The secret of how I overcame my DIY anxiety

Until last year, I absolutely hated even the idea of doing any kind of home maintenance or improvement task, like putting up shelves, getting a leaky roof replaced, or planning an extension. That might seem bizarre to you; so many people seem to love that stuff – buying all the right kit, filling up Pinterest boards, getting at least 3 quotes from tradespeople, sharing before & afters with friends. Not me. Something as basic as drilling a hole in the wall caused me genuine pain – and I know how irrational that sounds.

Then I moved into this house and my reaction to having so much to do was predictably severe. I’m embarrassed just to talk about how badly I coped with it all. I’ve realised that I had to learn how to be a happy homeowner. And it basically comes down to one secret. 

I’m writing this in our finished kitchen. My wife, Sophie, unloads plates from the shiny dishwasher (a Which? Best Buy) that sits snugly under the quartz worktop. My son, Rory, is playing with his cars on the newly sanded hardwood floorboards. Behind him is a wall so smooth and cleanly painted that sometimes when I walk past it I like to brush my finger against it. But it’s not always been like this.

One year ago

Things were so different just after we moved into this two-up two-down. It’s a time etched deep into my memory from trauma. Where do I start?

There was the kitchen. Our cooker had an oven that wouldn’t ignite and plastic dials that would melt burning hot plastic onto your fingers every time you turned on the grill. There wasn’t a dishwasher – which was sorely needed, because Rory was 5 months old, so we were starved of time – and the only place a dishwasher could fit was to the left of the sink. But there was a cupboard under the worktop there, which we knew we had to rip up and remove (though when we did that and we measured the exposed cavity, it came to only 595 mm [I measured it so many times!] but standard dishwashers are 600 mm, and you would’ve thought: surely – surely ­– those 5mm could’ve been gained from trimming here or there, but no, for so long we couldn’t solve it. And no, we didn’t want to be forced into getting a slimline dishwasher [I think I mentioned we had a 5-month-old baby].)

And this smooth and cleanly painted wall? That used to be disfigured by the dreaded damp patch. I feared that the wet bricks behind the flaking off plaster would crumble and the whole house would fall down at any moment. So many theories as to where the damp came from. Every week or so a new suspect cause would present itself, bewitch us, but never be corroborated. The uncertainty of it was destroying me.  

And every room had intensely stressful tasks like these. It felt impossible to work out what needed to be done first, and what tradespeople could do it, because how can you trust what they say? And what if, when they’re jamming in a dishwasher that doesn’t fit, they nudge a water or gas pipe and a leak starts, and…

There were all the boxes. Unopened cardboard boxes marked vaguely e.g. ‘Living Room’ or completely unhelpfully e.g. ‘Extra bits.’ We had to work out: what needed to be sorted out before we opened each of them? What was missing from each box? It was like a whole slew of horrible logic puzzles – some sadistic Escape the Room designed by a demonic Kirsty Allsopp.

No end in sight

Not only did we have to sort all our old boxes, but we also had to contend with wave after wave of flatpack furniture deliveries. Have you ever tried to put up substantial flatpack furniture with a 5-month-old wailing at you? Ikea does not provide step-by-step instructions for that.

Worse than all of the boxes and the furniture, we had decisions to make – so many decisions that were costly and semi-permanent and really could’ve damaged our future house price.  

I think we finally worked out that in order to unpack the boxes properly we needed to put the living room alcove shelves up. Well, that meant 2 shelves either side of the chimney breast, with 2 brackets on each one, and 3 screws into the wall needed for each bracket, so that’s 24 holes we needed to accurately drill into the walls, and 24 wall plugs that might not go in deep enough, and for someone whose terror at seeing a drill tearing into his wall was visceral… 24 times of that. 24 times of feeling like I’m literally drilling a 6 mm hole (all the way up to the masking tape) right into the side of my skull.

Every day when Sophie and I came down the stairs we saw them: these taped up boxes – these hefty reminders of our procrastination and incompetence and arguments.

The house-shaped rift

The house was seriously coming between Sophie and me, on account of the fact I wasn’t handling it well. I tried to keep positive around Rory. But Sophie saw me at my worst.

And there was something about our relationship that didn’t really help me much at first: Sophie wasn’t stressed. She could look over our to-do lists without sighing and pacing the room. She could endure the long waits and endless decisions that had to be made. She slept easily (well, as easily as can be expected with Rory), whereas my sleeping only deteriorated.

The secret

It took me a while to realise how she handled it all so well. It was this:

She didn’t see the taped-up boxes; she saw the rooms.

She didn’t see the to-do lists; she saw things done.

She was content being surrounded by the same clutter, because she saw past the problems (which suffocated me) and saw the future, where our house was beautiful and tidy and done.  

Sophie lives in what I call a state of becoming. She tolerated a hole where there should’ve been a dishwasher, because she knew what it would become. She could abide cracked and rotting kitchen floorboards, because in her head she had an image of her Instagram-ready kitchen. There was no pressure to sort the damp patch out because it would become bone dry, one day. I was overwhelmed by the present and haunted by a horde of nightmare futures; she was sustained by one luminous ideal.

Her special gift?

The problem was that I couldn’t think like that. At least, not at first. We would watch Grand Designs together and I’d shout at the telly about how stupid they were to endure such stress, such upheaval, such pressure put on their relationships (those crying toddlers living in caravans!). Had they actually done the calculations? Was their ‘forever home’ worth the years and years of toil? In the end they always said it was – their smiles beaming wider the more they’d gone over budget and over deadline; I could never believe them.

I tried to fight back resentment of the fact that Sophie had this gift which I hadn’t been given. How could she seek out the drilling of holes when it brought me such agony? Did I need to be the one to remind her how far away we were from getting things done and getting back to our normal lives?

The damp patch only got worse. Specks of mould came first, then drops of a strange orange liquid. And those boxes? I was forgetting what was in each one. Truth be told, I was losing touch with who I was. But Sophie was living in her peaceful state of becoming. This meant she was better at keeping up her friendships; she had more energy to play with Rory.

She was a seed that knew it was taking root. I wasn’t sprouting at all.     

We were drifting apart.

Learning the secret

So I tried to train myself. I watched her and talked to her – I studied her – and I tried to see the boxes as she saw them. I tried not to think about what was inside, and what had to be done with it. I tried to look past all the unopened flatpack furniture and not worry about how and when and why. I had to look past it all in order to see what would become.

It’s the art of patience, isn’t it? It’s the challenge of enduring chaos because you have a vision of the order and the beauty that will take shape.

The dishwasher would fit in. The new cooker would come. The damp patch would get solved, its moisture finally evaporate.

None of this came naturally to me. But I saw that her way was superior. The state of becoming. The state of trust.


There is a strange but well-known phenomenon called the Mpemba effect. It is the fact that hot water freezes faster than cold water. I raise this because my worries were hotter than my wife’s. But they froze faster. They froze completely away.

I trained myself so well that I went beyond her. I built up my tolerance of mess and indecision. I found that I could be surrounded by towering cardboard boxes that no longer fazed me. Drilling holes in the wall was just a necessary stepping stone to where we needed to be.  

The better I got at achieving the state of becoming, the more I was living in my dream home. The incomplete tasks and unopened boxes faded into the background. Their urgency diminished. Soon it was Sophie who became the worrier – the nag. “Can’t we take another look at the damp patch this weekend?” she’d ask, but I’d just smile. “It’ll be fine,” I reassured her. Or she’d say, “We really need that dishwasher because we’re wasting so much time on the dishes,” and I’d calmly describe the wonderful Which? Best Buy dishwasher we’d have soon enough.

Sometimes I’d ask her to close her eyes and I’d describe it all in exquisite detail.

“Can’t we just put the curtains up tonight?” she pleaded once, as I stared out at the hideously overgrown garden that would become such a pristine lawn, the light from the setting sun blinding me but not blinding me (because I felt shielded by the curtains that we would one day have).

In the end she couldn’t stand the waiting. She didn’t have the patience. And she made that decision for Rory too. That was a few months ago.

Washing up in my home

So here I am now, at the sink again, washing up. I look down to my left. Before, I would’ve seen a filthy cavity backed by rusted pipes, where the dishwasher is meant to be; now I see it for what it is: a beautiful, shining, healthily beeping dishwasher. The floorboards might look splintered and rotten to others, but I see what they will become. One day when guests come, they won’t see that the damp patch is overrun with black mould and sticky orange ooze.

As Sophie brings me dirty dishes, I thank her for the lessons she’s taught me. We joke about how poorly I handled the move. It’s the Sophie who will return, once things are ready – once the other jobs have been ticked off the to-do list. Sophie with our little Rory in her arms, standing by my side.  

2 thoughts on “The secret of how I overcame my DIY anxiety”

  1. Hi Zeph I just love the way I see so many bits of truth in your writing! It’s a great piece. Well done! Mum X

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