The Luckiest Unlucky Woman in Wartime Sarajevo


After years of wartime horror and uncanny escapes, Dijana Voljevica dreamed of bringing her incredible journey to Hollywood. A seizure claimed her life before she had a chance.

In 1974, on a soggy dirt street in Old Breka, Sarajevo — a suburb of aging houses and unkempt lots — four-year-old Dijana Voljevica was inspired by mud. She gathered her four girlfriends and whispered a cruel prank: Someone will poop in a chocolate wrapper and give it to the weird kid down the street named Bumba. He eats everything. Somehow his name suggests this.

Dijana left the wrapper on the porch and knocked on the door before joining her friends behind a nearby bush. The girls laughed, and, as if the universe were in on the prank, an unattended Bumba opened the door. He saw the wrapper and took it into his mouth. His mother heard him scream and arrived in time to watch the girls run away.

Decades later — long after her native Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, long after the Bosnian War ended in 1995, and the siege of Dijana’s city, Sarajevo, lifted in 1996 — Dijana loved to tell this early part of her story. She always had a strange sense of humor. But the anecdote also portended her brutal future. Later that day, Bumba’s father found Dijana walking home. “Here! Have some chocolate you Jew bastard,” he yelled, smothering “chocolate” in her face. (We don’t know whose.) Mistaken ethnic identity (Dijana was not Jewish), violent older men, and feces, as if the universe were again in on the sinister plan, would reprise in Dijana’s life during the war. But before she had to survive the war, she first had to survive her father.

In 2007, Dijana moved to Los Angeles with her autobiographical screenplay. It remains as proof of her life and the crimes against her. It’s proof that war does not destroy everything, and that war can also give. War is how, in part, she escaped her abusive father. War is where she fell in love. War had shaped her, and she liked who she’d become. She was proud of her survival, though she hated the war. Her suffering made her more sensitive to the suffering of others. War gave her a story to tell. She dreamed of the Oscar.

In 2014, I rediscovered Dijana’s screenplay while boxing files and moving to a new apartment. For years we had worked on it together in college. Throwing out her life story felt wrong, and writing it felt like a small moral victory. Dijana wanted to tell her story, but never got a chance, so I’m telling it for her. That does not count for much, not nearly enough, but it’s something.

This article relies on extensive interviews over many years with Dijana and her husband, who I call Nikola; he asked not to be identified because he still has family in Bosnia and is concerned for their safety. This article is also told with excerpts from Dijana’s autobiographical screenplay, which I’ve edited for clarity. I fact-checked Dijana’s story with Nikola, a kind man who answered invasive questions about the worst moments of his life. I’ve also checked Dijana’s story against the public record, using maps, history books, death certificates, divorce records, United Nations investigations, news reports, and other documents. In some cases, however, Dijana or Nikola’s word is all I had. All names have been changed, except Dijana’s. I believe she had an agreement with her sources, and I’m honoring that agreement.

After the 1974 chocolate incident, Dijana chronicled her family’s dysfunction. She began with Ferida, her grandmother. Everything with Ferida was like a soap opera. In the margin of her screenplay Dijana noted: “My grandmother was dramatic. She thought that by crying and begging, people would feel sorry for us and would help us. I was so embarrassed and ashamed because of her behavior.”

When Ferida asked the local piano teacher if Dijana could take lessons, she was politely told to fill out an enrollment form. The banal offer of paperwork drove Ferida into overwrought oaths of thanks. Down on her knees she cried, and then exclaimed, “God bless you Miss. God bless you.” Though these displays embarrassed Dijana, Ferida loved her granddaughter. It was Hussein, Dijana’s father and the family’s resident dictator, who, as Dijana tells it, ruined everything.

In 1984, Dijana was fifteen. The family often had afternoon coffee together, although Dijana was not allowed to drink it. But then Dijana’s mother, Nermina, offered her a cup. It was a slight against Hussein’s authority that Dijana recorded in her screenplay.

Hussein: Put that cup down.

Dijana: I won’t.

This angers him even more, so Hussein takes Dijana by the arm, lays her over his lap and begins to beat her. We see fear and hesitation to confront him on Ferida’s face.

Nermina: Hussein, please stop. I beg you to stop.

As he beats Dijana he accuses Nermina for Dijana’s behavior.

Ferida attempts to halt Hussein’s assault on Dijana. After becoming tired he stops and drops Dijana to the floor.

Nermina picks up Dijana.

Nermina died on January 29, 1984. Her death was always hard for Dijana to talk about. In her screenplay she wrote vaguely about a “horrific scream” that came from somewhere in the house, and she always blamed her father for Nermina’s death, without making a specific accusation. There’s no additional information indicating what happened, or whether or not he was involved. Nermina was buried in the Kosevo/Lav/St. Mark Cemetery Complex.

Within weeks, Hussein took Dijana away from Ferida to live with Aisha, his girlfriend. “This is your new mother,” Dijana remembered Hussein telling her. Dijana hated Aisha’s bright-red lipstick.

As the years got on Dijana learned when to avoid her father, when to apologize, and when to take blame. But Hussein’s temper was a shifting minefield she could not safely navigate forever. Walking home from school one day (the date is unclear but she was still a teenager), Hussein accused Dijana of accepting a ride to school. He demanded to know the driver’s name. Dijana protested, saying she’d walked. When they got home Hussein slammed the door shut. Dijana wrote a scene about what happened next:

Aisha: What’s wrong?

Dijana: He thinks someone gave me a ride to school.

Hussein slaps Dijana with the back of his hand. Taking her by her hair, he drags her into another room. Dijana screams. Hussein puts Dijana on the floor and repeatedly slaps her. He lies on her and takes off his belt.

Hussein: You little bitch.

Dijana attempts to crawl away on her stomach. Hussein pulls her by her legs back and hits her with the buckle of his belt and continues to beat her. Dijana, screaming, crying, begins to bleed.

The doctor said Dijana had suffered significant head trauma. Seizures and mood swings followed. An EEG and MRI confirmed Dijana had epilepsy. She suffered debilitating seizures the rest of her life.

The good news was that unfaithful husbands tend to be unfaithful boyfriends. Aisha’s friend allegedly caught Hussein with another woman and called with the news. Aisha hung up the phone and summarily evicted Dijana, who went happily to live with Ferida.

* * *

In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. The world saw what ostensibly appeared to be an urban paragon of diversity and tolerance. Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims, Dijana’s ethnicity) lived together peacefully, especially in heterogeneous Bosnia. Ethnicity was a distinction between people, not a justification for “ethnic cleansing,” a phrase that would come to be associated with the oncoming war.

By 1991, when Dijana was 22, the multiethnic socialist republic of Yugoslavia was breaking apart. Wracked by ethnic nationalism, corrupt legislation, inflation and unemployment, its six states — Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia — were separating. Bosnian Serb nationalists, backed by neighboring Serbia and its military, wanted their own pure Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), to be part of an expanded Serbian state, a “Greater Serbia.” That included Sarajevo, Dijana’s home.

The warnings had been there: the nationalist militias, the violent rhetoric, troubling news reports, and the brutal war next door in Croatia. But after living in ethnically mixed communities for years, even the coming war still seemed far away from Bosnia.

“We are civilized people,” Dijana wrote in her screenplay, describing the disbelief.

And then the war arrived.

On March 1, 1992, Bosnia voted for independence. Of 3.15 million people almost two million voted, and 99.7 percent supported independence, though most Bosnian Serbs boycotted. About a month later the siege of Sarajevo began. With support from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — later to be tried for genocide — Bosnian-Serb forces, the Army of Republika Srpska, targeted Muslims and Croatian civilians, though atrocities were committed on all sides. That army positioned artillery in the hills around the encircled capital, intending to annex the territory for the Republika Srpska and Greater Serbia. Those hills made Sarajevo easy to cut off and terror-bomb from lofty strategic positions. On TV, Dijana and her friends watched their country and world break. Dijana remembered the beginning like this, with a friend yelling:

Sanja: My God!

Sanja runs, turns up the TV’s volume. We see their faces in disbelief. Frozen.

Dijana: Should we leave?

Goran: Shit!

Dragan: Ok, calm down. This is not for real. It will calm down. Police and the army will calm everybody down. It is impossible to have a war in Sarajevo. This is a city, man. This is like New York City. This is like Paris.

Early into the siege, sometime in the night, Ferida had a stroke. She kept asking for her favorite baklava, and Dijana volunteered to buy it. She kissed Ferida on the cheek and called her “mama” as she left. Why not take Ferida straight to the hospital? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, once out of the house, Dijana changed her mind, deciding instead went to speak with a doctor at Kosevo Hospital.

On her way, she passed two men calling themselves Sarajevan police officers. In truth, they were unofficial militia, likely organized local criminals who, in addition to fighting Serbian troops, terrorized the people of Sarajevo.

Police Officer 1: Let me see your ID.

Police Officer 2: Where are you going?

Dijana: I’m going to the hospital. My mama is sick and needs a doctor.

Police Officer 1: I will drive you where you need to go. It’s not safe for girls like you to go alone.

Dijana gets in the car.

Police Officer 1: What’s your father’s name?

Dijana: Hussein.

Police Officer 1: What kind of Muslim is your dad when he gave you the name Dijana? What kind of fucking name is that anyway? Dijana, hmm…

Dijana: It is an international name. We are going the wrong way.

He took her to Kosevo/Lav/St. Mark Cemetery Complex, where her mother was buried. He ordered her out of the car. When she refused he leaned close to her. Brushing his elbow against her breasts he opened the glove compartment. He showed her three bullets inside a revolver. She got out of the car. The sun was setting when he raped her.

When the officer left Dijana at a nearby apartment complex he tossed her a money roll, told her, “See you tomorrow at six,” and drove away. When his car turned the corner she thought it was safe to scream and cry. A woman in a nearby apartment ran to her and took her to Kosevo Hospital.

Because the rapist was a so-called policeman in an increasingly lawless city, Dijana feared retaliation if she reported the crime. So did the examining doctor. When he asked who raped her, Dijana told the truth.

“No one raped you,” he said. “You should go home.”

Years later, Dijana still remembered his flushed purple face, short chubby fingers, and bloodshot eyes. She remembered the heavy drops of sweat on his forehead and the smell of alcohol.

* * *

From May 1992 until the Dayton peace agreement on December 14, 1995, Sarajevo suffered an average of 329 shell impacts a day, according to a UN study. About 35,000 buildings were destroyed. Parts of the city were without running water and electricity. Serbian snipers terrorized the city. More than 12,000 city residents were killed and 50,000 more were wounded, mostly civilians. The average weight loss of adults in the city was 30 pounds. The city was being murdered.

Ferida died in the winter of 1992-1993, while Dijana and her friends ducked sniper fire, avoided mortar, and searched for food.

“We have to get out of this fucking city,” Dijana’s friend Goran told her.

Exit and safety required money and connections, both of which Dijana and Goran lacked. But there was good news. The war had emancipated Dijana from her abusive family. Hussein was gone. Not caring what happened to Dijana, he had fled the country and was now living in Croatia with Aisha, whose unattended apartment in Sarajevo likely had food.

The apartment was in the neighborhood of Marijin Dvor, near a military hospital and a Holiday Inn then popular with the foreign press. When Dijana and Goran arrived they met Aisha’s sister, Nevza, who asked the now commonplace question, “What nationality are you?” This meant, “Are you Serb, Muslim, or Croat?” which really meant, “Whose side are you on?” Goran told her the truth. “I’m Serbian.” Nevza called the police.

The real police arrived, but not before Dijana and Goran ate themselves fat. And once Dijana told the police Aisha was her stepmother, they left her and Goran alone.

Dijana managed to make moments of happiness among the desperation. She often said she never laughed more than during the war. It was between shellings that she fell in love.

About a month after the Nevza incident Dijana met her future husband, Nikola, waiting in a water line. For some reason an old house near Pionirska Dolina Zoo still had running water from a broken pipe in the basement, even when the water lines were down. Dijana described how they first met:

Goran and Dijana are at the end of the line. As they wait young men come up behind them and they say “Hi.” One is very tall, skinny, long hair, hazel eyes, and smiles. He catches Dijana’s eye.

Dijana described a wartime date on a tennis court in Breka:

Nikola is smoking. No conversation. He’s very tall and confident. Dijana blushes. She’s looking at him. There’s an apparent attraction, but it’s painfully suppressed. We expect them to kiss but nothing happens. Someone calls Dijana to play tennis. Shells explode nearby, but no one pays attention. Someone farts and everyone laughs.

Their first kiss happened under a kitchen table.

Despite the shelling Dijana and Nikola are happy to be together. A shell lands close and the building shakes. They passionately look at each other. They are breathing hard, not just out of fear, but also out of love. They stare longer. As more shells drop, they kiss.

Walking back from a mosque that supplied food and humanitarian aid, Dijana, Nikola, and Goran met four Bosnian paramilitary officers. Dijana described how a few minutes changed their lives forever.

Officer 2: IDs.

Officer 1: What is one Muslim girl doing with two Serbs? And you two, why are you not in the Bosnian Army? Seventeen and eighteen are old enough.

He hits Goran in the ribs with his gun. Officer 3 pulls Dijana by the hair. Dijana is crying. The officers beat Nikola. Officer 3 radios in. People pass by and try to avoid the scene.

Officer 3: We have a new package.

A military truck arrives. An officer opens the tent of the back of the truck and shoves Dijana, Nikola, and Goran inside with thirty terrified men and women. A man in the truck is dead. A woman is screaming, weeping, and hitting the back of the driver’s seat.

The door of the truck opens. Footsteps. An officer opens the tent and jumps in the back of the truck. He walks over those sitting on the floor and steps over the dead body. He hits a man who looks at him, but gently approaches the crying woman. He hugs her.

Officer 4: You need some fresh air. Come on. There is nothing to be afraid of. He leads her out of the truck.

Officer 4: Everything will be alright.

Quickly he pulls out a knife and stabs her in the side of the head. She falls to the ground. He tries to pull out the knife, but it’s stuck. Frustrated, he starts moving the knife left and right, finally pulling it out. He gets back in the truck, starts the engine, puts the truck in reverse, and runs over the dead woman.

Dijana, Nikola and Goran were taken to a bombed-out housing complex near the frontline, on the hills of Sarajevo, one or two miles from the city center. The perimeter fence was a heap of melted broken bicycles and metal parts with barbed wire on top. About 30 prisoners lived there in putrid conditions. A few had blankets. There were makeshift detention camps like it all over the Sarajevo area now. Bosnian Muslims and Croats detained Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Serbs detained Bosnian Muslims and Croats, as both sides committed crimes against civilians.

Musan Topalovic, aka “Caco,” a Muslim paramilitary leader and self-declared “city defender,” ran the camp. In 1997, The New York Timesinterviewed Salih Jamakovic, a former member of Caco’s unit. ”Caco killed many Serbs, and even some Muslims who he said were collaborating with the Serbs, in his headquarters in the city,” Jamakovic said. ”He brought the bodies up here at night and dumped them in the pit. Those who were executed here were escorted to the mouth of the pit by Caco’s snipers or a special execution platoon.” It’s possible Dijana, Nikola, and Goran had been taken to this camp.

At “the place” — the camp had no other name — food was scarce and the ruthless guards and frontline work deadly. Some women and children were exchanged for Muslims from occupied Serb territory. Some men never returned from digging trenches on the front. The women avoided the guards. Some failed, as Dijana remembered:

The women become silent as they see a man’s eyes look through a small crack in the door. Dijana and all the women watch as the door slowly opens. Two soldiers enter the room, and leave the cell door open a crack. We see the face of the soldier look at each female individually. His eyes move from left to right.

Young Soldier: Do you miss banging?

Both soldiers laugh.

Soldier 1: Let us show you how nice and clean the Muslim dick is.

Soldier 1 pulls the hair of a woman and she falls down on the bed. She begins to cry.

Young Soldier: Take off your pants and shirt. Are you clean?

Woman: I am.

Soldier 1: Serbs don’t even wash their asses when they shit. Disgusting nation.

The soldier takes from his inside jacket pocket a bottle of Bosnian plum brandy and pours it over the woman’s vagina. She screams and the soldier puts his hand over her mouth.

The escape was unplanned and desperate and maybe that’s why it worked. Four days after Dijana, Nikola and Goran arrived, a loud firefight nearby distracted everyone. In that moment the three dug through the junkyard fence and sprinted for their lives.

Goran: I can’t believe it was this simple.

Dijana: It was this simple? We are still next to the fucking place.

They ran towards Sarajevo’s center, past destroyed houses. After a few miles they arrived at the Miljacka River and found a sewage tunnel. Catching their breath, they rested inside, gagging from the sewage stench. (For Dijana, the return of feces and ethnic hate was a cosmically absurd life parallel.) After an hour they realized no one was following them and the only thing to do was walk.

The plan was to reach Grbavica, once an ethnically mixed, prosperous neighborhood in Sarajevo, where Nikola had grown up and where his parents owned an apartment. They did not know who controlled the area, having only heard rumors that often proved wrong.

At night they reached seemingly deserted Pionirska Street. From there they fled to the apartment of Fadila, a kind women in her late fifties and Branko, her ill husband, who Dijana had known before the war. The poor couple gave the children food, clothes and German marks, the only currency accepted in the city.

Back on the road they followed the Miljacka River, making their way to heavily damaged Grbavica. They passed freshly dug graves and an exploded tank. They stopped near Vrbanja Bridge.

“WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF SERBS,” Dijana wrote in her screenplay.

They had unknowingly entered Serb territory. Dijana explained why they hadn’t been shot: The General had arranged an exchange with the Muslims of the city for his daughter and boyfriend. The soldiers thought Dijana was the daughter and took her, Nikola and Goran to a nearby building to meet this self-proclaimed general, who was really a paramilitary leader. He ordered Dijana, Nikola and Goran to remain and live under his rule. Two soldiers, Zikka and Bora, showed them an abandoned apartment where they could stay and the mess hall where they’d eat their meals with other soldiers. The escape had worked.

But soon Nikola and Goran were back in the General’s office.

Above a Persian rug hung large portraits of Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. The latter is currently on trial at The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Karadzic, a founding member of the Serbian Democratic Party, is charged with genocide and other crimes, including, “murder, unlawful attacks on civilians, acts of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, and the taking of hostages.” Milosevic died in prison before his trial concluded.

General: Good news. Since we think you have the potential to become great and dedicated soldiers, I’ve decided to send you to Ozrenska.

Nikola: Sir, with all due respect, we are only seventeen and we just went through hell in the Muslim area. We heard that Ozrenska is the worst fighting line on the Sarajevan front.

Goran: We will not go.

Bora: You can’t say that to the general.

Goran: Fuck you. We are not going.

General: Fucking cowards. You are not real Serbs. Take these two on vacation.

The General jailed Nikola and Goran with other Serbian men in a military complex near Sarajevo’s airport.

Some prisoners joked about their crimes. One former soldier bragged about killing his cheating wife and her lover. Another claimed he killed two elderly Muslim women. After eight days in that jail Nikola and Goran joined the military.

Meanwhile, Dijana waited, scared and alone, in the abandoned apartment. In Serb territory her last name was dangerous. She had heard that drunken paramilitary officers killed two women with Muslim names in her building. But where could she go?

Goran and Nikola were stationed with two other young men, Darko and Boyan. They worried about NATO airplanes bombing their position.

The buildings and trees that lined Ozrenska Street in Sarajevo created a battle line, with Bosniaks on one side and Serbs on the other. Snipers constantly watched positions on Ozrenska, a long street that at points overlooked Sarajevo, making it strategically important to both sides. Nikola helped Dijana write about his experience on the front:

Darko: Fuck this war. Serbs, Muslims, Croats. Fuck their mothers and those who fucked them. Fuck everyone.

Darko starts throwing away his ammunition, gun, knife, and grenades. Nikola and Goran grab his arms to stop him.

Darko (Hysterical): I’m leaving. That’s it. Fuck you. Fuck everyone.

Nikola: Shut the fuck up. You’ll get us killed.

Goran: Calm down, man.

Darko (staring at the distance): Do you guys think the Americans will really bomb us?

Goran: No, Darko. They don’t fucking care about us here. Muslims just hope the Americans will help.

All of a sudden we hear a soft shot. Darko’s head snaps back. Darko’s body shakes.

Nikola’s face is pale, frozen, his lips colorless. Silence. We see Nikola and Goran’s sweaty faces, eyes wide open and alert, waiting on the next shot. Silence. Soldiers shoot at invisible targets.

Nikola is crying, trying with Goran to put Darko on the stretcher. They put Darko in an emergency military truck. Nikola goes with him.

Nikola: Darko, we are going to the hospital. Don’t worry.

Red Cross Officer: Hey, buddy, stay with us.

Nikola: Please, God.

Nikola takes Darko’s head in his hands and weeps.

These days Nikola tries not to think about war. “As a matter of fact that war was a war between humans and non-humans,” he told me. “Unfortunately, non-humans won and people ran away.”

* * *

In the fall of 1993, Nikola and Goran received a seven-day leave pass and escaped with Dijana to Serb-controlled Ilidza, a large and mostly safe suburb where Goran’s father lived. But Nikola and Goran were technically still in the military and going AWOL was risky. Dijana had a crazy and reckless idea that, again, worked. She relished telling this part of the story.

Dijana: If you go to a doctor and say you lost consciousness, pissed yourself, don’t remember anything, have headaches and bit your tongue — and all this had been happening for weeks — they’ll suspect epilepsy. They will send you to a neurologist for an EEG at Pale hospital, and then I’ll take the EEG for you. When you get a referral, we’ll put a letter “A” at the end of your name and it will be a female name. When we come back we will take bleach and erase the “A.” There are no phone lines so no one can check anything. With epilepsy you are disabled and cannot be recruited.

At week later a letter arrived. Nikola officially had epilepsy.

But Goran was still in the military and he could not leave. (They decided not to pull the epilepsy trick twice at the same hospital.) However, Goran was lucky and got assigned to Ilidza, where he served on a relatively safe border area. Despite the occasional bombing he had what was then considered an easy job.

After a year in Ilidza, in early 1994 and after a hard winter, Dijana and Nikola decided to get out of the war entirely. They fled to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, a safer city where they might find work through relatives while seeking permanent relocation to another country though the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Goran’s father bought their bus tickets. Dijana remembered the bus driver’s warning, “Dear passengers, we will drive the next two minutes really fast because of the sniper. Please keep your heads down and god bless us all.”

Refugees can wait years for relocation. Dijana and Nikola had to find a way to survive until then. Nikola found work selling food products to grocery stores. But after two months the failing economy took his job and he resorted to odd jobs painting and selling fruit at a farmers market. Nikola and Dijana never knew where they would sleep the next day. Sometimes they had an apartment, sometimes not. Sometimes kind people gave them food and shelter. Sometimes a friend helped.

It could take years for soldiers to obtain a pass to visit Belgrade, but it only took Goran four months. He went AWOL and joined Dijana and Nikola.

But there were still obstacles for Goran. UNHCR was unlikely to relocate a single man of fighting age who had been in the military and didn’t have epilepsy. The solution was strange and simple — the same tactic that always seemed to work. Dijana married Goran. UNHCR kept husbands and wives together.

Dijana kept Goran’s last name. Maybe she wanted to forget her past.

Goran and Nikola had escaped the military, but they could be conscripted again. While waiting for a bus to the outskirts of Belgrade, Dijana and Nikola crossed the famously savage Arkan’s Tigers, a Serbian paramilitary group. Two black military jeeps approached the bus station and soldiers in black uniforms began forcibly recruiting civilians for the war.

Soldier 1: All Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia immediately come forward. They begin to check IDs. Soldiers take a man to the jeep. A person from the line starts to run.

Dijana: Now. Run!

Nikola and Dijana escaped, but still they waited for UNHCR.

In March 1999, the Tiger unit’s warlord-celebrity leader, Zeljko Raznjatovic, aka Arkan, was accused of crimes against humanity. He escaped trial in 2000 when a man shot him in the eye at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade.

Dijana and Nikola lived in danger and poverty until late 1994 or early 1995, when UNHCR informed them that they, along with Goran, would be relocated together. (But for some unknown reason they were lucky. UNHCR was not obligated to resettle Nikola with the newlyweds since he was not technically family.) In June 1996, after a peace agreement was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995, they arrived at Americana Boulevard, South Orange Blossom Trail Orlando, Florida, their new home.

UNHCR Representative: This is going to be your apartment. Number 29.

Dijana: Is this a safe part of town?

UNHCR Rep: Well, Orlando is pretty safe. This is not the safest area, but considering where you are coming from, it’s safe. Welcome home.


Nikola and Dijana in bed. Nikola rolls over, looks at Dijana and sighs.

Nikola: I can’t believe we’re here.

Red and blue police lights flash on the apartment walls.

Dijana: Something is going on outside.

Nikola: This is exciting. Our first night in America.

The screenplay ends with a gunshot, somewhere outside in the dark.

* * *

Dijana never heard of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, but she understood his story.

On August 9, 1945, Yamaguchi was on a business trip in Hiroshima when at 8:15 a.m. the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy, an atomic bomb, on an unsuspecting populace, immediately killing about 90,000 people. Yamaguchi survived and two days later, as he arrived in Nagasaki, Fat Man exploded. This time about 70,000 people died. Again, Yamaguchi survived. He died at 93 years old on January 4, 2010.

That story exemplifies what Dijana meant by her screenplay’s title, “13-29,” lucky in her bad luck. Contradictory luck. Was Yamaguchi the luckiest unlucky man? Dijana knew that question. It was her life’s question, too. The siege helped her meet Nikola. Her mistaken identity on Vrbanja Bridge — when soldiers thought she was the “General’s” daughter — had saved their lives, but then got Nikola and Goran sent to the front. Her epilepsy may have saved Nikola’s life, but it ruined hers. The war got her to the U.S. The screenplay’s “13” refers to Dijana’s August birthday and “29” refers to two dates. The day her mother died, January 29, 1984, and February 29, 1992, when Bosnia and Herzegovina initiated its referendum on secession from failing Yugoslavia. Two dates, both lucky and unlucky.

I cannot claim perfect insight into Dijana’s thoughts, but she desperately wanted a witness to her contradictory luck, needed it to be acknowledged. Dijana’s life had a pattern. It is a pattern of war, and maybe peaceful life, too, but violence made it visible. She understood the brute fact and profound absurdity of what had happened, and wanted someone else to see it, too. But more than that, she wanted people to know that all the suffering had made her who she was, and she liked who she was. Suffering had made her a better person. Her pain made her severely sensitive to the pain of others. She had a full, almost overly sincere response to people. She had a reflex of kindness, and maybe she was grateful for that.

Nikola and Dijana had to learn how to live in the U.S. They studied English, took driving lessons, and looked for work — all the normal things that people in the U.S. do. But it was hard, after everything that happened, to get on with a normal life. And Dijana still had seizures, which got worse after doctors switched her medication. Once, after taking new pills, Dijana tried to jump out of a window. But most days were not like that. Dijana, Goran, and Nikola both found work. Dijana graduated from community college, and Nikola liked the laid-back attitude of the U.S.

Around 2003, to continue her education, Dijana and Nikola moved to Massachusetts, just outside Boston, and married. (She had divorced Goran, of course.) I met Dijana two years later, at nine a.m. in our Concept Development class at Emerson College, when she had an epileptic seizure. She had another seizure in our Intro to Media Production class and this time I knew where she kept the Lorazepam pills. A few weeks later she asked if I’d help write her screenplay and I had to find Sarajevo on a map.

At Emerson, a downtown Boston arts school that prides itself on hip, open-minded acceptance of everything different, Dijana was too strange. Students and professors were kind, but from a cold distance. They didn’t know her story (why should they?) and lacked the context to understand her behavior. She believed some people are born evil, and statements like that scared people away.

The bad days were never far away. When Dijana had a seizure, Nikola got a call. Emerson professors and Dijana’s employers didn’t know what to do. Nikola worked a night shift and attended classes at UMass Boston in the morning. He often had to leave class to help Dijana. The doctors never found the right medication. Nothing really worked, not even a thirteen-day treatment at Bingham Women’s Hospital.

But despite all that, Dijana and Nikola made a good life in Boston. They found jobs, rented an apartment, made friends, planned for the future, and got a cat. They’d settled into their new lives. But Dijana always dreamed of making her story a movie. So in 2007, Dijana and Nikola headed west.

In her emails to me Dijana wrote about making a sincere go of it in L.A. After moving into an apartment in North Hollywood, she arranged an internship and gave her elevator pitch to a few mid-level people, who, according to her, seemed interested in her screenplay. But nothing happened. After a few months, Dijana formed a theory about L.A. people: The already rich and famous are kind, but difficult to meet, and the mildly or not yet rich and famous people are not kind (but easy to meet) mostly because they’re so ambitious to be richer and more famous, which is pretty much everyone in L.A. But Dijana never gave up.

Dijana believed the U.S. is a place where peoples’ stories get told. After years of intermittent work on her screenplay she confidently headed to LA, imagining she was living the end of her story. Think of the sky-bound pullback shot. Think of her in a car zooming into the city with the radio on, all that possibility ahead. That’s the ending she wanted. It’s the one she deserved. Instead, a grand mal seizure killed her while she slept.

Few people knew Dijana, even fewer remember her, and that’s not how she wanted to die. She wanted a movie theater of witnesses to her cosmically unfair life. She wanted people to know her survival story and see how she’d made it in the U.S. But when she died on September 17, 2007, there was no obituary.

Nikola does not know what happened to Goran in the U.S., or even if he’s still there. Many years ago they had a falling out. Nikola doesn’t like to talk about it, and they never spoke again. He said Goran might have changed his name. I could not find him. Nikola still lives in the U.S. and has remarried. He seems happy. He still celebrates Dijana’s birthday.

* * *

Daniel DeFraia is a freelance journalist and American Studies PhD student at Boston University. He tweets at @ddefraia.

Eros Dervishi is an Albanian illustrator living in New York. He currently spends his time reading, trying to learn how to cook, and being sentient. See more of his work at

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


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


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


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


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, 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.


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,, 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


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.”


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