When You Give People Who Don’t Deserve It Your All, What Do You Have Left?

a black and white photo a person holding 2 empty outstretched hands
Image by Caitlin Regan / CC BY

A lot of people involuntarily cringe when you use the word “deserve,” regardless of context. Because the way most people talk about who’s deserving and who isn’t, there’s a deterministic bent to it, an underlying belief that some of us are born into this world entitled to happiness and prosperity. And others aren’t. Usually this is predicated on factors beyond our control: How rich our parents are, what color our skin is, our biological sex, which country we’re born into, what name and gender we’re assigned at birth.

The world’s most consequential lottery.

I know that deserving is a slippery, often damaging concept, one with razor edges that will flay your skin if you make the mistake of reaching out and trying to catch it in your hands.

But it’s there, deserving. And it’s something I’ve felt. Or, more accurately, haven’t felt for most of my life.

For whatever reason, I’ve always felt like I was less deserving than other people of happiness, of wealth, of stability, of security. Of love. For as long as I can remember, I felt very unwanted, unnecessary, like a burden. Where some others seemed to walk around like the world owed them something, I felt like I owed the world an apology. It bothered me that all I ever seemed to do to the world was damage it, and short of not existing at all, I couldn’t prevent this: I destroyed animals and plants when I ate. I eroded every surface I walked on. Produced waste that needed to be dealt with.

I was like a tiny fire that consumed and damaged everything I touched.

The Spare Child

I suppose it didn’t help that I fell at a disappointing place in my family’s birth order. After my two older sisters, my parents had waited for six years before trying again because daughters were fine, but they really wanted a son. Well, I screwed that up. They now had three daughters.

They tried again, and a year and a half later, my little brother was born. This thrilled my parents.

I always felt pretty extra, like a spare child. I often wore hand-me-downs from my older sisters, got their old toys. My mother wasn’t terribly interested in teaching me “girl things,” having done that already with my older sisters, so I spent a lot of time alone, watching game shows on TV, and later reading books I got at yard sales. A lot of it wasn’t exactly age appropriate. Grisham and V.C. Andrews. Stephen King.

Or my middle school favorite, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams:

A particularly remarkable dream symbol is that of having one’s teeth fall out, or having them pulled. Certainly its most immediate interpretation is castration as a punishment for onanism. Special representations for the relations of the sexes are less numerous in the dream than we might have expected from the foregoing. Rhythmic activities, such as dancing, riding and climbing may be mentioned, also harrowing experiences, such as being run over. One may include certain manual activities, and, of course, being threatened with weapons.

My teachers noticed immediately that I was a gifted reader, a strong writer for my age, and when I later got into music that I was really good at that, too. My parents seemed rather surprised by this, so much ability shown by what was essentially the extra child in our family, the daughter who regrettably failed to be male (and later basically failed to be properly female, having basically neither stereotypical gender socialization as I’d been left largely to my own devices).

At first they were pretty happy about having such a smart kid. But that initial excitement turned to embarrassment as I seemed intent on walking strange paths and not simply jumping through the expected hoops with greater celerity. In the world I grew up in, intelligent children are only an asset when they’re equally obedient. And I was not.

I was always testing limits. Breaking from the standard script. Peeking through my fingers at the forbidden. I was obsessed with peak experiences, blinding beauty, high drama.

My parents and teachers didn’t know quite what to do with me. And so I scampered around lost, wandering into the darkest alleys on the rainiest nights.

A Stack of Traumas and a Crash

By the time I was 19, I’d been through quite a bit. Couch-surfing latchkey kid limbo. A sexual assault by an older ex-boyfriend and his friends. A long string of unhappy relationships with women who kept leaving me for men. And a reliable pattern where my bisexuality seemingly doomed every relationship I got into.

To deal with this, I briefly developed a robust drug problem, in an attempt to get some relief from the nonstop din in my head, the feelings that I didn’t deserve to live. That I was always an inconvenience. That the world would be better off without me.

I felt better for a little while, but the drug use was predictably rather unsustainable. I spent too much money, became indebted to the wrong people. Eventually, my habit landed me in an abusive relationship with a much older man, a master manipulator who I hadn’t even wanted to date in the first place and who controlled every aspect of my life. Never honored or even seemed to listen to no.

I did eventually escape from him — aided by an interference run by one of his friends, a kind gesture that I will never forget — but I was so worried he was going to come find me and going through such awful drug withdrawal that my brain kept running in circles. I became hypervigilant, stopped being able to sleep, at all. I was up for nearly ten days before doctors had to put me down with an injection.

Even then, I remained psychotic for about two weeks, while my brain blue screened and rebooted.

…And Then Someone Actually Wanted Me Around… Kinda

I crawled back into life slowly after that awful time. Eventually started to work and go to school again. I didn’t date anyone for six months, like my therapist at the time had suggested. When I did resume dating, I went on dates with a few different people: Grabbed pizza and saw Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man (an awful movie) with a libertarian engineer who wasn’t a bad person or anything but I just never clicked with. I started to go on long walks and eventually make out with a friend of a friend before he eventually threw a lit cigarette at me after I got upset with him when I caught him snorting a line (since I was under the impression that he was supposed to be in recovery just like me).

It was against this depressing backdrop of dating again that my friends asked me if I’d like to go on a blind date with someone, their friend Seth. A gamer who at the time worked in tech support and had a good sense of humor.

“Alright,” I said, as I wasn’t having much luck on my own, and I was basically the only single friend in a sea of couples.

I’ve written about it many times, but that initial meeting went really well. It became my first successful long-term relationship, one not marked by instability or flagrant abuse, at least not at the onset. We moved in together rather quickly (I needed a place to live) and  got married after about four years of dating. All told, we were together for a decade.

And you know, up until that point in my life, it was honestly the best relationship I’d ever had. I didn’t have to worry about physical violence from him. The only thing that even came close was a few occasions when he got frustrated and hurled something at the wall (a remote one time, another time, a shoe). But he never threw anything at me, slammed me against walls, or threatened me or did any of the things that other men had done. And unlike my past female partners, he didn’t leave me for a man. So that was good.

And he didn’t do any drugs. When I met Seth, he didn’t even drink.

There were problems, however. Two large ones, really: While Seth and I were very physically attracted to one another and we laughed at each other’s jokes, he didn’t seem to like me very much. In keeping with my parents’ view of me in childhood, he thought I talked far too much and about things that he didn’t care about. He wasn’t really interested in what was going on inside of my head, my emotional inner life, all the ways that I wanted to connect with him.

Unless we were discussing one of his hobbies (video games or existential films), he really didn’t like talking with me at all.

The other big problem was that Seth completely lacked work ethic. I’m not the neatest person in the world, but Seth took it to a whole other level. He never cleaned up after himself. And while he’d been employed early on in our relationship, as the years went on and I was able to go back to school and get a degree and a good job, he stopped working entirely. He instead started to go to school part time and fail half the classes. Meanwhile, he spent the money I earned as though someone had dared him to.

He didn’t just want a high end computer, the best consoles, all his favorite games, and subscriptions to multiple MMOs, but he would also harp on me about buying in-game currency, especially World of Warcraft (WoW) gold. Essentially, he’d be asking to convert real life money to in-game money that he could easily earn by just actually playing the game.

In other words, he couldn’t even be bothered to earn money virtually by actually playing the games he’d bought. He couldn’t bring himself to work even within the context of his own hobbies.

The Happiness Tax

I kept giving him money, with each infusion hoping that if I could just give him everything he wanted then he’d finally love me the way I wanted to be loved — or at least like me.

But it never worked.

When it was going on, I didn’t think it was inappropriate, even as other people around me noticed and expressed alarm. It was obvious to them that I bought little to nothing for myself, that I cut corners on anything remotely personal in order to have more money to give to Seth for stuff he didn’t actually need — and which didn’t actually seem to be making him happy.

But I told them I knew what I was doing, and they dropped it.

It’s surreal looking back now, reading old journal entries from the time, looking at photographs. But at the time, it made perfect sense: Because it made sense that I’d have to pay a large tax to have a long-term relationship. Because I didn’t deserve to have someone in my life, even someone who seemed a bit lukewarm to me, as Seth often did.

Polysaturation Brought Forth a Crisis

I didn’t really come to earth until this had been going on for a very long time. And even then, it was perhaps much later than other people might have realized it were they in my shoes.

The crisis point came during the last year we were together. It had been about a year and a half since Seth and I had opened up our marriage (a change that came about after we discovered close friends of ours were secretly polyamorous), and while Seth had a lot more success initially with polyamory and dating than I had, the pendulum had eventually swung back the other way, and when it did, I ended up seeing another three people in addition to Seth.

It was actually a bit easier to balance interpersonally than it sounds since my other lovers all knew and liked one another, as they were a married couple (Rob and Michelle) and one of their good friends (Tina). Or, it would have been anyway, had my partner Michelle not been such an incredibly difficult and negative person (a tendency noted by everyone who knew her and not a phenomenon isolated to me, that she could be prickly and overly critical).

Michelle also seemed to have a difficult dynamic with her husband Rob, who was also my boyfriend. Rob had essentially retracted back into his shell at the first sign of conflict (because he’s like that) and was missing in action when it came to any chats and emails with me. I didn’t hear from him for days at a time; meanwhile, I could see him posting to social media and flirting with new people. Michelle, conversely,  reached out to me constantly — but mostly to criticize Rob and complain about my behavior.

And this was all extra troubling since Seth and I were preparing to move cross-country to live with them in a couple of months. We’d wanted to move to a city for years, and Cleveland’s relatively low cost of living (way cheaper than Boston, where most other Mainers seeking out city life chose to move) as well as the awesome people we’d both met on the kink, poly, and hacker scenes during visits to see Rob and Michelle made it a prime candidate.

I was suddenly planning to uproot my life and move 900 miles to live with:

  1. A person who seemed to be ignoring me (but wouldn’t explain why).
  2. Someone who constantly criticized me and our shared partner in terms that often made me physically ill (she really was something else when you got her going, she’d rip out your heart and then blame you for it, meanwhile considering and declaring herself a person who did too much for other people and who was too kind).

During this stressful time, I ended up talking a lot with one of their other close friends, another person in a group chat we all shared. His name was Justin, invariably called “a total sweetie” by my girlfriend Tina who basically thought he was the nicest guy in the world.

She wasn’t wrong.

I bonded quickly with Justin as a friend. Admittedly, I wasn’t really all that taken with him at first — I did think he was hot physically (I have a very specific type when it comes to men, and he’s 100% it, like ridiculously so), but I also thought he was really boring. Because he had a habit of saying the things I was thinking. He almost never surprised me.

But as the months wound on, I realized that Justin wasn’t actually boring — he was just a lot like me. And I’d never met anyone quite as much like me, who actually said the things I think. Most people think I’m a weirdo, especially when they really get to know me. And here Justin was, the exact same kind of weird — a weird that I had actually mistaken for boring because it was so familiar, so comfortable.

Monopolized by Previous Commitments to the Undeserving

Over time, that friendship blossomed into a ridiculously potent crush.

And one day, Justin told me that he loved me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about how I felt when that happened:

….something broke inside of me. It hurt, deeply. I burned with rage at the unfairness of it all. Here was a man who had been wonderful to me, while expecting nothing in return, who had treated me better than virtually anyone I’d ever met. Who deserved me far more than the people I was involved with – and what did I have left to give him? Far less than he deserved because I was monopolized by people who had simply gotten there first – and bound by my sense of honor, by wanting to be true to my word and stick by those who I’d committed to.

…I kept swinging between bliss at my feelings of love for him and his in return and rage at the sense of how unfair it was, how he was far more deserving of my love than the ones I was with.

Still, I was bound by commitments that I’d made to other people and to myself. They were there first, and I wasn’t a person that just jumped ship. I wasn’t about to treat people like old phones that I was throwing away because something new and shiny happened my way.

I did my best to navigate those difficult dynamics, to chase Rob as he seemed to run further and further away from me, to ward off Michelle’s bizarre attacks, and to try to guide Seth towards self-sufficiency and separating our finances (because the particular form of dependency we’d landed in was in danger of destroying us both).

The Princess in the Tower

Justin and I were friends for a year before we went on our first date. And even when we started dating, we made sure to only see each other once a week (on Mondays, hardly a prime date night) to limit how much time seeing him would take away from my other relationships. I lived with my three other partners (with my fourth partner Tina long distance and more of a FWB anyway at this point), so theoretically they should have plenty of access.

But the cracks that I’d seen long distance got even worse when I moved in, and a bizarre dysfunctional dynamic formed with Rob and Michelle, where Michelle in particular seemed upset that I even had friends outside the house and began to insist on a level of control that I’d never had with anyone outside of that one abusive relationship at 19. Not even my parents had been as strict (though I suppose they were close). She wanted everything documented, on my calendar beforehand. Michelle wanted to know that if she dropped by my room randomly when there was nothing on my calendar, I’d be there. Not out going for a walk around the neighborhood. Or meeting up with people for an impromptu social gathering (coffee, gaming night, etc.).

She didn’t just want a curfew but prenotification and ideally preapproval and control over my entire schedule.

I was suddenly in a situation where the conditions and terms were not at all something I would have agreed to if those expectations had been voiced to me upfront.

I wasn’t anyone’s princess in a tower. Polyamory could be difficult — sharing time, resources, and loyalties with other people. I wasn’t eager to combine the worst parts of polyamory (the complexity) with the worst parts of monogamy (restrictiveness). But it seemed that was exactly what Michelle had envisioned and sort of assumed I was down for.

Predictably, it ultimately didn’t end well. The push-pull lasted for a few months, and then everything exploded spectacularly.

Things with Tina also ended, as she found herself caught in a difficult position with loyalties to Rob and Michelle (since they were her close friends and she’d known them for much longer than she’d known me), the sizable distance involved, and the fact that she had a baby, completely shifting her focus.

So Many Breakups — and Then a Divorce

That was a lot of breaking up, especially all at once. And if that weren’t bad enough, in spite of the fact that we’d talked about separating finances when we got to Ohio and he’d agreed to it, Seth reacted very poorly when it actually came time to do it. I wonder about that in hindsight — if he just thought I’d never actually do it, separate our finances. Did he think that I would talk about cutting him loose but that the discussion wouldn’t amount to anything and I’d continue to support him?

In any event, when I told him I’d created a separate bank account and that my paycheck would be going into it instead of the one he had access to, that was the point where Seth told me to fuck myself and left.

We did reconvene to divvy up possessions. But he was done with me. And there was suddenly a divorce to deal with, paperwork I had to file, and a lot of terrible emotional baggage to sort through.

I Had Almost Nothing Left, No Way to Pay the Happiness Tax That I Worried Was Coming

The relationship with Justin was the only one that survived.

That many breakups in so short of a time span made me feel cursed, like I was doing something wrong with my life. I thought for sure that Justin would leave me, too.

But that didn’t happen at all. Being with Justin was so easy. Things were so great. I wasn’t sure how going from one night a week to seven would work out. But that worry turned out to be unnecessary. What had been great in small doses was phenomenal once we lived together.

He treated me better than any other person ever had. And it was wonderful… except…

Well, the first couple of years, I definitely struggled with a lot of guilt. I had been working as a medical transcriptionist for several years. When I’d started the job, medical documentation could be quite lucrative provided you were good at it, since you were paid on production. Since I was very fast and accurate in working through charts, I essentially was paid like a physician’s assistant.

Unfortunately, transcription had been viewed more and more as an unneeded inflation to the cost of providing medical care. And transcriptionists were viewed as middle men that didn’t need to be part of the process. Voice recognition technology began to be more invested in and most transcription that couldn’t be done by a computer started to be outsourced to workers in countries where wages were lower. As a result, I found that in the matter of 5 years’ time, I went from making a good wage to essentially being paid minimum wage for the work I did and also having to frequently take my paid time off unexpectedly because my employer was running out of enough work for me to do in the middle of shifts.

Meanwhile, I was on the hook to pay for the divorce. I had a cheap one, relatively speaking as Seth and I were relatively amicable and didn’t have much to fight over. I gave him the one asset we really had, the car, since he was going back to rural Maine and would need it more than I would in Cleveland, seeing as I had friends with cars, a lot of businesses within walking distance, and a reliable city bus system I could use. I also took on the majority of the debt in the divorce since I thought it likely he’d default on it anyway (which turned out to be right, as I was frequently called by collectors about the one debt he was supposed to pay). But even cheap divorces aren’t exactly cheap, between filing costs, preparing paperwork, etc. It wasn’t easy to find the money, but I made it work — taking great pains not to borrow money from Justin or to miss a rent payment to him (I insisted on paying him even though we were dating because I didn’t want him to feel used, like I’d felt with Seth).

I was broke again. I could just manage not to be an imposition on Justin, but spoiling him was out of the question.

And that really bothered me. I would get so angry working out the numbers with my lawyer (a good friend who took my case for almost nothing), just reliving all the times I’d lavished money on Seth.

I wanted all that money back. Seth didn’t deserve it. He never appreciated it (or me, really). And the moment I stopped giving it to him, he was gone.

I wished I could whisk Justin away on a vacation or get him something he really wanted. He was making ends meet but didn’t have much extra himself, having just bought a house and often dealing with our roommate Hilda, who paid her share late and insisted we kick in on expenses that we didn’t really care about but that she considered vital (deluxe cable, full-house AC, etc.).

But my pockets were empty. Some well-decked out WoW character was likely wearing my former paychecks.

When You Give People Who Don’t Deserve It Your All, What Do You Have Left?

At the time it was incredibly frustrating, this disparity. I felt like I’d squandered everything on someone who didn’t deserve it. And that didn’t feel fucking fair. At all.

But over time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Justin raised my standards about how I should expect to be treated. It took years of evidence for me to really believe it, but I came to realize that I don’t need to pay a tax for other people to tolerate me. That there are people in this world that will actually find being with me to be a huge benefit and not an annoyance. Someone worth fighting for.

“When you give people who don’t deserve it your all, what do you have left?” I’d wanted to know.

Well, I know the answer now.

What do you have left? You have yourself.

And maybe it’s not for everyone, but to the right people, it’ll be more than enough.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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