I love and hate money. I love the illusion of freedom it gives me when I have it (once a month), but I hate the illusion of poverty it gives me when it’s running out. And all my life, I’ve lived in perpetual fear of the money running out. But something is finally changing within me. I’m finally starting to see money as little more than a fiction novel directly beyond my most basic necessities. In other words, apart from putting food in my belly and a roof over my head, money is just an illusory dialogue about how much power I am being deprived of in this society at any given point. But I didn’t always subscribe to this, and I still experience momentary frustration about money from time to time. It’s just not torturing me quite the same way it once did.
I got my first job when I was 12 years old. I walked into a flower shop and asked about the possibility of a part-time job. I wound up working there for a little longer than a month, 3 days a week after school (though I went in the other 2 days a week anyway), and was paid $3.50 an hour to sweep and mop, wash fridge windows, make newspaper donuts, learn how to make simple corsages, and vacuum the carpets. At the time, for a 12-year-old, the government of Canada stated it was legal to pay $2 an hour, unless they had parental permission to work full-time, at which time minimum wage applied to them just like everyone else. Minimum wage for anyone 16 and over was $5 an hour. And what happened when I finally started to enjoy the benefits of working and taking home some cash? My parents started manipulating me and taking my money right out of my hands. I had to contribute to the household, they said. I had to buy groceries, they said. My middle sister was manipulated too. “She’s got a job, why can’t you?” they said to her, in front of me of course, in between wailing on the back of her head with an open hand covered in diamond rings on every finger. When the flower shop closed, I didn’t get another job for three years. I damn well tried, but I couldn’t even get volunteer work. I dealt with not wanting to go home by spending as much time as all concerned parties could tolerate with my two friends, in their natal homes. And as soon as I got that job three years later? Then came the talk about how I need to “invest” my money. It was a temp job, at which I only worked three fucking days, and I was 15 fucking years old, but I was being spoken to as though I was twice my actual age, pulling in a 5-figure income and spending it recklessly.
I also specifically remember one day when I was 15, going down to the basement in the hopes of snagging just one of the dozens of expensive-looking cookies from a tin I noticed days before had finally been cracked open, and discovering that the entire tin (and even the one beneath it) was gone. I asked my mother what happened. Within hours, I was being accused of stealing them, and being guilt-tripped by both of my parents about what purpose those fucking tins of cookies were sitting around for. I was antagonized for two weeks and treated like a terrorist in my own home, until I finally couldn’t take it any more and wrote one of the only pieces of fiction I’ve written on paper at any time in the entire course of my life. I made up a pathetic story about stealing those goddamned cookies and somehow managing to sell them (that should have been the first indicator I was lying). Then I said I used the money to buy shit from the convenience store, so that I would have an explanation for why I didn’t have a small stockpile of money sitting around. I was 15, but mentally twice my age. My parents accepted this pathetic letter as a confession, and the emotional manipulation, physical battery (yes, that actually was happening then too), and verbal abuse only magnified when I had hoped to finally put an end to it. Then I was driven to the bank branch located in my home town, and a savings account I never knew about before, containing nearly $2500 in my name, was closed and the full contents withdrawn in cash. I was ordered to count it back to the teller while my face burned in front of her and tears forced themselves down my face. Then we went to replace the expensive-looking cookies. The bill at the grocer’s came to just $45, my father slapped me in the back of the head and yelled at me for handing the cashier $60 from the stack of nearly $2500 he handed me, instead of asking my mother for a $5 bill. Then he snatched it out of my hands and I never saw the rest of the cash again. A couple of years ago, my mother denied that this ever happened.
I got a job on my parents’ insistence, when I was 16. I was intimidated by how enormous the building was and how much more I would be paid there than I had ever been paid anywhere (it paid $7 an hour, compared to the minimum wage at the time of $5.40 if I recall correctly). But I took the job, I worked fucking hard at it (as evidenced by breaking all my toes multiple times each from running up and down the cement stairs), and I paid for things like tickets to my senior high school graduation ceremony for myself and my date. Then the manipulation at home began again, with a man sitting in our dining room with my parents one evening when I came home. He was discussing paperwork with them. Before I knew what was happening, my father was talking me into signing forms to put $50 away every month into a thing I had never heard of before, that wouldn’t start paying off until after it had amassed to over $2000 (cue irony here). And that $50 was a depressing chunk of my cash, seeing as how I might only make about $2-300 a month at my job during the busiest months. So I got a second job.
Then they wanted me to start putting $300 a year into “life insurance”. I wasn’t given much of an option when a savings bond in my name matured and the cheque arrived in the mail — I was simply told we’re going to just go “talk” about it, and wound up signing that away too. An insurance policy on myself, listing my father as the primary beneficiary, and owned by both myself and my father. But because I was a minor, the only legal owner of the policy was him, until I turned 18 — which I only discovered shortly before my 19th birthday, meant that he could have sold it (and thus, taken even more of my money) without my prior knowledge or consent. I got a third job in response.
I was still in my senior year of high school and most of my friends hadn’t worked a day in their lives, but here I was working three jobs and going to school. They phoned the man they had used to pressure me to sign up for the first savings policy to tell him to start taking $150 every month. They yelled at me when the payments bounced because of insufficient funds, while just hours earlier, I had gone hungry for the entire day because my bank account had been overdrawn when I tried to eat. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the money. I made at least one other payment on that “life insurance” policy, even though I didn’t want to, and I never saw a penny of it come back. I cashed in the other “savings” (a whopping… wait for it… $600) to pay the rent when I was 19 and my partner had fallen so ill that he was de-registered from his accounting classes at a local college, compromising his student loans when he didn’t have a pay cheque coming in from a job because he didn’t yet have the credentials for it. And all I could think about at the time was how much shit I would get in with the people who stole nearly $2500 from me over a tin of fucking cookies.
I paid for everything myself, my senior year of high school. And I paid for my upgrading class to improve my grade 12 math mark, too, just a couple months after high school. I stayed away from home as much as possible so that my parents would have no claim on my money. When a bill came for an ambulance ride I didn’t tell them about (because I didn’t know I would be charged $325 when a stranger called 9-1-1 despite my insisting that she just leave me alone and not call anyone), they yelled at me and refused to help. They still managed to manipulate me out of my own money, though, because they filed at least two tax returns for me, having me sign away the return to them, without telling me that’s exactly what they were doing. My partner (becoming an accountant at the time) helped me file two tax returns when I was 19, and I remarked at how little paperwork there was involved. He asked me what I meant and I told him how many pages there had been printed out and how many places I had to sign each time my parents did it for me. He informed me that they would have been doing this to have my tax return go to them — I have no idea how much money they stole from me using this tactic.
But back when I was upgrading my grade 12 math mark, I had found out shortly after my 18th birthday about a new job opportunity I liked the sounds of much better, and quit my big intimidating $7 an hour job. My parents told me that if I’m going to treat home like a drop-in centre, I’m going to have to pay them $115 a week to live there. I went to social services, explaining how abusive and exploitative my home was, and got the fuck out of there. My parents didn’t let me take anything but my clothes and things I had acquired with my own money (or my first credit cards), and laid guilt trip on top of guilt trip on me about our blood ties to each other. I avoided them as much as I could, for the greater part of two years. In all the forced contact I endured with them, they never once offered me any help, but instead kept shoving their material wealth in my face while trying to keep quiet about going hungry as their credit card bills piled up on the kitchen table.
I first became homeless when I was 18 because my landlord (the very first) evicted me on the principle that I owed him $250 towards my damage deposit, and that this was more important than my security or safety as a vulnerable young adult with no savings, no familial support, and living on a fixed income with no prior experience renting from anyone. My promise to pay the damage deposit in instalments wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t know that I probably could have borrowed it from social services (at least you can now, ten years later — who knows if that was true then). I had been his tenant for just 19 days, and when he evicted me, he kept everything I owned from me. The police took his side and wouldn’t let me enter the house to retrieve my things. All I had was a spare pair of pants, a few CDs, and a small messenger bag to carry it and my discman in. He told the police I owed him more than $1000: for the rent for the upcoming month (he alleged this was my fault, and thus, I should have to compensate him), the damage deposit, and damage to the carpet that preceded my presence (but which he alleged I was responsible for paying for before I can retrieve my things).
After living in the homeless shelter for two months without sending him a dime back, he finally said I could come and take my things away on the condition that I give him $100. Well, seeing as how I had spent $350 of my $500 credit card limit on fancy underwear, I thought that was quite a deal. But all of that was mysteriously missing when I got my things back. Something tells me his girlfriend at the time, who was virtually the same size as I was, received a monumental pile of intimate apparel that Valentine’s Day (that was the day I phoned home and was told no one would be there to let me in by the time I got back). I have no proof of course, but I also had no recourse.
Little did I know, while I was homeless the second and third time, my father was phoning up his mother night after night, sobbing into the phone about how much debt he and my mother had accrued and how they had no way out of it. While this was going on, my paternal grandfather was inching closer and closer to his death bed from congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease as he awaited a coronary artery bipass graft (they call it a CABG in hospitals — pronounced “cabbage”). Meanwhile, my maternal grandfather had his own CABG and died on the operating room table, but was miraculously brought back to life by multiple blood transfusions. He used this second chance at life to continue to kill himself (and his savings) with alcohol against the advice of his physicians. I don’t know or care if he is still among the living. No one told me about any of this while it was happening, of course. Nor did they tell me about my paternal grandmother handing over the entire sum of the life savings she and her husband had acquired, to my sobbing father, telling him to never ask them again. Nor did they tell me about how he then spent it all on multiple new cars on a trip to the states (my mother doesn’t know how to drive and neither of my two sisters live at home with them). The preference shared by every family member I chose to speak to, was to guilt trip me about the manner in which I left, the silence I maintained for as long as possible, and then the day-to-day affairs of people I had nothing left in common with apart from DNA.
No, I found out about all of this three years after the fact, when I finally made it down to visit my paternal grandparents for the first time since before I left home. I suddenly realized in that conversation what it meant: I will never see an inheritance. There is no safety net onto which I may fall. All the abuse and racism I had been putting up with from multiple family members was for nothing. It’ll never pay off. I’m on my own now, like I always have been. I’ve got to take care of myself, and if they don’t like who I am, too fucking bad for them.
Flash forward a few years, and now, I currently owe $50,000 in student loans. I had a lot of help staying alive and even managed to get help to fix my credit rating from all the damage done when I was 18 and had very little idea what I was doing with it. At one point about two and a half years ago, my bank actually gave me a pre-approved VISA and when I accepted it, the limit on my Mastercard was more than tripled to over $4,000. A couple of months later, my bank approved me for my first overdraft. Only I wasn’t working. I was financially codependent on someone who had a disposable income. This certainly wasn’t the first time I had become financially codependent despite resisting the gravity that pulled me into this same dynamic every time I entered a relationship with someone significantly better off than I was, but it most certainly was proportionally exceptional, as this particular individual’s entire monthly net income was twice what any of my partners pulled in, and 100% disposable (unlike prior partners, who were also living off of their income).
Whenever I was financially codependent, I used my imaginary money to conduct a sort of secret or down-low social justice for myself and for carefully chosen people of my choosing who were equally as poor as I had been prior to entering these relationships, or even worse in some cases. I didn’t put savings away for myself. I tried to improve my quality of life and that of the very few people I felt could most immediately and longitudinally benefit from what little short-term help I could provide. I paid bills for them that they couldn’t afford to pay on their own. I paid for one person’s entire wardrobe to be completely overhauled so that she would have a more professional and cohesive presence when she walked into job interviews. I even bought one person their passport and got them across the border to go to a concert with me. I bought myself electronic equipment that would maximize my efficiency as much as possible at my job and later at school when I attended post-secondary for the second time (entirely on student loan debt). I sincerely rarely did anything else with this money other than attend to my most basic needs. And yet, the money was always more important than I was, to The Money in these relationships. That’s what I call the people who had more than I did. Their relationship with their money is what came to define them, and what ultimately extinguished our relationships.
With one relationship, The Money treated me like I was his own personal call-girl, because over a two and a half year period, he had given me approximately $3,000, not counting the money he spent purchasing plane tickets, because that was his decision and I shouldn’t have to be held accountable for it — especially not when the timing always related either to visits with his family, who he never permitted me to meet and never even told about me, or with business trips. $3,000 over a two and a half year period, during which I was not at all treated as an equal, and was in fact frequently interrupted, silenced, dismissed, argued against, or flat-out ignored whenever I expressed a need. That works out to approximately $3.29 per day, in exchange for his literally unlimited access to me for emotional, sexual, and spiritual support, which he used ad nauseum, even while I worked alone in a medical office on weekdays and at a second job on weekends. I mean, this guy could and did go on for 6 and a half hours, and I couldn’t even get him to pay undivided attention to me for ten minutes in the same conversation. For $3.29 a day. And until I started to think about it like that (the result of an extremely vivid dream in which I had told him to sit the fuck down and listen to every word I had written in a furious letter to him), I sincerely felt horrifically overwhelming guilt about all the money I owed him, for months after I finally broke it off.
In another relationship, The Money would tell me that it was OK that we weren’t having sex, and that he didn’t want to do anything I didn’t want to do. Only that’s not how he acted, as he persistently pushed the same boundaries until I either gave in despite not wanting to at all, or I got mad and then very vocally struggled with the very complex emotions that getting mad at him evoked within me. It wasn’t just that I got mad at someone I believed with all my heart that I really loved and cared about. It was that I had to get mad for him to hear me say “No, I’m not comfortable with this at all”. It was also that by getting mad at him, I’m hurting him, because he cares about me, and doesn’t want to see himself the same way as so many men before him have behaved towards me — except that’s exactly what he was doing to me, and I just didn’t want to admit it to myself until he finally raped me. And I want to say “attempted to rape”, but there was actual penile penetration involved in what happened between us there, and I couldn’t say no right away until he started breathing heavily into my left ear while I was still in shock at what was happening to my body. Until I heard that familiar breath turning into a moan of pleasure while I struggled underneath him to even breathe, I just couldn’t get the word “No” out of my mouth. And there is no fee or sum of money a man can pay me, that makes this behaviour OK. But just for the sake of comparison, over a 2-year period, I would estimate that he assisted me in the amount of about $30,000. I am sometimes still very unhappy with this number, until I apply a different perspective to it: $41 a day.
$41 a day to have every boundary I asserted gradually worn away. $41 a day to have my entire social life (and even my first intimate relationship with a woman) dominated by this man at his every whim and fancy. $41 a day to have my privacy taken from me, as over time, he not only inserted himself into as much of my life as possible, but learned an increasing mountain of personal information about me and my finances, long before I was ever transparent enough about either issue to find this exercise remotely comfortable. $41 a day to finally be pushed to the point of stating quite plainly that when we were first together, I was driven to make such an exceptionally humiliating attempt on my life that I couldn’t even begin to tell anyone at the time or even speak a word aloud for two whole days after being raped and sodomized by a man reputed for pulling knives and guns on women, and somehow managing to survive it — after which, he decided I was putting too much strain on his prior existing relationships, and needed to end ours (rest assured, Money, if you’re reading this right now, it most certainly was already over moments before I finally made this disclosure to you in my final bid to shake you out of your comatose morals).
What did I ask for in return over the entire course of that two years (or the two and a half years with the other Money)? I asked for such a basic degree of respect as not being bargained with when I said “No” or anything less ambitious than “Yes”. I asked that he keep in mind that I have faced an untold succession of traumas in my life, and that while I work through it as best I can, he be patient with me and respect my decisions. I asked for help to eat and to keep a roof over my head. And a few times, I asked for very specific things, such as tools that would help me build a forever home for my menagerie of birds and iguana. Tools that would never be obsolete in my possession. Or for toys that he and I could share together. Toys that I would be delighted for him to use on me (though he would wind up being selfish and always insisting on the flow of power in the opposite direction). Or a trip to the states for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would (and did) change my life. Or a tattoo that would stay with me as a work of art I helped design, for the rest of my life. The sorts of things I realize come up in every long-term intimate relationship, which are gifts, and not things to torture oneself or each other over when the relationship doesn’t last as long as the gift received. Both men — no, all the men I have been financially co-dependent with — knew right from the very beginning of our relationship that what I had to give was never going to be money. What I gave to all those men doesn’t have a monetary value.
And where am I now? I’m living on $906.42 a month (before my shelter expenses) from the government, while I work weekly towards my recovery from a lifelong mental health condition. Not much. In fact, it’s not even a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of tax payer dollars. It works out to about $30.12 a day in an average month. But first, I spent 9 months on an average of $20.33 a day, and fuckloads of help from people who were actually concerned enough to help ensure I was eating and had a roof over my head. I gradually liquidated everything I had that was worth any money at all, over the course of that 9 months (and another two months after that). Virtually all of it came from that $41 a day relationship, and as much as it pained me to give up the things I aspired to master as creative outlets, I am more free for letting it go than I could be while I was confined to that space, surrounded by persistent reminders of how much it’s cost me to be in a relationship for $41 a day. I’ve been here before, and I’ve seen all the wealthsplaining that comes my way then, too. Last time I was here, I was living on just $13.40 a day, without any help at all. Is it any wonder why I became homeless so many times?
I’ve also tortured myself over what it means to receive this money from the government every month, until I started to think about why I am in such a state, that I now live on long-term provincial disability benefits. How much do you suppose the social worker was paid, the day she turned her back on my extraordinarily abusive household after my father spat in my sister’s face? How much were the police officers who were dispatched to the scene of her friend’s household paid, when my father manipulated them into coercing her to return to our natal home, even though she was legally old enough to emancipate herself? How much were my family doctor, urologist, and hospital staff paid, over the course of the decade I was suffering such excessive and frequent bladder infections from the sexual abuse perpetrated against me, while they all turned a blind eye and coddled my mother with hand-waving explanations she would later explain to me as a young adult? How about all the teachers who didn’t do anything to help me? How about the psychiatrist who told me, once I had been transferred from a hospital with inadequate resources for mental health problems as serious as mine was, that I didn’t deserve to be there and that I would be sent back on a one-way ticket to the women’s homeless shelter where I might wait up to three years before a room opens up in the Christian boarding house for recovering drug-addicted sex workers (which, for the record, did not describe my particular set of problems at any point in my life, either then, now, or any time previous or in between)? How about the police officers who arrived to the scene of the condemned house I was living at, who told me that I will be charged with slander if I press charges against the man who had threatened to rape me as soon as I fell asleep that night? How about the multiple psychiatrists who, instead of listening to what I had to tell them, just interrupted me to tell me they were going to write me a stronger prescription for more drugs that weren’t working for me, but making me even more dangerously insane?
I could keep going, but I would never be able to stop myself.
If you want to talk about who’s “leeching” from the government or from tax payers, as many people do, talk about all the people whose salaries are paid by public tax payer dollars, whose apathy and inaction cost me more than anything imaginable. I assure you, they are being paid at least an average of 5 times what I am being paid through my sponsored mental health recovery, and that’s just the lowest annual salary among all of the professions I’ve referred to, of those who repeatedly failed me, condemning me to my place between the cracks in our broken system.
So what the fuck is money, anyway? It’s a fiction novel about how much social power you hold at any given time, printed on and with the stolen resources of the most socially disadvantaged and marginalized class of people within this country’s borders. Sometimes it’s not even printed yet — it’s just imaginary, and never will come into fruition, although you’ll certainly be treated as though it was every bit as “real” as the bills in your wallet. It didn’t even exist on this land prior to European contact. I love money and I hate it. I love the illusion of freedom it affords me when I have a surplus of it, and I hate the illusion of confinement and misery it condemns me to when it’s running out.