Before you imagine me cutting up my credit cards at Gamblers Anonymous or checking myself into heroin rehab, let me give you a hint: I'm doing what millions of law-abiding, mortgage-paying, Home-Depot-visiting Americans do every year: indulging in home remodel mania.
For us, it started as a job that was to cost $60,000 in home equity funny money and take about six weeks. Now it's been over four months and the jobsite still looks like a demolition zone -- and the cost overruns, well, if I go into specifics, I might break out into hives. Let's just allow those numbers to remain in the tule fog of my subconscious.
But where does one go when suffering from the remodel job from hell? Bafflingly, the 12-step empire, which seems to cover all other areas of emotional turmoil, has neglected to open the first chapter of Home-Improvement Anonymous. Psychopharmacology has also failed to spin off a pill that will soothe the soul whose fixtures have been waylaid by a truck accident in China. Therapists tend to want to talk more about grief, dreams and childhood memories than leaky grout, moldy drywall and $1,200 cherrywood vanities.
But Rachel Cox, a marriage-and-family therapist based in Palo Alto, takes the potentially destructive power of home construction quite seriously. For the past two years, she has expanded her general practice to include a specialty in dealing with the strife that often erupts from remodeling. That's right: a shrink treating the sufferers of home expansion.
The idea came to her after working at her husband's small construction company, helping him with client communication. "I really saw a need for this kind of niche," she explained from her earth-toned office on Cambridge Street. "I come at this knowing both sides of the business, so I bring a lot of understanding to the process."
Typically, Cox works with couples (and occasionally business partners) whose orderly worlds have been shattered not only by the wrecking ball but by opposing perspectives on the remodel.
"They're overwhelmed and one or other of them is in a crisis," she says of her clientele. "These are people for whom money does matter -- it's not like they can spend endlessly."
Although no two cases are alike, Cox says that usually it's one person doing all the work while the other person worries about money and wishes it would all go away. This mundane conflict often leads the couple into darker emotional territory. But Cox says she tries to take the marriage and all its baggage out of the picture and help the couple problem solve the nitty-gritty details of the job and each partner's responsibilities. "I try to figure out what people are good at. Are you good with numbers, or talking to the contractor? Maybe one person can take on the responsibility of picking out the appliances."
Sound like a flimsy reason for seeking the help of mental health professional? (The poor rich people can't figure out how to pick out their appliances! Boohoo!) That would have been my attitude before this fall, when I blithely stumbled into a remodel project of an extreme fixer-upper we'd bought. I was smugly certain of my ability to buy all recycled products, manage a jobsite 90 minutes away without neglecting my job, my family, my ... you got it, my mental health. Ha! From the first, I was devoting up to 20 hours a week to the project (from a life that doesn't have two hours to spare, much less 20).
My husband remained blissfully ignorant about what I was complaining about. Cox says the conflict often falls along these stereotypical gender lines, with the woman overseeing the jobsite while her husband grows increasingly judgmental and stressed over their expenditures. But not always. "Generally, it's the person who pushed for the remodel job that gets stuck with all the work," she says.
Cox encourages couples to negotiate on the details of the job. She recalls one couple whose conflict was focused on a single light fixture that the woman wanted to buy and the man thought was too expensive. "He ended up letting her have the fixture, but in exchange he got to have brick in the backyard instead of the slate."
For people about to embark on the process she has plenty of general advice. Get used to spending big money. Move out of the house if at all possible. If you must stay in the house, take vacations to get away from the fumes and reconnect with your family. Determine in advance each person's responsibilities. Visit the jobsite when no workers are around so that you can imagine yourself living there and thus make decisions that actually matter to your lives, rather than go along with whatever the contractor or architect is telling you.
But for all her brass-tacks pragmatism, Cox doesn't regard the remodel as simply a bartering ground for affluent couples to work out their consumer-dependent lifestyles. "It can be an amazing creative process," she says. "I think that going through it can give you a better sense of yourself -- it brings the unconscious into consciousness. Sometimes it can lead to deeper growth. The character of a person comes out."
And this character, Cox explains, sometimes comes up wanting. Recently a man returned to see her after his remodel job was over. Originally, it was his wife who was much more involved and enthusiastic about the project. "He'd been the tightwad, the one who just wanted it to end. But when it did end, he started getting depressed," Cox says. "He started asking himself, 'I have a castle, what now? Don't I have any other meaning in my life?'"
The idea of a home remodel leading to this sort of soul-searching may sound unlikely, but it also makes sense simply because of the sheer size of the project. For most of us without a company to run or a country to govern, remodeling our home is the largest act of manifesting our imagination that we will ever experience. In this light, it's not so strange to see the whole process as something that might unmask deeper issues. "Sometimes it makes people realize that they want some sort of creative outlet, or that they need a job," says Cox.
Remodeling can even develop into an addiction of sorts, says Cox. For these people the process may be more of a tool for avoiding their children or their spouses. "It's not always healthy," she says. "There are some people who can't wait to start again. They want to sell the home and buy a fixer. Even though the process was hell, they just can't stop."
Although I vow never to go there, I understand the peculiar thrill of safe disaster that remodeling visits upon our lives. As I tell Cox my tale of woe -- the delays, the skyrocketing costs, the four vacations taken by my contractor -- her eyes widen. When she looks at me and says empathetically: "How awful. Even to me, that seems extreme," I feel a strange rush of satisfaction. Extreme, yes, that's just the word.