Have you ever come home from work to find that your roommate is out and you have the whole place to yourself? When you’ve been feeling short on privacy, this is heaven. There’s no need to explain yourself, you can just be. But this NEVER, EVER happens when your roommate is under house arrest, because a) he will always be home, and b) he will be lonely and super-duper happy to have company. Throw in an addictive personality and near-zero impulse control, and you have the perfect recipe for an exhausting home life.
The summer I started living with no fixed address, I, now a professional pet sitter, had lived in my client’s homes for a month and a half straight, but I needed a place to crash for a couple of weeks until my next client left town. Harry had been begging me to come stay with him, so I decided to crash his apartment the first time I needed a roof over my head, partly to make him happy, but mostly to get this difficult experience out of the way so that every other roommate afterwards would seem amazing.
Harry, a rapid-cycling bipolar and very outgoing chap, would normally be out socializing 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, but his social circle shrank once he could no longer leave his home. Since he was always so happy to see me when I got home from work, I would spend at least an hour or two listening to him talk before I could even get past the front entrance. If he was still feeling rather needy and rambunctious, he would then try to initiate wrestling matches for the rest of the day. He was 35 going on 7.
Oh yeah, and for context, I was doing shift work at an ER during that season of my life, so you can imagine how badly I needed a safe space to relax. Not happening. Not in this home. Fortunately, this was only a short-term stay. At least that’s what the plan was.
I was repeatedly shocked by how incapable he was of understanding basic social cues, and by cues, I mean everything from body language and tone of voice, all the way up to telling him, “You’re annoying me. Go away!” One day, I decided to stop telling him when to back off and see how long it would take him to take the hint.
I let him talk my ear off one evening, as usual, then announced (as it was a hot summer day) that I needed to take a shower. He followed me into the bathroom, still talking. (Seriously, who follows somebody into the bathroom?) I told him again that I was going to get in the shower. He continued to talk. I gave him the “it’s time for you to go away now” look, but he kept on talking. I started ignoring him, hopped in the shower, and yet he still kept talking at me through the shower curtain.
Finally, around the time I was rinsing the shampoo out of my hair, he said, “Well I guess I’ll give you some space” and walked away. I said nothing. Inside my head I was thinking, “Gee, why now? Why not before? At this point, why ever? How ridiculous.
This was two weeks into my two week stay, and I started packing immediately after I finished getting washed up. I was so glad this nightmare was ending. While Harry was making it abundantly clear that I could come and stay with him anytime, my phone rang. It was my next client. She was cancelling her vacation. This meant I had nowhere to live the next day. Harry started jumping up and down with excitement, assuming I would be there for the next two weeks.
Panic tried to creep in, but I wouldn’t let it. I’m a healthcare worker. I’m trained to handle crises. The next two weeks couldn’t be the same as the previous two. It was time for an intervention. It was time to teach this man-child boundaries.
“All right!” I said. “I’ll stay. But some things are going to have to change, or you’re going to make a murderer out of me.” I started setting ground rules. As a man paper-trains his dog, so I started teaching Harry to how to control himself.
He pushed every limit, but I shot him down every time, and he started to learn. “No, I said we can’t wrestle tonight, and if you ask me again I’m leaving” worked pretty well. “I’m going to bed now, so we’re done talking. Good night” was also fairly effective. “In order for us to remain friends, you are going to have to stop asking me for money. Completely.” That was my favourite. (I was already helping him out financially in exchange for a place to stay.)
The next two weeks were hard on Harry, and even more exhausting for me, but we were actually getting along better, and that was a victory.
The day before i left, I’d had an unusually strenuous day in the ER, if you can imagine that, and was halfway to zombiehood when I walked in the door at Harry’s. There he was, sitting at the kitchen table, and he didn’t even acknowledge me. Across the table was a friend of his, who was similarly bipolar, and they were having an argument. In raised voices, they called each other stupid and delusional, and I was willing to bet that this argument would continue until one of them transitioned into a different mental state.
My hand was still on the door knob, so I slowly backed away, pulling the door closed behind me. I went straight to the pub. Three hours of beer and wings later, I came back to the apartment and found they hadn’t moved. I walked in, dominated the situation and threw out the guest (with no physical contact, in case you’re wondering) in less than a minute. I was done, so done with this. Nobody was going to get between me and a good night’s sleep, because I wasn’t going to have any of it.
As I loaded my car the next day, getting ready for the next client, Harry was sad. He invited me to stay with him anytime, and to visit even if I didn’t need a place to stay. I did visit him after that. Very infrequently.
The next time I needed a place to flop, I stayed with Faithful Frank, a diehard, trustworthy friend who is easy to be around.
In the years that followed, Harry actually did quite well for himself. He served the rest of his term at home, and went on to find a job, a girlfriend, and now even has a kid. He’s taking responsibility for himself, and I’m proud of him for that. And since the day I left that apartment, I’ve considered every roommate, no matter how difficult, a blessing.