Home Is Where The Heartache Is

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Houses are supposed to be our sanctuaries, not structures that shatter self-esteem. When storms rage, homes should be our shelter; instead, they have become the epicenter of economic anguish for many.

Ideally, turning the key and crossing the threshold should provide a welcome escape from the world's woes. But when your mortgage is past due, home is no safe haven; if real estate taxes are in arrears, your abode provides no asylum. Even if you ignore the stack of past-due bills and pay no heed to the persistent collection calls, in which room is it possible to escape the pervasive feeling of failure which plagues you more than the most judgmental mother-in-law?

I'm working with a client who is far behind in her mortgage payments, having been fired as the responsibilities of an elderly parent became too time-consuming. As I reported on the latest delay in renegotiating her loan terms, she moaned and said: "I hate my house. I chose it, decorated it, and threw all my kids' parties in it. Yet every time I pull in the driveway I am full of anger... Actually, I hate myself as much as my house." I tried to console her by relating how common her situation is, and stressed that she is far from a failure simply because she lacks funds. I commended what I know to be her almost daily routine: she drives 20 miles to care for her Dad, runs his errands, and cooks his meals. I empathized with this exhausted caregiver's plea to have the pending foreclosure halted, as she needs her home to be a safe harbor, not just another place where she feels battered and blown off course.

Another client, whose home has been for sale since December without so much as a nibble, confided that she regularly fantasizes about her bungalow bursting into flames. Aside from my slight suspicion that she might be making a combustible (pre-) confession, I pondered how it must feel to pray you can soon blacken marshmallows over the smoldering ruins of a place where you once toasted life's successes.

After a recent phone consultation with the friend of a friend my shoulders sagged so much I had to lay my head on the desk. He'd pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars of equity out of his house to pay for a pre-chemo cruise with his wife, her (unsuccessful) cancer treatment co-pays and deductibles, and the kids' college educations. As he signed for larger and larger home equity lines of credit, he never imagined that within a few years he'd be out of a job, facing monthly house bills four times larger than his unemployment checks. Feeling a familiarity based on our two degrees of separation, he shared his memories of poolside parties and Christmas mornings by the fireplace, and confessed he needed me to renegotiate his mortgage so "no one will find out what a miserable failure I am."

The realities of the real estate market can easily be reduced to downward arrows on equity charts and foreclosure tables with ever elevating lines. But amongst all those somber statistics are homeowners who used to love sitting at their kitchen tables, enjoying the background noises of kids playing and dogs barking, while leisurely sipping cups of coffee. For these women and men now unable to meet their obligations, their highly leveraged sanctuaries have been transformed into siphons sucking away not only their self esteem but sometimes even their very wills to live.