Tales from Two Feet

From the thrill of a runner’s high to the chafing on a runner’s thigh, eight fast-paced writers revel in the silly, scary and sublime moments that come from life on the run.

The Gray Shorts of Shame

By Daniel E. Slotnik

Like many spoiled, sedentary, MTA-addicted New Yorkers before me, I took up running after a period of indolence in my early twenties.

I had always regarded running as training, something to be dispensed with as rapidly as possible before playing a more interesting sport — a three-laps-around-the-field, mile-on-the-treadmill kind of deal. I was more into weightlifting, but now that football was many years behind me and I didn’t plan on getting into too many fistfights, it seemed unnecessary. Plus, if my neck got any bigger I’d have to buy new shirts.

So I bought some running shoes at JackRabbit and began working my way haphazardly around the Central Park loop. I smoked at the time, so a mile or two reduced me to a wheezing, dripping mess, whereupon I learned the joys of dehydration, heat exhaustion and relentless allergies. But I still hobbled along as lithe ultra-marathoners passed me by the dozen.

I have since given up smoking, and run a lot more. And I’ve got to tell you, it never stops sucking. The writer Haruki Murakami, who has run so many marathons that thinking about it makes my knees ache, wrote in his running memoir that during the first two miles he always wants to stop. I’m like that, only for the whole run.

There is an upside, of course. There are meditative runs where your legs stop aching, your mind empties and the world around you achieves a clarity it otherwise lacks. When it’s over you feel fantastic for a while, then seriously exhausted, so you sleep deeply and well. Plus you get to interject, “Oh, I’m a little tired because I ran X miles in the park yesterday, while you were drinking at OTB” into regular conversations as often as you choose.

There are other concerns. It is really easy to hurt yourself, sometimes badly and without realizing it. You can wear out the cartilage in your back and knees, sprain ankles, break unpronounceable bones in your foot, get crippling plantar fasciitis and shin splints, and you’re guaranteed general musculoskeletal soreness.

Then, of course, there’s chafing. There is something uniquely emasculating about telling your significant other that your nipples are bleeding from wearing a cotton shirt that might as well be sandpaper. Even a healthy dose of Gold Bond won’t keep the Elvis-hitch out of your step after loose cotton boxers have scoured a furrow in your thigh.

Some of the issues, especially the chafing, can be handled by investing in some decent gear: running and compression shorts, wicking shirts, good running shoes and the like. I resisted these sensible purchases stubbornly, and for quite some time ran in bedraggled shorts, holey cotton boxers and old T-shirts.

I had a pair of gray Adidas shorts made out of the gauze used to dress Civil War wounds. The drawstring in the waist had long since given up and had to be tightened or readjusted every ten feet or so, and the pockets gawped like popped balloons or discarded condoms. But they did have pockets, so I could carry my keys — an important feature, since I had yet to purchase a wristband with a key pouch.

It was a sweltering afternoon on Memorial Day weekend, and the park was full of barbecuers when I suited up and went out to the park.

I ran down the loop from 102nd Street clockwise, which isn’t the direction you’re meant to go, but I was too intimidated by New York City’s version of Heartbreak Hill to start a run with it.

The loop was packed with joggers, bikers, tourists, pedicab drivers and families, many with small, impressionable children. I had decided not to listen to music and found it far easier to get into a rhythm. I felt quick — gazelle-like, really. The road disappeared under my feet and I wasn’t fatigued at all. The only sounds were the people around me, the whoosh of wind past my ears and the metronomic jangle-thwack of the keychain in my pocket against my thigh.

I made it down to the boathouse, a fair distance for me at the time, then turned around to run back up the hill past the statue of a puma crouching on a rock. I thought I was moving pretty fast, passing a lot of people, and it was around that time that I noticed many of the people running towards me were staring at me. Some smiled, some didn’t, but people were watching me run. “I’m really hauling ass!” I thought to myself, and picked it up a little more.

I began to get suspicious when I noticed a fairly attractive woman point at me and laugh shortly after I had sprinted to the top of the hill. My hearing zeroed in on the sound of my keys against my thigh. I looked down.

The droopy pocket with keys had slipped below the hem of my shorts and was swinging back and forth dramatically, striking my leg with each stride. After a couple steps I realized that from afar it resembled a wizened gray scrotum.

I jogged home, one hand jammed awkwardly in my pocket, glaring at passersby. When I got back to the apartment I shucked off the gray shorts of shame and pitched them into the trash. Later that week I finally bought some new gear.

Daniel E. Slotnik is a contributing editor for Narratively. He has worked at The New York Times since 2005, has written for several Times sections and blogs and is a frequent contributor to the obituaries department. Follow him on Twitter @dslotnik.

Rolling Along

By Michael Vitez

By mile ten, climbing the hill into Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, running by Memorial Hall, my hips, groin, knees and ankle were all complaining pretty seriously. I knew I’d finish my first half marathon since 1977, but I was telling myself to just limp home. And then I hit Martin Luther King Drive, and saw the clock at the eleven-mile mark: I had eighteen minutes to break two hours. My mind immediately said, “Surrender; 2:02 or 2:03 is great.”

I am fifty-six. I ran track and cross country in high school. I was only a little better than ordinary, breaking a 4:40 mile once or twice, but loved it. Loved everything about it — the friendships, the fitness, the feeling of success after a good race. I remember all these great moments from a lifetime ago. Not victories or defeats, but singing in the showers after practice, or Mark Sohasky running right into a water fountain at Burke Lake Park during the district championship, or listening to Foghat on 8-track tape in Brian Murphy’s orange Datsun on the way to practice. I graduated high school in 1975 and still keep up with several of my old teammates although they are spread across the country.

I ran in my twenties and thirties, and even into my early forties, but only a few days a week at most, never long distances, and rarely entering a 5K. I stopped running because my knees ached. I thought I’d worn them out from too many years of bad shoes. (In my day, the premier running shoe was the Adidas Gazelle. I ran fifty- to sixty-mile weeks in that shoe. In the late nineties, when my kids were playing indoor soccer, I couldn’t believe it: The shoe of choice was the Adidas Gazelle, considered by then a slipper for indoor surfaces.)

I remained active — tennis, biking, swimming, walking. But never running many miles. We had three kids, who all became high school and college runners — way better than I ever was.

I had two good friends and neighbors, only a little older than I, get sick with cancer last winter. Both are dead now. Their deaths shook me on many levels. I felt like the Tim Robbins character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” who says: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

So I registered for the Philadelphia Triathlon and resumed running. And I loved it. I discovered that running didn’t make my knees feel any worse. I also discovered that once I got running, two or three miles in, my knees would loosen up and feel good.

After getting back in shape, I decided to go for it — to enter this Philadelphia Half Marathon. I set my goal for two hours. I began in one of the middle waves and loved it from the start. I realized immediately that I was no different from all these other runners. I could run with them. I could do this. Inexplicably, this was quite a surprise for me. Why hadn’t I done this for the last thirty years? This is a deep and disruptive question because it could be applied to so many aspects of my life. What was I afraid of? This really was a journey of self-discovery.

So at that eleven-mile mark, I found myself picking it up. I felt much better the faster I went. I was never that tired, just sore, and the soreness was leaving me the faster I ran. In the twelfth mile, and into the thirteenth, I felt this long-lost, distantly familiar, amazingly satisfying sensation — that I was rolling.

Relatively speaking, of course. But I was passing people. I had cross-trained all summer and fall to get fit, lost twenty pounds, and here, for this brief moment, in November, it was paying off.

Although I wobbled like a newborn colt after I crossed the line, I finished in 1:59:19. It isn’t the time or sense of accomplishment that I will savor most. It will be that ephemeral moment when I felt as I did a long time ago—like a distance runner.

Michael Vitez, a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. He is the author of two books, “The Road Back” and “Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps.” The older he gets, the faster he is.

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Learning to Swivel

By Rosalind Adams

“It’s like walking like a prostitute,” said Coach Horn, describing the sport of racewalking. “You need to move your hips a lot — kind of like an aggressive strut.”

The indoor track team was lined up in a basement hallway to watch Nicole, a senior racewalker, demonstrate the form. She swished up and down the hallway, hips moving like the oars of a rowboat in order to build up speed while obeying the sport’s main rules: One foot must always be on the ground, and the knee must be straight as the heel makes contact. She was confident; she was fluid. Not entirely unlike a streetwalker’s swagger.

Although it offered none of the glory of 100-meter sprints or hurdles, and the swivel-hip motion invited derision at the Olympic level, a first-place finish in the 1500-meter racewalk still earned ten points in a track meet. Most schools veered away from it, offering the girl who mastered the technique a chance to shine.

One by one, each of us submitted to the audition, although none of us were exactly sure how to contort our bodies in such a fashion. Pairs of wobbly knees knocked together while parading down the hallway in the hope of coming close to the form Nicole had effortlessly demonstrated. Others only made it only a few steps, collapsing into giggles and embarrassed by the idea of “strutting.”

At my turn, I could barely get my narrow hips to move at all, and tried instead to focus on locking my knees and pumping my arms. But rather than mastering Nicole’s wavelike motions, my movements were closer to those of a toy soldier. Mercifully, I failed this first trial, and stuck to the long-distance track events in which my lanky frame seemed better equipped to compete.

But two years later, near the end of another indoor track season, I was unexpectedly preparing for the New York State championships in the 1500-meter racewalk with a shot at the medal stand. After several successful cross country and track seasons, I had become frustrated by a series of lackluster performances, stymied by a lingering injury and a fear of continuing to underperform that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The challenge of mastering the peculiar form became an enjoyable goal and took the pressure off of racing. And now the event offered a chance at redemption.

On a Friday afternoon, I started on a long racewalk — one of the last before the meet. I began around the track behind school for a mile or so, my feet aligned with the white stripes that marked the lanes. In racewalking, each foot crosses in front of the other for the same reason that a runway model walks in a straight line: It forces the hips to rotate. But while a model does this to create sex appeal, for the racewalker, it is purely about power. It also creates a mesmerizing motion that bears little resemblance to actual walking. Each hip pops up, while the opposite shoulder drops down and the arms punch forward, compelling the body into an endless, spinning figure eight that can also move quite swiftly.

“Can you show me?” became a popular request among my friends, in the same way you might ask someone to juggle or touch their tongue to their nose.

From the track, I headed out to the baseball field of Queens College, still brown and barren in the late days of winter. The aching of a hard workout comes in different places when you racewalk. The shins burn from striking the ground with your heel flexed and the biceps tire from the sharp arm movement that propels the body forward. After circling the field, I took the path up to the parking lot and made several loops around the gym complex. By now, the solitude of the workout was broken, as inevitably there were a few college students who watched or laughed, or looked away, pretending not to notice.

No matter, keep going.

The racewalking community is tight-knit, and protective of the sport. A fellow racewalker I competed with years ago likened it to swimmers who specialize in the butterfly: Just because the freestyle is faster doesn’t delegitimize the other events, she reasoned. “Yeah, exactly, what was the big deal?” I thought.

From the college campus, I racewalked down Kissena Boulevard toward the park, past unsuspecting pedestrians who whipped their heads around to see what was happening as I passed them. At Gino’s pizzeria, the corner where the scents of fresh dough and chow mein from nearby Chinese restaurants mingle, I paused at the light, bouncing on my toes and wiggling my hips to keep them loose. A few blocks further down, the road intersects with the Long Island Expressway. As a mess of cars from Friday afternoon traffic clogged up the intersection, I continued my walk.

“Hey baby, I like the way you move those hips,” a faceless voice came from a car. Then a whistle from another car.

There is always the question of what to do in those moments. This time was more jarring: My body shrunk in response while my steps faltered and lost their rhythm.

Weaving through the cars, my feet kicked up high and I began landing on the balls of my feet rather than my heels, picking up into a light run. My hips now stayed square and parallel — inconspicuous — as my arms swung lightly across my body. In moments, I was blocks away from the scene.

But it was now these motions that felt clunky and laborious. After a few steps, my knees began to lock again and my feet found their way back to something that had become a familiar rhythm. My hips swung out more powerfully this time, in defense.

The park was still ahead, and so was the state championships.

Rosalind Adams is a graduate student at Columbia University and a freelance journalist who has reported from Chile, Thailand and the United Nations. Follow her on twitter @rosalindzadams.

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Hell of a Race

By James Folta

High school cross country attracts all kinds of people. There are the hardcore racers, with shorts that disappear under their pinnies and chunky watches with a button for each stat the watch tracks. There are beefy off-season football players running in long basketball shorts, trying to swagger their way to alpha dominance while being consistently beaten by dudes who weigh as much as their football pads. There are the non-athletes, hanging out, enjoying the sun or loathing the rain, just trying sports on for size.

I was the hobbyist, the middle-of-the-pack runner — respectable, but I was never a serious competitor, mostly because homework was always more important.

There were a few runners I met who defied all of these cross-country archetypes. I raced against the strangest by far in the fall of my junior year. The meet was at a sprawling private school, the 5K route only one lap: a loop starting and ending in a soccer field, twisted out of shape in between. We took off on a beautiful afternoon, sunny with a crisp breeze. It had just rained and in the shade the ground was still soft and slurped under our feet. I quickly settled into a groove — my breathing was under control and I hit a good first-mile time.

At that first-mile split, I felt another runner come up behind me. I thought he was having respiratory problems — his breath was irregular and he seemed to be trying to spit or cough something up. But as he got louder and louder I realized he was speaking to himself. Weird, but not out of the ordinary.

But he kept running closer and closer, so close that he kicked my shoes every few strides. I quickened my pace but his babbling stayed right behind my shoulder. I swear I could feel him spitting on my neck.

Around mile two he started to speak louder. He was praying. Not Hail Marys or Our Fathers but personal and increasingly desperate requests: “Please oh please oh please God let me win this race.” It went on like this: “Let me win this race, let me triumph.” We were way behind the top runners — this supplicant was asking for a miracle.

Then he started bargaining. He made deals, promising stricter attendance at church, more money in the collection plate. He promised to read specific Bible passages: “I’ll read all of Genesis tonight, I’ll read Revelations tonight, I’ll read Revelations every night this week.”

The faster we went, the more we tired and the more desperate his negotiations with his Lord became. He promised more donations, more Bible study, more days in church. He lowered his expected rewards too — he wanted to finish in the top ten, then just to finish in general, then just to pass me.

“Please Jesus, oh please please Jesus, let me pass this guy. Let me pass this guy. Just let me move up one more place.”

Earlier in the race, I probably would have just let him pass me. But I was increasingly convinced that he was trying to slyly convert me or at least drive me mad. What if this was how he had passed everyone — by breaking their will through his incantations? Was he really that clever? Was he that conniving? Was I that tired that any of this made sense?

I caught glimpses of open field to my right and heard cheering. The trail shifted abruptly from foot-packed dirt to curated wood chips. We were close to the finish. Bible Studies Guy sensed the same and began praying more feverishly: “godohgoddeargod just let me finish pleasegodpleasegod.” His mouth was so dry that it came out as hoarse whispers.

We rounded a tight turn and burst out of the woods. I churned into a final sprint, a push to the end. Bible Studies was right behind me, nothing if not unflaggingly persistent. The good thing was that he had stopped whispering. The bad thing was that he had started screaming “GOD” every other breath. How did this guy still have enough wind left in his sails to be screaming?

Less than a minute later it was all over — I barely eked out a finish before him. I settled into the standard runners’ finish pose — hands on hips, lurchingly walking slow circles, a pained face.

I finally turned around to see my tormenter. Maybe it was his innocuous glasses or his weary smile or the massive wave of relieving endorphins, but I felt a shared camaraderie with him. He probably had a nice name like Nick or Pete or Mike. Something shortened from a longer name because he was too nice to ask you to use too many syllables. He wanted to hear how you were doing. What a great dude. I’m glad we had just shared that race. I wanted to say something to acknowledge what we had shared. What to say to him? He beat me to it, raising his hand and pursing his lips as I stepped towards him.

However, the hand was not to wave but to cover his mouth from the fire hose of hot vomit that shot its way out. His hand diverted it slightly and he soaked me from waist to ankle. We both stood looking at each other, too shocked and exhausted to say anything.

And I finally knew what to say: “God bless you.”

James Folta is a writer, comedian, and carpenter living in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at www.jamesfolta.com or on Twitter, @JamesFolta.

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Streak Running

By Rick Andrews

Go outside and run at least a mile. Tomorrow, do it again. Keep doing that as long as you can without missing a single day. This is called streak running, and there are men and women who’ve got streaks lasting for decades. My junior year of college, I was just hoping to complete a full year. Having to run every day meant running at odd times, in odd places. For months I ran, often at night, past frat parties and sporting events, through empty downtowns and the deserted back roads of wherever I happened to be.

On day 220, I was in the middle of a twenty-two hour drive from St. Louis to Boston. My friend John was with me in the car. John’s a wildly intelligent guy, wickedly funny, and very anxious and inward looking. He’s got a peculiar short body and a charming handsome face. He’s the kind of guy you’d see walking towards you a long way off and you’d both already be smiling and preparing some kind of stupid thing you’ll say to make the other one laugh.

I was driving the whole way and John fell asleep. At around midnight, I needed to get gas, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t run that day. We were on highway 80 in the middle of Pennsylvania. It’s a desolate no-man’s land as far as eastern states go. Exits become infrequent, and it’s mostly just mountains and small towns.

I pulled off to get gas, and figured I’d run, too. John was deep asleep and didn’t wake when I pulled in. I remember sleeping in the car as a kid and wondering why you always woke up right when your parents pulled into the driveway, thinking it was home magic. And then of course realizing as you grow up and you drive your sleeping friends around that people just wake up from the deceleration. But John was out cold and he looked peaceful because of it, so I left him there and filled the tank.

A gas station in the middle of nowhere is sad and beautiful. The nature feels right and pumping gas feels wrong, I guess, and this dissonance hovers in your mind as you listen to the sound of the mountains and the road. Probably someone’s talking inside the station, and you can’t hear what they’re saying or to whom; you hear just enough to know that they’re talking.

I put the pump back and ran off down the road away from the highway and into the dark. I was used to running without lights, and it’d only be a half-mile out anyway. I’d still be able to see the gas station once I turned around.

Right at this point, John woke up. He didn’t even see me filling the tank. He just saw me in my khakis running away at a decent clip into the wilderness.

Running at night, you feel like a machine. Your fear of the dark leaves you, even in unfamiliar places. Your eyes adjust to the moonlight and you can see enough to navigate well. You feel alone in a good way, away from humanity but powerful and in control. The movement and rhythm of your body feels purposeful and correct and you wonder why you ever did things like “study” and “hang out” instead of just running every second always. This delusion lasts until you get tired or you stop running.

As I arrived back to the station, John was in the middle of the road with his phone out, looking around with worry. He did not know about my streak running, and in the wooziness of waking up, his mental possibilities were comical: I was being chased by someone, perhaps an animal. I was playing a prank that he would not enjoy. I was abandoning society. I was chasing someone.

“No, no, sorry,” I laughed. “I’m trying to run every day. Had to get my run in.”

“Oh. Well, alright then.”

We got back in the car and I kept driving. This isn’t the wildest story, I suppose. He didn’t call the cops and I didn’t chase an animal or anything extraordinary. And I did eventually make it a full year. But I remember the kind relief in John’s voice. He didn’t question why I would try to run every day. It didn’t seem to strike him as a weird thing to do, even though it is a weird thing to do. It’s just not a weird thing for me to do.

He was my friend and he was weird, and I was his friend and I was weird. We were weird like all people are weird if you actually know them and care for them. We got back in the car and kept driving. We laughed a bunch, I’m sure, and he slept and woke and we probably talked about high school football and his dad and black metal. I know we got to Boston and the rest of it from there.

Rick Andrews is an instructor and performer at The Magnet Theater in New York City. His writing has appeared in Thieves Jargon, Fringe, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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I Wanted To Be Fast

By Eve Troeh

I could never catch a ball, much less serve one, sink one, bump one, throw one or kick one. Spherical objects moving through space and I did not get along. Yet in childhood I somehow picked up the notion that one should be a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded person needed a sport. Ball anxiety left track and field.

My school was an anomaly; a private, Catholic K-12 in a small town on the Mississippi River. The entire high school had fewer than 200 students, most of whom I’d sat next to in neat rows of desks since kindergarten.

In a school that small, there were no real try-outs to be on a team. Every interested party was necessary for the team to exist. There were timed runs at the first practices to place girls in track-and-field events. Short of hair and hoarse of voice and the driver of a distinctive electric blue car, Coach was also the high school chemistry teacher. I worked hard in her class because it was hard. Scientific precision was not in my nature, but here’s that well-rounded thing again: It would have been unacceptable to my sense of duty to perform poorly. Coach mistook my fear of failure for true determination, a stick-to-it-iveness that would transmogrify my straight A’s into performance on the track. I wanted so badly to be fast, to be something other than the smart girl, that I let us both believe it could be true.

The other three girls on the 4x800m relay team knew better. They were bona fide jocks, running as an off-season means to stay in shape for volleyball and basketball. Every practice I caught their kicked-up gravel in my shins. On the far end of the track, behind the visiting team bleachers, they’d talk about their boyfriends and their booze order for prom: How many bottles of Boone’s Farm wine, what flavor, and who was going to buy it for them? It was like a foreign language.

Fast. How could these debauched girls be faster than me, the hardest worker? I tried positive visualization, picturing myself the star of some Lifetime made-for-TV movie in which the underdog wins. Saturday mornings found me running up Lovers Lane, never once to be found there with a boy on a Saturday night. I wrote postcards to summer-camp boys and pictured them cheering me on. I made mix tapes to inspire, ending side b with “Wind Beneath My Wings.” (Try getting busted humming that in the back of the team bus.) That song was meant to summon the love and sacrifices my mother made to afford my private education and extra-curriculars. Unconditional love was not working as fodder for my speed, though.

I turned to Jesus. An overly devout teenager, strangely drawn to dogma and study of theology, I imagined Christ’s pain as he hung on the cross to die. I read the Gospel of Luke, whom our religion class teacher told us was a medical doctor, and so best described the physical anguish of Jesus during His crucifixion. Surely comparing the pain in my thighs to that of Our Lord and Savior would push my muscle fibers into quicker reactivity. Nope.

Whomp, whomp, whomp… The long legs of a girl on another team would come striding past me in my final stretch of relay, the next runner shaking her head in dismay as I handed her the baton. The other girls held up their end of the bargain, and led us to several victories.

We made it to the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Championships, Division 1A. Families, faculty and classmates made the three-hour drive to Jefferson City. The night before the race we ate a spaghetti dinner and roamed the shopping mall. The other girls wanted to buy matching underwear for the race, and included me in the ritual. Black polyester satin, floral print, pink bow, lace trim. I barely slept a wink at the Holiday Inn.

All my strength went into the first 400-meter lap, taking off with a stride. I had lucky underwear. I had hometown boosters. I had my coach screaming and waving her arms on the sidelines. I had my mother, who loved me as much as any mother in history. At 600 meters, though, it all failed me. Or rather, I failed it. Trying to kick, my body engine sputtered. The cries for victory increased — were there even perhaps people on their feet? But it was no use. Other teenage female bodies passed me in a blur. I was not fast. I was never going to be fast. My body powered down and thumped, exhausted, past the finish line, placing my team just out of reach for a medal at the state meet.

I had failed. Yet I was free. Running from then on became a hobby, the rhythm of breath and footfalls and the cool evaporating of sweat something to enjoy. No more whistles, stopwatches, or suffering to be something I was not: fast.

Eve Troeh is a writer and radio reporter based in New Orleans. She is the news director of NPR affiliate WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Twitter and Instagram @evetroeh.

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Running High on Crystal Lake

By Jim Cavan

“Fuck you, I’ll get up at six!” I slurred.

Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “What are you doing!? You’ve been drinking beer and playing Euchre for five hours! What is wrong with you!?”

It was the summer of 2003. I was twenty-one, back home in Michigan after my sophomore year at the University of New Hampshire, and in the full throes of a righteous ritual: using cards and copious beer to ease the pain of a day spent house-painting beneath a baking sun. Despite that, I’d committed to running one leg of our team marathon, scheduled for a few weeks later. Running, suffering a stroke or dying in a ditch: whichever.

“So when was the last time you, like, exercised?” asked my friend Eric, late at night before a planned practice run.

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” I turned to one of my other, more athletic friends. “Chris, are you running tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’m getting up at six. But I don’t think you want to do that.”

The fucking nerve.

Now, when I say “team marathon,” I’m not talking about some Ironman Powerbar shit where Econolines full of Marines run the width of Wyoming in three days. I mean five people on a team scaling anywhere between five and six miles each across barely varying terrain. A 10K, basically. Around Crystal Lake, in Northern Michigan. That’s it.

That’s it? The most consistent exercise I’d had in months was bench-pressing one-pound paintbrushes a few hundreds of times a day on top of a ladder. Yes, feed me your steaming asphalt and angry detoured drivers and creepy local onlookers sipping Icehouse in broken lawn chairs.

Yes!

No.

By seven the next morning, I was actively praying some half-blind senior citizen on her way to breakfast at Bob Evans would run me over with her Buick. Not kill me, per say. Just splinter a couple limbs. Which sounded a lot better than drowning in vomit standing up.

“You did good,” Chris said, clearly lying, as we arrived at my front door after about thirty minutes out in the muggy Michigan morning. “I didn’t think you’d actually show up.”

*   *   *

Our group was a healthy mix of hardcore runners and ill-prepared college shitheads: One cross country All-American, two state champions and a handful of seasoned high-school athletes. Then there was me and Jeremy, a pair of chronic pot smokers two years removed from varsity basketball. To us, “running” was something you did after botching a defensive rotation, not an activity conducted for its own sake. We were here to swim and get fucked up around a fire. This was just our karmic toll.

Eric and Tim, the aforementioned running studs, slotted us two freakshows for the first, easiest and least variant leg of the course. Because that’s what good Christians do. As we approached the starting line on race day — half hung-over, of course — we were encouraged to see that we weren’t the only non-Olympians there.

Sure, you had your standard-issue top-shelf Asics and gaunt frames slid through too-short sleeves, waterproof wristwatches worth more than my car, college rivals out to settle scores. But their ranks were fairly cut with the casual jogger set — all-season health nuts, forty-something suburban moms and Lipitor dads on an overnight furlough from family trips to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I was still nervous, of course. Jeremy, on the other hand, despite absolutely no preparation whatsoever, exuded the air of someone just returned from training barefoot in the Ethiopian highlands. As the starting gun snapped, he bolted forward for the first twenty yards before spinning around and backpedaling the next fifty, taunting me.

He started hacking resin phlegm a half-mile in, but I remember being shocked at how good I actually felt, the rushes of reserve adrenaline summoned out of nothing more than sheer proximity to one’s fellow running men and women, most of whom had fed us kickback for miles. Jeremy, by contrast, seemed on the verge of permanent brain damage.

At around mile four, with the midsummer sun surging low over the lake, Jeremy — by now a human husk — turned and groaned the first words he’d spoken in minutes: “Just leave me behind, man.”

“This isn’t fucking Vietnam,” I retorted. “You can make it.”

“No, seriously, I’m gonna walk now.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Cresting the last hill, finish in sweat-stung sight, I came as close as I have, before or since, to understanding the “runner’s high.” A few minutes later Jeremy crossed, corpse complexion having given way to something vaguely more human, albeit humbled.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Like ass,” he said.

“Me too.”

“I need a beer.”

“Me too.”

*   *   *

How we managed to sequel our half-drunk run with a two-mile hike over Lake Michigan’s mountainous dunes and beach football between pylons of Molson Canadian thirty-racks, I’ll never understand. Nor do I want to.

Maybe the runner’s high keeps releasing far past the finish line — a lingering invitation to keep moving, no matter the cause or cost, to whatever’s over the next hill. For us, that was a tiny hollowed out sand cave free enough from the whipping winds to spark a bowl, barely out of eyesight of passing families. We just didn’t care. Hand us hammers, we’d have built Valhalla.

Later that night, hours beyond our bodies’ requests, Southern Comfort was passed around a wheezing fire. At that point I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d ever walk again — the sheer beer-fatigue and sunstroke having surely catalyzed a weird biochemical alchemy that would wake me crippled with polio the following morning.

But there we remained, fighting sleep through tokes and talk, more exhausted than perhaps we’d ever been. The last thing I remember is stumbling into our tent — a tiny popup disaster I’m convinced saw action in the War of 1812 — and stirring Jeremy, who decided upon waking he wanted to smoke.

“You want any?” he asked, voice a-grog.

“Dude, no. Tomorrow.”

“Look who’s getting left behind now.”

Jim Cavan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at Grantland, The New York Times, ESPN, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, among other outlets. He lives in New Hampshire, which you might remember from the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.

*   *   *

A Taste of Glory

By Dustin Grinnell

When I woke up on the day of the Newport marathon, I hadn’t planned on running 26.2 miles in under four hours. In the five months of training, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind once. When I decided to go for it, it was an hour before the start of the race, and I was staring at a plate of scrambled eggs. If I could finish a marathon in less than four hours, I thought, maybe it would trigger something.

The truth is: I don’t run to get in shape. It’s not my escape or meditation. I run to pursue what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience,” a feeling of perfection. Time slows down during a peak experience. For that reason, it’s often associated with flow state, the feeling of being totally absorbed in an activity. Maslow sometimes referred to a peak experience as the “oceanic feeling.” Your consciousness expands. You feel interconnected. At peace. But, as Maslow discovered, these experiences are elusive. According to the psychologist, only two percent of the population has ever had one.

The marathon began at eight a.m. in downtown Newport, Rhode Island. When the gun fired, five thousand runners left Easton’s Beach and jogged into a salty breeze, down tight roads hugging the ocean and past sand dunes and bushes, cottages and rolling hills. It seemed fertile ground for a perfect movement.

Before Maslow began his study of peak experiences, he assumed they only happened to saints. But he found that peak experiences were not religious in nature. In interviews, people from all walks of life reported blissful moments—times when they felt limitless, and enormously powerful. “Anything that feels close to perfect triggers a peak experience,” said Maslow. Triggers include sex, nature and music. Maslow spoke with a teenage football player who had a peak experience after scoring a touchdown on a breakaway run.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think we all have a profound desire for these psychological elixirs. They replace our drab, mundane world with a brilliant flash of glory. The mythologist Joseph Campbell touched on this when he said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think we’re seeking an experience of being alive. So that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

At their worst, peak experiences lodge themselves in our consciousness forever and live on as a wonderful memory. At their best, they go to work on you, and can have a transforming effect. In the latter regard, psychiatrist William Miller said a peak experience can stimulate “quantum change.” Such is their therapeutic value. In a world where change seems incremental, a peak experience has the awesome power to trigger a radical shift in consciousness, instantly. While there’s no formula for manufacturing a peak experience, I think we all have a general sense of our own triggers. Running, I’ve found, is my drug of choice. The physical benefits are all well and good, but it’s the spiritual rewards I’m after.

The Newport Marathon is referred to as a “destination race” for good reason. Keeping a quick pace, I passed some of the most scenic locations in the small Rhode Island town. We jogged through Newport’s city center, down historic Thames Street, hugged by shops, restaurants, inns and colonial buildings, some of which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. We circled around Fort Adams State Park, passing picnickers enjoying panoramic views of Newport Harbor. We passed the Newport Country Club and the iconic clubhouse, a mansion built in the classic Beaux Arts style. We ran along Ocean Drive, which gave us spectacular vistas of beaches and the Atlantic. We then turned onto Bellevue Avenue and marveled over the mythical mansions, many of which date back to the turn of the twentieth century. At mile thirteen, the course folded back toward the starting line, and I felt strong, untouchable. At mile nineteen, my body staged a revolt in the form of cramping legs, hobbling me every few minutes until the tightness in my quads released.

Just as I had started to make peace with the fact that I wouldn’t break four hours, I asked a nearby runner if he was trying to keep a pace. “I am going for four hours,” he said, coincidently. He told me that if I stayed with him that I, too, would achieve such a time. I told the man I would try to keep up, thinking perhaps a peak experience was still in reach. With three miles left, I had lost sight of the runner, but I knew I was close enough. I just knew. As I turned the last corner on the course and saw the time of 3:55, I got my trigger. Suddenly, I felt spread out — enlarged, and light. The backs of my eyes became wet. I felt alive. As I crossed the finish line in a state of ecstasy, I knew I had tasted glory. I knew I was changing, quantum-style.

Dustin Grinnell is a science writer for a biomedical research institute in Cambridge, MA. His travel essays have appeared in such publications as Verge Magazine and The Expeditioner, and he is author of the science fiction thriller The Genius Dilemma.

*   *   *

Simon Moreton is a cartoonist and academic based in Bristol, UK. His regular comic series, Smoo, is all about everyday life.

 

 

In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”

 

 

This Comedian in a Wheelchair Kept Crowds in Stitches…Until a Lack of Health Care Sidelined Her

Ally Bruener used comedy to express what it's like to live with muscular dystrophy. But now she spends all her time battling Medicaid just to take care of her basic needs.

Ally Bruener starts her set bluntly: with a joke about suicide.

“I’ve realized I’m the worst degree of disabled,” she says, “because I’m too crippled to kill myself but not crippled enough to convince someone else to do it for me.”

On stage, Bruener stands out from many other comics. She’s 29 and hasn’t walked since she was seven, due to congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD). She has a wheelchair that she stays in 24 hours each day. She uses comedy as an outlet, a chance to talk openly about what it’s like to live with a disability.

Bruener came to comedy at a difficult time; she’d just dropped out of college, and she was unsure where her life was headed. She took a stand-up class at a comedy club in Louisville, thinking it would be a short-lived indulgence. Five weeks later, the class held a graduation show, and she was hooked.

Audiences may come to her shows with preconceived ideas about disability, and Bruener’s aim is to challenge those perceptions. Whether it’s sex or dating or relationships with parents, her comedy sheds light on the richness of disabled people’s lives.

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

“It’s always been important to me to make a point to make sure people know I’m not who you would expect me to be, and I’m proud of that,” Bruener says. “So I like to use my comedy to make people a little bit uncomfortable, because I think you have to be a little bit uncomfortable to open your mind.”

Suicide in particular became a personal challenge in her comedy. In 2009, she lost one of her best friends to it. Here was this topic that was suddenly not funny at all, she says, a test of her philosophy that humor could be found in anything. As long as suicide was untouchable, then that idea was false. So she started joking about her own suicide as a way to prove that anything can be funny.

Bruener poured herself into comedy in the years that followed that first class, traveling from her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, across the Midwest and as far as New York City to perform, with the help of her dad, Ron.

CMD is a degenerative disease that keeps muscles from rebuilding, primarily affecting the skeletal muscles. As a result, Bruener has severe scoliosis, diminished lung capacity, and can’t achieve basic tasks without support from another person. Ever since she was a kid, Bruener’s dad has helped her get up in the morning, use the bathroom, get dressed, and move about her daily life. For the past six years it’s just been the two of them, since her mother left.

“He’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met, I can definitely say that,” Bruener says. “He’s very dedicated to his family and his community; he always wants the best for everybody. He’s the kind of person that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So if he’d do that for a stranger, imagine what lengths he’ll go to for his own kids.”

But last year, Ron started having knee problems, and he needed a hernia surgery, leaving him less capable of helping his daughter. He’s a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, and due to his own health problems, can only now work part-time. It became clear that just getting through the day-to-day would be a challenge for Bruener, let alone traveling for shows, which she put on hold.

* * *

Bruener decided it was time to apply for Medicaid-funded home health care. What followed was a long and still unfinished battle to receive even basic help, a process that has left her feeling helpless. While the country has debated loudly about health care in recent months – and repeated announcements from the Congressional Budget Office have shown that tens of millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under Republican plans to repeal Obamacare – Bruener’s story is indicative of what happens when funding is inadequate for even some of the most clearly established recipients of Medicaid.

Even as dramatic Senate scenes have played out, ultimately killing promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid beneficiaries like Bruener are already struggling with an underfunded system.

People with disabilities are clearly covered under Medicaid for home health care, but Bruener has run up against considerable problems in receiving basic assistance. She’s dealt with overly complicated applications, a lack of information, unreliable services from nursing agencies and a lack of options for caregivers. When Bruener calls the state, people taking the calls can’t even understand her well because of her breathing machine, which affects how she talks.

Lately, Bruener has been stuck at home while all of this plays out, unable to leave the house or even use the bathroom and shower regularly.

“My health is on the line because only peeing five times a week is going to result in internal infections, kidney disease, and probably pressure sores,” she says. “Beyond the medical issues, I am losing every sense of myself. I have no access to my community. I have no way to contribute to the greater good. I’ve invested so much of myself to building my comedy career and it’s feeling irrelevant. It’s left me questioning my value and purpose. If nothing changes, I will be in a nursing home before I turn 30. If it comes to that, I fear for my mental and emotional health.”

Her fight has been underscored by a lengthy political showdown in Kentucky over the state’s application of Medicaid, the government-subsidized program that supports health care for low-income people, pregnant mothers, elderly adults, children in foster care, and people with disabilities.

Months before President Donald Trump was elected to office and Congressional Republicans began a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin released a controversial Medicaid plan that would cut some entitlements and refocus the program around “personal responsibility.” At the time, Bevin, a Republican, was rolling back a Medicaid expansion that had been put in place through the ACA by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.

While Bevin has suggested that his plan is aimed at getting able-bodied adults to work, disabled people are losing access to care, as well, because home health agencies have seen a cut in their funding from the government.

When she began looking for help in the spring of 2016, Bruener couldn’t get straight answers on how to apply for the service.

“I’d call the numbers the state had listed online and would get transferred multiple times before ending up back at the person I had called initially,” she says. “I submitted my online application in mid-July and never got a response.”

A couple months later, she was told her application was effectively invalid because she hadn’t included newly required paperwork that no one had asked her for. Her application was eventually approved in October, and then she had to set about finding an agency to take her case. She waited for information from the state, but got none. But by that point, her dad needed surgery and couldn’t assist her anymore. She had to use her savings to pay strangers from social media to help her in home, and quickly ran out of money.

“It’s hell. It just is the closest to hell I’ve ever felt,” she says. “There’s no faster way to feeling like you don’t have control of your life than dealing with the government. When I started the process to try to get help, I was optimistic. I thought if I took a few bullets, it wouldn’t be this huge headache or this huge battle. And I wasn’t mentally prepared for what it turned into and what it’s still being.”

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

After talking to a network of people with disabilities, she found out how to receive care, but was told she only qualified for nine hours of care each week. When she signed up with a home care agency, she found that understaffing meant assistants were only available for about an hour each day. She’s since become eligible for up to twice as much assistance from her agency, but says it’s irrelevant because the nurses can only come when their schedules allow. But that covers only the most basic needs – as she puts it, enough just to not die. And as a person with a disability and no college degree, job prospects are limited. Comedy doesn’t pay that well, she says, unless you have a massive fan base.

“I mean, one thing is, I could decide to do porn. That’s not out of the question,” Bruener says somewhat jokingly, referencing GimpsGoneWild.com. “It could be kind of poetic, actually, if it came to that – in my mind, the handicapped girl who can’t get adequate health care doing porn just so she doesn’t die. That would be a good slap in the face to all the good Christians in our government.”

But beyond being stuck at home, unable to move around and take care of errands, let alone take care of herself, Bruener is also having to forgo her main creative outlet. Without comedy, she can’t interact with her community or support friends who are chasing their dreams. She can’t vent through stories she tells on stage to turn hardship into humor.

“My voice isn’t one that gets heard all that much,” she says. “[Comedy] was a way of kind of coping with that fact of making myself heard, making myself be listened to by a bunch of strangers, just because I never really had a lot of normal human interaction… It was kind of a way for me to fill my quota of feeling like a part of the world.”

Most days she stays home and uses the computer, waiting for either one of the home care workers or her dad to help her achieve some basic chores. She uses Facebook and writes about her situation, shares articles about Bevin’s health care plans and tries to stay connected to her friends.

But until she can get back on stage, she’s stuck fighting to get the assistance she needs just to get through the day.

Recently, she was able to make a trip to the state capitol addressing expected changes to the home care program. Despite having limited mobility lately, she managed to travel the nearly two hours to Frankfort for a public meeting, where she said the government was acknowledging that the system is broken.

Bruener says they were taking their time with a decision, trying not to make mistakes with any new changes. At the meeting she attended, administrators simply listened to people’s stories. Kentucky is already plagued by a contentious health care debate as Bevin attempts to cut Medicaid for poor adults in the state.

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect changes to come any time soon or to improve her situation too much.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “But society continues to allow this sort of behavior, and they don’t see the issues and therefore they don’t see the need to fix the issues. Even though there’s been a lot of back and forth about how society views people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go. I’m still not seen as socially equal as an able-bodied person. That’s not saying there aren’t people who do see me as equal, but society as a whole still sees me very much as a second-class citizen.”

Bruener posted on Facebook recently that she’s decided to leave Kentucky in search of a state that will better meet her needs. She’s narrowed the list to six states, all of which have favorable Medicaid rules and more opportunity for her to get the help she needs and, hopefully, get back on stage.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.