Things Dysfunctional Parents Don’t Teach Us About: Living Spaces

Parks and Recreation: Season 3, Episode 15. “The Bubble”

While leaving and recovering from an abusive home requires a lot of psychological effort, there are also a lot of more tangible things that go into moving forward.  Sometimes when we are worn out from trying to psychologically understand and cope with our past or present abuse, concrete planning can be a helpful antidote.  I know for myself that I spent many hours planning my “getaway” as a younger person, and while only a few of those plans ever got enacted, it was the planning that gave me hope.

For many people raised by abusive parents, finding a home of their own to live safely and freely in is an important goal.  However, abusive parents frequently work against their children gaining independence, and are usually unhelpful and uninformative when it comes to moving out and living as an adult.

Acquiring A Living Space

Let me start by saying I have lived in a limited number of places: a college town in western Massachusetts and a neighborhood outside Washington DC, in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  I have on multiple occasions done serious housing searches in New York City, and intend to move there this summer.  Your mileage may vary when using this information in other places.

Every city operates slightly differently, so use the internet to your advantage and talk to locals.  When moving to a city it can feel like you have to already live there to find housing there, but with persistent Craigslist surfing it is very possible to find something.  Housing near a college or university tend to have many opportunities for subletting — especially in the summer months.  But whether in a rural or urban area, the presence of a college or university means higher rents than nearby places.

Renting

I can only speak about what it’s like to rent a place to live, not to buy, as I have never bought a house or apartment!  I think it’s reasonable to assume most people’s first living spaces away from their parents, especially difficult parents, is a rented space since buying is an expensive commitment.

Searching

When you’re looking for a place to live, Craigslist is your friend.  Craigslist allows you to search by location, price, size, and other options.  Their map option is very helpful when you’re looking to move to a city you may not know very well, as you can visually see where the apartments are, rather than trying to learn street names.  Craigslist also allows you to find places with roommates if your budget is tight.  Another site is Zillow, though this tends to be more for buyers.

Something to be cautious of when using Craigslist or other listings to find housing is scams.  Be wary of listings with few words and no pictures and never send money electronically before confirming that the listing is legitimate.  If the place you’re looking at is in a major city, chances are you can find information about the building and landlord online.  There are larger sites like Review My Landlord and Apartment Ratings and also smaller sites for specific cities and towns.  Google is your best friend.

Leasing

Renting an apartment or house in the US tends to require a lease of some kind.  Typically this lease is defined by a number of months you are expected to be staying in a place.  Most leases are 6 or 12-month, while some are month-to-month.  Signing a lease with a certain number of months means you are responsible for the rent for all of that time and if you need to break the lease to move, you have to pay a fee or find a way to sublet.  Month-to-month leases don’t require this type of commitment.  In my experience, 12-month leases are the most common and month-to-month the least.  In DC, all leases are 12-month to start, but are required to roll into month-to-month after the first year.  So while renting an apartment on a new lease requires signing for 12-months, it is possible to find a sublet situation that is month-to-month.

When you sign your lease, you are expected to pay your first month’s rent plus a few possible fees.  Most common is a security deposit — usually between a quarter of a month’s rent to a full month’s rent.  This security deposit is used to pay for any damages done to the place after you move out.  Damages tend to be larger issues like holes in the wall, as opposed to small carpet stains, though this varies from landlord to landlord.  If you cause no damage during your stay, your security deposit is given back to you, with interest.  Sometimes landlords will ask for last month’s rent when you move in as well.  Last month’s rent, in addition to your employment information, is used to verify that you can afford the place you are renting.  Many people refer to these three payments made when moving in as “first, last, and security” and it frequently totals three times a month’s rent.

Another somewhat avoidable fee is a broker’s fee.  Real estate agents will charge fees for helping you find apartments, and will sometimes post listings to Craigslist and still require you to pay them their fee if you find their listing.  A real estate agent can be extremely helpful when moving to a new place if you can afford their fee, but the fees can be quite hefty, so I have personally always relied on my prowess of internet surfing.

If you rent an apartment, make sure to read your leasing agreement and keep a copy of it for reference.  It contains information about what kind of utility payments and repairs you and the landlord are each repsonsible for, as well as instructions for how to break your lease or sublet to another person.  Should you have any disputes with your landlord, having your leasing agreement will be crucial to knowing your rights and responsibilities.

Utilities

Utilities refer to monthly costs for services like electricity, gas, water, internet, and more.  Sometimes these utilities will be included in your monthly rent cost and sometimes you will be expected to pay for these separately.  Everyone has different wants when it comes to landlines, cable channels, and internet speeds, so these services are usually not included in rent and are left up to the tennat to set up and pay for.

The benefit to having utilities included in your monthly rent is that every month rent and utilities will cost the same amount, making this large expense very predictable.  Depending on the building and landlord, having a utility such as heat included in your rent may mean that you do not have control over that utility.  In an apartment complex it may be easy to have thermostats in each unit, whereas in an old apartment building there will be one control on a lower level for the whole building.

While included utitlies mean a predictable expense, indivudally paid utilities can be managed and kept at a relatively low cost.  For example if your electricity is not included in your rent, you can make the effort to keep televisions, monitors, microwaves, and other large appliances unplugged when not in use and be cautious of excessive air conditioning use.

Subletting

Subletting is when the holder of a lease decides they do not want to continue living at the place they are renting for the entirety of their lease.  If you are renting a place and decide you need to sublet your apartment, you are responsible for finding the person to take over your place in the lease.  Just like Craigslist can help you find a place to sublet, they can also help you find someone to sublet your apartment.  Usually, when a lease holder decides to sublet their place, they will have to pay a portion of the rent to make the sublet rate low enough to appeal to others.

Subletting an apartment from another person is a really great way to begin your experience renting.  While you may be required to provide proof of income and sign a sublet agreement, the period of time and amount of money you are be held responsible for is usually less than signing a lease on your own.  If you are subletting through the end of the lease, you may be offered a chance to takeover the lease.

Subsidized Housing

Subsidized housing is when the government pays some of the rent to provide affordable living to low-income people.  It can take three shapes: privately owned rentals subsidized by the government, public housing provided by the government, and rentals that accept Section 8 vouchers.  To determine what version of subsidized housing, if any, you qualify for, will require some research.  Most often, subsidized housing is restricted to low-income single parents or families, people with disabilities, and the elderly.  For more information, you can start by looking at the US Housing and Urban Development website or the website of the equivalent organization in your area.

Shelters

Unfortunately, in most places, people under 18 cannot rent their own place to live.  Of course staying with a safe friend or relative is desirable, but if this is not possible, shelters are an option as well.  There are many services online to help people under the age of 18 find safe places to stay.  Public libraries tend to have computers that you can use for free without fear of being watched as you might be at home.  One of the best resources for homeless youth in Canada, the US, and Latin America is Covenant House.  Covenant House not only provides safe living space but also provides job training and other support.

The troubling part of US laws around people under the age of 18 is that they are technically not able to consent to things on their own.  This consent extends to staying in a shelter.  Once you have contacted a shelter, they may allow you to stay 8 to 24 hours but expect that within that time frame either a guardian or CPS officer will consent to you staying there for you.  In the US, contacting Child Protective Services (or equivalent organization where you are) can be a messy affair, but if you can prove to them that your home and parent is dangerous, they can be helpful.  Many shelters are emergency overnight shelters or temporary shelters providing housing for a couple of weeks, though some, like Covenant House, provide longer-term help.

Maintaining A Living Space

Once you find a new place to call your own, it’s good to know how to keep it a nice place to live.  Not only do many abusive parents work to keep their child from being independent and from moving out, they also can fail to teach us the basics of maintaining a living space.  I was lucky enough to have one sane parent in addition to my narcissistic father, and most of what I know about repairing and cleaning a house I learned from my mom.  The internet is an extraordinary place: you can learn everything from the most basic to the more challenging home repairs from YouTube tutorials.  It’s a good idea to have tools before find yourself in a situation where you need one.  Tool sets are a good way to start if you don’t know what tools to get.  I have this one and it has saved my butt repeatedly.

Repairing

If you are renting your place, most major repairs will require calls to the landlord, who will in turn call the plumber, electrician, or other specialist.  Typically you call a landlord to fix something that you cannot fix yourself, either for safety reasons (electricity, gas, oil, etc.) or because your solutions haven’t worked (toilets, drains, pests, etc.).  Things to call a landlord for repair would include fridges, stoves, seemingly unclogable sinks and toilets, power outages, structural issues with doors, walls, etc. and pests that you are unable to get rid of.  When faced with a problem that is difficult to solve, it’s common for people with abusive parents to feel it is their fault that they cannot solve the problem.  Calling a landlord or a repairman is nothing to be ashamed of — everyone has things break!

Clogged drains

The best way to fix a clogged drain is to avoid clogging it by being mindful of what goes down it.  Most sinks have strainers in the drain, and a hair catcher over a bathtub drain goes a long way.  Sinks with garbage disposals are very risky to put your hand down.  Personally, garbage disposals are one of my biggest anxieties, so I never attempt to retrieve things with my hand.  A long spoon can get the job done (I have found packs of wooden spoons for very cheap at the hardware store).

I know of two options for unclogging a bathtub drain: manually and chemically.  Manually requires use of a “snake” — essentially a long pipe cleaner — to push the clog along.  Chemicals are poured down the drain and dissolve a clog in under an hour.  No matter which method you choose, never use a snake after using chemicals as you can pull the chemicals back up on the snake and get nasty chemical burns.

Pests

Especially in a city, pests can show up out of no where.  I think just like it’s easy for those of us with abusive parents to feel excessive shame over something breaking, it can be easy to feel ashamed for having a pest problem.  If you’re in an apartment building, it’s common for other people’s filth to attract pests that then come into your space.  Climate also plays a role, especially when it comes to things like roaches.  Getting rid of roaches is a task of work, but most likely a landlord will be willing to do extermination as it is in their interest too.  Other common insect pests include bed bugs, which are very difficult to remove and definitely require speaking to a landlord about extermination.

To get rid of roaches, I have had luck using a mix of boric acid, sugar, and flour as a bait in places roaches are interested in (primarily the kitchen and bathroom).  The boric acid is toxic to insects but not to humans (though it is not safe for pets to ingest), the sugar attracts insects, and the flour will create a pasty texture if you expose it to moisture.  My southern friends use grits in place of flour.  Making your place uninteresting to rodents means removing all access to food; keeping everything but canned goods in the fridge, removing food trash daily, and using tape or steel wool to block holes.  Steel wool prevents not only roaches, but also rodents from entering.  While I know this isn’t a solution for everyone, the best solution I know of for rodent pests is a cat.  Even a lazy cat that doesn’t like to mouse still smells like a cat, and rodents will stay away.  If you have the ability to care for one, a feisty mouser would have a happy home chasing your rodent pests.

Holes in Walls

One of the most common damages left when moving out of an apartment are holes left in the wall from push pins or nails used to hang decorations.  Luckily, this is also one of the easiest damages to fix!  Get some spackle, a spackle knife, fine grain sandpaper, and wall paint to start.  Use the spackle tool to spread the tacky white spackle over the holes and smooth it to the best of your ability.  Once the spackle has dried, sand the spot to make it even with the rest of the wall and paint over the spackle to disguise it.  Tiny pushpin and even small nail holes don’t usually need to be covered.  Holes left by larger nails and molly screws holding heavier decorations will probably need spackling.  In my experience, if you patch up small holes before moving out, landlords will not charge you for the damages since you have repaired them.

Cleaning

Most things in a home just need some basic upkeep and a once-over with a sponge is enough for a weekly cleaning.  In the kitchen I use dish soap for all surfaces unless I’m going for perfectionist cleaning, then I’ll use a stove-top specific cleaner for a better shine.  In the bathroom, I like Bon Ami since it’s a gentle cleaner that works for sinks and tubs.  A cleaner with bleach in it is great for a more intense cleaning, and is necessary if there’s any mold you’re trying to remove.  But bleach is nasty to work with, so I recommend wearing rubber gloves and having a window open or a fan going for ventilation.  My favorite way to clean mirrors and windows is using apple cider vinegar and newspaper.  It’s cheap, it’s safe, and it doesn’t leave any streaks.  Apple cider vinegar is also great for cleaning fancy glasses for this reason.

While “solid” flooring like hardwood, linoleum, and tile are pretty easy to clean with a broom or more intensively with soap, water, and a scrub brush, carpets pose more of a challenge.  Carpets get stained, it’s just a fact of living with carpets.  The best thing for a stain is to catch is while it is still damp: absorb as much as you can with paper towels.  Don’t wipe with the paper towels, as you can spread the stain.  Whether you’re dealing with a stain on carpet or clothing, use cold water as hot will set the stain.  The carbonation in plain seltzer water works wonders to lift stains, and if that’s not enough, you can get stain remover products like Shout and Oxy Clean online or at a grocery store.  In choosing a stain remover, the most important thing to be aware of is that bleach will remove color from fabric, and should only be used on white fabrics unless it’s a color-safe bleach.

Organizing

Organizing things is not easy, but it can feel really rewarding to have everything tucked away in a designated accessible place.  The thing I’ve learned over and over about organizing is to pay attention to how the stuff you’re organizing gets used.  Whether it’s big things like furniture and appliances or small things like utensils and clothes, there is probably a pattern in how you use them, which can be helpful in deciding how to organized.  I try to pay attention to things that frustrate me about how my stuff is currently organized and adapt my organization to how I function.

I think organization can be tricky for children raised by abusive parents, because we are taught that our needs are less than others’ needs, so it can be difficult to tune into your own requirements.  And there’s nothing wrong with finding it relaxing to be slightly cluttered or pin neat — however it makes you happy to live is acceptable, contrary to what our parents might have us believe.

Decorating

For children of abusive parents it can sometimes be very difficult to feel entitled to decorating a space as their own, safe that it will not be judged or damaged by others, and sometimes, even hard to know what we might like.  My advice is to try to let go of the fear of judgement as much as possible and collect things you enjoy looking at.  It doesn’t have to be expensive fine art to improve your surroundings!  I have a sheet of wrapping paper with a pen and ink skeleton diagram on it that I paid $2 for, but it fools most people as a poster.  Second hand shops can have some wacky art for cheap.

If you’re worried about what to say if people ask “why do you have that”, try to think of a single sentence answer to offer in return that you feel comfortable with.  For example, I have a collection of things with the Virgin Mary on them because, while I am not religious, her image was a comfort to me in childhood and I’ve entertained myself as an adult collecting usual and unusual Virgin Mary paraphernalia.  I often am asked “why do you have that virgin mary lighter/bath towel/flash drive shaped like a skateboard?” but don’t always want to share the childhood stories behind my attraction to the imagery.  So I tell people I like the artistry of the images and that I have an academic interest in religion; two true statements that spare me awkward descriptions of my childhood.

This post is the first in a series I am writing, called “Things Dysfunctional Parents Don’t Teach You About”.  Other posts will focus on food, physical health, personal hygiene, finances, socializing, self integration, and more!  I decided to write this series because I want to offer concrete advice to others who have survived childhood abuse.  Especially with Narcissistic and Borderline parents, there seems to be a trend of not teaching vital life skills to children.  I’m no expert at life skills, but I’m compiling my knowledge here in the hopes that it might help other children of dysfunctional homes who are planning, beginning, or continuing their life away from their abusive parents.  I am very open to input, so if there’s a topic you’d like me to cover or advice you’d like to add, please don’t hesitate to comment!

And always remember, no matter what anyone’s had you believe,

you deserve a safe and nice place to live!
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