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How My Life Changed Since Methanol Poisoning Almost Killed Me

DJ Jessica Milner went blind in one eye after drinking gin with toxic levels of methanol.
PHOTO: istockphoto

I’ve always been a happy, bubbly person. I loved being with my friends, I loved going out, I loved eating and drinking, I loved traveling, I loved to laugh. And I loved my job—as a DJ, I got to play music for a living! Like anyone, I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always knew I was lucky to have such a good life.

When I went on a trip to Bacolod with friends in June 2019, nothing felt amiss. The first four days went by really quickly because I was doing what I loved—eating, laughing, and having fun with some of my favorite people.

The night before I was to fly back to Manila, I felt like capping off what had been a great day with a drink. I saw two unopened bottles of Cosmic Carabao Gin on my friend’s kitchen counter and helped myself to a couple of glasses of gin and tonic before going to bed. I was going to have a third glass, but I poured it down the drain and got ready for bed.

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What a regular weekend night used to look like for me. Brendan Goco

At no point did I feel sick, woozy, or even drunk before I went to sleep.

The poison hits

I woke up the next day with a really intense hangover, which was strange for me. As someone who works in the nightlife industry, I can usually handle my alcohol pretty well. But that morning was different. My head was spinning and I couldn’t walk in a straight line. My left side felt paralyzed, so I asked my friends if I had suffered a stroke in my sleep. They hadn’t noticed anything weird, so I brushed it off and went back to bed to sleep this strange hangover off.

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I woke up late in the afternoon and felt the urge to vomit. After vomiting for the first time, I had to vomit again after 30 minutes. And then again after an hour. The vomiting continued all throughout the day.

Thankfully, my flight home was scheduled that evening. My friends were worried about me, but I assured them that I would be okay. When I got to the airport, that’s when I started vomiting blood. The flight attendants on the plane were kind enough to let me sit by the toilets on the plane, where I continued to vomit. I vomited even on the ride home. When I got to my apartment, I collapsed in bed from exhaustion. But all that was just the beginning. The next day was when I experienced hell on earth.

“Mom, I’m going blind and I’m dying. Please help me.”
Then I passed out.

I don’t remember much from that day because all I did was, again, vomit. But I do remember that when I looked out of my bedroom window, all I could see was white light. That’s when I knew it. I was starting to go blind.

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Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to use what was left of my eyesight to call my mother who was then hours away in the province. I lived alone and she was the only one who had access to my apartment. I called her and said, “Mom, I’m going blind and I’m dying. Please help me.” Then I passed out.

My mom tells me that she found me on the bathroom floor convulsing and struggling to breathe. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to see her daughter that way, but she mustered up all her strength to carry me to the car, and then once in the hospital, to the wheelchair. I couldn’t walk anymore.

When the nurse asked what had happened, all I could say was “Gin…gin...” Before my incident, there had been a text blast going around about two girls falling ill and one of them dying from the same brand of gin I drank. I’m guessing the doctor in the ER heard about it because she knew exactly what to do.

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They told me it was methanol poisoning. I had never heard of methanol poisoning before then, although I might have come across it in articles I had read about tourists dying from bootleg alcohol in Bali. I was baffled. How could it happen to me? I didn’t drink cheap alcohol. This craft gin was supposed to be from a reputable brewery, wasn’t it?

During my first stay at the hospital. I love my friends so much for keeping my spirits high and making sure I laughed all the time. Courtesy of Jessica Milner
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I stayed in the hospital for a total of two weeks in a total of three stints. On my first stint, I was on so many medications and so much blood was taken from me. Vision in my left eye started deteriorating, so I had to take a lot of eye tests. I also needed an MRI scan to check how my eye and brain were affected. It turned out that my left eye was very inflamed, and I was diagnosed with optic neuritis. They also found some inflammation in my brain.

During my first hospital admission, I was asked to stay much longer, but honestly, I couldn’t afford it anymore so I asked the doctor to discharge me. I was urged to get a second opinion on my eye, so I went to another doctor who advised I get confined again for IV steroid treatment.

During my second stint at the hospital when I thought I was going to get my vision back. courtesy of jessica milner
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After getting discharged from my second hospital stint, my eyesight started improving dramatically. I was elated. But a few days later, I woke up to discover that vision in my left eye was completely gone. I was advised to admit myself to the hospital again, but this time, there was no improvement.

Following all the hospital admissions, I continued to take a lot of medications, the names of which I can’t remember anymore. I do remember taking medications that were prescribed for chemotherapy patients. I also had to go back to the hospital regularly to get my blood tested and my eye examined. It was an exhausting cycle, but I couldn’t just give up. My life was on the line.

More than a physical toll

Through it all, I tried to put on a brave face because I didn’t want people to worry about me. But in reality, I felt so alone. People always say that they’re there for you, and I’m so grateful for that, but at the end of the day, no one truly understands how you feel.

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I kept it private and told only my family and closest friends, but Manila’s small and people talk. As soon as people heard about what had happened, I was flooded with hundreds of messages. I was very grateful for all the love and concern people showed me, but it was honestly so overwhelming.

Me with my best friends. In times of tragedy, we really kept our humor. courtesy of jessica milner
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Following my hospital stints, I didn’t leave my apartment for two weeks except to go out for treatments and doctor’s appointments. I just wanted to be alone. I didn’t like the attention I was getting from this whole thing—by then, even the press had contacted me—and I was still struggling to accept that I was blind in my left eye. I had lost all my money to hospital bills and I felt like such a burden for borrowing money from my family.

Depression and self-loathing had taken over me. I contemplated suicide many times. I even sat on my windowsill once and was ready to jump. But each time, I’d think of my mother, and I knew I couldn’t do that to her. So I’d curl up into a ball on my bed and cry myself to sleep.

I don’t want to be angry anymore. My heart and soul are tired.

In all that time, the manufacturers of Cosmic Carabao, Juan Brew, never reached out to me. They still refuse to acknowledge what they did to me, and how they permanently disabled me. And I have proof that the bottle I drank really did have high methanol content. Even the chemist who tested the drink couldn’t believe I survived.

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But I don’t want to be angry anymore. My heart and soul are tired. I’m just letting my lawyers handle everything. I do hope that one day, we victims will get justice. But in the meantime, I will speak up about it. Who knows how many lives my speaking up could save?

A deceptive danger

See, methanol is a silent killer. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it, but drinking even a small amount of it can kill you.

It has a delayed reaction, but once the poison reacts, it reacts quickly with your tissues and it can severely destroy your organs, especially your kidneys. The eyes are particularly sensitive to it, too, so it can definitely blind you.

The earliest signs of methanol poisoning can be very confusing because they’re similar to hangover symptoms: nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and abdominal pains. After about 12 to 24 hours, the symptoms develop to excessive vomiting, vertigo, difficulty in breathing, and blurred vision.

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Well-produced spirits contain both ethanol, a type of alcohol that is safe to ingest, and the toxic methanol, but the methanol is eliminated in the distillation process. It is always safer to consume spirits from commercial manufacturers because they use technologies specifically designed to ensure that methanol is separated from ethanol; on the other hand, backyard distillers are not as thorough. In fact, just last December, methanol poisoning by way of lambanog killed at least 11 people in the Philippines.

One thing I learned that surprised me is that one of the ways to slow down methanol poisoning is by drinking more ethanol—meaning you have to drink even more spirits. This is because the ethanol in these drinks will inhibit the methanol’s metabolism to formaldehyde and formic acid, which is what kills you. But only do this if it’s your only option; say, medical care is hard to come by. If you’re feeling sick after drinking or if your hangover just doesn’t seem right to you, it’s still best to immediately seek medical help.

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This experience has certainly taught me to ask for help. I had been so used to doing everything by myself that it was hard for me to ask for help when I really needed it. I hope this never happens to you, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, simply ask for help. It could be the thing that saves you.

Seeing the world differently

After everything, I began to feel like a stranger in my own city. My old life seemed so long ago, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t think I could stay in Manila any longer when I felt so destroyed and let down.

In August last year, I was due to fly to Spain where one of my childhood best friends was getting married; thankfully, the trip had already been paid for so I didn’t have to worry about the costs. Being in Spain gave me the break I needed. There, I wondered what it would be like to start a new life somewhere nobody knew who I was.

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After the wedding, I didn’t go back home. From Spain, I went to London. I’ve been living here since.

I don’t think anyone will ever truly understand why I had to do this, but it’s okay. I did this for me. I will always love Manila, but so much had happened to me that I couldn’t go back to being that same happy, bubbly person anymore.

But in the last month and a half, I somehow found purpose again.

My struggles didn’t magically disappear just because I had left Manila. To be honest, they got so much worse. I had to begin again in a new city, with a new handicap, and all alone at that—I was even almost homeless at one point. I’ve been seeing an ophthalmologist here, and I recently found out that, apart from my left eye being a hopeless case, the methanol had done damage to my right eye, too. Not as much as the damage in my left eye, but enough that to this day, I still have difficulty seeing. But somehow, in the last month and a half, I found purpose again.

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This is my life now: I’m currently working a minimum wage job, which has humbled me. I haven’t been going out much since I moved here, but last month, I started going out again since I really do love to dance and listen to DJs play. Through the help of some friends here, I landed a DJ gig, and I know it’s just the beginning. My sister just moved here as well, and together we’ve been going to a lot of comedy shows—one of my favorite things is still to laugh, after all. My social life has been improving quite a bit, too; besides my sister, I now have a couple of good friends here. I may not have as many friends here as I did back in Manila, but I’m so lucky to have such good people around me. And I used to be so focused on my online life, but after everything that’s happened, I don’t really care about that anymore. I was lucky to be given a second chance in life—real life, not online life—and now I want to live that life to the fullest.

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I still get to do the things I love, but differently, because I’ve changed. I had to lose my vision to gain a new way of looking at things, but I see better now what truly matters.