When her best friend started chemo, Chaya wanted a way to make her monthly mikvah as special as possible. She ended up finding a new kind of holy cleansing—even though it broke all the traditional rules.
Before she can meet God, Rachell Goldberg needs to get rid of all the nail polish on her toes.
An immersion in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, is supposed to be an encounter with the divine, she says.
Goldberg widens her eyes. “I mean, like, imagine!”
At its best, mikvah gets you so clean, body and soul, that God is right there with you. But first, you have to make sure there is nothing between you and the water. That means being vigilant for everything from belly button lint to a stuffed nose and going head to toe to ensure no crevice or fold is forgotten.
So, Goldberg sets to work on her toes. First, she lets acetone-soaked cotton balls rest on her nails. Now, she’s scraping away at what’s left of the polish with a pair of tweezers, chin on her knees.
Goldberg is crouched on a chair in a private room at Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. It feels like a spa. The room is warm, smells like flowers, and is full of every conceivable cleaning implement: drawers of pink razors, glass jars stuffed with Q-tips, a comb floating in shockingly blue Barbicide.
This will be Goldberg’s first immersion since beginning chemotherapy and radiation seven months ago. Before that, she immersed every month for thirteen years, since becoming a married woman (aside from the months when she was pregnant with her five children). As of today, Goldberg is done with the worst of her treatment, and her immersion is laden with meaning. When Goldberg was first diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she thought she would never go to a mikvah again.
Jews are commanded in the Torah and Rabbinic commentaries to immerse for three reasons: conversion, marriage, and monthly menstruation. This last one is controversial. Some see it as an insult, the insinuation that a natural process makes a woman unclean or untouchable, and that before she reunites with her husband she must become pure. Others see monthly mikvah as a powerful way to mark a transition between two states of being. In fact, the mikvah waters are often kept at body temperature and can feel womb-like, like a spiritual rebirth. Either way, for many Orthodox women in the United States, monthly mikvah is a part of life.
But what happens when a woman stops menstruating? Is her decades-long relationship with mikvah suddenly over? This is not an idle question. For many women, Goldberg included, chemotherapy for breast cancer means the end of their period. Ashkenazi Jewish women are at unusually high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ashkenazi Jews on the whole carry the BRCA gene mutation, which leads to both these cancers, at a rate ten times that of the general population.
At traditional mikvaot, the spotlight is on a woman’s fertility and sexuality. But for Jewish women with breast cancer, treatment means not only the end of their childbearing years, but also a deeply altered relationship to their physical and sexual selves. There is no formal place at a traditional mikvah for these women. Their bodies have changed, but the ritual hasn’t caught up.
Mikvah has traditionally been known as more of a utilitarian in-and-out chore than a personal or holy experience. Mikvaot are often built to be functional, not comfortable. Goldberg recalls immersing in an ultra-Orthodox mikvah in Israel, where she lived as a young adult and served in the military. The mikvah was small and crowded, and she recalls the process of being “checked” by the mikvah attendant to make sure the immersion was halachic, following the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.
“She was a stickler, looking at each one of my fingernails and just poking and prodding me,” Goldberg says. There was little dignity in being examined with such brusque efficiency.
These issues become more pronounced while a woman is being treated for breast cancer, or after she has finished treatment. She may have scars across her chest. As she combs her hair to get rid of tangles, as per the custom, it may fall out. She may be more concerned about the spread of infection through the communal waters of a busy mikvah. She may be feeling vulnerable and exposed in her new body. After breast cancer, many women choose to leave mikvah behind. Before her diagnosis, Goldberg immersed every month out of obligation. After her diagnosis, she had an out — but she didn’t take it.
The night before Goldberg began chemotherapy, her friend Chaya Topas invited her to Mikvah Chaim, one of a wave of new mikvaot reimagining immersion in the United States. This mikvah revolution centers around opening mikvah, allowing patrons to come to the mikvah for any occasion that is holy to them, Biblically-commanded or not. It’s also about empowering women once they’re there, says Lisa Berman, a director at Mayyim Hayyim, one of the hubs of modern mikvah. Mayyim Hayyim and its protégée mikvaot allow patrons to engage with the ritual in a way that feels right for them, whether that means asking that some body parts not be checked or reciting a poem after the Hebrew blessing. Today, Jews of all denominations are using mikvah to mark everything from miscarriages to gender transitions.
And according to Berman, it’s all still kosher. In the Rabbinic commentaries, non-commanded immersion actually gets plenty of discussion. For instance, some ancient Rabbis recommended immersing on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Even though Jews are not commanded to immerse on this occasion, the Rabbis thought that doing so might still be powerful and good.
In traditional communities today, however, few take the license to stray from commanded immersion. Rivkah Slonim, editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, says that there’s a “distinction between doing something because it’s Biblically mandated and engaging in a practice because you are moved to do so.” She poses the question — what if somebody felt moved to hold a Passover Seder on Thanksgiving? “Finite connects to the infinite on the infinite’s terms,” she says.
In addition to being open, progressive mikvaot also value comfort. Topas recalls a conversation between synagogue board members as they discussed building Mikvah Chaim. One member assured the others that, not to worry, the mikvah would be nothing like a spa. But that’s exactly what it should be like, Topas thinks. “It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a spa-like experience so women will want to come back.”
Goldberg and Topas met because their children go to school together, and for a while, they were both at home during the day. They would talk and laugh and snack on the kosher Parmesan cheese Topas always keeps in her fridge. Topas is a mikvah attendant, and she wanted to use the mikvah to bless her friend as she headed into treatment. Jews are encouraged to come to the mikvah with kavanah, or intention. Topas says her intention for Goldberg that night was simple: that the blessing of the mikvah would bring her perfect health.
Every time Goldberg had ever gone to the mikvah before, she had done it for her family. She had prayed for shalom bayit, peace in the home, and reveled in the care she brought to preparing each part of her body for her husband. The night that Topas brought her to Mikvah Chaim was the first time she had ever gone to the mikvah outside of her menstrual cycle. It was the first time she had gone just for herself.
“It was really empowering to be like, ‘I can do this? This is allowed? I guess it is.’”
Goldberg could barely undress. She was in pain from her recent double mastectomy. But her mother was there to help. Her mother was the only person, aside from her doctors, who had seen her scars, so she was the one who guided Goldberg into the water. Traditionally, an attendant would be present to judge the body and immersion kosher or not, but this mikvah gave Goldberg the option of privacy.
Having her mom there reminded Goldberg of her first immersion, the night before her wedding. She had no idea how her life was about to change. Water, both times, was a sacred force.
“You go into the water and it holds you and it gives you so much. I don’t know. It surrounds you completely,” she says. “You’re floating at the same time you’re also so grounded.”
Goldberg’s favorite part was when her mother had left the room and she was alone in the mikvah — for the first time in her life.
“I was swimming around and I was like, this is amazing!” she says. “What is it, did they not trust me before? I mean, the whole concept of having your own time in there by yourself is incredible. It felt like this is probably the way it used to be.”
Goldberg pictured Jewish women in the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. She imagined that they immersed just like this — no hovering attendant, just holiness. But soon she started feeling that she was breaking the rules.
“No woman should have that feeling,” she says. “Every woman should feel like, this is my time. I deserve to be in here alone.”
That night, Goldberg realized that she had found a mikvah where she could immerse and be held exactly as she was. She found herself looking forward to going back.
* * *
Now, Goldberg has returned to the mikvah for the first time since that night, and she’s nervous. So much has happened since her last immersion. Goldberg says if she had known what kind of suffering was ahead, “I would have booked a one-way ticket to I-don’t-know-where.”
She’s finally gotten the nail polish off of her toes and has begun to comb her new, short hair in quick strokes. “It’s going to be much easier,” she says lightly. “No worries about loose strands of hair on my back or anywhere.”
She moves on to her eyebrows and grabs the tweezers.
“You’re allowed to have, in general, the hairs on your body that you normally keep.” She grins. “So, if you’re normally getting a Brazilian wax, you need to go get one for mikvah night.”
Goldberg is happy that both her eyebrows and eyelashes grew back — she lost them completely and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. “I got some tough Middle Eastern genes here, so,” she says.
Goldberg’s family is from Morocco — she describes herself as “purebred Sephardi.” Her face, as she stares into the mirror, is made of swift angles and wide eyes that hold yours without blinking. According to Topas, all of their friends say that Goldberg has never looked better. According to Topas’s husband, she’s the only one who could pull off her buzz cut, and it may be true. She looks beautiful.
Goldberg begins to file her nails, which became brittle and thin during chemotherapy. Now, she notices, there are a few cracks, but they have mostly grown in strong and healthy.
“The body,” she says, “has such a strong will.”
Goldberg’s intention for this immersion, her kavanah, is different from the last time. She’s hoping for a new beginning. She feels that cancer wrought havoc in so many parts of her life, from her body to her marriage. She looks very alone, squinting at her nails in this big, clean room.
Goldberg softly traces her eyelashes and eyelids with makeup remover, a strikingly caring the gesture. A ritual that might have been demeaning now demands a sort of meticulous self-gentleness. Mikvah provides a time to lovingly attend to each part of one’s body, even — and especially — when one’s body has changed.
Goldberg opens drawers, looking for floss.
“I know my dentist tells me I should be flossing every day,” she says, “but I don’t. I actually don’t. But before the mikvah, I always do.”
Goldberg is ready to go. She ties her robe tight and presses a buzzer. After a few moments, Topas arrives at the door and leads the way to the pool.
It’s small, and tiled, and deep. Goldberg looks at it, and then looks at me, and pulls her robe tighter.
“Let’s see. I don’t have nipples,” she tells me. “Just so you know.”
She explains that her tumor was too close to the front of her breast for the doctors to preserve the nipple, so instead she has two scars on her chest, and she doesn’t want me to get freaked out. I turn my back as she walks down the steps into the mikvah. A mikvah attendant might cover her eyes with the patron’s robe at this time, until the patron is neck-deep in the water.
Goldberg floats a bit, and then pushes herself completely underwater, crossing her arms and legs. She does this three times, and says the b’racha, the blessing, out loud once: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu b’mitzvo-tav v’tzi-vanu al ha-tevilah. Halfway through, her voice breaks and she cries.
* * *
Now that Goldberg has found Mikvah Chaim, she wants to keep coming back. But she’s not sure when. If she can’t follow her menstrual schedule, she’ll have to invent a new schedule. Maybe she’ll go on her birthday, and her children’s birthdays, and her anniversary, and also Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
Goldberg’s period will soon be gone completely, and it’s up to her to reinvent her relationship to mikvah. To ask why, and for whom, she immerses now.
“I’m not necessarily going to run to a rabbi and say ‘what do I need to do?’ from a halachic standpoint,” she says. “Just personally, what do I want to do? How much do I want to make it a part of my life? Because I’m going to miss it.”
Goldberg also wants to keep coming to the mikvah for her daughters. She doesn’t want to break the chain between generations. She wants her daughters to love mikvah, and to see their mother love mikvah. She’s glad they will have options like Mikvah Chaim.
Goldberg doesn’t think she’s doing anything too heretical by immersing outside of her menstrual cycle. In fact, she believes that women have probably always done this, sought out the mikvah for ritual and sanctity when they were struggling. All of the rules, the counting of days and plucking of hairs, were probably added in later. Of her immersion, Goldberg says, “It felt right. So, I’m sure it was.”
Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.
This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.
On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”
Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.
This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”
“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”
Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”
Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.
On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”
“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.
While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.
“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”
“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”
Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.
Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”
It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.
“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”
Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”
“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”
In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”
“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”
His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.
To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”
A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.
He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”
As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.
There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.
I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.
The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.
“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”
And now we’re here.
The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.
I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.
I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.
Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?
“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.
In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.
“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.
Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.
Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.
I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.
Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.
“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.
I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”
“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”
I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.
I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.
It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.
The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.
Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.
I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.
At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.
Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.
“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.
But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.
Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.
I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.
When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.
I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.
Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.
Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.
The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.
I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.
Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.
Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”
For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.
“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”
McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.
Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.
“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”
Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.
“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”
When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.
“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”
McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.
“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”
While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.
Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”
“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.
“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”
McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.
“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”
My job involves mopping up the urine-soaked garbage holes that exhausted motorists take for granted. But in another era, the public took great pride in the glory of roadside restrooms.
A bald man rounded the corner by the ATM machine. He was coming back from the bathroom with the look. I’d been at the gas station a couple months, so I knew the look. It’s a grimace with pursed lips that says: I feel dirty. We locked eyes long enough for him to shake his head. That little swivel filled me with anxiety. Our bathrooms weren’t filthy. For one of the busiest gas stations in Pittsburgh, they were OK. And no, that’s not good enough, but does an OK inner-city public restroom deserve a public shaming? Because that’s usually what accompanies the look, a cry of: That bathroom is disgusting! Then people within earshot make the look, too.
Expecting a scene, my muscles tightened as I rang up a customer. But the guy with the look didn’t embarrass me. He stood aside and waited. His blue, checkered dress shirt was tucked into khakis, and he sported a thin, whitish-blonde mustache that matched the ring of hair around his head. When the customer left, he leaned in.
“You need to clean that bathroom.” He raised his eyebrows and his forehead wrinkled. “It’s a mess. Big-time.”
I thanked the man and he left. The assistant manager was depositing money into the safe a few feet away. “Better go now,” he said, standing. He readjusted his glasses and checked traffic in the parking lot. “Go on, hurry up.”
Cleaning the bathroom quickly was imperative, but it was more complicated than the importance of sanitation. The gas station is located along Baum Boulevard, one of the East End’s main thoroughfares, and it’s one of those Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids – café seating, sixteen fuel pumps, and 23 parking spaces. The kind of mega-station where you stop for gas and end up buying a Philly cheesesteak, chips and a large Pepsi because a sign on the pump reminded you: the more you spend on food, the more points you get on your fuel rewards card.
It was almost three on a hot summer afternoon. All sixteen pumps were being used, Baum had traffic, and we were understaffed. I was one of two cashiers standing inside an octagon-shaped counter with four registers. The assistant manager said he’d watch my line while I cleaned, but that was wishful thinking. The gas station was too busy for managers to stand still. My mission was clear: clean the men’s room and return before the other cashier was overwhelmed by customers.
This was frustrating because I wanted to do a thorough job. I hated having an OK bathroom. People informing me of messes was embarrassing. Most were trying to help. I know this because the gas station chain where I worked asked customers to speak up when the restrooms were disgusting. There were three signs inside each one proclaiming our dedication to cleanliness and encouraging customers to inform us when the facilities were not up to par. The signs, the look, my interpretations, it’s all connected to the strange relationship society has with gas station bathrooms, the most common public restrooms. Just say the words to someone, “gas station bathroom,” and they’ll conjure up a grotesque image and make the look. It’s a stereotype linked to a phobia about public toilets, but even if you encounter one with slick, urine-coated floors and poop-stained toilet seats, it is highly unlikely that it will get you sick.
Gas station companies used to take advantage of this fear by promoting clean bathrooms. Gulf started the trend in 1933, and the advertisements were so effective that Texaco, which was the first gas station to build public restrooms, launched its Registered Rest Rooms campaign two years later. Texaco pledged to send bathroom inspectors to each location, and women were the target audience (executives believed that, though men drove, women determined when and where they stopped). Full-page ads showed smiling mothers and children heading into “Registered” rest rooms, with the tagline: Something we ladies appreciate!
Gas station bathrooms aided mobility. Americans didn’t have to worry about where to relieve themselves while driving coast-to-coast for the first time. The stations promote cleanliness, and say, to men: Don’t pee in the alley! In some cases, the state of a gas station’s bathroom can speak volumes about the state of the neighborhood. If I worked at the gas station in the East End, then those bathrooms were the public restrooms for the fifteen diverse neighborhoods crammed into that corner of Pittsburgh. And they were just OK, which meant sometimes they were, in the words of the man with the whitish-blonde mustache who complained that summer day, “A mess. Big-time.”
When I heard that, I pictured a combination of things I had already cleaned up: an overflowing toilet, soiled underwear, and used needles. I pulled a mop bucket filled with hot, soapy water into the men’s room and looked around. I was incredulous. That guy had said “big-time.” Paper towels dotted the tile floor, a pile of toilet paper sat next to the toilet in the lone stall, the ground was wet around the urinal, and there were tar marks from dirty shoes. Did it need to be cleaned? Absolutely. But right now? I usually hit the bathrooms before my break, after the afternoon rush had died. This “big-time” mess didn’t warrant a change in routine.
As I swept, I cursed the man with the whitish-blonde mustache. His name is Chuck. The assistant manager said he had complained before. I got to know Chuck one afternoon a few weeks later. I entered the men’s room to check on its condition, and he was standing at the urinal. He did a double take over his shoulder.
“You guys gotta do a better job in here.”
Dirty shoes had created a trail that forked by the stall, but there was no preventing this; inner-city gas stations get heavy foot traffic. Everything else seemed normal, too: paper towels on the floor, snot rockets on the walls. It didn’t even smell that bad. Chuck advised me to watch the urinal flush, and then he stepped back. Water whooshed down as usual.
“See that?” He pointed to the floor. “The water pressure’s so strong it shoots onto the ground, then people come in here, see it’s all wet and think someone peed all over the place. So they stand a few feet back because no one wants to stand in pee, and then they miss, and you got a messy bathroom.”
I felt conflicted. On the one hand, complacency for the bathroom’s “normal” state was unacceptable. The sign promising cleanliness made me responsible, and I wanted the bathrooms to be spotless. (When I was a boy, my dad, a bank manager, flipped out when I didn’t do chores perfectly.) On the other hand, cleaning the restrooms was a Sisyphean task, and the gas station was understaffed. I couldn’t leave the register to mop the bathrooms once an hour. And why should I go above and beyond? None of my co-workers cared. We were getting paid $9.30 an hour, and the bathrooms weren’t that bad.
I had been struggling with this for a couple months, and I expressed my inner discord to Chuck like a typical grad student – with snark: “Wow man, you really know a lot about urinals.”
It backfired. Chuck had managed gas stations for 31 years. He retired and became an Uber driver, and whenever he stops at a gas station, he pays attention to cleanliness, especially in the bathroom.
“That’s how I get a general sense of what a place is like,” he said.
The more I saw Chuck, the more I liked him. He was a father who had coached his daughter’s softball team, and whenever he stopped to get coffee, he’d point out something wrong with the gas station: litter in the lot, how the Redbox kiosk blocked the doors. Then he’d leave with a big smile. Because he knew. Part of the problem was management, but most of it was the people above them. Corporate. One of the reasons he got out of the gas station game. His unwavering “this is how it should be done” view reminded me of my dad, and I eventually regretted cursing him earlier in the summer. That afternoon, I pinned open the men’s room door with the garbage can and swept the trash toward the hallway. The restrooms were so tiny that it was common to see people waiting in line, and sweeping in front of the sink, I blocked the urinal and the stall. A construction worker walked in and stopped short of bumping into me. He was a tall, burly guy, wearing a neon T-shirt, with a tribal tattoo on his arm.
“I’m sorry sir, but the bathroom—”
“It’s cool,” he said, shuffling past. “I’ll just be a second.”
The yellow cone in the hallway read: “Caution Wet Floor.” It didn’t say the bathroom was closed. I had tried to prevent him from entering because I didn’t want him getting in the way. But he was so dismissive. “It’s cool. I’ll just be a second.” Translation: You’re a loser. Get out of my way. I dumped what I had swept into the garbage and brooded over the lack of respect some people showed for my coworkers and me. Verbal abuse from customers was part of the job. The manager warns employees of that during the job interview. But he doesn’t say a word about the looks of pity you get as you ring up bottled water. Then there are the people who can’t even meet your eyes. Sometimes, the disgust on their faces has traces of resentment.
It wasn’t always like this. The relationship between gas station employees and the public has evolved with the industry. I felt compelled to research the history because photographs commemorating Pittsburgh’s role are plastered along the first floor of a closed Ford factory across the street from where I worked. The images were a daily reminder that on December 1, 1913, Gulf opened the world’s first architecturally-designed gas station at the corner of Baum and Saint Clair Street, about a mile away. Before the Gulf station, car owners filled up in gravel lots where shanties were thrown together for cover and fuel was stored in giant above-ground tanks. The lots and the men who worked them stunk. Homeowners called these early gas stations stink pits, eyesores. No one wanted one in their neighborhood. Not even those who could afford cars.
Gulf general sales manager W.V. Hartmann changed the industry – and American roadsides – by convincing his bosses to hire a professional who could blend the gas station into the surroundings. Architect J.H. Giesey drew the blueprint, and Baum was chosen as the site because, as part of the Lincoln Highway, it was already known as Auto Row, home to car dealerships and the Ford factory. Gulf’s station had a red-brick pagoda-style building shaped like an octagon. It blended in with neighboring homes, and on its first Saturday of business, Gulf sold 350 gallons of gasoline for 27 cents per gallon. The success sent other oil companies scrambling to imitate.
Gas station companies competed for territory, and quality customer service was promoted to lure motorists from competitors. With the help of ads like Texaco’s “Mr. Service,” the gas station attendant became an iconic occupation. When a driver pulled into a gas station, a crew of uniformed men pumped gas, checked oil and air, and washed windows. They also handed out maps and gave directions. Gas station attendants in each neighborhood were revered, not disrespected like today’s cashiers. After World War II, garage bays were built into store designs, and gas stations hired mechanics. In neighborhoods across America, men gathered at gas stations to learn how to fix cars. The bond between gas station employees and customers continued through the 1960s, but the industry changed again in the 1970s.
America had reached its peak with over 216,000 gas stations. But after two oil crises rocked the industry, chains scaled back in numbers. Gas station owners realized selling cigarettes, lottery tickets, and candy bars was more profitable than auto repairs. Self-service was the next big change. Attendants disappeared in the 1980s, except in New Jersey and Oregon where laws keep the job alive. In the 1990s, gas station owners embraced convenience stores, then fast-food, and the Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids were born. The bigger gas stations got, the more their numbers dwindled. In 2012, there were just 156,065 fueling sites in the United States; this means gas stations have less competition and more vices to sell, and are busier than ever.
Studies have shown that the crazier a convenience store gets the less positive emotion is expressed by employees and customers. Tempers can flare in that kind of environment. Chuck said he didn’t tolerate mistreatment from either side of the counter when he managed. If a customer was rude to one of his employees, he asked the person to leave. “People you throw out usually come back in,” he told me over the phone. “And if you do it in front of other people, then they see what you stand for … But you have to show people respect whether they show you respect or not.”
My managers took a corporate, customer-is-always-right-approach, and preached having a thick skin. They said: bite your tongue. That’s what I found myself doing that first day Chuck complained. The construction worker finished urinating, washed his hands, and left. Now I was ready to mop. I wheeled the bucket into the doorway and set the Caution Wet Floor cone in front of that. Starting by the urinal, I plopped the mop onto the floor. Thwack! I was sliding the mop head around like a snake, trying to erase scuffmarks, when the bucket’s rusty wheels squeaked. Some guy was climbing over it. He wore a long, white T-shirt with blue jeans and had a Bluetooth in his ear. I told him the bathroom was closed.
“C’mon now, you telling me I can’t take a piss?” he said.
He cleared the bucket and entered the bathroom. I pointed out that the floor was slippery, but he waved off the danger.
“I can handle it,” he said. “Now watch out.”
I stepped back, and he slid across the floor like a child pretending to be a choo-choo train. His shoes left a black trail in his wake. Now I had to mop again. I wanted to scream. Curse. But I didn’t. I walked into the hallway to breath and was met by a teenager wearing a white tank top, shorts, and sandals. He asked permission to enter, and I waved him in. At the end of the hallway, the assistant manager had abandoned the other cashier, and the checkout line stretched to the fountain drinks along the back wall. The people waiting seemed frustrated. That’s a different look from the one elicited by a dirty bathroom.
* * *
This story was originally drafted as part of Creative Nonfiction’s Writing Pittsburgh project.
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!