems to have actually helped. I figured it would just take the worst of the smell out until a professional could be brought in since the landlord said it might take a couple days (that was 10 days ago, by the way) but the spot doesn't seem to be collecting dirt or having any noticeable odor yet. Maybe after more time has gone by, if it's a problem we can get it cleaned better.
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How are we doing now?

Ten days since the broken leaky fridge was removed, I really seem to be on the mend. I've made a point of taking lots of healing probiotics, drinking kombucha and such to help heal the ulcers. My sinuses are much happier and my headaches have lessened quite a bit. Since a lot of the symptoms I had were pre-existing, there's only so much improvement I can expect. Mr. Moon seems to have more energy, though. Our sleep improved once we got a new bed, but that's a whole other comedy of errors! My incurable heartburn has been reduced back to the usual treatable kind, so that's nice.

The biggest thing is that we learned. One more thing that, if it happens again, we will be able to take care of it before we get super sick, before we lose anywhere near as much food. We didn't meet our renter's insurance deductible, so it's all out of pocket. Another expensive lesson that would have been more expensive if we owned and had to replace the fridge ourselves as well. I'm looking on the bright side of knowing how to deal with this if and when it ever happens again. That's all I can do anymore.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The intersections of chronic illness and "normal" life: Keeping a home whoever you are

I was diagnosed with chronic illness at age 17, after 2 solid years of suffering and plenty more before of pain and misery. I don't remember more than 3 days of my life when I wasn't in pain. I spent a lot of time internalizing my fear of making goals and having dreams, because when you can't plan a week ahead, how do you know what next year will bring? How do you plan for decades when you could be crippled with pain an hour from now?

Having dreamed so big and fallen so far, I have learned many things. The first and foremost of which is that my home is a sanctuary, even moreso than for the average person. I need a safe, clean, comfortable home to return to at the end of the day, sometimes even the middle of the day. These days, sitting at home usually IS my day. Finding my place in keeping my home, playing the dutiful housewife who can't do much physically, has been hard. It's been allegorical to finding my place in the world at large, as I sit here wondering what I have to contribute in my relationship, in my home, and in society. The larger picture, I don't have an answer for, though in my home at least the answers have become clearer.

By no means are these things that I have mastered. The wonderful thing about lessons is that you can discover what the lesson is before you really succeed at learning it. But it's helpful for me to have a system of goals in place so that we can remember our priorities, and get back on board when we fall off the wagon.

Couple my physical and mental deterioration with my OCD and Mr. Moon being a poster child for adult ADD, and you'd think this is a recipe for disaster. Certainly, our house has never been magazine perfect and I expect it never will be. Which brings me to my first lesson:
#1: Let go of perfection. It takes hours for magazines to stage those rooms for photoshoots. Unless you are a home design blog, you just need to have room for kids to come over (or just come home) without tripping and choking on anything, and cozy places for your family to relax without excess clutter. 
Not having to have everything perfect all the time releases me from worry. We focus on keeping our house at a level where we wouldn't be embarrassed if anyone just dropped by, though we always appreciate the ten-minute heads up to adjust things for group-seating rather than just the two of us.

With chronic pain, I tend to nest. On the other hand, too much clutter and I get claustrophobic. The end of the day is the worst, or sometimes second-worst compared to the beginning of the day. Mr. Moon's focus is generally shot after he gets out of work, so "evenings" (after 10pm!) after horrible times to expect any household progress. Which brings me to my second lesson:
#2: Know your weaknesses. Everyone has then, no one is perfect. Take some time to evaluate yours and the rest of the people in your home, and accommodate them. Lovingly, if you can. 
Consistency is my number one weakness. Similarly with Mr. Moon. He also has good days and bad days with being able to focus, which is something that frustrates me in myself to no end. You would think it would be easy to understand in someone else, but somehow it is simply infuriating until one of us consciously realizes the issue. They say that you find most annoying in others what you dislike most in yourself, and in this case it's true. Which bring me to lesson three:
#3: Consistency is hogwash. Setting chronic and mental illness aside, Life Happens. Midterms, finals, summer break, the flu, deadlines, children, double shifts, unexpected visitors, vacations, the list goes on! You will have a plan, and you will fall off the wagon. Learning not to beat myself up about lack of consistency is the best thing that ever happened to me. 
A couple years ago, I set myself a new year's resolution to stop fighting human nature--just for one year. We had four of us living in a townhouse, I was getting annoyed by purses and shoes and coats tossed willy-nilly when everyone came home, and I was just as guilty as everyone else so no glass houses here. The problem was two-fold: The coat closet was across the entire house from the door that was used the most; and (I don't know about anyone else but) I hate hangers. I will simply NEVER use hangers if I have a choice, because the movements to hang something on a hanger just HURTS--and at that point, the floor (or the back of a chair) becomes a valid choice. For Mr. ADD-boy, he just got distracted trying to walk the 15 steps to the closet.

Enter the coat rack. It's a simple, obvious solution. But it solved all my frustration! Even when people forgot to use it, I knew where to put their stuff when I picked up--and more importantly, they knew where to find it if it had been moved! No more fights about purses on chairs and no place to sit. Which brings me to my fourth lesson:
#4: Have a system. Even if you don't use it consistently, you know what to get back to when you're ready for life to settle back down. It means that life settles back down much faster, too! Because you know where to start when it all gets out of control. 
We have checklists. Both of us being in the restaurant industry, we have learned to love and embrace the wonder of checklists. Sure, we don't use them consistently (see lesson # 3!) but when we need them, they're there. I like to make my systems so that they're easier than NOT following it, whenever possible. Like, making it so it's harder to drop your underwear on the bathroom floor than it is to put it in the hamper--or at least just as easy! Also trying to make them so that following the system makes the rest of life a LOT easier than not following it helps. Like, having a pair of scissors in the laundry room, so that I can cut off the tags of new clothes as they go in the laundry, and I'm not tempted to try to rip the plastic pieces off with my teeth. Saves me pain AND ripped seams at the same time! But only if I don't have to go searching for scissors every time I go thrift shopping.

What this means for my chronic illness is that my partner is in charge of ALL housework, and anything I do is a bonus. Before it got to this point, it meant that I might not have the energy on Mondays to get the bathroom done, but at least I knew exactly how long it had been so I knew where my priorities were when I DID have energy to get caught up. We also have specific checklist items that are things I do to help if I'm able (like if I'm up to helping, I am in charge of decluttering the bathroom counter, putting everything in place before the scrubbing happens, cleaning the mirror and restocking the washcloths).

Which only tangentially brings me lesson five:
#5: Know your strengths, and work with them. 
It's this far down because it worked narratively, but it goes hand-in-hand with #2. If you're living with people already and trying to make your home work better, then try this: Everyone go around and list YOUR OWN weaknesses. We are always harder on ourselves than other people are, but yeah, go ahead and list each other's weaknesses if someone is missing one that is glaringly obvious to everyone else. Do it lovingly, and YES you can find a way to be kind and honest at the same time. BUT THEN, go around and list each other's strength's. Have your partner or your roommate tell you how you are AWESOME at sticking to a schedule or picking up everyone's coats to hang up without complaining. Thank each other for the good job that someone did cleaning the bathtub, or that someone else did saving the kitchen from the MASSIVE pile of dishes. If you don't already live with people and are, for example, moving in together without knowing each other well while trying to negotiate a chore chart or something, give everyone a chance ahead of time to come up with a list of their own strengths and weaknesses. List them out! Find where everyone is going to suck and give everyone equal responsibility there, or negotiate trades.

Once you know your strengths, put everyone in their best roles.

  • I can't handle dirty dishes, but can empty a full dishwasher in 90 seconds--so perhaps everyone else takes turns on dishes, but EVERY time the dishwasher is clean it's my job to empty it. 
  • I'm fabulous at organization and evaluating fairness, but vacuuming kills my shoulder for days and the kicked-up dust kills my asthma--so I might be in charge of the chore chart (and rotating the chores that no one likes to do so everyone takes a shot), while someone else is in charge of vacuuming while I'm at work (in a fantasy land where that's how it was set up when I worked and had roommates; these are examples here!) 
  • Everyone hates taking out trash, and everyone hates cleaning the bathroom. These are CLEARLY different-sized chores, so rotating them through everyone makes sense. However, let's say everyone in the house has a cat, or shares the pets. Maybe one person is in charge of the litter box, and one is in charge of the trash; or you get trash AND litter box duties for one week a month (so that the trash going out can be timed with the litter scooping) and you're done with it. 
  • For Mr. Moon and myself, I'm in charge of checklists and keeping him on task. This means that it is legitimately my job to remind/nag him (as much as I hate it, even more than he does) to get things done, and to make cleaning checklists for each room of the house. No matter how bad I feel, I can remember to tell him to follow his checklist. Now matter how distracted he gets, if he has a checklist he can follow it or at least get onto whatever is next when he realizes he's gotten distracted. 
Which brings us to lesson number six:
#6: Have clear expectations & priorities. Communicate with everyone what you ALL want to accomplish, and what each person's role is in that picture. Give everyone a say, even if they're kids. 
Knowing that my once-upon-a-time stepdaughter who was three at the time that we first lived together had a priority of being able to find her toys unbroken when she got back to them and that she be able to maximize her time hanging out with her favorite grown-ups meant that I knew EXACTLY how to motivate her to do things that seemed tedious or annoying to her. It also meant that I knew it was important to do things that would take my attention away from her during times when she was asleep or occupied with someone else, and that I could get her to do almost anything in the name of spending time together. That girl was a champion dish-washer at 2 years old, a window-washer and floor-sweeper by the time she was 5. Take away the knives and she'd get all the silverware clean while I put the rest of the clean dishes away. I could have her sweep the floor and yes, I had to go back over it because she would miss spots, but then when I swept it took half the time; she got the feeling of accomplishment helping and we got the kitchen cleaned in record time by doing it together. That means more time for books and dollies and unicorn puppets! Bonus, because she was shorter with a tiny broom, she got under the lip of the cabinets much better than I could! 


Bringing it back to present day, it is not anywhere near as annoying to either of us when I remind Mr. Moon that he has a checklist, because that's my job (I can be an absolute harpy about it, because chronic illness involves irritability, but that's a totally different topic). Being the quality control check person also means I get the fun job of being able to say, "The bathtub walls and floor look fine, just wipe down the counter and toilet then let's watch an episode of Doctor Who." Though admittedly that also means sometimes I have to say "hey, we slacked on the bathroom for two weeks, better make some extra time for that today."

Just discussing expectations like it being my job to remind him to use a checklist, or saying "OK we have to hurry up and clean the kitchen then we can make a pillow fort and have puppet theater" means that it's a lot less annoying when someone else is telling you that it's time to live up to expectations. It also means that when the person in charge of ANY task starts to fall behind, everyone has the option to say hey, let's get back on task here. (I will never forget the day my munchkin reminded me that dishes need to be finished before story time. I'm now certain every exhausted parent, at least once, has used the excuse "they're soaking, I'll do them before my own bedtime.")

But then again,
#7: It is OK to change tactics when something isn't working! Sometimes, we get ahead of ourselves. We overestimate our abilities and underestimate our available time. If something isn't working, re-evaluate and go back to rule #6. It's no good to change the plan if no one else knows the new plan. 
With mental illness and chronic pain, that's a hazard of life, but for the average person it might just be one of those Life Happens moments. The semester or work shift changes, someone signs up for a  bowling league on Firebomb the Kitchen night, or you just realize HOW FREAKING TIRED you are after a full day of work and there is no way you're scrubbing the bathroom after dinner. That's OK!
#7b: Be married to your priorities and goals, not the schedule that gets you there. 
Maybe you really wanted to do daily pickups, and it Just Isn't Happening. Maybe you wanted to stretch the chores through the week but Someone made the basketball team and they don't have time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to participate, or in my case, I discovered that with some jobs I couldn't handle working and major chores in the same day. That's OK! If it isn't working, just revisit your plans. Sometimes that means you need to scrap the entire system and start over, sometimes that means tweaking.
#8: Give yourself a BREAK! You are no good to anyone if you don't give yourself a day of rest. In the meantime, take time to reward yourself! 
An old set of roommates had two theories about housecleaning: 1) I shouldn't have to work on the house today because I worked at my paid job; and 2) I shouldn't have to work at home today because it's my day off from work. The issue was that the both thoughts were being COMBINED. Either one separately makes perfect sense and I can get on board! But not together.

One thing Mr. Moon and I found is that for us, there has to be a day off from both. For us that means keeping a schedule where one day a week has no chores on it, and moving that day to a day off from work. Our schedule has no chores on Thursday, but if he works Thursday then Wednesday's kitchen cleaning might get moved so there are no chores Wednesday. Some folks believe that the Sabbath should be a day of rest in all respects, others think that basic housecleaning doesn't count (because for example the goats need milking and dinner needs served even on a day of rest). Still others don't observe a sabbath for religious reasons, but can create one for health and happiness nonetheless.  Whichever you choose, give yourself a light chore day on a day you don't work out of the house.

If you work from home, schedule yourself a day off work with light housekeeping at least one day a week. Go to the park, have a Netflix marathon, call your mother, doesn't matter what you do. But have one day a week that you look forward to with relief instead of more drudgery. We still have the daily tasks (dishes clean by bedtime, ten-minute pick-up at least once) on the Day Off, but there's no dusting or vacuuming or scrubbing on that day. Only the bare minimum to keep up on an otherwise day of relaxing. This is the day we schedule date night as often as possible.

Last but not least:
#9: Be kind to yourself and each other. Address issues if they keep cropping up, and try not to let the little things get to you. Communicate when you're calm rather than letting it bottle up into an explosion of anger.
Mistakes are going to happen, spots will be missed, and sometimes despite the best of intentions the tasks to get you to your goals will fall by the wayside. If there is ALWAYS a pile of underwear behind the bathroom door, do something about it. One pair that gets left for a couple days every once in a while after a long day or a late night is not the end of the world. Say something if that pair of socks has been on the arm of the couch for almost a week, but don't wait so long it makes you scream.

This means forgiving each other when the bad days make you less than fun to live with. Having the goal of being kind helps me bite off rude remarks when I think before I say them, or just sighing inwardly and letting it go when he wanders off in the middle of doing dishes for the eighth time in an hour. It also means my ever-patient partner is more forgiving when I inevitably fly off the handle and remind him he's been doing a 20 minute job for an hour, or squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle. We all do things that irritate each other, but if we can remember to be kind to ourselves and each other it makes life a whole lot easier to live.

It also helps to consider the likelihood that if someone else's socks are on the arm of the couch for 5 days straight, you've probably also forgotten one or two of your own socks somewhere. If that happens, get everyone on board with a catch-up day (or, sometimes, week). Pull out those checklists, update your chore carts, and just get back on the wagon. Protip: This usually happens when you realize on Monday that you have a party coming in on Saturday. It's also totally ok to plan a party just to get yourself motivated! Just try not to shove everything into one room instead of actually getting back on track. Besides, they're your friends. They will love you even if you don't have a living room from a magazine.
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