Thursday, December 1, 2016

Amber vs. Money

In an effort to return to blogging more regularly, I'm trying really hard to get away from the whole idea that every post I write has to be a meaningful, prolonged story. Don't get me wrong, I have some pretty amazing stories to tell. And I want to. And I plan to. But right now, I really just need to focus on resurrecting my habit of writing regularly. It's so good for me. So, I'm going to start this and work on it when I can and see where it goes.

I'm currently on my lunch hour at work. I had two options today: venture out in chilly weather to drive around aimlessly for an hour, wasting gas and potentially spending money I don't need to spend, or staying here at work, hiding in the conference room in hopes no one will need it (read: interrupt me), and writing. If I'm being honest, I really prefer joyriding to sitting at work. The mental break I get from leaving the building and getting out in the sun (or rain, or snow, doesn't matter really) is so good for me. I'm pretty sure I'm more productive in the afternoon when I get outside at lunch.
In the end though, I made what is probably the more grownup decision and stayed in. Dang adulthood getting in the way of my fun! On the upside, work wifi does allow me to watch Netflix while I blog. Currently I'm watching an episode of Friends, which might be why I've been at this for 30 minutes so far and haven't said much? Oops!

The main reason for staying in is that we are working diligently on getting our finances under control. Ever since we moved from our small hometown to the bigger city, it just seems like we have been dealt a lot of crappy financial hands. We lost about $4500 to a slum lord immediately when we moved, which I have never forgiven that guy, or myself, for. After seeing an apartment via pictures, video and FaceTime, and having our friends do a walk-through for us, we signed a lease from 350 miles away.

Three weeks later when we arrived with all our worldly possessions, a two-year-old, and two chihuahuas, we found that the condition of the place had changed. Significantly. It was as if they'd allowed a band of traveling meth heads to live there for 3 weeks. We didn't even feel safe enough to stay one night. We ended up crashing in our new boss's guest room for 3 days until we could find a suitable place to live.

At any rate, I guess we should have known that was a sign of things to come. Not to channel Eeyore here or anything, but seriously, it's felt like one kick in the teeth after another since then, financially that is. A few months later, we found out that one of our two vehicles needed $1500 in unexpected repairs. It was completely reasonable since the truck was 11 years old at the time and has needed virtually no repairs in its life, but still just really inconvenient timing. Not too much later, the kid needed to change schools, and the new one is more expensive.

Two years after we moved, we finally bought a house. It's a beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood, but what we thought would be a pretty straightforward and easy transaction turned into a bit of a nightmare and in addition to normal expenses like movers, we also ended up spending an extra several thousand dollars making the place livable. (Related note, I will never EVER own a cat.)

At any rate, a big part of the reason we moved was to get ourselves into a better financial situation, but it feels like we've gone backwards despite the fact that our income is much higher. It's not fair, dangit! But we are working on it. A friend introduced me to a popular financial guru, who I won't name here because I don't want a bunch of people finding my blog from searching for that guy, and I did a bunch of research and then started following his program. It's pretty brilliant and I can see that it works. If not for the several big setbacks, we would be much further ahead in getting rid of our debt and building giant savings and retirement accounts.

I am so hard on myself about this! I know how to make it happen and I'm really trying - we both are - but it's so hard to get traction. We've cut expenses way back, cut out almost all eating out and entertainment budgets, we only make one trip back home per year to visit, we don't go on other trips, haven't replaced the now-14-year-old truck... on and on. I think there's an expression for this - something like "I make too much money to be so broke!" I've looked in to getting another job, but hubby doesn't want me taking on extra stress and he already puts in extra hours at work.

But in those rare moments when I'm able to show myself grace, I step back and remember that truly, it's only been three years since the move and we have had enough unexpected things pop up to easily offset the extra income that we gained by moving here. Maybe more. Of course, there are times when this makes me feel like the move was a mistake, but that's a whole other post.

Sooner or later we have to catch a break, right? All I want is to be out of debt so I can start sleeping better again and be free of these heavy rocks on my shoulders!

Anyone have Ed McMahon's number?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Amber vs. Anxiety

The other day, a cousin called me kind of out of the blue. (I love it when this happens, at least if it's a relative I adore, and I especially adore this one! She might even be my favorite. Don't tell the others!) She said, "I was just driving to work, and all of a sudden I felt like I was freaking out, just super nervous for no reason at all. I mean, I know enough to know this is anxiety and kinda how it works, but that doesn't help when it's happening."

My heart sank. My poor sweet cousin. She apparently has the disease I've been battling. The evil a-word. Mine started with no warning when I was 32, right after our third failed adoption. (I haven't a clue if those things are connected or not, but my mother's anxiety also began in her early 30s.)  My cousin's seems to have started right now, at 28. At the risk of sounding over dramatic, I have to say I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but especially not on someone like her. She's kind and sweet and super positive and funny and smart, and she got way more pretty genes than me, and she's pretty much a rockstar in every possible way.  She also lost a parent a few months ago.

I did my best to talk her through it. I assured her it would go away soon, and we talked about finding distractions. She actually has a degree in psychology, so she understands the mechanics of it, but I can vouch for the fact that that doesn't make it any more pleasant to deal with in the moment. It can be an evil, nasty monster sometimes. I told her to think about sitting on a beach and watching the waves. I told her to take a few slow, deep breaths. I made a couple of stupid jokes. I told her about the technique I just learned recently in therapy - a 'body scan' exercise which helps relax the entire body. "When the body is relaxed, the mind will follow," says my therapist, who is magnificent. And, sometimes to my chagrin, is also always right. Actually, I could write an entire post about what a perfect match she is for me, but I'll save that for later.

After a few minutes, my cousin started to feel better. She had been able to distract and calm herself through an anxiety attack, which is not an easy or enjoyable feat. I was really proud of her. Somewhere in the course of all that, she'd said "I know you have anxiety, because you've posted a couple articles on Facebook about it, so I called you because I thought you would understand how I am feeling."

I should probably say here that as I get into writing about my struggles with anxiety, which is a daunting thing all by itself, that I am writing from only my own experience. Everyone experiences this differently and I obviously can't speak for anyone but myself. So when I generalize here, please know I'm really only speaking my own truth, not anyone else's, and that I absolutely understand that other perspectives are every bit as valid as my own.

It was at this point in my conversation with my cousin that I realized that for the seven years I've been battling anxiety, I really have not told many people at all about it. The husband knows, of course, but even he doesn't know the full extent of it. I do occasionally share articles and posts on social media about it, because somehow that's less scary than telling people about it directly. To actually TELL people about it? Unheard of. Terrifying.

See, that's part of what makes anxiety such a jerk. (And trust me, it is a JERK.) It tells you constantly that you're broken, that you're messed up, that you're a freak, that you're not worthy of (fill in the blank), that you're sick and that you need to hide your condition at all costs, or everyone will hate you and leave you and you'll be all alone with the awful things circling around in your head. And you don't even realize it's saying that. It just feels like a given, like a universal truth. Like something you'd never think to question or challenge. I wish I were exaggerating.

I've been in therapy for anxiety for about a year and a half now. Shortly after it first came on, I sought treatment from my family doctor, who prescribed a medication for me that was initially extremely helpful. I remember telling him that for the first time there were no storms happening inside my mind. I never even knew they were there until they were gone. That medication helped me, virtually free of side effects, for almost three years, until my pharmacy changed generic brands and the new generic made me really sick. I talked to every single pharmacy in town and none of them could get the old generic anymore, so I took myself off of it.

As one would expect, the anxiety returned with a vengeance after I went off the meds. The storm raged on in my head. I white-knuckled it for a very long time. During that time, in an unrelated sort of way, I learned a lot about food and chemicals in food and pharmaceuticals and all sorts of things about what outside influences do to our bodies. I developed a very strong desire to learn to deal with my anxiety without medication. I believed then, and I believe now, that I have the ability to do this, with help. It is a long process and sometimes it's uncomfortable or even painful, but I'm learning, slowly.

One of the pretty significant recurring themes in my therapy is self-acceptance. I've always had a hard time with this. I'm so accepting of other people and their flaws, but when it comes to mine, I'm so unforgiving and unwilling to give any grace. I'm beginning to learn to accept things about myself. My anxiety is one of those things. The harder I fight it and push against anxiety, the harder it pushes back and the worse it gets. For me, the medication-free 'cure' (which is really just a set of coping tools I can use for the rest of my life, not a cure at all) lies in accepting what IS, not fighting it, and perhaps most importantly, not hiding it anymore. Did I mention this is scary? My palms are sweaty just typing this. And I've now been working on this post daily for more than a week.

So, I have fairly severe anxiety. There it is. So what? Lots of people have it. My therapist and my husband insist it doesn't make me any less worthy, or lovable, or smart or awesome than anyone else. They're trying to help me pound that into my own head. Some days I truly believe it, but most days it's still a battle. I'm getting better. Slowly.

What does my anxiety actually look like?

During the several days I spent pondering writing this post and whether I was really ready to 'put it out there,' I tried to really pay attention to how I was feeling, when, and why. I stumbled upon a very good example of what happens when my anxiety flares. Somehow I convinced myself to actually put it on paper, even though it is scary and embarrassing and the anxiety demons in my head are constantly telling me I have to hide this because if I expose it, no one will like me anymore, and because I should be able to control it. After all, it's my own brain, right? I should be able to control it... right? This is probably why my therapist doesn't like me even using the word SHOULD.

Back to my example. It was my lunch hour, and I needed to go to the grocery store to grab a couple of things. Little known fact about me: I usually avoid going to grocery stores alone. I don't just not enjoy the grocery store experience - it makes my anxiety flare like crazy. But I do go when it's necessary. I put on my big girl undies and I white-knuckle it. On this particular day, I was already a bit stressed due to work. I knew before I went in that I'd be much more anxious coming out than I was going in, so I sat in the car for a moment to prepare myself. My Fitbit said my pulse was 82 - up from my normal resting rate of the high 60s. I assume that's because I was anticipating the anxiety.

This all happens very fast - it always does - but I'm going to break it down into the tiniest minutia in order for you to actually walk through it with me, and for me to fully acknowledge all that's going on so I can learn to deal with it.

As soon as I hit the entrance of the store, it starts. I feel my chest tighten. I feel my breathing get a bit shallower. I grab a basket and hold on tight. As I walk across the front of the store toward the items I need, the tight chest and shallow breathing get slightly more severe. I'm about halfway there when I notice how tight my shoulders are. It feels like there is a giant rubber band around my shoulders and upper arms, squishing them together and compressing everything in between. A mild knot has formed in my stomach.

I focus really hard on my destination - the freezer aisle this time - and try to just forget all of my surroundings. I don't typically make eye contact with people in these situations, especially if the store is crowded. Crowds of people make me extremely anxious, so I guess I subconsciously pretend they aren't even there. The lights seem oppressively bright. I find minor comfort in the fact that the store's signs and fixtures are mostly earth toned. Generally speaking, earth tones seem to soothe me.

By the time I get to the freezer aisle, my Fitbit says my pulse is 116. I double check it with my fingers and it's probably right. I'm short of breath, my stomach feels like a boulder, and it feels like every muscle in my body is as tight as it can get. It's the same feeling you might experience in a haunted house when you know something is about to jump out and scare you half to death. But instead of lasting an instant like in the haunted house, this usually lasts through my whole shopping trip, and often beyond.

Out of nowhere, a flush washes over me. I become very warm from the inside out. It feels like my heart may have stopped. I quickly, but as discreetly as possible, check for a pulse. It's still there. I'm oddly surprised. I try to breathe. Deep breaths are impossible, so I try to slow down the shallow ones. I think I might throw up. (Nevermind the fact I have never thrown up in a grocery store or due to this type of anxiety. To find comfort in that fact would mean being logical, and I am anything but logical in this scenario. For the most part, logic is... unavailable... to me until it passes, unless someone coaches me in the moment.) My legs feel like Jello. I wonder if they will carry me back to my car.

It is at this point that the anxiety really takes over my mind. Once I start having these physical sensations, the little anxiety monster in my head gets much louder and is virtually impossible to ignore. He is short, furry and ugly, and he has big angry eyes and oversized, pointy, gross, yellow, nasty teeth. And he's so very vicious. He's probably a kid who was always picked last in PE class. Maybe this is why we can relate to each other.

He screams in my head.


I should clarify - I do not 'hear voices.' This is not something I can hear. Again, it's like a given. It just comes to me, like when you look up in the sky and notice the sky is blue. "Oh, the sky is blue today." Same kind of thing. It's just there all of a sudden and it feels undeniable.

I do my best to shove the monster away. I repeat to myself that nothing like that has ever happened to me. Being a person who generally appreciates critical thinking, I try to focus on the evidence, or lack thereof, that any of that is actually happening. I try to focus on what I need to buy. I squint my eyes, which feel funny thanks to the anxiety, in order to focus through the very loud distractions.

I find what I need. I buy a little more than I need, because when you have paralyzing anxiety about grocery shopping, you stock up when you go so that you don't have to go more often than necessary. I often find myself buying (non-perishable) things in twos at the grocery store.

At this point I start to feel the slightest twinge of relief. At the moment I head for the cash register, it means I'm almost done with my shopping trip. I get there quickly if possible, preferably the self checkout so I don't have to worry that another person will notice I am breathless and panicky and think I'm crazy. I go through the motions, and head for the exit. I feel a tiny bit better as soon as I step outside. Thankfully it's light outside - this means I have the added bonus of feeling safer in the parking lot. I don't feel truly safe - in the sense that I can actually let my guard down - in many places or situations at all.

I beeline to my car - my safe haven on wheels. I get in quickly, set my stuff down, and lock the doors. Since the anxiety has been particularly bad, I put the sun visors down in hopes no one will see me trying to recover. I lay my head back on the headrest and close my eyes. I take deeper breaths - but at this point I still can't take belly breaths. I focus on relaxing. I talk to myself (silently) like a little kid. "You're fine, it's all fine, it's okay. Nothing bad happened. No one noticed you were freaking out."

When it feels like my heart is beating properly again and my breathing is calmed down and the "OH NO I'M GOING TO FAINT" passes, I drive back to work to continue my day. Unfortunately, my work environment is somewhat anxiety-inducing as well, so full relief doesn't come for many hours yet. But it's definitely better than the grocery store. My energy is drained. I yawn a lot for the next few hours and wish for a nap. I struggle to focus at work at times for the rest of the day.

Finally, after work and after-work commitments and getting a youngster into bed, I collapse into my own bed. I notice my heart rate finally coming the rest of the way down. I stare out at the dark sky and feel grateful to finally be in my sanctuary. I'd like to say I peacefully drift off to sleep, but let's be realistic, I fiddle with my phone and tablet for far too long and don't get as much sleep as I could have.

Hey, I'm working on one issue at a time here!

So, that's what a typical anxiety attack type scenario looks like for me. I don't always feel this way in grocery stores, not at all. But it is not that unusual either. Other circumstances that seem to be common settings for this to play out are parties, social gatherings of pretty much any kind, business lunches/dinners, carnivals/fairs, airplanes (oh my gosh airplanes, that's also a whole other post), pretty much any place where I feel out of control or where there are large amounts of people, especially in a confined area.

I have had to stop writing so many times since I started this post. It is so scary to me to admit all of this. I feel like I'm pretty good at putting up a decent front and hiding my anxiety monster. However, my therapist insists that shining a light on him takes away his power. And with the previous exercises we have done, she has proven that she is right about that. So, here's a new phase we are working on called 'stop hiding it.'  I definitely don't plan to scream it from the rooftops or announce it when I answer the phone at work, but this post represents a HUGE HUGE step for me in learning to combat my anxiety without drugs.

There, I did it. Whew. This is hard. Did I already say that?

I'm hoping that at least one person who reads this will feel less alone in their own anxiety because of what I wrote. I hope that people who know me personally will understand me better after reading this and won't run away from me screaming (literally or metaphorically!). I hope that quirks that I have will make more sense to others now and they will understand that I don't ever mean to be rude or malicious to people I care about. Ever.

One thing that has occurred to me a few times since starting this (novella of a) post is that there have been times that people have accused me of thinking I'm better than them, or better than other people in general. I'm guessing whatever they are seeing in terms of my behavior that makes them think this, is rooted in my anxiety. I've only heard this a few times, but it's been from friends and relatives, not strangers. It's both extremely insulting to me and totally laughable because it could not possibly be further from the truth.

Remember that stuff up above about not wanting people to know about my anxiety because they'll think I'm crazy or unlovable? Yes. That. I can't recall ever thinking I was better than another person in my entire life. Well, maybe Dallas Cowboy fans... KIDDING.

If I bump into you in public and I seem like I don't want to talk to you, it's not you. Actually, it's not me either. It's probably just that I'm already engaged in a bitter battle with the anxiety monster and I can't let go of half my attention in order to handle a social interaction on top of that. I promise I'm not trying to be rude. And I certainly am not being sanctimonious. I promise. I don't feel superior to anyone on the planet. I mean that.

Please forgive me for my faults and try to understand that I'm doing my best. I'm working hard - really hard - on learning how to deal with this so it doesn't have such a grip on me. This process is pretty darn difficult and uncomfortable, but I'm determined to keep going, so I can be a better friend, a better wife and mom, and a happier person.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

...And Then There Was a New House, Part 4

If you haven't read the previous installments in this little series about our new house, you can start here!

So once we had the wood dry - after a lot of work and irritation - we were finally ready to move forward! At this point it had been about 8 weeks since we moved in, and we were still existing in the cat pee smell 24/7. It was getting quite old!

We knew the next step was primer. The only way we would be able to seal in that smell and restore the living room to a livable condition would be to either tear it all out (including sub-flooring) and re-do it, or primer the snot out of it. We obviously chose option number two.

Poor Dave had already spent the better part of a day putting multiple coats of primer (Kilz MAX, which was advertised as very effective on such things) on the living room floor, back when we first started fighting with the pee-soaked wood in the wall.

You can see the wet wood area along that one wall, which at the time he could not apply primer to, because we were concerned the wood would then rot. No good!

The smell was still so strong in this room that poor Dave put something like 14 coats of primer on this floor, of course having to wait between each one for it to dry, and still working full time and doing all the normal day to day stuff. We were shocked and not pleased to find that the cat pee was still soaking through - both visibly and smell-wise.

So gross!! We were starting to wonder if primer was actually going to do the trick, or if we were still going to have to rip all the sub flooring (and maybe all the sheetrock?!?) out and start over. If it were to come to that, we would need to talk about filing an insurance claim, because the money just did not exist to pull this off. This was not a good feeling at all. We were really fighting the feeling that we had just made the biggest mistake of our lives by buying a true money pit. We really did all our research and all our due diligence in this purchase, or we felt we did anyway. As it turns out, those popular candle warmers and wax blocks can hide amazing amounts of stench.

The seller, who you probably remember was a coworker and a 'friend,' or so we thought, had long since stopped responding to any communication from us, so that wasn't really an option for help or recourse. We had people tell us to sue her, but that was most definitely a very last resort. Not only because we're not really sue-happy people, not only because we didn't want to turn this into a big legal fight, but also because wouldn't have been able to pay a lawyer! Even if we had, the legal route was never really the right answer to either of us. Though in some moments it sure seemed tempting...

By this time, Dave felt it would be okay to go ahead and patch the pee-soaked wall and - FINALLY - call in the flooring guys and the painters. We hadn't anticipated nor budgeted for the painters, however the walls were so dirty, dingy and covered in candle remnants and cat damage that we didn't have a whole lot of choice. Plus, as pretty as these blue walls were, the lower ones were cat-damaged, and the walls were so dark that they really made the room seem smaller, which we didn't love:

The other main justification for painting was that we felt like the smell might be living in the paint as well as in the floor, so we were really looking to stack the deck in our favor by having the whole living room re-painted. We actually planned to paint the whole house, but the living room was the one room we could not easily do ourselves, since it has a 17-foot ceiling, and a support beam that runs across. We don't have the equipment to handle all that and, let's face it, we are not in our 20s anymore. Ha!

We definitely still plan to repaint the rest of the house, not only to freshen it up and make it ours, but also because of things like this:

Yes, that is a burnt orange wall in the dining room. It extends into the kitchen. The color is - well, whatever - but my issue with it is that it looks like it was painted by a seven year old after two Mountain Dews. If you look around that window, it's... bad. There are also places where the second coat was missed completely, and all the edges of this color are just sloppy. But, these were low priorities compared to the cat pee issue, so it would have to wait.

Anyway, a-patching Dave went on the previously soaked wall, and I squealed in delight...

After that pink dried to white, he sanded it all smooth and then applied a bunch of Kilz to that area also. Sadly, it then became obvious that the Kilz was not cutting it. In desperation we began googling once again. We found out about this product (but in gallons), which is apparently completely amazing at sealing in cat pee smells, according to what we read online.

Unfortunately, we had already spent a lot of money on primer in order to seal that whole floor 14+ times, but we were about to spend a lot more on new flooring, and we just could not take the risk that we might be laying new flooring down on top of pee smell which would then leech out and we'd be right back at square one. So, back to the store we went, and bought two much-more-expensive gallons of this nifty new primer.


After just a couple more coats of this new one, the pee stains and the smell stopped seeping through. Yay! A couple of days after the final coat of the magical primer, we were able to proclaim that after over two months, the cat pee smell was banished from the house! The joy and relief that came with this was huge!

About this time, the new flooring we'd ordered came in. The flooring company delivered it to the house to acclimate for a few days.

We finally gave the painters the green light to come work their magic on the living room walls. We had agonized a fair amount about what color to use. We had samples taped up around the room and spent a lot of time using apps and websites that help you determine what will look best. I mut say that until this experience, I thought that "white" was, well, just white. No. Turns out there are eleven bazillion shades of white. Oh, dear!

Ultimately, we settled on this color, called Snowbound. Appropriate for an Alaskan house, no?

Dave stayed home with them while I took the kid out-and-about for most of that day, so that we would not be underfoot. Dave sent me pictures as they worked, which made me just so darn happy! I love fresh paint! It's a much better smell for our new house than urine! Ha!

Look at that difference! The paint that was there before, in addition to being dirty and past its prime (see what I did there?), was a cream color that we really didn't care for. This room is north-facing, which means it doesn't get a lot of sun. We wanted it bright! The difference was (is!) stunning. So, so pretty.

These two pictures (before and after the new paint) were taken under conditions that were as similar as possible. It's the same time of day (as far as darkness outside), the same lights are on and I am standing in exactly the same spot. Look at the difference in light! Just amazing. It already felt like a brand new house. Finally all our misery, stress and expense was beginning to pay off! It had only taken over two months!

A few days after the painters worked their magic, the it was finally time for flooring. What this room had before was that cream/tan colored semi-shaggy carpet which, had it been clean, would have been nice to keep. However, it was stinky and 'crunchy' as the kid called it, in the areas where cat pee had soaked it for years on end. (Gag.) We chose a nice wood laminate to replace it. The challenge with that was the new flooring would border three other types/colors of flooring: the gray stone in the hallway, the dark red wood laminate in the dining room, and the cream stone around the fireplace. It is not easy to find a color that compliments all of those! But I feel like we found one that looks darn good.

If you're an observant type like my husband (and not like me...) you may also notice that that far corner of this room, by the fireplace, used to have a weird little glass shelving unit attached to the wall. Those shelves held the monitor for the security cameras outside the front door. It was an old style monitor, a foot deep and 20 pounds, and it just had to go. That has been replaced with something much better, and Dave removed the ugly shelving, so that's now a nice clean corner. Love it!

And with that, the cat pee saga was finally OVER!!!! To say we learned a lot in this experience would be the understatement of the century. It was unpleasant enough that I don't know if I could honestly say I'd do it all again. But at the end of it all, we ended up with a beautiful living room that's basically new, the kid has room to play, the dogs don't feel compelled to try to cover up the old cat pee smell, and we just really love the space now.

Four months later, we are looking at painting the kitchen and dining room next, followed by bedrooms, and a bit of touch-up on the outside of the house, and I think we'll be done with paint for a while. Next up, whenever the budget allows, should be things like re-grouting both showers, and replacing the carpet on the stairs which has a lovely spot about the size of a softball that the stupid cats chewed and/or clawed through. We're also thinking of making some changes to the outdoor space and the driveway.

It's exciting to finally make a house our own!

Friday, February 26, 2016

...And Then There Was a New House, Part 3

(Reminder - you can click these pictures to make them larger!)

When we last visited this topic in my previous post, I was describing the horror of the refrigerator in the new house, and having to totally scrub it out and sanitize it as the movers were underfoot, unloading everything we owned. The whole process of having movers touching everything we own is enough to put my introverted self into overload anyway; add this little discovery, and I think I went into survival mode.

Eventually, we got the kitchen to a point that it was usable. The movers left once everything was unloaded and we were left there alone to reflect. The smell was so bad. So very bad. We weren't even sure where to start on making it better. We left windows open a lot and hoped that with every day the cats were gone, the smell would diminish. To a point, it did. But not nearly enough. Meanwhile, fall was in full swing, complete with chilly nights, so we were just wasting heat. Which kind of added insult to injury.

We didn't know it at the time, but this was the start of a two-month period of smelling cat pee. ALL. THE. TIME. First thought when your eyes open in the morning? Ew, cat pee. Walk in from work after a long day? Bam, cat pee. Step out of the shower? Ugh, cat pee. Flop into bed at the end of the aforementioned long day? Cat pee. It was awful. 

As I type this, it occurs to me that it might sound a little diva-ish. Let me assure you, I am no diva. My standards of cleanliness are not all that high, really. I grew up playing in the woods in Alaska. I'm okay with things being a little dirty or even a little smelly. But this? This was like nothing else I had ever experienced. Everything just felt dirty and gross. 

And quite frankly, moving into this house was supposed to cap off the whole experience of buying the house, which was not extremely easy or pleasant. I had to do a lot of footwork on things that were other people's jobs. There were a lot of things that fell through the cracks, that I ended up having to work double time to take care of, to make sure we could close before the seller left the state. The lender overpromised and underdelivered throughout the whole process. The title company completely miscalculated all the closing costs, which if I hadn't caught, would have cost us $8,000 we just didn't have. It was just kind of a stressful process, and what kept me going through all of that was that at the end of August, we should be moving into our beautiful new house and living happily ever after. 

Years ago, I had a therapist tell me that one of the most dangerous words in the English language is "should." She was right.

So, fast forward a few days from move-in day. We were in a place of deep regret, severe irritation and just generally helpless feelings. We were tired from the move and everything that goes with that, and unlike other moves, we didn't have the immediate payoff of basking in the glory of a new home right from moving day. Instead, we got irritated sinuses and burning eyes from the smell. We felt like we had just made the biggest mistake ever - which is not a good feeling alongside a new mortgage payment. We turned away family and friends that we had promised to invite over right away to see the house, even before we really unpacked. It was embarrassing even though we knew we didn't cause the problem.

We had exhausted most of our on-hand savings to pull off this house purchase and the move. We did not have the time, money, or desire to deal with trying to eliminate the cat pee smell. However, we were faced with a choice: figure out how to fix it, or smell it. Intensely. ALL. THE. TIME. Obviously, this was no choice. We had to figure out how to fix it.

We had used most of the vacation time we had left for the move itself, so for the next two months we spent evenings and weekends... dealing with this. Not ideal at all, but you do what you have to do, right?

Despite having just been professionally cleaned twice in a week, including being 'flooded' with cleaner and enzyme, it was obvious that the biggest portion of this problem was coming from the carpet in the living room. The appearance and smell of this carpet was pretty bad.

This is that stretch of four or five feet along the wall by the fireplace. Because it's so well-lit, it's not quite as obvious in the picture as it was in person. But you can see it's well-anointed... and this was after those cleanings.

The cleaning expert had told us to give it a few days for the enzyme to work fully, and that it should improve over that time. So we waited.

It did not improve.

Some days were better than others. If we kept it cool in the house, it wasn't quite as bad. If the sun happened to hit the floor in that room for a couple hours in the afternoon, it was like an oven effect. The smell became so intense that it was worth wasting all the heat to flush out the air in the house when we came home from work.

We tolerated this for close to a month while trying to develop a routine, mostly for the kid. He had changed preschools in June and then changed houses in August, so we wanted to quickly get his routine re-established. It was tough since we really couldn't put much in the living room due to the fact the carpet was destroyed. The dining room and kitchen were full of boxes and we ate our meals at a card table wedged into a walkway, but we survived. I had contacted the seller and told her the carpet was much worse than we originally thought. She processed that for an hour or two and then told me that when she reached her new home, she would be mailing us a check to cover new flooring. We were very grateful for that.

Hubby spent his birthday, which was a paid day off work that year only, ripping up all that carpet in the living room. He's the one who is allergic to cats, so this was an especially pleasant way to spend a birthday...

You can see all the cat pee stains on the backside of this carpet. It was a bit gag-inducing. We knew it was bad, but we didn't know it was quite this bad.

And you can see below the dirt that was under the carpet - and cat pee crystals mixed in. (Shudder.)

This next one shows the section that was along the wall (in the 'before' picture above). The holes from the tack strip are even stretched and distorted from being soaked so often, or for so long, or both. We're not sure.

Soon, he had all the carpet up.

Next he had to remove the trim around the base of the walls (which I have heard people call baseboard, but to my Alaskan brain, baseboard means a baseboard heater...), but remember that saturated stretch along the one wall? When he pulled the trim off, guess what he found behind it?

Soft sheetrock.

That's never good.

He pulled that off, and guess what he found?

Oh, yes. That is wood. WET wood. Wet to the touch. Saturated. With CAT PEE. The cat had been gone for over a month by this point. We were shocked and horrified. No wonder we hadn't been able to get rid of the smell. But the bigger issue was, how far did this go? If you've ever dealt with cat messes, you know it is very difficult to get this smell out. It takes replacing whatever is soaked, usually. This wood is at the bottom of a 17-foot-tall wall. How on earth do we replace that?!?

And so began five more weeks of a new kind of frustration. Dave covered the entire rest of the floor with primer to try to lock in the smell in the rest of the floor. It helped, but not much. Most of the stench was coming from this one problem wall.

We tried everything to dry this out. We ruled out the idea that it was rainwater or something leaking in from somewhere. It looked orange/brown like cat pee, it smelled like cat pee, and you could see the crystals on the surface of the wood. I contacted the seller again and told her what we had found. She replied, "sorry it's so bad, didn't know that" and then immediately and completely stopped answering any of my correspondence.

I wasn't kidding about five weeks. First we tried just letting it air out for about a week. No luck. Over the next month we tried heaters, fans, and everything else we could think of. We'd leave heaters and fans on it while we were home, then turn them off when we left for work (because we're both a little paranoid of fire). It would be dry to the touch in the morning, but by the time we got home, more of it would have seeped out and it was wet again.

This cycle was completely maddening. We'd been in the house two months by this time and we were still smelling cat pee, day and night. We don't have a dang cat!! Just really frustrating. The worst part was we were starting to wonder if we were ever going to get rid of it. If not, then what?!? We definitely did not have the option to rip walls out and rebuild them. The stress of the 'what-ifs' at this point was pretty intense.

In sheer desperation, after having been silent about this publicly for this entire time so as to not cause drama with the seller, who we used to work with and considered a friend, and who remained friends with people we still worked with... I finally turned to social media for help. I spent literally an entire evening composing a post that would be a request for help and suggestions without mentioning her at all, without it sounding like some kind of attack or insult, without any nastiness at all. I even ran this post past Dave, who is the world's greatest diplomat and protector of feelings. He approved.

I posted it. At first, I hid it from the seller, who was still on my friends list. I really didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I had to do something.  I was desperate for help and I have 300 Facebook friends, many of whom are connected to the construction industry. We were down to either calling a contractor, and possibly selling our truck to pay for whatever the fix would be, or asking publicly for help. A couple of hours later, I decided it was worse to hide it from her, not to mention that one of our mutual friends would more than likely mention it to her and she'd be even more hurt. So I changed the settings so that the post was visible to her.

The outpouring of support on that post felt really good and validated my feeling that we were not being unreasonable. More importantly, we got a lot of great suggestions and input. One of those suggestions was to invest in a dehumidifier. The very last thing I wanted to do was spend another $200 out of savings on this disaster, but I was also desperate to smell anything but cat pee and get my living room put back together. (At this point, the flooring was still absent obviously, and the living room was a construction zone. The whole area was cordoned off for safety, so anytime we were home, the three of us and the two Chihuahuas were coexisting in a space about 8 feet wide by about 15 feet long, with a couch, an entertainment center, a dining room table and a kitchen in it. It was cramped, unpleasant, and STILL smelled like cat pee.)

Dehumidifiers are expensive to buy, expensive to run, and noisy. Also, they are apparently magical. It took about a week of alternating the dehumidifier, fans and heaters, we were able to declare the wood in the wall DRY!! This was nothing short of a miracle. I cried. After two months of this ordeal, I just couldn't believe it.

Now what?!  To be continued...

(Next part of the story HERE.)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

...And Then There Was a New House, Part 2

If you haven't already, you may want to read my previous post, which is the first part of this story. If you already read it and you're coming back to read the resolution of this little cliffhanger, I'm not sure I'll get all the way to the end in this one post. We'll see.

So, after months of waiting to see this house empty for the first time, we flung that door open, and...


Right in the face. In the mouth. In the nose. Way up in the sinuses. Instant burning. A very strong and unmistakable odor.

Cat pee.

We glanced at each other in horror. This could not really be happening, could it? No.

The first room you walk into is the kitchen. I set my keys down and leaned on the counter, kind of in shock. I think my sanity preservation instinct kicked in. I remember saying, "we just need to get some fresh air in here, it'll be fine." We ventured into the dining room and then into the living room. We were horrified all over again.

The seller had mentioned that her cats had the occasional accident on the living room floor. In all our visits to the house, we mostly only smelled cat pee near the litter box, and even then it wasn't any worse than you would expect near a litter box. We did catch a couple of wafts here and there in other areas of the house, but nothing severe. Even with Dave being allergic to cats, we weren't concerned about it.

We honestly couldn't figure out what happened between those visits and closing day a few weeks later. Maybe the cats got upset about the move and started retaliating on the living room floor? Hard to say. All we knew at this point was that the living room floor was extremely soiled with cat urine. There was a basketball-sized yellow spot in the middle of the living room, where a table had been. (Remember, this was our first time seeing the house empty.) There was about a four-foot section of the wall by the fireplace that was stained dark yellow from what we thought must be years of anointing by the cats.

We were so in shock and so horrified that we just stood silently in the living room for a few minutes. All that kept running through my mind was, "what did we just do?!?" As we did that first walk-through of the living area and the backyard, the displeasure intensified. It quickly became clear that the "move-out clean" she had done was not at all what a move-out clean should be. The counters had dust and dirt on them. The stove had a bunch of crumbs and food remnants all over it. All of the art that had been on the walls was removed, but all the screws and nails holding it up were left in the walls and there were really dirty outlines everywhere. I don't think the walls had ever been cleaned.

That wasn't all. There was a whole laundry list of things that were not as we expected.
  • She had told us on two different occasions, without us asking, that she was going to leave the very nice patio furniture set and one of the fire pits in the backyard. Both were gone.
  • She told us she had power washed the (large) deck in the backyard. Technically she did, but it looked like it was done by a 4 year old - still filthy.
  • The garage door opener only worked intermittently.
  • The dishwasher was not attached to anything, so when you opened the door, the whole appliance flopped forward.
  • One of the living room walls was completely full of cat scratches - they were concealed before by furniture.

  • There were random items left around the house, like a cracked vase on the back deck and a carry case for a collapsible lawn chair, and in the master bathroom, a night light that looked like a cat climbing into a toilet.  (Oh, the irony.) I must say though, I was very grateful she left the shelving!

  • The windowsill in the guest room, which had previously been too full of junk for us to really inspect, was water damaged.
  • The kitchen cabinet shelves were missing support pegs, so they sagged in the middle.
  • Multiple sets of bifold doors had broken hardware/guides.
  • The walls in the master bedroom are full of cat scratches, holes, and dents/blemishes.
  • Two of the three bedroom doors don't close properly.
  • The motion sensor light on the back of the house, which she had said just needed new bulbs, was actually broken.
  • The front door has large patches of missing/damaged paint. (We always went in and out of the garage!)
  • The downstairs bathroom wall is damaged due to a broken toilet paper holder being allowed to scratch it all up.
  • The master bathroom doesn't have a door. There is an extra door in the garage, but it has no doorknob?
I guess you probably get the idea.

It's probably good that we didn't have much time to brood on this, as the moving truck was backing up to the garage to unload. And so began a day of chaos, with the new house filling up with our belongings as planned, however now I felt sort of sick about it. I wanted to hose down the whole inside of the house with Lysol before anything we owned was unloaded. However, there was no time for that.

While the movers unloaded at breakneck speed, our first priority was getting our refrigerator and freezer contents from the apartment to the new house. I flung the refrigerator door open in the new house, and immediately had to try not to gag. It was as if someone had set a bowl of cat pee in that fridge and just let it marinate for weeks. There was spilled food and brown crusty stuff all over all the glass shelves and in the drawers. It hadn't been even superficially cleaned in a very long time. I hate to say it, but I really wondered if it had ever been cleaned since it was purchased in 2007.

Dave and I began frantically pulling all the shelves and drawers out of the fridge and freezer to wash and sanitize them, and the whole interior of the thing. The smell was so horrid. Our eyes and noses burned, let alone the plain ol' gross-out factor. We took turns reassuring each other that this would all work out. The house just needed to air out, we thought. Let's open some windows and doors. Let's Febreze that living room carpet until we can replace it, months down the road once the dust settles and we can afford it.

Little did we know...

(Next part of the story HERE.)

Friday, February 5, 2016

...And Then There Was a New House, Part 1

Once upon a time, probably nine-ish months ago, a co-worker who was preparing to retire approached me and asked me if we were interested in buying her house. At the time, we had been in our "temporary" apartment for well over a year - longer than we'd hoped - and we were planning to wait another few months before we got pre-qualified and began house hunting, since we were in a lease.

When she first asked me, I laughed. She lived in a very nice, quiet neighborhood that was in our top three choices of areas (not including the spendy houses on the hill, that is!). I told her I would love to look at buying her house, but that I was pretty sure it was outside our budget, based on neighborhood alone.

And then she uttered some words that would live in infamy.

"Actually, I was thinking of selling it for the amount you said was at the top of your price range, if we can do so without realtors, since that would save me a ton of money."

Or something to that effect.

Of course, red flags went off all over the place when she said that. But, we'd known her long enough to not be concerned about any deception or anything. The concern was more about trying to broker the sale of a house by ourselves. It seemed daunting. We had already purchased two houses before, so we basically knew the drill, but still - who would swoop in and save the day if any complications arose?

If only I knew then what I know now.

Over the next few months, we visited the house probably ten times. At first we were just wandering through, and then as time progressed and we got more serious, we wanted to check out specific things about the house. We were trying to make sure we caught every possible thing that could be a problem, since we wouldn't have a realtor to do it for us. It was (is) a very nice house, only a dozen years old so no major repairs should be needed for a while, and the layout is exactly what the kid requested: living space on the ground floor, all bedrooms upstairs. That's kind of a funny story all in itself - I'm pretty sure he was asking for that because our house back in our hometown was laid out like that and I think maybe he misses it a bit, like his Mommy does...

A few weeks before the 'for-sure' date she gave us for a decision, we told her we were ready to move forward. Our pre-approval was ready and we both sat down at the kitchen table with the seller and filled in a blank "for sale by owner" sales contract. And so began a two-month-long process of fumbling through all the necessary steps.

The inspection went very well, though I admit we weren't thrilled when we arrived for the inspection and found the inspector (whom we had chosen) was apparently an old friend of hers. He turned out to be great, though. "This is a very clean property," the inspector said to us. The grout needed to be re-done in the master shower; Dave quickly volunteered to do that himself. There were a handful of other things, nothing major, and we all quickly agreed on who was going to take care of what.

The appraisal went well, too. It came in a few thousand over the sell price, which is ideal for a buyer. We were very excited. It seemed to be the final procedural hurdle. I was kind of having to micro-manage our lender's representative, as she just did not have a sense of urgency about anything, and also was missing a pretty important eye for detail. If not for my intervention, we would have been asked for a much higher amount up front at closing than we should have. I was annoyed for having to babysit the whole thing, but it was worth it. Despite some bumps in the road and some frantic phone calls, everything finally worked out and we went to closing. The seller was not leaving the state until the day after closing, so she had asked us if she could stay in the house that last night. Without hesitation we said yes.

That next day, around noon, she let me know that she was headed down the highway. We were busy with the movers packing up our apartment. When they got finished, somewhere around 3pm, we finally had an opportunity to go see the house empty for the first time. I was so excited when we pulled up, I was fidgeting in my seat!

Oddly, the first two things we noticed when we pulled into the driveway were a trash can next to the garage that was positively overflowing, and that the two flower baskets on the front of the garage contained dead flowers. Huh. Weird. But obviously those were little, tiny, not-worth-mentioning things. Just not the most charming welcome to our new house!

We opened the garage door to find some surprises. She left us the lawnmower as promised, which was wonderful. She also left various yard type things, like potting soil and pots and a seed spreader and just a bunch of random stuff. That was all fine, just unexpected. Then, with great anticipation, we approached the door to the house. I remember looking at Dave with excitement, taking a deep breath, flinging the door open, and...


Something slapped us in the face. Hard...

(Next part of the story is HERE.)