The Dose Makes the Poison

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Sparkling cider, cream eclairs, prawn curry: these are things I can no longer enjoy without experiencing little flashes of food and alcohol poisoning. Although they hold some pretty gruesome echoes, I like the straightforwardness of being able to pinpoint these three villains. It’s simple: they poisoned me.

When it comes to eczema, which I’ve had on and off since birth, it’s a lot hazier. Without warning, my skin may become red, blistered and itchy, reacting as if touched by something noxious, the cause unknown.

In September last year, when I relocated from London to the Pacific Northwest, I felt optimistic. I hoped that changing my surroundings and habits would herald the dawn of a new, healthy skin era. London had started to represent dysfunction — in the weeks leading up to our departure, there was so much drinking, so many late nights and fried foods. On the plane my hands were all hot and angry, I thought nearly there. Once arrived in Canada, I cut down on alcohol, ate regular meals, and went to bed early. But no matter what I did, my eczema kept getting worse all through this first, damp winter. Everything I ate seemed dubious, infected. When your skin — your largest organ, the organ exposed to the elements — is compromised, it’s hard not to get paranoid, and start thinking about the world in terms of contaminants.

Novichok is one of the most toxic poisons in the world and is rarely found outside of Russia. Last year this poison was famously smuggled into Wiltshire, UK in a counterfeit vial of Nina Ricci perfume. A pair of uber-criminals used the nerve agent in an attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. I was in awe as familiar West Country scenes appeared on the news — a bland pizza restaurant, a gastro pub, a wooden bench on soggy park green — were cordoned off due to the suspected presence of Soviet-era chemical weaponry. Military personnel wearing plastic suits and gas masks patrolled the same high-street that I had walked along with my Dad just weeks previously. But what really threw me happened a couple of months later. A local man, Charlie Rowley, came across the ‘perfume’ in a charity bin and gave it to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, as a gift. He remembers how Sturgess rubbed the liquid, oily and odourless, onto her wrists. Soon after, she complained of a headache, lay down in the bath fully clothed and lost consciousness. Ten days later doctors switched off her life support machine.

Nerve agents are like aliens; floating entities, incorporeal. But the effects on the human body are so definitive. The majority who come into contact with Novichok have no chance of escape, no clue, no hope of reversing the effects. It starts with pinpoint pupils of the eye, excessive mucus, tears, saliva and sweat, then, depending on the level of exposure, within an hour there’s loss of bladder and bowel control, seizures, brain damage, coma, death. I’m haunted by what happened to Sturgess, although I know that, just like a plane crash or a tsunami, to focus on the threat posed by Novichok is to risk being poisoned by fear itself.

As a child I was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. I watched it until the VHS got all threadbare. One of my favourite scenes was when Alice drinks the potion: I would marvel as an ornate crystal table arrives, spinning through the air, a small glass bottle atop. The bottle is unmarked, but there’s a label, written on bubble-gum pink card and tied to the neck of the bottle with string. It says: ‘Drink Me’. Penned by some unknown hand, tied by unknown fingers. Alice remembers what she’s been taught: “if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’, it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.” Since the bottle isn’t marked poison, she has a sip, discovering it tastes like “cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast”. Alice immediately shrinks to an impossible, helpless scale. Aged four years old, glued to the screen, both terrified and delighted each time by Alice’s sudden metamorphosis, the message I would take from Lewis Carroll’s story was to beware. Don’t take sweets from strangers, don’t eat the red berries from the bush at the end of the garden, don’t drink the from the white containers under the sink. But even if something is clearly labelled, tried and tested, unless we made it ourselves, unless we grew the ingredients, unless we’re experts on nutrition, oracles of our own bodies, what do we really know of it? We put all these things into our mouths, slather them on our skin, spray them in our homes, entrusting them into the intimate processes of our bodies. Thinking of it now, I can’t help but recollect the vial at the centre of the Wiltshire poisonings. How much faith we place in the unknown, and in that which the world offers us. Poisons might appear as a gift, and taste like toffee and toast.

Sixteenth century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus said, "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison" (often condensed to: "The dose makes the poison"). The more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the absolute vagueness of a poison: how subjective, invisible and omnipresent it can be. The concept of ‘poison’ typically conjures skull and crossbones, hypodermic needles, violent green elixirs, malignant, hissingvapours. But everything is a poison, potentially. If you google ‘poisonous foods’ you learn that green potatoes, kidney beans, rhubarb, almonds and cherry pits can be heinous. Then there’s the dank, sinister world of mushrooms. For Christmas, I bought a book by a quirky West Coast mushroom enthusiast. I thought foraging could be a fun new pursuit to learn while roaming the Canadian wilds. Instead, I spent a dark, solitary evening with the book, lingering over the terrifying photos of sickly, oozing fungi whose names feature ‘death’, ‘deadly’ and ‘destroying’. Sometimes these mushrooms announce their toxicity with blood red droplets, or by generally giving off a heady malevolent vibe, but just as often they twin a harmless shroom. 

Walking down a supermarket aisle, we’re surrounded by products bursting with double-digit ingredients. Each ingredient could have so many different effects on your body. Depending on where it comes from, how it was produced, how it’s been treated, then finally, how you store it and cook it. Most items on supermarket shelves have a hard to trace provenance. I remember, around ten years ago, Dad complaining to Holland & Barrett after he bought their pine nuts and experienced the condition ‘pine mouth’. For a few days after eating the pine nuts, everything he ate tasted bitter and metallic. Back then, it was believed that the nuts came from China, who were allegedly using dodgy chemicals during the farming process. But further studies revealed that the affected nuts came from all over the world. The mysterious phenomenon is still being investigated. Someone with a food intolerance, and an eating disorder, might find food enigmas like this disturbing. Might find it necessary to probe and doubt the liquids and solids offered to them, to probe and doubt to the point of immobilisation.

Sometimes I wonder: which came first, the food intolerance or the eating disorder? Would one exist without the other? In this world, where everything is connected, it’s always a case of chemistry. Particularly with food — it’s not just what the thing is but what you are, and what the thing is in relation to you. I find it difficult to comprehend how nutrition, diet and health aren’t just an issue of inside, but a question of outside, beyond my control. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous, with humans, the most toxic species, inadvertently making Planet Earth more poisonous. I think of pollutants pouring into the oceans, and homeowners wildly spraying anti-bacterial fluids everywhere. Our attempts to live kills, our attempts to be well folds in on itself.

Back in January, when my eczema was in full swing, I went to the local cinema to see Yorgos Lanthimos's latest film, The Favourite. The Cineplex didn’t look anything special from the outside — dirty carpet, dark foyer — but the auditorium itself was a different story. Row after row of oversized lazy boys: high-back, extra wide luxury. I eased into one of the huge puffy contraptions and was pleased to discover that it became near horizontal at the touch of a lever. As I lay there, at the perfect angle to the screen, I felt I had been inaugurated into North American leisure time. I thought of my old student job at the Odeon in my Somerset home town, where even the fancy ‘Premium’ seats were stiff and upright. It was while working at the cinema that I got hooked on that quintessential poison: nacho cheese. It came in a huge tin, was sunshine yellow, and at room temperature took the form of a thick gel. I remember the first time I tasted it: a stolen helping in a back room, at some point near the end of 12-hour shift, while all the guests were in the screens, fidgeting in their lumpy chairs. There was something potent about the combination of melted-faux-cream and salty, hard tortilla, plus the tangy spice of jalapeno. Now— fourteen years wiser — I had identified spicy, dairy-based foods as a trigger for my skin issues. Yet, sitting there, cushioned on all sides by an enormous reclining throne, the eczema on my hands so bad that I could barely move my fingers and my face swollen, I longed for that initial furtive portion of nachos.

In The Favourite, two scheming ladies-in-waiting struggle for Queen Anne’s top spot. A pivotal scene sees one woman drink a deadly herbal tincture masquerading as tea. The audience know what’s in the dainty cup, but the victim is totally oblivious, and savours every drop. Consuming the poison will result in loss of consciousness while horse-riding. Beneath the scratches, her skin remains flawless, dewy and soft. I know she’s a fictional character, but I’m in awe: she’s been poisoned and dragged around insentient on a horse, and she’s still robust. If anything, her energy levels are increased, with a grim hunger for revenge. I tell myself I’m pathetic, intrinsically weak. I only have eczema, and I’m on the brink of collapse.

Herbs make a couple of appearances in Lanthimos's film: as the base of the spiked tea, and providing miraculous relief for Queen Anne’s severe gout. Soon after the cinema trip, inspired by the mystical power of herbs, I wander into the tiny health food store on my street. Shelves of big blue tubs containing medicinal herbs line every wall. As the only customer, I receive the full attention of the shop’s owner, Gerard. He asks a load of questions, listens carefully, and then recommends a custom tea blend. Like a spider, he weaves his concoction; carefully reaching for various pots, spinning together many herbs. Nettle, astragalus, ginger, black cohosh, catnip, lobelia, yarrow, safflower. Eventually, he hands over a bulging clear sack, the contents colourful within, and instructs me to make a strong brew from it each day.

Before moving to Canada, I had never thought much about dehumidifiers; they seemed to be strange, luxury items for people with a profound understanding of air quality. Upon moving to Canada, I was bewildered by the presence of a dehumidifier in our sublet. It was on wheels and initially I enjoyed trundling it to wherever in the apartment I was creating moisture and marvelling at the quantities of water it collected from thin air. After a week or so the novelty wore off, I stopped using it so religiously when cooking or showering, and water began to run freely down the walls. A couple of times I had to wipe away black mould forming on the windowsills. When Gerard asks me about the humidity in my apartment, I sheepishly admit that it’s high: the digital indicator on the machine normally reports around 75% whenever I’ve switched it on. He looks concerned and proposes that I place the dehumidifier in the centre of the apartment and run it for at least twelve hours a day, bringing the apartment down to 35% humidity. Thinking back to that humid, spore-rich period, it’s no surprise that my entire home seemed to be an allergen. Within a week of using the dehumidifier the space feels fresher, and the aggressive red streaks on my neck are alleviated.

Gerard also recommends making an appointment with a nutritionist. One-on-one time with a dietary professional is something I’ve never felt I could afford, but in this vigorous, Pacific-facing city, there’s a big school that trains future acupuncturists, homeopaths, doulas and permaculturists — and you can see a student practitioner for free. In the first days of February, I become the patient of a holistic nutritionist named Sara. She is infinitely gentle and caring, her emphasis is on finding balance and a positive approach to the present moment. Sara doesn’t want me to dwell on what might have caused flare-ups in the past or blame myself for my condition. She suggests pleasant changes, like sitting in the midday sun for ten minutes each day and letting the vitamin D soak into my skin, going to yoga classes, cutting out gluten, liberally applying rosehip seed oil to my skin, and taking oily supplements such as borage, cod liver and evening primrose. She also suggests I drink a daily cup of bone broth. Even though I generally stick to a vegan diet, I decide to adopt some flexibility during the healing process. I go to an organic butchers and buy a bunch of frozen chicken feet. They simmer away endlessly in my slow cooker, animated by the bubbling water. After 36 hours, I strain the liquid, leaving the feet behind in the colander: grey and frail, their little curled claws reminding me of babies’ toes. I cry as I put them in the compost bin, feeling like a parasite who sucks nutrition from others. In the cool of our fridge the bone broth turns to jelly, rich with collagen. It tastes like distilled animal. (It is distilled animal.)

One of Sara’s techniques is a bicarbonate of soda test to gauge whether I have low stomach acid. Reduced levels of hydrochloric acid mean you aren’t able to break down food into small enough particles, so your immune system regards it as a foreign body and attacks it. I recall learning about stomach acid when I was younger, and thinking it sounded really scary: it has a PH of 1.5 and would burn other parts of your body if it weren’t safely contained in your stomach. The next morning, before I do anything else, I add a quarter teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to a cup of warm water and drink the salty mixture. Then I set a timer. I’ve been instructed to wait for a ‘big belch’ which should occur within 1–2 minutes. Any time before that and acid levels are too high, and any time after means too low. I’m still waiting at seven minutes, which according to the test means that my stomach acid levels are so low that they’re basically non-existent. I’ve never really been able to comprehend acid as a part of me, so learning that it’s something I’m low on is strangely comforting. It’s an absence that makes me feel like I’m a softer kind of being — a sweet fawn. Still, going forward, I add a little acid by taking a measure of apple cider vinegar before every meal.

Slowly, spring starts to infuse the Pacific Northwest. My body perks up and, following Sara and Gerard’s recommendations, the eczema continues to recede. It’s not perfect, and I have relapses, but overall I feel physically stronger. However, instead of basking in the light, I take a vigilant stance, and fixate on next winter. I spend a considerable amount of time dwelling, grasping at clues, bringing up new links. I think: if I can find the root cause then I’ll be safe the next time this shitstorm comes around. I’m like Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend, spending the zombie-less days preparing for the zombie-filled nights. Or perhaps my life is more like a crude mystery novel, one that I wouldn’t want to read, where the conclusions drawn by the lead detective are thick-fingered; tangling up advice carefully dispensed by experts and drawing wild, collapsing conclusions. One night, fretting over a new patch of eczema that’s appeared at random on my forearm, I have a revelation: poison isn’t the problem, but fear of poison itself. In order to heal, I must overcome my deep-rooted fear of chemicals, fear of food, fear of my own never-ending weaknesses. In that moment it’s clear that once I’m anxiety-free I will be shielded from the woes of the world. Or maybe that isn’t it, I don’t know.

‘The Dose Makes the Poison’ was published in Ache Issue No. 2 in July 2019. Available in London at Burley Fisher Books, The Second Shelf, Pages of Chesire, The Wellcome Collection, or The Next Chapter, (Edinburgh), Good Press (Glasgow), Specialist Subject Records (Bristol). Order a copy here.