I remember the afternoon when my breakdown occurred because it was unseasonably warm, and for some reason, I collapsed on the world’s itchiest, hottest wool rug, and dissolved into tears.
I was curled up on the floor in my South Boston condo, holding my knees, sobbing. This continued for about two hours until I was too exhausted to cry anymore, and my “I FEEL S(LOVE)NIA” T-shirt was soaked in sweat. At that moment, I was lost, as many of us were during the spring of 2020. I was a travel writer who was grounded indefinitely by a global pandemic and, as a result, had lost both my purpose and my identity.
It’s impossible to point to just one incident that drove me to the moment when I unraveled on the itchy wool carpet. But if I had to choose one . . . Wait, never mind. I can’t. How about this: For ease of storytelling, I’m going to break the tale into three convenient story lines.
Story line 1: I’d endured three months of people asking, “What’s it like to be a travel writer during a pandemic? That must be awful.”
What I wanted to say was, “What do you think it’s like? Of course it’s awful.” I was sad, scared, and anxious. Instead of answering honestly, I politely poo-pooed the question with a blend of pleasantries and poppycock, such as “It’s a nice break from being on the road,” or “I finally have time to watch every season of Murder She Wrote, again.”
In reality, I was going stir-crazy in a tiny condo while counting the days to my inevitable layoff. No newspaper needs a travel writer when the world is stuck in lockdown. I could write only so many articles about eating freeze-dried meals with my cat. Yes, I wrote a story where I taste-tested freeze-dried meals with my cat.
Story line 2: My husband, Alex, is a physician and went to work every day throughout the pandemic. I was terrified he would get sick. There was no way I could talk him out of it because he’s the kind of dedicated doctor who goes above and beyond. But I was convinced he would end up dying of COVID, leaving me a heartbroken, unemployed widower, living out my dying days eating freeze-dried meals with my cat. FOREVER.
Story line 3 (this one will explain a lot): About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar II, to be exact. I often refer to it as Catherine Zeta-Jones Disease because, the week I was diagnosed, the actress appeared on the cover of People magazine alongside the headline “Battling bipolar disease: Inside her private struggle.” Bipolar II is similar to bipolar disorder, except the periods of depression tend to be more pervasive, and the hypomanic episodes are not as frequent or pronounced.
I used to say that bipolar II was not as severe as bipolar I, but I’m recanting that assessment. I take medication that allows me to be an almost fully functioning member of society, but it’s still a struggle.
While Zeta-Jones was comfortable telling the world about her diagnosis, I was not. I kept it secret for nearly a decade. I didn’t feel as if I could call my boss and say, “I can’t come to work today. My brain disorder is acting up again.” But when I finally needed to tell her during an extreme hypomanic episode, she reacted with caring and understanding. It was the same among my friends, except one who said, “Yeah, I figured that out awhile ago.” I was hauling around a heavy backpack full of shame for no good reason.
Psychiatric medications are helpful, but they’re not a panacea, and they’re not perfect, as evidenced by the introductory paragraph of this story. Thankfully, I’ve become skilled at recognizing how my brain works and honed my skills to sense when I’m experiencing a severe episode.
Now, weave all those story lines — anxious, grounded travel writer with bipolar disorder who is terrified about the well-being of his spouse while feeling squeezed in a shoebox condo in Southie — and you have an understanding of my 2020 psychiatric tire fire.
Thankfully I had a solution! I’d do what I assume any reasonable person facing mortal and financial peril would: buy a house. We’d move to a bigger place with more outdoor space. I knew, or at least hoped, that more room to breathe would improve my deteriorating mental health. You can roll your eyes, but I was getting desperate.
Unfortunately, my solution was the same one everyone and their Aunt Sadie had that year. We arrived at open houses with long lines. Shoppers looked frenzied and desperate. Homes were getting snapped up in days for well over the asking price. Even worse, Alex and I butted heads over every house we looked at. He wanted something freshly renovated and turnkey. I wanted something older, with character. We were like one of those couples you see bickering on House Hunters and wonder why they’re still married.
That is until we found THE house.
I don’t believe in love at first sight — unless it involves cats — but this house, located in the wilds of Metrowest, was perfect. A 1965 deck house straight out of The Brady Bunch. Vaulted ceilings. Walls of windows that look out at trees. We were craving outdoor space, and this house had an expansive deck and a vast lawn. As someone who loves midcentury architecture, this beauty made me weak in the knees.
It was also the first house that Alex and I agreed upon. Either that, or he was just tired of going to open houses. We put in the prerequisite above-asking-price offer and spent a sleepless night waiting for a response. Our real estate agent told us we were up against eight other buyers.
I did everything possible, short of lighting a candle and praying to Xenu.
Miraculously, our offer was accepted, and for the first time in months, I breathed. As desperate and silly as it sounds to pin hopes of well-being on a house, it’s exactly what I did.
During the inspection, I ignored concerns such as “the house has aluminum wiring that will probably catch fire next week” and “you know the house isn’t on the town sewer, right?” I was too busy picturing my new 1960s suburban life.
While the country collapsed into the political melee that defined the 2020 election, I focused all my attention on purchasing period-appropriate midcentury furniture for a house we weren’t yet occupying. I bought a dining room set, two credenzas, an entire Heywood-Wakefield bedroom set, side tables, coffee tables, and spun lucite tension-rod lamps. My time machine/house was the distraction my brain needed.
When I went to bed the first night we moved in, I looked through the tall windows at the moon shining between the trees and whispered, “Thank you,” with tears in my eyes. I thanked the house every night for the first year we lived there.
It may sound overdramatic, but it’s true: The house saved me. I felt it was my duty to return the favor. The house wasn’t dilapidated, but it needed work. We started with systems such as the boiler, the water heater, and the pesky aluminum wiring that would likely catch fire.
But then, it was time to start with the fun part. Last spring, we launched a renovation to take two bathrooms and our bedroom back to 1965. We gutted an entire section of the house to the studs. The only thing that remained was the original 1965 bathtub, a style commonly known as a Cinderella tub. It’s designed with a place to put your rotary dial phone for Doris Day/Rock Hudson-style bathtub conversations.
I had spent years gawking over midcentury architecture and design, so I knew how I wanted these rooms to look. For the guest bathroom, I took inspiration from Howard Johnson’s and LAX. There is a wall of tile behind the Cinderella tub in a pattern alternating between orange, blue, and white. The architect, who was incredibly patient with my retro cravings, and the contractor beautifully translated my ideas into reality.
I chose every slab of terrazzo, every piece of granite, every tile, and every drawer pull. We replaced the white popcorn plaster ceiling in the bedroom with wood planks, giving the vaulted ceiling the respect it deserved. Workers ripped all the carpet from the primary bedroom, and installed hardwood to match the rest of the house.
The renovation began in May 2022 and was finished in March 2023. Several times, supply chain shortages ground the process to a crawl. The kitchen is next, but we’ve decided to give ourselves a small renovation respite and will tackle it next year.
But I’d like to think that the house — if it could — would appreciate what we’ve done so far. This lovely throwback deserved the almost yearlong renovation that transformed two bathrooms and a bedroom into something Betty Draper would have been proud of.
Mostly, I like to think that if it could, the house would say “Thank you,” the way that I often thank the house for saving me.
Before and after, by popular demand
Check out some photos of Christopher Muther’s home renovation, requested by readers. He worked with architect 30Edesign and contractor MJB Home Services.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.