Friday, March 26, 2010

Walking off the battlefield

I've been having a doozy of a week, which is why I haven't posted for a while.  

A few weeks ago I moved into a share house in Ballarat, a regional city in Australia.  I was living at my parent's farm, which is 10 minutes outside of town, but my parents - at the ripe young ages of 69 and 74 - decided to separate, and I realised having front row seats to my parents’ divorce wasn’t a barrel load of fun (who'd have thunk it?!)  So, I put an ad in the paper, found a room in what seemed like a quiet and pleasant house, and moved in.

I’ve been living in share houses for almost 20 years now – I’ve shared with everyone from a poverty stricken artist with schizophrenia, to an Iranian refugee, to a bunch of twenty-something farmers.  I even shared a house with my sister who, at the end of our time together said I was ‘the most easy-going housemate in the world.’  (Awww...sweet).

In twenty years of share-housing, I have never come across a person as difficult to live with as my current housemate. The warning signs started early.  On the second day I was there, I left the house for ten minutes to buy a can opener.  When I came back my housemate told me she’d noticed my laptop was plugged in, and sitting on my bed.  ‘I went into your room to unplug it because that’s a fire hazard.  It was on your bed, so the laptop could overheat and set fire to the sheets'

Now, I didn’t really take in much of what she said past the first 5 words – ‘I went into your room.’  Going into someone else’s room in a share-house is a BIG no-no – everything is public in a share house and there’s not much privacy, so a bedroom is really the only private space. To go in there for such a ridiculous reason suggested some serious boundary problems.

Things just got worse from there.  Over the past 2 weeks I’ve been asked to not just lock my window when I go out, but to pull down the blind as well (so thieves can’t see what’s in there).   I’ve been asked to only give out the house phone number to my ‘closest family and friends’ because my housemate is fearful that she might be stalked if someone gets her number.  I’ve been asked not to leave an apple in the backyard because my housemate’s dog can’t digest apple cores and might get sick. (I was sitting outside in the sun eating an apple and went inside to get something for a few minutes...leaving my dangerous, toxic, apple unattended!)

There are locks on everything in this house from the mailbox to the garage. (And no, we do not live in any kind of high crime area...just a fairly sleepy Australian town).  I’m starting to feel like I’m living inside a prison.  Almost every time I see my house-mate she has some kind of request or comment to make on what I’m doing and how she’d like it done differently.  Could I not leave my slow cooker turned on on the bench top – because it might melt it?  Could I open cans in the sink because any juice from the can might stain the kitchen counter?  Could my father (a farmer) be careful what he brings into the house on the sole of his boots – because some farm products can be toxic to her dog?

And on, and on, and on, and on...a constant drip of negativity, fear, neurosis, and requests. I feel like I have a Mother Superior on my shoulder overseeing every move I make. 

In an attempt to foster a positive relationship with my house-mate I invited her over to meet my sister, who lives a few streets away.  Sitting in the backyard, she saw my brother-in-law smoking, and 'joked' that she would called child protective services because he shouldn't be smoking around children.  I was mortified.  She didn't know my brother-in-law and what enormous struggles he has had to quit smoking.  I felt so embarrassed I went back later to apologise to him.

So, last night, we had an argument.  She criticized me three times in half an hour, I lost it, and we argued. She said she thought I was dismissive and didn’t take her seriously or understand her.  I said it was difficult to take in so many comments and criticisms on my behaviour.  ‘It’s just information,’ she said, ‘Don’t take it personally.’  ‘It doesn’t feel like information to me,’ I said. ‘More like harassment.’

What I found interesting was that, although I was upset while I was having this argument,  I could  see how the awareness practices I’ve been doing over the past months helped me through this difficult experience.

While we were arguing I noticed my heart pounding loudly, but I didn’t criticize myself for this, or try to stop it.  I just saw it as a natural bodily response to stress.  I saw the voices in my head begin to tell me what a terrible thing it was to be arguing with someone. I felt like I was in a nightmare, as though the whole world was against me and was a terribly dark and sinister place.

Later, in my room, feeling angry and upset, I tried to sit with what was happening.   I wanted to cry, because I felt so misunderstood and confused.  I couldn’t see why this woman – who underneath all these fears is quite a nice person- thought that constantly commenting on my behaviour in a negative way would make for a harmonious relationship between us.  

My mind kept asking – how can I fix this situation?  How can I try to talk to her about her fears and get her to see that living in this fearful way is only going to alienate her from people?  How can I get revenge on her for how unhappy she’s made me?  How can I live with such a nutter?  What’s wrong with me that I got into this argument?  Why couldn’t I just be calm instead of raising my voice?  Why was I so angry and judgemental of her? 

Finally I isolated one voice which said – ‘you’re just a terrible person to share a house with.’  I stopped and asked that voice – ‘is that true?’  And then, I started laughing.  It so clearly was not true.  I’m not the best house-mate in the world – I can be messy, and I am often forgetful  and vague – but I’ve lived in many wonderful share houses, and have made lifelong friends in several houses I’ve lived in. It was ludicrous to have a voice in my head saying I was the worst house-mate in the world.

Not believing this voice allowed me a bit of space and lightness around the feelings of anger, hurt, and confusion.  ‘I know I am an OK person to live with,’ I kept telling myself. Gradually, it seemed to me that it was just OK that I had this argument.  I still didn’t feel happy about it, but it didn’t mean anything terrible about me as a person.

I also saw a voice in my head saying that I somehow had to ‘fix’ this situation – that this was my challenge and my task, and that if I was a good Buddhist I’d somehow be able to sort this relationship out and live harmoniously with my house-mate. I think for the first time in my life I saw how I set up these challenges for myself in my head - and then battle to try to meet the challenge.

One other example of this challenge-mentality would be getting well. I somehow have to be a good Buddhist and a good meditator and a good person – and when I get that all ‘right’ I’ll get well. Or, I somehow have to ‘fix’ the problematic relationship I have with my mother, and then I would be able to be well and happy.

For the first time in my life I saw that it wasn’t  God, or some universal law of the universe, that was setting me these challenges - it was just a voice in my head.  I realised I didn’t have to believe that the challenge was necessary, and I didn’t have to rise to meet it.  I could just ignore it.

So, what I’ve decided to do is move out of this house.  I don’t have to prove anything, or fix anything.  My house-mate and I have incompatible personalities – sad, but true.  I can just leave and never have to think about her again.  I don’t have to feel guilty about not feeling compassionate towards her.  I don’t have to battle on with her, somehow trying to make her see my point of view.  I can just get off my horse, put down my sword, and walk off the battlefield. 

I've got no choice to move back to my parent's farm for a while, which will be difficult, but not as difficult as living here.  I feel little bit between the frying pan and the fire - but, I'll just keep plodding along and it will all work out.  I'm going to Indonesia for three months in May to live with my sister (yay!) - so I'm just going to focus on that trip, and try to make the best of my situation now.

This is one of the artworks I've been working on - 
a stencil of the uber-cool Miles Davis.


  1. I had no idea Ballarat was the crime hub of Australia. I'll pack the mace next time we visit, LOL. Good on you for working through this situation. I so relate to how you were able to translate her high level of neurosis and anxiety, into you being a bad housemate. I love how you were able to find that little voice and laugh at it.

    Sorry you are having to move again, and back to a difficult situation. I do think you will be able to manage it better though in light of how you are getting better at identifying those voices and telling them to go packing.

    YAY to Indonesia. It's good to have something so fantastic to look forward to. :)

  2. I have to tell you that, as I was reading your post, way way way before you said "I moved out of this house," I was yelling in my head: "Move out of that house!"

    You're so right. Blame, judgment, right/wrong just don't matter here. This was a terrible living situation for you, whatever the reason, and you needed to get out of it.

    I'm so sorry that the alternative was to go back home where things must be tense, but I hope you can carve out some private and quiet space for yourself there until the time comes to go to Indonesia.

    I'm amazed at the number the insights you had as a result of this conflict and I'm so glad you took action!

  3. Awwww...thank you guys for your lovely, supportive comments. I'm so glad I wrote that post!

    Rusty Hoe, I thought you'd get a laugh out of Ballarat being something akin to downtown Kabul in terms of the crime rate. My goodness - you do meet some unusual people in this world.

    Toni - I might not trust the voice in my head, but I do trust the one in yours that was yelling 'get out!' LOL.

    I am beside myself with exhaustion now and back home at the farm, having just spent two hours moving out of the house.

    I have my gorgeous old dog Mr Darcy with me, and my piano right next to my bed - so things aren't all bad here. :)

    thanks again for your comments,


  4. Moving out seems the only solution. It sounds like you were patient with her endless fear-based "requests," until it just became too much. I've lived with a room like this. Nothing you could ever say will break through because the narrative in their minds is simply too strong right now. Maybe someday she'll see through it like you did, or maybe not.

    Good for you for stepping away and staying sane.

  5. Hi Nathan,

    GOod point about nothing you can ever say will help because their minds have such a grip on them that nothing could break through.

    I often feel like my mind has a death grip on me - so I can relate to that, and see how willing I had to be to try to address it. (It couldn't come from someone blaming or critisizing me).

  6. made a practical and mindfull decision...applause, applause.
    This is how we continue to bloom as Buddhist..using our experiences for continued awakening.
    Well that is what works for me. :o)

    I am sorry to hear about your parents but even through their experience you will learn and grow.

    Is this affecting your pain level?
    Clearly I see that emotional stress adds to my pain level.
    I am doing much better...moved through the fog and feeling great relief.

    Be well and happy my friend

  7. Thanks Ama. This kind of thing doesn't affect my pain level, but it does affect my sleep and anxiety levels. (Most people with CFS have a difficult time handling stress). So, I'm pretty exhausted at the moment.

    I'm so happy you're moving through your bad time. take care,


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