My Urban Farming Epic Fail

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It started as four college roommates with a hunger for farm-fresh food and a penchant for pet puns. It ended with dead ducks, grumpy goats, and one horrifically bloody mercy killing gone wrong.

Like many Portland autumn skies, the gray Sunday clouds passed over us in one great low-hanging mass. The four of us, twenty-something college roommates from all over the United States, stood in front of the home of a chicken vendor we found on Craigslist. The home was thirty minutes east of the city. I expected a rural scene with wide pasture and a red barn; instead I found a prefabricated house in a subdivision of large, empty lots. I wondered if we were in the right place. A chubby young teen answered the door.

“Are you here to see the birds?” he asked.

The boy led us around back. The backyard was half the size of a football field and packed with wooden coops that contained hundreds of chickens, ducks, quails and geese. The place smelled of vinegar and gym socks.

“Here they are,” said the boy, pointing to four birds behind a wire fence. There they were. The birds were smaller than they appeared online. Only one of them looked like a proper plump and motherly hen. The other three looked more like crows with small heads and pencils for legs. My friends and I looked at each other, trying to hide our skepticism from our young salesman. The birds cost $20 a pop.

“Well,” I said, “we came this far out.”

So the four of us — a Vermonter, a Bostonian, a Texan and me, a Floridian — placed the birds in a cardboard box in the backseat of our car and returned to Portland. Thus began our three-year odyssey as urban farmers in the Pacific Northwest.

For Portland émigrés with an 800-square-foot backyard in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Woodstock, urban farming was the fashionable thing to do. Anywhere else in the U.S., a house full of young male college students would probably play fantasy football; we played fantasy farmer. We weren’t the only ones. Portland boasts one of the most thriving backyard chicken cultures in the country.

Robert Litt started the Urban Farm Store in his garage on SE Powell Street six years ago. Litt was dissatisfied with the chicken feed he found in the area, so he started making his own quality feed. As word of his brand spread and demand grew, he opened a real storefront. The Urban Farm Store now has a database of between 10,000 and 15,000 customers in the Portland area, and it sells more than 100 tons of feed and more than 5,000 pullets (baby hens) per year — nearly all to backyard farmers. The store even developed its own organic soy- and corn-free feed, since many Portlanders have eliminated those ingredients from their own diets.

Obviously, backyard chicken culture is not limited to Portland. Major urban areas like Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Chicago have all experienced an increase over the last decade. It’s part of a growing nationwide urban farming movement, and the trend has less to do with poverty or hunger as it does the ecological and ethical benefits of producing your own food. But Portland is different. Portland is the kind of place where the city provides houses with compost bins, and dumpster diving is both a sexy pastime and a familiar way for the frugal to fill an empty stomach.

I wasn’t immune to the pull of Portland’s mystique, or the idea of urban agriculture. Yes, a sense of social and environmental responsibility inspired my roommates and me to live a greener life. But I also liked the idea of dirt under my fingernails, and having a reason to wear overalls without irony. Urban farming seemed fun and cool.

“Portland has elevated the chicken to pet status,” says Urban Farm store manager Jason Everly. Unfortunately, he added, some Portland chicken owners have no idea how to care for their animals. “Forty percent of my time is spent on the phone with people who don’t know anything about chickens,” Everly says. He could have been talking about us.

My roommates and I didn’t bother to do much research before buying chickens. Technically, we were outlaws. According to Chapter 13 of the Code and Charter of the City of Portland, a resident can have backyard chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats or rabbits without a permit, as long as they keep fewer than three animals total. We had four. In order to keep four or more, owners just need to pay a $31 application fee and inform any neighbors within 150 feet about their stock. According to Chris Wirth, manager of the Multnomah Code Enforcement Program, there are currently more than 800 permits for chickens in the city of Portland, up from 95 in 2009 — but that’s a fraction of the total.

“We only see the tip of the iceberg,” Wirth says. Short of knocking on every door in the city, there’s no way to know who has more than three chickens.

Wirth and his department occasionally investigate complaints about chicken slaughter. Typically, the complaints relate to screaming birds and blood leaking onto a neighbor’s property. The amateur killing of chickens can be loud and messy. Fortunately for us, our neighbors didn’t mind our rule-breaking. Instead of complaining, they followed suit and built their own, superior chicken coop.

The chicken coop marketplace is filled with shockingly high-end structures. Williams-Sonoma’s Agrarian line sells an “exclusive” hand-built $1,500 coop made with “sustainably harvested western red cedar, custom-milled by a local, family-owned sawmill and delivered to the workshop via ferry.” Neiman Marcus offers a Versailles-inspired Le Petit Trianon coop that costs over $100,000. If you own this decadent unit, Neiman Marcus promises that when you “slip on your wellies” and head for the coop, you will be “greeted by the pleasant clucking of your specially chosen flock.” There, inside the world’s most expensive chicken coop, the company catalog says you’ll find your roost in a “living room,” or maybe in the “broody room.” If your chickens are out and about, you can just wait in the coop’s library, which is “filled with chicken and gardening books for visitors of the human kind, and, of course, an elegant chandelier.”

In place of an expensive abode, we gave our chickens distinctive names: Mama San, a Rhode Island Red, and the three, indistinguishable black bantams, Stacey, Lacey and Fat Rhonda. They lived in a coop that I thought resembled Rio’s favela architecture. Its sides were made from discarded pieces of wood of varying thickness, and the roof was comprised of three different slabs of corrugated metal. The entire structure stood about a foot-and-a-half tall. Despite its rickety appearance, the birds took to it when we’d usher them in at night and close the door.

To keep the girls safe, we chicken-proofed the yard’s nooks and crannies with hexagonal wire. The fence mostly worked, but one of the bantams (I always blamed Fat Rhonda, though I could never truly tell) frequently slipped out and onto the street. The chases that ensued reminded me of the scene from the first “Rocky” film, where Sylvester Stallone’s boxing coach, Mickey Goldmill, tells Rocky that he wants him to “chase this little chicken” because “if you can catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning.” I chased, and the loose bird dodged my attempts to capture it. She was like a feathery Barry Sanders. After long bouts of weaving and missed tackles, I’d give up, and the bantam would wander back home on its own volition.

In the beginning, mornings rewarded us for all our backyard husbandry. As the kettle warmed for the day’s first pot of coffee, one of us would head out to gather eggs. Our birds typically gifted us with three to four daily. The fresh eggs clustered in one corner of the coop, and we delicately reached in and brought them inside. They felt warm in my hands. Bits of scat and loose feathers often clung to them, but I got over that quickly. Our chickens’ eggs were strong. The thick shells required a serious thwacking to open them. The yolks seldom broke in the pan. We’d fry them sunny-side up and make sure the little wet sunsets were runny as hell. In our house, overcooking a backyard egg was a sin. Maybe they were tastier than store-bought eggs, or maybe I imagined they were tastier because of my personal relationship with the birds. Either way, over breakfast, we felt like stewards of the earth, and my investment fed a mild case of burgeoning self-righteousness.

On lazy days I studied our chickens for hours, seeking some anthropomorphic qualities. They had none. Instead, their behavior was predictably pleasant. Their walk combined a high-kicking Rockette with a tiptoeing Scooby-Doo. Their necks jutted forward in sync with each step. They kicked the dirt behind them and pecked at everything and nothing. They ate and shit a lot ─ about forty-five pounds of poop per chick, per year, to be exact. To drink, they stuck their beaks in a dish, threw their heads back and swallowed the water like my roommates and I gurgled mouthwash. And unlike their noisy male counterparts, the chickens made soothing coos, constantly mumbling among one another, though their wide eyes made them seem forever on edge. It didn’t take long for me to understand that chickens are not intelligent creatures. That made sense, since they sometimes ran around without a head. Take the famous story of Miracle Mike.

In 1945, on a small farm in Fruita, Colorado, Lloyd Olsen slaughtered chickens for a family dinner. Olsen knew that his mother-in-law liked neck meat, so he wanted to leave as much of it for her as possible. He raised his cleaver and chopped the head off of a five-month old cockerel, or young rooster. The headless bird ran around for a moment, as headless chickens often do, but instead of falling over dead, the bird gathered itself and went on being a chicken. It pecked for food and preened itself, with great futility. It even tried to crow but could only muster a gurgling noise. Olsen didn’t have the heart to finish the job; instead, the bird became a sideshow character named Miracle Mike the Headless Chicken and was flown to fairs as far away as England. Olsen kept Mike alive for eighteen months with an eyedropper that he used to feed Mike through his neck, and to remove the mucus build-up that eventually suffocated him.

The medical explanation for the headless chicken has to do with the bird’s skeletal anatomy. Chicken skulls have two large openings for the eyes that subsequently place the brain at a forty-five-degree angle. By leaving as much neck for his gizzard-loving mother-in-law, Olsen inadvertently left the bird’s brainstem intact. This allowed Miracle Mike’s basic motor functions to continue working as if it had a brain.

Personally, I had trouble developing an intimate relationship with a creature that can live without a head. Yes, our chickens gave us delicious eggs, and they ate our kitchen scraps and made us feel like less-wasteful members of society. But something was missing. And perhaps because everybody and their cousin had chickens back then, we wanted to separate ourselves from the masses. So we bought four ducks.

I still liked our hens, but the ducks were better. Their colorful names reflected our preference. There was the speedy black duck, Usain Bolt. There was a smaller, light brown duck with flecks of black at the end of her feathers, who we named Fidel Castro’s Beard. We named the elegant brown duck Benazir Bhutto, in honor of the late Pakistani prime minister and political activist. And then there was Einstein, the favorite, an inconspicuous white duck in all ways except for the frizzy white tufts that adorned the crown of his head. The Vermonter bought a kiddie-pool for the ducks to swim in. Our Bostonian roommate sang Leonard Cohen to them as they swam. They did as they pleased and always kept close to each other. They were even less interested in us than the chickens were. They’d never let us pick them up or even touch them, but they were much more spirited and independent, and the chickens suffered for it. Playfully intelligent, the ducks would harass the hens by biting their tails. Ducks are extremely messy, and they’d crap in the water dispenser, further stressing the chickens.

The stressed chickens stopped laying. The ducks gave us eggs, which were tastier and larger, but laid with less frequency. Soon we realized they were more pets than animals of utility, which made what happened next all the more unfortunate.

I’d heard that coyotes cruised the neighborhood and that raccoons scavenged garbage. But we made no extra effort to protect our flock. Then, one rainy morning, my roommates and I woke to find our roost massacred. Chicken and duck carcasses were strewn about the wet ground, their little necks broken and their livers gored. Wet and bloodied feathers mixed with earth. Only Fidel survived the assassination. She sat in silence. We could see the flesh of her neck from the clawed attack. The house fell silent. The mood grew somber. We discussed the situation: What kind of animal might be capable of killing six birds in one sitting? Raccoons? Possum? Coyotes? We weren’t skilled trackers. We had no way of knowing,

The previous night, we’d agreed to have brunch. It was unclear if anyone had an appetite, or if, out of respect for the dead, no one mentioned it. But I was hungry and needed some levity, so I spoke up. “Guys, I know everyone is bummed out. It really is a tragic event. But we can’t just sit around and be sad all day; the ducks would want for us to be happy, just like they were until they met their unfortunate end. Maybe we should go out and get some brunch.” I paused. No one responded. I continued. “So, if anyone would like to join me, I know this really great Chinese place that serves a fantastic Peking duck.” The joke did not go over well. The atmosphere got tense, and I thought it best to leave.

While I was eating, my roommates did the dirty work of collecting and burying our poor birds’ limp bodies in the cold, soaked dirt. It was poor judgment on my part, like my comic timing. As a group, we also failed to predict the obvious and fortify our yard, because whatever predator killed our birds came back for poor Fidel a few days later. Besides the equipment, empty coop and occasional loose feather, our backyard was empty.

Like the parent who hastily buys a cuter puppy to replace the dog that was run over by the mailman, we replaced the ducks — with goats.

Now, I was totally against this. But our newest roommate, who was also the new girlfriend of the Vermonter, was persistent. She sent us adorable pictures of baby goats and recipes for making our own cheese. The house committed to all of the responsibilities that come with large animals, but still, I protested. If we couldn’t even keep chickens alive, how were we going to deal with goats? But the group overruled me, and they built an impressive shed-sized barn out of five-ply and two-by-fours, into which they trotted not one, but two goats.

It was a mother and her kid — a package deal. The kid was a cute. It had auburn fur and white spots and a spunky energy, and like all miniature things, it was inherently adorable. Continuing our bizarre naming tradition, we called her JonBenét Ramsey. Mama Goat had thick grey fur and was over 200 pounds and intimidating, so we just called her Mama Goat.

Only the Vermonter had previous milking experience. Some of us weren’t even breastfed as children. It took a lot of tugging and YouTubing to get the milk out of those swollen udders, but in the end, it was only me and the Vermonter who could manage. You’d grab one or both teats with your thumb and forefinger. Then you’d pinch the teat at its base where it connects to the udder, kind of like when you’re holding the end of an untied water balloon. Then, you’d roll your fingers in descending order, and presto! Warm and creamy goat’s milk. Between the challenge of squeezing and the metallic rumble of the aluminum bucket, keeping goats made me feel like a real farmer.

My mother didn’t approve of us drinking raw milk. On the phone, she told me it was reckless, and it might have been. Unpasteurized milk can contain harmful bacteria like E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium. In 2012, three Portland-area children were hospitalized with E. coli infections from drinking raw milk from a farm in Clackamas County.

To protect the public from bacteria, twenty states have banned the sale of raw milk, and thirteen have restricted purchases. Retail distribution of raw goat’s milk is permitted in Oregon, but you can get unpasteurized sheep or cow’s milk by directly purchasing it from an Oregon farm. Still, my roommates and I went on drinking it. We made goat-milk lattes and homemade goat cheese and poured goat milk over late-night bowls of Cap’N Crunch. Although I didn’t go deep into the science, I believed that certain bacteria and nutrients in unpasteurized milk helped with my digestion. Cow’s milk always gave me unpleasant after-effects. The goat milk had no consequences. None of my roommates got physically sick either, but we did start to lose our minds.

Turns out goats require significant attention. When deprived of it and kept in a relatively small yard, they began to bleat incessantly and would stare through the back windows with their devilish, flattened eyeballs. It was creepy and annoying, but it was our fault because we hadn’t done our research, so the goats didn’t get what they needed, and we got more than we bargained for.

To give them exercise, we once took them on a walk with leashes to a nearby park. Fifty feet ahead of us, a mother was pushing her baby in a carriage. Our mama goat got excited and lunged at the woman’s baby, her udders swinging back and forth. It took all our might to stop her, and after apologizing to the frightened woman profusely, we slunk back to the house and decided we couldn’t walk goats on leashes. But we were only able to offer them 800 square feet of backyard.

That couldn’t solve the problem we’d created. When the Bostonian broke his tibia and fibula in a basketball game, he was immobilized for more than three weeks; unfortunately for him, his upstairs room faced the backyard. The goats, normally home alone throughout the day, somehow sensed that someone was present. So they bleated at the Bostonian for hours on end. Their shrill cries sounded exactly like a candy-fiending little boy shouting “Mom!” in a supermarket. In constant pain, the bedridden Bostonian couldn’t escape. No earplugs would muffle the sound. If he tried to drown them out with music, they only seemed to bleat louder. There was one moment when he looked to his bedside table and his month’s supply of codeine. I could end it, he thought. I could end it all right now.

We were ill-equipped goat stewards. We admit that. Since we were young and hungry, we formulated the most self-serving and simple plan we could: butcher the goats for Thanksgiving. To me, JonBenét looked tasty. Mama looked chewy and gamey. But this was just bravado. We couldn’t do it. We wouldn’t even know where to cut on their throats, let alone how to carve up their carcasses. Instead, we found saviors at an animal sanctuary who vowed to take good care of Mama and JonBenét, though I suppose they could have eaten them for Thanksgiving as well. When the sanctuary staff picked up our girls, they said they had never seen such overfed and fat goats. I couldn’t help but feel vindicated because I knew that the goats were a bad idea in the first place. Still, there was some shame in our inability to take care of sentient and social animals. They deserved better. It wasn’t the goats’ fault that they were caught up in the crossfire of house politics.

We took comfort knowing that we weren’t the only city dwellers desperate to get rid of goats and poultry they shouldn’t have bought in the first place. Many people in the Portland area fail at raising fowl and livestock. The plight of these unwanted animals moved Kit Collins and her husband, John, to create Out to Pasture Sanctuary ten years ago.

“Do what you can with what you got,” Kit Collins says. The Collins live in Estacada, a small town thirty miles southeast of Portland. Set on some extra acreage, their all-volunteer, nonprofit sanctuary costs the couple $1,000 a month in food, plus vet bills and hay. In September, Out to Pasture housed more than 150 animals, including thirty chickens and ducks, twenty-two pigs (eighteen were potbellies that people no longer wanted and the other four were regular pigs that someone mistook for potbellies), twenty-five cats, two dogs, ten goats, a sheep, a donkey, a couple of llamas and more than fifty roosters. There are so many unwanted roosters that the sanctuary was no longer accepting them this fall.

“I’ve been getting three calls a week because of roosters,” Kit said. Due to their loud cock-a-doodling, roosters are illegal in Portland, and can incur a $200 fine. What upsets Kit, especially about the recent backyard chicken fad, is that, in his words, “half the chickens are born roosters. People don’t realize. It’s just so frustrating to see people buy on a whim. If you’re going to take an animal, it’s a lifelong commitment.”

So what to do with the other half? For most baby roosters, life ends once their sex is determined. Most stores order their chicks a year in advance from hatcheries. In order to establish sex, some hatcheries “sex link” the chicks — a breeding system in which males and females come out as different colors — so future roosters are immediately removed. The other, more accurate, way of sorting the pullets from cockerels is something called “vent sexing.” To do this, a vent sexer must examine what is called the vent, a part of the anatomy where both the eggs and poop exit. Only females have vents. Apparently, this method is ninety percent accurate, and a vent sexer spends over eight hours looking at chicks’ anuses. Depending on the policy of the hatchery, the unwanted cockerels are disposed of with CO2 gas or fed to raptors. Before this, we never considered the end of a baby rooster’s industrial life. We didn’t think much. We just plowed on.

Undeterred by our previous failings or Kit Collins’s comments, we purchased a new flock. The house welcomed Joan of Arc, Bizarro Joan of Arc, Madonna, Mohamed Bouazizi and Roberta F. Kennedy. These new chickens were great layers. “We’re seasoned urban farmers now,” I thought, imagining myself squinting into the distance with a blade of wheat in my mouth. That was until one evening when we found Joan of Arc with a broken neck. She was walking around the garden enclosure, dragging her limp head by her side. She tried to act normally, to play it cool and hang with the rest of the roost, but a void in the pecking order had opened, and the rest of the chickens pecked callously at her and shooed her away.

We knew we had to help her. We couldn’t take her to a vet, unable to imagine such a thing as a chicken neck brace. We decided on a mercy killing. But who would do it? When the question arose, most of us kept silent. My experience with killing was limited to filleting fish. No one seemed able. Then, the most recent addition to our abode, a twenty-three-year-old outdoorswoman from Houston, stood up.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

“Do you know how?” I asked.

“Of course. Just get me a knife and a cutting board.” She took Joan of Arc in her arms, comforting her with soft words and the gentle bounce you give to babies. I handed her a kitchen knife and lay the cutting board on top of a table outside. Quickly, she put the forsaken bird on the block and put the blade to her neck. This event was the most traumatizing part of our urban farm experiment. Joan of Arc’s beheading was less the clean lethal stroke of a guillotine and more like cutting a tomato with a blunt knife. Rather than raising the blade and striking with one quick blow, the Texan pressed her palm down on the blunt edge of the knife. She tried her best, but her ability was limited. Joan of Arc’s neck crunched, but her head did not separate. That took some sawing with a knife that, in hindsight, should have been sharpened. Our bird deserved better, but there was no turning back at that point. Finally, with the butchering complete, the now headless corpse began to violently shake. Our roommate held our bird by the legs as her wings flapped and blood spurted in all directions for a very long thirty seconds. Then I saw the head. Joan of Arc’s eyes protruded and her tongue, which I didn’t even know chickens had, stuck out the side of her beak. Her mouth opened and closed like some animatronic Jim Henson nightmare puppet gasping for air. I didn’t know how anyone would have the appetite to eat the bird.

We meant for Joan of Arc’s end to be merciful, but we took it as an opportunity to learn how to properly butcher a chicken – which exists, of course, but Portland’s abundant vegan and animal activist groups can make that difficult.

The year before Joan of Arc’s death, one of my college classmates, Gabe Holt, planned to use school funds to teach a student-led class on properly slaughtering and preparing a chicken for consumption. Provocatively titled Chokin’ the Chicken, Gabe’s class invited controversy. The title was adolescent and probably regrettable, but the class’s contents were legitimate. One student protested and demanded Gabe cancel his course. When he ignored her pleas, she responded by contacting the Portland branch of the Animal Defense League. The ADL rallied members and like-minds with a mass email claiming they would “be bearing witness and protesting the Reed College chicken slaughter starting at 11:00 a.m. Please come around 10:30 if you are interested in letting Gabriel Holt know that his murderous lifestyle will not be tolerated as a college course. Let’s let the public know what is going on and let Gabriel know that he can not murder without consequence.”

The student who hoped to stop the course also gave the Portland ADL Gabe’s full name, address and contact information. Leading up to the class, Gabe started receiving threatening online messages from people who were enraged at the idea of someone killing a chicken for consumption. A sample:

“You somehow think your life matters more than theirs? I disagree. Unlike you, I am capable of looking past the differences to see who is really there. And in your case, you who would dismiss the lives of others because they are not like you, well you can rot. I choose to fight for the chickens. They are better than you are.”

“Yours would be the same voices telling me how ‘unimportant’ lynchings were a century ago. You would be asking why we don’t protest something more ‘important’ if we gave a shit about slavery. You’d be denigrating those who fought for the rights of women to be treated as equals, or those who fought against the Nazis in the 1930s. That’s just who you are. Sad”

In light of the passionate opposition, Gabe canceled the course. But on the Sunday morning when the course was originally scheduled, Gabe woke to find that someone had broken into his backyard in Southeast Portland and stolen his chickens. What made this even more upsetting was that those were not the chickens Gabe was planning to slaughter; those were his egg-laying birds. He had contacted a farm that sold old hens for slaughtering, but he canceled the purchase when the course was abandoned. Gabe never identified the thieves, who surely saw themselves not as thieves but emancipators, but he hoped that the birds were not “released into the wild” as they wouldn’t have lasted a day on the mean streets of Portland.

Eventually, my roommates and I all graduated college and made our way back east. We left the birds in the care of the new residents. Every few months or so I’d get word that another bird had passed, cause of death unknown. I felt sad. Not like my dog died sad, or even some formerly-relevant-celebrity-death sad. What I felt was closer to the grief one feels when your favorite dive bar gets foreclosed. It felt like the end of an era.

Now, across the continent in Brooklyn, the only creatures I shepherd are bedbugs and mice. For the former, I have no sympathy; for the latter, I attempt to humanely catch and remove them, only to fail and develop a bloodlust for killing the sneaky rodents.

Still, when I stare out the window of my New York apartment, I see a tiny plot of unused land and think, “I could totally put a beehive in that corner right there.”

* * *

Isaac Eger is an itinerant writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times and GQ. He is writing a book about playing pickup basketball around the world. Read his blog, Courting the World, and follow him @IsaacEger.

Chris Cilla is a cartoonist in a Sardine Can in Portland, Oregon. His latest comic book, Labyrinthectomy/Luncheonette, has just been published by Revival House Press.

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

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

This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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