Grit and Glory at 14,000 Feet

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High in the Colorado Rockies, where a summer day can turn instantly into treacherous winter, thrill-seeking athletes push themselves to the limit and beyond.

I’ll never forget the Gatorade bottle. It made me think I might not make it.

I was crouched over, head down, in a half-run shuffle, eyes on my muddy running shoes. I stood up only when the trail snaked between large granite boulders that I had to reach to climb up and over. Heavy snow was falling, the flakes in my eyelashes making it hard to see. But when the lightning came, the strikes were quick, loud cracks that boomed as they hit the ground and made the dirt fly.

It was late summer 2005, and at thirty-eight I was attempting to complete my second Pikes Peak Ascent, a race that gains nearly 8,000 feet over thirteen miles, from Manitou Springs, Colorado — elevation 6,320 feet — to the top of Pikes Peak, at 14,114 feet. Because of the rapid elevation gain, ending where the partial pressure of oxygen is only about sixty percent of that at sea level, and the potential for storms that can roll in and turn a blue-skied August day into a struggle for survival, it’s considered by many world-class mountain runners to be one of the hardest races of its kind in the world.

“Kílian Jornet has said that along with Zegama [in Spain] and Sierre-Zinal [in the Swiss Alps], Pikes Peak is the toughest,” boasts Pikes Peak Marathon race director Ron Ilgen.

Jornet, twenty-six, of Spain, has won at Pikes Peak, as well as at the so-called Olympics of high-altitude running, the Skyrunner World Series, and the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in northern California.

The author after running the Pikes Peak Marathon. (Photo courtesy Jill Rothenberg)
The author after running the Pikes Peak Marathon. (Photo courtesy Jill Rothenberg)

Back when the Pikes Peak races started, in 1956, there was only a small group of runners in each one. Now, as Ilgin says, the races have become “bucket list” events, with 1,800 runners in the Ascent on the third Saturday in August and 800 in the Marathon on Sunday — which involves running up the mountain and then back down again. Some runners try for the “double,” meaning that they run both the Ascent and the Marathon. Qualification times have tightened, and the race is now an established stop for some of the best mountain runners in the world. But somehow, the race still feels like a small-town event in a friendly mountain town.

In the shadow of Pikes Peak, Manitou Springs is a small town of artists, hippies, outdoorsmen — and serious athletes. One of its most famous inhabitants is Matt Carpenter, forty-nine, who holds records in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, as well as the Leadville Trail 100 Run. He also owns an ice cream shop, the Colorado Custard Company, on Manitou Avenue, and can reliably be found with other extreme runners gathering in the town park, dressed for either nine degrees or eighty-nine degrees, then making their way through town, past the old Victorian houses, Cog Railroad Depot and the buses of tourists to the Barr Trail, which begins the journey up Pikes Peak.

Carpenter and the Incline Club, which he co-founded eighteen years ago, are a self-described “group of nuts who meet most of the year for Sunday long runs on and around Pikes Peak, running no matter how extreme the conditions.”

“You know what time it is when it’s nine degrees and eight a.m. on a Sunday?” Carpenter joked recently as he and a group of runners, myself included, got ready for a couple hours on snow-packed trails and ice around Pikes Peak, bolts screwed into the bottom of our running shoes to provide much-needed traction. “Time to go!”

And off we went, up the main street, Manitou Avenue, toward the Barr Trail, which leads to the summit of Pikes Peak and was named by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike during his discovery and subsequent failed climb of the mountain in 1806.

It was here, almost ten years earlier, about 11.5 miles from the start of the race on Manitou Avenue, where the 900 runners in the second wave of the Ascent gazed up at the Peak thirteen miles in front of them, that I was crouched next to my friend and unofficial coach, an old-school ultra runner named Gary Sobol. It was 2005 and my second Ascent. We were doing the race together for the first time. And Gary, who at sixty-five, was — and still is — an athlete from the “do it, make it good, and don’t complain about it” school of extreme running, didn’t seem worried about the extreme weather conditions.

Gary had run Pikes many times in the 1970s and 1980s with no water or food (“That’s what we did; we didn’t know any better; we just did it,” he says now). He clocked round-trip times (i.e., up and down the mountain, the full twenty-six miles) at around five hours. His wife conveniently was an ICU nurse who didn’t blanch at using her camp stove to heat up a hemostat and paper clip to make holes in his black and bloody toenails to relieve the pressure at the halfway mark of the Leadville 100, one of the country’s toughest ultra races.

As with many Great Santini–style coaches and athletes I’ve known over the years, I’ve learned that Gary’s bark was worse than his bite, that underneath it was a love for running and a zest for challenges that he found great pleasure in sharing. Which was a good thing, considering that at about 13,000 feet, we still had a little over a mile to go in nearly whiteout conditions. We’d been on our feet for over four hours, and Gary, in true “do it or lose it fashion,” who had had surgery for colon cancer only a year before, was also wearing a urine drainage bag in addition to everything else.

“Keep moving,” he said to me as we shuffled along and lightning lit up the sky. “Just remember the finisher jackets at the top.”

The author and Gary Sobol completed their run after a storm closed the 2005 Pikes Peak Ascent, leaving runners stranded on the mountain. (Photo courtesy Anne Sobol)
The author and Gary Sobol completed their run after a storm closed the 2005 Pikes Peak Ascent, leaving runners stranded on the mountain. (Photo courtesy Anne Sobol)

It was the fiftieth running of the race, and instead of a technical shirt, we would receive special commemorative fleece jackets. To runners like us, it was better than cash. When I flew to Colorado that summer from my home in the Bay Area to train, we constantly reminded each other of the finisher jackets. A thousand feet to go on Boulder’s tough Green Mountain trail, “Remember the finisher jacket!” we would say to each other. Another few miles to Barr Trail on a training run up Pikes, “It’s all about the jacket.” It was our mantra that summer, on the phone or on the trail.

I was probably so busy thinking of that jacket, keeping my head down, and making it safely to the top that when the lightning hit a stray Gatorade bottle in front of me on the trail, I think I was too scared — and tired — to scream. It ricocheted across the trail in front of us, sending a plume of dirt in the air. Though snow continued to fall, the air smelled metallic. I was scared then. Would I die up here?

I looked over at Gary, who was crouched next to me and saw the lightning strike, too. But before I could say anything, “Stop talking and keep moving,” he said. “Let’s get to the top and get our finisher jackets.” So we kept on, until we came upon a man and woman stretching out against some boulders.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gary shouted. “You stay away from those rocks. You gotta keep moving.” So we kept going, the couple falling in behind us, picking our way up and down the increasingly large boulders that make up the trail in the last mile of the race, until we saw a man on a cell phone leaning against a rock. It was still snowing and bitterly cold, and we could see lightning strikes in the distance.

“I’m not sure I’m going to make it,” we heard him say on his phone as we approached.

“Man, you need to get off your phone now — it’s not safe. You’re going to make it.” This, of course, from Gary, who didn’t for a minute doubt that we were going to be OK.

*   *   *

My love affair with trail running — and especially mountain running — had begun only the year before, when I met Gary through his wife, Anne.

“My husband is a pretty serious trail runner and runs with a lot of different people here in town,” she said. “You should meet him.” It was a fortuitous meeting, in many ways. I had just been downsized from a publishing job and wasn’t sure what to do next. I was searching for something unyielding that would anchor me as I decided what my next move would be.

The Pikes Peak trail gains nearly 8,000 feet in elevation over thirteen miles. (Courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)
The Pikes Peak trail gains nearly 8,000 feet in elevation over thirteen miles. (Courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)

Enter Pikes Peak and Manitou Springs, or I should say, re-enter. It was not a new place to me, having spent summers only miles away and a couple thousand feet up at even higher elevation, in Florissant, Colorado, at a girl’s camp called High Trails Ranch.

When my brother and I were small, my parents decided to send us to camp in Colorado. At eleven, I was playing soccer on grass, but in New York that’s about as close as I got to nature. I think my parents wanted us to gain some independence and see another part of the country, but they also fought a lot and wanted to spare us that, or at least give us a break from it, my mother says now.

I was a serious kid, a reader and a dreamer — and I thought if I practiced dribbling my soccer ball enough I would be worthy of Pelé, whose poster hung in my room. I also played tennis, having been made to play with an all-boys playgroup by my dad, who told me it was the only way I would get better and beat them.

“You don’t like it now, but you’ll beat everyone else later,” he would say. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a runner who also played tennis and racquetball. Though only 5´ 7´´ and 135 pounds, he hit the ball so hard no one could return it. “You know what, Jerry?” my mom would say when we got home from the tennis club and he would brag about winning, about aces and shots no one could return. “No one wants to play with a lunatic.” I agreed, but I also saw what determination and hard work could get you.

The years spent there, first as a camper climbing “fourteeners” like Mt. Princeton, Mt. La Plata, and Pikes Peak — so-called because at over 14,000 feet, they are some of the highest peaks in the United States — then as a counselor leading these climbing trips, drew me to Colorado. New York never felt like home to me. But in the shadow of Pikes Peak, I felt like I had found my home. The trails were more welcoming than city streets and the blue skies lifted my spirits. I had no use for the skyscrapers of the city.

But by my late teens and early twenties, I took the mountain for granted. I loved it enough to feel secure in its presence, but instead of hiking it, my friends and I were more interested in the taverns of Manitou Springs: the Ancient Mariner, the Keg, and even the biker bar the Royal Tavern. Time off during my counselor years, and later on after I moved to Colorado Springs post college, meant hard drinking, partying, and maybe sitting on someone’s car and looking at the lights of Colorado Springs from Cheyenne Canyon. We listened to and followed the Dead, hung out, and tried to figure out what to do with our lives. Staying in Manitou or Colorado Springs wasn’t on anyone’s radar—it was the place of our youth.

Except that I kept coming back to it.

I tried moving to a beautiful part of California near Yosemite for a newspaper job, but I missed Colorado and returned, working in book publishing in Boulder for over ten years, and though I had been running for a while (10Ks and half marathons around Boulder and Denver, where I lived) I had never considered running the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon. But when I was laid off after my company decided to close their Boulder office in late spring of 2004, I felt like I was drifting. Suddenly that mountain I saw daily during my commute, although it was over 100 miles away, was still the talisman of my childhood. After all these years, it was still the place to go to make sense of the world, a place that might provide me with some direction.

A runner on the Pikes Peak trail.  (Photo courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)
A runner on the Pikes Peak trail.  (Photo courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)

A few weeks after signing up for the race, I met Gary, an older gray-haired Steve McQueen in his Bullitt days: trim, weathered, with a permanent look of determination on his face. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he had a rough and tumble way about him that was more East Coast than laid-back Boulder. He had run races all over Colorado: Pikes Peak, Leadville, Mt. Evans, the Doc Holliday, and up Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder for fun—even when it was twenty below. The harder, the better. His kids ran too, and with a daughter my age training for Pikes as well, he did double duty as a coach, in addition to training with a host of running friends he had accumulated over the years.

After our first training run (one of many that summer) I felt I had my compass back. The tough runs around Boulder, where Gary lived, and our trips down to Pikes Peak to train fueled in me a sense of accomplishment that carried over to the rest of my life, including my job search and decision to find a new publishing job, even if it meant leaving the state — as long as the running was good.

By the middle of the summer we were passing everyone on the trail. Leaving my house in Denver at dawn, I would beat the rush-hour traffic to Boulder, dressed in running clothes instead of office attire, feeling free and exuberant. After our run, we would have a big breakfast at our favorite diner and talk Pikes strategy.

“What worked for you today was going out easy so you had some energy to kick some ass when you got to the last part of the up and could scramble up those rocks to the top,” Gary said after one of our killer runs on Boulder’s Green Mountain, which starts at about 5,900 feet and ends at 8,100, a relatively quick but heart-pounding ascent.

We had trained together enough on the mountain to know that I would likely break five hours, but I was worried I might not and I wanted to keep my first goal manageable. Gary, who was unable to do the race with me because of his recent colon cancer surgery, knew the course like the back of his hand, plotting out the times I would need to make sure I made the cut-offs and my five-hour-to-the-top goal.

“If you can get to the top of the Ws [switchbacks] in about an hour and a half, and make it to Barr in three hours, you should be fine,” he’d said. He was referring to Barr Camp, a cabin with year-round caretakers, where hikers and runners can camp overnight on the way to the summit, get up-to-date weather reports, buy a Gatorade, or just catch their breath and enjoy the beauty at 10,200 feet, approximately halfway up.

“But remember, the race starts at the A-frame, so you want to make sure you’re feeling good when you get up there.”

The A-frame is not in any way the picturesque sort of A-frame cottage that you might imagine. It’s essentially a lean-to that runners and hikers can take cover under in the event of a likely storm. It’s almost at treeline, where you begin to see the exposed, granite moonscape leading up to the top of the mountain. At 11,950 feet, it’s 10.2 miles into the race, with the remaining three or so the toughest of the course. After all that relentless uphill, except for stretches of some relatively flat trail about halfway up the mountain, and oxygen levels decreasing dramatically, you’re likely to feel anywhere from exhausted to passed out. But as Pikes record-holder Matt Carpenter says in his advice to runners on his Skyrunner Web site, “Remember JAM — Just Always Move. If that means running — awesome. If that means walking — super. If that means crawling — do it.”

Carpenter, at 5´7 and 122 pounds, strides so easily over the trail that it’s almost like a ballet he performs with his feet barely touching the ground. He is the course record holder in the Ascent — 2:01:06 — and in the marathon at 3:16:39. But he is not known only for setting records on Pikes Peak. In 2005, he lowered the course record at the Leadville 100 by over 90 minutes to 15:42:59. Some context: My fastest time on the Ascent alone is a little more than an hour over Carpenter’s marathon time. Part man, part mountain goat, his VO2 max, the measure of how efficiently your body uses oxygen, was measured at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in nearby Colorado Springs to be 90.2, the highest they had ever recorded. The fact that he is also somehow a mere mortal training with the rest of the Incline Club—the local running group he cofounded—is a testament to both his humility and the love of the mountain that inspires us all, from the youngest and fastest to the older and still pretty damned fast.

*   *   *

Severe weather conditions are a hallmark to the Pikes Peak Ascent. (Photo courtesy Anne Sobol)
Severe weather conditions are a hallmark to the Pikes Peak Ascent. (Photo courtesy Anne Sobol)

The day before my first Ascent in 2004, I stopped at the Denver Diner to eat a big breakfast. I thought I was feeling a cold coming on, what I now know all these years later is just the usual nerves making me feel like I’m coming down with something, common among runners. So I called Gary.

“I don’t feel good. Maybe I should skip it or go down to Manitou tomorrow,” I said. Silence, but not for long. “You’d better get your butt down there and call me when you get to the motel,” he said.

That night at the Pikes Peak Inn, right at the start line, it snowed. I walked outside and looked at the yellow banner hung across Manitou Avenue. Welcome, Runners, it said. I called Gary. “It’s snowing. I don’t think I can go.” Again, silence. “Listen, you need to get to bed and call me from the start line in the morning.”

In my memory, that race ten years ago, the first time I did the Ascent, went well. But I also remember feeling strong in that first mile after the A-frame, so much so that I was able to run and pass runners who were walking or stopped — and then, in the second mile, to bonk a little bit and be grateful for the Balance Bar that helped me keep moving. By the time I heard the cowbell at the top, its ring seemingly a lot closer than a mile or two away, I knew I would make it, exhausted as I was. And my time — 4:20 — is still my best, a testament to all of the training we had done. Though it’s a midpack sort of time, I’m a midpack sort of runner, at least among ultra standards.

Even before I called my parents, I called Gary. Although I had projected a five-hour run, he of course knew better than I did what my time might be and thought it would be closer to 4:15 or 4:20. “Annie was just saying, I bet Jill’s going to call any minute, and then the phone rang,” he said when I called him from the top. “You did good.”

Ten years later, I’m still running.

And I’ve grown even closer to Pikes Peak. It’s now only thirty-eight miles from my doorstep.

One more move back to California, only months after my first Pikes Peak Ascent, and then it was back in a few years because Colorado is where I belong, to another Boulder-based job. Then, in a twist of fate that I’m finally realizing is the way the universe works if you just accept it: I, a city girl, despite my love of the mountains, moved to a Northern Exposure–style tiny town for a man — specifically, to the relative flatlands of Pueblo, elevation 4,700 feet, south of Manitou Springs.

*   *   *

On a recent Sunday morning in March, I was up at six a.m. for the drive up to Manitou to run with the Incline Club, named for the Manitou Incline, an old cable tramline adjacent to Barr Trail and Pikes Peak, originally built in 1907.

The Incline Club’s tag line, “Deviate from the horizontal,” and its motto, “Go out hard, and when it hurts, speed up,” both accurately describe how intensely challenging it is to climb up — while others run by you — each rail tie, for one mile straight up, over which you gain 2,000 feet in elevation. Lucky for me on that day, the run was on Longs Ranch Road, but on those days that the destination is Barr Camp, halfway up the Peak, the slower runners in the group might go only half that distance.

The author drilling in metal screws for traction.  (Photo courtesy Jill Rothenberg)
The author drilling in metal screws for traction.  (Photo courtesy Jill Rothenberg)

Of course, the “slower runners” in this crowd just mean that they aren’t world-record holders. They would still slay any weekend warrior — any day of the week. And though I typically am more of a lone ranger sort of runner, training on my own for much of the summer for Pikes and other summer and fall races, I’ve begun to enjoy the camaraderie and inspiration these runners provide.

They are also incredibly humble. “Pikes Peak was in my backyard and I decided to just do it,” said Sharon Greenbaum, fifty-one, a longtime Incline Club member who first ran the Ascent at age fifteen and has done it twenty-six times. “It’s a great outlet to have and it’s a special relationship,” she added as we ran up the trail. It was nine degrees when the twenty-five or so runners showed up at Memorial Park in Manitou that morning.

Though I had cut off the bottoms of plastic Walmart bags to slip my socked feet into before putting them in my running shoes — a low-tech but effective tip from a mountain biker, it had kept my feet warm and dry in the past — on that morning it didn’t seem to be working. My feet felt like they were in a deep freeze. Worse still, the metal screws that I had drilled into the bottom of my shoes, following Matt Carpenter’s how-to’s on his Web site, were poking into my feet. This was new, too. But not wanting to complain among the runners, who in their fifties and sixties had done the Ascent and Marathon up to thirty-five times each, and not wanting to appear clueless — or tired — I kept going. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I had forgotten to put my orthotics in my screw shoes, meaning I had no padding whatsoever for ten icy and challenging miles.

On the way out of Manitou, as I was thawing out in the car, I realized how much history I had in this town, from the Pikes Peak Inn where I called Gary the night before my first Ascent to the now-shuttered 7-Eleven where I tried to sleep off what I thought was just post-Ascent exhaustion in 2009 but ended up being a bad case of dehydration that landed me on an IV in the ER.

“I tell runners that when we get crazy conditions, that’s what we live for,” Bart Yasso told me about his experience running Pikes. Yasso, an editor at Runners World, is known by many as the “Mayor of Running,” and more important, totally understands both the dedication and insanity needed to complete this kind of race, having done five Ironmans, the Badwater 146 through Death Valley, as well as the Antarctica Marathon and the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon. “I’ve had runners come to me before the race for advice, and I always tell them to leave their watches in their motel room,” he said. “You need to respect the mountain and to really be a part of it. If you think of it as you against the mountain, the mountain will always win.”

Severe weather conditions rarely force determined runners to stop. (Photo Courtesy The Gazette / Kirk Speer)
Severe weather conditions rarely force determined runners to stop. (Photo Courtesy The Gazette / Kirk Speer)

In 2008, a severe storm closed the race and sent hundreds of runners who hadn’t made the cut-off at the A-frame back down the mountain. We did nearly eleven miles up in freezing temperatures, snow, and lightning — only to do eleven miles back down. Or as Gary said when I told him, “You did a twenty-two-mile training run.”

The next year, in a total reversal of weather conditions, we had a cloudless blue-skied day, much warmer than usual, which at altitude can be just as dangerous. In the last two miles of the race, upon hearing that cowbell at the top that I will always associate with Pikes Peak, I got so excited and pushed so hard that I was greeted by two guys from Search and Rescue when I crossed the finish. Not that I felt any worse than I did when I pushed hard on a training run. Maybe a little more tired than usual. But they obviously knew better. I kept saying I was fine — and I sort of was — until a nap in my car in Manitou and bottles of Gatorade weren’t making a difference.

A few hours later, I was in the hospital, hooked up to an IV, where, wrapped in heavy blankets, I received six bags of cold fluid to bring down my core temperature. The doctor let me go only after my kidneys checked out, diagnosing what was likely a combination of dehydration and acute mountain sickness, both dangerous and potentially deadly.

“You’re competing against the mountain, and you need to have a love and respect for it,” said Race Director Ron Ilgen. “This means you have to respect the weather and how quickly things can change.”

Of course, in a race like this, there are always injuries — anything from a twisted ankle to altitude sickness to broken bones, concussions, and severe lacerations due to falls on the downhill portion of the Marathon — to yes, even death. During the Marathon in 2005, the year Gary and I had to fight our way up the mountain in a storm, an experienced marathoner died of what was thought to be a heart attack. In 1993, a runner died during the Ascent.

Though there are many warnings — on the race’s Web site, as well as on a large brown Warning sign at the Barr Trailhead — that these are physically demanding races that require rigorous training and a check-in with your doctor, as well as a signed waiver — there is always a risk. But Ilgen says that this is likely what makes the race continue to fill up so fast, especially in the wake of such dangerous weather. “After 2008, we had registration go through the roof,” he said. “There’s something very dramatic about it that I think just captures the imagination.”

And like any challenge, your success can always be thwarted in less dramatic ways that were likely preventable. In 2011, when I first ran the full up and back — the Marathon — I came close to my best time going up and then cramped up a few miles down, dodging lightning and pelted by rain, passed by other runners (many asking if I was okay), and clutching the back of my leg, which had gone into a constant, painful spasm.

“There’s a doctor at Barr Camp,” a fellow runner said. The back of my thigh spasming, I cursed myself for my lack of downhill training and my addiction to wearing high heels when I wasn’t in running shoes. Then I saw two Search and Rescue guys on horseback.

“You okay?” one of them asked. “Yeah, I’m fine, just didn’t put in enough time training on the down.”

A few miles later, limping into Barr Camp, I implored the doctor not to pull me from the race. “Pull you from the race?” He looked surprised. And after he heard my tale and a nurse rubbed my leg down for a few minutes, “Here, all you need are a few Advil. Get going.”

*   *   *

“My husband and I would take the kids, get them settled by No Name Creek with a picnic lunch, and go up to Barr Camp,” says Arlene Pieper, now eighty-four and the first woman to complete the Pikes Peak Marathon — or any marathon — in 1957, fifteen years before Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston in 1972. “It was a special day then, and more so now that I come back every year and start the races,” she said. “What a thrill to look out and see all these people getting ready to run.”

Arlene Pieper was the first woman to complete a marathon in 1957. She still comes to the marathon each year to start the races. (Photo courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)
Arlene Pieper was the first woman to complete a marathon in 1957. She still comes to the marathon each year to start the races. (Photo courtesy Pikes Peak Marathon, Inc.)

A black-and-white photo of that race start shows Pieper in a headscarf and rolled-up shorts, along with her nine-year-old daughter Kathy and her husband, who ran with her to offer moral support. “In those days, we had no aid stations like there are now, and my running shoes were actually just those sneakers you get from the five and dime. And about a week after the race, all ten of my toenails fell off!”

A few years ago, after a long search, the Pikes Peak organizers were able to locate Pieper, now living near Fresno, California. She had no idea of her place in running history. “I still remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “You can be a wonderful wife and mother, but it showed me that if there’s something you really want to do, you should go for it.”

On that August day in 2005 that Gary and I were running the last mile of the Ascent through a snow and lightning storm, I was both scared and — somehow — exhilarated. The race had created a bond between us that would last through the years.

“Do you think we’re going to die up here?” I asked him as we kept going, but didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the finish. “Ask me when we get to the top,” he said. A few minutes later, the snow coming down even harder, unable to see much ahead, I went further. “You know, if we did die up here, it would be okay. I love Pikes Peak and you’re like a second dad to me,” I said.

“Shut up and keep moving,” he said. “We’ll be up there soon.” And he was right. The cowbell got louder, the Golden Stairs, sixteen step-ups to the top, were in front of us, and soon, unbelievably, we saw spectators at the snowy summit.

“Gary, Jill, sprint it in,” yelled out a guy who was so covered with snow I didn’t recognize him as Gary’s friend Dwight who was running the Marathon the next day.

For the first time in its history, a quick-moving storm had closed both the trail and the Pikes Peak Toll Road on the other side, so that snowplows could not make it passable for vehicles to get runners off the mountain. We spent a few hours at the snack bar at the summit, along with those tourists stranded when the Cog Railroad had to close down. It was like a war zone: runners on IVs, throwing up, and sitting against the walls — typical for a medical tent at the end of any difficult race but much worse due to the extreme weather. But Gary and I felt good. “Do you feel as good as you look?” one of the race doctors asked Gary. “Yeah, we’re fine,” Gary said.

We sat with Gary’s wife, Anne, a veteran of these postrace scenes, congratulating ourselves with high-fives, eating french fries from the snack bar, and caressing our new finisher jackets. We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for my fifth Ascent. Gary, at seventy-four, is still his same take-no-prisoners self. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008, he’s unable to run long distances any more. But he’s still training athletes — all with Parkinson’s — in his Parkinson’s Network, a Boulder-based group of boot-camp classes developed to increase conditioning, fitness, balance, and flexibility, all of which can deteriorate with the disease.

The only difference in how he looks is a tremor common to Parkinson’s. But he’s still the same.

“Remember how you looked around for me when we were stuck in all that lightning and I had stopped behind you to eat a salami sandwich?” he asked me recently.

I laughed. How could I forget? Never one for gels or Gu, Gary carried sandwiches, pretzels, and all kinds of stuff in small sandwich bags in every available pocket. Which is of course what I do now, too.

I recently looked at how my time stacked up in my forty-five-to-forty-nine-year-old age group for the coming race in August. Out of eighty-nine women, I’ll likely finish somewhere in the top third, maybe in the top twenty somewhere, maybe better. But with Pikes Peak, I’ve learned, you’re always where you should be on the mountain.

“You want to go out easy,” Gary advised me at that first race in 2004. “Easier than easy. You see the top from the start line? That’s where you’re going. It’s thirteen miles away and you’ve got hours of climbing ahead of you. Let the fools pass you; you’ll see them later on at the side of the trail or walking. Say hello when you pass them.”

*   *   *

Jill Rothenberg is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared on CNN Money, the public radio project Life of the Law, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Urban Moto magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @ejillrothenberg.

 

 

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This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”

Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.

This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”

“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”

Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”

Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.

On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”

“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.

While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.

“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”

“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”

Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.

Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”

It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.

“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”

Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”

“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”

In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”

“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”

His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.

To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”

A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.

He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”

How Cleaning Out My Hoarder Mother-in-Law’s Junk Caused My Own Marriage to Crumble

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As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.

There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.

I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.

The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.

“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”

And now we’re here.

The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.

I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.

I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.

Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?

“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.

In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.

“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.

Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.

Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.

I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.

Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.

“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.

I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”

“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”

I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.

I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.

It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.

The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.

Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.

I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.

At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.

Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.

“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.

But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.

Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.

I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.

When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.

I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.

Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.

Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.

The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.

I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.

 

 

This “Old Guy With a Sign” Protests Trump Every Single Day

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Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.

Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”

For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.

“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”

McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.

“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”

Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.

“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”

When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.

“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”

McCray stands with his sign at his preferred intersection in Fort Worth.

McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.

“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”

While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.

Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”

“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

McCray waves at passersby.

McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.

“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”

McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.

“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”

 

 

I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth

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When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.

It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.

“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.

“For methamphetamine.”

Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.

“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.

The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.

The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.

When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.

So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”

Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.

I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.

My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.

“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.

I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.

The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.

My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.

“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.

“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”

I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.

“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.

Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.

On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”

The author's pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)
The author’s pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)

In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.

Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.

* * *

When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.

“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”

Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.

Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.

Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”

On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.

“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”

He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.

“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.

spot-1

A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?

As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.

We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.

Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.

The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.

Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.

I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.

spot-2The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.

Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.

He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.

My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.

* * *

Maggie Downs Answers Your Questions: For more on what really happened at the hospital, read a Q&A with the author on Narratively’s Facebook page.

Maggie Downs is a writer, mother, and adventurer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Today.com, and Racked, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.

Cornelia Li is an illustrator based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

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Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan