Growing Up With a Deadline

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The handful of children born with the devastating disorder known as Batten disease have a life expectancy of only eight to twelve years. Sammie just turned eight.

Sammie stares out the window, where the sun is just starting to replace the rain. Around her neck: a raspberry, pig-shaped pillow. She groans faintly as her mother places a tissue between her teeth to prevent a bitten lip, then covers her nose and mouth with a clear mask that has jagged pink projections — dinosaur spikes, simultaneously innocent and stern. Her feet are pointed, toes curled. A symptom of immobility, her mother calls them “ballerina feet.” Sammie’s arms twitch slightly as a small compressor starts up, emitting a sound like a muffled lawnmower.

The dino mask administers Pulmicort, a steroid that helps loosen mucus, which accumulates due to Sammie’s lack of motion. The twice-a-day treatment raises her oxygen levels in order to facilitate breathing and minimize the chance of pneumonia.

Sammie’s eight-year-old body is regressing due to a condition known as Spielmeyer-Vogt-Sjögren-Batten disease, commonly referred to as Batten disease, which occurs in an estimated two to four of every 100,000 live births in the United States.

Sammie smiles while on the backyard swing, known as “Sammie’s Oasis.” (Maria Edible)
Sammie smiles while on the backyard swing, known as “Sammie’s Oasis.” (Maria Edible)

When I first meet Sammie at her suburban home in Haskell, New Jersey, she is asleep on the living room couch, unaware of the ill-timed rainfall — gloomy weather for Independence Day. Her mother, Kamila Wojcicka, a thirty-one-year-old bookkeeper with curly blond hair and eyes like two swimming pools, is preparing for Sammie’s daily ritual while her fiancé, Matt DePeri, works in the yard. Matt, a thirty-year-old accountant, has been with Kamila for more than four years.

A vast collage of snapshots depicting Sammie at various ages hangs above the couch. Sammie was born on February 1, 2007. Healthy and radiant, blond and blue-eyed, at first she developed as expected, learning to crawl, walk, talk and play. An energetic kid — she cruised around in her miniature VW Beatle, splashed in the pool and pleasantly devoured her most favored food, chicken nuggets – though according to Kamila, “she ate everything you gave her.”

The first sign of illness, sudden and harsh, arrived on Easter, five years ago. Sammie wore her Sunday best, a pink and white dress. There was a family breakfast, followed by church and egg coloring. Later that night, as she drifted off to sleep watching her favorite movie, “Finding Nemo,” Sammie began to tremble and throw up, the discharge streaming from her nose. Her eyes rolled back and she turned purple, lifeless in her mother’s arms. Panicked, Kamila tried to clear Sammie’s airway, assuming that she was choking on her vomit. “Her jaw was clenched so tight,” she recalls, “that she almost bit my finger off.”

Sammie’s dinosaur mask, used to administer Pulmicort, a steroid that helps loosen mucus. (Maria Edible)
Sammie’s dinosaur mask, used to administer Pulmicort, a steroid that helps loosen mucus. (Maria Edible)

Although the seizure lasted about three minutes, for Kamila, “it felt like a lifetime.”

At the hospital, Kamila spoke to multiple doctors, recounting the episode over and over. She got the impression that they either didn’t believe her or were baffled by the events and uncertain about how to diagnose Sammie.

Electrodes were attached to Sammie’s head as part of an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a test that measures electrical brain activity. She showed no irregularities, and after two nights of observation, Sammie was sent home, the seizure chalked up to a one-time, freak occurrence.

Two weeks later, at a local Best Buy, it happened again. This time, the EEG showed a slight aberration, an atypical spike in brain activity. Sammie was diagnosed with epilepsy and issued an initial prescription, unsuccessful at reducing the biweekly seizures.

It took a demanding cycle of trial and error for Kamila to determine a functional combination of medicine to prevent Sammie’s frequent seizures. Today, with the aid of several medications, specifically, Keppra, Onfi and Depakote, the incidences have significantly tapered. Still, Kamila is always prepared. If a seizure lasts more than two minutes, depriving Sammie of oxygen, she administers rescue medication — a large gel-filled syringe to be injected rectally.

* * *

After fifteen minutes, the dinosaur mask comes off. Next, Kamila wraps a pad with two protrusions that resemble PVC pipe elbows around Sammie’s thin midsection and attaches two corrugated hoses. When she turns the machine on, Sammie begins to vibrate and shake. Although not violent or painful, it’s a jarring sight, her slender body starting to blur, the movement a stark contrast to her unconscious, placid face. The resulting sound is similar to a power drill, but their teacup Yorkie, Misiu (“Teddy Bear” in Polish) and Sammie’s nine-year-old cousin, Nikola, visiting from Poland, sit by her side on the couch, unfazed. They see the vest treatment, which pumps and pounds air into her chest, up to five times a day, depending on her mucus build-up. For Sammie, this is just another part of breathing.

Sammie, aged nine months, stands in her crib.  (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)
Sammie, aged nine months, stands in her crib. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)

Batten disease is named after British pediatrician-cum-neurologist Frederick Batten, who initially described it in 1903. It is a neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis, or NCL, which refers to lipofuscin, a fat-like substance that accumulates in the lysosome, the cellular portion responsible for processing unwanted material. In patients with Batten disease, the recycling system of the lysosome is disrupted due to an enzyme deficiency. The resulting accretion of brain cell waste classifies Batten as a lysosomal storage disorder, alongside Tay-Sachs disease.

NCLs are subdivided by onset age into infantile, late infantile, juvenile and adult forms. Sammie is affected with classic late infantile or LINCL, associated with the mutation of the CLN2 gene and the absence of an enzyme known as TPP1. With LINCL, symptoms like loss of sight, speech, motor skills, as well as dementia and seizures, appear between two and four years of age.

It is an autosomal recessive disease, which means that both parents must each contribute a copy of the defective gene. With two carrier parents, the child has a one in four chance of developing the disease and a one in two chance of becoming a carrier.

There is no known treatment that can arrest or reverse the symptoms of Batten disease. The corresponding seizures can be mollified with anticonvulsant drugs and physical and occupational therapy may help some patients slow the decline of motor function. However, the disease is always fatal, with a life expectancy of eight to twelve years for LINCL, Sammie’s form.

It was a daycare teacher who initially spotted signs of Sammie’s receding cognition. A year after her first seizure, she was back in school, her seizures stabilized with the aid of medicine. But the instructor pulled Kamila aside one day, noting that Sammie’s participation in circle time had diminished. More alarming was her sudden inability to recall colors and shapes. Attributing the lapse to a side effect, Kamila adjusted Sammie’s medication, but to no avail. After a visit to a speech therapist proved fruitless, other symptoms began to manifest. Sammie started to trip, constantly, one foot slightly dragging. When the orthopedic specialist found nothing wrong, their neurologist recommended seeking the opinion of a medical geneticist.

Sammie swimming during the summer of 2012 and loving every second of it. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)
Sammie swimming during the summer of 2012 and loving every second of it. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)

Nine months of rigorous testing followed. Mitochondrial disease was the first to be eliminated from the list of suspected ailments. Sammie spent hours at Hackensack Medical Center in New Jersey, giving blood and muscle tissue and moving down the list of potential diseases, starting with the most probable. Eventually, a visiting neurologist reviewed the file and suggested that the genetic doctor check for Batten disease, a test that was still months away due to the rarity of the condition.

The doctors told Kamila not to worry, to shun Google and to enjoy her upcoming Christmas. After all, the disease was so uncommon that the chances were minuscule; the test was merely a precaution, a checkmark.

Of course, Kamila rushed to her computer. “That was a long Christmas,” she recalls, “I just kept reading about it.”

* * *

Kamila removes the vest and lifts Sammie’s Hello Kitty shirt to plug a skinny, clear tube into a circular plastic opening extruding from her stomach. I notice her daughter’s name inscribed in cursive on the inside of her wrist. Next to the bed, an IV stand holds a transparent bag, milky liquid inside. Kamila presses a button and the tube turns white, initiating a low, intermittent whirring sound.

Sammie’s bedroom and the IV stand that holds the feeding equipment. (Maria Edible)
Sammie’s bedroom and the IV stand that holds the feeding equipment. (Maria Edible)

This is every meal for Sammie — breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lacteal liquid is PediaSure, the plastic aperture in her stomach is a gastrostomy tube or G-tube, surgically inserted two and a half years ago. She twitches, her eyes gradually opening and closing as her mom carefully wraps a leopard-print blanket around her bare feet.

The blanket, part of a collection, earned Sammie the moniker “leopard girl” at the hospital. Even her custom-made orthotics to realign her pointed feet are leopard. So is her back brace, intended to counteract the severe scoliosis from constant sitting. The rest? Hot pink. Her wheelchair, embellished with her name, is black and pink. “She has the coolest ride,” Kamila says, looking at Sammie fondly.

The famous leopard-print blanket. (Maria Edible)
The famous leopard-print blanket. (Maria Edible)

The process takes over an hour so we retreat to Sammie’s bedroom, leaving Nikola to watch her. The room is standard little girl territory — pink walls, ubiquitous flowers, glittering princesses. There’s a television guarded by Mickey and Minnie, a small pet bed, a cumulative family handprint. As my eyes adjust to the pink, I start to notice the anomalies in the room. There’s a suitcase-sized tank at the foot of the bed to boost Sammie’s erratic oxygen saturation, and a little camera above the pillow. Previously used to monitor Sammie’s nighttime health, it’s no longer operational due to Kamila and Matt’s new sleeping arrangements — a mattress laid out on Sammie’s floor.

Sammie’s hair accessories. (Maria Edible)
Sammie’s hair accessories. (Maria Edible)

A massive cluster of hair decorations hangs on the wall – sparkly barrettes, flower-topped headbands, patterned bows. There must be at least a hundred. “I can’t buy her toys so I make up on all her accessories,” Kamila says, “I try to make it cute.”

A white terrycloth bunny is tucked behind a chair, ears flopped forward. “That was her best toy,” Kamila tells me. “It came with us to hospitals, pretty much everywhere.”

On January 3, 2012, Kamila received the long-awaited phone call from the geneticist’s assistant. Clutching the phone, she left her office, a realty company, and hurried to the parking lot. “I heard it in her voice,” Kamila recalls with a deep breath. “It wasn’t good news.” The test was positive.

Frantic, Kamila ran back inside and called Sammie’s father, Luke, from whom she’d separated in 2009.

“It was like a death sentence,” Kamila says, her eyes glistening blue under dark lashes. The doctors, including the neurologist, pregnant at the time, were choked up, in disbelief. They had never worked with a Batten child before.

“I don’t even think I go back in my head to that day,” Kamila says, sitting on the edge of Sammie’s bed. “You just grab on to what you have now.”

After the diagnosis, Kamila was contacted by The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which arranged experiences for children with life-threatening medical conditions. Sammie, whose health was deteriorating at a rapid pace, was anonymously nominated. At this point, she could no longer walk without assistance and retrogressed to crawling. Her speech was also curtailed, limited to words rather than full sentences. Sammie started to refuse food, save for one exception: her favorite snack, Lay’s Sour Cream & Onion potato chips. “I’d give her the chips so she’d eat something, anything,” Kamila recalls.

Sammie’s doctors recommended an experimental clinical trial conducted by Weill Medical College at Cornell University. As part of ongoing Batten research that included other children, Sammie would receive a brain injection – a harmless virus bearing the corrected gene. Known as gene therapy, this procedure has been used in an attempt to treat a variety of genetic disorders in a research setting since 1990. The intention was to see whether the introduction would limit disease progression, a hypothesis with no guarantee for Sammie.

The surgery was not without risk. Post-operative infection, surgical hemorrhage, status epilepticus — a continuous or recurring seizure that can be fatal — and a severe reaction to the anesthesia were all possibilities. There was a chance of coma, even death. The operation and the concomitant hospital visits would place tremendous stress on Sammie’s already weakened body.

A hospital stay in December 2013 after a seizure. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)
A hospital stay in December 2013 after a seizure. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)

Although there was no promise of improvement, for Kamila, it was something — a prospect, a glimmer of hope. “When it comes to your child, you think, she could be one in a million,” Kamila says. She knew she had to accept the risks. “I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if I had an opportunity and didn’t take it,” she says.

After a period of testing to ensure she qualified, Sammie was admitted into the clinical trial, the operation scheduled at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Prompted by the hospital staff, Kamila reached out to an Ohio family whose daughter previously had the surgery. She saw the post-op photographs and heard the recovery stories. “The reality hit — these are real people living what you are about to live,” Kamila says. Consequently, she discovered a Batten Facebook group and met parents from the world over. Through their testimonials, she prepared herself for the imminent symptoms of the disease and acquired the proper equipment. The online network of new friendships would prove to be invaluable in terms of emotional support, each family proffering encouragement and at times, sharing the grief of a lost child.

On June 19, 2012, Sammie arrived at the hospital. “She wasn’t scared,” Kamila says of her then five-year-old. Before the surgery, Sammie spoke, albeit much less, but never asked questions. To prepare for the six holes that would soon be drilled into her skull, the medical staff shaved two strips on each side of her head, braiding the top. Then, they put Sammie under anesthesia.

“I’ll never forget the waiting room,” Kamila says, “the people, the smell, the cold.” She sat there for eight crawling hours, in limbo, until the surgeon finally came out. Sammie had made it through the surgery without any complications. They followed Sammie, bandaged and groggy, to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. That night Kamila lay awake, listening to every beep.

After the surgery, Sammie stayed at the hospital for a week, the doctor noting her surprisingly quick and promising recovery. In the coming months, she returned for multiple check-ups, each regulated by the same trifecta of tests – MRI, spinal tap, eye exam. Sammie spent hours, both awake and sedated, at the hospital. “She was really tough,” Kamila tells me, “she didn’t complain.”

Kamila brings Sammie into the bedroom so she can monitor her breathing and clear any mucus. She places her on the bed next to a bubblegum pink throw pillow that says “Smile.” Nikola wheels in the IV stand, the bag, now half empty, swinging side to side. The sound of the pump stops and goes, whirring and pausing until it becomes part of the room, almost unnoticeable.

In September 2012, courtesy of Make-A-Wish, Sammie visited Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Although she was no longer walking and had a customized stroller, Sammie was able to go on several accessible rides. She loved the colors and music of the “It’s a Small World” boat ride.

Sammie kissing Mickey Mouse’s nose during her Make-A-Wish trip. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)
Sammie kissing Mickey Mouse’s nose during her Make-A-Wish trip. (Courtesy of Kamila Wojcicka)

However, nothing compared to the joy of meeting the inimitable Mickey Mouse. “She looked up and saw him,” Kamila says, beaming at the memory, “grabbed him by the nose and tried to kiss him.”

* * *

The disease progressed in stages, as Kamila learned. It started with haphazard screaming and crying fits, which continued for months. Dystonia came next, a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions. Sammie would twitch and shake, twist and tense, in tears from the fatigue. Eventually, with the aid of medicine, the symptoms abated.

In the three years following the diagnosis, Sammie lost her ability to interact with the world. Completely blind for two years now, her cognitive function has eroded and she can no longer talk. “I can’t remember the last time she spoke,” Kamila says, a pink curtain shivering softly behind her, “I don’t even remember what her voice sounds like.”

As if on cue, Sammie expels a desperate sequence of wet coughs. Kamila is prepared, and in seconds, a large clear wand is inside Sammie’s mouth. There’s a loud jackhammer sound, followed by a suctioning reminiscent of a dental visit. Sammie gurgles and Kamila rubs her chest, which elicits a barely perceptible moan.

I’m told that Sammie’s cough is adequate to expel any mucus, negating the need to deep suction. Kamila brushes a strand of hair from Sammie’s face, brown with a hint of gold, a throwback to her childhood tresses.

I ask about Sammie’s signature expression. Kamila’s Facebook page is full of photographs — images of baby Sammie alongside those of ill, bedridden Sammie, united by one common element: her smile. “She was the happiest baby ever,” Kamila tells me. Even after the disease took hold, Sammie’s grins were abundant, easily generated by a noise or scream. She still smiles, ostensibly unprompted, an arbitrary gift to her family. “I don’t know what makes her smile these days,” Kamila says pensively, mourning the lost ability to amuse her daughter. She looks at Sammie, rubbing her feet – “It’s what we miss the most.”

Sammie can still hear, as confirmed by an auditory test. In response to voices, Kamila notices minor changes in her daughter’s expressions, hints of passing recognition in her eyes. Sometimes, she even plays Sammie’s beloved “Finding Nemo.” “I feel like her eyes get bigger and she’s listening,” Kamila says.

Kamila no longer watches videos from Sammie’s childhood – it’s too painful. Laughing wistfully, her tan face accented with two protracted dimples, she describes an inexorably happy toddler with an affinity for Spongebob Squarepants and inappropriate words. At two and a half, Sammie dropped an F-bomb in the middle of her daycare classroom. Having heard the phrase “What the fuck?” on television, she used it with precocious precision, stretching each word like taffy, hands flung in the air with adorable exasperation.

Today, Sammie cannot walk or even move her limbs, aside from involuntary spasms. In an attempt to recover motor function, she attends daily physical therapy sessions at The Children’s Therapy Center, a school for kids with disabilities.

She also participates in school events like the annual Halloween parade. Last year, using paper and feathers, Kamila constructed a Native American teepee over Sammie’s wheelchair. The previous year, she transformed it into a carriage – Sammie, a little princess, nestled inside. In the evening, the family engages in a modified version of trick-or-treating – a door-to-door distribution of Batten disease awareness flyers.

Sammie, who still visits her biological father twice a week, isn’t excluded from any activities and accompanies Kamila and Matt to restaurants, malls, parks, lakes, movies and even the July 4th fireworks.

The family recently returned from a vacation at the New Jersey shore. They spent hours on the beach in Wildwood – “The ocean air was great for Sammie’s lungs,” Kamila says, noting that her chest treatments were cut in half. Sammie, who has always loved the water, swam in the hotel pool with her mother’s assistance.

As if prompted by the summertime memories, a subtle smile appears on Sammie’s face. “Are you smiling?” Kamila leans toward her, voice elevating in pitch as if talking to a baby. She kisses her daughter and lingers for a moment, a vignette that seems to suspend time.

The field trips are never simple. “How do you change an eight-year-old child’s diaper in a restaurant?” Kamila asks, shaking her head. Sammie, who was fully potty-trained, reverted to wearing diapers at age five, after the Batten diagnosis. Now Kamila always carries a blanket.

Placing her into the car seat is an effort as well – she’s 75 pounds and unable to hold on. There are also travel essentials – suction, feeding, medicine, a portable oxygen machine. “It’s second nature now, like bringing toys or snacks,” Kamila says.

Still, she doesn’t complain. “I don’t find taking care of her difficult. This is my life,” Kamila says. She looks over at Sammie, who appears to be asleep, her head drifting to the side of the pillow, almost obscured from view. “I think what’s going to come after is the most challenging,” she tells me, quietly.

Behind her, two plaques pop from the wall, brandishing the same words: “I love you to the moon and back,” the family’s private saying, printed on blankets, pillows, shirts.

Reminders of love in Sammie’s room. (Maria Edible)
Reminders of love in Sammie’s room. (Maria Edible)

Sammie’s meal is complete and Matt carries her through the doorway, angling her to fit. She’s 4’3”, tall for her age. Matt, his shaved head generously freckled, is also trained to care for Sammie. His mouth is rigid, tightly drawn – a firm disparity from the affable grin that quickly stretches over his face, tiny crinkles springing up underneath reddish eyebrows.

I follow them outside, down a long wooden wheelchair ramp, through the grass and underneath a large canopy, zippering the mosquito netting behind me. Misiu breaks through the bottom, immediately attacking a soccer ball, almost taller than him. “They are best buddies,” Kamila says. “He always sleeps on her legs and cuddles with her.”

Sammie is laid out on a large swing, known as “Sammie’s Oasis,” covered by her trademark spotted blanket. It starts to drizzle, the drops creating small, dark circles, fleeting polka dots on the canopy. There’s an obvious change in demeanor – she appears more animated, alert. Her eyes open, sparkling, she sways back and forth, in sync with the rhythmic squeaking of the metallic bars. All of a sudden, another smile wanders onto her face, settles for a moment and disappears.

Kamila, excited by her daughter’s expression, strokes her face gently. “At this point, I just want her to be comfortable and happy,” she says.

Sammie will likely continue to regress into a vegetative state throughout what is predicted to be the final third — or less — of her life. However, she also faces the risk of sudden epilepsy-related death, as well as an increased chance of fatal infection, particularly pneumonia.

The gene therapy clinical trial, initially supposed to be eighteen months, was extended with regular phone interviews. The official results are not issued until a study ends, and although Sammie’s condition has indubitably worsened, it’s difficult to conclude whether the surgery actually slowed the rate of deterioration.

Kamila is no longer fixated on experimental treatment options. Due to her participation in the Cornell clinical trial, Sammie is barred from inclusion in others, as multiple treatments would confuse the outcome, rendering the results invalid. For LINCL, in addition to gene therapy, there are several ongoing studies that focus on stem cell transplantation and enzyme replacement.

The advancement of Batten research is hindered partially by limited government appropriation for rare diseases, says Dr. Margie Frazier, executive director of the Batten Disease Support and Research Association. Additionally, uncommon disorders like Batten are less known, even in the research community. According to Dr. Danielle Kerkovich, the principal scientist at the Beyond Batten Disease Foundation, an organization created in 2008 to accelerate research for diagnosis and treatment, there is simply little data for new scientists to put together solid hypotheses and subsequent research proposals.

Kamila has felt the effects of this. “You have no idea how many doctors I came across who didn’t even know what Batten was,” she says. As a result, she runs her own website, bringingsammiesmiles.com, a campaign for awareness, attention and research, with baby blue wristbands for sale.

. “At this point, I just want her to be comfortable and happy,” says Kamila. (Maria Edible)
. “At this point, I just want her to be comfortable and happy,” says Kamila. (Maria Edible)

Batten recently made unprecedented headlines when movie producer Gordon Gray, known for inspiring sports films like “Invincible” and “Miracle,” launched a website campaign, curebatten.org, to fund research for treatment options and ultimately, a cure. In March, Gray and his wife, Kristen, learned that both of their daughters have a variant of LINCL, distinguished from Sammie’s classic form by a specific gene mutation. Although multiple celebrities have promoted Gray’s cause through social media, the immediate clamor of publicity has since ceased.

* * *

A week later, I visit The Children’s Therapy Center where Sammie attends her daily therapy classes.

After a dimly lit and relaxing yoga session nearly puts Sammie to sleep, she’s back in her chair for music therapy.

The instructor plays an acoustic guitar, its dark wood mirroring her hair. “Everybody’s smiling,” she sings in a silvery voice, calling out each child’s name. There are drum sets, xylophones, bells and tambourines. Sammie waves a wicker shaker, with help from her therapist, Kelsey. It makes a frenzied scratching noise, a distinct addition to the orchestra. The room is filled with sound – clangs, clinks, bangs, jingles, rattles and twangs. There’s laughter and encouragement and with Kelsey’s assistance, Sammie claps, stomps, shrugs, nods and wiggles. She seems to come alive with the music, wide awake now.

When I leave, I pass through a little garden, part of the school’s horticulture program that Sammie participates in. It’s a sensory, hands-on experience, a chance to create something. Tin watering cans, painted stones and bird feeders are sprinkled all over. There are white clusters of flowers that resemble snowflakes and fiery marigolds. I think about Sammie, who received her First Communion two days ago, and wonder which flower is hers. It begins to rain again, and when I drive away, I can’t help but send Sammie one more smile.

* * *

Maria Edible is a writer and photographer currently living in Jersey City, N.J. Her work has been published in the New York Post and Zombie Guide Magazine. Find her on Instagram at @maria_edible.

 

 

The Cocaine Kings of the Pittsburgh Pirates

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In the early ’80s, an A/C repairman, an unemployed photographer and a Major League mascot became the dealers of choice for the city’s sports stars – and changed baseball history along the way.

Whatever the price, by whatever name, cocaine is becoming the All-American Drug. . . .  A snort in each nostril and you’re up and away for 30 minutes or so. Alert, witty, and with it. No hangover. No physical addiction. No lung cancer . . . instead drive, sparkle, energy.

Time Magazine, 1981

“The butterflies have already started,” said Rod Scurry on April 18, 1981, in anticipation of his first major league start the following day in Houston. The season was almost two weeks old, and Scurry had yet to make an appearance on the mound. In fact, he hadn’t pitched more than four innings in a single outing in two years. He was only getting the break now because Pirates ace Jim Bibby was injured; still, Scurry was excited and was hoping not just to start but also to finish his own game. “I’ll be trying to go nine,” he said.

Growing up, Rod Scurry never doubted he would play in the majors, if not as a pitcher then as a hitter. In high school he once hit a five-hundred-foot home run. But despite his batting prowess, he had always been a pitcher at heart. In the 1960s, when he was just a child, he stacked mattresses against the wooden fence in the backyard of his Nevada home and hurled fastballs at them. He had always had power. But then there was the hook. He could sweep his curveball in at such an angle the ball would bend between a batter’s legs. Frequently compared to the preeminent lefty of all time, Sandy Koufax, Scurry drove himself to live up to the compliment. This desire propelled him out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to jog to school through high mountain air and sometimes freezing temperatures just so he could get extra pitching practice in at the Hug High gym before the opening bell rang. On game days, when his teachers believed him to be studiously tending to his work in the classroom he would in fact be poring over index cards he had made that listed the tendencies of the opposing team’s big hitters.

Scurry’s aspiration to pitch a complete game nearly came to fruition. He pitched seven strong innings, shutting out the Astros on four hits, while adding seven strikeouts. Lifted for a pinch hitter in the top half of the eighth in a scoreless game, Scurry was forced to pace the clubhouse floor, listening to the final innings on the radio, anxiously rooting for his club. His teammates cooperated, as the Pirates finally picked up a pair of runs to make the score 2–0. Reliever Eddie Solomon completed the shutout, going the final two innings to secure the victory.

A Rod Scurry baseball card for sale on comc.com.

Although he didn’t close the game, Scurry had made a superlative debut start that lived up to his pedigree and reminded many of the days when he struck out eighteen or nineteen per start back at Hug High. “I’m excited,” Scurry said. “My first big league win is a big thrill. I’ve dreamed about this day. Winning my first big league game is the highlight of my career. I never complained about relieving last year, but I’ve always wanted to be a starter.”

“Last year was frustrating,” Scurry admitted. “I understood the situation. They were world champions, and they had to go with the pitchers who won. I wasn’t thrilled too much with sitting around, but I didn’t get down on myself.”

Across the diamond, the Astros took notice of what they had seen thrown against them. “The kid has an outstanding curveball,” the opposing starter, Joe Niekro, commented. “Sometimes a pitcher has to wait a long time to get his chance. I know how it feels.” A poll of scouts echoed Niekro’s assessment, declaring that Scurry’s curveball was not just good but the finest in the major leagues.

“Scurry Can’t Sleep on Major Success,” read the Pittsburgh Press sports page the day after the game, playing off Scurry’s remark that he had been “too excited to sleep” the night before his start and had in fact slept little at all in the two days leading up to the outing. Pitching coach Harvey Haddix defended the young pitcher, saying, “You don’t need sleep to pitch. I did it many times in the days we rode trains between cities. In fact, it may help. You take it out on the other team’s hitters.”

What Scurry failed to mention to Haddix was that it wasn’t merely adrenaline keeping him up at night—it was cocaine, which he also used before the game. His memorable first big league start and win were accomplished while he was high.

* * *

By this time, Rod Scurry and Pirates mascot, the Pirate Parrot, Kevin Koch, had become friends. Soon, the circle soon expanded to include Koch’s high school buddy Dale Shiffman. It was a dream come true for the local boy Shiffman, who fit right in with the baseball crowd. He had always loved the game, but as he reached high school in the 1960s he didn’t have time for baseball anymore as his interests ran to “beers, cigs, and slicked-back hair.” In the army during the early 1970s Shiffman picked up baseball again and played at a high level while based at Fort Devin, Massachusetts. By the 1980s Shiffman had become a three-sport season ticket holder in the ’Burgh. He was the type of guy whose awareness of the four seasons was determined not by the temperature outside or the leaves on the trees but by the particular sport being played in his city. Fall was all about the Steelers, in the winter he followed the Penguins, and his summers were devoted to the Pirates. So when Koch started inviting Shiffman down to the stadium to hang out with the team before games, the outgoing Shiffman was in his element. When the invitation was extended for him to take to the field for batting practice and a chance to shag a few fly balls, Shiffman was in downright heaven. “I got to stand out there in right field with my heroes,” Shiffman said. “A few would even invite me to meet after the game to have a beer. Life could not have been better.”

Shiffman’s 1969 high school yearbook describes him as “a real car buff . . . enjoys a good laugh . . . dependable pal . . . carefree.” Shiffman stayed true to his character in the ensuing years, particularly to being “carefree” as he spent much of his time bowling, golfing, and playing softball. “Dale’s not interested in working,” a friend later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Dale doesn’t want to grow up. All he wants to do is have a good time.”

Shiffman was employed only sporadically in the photography business when he made his entrance on the major league scene. Without a full-time occupation, he felt a certain validation in being able to say he knew and spent time with prominent sports figures. Right or wrong, “hanging out with athletes made your pride go up,” Shiffman admits. Instead of being just another guy struggling to hold down a job, he now felt important. He was being invited to golf and barbecue outings with different players. When he took a date down to the ballpark, all the ushers would know his name, and a player or two might give him a shout-out following the night’s contest, which would duly impress his female companion, not to mention Shiffman himself. “It made you feel like a somebody even if you really were a nobody,” he says.

Shiffman and Koch, like so many others in the early 1980s, had recently discovered cocaine. The drug was making the rounds through their softball league, alongside the other party mainstays: beer, pot, and Percodan. “Everyone we hung out with at the bar and from our end of town—everyone was into [cocaine],” Koch says.

When Koch and Shiffman hit the city’s nightclubs and bars after Pirates’ games, they typically ran into some of the players. Inside Pittsburgh-area nightspots such as Heaven, the VIP, Sophie’s Saloon, or the Sunken Cork, things got interesting for the pair. Koch explains, “Berra or somebody would say, ‘Hey, do you guys party?’ Then one thing led to another, and the players found out that Dale [Shiffman] could get stuff, and that’s how it kind of snowballed from there.”

Kevin Koch as the Pittsburgh Pirate. (Photo via yinzster.com)

Koch says that the players, mostly Scurry and shortstop Dale Berra, began to call him prior to games to ask if he could pick some blow up from Shiffman and bring it down to the ballpark. Shiffman purchased the cocaine from various locals. He cut the coke, not to increase the weight but rather to replace the cocaine he was taking out for his own personal consumption. Shiffman says his motivation wasn’t to make money; it was to get his party favors without having to pay for them. He figured he was not only scoring free coke but also greatly expanding his social circle, now filled with local sports figures. He could have hardly asked for more.

Typically Shiffman wrapped up a gram or two, or sometimes an eight ball, then Koch swung by and picked up the drugs on his way to work. The transactions between Koch and the players usually took place deep within the corridors of the stadium, such as in the runway outside the clubhouse or sometimes in the parking lots. The men never had any run-ins with Pirates officials; in fact, as cocaine use became more prevalent, Koch even suspected that those in charge had to know what was going on.

“It seemed like no one really cared,” Koch says. “I mean, I think Major League Baseball even knew itself that it had problems, like, years before, when they had alcohol problems with a lot of guys.”

After a while Koch realized that with Shiffman frequenting the games, maybe his own role in these transactions was superfluous. Beyond that, despite the fact that he was in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze much of the time, Koch could still see the precarious position he was putting himself in. Something in the back of his mind wouldn’t let him rest. “When you’re raised by a mom and dad that care about you, you start to put one and one together,” he says.

Growing up, Koch had been described as the typical “nice, regular all-American boy.” As he grew into adulthood, local papers painted a similar portrait, albeit one with a bit more edge. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, he was “the sort a mom would like her daughter to bring home, an earnest yes-ma’am kind of guy with a bit of the devil in him.”

Koch tried to distance himself from his middleman position, telling the guys that they had one another’s phone numbers and could set things up for themselves. A few of the players began to call Shiffman’s house directly, or Shiffman met them outside the clubhouse after the games, where they made their exchanges. These callers were usually Scurry and Berra, although Shiffman was also becoming close with the Pirates reliever Eddie “Buddy J.” Solomon. A pretty low-key guy, Solomon sometimes invited Shiffman over to his apartment, where they would do a couple lines and just hang out. Occasionally Shiffman received calls to bring some blow to a downtown hotel room for some of the visiting National League teams’ players.

“I remember some of the other teams all of a sudden started to get involved,” Koch says. “They’d say, ‘Hey, can you get your buddy to do this or that?’ And I’d call Dale, and he’d come down, and we’d party with just about everybody; it was pretty bizarre. It was pretty out of control in the eighties.”

Yet Koch insists it wasn’t all about the cocaine all the time. More often, he says, it was just a bunch of guys getting together, and if someone had some on them, then sure, they would all do a line. “Now, we would be in the clubs every night drinking and stuff,” Koch admits, “but it wasn’t like ‘Hey, let’s all get together because of cocaine.’”

Whenever there were requests made of Koch, however, he found it very hard to decline them. “Imagine guys that are making that much money, and now you’re partying with them. After a while you don’t think anything about it. You almost think you’re untouchable,” Koch says. If players were looking to hook up, and Shiffman wasn’t going down to the game that night, Shiffman called Koch. They both lived in the South Hills, so Koch could easily swing by Shiffman’s residence and pick up a couple grams for the boys that night. Other times the players would ask Koch to call Shiffman for them. Koch says he would think about the job that had opened up a whole new world to him, a job he cherished. He would think about how the people within the organization treated him so well. He had been welcomed into the family; he was well liked and appreciated.

He knew he wasn’t doing the team any favors by bringing drugs to the stadium, but in the end, he always agreed.

“I’d say all right,” Koch says. “I couldn’t say no. What are you gonna do? It’s almost impossible to say no. These were your heroes. Guys from when you were a kid. I remember sitting down with Willie [Stargell] going, ‘I remember your first game, Willie. It was in ’63 at Forbes Field. I was like nine or ten years old.’ And with other guys, we’d talk sports together, and I would tell them this or that; and they’d say, ‘Man, you were there that night?’ Like Gene Garber, I said, ‘I remember you pitching your first game against the Chicago Cubs. You had three perfect innings going at Forbes Field, then in the fourth Billy Williams jacked that ball.’ And Garber would be like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Koch wasn’t a mere fan. Baseball was a game he loved. And whether Dale Berra or Rod Scurry were stars or not, it didn’t matter to him. Or to Dale Shiffman. It was the name on the front of the jersey, not the back, that was important. For guys raised in the South Hills who grew up with baseball in their blood, anyone who donned the black and gold sat on a pedestal and was worthy of reverence, and it would be damn hard to say no to them.

Koch’s baseball memories are part of who he is, and more often than not his stories always come back to the Pirates previous home at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, otherwise known as the House of Thrills. “What a ballpark to go to. Ah, that was the park. That was heaven to me. When that ball was hit at Forbes Field in a night game, it would literally disappear into the darkness. There were no stands to see it bounce around in or people to grab it. It went straight into Schenley Park. You would see it going, and then once it went past the lights, it was gone; it was into the night.”

* * *

Scurry made six subsequent starts following his debut victory. The youngster pitched well, but as a member of the pitching-heavy Pirates, it wasn’t long before he was back in the bullpen. By 1982 his role as a full-time member of the Pirates bullpen was cemented. His starting days were behind him.

For somebody who was quiet to begin with, Scurry talked even less when using cocaine at the ballpark. He feared his mouth would betray him. He had begun living his life in secret. By his own account he became a con artist of sorts and “got to be pretty good at it.” He couldn’t let the outside world know that his life was now controlled by cocaine, and he became even more introverted. His future wife, Laura, later described to the Associated Press how tough it was for Scurry to deal with stress. “He had a hard time with pressure, and I think that’s why he started doing what he was doing,” she said. “It was the pressure of waiting and not knowing. The drugs made him quiet, shy, and scared. When he wasn’t on them, he was normal and fun and happy.”

In 1982 cocaine use had become routine for many major league ballplayers. The Pirates’ John Milner would later say that he, Parker, Scurry, Berra, and outfielder Lee Lacy shared up to seven grams a week with one another during this time. “If I had it, I shared it; if they had it, they shared it,” he said. In fact, it was so common that the first thing Scurry and Berra thought about prior to the season’s home opener was making sure someone had called Shiffman for easy home game delivery. Nothing said opening day like the sound of Pirates organist Vince Lascheid banging out a few notes of “Let’s Go Bucs,” the smell of hot dogs wafting through the stadium, or the prospect of an eight ball of cocaine to take it all up a notch.

* * *

The neighborhood of Garfield was settled on the hills above the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh’s East End. Up until the 1960s Garfield was home to predominately Catholic, working-class families. Its earliest inhabitants worked the mills along the Allegheny River and shopped locally from the merchants along Penn Avenue. Neighborhood activist Aggie Brose recalled to the Post-Gazette that Garfield was once a place where “you sponsored each other’s kids, you went to all the weddings and funerals, you never wanted for a babysitter…. When you put the kids to bed, the women went out on the stoops.”

In the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s, Garfield’s citizens moved to nearby suburbs. Soon, the small businesses in the community were boarded up, and public housing projects sprouted up in the area. As more and more residents continued to flee, twenty-four-year-old heating and cooling repairman Kevin Connolly and his family remained.

Connolly was an all-state baseball player at the sports powerhouse Central Catholic High School, the alma mater of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Connolly himself later played semipro football as a member of the Pittsburgh Tri-Ward Rebels.

If anyone could attest to what a slippery slope cocaine use could be, it was Connolly. Early during the 1982 baseball season, he was introduced to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Rod Scurry on a double date arranged by the pair’s girlfriends. During the evening the talk turned to cocaine. Up until this point Connolly had only tried the drug a few times. “That night we all pitched in and got some,” Connolly says. “Then we went out again the next Friday.”

Before long the foursome was hitting the town three nights a week, when Scurry wasn’t out of town with the Pirates. Doing coke became an integral part of the evenings, with Connolly struggling to match funds with the well-to-do pitcher. From fifty dollars on the first occasion, the price of admission seemed to grow with each ensuing outing as the group’s drug consumption increased. After a month or two the evenings were costing the young repairman a minimum of $100 or $150. “I couldn’t afford that,” he says. “After going out three nights a week and pitching in every time, I couldn’t do it, you know. Then I got this brilliant idea.”

Connolly was having the time of his life hanging out with Scurry and the girls, and he had to find a way to make things work. He had to “find somebody that had [cocaine], get it at cost, then sell it.” That was the key to staying in the game.

Initially, he didn’t know exactly how or where to go about enacting his plan, but it didn’t take him long to figure out. The East End was Connolly’s turf. His business, Budget Air Conditioning and Heating, was located on Penn Avenue. He also played softball in the neighborhood. He knew people there, and he knew people who knew people. If he was going to find cocaine, the East End would be where he would find it.

Connolly began to regularly buy a quarter ounce of cocaine, which he would usually split, keeping half for himself and selling the other half to Scurry or sometimes a few other acquaintances or contacts. His new enterprise yielded hardly enough to make a profit. But he was doing free cocaine, and that was the whole point, anyway. On top of that, he was introduced to another Pirates ballplayer, shortstop Dale Berra, around this time, which was even cooler to the young sports fan. “Early on we didn’t hang out that much,” Connolly says, but he remembers it being a big deal whenever Berra did come around.

Connolly soon realized that his quarter-ounce purchase wasn’t sufficient to keep up with the group’s growing appetite for cocaine. It was time to up the ante. His next purchase was for a quarter kilogram. However, once initiated into the world of cocaine, it didn’t take him long to realize the extent of the money-making opportunities now open to him. A quarter kilogram wasn’t going to cut it either. The demand around him necessitated yet another increase in weight.

* * *

Nineteen eighty-two was Rod Scurry’s career year. If the switch to the bullpen bothered Scurry, he didn’t let it show on the mound. He had the season of his life, saving fourteen games as a reliever and posting a minuscule 1.74 earned run average, the lowest in the league of anyone with at least twenty appearances. The Pirates finished the season in fourth place, eight games off the pace.

Despite the fact that Connolly was emerging as a new supplier for Scurry, Dale Shiffman continued to receive calls from the pitcher throughout the season. Even on the road Scurry managed to hook up. He had a connection in Philadelphia and elsewhere it was far from a challenge to score. He snorted a gram before a game against Houston, and then went on to hold the Astros scoreless. From that point on, he figured drug use wouldn’t hurt him when he pitched. Scurry’s career ascent brought him an abundance of money and with it an abundance of cocaine. “Finally,” he would later tell the Pittsburgh Press, “it got to the point where I couldn’t quit.”

Come opening day 1983, scoring coke had become paramount to Scurry. Personal matters were arranged first, before any baseball would be played. Once more the season began with a call to Shiffman.

A year after meeting Rod Scurry for the first time, Kevin Connolly came to a realization: This shit is everywhere. Going out to clubs or parties with his new Pirates buddies, he saw cocaine use so out in the open, so common, that he looked around and quipped, “Cocaine is legal, isn’t it?” This pervasiveness made him feel like he wasn’t doing anything wrong by partaking, but now he was going to get in on the real action. By 1983, Garfield’s Kevin Connolly was heading to Miami to trade forty thousand dollars for two kilos of cocaine.

The deal was arranged through a girl he knew from the Pittsburgh area who was dating a supplier in Florida. From there a regular hook-up would be cemented. The suppliers taught Connolly the ropes, including how to pack his product for safe airline travel. The cocaine, which came in a large chunk, was placed in a plastic bag. The bag was then placed inside another bag and dipped in mustard. This package was placed into “another bag that had coffee grinds in it,” Connolly explains. “So we had three bags going. . . . Then we just sewed it into my jacket, and I’d walk through the airport.”

The experience tested Connolly’s mettle as his heart raced with fear; oddly enough, he found it to be an enjoyable fear. Transporting drugs gave him a rush he would come to love more than using the drug itself. He always stayed straight for the transactions and the transport. But that didn’t stop him from getting high. These deals became Connolly’s new source of adrenaline, and physiologically they took him places cocaine never did. If, for instance, a group of police dogs stood ahead of him, Connolly would not change his course; instead, he would walk straight toward the dogs, pushing the thrill as far as it could take him.

The scene in South Florida was like something out of a movie for the novice drug trader. Deals went down anywhere, from inside beautiful yet bullet hole-riddled houses to aboard Miami Vice-style cigarette boats. Other times, if his connection happened to fall through, he could score kilos in the parking lots of Miami’s or Ft. Lauderdale’s after-hours clubs.

“There was like ten or twelve people there who all had kilos in their car,” he recalls, “and they’d say ‘Try my stuff.’” One person’s loss was another man’s gain, and somebody was always more than happy to help out an out-of-towner.

“It was just a joke,” Connolly says. “There was just so much down there. I’d go out to the car, and they’d open up the trunk and they’d have like five keys [kilos] in it. Then another guy would say, ‘Hey, look at my stuff, man; I’ll give it to you for a hundred cheaper.’… It was like how you could get ounces in Pittsburgh, you could buy keys down there.” He could walk into a bar “knowing nobody,” and kilogram transactions were still guaranteed. “What a joke,” Connolly repeats.

Back home up north, Connolly couldn’t help but walk with a bit more of a strut. When darkness fell Connolly felt like the king of Pittsburgh. When he walked into a club and hung out with his new Pirates buddies, people turned to look. But it wasn’t just to check out their local sports heroes anymore. Connolly was making his own mark. He could hear the whispers—Hey that’s Kevin Connolly—and see the patrons gawk. Connolly says the club Heaven was where the in-crowd gathered. It was Pittsburgh’s answer to Studio 54 or the like—the club everyone talked about and went to be seen. Known for its grand marble staircase and white interior, Heaven also had private lounges and held events such as beach night or hot tub night. Connolly often joined a number of the Pirates and Steelers there. “[Lynn] Swann was there all the time, Mel Blount, Franco [Harris] too. It was the only place in Pittsburgh where everyone went,” Connolly says.

Despite making his own name for himself, Connolly could not deny the benefits that came with hanging out with athletes. Rod Scurry, for example, was known to attract a particular crowd. “Yeah, all the girls would know who he was,” Connolly says. This was a definite bonus for the lighthearted and good-natured Connolly, who was also not dumb to the allure that the little white powder he carried possessed. Right or wrong, he employed this magnetism to his advantage. Let me buy you a drink, he would say while reaching into the “wrong” pocket for his money. He religiously kept his coke in one pocket and his money in the other, always the same ones so that he would never make a mistake in front of the wrong people, such as law enforcement. Pulling out his abundant supply of blow, which was obviously much larger than most, he would make his female companions weak in the knees. Whoops, he would innocently declare, finger on his lip like a schoolboy. Needless to say, Connolly and his buddies were not short of company most evenings.

An Associated Press story after Scurry’s time in rehab.

One thing Connolly’s baseball acquaintances weren’t doing for him was making him any richer. Ballplayers are notoriously slow to their wallets. While some of them had voracious appetites for cocaine, this hunger did not translate to much money for those supplying it. There was a sense of privilege embedded in the athletes, as if they thought it should be enough for others to merely be around them. Other times they would adopt the stance, What’s the problem? You know I’m good for it! I’ll get you later.

“We never got paid,” Connolly remarks. Berra always seemed to be broke and even had his own particular excuse at the ready. “I get my check next week,” he would say.

“His checks were like $6,200, and he couldn’t even pay me,” says Connolly. Nor did Scurry. “You couldn’t get it off him, either.” Particularly if Scurry happened to already be holding; then it was an absolute certainty “you’d never see your money.”

It was inside Pittsburgh’s after-hours clubs, selling to patrons rather than ballplayers, where Connolly was truly making his money.

“We had a nice little round,” Connolly explains. “There was like five of them, and we’d hit them all starting at 2:30 a.m. The Allegheny Club was our first hit. Then we’d go dahntahn to Joyce’s, or JJ’s. After that we’d go up to Brookline, to the BYM Club [Brookline Young Men’s Club], a little higher class, nicer place. From there we’d go to the Perry Social in East Liberty, and our last stop would be at the BBC down in Bloomfield.”

All told the late-night rounds brought in around $2,800 on both Fridays and Saturdays. Add another thousand dollars or so during the day, and the weekends netted Connolly over seven thousand dollars. He puts his weekly gross profit at an estimated $13,000 at its peak. He would store the twenties and hundred-dollar bills in a shoe box and spend the rest. He blew through cash on women and partying as well as by charging the players less than he should have. For instance, many times he asked only two hundred dollars for five hundred dollars worth of coke. Connolly wasn’t exactly maximizing his profits. He knew the money was dirty, that it wasn’t really earned, so he felt no obligation to hold on to it. Still, he was having a damn good time.

Likewise, Dale Shiffman, the self-described “nobody,” was now living the high life as well. His life revolved around the Pittsburgh sports scene, from the green diamond of summer with the Pirates to the white ice of winter with the Penguins. “Dale’s a great guy. He was always at the games,” Penguins forward Kevin McClelland said. Added team captain Mike Bullard, “I think he more or less knew a bunch of us—ten of us. He probably knew everybody on the team to say hi.”

Shiffman wasn’t getting rich as a result of his role as a supplier. But it wasn’t about the money for him anyway; it was about hanging out with his heroes and having fun. He didn’t need much. He split his rent with a roommate or two, and when he needed money he found a freelance photography gig. Whatever money he was making from blow tended to go right back up his nose.

While there were some in the medical community who were still arguing in the 1980s that cocaine was “a safe, nonaddicting euphoriant,” Shiffman probably should have known he was headed for trouble the first time he tried the drug, an experience he describes as “love at first sight.” He slowly became addicted. The days of a little fun, in-control partying were long gone. He was now firmly in cocaine’s grip and wanting more, more, more.

* * *

This story is an excerpt from The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, now out in paperback.

 

 

How I Fell Face First for an Epic IRS Scam

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As an Ivy League-educated journalist who has reported on scams and their victims, I certainly never thought I’d fall for one myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I received a call on my home phone recently from someone who identified himself as Officer Jason Dean with the Investigative Bureau of the Department of Treasury. He said an arrest warrant had been issued in my name for failure to respond to IRS Notice CP503 — a third reminder — informing me that I owed $5,347 in back taxes. He said my home and cell phones were being traced and I should not attempt to leave the city.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “I never received any notices.”

“That is not my concern,” he replied. “We’re only calling you as a courtesy to inform you that you will be arrested and charged with failure to meet federal taxation requirements, malicious conduct, and theft by deception. You will be arrested within the next two hours and held in custody for six months pending an investigation.”

And just like that, I was caught in what has become the biggest tax scam in American history.

I called upstairs to my teenage son and told him to call his other mother and tell her to come home. Then I got back on the phone and asked for more details, trying to prove to myself I could dismiss this as a hoax. I asked for the address they had for me. (He had it right.) I asked for the tax year this issue allegedly stemmed from. (2011.) I asked for my Social Security number. (He said he was not permitted to give this over the phone.)

I usually do my own taxes, and I am never completely confident that I get it right. Just a few months ago, I had received notice that I owed about $700 in back taxes for income I’d forgotten to include on my 2013 return. More recently, I filed my 2014 taxes, hoping I’d done them right. But 2011? I couldn’t even remember what I’d reported.

But the man on the phone was done talking. He repeated that I must not leave the area, or I would be charged with evading the police. Then he prepared to hang up.

“Wait,” I said. “This has to be a mistake. If I owed back taxes, I would pay back taxes.”

He paused and asked, “Can you tell me truthfully you have the intention to pay any taxes you owe?”

“Yes, of course,” I said.

He said he could transfer me to another unit that might be able to help. But, he warned, they don’t have to. (It sounded ridiculous but I wasn’t quibbling.)

A moment later, another man came on the line, identifying himself as Investigator Duane Maguire. He repeated that I would be held in custody for six months while a lien was put on my property.

Thinking this all bizarre but also thinking that things do go terribly wrong for people every day, I asked what I could do.

“The payment options are closed,” he said. “This is a criminal tax fraud case.”

“There must be something,” I said, adding, “Look, I have children.”

“Let me ask you,” he said, “Have you ever been arrested before?”

Assured I had not been, he said there was one possibility — if he could obtain a 1099C form for out-of-court restitution for cancellation of debt. But this would be difficult to secure, and there was not much time.

Just then, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read 911.

I told the man on the phone the police were calling me. “911? Already?” he said. “Don’t pick it up. They are trying to trace your location to make the arrest. I will try to call them off. Just don’t pick it up.”

He then explained what I would have to do to avoid being arrested. “I cannot take any personal information from you,” he said. “But if you obtain an Instant Tax Payment voucher at the bank and give me the code on it, I can obtain the 1099C form.” This, he said, would give me 48 hours to visit an IRS office and clear things up. But, he insisted, you must stay on the phone with me at all times until the process is completed. This made no sense. But I didn’t question it.

I looked at the kitchen clock. It was 5:10 p.m. I told him I had to pick up my son from baseball practice.

“I can call you on your cell phone but you have to stay on with me while you pick up your son and go to the bank,” he said, adding: “This is a federally monitored and recorded line, and you must not discuss what is happening with anyone or you will be in violation of federal law.” I raced upstairs and told my son what was happening and that he should relay it all to his other mother, Kate.

My cell phone rang. It was 911. It rang again. It was Kate. It rang again. It was 911. It rang again. It was the alleged Investigator Maguire. Bringing the phone with me, I rushed out of the house, telling my son to come with me to drive and refusing him a moment to change out of his pajamas.

In the car, the call came over the speaker, and when the caller put me on hold a few minutes later, I used my son’s cell to call Kate.

Within twenty seconds, he came back on and asked, “Who are you talking to? I told you this is a federally monitored phone, and you cannot speak about this with anyone. You are breaking federal law.”

I kept my son’s cell line open so Kate could hear.

“Is anyone else with you?” he asked.

“No,” I said, signaling my son not to say anything.

When we arrived at the ball field, I found my eleven-year-old in the dugout and told him something had happened and there would be a voice on the car phone as we drove home but he was not to say anything. He complied until the man asked how far I was from the bank.

“What did you do?” my younger son asked. “Rob a bank or something?”

I signaled for him to be quiet, dropped my kids off at home, and drove to Wells Fargo. It was 5:40 p.m. and the bank closed at six.

I had made no decision to withdraw the $5,347. But I was definitely operating on the premise that I needed to get to the bank before it closed to keep my options open. If it was a scam, I thought, they would tell me. If it was real, I would have to access the funds that would keep me out of jail.

At a stoplight, I glanced at the texts that had come in from Kate:

“Do not take money from the bank!!! Pls call the police instead.”

“Pls speak with Marcus at the Wells Fargo before withdrawing any money.”

A moment later, I was standing before Marcus. The IRS, presumably, was still on hold.

“Kate talked to the police and is 100 percent sure this is a scam,” Marcus said. “So is my manager.”

“100 percent?” I asked.

“100 percent,” he repeated.

He walked me over to the bank manager who explained: It used to be about lottery winnings. Now it is about alleged threats from the IRS.

As I sipped a glass of water, and my rushing adrenalin began to subside, the whole thing suddenly seemed so obviously ridiculous. And it was no surprise that when I got back on the phone, the alleged Investigator Maguire, who must have sensed this fish getting away, was no longer there.

Throughout my hour-long ordeal I was very aware that it could be a scam, and that there were many things that didn’t make sense. Yet I was also deeply afraid that it could be true — that I could have made a mistake on my tax forms; that IRS forms could have been sent but never arrived; and that events could get out of control and go terribly wrong. And this combination of plausibility, fear and confusion soon drove most rational thoughts from my head.

Since the IRS-Impersonation Telephone Scam began in 2013, it has targeted more than 400,000 Americans. More than 3,000 have been successfully conned out of thousands of dollars and more, according to Congressional testimony by Timothy P. Camus, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations and Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The total take: approximately $15.5 million.

If anyone should have known better, it was me. I’m a somewhat experienced adult, with more than one degree from an Ivy League university. In my career as a journalist, I’ve researched the ways our minds fall for tricks like this. I’ve even reported on scams that cheated people out of big down payments on houses and tricked others into buying previously wrecked cars. But the truth is that I fell for this scam — almost completely.

And if you think that you wouldn’t, you might consider what Stanford University scam expert Martha Deevy, Director of the Financial Security Division at the University’s Center on Longevity, has to say. Contrary to popular opinion, Deevy and her colleagues have found that no one type of person tends to be vulnerable to a financial scam but, rather, certain types of people are vulnerable to certain types of scams.

For example, older women who live alone tend to be more vulnerable to confidence scams in which someone promises a large sum of money for a small fee (a fee that grows as the target is drawn in). Educated middle-aged Caucasian men who identify as financially literate tend to be vulnerable to investment frauds. And while the IRS scam is too new for researchers to have identified a typical victim profile, Deevy suggests that it is likely to be “law-abiding citizens who are confused by the IRS” — which, she adds, represents a very large number of us. In fact, when Deevy received a voicemail from an IRS scammer herself, she said she had to listen to it four times before concluding it was not real.

“These guys,” she says, “are very good.”

Unlike most scams that attempt to trigger the desire for gain, the IRS scam rests on something more deeply hardwired in the brain — the fear of loss, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and others have found, is a twice as powerful motivator. And fear of the loss of personal freedom is one of the most powerful fears there is. For me, it made the chance of losing $5,347 seem a trivial risk in comparison to the possibility that I had unwittingly brought trouble on myself that could land me in jail. So I kept taking this call seriously until it was absolutely clear to me it was not.

This quality of uncertainty, says Stanford’s Deevy, is precisely what these scammers prey on. “The IRS, in particular, even in a law-abiding person, is such a mystery. You think, ‘Did I miss something? Did I screw something up? They have seven years to come after me.’ It’s not indisputable that you could have done something incorrect. It’s plausible — and that’s why people get hooked. You might know it doesn’t sound right but you also think if you are wrong about that, the stakes are so high.”

Couple all this with the seeming urgency of the threat (the police will be there in two hours), the creation of isolation (you must not talk to anyone about this), and the apparent external affirmation (repeated 911 calls), and you have the ingredients for a scam that can get to people who should know better. Indeed, for me, it almost entirely stopped me from doing what is second nature: Google it. Talk to other people. And think.

If I had done any of those things, I would have known that the IRS never calls to demand immediate payment without giving you the opportunity to question it or discuss an appeal. Nor does it threaten law enforcement. Nor does a call from 911 appear as 911 on your phone. But fear put me in an altered space that, by the following day, made the whole experience feel like a dream.

Once back to my senses, I hesitated to share my story because it is embarrassing to say one fell, or almost fell, for a scam. People are quick to judge in these situations — if only because one does not want to imagine oneself being similarly vulnerable. But in the end, I decided to swallow my pride in the hope that sharing the story might help someone else recognize this scam for what it is, before their fear triggers are similarly activated, at the risk of overwhelming usually more rational minds.

* * *

Lisa Bennett is coauthor of Ecoliterate and a contributor to The Compassionate Instinct and other books. She is currently writing a memoir about how the most challenging issues of our times help teach us the most important things about being human. She is on Twitter @LisaPBennett.

Marley Allen-Ash is an illustrator from Toronto creating work through printmaking and digital media. Follow her on Instagram at @marleyallenash and see more of her work on her website www.marleyallenash.com.

 

 

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.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

 

 

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

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Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

 

 

Saying I Do, And Saying Farewell

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Eleven days after marrying the love of my life, I stared at his lifeless body and said goodbye.

Eleven days after my wedding, two men from the crematorium arrived to take my husband’s body away.

“Do you want his ring?” they asked, pointing to the black titanium band on his left hand.

“No, he should wear his ring,” I said. He should wear it into the afterlife.

A quick look passed between them. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I replied, and turned to my mother-in-law Linda for approval.

“Honey, you should keep his ring,” Linda said gently.

I gave the crematorium men a slight nod. They slipped the ring off his finger and handed it to me.

*   *   *

Kaz and I once made up a story of how we met. “You fell on your bike and I stopped to help you,” he said in his baritone voice. This actually happened on our second date. “Sounds good to me,” I said. But we never told the made-up version. Whenever people asked us how we met, we would look at each other, shrug and tell the truth: we met on Match.com. My profile advertised “Curves and Curls – what more do you want?!” His moniker was “Nerdy4Music.”

After years of dating more men than I care to mention, in April 2007 I received an email from Kenneth Allen Smith. “My name is Ken, but everyone calls me KAZ,” he wrote. He was an employed, never married, childless, bald, badass, bespectacled black man, born and raised in Washington D.C. by a single mother. He had equal parts swagger, sensitivity and sweetness, had traveled the world, had real rock stars for friends, was witty, funny, charming, pragmatic, Scorpion sexy, so smart he beat his own computer at chess, and he rode a Honda RC51 sportbike. To quote a female colleague (who once yelled this at a party), Kaz was the coolest motherfucker on the planet.

At the time, I didn’t understand why such a cool guy was dating me, a somewhat neurotic, struggling filmmaker who was not thin. “I like spending time with you,” he explained. “You’re smart, funny, beautiful, good in the kitchen and good in the sack, and you’re sexy as fuck.” I still didn’t buy it.

In 2010, after two years together as a couple, during which we almost broke up once, we learned that the headaches and blurry vision he’d been experiencing were the result of a terminal brain tumor. Neither of us could believe it. Why would a healthy, physically active, forty-two-year-old man get the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy? It was too random to be true.

And yet, for me at least, it felt strangely inevitable. My mother had been ill for much of my childhood and died when she was fifty-six (I was twenty-two). Now, the man I loved more than anything, the best man I’d ever known and probably would ever know, was going to die young, too.

Within days of the diagnosis, he proposed. Kaz didn’t make rash decisions. It had taken nine months for him to say “I love you,” and after two years he was still reluctant to move in together (a source of frustration for me — at thirty-nine, dragging a backpack around every weekend was getting old). But the tumor changed things.

“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But I know I want to spend it with you.” He bent to one knee. “If you’ll have me.”

As I looked down at him, I was more afraid than I had ever been. Commit to someone with a terminal illness? “Yes,” I answered. I, too, wanted to be with him as long as possible. Deep down, I also might have thought we could beat this cancer bitch, statistics be damned.

Life moved forward. We moved in together, a huge transition for any couple but especially for one dealing with cancer. We supported each other through two resection surgeries, three clinical trials, dozens of MRI’s and doctors’ appointments. We tried to marry, but various factors kept getting in the way. He wanted to do it quick and easy at a courthouse. I wanted our friends and family around. Both of our families had money and debt concerns. Plus, I’d never planned on changing my name if/when I got married, and Kaz was old school. “You can keep your name professionally if you want, but I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take my name,” he told me.

Then, in November 2010, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to work. Even more devastating, he could no longer ride the motorcycle, or walk without assistance. He sank into a deep depression. As his illness progressed more rapidly, my caregiver responsibilities and the pressure of dwindling time intensified. We started arguing. Whereas before I had always been the one waiting for him to catch up, now he rounded the corner of acceptance before me. I still refused to accept it, like a ship captain who keeps trying to steer a sinking vessel. At one point, I thought I would surely have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave.

Instead, I got a cold.

One day in late March 2011, my job sent me home because I was feverish. I walked into the apartment early and was surprised to find Kaz sitting on the couch fully dressed.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I feel weird,” he said.

His body was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a blanket and draped it around his shoulders. “I’m so pissed we never get to hang out anymore,” he said. “Something always happens and we can’t just hang out. It hurts, it really hurts.” His gaze drifted up to the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…” his voice trailed off.

The doctors later told us if I hadn’t come home early, the seizures would have killed him. They still almost killed him, but the doctors worked hard to keep him alive, while I sat by his bed and prayed. Please don’t take him right now. Please let him wake up. Please don’t let it end like this. Please give us another chance. Please let us say goodbye.

Forty-eight hours later, he finally opened his eyes. I had never been so happy in my life.

“When are you going to be Mrs. Smith?” he asked in front of his team of doctors and his mother, who had just flown in from D.C. “Are you going to hyphen or not hyphen? I’m okay with second billing,” he continued.

My face flushed as everyone turned to look at me. “Let’s talk about it later,” I said quietly.

The next day, I was sitting on his bed massaging his hands with lotion while a young nurse changed the bags on his IV drip. Kaz looked at me intensely.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

“I think so,” I smiled.

“I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. I have never wanted to marry someone as much as I want to marry you. I didn’t think it was possible.”

I heard the nurse sniffle behind me.

“I want you to be Mrs. Smith,” he said, ignoring the nurse.

“Then you have to get better,” I said.

*   *   *

On Good Friday, April 22, 2011, we stood on the Griffith Observatory veranda overlooking the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by several protective rings of our closest friends (we didn’t have a location permit). I wore a sleeveless blue cotton dress that I had purchased that morning. Kaz wore a black suit, shirt and shoes, and a blue and purple-flowered tie. Our officiator and friend, Chandra, read the vows:

“Do you, Kaz, choose Niva as your wife? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”

“Hell to the yes!” Kaz said loudly. Everyone laughed.

“Do you, Niva, choose Kaz as your husband? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”

“I do.” I smiled.

Chandra pronounced us man and wife. I bent to kiss Kaz in his wheelchair, and then leaned back to look at him. We had done it. Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

“Wifey,” he whispered the next morning.

*   *   *

Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.

I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.

“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”

The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.

*   *   *

A month earlier, when he was in the hospital, he had told me he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes spread out on Angeles Crest Highway, the mountain road where he had ridden his motorcycle every weekend. He told me who should receive his things, how to divide his money and what songs to play at his memorials. I wrote everything down in a list, fifty words to sum up a life.

As I added the last item, he said, “I miss us.”

I looked up from the list, my heart in my throat. “I miss us too.”

“I’m so glad we stuck it out,” he said. “I know we both thought about leaving.”

“I’m honored to be here with you, babe.” I leaned forward to kiss his hands.

Afterwards, I referred to that list like a bible, using it to guide me through the memorials, the obituary notices, the giving away of possessions, the canceling of credit cards and all the other tasks that must be handled after someone dies. The day I showed up at his bank, a heavily made-up teller kept looking between the death certificate and the marriage certificate. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You married eleven days before he died?”

“Yes.”

“Why? How did he die?”

I didn’t explain it to her. It was none of her business.

“I’ll need a court order to switch over his accounts,” she said, shaking her head. “This just doesn’t make any sense.” I wanted to scream. He died at forty-three years old. Nothing made fucking sense. Instead, I looked squarely at her and tried to keep my voice steady. “I have all the proper forms, signed and notarized. If you don’t help me transfer the accounts, I’ll close them and go to another bank. Do you understand?”

“I have to speak to my manager,” she mumbled and rose from her desk. As she walked away, I stared outside at the traffic on Vine Street and thought about throwing myself in front of a double-decker tourist bus.

*   *   *

When we moved in together, Kaz and I had talked about making some changes to the apartment. After he died, I decided to go ahead with those plans. I asked Chandra, an interior decorator, to help redesign the space with Kaz in mind. We chose furniture in grey tones with chrome details and black-and-white checkered tiles for the kitchen, an ode to his old racing flags and love of chess. We hung his favorite rock posters, African masks and Chris Cooper lithographs. We put pictures of him on every bookshelf.

Several weeks later, Chandra and I sat on the patio drinking beers. “How do you feel about all the changes?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope he approves.”

“I think he does. I can feel him here really strongly.”

“I thought it was only me.”

“No, dude, he’s totally here.”

I nodded. So I’m not going crazy.

I often felt his body pressed against my backside and his arms around my waist when I was in bed. Other times, I felt his hands cupping my breasts from behind. Sometimes the lights would dim, and I felt him as a breeze against my face. Most cherished were the times he visited me in dreams. In one dream, as we were getting undressed, he said, “I’m afraid if I keep coming to you like this, you won’t be able to move on.”

“That’s okay,” I said, already half naked. “I don’t want to move on.”

When he was alive we used to write each other emails throughout the day. Now I wrote him letters. I told him about the long process of legally changing my name, first going to the Social Security office, then the DMV, my bank, and human resources. I told him how I was still getting used to being called “Mrs. Smith” and saying “my husband,” let alone saying “my late husband.”

During the day, I left the television on the channel that broadcasts the AMA, MotoGP and World Superbike races. After work, I watched all the same shows we used to watch together, still sitting on my side of the couch and directing my comments, jokes and questions to him. I got used to having one-sided conversations. I started telling close friends that Kaz was actually still in the apartment; he was just invisible.

One night, a former lover came to visit. I started crying and the man held me, which felt good. It had been so long since real arms held me. But as the man’s hands moved down my back, and his lips found my neck, I went limp. I didn’t have the energy to refuse him, but didn’t fully engage either. I kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if Kaz was in the room, or if this made him leave. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep.

I wrote to Kaz: “I don’t know if you saw what happened the other night, but I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Honestly, being with him just made me miss you more.”

*   *   *

Around our first wedding anniversary, I took my wedding ring off at the gym and forgot to put it back on. When I realized my finger was bare the next day, I felt naked. I spent the rest of the day praying that the ring was where I thought it was, and that I hadn’t somehow lost it. I rushed into the bathroom when I got home and found it in the side pocket of my gym bag, which I had left on the counter. I slipped it back on and vowed to never take it off again.

But as time went on, Kaz’s presence seemed to recede, like an echo, and the emotional limbo between newlywed and widow in which I’d been living began to fade as well. One day I did take the ring off. At first I wore it around my neck along with his ring. Then I started leaving both rings at home in a jewelry case, a decision fraught with angst and guilt. I recognized that losing the feeling of being married was part of the healing process, but it was also painful, like we were “breaking up” on some cosmic level.

Then I realized that it wasn’t as much of a break-up as it was a shift. I still felt him inside and around me, but in a different way than before. I could feel him encouraging me to move forward with my dreams and desires.

When he was in the hospital, we once had a conversation about my career. For years, I had bounced between writing and directing small projects and working all kinds of day jobs. “What do you think I should focus on?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a moment. “I think you should focus on writing.”

“How would you feel if I wrote about us?”

“I hope you do write about us,” he smiled.

Today, three years later, I am starting to envision my future. I see film festivals and book signings; a house with land, animals and a fireplace; African plains, Parisian boulevards and Jerusalem sunsets; and a community of artists dedicated to the pursuit of personal expression.

A while back, I spent time in Vermont on a writer’s residency and was drawn to the quiet, open sky and the no-nonsense atmosphere of the rural Northeast. Shortly after the third anniversary of his death on May 3, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave Los Angeles, to breathe fresh air, meet new people and experience seasons again. A few weeks later, I gave notice at my day job. Soon, I’ll be driving across the country with my dog to live and write in the Catskills, about two and half hours outside of New York City.

What I’m less clear about is who (if anyone) will be with me in the future. I’ve been on a few dates in the past couple of years, but nothing major. As I told a friend recently, my current love life is “an empty beach.” The truth is, I’m not the same person I was when I married Kaz, nor am I the same person I was after he died. At some point, I became bi-curious, something I would never have had the courage to admit if it weren’t for Kaz and everything we went through together. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to love again, but I credit Kaz for teaching me how to love and be loved. I know he would want me to be happy.

*   *   *

Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir titled The History of Us and writes regularly about grief, writing and her dog at www.ridingbitchblog.com

Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013. Check out more of her illustration and comics at redinkradio.com