The Brotherhood of Recovering Addicts

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A year inside a pair of small-town boarding houses where a battered band of brothers are the only thing keeping each other alive.

Chester Biswick is a boulder of a man, standing not quite as tall as his nearly six-foot frame allows, his shoulders like the curve of a river stone pressed into the mud. Blue-jean eyes and hands like meat mallets. Decades ago, his hands pilfered plump moonshine-soaked cherries from the pickle jar at the neighbors’ house. Ten-year-old Chester drank because it made him feel tingly, special. Booze joined him in the treehouse, where he slept to escape the shouts between his parents. In another life, Chester’s hands mashed faces. There were the bar brawls. The knife fights. Later those same hands clutched whiskey bottles, shaking so badly it took a pint of the stuff to steady his grip. Drink, vomit, drink again. Sometimes all that would come up was stomach acid. In that life, he watched two marriages collapse. Got two DUIs. For a time, he slept under picnic benches.

“There was nothing there for me anymore. I was basically drinking to kill myself for the longest time, because I just didn’t want to live anymore,” he says.

Chester, who turned fifty this fall, has been clean for over three years. He’s the manager of a recovery home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Another recovery home is across the street, and like Chester, everyone living in these houses is in active recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

He is talkative after you get to know him, but when I first meet him in February 2014, Chester is shy. He smiles sheepishly when he describes his life in recovery, his mouth an unfolded paperclip that’s fragile along the contours of its former shape. In this life, Chester makes birdhouses and poems and drawings. He cooks cabbage rolls and beef stew for the guys. These guys are family, he says.

He doesn’t like to talk about how much booze he drank or how many pills he swallowed. That just glorifies his past.

“I was the crud on the bottom of your boot, that you wouldn’t even want to wash off. You’d throw the whole boot away,” he says. “And today, I like life.”

From the highway, it looks as if the single-family homes of Canonsburg were spread across its hills like thick, crunchy peanut butter. Home to about 9,000 people, Canonsburg is roughly twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, in countryside rich with arteries of coal and shale gas. It’s a town that lays claim to Bill Schmidt, America’s only javelin bronze medalist since 1972, and Sarris Candies, a phoenix of a factory that survived a 2012 fire that claimed 20,000 pounds of chocolate. Outside the borough building, Perry Como’s milky voice bellows from a statue of his likeness, welcoming visitors to town (at least those who go inside the building and ask to have the singing statue activated).

Blocks away, Pam Jones’s recovery homes are nestled along College Street. It’s a quiet, residential neighborhood bookended by a Dollar General and a cemetery, with a radioactive dump nearby. Her recovery homes are indistinguishable from the other buildings: vinyl siding, two stories, trees in the lawn. They are beloved by some, and a wellspring of concerns for others. Though the voices differ, the concerns are alike in every region of the nation: Living next to addicts will bring crime, make parking scarce and reduce home values. These places are unregulated and unsafe. Recovery homes shouldn’t be in our neighborhoods. Not near our children.

In 2013, roughly 8.2 percent of the U.S. population over age twelve reported substance abuse or dependence. That’s about 21.6 million people. Fatal overdoses now outpace motor vehicle fatalities as the leading cause of injury death among adults age twenty-five to sixty-four. Prescription drug abuse dwarfs previous numbers. Heroin alone grips an average of 40,000 children and adults in Pennsylvania, according to the state attorney general’s office, trailing only California and Illinois. Lawmakers have adopted the word “epidemic” to describe the problem.

Chester fiddles with a padlock on the shed behind one of the recovery homes. The sounds of the highway are faint but constant as the ocean. The winter sky is grey and bright. Near the shed, one of Chester’s birdhouses hangs from a tree. His garden lies dormant under the snow.

"If you're going to end up on College Street, if God wants you here, you'll get here," Pam Jones says. "And if you're meant to stay here, you'll do what it takes to stay here."
“If you’re going to end up on College Street, if God wants you here, you’ll get here,” Pam Jones says. “And if you’re meant to stay here, you’ll do what it takes to stay here.”

Inside, there’s stuff everywhere. A wooden sled he’s going to repaint, a curio to refinish, a drill press, dremels and screwdrivers. Lengths of wood lean against a wall. Jagged teeth of a two-man saw and an old horseshoe hang from the rafters. Everything in here is one of Chester’s projects, and most of this stuff he salvaged from the thrift store or hauled from the trash.

“My grandfather told me, ‘If it’s broken and it’s still broke when you’re done, don’t worry about it. It was broke. If you fix it you accomplish something,’ says Chester. “I was broke. I worked on it. I’m better. And I keep adding to it every day.”

Chester hands me a drawing of a tiny home, dwarfed against an open plain. A curl of smoke rises from its chimney. Three craggy hills are in the distance, the radiating sun nearly as large as the house. His pencil lines are neat, clean, careful.

* * *

Addiction treatment and recovery in America has an ugly past. In the 1800s, addicts could seek treatment at inebriate homes, colonies and asylums. Not everyone went there voluntarily. Some of these places were state-run facilities; others were religious institutions. Patients were treated with aversion therapy, as well as water-cure, electrical and moral therapies. They were blistered and bled, sterilized and lobotomized; fed diets of gold, mercury, salt and watermelon. One dependency was swapped for another — methamphetamine, cocaine and opium. There were home remedies, too. Magazines and catalogs were riddled with advertisements promising instant cures. An unhappy wife could secretly lace her sweetheart’s pork chops with White Star Secret Liquor Cure or The Boston Drug Cure for Drunkenness.

Fortunately, more nuanced approaches began creeping into to treatment practices (though chilling methods such as prefrontal lobotomy persisted until the 1950s). Addicts in the 1940s began learning how to live sober lives on farms and at retreats, which often employed the newly popularized 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Living among a community of peers was hailed as an increasingly important factor in recovery. By the 1960s, models of transitional, sober-living housing were blossoming.

Today the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR), an advocacy organization, says there are thousands of recovery homes across the country. On YouTube you can watch celebrities scream at each other on the 2009 reality television show, “Celebrity Rehab Presents Sober House.” Tanned and earnest, Dr. Drew Pinsky counsels residents like Steven Adler of Guns N’ Roses, comedian Andy Dick and porn star Mary Carey. (Pinsky axed the show’s counterpart, “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” after cast members fatally overdosed.)

"I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it," Chester says. Important house messages sometimes get written on the front door's wipe board, so there's no excuse for anyone to miss it, he adds.
“I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it,” Chester says. Important house messages sometimes get written on the front door’s wipe board, so there’s no excuse for anyone to miss it, he adds.

To understand recovery homes, know this first: basically anyone who owns a shack with four walls can run a recovery home. Unlike treatment centers such as rehab clinics and halfway houses, recovery homes are unregulated by the federal government. State and local laws vary; fire safety, licensing requirements and zoning codes are inconsistent. They can be called a multitude of names: sober houses, sober-living homes, recovery homes, recovery residences, three-quarter houses. (NARR uses “recovery residence” as a catchall term.) Owners can opt to follow NARR’s standards. Or they can opt not to.

At their core, recovery homes are supposed to offer safe and sober living spaces for recovering addicts. And there are many that do just that. Some are run democratically by the residents. Others have paid medical staff or are owned by nonprofit companies. Like Pam Jones’s houses on College Street, some are owned by recovering addicts.

Across the nation, recovery homes have embroiled surrounding communities with remarkable similarities: Neighbors want these places somewhere else, legislators attempt to tighten the laws, recovery homeowners push back. Grisly media reports detail horrors at these places. There have been stories of unscrupulous landlords charging inflated rent or cashing in on residents who qualify for public housing; investigations revealing unsafe spaces with bed bugs, mice, mold and electrical violations. In the past few years, there have been fatal overdoses at recovery homes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin. A woman was fatally beaten, her body found inside a Boston recovery home where her ex-boyfriend, charged with her murder, was living. Here in Pennsylvania, there have been overdose deaths and other serious safety concerns, including a 2012 fire that left the residents of one recovery house homeless. A bill aimed at regulating homes that receive state funding is currently stalled in the Pennsylvania legislature; a state task force, which convened for the first time in September, is poised to draft safety recommendations and a certification process.

Pressure for increased oversight is mirrored among legislatures nationwide, while legal skirmishes over local ordinances — aimed at limiting things such as the number of residents or homes in a region — chug along. Because recovering addicts are protected under the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts, zoning ordinances are often at odds with federal law. An ongoing battle in Newport Beach, California, has cost the municipality about $3.6 million in lawsuits, according to press accounts. Its 2008 zoning ordinance, which closed more than twenty recovery homes, was ruled discriminatory by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In April of this year, the municipality hired attorney Theodore B. Olson — known for Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling. The municipality will reportedly pay Olson $280,000.

When Chester moved in, everything he owned fit in two bags and a box. Today much of what he owns is secondhand, including cookware, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. "I have no problem sharing," he says. "Except when it comes to my pots and pans."
When Chester moved in, everything he owned fit in two bags and a box. Today much of what he owns is secondhand, including cookware, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. “I have no problem sharing,” he says. “Except when it comes to my pots and pans.”

“In general, we want people that are different in a ghetto,” says Leonard A. Jason, the director of DePaul University’s Center for Community Research. If you really want to give addicts a second chance, you have to give them opportunities to live anywhere, Jason says.

Jason, who has contributed to reports for NARR, is among a cadre of researchers studying these places. He began researching recovery homes in Illinois during the early 1990s. His interest pricked when he saw J. Paul Molloy on “60 Minutes” discussing Oxford Houses, a model that Molloy began in the 1970s. (Today there are more than one thousand Oxford Houses in the U.S.; a defining characteristic is that the residents themselves enforce and define the house rules.)

One of Jason’s reports notes, “Among those interviewees who knew of the existence of the self-run recovery home, the values of their houses had actually increased over a mean of three years.” Other studies found landlords reported fewer noise and pet complaints caused by Oxford House tenants than other renters. Neighbors reported gaining friendships and a heightened sense of security after getting to know the recovering addicts. More tenants living together, not fewer, showed prolonged sobriety and lower rates of crime.

These findings suggest there may be similarly positive outcomes at other recovery homes. But words like suggest and may be are important to keep in mind. Oxford Houses may share similarities, but there are many differences when it comes to the thousands of recovery homes operating across country.

“I’ve worked over twenty years and I’ve just scratched the surface of what we need to learn in this area,” says Jason, the tone of his voice even, measured and humble. “I think there is good evidence that many of these houses are good for people, but not all. There’s a lot of variety out there and that’s part of the issue — how do you find one that is good for your needs?”

* * *

On College Street, Pam Jones is the rent collector, rulemaker, mother, sister and confidante. Part ironclad uncontested matriarch, part Wendy Darling, she has hair the color of the crude that once sprang from the Canonsburg soil, and a voice like a coffee grinder. Around here everyone knows her idiosyncrasies well, parroting her phrases, “Hey babe” and “Is that a want or a need?” There have been weddings, baby showers and funerals here. It’s like she gains a foster child every time someone moves in, says a former resident. This community is what keeps her sober, too. Now clean for twenty-five years, it was here on College Street that she quit using drugs and alcohol. If it weren’t for these homes, she would be dead.

“This disease wants to kill us — period,” she says. “And it will and it does.”

In the young guys’ living room, sofas form an altar around the television. Pam pulls deeply on her electronic cigarette, legs dangling over the side of her armchair. It’s a Monday night, a few days after Valentine’s Day. Another weekly house meeting begins.

"I always say I would not expect anyone to live in my recovery houses if I wouldn't live there myself. You know, they’re not the Taj Mahal," Pam Jones says. "But it's a clean environment. It's a safe environment. And we're proud of it.”
“I always say I would not expect anyone to live in my recovery houses if I wouldn’t live there myself. You know, they’re not the Taj Mahal,” Pam Jones says. “But it’s a clean environment. It’s a safe environment. And we’re proud of it.”

One by one, Curtis, Brian, Kace, Glenn, A.J. and Derrick tell Pam what’s going on in their lives. (Last names have been omitted for privacy.) Pam asks questions. Did you follow-up on that job application? How’s your baby girl? Did you make that appointment yet? You gotta take care of those wisdom teeth.

During these house meetings, Pam is mining for details. Many of the men transitioned from a rehab facility to a halfway house before coming here. (That’s why recovery homes are sometimes called three-quarter houses, because you’re said to be three-quarters of the way home.) Anyone who contacts Pam can get their name added to the waitlist as long as they’re clean. She interviews everyone and doesn’t advertise or have a website. Residents are often referred by word-of-mouth from local treatment centers. Some have come through the judicial system after undergoing court-ordered drug treatment programs. Occasionally the courts mandate a stay in a recovery home setting, but that doesn’t mean she lets them in. Others are voluntarily in recovery. All are free to live here as long as they want, and free to go whenever they want, though Pam suggests they stay at least six months to a year. A lot of life happens in that time, she likes to say. Relapse isn’t an event, it’s a process. Break-ups, losing jobs, a death in the family. Even the stresses of living a normal life can trigger thoughts about using.

A half-hour in — after the logistics of how much toilet paper Pam needs to buy — it’s time for ‘negotiations.’ A.J. begins, arguing the case that women should be allowed to visit the house. Boyish features match his somewhat cheeky but polite demeanor, often addressing Pam with a “yes ma’am.”

"We love and respect each other as recovering addicts because we don't want anybody to go back to the life of active addiction," Pam says.
“We love and respect each other as recovering addicts because we don’t want anybody to go back to the life of active addiction,” Pam says.

“You know what I want, so why can’t we just work something out?” A.J. says, and the others laugh. “We’re grown men. I’m lonely, who’s all lonely?” A few hands go up. More laughing and jokes.

“These are just lessons for you in rejection, O.K.? The answer is no,” Pam says. “No, we can’t have them hang out. No, we can’t have them spend the night.”

The topic shifts. Now Derrick takes the lead. “What about fish?” he asks.

“We tried the fish thing and they died because everybody fed it and no one cleaned it,” Pam says.

“I’ll be the one to solely take care of the seventeen piranhas,” offers Derrick.

“No, we don’t want seventeen piranhas. What kind of fish?”

Tiny ones like electric carp, he says. There’s a fish tank in the house; it won’t be a mess.

“Alright. Fish,” Pam relents. “Let’s try fish.”

The others smell blood in the water.

“Can my dog come for a weekend?”

“What about, like, a turtle?”

“Nope, no turtles. I said a fish.”

“Well a turtle kind of is a fish.”

“It is not a fish. A turtle is a reptile, it is not a fish.”

“A tarantula is kind of like a fish.”

Most of the guys in this house are in their twenties, a dogpile of jokes, rapping and tattoos. They’re quick to compare their looks and skills and choices of television programs against the older men in the recovery home across the street.

As the meeting dissolves, they migrate to the kitchen where there’s cold pizza and ribs in the slow cooker. Pam returns to her armchair with a helping of meat.

“Pam wouldn’t survive without us,” someone says from the kitchen. She returns the volley. “You can talk about me like I’m not here, I don’t give a fuck.”

A.J., the leader of the weekly plea for allowing women at the house, also returns to the sofa. Now his tone has changed, as he drops his mask. A.J. is from Latrobe, a town about an hour away in Westmoreland County, which tallied more than ninety overdose fatalities in 2013.

“In Downtown Latrobe they opened one [recovery home] and people went to the city council and were like, ‘Look, we don’t want these drug addicts in our neighborhoods.’ They don’t understand,” he says.

Chores are often part of the deal to live in a recovery home. "We don't have to live like that anymore," a phrase that's often repeated around here, is written near the list of chores in the the hallway.
Chores are often part of the deal to live in a recovery home. “We don’t have to live like that anymore,” a phrase that’s often repeated around here, is written near the list of chores in the the hallway.

This place, he says, has been a godsend.

“I’ve been in active addiction for a long time. I’ve been to treatment numerous times, but I would leave treatment and I just go home back to the same environment, hanging around with the same people. This was a nice getaway, I guess you could say. I’m surrounded by people with sobriety and clean time. I guess I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

A.J. has a little boy who turned three in December. It’s hard not to see him every day, he says. “I figure this will pay off in the long run, getting my life together.”

Pam finishes her last bite of meat, though the night isn’t over yet. There’s still the house meeting across the street. Before leaving, she revisits the debate from earlier in the evening.

“This needs to be your sanctuary without women,” she says. “Like us girls say, the men will kiss your ass and the women will save it. And it’s the other way around for you guys. The guys are gonna save your ass. The women will kiss whatever.”

* * *

Pajama-clad men cycle in and out of the common room, their banter as constant as the television. It’s a typical afternoon at the old guys’ house. (No one is shirtless because Chester warned them to be fully dressed when a reporter is in the house.) Floorboards wheeze as they lumber up and down the stairs; some to do laundry, microwave food, take another cup of coffee. As of February, there are eight men in their thirties, forties and fifties; one is twenty-five. Cans of energy drinks are a choice item, despite the house rules explicitly banning their consumption. (A few years ago, Pam caught residents playing drinking games with the energy drinks, which landed the “friendly beverages,” as the young guys call them, on the banned list. Still, even rule-enforcing Chester drinks them, and Pam acknowledged that the energy drinks aren’t much different than her daily Starbucks.)

“Accountability” is a big word around here, and urine tests are administered at any time. “We don’t call it snitching. It’s for the welfare of everybody in the house,” Chester says.

Making your bed means reclaiming a sliver of your humanity, spirited away by drugs and alcohol. The linoleum on the kitchen floor, though yellowed, shines.

The house rules are detailed in a two-page document, flagged with underlined phrases and exclamation points. The men have to be employed or actively looking for work. They have to pay rent. They have to be involved in a recovery program, like twelve-step meetings. No alcohol-based mouthwash, no vitamins, no medications, no violence, no gambling.

Having rules help addicts become productive members of society, Pam says, because when you’re using you could care less about accountability. “When addicts have no consequences, we’re in trouble.”

Chester has been house manager since January 2012. He and Pam have sources around town who tip them off when guys are on the streets using drugs or alcohol. At home, he watches for the signs of relapse, like a guy on the couch during the times he should be at work. Leaving early, coming home late. Lies and cover-ups and hedging. Getting too close with the guys and becoming their friends can make his role as house manager more difficult, he says.

Because he’s lived here the longest, seniority has earned him the most coveted perk in the house: a private room. But he opts to share the bedroom at the top of the stairs with another guy, trading privacy for strategy.

“I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it,” Chester says.

“I can't afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don't want to be that,” Chester says.
“I can’t afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don’t want to be that,” Chester says.

Late in the afternoon, the coffee machine is still on. Chester switches it off, irked that he hadn’t spotted it earlier.

Jake comes into the kitchen. He’s been here a few months, his bushy beard earning him the nickname “Duck Dynasty” after the reality television show about a family of religious, bearded, duck-hunting entrepreneurs.

“Do you have quarters? A dollar in quarters?” Jake asks.

“You’re lucky. I just went and got five dollars the other day,” Chester says, scooping a pawful of quarters from his jeans.

“Alright, I’ll hit you back. Thanks buddy.”

“You’re welcome bro.”

The guys never have quarters for laundry, he says. Sometimes it’s the small stuff about running this place that gnaws at him.

When the fan is left on in the basement “man cave” — the only place in the house where the guys can smoke cigarettes — Chester switches it off. He repairs the door handle on the back porch when the guys push it open again and again. He regulates bottles of liquid soap that clutter the shower. Today there are sixteen bottles of body wash in the shower, many with only an inch of soap left. Only eight guys live here. “Put it this way: at least I know they’re clean,” Chester says, chuckling.

There are days when all he wants is quiet, without the bickering over the television remote or laundry. Maybe he’ll find a place of his own soon, he says. “I don’t want to be alone, I just want my own freedom. I guess that’s the only way I can put it. I want my own freedom. And the only person I got to worry about that day is me.”

* * *

Derrick is twenty-two and among one of the newer ones in the pack, having moved into the young guys’ house a few months ago. During a house meeting, he hands his phone to the others to show them his daughter, Ava Marie, posing in a frilly dress at her birthday party. It wasn’t a great day, he says to the group. Some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg and beers to celebrate Ava’s first birthday.

This is the second time he’s tried to leave behind his life of drugs and alcohol. He started using heroin as a teenager. In another photo, he’s holding newborn Ava. He looks like another man, his arms lean and gaunt, like pipe cleaners cradling a tiny pink bundle. He looks nothing like that today.

Derrick holds a photograph of his daughter, Ava Marie. At her first birthday party, some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg. It wasn't a great day, he says.
Derrick holds a photograph of his daughter, Ava Marie. At her first birthday party, some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg. It wasn’t a great day, he says.

He went into treatment for the first time when Ava’s mother was pregnant, he says one afternoon in March. “I was there for twenty-one days. Got out, didn’t go to any meetings, got high that day. I didn’t want to get clean.”

Once he started using again things got worse. His sister kicked him out for having heroin in her house; Ava had already been born by then. Eventually he moved in with his dad.

“He’s an alcoholic. He drinks a half-gallon of whiskey every day, religiously. We just didn’t get along. We fought each other all the time. I got to the point where I’d rather sleep in a tent in the woods than live with my dad. So that’s what I did for about a month,” he says. “I just had a lot of time to think. I realized what I was doing to myself, what I was doing to my family. I decided, that was it. I didn’t have to live that way anymore. Went back to [treatment], July 10, 2013. I’ve been clean since.”

Later that afternoon, I ask Derrick to fact-check my flowchart of the recovery process. Instead of correcting it, he creates his own using the same elements: detox → halfway house → recovery home → home. His flowchart is simple, chilling even, as each step has choices, detailed with forked lines. There’s a box labeled “jail,” a gravestone marked R.I.P, and tiny syringes as options along the flowchart.

Kace, his name inked on his neck — a decorative K flanked by an Ace card — is in his early twenties, and one of the senior members of the house, two years clean. He surveys Derrick’s drawing.

“In every spot, there’s an option of needle,” says Kace as the two laugh. They turn toward me, explaining it’s not really funny, but true.

“There is always that option,” Derrick says.

* * *

“That’s how we keep track of relapses,” Pam says. “Because they usually end up getting arrested. And then they show up in Mugshot Mania.”

Mugshot Mania is available for a buck and a quarter at gas stations and other locations around the region. It’s a full-color publication of the week’s arrests in the region. There’s a stack of them in the living room of the old guys’ house.

“It’s kind of like our Facebook,” says Jake, gregarious as usual, but only half joking.

Many of the guys living in Pam’s recovery homes are seen by outsiders only as addicts and criminals. And there’s some truth to that. Some have felonies or other offenses on their records: burglary, drunk driving, disorderly conduct. They’re the first to call themselves junkies and liars. To pay the rent, some wash dishes or work as laborers on construction sites. A few of the older guys are doing what they went to school for; one repairs heating and cooling units, another sells electronics. Not everyone has a car, and those who do run carpools when they can. Dark humor is infused with hugging. Going through recovery together, many expressed how these are some of the strongest — or even the first — friendships they’ve ever had. And despite their age differences, addiction is now an indelible part of their lives.

“I wouldn’t wish addiction on my worst enemy,” says Holly Martin, a psychologist and the chief operating officer at Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has facilities throughout western Pennsylvania. Martin’s work with addicts spans three decades, and she knows many of these men because they went through Greenbriar. People think the compulsion to use is a moral weakness, says Martin, but quitting is not as simple as deciding to stop using.

“That’s like saying ‘don’t breathe anymore,’” she says.

With a chemical addiction, your brain is sending signals to every cell in your body. You need the drug to survive. The cravings and urges are tangible. Stopping cold turkey from an addiction to alcohol or a prescription medication like Xanax can trigger very real physical responses: shakes, a spike in blood pressure, seizures, death. (Though there are arguments that the disease concept is a myth, the government-run National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies addiction as a brain disease.)

Living among others who know what they’ve been through is vital, she says. “Having that support network will be the difference between sobriety and relapse. Period.”

* * *

Spring arrives and Pennsylvania thaws.

“I even have a sunburn,” Chester says, chuckling.

There have been so many projects to do. Refinishing a table and chairs, cleaning gutters. He built a new workbench for the shed. His garden is ready for another season of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, zucchinis and sweet potatoes.

No one has relapsed but a few guys are moving out, Chester says. It will be chaos for a while as new residents move in, but things will settle. As for finding a place of his own, he’s still undecided.

Drawing is a new part of Chester's life since he got sober. He often draws farm houses or log cabins surrounded by nothing but nature. "I don't know why," he says.
Drawing is a new part of Chester’s life since he got sober. He often draws farm houses or log cabins surrounded by nothing but nature. “I don’t know why,” he says.

Months earlier, I asked Chester if he monitors his own signs of relapse.

“I can’t afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don’t want to be that,” Chester says, speaking slowly, earnestly.

“Some days this is what keeps me grounded: this place, being around people just like me. People that have struggles day in day out on a daily basis. But also having people that care about you — being who you are, knowing who you are — and not thinking they’re better than you.”

* * *

It’s a few days after Thanksgiving and Butch is mixing batter for brownies. Nothing fancy, they’re made from a box, but he takes great care pouring the syrupy goo into the pan. Baking is something he likes to do whenever he has a day off, he says.

“Stop back,” he says, sliding the tray into the oven. “You can have one.”

It’s been nearly a year since I first visited College Street. Butch is one of many new faces around here. The houses are no longer as evenly split between old and young guys. Some have moved on, finding their own apartments, while others have been kicked out for using.

Derrick will have been living here for one year come Christmas. His daughter Ava just got her ears pierced with tiny pearl earrings; he saw her over the Thanksgiving holiday. The food was alright (though he was worried about the undercooked turkey), but there was too much fighting between his siblings, he says. Derrick now has a teal early nineties Honda, and he and Randy, another guy in his twenties, share the role of house manager.

Chester is still managing the house across the street. March of 2015 will mark four years clean.

There have been ups and downs — the cops came over the summer because Randy was riding his dirt bike down College Street; Kace is still sober, rapping and said to be engaged; A.J. relapsed, but is back in recovery. But everything is overshadowed by what happened on Labor Day weekend.

* * *

Chester takes me back to that Saturday morning when, he says, something didn’t seem right from the start.

When Chester wakes up on that Saturday, the bathroom door is closed. The shower isn’t running. Maybe someone is using the toilet. Downstairs it’s quiet but still early, around quarter to seven. One of the early risers is drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette.

He goes back to his bedroom to get ready for the day, reaching for his shoes. There’s that feeling again. Something is off. From his window Chester sees a vehicle pull in front of the house. On weekends it’s typical for some of the guys to go to a restaurant with family members. Today he sees a woman get out of the car, which is unusual. Now the woman is at the door asking about her son because she’s been calling and he’s not answering his phone. Right at that moment his stomach flips. Something ain’t right. The mother follows him inside, up the stairs. Chester knocks on her son’s bedroom door, opens it, but he’s not inside. Turns to the bathroom door. Still closed. Knocks. Silence. Now the mother is yelling her son’s name and Chester grabs a metal hanger and unhooks the latch, and she sees what he sees and screams, calling her son’s name while Chester is trying to help her from seeing what she has already seen.

There’s nothing the paramedics will be able to do for the body slumped against the wall.

An empty syringe lies on the floor.

“It was brutal,” Pam says. Always the straight talker, she doesn’t mince words. There had been overdoses before but never a death, she says.

“It is the reality of recovery, addiction and recovery houses. Sad but true. And we hope it never happens, but it does,” she says. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I’ve lost a lot of people I love.”

Later that day, near dusk, the scarlet stripe on Chester’s NASCAR jacket almost glows in receding light. The embers of his cigarette flare. Smoking is unusual for him.

It hit him hard, Pam says.

* * *

On a late November afternoon Chester is raking long, spindly needles from under the pines. It’s an unusually warm day, and the soil is spongy as we walk to the shed to see his latest projects. Inside, we hear a fluttering sound, like a moth trapped in paper bag. Chester moves toward a window that is partially obscured with debris. He peers behind the debris, reaching with gloved hands and speaking in a hushed voice, “Come on, come on.” Seconds later a flash of brown, no bigger than a salt shaker, disappears into the winter sky.

Back in the house it’s quiet at the kitchen table because many of the guys are at work. A yellow cake cools on the stovetop. I ask Chester what he was thinking when he realized a bird was trapped in the shed.

“Death, lately, has been a big thing on my mind,” he says. “And I hate to see anything happen to anybody or anything.”

“I’m running all the scenarios through my head. What I should’ve done, what I could’ve done. And the bottom line comes out to, there’s nothing more I could’ve done. He made his choice. He chose to do what he did. No matter if he was living here or living somewhere else, he made the choice,” Chester says.

“And the look on that poor lady’s face, I mean, every time I think about it, that’s the first thing I see. It’s just hard to explain. And that scream. It was just, it’s something that’s going to bug me for a while. And for a week after that, I couldn’t sleep worth crap because it stirred up memories from my past and the shit I used to do.”

Abruptly Chester begins listing home repair projects: laying new linoleum, replacing the toilet and painting the walls. The tone of his voice shifts, becoming slightly more mechanical. This is Chester’s coping mechanism at work.

“He just turned, like three days before, twenty-four years old. His therapist was like, ‘He was never late, always on time, never missed a session, talking about going back to school.’ Even his [parole officer] the day before piss-tested him. The day before that, I piss-tested him. He was clean,” he says.

“It caught everybody off guard. I mean, me and him talked the most because of his schedule. Most of the guys very seldomly seen him. I hung around with him and talked with him more, because I seen him more. I kind of had a little bit of an attachment to him, and knowing him, because we talked a lot.”

I ask Chester how he thinks people will react when they hear about the death.

“Personally I think the public’s going to judge it the way they normally always do, and think that it’s nothing but a bunch of addicts and alcoholics,” he says. “I see the attitudes from these people and how they look upon us. No matter what they hear and what you say to them, they’re going to form their own opinion. You know it’s gonna be, ‘Well, what do you expect? That goes on all the time. That’s how they are. That’s who they are.’ Not knowing that this is the first time this has happened since this place has been running.”

“It’s not like it’s something that goes on every day. And to try to convince people of that? I got a better chance of hitting the lottery and winning a million dollars.”

“When it comes to certain things, people have already formed their opinions of how we are and who we are,” he says. “It sounds selfish in a way, but I just can’t grasp some people’s opinion of us. To me, I think they’re no good. Because you’re judging me. You’re no better than me. What’s hidden in your closet? What goes on at your house? What do you do behind your closed doors?”

Outside, the weather is shifting. The wind is blowing harder.

“When I seen that bird, I knew it needed help,” says Chester. “And I had to help it. I didn’t want to see nothing bad happen to it…I knew there was an opportunity to save it, and to help it.”

He reflects again on the young man who died in the bathroom, just above where we sit.

“It’s something I wished that I’d never, ever have to see again. But it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s hard to explain, I mean, the pain in that lady’s face. I see it every day.”

* * *

Em DeMarco is a journalist based in Pittsburgh. Currently she is working on merging nonfiction storytelling with comics and illustration. Twitter @eademarco.

Part of this story was reported while Em DeMarco was an investigative reporting fellow with PublicSource, an in-depth news outlet that covers issues across Pennsylvania.

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

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

This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spot-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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