Moving in with someone is a BIG DEAL. And I don’t just mean living with your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s also monumental moving in with strangers, friends, friends of friends, a friend of a friend who you met that one time at the pub but don’t really remember the conversation except that you were both super duper excited to get a place together.
And when you have anxiety, living with other people calls for a little…strategy. A game plan. Sprinkled with a little honesty.
Because sharing a space when you have an ever-whirring mind is tricky. Tough. Testing.
Let’s not sugarcoat it.
There are times when you just can’t stand your housemates. There they are, innocently cooking in the kitchen, or chatting with you on the couch. And all you can think is, “Erghhhh just go awaaaay so I can be here in peace!”
Even if you adore your roomies, the anxious mind can take you to the edge of your tolerance.
Other times, you’ll realise it’s you who’s rocking the boat. In your highly anxious state, perhaps on the brink of a panic attack, you’ll seek solace in your room. Maybe you won’t come out all night. Your housemates might think you’re anti-social, or weird, or mad at them. You’ll crave company, you’ll try to will yourself to rejoin the communal space. But your panic will imprison you in your room.
So, it’s never about fault. Or who’s right or wrong. It’s about a bunch of totally unique, different souls trying to dance together in a small space. Striving for effortless co-existence. Battling their own wars, stifling their own fears and feelings. Afraid to let others see them for who they really are.
I’ve lived in and out of share-houses since I was 18. And I’ve shared more hostel dorms (and bed bugs) than I’d like to mention.
Now, at the ripe old age of 31, I’m living with a romantic partner for the first time.
I LOVE IT.
Finally, I have a quiet space to call my own. A haven from the crazy, wild world. A space in which to freely create and meditate and un-twist my frantic mind.
But, the experience has led me to reflect on times when sharing a space wasn’t so easy. So nurturing. So right.
My 20s were tough. Because back then, I didn’t really know what anxiety was! I couldn’t work out why I struggled so much. Why I took things so seriously. Why sometimes I couldn’t handle anybody being in my vicinity. Why I needed to be left alone. Why my friends had share house experiences reminiscent of Coca-Cola commercials (you know: drinking beers with beautiful people on the rooftop while the sun sets over the sea, planning road trips while fresh indie tracks play in the background).
For me, sharing a space was often a living hell.
Now a little older and wiser, I realise where I went wrong. I didn’t have the confidence or self-awareness then. But if I did, I would have done things differently.
- tell my housemates I have anxiety
- explain what anxiety is, and how it makes me feel and behave
- share with them my anxieties about sharing a house
- let them ask how they can support me – or show them how
- talk to them about the warning signs of a panic attack, and how they can help me if they’re around
- reassure them that I don’t expect them to look after me, or be responsible for my anxieties or behaviours
- apologise for times when my outbursts or isolation affected their happiness and wellbeing
Notice a common thread between those points?
They’re all about being honest. Truthful. Open and reassuring. Educating people about who I am and why – and totally owning all those aspects of myself. Feeling comfortable enough to share my mental health struggles, without feeling that I’m a burden.
It’s not easy. I know.
And perhaps it’s a natural point we all come to in our own time.
But I also believe that by being vulnerable, we create a safe space in which our housemates can do the same. Maybe they’re suffering in silence, too. It takes one person to open up, take a risk, and say “sometimes I’m not OK, and here’s why”. I truly feel if I could have done that earlier, my share-house experiences would have been so much easier, healthier and happier. For me and my roomies.
One more thing:
I also would have created a self-care strategy. A house-sharing game plan.
A list of some common stressful scenarios and how I would deal with them. Things like:
- what to do if I come home to find my housemate’s younger brother throwing an open-house rave party
- confronting a housemate who hasn’t paid their rent or share of the bills
- asking a housemate to stop eating my food or leaving mountains of dishes in the sink
Then, if a similar situation cropped up, I could look at my list and have a pre-prepared action to take.
It is possible to live with other people when you have anxiety. It isn’t always easy. But you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the world. And hopefully feel empowered and proud for managing scary, icky, uncomfortable situations.
I hope by sharing my reflections, I’ve helped someone, somewhere, to have a more harmonious, peaceful share house experience.