Living Space: How Our Built Environment Affects Our Emotional State

I’m currently searching for an apartment. I also work part-time for a family shelter. Anyone who’s in the middle of an apartment hunt right now has probably felt the sting of pricing going up. Way up. It’s estimated that the median cost of rent for housing has gone up between 12-17% since 2020. That’s a huge increase, considering that the previous increases were roughly .6% a year.

From my experience working at the shelter, the environment you’re steeped in has a great affect on a persons emotional state. For families experiencing homelessness, the term itself brings up images of destitute individuals in unwashed clothes living in tents in the woods. So if you add unkempt surroundings to an already loaded label of being homeless, this makes for a sad way of feeling about who you are and your circumstances.

I’ve lived in a variety of houses and apartments, but none of them ever really felt like a true home. I’d like to explore a little what it is that makes a house, a home for me and maybe it’ll resonate with a few others out there, too.

First Living Experiences

The places I grew up in, in my childhood were first an apartment, and second a single family house. The apartment was on the top floor of our building and I have some fond memories of that apartment. I was also very young, so my memories aren’t that crisp. The house I later moved to was the one where many of my childhood memories were made and therefore remember with more clarity.

There were good memories, such as family gatherings and being taken to soccer games as a child. But there were also difficult ones, like the time we spent nursing a family member while she lay dying in our living room. Or the void I was left in, not seeing my caregivers for what felt like weeks at a time. This was a cold place and one filled with traumatic memories that nobody would want to revisit.

The environment in both were clean, only in the first apartment was much more cozy, felt warmer. The house however, was a cold place, sterile feeling. Clean, but without the warmth of the connection and love that makes a house, feel like a home.

The Difference Between Clean and Sterile

I was made to clean as a child, do chores. This was something I hated doing at the time, but what kid doesn’t. Though I’m glad I had the experience of keeping something up and living in a cared for environment. And it felt as though the house was always in the process of being cleaned in some form or another.

Laundry was constantly being done, there was a fair amount of cooking happening as well. But there were also times where this felt like a little too much. As though we were cleaning to cover something up. Everything had to be in its right place, no exceptions. In recent years, I’ve been in one of my childhood caregiver’s home and the kitchen was so clean that it felt as though you could preform surgery in it.

This was mildly unsettling and reminded me of a sterile environment, a place that can’t sustain life. And I feel like this is the difference between a house and a home. A home is a place where mistakes are made, people come together in their difference and accept one another as we are. Imperfect. And it’s about the people. And incase you haven’t learned this yet, people are messy creatures. Hence the phrase, “life happens”.

So if we’re constantly rejecting the messy aspects of our lives, then we’re also rejecting the parts of ourselves that are equally as messy. This is no bueno. And that’s what it felt like while I was living in my caregiver’s home. Until I got kicked out.

On My Own, Now What?

When I was 19, I was kicked out of my childhood house. A little background on my situation, I had stopped going to school when I was fifteen, had no life goals or direction, all the role models in my life had abused and neglected me and I was roaming the streets in my town looking to get messed up in some way. Thinking back now, this brings up feelings of fear and terror in me. But then I was just surviving. And on top of that, I had no one to show me how to take care of myself. I was pretty much already on my own.

So when I got the boot from my caregivers, this was only the official decree stating that I was definitely now, on my own, not wanted. In recent years, when I asked my caregiver why they kicked me out at such a young age, they said, “it happened to me.” This is what I mean when I say we were handing down a legacy of trauma and abuse to one another. And I was scared. So, I talked to two friends and a few weeks later we were living together in our first apartment. And for three nineteen year-olds, we kept the apartment pretty clean.

I remember sleeping on the couch, in the living room of my first apartment, the first night we moved in, with one of my new roommates sleeping on the floor next to me. I was feeling excited and terrified about my circumstances all at once. Uncertainty was pervasive, and I had no idea what to do next. Unfortunately for me, this was the theme of most of my living situations throughout my life.

I moved from that apartment, and in with another childhood caregiver of mine briefly, then to an apartment with one of my previous roommates. Only this time, I just moved into their entry way and didn’t ask if I could stay there. I cringe a little thinking about this now, but I felt one step away from being homeless. And again, survival took precedence. And that apartment was so dirty that it should have been condemned. How we felt about ourselves was definitely reflected in our surroundings.

Even when I was married, my feelings of drifting were still pervasive. The apartment we lived in felt comfortable, felt a good expression of our personalities and cleaner than the others I had lived in, but it didn’t feel like home. I was still reliving the patterns of my past, while avoiding the responsibility of being my own man. My now ex-wife was looking for someone who was just along for the ride. I was looking for some guidance in the form of someone making all the decisions I needed made for me, and she was looking to tell someone what to do.

So with all of these past experiences of what feels like drifting through life, what’s changed? How have I taken the reigns of my life, and as my boss says, “get behind the wheel and drive my own life bus”? It starts with recognizing where you are and where you’d like to be. Also, what you want out of life.

Lessons On Life Some Of Us Never Get

There were quite a few lessons I never received before I was kicked out of my house. One being how to budget. Another being how to care for my nutritional needs… The list goes on. But I feel the most important lesson I missed out on was, where I’d like to be and who I wanted to be as I matured.

My caregivers were too concerned with how others saw them to be their own people. This left me with almost no role models to show me how to be confident in who I was, but more importantly, foster me as I was cultivating and exploring my interests, likes and dislikes. I was hustling for my caregivers approval, only they never felt approved of. So in-turn, they didn’t know how to approve of others, or nurture my budding interests.

These basic feelings of not measuring up were pervasive in my family, and ones that were handed down through the generations. We just didn’t know how to break the cycle of looking for approval from others instead of looking for acceptance of ourselves. For my caregivers, this manifested in cleaning to the point of being sterile, but also in buying things we didn’t need.

We were constantly shopping in our family. I remember vividly in one of my apartments, looking through the Pottery Barn catalogue, at my Pottery Barn desk, circling the things that I wanted in my dwelling, while I was sleeping on a futon mattress without a bed frame. Another thing I never learned how to do was to prioritize my need. I got caught up in the same trap of trying to curate a personality by the things I bought and surrounded myself with. It was a sad and lonely place to be. But it was also all I knew and had modeled for me growing up.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that no matter what I bought, it wasn’t going to bring me a sense of a sustained happiness. I could look how I wanted to look, play the right part, but that’s not what would bring me a deep sense of joy or satisfaction. In fact, I’m still looking for that sense of joy and happiness. I know that I’m much less anxious now that I’ve let the ideas that my surroundings have to fit the image portrayed in the pages of a catalogue. And think a big part of the puzzle is spending time with those who support and love me.

Cleaning Cabinets Even When They’re Going To Be Torn Down

As I’ve said above, I work at a family shelter part-time as direct care. This means I help the guests with their daily needs, such as doing laundry for them or getting them food items they may need. But between fulfilling my duties, there is a lot of down time. So it wasn’t too long ago that I decided to take on some projects that needed some love and attention around the house.

I started in the kitchen and for good reason, it was a mess. The cabinets had what looked like years of grease and grime rubbed into every crevasse across their surfaces. And if you opened them, they weren’t in much better shape.

The only way I can describe them is that it looked as though an animal had been nesting in them. There were packages torn open with their contents strewn about the shelves. There were piles of things in no particular order or reason. It was a mess. So I started by scraping and scrubbing the cabinet exteriors.

There was so much caked on grease that I was using a butter knife to clean it off the way you would use a putty knife to scrape off excess plaster from a wall. It reminded me of one of my first apartments, the one I moved into without asking. But the more I cleaned, the more the guests began to take notice.

They made comments about how hard I was working and how good the cabinets looked. It was nice to receive the compliment, but what I’m sure felt better was that someone was taking the time to care for the place where they cooked their meals. Later on, while I was cleaning the cabinets, my boss came over and told me we were going to tear down the cabinets in a few weeks due to a kitchen renovation, so I didn’t need to put so much effort into something that was going to be torn down anyway. But I continued cleaning all the same.

Mostly because I was almost done, and the cabinet really started to look good. But also because and more importantly, the guests were taking pride in their newly cleaned environment. The place they came to live because they were “homeless”, started to take on a new feeling. A feeling of being cared for, paid attention to. And later when I stocked the cabinet with the food from our pantry the way you would see the shelves stocked in a grocery, they started cooking and using the resources that were there for them to use in the first place. Only in a cleaner environment.

And these are the differences that a clean, inviting environment can imbue in a person living in them. A sense of pride in the place they call home. It really is amazing what a little love and attention can do for our surroundings. And if you think about it, it’s happening all around us. This is the reason why shows like “Fixer Upper” were so popular. They show what’s possible by simply taking care of the things that have been neglected.

Where is this true in your life? Instead of going out and buying something new to fill a need for change, is there something that is maybe right in front of you that could use a little TLC? I’ve almost stopped buying new things completely and have thrifted most of my major purchases in recent years. I still have the desk from Pottery Barn, but it’s now probably 15 years old and I’ll be keeping it for years to come. And most importantly, it doesn’t define my personality anymore. I am more than the desk I own, but rather now it’s an extension of my personality.

So take some time and take stock of the things you bring into your life. Ask yourself, “why do I like this so much?” Is it because it’s pleasing to you and adds comfort to your life? Or is it something you’re trying to build a life style or self image around? Because that maybe the difference between you finding things that fit your personality and finding personality by buying things. Peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Dirty kitchen sink from a condo in Palm Springs” by Eco Bear Biohazard Cleaning Co. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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