I’ve removed two posts:
- “Departure & apology” is moot, completely overtaken by events.
- “Outrageous fortune” has the seeds of a good tutorial for navigating intensely difficult, but very predictably-patterned, situations which painies are very likely to find themselves in sooner or later, especially in relation to other painies. (Currently, it’s mostly “bleeding on the page,” which is not very useful.) With a top-flight professional in the field as a cowriter, I think we can turn that into a useful tool which could help limit damage in other situations and provide good tactics and strategies for self-extrication and perspective.
To provide some sort of segue between two very different periods of life, I’m including the end of the second piece here. It seems like a pretty good transition marker.
So now… I spend alternately painful and peaceful hours in meditation. I walk in the fresh air whether it’s warm enough or not. I drink another glass of water every time I pass the sink. This will pass. This will pass. I still live, so I must breathe and keep on. This will pass.
It’s now a week … and already the formless future is beginning to gain a bit of shape. It’s nothing like what I’d imagined before. I imagine nothing now. I wait to see what emerges. So far, my family of origin is leaping onto their shining steeds; high school friends are posse-ing up with an offhand, “That’s Buxton; we look out for each other”; and a meditation center that works for me and a glowing kindred spirit have popped out of the fog, pointing out a way before me.
Meanwhile, the milkweed is bursting its pods — a glorious, silken, dizzyingly delicate reminder of the peaceful beauty of letting go…
Outrageous fortune is starting to come from a different direction now. I will feel whole again someday; I feel it in the wind.
Hours before leaving the city after all that horror, my driver’s-side wing mirror got creamed. The rest of that side is fine, hardly a scratch, but… no wing mirror.
As metaphors go, it’s probably good advice:
Stop Looking Back.
This, right after “Keep breathing”, is one of my go-to pieces of mind management. It’s about so much more than consequences. Let’s take an example.
A non-obvious choice
At work, before I got sick, there were a lot of big, well-built guys in the software engineering department, who wrote the programming code that made the business happen. (It was a software firm with a great gym on campus; hence, lots of engineers & muscley ones at that.)
There were a lot of diligent people (almost all of them fit, though few as statuesque) in the QA department, who tested the programming code that the software engineers wrote, and had to make sure it was accurate and well-behaved (yes, code is supposed to be well-behaved!) before it was finalized.
Among the QA engineers was a woman about 4’9″, one of those sweetly scintillating geniuses who didn’t seem to have a temper to lose.
One day, in a meeting, one of the most magnificent of the software engineers learned that something he’d made was not behaving well. He argued the point; this QA engineer calmly reiterated her findings. To my astonishment, he actually stood up, walked over to her, and loomed. I mean, LOOMED.
The entire room (mostly men) held its collective breath. It was out of character for this engineer to be unpleasant, as a rule; and to pick on a woman? Unthinkable.
But his brainchild had been criticized, and he did not like it one bit.
Now, I grew up with two brothers. I also worked as an ER nurse in one of this nation’s hell-holes. I know how this is supposed to go. One person looms, the other bristles, and things get louder, with the (sometimes implicit) threat-level increasing until one backs down.
I learned that day that there is, in fact, more than one way that this absolutely primal interaction can go.
All 92 pounds of QA engineer peered straight up, neck totally relaxed and head dropped back, at the scowling 180-pound sculpture of irritation and physique, with a mild air of bland puzzlement. It was as if she was wondering if he really thought standing over her changed the facts, and what was the point, which it turned out was exactly what she _was_ thinking.
Not a patch on that moment. It was wonderful.
The engineer eventually breathed and went back to his seat. Like the super-smart guy he almost always was, he moved straight on to how to fix the problem.
Given the format of conflict most of us know, the QA engineer should have tensed up and snarled, and that should have turned into a shouting match and disrupted the rest of the day — possibly involving HR and resulting in reprimands for them and hours of “training” for all. That’d make for a difficult, expensive, exhausting, and largely fruitless afterwards. These two worked together a lot, and this could have started a long downhill slide in their work relationship, which would have affected a lot more than their moods.
Instead, the QA engineer stayed on task — she held the larger view of what was needed to bring the code “up to code”, so to speak. By doing so, she gave the software engineer (who, admittedly, shouldn’t have needed it, but we’re all human and make mistakes sometimes) enough mental space and time to calm down, refocus, and get on with the important thing. Which he did.
After that, he did his looming without moving from his seat, which was no more than anyone else did. Their relationship continued to be a little testy, since one necessarily had to criticize the other, but increasingly respectful because they were both so good at their jobs. (They loved each other, professionally, even when they didn’t like each other. Sound familiar?)
I finally got it
I found my own level of tension dropping after that. Even when the brainstem is receiving hard signals, it’s possible for the cortex to choose wisely, instead of reflexively. Who knew??
My own team of software engineers were more shouty and less loomy, but it sure calmed things down when I could simply wait, relaxed, as they ranted, and then ask — in a calm, natural manner — what to do about it.
It was great preparation for living with central (that is, driven by the brain and spine) pain.
Pain does things to the brain, and central pain does more, worse, longer, and harder. However, pain is not the only thing in my brain. I have all kinds of things there, not least of which is — my mind.
There was a period when I was almost dead (sorry, Mom.) Even getting to my knees was impossible until my body had turned up the volume on itself, which took almost an hour. I was living aboard a sailboat at the time, and the fresh air and gentle rocking did me a lot of good. Not enough, though.
As this period began, I thought about it long and hard, lying there in my berth, desperate to yield completely to the exhaustion but unable to give up on life until I’d figured out the plot. Seriously, that was all that kept me alive: narrative curiosity, and feeding my cat. (Hey, whatever it takes!)
But wait, this gets even funnier.
I mentally reviewed the many adventure movies I’d seen, where the protagonist gets through impossible situations and overcomes unbearable limits by pure willpower, because they choose — over and over — to take the next step or make the next move, however hard it might be.
It popped into my head that almost all of those movies were fiction. “Doesn’t matter,” I told myself. “It’s all right. Some of them were based on fact.” Sure, I’ll go with that!
And so, with Cleopatra (Queen of Denial) riding my back…
I pushed my pillows aside, planted a fist on the settee coming straight out from the head of my sleeping berth, and pulled forward. God, that was hard. I panted until I could breathe again, then muttered, “I choose to go forward, whatever it takes.” I planted the other fist, dragged myself forward another few inches. Panted, took a breath, “I choose to go forward.” Over and over. “I choose.”
After a few days, I didn’t have to say it aloud every time. After a few weeks, I didn’t verbalize it at all; it was a silent stream of intention. A couple months later, I got hooked up to an acupuncturist/naturopath/homeopath who figured out how to gently draw my shattered system back from the brink, without accidentally knocking me off the edge. (Dr. Daniel Donner in the Oakland/Berkeley area; very highly recommended.)
Becoming super-human, or maybe more fully human
It was around this time — with social media toddling out of the BBS/chat era with its first firm steps, and blogs becoming normalized — that I developed the theory that humans under unbearable circumstances have to become superhuman, and that this is why we have myths — to show us the way past our learned limits. To quote the sainted Sir Terry Pratchett,
It’s amazing how peope define roles for themselves and put handcuffs on their experience and are constantly surprised by the things a roulette universe spins at them.
We are so much more than we think we are, than we have let ourselves believe, than this tiny moment in history and culture allows us even to notice!
As an amateur historian and someone who bounced all around the world growing up, I’ve always had a pretty solid sense that what one time/place thinks is normal, is actually pretty darn weird in the eyes of the rest of reality. (“Eggs for breakfast? But that’s dinner food!” And the moment I realized it was breakfast in London but dinner for me, and so it didn’t matter what I had.)
What I learned a little later is that I don’t always have to blend in. In fact, there are times when it’s best to ignore “normal” and get on with what needs doing.
These days, “normal” is scarcely ever a relevant concept, except as a matter of how to tune my disguise.
I’ve noticed I get better results and am treated better by others when I fall within certain parameters of appearance and behavior — ones that are “normal” either for a nice White soccer mom with arty sensibilities (on the street), or a pleasantly intelligent professional (when seeing physicians & administrators) — so I track myself accordingly. Your mileage may vary — we’re all different — so, try different things and see what works for you.
Back to reality
The point is, even at the hardest moments, and despite intense cultural programming and bitter central pain, it IS possible to choose how to be.
We don’t hear that much, especially from movies, eh? Follow your feelings! Be impulsive — it’s cool! Violence works! 3 days is enough to know someone’s soul! Good people will love you no matter what! If it/they are not perfect, it’s broken! If others disagree, you have the right to hurt them back! Sigh.
In fact, these are symptoms of a traumatized brain. I know — I live in one that’s constantly being re-traumatized. Black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, blaming, panicking — being totally overwhelmed by huge emotions, forgetting that there is a complex human being in the midst of them, one who HAS feelings but IS NOT the feelings.
This is the un-managed internal reality of central pain: full-on red-alert, a fire drill for an inferno that never stops burning.
Feelings, impulses, drives — they’re information, not commands.
Consciously or not, we choose what to be guided by.
This is why self-management is imperative for us — and why we can be a bit fragile when the pain is high, or we have to think about being sick (like at the doctor’s office.)
We have to work to manage this impossible mess without looking like we’re falling apart. If we don’t succeed, if we simply react the way “normal” people would “normally” react under that kind of stress, we can easily lose everything — doctors, jobs, family, friends, allies, resources, the lot. We have to be abnormally strong to handle abnormally large, abnormally relentless assaults on our peace and poise, not to mention our lives and minds.
This is why being “super-human” is not a bad concept — imagine being a better survivor than X-Men’s Magneto, a cannier manager than James Bonds’ M, as resourceful as Coyote, as implacable as Kronos, as benevolent as Kuan Yin. These mythological models, not “normal human behavior”, may be the only standards that are even applicable to people in extraordinary circumstances.
For people like me (and there are a lot of us, not only from central pain), with a brain constantly under siege from noxious primal signals and in a socio-historical moment aiming to squash the disabled/poor/female/peculiar like bugs, this understanding is transformative, and very freeing: I can’t aspire to be normal, let alone change the world… but I can learn to choose my responses, and if I have to aim higher than normal to do so, there are still models to follow — even if I have to go inch by inch, fist over fist, to follow them.
It takes practice, but it’s possible. As with muscles, our habits of mind get stronger with practice. Of course it takes time, but the time will pass anyway, right?
Catching the wave
The first habit to develop is learning to notice when the wave of emotion rises. That is the sweet spot, right before emotional/physical pain (in all their strangling glory) take over.
That’s the moment when it’s easiest to catch on and remember our larger job of doing well despite everything, the moment when it’s easiest to pick a good “afterwards” to aim for and follow the inner prompts that can lead to it.
I find that the temporary relief of discharging my anguish or rage is absolutely nothing compared to the lasting relief of making things better, one choice at a time. At times, I have to remind myself of this, pause, breathe, and take the time to choose a better response than the first or strongest one that occurs to me.
It’s a constant discipline, rather than a destination; life always has more surprises in store. But I’ve had practice, and those “choosing my afterwards” mind-muscles are in decent shape. If I can get clear of mind-muddling mold, they might get even better.
Hard to do that without being able to catch the moment. It took time to learn to identify it, and when I’m particularly disrupted by pain or shock or toxic exposures — especially toxic exposures — catching that moment can be temporarily impossible.
Given good nutrition and no toxins, though: reaching for a better way to be, comes soon after we learn to identify that difficult moment. It’s a wonderful skill; makes a person very powerful in the wider world, as well as in the interior world of “living anyway.”
I think it also improves my writing 🙂
Beyond the moment
I said earlier that “always an afterwards” was about more than consequences. It was an important part of my getting through what I call The Hell Years. It reminded me that, if I survived this — whatever it was — I’d get to find out what would happen next.
And boy, was that a journey worth making!
There I was, trying to steer the 3-headed rhinoceros that is the de-mold-the-mobile-home project (dubbed “DeStroy DeMold.”) Two of my volunteers had gotten sick with things that could conceivably relate to:
- Their refusal to wear respirator masks, and
- The craptastic nature of the stuff coming out of the walls.
So, no more volunteers, and I was trying to figure out what next.
With heavy multiple mold exposures.
And food poisoning (different story.)
First things first
I declared a personal moratorium on entering my place unless I had to. Ditto for my car.
Counting the inescapable mold-factory of the leaky place where I’m staying, that means I had been sucking in three, count ’em, three, substantially different species of mold. …And feeling very sorry for myself that I was strangely unable to compensate with supplements and air filters, think my way through the end of a compound sentence, get through a pain flare without going zombie, or recover from an ordinary bout of hit-the-opposite-wall vomiting.
Sorry, letting my vile sense of humor run away with me there. I actually did get it all in the toilet; I’m just not sure how.
Attitude adjustment (with cast of characters)
Last week, my gracious hostess Laurie and I realized we had not gone to the shore this year, despite our good intentions. 24 hours later, she had us all set up, and invited her excellent friend & traveling companion Dave along for the ride.
Dave & Laurie are wonderful together. A gal so butch her nephews call her Uncle Laurie and a guy so cis he could — and did — show up in white Gucci snaffle loafers and still look straight, they bring out a gleeful zest in each other that’s contagious.
Laurie was our hinge, the one who is so close to us both, and it was impossible for me to be stranger-shy with their buoyancy lightening everything.
Dave has an enormous, unflappable black lab named Bernie as his guide dog, who avoids being lethargic simply through being so good-natured. Laurie has a teeny weeny toy fox terrier named Vinny who is irretrievably in love with Big Black Beautiful Bernie.
Imagine a stately black galleon with a high-powered white tender zipping around alongside, and you’ll have the image perfectly.
I almost brought the cat…
But five bodies and 14 feet seemed like quite enough.
So: me, a human; Laurie, human, with Vinny, pocket pup; Dave, human, with Bernie, guide dog.
If everyone sucked in their hips, there was just room to pass between the beds in our one room.
The weather was perfect. The waves were influenced by a hurricane out at sea, and were nearly Californian in size and color. The dark sand was almost silky. The water was about as warm as it gets, brisk but not bracing, according to Dave’s well-tested algorithm.
What I did on my vacation
It wasn’t an eventful trip on the outside — mostly. At one point, I saw Vinny heading down to the water, mooning hopefully after Bernie; I almost called him back, but if you’ve ever seen a terrier on a mission, you know that only going over and picking him up would change his mind. Something told me to wait.
Bernie ambled into the lap of the waves, checking on his master. Vinny toddled after, absorbed and elated. The wash of the wave splashed up Bernie’s ankles; Vinny’s little legs shot out to the sides as he tried to brace against the movement, and off he went. His human turned with perfect timing and lifted him out of the water as the backwash carried him to her, knee-deep.
I was braced to race and plunge in for some dog-rescuing, but watching that remarkable little ballet unfold was quite a moment.
Vinny isn’t the only one who got a bit more than he bargained for.
I was having a bangup time, playing at the shore break. Diving under, popping over, and frequently getting trashed by the waves is such a blast. I might have some retriever in me — probably more than Bernie, who couldn’t be bothered with boisterous water.
I saw two waves converge at an angle, and jumped on them to ride the double-act into shore. Little did I know that two other waves had approached that intersection from behind me. I got washing-machined like I rarely have — completely bashed and thrashed and flung around under the water. My sinuses got washed along with everything else. I’m really glad there were no solid objects (besides me) in that water.
I came up hooting with glee — then felt something was amiss.
Somehow, over the surf, the words, “It came out!” reached me from our pretty neighbors on the thinly-populated beach. I looked down and, sure enough, one half of my generous allotment of, um, chest flesh was making a determined dive for freedom.
Wrestling it back under cover was considerably hampered, not only by the cantankerous mechanics of a soggy bathing suit, but by the fact that I was laughing so hard I could barely control my limbs.
I’m over 50. I don’t have to care what people think. Laughing is so much healthier than anxiety!
Most of my exits were much more successful.
Apart from that, we just found the nearest beach on the first day, found the best beach on the second, chatted with the neighbors, walked, ate, told each other stories, and enjoyed the muscular shush of the sounds of the shore. We all got ice cream.
It was transformative on the inside, at least for me.
I found that I kept talking about my childhood and my family of origin — not about life as a spoonie or neuro-nerd or an Isypedia of potentially life-saving information, but about life as something quirky and full of character; if not innocent, then willing to be optimistic in spite of it all.
That was odd, but refreshing.
After a day at the seaside and a good night’s sleep (despite the pillows fighting back against my leaning-tower arrangement), I woke up feeling…
What’s the word…
Oh, how shall I put it…
What do you call it when you feel like you can tell you’re inside your skin and the mental lights are on and you can tell what’s going on around you? Y’know, zestful and buoyant and present and awake and alive?
I felt more like myself than I had in about as long as I can remember.
THAT was the opposite of odd, though it was totally unexpected.
Mold toxicity: CONFIRMED.
Recommendation: GIT THAT SH-T.
My brain unfolded like an origami map and alternative ways to get this mobile home taken care of — AND paid for — emerged from the crumpled mess of blocked avenues and despair.
And all that quiet, worried persistence about getting in at least one short walk most days? Well, the exercise intolerance packed it in, too — I walked a couple of miles the day before we left, the day we arrived, and the day after; definitely no exercise intolerance, without the wicked mold exposures.
This is huge. So huge.
Being able to exercise opens up new worlds of improvement. Nothing is as stabilizing to every body system as exercise. Few things are as stabilizing to the brain. I can’t even find words for the explosion of gasping hope I hardly dare to let myself feel.
My planner is about to explode. I’ve got things to do this week! WOOHOOOO!
A word to my longtime readers & fellow spoonies (a wise & canny crew)
Remember all the times I’ve said that it’s sometimes just a question of getting through one day, one hour, or one breath at a time, and that there is always an afterwards?
This, my dears, THIS looks like an afterwards worth surviving long enough for. Let’s see what I can make of it.
May we all have the right care, the right meds, the right supplements, the right routine, the right friends — and the right breaks.
Five years of no ocean
ended at last:
the waves curled almost Pacific blue
and crashed most assertively;
soft silky sand
burled them mackerel-patterned
below utterly spotless blue skies.
I ran out all daffy abandon
“Hi water! Here I am!”
and the waves came to greet me,
and beat me, and rub me all over
like a pack of retrievers convinced I held food…
A smug Californian, I dissed the sun’s vigor
But turns out I do burn — quite well! —
on Block Island
but oh, it was worth every sting.
Rainbow sky melts above while returning.
Sun rivers and I’m stupid happy
One glint, one shimmy, and all I can smile
is eyes locked on water, waiting for more.
DJ Fabulous! LaurieB, a local fixture at sober fests and community events, works in Western Massachusetts. She plays all styles, genres, and eras of music, specializing in all-ages events. She gets people smiling and moving and having a good time. 🙂
David Roulston, Esq, is the sort of lawyer every community should have. He does, or has done: probate & wills, criminal defense, designing implementation of legislation, mental health and community health, poverty & homeless issues, and business law.
Laurie took almost all of the photographs. When I mentioned I’d credit her, she said, “I think they’ll figure it out. Who else is gonna take them? The blind guy??”
I’m aware that I disappeared for awhile. Obsessively focusing on housing and breakup, everything else sorta disappeared. Here’s what that period looked like, framed around the 3 dimensions of life I always update my doctors on — physical, mental/cognitive, and emotional changes:
Physically: holding together with bubble gum and baling wire. Somehow didn’t injure myself with packing, storage, and less and less help with errands.
Mentally: dear gods and little piglets, did I ever get a lot done! Dealing with my own move, identifying resources for nontoxic and used building components, dealing with an identity theft, getting a new provider on board (acupuncture), looking at homes, finally getting an old friend out of a deadly situation and somewhere safe, and still keeping my appointments.
Emotionally: J used his last Saturday here helping a friend. He left late enough on a Monday that we could have a bit of morning together and say a proper goodbye. Best moment we’ve had in a long time. And so, my partner of seven years removed his hugely-wounded self to the other side of the continent, so he couldn’t hurt me anymore.
Physically: living in one mold factory, driving in another, and working in a third. Discovered that Borax, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide are very unkind to auto interiors and soft furnishings. Discovered concromium, and hosed almost everything down with it – twice. Much improvement.
Mentally: bought a house (mobile home in a sweet park, actually – who knew!)
Emotionally: saw a beloved friend from my youth. Woot! After five friends, one by one, sat me down and told me how was going to be, I promised to include my friends in the work of making my home safe for me. Horrifically, one of my dearest and most dependable friends dropped dead. See Taming the Beast for some of her outstanding work on nontoxic self care, mast cell disease (weird allergies), and central-pain management.
Physically: much stronger than this time last year, but still have exercise intolerance, so have to go carefully. Tried to lower meds to summer pattern, but whoops! Bad idea. Definitely not getting the usual warm weather recovery; so, having a chemically and biologically safe home is more important than ever.
Mentally: flailing, burned out and not willing to admit it. Housemate/hostess pulled my head out of my butt and got me back to pacing, alternating activity and rest. Figured out how to organize the work on my home.
Emotionally: it’s extremely reassuring to be 5 min. from the highways, 10 min. from the store, 15 min. from the hospital, 20 min. from nearly half my regional friends, and have a bunch of sweet-natured busybody neighbors making sure I’m all right. Started opening up my social world, now that I’m here.
It’s been one hell of a summer.
When I look inside, I see myself as entirely raw, a walking mass of weeping wounds. Naturally, this doesn’t normally show, because I’m a responsible painiac and I’ve had 20 years of experience in choosing what to show, what to focus on in public.
Despite so much wounding, healing is possible. In fact, it’s imperative. It’s what I do.
For better or worse, here I am, still alive and kicking. With staunch old friends, something resembling a plan in place, and one new friend who touches on my past in interesting ways and opens up my sense of an unexplored future, I’m looking ahead again – not as a duty, the job of the living; but because it could be really fun, and how much fun I have is largely up to me.
I’m outrageously lucky. Yeah, multiple crap-tastic diseases, too little income, too much loss and pain; yada yada, that’s life sometimes. In these harrowing times, kindness, love, and care define my world, and that’s so very wonderful.
Life’s short. Take care of yourselves and each other – and do have fun. It makes you stronger 🙂
The massive physiological destabilization triggered by J’s departure doesn’t change my own deadlines: I still have to get out by next week, stay somewhere in the interim because I’m now too frail to camp alone, work out mitigation strategies that’ll work for both me and my hostess, and maintain forward momentum on my house search.
The physiological damage does make safe housing more critical. My body is borrowing against a future it may not have, to get through this difficult period. Fact of spoonie life.
I have movers lined up to get the furniture out, but I don’t yet have storage to put it in. So that’s today’s job.
I was nibbling at two properties, both of which are now out of reach, but it was a learning experience:
- Small cheap homes in the country go like lightning. By the time my realtor and I could both get to the house that looked close to being right, it was already under offer.
- Renovating a good shell, even when the demolition is already done, takes serious time, as well as money.
This second point has a lot of bearing on my work here.
From a builder’s perspective, building a house from scratch is the most expensive thing you can possibly do. Buying a shell and renovating it is the ideal combination of price and control over the result.
From the homeowner’s perspective, where the heck am I going to live while the renovation is done? Rent isn’t cheap, and rental units — for reasons described at much length in previous posts — are too risky for too many reasons to be a rational option.
So, I’m putting “buy a plot, preferably with a driveway, well, and septic, and put up a new cottage” back on the list. It may spend out my money up front, but the housing formats I’m considering are put together very quickly, so I’d be in safe shelter in fairly short order. THAT would save me a LOT!
I’m way beyond frustrated or exasperated. I’m in that still, calm, bitter pool on the other side. One foot in front of the other. Onward.
J just drove away from here for the last time.
Friday, he filled up the kindling box and organized the firewood to his satisfaction. (Yes, it has been cold enough in the mornings to need a fire sometimes. In late June.)
Saturday, he helped my friends change out a very troublesome toilet. It was not a task for the faint of heart.
En route, he let me know he’d decided to leave this weekend, 2 weeks earlier than planned. I could have handled it worse, but it wasn’t good.
Being part of doing something as fundamentally Freudian as changing a toilet helped, though. We both were a lot better afterwards.
Sunday, he took a “recovery” day but still mowed the whole lawn, did the lion’s share of washing every stitch of clothes and linens for me, cleaned the kitchen, and vacuumed the living room.
I wrote up an illustrated “so long & thanks for all the fish” sort of letter for him, so he could leave easier in his mind. I saw him read it, pause, smile upside-down and let one eyebrow drift up. A shadow lifted.
Neither of us slept much last night, but spent hours hearing the other toss and sigh a floor away. While I was rattling around upstairs at midnight, he came up and asked for alka-seltzer. I gave him half a box for the road. (It’s part of my gluten-exposure first aid kit.)
This morning, unable to lie down past 5:40am (my feet were spasming something awful), I got up and took a shower straight away, giving him time to slip away if he wasn’t up to seeing me. He waited until I was dressed and ready, then gave me a warm hug and a warm kiss and asked for my blessings.
I carried the cat out to wave goodbye.
When I came back, there was, of course, exactly the right amount of water in the kettle for my tea.
So, this is what it looks like to let go with love.
It’s still devastating, absolutely devastating, but a lot less wracking and a lot quieter than the usual alternative.
And now, back to my regularly-scheduled programming of coping with agony, loss, DIY for gimps, too much work with too little time and capacity, appropriate depression/anxiety, and impending homelessness.
Send in the clowns!
Today’s task: get my last box into storage, retrieve my camping stuff, and assess whether I’m safe to use the table-saw I’ll need to rent to do the subflooring downstairs. Probably not a good idea. That might have to wait. At least a week.
Okay, storage it is. And work on prepping the car for camping. Because the future happens whether I’m ready or not.
In my blogs on getting safe housing, I’ve researched and discussed the following:
- What aspects of ordinary housing do me in
- What alternative building techniques could do for me
- What’s involved in a fresh build, nontox and otherwise
- What “reno” can really mean for me
- All within my picayune means.
The last bullet point makes it all increasingly absurd.
In the most recent housing blog, I started getting my head out of that two-digits-to-the-right-of-the-decimal possibility. The housing market has been creeping up, and this year it’s definitely putting those possibilities out of reach.
It’s time to stop thinking I can go it alone. I clearly can’t — not in any way.
Now, time to start researching in 2 different directions:
- What’s a reasonable range of cost, given the kinds of houses that are on the market, to acquire a fixer and renovate it to my requirements?
- How many other people or units could that accommodate, generally?
And then, given those harder and more realistic numbers, figure out the following:
- How to get that funded
- Who’d be interested in funding it
- A list of good prospective tenants who need safe nontox housing
- What the contract with the funders would look like (several ways that could go)
- What the contract with the tenants should look like
Because, as my Dad would have said and my other relatives still do, better keep everything clear and above-board. That’s what contracts are actually supposed to do.
Of course, this contract will have to have contingencies for my incapacity and death as a real possibility. Plan A, the place goes on the market and all investors (including my heirs) get their money back. Plan B could be more interesting. Depends on who shows up for this.
And all of this assumes I can stage-manage all this.
I’m so scared.
Meanwhile, back to packing and health appointments. One foot in front of the other.
What a couple of weeks it has been!
The local police chief failed to take a police report about an identity theft for 4 weeks. This has brought my mortgage process to a screaming halt. For some reason, it takes the local PD another week to generate the hard copy (some of us can just hit Print… In California, they tore off the relevant layer of NCR paper and handed me that. This town has some weird stuff.) I can get the mortgage app back on the road late this week, maybe Friday. /Eyes roll so hard they fall out and dribble across the desk./
You won’t get that full story, because I couldn’t log in for most of it. (Probably just as well.) The mighty Wizard of Interwebbery who has kindly chosen to support my online presence for years, has triumphed over the poisonous Login Lizards who made it impossible for me to post. Steven Radecki, my hat is off to you! And since I don’t wear hats, I had to put one on specially, just to doff!
Shameless plug: When he’s not defeating Login Lizards or whacking hackers, he publishes books at Paper Angel Press or constructs interweb-homes for lovely, tasteful, intelligent people like my readers at Practical Content. He’s a joy to work with; highly recommended!
So, finally, I can gather my thoughts here – and share an outstanding set of information I’ve learned about low-income, non-toxic housing in this time, in this country, and in this region. I know darn well I’m not the only one interested in this!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching what goes into making a home I could live in. I had to learn a lot about building materials, ordinary building practices, alternatives, brands, and a surprising level of detail – combined with yawning gaps of ignorance – about all of that.
Here is a more colorful version of the table I sent to my Dr., laying out what it is that I react to an ordinary housing, what the reaction looks like, and how long it lasts. The columns on the right indicate how much control I have over this in different environments:
Here is my high-level, thumbnail sketch of how much it would cost to put up a building with one to one and a half stories, 600 square-foot foundation:
And, last and biggest, here is a link to the Excel spreadsheet I worked up as I was researching the costs for conventional versus non-toxic building which I could get hold of online.
PLEASE NOTE: this is for my planning purposes, not yours! This is not a responsible price guide, it’s me dumping the crap-tastic information I could find online, into another thumbnail sketch I could work from, as I talk to my builders and funders and so forth. In short, this is the third-grade homework that could one day lead to a thesis, but don’t confuse the third-grader with the graduate, okay?
Of course it looks impressive! – and of course it makes all kinds of sense. I tend to create informational material that does all of that, whether or not it should. Please be very diligent in costing out your own projects with appropriate professional support – but feel free to make use of the search terms, brands, and concepts I’ve mentioned here.
So, here are the results of much thinking and online research. Now, time to do my due diligence: checking my figures against competent local professional experience, filling in the blanks, and otherwise holding these data to the test of reality.
Filling in the blanks
Following through with my due diligence opened up a big fat wriggling bag of boa constrictors.
Intellectually, lifting the lid and finding a muscular tangle underneath is intriguing; these days, I’m not sure I can take shock and surprise anymore! However, this is why we have friends, and why it’s worth the spoon-tastic effort of taking care of relationships. I got hold of an old friend, who’s a longtime builder, a good listener, and who always, always tells it exactly like he sees it.
I find that level of honesty very reassuring. I don’t need people to have soft squishy manners, I need not to have to guess!
As you can see from the tables above, I haven’t priced out several key elements convincingly. I had no idea how much it costs to get electricity in. From the masthead at the road, to inserting power into the house, is probably around $2000. Once inside the house, as long as I don’t have more than 100 A of electrical need, I could probably get that done for $5-8000. This adds a total of $7-$10,000. And then there’s plumbing: one kitchen and one full bath for a small place, probably $8-10,000.
Well and septic are fascinatingly complex examples of geology at play. I heard about one 3rd-generation well builder who could describe, in such detail it’s as if he could see it, exactly where a ledge dropped off, where a granite seam ran, and if you moved your well 3 feet to the right, you’d have a much shorter drill depth. I also realize how breathtakingly rare that is. I don’t even know if the guy is still alive. I do know that the hard-working people who dig a well, or anything else around here, have to get paid for the digging they do, whether or not it means I get what I want.
The geology of the Connecticut River Valley is so complex and interesting that several of the world-class colleges in this area have classes dedicated to just that.
What this means to me is, putting in a new well and septic tank does have the minimum costs I cited, but the maximum costs can be horrific given the wrong geological morphology.
Checking my assumptions like a hockey star
Building is a complex gig. Although it looks like a bunch of hammerheads slamming nails and flexing their measuring tapes, there’s an astounding quantity of math, knowledge, organization, and subtlety that has to be done before, during, and after the build.
I’ve sometimes wondered if certain aspects of the building code were meant to keep costs up and access for the low-income that much harder. However, as Kris Thomson (of Kris Thomson Carpentry) reminded me, “People die for building codes.”
It relates to my apothegm, “there’s always an afterwards”: clever economies made in the design stage wind up exposing people who can’t afford better alternatives to problems that may not be survivable – from toxic exposures, to overwhelming infections, to house fires. This is where someone with Kris’s depth and breadth of intelligence and experience really stands out, for being able to make sense of something as technical as building codes in the context of their history and the social forces that have shaped them over the years.
Get him talking sometime; he’s a natural storyteller with a voracious mind.
The real, head-slamming moment came when, after an hour of listening carefully to my concerns, explaining fully every question I had, and telling me all sorts of things I never knew, this builder turned my thinking upside down with two hard data points:
- “Building new is absolutely the most expensive thing you can do.”
- “If you get an existing building, even if you have to strip it to the frame and make structural fixes, you have:
- more leeway in nearly every respect;
- less than half the moving parts;
- smaller pieces to juggle.”
Kris does make a living restoring and renewing old houses, so that’s his familiar territory. Structural work holds no fears for him. It’s good to note that he’s close to other people with horrific sensitivities, and doesn’t take these things lightly.
Old and antique houses are really common here. Europeans have been building for their heirs for well over 300 years in this region, a slice of history that deserves way more than half a sentence.
The point is, although I’m very reluctant to take on too many unknowns, if Kris says stripping and re-fleshing an old house is ultimately as safe for me as building a new one, I have to stop and consider that seriously. He’s not taking my concerns lightly; I can’t possibly take his suggestions lightly.
Revising, so to speak, an old building means that the following are already done, upgradable if they’re not currently up to code:
• ? Septic system (with at least one already in, even if it needs revising, subterranean features are less of a mystery)
• Electricity and phone (bringing up to code is much easier than creating new)
• Siding, probably
• Flooring, potentially gorgeous old hardwood
• ? Heating system
Once we started enumerating the advantages, I started feeling the pull… That’s a lot to not have to put in!
Having said all that, it’s still true that it’s hard to find a small house. I have to be able to project-manage a larger building (even if it’s really a smaller project)… and then find people to help me occupy it when it’s done.
That’s not a bad thing… I have discovered, over the past year, that if I don’t have other people to remind me that there is a world beyond my skin, life can get really hard to sustain. I’ve had an awful lot of housemates, despite being fundamentally introverted. Mostly, I’ve been extremely lucky.
Options: Good Properties
There are two kinds of properties that would be good to start with:
1. An abandoned project, with driveway, infrastructure, foundation, septic, etc. already in place. (So far, I find all this puts the build out of reach because the projects that get abandoned aren’t nearly as small as mine.)
2. An old house in the country, but nowhere near a floodplain, with, ideally, a solid foundation and frame, and a roof that isn’t too bad. (I probably need more cash down than I actually have to offer, but I’m thinking about that.)
I would gleefully pounce on either one, given the chance.
Flexibility is the key to turning the impossible into the imp-possible.
Next, the Money
This opening-out of possibilities doesn’t change my financial picture, which was rather bleak to begin with. I’m still a long way from having good options in my price point, and I’d be way better off if I could find someone to pool resources with.
A new possibility begins to open up: an investor.
The main difference between Saturday and today is, I can now talk about a property that could yield income.
For the money I didn’t have for a new build with room to share, I could actually rebuild/renovate a larger house that would be classy, safe, and non-toxic, and rent out half or two thirds of it. We already know there’s a roaringly under-served market for safe, non-toxic housing, so… Is there a downside?
I mean, besides coping with landlord issues. Being a landlord is no walk in the park. I don’t imagine that I have any secret formulas for being better at that than anyone else, but I have to say, I have had many many years of learning to be patient, clear, and effective with some of the most difficult people and intransigent situations outside of the current White House.
I didn’t realize that until I said it, but the more I think about it, the more accurate I see it is!
If the agonizing work and discipline of revising an old house doesn’t scare me, and if 20 years of pain disease and 17 years of growing disability (and all the doctors, insurers, fiscal abuse, and casual cruelty that comes with it) haven’t killed me, is there any reason I should quaver or shrink from managing a multi-unit home?
I don’t take it lightly, but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.
So, if anyone wants to go halvsies with me on the cost of fixing up a charming old house, just let me know! I get a safe home, you get relatively safe income. I know a couple of good real-estate lawyers in the area who could write a nice safe contract for all concerned!
Hey, have I got almost everything dialed in here, or what?
I hope the two letters from my doctors will open up types of loans that would normally be closed to me; namely, construction loans and renovation loans.
- If I found that perfect little lot less than 45 min. from my hospital with all that prep work done and in budget, then a construction loan would be fine!
- If I found that perfect “cash buyers only” house less than 45 min. from my hospital and in budget, a renovation loan would be terrific!
I know that I qualify for the USDA rural loan of $90,000. Yes, folks, I’m naming figures. It’s possible that I can access about 33% of that in addition, in cash down. This is what I’ve got to work with.
Chances of success, given my financial and chemical limits, are absolutely miniscule. However, they aren’t exactly zero.
A Bigger Reality Check Than Before
Mom, you’ll definitely want to skip this. If you want something to research, maybe find me a freestanding cabin & a kind maid, somewhere safe & warm, an hour from a good hospital, something culturally interesting in the environment, with rent under $300/month?
Everyone else who’s still with me here … I have to keep trying. Fact is, either I find a safe house, or I put my papers in order and give myself about two years before I wind up drooling in a nursing home or stumbling into traffic. I have no good choices.
I do have a Plan G. Move to a cheaper place. Kansas, San Miguel de Allende, Turkey (where I was born), Portugal, Fiji, Cambodia, Croatia, New Mexico — the possibilities are endless. I’ve moved, and traveled, an awful lot. I know that:
- It takes a year to figure out where to get what I need as easily and reliably as possible.
- It takes two years to figure out who to trust in my area: shopkeepers, helpers, neighbors, etc.
- It takes a minimum of 3 years to make friends, and that’s if they’re already kindred spirits… when I was healthy, and could go out and do things like normal people who want to share experiences and get acquainted. With so little functional time (3 hours daily, and dropping) that’s totally unrealistic.
Am I really up to the job of being that lonely, that vulnerable, and work that hard to meet my needs, for that long? And do I really want to leave the one place on this whole earth that really feels like home?
Of course not. If I’m up against the wall, though, I can’t say my absurdly relentless drive towards life won’t push me to it. At least I’d be warmer… It’s June and in the low 40’s F overnight, which is ridiculous. Climate change is a cuss.
I’m too weak to keep doing this half-assed, “not real safe, but not dead yet” thing for much longer. I’ve lost a lot of ground fast. I feel my resiliency is not gone, though, so I believe I could recover appreciably, given the right home environment.
I’m keenly aware that, in most times, and in most of the world as it is now, I’d have died long ago. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve mentioned some of my friends who’ve died of this disease, some at home, some in hospice, some on the table, and several because they had no safe place to live. I’m silently terrified. Absolutely terrified. But I don’t have time to dwell on that.
Achieving this goal is not the end, but a change in the game. I have larger things to do, once I’m safely homed.
• I’ve had some ideas, based partly on my journey with this housey biz so far, about how to put together an effective, ultimately self-supporting charity to make affordable housing available to the chem-sensitive, even in emergencies. The realtor, builder, and policy wonks I’ve shared it with all love it, and I think it should happen.
• A dear (and brilliant!) old friend helped me rough out an idea about how to make my health-care guidance available to more spoonies more of the time, without hurting myself further. “Your Guide to the Medical Wilderness” probably should exist.
• There are 2 publishers longing for books I’ve pitched. They’re deliciously informative books and I believe they should be written.
Yes, I’m talking about all the do-goody stuff I want to do. It’s not an act: being able to make a difference for the better in this world is what keeps me going. It’s what I am. It’s why I keep going.
I want to keep going.
I hope that what I need can come together in time. The period it took to pull my fractured brain out of its winter hibernation right as the cops fell asleep at the switch has made this even harder and time more of a problem. Well, here we are, got to work with what I have and not what I wanted or aimed for!
Meanwhile, I’m looking into camping solutions for the summer. I love camping. I need nature like others need wifi; I’ve figured out how to smooth out many of the hardships; and I’m serious like a heart attack about saving the last of my resources for making a home. It’s a terrifying prospect, of course — in fact, homelessness terrifies me speechless, even if it is a great excuse to camp.
Fingers, and tent pegs, crossed.
I keep thinking I should revise this, but my eyes are reloading from cache and my brain is done.
Take care of each other; life is too short to be mean. <3
Over the past 14 months I’ve gotten a look at every house I found that was:
1. Already built,
2. In my price range & size range (600-900 sq ft),
3. Judging from the ad, might qualify for a first-time homebuyer loan (which I could get, because sailboats don’t count as homes in this context. Considering how much work sailboats are to live on, I think that’s just precious.)
All 4 of them.
In 14 months of sporadic, but persistent, looking… only 4 houses turned up within my parameters.
Well, actually, only 3 were in my parameters. It just looked SO pathetic, I threw in the house I looked at that taught me just how horrific it could be to buy a repo. I don’t know why I felt a need to count that.
So, really, 3 houses. Only 3 even seemed possible, but they weren’t. They turned out to be marginally too fuddup for the loan, too moldy, or too close to too many Isy-toxic things.
Broke my heart.
In all this time, there were 2 houses I wanted to view that did, in fact, meet all 3 criteria, but they had a buyer and 5 alternates before I even had a chance to reach for the phone. Good, small homes go FAST here! (If anybody’s looking for steady returns on moderate investments, consider building some, eh? I’d be happy to project-manage that business. It’d be a great example of doing well while doing good.)
Double the target size and price point, and I’d have LOADS of options. The market is littered with 1200-2000 sq ft pocket palaces for a quarter to a third of a mil. Those buyers can be as fussy as they please around here.
The Reality Check
Here are some grim financial realities which bring new depth to the yawning chasm of the imp-possibility of me finding a safe home:
1. Frail, reactive body on SSDI.
NOTE: It’s illegal for anyone on SSDI (which normally brings in government-sponsored health care) to have over $2,000 in personal assests (exempting already-owned house and car), ever at all, even for 1 day, or they can stop your health coverage.
You read that right, folks. In the USA, poor and sick/disabled people are brutally barred from saving up, even in the interests of getting a car or home if they don’t already own one. (That was a GOP mandate. How’s that for fiscally responsible? /headdesk/)
2. Only legally-recognized close relatives are allowed to contribute to a mortgage. No matter how well connected the PDSP (Poor Disabled Sick Person; or, if you’re from California, Person who’s Disabled, Sick, and Poor), or how wide and generous their circle of friends, *nobody else* is allowed to contribute, or else the PDSP *gets no loan.*
NOTE: this was nominally an anti-terrorist maneuver, to keep cells from easily acquiring property. Which makes even less sense than most modern American anti-terrorist legislation… ‘cuz somehow the financial data-mining that’s actually been built into your central processing chip since the turn of the millenium, and is now supplemented by every data stream you dip into, is magically unable to track the source of these gifts, in this one realm of financial transactions? Huh?? And somehow it assumes that terrorists can’t find other ways to meet their logistical needs — a counter-factual assumption, at best. I grew up with actual terrorist threats framing our daily lives; this mickey-mouse magical thinking irritates me at the best of times.)
3. First time homebuyers (c.f. the snarkery in the opening paragraphs) get automatically lined up for a loan called FHA, which banks appreciate because the loan is insured by the feds. All houses bought with that kind of loan have to meet certain standards before purchase.
NOTE: this is generally good, as it ensures that first-time homebuyers start out in a code-compliant home. For me, it’s disastrous, because the standards don’t account for occult mold or proximity to fossil fuel output and EM radiation — but they heavily favor fresh paint and conventional insulation, cheap and reasonable ways to meet the code criteria. These amount to life-or-death issues for me.
4. Ordinarily, it’s extremely difficult — in fact, well-nigh impossible — to get a “one mortgage” or build loan, which you can use to buy a lot and have your own home built on it. Too many people have taken the money and run, or gotten overwhelmed by loads of decisions and delays they’re not used to, or lost their way somehow. This leaves unfinished properties dissolving where they stand, and frustrated loan officers doing much the same thing.
Now, when those loans ARE made, payouts are structured to keep the owner one large payout behind. The idea is to make sure the owner has “enough skin in the game”, a metaphor I always hear in this connection, which is peculiarly apt and especially painful for someone with CRPS.
Also, you need a builder on board who is prepared to advocate with the bank. How many builders really want to face a freaking bank just to get a picayune, weird little job like mine?
Also, my builder would have to be someone comfortable enough with low-tox building to help me be rightly understood when I talk about using high-grade materials in what’s otherwise a cheapest-possible design.
The Current Scenario
So, here’s what I bring to the table:
1. Frail, reactive body needing a small home with nonstandard finishes. Have some resources and loads of information.
2. Some relatives are able and willing to contribute, thank heavens and them!
3. Friendly mortgage broker, glad to work with me and guide me in inserting my info into their system in the most fruitful possible way. (Applied Mortgage in Northampton, MA. I recommend them very highly!)
4. Doctors willing to provide letters on letterhead stating that I do, in fact, have demonstrated needs that affect my safest home environment, and it would be good to work with me on that. (If only their fax machines worked.)
5. Info and analysis by the bucketload, which only needs to be extracted from my brain and the web and dumped out into tables, spreadsheets, breakdowns, overviews, digests, summaries, etc., about just what’s needed and just why it matters and what it really does to me when it doesn’t happen right. With references and bibiliographies for key concepts and key resources. In colors and patterns that are meaningfully coded to the info. In as many copies as they like. In origami folds, if that would help. Tied up in a neat little ribbon — green, as a hint. Sound good?
Of course, given 3 functional hours each day, putting that together is so much easier than it sounds… NOT. If I don’t go out and run errands or appointments, or eat anything the least bit wrong, get only a short walk in as exercise, my voice recognition software has no trouble with my allergy-hoarse voice, and I take 20 minute breaks every 30 minutes absolutely faithfully, I can try to eke that out to as much as 5 productive hours per day!
Who knows, it might happen!
Because, folks, poor though I am, tiny and unprofitable though my mortgage would be, simple as my other needs are.. there is NOBODY ALIVE who could have more skin in this game than me. And I need the chance to prove that to the bank.
More and more lately, I miss my Dad. I don’t know what he would have done or what he would have taught me in the process, but if he were alive, I would be safely housed. “Legitimate need? Doing your best? Got a rational budget? Okay, let’s figure this out.”
He was very staunch about facing hard realities and, working capitalist though he was, had many thoughtful conversations with his daughter about “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
According to him, he loved that idea.
It was his favorite dictum about distributing resources, and he dearly wished it were realistic on larger economic scales. He worked in a world where it wasn’t useful, but he clearly wanted me to know that he honored it as an ethical guide.
He articulated to me how he used it as a parenting tool with his three gifted, demanding, and wildly different children. He said he’d never parent me the way he parented Older Brother, and Younger Brother was yet another proposition; he tried daily to treat each of us according to what he understood of what we each had, and what we each needed. He knew his perceptions weren’t perfect, and so it was a constant process to keep trying to improve his insight, as he kept trying to keep up with our development.
He explained all that nuance, admitted all that depth of thought and his practical limits, to his 11-to-13-year-old girl… in the late 1970’s. In some ways, he was way ahead of his time.
Through all the stormy years we had afterwards, I never forgot that, at root, he had that much faith in my mind and that much trust in my morals.
He’d be so proud of my diligence in all this.
Now, all I need is a reputable builder who’s up for this job, and enough working-brain-time to put all this medical and practical material together — preferably in the next week, due to the timing of the hard credit-check.
Neither is really in reach, but I’m here to keep trying. Wish me success!
If I can get this done this summer, and recuperate in a safe home for awhile, then I’d like to put together a plan to make small safe homes all over these hills; I know people who can find the funding, and I know customers who’d be banging our doors down. It’s just that I can’t properly or legally use that program for my own benefit, so I must have my own home first.
Tell you what, I bet the whole process could be neatly documented and charmingly presented in an attractive book on the subject. It’d be one blueprint for a win-win way to help stabilize local neighborhoods, reduce blight, mitigate housing crises, generate middle-class jobs, stabilize local economies, reduce medical costs, and make many people more calm and content. All of which is economically positive in so many ways… and morally spotless.