Home: What Does It Look Like To You?


“Home” is a word with many different definitions. Over the weekend, I visited Dictionary.com to study them…

  1. A house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.
  2. The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
  3. An institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home.
  4. The dwelling place or retreat of an animal.
  5. The place or region where something is native or most common.
  6. Any place of residence or refuge.
  7. A person’s native place or own country.

What I want to talk about this evening is the fifth definition on this list, home as “the place or region where something is native or most common.” Although I was born in Chicago, the first home I remember is an apartment in rural Virginia. My father Gregg was a military policeman in the United States Armed Forces, a professed proud keeper of domestic peace. My mother was a registered nurse, a healer.

Our apartment had a bathroom door that locked from the outside, and one of my earliest memories is of being trapped in the small room. The doorbell rang while I was doing my tiny lady business and I heard the unmistakable click of the lock as one of my parents ran to greet the caller. I’ve never figured out which one of them actually turned the handle and it seems unlikely this particular mystery will ever be solved.

After what felt like several minutes of banging on the door and crying, I was freed by my laughing mother. She claimed I had tripped the lock myself, silly girl, and what’s the sobbing and fuss all about? I was preschool aged but immediately befuddled. My mommy wouldn’t lie to me, right? I knew what I heard. I wiped my tears and filed the incident away. I was good at that.

Much later I learned from my father’s family that dad had been conducting light traffic in the drug trade to supplement his soldier’s salary. Society’s respected veteran and his wife locked their toddler in the bathroom to service a customer. Because neither of them admitted to it during the course of our relationship, I’ll never know for sure if the maneuver was for my safety or just to keep me out of the way.

It was established early on that home was absolutely for me, “the place or region where something is native or most common.” We moved several times throughout my childhood but each environment was characterized by the same features: emotional and physical threats with lots and lots of untruth.

My parents fought – loudly, violently and often. When I was 8 years old, I was huddled on the stairs that led to a second floor bedroom. I was trying to prevent my little sister from seeing what was unfolding. Usually she was only too happy to oblige but I always felt the need to act as gate keeper and watch to the bitter end. As if by sheer force of stare I could protect my whole family from destroying itself. As if I would know the exact moment to intervene and save everyone. On this evening, my father screamed three words that changed me forever:

“You trapped me.”

Although only a third grader, I knew instantly the trap was me. I could do math and figured out my mother was three months pregnant when she and my father married. If Daddy felt forced into domestic unrest by external forces, the fault was clearly mine. I felt a sudden and quixotic rush of guilt as well as a sense of my own power. In a bizarre way, this new information only reinforced what I already felt was a duty to be hyper-vigilant for my family. I was capable of generating danger before I was even aware of it. That contrary gift had to be channeled productively.

The impression Gregg’s words left, deepened by natural inclinations of character and a desire to be loved, unleashed a firestorm of achievement-oriented activity. I wanted to be the best at everything, to keep climbing new heights, make Gloria and Gregg proud. It was so painfully and openly needy. I owed it to my dysfunctional parents to help them care more, and I was persistent in effort. After all, wasn’t their unhappiness and disinclination to provide for our basic needs my fault? I trapped them. I was hungry in more ways than one to show them that engaging was worth it. That I was worth it. As a bonus, I enjoyed the luxury of disappearing into industry. A mind and body always in motion don’t have time to hurt and despair.

The last time I saw my mom was in my early 20s. She committed extensive identity fraud against my sister and I before fleeing downstate. She’d been lying for years until a repossessed car and a locked drawer of never paid bills exposed the truth. She tried to change her story again and I slapped my own mother – hard. She walked out the door with her purse and the clothes on her back – and never contacted us again. I filled out a police report and the bankruptcy judge who discharged the case regarded me with tremendous pity. I gained a new understanding of home – the place where one can be victimized and abandoned in slow motion. And left to handle the cleanup.

When I was 30 years old, I checked my dad into a hospital for another mental health stint. Although I hadn’t lived with either of my parents in a long time, I was still “home” every time we engaged, my fight or flight responses at the ready. Surprises were rarely of the pleasant variety. But this one should have been good news. Turns out I’d never been a trap after all. Gregg told me I was the first realized, but fourth conceived child. He did not unburden himself out of the goodness of his heart. It was the act of a rebellious man unwilling to confront the consequences of his refusal to stay medicated. I was trampling upon the homeless, bi-polars perceived right to terrorize people in public places. And that required punishment. So he spat the truth in my direction. The first three fetuses had been aborted. They had discussed the same end for me, but ultimately decided to skip the clinic and get married. I was an arbitrary act. Let my story serve as confirmation that the mentally ill can still be tremendous, calculating assholes.

I was horrified, and hated him intensely in that moment. But in a way, the truth did offer a sort of freedom. I’d never heard that my sociopathic mother insisted she couldn’t get pregnant, and that my troubled father failed to question repeated, terminated evidence of her falsehood. I guess the former Catholic altar boy who still skipped red meat on Fridays couldn’t stomach a fourth trip to the abortion clinic. When my father told the whole truth – that three other babies could have been in my position – a whole new can of psychological fuckery opened. Why me? Why had I been born at all? And why were the people who brought me into the world such monumental pricks?

I was so angry and felt an odd sense of loss. My identity had been wrapped in the narrative of the unwanted, troublesome baby with a karmic debt to repay for 22 years by that time. My internal home – my mind – had been violated again by people who – let’s face it – just didn’t have it in them to love me. My mind was the place where I should have felt the safest, where I stubbornly protected my truths. Suddenly Gregg had upended the world order. It was never clearer, as I stood dumb with shock and rage in the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital, that I’d just been a fixture in the physical homes I’d inhabited with Gregg and Gloria. A weapon of psychological warfare. No great and mighty impetus after all.

It’s said often that knowledge is its own power. My home, my identity had been stuffed into a blender and pureed. I was already in badly needed individual therapy and in time would add group work to the mix. True story: Al-Anon can work wonders for all co-dependents, not just ones affected by substance abusers. Compulsive lying and gambling, hoarding – the manifestations of addiction are comfortingly similar in their own way. After so many decades spent in emotional isolation, community was key. But before I got there, the knowledge my father imparted to me that day at the hospital gave me the strength to turn around and leave him – for good. In my nascent, evolving home, Gregg, Gloria, their lies and psychological games were unwelcome. I was not the pre-birth harbinger of doom. I was an innocent baby, unfortunate in parental luck. I needed to learn who Becky really is and build her a newer, safer home.

In three weeks I will be 38 years old. I’ve had no contact at all with either of my parents in a long time, long enough to rewrite my definition of home. Remember that list I read at the top of this story? My life today, my living space with my partner Bob and our old shaggy dog Jude most closely matches number 6. The place of residence or refuge. I never understood my parents’ struggle with honesty, even before it started to negatively impact my very existence. I sailed from my mother’s womb as a blunt oversharer and will return to dust the same way I imagine. My natural inclination leans toward the belief that bad timing is more easily forgiven than deceit. I’m sticking with it. I’m capable of shame but I no longer wear it like an albatross stole. For whatever reason the house of relative strength and clarity I inhabit now was built with the materials it required. I can’t regret anything, even the pain.

My mind and my environment, full of quiet, unconditional love that I fought to attract and feel deserving in receiving, is home today. I’m trapped by nothing but the certainty that I’m exactly where I belong.


Imposter Syndrome: Your Success Is REAL!

AW Podcast

“The Imposter Syndrome is that feeling and question we ask ourselves – Is my success real? It’s that feeling that everyone else knows what they are doing but ourselves. That feeling of, “When will someone call me out and tell me I don’t belong here?” That feeling that our success is based on luck and timing and that we didn’t earn it.”

On July 24, 2015, Becky Sarwate appeared as a panelist on this edition of Nikki Nigl’s About Women podcast. Edited by Cat Pants Media, you can download this and other important conversations here on iTunes.

There You Are

So I haven’t posted any personal reflections in awhile – seven months and a week to be exact. In early March of this year, the blogging platform with the built-in audience where I’d been publishing for years unceremoniously shuffled off its mortal coil. This created several weeks of existential panic. How would I recover my work? Where would I find a new forum for the personal therapy which blogging has become? And once I return, will anyone care?

The answers: Blessed be STEM friends with IT credentials, my own branded website, and who knows? But here I am. Once the dust settled and my legacy work was archived, I benefitted from the wisdom of several female champions who offered a provocative challenge. “You’ve been writing for years. Aren’t you ready for your own site? All your work collected in one place?”

And so for the last half year plus, my team and I (redundant, as the rest of the squad includes my sister, life partner of 35 years) have been building beckysarwate.com. When Jenny finished collating the posts last week, I needed a moment. There it was – all of it, all of me, in one place, with my name on it. All 610 of the theater reviews, magazine and website articles, political columns, feminist rants and yes, blog posts that represent the bulk of a six-year career. With each piece I was convinced it was the last. Every time I hit “publish” would be the death of my creative spirit. I’d run out of things to say. This site is evidence of that fear’s misguidedness.

2015 has been an eventful year – even by the whirlwind standards and pace by which my life is usually measured. The launch of this site, a change in 9-5 day job that has brought greater satisfaction and financial security, travels, a new elected office and forum switches for publishing my freelance work.

But what I want and need to write about today is Bob. My dude. My lobster. The biggest 2015 revolution of all. It’s no secret that romance has long been a rocky road for this woman. Divorces, partners with addiction issues and my own catastrophic struggles with co-dependency. As I recently wrote in a piece for About Women, my romantic world was an endless repetition of the broken dynamic I “enjoyed” with my parents: “Dominate me, make me feel small. In silent martyrdom, at least I know who I am.”

Fucking gross right? So after my last long-term relationship exploded in early December 2013, I took a long overdue break for reflection, individual and group therapy, for celebrating my selfhood. I wasn’t a nun but I kept it light as I strengthened bonds with my family, cherished friends, saw more of the world and cultivated a new identity. No longer the exhausted serial monogamist, I started to enjoy a revision of myself – the unattached bon vivant, the adventurer, the woman who actually believed that if the right man wasn’t out there, that might be just fine. I had Prosecco to drink, Spanish wedding songs to sing and tap dance lessons to take (loudly).

Toward the close of 2014, a sweet younger friend of mine who regularly affirmed, “I love your life,” nonetheless started to work on me. Maybe she suggested, I could keep having it all AND find someone with whom to share it. Someone who would appreciate me, embrace the quirks and support my commitment to ambitious, constant evolution. I scoffed of course. Ridiculous. She’d heard about the divorces, the colossal failures of subsequent relationship forays. It wasn’t meant to be, and I was no longer sure I minded. So there.

But she was persistent, and when it’s abundantly clear that someone has my best interests at heart (a phenomenon I’ve not enjoyed often enough), I will often relent. So we struck a deal. She’d create me a Tinder profile (“What? Tinder??!! I am 36 years-old missy and not that kind of woman. Ok, maybe I am but I have heard horror stories!”), and I had to give it a few weeks of swiping. However, if you’ll refer to my parenthetical objections, it follows that I acquiesced in my own way. There were ground rules for this trial period.

  1. No swiping the profile of any man who was: overtly religious (I’m an atheist, so let’s just avoid the tension), holding a gun, shirtless or standing proudly next to a car in photos (siphon off some of the douchebaggery), living in the suburbs (I don’t own a car, don’t want to and will never leave my concrete jungle again) or adamantly seeking a wife (you’d be surprised).
  2. Upon first contact, the man in question had exactly three exchanges to say something intelligent and/or humorous – or I was out.
  3. To those who got past the first two gates, I would offer two chances to meet in person. Occasionally shit happens, so one cancellation earned a pass. But I am a busy woman so a second flake was the limit.

This system worked fairly well. I didn’t meet anyone terribly exciting, but no serial killers or furries either. Eh. I tried something new, right?

Just before the conclusion of the trial period, I came across the profile of a cute, slightly younger man with a stated passion for running, books and dogs. It was early February, typically Chicago’s cruelest month and Dino and I were sick of the cold. This man’s profile boasted a picture of a fluffy, warm looking pup frolicking in the snow. So I messaged him in my typical blunt fashion: “Hi. What’s your favorite Sedaris book?” If he gave me an uncertain answer, I’d keep moving.

Messaging led to a first date at a BBQ joint. Major plus. Over drinks and conversation, Bob informed me that he lived in a condo across the alley from my grade school. In my tipsy state, I wanted to go, right then, sneak into the playlot where my Lutheran primary cohorts and I jumped off the geodesic dome. Bob was game. And then I met the dogs: 10 year-old Meko and 8 year-old Jude, both large black rescue beasts who slobbered all over me with love and joy. I started to feel my heart ignore orders to play it cool.

Seven months later, Dino and I are happily ensconced in that condo across the alley from my grade school. My name is on the mailbox. That existential panic I mentioned when my old blog crashed? None of that here. After 25 years of pushing romantic boulders up the hill, the work stopped when I met Bob. I told him recently that I lacked words (ironically) for this level of comfort and certainty. The best I can offer is this. After a few weeks of developing a bond that is now the strongest I’ve known with a man, it felt like: “Oh there you are. I didn’t know I was looking for you. But thanks for arriving. Now give us a kiss, a glass of wine and a pat on the bottom.”