When Mommy and Daddy Took the Toys Away

Hold those sleigh bells, Santa: A growing number of Americans are rethinking the urge to pamper their kids with playthings. But should this minimalist approach become the next big trend in parenting?

A week before Christmas 2011, Ruth Soukup, a thirty-three-year-old stay-at-home mom of two girls in Punta Gorda, Florida, was throwing toys into a bin. An avid shopper who started a blog about spending less, Soukup had the art of buying on a budget down to a science. She referred to herself as “a Mommy who is a pro at finding great deals.” But, on this afternoon, she wasn’t seeking to amass things for her children. She was getting rid of stuff that her kids already had.

Soukup had a few eye-opening experiences in the weeks leading up to this moment. First, while on vacation in early December, Soukup and her family were bombarded by children selling bracelets and trinkets on the shores of Roatan, Honduras. She took the opportunity to explain to her daughters that “those kids are selling stuff just so they and their families will be able to eat.” A few days later, there was a charity initiative in her church. A tree was strung with names of children whose parents needed financial help buying gifts; churchgoers could pick a name and donate accordingly. With the deadline already passed, Soukup fingered the remaining paper angels with names on them — they were all kids who would not get gifts that year. Then, when Soukup tried to spread Christmas cheer within her own family, she was met with resistance.

While on a boat ride viewing Christmas lights around Florida — one of the Soukup’s favorite Christmas traditions — Soukup’s “normally angelic” five-year-old daughter, Maggie, became an “overly tired evil twin in full spoiled brat mode,” as Soukup wrote on her blog. Maggie threw a fit when she was asked to share a blanket on the boat. When Soukup and her husband tried to explain that Christmas was a time to put others first, their lesson fell on deaf ears.

“Our child, instead of appreciating the lovely evening, spent most of the ride sulking on the floor,” Soukup wrote.

Amidst songs and slogans of joy and giving, Soukup felt far from spirited. It wasn’t until she took her daughters to see Santa the week before Christmas that she realized the root of her uneasiness was in her very own home. She watched while her two-year-old, Annie, who was perched on Santa’s lap, couldn’t think of a single thing to request. When Annie finally started to speak, she asked for a Rapunzel doll, something she already had. Maggie asked for Band-Aids.

It dawned on Soukup that her discontent might be connected to her daughter’s abundance of toys.

“I am starting to get nervous about all the STUFF that is about to enter my home,” Soukup wrote in a blog post after the visit. “I love my kids more than anything, and I want their Christmas to be filled with wonder and joy, but I have to admit that I am worried about the message that this influx of things will send to two girls who already have more than enough.”

As she worried, her sister-in-law, who was notorious for buying the girls loads of gifts, was on her way to Soukup’s house, no doubt with a sleigh full of presents in tow.

Soukup was compelled to take action. She went on a cleaning spree.

She filled four giant bins with toys to give away and was thrilled — if not surprised — that her kids barely complained about the absence of the toys. Even with the four bins gone, they still had ample dolls, puzzles, pretend kitchen materials, battery-operated mechanisms that sang, hooted, hollered and lit up. Whatever the hottest toy was, they had it “in every size and every color,” Soukup says. On one Christmas alone, Soukup’s daughter Maggie received so many presents that she ended up opening gifts from seven a.m. to seven p.m.

“They had so much stuff it was insane,” Soukup recalled in a phone interview. Soukup is tall and slender, and the voice on her blog is self-assured. Over the phone, though, her actual voice sounds tiny and she laughs at herself openly. It would be easy to mistake her for someone younger than she actually is, but her words are tinged with a rigidness that reminds the listener she is a parent, and not a lackadaisical one. She doesn’t just appreciate a clean house. Soukup is an organizing mogul.

Exporting some of the toys out of her home made Soukup feel better in the moment, but it wasn’t long before she became overwhelmed by the enormous amount of stuff once again. Later on, she would conduct a much bigger overhaul, but, until then, Soukup continued to get stuff, grow frustrated with it, organize it, get rid of it, and then get more stuff.

She isn’t the only parent in America who is frustrated with the overwhelming number of toys in her home. Others have taken steps to put a dent into what feels like a runaway, life-sized — not toy-sized — tank of a problem.

* * *

Bill Ciari is a webmaster, firearms instructor, small business owner and a dad. He has two daughters who are four and seven years old.

While sitting on their couch one weekend evening in 2011, Ciari and his wife realized that the volume of stuff in their house was not enhancing their quality of life, but inhibiting it. Until that moment, they’d had a similar approach to Soukup: They wanted to give their daughters the world, and with that came toys aplenty.

“We started out like normal parents where we wanted to spoil our kids and give them everything we didn’t have,” Ciari says.

Ciari consistently found himself faced with a messy home. Moreover, the toys took on an unintended purpose. While Ciari and his wife both worked full-time jobs, the toys “filled the absence.”

“My wife and I were looking around and we realized a need to streamline our life,” he says. “We just really wanted to de-clutter, not just our personal possessions, but our house and our lifestyle.”

Ciari researched a minimalist approach online that centered around scaling down one’s possessions “back to the basics.” Ciari and his wife had an open dialogue about how to cut back.

They started slowly, gathering toys that their kids no longer used and taking them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. On Christmases and birthdays, their girls began discarding the same number of toys they received, such that the number of playthings in their home never increased. “If they got four gifts, they would get rid of four old toys to kind of keep things one-to-one,” Ciari says.

The downsizing continued through the years, and now they can count — on two hands — the total number of toys each child has, which includes two stuffed animals and two dolls, while they share a play kitchen and outdoor area with toy buckets.

Ciari is a follower — at least on Twitter — of Joshua Becker, thirty-nine, the founder and editor of BecomingMinimalist.com. Becker and his family are not just self-proclaimed minimalists, but they’ve made an enterprise from their decision to own less. Becker blogs on the subject, and he’s written four books about it, including “Clutterfree with Kids.” His family’s story has been seen on the CBS Evening News and NPR and in the pages of The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal.

Unlike Ciari, Becker’s decision to scale down didn’t come from within his home, but instead from a neighbor.

It was a Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend 2008 and Becker, who lives in Arizona, was making little headway on cleaning out the garage. His then-five-year-old son, Salem, kept asking him to play, and, confronted with a mess, he refused. Witnessing Becker’s growing frustration at having to spend time in the garage rather than with his son, Becker’s next-door neighbor, June, engaged him in conversation.

“Isn’t it great owning a home?” she said aptly.

“Yeah, the more stuff you own, the more it owns you,” Becker replied.

The next statement, as he puts it, struck a chord with Becker’s soul.

“That’s why my daughter’s a minimalist,” June answered. “You don’t have to own all this stuff.”

For Becker, it was an epiphany.

“I had the realization that not only were my possessions not making me happy, they were distracting me from the things that do bring me purpose,” Becker says.

He shared his newfound knowledge with his wife, Kim, who was cleaning inside while their two-year-old daughter Alexa played alone nearby. Kim was immediately on board with scaling down their possessions. They soon began selling and donating things, starting with their personal belongings first. They boxed and bagged “the excess” in almost every area of their home: clothes, dishes, cooking utensils, linens, bed sheets, toys, tools, furniture, decorations. They went room by room and discarded things in each.

Next, they got their son involved.

Salem Becker, who is now twelve, loves basketball and football. He also plays as a defender on his soccer team. Math is his favorite subject and he’s happiest when he’s playing with his friends. As for all those toys he had before his parents minimized, he says he doesn’t miss them at all.

“We had kind of a lot of toys, and they were kind of just spread out everywhere all around the house,” Salem says.

As they began to purge, Joshua and Kim Becker explained to Salem that there were a lot of kids who didn’t have any toys at all, and they suggested that he donate some of his own to them.

Salem took surprisingly well to the idea.

“I could see what they were doing,” he says. “It seemed like a good idea to me, too. My dad had a lot of stuff that he didn’t really use a lot. He just got rid of all that stuff.”

By 2011 the Becker family had donated or discarded over seventy percent of their belongings. Salem now owns a scooter, a soccer ball, a football, a basketball and a foam basketball hoop. Alexa Becker, who is eight years old, has twelve Barbies, fifteen to twenty Polly Pocket figures with accompanying wardrobes and an arts-and-crafts drawer.

While Joshua Becker says it took him thirty-three years to learn the importance of getting rid of things and owning less, his kids already seem to understand the value of having little. When in stores, his kids never make loud scenes or beg for items they see. When they do want something, they save their money to buy it.

“Just yesterday, I was in the grocery store and there was a seven- or eight-year-old kid who was begging his mom to buy a discounted DVD,” Becker recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember my kids ever making that type of scene.’ I like to think my daughter would never stop at the bin of DVDs because she knows that I don’t buy DVDs. She knows that we don’t go down the toy aisle because I don’t just buy new toys like that.”

Moreover, Becker says that the value of minimalism comes with the lifelong lessons they are able to teach through it. When his children become envious of another child who has a lot of toys, Becker and his wife try to help them “deal with that emotion as opposed to thinking that they’ll overcome it by getting more stuff.”

“We don’t overcome envy in our lives by getting what another person has,” Becker says. “We overcome envy by being content with what we have and being grateful for what we have.”

That point has hit home with Salem. He still asks for some toys or games for holidays and special occasions, and he usually gets one thing that he asks for. As for the rest, he’s encouraged to save up his money if it’s important to him, as he did for his Xbox One.

“I felt excited when I got it,” Salem says. “I felt like my work paid off.”

According to Kim John Payne, the author of “Simplicity Parenting” and a family counselor with an interest in neuropsychology, Salem exemplifies the many kids who do better with fewer toys. Payne, fifty-four, has worked with children for twenty-seven years. He says that simplifying a child’s environment is not just a tactic of parenting, it’s a necessity.

“More and more parents around the world have got this gut instinct that something’s wrong,” Payne says. “Parents are saying that overloading our children is seriously not okay anymore. The body’s not keeping up with it. Neurology’s not keeping up with it. You can hardly pick up the Times or any serious periodical without seeing something about this: what’s now considered a ‘normal’ childhood has gotten out of whack.”

As Payne writes on SimplicityParenting.com, the first step toward “reducing stress on children and their parents, and allowing room for connection, creativity, and relaxation is de-cluttering too much stuff at home.”

After working in Thai-Cambodian refugee camps and dealing with members of street gangs in Australia for four years, Payne became familiar with distressed children. He was surprised and intrigued, though, when he moved to London and saw the same stress in middle-to-upper-class kids who had never endured trauma.

In London, he saw children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, just to name a few, but was puzzled when he couldn’t find the concrete causes. Amidst his confusion, he realized that society was in the middle of what Payne calls “the undeclared War on Childhood, and too much stuff was right on the front lines.” By “stuff,” he doesn’t just mean tangible items. He counts expectations, activities, stimulation, even harsh cleaning fluids and lighting, as factors that can cause a child stress. “Too many playdates, too much scheduling, too much adult information, too many sports clubs, too many toys, books — it’s the too-much-ness that overwhelms kids and the body,” he says.

“It’s like stress has become so ubiquitous — too much, too soon; too sexy, too young — that is the new normal, only our brain doesn’t think so,” Payne adds. As a result, “we’ve got a generous number of kids that risk becoming adrenaline- and cortisol-dependent because that’s the body’s reaction to all of this.”

Payne’s Simplicity Parenting initiative now includes six hundred Simplicity Coaches around the world who encourage parents to schedule less, allow less screen time, and, yes, get rid of toys. Over time, he has become known among his clients as “Doctor Trash Bag.”

As part of his practice, Payne went into his clients’ homes from wakeup time to bedtime to observe each family. He spent much of this time keenly watching what worked for parents. A common solution, he found, was to discard toys.

“The average American kid has 150 toys,” Payne says. “If you have two to three kids, you’re now up to like 500 toys. It’s astonishing! I would say, ‘I have just the receptacle we need!’ And I would put all the stuff into trash bags.”

On July 26, 2012, Soukup took a similar approach.

It had been only two days since Soukup had re-organized her daughters’ room, and there were still a few toys on the floor that her kids, then three and six years old, refused to pick up. “I would say to the girls, ‘If you can’t take care of your stuff, I’m going to have to take it all away,’” Soukup recalls. It was an empty threat, until that afternoon when Soukup realized she genuinely “wanted it all gone.”

Very calmly, Soukup started taking everything except for furniture out of their room and amassing their toys into a gigantic pile.

She took away all their dress-up clothes, baby dolls, Polly Pockets and stuffed animals, all of their Barbies, building blocks and toy trains, right down to the furniture from their dollhouse and play food from their kitchen. She even took the pink Pottery Barn Kids comforter from their bed.

Her kids stared at her. Soukup was surprised, too. She couldn’t believe how much stuff had amassed in her home, especially in lieu of her recent efforts to donate, de-clutter and organize.

“It was a shock, kind of,” Soukup says. “I thought, ‘What are we doing with all this stuff? How could I let that much stuff come into my house?’”

She was also stunned at what happened next.

Soukup had expected crying and wailing and protesting from her kids, but they were unfazed by the ordeal. They resolved to play without toys, saying, according to Soukup, “That’s okay, Mommy, we can just use our imaginations.” Soon enough, the girls told their mother that, rather than having to clean up all the time, it was actually more fun to play the games they wanted to play without being surrounded by heaps of toys.

Soukup wrote a post on ProjectSimplify365.com explaining that her kids would have to earn back the toys. She also hinted that they might not be keen on doing so. “In all honesty,” Soukup wrote, “since I took it all away, they have been happier and more content, fought less, read more, and been MUCH more helpful. Even more amazingly, beyond the two favorite stuffed animals they each earned back, they don’t really seem to want any of it back.”

As the weeks went on, Soukup remained amazed at the state of her house. Her home stayed cleaner and her daughters played more and fought less than they had before. Moreover, they were never bored; they always seemed to find things to do.

Nearly two months later, Soukup was more affirmed in her decision than ever. On a family trip to Key West four weeks after Soukup’s clean sweep, she saw a clear difference in her kids’ behavior.

“In contrast to our last outing and for the first time ever, neither girl asked us to buy a single thing the entire weekend,” Soukup wrote on her blog. “Not a toy, not a cheesy souvenir, not a light-up necklace from a passing street vendor. Nothing. We passed hundreds of shops and they loved looking in the window, but they were content just to be. What was most amazing to me was that we didn’t talk to them about it ahead of time. Not once did we have to tell them not to ask, or explain that being together was what mattered.”

Kim John Payne says Soukup’s daughters’ reaction mirrors his own experience. He says he’s accustomed to seeing kids become more relaxed, more creative, more obedient, even quirkier and “truer to themselves” when their environments are scaled down. Payne says that deep, creative play, which can happen with simpler, fewer toys, yields better collaboration among children.

“When you have fewer toys, and I’ve watched this over and over, the stuff that you have then has to morph from being one thing and another and another,” Payne says. “When kids have to be creative in their play, they include each other in the creativity. Now you’ve got kids who are playing way better together and they don’t need the television as a babysitter.”

For families who are struggling with behavioral problems or disorders, Payne says the process of simplification leads to positive results.

“One of the first comments that we hear is how much better the parents’ relationship with the child is when they simplify, when they start to question the too-much-ness,” Payne says. “People tell us, ‘I feel like I’ve got my little boy back, I feel like I’ve got my teenage girl back.’ It’s always very moving to hear that.”

* * *

Dr. Vicki Panaccione, a child psychologist at the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, Florida, disagrees with Payne’s line of thought. She contends that an environment without toys can bear negative effects, too. Known as The Parenting Professor™ with a twenty-five-year tenure as a child psychologist, Panaccione says that a variety of age-appropriate toys are absolutely necessary for child development.

“I was pretty outraged at the whole idea of taking away a kid’s toys,” Panaccione says. “Toys are extremely important in the developmental process. Kids don’t need tons of toys, but just to take away all toys, especially when kids are young, really concerns me.”

Panaccione believes in toys so much that her office is filled with them. She has dollhouses, a play kitchen, darts, a basketball hoop, Twister, “tons of board games,” army men, dinosaurs, building blocks, Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, dominos, play cars and more.

As she sees it, they’re all necessary for her job of working with kids. Panaccione says that they’re necessary for home life too. She argues that toys foster sensory input, spatial awareness, dexterity, frustration tolerance, problem solving and delaying gratification, and they help children learn to cope with impulse control and to master impulses, for starters. Without these toys as tools, Panaccione warns, children might have trouble developing.

“Kids need props,” Panaccione says. “They need all sorts of stimuli to realize their interests developmentally and figure out how they’re going to function.”

Panaccione does have some limits on which toys she prefers and which she thinks parents should buy. The toys in her office might be high in quantity, but they’re relatively simple in quality. For one, none of the items are electronic. Her army men are simple and her board games are older models. Her Battleship boards lack sound capability, as she prefers kids to invent noises on their own. Additionally, most of the toys in Panaccione’s office are meant for two people so that Panaccione can use them to interact with children one-on-one. She says that upholding similar standards can help parents use toys as a means of interaction rather than distraction.

“I would encourage parents to go back to basics,” Panaccione says. “We’re losing opportunities to interact with our kids. Toys and games are a good way to get to know your kids. It’s easier to talk with kids while you’re playing with them than at the dinner table.”

Panaccione thinks minimalism can be a healthy environment when done right. She encourages families who want to be more minimal to look into board games and card games, both of which allow parents to grow with kids. Panaccione says the best practice for parenting isn’t about finding a magical perfect number of toys, but about executing balance.

“Parenting is the eternal balancing act,” she says. “We as parents are always juggling not too much, not too little. I think balancing [the number of] toys is just another factor.”

* * *

Now five and eight years old, Ruth Soukup’s daughters do have a few toys, mostly Legos, with which they can play on weekends, and American Girl dolls, which are sentimental gifts from their grandfather. Additionally, Soukup says that they have plenty of board games, arts and craft supplies and books.

Although her girls encounter toys outside of the home, Soukup is bent on limiting the number of toys that enter it. She encourages family members to do something special with the children for holidays instead of buying them presents.

Bill Ciari and Joshua Becker, on the other hand, ask family members to keep any toys that are presents in their own homes for when the children visit. At birthday parties, Soukup puts a donation box outside for anyone who shows up with toys, though people have mostly stopped bringing them. Soukup even managed to convince her present-prone sister-in-law to gift the children with clothes, art supplies or special experiences instead of toys.

After two-and-a-half years, having few toys has simply become the norm in the Soukup household. When the girls attend play dates in other homes, they comment that the extensive numbers of toys are odd. Moreover, Soukup says many of her friends’ kids who play at her house enjoy the simplistic experience and later ask to minimize their own toy supply. “Several of my friends have followed suit because they have seen the effect of it on their families, too,” Soukup says.

Soukup says the decision to limit toys in her home helped her children and their visiting friends to be more creative and imaginative, and to focus on basic values.

Whereas Soukup once piled on the presents at Christmas, the holiday now centers around family activities. Her girls ring the Salvation Army bell, fill Operation Christmas Child boxes at church and go caroling.

“We try to be very intentional in our family about teaching our kids how to give back,” Soukup says. “It’s not about what we get, it’s more about the cool things we can do together as a family.”

Like the Ciaris and the Beckers, the Soukups’ decision to own less isn’t necessarily about spending less. For birthdays, Soukup’s daughters get to choose between having a big party or taking a trip. This past year, one daughter wanted to visit family friends in Tennessee, so the whole family flew out. Of course, four plane tickets cost more than gifts would, but the focus is now on buying experiences rather than stuff, and developing gratitude for it all.

“We try to give them those experiences of reaching out to other people,” Soukup says. “We want to teach our kids an attitude of gratitude. Instead of focusing on the things we don’t have, we focus on what we do.”

Similarly, Joshua Becker says his decision to minimize was grounded in a desire to teach his kids to appreciate the value of family itself. Rather than demonstrating that he and his wife are guided by consumerist pressures, he instead hopes to illustrate by example that family comes first.

“We’re not living to get a bigger house or a nicer car or more clothes,” Becker says. “There are more important things that we’re chasing after and spending our time, money, and energy pursuing.”

“People know that we own too much stuff,” Becker says of the general populace. “If you slow down with buying stuff, you’ll have more money to do stuff together. People believe it because we all know this to be true.”

Even at his young age, Salem seems to have a solid grasp on what’s most meaningful to him. He says there is such a thing as too many toys, and that an excess amount can lead to an array of issues like forgetting you have them, too much cleaning up, and distraction from playing with friends.

All in all, he agrees with his dad’s mantra: less is more.

“You don’t really need to have a whole lot of toys to be happy,” Salem says. “Just the ones that you really want.”

* * *

While Soukup’s decision to purge her home of toys certainly affected her daughters, and even their friends, the biggest effect was on Soukup herself. Upon reflection, Soukup reveals that the sweep not only changed the way she parented, it changed the fabric of who she is.

Before she took all her kids’ toys away, Soukup was an avid shopper. With two young kids and a fair share of boredom, Soukup spent a lot of time in local stores experiencing the rush of buying new things. She started her blog as a way to become more financially prudent.

“I shopped to fill my time,” Soukup confesses. “It ended up filling our house.”

Soukup now sees that her shopping habit sent a misguided message to her kids. Soukup constantly thought that if she bought more toys, her daughters would finally be entertained. In turn, she taught her daughters to think the same. By example, she was teaching them that acquiring stuff leads to fulfillment.

“I would go to Target and take them with me,” she says. “They would see all this stuff and they would want it. I would want it.” It was a vicious cycle.

As soon as Soukup took away the stuff, the cycle was broken. Suddenly, her kids didn’t want toys anymore. Suddenly, Soukup didn’t act like they needed them. A September 2012 post on Soukup’s blog begins: “Had I not experienced it with my own eyes, I would’ve never believed that an addiction to stuff could be broken that quickly.”

Soukup’s decision to minimize the amount of stuff in her home was more than just a bold parenting move; it was a chance to break her own compulsions. In getting rid of her kids’ toys, Soukup realized that her daughters need something other than toys, something that is far simpler, and free.

“Kids just want to be loved,” Soukup says calmly, genuinely.

When Soukup is asked what kinds of changes she’s seen in the times since she ridded her home of toys, she begins to talk about her children, but then stops to include herself.

“I would say that the biggest change is having my kids, my family, realize that our life does not have value based on what we have,” Soukup says. “Our life has value based on who we are.”

* * *

Gina Ciliberto writes about nuns, travel, and millennials in New York City. Read more of her work at ginaciliberto.contently.com and follow her at @ThisMillennial.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog ‘Fox’ he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

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

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

* * *

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

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

 

 

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.