Home sweet home
By Erika Farber
The week before my 40th birthday, the man with whom I had been building a life and planning a wedding, unceremoniously and shockingly broke up with me.
While trying to navigate all of my feelings of rejection, pain and devastation in addition to the relentless search for the “whys” and “hows” that were plaguing me, I also found myself, for the first time in my life, homeless.
Let me clarify: I was not forced to sleep on the subway, or live out of my storage space. But for this moment in time, I was definitely minus a home. This was not my choice. I didn’t want to leave. I had to leave.
Moving to a new apartment had always been a conscious choice. I truly embraced my new spaces: the blank walls were an empty canvas that I couldn’t wait to decorate, the fridge, clean and empty felt like a fresh start. And along with each move came an immediate sense of pride and ownership.
Each move, which was often due to career advances, was also accompanied by the comfort and satisfaction of having come to each new home on my own terms. I was single and financially secure, working my way up the ladder of a crazy career in an insanely competitive industry. I was able to travel AND put some money away on the side. Big pat on the back for a job well done! It was a happy and satisfying time.
But for all of my hard work and success, as I got older, I longed for a partner to share it all with. So, when things with the man in my life progressed from dating to love, we happily decided to move in together. I left behind my bachelorette pad in a hip, fun part of town to move to an area closer to our jobs but regrettably farther away from the cozy network I’d cultivated. In truth, it would be a big leap for me, but I was ready.
I was about to boldly and bravely enter my forties with a man who had seemed to want what I wanted, a man who I was in deeply in love with, whom I had allowed to enter the security and comfort of my carefully appointed life. I forged ahead with bravado, even arrogance, happily throwing away or donating most of my furniture, and all of the little mementos I’d accumulated along the road of my single gal life. I wasn’t going to be that girl anymore. Big pat on the back for another job well done!
Needless to say, the sudden break up shook me to my very core.
Everything was turned upside down. Colors looked different to me, foods smelled different. My reflection in the mirror looked like a stranger. What was this life now, and what was it going to be? For the first time, I no longer felt in control of my future.
Well-intending friends and family told me, “You’re one of the toughest chicks I know, don’t worry: you’ll figure it all out.” I certainly did not feel tough. I felt weak, vulnerable and scared. For all of my careful life planning and strategizing, how did I not see this coming?
I packed my things and was lucky enough to be invited to stay with a very dear friend. It was the immediate shelter between homes and the one constant that I desperately needed after having my heart broken. Night after night I would collapse into bed, numbed by earplugs and an Advil PM. Despite the solace of being in her apartment during such a difficult time, I knew that I couldn’t stay there forever. I would have to start the search for a new apartment.
This move felt as unwelcoming as my ex had been when we were settling our affairs. The money I’d been saving for our wedding now had to go toward real estate broker’s fees and new furniture. Lonely trips to IKEA with all the other newly single adults, pages-long lists of items I needed to buy, pricing out moving companies and storage facilities, setting up my cable television...none of it brought the familiar sense of excitement and accomplishment.
The cold and dreary days dragged on, but somehow, the big move to a new apartment happened. I settled in, hung pictures on the walls and stocked my fridge. But this was a place I hated coming to at the end of the day, and hated waking up in every morning. It was dark and lonely, and so quiet. I was home. Why didn’t it feel that way?
Months later, this unsettled feeling still haunted me. I bellyached to my therapist, Dr. H, about how unfair and unlucky this all was. I deserved to feel better by now, didn’t I? I felt like I had been robbed, and despite my new apartment and new furnishing, I still felt “homeless.” I began to list all the things I was missing, all the ways I felt like I was floating instead of feeling grounded.
He listened patiently, and even laughed a little at my self-deprecating jokes. He told me it was OK to mourn the loss of the man I loved and the life we’d shared but it was time to stop keeping a tally of the losses. It was time to start looking at the gains. I shrugged and said, “I can’t even name one.”
Dr. H’s posture stiffened. At the very least, he said, not marrying the wrong man was a gain. Hmmm. Having a support system in my friends and family, having a job that I was good at, with coworkers that had been understanding during this tough time, waking up in the morning and getting things done productively - all gains. Not being self-destructive, not acting out in irrational and harmless ways: Gains.
He went on, reminding me that lots of people out there wouldn’t have been lucky enough to have been able to build a brand new life for themselves as easily and with as much support as I’d had. Some people are without a shelter or a safe haven to protect them. They are the true definition of homeless, and I never had been, really.
I felt silly, and humbled. Embarrassed. Dr. H was right. I’d bogged myself down with so many negative feelings during the past months that I had neglected to see anything positive at all. This was the slap I needed to wake me up and change my perspective.
I went back to my apartment in a hurry that night, and before I even took off my coat, I made a list on a Post It note - yes, I’m a list maker - of all the things I was thankful for, and stuck it on my bathroom mirror. The last item read: THIS PLACE, HERE. And that Post It stayed on my mirror for a long time.
Slowly, colors seemed bright again, foods smelled delicious once more. If I felt a little shaky and unsure, or if I had a sad day, I would try to do one nice thing for someone else, kind of as a karmic payback for all the nice things people had said and done for me during my dark time.
Coming home has become something I look forward to now - not because of the things I’ve bought or collected, but because of the things I feel I’ve achieved here. And with a lot of help along the way, I managed to find Home, once again, on my own terms.
I regained the sense of control I had over my own life by changing my perspective - and by reading that damn Post It note every day. I continue to remind myself that the brief bout I experienced when I was “minus a home” was a mere blip on the radar screen of my life, and a far better situation than so many people are forced to struggle with every day.
I have a new Post It note on my bathroom mirror. It doesn’t say, “Big pat on the back.” It says, “Keep it up.”