Op-ed: When Being Pee-Shy Is Actually a Cry For Help
BY Frank Spinelli, M D
January 22 2014 5:15 AM ET
Author's note: In 2008, I became a published author with my book The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness. It was this singular event that set off a chain reaction that led me to track down the scoutmaster who molested me in 1978. Pee-Shy: A Memoir recounts the five-year journey that took place once I located my former child molester and the shocking revelation I uncovered that compelled me to take action. But at its heart, Pee-Shy is about finding love, mending family ties and freeing myself from a crippling fear of public urination.
I made multiple attempts throughout my life to use a urinal. Each time I walked up to one, I felt overcome with a peculiar sense of the unknown, as if I’d never seen one before or knew how it worked. Suddenly, I felt as though I was in a school play and had forgotten my lines. Then, I became extremely anxious and imagined everyone was looking at me. In my delusion, stares drilled holes into the back of my skull. I tried to temper my breathing to avoid hyperventilation. I concentrated on the cold tile before me or let my gaze follow the sweaty pipe as it disappeared into the wall.
Positioning myself in a tall stance, one trembling hand on the lever and the other practically choking my member, which I had pulled out through my zipper, I waited, idled, hoped, prayed, and then rationalized when nothing happened. Maybe a flush would trigger a response? I practiced this once, then twice, hoping that that it would provoke a reaction. When it didn’t, I felt a twang of terror, and I hung my head in shame, staring pathetically at the marble tile under my feet.
I could have counted on two hands how many times I’d successfully peed in public. The majority of those times occurred when I was inebriated: I was once so intoxicated at a nightclub that I pushed my way into the restroom, and noting a long line for the stalls, fearlessly walked right up to an empty urinal. Even with countless strange men standing there along side me, I urinated effortlessly— and triumphantly. Most times, however, I was left to mimic urination by standing dumbly until two or three men had come and gone. Humiliated, I’d make a show of flushing and then walk over to the sink to rinse my hands — only to return moments later for a go in the stalls.
In childhood, this manifested itself initially as bed-wetting. I was 11 when it began. The same year I met Bill. My mother should have been furious with me when she discovered the urine-soaked sheets stuffed into the back of my closet. I was foolish: The stench of urine permeated the bedroom. My mattress was drenched, and even my Evel Knievel comforter hadn’t been spared. Instead of going on one of her usual rampages, my mother quietly opened all the windows, washed the sheets, and carried on as if the entire incident had never happened. My bed, stripped down to the mattress, bore the only remaining piece of evidence — a yellow stain. My accident was covered up instead with a fresh set of linens and a spare down comforter.
Two weeks later, it happened again. When I awoke in my own urine that morning, I decided not to hide the sheets. Instead, I lay in my own wet, punishing myself. This time my mother confronted me. I was sitting at my desk, studying for a social studies exam. Standing in the doorway, she said, “Is there something wrong?”
“No,” I whispered, staring down at my book.
“I thought I was done with babies. Only babies wet themselves. You’re supposed to grow up, not down.” I listened, tapping my pencil on my desk. “You sure there’s nothing you want to tell me, Frank?”
Of course, my young brain couldn’t comprehend that I had begun to wet the bed as a way to tell my parents that Bill was molesting me. Worse still, no one in my family thought that this sudden profusion of bed-wetting was a sign that something was wrong with me. The next evening, I even heard my mother arguing with my father about it. She blamed it on him, mentioning that it ran on his side of the family. Even my two sisters understood what was going on, and it became a family secret always referred to as “Frank’s problem.”
By 14, I stopped wetting the bed for good, but then something happened in my freshman year at Xaverian High School, an all-boys Jesuit preparatory school in Brooklyn. It was November 1981, and I was in my first period Italian History class. My teacher, Mr. Sansone, had just begun lecturing when I felt the sudden urge to urinate. I tried to hold it in, but there was no use in pretending that I could wait until the end of class. Initially Mr. Sansone refused my request for a lavatory pass, but after watching me squirm nervously for several minutes, he finally gave in. I hurried down the empty hall, holding my groin and praying I wouldn’t leak.
Inside the powder-blue restroom, I quickly unbuttoned my pants, unhooked my belt, pulled my aching penis over my white Fruit of the Loom underwear, and waited. Luckily, the lavatory was deserted and peaceful, with a faint smell of chlorine in the air. The window must have been open because it was very cool. Standing at the urinal, staring at my penis, I sighed heavily, waiting for the urine to flow. But nothing came.
Suddenly, a tangy scent filled my nostrils. Then I heard a hiccup echo from the nearby stall, followed by a relentless dry hacking cough. A thick veil of smoke wafted over the stall and clouded me in that pungent scent. Someone was smoking pot. Footsteps clicked on the tile behind me. I turned my head around to look over my shoulder and saw Vincent Consalvo standing there, eyelids heavy, a sardonic grin and two long plumes of thick white smoke flowing out of his nostrils.
“Spinelli,” he said. “What the fuck are you doing in here?”
Consalvo was a tall, dark-haired senior, who looked as if he’d never exercised a day in his life but was naturally skinny. For some odd reason — probably genetics — he was thick around the middle, so his body looked misshapen.
“Answer me,” he said now. I ignored him while I stared down at my penis, willing it to function. Consalvo had paralyzed me. There was a pause, during which I felt his presence looming behind me. “You’re not thinking about telling anyone are you?” he whispered in my right ear. I glanced over. His dark brown eyes scanned my face. I wondered whether he could see how stunned I was. I held still and let Consalvo look.
“No,” I blurted out. “I swear on a stack of Bibles.”
“Then get lost.”
“I—I will,” I stuttered. “Just let me finish.”
“Finish then,” he said. The acrid smell of his dragon breath caused my stomach to churn.
“I really need to pee,” I begged. “Please, just leave me alone, and I promise I won’t say anything to anyone.”
“No way,” he said pointing his long, bony finger at my nose. “Pee right now with me standing here.”
“Why not?” he shouted. “Are you some kind of fag or something?”
I turned to run away, but Consalvo grabbed me by the back of the neck. The next thing I felt was a warm rush of wetness run down my leg. I froze, allowing Consalvo to discover what had happened. Then I heard a high-pitched cackle. As Consalvo’s grip loosened on my neck, I ran out the lavatory. In the distance, I heard the wheeze of the pneumatic door closing behind me. Faster, I headed down the hall toward my locker so I could get my coat and escape. My wet pant leg slapped against my cold thigh as the sound of Consalvo’s laughter followed me home, and after that I was left unable to use a public urinal ever again.
It wasn’t until I began therapy with Olga that I learned sexually abused children often start wetting the bed again as a call for help. Even though the bed-wetting stopped on its own when I became a teenager, I became profoundly pee shy (in medical terms, paruretic).
Paruretic for nearly three quarters of my life, I’ve become something of an expert in the field. It affects the urinary systems of nearly 17 million adults, many of whom were molested as children. Typically, paruretics are unable to urinate in public places. As an adult, I was resigned to the fact that I could not use a public urinal. Even in the confines of a public stall, there was always the possibility that my bladder might hold me hostage, negotiating with my brain to relax so that I could simply pee.
The morning after Paul and Luke visited my office and told me about Father Roberts, I couldn’t even urinate at home. Was this handicap no longer just a part of me I could conceal by ducking into a vaultlike stall when I was in public? Something beyond my control was giving strength to my affliction. I worried that in time it would take over. Standing over my toilet, I stared helplessly into the medicine cabinet mirror. In that instant, I saw myself in the future being forced to wear a catheter or, even worse, bound to a dialysis machine for the rest of my life.