Once upon a time, a fear of poisoning was considered a rational and well-founded concern. In fact, virtually all citizens of the Victorian era had a very specific fear of dying at the hands of a homicidal poisoner. This fear was fueled both by the obsessive media coverage of sensational poisoning cases and the fact that poison was sold over the counter to anyone who asked for it.
As toxicology became more sophisticated, poisoners had fewer and fewer ways to easily dispatch of an annoying family member or heavily insured spouse. Today, it’s downright rare. In 2015, for example, out of the roughly 16,000 murders in the United States, poison was the chosen murder weapon in only 7 of them. It’s true, that these are only the ones that were caught. Still, in 2018, you are more likely to accidentally drown in a bathtub, get struck by lightning twice or kick the bucket by falling out bed than you are to meet your Maker at the hands of a predatory poisoner.
But it does happen.
Elizabeth Smith’s Mysterious Illness
Elizabeth Smith was able to take comfort in just one thing; her husband David’s unwavering love and support. The 62-year-old businesswoman had been ill for months, fighting debilitating symptoms that had seen her lose her business, her enjoyment of life and her peace of mind. Doctors were baffled and her family was increasingly worried that she was suffering from a rare or terminal illness. But through it all, her husband of three years stood right there beside her.
Or so Elizabeth thought. In reality, David was a pathological liar and con man who had spun a web of lies from the first day he met her. He was also the person responsible for her deteriorating health. Over the course of their 3+ year courtship, David had been secretly poisoning Elizabeth with laxatives and God knows what else. He had stolen thousands of pounds from her bank account.
Early on, there were a few clues that all was not as it seemed. David moved quickly; two months after they met, he presented her with an engagement ring. When Elizabeth refused to be married so soon after they met, their long-distance relationship continued. Every ten days or so, David would travel to Elizabeth’s home to stay with her, often with home-cooked goods in tow.
From the very beginning of the relationship, Elizabeth started feeling sick. She would feel nauseous, have diarrhea, get the shakes, pass out. Sometimes half of her body would go numb. She lost weight. More than once, she was hospitalized.
Doctors didn’t have a clue as to what was wrong. Neither did her family, who grew increasingly worried and increasingly appreciative of David, her devoted spouse. They did, however, notice a link between Elizabeth’s poor health and David’s present. No one, of course, suspected David was responsible for his wife’s illness. Instead, it became a family joke. “Mom must be allergic to David” or “When is Action Man Dave coming to dose you with weed killer?”
They were married on January 3, 2015. In July, Elizabeth discovered that thousands of pounds were missing from her bank account and that the withdrawal dates coincided to days David was visiting. When she confronted him, he claimed that she had given him permission to take the money out and told her family that he was afraid Elizabeth was “losing her marbles.” Elizabeth now believes his goal was to eventually convince her family that she was losing her mind so that he could get his hands on her savings.
Thankfully, David was caught when he staged a break-in at Elizabeth’s house in an effort to grab what money he could and make his getaway. Elizabeth’s son, now suspicious, waited until his mom and David left the house the following day and searched David’s car. In the boot of the car was the money that the “burglars” had allegedly stolen.
Mental Illness and the Fear of Poisoning
There’s a saying among medical professionals; when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. This rule of thumb encourages budding doctors to first consider diagnoses that are the most likely. Yes, chills, body aches, and a fever could be symptoms of rabies or exposure to anthrax, but the odds favor the flu. It’s only when the initial diagnosis fails – the symptoms don’t go away, worsen, or other ones appear – that doctors consider more exotic illnesses.
As a result, most medical professionals respond to fears of being poisoned by opening the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders. And there are, in fact, several mental illnesses that can lead to a terrifying – but irrational – belief that other people are trying to hurt us. A general fear of being poisoned can develop into a phobia (toxicophobia or iophobia) if it becomes distressing enough that it interferes with the person’s life. For instance, someone with toxicophobia may refuse to eat or drink anything s/he has not prepared himself, even if offered by close friends. S/he may also be preoccupied with this fear and, as a result, experience other common symptoms of anxiety such as vague physical symptoms (headaches, nausea), irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Delusional disorder is a mental illness in which a person develops a firm, unshakable belief in something that is not true or based in reality. People with delusional disorder generally experience delusions about a situation which could happen in real life but isn’t – being followed, deceived, spied upon, or poisoned. Apart from their delusion, the person functions pretty much like the rest of us (unless s/he becomes so preoccupied with it that his or life is disrupted).
Individuals in the grip of psychosis (such as in the active stage of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) often have delusions along with other symptoms, including auditory hallucinations, disorganized thoughts and impaired insight. One kind of delusion – persecutory – tends to involve the belief that someone or something is actively plotting against him/her. And, that, of course, could include the belief that someone is being poisoned.
Is This for Real?
What clues might point to a person being slowly poisoned? The physical symptoms a are, of course, dependent upon the type and amount of poison that is consumed; tingling, fatigue,
nausea, diarrhea, temporary paralysis, and so forth. A good place to start is with the most common modern day homicidal poisons are antifreeze or an overdose of over-the-counter, prescription or illegal medication.
An examination of how to best guard against a poisoner includes being aware of abnormalities in your environment. For instance, here are some telltale signs that should not be ignored:
· Food or drink looks (a strange color, unknown particles in the bottom of a glass or sprinkled in food) or tastes weird (metallic, creates a burning sensation, etc.)
· Physical symptoms do not follow the expected course of the illness (for example, other less common symptoms develop or symptoms worsen or do not resolve).
· Symptoms seem to always occur or worsen when a certain person is present or is responsible for preparing the food/drink.
· Symptoms get better when away from the home (for example, hospitalized or on a vacation) and come back upon return.
· The sicker you become, the happier your spouse seems (especially in the context of an already abusive relationship or ugly divorce).
Of course, it is impossible to truly tell if someone is poisoning you without a toxicology workup. Talking to your doctor about your suspicions might get the ball rolling in terms of conducting the right medical tests. Some people are reluctant to go to their doctor for fear of not being believed or of being seen as mentally disturbed. Although expensive, there are labs that will conduct extensive toxicology workups without a doctor’s orders. It is also important to keep the container or whatever the substance is so you can have it analyzed as soon as possible.
I’ve known folks to place a hidden camera so they can see what is going on when they’re not home or plant “dummy” items (for example shampoo or toothpaste) while keeping the ones they are actually using hidden safely away. While I understand the rationale for playing detective (“I want to have concrete evidence before I go to the police”, safety is the number one priority. It is common for a poisoner to start off poisoning slowly so as to establish the fact that their victim is “sick” and then give a large dose to finish them off. It is much better to get away and go to the police than wait and risk dying.
It is especially important to get psychological help. First of all, if you are being poisoned, you will need some help dealing with the trauma of betrayal by someone you thought you could trust. If you are not, and these are mental health symptoms, you will already have a treatment team in place that can help you figure out what kind of psychological help will help you regain your peace of mind. No matter what the root cause of your fears, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when sorry can mean you are dead.