When I came into recovery, not only did I have to face the physical and emotional damage I caused in my addiction, but also the financial aftermath. I was in over $30,000 of debt. Collection letters littered my apartment. I didn’t know where to start and It felt like I would never get my head above the parapet. All the while, I was lost in a brand new scary world, without my trusted anesthesia.
In those first few weeks of recovery I felt like a vulnerable and fractured woman. It was like I suddenly had to figure out life and I’d been bumbling along my entire existence. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten to age 32, with the emotional age of a 5 year old.
I was fortunate to meet some incredible sober women who held my hand. They taught me how to live in this new scary world. Over the course of a year I learned: coping skills, how to stay sober, how to develop and maintain healthy relationships, and how to live in a world where people drink. As part of that process, I uncovered my moral compass, my values, and how to live according to those values. That meant paying back my debt.
As I navigated the totality of my debt, I had the support of my friends. Reality hit: living alone became untenable—I simply couldn’t afford it. I was devastated. But I knew that I saw a greater life beyond the ball and chain of debt that was holding me back. It is just temporary, I’d tell myself.
I set about finding a place that was more affordable. That meant sharing a house. I was terrified because I loved my own space—I’m an introvert and find on-going interaction overwhelming and draining. I also didn’t want to endanger my recovery by living with a heavy drinker. Cautiously, with those concerns in mind, I set about finding a new place.
If I were to advise myself back then, this is what I would suggest:
Find an appropriate place to look.
Craigslist might not be the best option as you have nothing to go on but the ad—no personal recommendations.
Ask your friends.
I asked around my sober friends for a place, but no one had anything available. I think this worked out for the best because I learned the hard lesson that just because someone is in recovery, does not mean they have the same moral compass, or living conditions as you. I wouldn’t rule out living in a house with another sober person, but first I’d be keen to check out a few crucial details.
Check classifieds at work.
I found an ad for a room only renter—which meant I had my room, with use of shared areas. On inspection, it looked clean, the location was good, she seemed nice enough, there was no evidence of heavy drinking, and I had everything I needed. I took the place, without looking anywhere else.
Learn from your mistakes.
The place I took didn’t work out—the owner wanted a renter who wasn’t there during the day or evening, just someone who slept there. I wasn’t allowed in the living room and could only use the kitchen and bathroom. I spent most of my time limited to my room. While I realized my error, I took this as an opportunity to identify what my needs were for my next place.
Have a checklist.
After my initial mistake, I was keen to find a place on equal footing— where I felt that I had a say, and equal space in the house. I had a list of questions to ask a potential roommate because it is not the drinking that is the problem for me—it is the stressors and environment that lead me to want to escape, or feel threatened. These are some of the questions I asked:
- Is it a calm house, are there parties?
- What are the neighbors’ habits? It’s great living in a calm house, but if your neighbors have parties until 3am every morning, that won’t work—especially for this light sleeper.
- Tell them you’re sober. While I didn’t mind drinking, I didn’t want to live with a heavy drinker and I asked them to be up front about their habits. I suggested we could discuss what would make us both comfortable.
- Ask for a breakdown of bills; what you are expected to pay and when. I have been in situations where I am asked to pay bills sporadically, and been asked to pay up a day before they are due. If you know what is coming, you can have it handy.
- I asked their cleaning habits and how they’ve previously sorted out chores. I’ve been in too many a situation where I’ve been the sole cleaner.
- Ask their movements. I needed to find someone that also worked a day job and went to bed at a similar hour. It wouldn’t have worked for me if I lived with someone who worked shifts and would wake me up in the middle of the night when they came home; or, I would wake them when I am getting ready to go to work.
This may sound like an exhaustive list. It may also sound too much to ask. But trust me when I say that not checking out these details would avoid a lot of stress, anxiety, and further moving costs. Recovery to me is about finding balance in life and living in a calm environment, so I try and avoid these stressors, if I can.
There will be times when you may feel overwhelmed by alcohol being around—I have. I prefer it when there aren’t half empty glasses hanging around, or seeing lots of bottles in the kitchen—so I set out my boundaries when I move in. The key for me has been to know that if it doesn’t work, I can move. Typically though, if I find the situation challenging, I speak to my recovery friends, take time out, and let others be themselves. After all, it is me in recovery, not them.
By making these changes to my living arrangements, I significantly reduced my outgoings and paid off all of my debt within four years. I even saved up enough to move to America.
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