How Community Living Changed My Mental Health
Since college, I’ve moved around. I’ve lived everywhere from a pint-sized East Village dwelling where I became an expert in throwing drink coasters at mice, to a snowy mountaintop apartment in Maine where I routinely slept in a sweatshirt, hat and fleece pants (ugh). After the horror of sharing a bathroom with 20 people I didn’t know during my freshman and sophomore years, I made it a point, no matter where I was, to either live alone or with a two roommates at the most.
Even in Maine, where I would often go entire nights without seeing a soul (except the deer who would sometimes stare creepily through my living room windows), I reasoned that the loneliness was better than dealing with piles of other people’s dirty dishes or toothpaste spit in the bathroom sink.
Fast-forward to last October, where, for a multitude of life-changing reasons, I decided to move into a house in Colorado with six – yes, six – roommates. All of them women.
Oh. I was afraid.
I didn’t know any of these girls when I first signed the lease, and given my usual propensity to live solo, I can’t quite tell you why I ended up agreeing to the situation in the first place. Something in me just said: do this. Try it. So despite the grocery list of reservations I had, I decided to listen to my gut and moved in.
And thank God I did – because my mental health has never been better.
Whenever I describe my current situation (six women, two bathrooms, one kitchen) most people – especially men – stare at me in horror. How do you stand it? Their expressions ask. And even after I explain that it’s been a fantastic experience with little to no drama and only one or two cold showers every couple of months, their faces continue to stay stuck in a frozen grimace. I don’t believe you. That is too many people in one house.
In all honesty – it’s not. Especially when everyone takes care of their dishes and has specific household duties (taking out the trash, sweeping, cleaning the bathroom, etc). And then there’s the added bonus of always having someone around when you need to change a light bulb, transfer a ginormous spider outside, or simply vent your frustrations from a long day.
That’s probably the best part about living in a community – always having a loving, listening ear. When I lived alone, I could go for hours just stewing in my own emotional hell; over-thinking until I nauseated myself, or trying to stuff my feelings down with TLC marathons and chocolate covered pretzels. But these days, there’s always someone who asks me if I’m alright, if I need to talk, or to politely suggest that I put the peanut butter and the spoon down. We are each other’s therapists, sisters, mother figures…supporting one another when life is good and rallying together when it sucks.
Of course, we have our moments. No matter how congenial a group is, everyone has their own living style, and certain issues do find their way to surface. But the thing about community living is…non-violent communication is the only solution that works.
There’s no sense in getting into a screaming match with someone who’s going to be cooking dinner next to you in a few hours, or to get all passive aggressive and make the entire house suffer through awful, heavy energy. Living with people 24-7 makes it impossible to pretend everything is fine when it’s very obviously not. They’ll call you on it. And then they’ll force it out of you.
The way I interact with my roommates when someone does something that annoys me (like peeling off fruit stickers from apples and leaving them on the sink…why?!), has colored my interactions with everyone else in my life. I’m more patient, more open, and my ability to listen has improved tremendously. I no longer fear confrontation, and if you do something that bothers me (fruit stickers!!!), I will definitely let you know – in a way that facilitates cooperative conversation rather than an angry catfight.
Community living has turned me into a better, more conscientious person, but the reason this situation works is because of the people; if you’re going to try it, it’s essential that you’ve got the right group. Individuals who are empathetic, polite and communication-driven are much better than those who are stubborn, defensive and withdrawn. And know what you’re getting into before you get into it; sharing household duties and fridge space and agreeing on a set temperature and being honest – are all part of the game.
If you’re seeking a social and emotional expansion, living in a community may be just the thing to change your life – just make sure you invest in a good permanent marker…everyone’s milk looks the same.
Digiacinto, J. (2013). How Community Living Changed My Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 6, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/02/16/how-community-living-changed-my-mental-health/