I’ve always been a sucker for a good plan. I like being in control — knowing what’s coming next and being ready for it. In good times and bad, I’ve always known I can rely on preparedness — it alleviates my anxiety and helps me enjoy things knowing I won’t be caught off guard by some unknown.
But 4 years ago I was diagnosed with endometriosis, and all of that went out the f*cking window.
Endometriosis is a chronic reproductive health condition that happens when tissue similar to the lining of your uterus grows outside your uterus. The condition can cause acute chronic pain, fatigue, organ dysfunction, and infertility.
When the diagnosis came in my first year of law school, I was tired and in agony almost every day. I couldn’t see through to the next week, the next day — hell, even the next hour. I watched my postgraduate plans dissolve and lived at home with my family because caring for myself was too exhausting to do alone.
My whole world was pain and doctor’s appointments and medication side effects and surgery and more surgery and recovery and physical therapy and more pain.
Around the same time, developers were turning an old schoolhouse in our neighborhood into condos. I’d drive by with my mom and she’d point them out. “That would be a nice place for you to get an apartment one day,” she’d say.
Scrolling through the pictures, I could see myself living there — cooking, maybe getting a dog, bringing dates home. The independence of it was so foreign to how I was living at the time. But that didn’t depress me. It took me away from the reality I was living in and brought me somewhere else.
It also gave me an outlet to plan — a way to indulge in the catharsis planning had always provided me without my actually having to deal with the weight of my current reality.
Quickly, Zillow became a habit. I’d spend hours looking at apartments near me, figuring out the salary I’d need to afford the rent or what kind of dog I’d be able to get. The longer I was sick, though, the less the prospect of living on my own brought comfort — and the more I needed an escape.
So I changed what I was searching for. I’d pull up the places I wanted to visit, the places that intrigued me. New Orleans, Louisiana, where my favorite writer, Tennessee Williams, called home — Sort: High to Low. Nashville, Tennessee: I’d seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show there — Sort: High to Low. Greenwich, Connecticut: My family stayed there when we visited New York — Sort: High to Low.
I created an account on Zillow where I’d save all my favorite luxury properties, and on bad pain days I’d flip through my collection, adding to my favorites. Imagining the office I’d decorate in the lacquered walls of a San Francisco Victorian, thinking about the family I’d raise in a renovated Georgetown Federal, picturing a quiet seaside life in a Maine Colonial.
And I’m not alone – a recent article in Vanity Fair recommends replacing your social media apps with real estate apps. But I’d go a step further: File them alongside your favorite anxiety and mental health apps.
Abbey Oldham, a television and video producer, says she, too, finds comfort in fantasy home shopping. “It’s aspirational, and it’s a mental getaway… Anxiety ignites a fight-or-flight response, and I always instinctively choose flight. Fantasy home shopping is the perfect outlet for me to mentally ‘fly’ from my current situation until I can relax again and see the reality in front of me isn’t so bad.”
Tina Vasquez, a journalist and researcher, says she found comfort in real estate websites after losing her job. “I know that doesn’t make any sense, but I think it was a way to funnel my anxiety around the looming financial instability by envisioning a life where I was financially able to purchase a house.”
And while it’s hard to avoid the reality that so many of these homes are well outside any fathomable price range, relying on suspension of disbelief is part of the catharsis and escapism.
“It keeps a small measure of hope alive for me — that maybe one day I actually will live in the house of my dreams,” says Reina Sultan, a freelance journalist who works in nonprofits. Money is a constant concern for her, but that doesn’t deter her from enjoying fantasy home shopping.
“Until then, I have to keep grinding and using the Zillow app to remind myself that money bought these houses, but they sure can’t buy taste.”
I used to think the opposite of control was spontaneity or surprise, but the opposite of control is pain. Pain is dark and so amorphous that it makes sense when the antidote is something frivolous, steeped in aesthetics and fantasy and detached from reality.
Perusing Zillow never actually took my pain away, but it took me to a place far away from it, and there’s immense comfort in that.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve been lucky enough to experience some relief, but real estate websites and apps are still my go-to on a bad pain and/or anxiety day. It’s my favorite hack.
These apps are the perfect outlet for my love of planning because they don’t ask me to think too seriously or realistically about the future. They provide a sense of fantasy and escapism that little else can. They plop me into a world full of empty houses to project whatever I need to onto them.
Sometimes it’s simply the act of indulging my nosiness, my interest in how other people live, that provides comfort. I get to enjoy these simple pleasures without ever having to factor my current reality — be it pain, anxiety, or stress — into the equation.
Caroline Reilly is a Boston-based reproductive justice advocate, writer, and law student. You can find her work on the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, and Rewire.News, where she writes about medical misogyny, sexual violence, abortion access, and more. Find her on Twitter.