At first I thought I was having a stroke. Then I find out this bizarre sleep disorder is more common than I ever imagined—and I finally learned how to shut it out.
I fell into bed with my whole body aching. I had spent yet another day fretting — over a problem with a friend, family drama, wedding planning details — and felt like I hadn’t stopped tensing my neck for a minute. I plugged in my earbuds and opened the meditation app I’d been using to try to keep myself calm throughout the wedding planning process — my fiancé and I had been together for nine years, but that somehow didn’t make coordinating a meal and dance party for ninety guests any easier, especially from more than five hundred miles away. I’d been having trouble sleeping.
Most nights, thankfully, the meditation app helped me calm down enough to drift off while listening to it. That was the case this night, and I was grateful when I was able to turn off my phone and still feel myself fading. But just as I was about to be out, I heard a tremendously loud crack. My eyes flew open and I sat up in bed. It sounded like a gunshot, and my mind raced: I’ve never heard of gun crime in our neighborhood. I guess that doesn’t rule it out? But after a few seconds of panic, I realized I hadn’t really heard the sound. At least not in the typical way we hear sounds; the sound had come from inside my own head.
Naturally my next thought, once I realized this gunshot sound was not a gunshot, was to assume that it was an aneurysm, or a stroke, or some other as-yet-undiscovered malady in which the patient’s head slowly explodes in tiny shocking bursts from the inside. I’ve lived with a general buzz of anxiety for most of my life, and in times of stress my obsessive mind tends to focus on my health. A sampling of the things that have kept me up at night and helped fund my insurance provider over the past couple of years: heart palpitations, a lump in my breast, a funny-looking mole, a sore in my throat, visual migraines. In every case: a clean bill of health. In most cases: a prescription to cut down on stress.
Maybe because I was exhausted, or maybe because my daily meditation was starting to truly change my behavior, I resisted going to Google at first. Instead, after a few deep breaths, I tried again to drift off to sleep. And again, just as I felt myself melting from consciousness to unconsciousness, BAM!
“Fuck.” I said out loud. My fiancé turned over and mumbled something, blissfully asleep. I stayed up, at turns worrying and resigning myself to my fate, until sleep finally overcame me too — more quietly this time.
The next day I happened to have an appointment with my therapist. After thanking the universe that I woke up at all, I started trying to figure out how I would bring this up to her. I remembered all of the times doctors had asked me, as a teenager looking for help with anxiety, whether I heard voices in my head. The answer to that was and still is no — but was this the beginning of me going down that road? How could I explain what I had heard without sounding psychotic?
“It sounded like a gunshot… but… inside my head,” I said, biting my lip and waiting for my therapist’s eyes to widen. Instead, she looked as stoic as ever, and nodded.
“That happens to some people when they’re stressed,” she said.
“Really?” I didn’t believe her. She must not have understood what I had said. “A significant number of people hear gunshots while drifting off to sleep?”
Her explanation didn’t help me sleep much better. So, I made it my business to learn more on my own — beyond WebMD. As it turns out, the gunshot sounds — and now, as the selection of sounds has evolved with my stress, sometimes waves crashing, cymbals being hit or doors slamming — are part of a little-understood sleep disorder with a name fit for a patient prone to hyperbole: Exploding head syndrome.
EHS was first alluded to — though not with such a dramatic name — in 1876, when doctor and sleep researcher S. Weir Mitchell wrote in Virginia Medical Monthly about a variety of perplexing sleep disorders facing his patients. I came across Mitchell’s article while looking for mentions of “crashing sounds” in old medical writing about sleep disorders. His patients suffered from night terrors and what would later be called sleep paralysis, as well as sleepwalking and a variety of other possibly related symptoms and ailments. He described the symptoms of patients suffering from what would later be called EHS this way:
When just falling asleep, he became conscious of something like an aura passing up from his feet. When it reached his head, he felt what he described as an explosion. It was so violent and so loud, that he could not for a time satisfy himself that he was not hurt. The sensation was that of a pistol shot, or as of a bursting of something, followed by a momentary sense of deadly fear.
For some patients, the sound was more like a bell:
Mr. V. has rarely the sense of a pistol shot or a blow on the head. “I have,” he says, “at the close of the attack, a noise in my head, which is some-times like the sound of a bell, which has been struck once, and I have in my case listened as to a bell, to the vibration coming and going at rhythmical intervals, or else I hear a loud noise, which is most like that of a guitar string, rudely struck, and which breaks with a twang.
I found myself nodding enthusiastically while reading these descriptions, though my experience doesn’t include all of the physical sensations described above, or the “flashing lights” Mitchell writes about another patient experiencing. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone, but three glaring questions remained: what causes EHS, is it dangerous, and can it be cured?
Mitchell thought much of his patients’ discomfort was caused by alcohol and tobacco, and he was at a loss as to how to treat most of them, though the chemical compound bromide, often used as a sedative at the time, sometimes worked. He did share one other unorthodox treatment used by a mother who got frustrated with her child’s night terrors: she “lost her temper and made a sharp application of her slipper, with the result of once and for all breaking up the spells,” Mitchell wrote, adding: “I can hardly commend this therapeutic means!”
Sleep science has come a long way since Dr. Mitchell’s days, but still little is known about the causes of many sleep disorders, making it difficult to treat them (unless you’re comfortable with the slipper solution). In fact, many researchers believed much more recently than 1876 that EHS — first given its melodramatic name by J.M.S. Pearce in 1988 — might be caused by multiple small seizures, mainly in people over the age of fifty. And in some of the internet’s deepest circles of paranormal activity and conspiracy discussions (where Google searches about sleep disturbances inevitably lead), many self-proclaimed experts have their own explanations, ranging from communications from beyond the grave to microwave beam attacks.
Even I was skeptical about ghosts and microwave beams, and I wondered if much progress had been made on the science over the past 140 years. I only found one relatively recent study on the phenomenon, so I called the lead researcher. Brian Sharpless is an associate professor of clinical psychology at American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University who studies psychological disorders, including isolated sleep paralysis. He was studying ISP — in which a person experiences temporary paralysis while falling asleep or waking up — when he came across the phenomenon of EHS and thought he would look into whether the two disorders are related. When I called him to talk about the study, he told me he interviewed about two hundred students at Washington State and was surprised by the findings, which he published last year in the Journal of Sleep Research.
“I found a much higher than expected prevalence rate [of EHS] — about eighteen percent — and when I eliminated people with sleep paralysis, it went down to thirteen percent of the sample,” Sharpless said.
I asked him, hypothetically, if he thought stress might be the culprit. “I would guess it’s at least part of the puzzle,” he said.
It turns out that the most widely-accepted explanation for the rest of the puzzle is an issue with the reticular formation, the network of nerve pathways in the brain that connects it to the spine and controls consciousness. I thought that sounded pretty significant, but Sharpless, who dedicates a chapter to sleep disorders, including EHS, and their potential remedies in the new book he edited, Unusual and Rare Psychological Disorders, told me health problems only arise when people become extremely upset about their sleep disturbances.
On the phone with Sharpless, I felt a strange mix of sheepishness and satisfaction. Once again, it looked like my anxiety was both cause and effect of my discomfort.
His words — and Mitchell’s — reminded me of so many things my own doctors have said to me that have proven true. Worrying about heart palpitations really does make them worse, for example. And any dense breast will feel dangerously lumpy if you’re looking for a dangerous lump. Maybe I — and those restless college students Sharpless studied — didn’t need to take bromide or submit to being whacked with a slipper. Maybe we just needed to chill.
So, I tried to let it go. I spent more time meditating and less time Googling. I tried to avoid social media in the evenings and turned my phone off half an hour before bed. And for the most part, it worked. The less I stressed, the less I thought about EHS; the less I thought about the sounds, the quieter they became.
New stressors are always on the horizon, though. A recent job and routine change had my body fighting sleep for weeks, my head crashing and banging as I tried to drift off at four a.m., night after night. This time, I tried to greet those sounds like the passing thoughts I have during meditation. I acknowledged them, and chose to focus on the silence around them instead. And when that didn’t work, I thought about Mitchell and the therapeutic slipper, and at least I could laugh.
Members of the Muslim minority in Myanmar suffered unspeakable violence, then devastating rejection after fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Both countries’ governments would rather ignore these survivors, but they vow to have a voice.
This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting.We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers a free download of the 2016 Latterly Anthology. Just sign up for their newsletter.
In January, while visiting a refugee settlement in Ukhiya Upazila, Bangladesh, I interviewed a woman whose daughter had been killed in front of her in Myanmar. Behind her, inside a hut, a group of ethnic Rohingyas – Muslims driven across the border by violence – were holding a meeting. They heard my questions and invited me in.
Several people were inside, some of them girls as young as fourteen. The meeting organizer asked them to show their hands if they had been assaulted. Three went up.
“He is a journalist,” she said, repeating the request. “Tell him.”
All the hands went up.
Then they took off their niqabs, declaring that their dignity had been taken by the Burmese army. They had been raped and tortured in front of their families and communities. Many had seen family members, including babies and young children, butchered in front of them. They saw no reason to hide their faces if it meant telling the world what happened to their homes and loved ones in Myanmar.
In early January, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi took unusual action against soldiers depicted on a viral video rounding up and beating people in a Rohingya village. She detained several officers and launched an investigation into that case. But there has never been a broad investigation into the scores of more serious allegations of murder, burnings and rape of Rohingya in Rakhine state. The U.N. in February released a report detailing “devastating cruelty,” and the researcher Azeem Ibrahim dubbed the violence in his 2016 book as “Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.”
Now there’s a new dynamic as Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh, where the government refuses to grant them legal status. The women I spoke to here have been left to beg, dependent on humanitarian aid and at risk of trafficking. They will receive no psychological support for the trauma they experienced.
Worse, already a virulent anti-Rohingya sentiment has taken hold in parts of society in southern Bangladesh. The Rohingya, it is believed, are thieves, drug traffickers and terrorists. Rohingya cause environmental destruction, and they run off with Bangladeshi women. The list of warrantless allegations is long. I spoke with people who believe the Rohingya must have done something to bring the Burmese wrath on themselves.
Driving through Ukhiya, one can’t help but notice women, infants, children and elderly men sitting by the roadside. They stretch out their hands as vehicles drive past. But their presence has not engendered sympathy from the locals. Instead, it has resulted in an astonishing plan by the Bangladeshi government to relocate Rohingya refugees to a remote and uninhabitable island called Hatiya.
“It has to be assured by taking preventive measures,” the government declared, “that they cannot spread out and mix with the locals.”
Deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, a community of Druids is reviving Celtic rites. They might seem hokey or outlandish, but maybe, just maybe, they’re the ones who have it all figured out.
The priest raises his arms, palms upturned. “Lord Taranis, hear our prayer!” he bellows, voice bouncing off the stone pillars and into the darkening fields beyond. The fire’s crackle fills the stone circle. We stare through the flames, past the boundary of our sacred space, to the patina of white looming over the white sky – Mount Adams, close and huge.
It is high summer, and we are at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in southern Washington State. Under the immensity of the mountain, a couple of ramshackle barns stick up from the hayfields. Our priest, a straight-backed, snow-haired man, is delivering a homily on the attributes of the thunder god. Taranis, a powerful thunderbolt-tossing deity, is being honored at today’s solstice celebration because of his association with light, weather and sky.
Arms raised, the priest pauses. We lean forward, breathless. The fire cracks again. The teenage girls on the edge of the circle, who might be high on mushrooms, giggle quietly to themselves. Finally the priest grins and lowers his arms.
“Well, I forgot that part, darn it.” With a shrug, he reaches into his white robes and pulls out a small piece of paper. His voice is wry, sing-songy, full of mirth. “I should have practiced more!”
Everyone laughs as the priest consults his paper. “Sorry, I’ve got it now,” he says, resuming the formal diction – few contractions, quick and clear consonant sounds – that he uses for his rituals. Throwing his arms into the air, he intones, “Lord Taranis…” and completes the rest of the homily uninterrupted.
To get to the Sanctuary in the foothills of Mount Adams, I rattled down a gravel road and parked beneath some prayer flags tacked to a barn. A sign on the building read “DRUIDS HERE.” There is a large wooden lodge with bed-and-breakfast facilities, meditation huts, and a stone circle straight out of Stonehenge, where, upon my arrival, about fifty people were pouring whiskey into deep wells and speaking Gaelic. They were blowing horns and beating drums and generally having a hell of a good time.
As this is my first Druid ritual, I have no idea how much of this to take seriously. It’s hard to tell how much the participants themselves take seriously; there’s a lot of laughter and self-deprecation. But when Kirk Thomas, the Arch-Druid of Ár nDraíocht Féin, asks the gates of the spirit world to open, creating a thin, traversable bridge across the red-gold evening breeze, we all grow tense.
I don’t know who Taranis is, let alone believe that he’s going to visit our circle, but I strain, listening for signs. Birds wheel in the sky. Somewhere on the other side of the property, a bell trickles into the wind.
“The gates are open,” Thomas says finally, and we begin.
* * *
Loosely overseen by a central office – set in a back room in Thomas’ old house in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) is a polytheistic neo-pagan religion that draws its inspiration from ancient Indo-European traditions. It’s organized into local groups, called groves, and was founded in 1983 by a charismatic man named Isaac Bonewits, who, after completing a self-study program at UC Berkeley, earned a bachelor’s degree in – yes, really – Magic and Thaumaturgy. Bonewits had dabbled in Satanism and witchcraft before founding Ár nDraíocht Féin, which in Gaelic means “our own fellowship” or “our own magic.”
Although nearly seventy groves worldwide are affiliated with ADF, each organizes its own tailored rituals. At annual pan-pagan festivals, camping trips, and ADF training workshops, as well as over the internet, ADF’s 1,500 members exchange ideas on what rituals should look like. Rather than including official liturgical script, the rituals they perform feature a netting of ideas and ideals, created and debated by poets, Roman legionnaires, mystics, nature lovers, proto-European language nerds, and all kinds of wanderers in search of a connection.
* * *
Long before he became a neo-pagan reverend, when Kirk Thomas was seven years old and visiting his aunt in Utah, he was left mostly to his own devices. During the day he wandered the acres behind her house, picking through the scrub brush, the rocky terrain, the bristling white fir. One day while he was out, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand up. Something was watching; he was sure of it.
He dashed back to the house and rummaged through the fridge, emerging with a bunch of grapes. The boy cautiously returned to the place where he had felt the presence and laid the grapes on the rock. He knew what was being asked of him. The next day, the grapes were gone, and so was the feeling of being watched. The boy thought, an animal took them. But some part of him wondered.
As a kid, Thomas read all about the Old Kingdom dynasties of ancient Egypt; the names of pharaohs like Akhenaten and Nefertiti rolled off his tongue. In middle school he got into supernatural stuff, reading Diary of a Witch – Sybil Leek’s popular 1969 memoir of growing up pagan, which inspired a generation of witches – and drawing pentacles on the garage floor. He studied theater in London and became a hot air balloonist, taking to the skies over the English countryside.
Later, around the year 2000, he read The Mists of Avalon, an Arthurian fantasy epic that he calls a “gateway drug” to Druidry. “What it did was remind me of how I had felt as a teenager, with all that wonder and magic and joy,” he says. He began to look for other neo-pagans online, in chat rooms and early internet sites. When he discovered ADF, he thought it wasn’t “quite as wacky” as other neo-pagan belief structures, and was more scholarly and organized than Wiccan covens.
He attended his first ADF ritual at a public park in Tucson, Arizona, during an electrical storm. A few people gathered at a concrete pavilion, stood in a circle and read a ritual one of them had pulled off the web. Lighting was flashing in the desert sky. “The thunder god was pretty obviously saying ‘hello’ to me,” he says.
But he felt the ritual was amateurish. He wanted to rewrite it and, lucky for him, he’d found a religion that embraced rewriting, remaking, revising. He had become a Druid.
* * *
More and more in America, religion is something people choose (or don’t), rather than inherit. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, “As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations.” However, the report also finds that many millennials remain spiritual in a broad sense, expressing “wonder at the universe” and an overall feeling of “gratitude” and “well-being.” About 1.5% of the American population identifies as “other faiths,” including “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, to name just a few.” Druids will appreciate being listed separately from Wiccans (self-described “benevolent witches”), but both fall under the umbrella of neo-paganism. Almost half of New Agers – a larger category that includes shamans, goddess-worshippers, and possibly your mom’s psychic – are of the millennial generation.
Many druid practitioners are reacting to a childhood religion they found inadequate or oppressive. They speak of their practice as inclusive and pluralistic, but also self-define as rejects, misfits and seekers, drawing a protective boundary around their own otherness. In one sense, Druidry is very old school – traditional and nostalgic for a way of relating to nature that most modern humans have lost. However, it is also willfully new. Druid rituals enact something not handed down or inherited, but deliberately created. “There just isn’t enough preserved out there to actually recreate Irish paganism,” Thomas explains. “One can do a nice superficial gloss, but we have no idea what any rituals actually looked like.”
Perhaps that sense of freshness and invention is why, after accidentally stumbling into the solstice celebration, I began to see them as a perfect example of America’s tangled, 21st-century relationship with faith.
* * *
I am holding a Dixie cup of wine. The woman who passed it to me called it “The Water of Life,” and she has lots of them on a tray, walking around our circle and handing them out to the motley group – girls with braided hair and brightly-colored leggings, women in long skirts and hand-knit sweaters, men with handmade leather fanny packs and KEEN sandals. The sun has set, and the sky is a blur of hazy bluish-black behind Mount Adams. Just outside the stone circle, there’s a cob shelter, on which is painted on one side with a triptych of ancient myths – deities Taranis and the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of death, first engaged in a devastating war, and then having sort of graphic make-up sex. The woman smiles and moves on, and I hold the cup but do not raise it to my lips.
A Druid ritual can take place anywhere, although outdoors is preferable, because a hearth must burn at the center of the assembly. Stoking the fire is Reverend Thomas, who earlier shook our hands and asked us all to write an intention on a small piece of paper. We stuffed them into a straw man made of twigs and later burned him in the fire.
“We are fire priests if nothing else,” Thomas says. “The fire transmutes and transforms. It turns something into something else. It does it quickly.” Also present are a well or water – “the epitome of the powers of the earth and the underworld,” as Thomas explains – and a tree or pillar – “the pipeline of communication that allows you to communicate between this world and other worlds.”
After an opening potluck, with plenty of mac salad and mead and smiling folks who wore runes around their necks, we walked the gravel path to the stone circle. We asked for blessings; we burned our straw man. Now we are supposed to toast and drink the Water of Life.
It hits me that I am standing with a bunch of people I don’t know in the middle of a dark and remote farm being asked to drink unmarked liquid by a dude in a long white robe. The Water of Life shakes between my fingers.
I have little context for this rite. My own religious upbringing was hybrid and scattered. I wasn’t baptized, but I come from a long line of Irish Catholics, who attended schools taught by nuns and have names like John Michael Patrick and Mary Colleen and who drink their guilt from bottles of California chardonnay. From my mother’s side, I got a consciously a-religious Judaism. My grandfather’s first language was Yiddish, but his family eschewed things like temple and bat mitzvah, so when Jewish friends explain holidays to me, I usually just nod along, playing the more familiar role of the Irish girl. I am equally uncomfortable at Shabbat services and Sunday Mass, unsure of what to do with my hands, what to say, when to sing.
My family never offered me real entry into either of my birth religions, so instead, growing up I found faith in literature, storytelling, myth and nature – a budding neo-pagan if there ever was one.
At some level, I wanted to belong to organized religion. During sophomore year of high school, I tried to join a Christian youth group. Several of my friends attended, and they always got older boys from the group to go to school dances with them (I, on the other hand, took a blow-up doll to junior prom). I joined them in the basement of a neighborhood church where they sat on straight-backed chairs and did trust exercises and ate snacks and prayed.
The group leader was a pleasant guy with a fleece vest and a patient smile. He asked me if I believed in God, if I believed Jesus was the Son of God. Although he wasn’t unkind, he was looking for a specific answer to each question, and my answers were like fumbling through a giant keychain, jangling it awkwardly, trying to find the key that unlocked a kind of belonging I desperately wanted. I considered lying – I mean, the boys – and realized that I could perform being a good Christian. I searched for words that I thought would please him, like grace and grateful and community, placatory words that could take the place of certainty. I filled our conversation with placeholders, language itself becoming a kind of tenuous substitute for faith, because the truth was I had never really been drawn to a specific religion, but merely to the idea of religion. I could enter into this group and learn about Jesus and smile and hold hands with boys during prayers, and maybe no one would ever know that I didn’t believe what I was supposed to. But it was pretty clear that I didn’t have the right key, and I felt so ashamed that I never went back.
I look around at the Druid rite, and everyone else has already drained their cups. With a sigh, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and chug my wine. It’s cheap stuff, and the smell of cedar smoke from the fire mingles with the sweetness on my tongue. I get a brief, heady rush, and then Reverend Thomas begins passing out musical instruments – tambourines and rattles, drums and shakers. People are grinning. We are alive on the base of a mountain, and we are going to dance.
* * *
“To me, Druidry is an experiential religion,” says Jonathan Levy, one of the founders of the Columbia Grove in Oregon. “Simply talking about it doesn’t do it justice.” Levy has a trimmed beard and a skittish, enthusiastic manner. He was a “hardcore atheist” when he came across some neo-pagan websites at the age of eighteen. He couldn’t have cared less about King Arthur legends, but he did love Roman history: Virgil and triremes and Mars. When he discovered an ADF ritual based on the Roman rite of Hilaria, it delighted him.
Levy realized that Druidry wasn’t asking him to believe; it was asking him to show up and be in community, to make offerings and to light fires. He moved to Oregon and started a meetup called “Druid Drinks,” a monthly gathering at a local pub, where he could chat socially with other curious-and-questioning Druids. Finally convinced, he traded in his atheism for an enthusiastic polytheism. In ADF, he says, “It comes down to doing something together. That part is appealing.”
Levy says many of the Columbia Grove’s members are ex-Catholics and are used to elaborate rituals. However, ADF avoids “churchy” language as much as possible because it “can be a very big turnoff for people … who were angry at their past religious affiliation.”
“It’s that rejection” that defines Druidry, explains Dr. Sarah Pike, a religious scholar at Cal-State Chico. Many Druids have “found a place where they belonged.” Pike adds that, for Druids, creating an identity out of what they’re rejecting is essential: it leads them to “embrace otherness,” and find meaning in being their own tribe.
* * *
Tall fir trees shade the lot; autumn sunlight drifts down. After almost a year away from the Druids, I have come back to visit them again, this time with Jonathan Levy’s Columbia Grove in Portland, Oregon. This is a celebration of Dionysos, the Greek deity of wine, held in a courtyard outside a Unitarian church. Around me, people drift in a loose, undulating circle on the stone. All of them are masked in foam cutouts and sequins and glitter glue: a chance to slip into a new face, and therefore avoid the madness that close contact with Dionysos can inspire.
Garbed in a toga and rust-and-orange fall garlands, Levy welcomes the crowd to autumn equinox. His pale legs are bound in high Roman sandals; his liturgy is broad-stroked and mythological, with syntax that deliberately invokes Christian liturgy: Let us pray with a good fire. Let us offer with a full heart. He and his fellow group leaders read from note cards. At one point they start to sing and realize they are doing different songs. They take a moment to shuffle through their papers, like actors who need to review the scripts.
The idea of reciprocity – of giving something in trade – holds particular importance in Druidic rite, according to Reverend Thomas: “Human relations are set up this way, and we in ADF do the same thing with the spirit world. We make offerings and hope for and ask for blessings in return.” So when Levy invites the audience to make offerings, one woman breaks apart a chocolate bar for Isis, an Egyptian goddess, and asks for good health in trade. The chocolate bubbles as it melts in the fire. Another pours out wine for Dionysos, making the flames hiss. A gender-nonconforming member burns a poem written to Thor. A young white man in a purple cape and Phantom-like half-mask invokes Hermes, the Greek messenger god, stalking the inside of our circle. The diverse pantheon doesn’t phase anyone.
After the offerings are burnt, a young woman with dyed red hair tells us to close our eyes and leads us through a visual meditation, into deep woods, into worlds of nymphs, toward Dionysos. Then, tipsy on the presence of the divine, we stand and begin to circulate, holding hands, and dance to a chant: Come on thy Bull’s Foot. I scratch my nose where the mask is slipping down. Hypnotic and repetitive, the chant pounds forward; people wriggle and writhe, close enough to each other that skin brushes skin. Come on thy Panther’s Paw. I feel a rush beneath me, like standing on ice and watching a current flowing and shifting beneath the frozen layer. Although I don’t have much invested in this rite emotionally, I am still doing it, moving my body among other bodies. Come on thy Snake’s Belly. It feels like when you’re upset and people tell you to smile. How just the action of faking it, of smiling through your pain, starts the flow of good hormones in your brain and makes you really feel better. Playing along is one way to access something real and physical. Dionysos come. Theater is not just a show; the act of the thing unlocks the reality of thing itself. I don’t really believe in what I am doing, but it is sort of working just the same.
* * *
When people come to Druid rites for the first time, they expect to see “us wearing all white, talking in thou and thy,” Jonathan Levy says. “We’re modern people. Our Druidry is modern. Our rituals are modern. Sometimes we dress in stuff just for the fun of it, but it’s not supposed to be the centerpiece. We use modern language; we use very little foreign language. People are not expecting that.”
Dr. Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist at Cal-State Northridge, says that ADF founder Isaac Bonewits “was looking for a tradition that was rooted in history,” but soon realized that resurrecting an ancient religion was impossible. Reverend Michael Dangler, a senior ADF priest in Ohio, agrees. “We have rejected the fantasy of ancient lineages,” he says. “They are just not important from our personal practice perspective. We come out of a skeptical time.”
For the average American, whose understanding of religion is synonymous with faith, Druidry can seem a bit artificial. But Dr. Sarah Pike says that Druids have “a different type of commitment” to their religion. Focusing on ritual action rather than creed can be “a relief” for people who have fled the constraints of orthodoxy, she says. “When belief becomes so important, you have sharper boundaries between insiders and outsiders.”
Still, there is tribalism in Druidry. Many of the practitioners I spoke with had the awkward, sharp, smart humor of the nerdy kids in middle school, which they wielded at me like little pikes, prodding and jabbing to see if I would laugh. Dr. Magliocco says this is partially constructed as a part of pagan identity. “Humor is a way that we mark insiders and outsiders,” she says. “A joke is a spell. Jokes clearly mark the boundaries. We can all laugh because we’re unusual, but we also draw a firm circle of who we are.”
* * *
Not everyone at the summer solstice ritual is a practicing Druid. The girls who are maybe on mushrooms are clearly not familiar with the rite. When Reverend Thomas hands out drums and rattles and shakers, so that we can all make a joyful noise together, parading around the fire and making music for the gods, one of them accidentally drops her tambourine. It shatters the silence with a flustered, lengthy banging. The girls sputter with silent laughter, their bodies shaking, as Thomas tries unsuccessfully to maintain a straight face.
On the other hand, we are all practicing Druids. We’ve shown up at the ritual, after all, and if being a Druid means making offerings of whiskey and beer, reciting a prayer to honor your ancestors, and drinking mead from a horn, then I, too, am a Druid.
“Get out there and do the stuff; that’s what counts,” Reverend Thomas says. “What you believe is kind of your business.” You step onto the stage, say the lines, block the actions. You do the work. Through recitation, the piece of yourself played that night has a chance, perhaps, to reconnect to something deep and missing within the modern psyche – nature, the changing of seasons, the deepening shadow behind a white mountain. There is a real American optimism buried in this: that if we show up ready to try, something in the universe will respond positively to us. That we can deal with it, negotiate our futures: a bit of chocolate for your blessings, a dram of rye for your luck.
When it doesn’t work, it looks like cheap theater. But when it does, something inside turns like a combination lock until it clicks, and then slides open. After all, there is nothing like watching the world respond to you. If it is a performance of the modern self to dress up in robes and ask your ancestors for blessings as bats snip and chatter in the summer dusk, then it is also deeply satisfying. Pouring good rye down the dark throat of a well, watching it drop fathoms deep: that act has its own, deeply human magic.
We grew up idolizing grandpa for surviving death marches and beating up Germans, but grandma was always just, well...a sweet old lady. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Noiach, a crumb!” my brother shouted. He was wearing Grandma’s blue muumuu.
“A crumb,” I concurred, draped in her yellow housedress.
We attacked the matzoh flake in the rug with our hands and the carpet sweeper. The family applauded our skit. But Grandma stood there with her arms crossed; her Auschwitz tattoo — all five numbers — pressed against her belly.
“This is what you think of Grandma?” she asked.
We harassed her constantly, lovingly. We’d always compress her brand-new perms, or jiggle her hanging tricep skin, exposed when she stirred the soup. All my life, she had lived like a stereotype — a neurotic cartoon character who had embedded herself into my reality.
Grandma censured us a bit more for the mockery, then kissed our faces, and ran off to the kitchen, panicking about a pot unattended on the stove.
To us, she was an old Jewish woman who had somehow survived the Holocaust. Poppy, on the other hand, had fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and survived death marches and concentration camps. Grandma had too, but for whatever reason she didn’t seem like the same survivor. Perhaps I was just a blinkered boy, who could only turn men into my heroes. Or maybe it was because the stories that I had overheard — “He beat up some Germans,” my father told company — always featured Poppy.
Poppy could make muscles that I could not crush; Grandma only ever cooked and cleaned and kvetched.
I had always wanted my grandparents’ Holocaust stories. More accurately, I had wanted Poppy’s. But because my grandparents had greatly troubled their kids by recounting Holocaust memories, they were silent about the 1940s around the grandchildren.
“Poppy, what was it like in Auschwitz?” I’d ask.
“Poppy loves you,” he’d say, defending secrets with non-sequiturs. He’d raise the television’s volume; the violent charade of wrestling played louder than the violence of memory.
When I was eighteen, Poppy died. Grandma stopped cooking and cleaning, shrinking her life’s work down to a more detrimental form of kvetching. (Really, it was severe depression). For half a decade, she mourned relentlessly.
Even though he had barred me from his Holocaust stories, I had held on to the hope that he’d share them someday with me. Now that he was gone, those memories were buried forever.
But a few years later, I traveled to Poland and stood on Poppy’s street. More than ever, I wanted to dig up those stories. I did everything I could, from viewing the VHS tapes with his testimony, which he had given to the Shoah Foundation a decade earlier, to interviewing those who knew him.
I learned that Poppy had been a sewer rat – one of the boys who traveled through Warsaw’s sewers to help secure guns and potatoes for the uprising; he had been a gravedigger in his hometown, forced by the Nazis to bury four thousand of his Jewish neighbors who had been murdered in the woods; he had been a fugitive, cutting the bars on the cattle car and jumping from a train heading for the death camp Treblinka; he had been a slave in six different camps; and he had been a righteous killer, running a pitchfork through some Nazi’s throat, leaving the German dead in a barn.
I knew he had been tough, but never this tough. Even from the grave, he found a way to surprise me.
“I was thinking about writing a book about Poppy,” I said to Grandma, as we sat at her kitchen table, where she used to serve Poppy and me soup, interrupting our card games.
“Write a book. Who’s stopping you?” she said.
“I need your help though.”
“I don’t want to talk about Poppy.”
Her statement was incredible. In Grandma’s lonely apartment, Poppy, in absentia, had become a god. Around her neck, she wore an image of him — his saintliness laser-printed into gold — and she chanted his name to his photograph, which stood at center table, but also traveled with her around the apartment. This woman who still kept a kosher home and fasted on Yom Kippur — a time she reserved for remembering her mother, who had been murdered in front of her in 1942 — no longer had qualms about breaking the commandment against false idols.
“Remember Poppy?” she always asked, as if he had been a ’90s cult television show.
Now, it seemed, Grandma was choosing to not remember.
I trudged forward with the questions; we were going to talk about Poppy.
“Tell me about Poppy as a sewer rat.”
“He wasn’t a rat,” she chastised. She took offense to the term “sewer,” too.
I clarified what I had thought was survivor jargon.
“What should I know about this?” she said.
Grandma did tell me what she remembered about Warsaw’s sewers, but it tunneled us somewhere else. When the Nazis were sending thousands of Jews from the ghetto to the camps, where they would work or more likely be marched into the gas chambers, a group from Grandma’s bunker had attempted to escape. Grandma waded with them through the piss and excrement beneath Warsaw. When her group reached an exit, the leader lifted the manhole cover.
“They shoot him and his body falls into the shit,” she told me. “We run and I get this sewage splash in my face. But I’m not thinking about this because I know they gonna throw a grenade.”
I watched the fear of this near-death return to her eyes. I felt a chill.
The Nazis or Poles who killed the group leader didn’t throw a grenade after all, and Grandma made it back to the safety of the murderous ghetto.
Grandma offered me more store-bought gefilte fish.
When I asked about Poppy in the camps, Grandma swatted the air: What should I know about this?
“The Nazis made us move boulders.”
“Who: you or Poppy?”
“Who? Who? I should know of Poppy? Me. I did this. And the next day we return them to the same spot.”
This was in Majdanek, a concentration camp that was the setting for many more of the horrors she still lived with so many years later. Majdanek: where she had tossed her youngest brother bread, only to have a Nazi witness him reach for it and beat him to within inches of death. Majdanek: where she had pushed a wheelbarrow filled with potatoes, allowed a few spuds to fall, and took a beating that left her unconscious. Majdanek: where she picked poison ivy for the nightly soup.
“What do you mean poison ivy for the soup?” I asked. “You can’t eat poison ivy.”
“What should I tell you, Noiach? We were sent to the fields to pick poison ivy. We had to, so we ate.”
She told me about Auschwitz, when the barbed wire had ruined her foot (just before the fifty-mile, winter death march); the run-ins with Josef Mengele (twice); the girls she had saved (by risking her life); her luck (the little bit that went a long way); and the countless murders (of the boy who only wanted to enter the ghetto, of the girl in the blue dress at Auschwitz, of the dead woman she sat on in Bergen Belsen because the ground was completely covered with corpses, of the child who hid with her in the barracks, of all the others). These were the horrors that she had survived and the stories that remained with her in the empty apartment after my visits ended.
“There was another Nazi from Warsaw that I remember,” Grandma said after taking a pill to calm her. “He finds me in the street and tells me to follow him.”
She did so, and when they turned the corner, Grandma felt the heat: the Nazis had started a bonfire, where they were burning books.
“The Nazi told me to go up into the apartments. To throw down the books. He tells to me ‘If I see one book left up there, I’ll throw you into the fire.’ This is what he said.”
Grandma climbed the staircase, opened the door to the apartment, and entered the empty room. On a small wooden mantelpiece stood a modest collection of religious texts. She lifted the Siddur, Humash, and Gemara and flipped through them, noting God’s name on each page.
“I could not throw the books from the window, Noiach.”
Instead, she found a string, stacked the books, and made a tight bundle.
“The German who tells to me to go up into the building sees me. He says throw down your…” Grandma paused and looked at the imaginary pile. “He said ‘shit books,’ Noiach. He says this about sacred books.”
She turned from the window, defying the Nazi, and walked down the stairs.
When she reached the Nazi, he screamed at her for not obeying. He put his hands on his rifle; Grandma closed her eyes. She was prepared to die for the God who had allowed all of her relatives to perish.
Who was this woman?
The German ripped the books from her hand and she ran off.
Grandma shivered and limped toward the kitchen, shuffling off from the conflagration she had reignited at the table.
I couldn’t believe I had ever laughed at Grandma.
With each new story, I felt more foolish for how I had begun this project: I want to write a story about Poppy. What had I expected now and in my youth? That she had survived Hitler under a rock?
Grandma popped open her pillbox again and took another horse-sized tranquilizer. “You have more questions about Poppy?”
We humans are far more complex than the news headlines and clickbait would have you believe. Let the Narratively newsletter be your guide.
The Cocaine Kings of the Pittsburgh Pirates
(Photo courtesy F. Carter Smith/Associated Press)
In the early ’80s, an A/C repairman, an unemployed photographer and a Major League mascot became the dealers of choice for the city’s sports stars – and changed baseball history along the way.
Whatever the price, by whatever name, cocaine is becoming the All-American Drug. . . . A snort in each nostril and you’re up and away for 30 minutes or so. Alert, witty, and with it. No hangover. No physical addiction. No lung cancer . . . instead drive, sparkle, energy.
—Time Magazine, 1981
“The butterflies have already started,” said Rod Scurry on April 18, 1981, in anticipation of his first major league start the following day in Houston. The season was almost two weeks old, and Scurry had yet to make an appearance on the mound. In fact, he hadn’t pitched more than four innings in a single outing in two years. He was only getting the break now because Pirates ace Jim Bibby was injured; still, Scurry was excited and was hoping not just to start but also to finish his own game. “I’ll be trying to go nine,” he said.
Growing up, Rod Scurry never doubted he would play in the majors, if not as a pitcher then as a hitter. In high school he once hit a five-hundred-foot home run. But despite his batting prowess, he had always been a pitcher at heart. In the 1960s, when he was just a child, he stacked mattresses against the wooden fence in the backyard of his Nevada home and hurled fastballs at them. He had always had power. But then there was the hook. He could sweep his curveball in at such an angle the ball would bend between a batter’s legs. Frequently compared to the preeminent lefty of all time, Sandy Koufax, Scurry drove himself to live up to the compliment. This desire propelled him out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to jog to school through high mountain air and sometimes freezing temperatures just so he could get extra pitching practice in at the Hug High gym before the opening bell rang. On game days, when his teachers believed him to be studiously tending to his work in the classroom he would in fact be poring over index cards he had made that listed the tendencies of the opposing team’s big hitters.
Scurry’s aspiration to pitch a complete game nearly came to fruition. He pitched seven strong innings, shutting out the Astros on four hits, while adding seven strikeouts. Lifted for a pinch hitter in the top half of the eighth in a scoreless game, Scurry was forced to pace the clubhouse floor, listening to the final innings on the radio, anxiously rooting for his club. His teammates cooperated, as the Pirates finally picked up a pair of runs to make the score 2–0. Reliever Eddie Solomon completed the shutout, going the final two innings to secure the victory.
Although he didn’t close the game, Scurry had made a superlative debut start that lived up to his pedigree and reminded many of the days when he struck out eighteen or nineteen per start back at Hug High. “I’m excited,” Scurry said. “My first big league win is a big thrill. I’ve dreamed about this day. Winning my first big league game is the highlight of my career. I never complained about relieving last year, but I’ve always wanted to be a starter.”
“Last year was frustrating,” Scurry admitted. “I understood the situation. They were world champions, and they had to go with the pitchers who won. I wasn’t thrilled too much with sitting around, but I didn’t get down on myself.”
Across the diamond, the Astros took notice of what they had seen thrown against them. “The kid has an outstanding curveball,” the opposing starter, Joe Niekro, commented. “Sometimes a pitcher has to wait a long time to get his chance. I know how it feels.” A poll of scouts echoed Niekro’s assessment, declaring that Scurry’s curveball was not just good but the finest in the major leagues.
“Scurry Can’t Sleep on Major Success,” read the Pittsburgh Press sports page the day after the game, playing off Scurry’s remark that he had been “too excited to sleep” the night before his start and had in fact slept little at all in the two days leading up to the outing. Pitching coach Harvey Haddix defended the young pitcher, saying, “You don’t need sleep to pitch. I did it many times in the days we rode trains between cities. In fact, it may help. You take it out on the other team’s hitters.”
What Scurry failed to mention to Haddix was that it wasn’t merely adrenaline keeping him up at night—it was cocaine, which he also used before the game. His memorable first big league start and win were accomplished while he was high.
* * *
By this time, Rod Scurry and Pirates mascot, the Pirate Parrot, Kevin Koch, had become friends. Soon, the circle soon expanded to include Koch’s high school buddy Dale Shiffman. It was a dream come true for the local boy Shiffman, who fit right in with the baseball crowd. He had always loved the game, but as he reached high school in the 1960s he didn’t have time for baseball anymore as his interests ran to “beers, cigs, and slicked-back hair.” In the army during the early 1970s Shiffman picked up baseball again and played at a high level while based at Fort Devin, Massachusetts. By the 1980s Shiffman had become a three-sport season ticket holder in the ’Burgh. He was the type of guy whose awareness of the four seasons was determined not by the temperature outside or the leaves on the trees but by the particular sport being played in his city. Fall was all about the Steelers, in the winter he followed the Penguins, and his summers were devoted to the Pirates. So when Koch started inviting Shiffman down to the stadium to hang out with the team before games, the outgoing Shiffman was in his element. When the invitation was extended for him to take to the field for batting practice and a chance to shag a few fly balls, Shiffman was in downright heaven. “I got to stand out there in right field with my heroes,” Shiffman said. “A few would even invite me to meet after the game to have a beer. Life could not have been better.”
Shiffman’s 1969 high school yearbook describes him as “a real car buff . . . enjoys a good laugh . . . dependable pal . . . carefree.” Shiffman stayed true to his character in the ensuing years, particularly to being “carefree” as he spent much of his time bowling, golfing, and playing softball. “Dale’s not interested in working,” a friend later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Dale doesn’t want to grow up. All he wants to do is have a good time.”
Shiffman was employed only sporadically in the photography business when he made his entrance on the major league scene. Without a full-time occupation, he felt a certain validation in being able to say he knew and spent time with prominent sports figures. Right or wrong, “hanging out with athletes made your pride go up,” Shiffman admits. Instead of being just another guy struggling to hold down a job, he now felt important. He was being invited to golf and barbecue outings with different players. When he took a date down to the ballpark, all the ushers would know his name, and a player or two might give him a shout-out following the night’s contest, which would duly impress his female companion, not to mention Shiffman himself. “It made you feel like a somebody even if you really were a nobody,” he says.
Shiffman and Koch, like so many others in the early 1980s, had recently discovered cocaine. The drug was making the rounds through their softball league, alongside the other party mainstays: beer, pot, and Percodan. “Everyone we hung out with at the bar and from our end of town—everyone was into [cocaine],” Koch says.
When Koch and Shiffman hit the city’s nightclubs and bars after Pirates’ games, they typically ran into some of the players. Inside Pittsburgh-area nightspots such as Heaven, the VIP, Sophie’s Saloon, or the Sunken Cork, things got interesting for the pair. Koch explains, “Berra or somebody would say, ‘Hey, do you guys party?’ Then one thing led to another, and the players found out that Dale [Shiffman] could get stuff, and that’s how it kind of snowballed from there.”
Koch says that the players, mostly Scurry and shortstop Dale Berra, began to call him prior to games to ask if he could pick some blow up from Shiffman and bring it down to the ballpark. Shiffman purchased the cocaine from various locals. He cut the coke, not to increase the weight but rather to replace the cocaine he was taking out for his own personal consumption. Shiffman says his motivation wasn’t to make money; it was to get his party favors without having to pay for them. He figured he was not only scoring free coke but also greatly expanding his social circle, now filled with local sports figures. He could have hardly asked for more.
Typically Shiffman wrapped up a gram or two, or sometimes an eight ball, then Koch swung by and picked up the drugs on his way to work. The transactions between Koch and the players usually took place deep within the corridors of the stadium, such as in the runway outside the clubhouse or sometimes in the parking lots. The men never had any run-ins with Pirates officials; in fact, as cocaine use became more prevalent, Koch even suspected that those in charge had to know what was going on.
“It seemed like no one really cared,” Koch says. “I mean, I think Major League Baseball even knew itself that it had problems, like, years before, when they had alcohol problems with a lot of guys.”
After a while Koch realized that with Shiffman frequenting the games, maybe his own role in these transactions was superfluous. Beyond that, despite the fact that he was in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze much of the time, Koch could still see the precarious position he was putting himself in. Something in the back of his mind wouldn’t let him rest. “When you’re raised by a mom and dad that care about you, you start to put one and one together,” he says.
Growing up, Koch had been described as the typical “nice, regular all-American boy.” As he grew into adulthood, local papers painted a similar portrait, albeit one with a bit more edge. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, he was “the sort a mom would like her daughter to bring home, an earnest yes-ma’am kind of guy with a bit of the devil in him.”
Koch tried to distance himself from his middleman position, telling the guys that they had one another’s phone numbers and could set things up for themselves. A few of the players began to call Shiffman’s house directly, or Shiffman met them outside the clubhouse after the games, where they made their exchanges. These callers were usually Scurry and Berra, although Shiffman was also becoming close with the Pirates reliever Eddie “Buddy J.” Solomon. A pretty low-key guy, Solomon sometimes invited Shiffman over to his apartment, where they would do a couple lines and just hang out. Occasionally Shiffman received calls to bring some blow to a downtown hotel room for some of the visiting National League teams’ players.
“I remember some of the other teams all of a sudden started to get involved,” Koch says. “They’d say, ‘Hey, can you get your buddy to do this or that?’ And I’d call Dale, and he’d come down, and we’d party with just about everybody; it was pretty bizarre. It was pretty out of control in the eighties.”
Yet Koch insists it wasn’t all about the cocaine all the time. More often, he says, it was just a bunch of guys getting together, and if someone had some on them, then sure, they would all do a line. “Now, we would be in the clubs every night drinking and stuff,” Koch admits, “but it wasn’t like ‘Hey, let’s all get together because of cocaine.’”
Whenever there were requests made of Koch, however, he found it very hard to decline them. “Imagine guys that are making that much money, and now you’re partying with them. After a while you don’t think anything about it. You almost think you’re untouchable,” Koch says. If players were looking to hook up, and Shiffman wasn’t going down to the game that night, Shiffman called Koch. They both lived in the South Hills, so Koch could easily swing by Shiffman’s residence and pick up a couple grams for the boys that night. Other times the players would ask Koch to call Shiffman for them. Koch says he would think about the job that had opened up a whole new world to him, a job he cherished. He would think about how the people within the organization treated him so well. He had been welcomed into the family; he was well liked and appreciated.
He knew he wasn’t doing the team any favors by bringing drugs to the stadium, but in the end, he always agreed.
“I’d say all right,” Koch says. “I couldn’t say no. What are you gonna do? It’s almost impossible to say no. These were your heroes. Guys from when you were a kid. I remember sitting down with Willie [Stargell] going, ‘I remember your first game, Willie. It was in ’63 at Forbes Field. I was like nine or ten years old.’ And with other guys, we’d talk sports together, and I would tell them this or that; and they’d say, ‘Man, you were there that night?’ Like Gene Garber, I said, ‘I remember you pitching your first game against the Chicago Cubs. You had three perfect innings going at Forbes Field, then in the fourth Billy Williams jacked that ball.’ And Garber would be like, ‘Oh my God!’”
Koch wasn’t a mere fan. Baseball was a game he loved. And whether Dale Berra or Rod Scurry were stars or not, it didn’t matter to him. Or to Dale Shiffman. It was the name on the front of the jersey, not the back, that was important. For guys raised in the South Hills who grew up with baseball in their blood, anyone who donned the black and gold sat on a pedestal and was worthy of reverence, and it would be damn hard to say no to them.
Koch’s baseball memories are part of who he is, and more often than not his stories always come back to the Pirates previous home at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, otherwise known as the House of Thrills. “What a ballpark to go to. Ah, that was the park. That was heaven to me. When that ball was hit at Forbes Field in a night game, it would literally disappear into the darkness. There were no stands to see it bounce around in or people to grab it. It went straight into Schenley Park. You would see it going, and then once it went past the lights, it was gone; it was into the night.”
* * *
Scurry made six subsequent starts following his debut victory. The youngster pitched well, but as a member of the pitching-heavy Pirates, it wasn’t long before he was back in the bullpen. By 1982 his role as a full-time member of the Pirates bullpen was cemented. His starting days were behind him.
For somebody who was quiet to begin with, Scurry talked even less when using cocaine at the ballpark. He feared his mouth would betray him. He had begun living his life in secret. By his own account he became a con artist of sorts and “got to be pretty good at it.” He couldn’t let the outside world know that his life was now controlled by cocaine, and he became even more introverted. His future wife, Laura, later described to the Associated Press how tough it was for Scurry to deal with stress. “He had a hard time with pressure, and I think that’s why he started doing what he was doing,” she said. “It was the pressure of waiting and not knowing. The drugs made him quiet, shy, and scared. When he wasn’t on them, he was normal and fun and happy.”
In 1982 cocaine use had become routine for many major league ballplayers. The Pirates’ John Milner would later say that he, Parker, Scurry, Berra, and outfielder Lee Lacy shared up to seven grams a week with one another during this time. “If I had it, I shared it; if they had it, they shared it,” he said. In fact, it was so common that the first thing Scurry and Berra thought about prior to the season’s home opener was making sure someone had called Shiffman for easy home game delivery. Nothing said opening day like the sound of Pirates organist Vince Lascheid banging out a few notes of “Let’s Go Bucs,” the smell of hot dogs wafting through the stadium, or the prospect of an eight ball of cocaine to take it all up a notch.
* * *
The neighborhood of Garfield was settled on the hills above the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh’s East End. Up until the 1960s Garfield was home to predominately Catholic, working-class families. Its earliest inhabitants worked the mills along the Allegheny River and shopped locally from the merchants along Penn Avenue. Neighborhood activist Aggie Brose recalled to the Post-Gazette that Garfield was once a place where “you sponsored each other’s kids, you went to all the weddings and funerals, you never wanted for a babysitter…. When you put the kids to bed, the women went out on the stoops.”
In the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s, Garfield’s citizens moved to nearby suburbs. Soon, the small businesses in the community were boarded up, and public housing projects sprouted up in the area. As more and more residents continued to flee, twenty-four-year-old heating and cooling repairman Kevin Connolly and his family remained.
Connolly was an all-state baseball player at the sports powerhouse Central Catholic High School, the alma mater of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Connolly himself later played semipro football as a member of the Pittsburgh Tri-Ward Rebels.
If anyone could attest to what a slippery slope cocaine use could be, it was Connolly. Early during the 1982 baseball season, he was introduced to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Rod Scurry on a double date arranged by the pair’s girlfriends. During the evening the talk turned to cocaine. Up until this point Connolly had only tried the drug a few times. “That night we all pitched in and got some,” Connolly says. “Then we went out again the next Friday.”
Before long the foursome was hitting the town three nights a week, when Scurry wasn’t out of town with the Pirates. Doing coke became an integral part of the evenings, with Connolly struggling to match funds with the well-to-do pitcher. From fifty dollars on the first occasion, the price of admission seemed to grow with each ensuing outing as the group’s drug consumption increased. After a month or two the evenings were costing the young repairman a minimum of $100 or $150. “I couldn’t afford that,” he says. “After going out three nights a week and pitching in every time, I couldn’t do it, you know. Then I got this brilliant idea.”
Connolly was having the time of his life hanging out with Scurry and the girls, and he had to find a way to make things work. He had to “find somebody that had [cocaine], get it at cost, then sell it.” That was the key to staying in the game.
Initially, he didn’t know exactly how or where to go about enacting his plan, but it didn’t take him long to figure out. The East End was Connolly’s turf. His business, Budget Air Conditioning and Heating, was located on Penn Avenue. He also played softball in the neighborhood. He knew people there, and he knew people who knew people. If he was going to find cocaine, the East End would be where he would find it.
Connolly began to regularly buy a quarter ounce of cocaine, which he would usually split, keeping half for himself and selling the other half to Scurry or sometimes a few other acquaintances or contacts. His new enterprise yielded hardly enough to make a profit. But he was doing free cocaine, and that was the whole point, anyway. On top of that, he was introduced to another Pirates ballplayer, shortstop Dale Berra, around this time, which was even cooler to the young sports fan. “Early on we didn’t hang out that much,” Connolly says, but he remembers it being a big deal whenever Berra did come around.
Connolly soon realized that his quarter-ounce purchase wasn’t sufficient to keep up with the group’s growing appetite for cocaine. It was time to up the ante. His next purchase was for a quarter kilogram. However, once initiated into the world of cocaine, it didn’t take him long to realize the extent of the money-making opportunities now open to him. A quarter kilogram wasn’t going to cut it either. The demand around him necessitated yet another increase in weight.
* * *
Nineteen eighty-two was Rod Scurry’s career year. If the switch to the bullpen bothered Scurry, he didn’t let it show on the mound. He had the season of his life, saving fourteen games as a reliever and posting a minuscule 1.74 earned run average, the lowest in the league of anyone with at least twenty appearances. The Pirates finished the season in fourth place, eight games off the pace.
Despite the fact that Connolly was emerging as a new supplier for Scurry, Dale Shiffman continued to receive calls from the pitcher throughout the season. Even on the road Scurry managed to hook up. He had a connection in Philadelphia and elsewhere it was far from a challenge to score. He snorted a gram before a game against Houston, and then went on to hold the Astros scoreless. From that point on, he figured drug use wouldn’t hurt him when he pitched. Scurry’s career ascent brought him an abundance of money and with it an abundance of cocaine. “Finally,” he would later tell the Pittsburgh Press, “it got to the point where I couldn’t quit.”
Come opening day 1983, scoring coke had become paramount to Scurry. Personal matters were arranged first, before any baseball would be played. Once more the season began with a call to Shiffman.
A year after meeting Rod Scurry for the first time, Kevin Connolly came to a realization: This shit is everywhere. Going out to clubs or parties with his new Pirates buddies, he saw cocaine use so out in the open, so common, that he looked around and quipped, “Cocaine is legal, isn’t it?” This pervasiveness made him feel like he wasn’t doing anything wrong by partaking, but now he was going to get in on the real action. By 1983, Garfield’s Kevin Connolly was heading to Miami to trade forty thousand dollars for two kilos of cocaine.
The deal was arranged through a girl he knew from the Pittsburgh area who was dating a supplier in Florida. From there a regular hook-up would be cemented. The suppliers taught Connolly the ropes, including how to pack his product for safe airline travel. The cocaine, which came in a large chunk, was placed in a plastic bag. The bag was then placed inside another bag and dipped in mustard. This package was placed into “another bag that had coffee grinds in it,” Connolly explains. “So we had three bags going. . . . Then we just sewed it into my jacket, and I’d walk through the airport.”
The experience tested Connolly’s mettle as his heart raced with fear; oddly enough, he found it to be an enjoyable fear. Transporting drugs gave him a rush he would come to love more than using the drug itself. He always stayed straight for the transactions and the transport. But that didn’t stop him from getting high. These deals became Connolly’s new source of adrenaline, and physiologically they took him places cocaine never did. If, for instance, a group of police dogs stood ahead of him, Connolly would not change his course; instead, he would walk straight toward the dogs, pushing the thrill as far as it could take him.
The scene in South Florida was like something out of a movie for the novice drug trader. Deals went down anywhere, from inside beautiful yet bullet hole-riddled houses to aboard Miami Vice-style cigarette boats. Other times, if his connection happened to fall through, he could score kilos in the parking lots of Miami’s or Ft. Lauderdale’s after-hours clubs.
“There was like ten or twelve people there who all had kilos in their car,” he recalls, “and they’d say ‘Try my stuff.’” One person’s loss was another man’s gain, and somebody was always more than happy to help out an out-of-towner.
“It was just a joke,” Connolly says. “There was just so much down there. I’d go out to the car, and they’d open up the trunk and they’d have like five keys [kilos] in it. Then another guy would say, ‘Hey, look at my stuff, man; I’ll give it to you for a hundred cheaper.’… It was like how you could get ounces in Pittsburgh, you could buy keys down there.” He could walk into a bar “knowing nobody,” and kilogram transactions were still guaranteed. “What a joke,” Connolly repeats.
Back home up north, Connolly couldn’t help but walk with a bit more of a strut. When darkness fell Connolly felt like the king of Pittsburgh. When he walked into a club and hung out with his new Pirates buddies, people turned to look. But it wasn’t just to check out their local sports heroes anymore. Connolly was making his own mark. He could hear the whispers—Hey that’s Kevin Connolly—and see the patrons gawk. Connolly says the club Heaven was where the in-crowd gathered. It was Pittsburgh’s answer to Studio 54 or the like—the club everyone talked about and went to be seen. Known for its grand marble staircase and white interior, Heaven also had private lounges and held events such as beach night or hot tub night. Connolly often joined a number of the Pirates and Steelers there. “[Lynn] Swann was there all the time, Mel Blount, Franco [Harris] too. It was the only place in Pittsburgh where everyone went,” Connolly says.
Despite making his own name for himself, Connolly could not deny the benefits that came with hanging out with athletes. Rod Scurry, for example, was known to attract a particular crowd. “Yeah, all the girls would know who he was,” Connolly says. This was a definite bonus for the lighthearted and good-natured Connolly, who was also not dumb to the allure that the little white powder he carried possessed. Right or wrong, he employed this magnetism to his advantage. Let me buy you a drink, he would say while reaching into the “wrong” pocket for his money. He religiously kept his coke in one pocket and his money in the other, always the same ones so that he would never make a mistake in front of the wrong people, such as law enforcement. Pulling out his abundant supply of blow, which was obviously much larger than most, he would make his female companions weak in the knees. Whoops, he would innocently declare, finger on his lip like a schoolboy. Needless to say, Connolly and his buddies were not short of company most evenings.
One thing Connolly’s baseball acquaintances weren’t doing for him was making him any richer. Ballplayers are notoriously slow to their wallets. While some of them had voracious appetites for cocaine, this hunger did not translate to much money for those supplying it. There was a sense of privilege embedded in the athletes, as if they thought it should be enough for others to merely be around them. Other times they would adopt the stance, What’s the problem? You know I’m good for it! I’ll get you later.
“We never got paid,” Connolly remarks. Berra always seemed to be broke and even had his own particular excuse at the ready. “I get my check next week,” he would say.
“His checks were like $6,200, and he couldn’t even pay me,” says Connolly. Nor did Scurry. “You couldn’t get it off him, either.” Particularly if Scurry happened to already be holding; then it was an absolute certainty “you’d never see your money.”
It was inside Pittsburgh’s after-hours clubs, selling to patrons rather than ballplayers, where Connolly was truly making his money.
“We had a nice little round,” Connolly explains. “There was like five of them, and we’d hit them all starting at 2:30 a.m. The Allegheny Club was our first hit. Then we’d go dahntahn to Joyce’s, or JJ’s. After that we’d go up to Brookline, to the BYM Club [Brookline Young Men’s Club], a little higher class, nicer place. From there we’d go to the Perry Social in East Liberty, and our last stop would be at the BBC down in Bloomfield.”
All told the late-night rounds brought in around $2,800 on both Fridays and Saturdays. Add another thousand dollars or so during the day, and the weekends netted Connolly over seven thousand dollars. He puts his weekly gross profit at an estimated $13,000 at its peak. He would store the twenties and hundred-dollar bills in a shoe box and spend the rest. He blew through cash on women and partying as well as by charging the players less than he should have. For instance, many times he asked only two hundred dollars for five hundred dollars worth of coke. Connolly wasn’t exactly maximizing his profits. He knew the money was dirty, that it wasn’t really earned, so he felt no obligation to hold on to it. Still, he was having a damn good time.
Likewise, Dale Shiffman, the self-described “nobody,” was now living the high life as well. His life revolved around the Pittsburgh sports scene, from the green diamond of summer with the Pirates to the white ice of winter with the Penguins. “Dale’s a great guy. He was always at the games,” Penguins forward Kevin McClelland said. Added team captain Mike Bullard, “I think he more or less knew a bunch of us—ten of us. He probably knew everybody on the team to say hi.”
Shiffman wasn’t getting rich as a result of his role as a supplier. But it wasn’t about the money for him anyway; it was about hanging out with his heroes and having fun. He didn’t need much. He split his rent with a roommate or two, and when he needed money he found a freelance photography gig. Whatever money he was making from blow tended to go right back up his nose.
While there were some in the medical community who were still arguing in the 1980s that cocaine was “a safe, nonaddicting euphoriant,” Shiffman probably should have known he was headed for trouble the first time he tried the drug, an experience he describes as “love at first sight.” He slowly became addicted. The days of a little fun, in-control partying were long gone. He was now firmly in cocaine’s grip and wanting more, more, more.
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic 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.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
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