My health insurance was going up by 61 percent, and I was distraught.
“You will not let this defeat you,” my friend Jill gently commanded.
But I was going to have to make some hard decisions. With my out-of-control healthcare costs and my fluctuating freelance income, something had to give. Insurance costs were beyond my power; my mortgage wasn’t.
For the first time, I had to consider leaving the SouthPark townhouse I’d lived in for 13 years. And I didn’t have long to decide: I learned in November 2016 that my premiums would jump— no, make that pole vault—from $426.48 to $697.44 per month, starting in January 2017.
At age 52, I had an idea where to go: back to where I started. The red brick, Georgian apartment in the 28207 zip code, built in the early 1930s, was my first home after college. The apartment complex was now condos, and there was a one-bedroom, 650-square-foot unit on the market.
What I saw on my first visit: The carpet smelled like a bus terminal. Plaster was peeling from the walls in the building’s entryway. My mom likened it to a tenement. Another friend was more charitable: “Old Tuscan,” he said.
And Apt. 71-C had clearly been unloved. It was pretty terrible, but it was affordable.
“I’ll take it,” I said immediately.
I hired a contractor to gut what one friend dubbed “Six Fifty,” in honor of its square footage. That morphed into “Six Fiddy,” which is how everyone I know refers to my humble home.
An uninvited guest
Cancer doesn’t ring the bell and ask if now’s a good time to visit. My cancer was discovered when I was waiting to hear about my loan.
Last January and February were a blur of mortgage lenders, radiation burns, general contractors, chemo infusions, inspectors, oncologists, engineers, health insurance bureaucrats, hospital-billing-office bureaucrats, and various other real estate and medical types.
I started losing my hair about the same time I started losing my mind.
Between treatments, I began downsizing, deciding which half of my possessions I could part with. I’d already “Kondo’d” my home after reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and was left with only things that spark joy. But now I had to cull even more: antiques, art, purses, books. I sent many to people I love, which made saying goodbye easier.
Meanwhile, Six Fiddy was shaping up. My heroic contractor Brian Gay would suggest I go to Ikea or Lowe’s to look for kitchen flooring, bathroom tile, and the like. I’d tell him I’d try to fit that in. Somehow. But the next time I’d check on progress, he would’ve been to those places and made those selections for me. He was a magician.
My last day of radiation was the day before I was supposed to move. There was no time to celebrate. Around 5 p.m., I was finishing some work and last-minute packing when Brian called: “There’s been a flood, and it’s bad.”
The plumbing disaster meant I couldn’t move into my new place. But I still had to move out of the old place. Friends and family leapt to action. Movers were called. My insurance company notified. A storage facility located. And I set up temporary lodging set up at my parents’ house.
One month later, “Moving Day: The Sequel” was another series of disasters. The movers were two hours late and broke my antique bed. One got trapped in the bathroom and broke the doorknob to get out.
Again, friends and family rescued me. Jill, the friend who’d promised my health insurance hike wouldn’t defeat me, appeared unbidden that day with provisions and some anal-cancer humor. “I brought a sandwich and toilet paper,” she said. “Something for each end!”
I was practically catatonic, so family and friends did all my unpacking. Six Fiddy is too compact to hold more than a few at a time, so they came in shifts.
As much as I had gotten rid of, I still had too much. Day after day, I’d stare at the mess surrounding me. I needed a professional. I hired Fresh Start Transitions (freshstarttransitions.com) to help cut through the chaos and decide what to keep and what to donate. That was a big step, but I needed something even more powerful than a professional organizer. One of my doctors likened my inertia to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “Everyone knows about fight-or-flight response,” she said. “But there’s a third reaction, and that’s to freeze. You’re frozen.”
Coming back to life
Levine Cancer Institute’s Center for Survivorship was where I started to thaw. I went for massage and acupuncture and started seeing the therapist at the center, a cancer survivor herself.
But I still couldn’t get home-happy. Even after the homeowners association launched a major improvement project (Goodbye, peeling plaster and reeking carpet!), the uplift I got was only temporary. Since Six Fiddy is both home and office, I was spending an awful lot of time each day in a place that wasn’t hospitable.
I felt I needed—and this is entirely uncharacteristic of me—a shaman.
So I asked Robbie Warren, interior designer-turned-medicine-woman (otterdance.com), to perform what I call a “house exorcism,” but what she calls a Native American house blessing. She lit candles, made an altar on my coffee table, and prayed that my home would be a place of safety, creativity, and abundance. I was convinced there was some bad juju, so she banished whatever remained.
It was lovely. But there were still times when I felt like a stranger here.
I turned to the modern-day oracle, Facebook, and asked if anyone knew a feng shui practitioner. “Don’t tell me that what I need is a therapist,” I wrote, “because I’m trying that, too.”
“My friend Dawn O’Malley of Beehive Interior Design is who you need,” came one friend’s reply. “And bonus! She’s also a therapist.”
Dawn (beehive-design.com) was the missing puzzle piece. I loved her clean aesthetic. I trusted her enough to leave her my key, skip town, and allow her to transform my home. She used much of what I already had, although she recommended two new pieces that did double duty: an antique chest and a cabinet that offered lots of storage. I sold my dropleaf table and sideboard, two space hogs that offered no storage.
It took just that weekend (plus the cumulative effect of my therapist, a shaman, and steadfast friends) to change my outlook. Now, my compact condo doesn’t feel cramped. It’s just the right size. I have what I need, and there’s no clutter.
“Every increased possession loads us with new weariness,” wrote Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin.
Stuff is just stuff. We’ll tire of it all sooner or later. For me, less turned out to be more.
In November, my health insurance shot up again. I didn’t panic. I’m more at peace now. I’m home.
Photos by Justin Driscoll