The 911 Operator Who Needed Her Own Lifeline

Years of fielding constant calls from strangers in harrowing situations left one first responder stricken with PTSD, attempting suicide and wondering why there’s no safety net for the people who talk others back from the edge.

Two days before her suicide attempt, Denise Mercer had cooked chicken wings for the kids, staying a long time alone in the kitchen, staring at the low clouds rolling over Westchester County by the open patio door. She followed her mother’s old recipe: crispy wings and zesty horseradish sauce, a dish that comes straight from blazing Alabamian summers, a reminder of oily fingers and backyard brawls for the best hiding spot.

The kids had rushed to the table when she called them. They hadn’t said much during dinner but that was an old habit by now.

“I know I’m not really a good mama,” Mercer said to me that day. “It wasn’t always like that.”

“I like storms. The smell, especially. It makes me feel young again,” she had joked when the first lightning struck the sky, bringing gusts of rainy air inside the house.

We hadn’t talked in a few weeks. She was looking tired, as she always did after working night shifts at the Brooklyn 911 call center.

“Maybe we’ll go to my sister’s this summer.”

A glass of juice, a pill, and a TV show before sleep.

“It’d be good for us. See something else.”

Every free night after dinner, in the silent house after her husband had gone upstairs and the dishes were done, she had the same routine. A glass of juice, a pill and a TV show.

And then the dreams would start.

* * *

Denise Mercer, whose real name has been changed here at her request, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012. She often says she went to the doctor’s appointment with a cold and came back with a depression.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a relatively newly studied condition, only added to the DSM-III in the 1980s after a wave of Vietnam veterans began reporting similar distressing troubles to their physicians. While not completely understood yet, it is known to affect 7.8% of American adults, with women about twice as likely as men to experience its effects.

Anger outbursts, flashbacks, emotional withdrawal or concentration troubles, the symptoms are many and sometimes surface years after the triggering incident.

PTSD is more often associated with military and law enforcement, but research has shown that a much larger panel of the population is at risk of developing chronic issues from it. Rape or domestic abuse victims are as likely to experience anxiety disorders as front line personnel, natural disaster survivors or victims of other violent crimes. Many police officers, EMS first responders and even social workers have been diagnosed with PTSD.

“We are the true first responders,” says Mercer of her job as a 911 call operator. “We’re not physically at the scene but we’ve already been with the caller for fifteen minutes when the cops show up in person to help. We’re the first ones to establish contact. But to everyone, we’re just call center employees.

“Some deal with this better than others, I suppose,” she continues, “but when you’re on the scene there are things you can do. You can try CPR, you can take someone in your arms, you can actually help. And that’s what’s difficult about my job. You’re helping, that’s what supervisors keep telling you — and of course you are, but at the same time you are not.”

The feeling of powerlessness is one of the most prevalent causes that leads 911 operators to quit their jobs, and also a reason why many will face survivor’s guilt at some point in their career. Their high levels of responsibility and very limited ability to influence the outcome add up to extremely pronounced stress.

Operators are rarely kept informed about the case after authorities are involved. They take a call, send help and stay on the line until the situation is sorted out. They are not allowed to hang up until the caller hangs up or an officer on site lets them know everything is under control. After that, their work is done. They seldom know what happens next.

They don’t know if the firefighters arrived on time.

They don’t know if the man with the gun is gone.

They don’t know if the person died or if she’s alive.

“It makes you angry and bitter. You yell at your kids at home. You get road rage,” says Mercer. “You want to slap everyone in the face for being so dumb.”

A common complaint among Police Communications Technicians is the lack of support from their management. Between severe understaffing, constant overtime requests, an absence of guaranteed psychological follow-ups and criticism of day-to-day policies shortfalls, New York City’s 911 operators regularly report feeling left to themselves. (The NYPD, which oversees the call centers, did not reply to a request for comment as of the time of publication.)

“It’s like if you’re not in the field, you must be immune to everything,” says Mercer. “You’re just working the phone, right? How could you be affected?”

Still, she was the first to question her doctor’s diagnosis. There was a lot going on in her life at the time and she wasn’t sure the bad dreams, constant frustration and startling responses were really due to her work.

The bank was calling weekly for payment updates on the house. The school board had decided not to take action on a girl who bullied her daughter. Her husband was often traveling for business and she had to take care of everything.

She knew something was wrong.

She just didn’t know what exactly.

“It’s a whole different world out there. People live their lives. They don’t think about the things happening a few blocks down the street,” she explains. “They don’t think about the twelve-year-old with the tweaker mom who gets beaten every night by his stepfather. They don’t want to hear about the girl who choked on her own vomit after she was roofied and raped by three guys behind a gas station. Can’t blame them, though. They think if they can’t do anything about it, they’re better off not knowing about it.”

Mercer understood early in her training that helping others would come at a price. She wouldn’t come out unscathed.

“I don’t think there’s a choice here. Sometimes you get yourself involved more than you’d like to. It’s human nature. You do what you got to do.”

This is why her medicine cabinet is full of brown bottles, of carton boxes and torn tablets of prescription drugs. This one is for the backaches. This one for the migraines. Those are to help sleeping. Those to balance the Zoloft-induced nauseas.

Those are to keep living.

* * *

The nightmares started soon after a call she received in early 2012. The week had been calm up to that point — only a few regulars complainers and calls in error. A naked woman flashing her boobs from the eleventh floor of an apartment building. A dog shitting on a guy’s yard. A neighbor playing his music too loud. A distraught elderly man looking to reach his grandson.

“You wouldn’t believe the things people call us for. I’d say seventy-five percent of incoming calls are for non-emergencies,” Mercer says.

Of the average 120 calls she gets per regular shift, she estimates only ten are really for life-threatening matters.

The worst are when children are involved.

A child was involved that night.

Mercer could hear screaming on the line, screaming and crying coming from somewhere in the background, echoing through her headset as she spoke into the void, reciting the scripted questions she has been trained to ask. She could hear sobbing between the shouts but her questions remained without reply. “Help is on the way,” she kept saying. “Help is on the way,” like a slogan — supervisors insist that call-takers use the phrase at all times, says Mercer.

The location confirmation came in and Mercer started dispatching real-time info to the police and EMS, relaying electronic data through the center’s system. The situation was bad, but nothing she hadn’t already faced in her four years of service.

Then the screaming stopped.

There was a moment of silence followed by the muffled sound of someone getting hit repeatedly, and the tiny voice of a little girl emerged, barely audible, the tiny wailing voice of a kid who should have been playing with dolls and toy tea sets, and who instead had found herself crying the same string of words over and over — But I love you daddy? But I love you! I love you! — until there was nothing and the line cut off.

Mercer remembers removing her headset and leaving the room, going straight to her car and straight home, where she stood by the closed front door until the night fell and her husband came back with the kids.

“I just couldn’t take it,” she recalls. “You have to be strong and stay calm and composed on the phone when someone in distress is talking to you. But nobody can be that strong.”

The first dreams had her waking up in the middle of the night crying. She could feel the pain growing in her stomach, preventing her from finding sleep again. She started having panic attacks. She didn’t allow her own kids to go out in the street anymore.

“I couldn’t keep it together. This was a problem because I had already taken all my sick days and so I had to keep working and it only made me worse,” Mercer says. “It could happen at any time without warning. One minute I could be doing the laundry and the other I could be curled up on my bed. I couldn’t watch TV. Cop movies, I couldn’t watch them. I still can’t. It just makes me freak out. I’m completely powerless.”

She has an open tablet of Zoloft 100mg in her hand and shows me the oblong white pills.

“It’s frightening to see yourself like that. Like a ghost, […] you see yourself but you can’t control what you’re doing. You just keep imagining the scenes and hearing the voices.”

This is the blessing and the curse of 911 call-takers. Witnessing a violent incident firsthand can be harrowing, but keeping one’s mind looping in hope to fill the blanks left by a phone conversation is not much better. Imagination becomes more acute, struggling to explain the unexplainable — was the victim conscious when the operator talked? How did she put up her hair that morning? Was she more afraid than this guy in the fire the other day? At what temperature does skin start to melt? What was that crackling sound before her voice fainted? Was it her last breath? Her soul escaping her body? Was the dispatcher the last thing she heard before dying?

“You’re taught a lot of stuff,” Mercer says. “But not how not to get caught up in it.”

There is also another risk of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when working in an emergency call center: according to Mercer, supervisors are often unwilling to assist less efficient operators, occasionally resulting in resignations or terminations. “Suck it up, brush it off, go back in and take another call,” some even say to their employees when they express the need to rest after distressing cases.

“Our job is not recognized so it’s no wonder our PTSD aren’t recognized either. They can hire 50 new guys every day if they want to. But maybe they should ask why the turnover rate is so high,” Mercer says. “Coworkers leaving the place and never coming back. People burning out. Would you want to get yelled at by the people you’re trying to help all day?”

Mercer thought of attending a Northern California retreat for first responders dealing with trauma, but her schedule didn’t allow it and she abandoned the idea.

The nightmares continued.

She lost 55 pounds in one year.

“You’re supposed to call 911 on the worst day of your life. Well for me, the worst day of your life is every day I work. It takes a toll.”

At one point Mercer tried to find out what had happened to the little girl that night. She had the address and looked it up. The police report didn’t mention a child on the scene. The words simply said 1 DOA, for dead on arrival, and 1 MISSING.

She doesn’t want to talk about the research she continued after that.

The nightmares became worse.

When she met her therapist for the first time, in a nice Park Slope office, she told her she was afraid of sleeping. The therapist proved very valuable but the Mercer family was running on tight money and their insurance plan had been downgraded, not covering much of the practitioner’s fees. Mercer says she had to choose between keeping the kids in their school or going forward with the therapy. The kids stayed in their school.

“I became resentful of them. Sometimes I still go straight to bed when I come home. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to play with them,” she lets out.

Her crises usually begin by a re-experiencing of the violent scenes she’s been indirectly exposed to. She relives the scenario as it unfolded on the phone line. She can be anywhere. In the street, in her car or in her backyard — and a rush of images made up in her head will overcome her without warning, making her gasp for air and grimace in pain, occasionally making her curl up on the floor. Her ears will start buzzing. The world will become darker around her.

But I love you daddy!

But I love you?

I love you.

* * *

There is a rest area on the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Mercer sometimes goes for a moment on her own when things are bad, driving her car all the way from her Downtown Brooklyn call center to watch the coastal winds break the waves in the dusk.

Tonight, things are especially bad.

One of the paramedics she had dispatched earlier to a shooting scene near the Pink Houses public housing project in East New York was injured by an unknown male subject. Mercer had to call for backup on the radio to help the evacuation while the police secured the area.

“EMTs are the most vulnerable in the field. Their only weapon is the oxygen tank they carry with them in the ambulance,” she explains, nervously chewing gum.

Behind her car, headlights are fading into a mesh of nightly reflections engulfed by the harsh rain. Water is pouring on the windows, battering the metal and the glass and filling the cabin with sharp crashing noise.

“Fuck this city.”

She tries to see out, catch the shape of a tanker ship maybe, or the silhouette of the soaring bridge towers, but the storm is too heavy and the only thing she can see is blackness, blackness and choppy rain flooding the world.

“Fuck this piece of shit car.”

An angry sea sprays over the walls 50 yards away, making the air saltier and heavier at each foaming upsurge.

“Fuck these people and their fake-ass families.”

She looks straight ahead in silence.

“Fuck all of this.”

She punches the steering wheel, intensely, forcefully, her fists landing hard on the dashboard and the doors, making the car bounce on its springs in cadence with the storm, her face distorted by a cracked rictus and a long yell coming out of her mouth, rising from way down there, a deep and raucous animal scream howled at the voices and the dreams and the words from strangers twisting in her head.

* * *

“Driving helps me cope,” Mercer says, dashing at 65 miles per hour under the deserted expressway’s amber lights at two a.m.. “It soothes me. It helps me forget about all that’s wrong in my life for a while.”

She commutes every day for 45 minutes each way, from her home in The Bronx to Downtown Brooklyn, along with 1,500 other 911 call-takers employed in the same building.

“It’s like therapy except I only have to pay for gas.”

For 45 minutes, each way, every day.

The house is silent when she arrives back in the Parkchester neighborhood of The Bronx.

Mercer applied for her Police Communication Technician position twelve years after her own mother’s death. She had just been laid off from a menial clerk job and saw an ad in the paper. The written test was simple and she passed the psychological evaluation without issues. She was eager to work.

“You could say it was a coming to terms with things I had lived when I was younger,” she says, evoking a difficult past marked by an absent father and a heap of familial obligations after her mother died, struck by a drunk driver as she was coming out of an Atlantic Avenue convenience store. “I thought I could use my background to help others,” she adds. “God was I wrong.”

She abruptly tenses up, startled by a sound coming from the yard. I can see her hands shaking before she hides them under her thighs. I can see the anguish in her eyes.

“My training was just completed,” she later relates, calmed by the comforting effects of chemicals in her brain. “I had received a couple of disturbing calls already, in tandem with an instructor. An older man fighting for his life during a heart attack. A boy, he couldn’t have been much older than fourteen, who called bleeding from his stomach, asking me not to tell his mother he was in a gang. Thirteen, fourteen years old, tops.”

She carefully avoids looking at her reflection in the nightly windows. There are no mirrors in the house.

“One day I get a call from a beaten wife in Queens. I follow the procedure, and the procedure tells us to keep asking questions, and while I do that I have an odd feeling — this is not good, I think, not good at all, and I make a sign to my boss so he comes over to listen, and just when he takes the headset we hear a gunshot. We ask for two patrol cars to be dispatched on site and there’s a second gunshot. And all I do is keep asking if anyone hears me. Then I hear sirens and a cop takes the phone and just says ‘You can hang up now, it’s over.’ That’s when I knew that whatever help I would give, it wouldn’t be enough.

“You have to be a saint to keep at it.”

Sex used to make her feel better for a time. Now she just can’t stand the idea. She thought her marriage could use some kink. She even thought an affair could help her unwind, think other thoughts, feel free for a minute. She didn’t go through with any of it. The difficulty of being intimate with people, including her own family, is too great.

On nights like this one, she just stays on her sofa with her eyes closed.

A glass of juice, a pill and a TV show.

“Sometimes you get a bad string. Any of my coworkers could tell you, they usually happen in a row. It’s like you can’t take a break.”

According to a 2012 Journal of Traumatic Stress study, one-third of the emergency dispatchers included in the study reported having experienced fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to potentially traumatic calls. An older paper from the CDC showed that 33 percent of NYPD’s 911 call center employees regularly showed major depression signs — three times more often than the general public. Over sixteen percent agreed that the injury or death of a child was the first cause of emotional distress. Thirteen percent said suicidal callers were the next source. Another 10 percent said calls resulting in unexpected deaths or serious injuries were the third most common reason for trauma. In her seven years of being a 911 call-taker, Mercer came across each of those instances, on multiple occasions.

* * *

At dinnertime, the kids never talk about their mother’s job. Born two years apart, her son and daughter both understand the fine line their mom is walking on and keep silent when she has had a difficult day. They always know when she’s tired. They feel the tension.

“I used to cook a lot, before,” she says. “Now it’s harder. I thought it would get easier with the kids growing up. I didn’t think I’d still be doing that job, you know? I thought we’d have more time for ourselves. But here we are. Microwave platter paradise.”

Her son looks at her with a sigh. “I like microwave platters,” he says, his sister nodding at him in approval. Mercer smiles and chuckles.

Today is a good day.

Mercer got a suicidal call this morning, a few hours before the end of her shift. A man who called after having doubts about jumping from his building in Washington Heights. He stayed on the phone for 30 minutes, enough time for a patrol car and a fire truck to arrive at the scene and prevent him from dropping to his death.

“He wanted to live,” she says.

Her husband puts the kids to bed and Mercer draws thick curtains in the dining room, like a shield against the outside world.

She talks about weird stories from her job. Robbers blowing a tire on a car they just stole and requesting assistance from the NYPD. A homeless man thinking he was a pigeon and cooing every Wednesday at rush hour in the middle lanes of the West Side Highway.

She seems happier, even if she knows her respite won’t last. Things never stay good long in her life.

A few days later, Mercer answers a call from a woman in the South Bronx and everything goes back to where it was — the pills, the anguish, the anger, the guilt and the loneliness.

911, where’s your emergency?

Tell me your name. Cómo se llama?

Okay. Press against the wound, Elena.

Help is on the way.

Keep calm. Stay upright on your sofa and press against the wound.

Help is on the way.

Did you see your attacker? Are you alone in the house?

It’s okay. It’s okay.

Stay with me.

It’s all going to be over soon.

Stay with me, Elena. La ayuda está en camino.

Elena?

Elena?

Elena?

Mercer knows full well that helping distressed people for a living is rubbing salt in her wounds. Having to identify her mother’s body at seventeen made her highly vulnerable already, but her late career was undoubtedly the trigger that worsened her PTSD symptoms.

“What else could I do? I don’t have any degree. I’m underpaid but at least I’m paid. Finding a new job ain’t exactly easy when you’re in my situation.”

At about $43,000 annually, her salary allows her and her family to keep the house from foreclosure.

And so she watches herself falling deeper, pushing her loved ones further away, becoming more hostile and alienated every day, in fear and pain.

All she needs to tumble is a call.

One of the 120 she takes daily.

* * *

The hospital room is small and filled with medical equipment. A nurse has changed the bed sheets, asking Mercer to stand up for a minute, there by the window overlooking the gray waters of the Harlem River, with a drip in her arm and pain medicine in her veins.

The stomach pumping was effective. The activated charcoals removed most of the sedatives in her digestive system and the ureteral stent cleared what was left in her kidneys. B vitamins are giving a boost to her liver functions.

Walking hurts a lot. Breathing too.

All these drains and fluids.

“I’m on the other side, now,” she says. “I’m one of them.”

She didn’t call 911 after she emptied the Oxazepam bottle. Her husband did. He found her on her bed with her clothes on and no note, nice and quiet, turned on the side so as not to make a mess if she threw up.

She woke up in the emergency room.

“You won’t die tonight,” she remembers someone saying as she was being intubated; maybe a doctor, maybe an EMT, maybe her husband.

Tomorrow there will be insurance forms to fill. The kids to bring to summer camp. The guest room to prepare for her sister who will drive up from Alabama. The new human resources employee to deal with. The practitioner to follow up with.

The long way to recovery.

Mercer says she won’t talk about it anymore. She needs time.

“Some people are made tougher than others,” are the last words she says to me.

Her husband comes in. He took a family leave and brought the kids along. Weak smiles on their faces and no questions asked — wasn’t this bound to happen?

We look at each other for a long time.

“I love you, mama,” Mercer’s son says as the door closes.

* * *

Postscript: Denise Mercer hasn’t returned to her position as a 911 call-taker and is now working part-time in a small garage. Still recovering from depression, she sees a specialized practitioner and stays engaged in helping her community.

Anthony Taille is a freelance writer exploring untold tales of Americana. His stories have appeared on MediumVice Magazine and Thought Catalog. He is currently based in Montreal where he is finishing his first novel while trying to survive the local climate. You can read his latest work on Medium and follow him on Twitter @anthonytaille.

Dane LaChiusa is a freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York.  He also ekes out a living as a comic book artist/editor, advertising art director and copywriter, mural artist, art educator, fine artist, and sometimes animator. Dane holds a BFA from SVA.

Meet the Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

Even as he approaches old age and his sport falls into decline, this intestines-eating, sorcery-conjuring “Man of Great Power” still dominates the ring.

With a slow and assured swagger that defies his aging body, Edingwe Moto na Ngenge, the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time, steps into the ring. At about six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds, with a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a mohawk and a large dragon tattoo across the left side of his chest, he cuts an imposing figure. Edingwe, whose moniker, Moto na Ngenge, translates to Man of Great Power, struts back and forth across the ring with his shoulders thrown back, stamping his feet and contorting his face into grotesque expressions, toying with his opponent and whipping his loyal fans into a frenzy.

It’s January 2016 in Kinshasa, the pulsating capital city in the far west of the vast and volatile Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a year earlier, the radio-trottoir, or pavement radio, as the city’s incessant gossip mill is known, spread word that Edingwe was near death’s door, broke and unable to cover the hefty cost of his prolonged hospital stay, finally turning to God in a last-ditch effort to be saved.

Now, with thousands of spectators filling the lower-level stands of the Tata Raphaël stadium and local television crews set up around the wrestling ring erected in the middle of the soccer field, Edingwe’s got something to prove.

However, it’s his challenger, Mal à l’aise, which translates to Ill at Ease, who attacks first. He takes a dead snake from his trainer at the edge of the ring, wraps it around his neck for a moment, then holds it tight with one hand close to its head and the other at the end of its tail, thrusting it repeatedly and exaggeratedly in the direction of Edingwe. The great champion is momentarily stunned by this act of sorcery, and with his eyes wide in surprise he becomes rooted to the spot, rocking back and forth like a tall tree in the wind.

But Edingwe soon grows tired of this impetuous display, breaks the spell, and with a swift extension of his right arm and a raised, open palm, calls on the spirits of his ancestors. The magical powers they have so long bestowed on him send Mal à l’aise tumbling backward onto the mat, where he lies paralyzed. Edingwe kneels beside his hapless opponent, grasps at his midriff and appears to extract his intestines like long pieces of pink elastic. He holds them aloft and then lowers them into his gaping mouth; as he eats them, blood pours from the corners of his lips onto his chest. A government minister sitting near the ring faints. Mal à l’aise, also unconscious, is covered and carried away.

Edingwe is swiftly escorted from the arena by his entourage before his opponent’s angry supporters seek revenge for such a merciless performance. After just a few minutes, it’s all over.

* * *

The unique and wildly popular Congolese variety of wrestling, which bears some similarities to American professional wrestling, took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around this time, a handsome young man named Kele Kele Lituka became Congo’s first professional wrestler and a household name, defeating European champion Claude Leron and celebrated American wrestler El Greco.

Lituka beat his Western opponents by drawing on wrestling techniques that in fact long preceded the influence of the American school. He incorporated elements of a traditional Congolese fighting style called libanda, which is said to have traveled to Brazil with slaves from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo centuries earlier and served as the genesis for the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. (While elements of the matches are clearly played up for dramatic effect, organizers here, like their American counterparts for a time, have long insisted that nothing is staged.)

Edingwe holds aloft what are ostensibly the intestines of his opponent at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Edingwe)

“Since the early days of urbanization, there have been public fights in Kinshasa,” says Katrien Pype, Ph.D., a professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at KU Leuven University in Belgium. In the 1950s, when this sizable swath of Central Africa was still a Belgian colony, a style of fighting called mukumbusu emerged. Inspired by the movements of gorillas and incorporating both foreign and African fighting styles, mukumbusu was a “reaction to the other martial arts that were brought in by the colonialists,” Pype says.

In the late 1970s, a young, cocksure fighter from a poor family in Kinshasa’s ramshackle Matete neighborhood stepped into the ring for the first time. A notorious brawler at school who sometimes even came to blows with his teachers, Edingwe, whose real name is Edmond Ngwe Mapima, had already shown promise in the boxing ring. He would quickly leave an indelible mark on Congolese wrestling, introducing the sport to the aspect of magic and sorcery, known locally as fétiche, with its practitioners referred to as féticheurs.

Fétiche is the foundation on which the Congolese manifestation of contemporary wrestling has been built. Tapping into local superstitions and the widespread Congolese belief in traditional magic, mysticism and the spirit world, Edingwe’s mastery of fétiche gave him an insurmountable advantage over his opponents. As Caroline Six wrote in a 2015 article in the French press: “The success of a wrestler in Congo is often not founded on strength, technique or style, but on his capacity to make people believe in his powers of sorcery.” Edingwe is the perfect embodiment of this claim.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, corrupt and ruthless dictator who ruled Congo — which he renamed Zaire — for more than 30 years until his death in 1997, was a great wrestling aficionado. He used the sport as a focal point for what Pype calls his “authenticity politics,” whereby he shunned and in some cases banned cultural practices deemed to be Western and instead promoted a new, African vision of Congolese national belonging.

“During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was promoted as the national sport. There was a lot of financial support and massive state-organized and sponsored events and tournaments,” Pype says. For the first time, Congolese wrestling was also widely televised across the country. This helped Edingwe become the sport’s greatest icon, equal parts feared and revered. But those days were long ago.

* * *

When it rains hard in Matete, as it does most days during Congo’s wet season, the labyrinthine streets and alleyways — many of which are unpaved and untraversable by car — quickly become fast-flowing red-brown rivulets carrying trash and human waste between the buildings. At such times, this overcrowded and notoriously crime-ridden area is unusually quiet; small groups of young boys huddle outside kiosks that sell cigarettes, soft drinks and basic household essentials, seeking shelter beneath the jagged metal overhangs that jut out over the front stoops. Otherwise, the streets are deserted.

Behind a large red metal gate opposite one such kiosk, Edingwe sits silently with a few friends and family members on pink plastic chairs, while a few laborers in tattered overalls work noisily to cover exposed rafters on the roof with sheets of metal. A light breeze gusts through the empty window frame beside them. One day, Edingwe, who says he does not know his age but is likely somewhere in his late 50s, hopes this building will serve as both a new house for his family and a fitting testament to his long and illustrious wrestling career. In his deep, slow drawl, the great champion says, “My only regret is that my parents died poor while I was still too young. I wish they had still been alive to see this when it is complete.”

Left: Edingwe suddenly transforms once he is dressed in his wrestling attire, striking macho poses for the camera at his home in Matete, Kinshasa. Right: Edingwe demonstrates some of the grotesque facial expressions that he uses in the ring to strike fear into his opponents and whip his adoring fans into a frenzy. (All photos by Christopher Clark)

Edingwe has not had a fight since his famous disembowelment of Mal à l’aise more than a year ago. A few days after the fight, a wildly sensationalist Congolese news site reported that, thanks to a quick visit to both the clinic and a local temple, Mal à l’aise had miraculously survived. However, he complained that he was still experiencing some discomfort in his stomach. 

The pavement radio is buzzing with news that despite Edingwe’s now infamous comeback, he is still barely scraping by financially, paying his bills by doing occasional work as an informant for the police in Matete, where he uses his magical powers to pinpoint the location of alleged criminals.

Local journalist Francis Mbala says that wrestling has been hit hard by the political impasse that engulfed the Congolese capital when beleaguered president Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his two-term presidential limit in December 2016. The impasse has thrust the city, and the country, into a new period of uncertainty, crippling the local economy. Sporadic political protests have been met by an increasingly violent state response, leaving scores of protesters dead. Meanwhile, rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east of the country, while a bloody guerilla war between the army and anti-government rebels has claimed at least 3,000 lives — with gross human rights abuses alleged on both sides — and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

“With the current political and economic crisis, there is a severe lack of sponsors for wrestling,” Mbala says. Official wrestling institutions and federations “almost don’t exist in Kinshasa anymore,” he adds, and big wrestling events have inevitably become much less frequent.

But Pype says that the trials and tribulations of Congolese wrestling precede the current political impasse. “During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was the national sport,” she reiterates, “but unfortunately for the wrestlers, the current government hasn’t recognized what the sport and its practitioners could mean to them and to the creation of national cohesion and unity. Mobutu invested a lot more in the promotion of Congolese culture in general.”

Pype insists that wrestling remains an important part of daily life for the Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, especially for young men in working-class neighborhoods like Matete. For many of these men, wrestlers represent an ideal body image — and they are also emblematic of the possibility of transcending one’s impoverished circumstances.

Edingwe has a more straightforward take on why he hasn’t had a fight in so long: He says that no one is currently up to the challenge. He is not announcing his retirement just yet, but he is already pinning great hope on his eldest son, a 33-year-old who lives and fights in Belgium — and is known as Little Edingwe.

“The powers that I inherited from my grandfather, who was also a wrestler, will gradually be transferred to my son,” Edingwe says. “God has not given these powers to anyone else, so this is what I am counting on. When my son is strong enough, I will stop fighting.”

Other champions of Edingwe’s era agree that the next generation of greats is yet to announce itself in Kinshasa. Mwimba Makiese, who goes by the nickname Texas, shares the sense that the increasing lack of financial incentives has played a role, pushing young working-class men into Kinshasa’s violent street-fighting scene — where they can at least achieve a level of localized fame and notoriety — rather than the official wrestling circuit.

Like Edingwe, Makiese, who claims to have won an impressive 646 out 650 matches in his career, is looking to retire soon, potentially adding to the vacuum. Makiese has long been the leading proponent in Congo of the so-called “classical” American style of wrestling. He has often publicly denounced fétiche wrestling, which he claims has fueled a growing negative narrative that dismisses wrestlers as “brigands.” Makiese is currently training two young wrestlers in the hope that they will fill his considerable shoes and continue to build on his legacy of “clean, technical wrestling,” as he calls it.

Widely known both for his success in the ring and for being the first albino wrestler in Congo, Makiese is also a renowned philanthropist, having created a foundation for Kinshasa’s routinely persecuted and ostracized albino population. Money that Makiese earned from wrestling helped build the foundation, but in recent years he has had to find other means of sustaining it. To that end, he now runs a small shop with his wife.

“Before, I could live solely from wrestling. I built my house with money from wrestling. I educated my kids with money from wrestling. Now, things have changed,” Makiese says. “But I’m like a chameleon — I’ll always find a way to adapt,” he adds.

Back in Matete, Edingwe seems less willing to adapt. Wrestling, after all, is his calling. He believes it was preordained. He believes that only he can save Congolese wrestling from the slump it is currently experiencing.

As if to show his readiness to shoulder this considerable burden, Edingwe goes to get his wrestling attire — high socks, lace-up boots and tight black spandex shorts — from the small main house behind the unfinished outbuilding. When he returns, the short walk seems to have put considerable strain on his body. He struggles to get up the single step back into the outbuilding and has to use the wall for support. He breathes heavily as he slowly and laboriously lowers himself back into his chair, where a young male relative helps him lace up his boots. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Edingwe was proudly strutting back and forth across the ring like a peacock, in front of his adoring fans, as he prepared to disembowel Mal à l’aise.

A young relative of Edingwe helps the champion wrestler, who appears to be in ill health, lace up his boots before he poses for pictures at his home in Matete, Kinshasa.

But as soon as he is dressed, Edingwe transforms. His back straightens, his shoulders rise; legs slightly akimbo, he throws a few slow-motion air punches left and then right across his body while contorting his face into grimaces, the veins in his neck bulging. 

Two of Edingwe’s daughters can’t help giggling at this spectacle. In a mock-aggressive tone, he commands them to come and stand beside him, where he loops an arm over each of their shoulders. The girls grow suddenly shy beside Edingwe’s enormous frame and will not meet his eyes. Imperceptible to them, a slight smile crosses their father’s lips.

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

Edingwe smiles down on two of his daughters at home in Matete, Kinshasa.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

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.