After Sara’s mom divorced her dad, she married a cop—a cop on the up and up. He was making so much money that when Sara was a child, they bought one of the biggest houses in Swan Creek, a gleaming new subdivision built in the housing boom of the early 2000s. For Sara’s mom, financial stability was a welcome relief after her divorce from Sara’s dad, a drug addict. But for Sara it was hell. About her stepdad, whom she simply calls Robert, she is to the point: “Robert is violent, he’s abusive, he cheated on my mom. I hate him.”
The first time she met him, when she was just four, she told him to leave. She has memories of Robert beating her mom till she was black and blue. One morning she woke up to a loud bang downstairs. She walked down and found the dining room chopped in half, the entertainment center flipped over, the couches upended. “I can’t find my keys,” he barked. Another time Robert went off on Sara for wearing a pair of his black dress socks. So she went to Kroger to buy him “like eighty pairs of socks,” folded them nice and neat, and laid them out in the living room for him. He just threw them around the room like a madman. He always had a woman, or women, on the side. By the time she was in high school they barely talked to each other. “Stepdads are assholes,” she says.
In high school, Sara met a Goth kid, and they bonded over their love of heavy metal music and indie films that no one else would dare watch. She loved him so much that she skipped college because she didn’t want to be away from him. She wanted to be with him forever. After high school, she got out of her mom and Robert’s Swan Creek home as fast as she could. Out there, she “unleashed.” She got drunk frequently and became a “make out whore.” She dated her high school sweetheart for five years, off and on—she acknowledges that she wasn’t the best girlfriend to him. She left him for good after she met another guy at work.
But that guy treated her like crap: whenever Sara asked if they were boyfriend and girlfriend, he would hedge and say “no,” or “maybe.” Even after he slept with a fifty-year-old woman, Sara stayed with him. They were never officially in a relationship, and he still lived with his ex-girlfriend. Her “aha” moment came when she realized that she was dating a guy who was just like her stepdad—a womanizer. She always thought her mom was crazy for tolerating Robert’s behavior, and she swore she would never do the same—but she was doing just that! Their unofficial relationship ended after Sara met another guy at a party.
It’s hard to miss the search for dad in Sara’s struggles.
She liked this guy a lot, and they started dating. He was a good guy with a similar story: his parents separated when he was two, and his dad, an engineer, married a “psycho” stepmom who kicked him out of the house when he was 17 (so he moved in with his girlfriend). He never went to college either—he’s a struggling artist who doesn’t give a damn about the “system.”
She wanted to be with this guy forever, but she still had her struggles. For starters, she didn’t know how to open up with him. “It takes a while to earn my trust,” she says. “I’ll be open about facts and stuff that happens, but if you actually want to get into a conversation with me, I tend to be a little bit shy about certain things. You’ve got to watch out for yourself, you can’t be stupid about stuff.” She thinks it’s because of her toxic home environment; her stepdad was constantly projecting his guilt onto his mom, wondering where she was and who she was hanging out with. She says seeing all that projection makes her question what another person’s agenda really is.
For Sara, anxiety attacks led to panic attacks. For a while she convinced herself that she had scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disorder. Another time she convinced herself that she was having an aneurysm. She’s seen several therapists over the years: a drug and alcohol therapist after she downed a bottle of vodka at 16, a cognitive behavioral therapist for her panic attacks, and a therapist at the county’s Mental Health Recovery department.
Sara talks a lot about how people use other people as “drugs” to “escape” from pain. She says that’s what she was doing in her “make out” phase. Nine Inch Nails’ song “The Perfect Drug” comes to her mind, and she thinks about how she was “treating people like a substance,” and using people as an “escape.” She doesn’t have a clear idea about why she did it, or what she was escaping. But it’s hard to miss the search for dad in her struggles.
The solution to inequality is not just more financial resources. We also have to address unequal access to a loving and stable family.
The last time I talked with Sara’s boyfriend, they were back together after a nine-month separation. He says they separated because she started talking about getting back together with the Goth guy she dated in high school, so he bolted to his boyhood Colorado for a fresh start. They got back together, but their relationship was fragile—he felt as if Sara was torn between him and her high school ex.
If Sara had a loving stepdad, her story might be different. But that’s part of the tragedy of Sara’s mom’s divorce: it left her desperate and vulnerable. Sara says she now knows her mom married Robert for the money: that’s why her mom stuck around so many years, even when she knew Robert had women on the side. So Sara got the biggest house in Swan Lake and residence in a top school district—and money for therapy.
Divorce is a tragedy. For Sara’s mom, getting away from her drug-addicted first husband was obviously a good thing. Sara is glad that they divorced. But she also wishes that, after the divorce, her mom would have thought about their overall well-being—not just their financial situation. In an age of growing inequality, Sara’s story is a cautionary tale: the solution to inequality is not just more resources, safer neighborhoods, and better education. We also have to address unequal access to a loving and stable family.