Building a Foundation for a Fuck Off Fund

Piece by piece.

Photo: J. Montgomery

While I was in graduate school, I was dating a boyfriend for almost five years. During the last year we were together, he was cheating on me. This also happened to be during a grueling time for me personally and physically. Besides the tedious nature of graduate school, I was also physically very sick. I was in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices having invasive tests and procedures all while my ex lived a double life with his new girlfriend.

We finally broke up and I only put the pieces together a year after the breakup, making it somehow feel like six years of fucked up rather than the five it already was. I was so angry. Angry, hurt, livid, and scared. Scared that I could never trust a man the same way again. And more deeply, scared that I would never love in the same carefree way.

Thankfully, both those fears seem soft and distant now. In the aftermath of my realization, though, I did many things to distract myself, including but not limited to: drinking pink Prosecco and eating ice cream for dinner for at least the entire first week; going out dancing with friends — often, as often as possible; surrounding myself with friends including floor sleepovers at a couple friend’s house on more than one occasion; allowing myself time to wallow; and then allowing more wallowing time; vowing that I would not let this affect my future self; and promising to always love first, above all else. And then drinking more pink Prosecco.

But my anger kept rearing its head. I was angry that I had spent what little money I had during graduate school on stuff for him and us. I was angry that both my parents and I had spent so much money on Christmas and birthday presents for him. I was really angry that I had paid for my half of a trip to fly to the Midwest to meet his dying grandma (yep). And I was angry for other little things, like paying overage time on my cell phone bill talking to him (remember those days?), covering dinners for the both of us, and much more.

I needed to channel this rage into something more concrete. So, I methodically went through my emails and credit card bills, making a spreadsheet of all the money I had spent on him or us during the year of his deceit. It came out to a good sum of money, so I printed a bill and sent it, firmly giving a “due by” date and a gentle reminder that my best friend works with collections agents.

In a couple of weeks, a check arrived. (“It arrived,” I thought with a lackluster excitement that had festered quickly under a heavy sense of dread.) It came enclosed with a kind apology note — as kind a note that could come with a check like this. I was horrified and excited and so deeply sad. I had wanted the money. I had wanted the satisfaction of his having to see and process that bill. But while I had wanted him to have to quite literally pay for the pain that he could never make up to me in a more figurative sense, receiving the payment in the form of this check made it harder to see him as the complete monster he had grown to be in my mind. With this note and payment for undue pain, he still resembled at least a piece of the man I had once loved. And there was this brief moment of sentimentality there that was hard for me to shake.

Until I deposited the check.

With that, my Fuck Off Fund began. I hadn’t had carefree, no-strings attached money like this before, and never in such mass, particularly while on a teaching assistant stipend. I decided to deposit more than two thirds of it into savings as my backup fund, while spending the rest only on deeply meaningful items.

I set rules without ever purposely doing so. They had to be items that I had yearned after, yet would never have bought for myself — because of the cost or the superfluous nature. They had to be items that cultivated me. Me, alone. Not any memory of me with him, or the dreaded “us” that once was.

The first thing I thought of purchasing were two woodblock prints from a friend’s gallery. I knew I could get an inside rate and the art was by someone whose work I loved (and still love). It was also a serious investment both in my career as an art historian and in my passion for the artist’s work, about which I was already writing and researching. Since purchasing it almost ten years ago, this art has followed me from home to home and office to office, and it is something I deeply love and cherish. I have continued writing about this artist and am now working on a book about his work as well. To say this was an investment in my passion and in my future is an understatement.

Next, I contacted a friend who had work ties (read: discount hookups) at Williams Sonoma. I had wanted a deeply unnecessary Kitchen Aid pasta attachment that could press out pasta shapes like penne, rigatoni, and macaroni. I made fresh pastas in bulk and simmered rich, complex sauces like spicy amatriciana and marinara spiked with wine, spicy chilies, and aged balsamics. Through this food and cooking, I nurtured my body and began the road to physical and emotional healing.

The money, of course, was never going to fix everything. That would be an impossible task to ask money — or stuff — to do. But with my Fuck Off Fund now started, I continued to add to it and grow it, through more graduate school, bad jobs, new jobs, hard times, and many good times too. And while I have suffered through my share of shitty jobs over the past decade, I have also pulled the emergency release lever on the really bad ones more than a few times, liberating myself from toxic work environments that were making me feel all too similar to the way I felt at the end of that relationship.

In sticking up for myself and asking for the money, I learned how to stick up for myself in life at large. The money acted as a reward for my empowerment and it came with a new sense of knowing when I needed to look out for number one. Now, my Fuck Off Fund has become my emotional reserve, my backup for the times when I get that instinctual, gut feeling I’ve come to recognize — the feeling when I sense that a relationship or a situation has become too toxic and taxing for my greater good. It has become my own safe landing, one that I’ve made for myself, for those moments in life when I just can’t help but take the emergency exit.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer. Her writing is featured on JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings, KCET’s Artbound, Daily Serving, and Desert Jewels. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter for news and writing on art, visual culture, activism, education, and the areas in between.

This week, we’re celebrating the Fuck Off Fund. This story is part of this series.

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