Meet the Daring Free-Diver Who Talks to Sperm Whales

We know these giant predators communicate through thunderous clicks. James Nestor and his ragtag crew of computer coders, scientists and divers are determined to find out what they’re saying.

This story originally appeared in Avaunt, an award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

I can’t breathe. The only sound I hear are thunderous cracks, so loud they shake my body. Another crack, then another. I open my eyes and see in all directions nothing but gradating bands of blue and black, like a Rothko painting. I must be getting close now. I kick myself deeper until I hear a beep. It’s coming from my wrist, my dive watch. I glance at the screen and see that I’m five stories below the surface of the ocean.

What I’m doing is called freediving – using my natural body, without the aid of any machines, to dive deep beneath the ocean’s surface on a single breath. Thousands of people freedive as a sport, pushing themselves to depths as low as seven hundred feet on a single breath. But I have no interest in that kind of often lethal, competitive agony. I’ve come to the deep water of the north east coast of Sri Lanka for a more beneficial purpose, to practice a different kind of freediving. I’ve come here to try to communicate with the world’s largest predators: sperm whales. Leading the expedition is the man floating beside me, a French engineer named Fabrice Schnöller. For the past seven years Schnöller and a ragtag international crew of world champion freedivers, coders, computer engineers and physicists named DareWin have been researching sperm whale vocalizations – the thunderous cracks shaking my body – in the hopes of translating them and, perhaps one day, beginning a conversation with these animals.

Researchers have known for more than sixty years that sperm whales and other cetaceans communicate with extremely loud vocalizations called ‘clicks’, which the animals emit from their noses. We know these animals are ‘talking’ to one another, we just don’t know what they are saying. In the next two years, DareWin hopes to find out.

Schnöller and I have just reached a depth of sixty feet. The clicking has got louder. Through the diamond-clear water, I can just make out through my dive mask two black scuds in the distance; every few seconds the masses grow larger and larger, like ink blots on a napkin: two sperm whales, a mother the size of a school bus and her calf, the short bus. As the whales advance, I can feel the clicks penetrate my chest cavity.

Sperm whales are the loudest animals on the planet. Their clicks can be heard by other whales for hundreds of miles across the ocean; some researchers believe sperm whales use clicks to stay in contact with one another across the globe. The low frequencies in the vocalisations are so powerful they can blow out human eardrums and shake our bodies to death.

But the pair of whales in front of us isn’t likely to kill us. The clicks they are sending are relatively soft and shake my body only mildly. These are the exact kinds of vocalizations Schnöller and the rest of the DareWin team have travelled ten thousand miles to collect, in this deepwater trench.

Beside me, Schnöller kicks himself deeper and holds up a handmade audio rig with stereo hydrophones on its sides. He uses this contraption to capture HD recordings of clicks for later study back in the lab. DareWin believes that inside the clicks now shaking our bodies, is encoded information, a kind of language, shared by sperm whales and perhaps other cetaceans. However, this language is made of pictures, not words.

Schnöller beckons me a little nearer, a little deeper down, to get a closer look, a better listen. Then he motions to me to stop and stay perfectly still. The sperm whales begin charging us now, their locomotive-size bodies cutting through the water at 20 miles per hour. I don’t blink, I don’t move. I just float there, six storeys beneath the surface, holding my breath, and try to trust this moment.

To understand how revolutionary – and controversial – DareWin’s work is, you first need to understand how sperm whales and other cetaceans view their world.

Cetaceans use clicks to ‘see’ with sound, better than humans can see with their eyes, in a form of sophisticated sonar called echolocation. This involves emitting clicks from their noses, then listening for how the vocalisations echo off their surroundings. The clicks are strong enough to pierce through sand and flesh, giving the animals a three-dimensional picture (a hologram) of everything around them, from the inside out.

Although cetacean clicks sound unremarkable to the human ear – something like the tack-tack-tack of a few dozen typewriters – they are incredibly nuanced and organized. Scientists have discovered that sperm whales transmit these clicks at very specific and distinct frequencies, and can replicate them down to the exact millisecond and frequency, over and over again. They can then control the millisecond-long intervals inside the clicks and reorganize them into different structures, in the same way a composer might revise a scale of notes in a piano concerto. But sperm whales can make elaborate revisions to their click patterns, then play them back in the space of a few thousandths of a second. Schnöller and his team believe the only reason for sperm whales to have such incredibly complex and organized vocalizations, is to use them in some form of communication.

Witnessing the birth of a baby whale was not something I could ever have planned. When you spend time in the water you never know what you are going to bump into; this is why I spend as much time as I can at sea. These three images were taken by me, in the Azores, September 2014, which is where I live when not on expeditions. It’s good for observing sperm whales. Whales dive down to one thousand feet for 45 minutes, or even an hour to feed, then back to the surface. Sometimes they stop feeding to socialize. Their intelligence is evident: when they communicate with each other they change sounds and might even have accents and sublanguages. We approached a group of around ten whales that were socializing, which can be seen in this picture. We were forty meters away from them and we quickly understood that something unusual was unfolding.
They were moving more quickly than usual – we got closer. Then I saw that there was some matter in the water – at first I thought it was plankton, which would not be unusual. But then I saw a tiny sperm whale and it suddenly became apparent to me: a birth had just taken place. This event has never been observed so I was amazed and a little shocked. It was incredible, but I also realized I might be in great danger: when animals have given birth they will likely attack any potential predators who are as close as I was. However, whales are so intelligent – they knew I was not a danger to them. There were at least thirty whales by this point and they were very careful not to hit me with a tail, moving around me very slowly. I had a feeling I was in the middle of a celebration.
Eventually, the mother brought the newborn to meet all the other whales and after a while, with me watching from the side, she pushed her baby towards me. This image here, above, is what we were looking at: the baby with the umbilical chord still attached and the proud mother behind. It’s a unique picture and a unique moment.

Schnöller and other scientists believe that since sperm whales are already sending and receiving ‘holographic images’ through sounds, they can probably share these echolocation images with other cetaceans, the same way a human might overhear a phrase and repeat it to another person close by. The HD audio rig Schnöller brought to Sri Lanka is a prototype for a more sophisticated 23-speaker recording device DareWin will deploy in January 2016. This new recorder will capture the full spectrum, essentially the ‘holographic image’, inside the sperm whale clicks. A team of physicists and linguists has built specialized software systems and computers to decode the clicks and process the sounds into images that humans can view – enabling us to see what cetaceans are seeing. Later in 2016, DareWin will attempt to send holographic images back to the animals, beginning a visual conversation, the same way an ancient sailor and islanders might have drawn out stick figures in the sand.

I know what you’re thinking. Schnöller is a New Age dreamer on a fool’s errand to prove an impossible hypothesis. I thought the same thing when I first met him three years ago on Reunion Island, a French outpost four hundred miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

I had been sent to Reunion to write about a recent rash of shark attacks that had devastated the island’s tourist industry. Schnöller, who was then 42, was working on a shark-tracking system that would alert officials via a smartphone app when sharks were in the area. In his free hours, Schnöller mentioned he was studying cetacean communication.

He brought me into his office, a cavern of books and paper stacks in the upstairs of his wife’s health food restaurant, and showed me some footage of himself and some friends, freediving face to face with sperm whales. The images were haunting, stunning and strangely emotional. Schnöller mentioned he had dozens of hours of footage. He told me, in his thick French-accented English, that his next goal was to record communication clicks and perhaps one day talk to these animals.

Schnöller hadn’t always been interested in sperm whales. In fact, he’d known nothing about the animals before a sailing trip to neighbouring Mauritius in 2006, captaining a sixty-foot sloop called the ‘Annabelle’ that a friend had just bought from Paloma Picasso, daughter of the painter. As the ship approached the coast, Schnöller and the crew noticed columns of steam shooting like geysers on the starboard side. The eruptions multiplied and drew closer until they surrounded the hull. The crew had heard there were whales in this stretch of the Indian Ocean: seeing them at a distance was common, but sailing into them was unheard-of.

Schnöller, who at the time only occasionally swam in the open ocean, went below deck to grab a mask, fins, snorkel and waterproof camera, then jumped in. The ocean is usually silent, but the waters around the Annabelle were thundering with an incessant click-click-click, as if a thousand stove lighters were triggering over and over again. Schnöller figured the noise must have been coming from some mechanism on the ship. He swam farther away, but the clicking only got louder. He’d never heard a sound like this before and had no idea where it was coming from. Then he looked down.

A pod of sperm whales, their bodies oriented vertically, like obelisks, surrounded Schnöller on all sides and stared up with wide eyes. They swam toward the surface, clicking louder and louder as they approached. They gathered around him and rubbed against him, face to face. Schnöller could feel the clicks penetrating his flesh and vibrating through his bones, his chest cavity.

“I felt like I was contacting ET, you know, like this was communication from another planet,” Schnöller told me, sipping a Coke in his cluttered office. He spent two hours swimming with the whales that day. He’d known nothing about whales before the encounter. Afterwards, they became his obsession.

He sold his lumber supply business, drained his savings, and dedicated himself full-time to repeating the sperm whale encounter. He studied their physiology and discovered that they are, quite possibly, the most intelligent animals on the planet.

Artificial freediving facilities help us to prepare for deep natural freediving in the sea and it’s important to always reiterate to students that you must never freedive on your own.

The sperm whale boasts a brain five times the size of the human brain, the largest ever known to have existed on Earth. Their neocortex, which governs higher-level functions in humans, such as conscious thought, future planning and language, is estimated to be about six times larger than in the human brain. Sperm whales also have spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists associate with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering and intuition – those things that make humans human. In fact, sperm whales not only have spindle cells, but they have them in far greater concentration than we do.

Brains take up a tremendous amount of energy. Animals don’t develop oversize neocortex and spindle cells by accident. They develop them because they use them.

Humans have had our current size brain for 200,000 years; sperm whales have had theirs for fifty million years. In the realm of brain evolution, fifty million years is a very long time. “Why do they have such huge brains? Why are these patterns so consistent and perfectly organized, if they aren’t some kind of communication?” Schnöller asked rhetorically. He mentioned that sperm whales have more brain mass and brain cells controlling language than humans do. “I know, I know, this is all just theory. But still, when you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise.”

Before Schnöller and DareWin, nobody could get close enough to sperm whales to study their communication. Although these animals are the world’s largest predators, boasting eight-inch-long teeth and growing more than 60 feet in length, they are notoriously shy. They avoid submarines, robots and boats. The disruptive gurgle of scuba spooks them. During his life-changing experience in Mauritius, Schnöller discovered that when we approach sperm whales in our natural, human form – when we freedive with them – something amazing happens: instead of swimming away, the animals swim towards us, welcoming us into their pods for hours, and peppering us with their communication clicks, trying to make contact.

Humans share more than just language with sperm whales; we also share a number of amphibious reflexes, something scientists call The Master Switch of Life. The second water touches our faces, our bodies undergo an extraordinary transformation. Our heart rates lower to a third of our resting rates, blood engorges the internal organs, our lungs fill up with plasma. These reflexes protect us from the crushing underwater pressures that would otherwise kill or injure us on land. As we dive deeper, these reflexes become more pronounced, turning us into deep-diving animals. They allow us to plummet to incredible depths – far beyond what scientists believe is possible.

Freedivers have recorded heart rates, at extreme depths, as low as seven beats per minute – about a tenth of the rate of someone in a coma and the lowest heart rate ever recorded. According to physiologists, a heart rate this low cannot support consciousness. And yet deep in the ocean it does, and still nobody quite understands how.

We’ve been using these incredible amphibious abilities for tens of thousands of years to harvest food, pearls and coral from the deep ocean floor. Written accounts of freedivers date to 2500 BC and span the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Around 700 BC, Homer wrote of divers who latched themselves to heavy rocks and plunged below one hundred feet to cut sponges from the seafloor. In the first century BC, trade between the Mediterranean coast and Asia exploded, in part because of red coral, a favourite cure-all in Chinese and Indian medicine. Most red coral grew at depths below a hundred feet and could be collected only by freediving. By the eighth century, Vikings in the North Sea were freediving beneath enemy ships and boring holes in their hulls to sink them.

Pearl divers flourished in the Caribbean, South Pacific, Persian Gulf and Asia for more than three thousand years. Sailors throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reported seeing pearl divers plummet more than 150 feet and stay down for fifteen minutes at a time.

And then: poof. Gone. By the twentieth century, pearl farming and new fishing technologies had made freediving obsolete. The human body’s amazing diving abilities and human knowledge of freediving began to disappear. Competitive freedivers have rediscovered our freediving ability and can now hold their breath for up to twelve minutes at a time, and dive several hundreds of feet below the surface. But pushing the human body to such depths can be lethal, and many competitive freedivers die every year. In August 2015, Natalia Molchanova, the world’s most decorated and famous competitive freediver, disappeared off the coast of Spain while attempting some deep dives with friends. It’s this kind of death-defying diving that gives the recreational sport a bad reputation and has also scared marine scientists from ever attempting it.

When you are freediving in the Azores you are already at the western part of Old Europe, almost mid-distance from what they call the New World. The light here is great. We are recording whale ‘clicks’ here with the new sound recording software we have developed.

Until DareWin, nobody had ever used freediving for marine research. No institutional researcher knew how to freedive, and few would ever risk their lives swimming face to face with 60-foot-long predators. But Schnöller and the rest of his DareWin team started doing it all the time. Since 2010, the team has travelled around the world on more than 10 expeditions documenting his encounters and recording echolocation clicks. With this unorthodox approach, DareWin has collected more communication and behavior data on sperm whales and dolphins in five years than anyone – any institution, any university or oceanographic research team – in history.

“Jane Goodall didn’t study apes from a plane,” said Schnöller. “And so you can’t expect to study the ocean and its animals from a classroom. You’ve got to get in there. You’ve got to get wet.”

Back in Sri Lanka, the sperm whale mother and calf pass just a few feet beneath Schnöller’s fins. From this vantage, they look less like animals and more like submerged landmasses. The clicks they are shooting at us sound and feel like jackhammers on pavement. The whales are scanning our exteriors and peering into our bodies, our organs, heads and muscles. Schnöller and I stay perfectly still. We let the animals scan our bodies from our heads to our toes.

It’s a jarring experience to be so utterly vulnerable to instant death. And neither of us are adrenaline junkies. We hate extreme sports. And yet, for some reason, we both feel compelled to approach these enormous animals head on. Even though the whales exhibit no signs of outward aggression, I can’t help thinking that at any moment I could be swallowed up by their twelve-foot-long mouths and chewed up in their sausage-like teeth. I’m trusting these animals with my life with nothing more than a feeling, some innate sense within me that tells me that although humans have hunted these animals to the brink of extinction over the past two hundred years, these whales before us don’t want retribution. They’ve approached in peace and the least I can do is respect this moment, kick my fins a little deeper, and open myself to this encounter.

Then, suddenly, the mother and calf languorously veer left, and prepare to dive deep. And just in time, I’m almost completely out of breath.

I start kicking towards the aluminum sheen of the surface, looking down as the two whales grow smaller and smaller until each disappears into the shadows like airplanes disappearing in a dusk sky. The once-thunderous clicks soften and fade, and the ocean is, yet again, silent.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

How It Feels to Be the Biggest Woman at a Clothing Swap

Great, actually.

My bedroom is completely ransacked – clothes are thrown everywhere, purses piled high on my bed. I’m frantically throwing nearly all of my clothes into large plastic bags. Some are still wrapped in the plastic they came in, hanging from metal hangers, as if embalmed and exempt from the passing of time. First to go are the tight designer t-shirts, then the dresses – so many dresses. The black satin cocktail number that once made me feel sexy, but that I could never zip up now. The turquoise one with animal print from Century 21 and the red flowered dress that knocked everyone’s socks off at the company party ten years ago. I used to be so audacious with my wardrobe. Now, I want fewer eyes on me.

I planned on walking, but the load becomes more than I can carry. Instead, I throw the clothes in my car and take off, headed for my first ever clothing swap – where women get together to trade things they no longer want. I’ve been invited by my new friend Sarah to participate in this feminine ritual. This is more than the usual spring cleaning for me; I need to get rid of these painful reminders of the woman I outgrew, literally and figuratively. I no longer want to feel body-shamed by my closet, which is stuffed with clothes that are literally six sizes too small, some that have hung there, unworn, for over a decade while I tried to convince myself I could be someone else.

As I schlep my bags of clothes up to Sarah’s pre-war walk-up, I start to worry that, as a size 12, I’ll be the biggest woman there and nobody will want my offerings. But there’s no turning back now.

* * *

My obsession with fashion started when I was a teenager, when adolescence brought with it a horizontal growth spurt. I didn’t object to my new breasts and butt, but the rapid increase in my thighs and belly made me want to buy every piece of fabric ever made just to cover them up. I was convinced that buying the tightest jeans possible could stymie my out-of-control thighs and shrink them back to their original size. If my clothes were cool enough, stylish enough, expensive enough, everyone would just focus on them and not the fact that I had blown up underneath them.

At 16, the author playing dress up at a friends’ house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photos courtesy the author)

By the time I was 14, I was a size 12, and no fashionable clothing could hide the discomfort I felt. It wasn’t enough to have nice clothes, I still wanted to be thin like the other girls. To be what I thought was normal. Through my teens and 20s, I tried every trend: cleanses, the lemonade diet, the cabbage soup diet, no carbs, low carbs. I tried taking diet pills, Dexatrim every morning with endless glasses of water, but it only gave me headaches and constant trips to the bathroom. Nothing worked.

Finally, I spent one full year when I was in my thirties eating pre-portioned frozen food out of a box and getting up every day at 5:30 in the morning to work out. It worked. I dropped to a size six; in certain styles I was even a four.

I had always hated dressing rooms – the bright lights zooming in on my imperfections, the dread of nothing fitting right. But then, the first time I went shopping after the weight loss was a revelation. Almost everything fit. I remember the moment I pulled a red cotton Brooklyn Industries dress over my head and caught sight of my new self in the mirror; it was as if it was made for me, and I looked incredible. Even though I was thinner, I still had feminine curves, and this dress brought out every one. The cleavage, the thin waist. I wore it out of the store, crumpling up my old clothes and having the cashier cut the price tag off of me at the register. I felt taller, sexier. I bought a whole new wardrobe for my new start. At 38, for the first time, I began to love the warmer months, when dress season was in full bloom.

But the sacrifices I made to get into those dresses meant, ironically, that I rarely went out to dinner or parties because I was afraid of gaining weight. It’s amazing how often people commented about me not drinking or eating, often making me more self-conscious. When I did give in and go out I’d gain weight instantly. Every single time. It was a total Catch-22. The whole purpose of those clothes was to show myself off, to push me to socialize more, but in reality, they kept me in my studio apartment, away from the world, afraid to live.

The author, far right, during the last week of senior year in college.

Eventually I tired of the restrictions and disappointments and took a break from a life of deprivation. The weight crept back on and then some. Most of my favorite clothing no longer fit, regardless of how many pairs of Spanx I wore. Still, I held onto them for over ten years, hoping to someday return to that size, that woman. I had tried to stick to discipline, but eventually being a certain size just wasn’t worth how hard I had to work. It was one thing to say no to dessert or put the bread basket away, but to constantly be hungry and depleted felt at odds with my energetic personality. I wanted to go out, socialize, travel and taste different foods, have different experiences. Being thin without enjoyment defeated the purpose of trying so hard to look the part. I wanted to be part of my own life.

Now, at 47 I’m packing up all of these dresses that belonged to a woman I’m no longer trying to force myself to be. A woman who needed to give up everything for how others might see her. A woman whose biology was never destined for the petite rack. I still miss how I looked in those years of denial, but I don’t miss how I felt.

* * *

I carry three large bags filled to capacity; the plastic handles digging into my skin, turning my fingers red. I walk up four flights of stairs to Sarah’s apartment, where there are tall green plants in every corner and books falling off the shelves. Sarah comes to greet me, her brown hair flowing down to her shoulders, bouncing as she cheerily introduces me to her friends. My heart sinks as I realize most of the women here are in the size six range, a zone I hit just once, and briefly, in my life. I doubt there’s going to be anything here for me.

Sarah pours wine into small glass jars and spreads out homemade pesto sandwiches with brie and bacon marmalade. As we sip our wine and scoop up the melted cheese, the swap begins. Each woman takes a turn presenting her items to the group. Even though everything is being donated, you still want to make sure someone takes home your once-treasured goods with a little pitch. Great color but I have outgrown it. Perfect for summer but too revealing for me. It says, “Love me I’m a Vegetarian,” but I eat meat now so…

A thin brunette with a lot of energy bolts up to the front of the room. As she begins to describe her clothes, all the attention is on her. People start raising their hands and laughing, this is actually kind of fun. “This is the one I got when going to the holiday party last year,” she explains. “And this one my mother-in-law got me but is clearly not my style.” Some of the women talk of ex-boyfriends as they explain the stories behind their clothes. Some of their new jobs. Everyone here wants to get rid of their pasts too. Hearing each story – vignettes about their items, their lives, brings me closer to the women. I feel connected. While they physically appear different than I, they too have stories of wanting to move on in their lives and away from a time that has passed. The clothing swap allows us all the opportunity to release our nostalgia.

I’m surprised at how comfortable these women are in their own bodies. One short woman with a black long bob actually takes off her blouse and begins to try on the clothes right in front of us, her white cotton bra bright like neon lights. She throws on blouses, sweaters and even dresses as if no one is watching. Some of the women know her and her fashion show just blends into the background for them. But I can’t stop staring. I am no prude, but how can she take off her clothes in front of all of these people like she’s in a Loehman’s dressing room? What is that like, to be confident enough in your body to strip down in front of strangers like it’s no big deal?

Eventually it’s my turn to present. My palms begin to sweat. I want the ladies to love my clothes as much as I once did, to realize how important these items were to me in my life – my nostalgia, my years of trying to change myself, and this final moment of release as I let all of that pressure go. Each garment on display represents my sense of self when I bought them. I almost feel like if they reject my clothes, they will be rejecting a part of me. I’m afraid they might ignore me because of my current size, like some men do when we meet for the first time.

The author today.

I take a deep breath and go to the front of the living room. I open up my shopping bags and begin with an apology. “I used to be a variety of sizes from six to 12, so hopefully you will find something you like,” I say, as I start to pull out one meaning-laden item after another. I take out long flowy dresses that I wore when I first lost considerable weight in my 30s, when friends had asked if I had an eating disorder, but it was a combination of Jenny Craig and 5:30 a.m. workouts. I pull out my favorite red dress and it’s snatched up immediately. I feel much better about being here. Then I pull out a black strapless dress I never even wore. It was my “just in case I get invited” dress for parties I never went to, wanting to be someone’s plus one but often being passed over for a younger, more petite date. Someone takes this one, too, and I can feel the load lighten, all of those years of watching and wishing, falling away as I give away one too-small dress after another.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to let them go, knowing that I bought these clothes hoping for a different type of life. Now I am saying goodbye to the woman who wore them, or hoped to. Maybe wisdom really does come with age, but whatever finally let me let go of the insecurities of my youth, I’m no longer willing to base my self-worth on an arbitrary standard that I’m biologically incapable of attaining. All of my old insecurity isn’t going to disappear overnight, but passing along my clothes, my past, and my younger self feels noble, graceful, and it leaves room in my life for me, the real me.

The First Black Astronaut and America’s Secret Outer-Space Spy Program

Major Robert Lawrence was trained by the Air Force in an elite Cold War-era program. This is why you've never heard of him.

On December 8, 1967, a specially modified F-104 Starfighter rolled down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The weather was cool and crisp, around 50 degrees. The wind speed was eight miles an hour from the south-southwest, and visibility was 20 miles. The mid-afternoon weather, in short, was perfect for flying.

According to an account by former NBC News reporter Jim Oberg, Major John Royer piloted the fighter, which had been modified to fly like a rocket plane such as the X-15. Royer was being taught a new landing technique by Major Robert Lawrence, age 32, who flew as copilot in the rear seat. Lawrence, an African-American Air Force pilot with 2,500 hours of flight experience, had helped develop the novel maneuver, called “flaring,” which involved bringing up the nose of the aircraft as it made a final approach to the runway. The technique would enable the pilot to decrease speed quickly before touch down, an important consideration for a vehicle that might one day return from low Earth orbit.

As the F-104 taxied along the runway, Lawrence was at the pinnacle of his profession: a test pilot and, since June, an Air Force astronaut. He had every expectation of one day flying into space, doing his part in his country’s race to the stars. Meanwhile, he was doing one of the things he loved best: imparting hard-won flying knowledge to another pilot. He had led a good life, but Major Robert Lawrence had just a few minutes left to live.

Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. in front of an F-104 Starfighter, 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Royer piloted the aircraft to 25,000 feet, and made the first of several planned approaches to the airstrip, coming in hard to simulate the speed of an aerospace vehicle like the X-15. On one of these approaches, something went wrong. It is not recorded if either of the two pilots realized that the aircraft was coming in too hard, or whether they had time to react. The official accident report states that the F-104 hit the runway 2,200 feet from the approach end. Royer and Lawrence likely felt the two main gears collapse under them as the plane landed left of the centerline of the runway. The canopy shattered, exposing the two men to the outside desert air. They may have smelled the smoke from the underside of the plane’s flaming fuselage. After skidding 214 feet the aircraft became airborne briefly and then crashed back onto the runway, skidding off the tarmac and into the dirt. As the plane began to break apart and roll over, both men ejected.

The ejection system launched Royer more or less vertically. He survived the crash, albeit with horrible injuries. Lawrence was not so lucky. When he departed the F-104 the plane had already rolled, so the ejection seat launched him horizontally, slamming him into the ground. His death was likely instantaneous. Thus died the first African-American astronaut before he had the chance to fly in space.

* * *

Lawrence was buried in his native Chicago with full military honors, with eight of his fellow military astronauts in attendance, as well as the Mayor Richard Daley. The flags on public buildings were lowered to half-staff in mourning. His funeral was a public event, as much as it was a chance for his family to say farewell.

In a strange way, Robert Lawrence’s entire life was preparation for something he never got to do: go into space.

Portrait of Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

“He was scholarly and serious,” said Lawrence’s father, the elder Robert Lawrence, in an interview with Ebony. “As a small boy the expression on his face reflected a kind of dedication. But I didn’t consider him a precocious child.”

Every year for Christmas, young Robert asked for a newer, more elaborate chemistry set. The future astronaut had a love of science that began in his early childhood and lasted his entire life, and he had the discipline to see his dreams through.

“This may sound unbelievable,” said Lawrence’s mother, Gwendolyn Duncan, “but I don’t know of any occasion when I had to discipline either of my children. They had a discipline that must have come from within.”

When he was a child, Duncan told Ebony, the family purchased a piano that came with eight discounted lessons. The instrument was a great expense for the family, and Duncan “emphasized to Bob the importance of his making all the lessons.” Crossing the street on his way to one of the lessons, Lawrence was hit by a truck. The driver leapt out and offered to take Lawrence to the hospital, but Lawrence refused. He had a piano lesson to get to.

Lawrence graduated at 16 from Englewood High School, located on the South Side of Chicago, in 1952 in the top ten percent of his class. He went on to graduate from Bradley University, located in Peoria, Illinois, at age 20 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He was a member of the ROTC and was the corps commander of that organization at Bradley. Lawrence received his commission as lieutenant in the Air Force upon graduation.

After undergoing flight training at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri, Lawrence spent the next several years posted at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Force Base near Munich, teaching flying to West German pilots. While he was stationed there he married Barbara Cress, whom he’d met several years before. They had one son, Tracey Lawrence, and returned to the United States in 1961.

Lawrence was on course for a lifelong career as a flight instructor, but he wanted more. He enrolled at Ohio State University’s graduate program in physical chemistry. By the time he achieved his Ph.D. in 1965, he had accrued 2,500 hours of flight time — giving him the unique characteristics necessary to become an astronaut.

“He was probably the best graduate student I’ve ever advised,” said Dr. Richard Firestone, his graduate advisor, in an interview with Jet. “He [was] very intelligent, and he worked very hard. In fact, he worked as hard as a grad student should, which is unusual…. Also [he had] a lot of courage… not the kind of courage one needs to fly a jet air craft, but intellectual courage. He was quite a resourceful student, the kind who thinks for himself.”

According to several accounts of Lawrence’s life, he applied to NASA twice and was turned down both times. Although NASA refuses to confirm this, it wouldn’t be unusual. Many talented pilots failed to make the cut. But in 1967, NASA wasn’t the only game in town. Although it is little remembered today, the Air Force had a space program of its own: a vision of military space exploration far different from the peaceful ideal promoted by NASA.

* * *

The Air Force’s manned space program started with the Dyna Soar, a rocket plane meant to be boosted into Earth orbit atop a launch vehicle. The military envisioned the Dyna Soar as a platform for carrying out real-time reconnaissance, to inspect and interfere with enemy satellites. In case of emergency, it was designed to perform space rescues. The cost of the project soared, and that — along with lingering doubts about whether or not the Air Force should even have astronauts — caused the program to be cancelled in 1963. The military shifted its manned space efforts to something even more ambitious: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.

The MOL was to be a small space station in polar orbit, crewed by two Air Force astronauts whose missions would last about a month. The MOL would be equipped with a photographic system called Dorian, which had a higher resolution than cameras then available on unmanned satellites. The two astronauts would photograph targets on Earth as part of an ongoing reconnaissance program. Other duties for the MOL crew might include operating a radar system, testing electronic intelligence-gathering devices, assembling other orbital space stations, and inspecting enemy satellites. They would, in effect, be spies in outer space. Six months before he died, Lawrence was chosen to join their ranks.

Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. and members of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Group 3, L-R: Robert T. Herres, Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., Dr. Donald H. Peterson and James A. Abrahamson, 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

When he was tapped for the project, the MOL was still just an idea, so Lawrence’s duties were strictly ground-based, such as traveling to visit contractors that were involved in the project. These trips were done under the radar, with officers like Lawrence wearing civilian clothing and even using assumed names. This arrangement proved to be a problem for Lawrence, as he had already achieved some measure of fame in the media as the “first black astronaut,” even though the program he was a part of was considered secret.

Lawrence was often accompanied on these trips by fellow MOL astronaut Donald Peterson, a white officer who hailed from Mississippi. At the time, young white men and young black men traveling together was rare. Often restaurants would not serve them, even though the practice had been made illegal under the Civil Rights Act that had been passed a few years before. Peterson, though born in the segregated south, was boundless in his admiration of Lawrence, referring to him as a “real super guy” decades after his death, according to NASA’s oral history. Many of Lawrence’s friends remember his good humor with fondness. Peterson went on to join NASA and fly on a space shuttle mission.

Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. and his team, 1967. (Photo courtesy Astronauts Memorial Foundation)

Major Lawrence was well aware of his status as a role model for African Americans and of the difficulties he and other black people faced in the turbulent 1960s, but he tried to avoid relating his career to the civil rights struggle. At a press conference with the other MOL astronauts, Lawrence was peppered with questions about his race. He avoided addressing such questions directly, declaring, according to Jet, that he was “a scientist, not a sociologist.” Self-effacing, he refused to compare his selection as an astronaut to the then pending nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be a justice of the Supreme Court. Having a black man chosen as an astronaut, he said, was “just another of the things we look forward to in the normal progression of civil rights in this country.”

If he had a cause, according to a profile published in Ebony shortly after his death, it was for more black youth to enter STEM fields. He believed that his success was due to the encouragement of his family, and his luck in attending a remarkable public high school that turned out an exceptional number of engineers, scientists, doctors and lawyers.

When Robert Lawrence walked out to the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base for the last time, he had a future that was boundless as the heavens.

A year after Lawrence’s death, President Nixon cancelled the MOL project, calling it too expensive, and no longer necessary thanks to advances in satellite technology and NASA’s plans for Skylab. If Lawrence had survived, he probably would have joined the other Air Force astronauts, and been transferred to NASA. He likely would have flown on the space shuttle, and become the first black man in space. It was not to be.

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