An Uneasy Dwelling – Delayed Reflections On Living In A Therapeutic Community

It’s been a year now since I moved out of the therapeutic community I used to live in. And I’m still processing it. The ups and the downs, pondering what I took from my time there, what more I could have got from it, what I’m glad to have left behind.

I can say without hesitation that I don’t regret moving in there. I can also say that it is the most stressful living situation I’ve every voluntarily put myself in. With three group meetings a week [on top of my individual therapy sessions outside of the house] it’s a pretty full on experience. Even though I often made the decision to stand on the sidelines, to keep myself at a distance, it was a pretty intense way of living.

Would I have got more out of living there, had I been more invested in it? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t rule it out. Certainly it made a difference to the sense of community within the house that I chose to not engage as much as I could have, to not push for communal meals, to not easily join in with the household. Yet, at the same time, it just never made sense to me to bring my worries and desperation to the house meetings, to be looked at by people, who – although I liked many of them – didn’t feel particularly safe with. [This, incidentally, is solely a reflection on me, – not on them.] To me, it always seemed like the natural thing to do, to turn to my sisters and the friends I have always been fortunate to have when things got tough, to turn to them for extra support. And for the things I felt I couldn’t necessarily share with them [for whatever reason], well, I had my individual therapy with A. for that. Bringing it to the group sessions, it just seemed a bit odd.

That is not to say that I never shared anything in the meetings. I did. But not on a regular basis. It tended to be only when things were really really bad and I just couldn’t hold my tears back.

So, what was it that I found stressful? Well, in part what I have just written about; the expectation to involve myself, to engage and to share, and the feelings brought up by the fact that it was an expectation which I always felt I would never be able to live up to. Part of that was, as I said before, down to the fact that it didn’t quite make sense to me to share difficult things in a group of people I didn’t really know that well. But, of course, there were more deep rooted trust issues at work, holding me back. Other people, who may also have had friends and family they were close to, didn’t feel the same level of reluctance to take the plunge in the group meetings, and were much better able to let others see their vulnerability.

Another thing that was probably more stressful than I even realised at the time, was the constant stream of visitors to the house. Visitors who came to our meetings with a view to possibly join our household. This was a part of life in the house that I never got used to and always felt distinctly uncomfortable with. It was one of those things that made the place feel a lot less like it was my home as opposed to only being the place where I happened to be living.

People would come, share their story, share of themselves, [or in some cases not share] and we were, I suppose, meant to get a feel for whether or not this was a person who could fit into our house, who might benefit from moving in. It probably doesn’t sound particularly stressful, but it really was. Especially the decision making process, where – in theory – residents were said to have a big say in whether or not someone was invited to join, but which in reality often felt like a humongous and never-ending pressure to get new people in. Often at a time when all you really wanted was to find some headspace for yourself, to settle in the group you were already living with. I remember more than one meeting where one of the house therapists would say something along the lines of the process being about all of us reaching some sort of consensus about whether or not a person was suitable for our house, and in the next breath would not-so-casually mention how we needed to be X number of people living in the house for it to be financially viable. No pressure, right. :þ Also, I always took issue with the fact that the question “Is this someone I can live with?” seemed to be second priority to “Could this person gain something from moving in?”, which, it could be argued, sent the message that the gain of a person joining far outweighed the potential rise in stress level of those already in the house.

Clearly, there were times when the reluctance to accept new housemates were motivated less by worries about how a new person might impact the household negatively, and more about a strong wish to hold on to what was familiar. But, then, is that so strange? For a person to build a home, there arguably needs to be a level of familiarity and stability. A stream of new introductions allows little space for that.

Stressful was also the particular mix of people in the house at any given time. Without going into detail about any one individual, the people staying in the house – at least for most of my stay there – could be broadly grouped into either dealing with depressive and/or anxiety related issues, or difficulties which fell somewhere along the more psychotic end of the mental health spectrum. And, as housemates were supposed to support one another [rather than relying on the house therapists – who only come to the house for the meetings – to sort things out] it at points felt very much like the first group was responsible for the latter group.

It isn’t easy walking through the door, never knowing what you might be walking in to. I’m not going to say that I was in any way the person who most often ended up keeping track of others – I wasn’t – but, there were absolutely times when I had to drop what I was doing in order to help settle a very agitated housemate or, once or twice, call the police because someone had taken off, stating they were going to kill themselves. And I think this way of always being on the ready to put fires out, to some degree stopped me from being able to explore my own issues more. [Not the only reason for this, of course, but one of them.]

One of the really invaluable, yet hard bought, lessons from my time in the house, was having to seriously think and feel through what boundaries meant to me. Which ones were important to me, which ones did I feel able to be more flexible about? I had to work at asserting myself, when I felt the boundaries were being stretched beyond what was OK for me. Regular readers will remember that my decisions to ultimately leave the community came down to – in part – feeling that I needed to make a stand for myself, to not just go along with boundaries being pushed, but to recognise that what I feel OK with, or not, is important and worth holding on to. But of course, this was an ongoing battle, this getting a feel for when it was important to hold on to my way of living my life, yet at the same time question my reasons and motivations for doing so. When was there a valid reason, and when was I simply being stubborn and resisting change? When was it a case of me being the rebellious teenager I never got to be in my own family, when was it the adult me refusing to see things from another person’s perspective?

While I was staying at the house, one of the house therapists published a book about the community houses run by the Philadelphia Association. I made the conscious decision at the time not to read it while I was still living there.

Having now lived away from the house for nearly a year, I have read it, and I have to say that it’s a book well worth reading. I found it very interesting to read about the history of the houses [which I had some idea of, even before moving in, but, again had chosen to not explore too extensively], and how the philosophy behind the houses has altered and varied at different points.

I think it’s an honest book, even though I at times found myself smiling at the discrepancy between the idea of the community houses and the reality of them. At least from my point of view.

Anyway, if you are interested in reading the book for yourself, click the link or picture below.

If you would like to read about my time in The House: entries written between January 2009 and July 2011 were written while I was staying in The House. The first post I wrote having moved in is called “On My Own – An Entry About Finding New Ways To Cope“.

xx

An Uneasy Dwelling by Paul Gordon

An Uneasy Dwelling
by Paul Gordon

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Stepping Into The Future; Moving Physically & Emotionally

Not long to go now until The Big Move. Two more days and I’m off into the future.

Got the keys to my new room and swung by it earlier today and I saw both things that I did like and things I didn’t like. The Didn’t Likes include the general condition of the shared spaces; kitchen and bathroom. Pretty unpleasant, if I’m brutally honest, and this is despite the fact that there is a cleaner who comes every week. So, not too keen on that, but as with all places once you’ve lived there for a while you get a bit blind to things, so hopefully I’ll get used to it. Also I emailed my landlord about a few things that I think need to be looked at, so hopefully he’ll sort those things out. Apparently when the person who had my room before me moved in there was a problem with the washing machine and after she pointed it out he went out and bought a new one, so I guess that’s a good sign.

Under the heading of Did Like I’ve got the most important thing: my room. I felt good, stepping into my room. Yes, it is small, but not quite as small as I had begun to imagine. The previous tenant hadn’t done much by way of cleaning the room, found a fair few bits and bobs when pulling out the bed and the desk, and I had to start with some serious hoovering. The desk, by the way, came apart when I pulled it out, and in all honesty I’m sort of glad it did, because I had already told the landlord I’d want to use my own desk, and as this one self-destructed I didn’t feel too bad about hauling it up to the top floor where there is a small space for storage. Although the desk is pretty rickety even after I re-assembled it, the drawers can be used for extra storage I suppose. Other Likes was the fact that there is actually quite a lot more storage in the room than I thought, and there’s a small wardrobe I hadn’t noticed when I went to view the room, and a small space to keep books at the head of my bed.

Anyway, enough about the practical side of the move. Let’s think a little about the emotional side..

So, I’ve spent a little over two years at The House, the therapeutic community, and in some ways I think it’s been time for me to leave for a while now. I don’t feel I fit in particularly well here, the communal living doesn’t really suit me. I don’t mind shared living, but communal, not so much. I was never going to be one to suggest having mandatory meals together on a regular basis or buying our food together as a group. I think I’m just a little too independent for that sort of life. [I’m not implying that the other house mates aren’t independent, they just seem to have more of a wish for those sorts of things].

And as far as the therapeutic side of The House goes, again, it’s not really worked for me. I’ve never really been able to entirely engage in the process of sharing in the meetings. To me it just seems so strange to be sharing my thoughts and feelings in a group, with people who I don’t feel particularly close to or have all that much in common with. They’re all good people, it’s just that it’s always made much more sense to me to chat with my friends or pick up the phone and ring my sisters when things get too much, just as they – both my friends and my sisters – will turn to me when things are hard.

That said, I think it’s really good that this place exists, and I genuinely hope that they’ll be able to find people to move into The House who are more up for this way of life. I can absolutely see how I’ve played a part in making this place be less of a community than it could be, through not lending myself entirely to the experience. Having been one of four housemates for a large part of my stay here, of course my way of doing things has had a direct impact on what sort of house this has been, and I do hope that the people who end up moving in here will be more able than I have been to throw themselves into making this place the community that it may have been meant to be.

Of course, as different as I have often felt, moving away from here is still a pretty major step. One of the things that is good about The House is that everyone knows that everyone else has their reasons for being here, and have some understanding for how life can sometimes feel all too impossible to cope with, and how working on your own difficulties is as hard a job as any other 9-5 job.

Will I regret moving out? I don’t know. I feel that it’s time for me to go. To try to take the next step. Push myself a little. I do expect to dip a bit after I’ve moved; it’s a big change going from a house where – whether I speak to people or not – there is nearly always someone around and there is always the option to knock on someone’s door if things feel too hard, to a place where people lead altogether separate lives and don’t seem to interact at all.

I am trying to keep in mind that this room I’m moving into is not the place I’ll be staying forever. It’s a step into the future, a stepping stone on the way to getting back on track. I don’t think I’ll be staying there for very long, in all honesty – but I thought making a move from The House was needed, and this will be my intermediary dwelling place until I can find something s bit nicer and with a more of a permanent feel to it in about six months’ time. Perhaps a share which is a real share without being too communal.

So here’s to change and stepping into the future!

All the best and more,

xx