Personal

The feelings are the path

We sold the rental house we owned up in Lebanon. The deal closed Friday.

You might remember that after a longtime tenant moved out early this year and we started renovations to rent it again, a beam supporting part of the house failed. Read about it here. Our son and his buddy, who have some experience repairing foundations, thought they could tackle it. But they soon realized it was over their heads.

As we looked through the rest of the property we realized it needed lots of costly repairs and updates, probably including demolishing the garage.

Leaning garage

After everything else we’ve lived through in the last three years, the stress of this was staggering. It overwhelmed us. We needed to step back. We locked the doors and walked away for a month, pretending the house did not exist.

This wasn’t the only thing going on in our lives. Both Margaret and I started new jobs this summer. Margaret’s mom passed away. There’s much more, equally impactful, but it all involves stories that belong more to other people than to me and so aren’t mine to tell.

Margaret and I finally agreed that we have neither the emotional nor the energy reserves to handle all of these rental-house projects. There was no good way for us to pay for it all anyway. So we got a Realtor, listed the house, and waited anxiously. After several weeks a flipper made a barely acceptable offer, which we eagerly accepted.

This house hanging over our heads was a source of constant worry and anxiety for me. I felt like I was being stalked by a wolf.

I’m easily anxious, and I feel things intensely. I probably learned to be anxious along the way but I was born with deep feelings.

I wish I had learned to handle my feelings when I was younger. But my family didn’t know what to do with me when I was lost in deep feelings, especially anger and sadness. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. What I learned to get through those formative years, unfortunately, was that I had to stuff my deep feelings down, put them away, pretend they weren’t happening.

As I entered adulthood I found this left me handicapped in forming healthy relationships and in handling stress.

Since then I’ve done a lot of work and have come a long way toward being able to handle myself. I learned that when my feelings run deep I need to pause and give them space to run their course. While I’m experiencing deep feelings, I don’t always think straight. Trying to think then often only prolongs those feelings needlessly. It’s best to just notice them, feel them, let them roll. When they subside and my head is clear, I can make good choices about what to do.

It often takes a lot of time for intense feelings to pass — hours, sometimes more than a day. I hate it. It robs me of the energy and attention to do things I’d rather do, and delays me taking needed actions on whatever triggered the feelings.

But I’ve made it work, and by my late 40s I had found greater equanimity than I’d ever known. Learning how to do this was the best gift I ever gave myself.

These last three years put me to the test. It has truly been one incredibly difficult thing after another. I didn’t have time to process one thing before two or three more piled on.

I’ve had to keep pushing forward. Hard choices kept needing to be made, and we made them. We had to keep working so that we could stay fed, clothed, and sheltered. Everyday life had to be lived — groceries bought, cars repaired, grass mowed, dinners prepared, bills paid.

Layered difficult feelings about our various challenges soon intertwined, became indistinct. I was just raw all the time and could only vaguely explain why.

I tried to cope with alcohol, a dead-end street that I detailed here and here. I tried to cope by escaping with Margaret on getaway weekends. Those were good for us, but only temporarily suspended reality. I tried to cope with leaning into my hobbies. I may have made more photographs in 2019 than in any other year of my life.

But mostly I’ve coped by being angry. Really angry. I’ve wanted to blame somebody, anybody for all of this. I’ve had to work very hard to keep from it.

I’ve also been well beyond my capacity for a long time. I’m in a sort of defense mode, pushing away hard everything that feels like a threat. I’ll bet if I could think more rationally about things I’d see most of them aren’t threats.

I finally figured out about a month ago that being in this angry defense mode feels safer than letting go and feeling what I actually feel about all that’s gone on.

So I’ve gone back to fundamentals. When a wave of hard feelings comes, I let it. I don’t judge it, I don’t try to figure out what triggered it, I don’t even label it as any particular feeling. I just let it happen.

Fortunately, these waves tend to come when I have quiet time alone, rather than in the middle of dinner or a meeting at work. Unfortunately, a lot of my quiet time alone comes after bedtime. I let the feelings roll for an hour, maybe two. But then if they haven’t passed I take one of the pills the doctor prescribed and am asleep within a half hour.

But while the feelings roll, I hold them loosely, and muster as much compassion as I can that I have to feel them at all. That we’ve had to experience all these serious difficulties. That we don’t know when good times will return.

These feelings are not here to harm me; they are not my enemy. They are not obstacles on my path. They are the path.

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31 thoughts on “The feelings are the path

  1. It sounds like you did as well as you could with that house. I am glad that you could remove that stress from your life. Even if it was only a little bit of the total, it was movement in a positive direction.

    It is good that you are working through these things in a healthy way. I seem to have developed the ability to compartmentalize things in my mind. It is a blessing for my mental state, but a curse by allowing me to put off dealing with unpleasant things way longer than is a good idea.

    • I suppose we all have our ways of coping. I have some ability to compartmentalize but it’s not enough to cover all of this that’s happened. Hence the booze.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    My Dad grew up with brothers in Evanston Illinois, and his parents had a few rental houses, which were a huge source of stress for him and his bros, ’cause they had to admin the things. My Mom always thought the way to security was through owning property and constantly nagged my Dad to buy starter 4 unit apartments, etc. and “get going”, my Dad would have nothing to do with anything like that and it was an unspoken rift between them for years until my mother gave up.

    What I’ve realized after years of being a photographer and talking to tons of people I was photographing in all walks of life, is that real-estate is a mixed bag. Most people I know that have “a few rentals” are out of it by the time they’re in their late 40’s, most don’t really make any money, just cover the taxes and upkeep until they sell out, and then hopefully, if they’ve taken care of the property, it might be a nice capital gain. For some reason, everyone thinks it’s the way to riches, and it really isn’t, if it’s not your primary business. I knew a guy that sold out of his multiple rentals by the age of 50, and he told me it’s not a life for people that can’t take a call at 3 am to fix a toilet, because you couldn’t pay people to do everything or you wouldn’t make any money.

    I learned a long time ago it was tough enough trying to figure out how to make a livable life doing something you loved every day, vs. all this ancillary stuff. When stress starts, downsize everything in your life!

    • That’s kind of my sense, as well, that to make real money renting houses you have to own a ton of them. A buddy of mine did that, and also built a property management service that he used for his own properties and offered to smaller landlords for a fee. And it was a lot of work, more than a full time job.

      I’m with you 100%: under stress, cut, cut, cut until you can manage it.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        One more thing I realized after I pressed the button, was that in 2009 and 2010, I was working for the Census while I was back in the Midwest taking care of my Mom. I was tasked with tracking down addresses that had zero census return. You would be amazed at the amount of the addresses that were upper flats of two-flat residential units that were empty. When I knocked on the lowers to talk to the owners, almost all of them said that they had rented them out until they paid down the mortgage, then they kicked the people out because renting to someone was such a drag and drain! I realized a lot of people couldn’t even put up with renting to one person!

        Also, I was working the paint deck at Lowe’s, until I could get another industry job, after my Mom died; and I remember helping a woman in her late 70’s or so, with picking paint to paint a house. She said: “…I just want to get out from under the stress of owning this house, get a little apartment, and spend the rest of my time reading library books and watching PBS.” I thought: “I hear you sister!”

  3. I identify with almost everything you wrote in this blog it’s crazy. The rentals, the crazy year of one thing after another, the anxiety that formed from being neglected as a kid. I was shaking my head the whole time saying to myself yup that’s how I feel too. Thank you for sharing. I’m also dealing with an illness that keeps me in bed a lot when all I want to do is go out and take pictures so getting angry and anxious is very easy. It’s very hard to let the feelings roll by.

    • I’m happy this connected with you today. Whenever I put myself out there like this I’m never really sure how it will go over. I’ve read on your blog about your illness and I have deep empathy. I live with a chronic condition as well, not nearly as impactful as yours, and I feel frustrated by how it limits me as well — so I can only imagine how you must feel.

  4. -N- says:

    Well said and expressed. Anger is almost always a defense mechanism and realizing it helps. I’m impressed by your insights and growth and especially your honesty about it all. Not an easy journey.

    In part, I think we lack community in much of our lives. Not community like in neighbors, but community in the sense of being able to share what you wrote about – fear, frustration, sadness – in short, emotions.

    A house hanging over your head can produce anxiety. We were in the same situation – we could make the mortgage, but we lost a lot of money every month on that rental. As my income varied monthly because of the way my pay was done, it made each month a challenge. Pride kept the house in our pocket too long. Finally, we admitted “defeat” and sold it, as you did, to a flipper. It was one of the best things we could do for ourselves financially, and while we felt like failures, that failure lead, and continues to lead, to financial successes.

    Nice article – thanks!

    • I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to where I am mentally and emotionally. You know, I don’t feel like I had a bad childhood. Dad was an ass to us sometimes, but there was love and stability in our home. Yet somehow I came out of childhood with some heavy damage that I’ve had to work on for a long time. It’s been like picking a giant lock. I think I’ve about got it picked and then I find another tumbler deep in there.

      I have a couple good friends in whom I can confide, and I’m fortunate to have them. I have a much lower need for privacy, I find, than most people. I find just talking about my troubles is cathartic, and I’m pleased by how often people have a perspective that materially helps me through. But I wish for greater community of the type you describe, as well. People doing life together in good circles of trust.

      I “inherited” this rental house when my wife and I married, as it was hers. I like to think that if the last three years hadn’t been so incredibly difficult I would have been up for the renovations and repairs. But the truth is, I’ve hated being a landlord. It’s not for me. I’m thrilled the house isn’t our problem anymore.

  5. First, congrats on getting rid of that rental property. A load off for sure. I have read this post three times so far this morning. Something here resonates with me. I need to let this settle in. Thank you for being so open–appreciated.

  6. Heide says:

    You are AMAZING, Jim. Very few people have this level of self-awareness, let alone after growing up in a family that didn’t deal well with feelings. I hope that selling the rental property will be the beginning of a new phase for you and Margaret that feels lighter and less stressful.

  7. You’ve probably heard “a boat is a hole in the water you pour money in to”.
    A house is just the land equivalent.
    I’ve got three, including the cabin, and can no longer manage keeping up with even one. Our rental house (which we never should have bought to begin with) goes up for sale next year.
    And I have to get a better grasp on the fact I’m no longer a one-man construction crew.

    • The one we’re left with is newer and therefore needs no major work. Thank goodness. Only challenge is that the vinyl siding likes to peel off in windstorms. Oh, and there’s a leak in the upstairs tub. But this is just regular life stuff.

  8. I just read my own life in a nutshell! I, too, must learn to let things “roll,” and know that they are not enemies. Thanks, Jim. Keep writing and keep photographing and keep posting.

    • I think a lot of men are deep feelers but we’re discouraged from talking about it openly. When the feelings come, it can be like a severe thunderstorm. Batten down the hatches and wait it out.

  9. I’m a real estate attorney. I will never own a rental unit. I will never develop property and look forward to the day my kids are established so I can sell my house and rent. Real estate is a tough business.

    • Faaaaaaaascinating. I see so many people who think owning a bunch of rentals is the road to prosperity. It looks like the road to headache to me. The one guy I know who owned something like 40 houses was always in court trying to collect back rent. Ick, no thanks.

      • Yep. My clients that do it well recognize and treat it as a job. Multiple units is pretty key. You can spread the admin “costs” over many places. You can hire part time/full time maintenance crews etc. Seattle is tough too. The value of the properties is so high the rent “return” doesn’t justify the cost.

        • Property values are famously lower here in Indiana, especially outside Indianapolis and its suburbs. If you want to get into the landlord biz here, pick a city like Terre Haute and suck up lots of good old houses for $60k each and go to town.

  10. Thank you for sharing with such honesty and emotion the troubles you’ve had. I’ve been reading your blog long enough now to have heard about many of the events you describe, and I just have to know that this stretch has to end for you, a better time will come. Like you, I’ve had a strategy for years of just pushing hard feelings down, and just moving forward. That can only work so long without damaging ourselves and our relationships. I hope that you can see your way through with the help and love of your family. I appreciate your art and your generosity of spirit in sharing with us your troubles. Wishing you better times.

    • Thank you Martin. You put your finger right on it: pushing hard feelings down creates damage, first internally and then externally. Yet so many men are conditioned to do it.

      Hard times always end. Here’s hoping the end of them for us is soon.

  11. dougd says:

    Jim, it sure is a benefit that you understand yourself well enough to guide yourself on the path. And anger is probably better than apathy or depression, if you are angry that means you care enough to be mad.
    Glad you could leave that house behind.

  12. Thanks for sharing. I needed this, especially today. For me the “letting go” that is such the trend nowadays, isn’t healthy for me. I’m trying to take unpleasant situations that cause deep waves, as learning experiences, instead of resisting. I’m 52 & just learning this. I have always “felt deeply” & am highly sensitive & my family still doesn’t have a wheelhouse for anything between “happy” or “we don’t talk about it. There is no middle lol.

    • I’m very happy that my post connected with you. I always feel some anxiety when I put myself out there in this way and am always pleased when someone says, “Oh heavens, me too.”

      I’m the same age as you and am astonished to find that even now life is a journey of learning. Sometimes I wish I could just sit at a plateau for a minute and enjoy how far I’ve come!

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