Why repainting my apartment was a crucial step in my healing process

A woman kneels in her living room in an oversized pink tee shirt. She is painting her wall green with a paint roller. A paint bucket and roller tray sits to her left. Illustration.
Illustration by Natalie Nelson

I didn’t have the resources to move out of my home, but I’d finally recovered the strength to transform it

By Lauren Rothman Mar 12, 2020

Last summer, I watched my hometown of New York empty in dribs and drabs—and then, come August, in a torrent—as my fellow city dwellers packed overnight bags to flee the grid’s humidity for the more forgiving climates of the mountains or the beach. During my occasional forays across the river, I marveled at Manhattan’s quiet, vacant streets, striding across the pavement without worrying about bumping into a phone-glued tourist, and taking up extra space in the rows of my favorite air-conditioned, and mostly empty, movie theaters. A lifelong New Yorker, in previous years I had joined the exodus to the Catskills or Cape Cod, but last summer I barely left my Brooklyn apartment. I was consumed by a project, and that project was single-handedly repainting and redecorating my Crown Heights two-bedroom.

Inside my overheated little home, I navigated again and again to YouTube, where I studied videos with names such as “How to Paint a Wall with Brush & Roller” and “How to Repair a Plaster Ceiling.” I spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through Home Depot’s website, where I examined virtual paint chips and compared reviews of various brands of plaster and primer. Inside my closet, my summer dresses, shorts, and tank tops went unworn in favor of paint-stained hiking pants and denim button-downs. And slowly but steadily, I assembled my toolkit: a six-foot ladder, a canvas drop cloth, rollers of various sizes and an extension pole on which to fit them, a paint scraper, a utility knife, and an angled-sash brush.

My home redo was, ostensibly, practical. Just before the summer started, my landlady had curtly informed me that she would be raising my rent by $125—a whopping 7 percent increase—that year, with additional increases of unknown size coming each year thereafter. Shocked and incensed, I trawled sites like StreetEasy to see if moving even farther east into my neighborhood—and outside the ever-expanding reach of gentrification—would allow me to continue to pay affordable rent. The answer was a resounding no: The prices of nearby apartments had skyrocketed in the eight years I’d lived in the area, with the owners of comparable two-bedrooms charging hundreds of dollars more than I’d pay even after the rent increase. I decided that if I was going to be here for a while, I might as well give my apartment a fresh coat of paint. And because my landlady had a history of using inexperienced and unprofessional handymen to maintain the apartment, I decided that I—having never patched or painted a single wall—would do a far better job than anyone she’d send my way.Each freshly painted wall, each new piece of carefully chosen art—they all helped restore order and purpose to an out-of-control life.

But the real reason that I decided to take on the job was deeper and more complicated. Since 2017, I had been suffering the symptoms of a systemic, progressive chronic illness. A bad flare last fall left me housebound with pain and fatigue, unable to leave my apartment except for occasional trips to buy groceries and toilet paper. I soon felt like a prisoner in my own space, which, though cozy and lovingly furnished, started to feel cramped, dirty, and ugly. I began to hate the putty-beige walls—unchanged since I moved in in 2011—and to question the choices I had made when decorating it that same year. Previously allergic to sites like Apartment Therapy and Pinterest, I started daydreaming constantly about home improvement.

In late 2018, after I finally found an effective course of treatment, my symptoms began to improve. Over time, I’ve returned to the land of the living, taking on part-time work, writing and socializing again, and putting together the pieces of a shattered life. But as my physical health improved, I found my emotional progress impeded by the very space I inhabited. My apartment no longer felt like home; instead, it represented the nearly six months I had spent stuck inside and fighting for my life. I couldn’t look around without being reminded of some trauma of the Great Sickness; my bedroom, in particular, inspired a sort of nauseated dread. When my landlady raised my rent last summer, it felt like a type of divine intervention. I didn’t have the resources to move out of my former sick den, but I’d finally recovered the strength to transform it.

And so I began collecting the supplies. And watching the videos. I chose a light linen-gray paint for the main rooms and a sunny yellow shade for the bathroom. Starting in the master bedroom and working my way south, I spackled and sanded holes and dents, primed, and then painted. I spilled paint and cleaned it up; I made a few mistakes and corrected them. As I moved through the apartment—ferrying the ladder around while I blasted soul music and comedy podcasts—I took down almost every piece of art, wrapped it in bubble wrap, and stashed it in the closet. I replaced my ancient, fraying antique couch with a plush velvet one that’s much more comfortable. I commissioned a weaving from an artist I found on Instagram and another, smaller one from a friend of a friend; I ordered prints of photographs taken in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I lived just before the illness struck, from a friend I had met there; I repaired a broken stereo, hung grow lights, and scattered new plant babies all around. Having been disabled for the better part of a year, I didn’t really have the budget for any of this, but it was cheaper than moving, so I made it work, slashing unneeded Amazon purchases, frequent movie nights, and restaurant meals.

Throughout the repainting process—which took me more than four months as I worked, alone, around symptoms and job obligations—I was (and still am) going through the healing process. But even on days when I felt weak or tired, I got some small task done, whether that task was stripping the paint from a closet door or, on a more symptomatic day, replacing a light fixture. And each job that I was able to do—after many moons of not doing any work at all—made me feel capable and strong, like I used to be. Each freshly painted wall, each new piece of carefully chosen art—they all helped restore order and purpose to an out-of-control life.

A couple months after redoing my apartment, I celebrated completing the first year of the three-year treatment I’m undergoing to restore my health. Healing is an ongoing process, but today I have more good days than bad. I’m now able to leave my apartment as I please, and each time I set foot outside still feels like a victory. But as winter sets in and the nights grow cold, I find that, more often than not, inside is precisely where I want to be—on my new couch, with my two old cats, taking refuge in a space that was once a prison but is now a home. 

This is not psychological advice, always consult your licensed healthcare providers, and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information provided in this blog or articles. Our goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower clients regarding mindfulness, design with intention, and experience to create spaces that reflect an elevated psychology of wellbeing.