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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Home & Feeling Homeless

Was meant to move yesterday.
Spent all day Saturday packing and preparing, didn’t even make it to shul for service because I was a too stressed out about the whole thing. Had several moments of panic throughout the day, thinking I don’t really want to move, it’s the wrong decision, I’m not ready for this, it’s too scary, etc etc. You get the picture. But, eventually everything had been packed up and carried downstairs, ready for The Big Move and I tried to get some sleep.

Got up early the following morning as the van was due to arrive around 8.30.

Sat downstairs, surrounded by all my boxed and bagged up things, nervously waiting for the van.

Which didn’t come.

At 9.05 my phone rang, so I picked it up expecting it to be the removal guys. It wasn’t. It was their boss calling to tell me that the van had broken down en route to picking my things up and unfortunately they wouldn’t be able to do the move that day.

Felt absolutely crushed by this. I was already stressed out about the emotional impact of moving, and not feeling too great about the place I was moving to, and then this happened on top of that.

The next several hours, in fact the whole day after that was pretty horrible. I was just crying, feeling absolutely awful. And, yes, I know – of course it wasn’t just about the van; it was the whole thing – having built up towards this move and mentally preparing for how I was going to deal with it. And it just all came crashing down on me.

Called both of my sisters, texted Dev, did lots of things to try to manage the disappointment of it all, sitting in my now empty, echo-ey room with no books, no computer, not even a desk.

I had had the whole day mapped out; how I would move things into the new place in the early morning, then spend time beginning to sort the room out, then meet with a friend, before going back and forth between The House and the new place with little things that needed to be brought over. And in the evening I was to go back to The House for my goodbye dinner which my housemates were holding for me.

Of course that plan went out the window when the move didn’t happen. I was just so sad and disappointed and stressed out I couldn’t really get around to doing much at all. Managed to properly clean out my old room, but that’s about it, and that was done with tears running down my face the entire time. I think, as A. pointed out in session today having heard me talk about all of this; what happened was that I suddenly found myself feeling that I didn’t have a home. I’ve moved around a fair amount, and what’s been constant for me have been the things I take with me everywhere; my books, my journals, my writing, and I’ll create my home around them wherever I am. So, with all those things boxed up and with nowhere to put them, it left me feeling homeless and lost.

Needless to say, by the time I was due to meet my friend S. for lunch, I was pretty emotionally wrecked.

Enter the power of a good friend.

Yes, I cried and I still felt awful, but it was also nice to be able to see that I was able to allow the tears to come, even with my friend around. Or maybe because she was there to support me. We talked about all the worries and fears I have about moving out, what I’m leaving behind. Lots of things, and it helped me see that the tears were actually an absolutely appropriate response to what I was experiencing, and that it was OK. Talking to my friend also helped me to recognise that while all these feelings were valid, they were only what I was feeling that day, not what I would always be feeling.

Went back to The House after seeing my friend and unpacked my bedding to make my bed up again, and that helped a little with making the room feel less bare and naked, and slightly more like the room that had been my safe haven.

A little later M. knocked on my door and asked how I was doing, having heard from another housemate what had happened. So I had another tearful conversation, being allowed to tell someone yet again how horrible I felt. And that was really helpful, too; to both say and show how much I was struggling.

Later I had my farewell dinner with my house mates, which was nice. I was very touched that they wanted to do this for me, especially considering how I’ve often not been very involved with things in The House. Also I felt incredibly thankful that they were allowing me to stay another night at the house, making things a lot easier for me. C. said to me that I’ve been a member of the household for over two years, of course I could stay another night – and that felt really good, because I never feel I can take it for granted that I’ll be welcome in any place.

Stayed up quite late talking with M. after dinner, and again, that was really helpful and made it a lot easier to settle down for the night.

So, I have to say that although living at The House has often been difficult, with many many ups and downs, and there are lots of things to reflect on in the months to come, I was left with the feeling that my housemates have seen me as part of the house; that for a time The House really was my home. And that felt really really good.

xx

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

Library, Community and Therapy – An Entry About Feeling Safe

I am at the library. I’m enjoying it. It’s my safe place, my home away from home – the place I go to when things get too much. I like the semi-calm, the not-quite-quietness of this place. It’s a good place to be; I can think clearly here. I can feel freely.

I’ve only just finished a mini-essay on the topic of happiness, which seems ironic, considering that I am in fact not especially happy at the moment. Oh, there is no need to panic, I’m by no means in a let’s drink a litre of anti-freeze kind of mood. But I am feeling distinctly low.

As you probably know by now I live in a therapeutic community. Only at the moment it seems it is neither particularly therapeutic, nor much of a community. The latter is, naturally, in part down to me. I’m a member of this little household, and as such it is within my power to make this place more of a real community. Only my heart’s not really in it. I’m not all that interested in communal living. I like my independence, I don’t want to go on group shopping trips, nor do I feel a need to have all my meals with my house mates. This is – I feel obliged to point out – in no way a reflection on my house mates, but merely a statement about myself and where I’m at.

The second part [or the first, depending on how you look at it] – the bit about being therapeutic – well – that’s a little more complex. Or at least it feels like it’s somewhat more out of my hands at the moment. Yes, I do have good conversations with, hm, one of my house mates every now and then, and for that I am thankful. But, what I mean when I say that there is very little in the house that is therapeutic, I mean that the thrice-weekly house meetings have become something of a silent battleground. And, it’s not about my house mates, but, rather, about the two house therapists. Perhaps not solely, but certainly to some quite significant degree. At the moment there is an atmosphere in the house meetings which makes it almost impossible to have an open and honest multi-way conversation.

There have been a few incidents lately where the response to expressed emotions have been less than helpful, and in some instances (in my view) directly damaging. The comments from one or both house therapists have sometimes been so exceptionally defensive or dismissive that it appears to have killed off any desire to risk sharing anything even remotely personal in the meetings. In short, it doesn’t feel like a safe place to share things that really matter, because there is no knowing whether or not what you say will be heard with any degree of respect, or if it will merely be shot down.

There are several things going on in my life that I really ought to share in the house meetings – and I’m guessing this may be true for my house mates, too – but I choose not to, because I feel too afraid of what the response may be.

Naturally, therapist or not, a person is a person, and no one can be expected to respond in the right way all the time, but – on the other hand – I suppose my view is that there are some things that any person, therapist or not, ought to be able to offer another person. Respect is one of them. A willingness to listen, to really hear the other person, is another.

So, these two things; that I might not really be the right type of person to live in a community, and feeling that the meetings have become pointless and infertile battleground, makes me wonder if, perhaps, it is time for me to move on. Again, something I should probably be discussing in the meetings, but feel unable to.

Thankfully individual therapy is going really well. Damn hard work at times, but there has been some progress. Like I’ve said many times: I don’t think it’s meant to be easy, I think it’s meant to be worth it. And I believe that I have now got to a point in my relationship with A. where I feel that I can begin to trust her. To let her in a little more than before, perhaps – provided I can find the courage within to do so.

The other week I made A. laugh, and, silly as it may seem, that really was the moment when I felt that Yup, this is the right person for me to work with. I only wish there wasn’t so much time between sessions. When the meetings are good, and I can get something from them, then twice-weekly sessions with A. is just about right, but since they aren’t – well, I do feel that I need something more.

I feel that I need to just talk and talk and talk. Or, rather, I need to be heard and heard and heard. And I need a safe place where that can happen. An emotional sanctuary, a library of sorts.

xx

On My Own – An Entry About Finding New Ways To Cope

I’m at The New Place now. I moved my stuff here on Saturday and myself today. And so far it feels ok. Had a house meeting today and that went well. We had a visitor who’s also looking to come here and after the meeting me, T and C sat in the lounge talking about him, realising that we had all made almost exactly the same observations. I’m not going to go into any details about that, because that’s not really the point – I just mentioned it because it was really nice to sit there together talking. Both T and C have really made me feel very welcome. They had even put up curtains in my room and flowers on my chest of drawers. Very sweet. The other person who lives here hasn’t been around since sometime last week. In fact I’ve only met him at two meetings. T said that he has been finding it difficult being in the house and so he has been away quite a lot lately.

As I mentioned earlier I split the physical moving of things and actually moving in myself over a couple of days. It wasn’t what I had originally planned to do, but the closer I got to the big Moving Day the more stressed out I got about the physical move. So much so that I began to notice that I completely shut off all emotions I had regarding moving away from Dev and into this completely new place. So, that’s why I, in the end, decided to do it this way. Once I had moved my stuff over (and that went ridiculously smoothly) I was able to go back to the flat and spend the weekend with Dev, firstly letting go of the accumulated stress regarding the packing and unpacking etc, and then slowly allowing myself to think about what my feelings are in terms of the mental change this move will mean.

I was saying to my friend (who came over to help me with the move on Saturday) that had I still been in counselling I could probably have managed to deal with both aspects of the move in one go, but since that’s not the case I think it’s a very positive thing that I was able to work out another way to cope with it, without going back to my old habit of simply shutting down.

Having said that, I must admit that I don’t think the move has really sunk in yet. In fact I think it will be quite some time before it does. But, as I said at the house meeting today; I’ll let it take as long as it needs to. There is no need to rush anything. I have all the time in the world to wait for whatever reaction is to come and to deal with it as and when it does.

Had to go back to the flat today to get my duvet and a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to carry when I came here this morning. Going back to the flat, seeing it looking so empty, now that all my clutter is gone – it was pretty emotional. Just before I left I switched on my iPod, and what comes on if not the piece of music Dev has composed for me. Needless to say I then had to take a moment, to just listen to the music and remember all the things we’ve been through in our five years together. Not just the difficult stuff we were so desperately dealing with for the better part of last year, but also the fun bits. And I realised that more than anything I will miss the laughter we’ve shared. For better or for worse, Dev is the only person in the world who can make me laugh so hard it sets my asthma off.

Anyway, it’s getting rather late now. I really should be going to bed. I’m just finding it a little bit difficult to settle down. There are two main reasons for that. One that it’s a different bed the one I’m used to (don’t ask!), and secondly that there are no locks on the doors. That doesn’t bother me in the day time – and I certainly don’t distrust my house mates in terms of going into my room or anything like that, it’s just that, well, with my background I just find it difficult to relax in a new place at the best of time, and I think I would have found it easier had I been able to lock the door. Again, as I said before, this has absolutely nothing to do with my house mates, it is basically old ghosts that haunt me.

Still I’m sure I’ll be able to deal with it. I remember having similar feelings both when I moved into my first flat in Sweden and the first few nights I stayed at Drayton Park. Sooner or later I’ll get used to it and it won’t bother me anymore.

It’s just a matter of finding a way to tolerate feeling a bit unsettled for a while until normality sets in.

xx

Nail Art & Goodbyes

I’m not a girly-girl. Not really. I don’t think I ever was. I think altogether my make-up kit consists of one mascara and one lip gloss. Neither of which is in regular use. Having said that I do like doing my nail. It’s also something I do when I am feeling a bit too stressed out about something. I think it’s that balance between having to concentrate enough to be able to not think about anything else, and not being too demanding. The stress level goes up, and out comes my big bag of nail polishes.

At the moment my stress level is pretty manageable. Yes, there are a lot of things going on, but, I think I’m handling it fairly well. Still, I did go slightly nuts the other week and ordered myself this nail art set, and now I can’t help but to wonder if perhaps that is a sign that I am under more stress than I care to admit.

As you know Dev and I split up some time ago, but for a lot of complex reasons we have still been living together. But that’s coming to an end reasonably soon. I applied to go into supported accommodation, and last week I was told that they had decided to offer me a place. So, I’ll be moving at the beginning of January. It’s not very far from where I live now – in fact it’s ridiculously close – but it will be a huge change. Going from sharing a brand spanking new flat in a lovely complex with all mod cons, including a 24-hour concierge service, to a shared Victorian house filled with people who also struggle from emotional difficulties – well, it’s bound to take some getting used to. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly happy that I’ve been offered a place – but it will be a real challenge adjusting to living there.

Dev is going abroad next week, the day before I head back home for the holidays – and so these next few days are basically the last we will be living together, since although Dev is coming back for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, he leaves again before I return. So that’s one thing that’s happening.

Tomorrow is my second to last session of counselling with D. I know I go on about it, but really, this is my blog, and it is a big deal for me. As I’ve said before, I’m not very good with endings, so this makes me quite nervous. Having said that, I am working on it – getting better at saying goodbye to people. I remember talking to P. at The Maytree just before leaving there, and she asked me if I’d be able to look her in the eye and say goodbye. And I couldn’t.

There was just something inside me that made it impossible to do. It’s like letting someone get inside the walls I’ve put up to protect myself. And that’s a hard thing to do.

I don’t think I’m the only one to be like that, though. I think it’s fairly common to find it difficult to say a proper goodbye. But, as I said, I’m working on it. Both with D. and with Dev.

Only a little over a week before going home now. And I am really really looking forward to it. I have no idea what it will be like, but I’m definitely excited about going. I was texting back and forth with my youngest sister today, and one thing we talked about doing is reading aloud from a book called Goodnight, Mister Tom (by Michelle Magorian). It’s a book I’ve probably read fifty times – in fact it was one of the very first books I ever read in English, back when I was nine or ten – and I still love it. So I reckon that will be a really nice thing to do. Snuggle up with lots of blankets and read to each other.

Anyway, little sis just came Elaine (online, Elaine – what’s the difference?) so I’m going to sign off now and talk to her for a bit.

Be good – I have a hotline to Father Christmas and I’m not afraid to use it!

xx