Serena Bhandari - Flatmates: can’t live with them, can’t (afford to) live without them

Time in lockdown is passing very quickly and that’s great news because it means it’s now time for another guest post from writer Serena Bhandari. In this post she discusses the challenges of finding the right people to live with.

Over to you Serena.

Finding a flat is tough. Finding an affordable flat is tough. Finding an affordable flat with nice housemates is tough. And finding an affordable, accessible flat with nice housemates who are accepting and supportive of your needs as a disabled person is REALLY tough.

There’s a LOT I could say about my flathunting experience, but I really want this post to remain clear and focused, so today as the title suggests I’ve chosen specifically to talk about flatmates.

Roommates, flatmates, housemates – whatever you want to call them, the COVID-19 lockdown has shone a light on just how important it is to have a good relationship with the people you live with. In the past, friends of mine looking for a change of scenery have always been able to peruse SpareRoom to find infinite listings of flats filled with other young professionals or students, without thinking much about the people with whom they’re about to share space for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon, we experience a societal shift away from this phenomenon as the consideration of “would I be able to lock down for three months during a pandemic with these people?” factors into flatshare decisions.

For me though, this cautious attitude isn’t much of a change. Since moving out of student halls, the process of choosing flatmates has been characterised by careful, precise decision-making and the intense anxiety I associate with it. The people I live with have a profound effect on my tics and wider mental health, and these in turn affect every crevice of my day-to-day life, so I don’t have the option of just taking a chance on some strangers and hoping it turns out okay.

I could just provide a narrative “story-time” style blog of my experiences, but now that we’ve been in lockdown for three months, I’ll take any opportunity to spice things up. So instead, I’ve decided to document just a few of the pitfalls I’ve come across during flathunting in the form of a list of the unsuitable flatmates you’ll meet when you have Tourettes.

The flatmate who is “okay with your Tourettes I promise – wait, what are you doing? That’s so weird.”

Often lovely, fun people – if you were neurotypical you’d ask these flatmates to live with you in a heartbeat. When they find out about your Tourettes they’re “SO chill with it, honestly, don’t worry at all!” And so you don’t. Until the first time you tic loudly around them and their immediate response is “OH MY GOD WHAT WAS THAT?” – as if they don’t already know – and all you want to do is curl up in a little ball of embarrassment at the whole thing. There’s some sort of disconnect there where they just don’t really *get* it and you’re not sure you can really be bothered to pursue the possibly futile goal of remedying their ignorance. They might get used to your tics, but you’ll never forget how ostracised and unsafe they made you feel in that moment, so living with them is out of the question.

The perfectly good potential flatmate who doesn’t have the same housing needs as you

All in all, I guess this isn’t the worst situation to come across but it still SUCKS. The two of you get along like a house on fire, they understand your disability and you spend enough time together that you might as well live in the same flat already. But then crisis hits – perhaps it’s that you can’t find a flat that’s both within their budget and accessible, or maybe they’re done with suburban living, but you find the busy city-centre life exacerbates your tics. Either way, your living plans have fallen apart and you’re back to square one.

The straight up awful flatmate

Picture this. Your flatmate relations have deteriorated to the point that you’re asking friends to escort you home as you know your flatmates won’t be aggressive when other people are around. The common areas of your home are filthy – not that you’d know – you stay inside your own room trying to avoid contact, bar quick bathroom trips. You’re finally understanding the true meaning of the “fight or flight” instinct anthropology lecturers keep going on about – but unfortunately, it’s in your own home. The situation would be bad enough if you’re neurotypical, but you’re not. Being constantly on edge, even in the safety of your own bedroom, is making your tics worse. Having to spend time on crowded public transport travelling to your family home to avoid the conflict is making your tics worse. Everything is making your tics worse. And that in turn fuels the deterioration of your mental health, which affects your tics, which affects your mental health which affects your…

It’s a downwards spiral from there until you move out. A part of you wonders if there was something you could have done, or if you should have seen the red flags earlier and not moved in in the first place. Either way, you’ll never be so careless with finding a flatmate again.

The best flatmates you’ll ever meet

You’ve done it – you’ve finally done it. You’ve moved in with a few of your friends and everything is going well. Sure, there’s the occasional passive-aggressive comment about dishes left unwashed but fuck it. You have common interests, compatible living styles and they don’t only meet the bare minimum for not being ableist, they smash the marker out of the park. They’re fun, kind and supportive – and asking you if you tic in your sleep is the closest they’ve ever come to making a thoughtless comment. Which, if you compare it to half of the things other people say, isn’t even that bad. And then the year ends and one of them has found a job in Manchester and the other one is moving in with their parents, so it’s time to start the whole flatmate finding process all over again…

Serena with her two favourite flatmates at their Halloween party. They’re dressed as Jessie, James and Meowth, members of Team Rocket in the cartoon PokemonThis photo shows Serena (Centre) with her two favourite flatmates at their Halloween party. They’re dressed as Jessie, James and Meowth, members of Team Rocket in the cartoon Pokemon

This is not a comprehensive typology of flatmates by any means. For example, I have plenty of nice friends who are supportive of my access needs and are looking for a similar flat to me – but I still wouldn’t live with them because their kitchens look like hurricane zones.

After several years of bad flatmates (and almost-flatmates, plus a somewhat lonely period of living on my own) I did end up finding my “best flatmates you’ll ever meet” (pictured above at a Halloween party we hosted) – and yes, unfortunately our time living together came to an end. But I learned a lot in that year – most importantly that I don’t have to sacrifice my own safety or comfort to coexist in a shared living space. I can’t guarantee that I won’t have other less-than-ideal experiences in the future, but what I can do is empower myself not to settle for anything less than what I now know I need.

If you’ve found yourself struggling to find or maintain living arrangements with Tourettes, the UK charity Tourettes Action has a useful document that suggests some ways of resolving situations to do with housing.

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