Please Punch Me

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A fear-ridden father corners his midlife crisis by enticing an ex-con boxing champ into the ring for the bout of a lifetime.

On a bitterly cold January morning in 2008, Adam Friedman and Alvin Valentine, friends and co-workers, climbed into a Brooklyn boxing ring and proceeded to go at each other for three hard-hitting rounds. There was nothing particularly artistic about what transpired in those grunting six minutes. Some solid blows were landed; there were no knockouts, and thankfully no blood. It was one fight of probably dozens that transpired in that ring that day.

But for both men, the boxing match represented something very different. For Valentine, a former Blood gang leader and longtime inmate, it was a chance to fight for something other than his life; to fight for fun instead of respect, or to instill discipline in the yard or send a message to a fellow inmate. For Friedman, it was a chance to face down a monster that had tormented him since childhood—fear.

That both men would ever cross paths, let alone face each other down in the squared circle, was unlikely. They both worked at Exodus Transitional Community, a grassroots organization with the goal of helping recently released inmates make their way back into mainstream society. But they came from as different backgrounds as New York City can offer, a distance much farther than the trip between the Upper West Side and Brownsville.

*   *   *

“Do you ever think about going back to your old life?” Friedman asked Valentine at work one day.

“Every day, every day,” Valentine responded.

“Why?”

“Because,” Valentine answered, humorlessly, “when you’re a drug dealer you never get an email saying you forgot to put something in the database.”

Alvin Valentine’s sweeping and audacious criminal career—a career that spanned a third of his life; a career rife with stick-ups, guns, knives, shivs, blood and Bloods, gang orders, and an encounter with a fresh one-legged corpse—all started with a child’s bicycle.

When he was twelve or thirteen, Valentine committed his first crime. He was hanging out with some friends in East Harlem, where he grew up, when he saw another group of kids. He liked one of their bicycles. They had it; he wanted it. He convinced his friends to rob them. He approached the biggest of the rival kids, beat him up and took the bike. It felt good. Beating the toughest kid filled him with pride.

When he turned forty years old, Adam Friedman, a father of two and deputy director of Exodus, made an odd request of his co-worker and friend. Friedman asked Valentine to beat him up.

Friedman, as best as he could describe it, was in the throes of a soul-gnawing mid-life crisis. A recent father, Friedman said he did not want his children to grow up a coward the way he felt he had. He thought he would find a cure for his tortured inner life in a boxing ring, facing down a former gang leader who was a decorated Golden Gloves fighter and boxing champion at Sing Sing prison.

Ever since he was a boy, Friedman ran from fights. Alvin Valentine would start and often finish them. Now Friedman and Valentine, thirty at the time of this bizarre request, were about to fight each other. The two men come from two different worlds. One lives in Trump Tower; the other in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brownsville, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But on a frigid Saturday morning those two worlds intersected in the boxing ring of a sweat-soaked Brooklyn gym.

*   *   *

It’s Not a Good Feeling

Friedman has always been averse to physical conflict. One spineless retreat from his teen years sticks out. He was walking to his New Rochelle high school cafeteria to meet a girl he had a crush on. He was carrying a copy of a Shakespeare play when three classmates intercepted him. They snatched the book and began tossing it around in a bully’s game of keep-away. Finally one of the students took the book and walked away. He brazenly stuck it in his back pocket, daring the young Friedman to come and take it. He never did.

Adam Friedman at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.
Adam Friedman at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.

“He was asking me to walk over there and punch him,” he says. “And I should have. But I didn’t. I was too scared.”

That moment of cowardice has shaped the man Friedman has become, and on a chilly Saturday morning nearly six years ago, he visited Gleason’s Gym in Dumbo, a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, to exorcise this demon. Impending middle age has made Friedman obsessed with confronting fears that have dogged him his entire life. Months before, he finally confronted his fear of blood by donating for the first time. But a fear of fighting topped the list.

As Friedman approached his fortieth birthday, he became obsessed. And as a former boxer and hardened former gang leader, Valentine became the target of his desire to get this fear of fighting out of his system. He incessantly nagged Valentine about setting about up. Valentine finally relented to Friedman’s requests.

In the days leading up to the showdown, Friedman could already feel the fear that had dogged him his whole life reasserting itself. As part of his training he sparred with opponents much bigger and more skilled than himself. He left one of those sessions with a bloody nose and shaken confidence. He worried that the “humongous” guy he fought only went at him at half-speed. What would happen, he thought with a shudder, when Valentine came at him unrestrained?

“When I get in the ring, I want to get hit—I want to see what I’m made of,” he said. “I’m not confident I’m made of much.”

Valentine, for his part, said he thought Friedman would leave the fight a “humbler and wiser” man.

“He will learn a lot about himself,” he said. “He will learn how he reacts under pressure and crisis. He will also learn how he reacts under pain.”

When the day for the fight arrived, the cold, implacable reality started to settle in.

“I feel weak at my core,” Friedman said as he loosened up on the mats outside the ring. “It’s a shaky, weak, unsteady feeling inside. I feel un-solid, like my muscles don’t feel firm. The more I can really picture, not just picture getting hit but feeling the hit, I picture him coming in more, hitting me and clocking me. The feeling of not just getting hit but having to go for two more rounds…”

He added, with a Woody Allen-like instinct for understatement: “It’s not a good feeling.”

*   *   *

Moments before stepping into the ring on the day of the bout, that fear is obvious on Friedman’s face and in his lanky, lean body, which swims in a torn t-shirt. His gaunt, pale legs stick out of a pair of old, ragged Jams shorts. He sits by himself, a stricken look on his face. His complexion is ashen. His breathing is shallow. His eyes dart nervously around the gym, staring at demons no one else can see. The gym is alive with activity—boxers sparring, wrestlers crunching their bodies on the mat with a thunderous boom, the unmistakable sound of a fist slammed into a face—but Friedman doesn’t register them.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the gym, his opponent is smiling. Valentine’s toned muscles pop beneath his shirt. He shadowboxes skillfully. His long dreadlocks are bound tightly in a bunch. He is loose and confident. When asked if he has any concerns about the fight with Friedman, his boss, he shakes his head with a devilish smile.

Adam Friedman celebrates his 40th birthday by going in the ring with his colleague, Alvin Valentine, a former Golden Gloves boxer, at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn.
Adam Friedman celebrates his 40th birthday by going in the ring with his colleague, Alvin Valentine, a former Golden Gloves boxer, at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.

“No,” he says. “I’m good.”

“When this fight is over me and Adam are returning to two different worlds,” he says. “We’re going to speak different languages, live by different rules. He’s going to his apartment in the Trump Towers, I’m going to my one-bedroom apartment in Brownsville.”

As Friedman readies himself for the fight, someone points to a sign taped to a column. It reads “In Case of Boxer Emergency.” He does not find it funny. The amateur contestants climb into the ring. Friedman’s demeanor changes. He is no longer in a ring. He is muttering to himself, working himself into a vengeful reverie. At that moment he is envisioning his young son on a playground at P.S. 199 on the West Side of Manhattan. He is playing out a scenario where Valentine is picking on his son and he is going over to stop it.

Friedman and Valentine glare at one another as the referee reads the rules. Valentine’s fist crashes into Friedman’s face before the bell rings.

*   *   *

Good Intentions Don’t Feed Babies

“Does anybody know what recidivism means?” Valentine asks a roomful of dispirited, suspicious ex-cons.

It’s early on the Monday morning after the fight, and Valentine is at the Exodus Transitional Community, housed in the Church of the Living Hope, a white, crumbling four story building on East 104th Street. In a dark second-floor room with low ceilings, three dozen recently released prisoners sit in institutional folding chairs. A few perch on a windowsill. All of the faces are black or Latino. They are rapt as Valentine speaks.

Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem.
Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem.

He is part preacher, part self-help guru, part hard-nosed CEO delivering a no-nonsense business presentation. He is a different man than the sculpted fighter itching to get in the ring. He wears a pair of dress pants that hang fashionably loose around brown dress shoes, and a matching tie against a collared shirt.

After a pause, a member in the audience mutters a response, something about someone who can’t keep it together on the outside.

“If you don’t do anything to achieve that goal you become one of those people,” Valentine smiles knowingly. “You know the type.”

The crowd, loosening up a bit, chuckles in recognition.

“They talk about doing this and doing that,” he continues. “People filled with broken promises and dreams that never materialize.”

“The road to hell is paved with what?”

“Good intentions,” a young man barks.

“That’s right,” Valentine sniffs. “And good intentions don’t feed babies. We’re dead serious about what we do here at Exodus.”

Valentine never had the luxury to fear fights because there was a scuffle every day when he was growing up in the city. He turned to a life of crime at an early age. At about the same age that Friedman was when enduring the taunts of bullies, Valentine saw his first dead bodies. The corpses were new, scattered around a counting house for a drug dealer in Harlem.

Valentine received a tip from a girlfriend whose mother counted cash for the dealer, and he set out to rob the place. He snuck up on the apartment and realized right away something was wrong.

“The door was unlocked,” he said. “I realized someone had beat me to it.”

He crept into the house, his gun drawn, and saw a pair of mannequin-like legs poking from the doorway of the kitchen. As he made his way to the room he was startled by a dead woman shot to death on the kitchen floor, her prosthetic leg leaning against a blood-spattered wall.

“It was so quiet I could hear the hum of the refrigerator,” he remembers. He slipped out of the bloodbath, careful to wipe his prints off the door and anything else he touched.

After arrests on drug and armed robbery charges for sticking up a McDonald’s, Valentine spent time in various prisons upstate. In prison, as he describes it, he did what he had to do. That included stabbing people who stepped out of line.

At Exodus he started a new life, but one that is challenged every day. His old life constantly threatens to undo his new one.

“Every single day,” he says. “Every day. The temptation is huge.”

Shortly before his fight with Friedman, Valentine was offered several thousand dollars a week to become an enforcer for a New Jersey drug dealer. He turned down the offer. But his small salary and the demands of impending fatherhood—his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child—are always on his mind.

Alvin Valentine looks out from his favorite perch in Brooklyn.
Alvin Valentine looks out from his favorite perch in Brooklyn.

He says he is riveted by a vision, a metaphor that reminds him of his desire to never return to prison: It is of a burned ship that he has set on fire after sailing it away from prison. In his mind, Valentine thinks that if you destroy the ship, it is impossible to take it back to prison. In this thought exercise, he has stranded himself in a mainstream world of jobs and schedules and responsibility, and he has no choice but to make it work. It has to work. He can’t go back.

After the workshop, he ascends the steps to the roof of the church and recounts how he had to take an intern up there after a disturbing incident a while back. A client who recently enrolled in the program had become hostile toward the intern and started intimidating him. The intern came from a wealthy household. The client had just been released from prison. Valentine explained to the intern how hard it is to grow up knowing you are never going to have that life, the psychological toll it can take.

“This is my favorite place on earth,” he says as reaches the roof, pointing with a sweep of his arm toward the panoramic view of the city’s rich and poor. “It keeps me grounded. Why do I dedicate my life to this work? There are hundreds of young men down there who are going through what I went through. I can use what I know and get them on a different path.”

There was a period when, if Valentine saw a police officer, he worried about getting locked up. After he started working at Exodus, he says he began to look at police with a sense of relief.

“I know they’re there to protect me,” he says. “I’m the perfect example of what a prisoner to professional looks like.”

*   *   *

Who is This White Dude?

Julio Medina, forty-six, started Exodus in the early 1990s from his mother’s kitchen table after serving years for being a self-described drug kingpin.

“I was this major drug dealer,” he said from his office. “I realized I could use the smarts that I used for a negative and channel that into doing something I wanted to do.”

He performs the unglamorous work of keeping prisoners from the revolving door of incarceration. Without assistance readjusting to regular life, Medina says, many ex-convicts end up back in prison.

Sharon White, who served eleven years for manslaughter and then worked as a program manager at Exodus, says the work Exodus and similar organizations do is instrumental in preventing that from happening.

“The bottom line is that there are people coming home,” she says. “They’re coming home every day, whether you like it or not. The question is, what are you going to do with them?”

At Exodus, Friedman and Valentine are essential parts of answering that question. But Medina came close to not hiring either of them. Friedman came in for his interview with a suit and tie, a sophisticated resumé and a folder containing his work from a high-powered advertising firm.

“I didn’t care about any of that,” Medina says. “I couldn’t imagine this lanky white guy being able to deal with hard-bitten criminals every day.”

Medina indulged Friedman, reassuring him that he’d consider his application, with no intention of calling him back—until he saw the “lanky white guy” interacting with a room full of ex-cons, slapping them five and engaging them in easy, friendly conversation.

“Adam really connected with them,” he says. “It was amazing. I made up my mind to hire him right then.”

Valentine, conversely, started his career as a client. But even that almost didn’t happen. Valentine’s attitude was so disruptive his first day at Exodus that he was thrown out.

“He was like, ‘You all don’t know who I am,’” Medina remembers, doing his best tough guy impression. “‘I’m Alvin Valentine. I don’t need you all.’”

Julio Medina outside the headquarters of Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.
Julio Medina outside the headquarters of Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.

If not for Sharon White, who grabbed him and told him to cool off and come back the following week, Valentine isn’t sure what he would have done once he walked out the door.

He was a quick study, however, and soon became an employee, working with clients.

“In Alvin you have this mix that I really love,” Medina says. “He’s a tough guy, as you can clearly see. But he can get across to people.”

Friedman and Valentine’s relationship was contentious at first. Valentine bristled at what he saw as Friedman’s dismissive manner.

“Adam doesn’t realize it but Adam can come across as condescending,” Medina says. “He puts this facial expression on like he’s saying, ‘How can you not know that?’ I should know. He does it to me. It was definitely rubbing Alvin the wrong way.”

Valentine had spent nearly a decade in prison, where respect was the common currency. Now his supervisor was not paying it.

“Imagine Alvin comes here from prison, where he called the shots, and now he’s looking at this guy Adam telling him what to do in, let’s face it, a really annoying way,” Medina says.

Valentine confronted Medina about it.

“He came to me one day and he was angry,” Medina says. “He told me he didn’t think he could take it anymore. He said Adam was a sucker and all this. I told him to be patient. Friedman is a good guy.”

Valentine remembers his frustrations. “I went in there and was like, ‘Who is this white dude?’” he says.

Although friction defined most of their relationship, Medina says they developed an unusually strong bond.

“They are both committed to the work,” he says. “They just do it in their own ways. Something that each of them respect is their intelligence.”

*   *   *

See You Monday

Round one begins with a false start: Valentine hits Friedman before the bell goes off.

“When he first hit me before the bell I thought, ‘O.K., I can take a shot,’” Friedman recalls. Both fighters return to their corners.

After landing a blow and getting a taste of action, Valentine is impatient. He is restless in his corner and eager to get into it. As the bell rings, he freezes for an instant in a boxing pose then lurches into the ring.

Friedman shows no hesitation. He doesn’t wait for Valentine to come to him. He takes long, crane-like strides toward Valentine. Friedman throws the first punch, a left jab that glances off of Valentine’s guard. But Valentine, a southpaw, lands the first blow, two right jabs in quick succession that catch Friedman on the chin. Friedman regains his balance and the two exchange a series of punches, each feeling the other out. They circle each other in the center of the ring, neither man backing down.

Valentine gets in a punch during his bout with Friedman.
Valentine gets in a punch during his bout with Friedman.

Then Valentine sets Friedman up with a combination. He absorbs a left jab from Friedman and responds with a right jab, then a body blow. When Friedman lowers his guard for an instant to protect his ribs, Valentine takes advantage and lands a devastating left overhand. It lands with a popping sound and jars Friedman’s head. Valentine tries to follow it with a roundhouse right to knock him out, but Friedman backs away from the blow and it narrowly misses.

That flurry of action leads to a cautious ending to the first round as they throw some exploratory jabs, and then size each other up. The bell sounds and the fighters return to their corner. Friedman talks strategy with his corner man, who squirts some water from a Poland Spring sport bottle into his mouth.

Friedman remembers thinking, “Wow, thirty seconds is a long time in the ring.”

Round two opens with a blur of activity, both men throwing a riot of punches. Friedman throws a left that Valentine needs to step back from to avoid. Valentine responds with a wild right that Friedman dodges. But Valentine composes himself and sets Friedman up for another savage combination. He stuns Friedman with a left to his chest, then follows up with a right to the face that brings the lanky fighter to his knees, his head bowed as if in supplication.

The referee, an employee of the gym, sporting jeans, a white t-shirt and a gold necklace dangling from his neck, rushes over. Friedman pops up quickly, but the ref examines him closely before letting him get back to the match. He asks Friedman a series of questions to make sure he is O.K. to continue. Friedman looks woozy, but he is ready to go. He nods his head vigorously. The ref lifts his guard and tests whether Friedman can hold his fists up on his own. He can, and the fight continues.

They meet again, exchanging some punches, but most of them are deflected. Friedman seems to find his legs and holds his own until the end of the round.

Rounds one and two were unanimous for Valentine, but in the third and final round Friedman fights to a draw, giving as good as he gets, landing a few shots, and taking some solid blows from Valentine without breaking stride or faltering. Throughout the last round Friedman seems to savor each moment, not wasting time dancing. He is active, taking healthy swings. He advances on Valentine, keeping up the pressure.

“Alvin said there were a few things he tried in that round and that I foiled him,” Friedman says later.

The bell rings and an exhausted Friedman struggles to raise his arms in triumph. The two fighters hug briefly in the ring after the fight. There is an atmosphere of camaraderie in both Friedman and Valentine’s corners. The fight meant different things to each boxer.

A video of the fight between Adam Friedman and Alvin Valentine, directed by Vin DeCrescenzo and produced by Adam Friedman.

Valentine was the unanimous victor, at least to the handful of pugilists who took a break from their workout to watch the odd match, but Friedman acquitted himself respectfully. He was palpably relieved when he scooted under the ropes and took in what he had just accomplished.

Friedman dedicated the fight to his two sons and looked forward to the day when they could watch a tape of it and understand why he did it.

Valentine used it to measure his stamina. At the time he had aspirations of boxing regularly again and wanted to get into shape to go the distance for a twelve-round fight.

“I’m glad there was a knock-down,” a jubilant Friedman said, loping around the ring, his hair matted with sweat. “I’m glad. I feel like I got hit. And I got up!”

Valentine shook his hand and shouted in support: “You got up, man!”

Valentine had considered Friedman a friend before they fought. But now he had a newfound respect for his co-worker.

“I am very proud of Adam,” he said. “I think he did an extraordinary job. Tremendous.”

“He was in rare form today,” he added with a broad smile.

Alvin Valentine congratulates Adam Friedman after the fight.
Alvin Valentine congratulates Adam Friedman after the fight.

Friedman and Valentine shook hands and then hugged. As they gathered their belongings and prepared to go their separate ways the two men said their goodbyes.

“I’ll see you Monday,” Friedman said.

“See you Monday,” Valentine confirmed.

They had work to do.

*   *   *

The Aftermath

The fight became a thing of lightweight legend around Exodus. Friedman earned the respect of his colleagues for daring to step into the ring with Valentine. Medina took him aside and told him, “That took guts.” Valentine would show the footage of the fight to his friends, who chastised Friedman for not attacking when Valentine stepped back and dropped his guard to showboat.

Friedman’s own father could not bear to watch the tape of the fight. He didn’t want to see his son get hit. (Though that didn’t stop him from encouraging his son to “knock him out!” the morning of the fight.)

The fight with Valentine did not have a sudden, transformative effect on Friedman. But a little while after the fight, Friedman was at work late one night doing an assessment of data on Exodus clients, tracking the number of people who were meeting with the job development counselor. He noticed that forty percent of the clients were not going to their meetings, which, for a newly released inmate, is unacceptable. An essential part of integrating back into society is getting a job. Everyone wants an inmate to have a job—the parole officer, the reentry counselors, and the inmate himself.

Alvin Valentine gives a lecture at Exodus Transitional Community for the new clients, who come every Monday morning.
Alvin Valentine gives a lecture at Exodus Transitional Community for the new clients, who come every Monday morning.

While many former inmates who might be tough when faced with physical confrontation, they are daunted by the prospect of sitting down for a job interview. The clients would fumble for excuses to avoid meeting with the counselor. Friedman was troubled by the discovery. And that’s when he had a revelation.

“It’s not that they were lazy,” he says. “It was that they were scared.”

At Exodus, Valentine always led the first meeting with new clients, telling them his life story, using his experience to earn their trust and encourage them to avail themselves of the programs at their disposal. After Valentine gave his presentation, it was Friedman’s turn. He headed up a workshop on the nuts and bolts of what the program had to offer.

The next Monday, before he launched into his spiel, he played the tape of the fight.

“If I can get in a ring with Alvin,” he told them after it was over, “then you can go out on a job interview.”

The following week the head of job development sent out an email to the staff. It informed them that for the first time, not one client missed their appointment for the week.

*   *   *

Going After the Big Dog

About a year after the fight, Medina and Friedman parted ways. They had different ideas about what direction to take the organization, and clashed on a number of occasions over the program’s details. Friedman thought it best to look for a new job, so he left.

When the phone rang at 5:55 a.m. on a weekday about five months ago, Friedman jolted awake in a panic. His first thought was: Who died?

He answered the phone. It was former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who had served as an advisor to Exodus when Friedman worked there. McGreevey asked him if he would like to work for Jersey City, helping formerly incarcerated people make a go of it. Steven Fulop, the mayor, had appointed McGreevey, famous as America’s first self-described “Gay American” governor, to a position as executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program. McGreevey wanted Friedman to join his team as deputy director.

In the wake of the public disintegration of his political and private life after getting caught up in a gay sex scandal with a staffer in 2004, McGreevey has dedicated himself to reforming juvenile and criminal justice, helping people, young and old, to avoid getting caught in the prison pipeline. He worked closely with Integrity House, an organization that helps women prisoners and victims of domestic violence in a number of ways, from job training to providing substance abuse programs.

Now, back in the public sector in Jersey City, McGreevey is behind an initiative to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline for at-risk youth. The program brings together the city Board of Education with the building trade unions, providing high school juniors with union mentors.

From his small office in a bleak grey building in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City, Friedman paused as he reflected on how the fight affected him. He leaned back in his squeaking office chair and stared at the drop ceiling. He said he has become not a better father, but a more confident one.

“I wanted to show my kids that you can get in a ring with Alvin,” he said. “If my dad had stepped into the ring with Alvin maybe I would’ve grown up differently. I didn’t want to raise them to be cowards like I was. Getting into the ring with Alvin showed that I could go after the Big Dog.”

*   *   *

“Sometimes I Wished I Caught a Bullet in the Stomach Rather Than Do This Time”

Steven Llanos calls Friedman and Valentine “the odd couple” with a resonant laugh that speaks to the absurdity of the pairing. Despite their differences, Llanos credits both men, in their own idiosyncratic ways, for saving his life.

Llanos, thirty-five, was in the life as far back as he could remember, selling selling crack at nine years old. Whenever he got in trouble, his mother, a drug addict, would always be there to bail him out because she knew she would be able to get drugs from her son as compensation.

Llanos was on his way to scoring crack to get back in the drug-dealing game when a wrong turn in East Harlem landed him in front of the white church that housed Exodus. A group of men were outside on a smoke break when he overheard them talking about prison. Llanos had recently been released after finishing a bid for drug dealing. A member of the group invited him up for some lunch and a coffee. It was Valentine.

“Alvin invited me upstairs, he invited me to his workshops, he gave me lunch and coffee, something to drink,” Llanos says. “I never left after that.”

He stayed on—first as a client, then as a counselor, then moved up to project manager. Valentine’s example gave him the confidence to keep his head down and throw himself into the work. Llanos and Valentine had similar backgrounds as children who grew up in a world of violence and crime. He eventually looked up to Friedman as a father figure, a source of inspiration as he negotiated the pitfalls of fatherhood.

“My dad was pretty much not in my life,” Llanos said. “Adam was like the father I always wished I had growing up. When I saw Adam and the way he was coaching Little League, and being present in his kids’ lives, watching him be the father he was made me become the father that I am.”

But that was not always the case. Llanos says that initially he was weary of Friedman.

“It was that old prison mentality,” he says.

As a child and teen, Llanos only saw white people as members of a system that ground him, and people like him, down. When his friends got beaten by the cops, he says, the officers were always white. When he got placed in foster care, the people who wrenched him from his family, they were white. When he was in prison, it was always a white corrections officer who was meting out discipline.

“I don’t know what they call it, transference and stuff like that,” he says. “But it started to change when I saw that tape. That’s when I started to trust Adam. It brought humor. He was funny; he was goofy.”

Two years ago, Llanos relocated his wife, whom he met through a prison pen-pals program, and his eight children to suburban Atlanta. He went to school to become a welder and now runs a crew as a foreman. He does not think he would have made it if he hadn’t met Friedman and Valentine, and says he intends to go back to helping former prisoners make that transition to mainstream society.

Llanos had a refrain he would repeat to both the clients and his coworkers at Exodus: “We are the population we serve.”

The phrase flashed in his mind’s eye when he heard that Valentine had been shot in the summer of 2010.

Before he left Exodus, Friedman said Valentine started becoming “feral.” Friedman said it was hard to put his finger on it, but that he became withdrawn and started acting “gangstery.”

So when word reached him that Valentine had returned to the life he had sworn to leave behind, it was devastating news, but it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

It didn’t come as a surprise to Llanos either.

“I just think Alvin lost track,” he says. “He forgot where he had come from, what he had left behind. And you should forget that life. But there’s a catch-22 at the same time. That life we lived—it’s the nature of the ‘hood. He forgot the pain and got caught up again.”

Llanos says that the longer a former prisoner is free, the easier it is for him to take that freedom for granted.

“You forget about the four o’clock count, the guys you left behind in prison. When you forget that, then you’re in trouble.”

Llanos was relieved to hear that Valentine survived. And he was not surprised that he turned his life around once again in the wake of the shooting.

“Unfortunately he went through that pain, but it got him back on track,” Llanos says. “Sometimes I wished I caught a bullet in the stomach rather than do this time. Sometimes. You need that pain to get back on track.”

According to his old friends, Valentine is working as a doorman and building manager in Long Island City, a gentrified waterfront neighborhood in Queens. It’s a job that McGreevey helped him get once he heard his former colleague had lapsed.

*   *   *

“People From the Hood, We Don’t Do Yoga”

In prison, Llanos says, you develop a sixth sense. When something is about to go down in the yard or the mess hall, that sixth sense starts humming. One afternoon at a workshop he was leading at Exodus, Llanos said his sixth sense was in overdrive. Two clients in the room had a turbulent history in prison. One of the men had ordered the stabbing of the other client’s friend. The old score was about to be settled in the church basement.

“It was really getting to the point where, if we were in prison, it would’ve been on,” he says, recalling the incident. “They made eye contact and you could feel it going through you. Something was brewing. It was about to happen.”

Llanos interrupted his workshop and asked if there was a problem. One man responded: “Yeah—him.”

The other man stood, ready to fight. Llanos pleaded with them to give him a minute, one minute.

“I grabbed the tape and threw it in there,” Llanos said.

The two rivals watched the tape of the fight, saw Friedman’s and Valentine’s preparation, and saw their camaraderie after it was over.

“People from the hood, we don’t do yoga,” Llanos says, referring to a portion of the video where Friedman is folded into a ball. “When they saw Adam doing yoga, they were on the floor cracking up.”

Llanos says watching the fight lifted the tension in the room. A week later when the two men met for staff lunch and held a service, they were side-by-side, part of a circle holding hands.

“That tape, that fight,” he said. “It was like magic.”

*   *  *

Daryl Khan is the New York bureau chief for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers young people and the system, where he assigns stories and writes long-form and investigative pieces. He runs the bureau from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where he also teaches.

Robert Stolarik has been a regular contributor to the New York Times since 2000 and has worked on assignments covering the Kosovo Conflict, Civil War in Colombia, coup d’etat in Venezuela, Hurricane Katrina, Haitian earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy for Time Magazine, Le Monde 2, Stern, Newsweek , The National, and JJIE.

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.

spot-1

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.”

* * *

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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