I'm sleeping in a tent!

Driven out of my own house by pet allergies ... If you need me, my campsite is in the backyard

Published July 27, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hello Cary,

I've been reading your column for years and always appreciate the way you connect writers' personal problems to larger issues of mindful living and social justice. Such a perspective might help me understand why my husband and best friend slept peacefully last night inside the house I bought a year ago, while I spent the night in a tent in the backyard.

I'm almost 40 and just bought my first house. It was supposed to be my sanctuary -- an affordable fixer-upper in a not-bad neighborhood, close to my job and within a bus ride of my husband's job. We're in a state we've always loved, but we have no family or close friends nearby. Neither of us has good family relationships, and I've always envied people who came home to a loving family and a house in decent condition. My childhood home had a boarded-up hole in my bedroom wall, an unfinished bathroom, and later a bathroom but no functional kitchen. My husband spent his childhood in a smoke-filled trailer. We rented for years until the market crashed, then bought a house that needs some work but was functional and affordable. I thought I'd never move again.

Meanwhile, back in Poverty Central (the economically depressed city we came from), our friend "Joe" lost one of his part-time jobs and was in a very unsafe, unhealthy living situation. He had just enough money to leave the city and move to where we were. We enthusiastically welcomed him, and he found a job shortly after arriving. He pays rent, washes dishes, and we all got along well. Sounds good, right?

Except ... I'm allergic to everything he brought into the house. He has two dogs, one cat, a bird, and a bunch of dusty furniture. I already had cat allergies: he brought the cat but said it would stay in his room. We tried that. Cat dander sticks to EVERYTHING, gets into the heating ducts, and made me miserable. For weeks, it felt like someone was grabbing my lungs in a fist and slowly contracting until I got just enough oxygen to breathe. I got winded walking to the bus stop. My boss expressed concern that I was too sick to do my job. Finally, reluctantly, he moved the cat to the garage, but I didn't get better. After spending lots of money on allergy and asthma testing, which wasn't all covered by my insurance, I have learned that I am allergic to cat and dog dander, dust mites, and feathers. My doctor told me to get rid of the animals, rip up the carpet, remove or encase all dust-collecting objects, and install a HEPA filter.

When I told Hubby and Joe the news, they both shrugged and said they would "find a solution." We planned to replace the carpet with hardwood or laminate floors, but have since discovered a much more urgent and expensive issue that MUST be fixed first, so no money for floor remodeling. So far we have tried keeping animals out of bedrooms, HEPA filters, a new vacuum cleaner, and removing the worst-offending furniture. I'm on three different allergy medicines with unpleasant side effects. I can no longer be in the common areas of my own home: one minute on the upholstered couch and I'm struggling to breathe. That's when "Joe" barks suggestions like, "Take your meds!" or "Stop letting the dog touch you!" So helpful, since I share dog-care responsibilities and I'm already snorting Flonase twice daily and taking many pills.

In desperation, I set up our camping tent and began sleeping outside -- finally, merciful relief! The chest burning stopped. The itching stopped. My brain was finally getting enough oxygen that I was able to get some work done! I feel a thousand times better. All I had to do was move out of my own house and completely avoid everyone in it.

This is where, in a normal world, I'd say to Joe, "I know you love your animals and can't bear to give them up, and I know your furniture and memorabilia collections are important to you, but I can't live with them. Please get your own place. Don't worry: we'll still be friends."

Except ... Joe can't rent anywhere. He was underemployed for years in Poverty Central, and his credit report reflects that. He's working, but can't pay market-rate rent in our city. He takes the bus because he can't afford a car. One of his dogs is a restricted breed that no landlord will take. Most places prohibit three animals, exotic animals (like the bird), and he couldn't afford pet deposits anyway. If I kick him out, he'd have to send the animals to a kill shelter, which is inhumanely cruel and would destroy any friendship we have. Those pets are the only constants in his life. If I make him give them up, he'd never forgive me.

I got the same attitude from a rescue group that I called. I wanted to present Joe with the option of giving one or two of his pets to a group that could find them loving homes. Instead, Rescue Man lit into me about how no decent person would ever throw out an animal for her own convenience, and implied that I was a monster for considering it.

The dust is another problem. People without allergies don't get it. Just because a house doesn't look dirty doesn't mean it's clean. I need to replace the upholstered furniture, but Joe thinks that he's compromised enough. He is paying rent, after all, and that does give him some say over how the house is run.

And then there's this. My husband has very few friends. Thanks to an abusive childhood and many years in Poverty Central, where people tend to die young, there are very few living souls he counts as positive relationships. Joe is a really nice person, and he means a lot to us both. He's come through for us on many occasions. His love for animals is one of the great things about him. I had every intention of making this work, but I didn't expect to be exiled to the backyard.

So what do I owe this man who moved across the country on the promise that he would have a home, who is contributing to the household, and who can't meet his basic needs without help? What do I owe my husband, who is really just learning how to create positive relationships? Would a better person accept this new reality, wait for the animals to die, wear an industrial respirator in the house and try to find a job that involves lots of travel? What's the Zen approach here? This is a real moral dilemma: Is it some kind of test? Your comments would be appreciated.

Unhappy Camper

Dear Unhappy Camper,

This guy has to take his animals and go. It's sad but true.

Letting him live with you was a big-hearted gesture and a valiant attempt to improve his life but it didn't work.

Like you, I have cat and dog allergies. I know how completely impossible it is to live in such an environment. Don't let anyone minimize or dismiss this. It is hell. I have imagined certain scenarios to make it work. One actually involved having you rent out your living space in the house and have your husband and Joe sort of camp there, and you use the money from renting out the room in the house to get a room somewhere else while Joe gets his act together, and then ... you see what I mean? It gets too complicated. It isn't workable.  Just sit down and face the situation together. Your lives will be better once you deal with this one difficult matter.

I don't know where he will go or what will become of his animals. If he were the one writing to me I would try to figure that out. But he didn't write to me. You did. I'm concerned about you. This is a terribly stressful situation. You have to take care of yourself. If it were just an inconvenience you could live with it. But this is a serious medical risk. You have to be able to breathe.

Don't get mixed up with ideas about finding places for his animals. Keep it simple. You tried to do a great thing but it didn't work out.

He is not your responsibility. You cannot afford to help him. He is going to have to make his own way.

By Cary Tennis

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