A Messy but Sober Room of My Own
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A Messy but Sober Room of My Own


This post was originally published on February 24, 2015.

After four months of sobriety and an equal amount of time living in shitty halfway houses, I finally found an apartment. I got lucky. I scored an adorable little place in Los Feliz, my neighborhood of choice, with a lovely 60-year-old female roommate. Thankfully, she’d lived in the place for 22 years and, because her place was under rent control, I only had to pay $600 per month in one of the more expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And that included utilities, wifi, monthly professional house cleaning, water service and satellite cable.

Yeah, the Higher Power was really doing some overtime.

With little money (I was on medical disability) and no furniture, I slept on the floor. Well, no, technically I didn’t sleep on the floor, I slept on top a 10-year old egg crate foam thing, about one-inch thick, that I put on the floor. Then I’d cuddle up beneath this battered hot pink twin down comforter, goose feathers popping out from its seams and shedding all over the floor under a comforter one of my housemates had given me two Sober Livings earlier. I had one smashed pillow, this dingy amorphous thing that held no shape, and I had no sheets. Pamela, my new roommie, offered to loan me some.

Sleeping on the floor was really no problem for me. I like the floor. I like the floor because I’ve got back problems, and unless a mattress is super extra firm (ahem, super expensive), I get all sorts of knots and aches. The floor provides great support—call me Japanese. Still, it isn’t exactly esteem-building to sleep on an old egg crate slab of foam in Los Angeles. People make judgments. People talk. No way I could let anyone in that room.

I didn’t hang up one picture. I kept those baby blue walls completely blank, so my room looked a lot like the insides of the psych units I visited during my final alcoholic days. If I really wanted to hang something, a small picture or a mirror or black-and-white photo of Che, I could have certainly gone to a yard sale or the Goodwill and found something cheap. But it never ever occurred to me. I did buy a cheapo $19 IKEA desk—I needed that to do my writing and start applying for jobs so I could get my life together. As for a dresser, I just I shoved the few clothes I had into a tall Rubbermaid container with pull-out drawers, another gift from my halfway house friend.

So that was my room, at 31. No bed, not one photo or painting or decorative iron candle-holder on the walls, all my clothes shoved inside a Rubbermaid container on wheels.

My female friends have always poured whatever expendable income they’ve got into their living spaces. I never knew if it was for themselves, to show off to whatever dude they brought home on Saturday night or to impress their friends when they came over. Really, do you need that many fucking candles hanging all over your bathroom? Does that French-milled soap really kill the bacteria out from beneath your nails? And how the hell did you afford a six-foot-by-sixfoot Toulouse Lautrec painting inside a stunning maple frame?

People who have their shit together on the outside used to piss me off. Because I just could never do that. Because I couldn’t focus enough or wasn’t disciplined enough to put away my messes—I was always off in my head, either daydreaming or stuck in a shitstorm of neurosis. In this state, I didn’t even care what was on my walls. Who needs pictures when I’ve got trapeze artists and big Bozo clowns spinning circles in my mind? Even if I had a $500 Toulouse Latrec painting, I wouldn’t see it, so what’s the point?

Aside from all this, aside from not having a bed and no pictures and no dresser, my room was also a dump. A complete disaster. Trash piled up everywhere, all over the floor, my bills and important documents were crumbled and disorganized, my clothes and shoes scattered all over the place—I wouldn’t clean my room for months. Months. And when I did, it was a big awful dramatic event.

I’d have to call my best friend in the program to come hang out just to survive. She’d sit in the living room with her headphones on and dick around on the Internet while I got to work. And getting to work meant facing the fact that I was a big disgusting pig.

Food caked all over dishes that had been sitting there for three months. Flowery mold growing out of coffee cups. Milk, now turned into yogurt, sticking to the bottom of glasses, and there were always at least 10 Trader Joe’s Mac ‘N Cheese boxes piled up in the mound of shit that was my floor.

So when I did clean up the pig sty, the whole room looked pathetic, like the bedroom of a refugee in a war-torn developing country. After four years of living there, the walls had turned from baby blue into grayish-blue from dust, and cracks crawled up through the drywall from the few earthquakes that rolled beneath the L.A. topsoil.

Until I had five years of sobriety, none of this bothered me. But they say you get your marbles back at five (at least this is what my sponsor says) and something clicked.

Why the fuck am I living like a refugee?

If I had children, Social Services would take them away!

I was now writing full-time, but had barely any money—just enough to go to Fallas Paredes, the discount store by my house where you can buy bras for $1.99 and tank tops for 99 cents, to buy some cheap but pristine-looking iridescent curtains and curtain rods for the windows. Before that, my windows had been covered with yellowed mini-blinds, discolored from the 25 years they’d been hanging in front of the sun’s rays.

I decided to do myself a favor and get some pictures too. At Goodwill I found a large-format picture of one of my favorite paintings of all time—The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Actually, it was a puzzle of the painting glued together and stuffed in a cheap brownish-gold frame, but you could barely tell it was a puzzle, and because it was a puzzle it was cheap, and even if it wasn’t cheap, I liked the puzzle’s whimsy. I got a huge ornate mirror on the cheap, found an almost brand-new Ikea dresser on the sidewalk a few doors down from my house, and hung up some of those floating shelves, topping them with some orange and red candles I found at the 99-cent store.

This all cost me around $40. Maybe I should be on Extreme Makeover?

The end result is that with, essentially, four 10-dollar bills, I created a room of my own that wasn’t a complete embarrassment, one that makes me happy, one that inspires my creativity, one that I actually keep clean.

While I still don’t have a bed, while I still technically sleep on the floor, it is on top of a thick futon mattress that I bought brand new, lest I get attacked my bed bugs. Give me a few more months, and I’ll buy a nice wooden frame.

Unless you have one you want to give me?

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.