As I try to reflect on the whirlwind of events in my life over the last few weeks, it has been, in a word, chaotic; and disappointingly not what I had planned when I envisaged August 2016.
I know that it’s probably not wise to be too set in stone in one’s approach to the ever-shifting future, but still – I would like to think that my life could reach a point of relative stability where I could look at the coming weeks and know roughly what I’ll be doing on any given day. On a purely practical level, whether or not one holds to a philosophy of acknowledging the impossibility of knowing what will happen, at the end of the day I can’t put off doctor appointments and school events and the kids’ weekly piano lessons because of an existential kind of fear that to do so would set in motion a set of opposing forces.
And I just can’t see that it would come across as particularly sane if I started out conversations by saying such things as, “If God wills it, can I have an appointment to see the optometrist next week?” or, “If the Lord allows, and if the judgement day has not yet arrived, can I bring my cat in at 11 am on Wednesday for his annual vaccination and dental check?”
I think back to a recent grey and dreary winter day, almost three weeks ago. Melbourne winters are spectacularly unpredictable, cycling through rain, wind, storms, sunshine and hail with such alarming frequency that it’s fairly common for people to say, “If you don’t like the weather, just go and look out through a different window.” It changes that quickly. The sun rises late and sets early. It snowed on the mountain just near our house – snow isn’t normal around here (though it does happen from time-to-time) and it was cold. That biting, icy Antarctic kind of cold that rips through us. Typical Melbournian houses and clothes are simply not designed for it.*
My depression was pretty bad by late June and I was still coming out of it, mustering up what little energy I had to implement the instructions the psychologist had given me in my most recent cognitive behavioural therapy session. It’s fairly common for people to mistake depression for laziness, as though all a depressed person need do is “change their attitude” (the catch phrase most frequently thrown at me throughout my entire teens and twenties, which of course was spectacularly useless when suffering from invisible physiological conditions that kept me in a state of near-constant lethargy). But I was making a little progress and trying to get through it as best I could. I’d been sick and as my psychologist reminded me, every time I get sick (which thankfully isn’t too often), I get depressed. In my layperson’s understanding of it, when one’s body is rerouting its energy and efforts to healing from a virus or infection, it has a lot less energy available for the considerable effort it takes to use the newly-laid neural pathways developed through the cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness techniques I’d been practising. So the brain falls back on deeply-entrenched thoughts, even if they’re negative and self-destructive, because it’s resorting to the most economical use of that energy.
On top of that, some things had happened with The Husband’s work – stressful shifts in his routine that while they were fine for him, really threw out my already tenuous grasp on any semblance of peace. For people who don’t suffer anxiety-depression it’s probably impossible to understand just how distressing a change in routine can be when one is in the midst of high anxiety. The Husband was working night shift for the first time in years, with new co-workers I didn’t know, as well as being told to be prepared for a last-minute trip to work in Brisbane for a month, around 1700 kms (1056 miles) away. While he was fine with all of that, I was struggling with the thought of having to manage the kids, the household, the driving and all the normal everyday life tasks that are a thousand times more difficult than necessary when mental illness is involved, without the safety net of having him around to help. As it turned out, he hasn’t gone up north at this stage, and hopefully won’t have to.
As my physical and mental health struggled, my allergies became bad. Anyone who knows me well knows that when my allergies flare up, they do so in a spectacularly dramatic fashion. Not content with stopping at a runny nose and watering eyes, my body also likes to throw in urticaria, angioedema and on special and thankfully rare occasions, anaphylaxis. As with most of my issues, it’s a mix of genetic predisposition, environmental conditions (wattle! Argh, how can such a beautiful plant cause me so much suffering?) and stress. At its best, I can take an alternating course of antihistamines that sometimes leave me deliriously tired, while applying an assortment of skin creams to try to reduce the itching; at worst it’s resulted in emergency hospital trips with cortisone injections and weeks of depleting, damaging medications that saved my life but left me very weakened and suddenly stacking on very unwanted kgs of extra body weight.
Basically, come early August I was more depressed than usual, having allergic reactions that covered my face and hands in hideous patches of eczema, generally avoiding going out in public because even my low allergy makeup made the itching worse, worried about possibly having to take on extra domestic duties while The Husband worked interstate, knowing that since I quit church I haven’t had as much social support as I used to, and my family live in a different part of the state.
I was worried that the hives would become severe enough to land me in hospital pumped full of cortisone like it did about ten years ago. Worried that the tensions with The Husband’s work situations would become a point of serious conflict between us (catastrophizing and imagining worst-possible-scenarios on a frequent basis is a symptom of anxiety disorder, one that I’ve mostly learned to manage through cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and improving my personal skills).
Despite all that pressure, things were okay. Not great, but okay. I could reason that I’d been through worse times and I knew I could overcome it by applying my energy to practical responses to my stress.
Instead of wallowing in the depression, I challenged myself to complete a couple of tangible tasks per day so that I could do a daily Examen and be able to tell myself that I’d done a good job.** It’s amazing how much it helps me. I use it as an adjunct to the cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and diaphragmatic techniques that form part of my anxiety management.
I signed up to take my third Open Universities Australia short course (marine and Antarctic science). I’d attempted that course last year during the busy Christmas season but didn’t manage to complete it.
I made some short-term goals involving art and writing. I reasoned that I could have a new artwork completed and uploaded to my online store within the week. I was happily working on plot ideas for NaNoWriMo in November 2016.
I made a concerted effort to manage my anxieties surrounding The Husband’s work, talking openly to both my psychologist and him about it and getting his perspective (which was, to my relief, markedly different from what I had initially assumed, and far less worthy of worry than I had made it).
I completed some big, practical stuff that had been on the to-do list for a long time, like taking Child No.1 to the orthodontist for the braces he’s long needed and that we’d been saving for over the last two years, and Child No.2 to the optometrist for some new glasses. The Husband got a desperately-needed pay rise and for the first time since we married we were able to look at the budget and have enough to cover our needs, our bills, and even the occasional want.
To celebrate, we treated ourselves to some concert tickets – a chance to create some shared memories. We replaced the old and disintegrating bedding and towels we’d been given as wedding gifts almost fifteen years ago. I went and got my hair cut and coloured for the first time in close to a year: in the midst of depression it’s too easy to give up on things like personal grooming because the deeply eroding sense of unworthiness chokes out any ambitions like wanting to look nice. Again, this is often attributed to laziness, but in my experience this is incorrect; it springs from somewhere else in the depressed psyche. When you’ve had a lifetime of being not good enough – not good enough for your family, your friends, your church, your God – an act like getting one’s hair cut is a huge deal. It’s an act of indulgent self-affirmation in a hostile world and doubles as an energising confidence booster.
Through all that, my kids were grappling with some standard adolescent social challenges and instead of getting frustrated with situations that are largely out of my control, yet have a negative impact on our lives, I (eventually) took a deep breath and sat down with them and helped them process through it and discuss strategies for managing their respective situations.
So, it was a cold, wintry Friday afternoon. I’d had a good bike ride that day, I was drawing, and I was looking forward to the weekend – it was going to be the first restful weekend we’d had in a month or two. We had all been battling a series of bad colds, and needed the rest.As I sat there at the computer, drawing an ornithomimid dinosaur, the phone rang. It was The Husband.
“Hey, I just got a call from the real estate agent,” he began.
My mind raced through all the possibilities. I assumed this was something to do with the fence repairs I’d requested. Or the bathroom tiles that needed new grout. Some hassle that would no doubt involve the landlords bringing their whole family around to awkwardly stand in the house, their son translating for them, while they did a terrible, too-long job at a task that a professional could do far better at in half the time and without needing to bring his wife and kids to watch.
“…They’re kicking us out,” The Husband said. “We have 60 days to leave.”
My anxiety leaped out in a flash: heart racing, dizziness, terror. “What? Why? What did we do?” I’d started crying without being consciously aware of it.
“They want to move back in.”
I couldn’t fathom it. The landlords were living in one of the newly built suburbs, in a house presumably much nicer than this one. They’d never so much as hinted that their moving back into the house was on the cards. We’d only been here 2 1/2 years and we had even said up front that we were looking to live here long term. They were absolutely raking in the money from us, too. Sure, they’d always acted like they had struggled to cut their ties with the place, still getting mail delivered here twice a week despite our repeated requests that they stop (technically they’re not legally allowed to do that, but we tolerated it because we wanted to stay here).
Suddenly the relief at The Husband’s pay rise, that finally we were living well within our means, it all fizzled away. The haircut, the concert tickets, the bedsheets – what was I thinking?! I was angry at myself for letting my guard down. These little frivolities that other people take for granted have never come easily for me: what was I doing thinking that I could relax, at all? Self-berating, self-directed anger. I’m so stupid for thinking, for a second, that maybe life was going to work out okay for us. All the hard work, years of belt tightening and patience, to be rewarded with… more belt tightening and no end in sight to the cycle of our cost of living increasing faster than our income could handle.
All that money we’d spent on small improvements to our quality of life, which wasn’t especially exorbitant spending, we now needed to be able to afford the costs of moving out, mandatory carpet cleaning services, a bond and rent for a new home, paying for removalists…
I felt like everything was falling out from under me. After finally coming out of the lethargy-inducing haze of my most recent bout of depression, feeling like I could redeem what was left of the winter, suddenly I was in a spin, not even sure I’d have a home to live in come October.
I still don’t know, as I write this: three weekends of visiting every 3-bedroom cat-friendly rental open-for-inspection that we could attend in a five-suburb radius, several applications later, and still no certainty. Just a fog of anxious fear and so little energy for anything else, that I feel a bit like a house application-filling robot.
I had to break it to the kids, and they had mixed reactions.
For Child No.1, the worst part is losing his Saturdays to looking at a blur of mostly-decrepit, overpriced, ugly houses that unethical landlords. It’s miserable and repeatedly disappointing and the houses often smell weird, a mix of carpet cleaning chemicals and oven cleaner closed up in mouldy houses.
Child No.2 is struggling with the thought of having to leave the first neighbourhood she’s lived in where she’s happy. She attends the local public school and in just 1 ½ years there has experienced far more happiness and joy in her life than she had in five years at the Christian school. When she looks back on her primary (elementary) school years, she talks about how this is the school she’ll remember as her happy place. It is extra tough for her knowing that most of the friends she’s made there will be headed off to different high schools next year. They’ll no longer be the kids she sees at the local playground or riding their bikes past our house. And from my perspective I can reason that things will be okay for her, but she needs the space to grieve the loss of the home she hoped she’d live in until she finished high school.
So we began the process of looking at houses. It feels like hardly any time has passed since we last had to trawl through house listings. It’s been 2 ½ years since we moved here, and prior to finding this house we’d visited dozens of old, falling-apart houses. It’s something I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to do for a few years yet.
Houses in our budget range are, for the most part, either too small, or too disgusting. I am genuinely appalled at the lax ethics of rental property maintenance in Melbourne. I’m by no means the first person to raise concerns about the way the laws here favour extortionist landlords, about the unliveable condition of houses that are priced so high that people have to choose either having a home but nothing left to pay the bills, or go homeless, about the rapidly rising rates of homelessness in Melbourne as unscrupulous foreign investors demolish almost-new homes and build over them with tiny apartments that they price so highly they sit empty for extended periods of time, while Aussies can’t afford to rent and save enough to apply for a mortgage.
It’s become all too real to me again, standing in the enormous queues outside the few available houses these last three weeks, meeting the same people repeatedly, sharing our situations, knowing that we’re all struggling, sharing our fears that none of us can really afford it but what choice do any of us have? We either pay a lot more than is proportionally reasonable considering average Aussie incomes, or we tolerate living conditions that no human should have to.
It seemed that with each subsequent house we viewed, our hope dwindled.
The tiny little house we first applied for was lovely, very expensive, and far too small for a family with two adults, two children and two cats. We applied for it anyway, preparing to throw out about a third of our furniture in order to be able to fit, but were rejected in favour of a prospective tenant who was willing to offer a higher per week price.
The big house we applied for was decent, but had a few issues, like the paint was flaking off the cupboards – it looked like the previous tenants had kept a large dog indoors that had scratched at the doors – and the supports for the upstairs cupboards were falling down. It was just a matter of time before the shelf collapsed. And yeah, I know, we can report those things upfront and ask for them to be fixed, but in my experience, I’ve also had agents laugh in my face when I’ve requested such repairs. They’d rather risk having a shelf collapse on one of my family than risk the landlord’s wrath at receiving a repair request. (In our previous house, that quite literally happened: the shelving was on a precarious angle not quite attached to the wall and we lived there with crooked shelves for nine years hoping that they didn’t fall down. The agents refused to pass on the request to get it fixed.)
There was a house that was nice but so dark it would need constant artificial lighting, even in the height of summer, and as much as I desperately wanted to like it, on closer inspection the gutters were growing so much grass they looked like little herb gardens, and the pergola was rotting. It was also rather expensive and yet so far on the edge of the suburbs that it’s only real use would be somewhere to sleep in while we had to drive a considerable distance to every aspect of our life: work, school, extra-curricular commitments, the nearest being a long drive away. It just wasn’t practical.
A lot of the houses were so equally rubbish that they blur into one in my mind.
Houses with rat poop on the floors. Holes in the walls. Unmentionable stains that are probably better left as mysterious enigmas to be tackled with harsh disinfecting cleaning chemicals. Houses with broken heaters. One where the bathroom ventilation fan had caught fire and melted through the plastic covering. Houses where the landlords had weird conditions like the blatantly illegal statement on one that they would not repair any of the heating/cooling appliances. One owner said tenants could not use the barbecue (so we can have use of the house but not your precious barbecue?) or the back shed (how am I supposed to maintain a garden in accordance with all standard lease agreements if I don’t have anywhere to keep my gardening equipment?) or the green house (are the landlords using it to grow illegal plants because if they are I am SO not going to get caught up in that). Houses with spectacularly uneven floors just begging to cause an accident. Houses with old fashioned gas heaters that are regularly implicated in local cases of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths, yet with no law requiring landlords to have such appliances tested at even the minimum recommended two-year intervals (and yet if a tenant doesn’t check their smoke detector every six months they will get in trouble).
There was one that was so strangely small that it wasn’t immediately obvious at first until you realised there was no physical way imaginable that your bed would so much as fit in one of the bedrooms (and don’t get me started on the laundry that couldn’t even fit the washing machine!). It reminded me of The Simpsons episode where Bart tampers with the size of the car park spaces, causing the teachers’ cars to be wedged in so close together that no one could get out.There was one that was a very high price but was ultimately just a floor with walls and a roof over it, and a rusty carport riddled with holes, and when I suggested to the Chinese-born-and-raised agent that at that price other similar houses in the neighbourhood usually at least included a dishwasher and other appliances, she shrugged and saidthe owner was an Asian and that Asians don’t believe in dishwashers (that’s a stereotype I hadn’t heard before, and reminds me that the most recent time one of my Asian-born Chinese-heritage friends visited, she remarked that she liked my dishwasher!).
One house had the most convoluted maze-like extensions that wound around in all crazy directions for no apparent reason, so that the general consensus of those of us who looked at it was that it was easily one of the most bizarre house layouts most of us had seen. It struck me as the work of someone who wanted to emulate a sprawling 17th-18th Century European mansion within the limitations of a quarter-acre piece of suburban land. And yet, on numbers alone, they were able to charge more for it because it kind of passed for a 5-bedroom house (if you were willing to sleep in the strange windowless corridor that was too small for a bed but too big to be a mere closet).
And then there were houses that looked amazing in the advertisements only to subsequently discover that through clever photo cropping, editing and lighting. Thus, what appeared to be a luxurious private outdoor entertainment area with a spa and shiny decking was a dull, flimsy wooden structure that looked about to disintegrate, and the spa was in dubious working order, and the two storey houses on either side of the house had a view straight into the yard. To further detract from that particular situation, the neighbours had hoarded so many husks of dead, unregistered cars that they had parked them in front of the surrounding properties. Having had volatile, aggressive neighbours in the past like that, I had visions of calling the road authorities to tow the cars, only to be met by constant neighbourly antagonism for the entirety of my subsequent inhabitation of the property. Which is bad enough for ‘normal’ people who can brush such things off, but can be debilitating for us anxious-depressed folk.
So where does that leave us? For now, as I write, we’ve read maybe 100 rental property adverts, and we’ve spent three Friday nights driving past about 40 houses up for rent in our part of Melbourne and rejected them based on external factors alone (like the one that was fenced off with “Police – Do Not Cross” tape). We’ve visited about 20-22 houses (I lost count) across 7 different suburbs. We’ve done this while Child No. 2 and I both battled gastro, while The Husband had a whole heap of time consuming high-pressure stuff on at work, and to top it off the kids managed to catch head lice. (Applying the head lice treatment to both kids and standing there for an hour scraping out the eggs was the point at which I think I finally snapped.) I haven’t been sleeping very well – I keep having nightmares about weird smelling old empty houses. I stopped drawing – it feels so pointless all of a sudden. I’ve started throwing out possessions, trying to decide what I really want to carry with me into the next phase of my life. In a nutshell, it’s been a crappy month and I still don’t know if I’ll have a home to live in come October.
So if I don’t blog anything for a while (apart from scheduled posts), it’ll be because either I’m in the midst of moving to a new home and a fresh start, or because I’ll have had to resort to moving in with one of my rural relatives with my computers in storage… I’m hoping for the former, not the latter.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. – 2 Corinthians 4: 8-9 NIV
In the midst of all this I found myself pondering on that verse from 2 Corinthians. My tumultuous and uncertain faith journey aside, where I’m not certain the Bible holds any particular relevance for me anymore, I feel like this is an accurate statement for where I’m at right now. It’s really tough at the moment for me. It might look small to someone else, I don’t know – I say this as an Aussie, but Aussies are often spectacular jerks when it comes to a complete lack of empathy for other people’s problems – and my blogging about it isn’t an invitation for anyone to tell me I’m “wrong” for being concerned (the self-appointed emotions police of the internet can shove off, you don’t get to tell people what to feel nor when to grieve). But from where I’m standing, not sure where I will be living in 2 months’ time, I need to grab onto the hope that if I keep a clear head and keep trying, hopefully I’ll come out the other side.
*One thing I’ve often been annoyed by, on some vague “this doesn’t make sense to me” level, is that due to the homogenised branding of clothing around Australia, in colder cities like Melbourne, we’re expected to follow the same seasonal clothing styles as the more equatorial regions of Australia. It’s still winter here, and it’s a breezy 13.1°C (55.58°F); and it still gets down to 6°C (42.8°F) overnight. Yet just this week when I went into the shopping centre to buy some new warm pyjamas for the rapidly growing kids, the store was only selling flimsy summer pyjamas that may be fine for Queenslanders or Western Australians but utterly useless for southern Victorians (except for that two weeks a year when it’s actually warm).
**I am aware that as depression occurs on a spectrum of severity, and I must make it clear that I am in no way proposing that other depressed people can just “push through it.” It is wrong to assume that my sharing my own journey is a statement about what others ought to do on theirs. I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. In my case, as a high-functioning mentally ill person, I have a certain amount of ability to override my symptoms to the effect that most people who know me wouldn’t realise I’m not “normal” unless I told them otherwise. However, my journey is my own and the way I engage with it is ultimately between me and my doctor and psychologist who both have years of experience and in no way prescriptive for other mentally ill people’s journeys.