Her Golden Gloves

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Knowing full well the world of women’s boxing offers little in the way of glory, fame or riches—at least for those not named Ali or Frazier—one quick-footed Italian immigrant determines to conquer it anyway.

Susanna Mellone-Spence won her first fight when she was only three. When a boy in her pre-school in northern Italy tried to take her lunch, Susanna slammed his head against a locker. She was expelled. While some parents might have been ashamed of such violent behavior, Susanna, in her imperfect English, says her mother was proud. “I mean not to broke his head, but he was stealing my lunch!” she says with a laugh.

Some 20 years later, on the morning of April 8, 2011, Mellone-Spence and her coach, Francisco Mendez, a short, stocky man with sad, dark eyes and jowly cheeks, leaned against a bare white wall in the basement of the Daily News headquarters on West 33rd Street in Manhattan. They wore matching green sweatshirts that read “MENDEZ BOXING.” In less than 12 hours and only a few blocks away, Mellone-Spence would compete in the Daily News Golden Gloves Championships at Madison Square Garden.

To ensure her fight in a 112-lb. weight class, Mellone-Spence hadn’t eaten anything since the previous afternoon. She rubbed her stomach underneath her sweatshirt and sighed. “They late,” she said, referring to the officials keeping her from breakfast. Under the basement’s fluorescent light, she looked pale. Her dark eyes, usually animated and warm, appeared serious. A mess of brown curls held in check by a few baby barrettes, combined with the slight gap between her front teeth, made her appear younger than her 26 years.

Susanna Mellone-Spence (Photos and video by Jessica Bal)
Susanna Mellone-Spence (Photos and video by Jessica Bal)

At 5’1, and exactly 112 lbs. Mellone-Spence did not cut an imposing figure. Though t-shirts fit snugly around her upper arms and shoulders, people are usually surprised to hear she boxes. That puzzled reaction is commonly encountered by women boxers. Although they recently returned to the Olympics after a century-long absence, even those deeply invested in the sport admit to discomfort at seeing women in the ring. “If I had to choose between allowing women to box and not, I’d go with not,” says Brian Adams, a former boxer and the director of the Golden Gloves Tournament. “At the end of the day, you still don’t want to see your daughter with a black eye or a bloody nose, whereas it’s appreciated if it’s a boy.”

That night in April, Mellone-Spence, a natural-born fighter and karate champion in her native Italy who discovered boxing late, in her twenties, was preparing to fight Christina Cruz, 28, a four-time Golden Gloves champ whose fans were expecting a fifth win. In 2011, Cruz had 60 fights, compared to Mellone-Spence’s five. In spite of her gangly arms and stick legs, she was one of the top-ranked female boxers in the country, and widely seen as a 2012 Olympic contender.

Cruz stepped out of the News building’s elevator wearing skinny jeans and boots. She had lost seven pounds to make herself eligible for the Olympics’ flyweight class. Her hair, parted down the middle, created a dark sleek curtain for her long face and prominent nose, which she broke only two years earlier.

Cruz, who’s a head taller than Mellone-Spence, kept a professional distance but was not unfriendly. One of Mellone-Spence’s teammates, Nisa Rodriguez, a tall, pretty girl with a faint birthmark by her left temple, tried to engage both girls in small talk but after a few minutes Mellone-Spence wandered off, still rubbing her stomach.

As officials distributed mouth guards, complimentary tickets and the tournament’s official program to each fighter, male boxers in the room tore off sweatpants and T-shirts. They stood in their boxer shorts, sucking in stomachs and puffing out tattooed chests. The newer fighters furtively counted the number of Golden Glove charms dangling from veterans’ necks. The women fighters filed into the back room for their weigh-in.

Cassie Rodriguez, a tall, broad-shouldered USA Boxing official with thinly arched eyebrows, stood by the scale holding a clipboard. She called Christella Cepeda, a baby-faced Dominican girl whose wide eyes betrayed her nerves, towards her. “Hey beautiful, step on that scale for me.” She motioned toward the old-fashioned scale—the kind usually found in hospitals and locker rooms. Cepeda, wearing only a bra and panties, walked forward quietly. “Any jewelry?” asked Rodriguez. Cepeda shook her head.

The boxers sat in chairs and on table edges. Some stripped down to their underwear. Others hid behind hooded sweatshirts and oversized headphones until their turns were called. Mellone-Spence found a spot near the scale and without any hesitation, whisked off all her clothes, revealing a tattoo just below her armpit, the same tribal design as Mike Tyson’s, and waited her turn. After a few minutes, she stepped up onto the scale. Rodriguez marked her clipboard and smiled. Mellone-Spence had made weight.

* * *

In the first round at the fight that night, Mellone-Spence was the aggressor, while Cruz threw few punches and ran. The pressure from Mellone-Spence surprised the MSG Network’s announcers. “Spence does not look intimidated at all,” said Kathy Clancy Burke, daughter of the late famed boxing trainer Gil Clancy. “If she can do this for four rounds, she’ll steal this bout,” her partner Michael Crispino echoed.

Cruz seemed not to hear the advice shouted by fans to “throw something!” Instead, she kept weaving and bouncing to one side or the other, letting Mellone-Spence do most of the punching. Some boxing critics would later say Cruz took it easy for the first round in order to gauge Mellone-Spence’s strikes and plan her strategy.

As she began to throw more than just counter-punches at the end of the first round and into the second, the announcers shifted their attention to Cruz—her record, her conditioning, her discipline and her Olympic potential. “Of all of our female boxers, Cruz has always reminded me the most of a man in the ring,” said announcer Clancy Burke. The commentators called Mellone-Spence “courageous” and “dangerous.” “Spence has a lot of guts. She’s come forward the entire bout,” said Clancy Burke. By the final round it was clear Mellone-Spence was outmatched, but she refused to give up. “She’s still throwing punches. Look at that uppercut!” marveled announcer John Duddy.

After the final bell, after the drowsy hugs and handshakes, and after the scores had been tallied, both women returned to the ring’s center. The referee stood between them, one wrist in each of his meaty hands. A moment later the announcer gave comment and the referee raised Cruz’s left arm in the air. The two boxers hugged once more. Mellone-Spence’s mouth folded in on itself and she blinked quickly several times before she could get out of the way of the camera.

The following morning Mellone-Spence returned to her job at the reception desk of Mendez Boxing on West 28th Street. Sitting beside a glass case full of framed portraits, boxing gloves and colored wraps, she smiled with some effort when members congratulated her efforts or badmouthed Cruz.

Mellone-Spence jokingly fights with trainer and coach Francisco Mendez at Mendez Boxing in Manhattan.
Mellone-Spence jokingly fights with trainer and coach Francisco Mendez at Mendez Boxing in Manhattan.

While she admitted that Cruz did ultimately win more points, Mellone-Spence didn’t think this diminished her standing. In an amateur fight, such as the Golden Gloves Tournament, an individual scores points with “clean punches”—ones that haven’t been deflected by a boxer’s mitt, arm or any part of the ring, and that connect with the front of the head or torso and land above the belt. Had it been a professional fight, punches to the sides and stomach, known as body shots, would have counted. “I think the most solid punches were from my part. As a pro, I won the fight. I think as an amateur, I lose the fight,” Mellone-Spence said.

Mellone-Spence said her style—fighting inside instead of wide, and pummeling her opponents with body shots—is best suited to professional fights, where the headgear is left in the sparring ring, and power wins. Her ultimate goal for the last three years has been to make it as a pro; she surprised reporters at the weigh-in by telling them she had no Olympic dreams. Olympic boxing is an amateur sport, endorsing amateur rules. For her, the Golden Gloves Tournament was a springboard for a paid, professional career.

Becoming a pro boxer requires tremendous dedication and hope—some would say a willing suspension of disbelief. “Physically and mentally it’s the toughest sport there is,” says Noriko Kariya, a former professional female boxer. “It’s a sport that doesn’t give back to the individual. It just takes.” A top tier male boxer can make $20,000 to $30,000 per fight, but female boxers, with the exception of superstar scions Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, make considerably less—as little as $500 for a four-round fight. Boxing promoters argue that women are paid less because their bouts are harder to sell to the predominantly male audience. Kariya put it this way: “Men don’t want to see an ugly girl fight and they don’t want to see a pretty girl get hurt.”

* * *

Susanna’s parents, Katya and Egidio Mellone, met and married in their late teens. They divorced when she was two. In Italy in the 1980s, divorce was considered scandalous—a stigma compounded by her father’s drug problem and prison record. While Susanna adored her father, she respected her mother’s decision to leave him. “My mom always loved him, like for real, like big love. She did it for me,” Susanna says.

After the Mellones’ divorce, Susanna and Katya moved from one relative’s couch to another. Susanna was four when her mother met the man who would later become her second husband. He gave Susanna her first real home, but she needed something more.

A young Susanna Mellone-Spence with her father, Egidio Mellone. (Photo courtesy Susanna Mellone-Spence)
A young Susanna Mellone-Spence with her father, Egidio Mellone. (Photo courtesy Susanna Mellone-Spence)

In an old photo, Susanna’s father lounges on a quilted bed at his mother’s house beneath a portrait of the Virgin Mary and child. Susanna is frozen in a half–crawl. Her tiny, diapered bottom faces the camera while she looks up at her father. Dark curls fall into his eyes, which hold her gaze like a magnet. One of her father’s hands beckons Susanna forward while the other cups her elbow, keeping her from falling.

Egidio Mellone was Susanna’s confidant and she was his. “I never had too many friends, when I was little especially. I was very, very shy. He was my best friend,” she says.

On weekdays, Susanna lived with her mother and stepfamily, but spent her nights on the phone with her father, who was a mechanic, a poet and an artist. “My father is of course a beautiful person. Like a dream … A beautiful person,” she says.

On weekends, Susanna stayed with her father at her grandmother’s house. They would draw, read and write poems together. If she had homework, he helped her with it. They would play in the park or meet his friends at a bar and place bets on soccer matches. And at night, Susanna’s favorite time with her father, they would fall asleep talking. He believed that children had as much right to the truth as adults, and would tell her anything she wanted to know.

Susanna’s father contracted HIV before she was born. Both she and her mother were tested every four years for the illness. Even while he was sick, he continued to abuse drugs. More than once, her father waited for Susanna outside her school, haggard and high. Other days he wouldn’t show up at all. Susanna and her grandmother—his mother—would search the neighborhood’s back alleys until they found him. Sometimes he disappeared for days.

When she was eight, her father tried to wean himself off heroin. She and her grandmother watched as he burned with fever, shivered, then vomited over and over. He could stay clean for months, then slip back into old habits. When she was twelve, her father invited her to live with him. She declined. “My father was who he was,” she says. A friend, even a best friend, but not a parent.

“Christmas, he give me a lot of gifts. First of January, he sold them,” she continues with a strained, fragile laugh.

Inside her father’s journal, which Susanna keeps, are poems about love and freedom, sketches—a dog and cat sitting at a kitchen table, a pirate ship with an eerie sickle moon half-submerged—and the letters he sent her from jail. In one letter he explains to Susanna, who was in kindergarten at the time, that he tried to steal a car and “things didn’t go so well.”

“I’m telling you these things knowing that your mother won’t read them to you, but when the day comes that you can read on your own, take all my letters and read them one by one, so you can understand my mistakes and avoid making them. Daddy doesn’t want you to cry, especially don’t cry for me, I’m not dead you know and even if I died you shouldn’t cry, one cries about bad things and I’m not a bad thing, I am your great hero and one doesn’t cry for heroes.” (Translated from Italian.)

Looking back, Mellone-Spence says it was easy to forgive her father’s mistakes. “Maybe growing up you start thinking about what a father is supposed to do or be, but he taught me life in a different way, with his mistakes,” she says.

Her father died from complications of AIDS when she was 14. “When he died I went through like [a] low moment,” she says. She smoked and drank and fell away from karate, a sport she’d been practicing since she was ten.

Within a few months, she realized she’d let her sadness derail her. She returned to karate and for a while it steadied her. The gym became her escape. The people, the upbeat atmosphere and the focus required to compete took her mind off her worries. Then, inspired by watching women boxers on television, she found a small boxing gym near her home. When she first started getting hit she got angry: “Like, he hit me—‘I’m gonna kill you now,’” she recalls. But in time, she learned to channel her aggression and keep calm.

“I fall in love with boxing,” says Mellone-Spence. The thrill of finally making contact, mitt to flesh, was exhilarating. For a while, she tried to balance karate and boxing but it was like having two husbands. Leaving her karate coach and her students was difficult, but Mellone-Spence had to be true to her nature—and that meant boxing.

After winning her first boxing match in Italy, she and her boyfriend moved to New York. They stayed at a friend’s house in New Jersey, and she commuted to and from Brooklyn where she had found a job waitressing. Both she and her boyfriend shared a dream of becoming pro boxers, but since he wasn’t working, he was able to spend the bulk of his time training. Susanna trained in between shifts at the restaurant and some additional hours at a furniture store. When she had saved enough money, they rented a small apartment in Brooklyn. But a week later, the relationship came to an abrupt end. “He went out of my life like this,” Mellone-Spence says, snapping her fingers. Her boyfriend returned to Italy. “I was sad and alone,” she said. Susanna gave up her training for several months and worked extra shifts at the restaurant to make rent.

She grew close with her supervisor at the restaurant, Michael Spence. From the first time they met, Spence was taken with her smile. “I told her from day one. I’m like, ‘Don’t ever lose your smile, because as a waitress, with a beautiful smile, you get more tips.’”

During her first few weeks of work, anyone paying attention might have noticed Spence pretending to fix a tablecloth nearby whenever Susanna’s customers were giving their orders. Spence, whose mother is Italian, speaks the language, which was helpful since Susanna’s English was still very basic. Still, her warmth, her schoolgirl laugh, and even her broken English charmed customers. She remembered their names and they remembered hers.

After two months of working at the restaurant, she and Spence started dating. “It wasn’t old-school-fashioned ‘ask her out,’ it just happened,” he says. A few months later they moved into an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn together. At the time, Susanna had to return to Italy every three months to keep her visa from expiring; Spence saw how much this cycle of leaving and returning drained her. They were in West Point at his sister’s home, sitting in the woods on a bench that overlooked the Hudson River, when he proposed. “It was fast in terms of relationships, but I knew it was the right thing,” says Spence.

They married in October of 2009 at City Hall. The following month she started looking for a new boxing gym. Now that the chaos in her life had settled, she could afford to train. “We find this little gym, little ring, second floor, a beautiful little place, and I’m like, ‘If this is what makes you happy,’” says Spence. Within a month, Spence saw a change in his wife. “Her personality opened back up again…because she was doing something that she loved, and she missed. And then she went hardcore back into it.”

At the gym, Mellone-Spence built a second family. Her trainer, Francisco Mendez, was raised by a single mother in Mexico. When he first came to New York, he washed dishes while trying to save enough money to open his gym. The pair clicked, and Susanna was soon very attached to Mendez.

“I’m not a very trusting person and neither is he,” says Mellone-Spence. “When I start trusting him as a trainer that was it. He was my trainer,” she said.

A trainer helps Mellone-Spence put her gloves on.
A trainer helps Mellone-Spence put her gloves on.

Mendez treats Mellone-Spence like a daughter. They both love to laugh, to eat and to fight inside, with solid body shots—a classic Mexican technique. “She got Italian heart and Mexican style,” says Mendez.

Mellone-Spence will scold Mendez for walking too much despite pains in his knee. “What did the doctor tell you?” she’ll ask, then look away pointedly, like an embarrassed teenaged daughter, when he starts fist pumping to a techno song that’s playing in the gym. And when Mellone-Spence needs him most, when she’s inside the ring, “I can always hear his voice, even if he doesn’t shout,” she says.

Pointing to another man with a weathered face and graying hair sitting quietly against the glass case catty-corner to her reception desk, Mellone-Spence identifies her “cut man” —the person who tends to her scrapes and bruises. “He’s like my uncle,” she says. “And my trainer’s like my father. It’s like another family.”

* * *

Since the sport began, writers, historians and those inside the industry have tried to understand what motivates the best boxers. Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter, says he believes people fight for a reason: “They fight out of something. They fight out of poverty. They fight out of jail. They fight out of a bad family.”

Coach Mendez calls Mellone-Spence “hungry.” Her dedication is “200 percent” he says. “Some people, they have a lot of talent but they don’t have discipline and dedication,” says Mendez. Mellone-Spence has both. The way she trained, Mendez could see how much she loved to box. “When you love something, that’s everything.”

Mellone-Spence can’t say exactly what inspires her to fight, only that it’s personal. “Everything I do is for me,” she says.

At the Garden, Mellone-Spence showed the kind of aggression that no one, including the announcers, Cruz, Mendez, her fans and perhaps even she herself could have predicted. Her hunger is real, and it’s dangerous.

* * *

That summer after the Golden Gloves, Mellone-Spence began training six hours a day, six days a week. She ran four miles every morning, then shadowboxed. After her shift at the gym ended, she pounded the heavy bags and sparred with other pro fighters whenever they were available. But despite having already fought amateur matches against two of the best boxers in the country in her weight class—Cruz in 2011 and Laura Ramirez in 2010– Mellone-Spence had trouble securing her pro debut fight.

Mendez spoke with three potential managers but Mellone-Spence didn’t sign with any of them. “Francisco is very possessive in a kind of way. He trains me the way he trains me and nobody else can interfere,” she says. Mellone-Spence trusts her coach unconditionally. “It’s not just my choice. They gotta work together,” she says. “I trust Francisco, so I had no problem with that.”

Ultimately, Mendez bypassed the managers altogether and secured a fight directly through a promoter. Mellone-Spence had a fight date, a venue and an opponent. For weeks, every choice she made about sleep, food, training and her social life revolved around her upcoming fight. Then, two days before the match, the other fighter pulled out, upending her entire schedule. This happened twice.

The false starts in her career were frustrating not only to Mellone-Spence, but also to her husband: Mellone-Spence couldn’t enjoy a meal with his family because she had to make weight. She couldn’t go to parties with him and his work colleagues because she had to wake up early to run. “Even just sex,” she said. (Like a lot of boxers, Mellone-Spence won’t have sex for two or three weeks before a fight.) “It’s a lot of sacrifice. I do it because I’ve a goal, and he had to do it because he was my husband.”

In December 2011, Mendez found a possible match for Mellone-Spence: Elizabeth Cervantes, a six-year pro making a comeback after having a baby and spending three years away from the ring.

“I’ll take it,” said Mellone-Spence.

* * *

On January 13, 2012, at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in a small town an hour outside of Los Angeles, Mellone-Spence made her pro debut. She wore her hair in a dozen tiny braids to keep it out of her eyes, a red sports bra, and in honor of her Italian heritage, red, white and green boxing trunks with “Susanna” sewn in giant letters across the waistband.

In the first round, Mellone-Spence threw a sharp right hand, which knocked Cervantes back. Mellone-Spence felt like she could have ended the fight right there with a knock out. “You see the weakness in that moment and you just want to, like, jump her,” she remembers. A few spectators spurred her on, shouting, “Go Italy!” But Cervantes picked up her guard, and shook off the hit. The first and the second round belonged to Mellone-Spence, “the more accurate puncher,” according to one boxing news website. But sometime in the third round Cervantes wrested back control of the fight, with stiff blows to Mellone-Spence’s head and stomach. By the fourth round, even Mendez, who still contends she won the overall fight, concedes that Mellone-Spence let up the pressure.

The fight was close enough to have been a draw, according to one boxing blogger. Two judges scored the fight 39-37 in Cervantes’s favor; a third scored it 39-37 in Mellone-Spence’s favor. The split decision meant Cervantes won.

* * *

At Mendez’s gym a year and a half later, Mellone-Spence remembers her debut fight: the bright lights, the crowd packed against the sides of the ring and the moment she received her first blow without headgear. “I never had anything like that pain,” she says proudly. She wasn’t frightened. She didn’t flinch. She returned the favor, again and again.

As pleased as she was with her performance, the loss still smarted. “I needed a win for me, because I worked so hard,” she says. When she returned to the gym after her loss, something had changed.

Mellone-Spence compared the time she spent training with the minimal rewards of that training, and grew disillusioned. She hadn’t expected a large paycheck, but she had anticipated having a handful of fights each year. Instead she had waited nearly nine months for a single match.

“All of this sacrifice, the not eating and not going out, all this stuff and you don’t make any money. It’s crazy!” she said. “If I was 22, 23, I would be like, ‘Okay it’s fine,’ but then you’re older. I’m 28 almost. I don’t see the future.”

Along with the financial hurdles, Mellone-Spence grew more wary of the danger boxing posed. “You hurt yourself and I’m like, ‘O.K., what I’m gonna do?’” Without a college degree or any other marketable skill, Mellone-Spence had no safety net.

And then there was the strain boxing put on her marriage. “Even if I was in New York, I wasn’t there. I was fighting and sleeping and training and working.” Her husband tried to be supportive but sometimes her absence frustrated him.

Mellone-Spence missed boxing even before she left the sport but simply decided, “I didn’t want that to be normal life anymore.”

* * *

A month after her debut fight, Mellone-Spence found herself sitting in a military recruitment center in downtown Manhattan. She had been inspired to make the visit during dinner table discussions with her father-in-law and brother-in-law, both of whom served in the military. “I like the lifestyle. I like traveling,” she says. The Navy would also offer her the opportunity to eventually go back to college.

Because of her green card status, Mellone-Spence would need to take one of the jobs that were currently available or wait a full year to re-apply. Given a choice between maintaining planes or boats, she chose planes.

In May of 2012, Mellone-Spence flew to Chicago for Navy boot camp. With her boxing career suspended, she and her husband planned a fresh start. When boot camp finished, he would move to whatever base she was stationed at and find a job there. That was the plan.

* * *

The Navy’s recruit training program was two months long. Every day and every drill was an opportunity for her superiors to send someone else home. As grueling as it was, Mellone-Spence enjoyed it. Her supervisors would punish her for smiling too much with push-ups and eight-counts—a squat thrust and push-up combo. “The point is to make you frustrated so you stop doing what they don’t want you to do. I was like, ‘I love doing it. We can stay here all day.’”

The hardest part of boot camp was the isolation. For two months, recruits were allowed only two five-minute phone calls. There was no access to email or news of any kind.

Just after her graduation from boot camp last summer, Mellone-Spence learned her husband had been cheating on her. She flew to Florida to continue the rest of her Navy training. Nine months later, she returned to New York to collect her belongings, boxes of books, clothes and photos, and serve her husband with divorce papers.

* * *

Mellone-Spence now works as an airman on a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, inspecting and servicing planes. Through the Navy she’s been granted U.S. citizenship.

She’s fascinated by the planes and proud of her responsibilities, but she will never forget her time in the ring. “To me, the year that I lived in New York was the best part of my life. I did what I wanted to do. I was boxing. I was surrounded by boxing 24/7.”

Mellone-Spence wraps her hands before entering the ring.
Mellone-Spence wraps her hands before entering the ring.

And while she isn’t looking for reconciliation, she also has warm memories of the man who noticed her smile at a Brooklyn café and took her to meet his family when she was homesick for her own. Even as the divorce papers are filed, she is hopeful about finding another chance at happiness. “I still believe that you can create a family and stay together forever. It’s just not that easy,” she says.

When Mellone-Spence visits her home in Italy and someone hears that she’s living in America, the response is often the same. “They tend to be like, ‘Oh you’re lucky. You’re there. Over there it’s better.” She exhales heavily and for just a moment stops smiling. “You will never leave your comfort zone. So don’t say I’m lucky. I left everything. I’m not lucky.”

This September, Mellone-Spence will deploy to Japan with her squadron. She is currently studying Japanese as well as Jujitsu, and hopes to compete at the white-belt level soon. When she finds the right trainer, she plans to start boxing again.

* * *

Shannon Firth is a journalist living in Brooklyn. She writes about people living the American dream or trying to.

Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.

Letters from Egidio Mellone to Susanna were translated from Italian to English by Valentina Vella, an artist, writer, performer and valkyrie.

 

 

When Young Muslims Want to Stop Masturbating, They Turn to Reddit

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Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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