A note: I wrote about Sarahann and her family in an article for Salon about the low-wage economy, but I thought her story deserved more space than I was able to provide there. So, this is a bit more about her life.
When I found out that Sarahann Gorham has struggled with anger issues for most of her life, I was a little shocked. At that point I had already stopped by her house and, out of the blue, asked her a ton of personal questions for an article. And she had given me a generous amount of her time and thoughtfully discussed some very touchy issues. Even one day when I inadvertently woke her up by knocking on the wrong door while stopping by to talk with someone else at the house, she was impeccably kind and polite.
What I realized after talking a bit more with her is that she has a lot more experience with people prying into her personal life than I’m used to.
One of the stories she told me was me about a recent visit she and her boyfriend made to an apartment they were considering renting. They were interested enough that they brought along Sarahann’s four-year-old daughter so she could see the place. When the landlord looked at their application and saw that their sole source of income is disability benefits, Sarahann told me, he started yelling at her.
“He was like ‘you don’t do anything?’” she said. “He said ‘you’re sucking off the system I paid into.’”
Sarahann and her boyfriend don’t look obviously disabled. He had meningitis as a kid and still deals with debilitating pain and other problems, but it’s not something you can tell by looking at him. As for Sarahann, until recently, she managed to work despite her disability—mental health problems that weren’t fully diagnosed for most of her life.
Sarahann started working as a teenager and has done all kinds of things—moved furniture, power-washed houses, cashiered. Her favorite was working night shift at 7-11.
“You’ve always got something to do,” she said. “You can stock the shelves, you can stock the freezers, you’ve got people coming in.”
The jobs she didn’t like were the ones where there wasn’t much to do. “Macy’s was just boring,” she said. “You didn’t have to put any effort into it.”
When Sarahann went on disability, it was the result of a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety that she now thinks she probably always had. She had a good home life as a child, and she never understood why she sometimes got so angry. She started seeing a therapist at age 14, but she thinks the science for figuring this stuff out just wasn’t that great at the time.
As part of her treatment since getting her diagnosis, Sarahann got a workbook that helped her understand her illness better, and it’s allowed her to work through some things for herself. “I wish I could have done it when I was younger,” she said.
Even for thoroughly healthy people, rational responses to poverty can look a lot like mental illness. And Sarahann says there are a lot of things about her life that have probably exacerbated her condition, starting with having jobs that weren’t enough to take care of her family’s basic needs.
“It puts more pressure on me as a mom, as a person,” she said. “Why can’t I get the good jobs? Am I not doing enough?”
Aside from her four-year-old daughter, Sarahann has two other children. Neither of them lives with her. Her mother cares for her oldest, a son who’s nine now. Sarahann’s grandfather, a former truck driver and factory worker, is paying to send him to a private school. Her middle daughter lives with her godparents.
Sarahann said letting her children live apart from her is another thing people don’t understand.
“I got a lot of grief about it over the years,” she said. “The way I look at it, I was bettering their lives.”
She said giving up her children was the hardest, and most selfless, thing she’s ever done. “The jobs I was working, I could hardly take care of myself,” she said.
Sarahann said her two older children were born at a time when she wasn’t ready to be a mother—and in fact, she’d been using birth control that failed.
“I don’t believe in abortion unless it’s a necessity,” she said.
When she got pregnant with her youngest, things were different. She was 24, her boyfriend was working a good job in construction, and she had steady work as a hotel housekeeper. Before the girl was a year old, though, the boyfriend was laid off. Sarahann was working as a waitress at the time, but it wasn’t enough to pay the rent, and they ended up in a homeless shelter. Even from the shelter, Sarahann kept commuting to her waitressing job.
Since she started getting disability benefits, she has been conflicted about them. She is grateful that she’s had time at home with her daughter, and she thinks taking care of the little girl has helped her regain some emotional balance, but she really hates getting government benefits.
“Sometimes it makes me feel I’m being selfish,” she said. “I want to be able to pay into Social Security… I don’t want to just suck off the system.”
The girl will be going into Head Start this fall, and Sarahann plans to use that time to get her GED and look for a new job. She’d like to work with children with developmental disabilities, she said, but she’d be happy with any job that paid the kind of rate she’s gotten at night-shift jobs--$13 an hour or so—but let her work regular daytime hours.
As for her daughter, she said she expects her to go to college, although she’s already worried about what the student loans will be like in 15 years.
“She loves the idea of school,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I possibly can to get her through it.”
Sarahann said seeing her daughter so excited about school reminds her of herself when she was a kid. She’s eager to go back to school herself, but she isn’t sure what jobs she should be aiming for.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘what is my purpose?’” she said.