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By Daniel Spooner

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By late 2009, that moment had arrived. First, in the summer of 2000, came a tick bite that seemed to slash and burn me to the ground. I never recovered, in spite of antibiotic treatment. Then in 2005, a developer bought my building and for two years his team demolished and renovated 150 apartments, selling them as luxury condominiums. Swarms of demolition workers brought brick dust, mice pouring forth out of the walls, bursting pipes and multi-floor floods. My ceiling fell in from a torrent of water, my bedroom wall slid off like putty, my oak floors warped from erupting wastewater.

By the time the renovation was complete, my sanctuary was infested with mold and probably strange bacteria; back in the 1930s, they insulated between floors with rock wool, which holds an astounding amount of moisture and can grow mold and bacteria after flooding. I was bedridden, too ill to ride the elevator down one floor and walk across the lobby to get my mail. Afflicted by environmental illness, I became insanely reactive to everything – most clothing, my gas stove, a new mattress, the faint odour of fragrances on my partner, Paul, when he came in from work. And the noise, oh the noise. Every winter night, the rejiggered steam heat pipes shot out cannonballs and pistol fire. And the schoolyard under my window, once nearly deserted, was now packed all day long with screaming kids.

I had to leave, but it was like leaving my self. I ripped free of my emerald Oz only when I felt like I was going to die. We departed on Christmas Day 2009, and drove south to one of the loveliest sanctuaries in Georgia – Serenbe, a 900-acre new urbanism community crafted by Steve Nygren, a restaurateur, and his wife, Marie Nygren, a chef. I sank into the king-size bed at their inn, and knew I was never going back.

It would have been nice if I could have lived forever in Serenbe’s bed and breakfast, but that wasn’t possible, due to cost and the fact that the entire inn often rented out to wedding parties. So we travelled around the South, driving hundreds of miles here and there to check out supposedly non-toxic rentals, none of which were liveable. All the homes made me sick, and I broke three expensive leases. I was ‘tilted’, to use the acronym coined by Claudia Miller, a physician and environmental health specialist at the University of Texas. TILT stands for toxicant-induced loss of tolerance – a condition in which the immune system sustains too extreme or prolonged an exposure to toxins – man-made or natural. The individual, rather than recovering, suffers a strange breakdown, and becomes exquisitely sensitive to low doses of chemicals. I wrote about Miller’s work on environmental illness at length in Discover magazine last October.