Monday, December 20, 2010

Cornered, Blessed, and Stressed

So, ummm. Hello. What was I talking about again?

Tomorrow is the darkest day of the year, so as usual I'm spacey, teary, and easily overloaded by just about any stimulus more stimulating than sitting quietly with one child on my lap, practicing guitar, or reading in a corner. Naturally what I get is three of them having a screaming contest, or taking turns slamming doors.

This year has seen the Potts family go through a lot of stressful transitions.

We've moved from Ann Arbor to Saginaw. We bought a huge old house with good fundamentals (a sturdy foundation and roof) but lots of issues. Expensive issues. The initial round of home improvements went far over budget, but it was one of those situations where the damage was not all visible until everything was torn out.

We were blindsided with some emergency issues we had to dump money into, in order to avoid having our homeowner's policy cancelled (and mortgage jeopardized).

I don't have a figure for our December gas and electric bill, but I'm anticipating that it will be upwards of $750. We have most of our windows and one fireplace covered in plastic sheeting but we were really late in getting everything weatherized. We're new to this. Maybe the January bill will be lower. Or maybe it won't. Anyway, it's freezing in here. We have the thermostats set at 56. I'm wearing layers and layers and fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm enough to type as I write this in my home office.

Speaking of home office, transitioning to working at home has been more difficult than I anticipated as well. In some ways it is great. In others it just feeds into my tendency to feel isolated, and the natural tendency towards isolation that comes when an introvert does programming work to begin with. Do it for enough days, and fail to leave the house in the evenings, and soon I become afraid to leave the house, almost paralyzed.

I know what major depression and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder feel like; I've been on medications -- several of them, a whole series and litany of them, years of them, with a whole checklist of disturbing side effects -- in the past. Anxiety and depression have been pretty much  my lifelong companions. A psychiatrist I worked with briefly said something that I will always remember: that in his experience, people don't actually suffer from episodes of depression (unless they are actually bipolar, I suppose). Depressives are depressive. It's just better or worse.

I know how it feels when it gets truly debilitating. I know what it's like to spend nearly entire weekends sleeping, and what few hours I spent awake, crying. I'm not there anymore, for which I am grateful. Nor am I hitting the whisky too hard; I want a glass of whisky now and then. Perhaps three nights a week, I'll have one. Perhaps one night a week, I'll have two. It takes the edge off a houseful of screaming kids and a to-do list I will die before finishing. If I start wanting one too badly I decide that I'd better not have one, and so I've managed to avoid actually "needing" a scotch. I've emptied three bottles since I moved up here the last day of May. Only three bottles.

I know what helps: quiet socializing. Writing. Playing music. Reading. Socializing. Usually it's the thing I feel least like doing. Exercising. Which I also don't feel like doing. But I've gradually learned to make myself do the things I don't want to do. Because it helps.

None of my friends have come to visit us in our new home. Actually, that's not quite true. One did, but then he decided he was angry at me because I didn't get a message that he had called, and told me I was never to speak to him again.

Grace has been going to school to get her Montessori certification. I'm happy and excited about that. It means he's gone every other weekend, but I can do the Mister Mom thing and even enjoy it, at least with Isaac's help. But what I don't enjoy is when the checks go through, especially if she wrote some that she didn't tell me about. I was blindsided this morning by $350 in checks that I had not planned for.

It's the Monday before Christmas and our bank balance is a big negative. I get paid again in a few days. I've dumped every bit of our savings into our checking account but we'll still hit our line of credit for almost the last remaining available balance. Our credit cards are in the freezer. They are both quite small as credit cards go, and we've been paying down modest balances of perhaps $2500 in total. There's a loan against my 401K. We have to finish paying off the no-interest loan on the flooring. And we have a line of credit against our checking account that has crept up to about $3,000.

There's really nothing else. So we're going to be starting 2011 without a net. I'll be suspending all retirement contributions. We don't want to take out a home equity line, not six months after moving, but if we want to get on top of some issues like a refrigerator that is failing, we may have to.

My mother-in-law's furnace broke and she was without heat. Her prescription health care policy was cancelled and she had to start rationing her heart medication while they scrambled to find some other kind of drug coverage. She had another heart attack and wound up in the hospital, and had to come home to a cold apartment. She asked us if we could help her pay for a new furnace. We couldn't. I'm expecting at some point she will also need help for this latest round of medical bills what haven't even been billed yet. They will be astronomical. I think we're already helping pay down, very slowly, some of her bills from a previous hospital visit. I don't think we'll be able to help any more than we are.

My paycheck deduction to my work-provided health care plan is going up, at the same time that they are migrating to a cheaper plan. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan announced that premiums on our old plan are going up 41%. Five years ago, when I started this job, there was no paycheck deduction; it was fully covered by my employer. Now, we will be paying more, our co-pays are going up, and fewer services will be covered. Welcome to health care reform. It sure is great that we got that bill passed. Thank God we don't have a single payer system, like all those other countries where it doesn't work.

Everything is going up, except I haven't had a cost-of-living increase or raise of any kind in five years.

Our food expenses have gone up, and we can't find decent meat that we feel comfortable feeding our children. We have to drive farther and pay more. We've been buying meat from sources we trust on our trips down to Ann Arbor. That's not really sustainable.

The school we decided was acceptable for our oldest son is 16 miles away, so we're driving an extra 64 miles a day. It now costs over $40 to fill the gas tank on the van. Between this and Grace's twice-a-week travel, we're spending at least $400 a month on gas. I could add it all up and figure it out, but I can't bring myself to do it. When we put all the basic budget numbers together, based on what seems to me to be a not-terribly-luxurious lifestyle, it's a little more than I take home.

I took the kids movies twice this fall; that felt like a luxury. Searching out eggs and meat that we feel we can safely eat does not feel like a luxury. We mostly cook at home from raw materials. When we do eat out, which is infrequently these days, it's been the Chinese buffet lunch (four kids plus dad for under $25; the teenager can put away several plates, which at least slows him down).

We've had to put Sam on a gluten-free diet. A lot of are old standby dishes (pasta salads, for example) are now verboten and we are confused a bit about that. On the plus side, the reduction in carbs has been good. I've lost at least fifteen pounds since I moved up here. On the minus side, I've replaced some of the carbs with fats. My cholesterol probably isn't up to any good.

We still have a Netflix subscription, but we never get time to watch our DVDs, so I'll be cancelling that. We could do the streaming thing, but I'm afraid of having a computer anywhere near where the kids can reach it. We don't have cable TV. We bought a small handful of DVDs on sale last month. I finally saw Star Wars Episode 3. Wow, was it ever horrible.

The DVDs feel like a luxury. Being able to give the kids a video to watch doesn't; it feels like a way to have a few minutes of sanity. We don't have cable, or want it, except for Internet, and sprung for high-speed; that's so I can keep my build servers and code checkouts with work without taking days to bring down files. So: not a luxury, but part of the cost of working from home. Which was supposed to save us money.

I have bought one or two books a month that I probably shouldn't have. I'm feeling really, really guilty about those Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks hardcovers I bought a few months ago, and even the Stephen King Dark Tower paperbacks look like a bad idea from my perspective today. Especially since Joshua climbed the bookcases, pulled them down, and half-destroyed them.

We do have two cars. They are seven and fifteen years old. Is that a luxury? Having a second car is part of the cost of working from home; on a given day, I might have to drive to one of the other offices, and can't leave Grace unable to get the kids to and from school.

I have a home studio and a bunch of guitars. I'd consider selling some of them, but most of them I bought at very low prices, choosing somewhat rare instruments which have no real cash value now, in the hopes that they will eventually go for more than I paid for them. The market for used instruments is not good now. I'd wind up taking a big loss on them -- if I was able to sell them at all. It would be heartbreaking to have to sell the ones that I play regularly. I wouldn't be able to get much for them, but they have a lot of value to me. No one has any money. That's what a recession is. That's the biggest reason I was able to get most of them so cheap in the first place.

We're going to have a new baby in April or so. I'll probably have to pay quite a bit more out of pocket than I did for the previous two children. Out of the same take-home.

We had a big pile of cash on hand. We dumped almost all of it into the house. We knew it would be a money pit, and we'd thought we were pretty well-prepared. We weren't quite well-prepared enough. I guess it's a case of not quite believing it until you've experienced it.

I was saving up money to help an online friend come out from Scotland so we could collaborate on some music in person. I think we just blew that money. Maybe I can return some of it to savings and we can still make it happen somehow, but it is looking pretty doubtful.

I was saving up some money to finish putting up acoustic panels and foam in the studio room.

I was saving up some money to get the brakes fixed on the van. They aren't dangerous yet but they need some major work in early 2011.

I'm blessed in many ways; we have food on the table; we have a marvelous place to live. I have a job. I earn a good living. Or what used to be a good living. It's complicated. Inflation and increased expenses have made it barely a middle-class living, now. I don't think there is much of a middle class anymore, is there? The "social contract" that I grew up with has had most of the air let out of it, it seems. Basic things, like being able to send your child on a bus to his or her school.

Our water bill is almost $90 a month, which I think is at least four or five times what we'd be paying per month in Ann Arbor. Most of that isn't measured usage, it's the regular monthly fees.

When we were planning this, we determined that our mortgage payments plus insurance and taxes, which are all rolled together, would be less than our monthly rent in Ann Arbor. That seemed promising. We were even talking about being able to pay extra principal-only payments to get our house paid off faster. Maybe we can get there, but we're not talking about it right now. Not until we can get our burn rate way down.

I have a wonderful wife and four terrific children. We're not buying them any Christmas presents, getting a tree, or decorating the house. I spent $25 on a whole bunch of candles, and we put them in the fireplace we can't afford to buy wood for, or have inspected for safety. They are very pretty.

They burn out really, really fast.

Some friends were going to come over for dinner with their kids, and we made a bunch of fancy dishes from the food in our fridge and freezer. We were going to turn out the lights and watch the candles and let their kids play with our kids. They cancelled on us.

I have 232 friends on Facebook.

So why do I feel like such a lonely failure?


JoAnn in VA said...

Praying for you, Paul. I have been there, and yes, you are under a lot of burdens right now, so the stress you are feeling is a normal reaction to it. Sometimes taking a half hour to go sit in the closet and cry does feel like the best solution- as long as you remember to get out of the closet!
Would it be possible for your mother in law to come and stay with you until her house gets heat again? You and your wife will be able to moniter her needs, and she might be able to run some interference with the kids for you when you need to work.
As to the chimney-I grew up with one, and do not remember it ever being inspected If you know how to get it to draw properly, and watch it closely, and have a good mesh screen to stop the sparks and to keep the small ones out of it, it should be ok as well as providing you with heat you need. Dead wood, local construction projects which have resulted in piles of former trees along the road, etc are all great places to get wood from. The house I grew up in was 100 years old when we moved in- and that was 40 years ago. Once source of heat only, an oil burning furnace with one register, so tht fireplace was really nice in the winter. Hot water bottles are also nice, as are rice socks nuked in the microwave- they retain a lot of heat for a long time.
As to the depression- I wish I could hug you all! Consider this a cyber hug till we can meet face to face though, ok?
<3 JoAnn

Paul R. Potts said...

Grace pointed out to me that my little rant might sound to some like I'm begging for help. That's not really what was uppermost in my mind. I don't expect anyone to solve all this for me, nor do I think it's insoluble or insurmountable in any serious way. We have a great life. On the Mars-Venus spectrum this rant is me doing that so-called Venusian "just let me talk it out and make sympathetic noises even if you are smirking to yourself" thing. I'm more often than not behaving Martian but still sometimes need to let out my Venusian side, if that makes sense. So thanks for regarding this as a "normal reaction," because I think that's mostly what it is. A sane reaction to insane, or at least weird and challenging, times.

We never had our chimney inspected in the home I grew up in either, at least not frequently, but I am less sure of the chimneys/flues in this home. I don't know when they were last used. It could have been ten years. They look reasonably clean, from what I can see, but I can't see very much of them. The neighbors tell me there was an animal problem and there were raccoons living in one of them. I found some strange stuff stuck up one of them -- some duct tape and dust masks. That makes me nervous. I can't see all the way up them or down them because of the way the dual upstairs/downstairs flues twist. It makes me concerned there may be other stuff up them or down them. I don't want to start a fire in the chimney itself if there are animal droppings or tape or something else stuck up there. If we did manage to set part of the house on fire I would imagine we'd have a much stronger insurance claim if we had some kind of record that it was inspected and/or cleaned.

We actually have downed tree still in our yard, and we could burn that, except it needs a chainsaw to cut up, and not a small one; the trunk is huge. My family used to close shut off parts of our old house and use the fireplace plus kerosene heaters. I don't think we can actually do that in either section of this house. There are two separate furnaces, so the natural thing to consider would be just to turn one section off and seal up the doorways between the two sides. We have to keep the crawlspaces warm enough so that we don't have frozen pipes. We could seal off perhaps the downstairs bedrooms and bathroom by closing vents and doors, but they have crawlspace and pipes underneath them so I'm hesitant to set it lower than 55. The previous owner accidentally froze the pipes in the upstairs that way and it was a mess, apparently.

Re: my mother-in-law: she's largely restricted to a bed or a wheelchair, and there are no bedrooms on the first level. There's the family room and kitchen. It's not insurmountable but it would be hugely difficult. her heat is actually back on, so she and her sons seemed to find some way to finance it. That part was mostly over my feelings of frustration over not being able to help more!

The depression is so much better than it was. This time of year has never been fun for me, medication or not, and stressful events or not. I just get through it!

Matko said...

Hi Paul. You don't know me, obviously. But do tell me, did you ever google your name? You have a quite famous namesake. :)
This blog showed up in my google alerts.

If you can spare a moment, have a look at this vid and meet Paul R Potts from South Wales, UK. Hope you like it.

Paul R. Potts said...

Hi Matko,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I'm aware of the other Paul Potts! He and I actually had a brief chat on Twitter not too long ago (I am paulrpotts on Twitter) when he saw me gripe that he had made it nearly impossible to find my videos or writings by using Google. Seems like a nice guy. I have no idea if we might be actually related. I like all different styles of music (although the kind I make is usually more folk/rock/techno-ish).