Noah: Hey everyone. It’s Noah, a quick warning at the top that this story has some profanity and descriptions of sex that might not be suitable for everyone. So use your discretion and thanks for listening.
Mike: So I’m sitting across from her. And she’s bringing up the fact that I’m attracted to her. She wants to go there. I’m tensing up. She’s really thinking hard about what to do. I think in her heart of hearts, she knows that we’re supposed to be together, as therapist and patient. She just stares at me and flips up her wrist and says, you know what? I’m telling you, you can have me. What do you want to do?
Noah: Let’s start at the beginning. Mike Stahl grew up in Queens, New York, the oldest of four kids, three boys and a girl. His dad was an electrical worker. His mom was a teacher’s aid. It was a working class family, a tough family. And Mike was the odd one out.
Mike: For me being this kind of sensitive flower, you know, it was such a male dominated household. I definitely think that I felt this pressure to kind of give off that tough exterior.
Noah: Mike just wanted to fit in, so he came up with a plan. Everyone in the family played sports and to earn their respect, he’d have to play sports too. So he went out for the wrestling team.
Mike: I lost every match and I was ever involved in and you know, I was the worst rest, literally the worst wrestler on the team. This kid who was at a rival high school, picked me up and \ literally roared at the crowd and went right, like at the whole grout and slammed me down and pinned me momentarily after that. That was just like the low point of my wrestling career. For sure.
Noah: Shocker, Mike never went pro as a wrestler. The more he tried to fit in with his family, the more, he felt like an outsider. From the music I listened to, to the way that I dressed, to the movies that I watched, everything I did kind of went against the grain and they were always very quick to point it out. I constantly was treated like I was strange and I really bought into it because if it’s like, if your family is treating you that way, then why wouldn’t you be strange or awkward or weird.
Noah: Mike’s childhood wasn’t tragic. He grew up with a roof over his head. He got an education, but feeling like he was strange, worn down. He lost his self confidence and he second guessed every decision. By the time he was an adult, he believed what his family had told him.
Mike: I’m the weird one. I’m the one that doesn’t really process things the way others do. So I’m just going to hold that down.
Noah: That would lead him to a therapist’s office, to a surreal situation he never could have imagined. A situation that would put everything he believed about himself to the test. I’m Noah Rosenberg, and this is Believable. It’s a show about how our stories define who we are.
As Mike grew up, he got better at bearing his feelings at hiding the parts of himself that were different. He moved out and got a job, but the idea that he was strange, never fully went away. It affected his relationships, his self esteem, and had a hard time trusting people. And he didn’t really trust himself either.
So it’s not surprising that at age 33, Mike was unhappy.
Mike: Just kind of generally feeling alone, uncertain of my future, which was creating, uh, quite a bit of anxiety. Mike was looking for a change and on a whim, he quit his job to follow his dream of becoming a writer.
Mike:I wasn’t really finding a whole lot of happiness in that either. I was really driven to succeed. Just a lot of self doubt just really was creeping in. I was beginning to not sleep well, beginning to have anxiety attacks and trying so hard to write, and then I’m not sleeping and I’m having anxiety attacks. And then I can’t write. So then I’m not sleeping and having anxiety attacks and it just kind of created this really, really vicious cycle.
And when you’re trying to just completely reset your life, I needed to believe in myself at that moment. And I didn’t.
Noah: After a few hard months, Mike decided that he couldn’t do it on his own. He found a therapist and made an appointment. And he gets to the office. It’s in this sort of converted, two bedroom apartment, kind of 80 style decor. Mike’s sitting there in the waiting room.
Mike: I’m super nervous, a hundred percent nervous, you know, really hoping that this one just works out, that we click.
Noah: And then this woman walks out of a back office.
Lori: And the smile just beamed off of his face.
Noah: This is Mike’s new therapist, Lori.
Mike: Very cute, in my age range. I was feeling so many things. I can’t help, but feel attracted to her.
Lori: I knew immediately that I was working with a special, kind, good-hearted and well-intended human being. And I also knew that he was attracted to me.
Mike: She just, you know, just kind of dove right into it. She was just like, so why are you here? I kind of gave actually like a, not very genuine answer. Mike tells Laurie that he has been feeling better lately. He tries to put up a tough front, but Laurie sees right through it.
Lori: He wanted quick results and I’m just like staring at him, listening to him. I’m like, all right, well, whenever he’s done with this spiel, we can start therapy.
Noah: After a while Mike, drops his guard a little bit. He tells Laurie that he lost his confidence and he doesn’t make good choices.
Lori: He was not happily single at the time when we first met and coming out of a tenured teaching job to become a writer, you know, I recognize how hard he was being on himself.
Mike: She did a fantastic job of legitimising my feelings. Right away I felt a little bit more self confidence.
Noah: The session goes well. And then as Laurie’s walking Mike out, something happens door knobbing. Someone is leaving a session and they say something that is sort of provoking to the therapist.
Mike: I was like, so where are you from? You know, just kind of busting into the whole flirtatious thing. Almost like we’re at a bar.
Lori: It’s bar talk, you know, it’s cute. It’s like, ooh, what’s this. And when he asked me where I was from, and he like bats these eyes, you know, and I’m just like…oh.
Mike: I was very eager to go back. I was very eager to go back in part because I was so attracted to her. But also at the same time, I was going to get some good treatment there.
Noah: Mike starts seeing Laurie every week and the sessions are helping. He’s more confident, more at ease, just not feeling so goddamn crazy.
Mike; One of the things she taught me early on was that you are in much more control of your life than you realized. She looked at me and she said, Mike, you’re pretty good at life.
Noah: But the attraction between Mike and Laurie doesn’t go away, it gets stronger and harder to ignore.
Lori: I was distracted by the amount of sexual tension that was in the room.
Mike: And I was scared that that was going to get in the way. If I had to be honest with myself, I could feel it already getting in the way. You know, as you can imagine, it becomes kind of hot for lack of better words.
Lori: And it’s like, I’m thinking to myself while we’re in session, is this me? Is this him? What’s happening here?
Mike: Do I cancel therapy? No, I can’t cancel therapy. I’m doing so well. All of these physical and emotional feelings towards her, I can’t deny them, but for so long, I’ve been denying my own feelings. But then you have to ask yourself if you’re me, isn’t this something you should be denying?
Noah: And then, it’s the fifth session. Mike’s talking about dating, he’s down on himself and is trying to pump up his conflict.
Lori: He blushed when I said something, he looked down.
Mike: She said, Mike, you know, you’re quite a catch. And I said, what’s going on?
Lori: Cause he looked down and he stayed there for a while and he could not make eye contact with me and eye contact is huge.
Mike: My temperature must’ve read about 108, uh, immediately.
Lori: When he looked up at me, it was as intimate as sex. I mean, it’s, it’s sort of that intense in therapy.
Mike: I just kind of, sort of smiled and shook my head.
Lori: I was like, okay, I’m just going to say it, Mike, are you attracted to me?
Mike: I was like how did you know? She kinda like cranes her neck a little bit and says, Mike, I mean, give me a break. It was, it was clear as day. And she just says to me, listen, it’s okay. She’s like, I don’t mean to embarrass you, and I wanted to address it because I felt like it might be getting in the way of your therapy, that you might be withholding things because you’re trying to make a good impression on me.
Lori: The last thing I ever want to do is encourage or foster a place where you can’t say anything.
Mike: I want you to know that being physically attracted to people that you’re in a room with, and you’re getting this intimate with is very normal.
Noah: So hold on a second. So are you attracted to me? It’s not something most people probably expect their therapist to ask them. I’d imagine that you were, you were nervous, you were scared, you were embarrassed. Maybe you, maybe a part of you was, was happy that she had noticed you noticing her.
Mike: Oh, a hundred percent. And it definitely made me think to myself like, oh man, like maybe this, maybe this can work. Maybe I can do something with this year, but then it’s also like, wow, but she’s such a good therapist.
Noah: Mike goes home. And for the next week, he’s thinking about what happened. What did it mean? What happens next? And Laurie was facing a dilemma of her own.
Lori: I was in a position where I was being a social worker and this person sitting across from me was distracting me with the amount of sexual energy that was coming my way.
And if it’s distracting me, then that already puts him in a compromising position. And thus the therapy really can’t continue. It was overwhelming to me and it was flattering and blah, blah, blah. But it was a balloon that I had to pop.
Noah: After the break, the balloon pops.
When it comes time for his next session with Laurie, Mike is anxious. He has no idea what’s going to happen, but surprisingly things are back to normal. They have a really good conversation. But then toward the end..
Mike: She sees me tensing up. She sees me holding back and she says, you know, you didn’t bring up what we talked about last week.
Lori: He was just like, ugh, again, are you fucking kidding me? We put this away. We handled it. I was like, all right, if you say so. I don’t think we did.
Mike: I think I just kinda shook my head again and just, you know, mumbled something and she’s like, I wanted to say again, that, that it’s okay. She turns to me and says: and don’t think it’s not nice for a girl like me to have a guy like you come in here and tell me that you’re attracted to me. So now it’s just kind like. What, excuse me, say that again. And she said, yeah, I’m attracted to you. I’m willing to admit it. I’m willing to put that out there. It’s incredibly erotic, but it’s also frightening because you know that this is not supposed to be happening.
Then she says, you know, what kind of fantasies do you have about me? I mean, do you think about bending me over the desk?
Lori: You want to take me from behind.
Mike: That’s exactly it, of course that’s it.
Laurie: Everyone has seen office porn. So it really wasn’t that far fetched for me to like, imagine what he must’ve been imagining.
Mike: She’s like, I’m just trying to normalize this. It’s okay. But there definitely was that other side of me that was just sort of like, I don’t know if this is okay.
Lori: I hate that I’m about to say this, but I was probably feeling slightly aroused. How do you not feel slightly flattered and slightly, you know, just excited at the notion.
Mike: And she just kind of looks at me and she goes, do you want to have sex with me right now? And I just am completely in shock.
Noah: The room is silent. Scenarios are flashing through Mike’s mind. And she says, come on right here. Right now.
Lori: Come on, money meet mouth. I’m not joking. You want to do this? Let’s fucking do it.
Noah: The secretary is just outside the office door. There’s another session going on in the next room. This can’t be happening.
Mike: And I was like, no, no, I’m not going to do that. And she says, what? Why not? I said, because that’s just inappropriate. I think she sort of slammed her, her palm on the, on the arm, rest of the chair. And she said, that’s exactly right. That she pointed at me. And she was like, you wouldn’t do that. See, you know how to make the right choices.
Lori: Maybe there was this thought that holy shit, I’m about to fuck my therapist. He stopped it. He stopped it.
Noah: Were you a hundred percent confident that he would stop it?
Lori: A hundred percent.
Noah: Would you have not gone through with that?
Lori: I would never have said that to someone, if there was any sort of inkling, or I would never hurt somebody that way nd I would never put myself in that position.
Noah: Did you feel in that moment that this was a moment to be proud of that you had shown your true colors?
Mike: Absolutely. I, it, it really had an immediate effect. Again, I went home very turned on, I mean don’t get me wrong. I mean, she completely, uh, blew up my spot, but I kind of had to fight that off.
I was also thinking, I’m making incredible progress here. And I knew that if I was going to be, uh, any remote success, I was going to have to believe in myself. And I thought therapy would, would get me there.
Noah: In the next few sessions, Mike makes progress. And then Laurie goes on a three month hiatus. She had to switch offices.
During the downtime, Mike’s dating. And he starts seeing someone.
Mike: From the first moment that we, uh, hugged on the streets, you know, we really hit it off. I fell very hard for her very quickly.
Noah: But when sessions with Laurie start up again, there are some confusing moments.
Mike: I was falling in love with someone else so my attention was elsewhere, uh, for the most part at that point. But still it would creep in a little bit.
Lori: Every time it came up. When I saw that it may have gone into territory where the blushing would take over, you know, I wanted to remind him of his rights and that being, he does not have to work with me ever if he didn’t want to.
Mike: And she would bring it up. And then that frustrated me, because I was trying to bury, you know, my feelings for Laurie. This balancing act that I was doing was really confusing me and I was struggling.
Noah: So Laurie gave Mike a handout. It was an article about a subject called erotic transference. That’s when a client becomes attracted to a therapist.
Is this a handout that you’ve given other patients before?
Lori: Never. Never. Oh my goodness. No, never. I needed him to know that he was safe and that I wasn’t just making this shit up.
Noah: The theory behind erotic transference goes like this: childhood is tough for everyone. Lots of families don’t give kids the acceptance and guidance they need. And when those kids become adults, they’re prone to shame, guilt and fear. Therapists fill that void. They listen, they normalize their client’s feelings, and that kind of attention can be intoxicating.
It can feel a lot like love. And if the therapist handles it the wrong way, it can cause big problems.
Sharon: When boundaries are violated, the harm to clients is clearly written up in the literature. I mean, they become suicidal. All kinds of downward spirals can happen.
Noah: This is dr. Sharon Anderson. She’s a professor at Colorado State and she’s done a lot of writing on ethics in the field of psychology. Sharon says that sexual attraction between patient and client happens all the time. What a therapist does with that attraction is crucial. And to Sharon, what Laurie did is alarming.
Sharon: It really takes the relationship into a space where I would not want to enter with a client. And I would never coach any of my students to go down that road. What are we risking? I mean, that’s, that’s a critical question to ask what we’re risking the mental health of the client. That’s huge in my mind.
Noah: There’s no question, Laurie crossed a boundary that other therapists wouldn’t cross. In fact, some of the therapists we talked to for the story question whether Laurie should even be practicing. And at this point you might be feeling the same way. Even having an inappropriate sexual conversation with a client is considered unethical. And what Laurie said to Mike definitely qualifies. I had to know why’d she do it.
What would you say to people out there who might be listening now and might be horrified by this line that you may or may not have breached?
Lori: Don’t work with me, period. You want more?
Noah: Yeah, sure.
Lori: You want more.I thought that was pretty strong.
Noah: It was strong.
Lori: Don’t work with me. I’m going to be an advocate of standing my ground on this.
Noah: Laurie says that she hasn’t used this specific approach before, and she doesn’t plan to use it again.
Lori: I do not want men thinking that this is how I work with all the male clients that I work with because what I do is very client specific and it’s all very individualized and nothing is scripted or planned out for the future. It’s all working with the here and now.
Noah: And while this is not the type of thing Laurie typically does, she says she always tries to be as direct as possible with clients. She wants them to be open with their feelings. And the only way to do that is to challenge them when they hold back.
Lori: I just call bullshit, like all the time. For better or worse, people come with secrets. And I don’t foster that, I can’t foster that. That’s helping somebody maintain this idea that you have to keep secrets and that certain things are taboo. And I don’t believe that. And that was part of where I was in that moment was just like, okay, this is what’s best for his therapy. Whether that means him having to go to another therapist, then that’s okay and I’m going to help him find one. But that wasn’t the case.
Noah: You’re not going to find Lori’s approach in the textbooks. It’s important to recognize that things could have turned out very differently. Therapists hold a position of power, and ethical boundaries are there for a reason to protect the client. But Mike is convinced, in his case, Laurie did the right thing.
Mike: There was no way that we were going to get to where we needed to go by dancing around the obvious sexual tension in the room immediately, it honestly felt like we were crossing a line. I developed a trust with her already, but I didn’t really trust myself either. So I was really battling through this stuff.
Lori: He came to me with the presenting issues as not being confident and making poor decisions. And I didn’t buy that, I just didn’t. He has a really wonderful moral compass that I think sometimes he doesn’t realize is there.
Noah: The goal was to get Mike to just accept what he was feeling, to restore a self-confidence, to bring him to a place where he could trust himself again,
Mike: She finally just kind of broke down, was just like, alright, I’m going to use your attraction to me, to our advantage. I’m going to run with it to get the most out of this therapy.
Noah: A few months after Laurie dared Mike to have sex with her, she made him another offer.
Mike: She’s like, you know, we can date. So I was like, really? So she says, yep. We would have to not see each other, we would have to not have any contact at all for two years.
Noah: That’s a rule in the ethics code of the American Psychological Association.
Lori: You have to wait two years of not seeing anybody as their practitioner, and then you can pursue any sort of relationship that you want. So I presented that to Mike as an offer also.
Mike: And what she was doing was she was throwing down the gauntlet again, what’s it going to be? You can do this. You can make a choice right now. You break things off with me, you don’t see me for two years, then maybe we can get together. Or, you can continue to see me and trust that I have your best interest in mind and continue to have a good therapist. The choice is yours, which do you choose? And I continued to see her.
Lori: That was more information so that he knew he could pursue me outside of therapy. He would just have to wait. And I knew that he wouldn’t.
Noah: Do you genuinely think you feel an attraction to him?
Lori: I think in session I do, um, you kind of do idealize the relationship, but it’s the therapist’s responsibility to always remember that the minute you leave that door, shit changes. It’s not the ideal relationship that you were both imagining it to be. It’s my job to make sure everybody’s safe.
Mike: It’s still there. I’m not going to deny that. But we have to address it. Sometimes, yes, flirtatious type things, kind of come out and we laugh about it and we’re like, oh, look at how crazy we are, how crazy this situation is, but we don’t shy away from it. And that might sound like a counterintuitive and unethical to some, but I think because it’s all laid out there, it’s okay.
Lori: Mike and I always laugh about this because the way he describes and imitates his family, it’s like, I mean, it’s basically sounds like an episode of “All in the Family.” It sounds tough, and not in a bad way, just like, you know, like rough around the edges-ish.
Mike: The relationship that I have with my family is a lot healthier, a lot more respectful. But at the same time, the struggles are still there. But it’s different because I realize now that it’s not about anger directed towards them, it’s more just kind of like, okay, you act this way for X, Y, and Z reason. I receive it for ABC reason. So let’s just kind of try and find, you know, a comfortable middle ground and let’s get through Thanksgiving dinner without stabbing each other with the Turkey knife. So that was good.
Lori: It was all very in the moment. And I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I look back on this and I’m so pleased with how it worked out. It’s very often said that you can make any mistake into an opportunity. And I love that because even if this was the greatest fuck up, Mike and I found a way to make it into just such a great opportunity. And I’m just so proud to be a part of his growth.
Noah: Did you see a change in Mike after that?
Lori: Immediately. Yeah, he felt accepted. He felt cared for, I think people just want to be accepted. So what better way to do that than to accept them?
Mike: I’m working to recognize that yes, I can be a little different or maybe a little quirky or a little sensitive, but that doesn’t make me a bad person. That doesn’t make me an unacceptable human being. I’m still pretty good at life. I can still handle myself.
Noah: Mike Stahl is a writer and editor for narratively. You can read his original piece about this experience called The Day My Therapist Dared me to Have Sex With Her at Narratively.com. This story was produced by Ryan Sweikert with help from Emily Rostek and me, Noah Rosenberg. Ryan handled the mix and sound design, Brendan Spiegel is our story consultant, episode art by Zoe Van Dijk and art direction by Vinnie Neuberg. Additional support from Ula Kulpa, Barb Barb Anguiano, Judah Kauffman, Julia Barton, and Zach Dinerstein. Special thanks to New York University and the Made In New York Media Center for their support.