I lay back on his massage table as he pressed his hands with all his weight into the soft tissue beneath my sternum. This was not at all like a massage. It hurt like hell.
I had been seeing a shaman to fix my self-diagnosed anxiety disorder. There were many posh shamans or healers or actual doctors in Manhattan that I could have seen, but this was the shaman my mom referred me to years ago.
My girlfriend, Nancy, sat in the shaman’s waiting room, a narrow space with lawn chairs. It was her first visit.
We were living in Brooklyn, at her place. I was overstressed, Googled-out, and not breathing right.
Before I told him about my panic attacks, he took one look at me and said he knew the problem. I suppose it was clear. I struggled to breathe.
I had forgotten how to breathe like a normal person. Every time I would try, my throat would tighten. A pressure grew in my nasal cavity that would bloom into the back of my skull. It became a sharp pain in my chest. I couldn’t sleep. I tried to ignore it, but that only made me focus on it more.
Naturally, I figured it was fatal. Through Yahoo Answers, I found a community of people who also forgot how to breathe.
I never saw the shaman so grave. “Your life force is low. You’re down to 5 percent. This is very bad.” He looked at me as though I shouldn’t be alive.
This was good news. Some of them had posted online about their symptoms as far back as 2006. What gave me hope was that those same people had been reposting until recently. They survived. I slept well that night.
I still couldn’t catch a real breath. The more I thought about breathing, the less I actually could. The Internet agreed … I couldn’t shake what was clearly becoming a psychological problem. I had no health insurance either. I only had my old pediatrician, who would see me out of pity, but I really didn’t want to sit in his waiting room, 27 years old, surrounded by toddlers, their parents worried about the creepy 27-year-old man reading Highlights magazines.
Thankfully, I had the shaman. He took cash.
The shaman asked me to tell him the first things that popped into my head when I thought about my anxiety. Those raw thoughts would be the impetus behind my condition.
What wasn’t wrong? My college debt. My debt debt. Was I productive enough? Maybe I used the Internet too much. Did I exercise? I told myself that taking the stairs instead of the elevator would keep me alive longer.
I told him that I was stressed about work. He studied my face, put two fingers on my carotid artery and counted my pulse. He pushed away from me on his swivel chair and asked, “Do you always orgasm during sex?”
“Yes,” I didn’t have to think too hard.
“Does she?” He nodded toward Nancy in the waiting room.
“I think so.” If she didn’t, then she had been an incredible actress in bed. I second-guessed myself under the scrutiny of the shaman.
He put his thumb and forefinger beneath my right ear and whispered an odd pattern of numbers. He had done this to me before.
“You cannot ejaculate for six weeks,” he said. I never saw him so grave. “Your life force is low. You’re down to 5 percent. This is very bad.” He looked at me as though I shouldn’t be alive. “You focus on her and only her. Nothing for you for six weeks.”
He said there would be three things that I’d learn about myself during this voluntary moratorium on orgasms. When the six weeks were up, if I hadn’t figured them out, I must call him and he’d tell me.
I first met the shaman when I had these drug-resistant allergies that wouldn’t go away. My pediatrician, whom I saw throughout college, said I’d tested negative for everything. One of his nurses joked that I was “allergic to Earth.”
My mom had a friend who had a friend who was cured by the shaman. “Cured her breast cancer,” she said. “She was in and out of treatments. Chemo. It was awful. Nothing worked. She was counting down the days. Then she found out about the shaman. You should call him. You never know.”
I trusted the lead, I was desperate to get rid of the allergies, and so I gave the shaman a call. He had a thick African accent. I made an appointment to meet him at his office in Scranton, Penn. The last place I’d expected to find a shaman. But, you never know.
If he could cure breast cancer, I thought, then he could beat my allergies no problem.
When I thought of shamans I thought of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or new-age ladies in suburbia wrapped in tie-dye tapestries. I wanted a bone-through-the-nose witch doctor.
On the two-hour drive to meet him, I wondered if I’d have a vision quest in Scranton. I realized I hadn’t Googled him. The Internet would separate the real shamans from the false shamans. At the time, I didn’t have a phone with Internet.
I was surprised when a small black man with a thin grey mustache, in a pastel dress shirt tucked into slacks, answered the door of a plain, vinyl-sided house on a mountain overlooking Scranton. I followed him through his two-car garage into his office.
As I concentrated on controlling myself during sex, my breathing became semi-normal. I didn’t think about it. It was almost spiritual, like fasting for Yom Kippur: You tough through it for the big dinner.
He lived alone. His office was clean. There were tall plants in the corners of the room with good sunlight. The massage table in the middle. Two swivel chairs next to an organized desk. The shelves were filled with labeled herbs and jarred liquids. Sliding glass doors led out to the patio where dozens of small birds ate seed around a fountain.
The landline on his desk rang constantly. Before we settled, he would pick it up, not letting it go to voicemail, and it’d be another client booking a visit or seeking help. I heard him calm two people over the phone that day. Nervous people contacted him the way I used Google. He had a reassuring answer for everything. It seemed like he knew the answers before they even told him their problems. I was skeptical.
“The money you pay me goes to them.” He waved to the birds outside. Once he started to inspect me, he let the voicemail take the calls.
He had dropped a bitter brown liquid onto my tongue. I never asked what it was. He counted up and down in some sort of sacred numerology. Said he was counting my blood cells. Which sounded absurd when he started, but he looked so focused that I went with it. He pulled invisible strings from my ears. Tested my strength by having me squeeze his hands while holding the herbs he thought I needed. He asked deeply personal questions about my family, my childhood and my work. He was making sense of something inside me. More so than I could. Or Yahoo Answers.
It didn’t seem like he was even going after my allergies. He was attacking some serious skeletons in my subconscious.
He said that in order for this to work, I’d have to believe that he could help me. I was game. The allergies had to go.
He prescribed a strict regimen of herbs. And at the end of that first visit, he Heimliched the evil spirits out of my gut.
When I left, there were already more people in the waiting room.
The next day, my allergies were gone and they never came back. I called to thank him and was sure I’d interrupted someone else’s appointment. From that point on I would visit him from time to time. I became one of those people who called his phone for advice. He became a friend. I told everyone, whether I sounded like a cult recruiter or not, that they should try the shaman. Nancy was the first to take me up on it.
So when he later told me that I couldn’t ejaculate for six weeks, I trusted him. He said I was depleted, disappearing.
Nancy was more than supportive. This self-discovery would be great for her. I thought of all the things I could accomplish with 100 percent life force. We began to find myself as soon as we got home.
As I concentrated on controlling myself during sex, my breathing became semi-normal. I didn’t think about it. The sex seemed out of body. Each day got easier. It was almost spiritual, like fasting for Yom Kippur: You tough through it for the big dinner. I slept better.
This must’ve been how monks could stop their heartbeats on command. In that first week, I thought, maybe I’ll never come again.
My life force, as far as I could tell, seemed to be on the up. The shaman had done it again. Although, I hadn’t discovered any of the three things about myself—other than exhibiting some self-control when prescribed by a shaman.
I started to see a new problem. Every day I’d “find” something new about myself, only to replace it with something else the next day. I was a Pez dispenser of cheap meanings.
Another week went by and I started to show signs of weakness. Back in the city were billboards with 30-foot-tall half-naked Nina Agdals and American Apparel models bent over the skyline. Even daytime car commercials seemed erotic. Everything was trying to seduce me.
When you deprive yourself of orgasms you start to realize sex is in the most sterile public places. The checkout aisles at grocery stores are all soft-core. All the photoshopped bikini bodies on magazine covers, smiling at me with their perfect Chiclet-teeth.
I did what any modern human would do. The Internet. I would just watch a little bit of porn. No one would know but me. I’d get the urges out and start over. I wouldn’t tell Nancy. And I definitely wouldn’t tell the shaman.
The Internet felt grimier than usual. It was like driving beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway where all the neon adult video stores still exist. Wondering who keeps them in business even in the age of the Internet? But there I was, in the BQE of the World Wide Web.
Catching your reflection in the computer screen when you’re doing something you shouldn’t is a modern existential crisis. I thought about how disappointed my shaman would be. Nancy, too. Porn would be there forever. Why waste my path to self-discovery like this?
I X’d out the page. The shaman would be proud. Then, out of habit, I signed on to Facebook to distract myself. I scrolled down my feed and knew I had a problem when I mistook the top of a newborn’s head for a naked boob.
“Do you feel like less of a man?” Nancy joked. Maybe so. It was like going vegan. You feel great about it for the first few days, a week if you’re strong, but then you realize you miss cheese too much.
“I wish I could just finish,” I said. Not sure if I meant persisting with the shaman’s treatment. As the days wore on, I started to lose sight of my mission.
I gave up in Week 2. It was pathetic. I told Nancy the same lie I told myself. That maybe I could do it just once. All the way. That I’d be able to start over and show some self-control again afterward. Like a cheat meal.
When it was done, we both felt like we’d cheated on the shaman. He must’ve known that I failed because I never called back. I didn’t have the courage. I was ashamed. It was easier to ignore the three important things. I kept a long list of possibilities, but there was no epiphany. I went on like nothing happened. Nancy tried to root me on. It was over.
A year passed and it bothered me that I’d never reached out to him. I felt like I’d lost a friend, therapist and a healer. I even felt guilty for finally having health insurance, for seeing a normal doctor who spent more time looking at symptom checklists on his computer than at me. I’d still get panic attacks, but I dealt with them. They weren’t killing me, so I figured it was something I’d just have to live with.
If there was one thing Google couldn’t answer, it was those three damn things. I had to hear it from the shaman. Even though I failed, I needed to know. I decided I’d confess to him. The not knowing haunted me.
I still had him on speed dial. I pulled two things off my list that may or may not have been my problem; they all seemed just as true. I’d tell him that I overthought and that I procrastinated. These seemed true, considering.
I stared at his name in my phone, but I couldn’t bring myself to call.
I remembered that I’d never Googled him. Over the years, I began to trust him so much that I’d never considered looking him up. I knew almost nothing about him, even though he knew many of my secrets, fears and anxieties. I wondered if there was a community of his patients online. If there were a Yelp for shamans, I would add my five stars. He cured my allergies and I’d never forget it. I wanted others to know that this was one of the good shamans.
Google does that thing where you’ll be typing in your search and it’ll finish your sentence before you’re done. Like when the shaman would give me answers before I told him my problems. As I began to search him, Google finished my sentence before I could type out his full name. It gave me his obituary.
He died soon after I’d last seen him. Even still, I felt compelled to call his number. No answer, of course.
I rehearsed what I’d say if anyone actually picked up. I’d grieve with them. If they even knew him. I’d ask if his patient files were left behind. Was there a folder in his office with my name on it? Was there a list of three important things about me?
I’ve re-read his obituary multiple times, as if there’d be some clue about me in there.
Nancy said, “At least you know one of the things now—you procrastinate.” This is what I got for putting things off.
I’d have to learn to live with the not knowing. After a while I found a strange comfort in it. Not knowing comes in waves of clarity and chaos.
Sometimes I still call his number. The voicemail is automated now. I wonder if someone else moved in. Are they feeding the birds? I wonder how many other clients try calling, just to see. All of us having nervous conversations with a machine.
When I found out he’d died, I told my mom how he always knew that it was me on the phone, before I even said hello. I heard him do it to other clients, too.
“It could’ve just been caller ID,” she said. “You never know.”
Shane Cashman’s writing has appeared in Word Riot, Inkwell, Juxtapoz and elsewhere. Last month, his “Story of My Hair” won first place in PEN Center USA’s 500 Word Short Story Contest.