Secret Life of a Crime Scene Cleaner

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How a transgender Australian found her niche cleaning up after murders, suicides, and unimaginable filth of endless variation.

The back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card reads:

“Excellence is no Accident”

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

If the places we inhabit are like lungs, rhythmically drawing us in and breathing us out, Sandra Pankhurst’s job as founder of Specializing Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. leads her somewhere in between — homes with the lights still on where death, sickness and madness have abruptly abbreviated lives.

I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. Everyone had just poured out of a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of watered-down coffee and plates of sweating cheese. On my way to the bathroom, I passed a table in the lobby where STC Services brochures were fanned out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into a fishbowl for a chance to win a bottle of Shiraz. A small TV played scenes of before-and-after trauma clean-up jobs. A very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, invited me to leave my business card. Hypnotized by the images on the TV (one of which brought to mind the words “feces” and “cartwheels”), I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.

I was surprised to learn from the brochure that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulance crews or emergency services. Instead, hired hands like Sandra handle the clean-up at crime scenes, deaths, floods and fires. Local and state governments, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates and charitable organizations all call on Sandra to deal with issues like long-term property neglect, where homes have “fallen into disrepute” due to the occupier’s drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, aging or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort through their loved one’s belongings.

Performing a public service as vital as it is gruesome, Sandra is one of Australia’s unofficial experts on the living aspects of death.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure reads. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid.

“I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

The Shiraz and the oxygen tank and the coiffure were gone by the time the last conference session finished. But I still had the brochure, which, by then, had grabbed me by the neck and was dragging me in search of the woman herself.

* * *

“Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back it would be appreciated, but possibly not today as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow…”

When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me in a deep, rich voice when I would like to meet. I tell her I can work around her schedule. “Okey dokey,” she says, and I can hear her flip open her diary. “How about the cafe at the Alfred Hospital?” She has a couple of hours before she sees her lung doctor.

It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are part of life. Not in a quote book sort of way, but in a voicemail and lunch meeting sort of way. Over time, I learned that this outlook was fundamental to her character. My other first impression of this striking woman, however, would turn out to be wrong.

* * *

“I was an adopted child. At the age of seven, I was told that I would no longer be wanted by this family and I had to live in a room they’d built out the back,” says Pankhurst. “I weren’t [sic] allowed by the family to associate with them after 4:30 p.m. and I had to fend for myself and organize my own food.”

Sandra is telling me about growing up on the mean streets of Melbourne’s West Footscray while calmly fielding calls on her cell. We are in the cafe, a place where the sick and dying, and those attending to them, can grab a latte or a cheese sandwich. Everyone is eating except for us. Sandra has to fast for four hours before her doctor’s appointment.

In her sixties, Sandra is very tall and graceful and immaculately groomed. I feel short and frumpy next to her. “I used to suffer a lot with boils and things because I weren’t [sic] really nurtured and looked after,” she says, explaining that the way a starving seven-year-old feeds themselves, if they are smart, is by stealing cans of food from the house when their alcoholic adopted father isn’t looking. And that will work until – petrified of being “bashed with a cobbler stick” – they accidentally burn part of the house down.

“One of my jobs was to light the hot water service and I had forgotten and I panicked,” Sandra says. “I put some petrol mower fuel in and it went and burned down the laundry room.”

She didn’t get beaten for the fire. She got beaten for stealing the cans of food which were discovered – empty, crushed and hidden – when the walls burned down.

“It was like an imprisonment sort of lifestyle. So hence, now I have this need for compassion,” she says.

Kicked out at seventeen, she moved in with another family she found through her church. She could stay with them only for six months but they organized a job for her at a steel works under Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, the second longest in Australia, which was then two years into construction.

“I was working there when the Bridge fell down,” she says before describing the 1970 collapse that killed thirty-five construction workers and could be heard from over twelve miles away. She explains how the light bulbs popped out of their sockets, how she felt the earth shudder, how her first sight of death was over the back fence, watching police throw body parts out of public view.

A doctor sits down at the table next to us and squirts ketchup on a hot dog. The café is noisy but Sandra’s voice is clear above the chaos. When she speaks, she is mostly professional and deliberate. But there is also a cheekiness, a playful flirtiness, which she is beginning to fan out like a peacock’s tail. When she does this, her eyes gleam and she is very beautiful.

She skips over her twenties (which I note is strange, given her candor about everything else) and slips into her thirties, when she became one of the first female funeral directors in the state of Victoria.

“I absolutely adored the job. I loved it with a passion. It was a chance to give back and help people when they needed it most.

“I used to make every member of the funeral party become involved in it so that they would become very emotional. To me, a funeral should be like a play: You get it up to a crescendo,” she says, her long red nail drawing a hill in the air.

“You get everyone’s emotions there,” she says while poking the top of the hill, “they bubble over, then they boil down, and they get on with their life. Otherwise they’re up and down trying to deal with it for years. So, it’s just like conducting a play and getting everyone involved in the scenario.”

Through that work, she realized there was a need for trauma cleaning. “You realize the fire brigade and ambulance really had no time to deal with this. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing it.”

The path to her new career began with her husband of fifteen years, who she met when Sandra, as she puts it “buried his wife.”

Sandra gave up work to travel with him on his business trips. “But I got restless and bored after a while. So I said to him, ‘We need to buy a business,’” Sandra tells me.

She was thinking a boutique. Instead, they bought a hardware store in Brighton, a moneyed seaside suburb, which eventually folded. When the store went under, “We lost everything. We didn’t know what to do, ’cause we’d both been quite independent and strong. We had to start again,” she says.

She started doing odd jobs – a bit of gardening and interior design and house cleaning. But there wasn’t enough money coming in. “So, I stressed over this, and I thought ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll just start trauma cleaning.’”

Their first job, cleaning up the rental property left by a deceased hoarder, came though her funeral industry contacts.

“It was a disaster. Seventy-two hours after two of us working nonstop, we were almost psychotic. We couldn’t believe that people could live like this. It was more of a squalor situation, even though the gentleman had died in the house. It was absolutely disgusting. It was just putrid. We had to take off three layers of flooring, and there was another contaminated layer of flooring underneath. But what happened was, the last layer was not only glued down, but it was stapled down. We’d slice the linoleum and put boiling water on it to try to break down the glue, and then we had to put spades underneath to get it up. Well, our hands swelled up like massive watermelons.”

“We completed it, and they were happy with the job, but we were severely depressed,” she says. “It took three months to come to terms with whether or not I could ever do this again. But as money was tight, and things were not good, I had to grin and bear it, and get up and go for it. And twenty years later, here I am. Still psychotic.”

* * *

In the context of talking about her husband, who passed away ten years ago, Pankhurst tells me in passing that she was not born female and that, finally, she’s not ashamed to talk about it.

She worked up the courage to tell him after they’d been dating for a little while.

“I’m transgender,” Sandra said, expecting a punch in the mouth.

“Does that mean you like women?” he said.

Sandra Pankhurst, trauma cleaning service provider. (Photo courtesy Sandra Pankhurst)
Sandra Pankhurst, trauma cleaning service provider. (Photo courtesy Sandra Pankhurst)

“It means…I wasn’t born Sandra. I had to make Sandra,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “I fell in love with Sandra.” And that was that.

“He gave me the confidence to be who I am,” Sandra says. Her story of grinning and bearing it, and getting up and going for it, suddenly becomes exponentially more meaningful. “And then he died and everything went to shit for a while.”

After his death, his two grown children had their fifteen-year marriage annulled in the process of contesting his will. Thus ended Sandra’s second marriage – erased because she had been born a man. Her first marriage, which she had entered into as a heterosexual, twenty-year-old male, had ended because her wife found out that she was a man who liked men. At that time, divorce on the grounds of homosexuality meant losing access to their two sons. For a lost decade, Christmas was too painful for Sandra to celebrate.

Two hours have gone past in the café and we need to wrap up. “My life is a movie,” Sandra says, promising to tell me about her twenties another time, if I’m still interested.

I am still interested.

As we leave the café, I ask if I could come along on some jobs and see her at work.

“I’ll call you when a trauma comes up,” she says, and tells me to get some Vicks to rub on my upper lip to help with “the smells.”

“Get ready to turn on a dime.”

* * *

I pull up in front of a complex of Soviet-style apartments and meet Sandra at her van, which is an immaculate traveling hardware store. I’m welcomed and handed a disposable white jumpsuit.

Four of her crew members are there. Jess is a cheery young woman in her early twenties. She stands next to a tall blond guy named Chris who may still be a teenager and who reminds me of a large teddy bear. Jackie and Sharon, both of whom are older, appear sullen and say nothing to me and little to each other. Everyone has been reduced to a small face sticking out of a disposable white hood. Chris hands me two flat white things that I think are chef’s hats but that can’t be right.

“What are these?” I whisper, embarrassed that I don’t know.

“Shoe covers,” he smiles. I sneak a glance at the others to figure out how to put them on.

With our hoods up and our blue gloves on, we all stand there looking like something in between Smurfs and astronauts. Sandra is wearing a slimline purple parka, jeans and white canvas sneakers. She looks like she should be enjoying a Pimm’s after a walk around the park. Instead she leads us through the gates, into an elevator and up one floor to an apartment where a 34-year-old woman died of a heroin overdose and lay undiscovered for two and a half weeks.

Sandra will collect the deceased’s personal items for the family and appraise what needs to be done to rent out the apartment again.

A man on the ground floor looks up at us, asks what we are doing.

“Just some maintenance, darl,” Sandra reassures him, which, in its way, is the truth.

One of the Smurfs unlocks the door. Sandra has a quick look inside.

“Ugh. Stinks,” she says coming back out.

“Right. Masks on, breathe through your mouth!” she says, warning us to look out for syringes while she helps Jess tighten her face mask. “You may never breathe again, but don’t worry about it, “ she says to her wryly.

I tighten my own, forcing myself to learn how to do it.

Jackie takes out a small jar of tiger balm and rubs it into each nostril before slipping on her mask.

“Been doing it for so long, I don’t bother…Grin and bear it!” Sandra sings.

“Is it beer o’clock yet?” someone asks.

“Yes” is the general consensus.

Sandra tells them that she can’t drink because she needs a lung transplant. Jess asks if it is because of smoking. Sandra tells her it’s from this work, early on, breathing in the cleaning chemicals in the days before they knew better.

“But I can’t sue myself!” she chirps as we follow her into the apartment. “Breathe through your mouth! Concentrate on it!”

The first thing I notice is the flies. Black mounds of dead flies are pooled in the light fixtures. Their papery corpses are scattered over the floor. I wouldn’t say that the place is carpeted with flies, but there is a pretty consistent cover of them on the tiles.

Instantly everyone goes to work and I am alone getting my bearings. Small apartment. Laundry cupboard in the tiny foyer, the dryer door opened wide. I walk past the bathroom, two bedrooms and into a living room/kitchen area with a nook for the woman’s bookshelf. There is a balcony off the living room. The TV is on Channel 11, playing cartoons. A breeze blows in through the open sliding door and over the sofa in front of the TV, which has been stripped of its cover but not the person-shaped brown blood stain spread across the seat nearest the window. The stain is gross and scary but not as scary as the tableau of life suddenly interrupted.

Sharon is in the bedroom guessing about the face of the woman whose underwear drawer she is emptying.

Jess is making an inventory of the kitchen. She opens drawers and cupboards and takes photos. The top drawer has the full complement of cooking utensils owned by high-functioning adults. The cupboard has a big box of cereal and a jar of Gatorade powder. A gray grocery bag of garbage is suspended from the handle of the cupboard below the sink.

“Everything has to go,” Sandra says, striding through.

“The fridge comes with the apartment,” Jackie says.

“Ah,” Sandra responds, dismayed. I can see her mind flipping through her library of disinfectants in the van. “What else comes with the apartment? We need to be clear or else we’ll throw everything else out.”

The lone magnet on the fridge reads: “If your doctor is closed, we’re open. After hours medical helpline…”

Jess is photographing a drawer full of grey plastic grocery bags.

The workers are efficient, they are quick and respectful. They remind me of nurses.

Next to the kitchen sink, on the counter, is a pile of clean syringes. On the other side is an unopened box of organic cotton tampons, tossed there like they were bought an hour ago and are waiting for the milk to go into the fridge before they are taken to the bathroom cupboard.

Sandra instructs them to take the clean syringes and seal up the yellow bottle of dirty ones on the coffee table for the police “as evidence of drug activity.”

Everyone has gathered around a framed photo of the deceased woman.

“What a waste,” someone says.

“Pretty girl,” another says. I wonder if that’s what she looked like when she died or if that’s what she looked like at the time in her life that she would forever try to return to.

I scan her bookshelf. “Narcotics Anonymous.” “The Secret of Attraction.” “Taking Care of Yourself and Your Family,” and also “When Everything Changes, Change Everything.” There are DVDs. “Bridesmaids.” I love that movie.

An ad for Big Hugs Elmo, the toy that hugs back, comes on the TV. I go to her bedroom. There are bottles of Ralph Lauren perfume and a pink salt lamp and an organic lip balm.

“Anything that’s personalized, anything that’s got her handwriting, her name…” Sharon reminds Jackie to set aside as they go through the desk at the foot of the bed. They are winding up her phone charger and putting her handbag near the door.

Sandra places a birthday card with a sassy cat on it into a plastic bag of personal items and tells Chris to look carefully through all the books to see if there are any photos kept between the pages. The family wants anything that’s personalized. It’s important.

I cross the hall. The bathroom cupboards are open. There are the usual assorted creams and appliances. Fake tan. The exfoliator I use.

I go back into the living room and force myself to look around slowly. I see two bed pillows covered with the same kind of brown blood stain on the couch. I see a viscous smear of human shit on the floor under the couch. I see a big bottle of Pepsi Max, still full, and a pack of cigarettes on the table.

The apartment is so full and so empty at the same time; absence is a presence like dark matter and black holes.

A few of us take the elevator down to the basement parking lot to the woman’s chain link storage cage. It is empty except for a saggy mattress and a mound of plastic baby toys lying on the gunmetal cement.

The four small rooms, plus basement storage cage, are an encyclopedia of striving and struggle. The basket of clean laundry. The elliptical machine painted thick with dust. The clean syringes. The smell of death unnoticed for two and a half weeks that is seeping in through my mask and into my mouth.

We step outside for a moment. Sharon is holding the camera. There is blood on her gloves.

Someone asks Sandra where the blood comes from if the house was locked up.

“Maggots,” Sandra says dryly. “Cycle of life. It’s quite amazing.”

Sandra directs Chris how to double-bag the personal items so that they don’t smell. How to wrap the tape around the top so that it is easy for the family to open.

I stare across into the windows of the other apartments surrounding us on all sides. This is how it ends, sometimes, with strangers in gloves looking at your blood and your too many bottles of shampoo and your ironic “Make Positive Changes” Krishna postcard and the last TV channel you flipped to on the night that you died and the way the sun hits the tree outside your bedroom window.

This is how it ends if you are unlucky but lucky enough to have someone like Sandra remember to flip through your books for pieces of you to save before strangers move their furniture into the spots where yours used to stand.

* * *

At our next meeting, I ask Sandra if some deaths are worse than others.

“There are a few jobs that stick in your mind. Like there was a guy, for example … it was more the way he went about killing himself. It was with tree cutters and bricks…And you surmise, ’cause you don’t know everything about the case, but you figure: Has he cut his toes off? Has he cut his cock off? ‘Cause you’ve got this slash of blood all over the room. And then he’s walked around the house as well.”

Male suicides are generally bigger jobs than females.

“It’s the way they do it…you’ll always find that men are dirty killers whereas the women are very tidy in the way they do it,” Sandra says.

“Like cooking,” I offer.

“Yeah,” Sandra says, and we are quiet for a moment.

“By the same token,” Sandra adds, “there was one guy who blew his head off, and he put plastic up in the bathroom, just so it’d keep it quite clean. It all went way over. But the thought was there.”

Speaking about her employees she says, “It can be quite transient. It’s a difficult job and I’m probably problematic to a degree because I’m anal. You know, like I say to them, “Look, I’m two or three times your age. I need glasses to read and I can spot a cobweb at a thousand paces. Why can’t you see what I can?”

I ask her what qualities the work requires.

“Compassion. Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humor ’cause you’re gonna need it. And a really good sense of not being able to take the smell in, cause they stink. Putrid.”

* * *

The next job I go on with her is the home of a hoarder. Glenda is in danger of being thrown out of her home, which was intended as temporary housing for women in crisis, after packing it full of debris during her five-year stay. Hired by the housing authority against Glenda’s wishes, Sandra and two other workers will clean it out, one day a week for six weeks.

“Slowly, slowly. Going through all her crap, sorting it out. What is rubbish, what is to be kept,” Sandra explains.

“First they’re embarrassed, the anxiety and everything,” she explains.

“We reconstruct the house so they’re living in a different situation, it’s cleaner, and they’re more amenable to continue that. You planted a seed for them, they thought it was insurmountable, then they’re going, ‘Ah, this isn’t so bad after all.’

“I do come home exhausted from a day of hoarding, I am absolutely wrung out,” Sandra admits. “Because there’s constant bartering and getting them to agree but trying to turn it so that it’s their idea.”

“So, it’s actually the people who are alive that are more problematic?” I ask.

“Bingo,” Sandra says “I’d rather a dead body any time.”

Glenda is short, maybe sixty. Her hair is white at the roots. The rest of it is the same neon pink as her T-shirt. She is welcoming and we shake hands.

Sandra is ostensibly on the enemy side. However, Glenda has willingly let her inside and is working with her. Kind of.

“If I cry, I’ll try not to upset you,’ Glenda tells Sandra.

“If you cry, I’m bound to cry. So don’t,” Sandra says. “But if you do, we’ll cry together.’

Glenda’s accent reminds me of one of my relatives, who smells like powder and greets our visits by stuffing me and my family full of cake. But instead, Glenda is alone and living in a house full of yellowed newspapers and cats and their shit, which she is unable to clean or unwilling to acknowledge, so she presses newspaper on top like a layer cake.

“Her name is Cleopatra,” Glenda tells me as we stare down at a cat carrier.

Behind us, on a busted navy sofa, four other carriers holding four other cats are lined up in a row.

After a quick negotiation with Glenda in which the laundry room and bathroom are deemed off-limits (photos will later show me that these areas were painted thick with cat feces), Sandra shows me the area they’re currently working on in the kitchen/living room. It’s full of books, office supplies, appliance boxes, newspapers and other miscellanea, such as a child’s polka dot suitcase. The room appears to be undulating; everything is floating on top of everything else like flotsam on a roiling sea. The smell of cat shit is so strong my eyes water.

At the threshold of Glenda’s dark bedroom I am immediately confronted by a wall of stuff that reaches to the ceiling. There is only room to peer around the door and down at Glenda’s nest: a tiny mattress on the floor not long enough for her to stretch out on. There is a stack of books and periodicals next to it, with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles folded neatly on top. Everything is in danger of being subsumed, any minute, by the great wall of debris, which looks like it is swaying on failing foundations.

Sandra’s negotiations with Glenda continue. She walks up holding the latest basket full of Glenda’s debris: A shower cap. A free anti-virus CD. A contraption to give a dog a pill.

“I’ve made an executive decision,” Sandra announces. “This is shit.”

We all giggle.

“But some of them are not shit,” Glenda says, still laughing.

“Oh, tell me what!” says Sandra.

Glenda holds up the CD.

“Are you gonna use it, really?” Sandra coaxes.

Glenda nods. “Yes, tonight.”

“Oh, you liar,” Sandra says, causing Glenda to break out into giggles again. “This thing’s going to the shithouse. I’m telling you now, this is going to buggery.”

Glenda moved to Melbourne twenty years ago, leaving her husband behind. She didn’t explain why. But she returned to him when he was dying in the hospital. She tells me how for three months after his death she couldn’t cry. “I became wooden,” she says.

Eventually Glenda gave herself permission to grieve. “I got a little kitten, she’s twelve years now, and I put it next to me. I slept, I woke up, I started crying, I’d stretch out and there was her warm, purring body and I’d fall asleep again.”

That cat now has ten siblings, some of whom are in the carriers around us.

I learn that Glenda is a qualified dentist. That she has a psychology degree with honours. And worked for years as a grief counsellor.

In addition to a plethora of short courses and certificates, she has completed a professional writing and editing class and part of a Master’s in law. We know some of the same people, have gone to the same university.

In a dream I sometimes have, I’m always saving something from my childhood home before it is lost forever in a flood, maybe, or the urgency of war – photo albums, candlesticks, books. I cannot part with the dented pot that I remember my mother putting on the stove each week before she left us for good. Or a shopping list on an envelope in her handwriting. In a world that changes so quickly, and where everyone eventually leaves, our stuff is the one thing we can trust, and it testifies, through the mute medium of Things, that we were a part of something greater than ourselves. Glenda’s house is more than a question of homey clutter, of tiny shelves and the things we place there. Pain is a lunatic landscape, where every piece, however misshapen, fits perfectly. In the context of facing life alone, her fortress of shit makes sense.

Coming over to take a break, Sandra is panting from the strain that any walking places on her lungs. Hoarding doesn’t discriminate on the basis of income, she explains. It can happen to anyone.

“You look on the wall – “Director of the Hospital” or “Head of This Company” – and you think ‘What incident happened in your life? Or did someone leave you and leave you emotionally scarred, and you couldn’t deal with it?’ Like, there’s so many fragile things can just twist you and turn you. And I say, by the grace of God, it could be me. So I’m not going to judge anyone. None of us know what tomorrow’s got in store”

I nod, looking at the wall of garbage bags surrounding us on Glenda’s lawn.

“Like, I was supposed to have this lung transplant in 2011, but I had a series of things go wrong. I got sick and sick and sick and sick…I’m not ready to go out to die yet. And I’m definitely not going downstairs.”

I have a thought which is confirmed a couple of months later, when I am sitting in Sandra’s sun-drenched living room, looking at a framed photo of the two sons she last saw forty years ago, and listening to her calmly explain how she survived a violent rape, the killing of her fiancé at a nightclub in 1980, and what sex work was like in the isolated Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie in the years when she had to conceal the fact that she was a pre-op transsexual.

Life can break you like a wave on a prow. It seems to have broken Glenda. But that is not how Sandra is going out.

As Sandra walks me to my car, Chris hurries after her. Glenda has started opening the bags she agreed to throw out. The smell made Sharon vomit – Sharon, who was fine last week at the dead woman’s apartment. Glenda has started to get upset. Sandra returns to the necessary business of cauterizing.

“That’s what happens when you open the bags that you agreed to throw out,” she sighs.

* * *

The next time I speak to Sandra she is angry. It’s the week before Christmas, and a housing organization is pressuring her to work faster so that they can move their client, another hoarder, this time a schizophrenic young woman living alone, to new accommodation. Sandra finds the timing gratuitously cruel to the woman. In recounting her standoff with the organization (which she won), her use of expletives is beautiful; listening to her swear is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.

You could say that Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves. She airs out their smells. She throws out their weird porn and the last of their DNA entombed in soaps. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t, because she has experienced their same sorrows.

The distance between where Sandra grew up and where she lives now is about an hour’s drive but further than walking to the moon. She has arrived where she is now through an epic amount of internal fortitude, which she lavishes on those who have lost their own. Despite having experienced worse blows than many of her clients, Sandra is the one who steps in to make order out of their chaos.

“I feel quite successful in my life,” Sandra says. “I’m not financially successful, but I’m successful in my life. I’m not a prostitute or a drug addict…I have a healthy, normal lifestyle. I have fantastic neighbors who treat me like gold. You know, I’m very blessed in life. But it’s my attitude I think.”

Despite seeing the same old shit each day for the past twenty-one years, she treats each client as unique in their circumstance and equal in their dignity. The reason why she doesn’t get suited up like her workers is actually not because she has been doing the job for so long.

“It’s because I’m meeting someone there — quite often a family member — I don’t want them to go into shock, like this person from out of space has come here. I grin and bear it and I go in.”

I ask her how she maintains that level of compassion.

“Everyone deserves it — because I deserve it as well,” she says.

This is, for all of us, the importance of being Sandra Pankhurst.

* * *

Sarah Krasnostein is an American-Australian writer and legal academic. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction book about Ms. Pankhurst. Follow her on Twitter @delasarah

Sage Barlow is a freelance illustrator living in San Francisco. Check out more of her illustrations and paintings at www.sagebarlow.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

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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