Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable, since it merely aims at keeping something that belongs to us or we think belongs to us, whereas envy is a frenzy that cannot bear anything that belongs to others.
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld
I was alone a lot when I was growing up. Lonely, too.
I lived a mere seven miles from town. But the road I lived on was a rural route with a speed limit of 45 miles an hour and no shoulder. One momentary lapse of attention, and a walker or cyclist could be killed. So it was only seven miles, but until I got my driver’s license, it might as well have been 70 miles.
Later on, I’d get a friend who lived less than a quarter mile from my school, located in the center of town. In town the speed limit was 25, and there were sidewalks. And especially as things deteriorated at home in my own family, I’d stay frequently at her house.
But that would come later. The early years were rough.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so lonely. I had two sisters and a brother. My father was frequently away on work assignments, but six people officially lived in my house total. Actually, seven for a few years when my newly widowed grandfather lived with us, shredded like a fiend on the harmonica, and taught us gnarly French-Canadian swear words.
But aside from that brief cameo from Grampy, I was by far the most extroverted person in that house. The rest of my family was comparatively shy and quiet, kept mostly to themselves. Basically, I was the one social person in a family full of loners.
Because of this, my other family members found me quite obnoxious. Exhausting to be around. I was told I talked too much. And that my ideas were weird. That the things I said were embarrassing. And that I was a bit of a know-it-all.
I was well liked at school and among other families, but when I came home, I often struggled with feelings of loneliness. Of feeling like the odd person out. A person who could do nothing right and was always in someone else’s way.
I loved being in class, and I loved the times when I could stay at friends’ houses. But in the early years especially, I spent a lot of time at home, paradoxically a place where I didn’t feel welcome. Where I didn’t feel accepted. Where I was constantly told I was annoying.
I Grew Up Feeling Like a Guest Star in Other People’s Lives
As the years progressed, I spent more time away from home. And in my teen years, I became pretty nomadic, crashing with friends’ families and occasionally other relatives. I lived for playing musical gigs. For school. For visits to friends’ houses.
And yet, none of these places really felt like home. I was welcome there, but I was a guest. And I could tell. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere.
Sure, my friends had disagreements with their parents, but there was something else there, something between them, a bond that I could recognize instantly that I didn’t have with my own parents. I could watch my friends and see that they were main characters in their own lives. And me, I was more of a character actor in these same stories, a colorful cameo that would show up for an episode or two just to add an entertaining splash before I left to guest star somewhere else.
I didn’t have my own regular program. I wasn’t the hero of my own story.
While my friends easily found regular boyfriends, I struggled. Primarily attracted to women, I mostly dated female friends who were between male lovers (secretly, without public acknowledgement, since during the 90s we were all a bunch of verifiable closet cases) and the very occasional guy.
When I did date a guy officially, usually there was something markedly wrong with the relationship — in one case, there was not only a quite inappropriate and illegal age difference (he was 6 years older) but he also treated me quite badly.
In another relationship, there was a sizable distance involved, and he broke up with me over artistic envy (we were both musicians, and he was used to being a star and dating only groupies, and the transition to dating someone who was also well known locally for music was fairly unsettling for him, or in his words, “dating you makes me feel small”) when our relationship was really just taking off.
In yet another, there was distance, he treated me terribly (he would fake psychosis when he simply didn’t want to talk to me; I would later find out long after we broke up from a mutual acquaintance that he cheated on me with not one but two women), and he was incredibly rude to my friends.
It seemed like everywhere I turned, I was the odd one out. I didn’t fit in anywhere. It seemed like I couldn’t catch a break, even by way of random luck. In high school, our freshman schedules were determined for us. I landed in a physical sciences section with two of my close friends, who promptly decided they wanted to be lab partners, leaving me to partner up with the only other remaining person after everyone had grabbed their preferred partner. And of course, as luck would have it, the other odd person out was a highly judgmental stranger who had heard rumors about me and told me to my face the year before that I was going to Hell.
I Used to Fantasize About Having an Emotional Home
I knew the universe was sending me some kind of message. One I’d much rather return unopened.
When I was alone, I’d fantasize about things being entirely different. About having a person I could say anything to. Someone who was always there. Who was my person. Someone who was always happy to see me, who always made time for me.
I would fantasize about never being alone. Never feeling left out.
I’d fantasize about having an emotional home. About feeling like I belonged somewhere.
Instead of feeling like life was a game of musical chairs and that I was always the one left standing without a place to sit when the music inevitably stopped.
I Was Thrilled When I Got Into My First Long-Term Monogamous Relationship
That’s part of why I was thrilled when I finally got into my first long-term monogamous relationship. Sure, it wasn’t your traditional love story. And it wasn’t glamorous — a destined meeting where we spotted each other across a crowded room and knew we were right for each other. Nothing like that.
I’d been set up with Seth by mutual friends. And not because of any high-flown reasons. But because we were the only two single people they knew. Seth and I were basically the leftovers, people who hadn’t had the best luck finding partners.
But you know, I liked him instantly when I met him. I found him physically attractive (something that rarely happens so quickly with men), probably because he resembled one of my childhood friends, someone who had been quite kind to me. And on the night we met, I was suffering from some pretty gnarly indigestion (a combo of stress and routine starvation), and Seth responded by taking me to the store and buying me Tums. We picked up the stuff to make pizza and then baked some in the dorm basement.
When I idly played piano while the pizza was baking, he complimented my ability.
It was a lot of kindness for me to get from someone I was dating. Maybe that sounds silly. But at the time, it didn’t take much to impress me.
My self-image at the time was incredibly low. I viewed spending time with me and especially dating me as a burden for someone else to bear, not a privilege that they had to earn. So the idea that someone would throw kindness on top of taking on the burden of my company? At the time, it was unthinkable. I was wowed.
Seth and I kept seeing one another. And we were quickly in an exclusive relationship. My housing situation deteriorated, and instead of letting me be homeless, Seth asked his parents if I could move into their house (as he still lived with them and had a good relationship with them), and they actually agreed to let me move in with them and stay in their spare bedroom, so long as Seth and I didn’t share a bed and I did chores for them. A year after that, after I saved up enough money through living with them, Seth and I moved into our first apartment together. A few years after that, we were married.
Stability Kinda, Mixed With Other Instability
Looking back on my life to that point, Seth was the best thing that had ever happened to me. He presented me with so much sudden stability, especially because his parents were not only folks of means but also people who seemed to care about him a lot. Seth had screwed up plenty, and their reaction was not to exile him or mock him but to help him do better.
I was amazed by this. Seth’s mother in particular was incredibly kind to me, frequently commenting on how intelligent and talented I was, things I’d never heard my own parents say. She noted that I often worked multiple part-time jobs while taking classes and doing chores and that this impressed her.
It was a stark departure from what I’d been told over and over growing up: That I was lazy. That I wasn’t living up to my full potential, that I could do better. And that I had a habit of saying and doing the wrong thing. Seth’s mother never focused on the fact that maybe I wasn’t tapping the remaining 5% of my ability — she was instead impressed that I could push myself to 95% for such prolonged periods of time.
Seth’s parents weren’t exactly emotionally warm (but to be fair, that’s a rare quality among New Englanders), but his mother was very kind to me. She was a sudden source of great stability.
The trouble of course was that Seth also introduced a great deal of instability at the same time. Because Seth wasn’t very good at working hard or being consistent. And he had very expensive tastes.
But it was the best relationship I’d ever been in up until that point, so I ignored some truly troubling early signs:
- When he lost his job and pretended for three shifts that he still had it (making a big show of going to work and instead heading off to have fun at a friend’s house) before finally confessing.
- When he spent the rent money on video games and we lost an apartment.
- When he pretended to be going to classes but was instead skipping them and failed those courses.
I Had Constant Access to Him, and I Adored Him, But He Didn’t Seem to Like Me Very Much
And not only that, but while I adored Seth and doted on him endlessly, he didn’t actually seem to like me all that much in return. He didn’t enjoy having conversations with me much, unless they were about video games. Found the majority of what I said really boring. And didn’t have any interest in reading my writing, which was even then a large part of my life. I funded the deposit on our first apartment with money I’d won from writing awards. My day job for quite some time was working at a bookstore while I frequently published poems and stories in other people’s magazines and even ran a poetry magazine myself which I put Seth on the byline of as “Art Editor.”
In spite of the fact that Seth was an English major himself for a time (although to be fair, he went through quite a few different majors), he had no interest in reading my work. “It’s not really what I like,” he’d say. “Your writing is too confessional.”
Meanwhile, I stayed up until four in the morning playing in MMORPGs that I’d gotten into in the first place solely because they were something he’d been into when we met. Dragged my sleepless ass into work, exhausted from the raid the night before.
I cared a lot about Seth. Took an interest in what he loved, in his inner life. But he wasn’t much interested in doing the same in return.
He should have been my emotional home. And in some ways, I guess he fit the description. We spent a lot of time together. In fact, over the eight years we were monogamous together, we only spent four days apart, all told (most of that due to a training trip he took for work). Once our marriage opened, there were longer stretches of time when I didn’t see him or only briefly, as he spent quite a lot of time at his girlfriend’s house or with friends while I stayed mostly at home (since I worked there and we only had one car).
But for eight years, I basically had constant access to another person to keep me company.
But it wasn’t what I fantasized about. Not only did I not feel like I could say anything to him (in fact, there was a very narrow list of things he’d really discuss with me), I certainly didn’t feel like he was always happy to see me.
And over the years, we began to feel more like roommates than anything else. Ones who didn’t really agree on how money management or housekeeping should work, but who were intertwined in those ways nonetheless.
And he certainly didn’t feel emotionally like home.
I was starting to believe maybe home didn’t really exist, not for someone like me anyway.
The Love Dreams
I began to have dreams a few years into that marriage, really vivid ones. I would meet someone new, a completely imaginary person, and we would click instantly. They would fall in love with me. And we’d do romantic things together.
There would be that connection, that great resonance between our emotions.
It was something I’d glimpsed around the edges before, in my past transitory and arguably imperfect relationships. The ones that had “failed” but had managed to “succeed” for brief periods before they did. I’d feel like the other person who I found attractive and exciting felt the same way about me. But this was an even better version of it. My subconscious had melded those true glimpses with the fantasies I’d had in the dark, alone in my house growing up.
I dreamt of Great Loves. One night after the next.
They were the best dreams. I’d feel sad the mornings after I had them, while making coffee. Avoiding Seth in the afternoons when he rose. Trying to be quiet since he found me “exhausting” to talk to. I’d imagine these dream lovers and wonder how they would act.
Sometimes when I was feeling particularly brave, I’d suggest to Seth that maybe he could do X or Y (usually something that had happened in one of my dreams), some romantic gesture. Seth would scowl and remind me of what to him was an undeniable truth, that romance wasn’t a real thing. That it was something that Hallmark had made up to sell more cards.
“But it’s not about spending money,” I’d insist. “It’s about intimacy. Shared secrets. Unique connections.”
“Well, I’m not like that,” he’d say. “And if you love me, you’ll accept me how I am without asking that I change. You do love me, don’t you?”
I’d nod and drop it.
But the dreams persisted.
Polyamory Stopped the Dreams, Rather Abruptly
A few years after the dreams began, a friend of ours came out to us as polyamorous. The idea hit our friends circle hard. Many people we knew started to experiment with opening their marriages. I personally was hesitant at first, for a variety of reasons, but after some soul-searching, I agreed.
And curiously enough, even though I hadn’t really considered seeing other people until then (indeed, Seth was far more excited about the prospect when it was initially raised), when I started to see other people, the romantic what-if dreams ended. Just like that.
Seriously. It’s been about a decade since then, and I haven’t had another one.
Equally curious: Even though my largest worry initially had been that Seth would find another lover and discover he no longer cared for me and leave me, that’s not at all how things played out. In fact, if anything, the open marriage seemed to be having less of a negative impact on how he viewed me and more of a negative impact on how I viewed him.
The romantic dreams had seemed far-fetched as I was having them, but real life was playing out fairly close to them. True, there was an initial difficulty finding partners who were open to polyamory, let alone to meet polyamorous people (as I was trying to date in rural Maine in 2009, when awareness of polyamory was a lot lower). But after I managed to build up a social circle that had a decent number of polyamorous people in it, it was incredibly easy to find people who seemed much more excited to be with me than Seth had been.
People who made me feel like I was interesting, intelligent, sexy, beautiful, fun to be around.
I Found Home When I Wasn’t Even Looking For It
And it was perhaps another year after that that I stumbled into a situation that felt like home.
At the time, I was polysaturated. I had five partners. One relationship was extremely easy going. It was long distance and the girlfriend and I were so laidback and in tune with one another that it was really carefree and fun. Three partners I lived with, which ostensibly should have helped simplify time management. Especially since two of those nesting partners were a couple who also had a relationship with one another. However, their dynamic wasn’t exactly a healthy one — and a lot of times, it seemed like they were attempting to use me as a Band-Aid over their existing relationship rather than actually dealing with their problems.
Not only that, but one half of the couple was being rather passive-aggressive with me, not telling me what they needed, and seething when they didn’t get what they wanted (when they hadn’t asked). The other half had a lot of honesty problems and continually lied to us both, which really didn’t help anything.
The other partner was Seth — who, all things considered, was actually fairly easy to get along with. He was warm and supportive of my other relationships (and I like to think I did the same in return). And the only real stress came from our long-standing roommate problems (i.e., that he didn’t do chores, rarely worked, and liked to spend money). Still, that was extra stress on top of everything else.
My fifth partner lived across town. Justin was a good friend who I’d been attracted to and had started seeing about a year after first telling him I was interested and running the idea by my other partners. I saw Justin once a week and even that wasn’t easy for me to fit in. Adding Justin into my life meant that I basically had no self-care/alone time anymore. The rest of my personal time was allocated to either work or another partner.
But strangely, it didn’t matter. Because seeing Justin was 100% stress-free.
It was curious. But his house was the one place I could go and not end up somewhat drained after the interaction. In fact, he recharged me.
And then something else odd happened. After the first time I spent the night, I woke up the next morning feeling more rested than I had in years. In spite of years of insomnia, sleep walking, and early awakenings, when I slept next to him, I could actually sleep like a normal person.
What in the world was going on? I wondered
Justin didn’t mind staying up late talking about things. He always wanted to hear what I had to say. He always seemed happy to see me.
Oh my God, I realized. I’m home.
I’m Glad I Didn’t Find Home Right Away
As I write this essay, 7-1/2 years later, I’m still home.
I’m still a sensitive person. Emotional. All of that. High energy to the point where it’s easy for most people to find me exhausting in larger doses.
But my opinion of myself is much higher than it was before. I don’t think I’m a horrible person who doesn’t deserve to live. I mean, I’m not the best person or anything, and I have plenty of flaws, but I don’t hate myself. And I actually have moments where I can see what other people might like about me.
I love this home I have. This life. I’m glad I’m here.
Sometimes I’ll tell people a sad story or two about growing up. About a bad past relationship. Or one of my tales about weird shit I did when I was couch surfing as a young person with no money to get by. And they’ll get a crestfallen look, say, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
And I’ll thank them. Because I know it’s because they care about me and they hate to think of me being in a bad situation.
But we differ on that point. Because I’m not sorry that these things happened to me. And not only because some of them make interesting stories to tell at parties (although that’s true), but because there’s a certain kind of joy, of surreal unbelievable bliss, that comes from feeling emotionally homeless for years (in my case, about 30) and giving up entirely on ever finding a real home or a place where you belong — and then finding it where you least expect it.
I grew up believing that being accepted by other people was a pipe dream. That I’d never find a place where I fit in, because I was too much of a weirdo, “an acquired taste.” And while there was a lot of suffering and sadness along the way, it was the most beautiful experience to find ultimately I was wrong. That I fit in just fine, provided I found the right place.
So I’m glad I didn’t find such a place right away.
I actually feel worse for the people who grew up believing they were entitled to things, to other people, to happiness, to joy, stability… only to have it abruptly seized from them. Who didn’t experience loneliness as simply how the world works but as something inflicted upon them unfairly.
I suppose I should worry more about what I have now ending. But I don’t. I feel fortunate to have experienced it at least once — no matter how long it ends up lasting.
And I don’t worry about what I’ll do if it ends, because I know how to live that way. I know how to be alone. It’s far more familiar to me than the comfort I find myself currently in.