The Adventures of a Pakistani in Texas

A young woman from Karachi doesn’t discover how intense Islam can be…until moving to Texas.

My first real memory of the United States is that of a three-story-tall Christmas tree in the middle of the ice rink of a Houston-area mall. It’s the blasphemous image that I’ll always associate with my family’s move to America from Karachi, Pakistan, in December of 1999. I was eleven years old and the first few days of the move are a blur of spaghetti junctions, what I then thought of as bone-chilling cold, and a fascination with fast food restaurants. But the moment I spotted the tree is crystallized in my mind. It was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

The truth is, I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to live in the land of great opportunity that my parents claimed America would be. Instead, I spent the first few days in a country I’d only ever seen in the movies in a kind of muted awe. Though my parents tried to get me excited about the new Honda Odyssey they bought and the fact that I’d have my own bedroom, I wandered around our house in a daze, confused by the thick carpeting in the U.S. It was the reason I decided, firmly, that I was okay with my family’s immigration.

I did not get a Christmas tree that year. My brief romance with Christian traditions came to a screeching halt a few days later, when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began. Every day, thirty minutes before sunset, my family would pile into the Odyssey and head to the mosque. I’d walk into the women’s section, go to the part where the other girls my age sat, and quietly unfold my prayer mat. I’d sit there quietly, my stomach grinding itself in hunger after a full day of fasting. The minutes before the call to prayer were agonizing. The girls around me talked rapidly about things I’d never heard of—Spongebob, Pokemon trading cards and Beanie Babies. Most of them had been born in the U.S. and spoke effortlessly with accents that seemed thick and foreign to me.

In Karachi, we had lived three-minutes’ walking distance from the mosque my family belonged to. I’d grown up sitting on prayer mats next to the same girls my entire life. We’d taken the same Koran classes, coordinated our outfits and listened to the same three men bleat out the call to prayer. In Houston, everything was different. These girls seemed more religious than the ones I’d grown up with, competing with each other to recite passages from the Koran. They’d listen attentively to the sermons, taking notes diligently and telling me things about the very religion I’d grown up with that I’d never known before. For starters, the girls told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear anything with an elephant on it—that, they said, was haram, or forbidden under Islam, although I’d never heard anything of the sort before. Then, they told me that wearing deodorant was also forbidden, as most products were alcohol-based and that too was haram.

During that Ramadan, I realized something I’d never understood before: Being Muslim could become a part of your identity, something that you could embrace as part of yourself like it was a talent akin to having masterful violin skills or the ability to do long division without a paper and pencil. In Karachi, everyone I knew was Muslim—my religiosity wasn’t something that I could hold over someone else. In Houston, though, it had become a type of contest—these girls competed to be the best Muslims they could be, embracing parts of my religion that I hadn’t been told were important in the first place.

* * *

My family belongs to a sect of Shiite Muslims known as Dawoodi Bohra, one that is so small and marginal that most Muslims haven’t even heard of it. There are about 1.2 million Bohra Muslims in the world, and the majority of the population resides in Mumbai, India, with fewer than 40,000 in Pakistan.

Bohra Muslims, known informally as Bohris, practice a form of Shiite Islam that’s not common to the rest of the Muslim world. Bohris have a centralized leadership, similar to the Vatican, which makes all decisions regarding the community, and they have different rules for taxation, prayers and even dietary restrictions than other Muslims. They also follow a different version of the lunar calendar, so religious holidays are a few days off from the rest of the Muslim world. Members of the sect tend to be close-knit and somewhat isolationist, keeping themselves apart from other religious groups. As a child in Karachi, I grew up in a private housing cooperative specifically for other Dawoodi Bohras. Most of my parents’ friends were also Bohri, and we only ever went to Bohri mosques.

Weirdly, however, I never thought of myself or my sect as being that different from the rest of Islam until I moved to Texas and realized that the girls I met at mosque took such pride of belonging to this specific community. It wasn’t just the kids: The entire Bohri community in Houston stuck together like glue. The Bohris we met during those initial weeks all lived in the same neighborhoods, were concentrated in the same few public schools, and often interacted solely with other Bohris.

In the Karachi we’d left behind, the Pakistani rupee was falling, school was often cancelled because of intermittent violence in the city and Pervez Musharraf had recently overthrown the civilian government in a military coup that took only seventeen hours. Moving to the United States was a way for my family to escape the terrible downhill turn that Karachi had taken. But it wasn’t the only reason. My mother, who grew up in Tanzania, wanted to raise her children in a country where both boys and girls were given equal opportunities. She’d become frustrated with the way I was ignored consistently by members of our extended family while my younger brother, the only grandson, was spoiled rotten. An educator herself, my mother noticed how I struggled to be creative and independent in a school system that she believed valued rote memorization instead of critical thinking. My father, who worked as a director at the family garment factory, had attended college in Houston, and they believed his connections there would make our transition to a new country seamless.

They chose our house in Houston based on its proximity to the Bohri mosque. Because we moved in December, I spent my first month and a half in the United States waiting for the spring semester to start. The daily ritual of going to mosque to break our fast during Ramadan was my entire introduction to the United States. The first set of friends my parents made was all Bohris. The people they met at mosque, who were all first- or second-generation immigrants themselves, explained things like health insurance and the U.S. school system to my parents. It was the Bohris my family met at mosque who connected them with good doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

However, as my family settled in further, we all realized that the Bohri community in Houston was far more devout that the community we’d known in Karachi. All of the women were expected to follow the specific Bohri dress code—women wore a Bohri variation of the traditional burqa, a two-piece, colorful and highly adorned veil called a rida—something I hadn’t experienced in Pakistan. My mother learned quickly that a lot of the other Bohri parents prevented their children from going to the houses of American children. Even the kids who’d been born in the U.S. were discouraged from making friends who weren’t Bohri. My father learned that many people in the mosque relied on the patronage of the community for most of their business ventures and hardly socialized with anyone else. I found out that some of the girls I met at mosque weren’t allowed to eat food that wasn’t halal—they could never enjoy the quarter-pounders with cheese that I’d decided was the world’s best food. In Karachi, my parents hadn’t acted horrified if I threw on a pair of shorts and went for a neighborhood bike ride, but here many of the girls I knew in Houston wore a headscarf to school.

Six months after we arrived in Houston, my parents moved to Cypress, a suburb further away from the city. The new public school my brother and I attended had no other Bohri children. Though both of us were required by our parents to attend Saturday religious classes at the mosque, we were also encouraged to make friends with whomever we wanted.

The neighborhood we moved to was extremely close-knit. Every month there was a block party; the cul-de-sac crowded by lawn chairs and card tables as everyone milled around, snacking and swapping stories about their children’s sports leagues. I was almost thirteen years old, and almost every family convinced me to babysit for them. Though we lived in the Bible Belt, my neighbors never made my family feel as though we weren’t welcome or loved because we were Muslim. Religion was hardly ever discussed in a way that made my parents nervous about their children becoming apostates. The first December we lived in Cypress, my parents bought a real Christmas tree, laying out presents from our neighbors below the branches for us to open on Christmas Day. We continued getting a tree every year after that. We’d all squabble about the type of tree we’d buy, turning the decision between choosing a Douglas fir and a Scotch pine into an all-out screaming match. Later, my father would complain about how strapping the tree to the Odyssey had aggravated his hernia, and for the two weeks the tree lived in our house, my mother complained about how the pine needles shed all over the floor.

I began referring to the girls I knew at my mosque as my “mosque friends,” a term that I used frequently to differentiate these girls from the friends I was making at school. After I told a Bohri girl that I’d gone over to a white girl’s house for a sleepover, for the next four weeks all of the girls in my religious school class pointedly ignored me for having done something so obscene. Other Bohri parents reprimanded my mother for the freedom she’d given my brother and I; they were horrified at the fact that we were allowed to have close American friends.

* * *

We’d lived in Cypress for about a year before September 11, 2001. As the news stations reported that this was a terrorist attack carried out by fundamentalist Muslims, my mother  watched in horror, never connecting that the vitriol America would soon feel toward Islam would touch our family. In the days after the attack, a neighbor stopped by our house to chat with my mother, asking her if she’d been harassed by anyone who knew that she was Muslim.

While the neighbors we’d become so close to never actively made us feel unwelcome or disliked because of our religion, the months after September 11 changed how the Americans we knew thought about Islam. They pictured the long beards of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban members they saw on TV and began asking my family many, many more questions about a religion they barely understood. But the Wahhabi Islam we saw on television was as foreign to us as it was to the Southern Baptists we knew.

At school, I began clarifying the difference between my sect and Sunni Islam, reading up on a religion I wasn’t familiar with just so I could defend my family. My friends’ parents would grill me about my religion when I went over to their house and I’d carefully chew over my words before answering so that I didn’t give them any reason to believe I practiced the same religion as the terrorists. My brother perfected a three-sentence answer he could give every time someone brought up his religion, designed to ensure they knew we were extremely different from the rest of the Islamic world.

At mosque, my parents heard about how the other Bohris they knew had closed ranks.They’d stopped letting their children ride the school bus and forced them to grow further isolated. They refused to let their children answer questions about Islam and insisted on limiting their time with Americans outside school. I overheard parents at mosque talking about how wonderful it would be if their children never had to interact with the rest of then world just so they could avoid the inevitable questions, laden with misconceptions.Because so many of these families had never forged strong relationships with their non-Bohri neighbors, they were watched over with particular suspicion and anger. A family friend who wore the traditional Bohri veil was yelled at by strangers in a grocery store.

Over the next few years, we watched as the Bohri community in Houston changed from being a small, close-knit society to a sprawling mess of immigrants from all over the world. The leader of the Bohri community had stationed one of his sons in Houston, and as news of the bountiful job opportunities, low property prices and close-knit community spread, Bohris from all over the U.S. and the world chose to move to Houston. Soon we were running out of spots to pray at mosque and people were fighting over places for their prayer mats. As the burgeoning community grew, it became even more isolated than before. One of the new immigrants I met at mosque once proudly claimed that he’d never had to do a school project with a non-Bohri.

The weekend after Thanksgiving in 2004, my family purchased a fake Christmas tree after learning that my mother was horribly allergic to most firs. We had years of ornaments that we’d collected, some bought at novelty stores, others given to us by friends who were tickled by my family’s love for Christmas trees. In December, my brother invited a few Bohri friends over for a sleepover. One of them told his parents about the tree. He was never allowed to come back to our house.

In 2005 we learned that our application for a green card—which we had filed the week before September 11, 2001—had been denied. Believing that the rejection was because of my family’s religion and Pakistani nationality, my parents began the lengthy process of appealing the decision. In 2008, they finally moved back to Pakistan.

Though my family had kept themselves at arms’ length from the Bohri community in Houston, in Karachi they immediately found an apartment in the same Bohri housing development we’d lived in before moving to the United States. They reconnected with the same Bohri friends they’d had before our move. 

When I moved back four years after they did—after completing school and working in the States for a few years—I was surprised to learn that my family had brought over all of their Christmas decorations, hardly embarrassed to pull them out the weekend after Thanksgiving to add pockets of Christian festivity all over our apartment.

* * *

Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer currently based in Karachi. She’s written for VICE, Al Jazeera America, and GlobalPost, where she blogs about her repatriation to Pakistan after over 13 years in the U.S.

Laurel Lynn Leake works in all sorts of mediums to explore how we construct and communicate our identities in an intersectional world. Leake graduated from the Center For Cartoon Studies and lives in Vermont.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Babies For Sale: The Secret Adoptions That Haunt One Georgia Town

In midcentury Appalachia, an intrepid doctor sold newborns to desperate couples. Today they’re all grown up, and seeking answers.

On a humid August day in the small mountain town of McCaysville, Georgia, Sandy Dearth stands in front of the building where, 53 years ago, a nurse secretly and illegally handed her out a back window to a pair of eager and nervous adoptive parents. Sandy, who has not been back here since that day in 1963, is holding her husband Bill’s hand tightly. A lifetime of searching has led her to this moment.

The building she faces is divided into several units: at one end rests a BBQ joint, at the other a pizza place. In between, poison ivy grows along the peeling painted brick walls and a faded FOR RENT sign hangs in the window. This forlorn space is where the Hicks Community Clinic once operated. In addition to providing standard healthcare for members of this declining mining town, the clinic offered clandestine abortions and adoptive services to desperate girls and young women. Sandy’s biological mother was one of them.

Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption.
Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption. (Photos by Matthew Steven Bruen)

“The person that bore me,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining, “how must they have felt? Were they scared? Did they have to? Did they want to? Were they forced to? Why didn’t they abort me? What happened? Are they alive?” She pauses, catches her breath. This is the closest she has ever come to this phantom woman. Despite a gulf of fifty-plus years, Sandy feels her presence here.

She walks around to the alley behind the building and pauses in front of the window where she was passed to her now deceased adoptive parents all those years ago. Tears again fall down her face. She breathes deeply, and steels herself.

“I can’t believe my parents actually came down here and did this.” She laughs. It is a light-hearted sound, one full of love. “Knowing that this was all illegal. I mean, I know my parents. My parents would not do this, OK? They wouldn’t even throw a piece of paper out the window of their car. No way. And they drove down in the middle of the night? Only had this many hours to come get a baby. Got me through a window! Holy cow. ‘And do not contact anyone,’ they said to them, ‘we’ll forge you a birth certificate.’ And they did this?”

Indeed they did, along with the adoptive parents of approximately 212 other children who have become known as the Hicks Babies, after Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks.

Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.
Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.

Starting in 1955 and running through the early 1960s, Hicks offered secretive abortions and adoptions here. Eventually, in 1964, he was caught performing an abortion and was summarily stripped of his medical license. He died in 1972 and it took three decades before Hicks’ actions were brought to light. In 1997, news of the scandal broke, as several Hicks Babies began digging into their past. The story made national news, resurfacing again in 2014, when the Babies teamed up with Ancestry.com and ABC News to conduct DNA tests on themselves and members of the nearby community. The researchers made several matches, and the Babies met many long-lost cousins and siblings. A very small number were reconnected with their birth parents.

Although their search for their origins has been documented – some might even say exploited – what remains unseen is the powerful relationship the Hicks Babies share with each other and to the place that is and isn’t their hometown. It is a story punctuated by emotional reunions with individuals who have spent decades helping to undo the damage caused so many years ago. And it is a story of the unique and deep comradeship that has arisen amongst this most unusual of groups.

* * *

When Dr. Hicks began his illicit practice, abortions were illegal in the United States. The poverty here in the Copper Basin of southeast Tennessee and far north Georgia, which includes the town of McCaysville, often meant that pregnant women couldn’t ask a relative or friend to help raise their children. The extra mouths to feed were simply too expensive. Stories of young girls dying from botched abortions in the early ’50s still exist in the living memories of those from the region. It is possible that deaths like these convinced Dr. Hicks that something needed to be done.

Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)
Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)

“Hicks was providing a service,” says Ken Rush flatly. Rush is the director of the Ducktown Basin Museum, a small institution devoted to preserving the history of the area. He sits at a table with his hands resting calmly in front of him. Directly behind him is a display case filled with the various chemicals manufactured in the factories that once served as the area’s primary economic engines.

“If there was no demand for the service,” Rush continues, “Hicks would not have been doing it. He wasn’t going around knocking girls up and holding them hostage in his apartment until they delivered their babies so he could sell them.” Like many people who live and work in the Copper Basin, Rush is frustrated by sensationalist portrayals of Dr. Hicks.

“But people believe that.” His voice drops and he imitates a morally outraged newscaster: “‘He’s sellin’ babies!’ No, he did not keep records. Why would he keep records? The second the adoption was completed and the family took the child he got rid of any paper trail.” It is this gap that fuels the conspiracy theorists, according to Rush.

Rush rejects the rumors that Hicks intentionally impregnated young girls, put them up in his home, and then sold his own children for profit. He rejects the claim that Hicks became incredibly wealthy because of his actions. And he rejects the belief that Hicks hid his records somewhere and that they are out there, waiting to be found.

The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).
The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).

“Look,” he states, “it’s all very simple. Word got out. There’s a doctor in the mountains. Call him, he can help you. It’s not exciting. It’s not scandalous. And what do we like as a society? We like scandal. We like dirty laundry. We like it to be nefarious.”

* * *

After she pauses for photos in front of her birthplace, Sandy Dearth huddles with her daughter Crystal and two fellow Hicks Babies, Melinda Dawson and Cyndy Stapleton. They have returned here for Sandy, to show her where she came from. “There’s someone I think you should meet, Sandy,” Melinda says gently. “It’s just a short walk from here.”

Melinda, 53, is the de facto leader of the Hicks Babies. She is tall and redheaded, the product of an ancestry she does not fully know. Perhaps more than any other adoptee, her life has been marked by tragedy. Not only was she illegally adopted out of the Hicks Clinic, but her adoptive mother was murdered in 1998. Her husband at the time, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of the slaying. But through the use of DNA evidence, Elkins was exonerated and the real perpetrator was ultimately discovered. Melinda has also survived a bout with cancer.

Melinda leads the way to a small white house that sits on the banks of the Toccoa River. She walks around to the back, where a southern-style screened porch is adorned with rocking chairs and vibrant plants. She rings a bell and waits. A graceful 88-year old named Doris Abernathy appears. Melinda’s presence on the porch comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise. As the visitors take seats on the porch, Melinda introduces Sandy. “She’s here for the first time since her birth, Doris,” Melinda says.

Doris’ thin body shakes with emotion. She embraces Sandy like she would a long-lost relative, clutching her tight, eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve seen your picture before,” she says. “I’m so glad you came.”

After releasing Sandy, Doris takes a seat and begins to hold court, telling the women, “I have enjoyed all of you. I am so proud of all you.” Doris explains that her kin were close with the Hicks family, that they were neighbors and friends. She is one of the only people still living who was a contemporary to Hicks and knew him well. She also knew some of the birth mothers who gave away their children at Hicks’ clinic.

Like Ken Rush, she expresses dismay at “newspaper people” who are only interested in “sleaze” and have misrepresented him. “He was a very generous person. He and Mrs. Hicks were so kind to so many people. I never knew anyone so generous. He did a lot for this town,” she pauses and looks up at the Hicks Babies. “I saw him do more good than I think he did harm. I’m not saying he was perfect. I’m saying I saw the man do a lot of good.”

The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.
The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.

Melinda speaks up, and softly pushes back: “I just wish he would have gave us a future to come back and be able to find our history.” Doris shakes her head and explains, “Honey, he would have been put in prison.” The answer does not sit well with the Hicks Babies. The lack of records is the most significant hindrance in their search for their origins. Either Hicks didn’t keep any records at all, or he destroyed them. To this day, none have been discovered. The only paper trail he left were the falsified birth certificates, which of course do not include the names of the babies’ biological parents.

“With us, we weren’t given a chance to find out who or where we’re from,” Melinda says.

“You go through life thinking, ‘who do I look like?’, ‘why do my kids have this disease?’” Cyndy says, echoing her sentiment. “The medical situation. It’s terrible. We are all getting to the age when this really starts to matter. And we don’t know what to expect.”

Sandy’s daughter Crystal, who has spent years working to uncover her family’s history, steers the discussion back to the birth mothers who came to McCaysville to have their babies – or to abort them.

“A lot of girls that came weren’t connected to the people in the town, were they?” Crystal asks.

Doris’s answer surprises her. “I’m sure there were people away from here that found out about Dr. Hicks,” she says. “But now, I’d say the majority were local people. From my experience. They were from around here.”

Sandy contemplates the notion that she is sitting in her mother’s hometown.

“Someone was kind enough to give me life,” she says, her voice choked with an amalgam of sadness and love and pain and hope. “And I want to thank her.”

“Think of it this way,” Doris says in response. “You had someone who didn’t have an abortion. They had their little baby. And you were fortunate someone came and got you. You have been loved twice. You’ve been doubly blessed.”

Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.
Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.

Doris Abernathy is not the only member of the Copper Basin community who expresses a positive opinion about Dr. Hicks and his actions – something that has seldom been explored by news coverage of the Hicks Babies.

“I liked him. He birthed me. I came into the world in his hands,” says Bill Dalton, who sits at a long table in the special collections of Young Harris College’s library, surrounded by rare volumes of books while he looks through old photographs of the institution from back when he was enrolled here.

“He made contributions to almost all of the charities in town. He was a leader,” explains Dalton, who grew up in Copperhill, the town adjacent to McCaysville. He goes on to offer words of encouragement and love toward the Hicks Babies: “I would never fault anyone for searching for their origins. I feel for them. I hope they are successful.”

* * *

“It’s not about Dr. Hicks anymore,” Melinda says, “it’s about us.” The Hicks Babies and their supporters sit around a table at a local restaurant. They are tired and hungry following their emotional return to McCaysville and need some time to recharge. “We have become our own family. We may have lost the ability to contact our birth parents, but we’ve gained each other.”

The entire group echoes her sentiment. “The connections I’ve formed to these women and the others who are not here today is one of the most unexpected and lovely outcomes of this horrible situation,” Cyndy declares. Unlike Sandy and Melinda, Cyndy was reunited with her birth mother. But instead of providing closure, the reunion opened up more questions than answers. “I did get to meet two of my birth brothers. But my mother didn’t give me the full story,” Cyndy says, “apparently, there are three other birth brothers out there. I never got the answers I was looking for.”

The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.
The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.

“Oh!” Cyndy exclaims, “Linda is going to make it. She’s only a few minutes away.” Sure enough, Linda Davis arrives shortly thereafter. She is a small, grey-haired woman who is vibrant and exceptionally witty. After doling out several hugs and smiles, she takes a seat at the table. Linda was the area’s probate judge when the Hicks Babies story first made national headlines in the 1990s, and she aided the Babies in their search. She has since maintained ties with them for over twenty years.

“Although I sometimes feel like I am not necessarily welcome in town,” Melinda says, “support from people like Linda shows us that a large segment of the community cares, that they accept us as their own. And we are.”

The subject changes to the group’s final destination: Crestlawn Cemetery. This is where Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks is interred. “Is it true that authorities opened the Hicks mausoleum to search for records pertaining to the Hicks Babies?” asks Crystal. “Oh yes,” answers Linda. “I was there.”

“I was convinced something was in there,” Linda states. “It is so odd that Hicks himself is not in the mausoleum. He is buried right beside it, but not in it.” An empty tomb. Missing birth records. Decades of uncertainty. It is easy to understand why people believed something was behind those doors. “When they opened it up there was great excitement. But there was nothing in it. There’s nothing there,” Linda says definitively.

For her part, local resident Theresa Starnes offers a plausible explanation. “I heard that at the time of his death there was concern that in the future people would want to break in and either steal or desecrate his body. That could be why he isn’t in the tomb.”

As the group finishes lunch, Melinda says, “Are we ready to go to the cemetery?” Everyone nods and moves to their cars. Like a funeral procession, 44 years late, they all follow each other to the graveyard.

* * *

Crestlawn Cemetery rests on the top of a hill overlooking the blue-green peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a stunning place, offering peaceful views to those who mourn their dead. Two mausoleums rise above the simpler graves. One of them is the empty tomb of Thomas Hicks. It is not lost on the women that the money Hicks made from selling them as babies might have contributed to the purchase of this unused place of repose.

The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.
The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.

Once the entire group has arrived, they congregate around the tomb. It shows signs of damage since their last visit. “It looks like someone tried to break in,” says Crystal. “Maybe teenagers, or maybe opportunists who still think it holds those records.” Despite their mixed feelings toward the man who guided them into the world, the Babies espouse disgust at this vandalism.

Sandy asks to see Hicks’ gravestone. Melinda points it out to her and brushes away grass clippings from the cemetery’s recent mowing.

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

It is telling that the stone describes Hicks as having an “astute mind” and a “heart that was gentle and kind.” To those standing around his grave on this hot August day, these lines are a subtle gesture to the actions that brought them into the world.

“I still don’t know,” Melinda says. “I owe my life to him, but he has also been the cause of so much pain and suffering. I don’t know. He let loose some real chaos into this world.”

* * *

If anyone has any information pertaining to the Hicks Babies and their continued search for their birth parents and related family, please visit their Facebook page for more information.

 

 

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