In this special BONUS episode, we unveil a brand-new addition to our podcast! To celebrate, we present new versions of classic stories from Story Collider’s directors and discuss how they have evolved since their original telling.
Part 1: As a marine biology student, Liz Neeley loves the order of science, but when a research expedition takes an unexpected turn, she must deal with the messy reality.
You can find the original version of Liz’s story here.
Liz Neeley is the executive director of Story Collider and new cohost of our podcast! She started her career studying the color patterns of tropical fish. (It was in fact even better than her childhood dream of working in a crayon factory.) She surprised herself more than anyone when she left the research path and went into ocean conservation and policy. For the past decade, she has been helping scientists around the world tell more compelling stories about their work. Most recently, she helped commission and edit the 2018 series "Stories from the Front Lines" at PLOS Biology. She is a lecturer at Yale in conjunction with the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @LizNeeley.
Part 2: When Erin Barker is diagnosed with two chronic illnesses, she has to say goodbye to four of her favorite things.
You can find the original version of Erin’s story here.
Erin Barker is the artistic director of Story Collider and cohost of its weekly podcast. As a storyteller, she is the first woman to win The Moth's GrandSLAM storytelling competition twice. She has appeared on PRX's The Moth Radio Hour, and one of her stories was included in The New York Times-bestselling book The Moth: 50 True Stories. Erin has lived with interstitial cystitis and vulvodynia for more than ten years. Read more about her thoughts on storytelling about chronic illness here. Follow her on Twitter @ErinHBarker.
Part 1: Liz Neeley
I love tests. I love them. Exams are my favorite thing. Which is a good thing because, as an American university student, I’m taking five or six classes per semester and each of those has somewhere between three and five exams so it’s almost on a weekly basis that I get to sit down and engage in a fencing match with my instructors.
I like to actually cover the answers to multiple choice questions so that you can read the question I know the answer. And then I imagine how I would write this test if I was trying to manipulate my students and then uncover them. It’s this game of like, “Oh, come on, Dr. Infantino. This is child’s play.” Or like, “Well done, Higgins. You almost got me, but not today. Not today.”
The thing was I didn’t just want to have the flawless multiple choice answers. I took great pride in drawing diagrams and illustrations that just tugged at the heartstrings. They were so beautiful and perfect. And this is a good thing because I would tear through these exams really rapidly and I wanted to impress my instructors, but my classmates not so much. I didn’t want them to know how much fun I was having with these exams, because I saw them as my competition at best.
Also, I was already not very popular. In case you can’t tell, I was a peach. But as I progressed through biology classes in undergraduate, things started to get more difficult. Instead of having my lovely little multiple choice exams, it would be something like a pile of sticks and twigs and weeds dumped in front of you and then your job was to identify those to species. The hard thing was that, in real life, those leaves and weeds rarely look exactly like the diagram you have so faithfully memorized so I sort of gritted my teeth.
And as I was working in a research lab on oysters as well, this same problem was plaguing me. In theory, my job was to catalog every bryozoan and polychaete worm and mussel, everything that grew on oyster reefs. In reality, what would happen is I would get these big chunks of oysters dredged off the bottom and then I would sit for hours over a tray, over stinking, noxious mud trying to pick apart and identify this gray, dead thing from that gray, dead thing. And my desire for order and beauty and perfection was really bumping up against science.
But for me, the big hurdle when you want to become a marine biologist, it’s not just the stuff that’s happening in the lab, the lab work and the exams that lead to the lab work, but the big test is the field work. So as our field work came up for my classes, I was getting more and more excited.
So there was one weekend where we all piled into a van with all of our waders and our gear and we took off across the Chesapeake Bay to the eastern shore of Maryland for a research cruise. As we pull up in front of this old, rambling, two-story, broken down house feeling great, we unpack all of our gear and then bottles start coming out. And this is okay because I’m ready for this as well.
Now, in the United States, for those of us who are rule followers, you're not allowed to drink until you're 21 but I knew that alcohol was an important part of marine biology and so I had to approach this like I approached everything else, with my lab notebook. I had meticulous student notes, like Kahlua, yes. Tequila, no. Blue Curacao, why blue? So I had cataloged my alcohol intake and I knew I was ready for this side of things as well.
I was not ready to watch this professor, who I hadn’t worked with before, finish off first one bottle of tequila and then the second and then start sloshing the third. As I watched his face get redder and redder and start to turn that hideous shade of purple that you know is bad news, he's getting louder and I’m getting quieter because if I know anything is that drunk men like that are dangerous and I don’t want to attract his attention.
So I stop drinking and he's starting to gesture and walk around the room and talk to people and then his bleary gaze locks on me. And he starts telling this incoherent ghost story about this old ghost who haunts the house. This old ghost loves curvaceous women and he really loves breasts, this old ghost. And this old ghost just happens to haunt the bedroom where I’m supposed to be staying and, don’t you know, this old ghost loves brunettes.
Now, I don't know for sure if he's talking about himself but I know he's talking about me and I’m done. I just stand up and leave and think I will take this situation into my own hands. So I go grab the mattress off the bed in the room I’m supposed to be staying in, drag it downstairs into the living room, sort of front and center, and I go to bed thinking problem solved. I’m back in control again.
So I fall asleep feeling quite confident and looking forward to the day tomorrow. Until I’m woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of somebody stumbling into the doorway. One minute I’m squinting with one eye at this silhouette as he's jangling coins and keys, and in the next moment I’m already starting to move because I hear his pants hit the floor.
I commando roll off my mattress and I grab the girl next to me and I just say, “Go, go, go, go, go,” and we run out a side door. But not before we can hear the unmistakable sound of him urinating. He's peeing all over himself, the floor, our stuff and our bed.
Now, for me, I’m disgusted and also angry but I’m trying to play it cool because these classmates who I’m in competition with, I’m also trying to impress. I know that being a scientist means handling whatever situation might come your way. I think I would have talked myself to just going back to bed if he hadn’t been snoring face down on my mattress. And so I think I'll look for the other instructor, the co-instructor who’s a graduate student. I'll find him and he’ll help me sort all of this out and figure out what we’re going to do, and I accidentally walk in on him having sex with one of the other students in my class.
It’s 3:00 in the morning on the eastern shore of Maryland and I go outside. I feel so alone and angry and embarrassed and uncertain. For lack of any better alternative, I make my way to the kitchen, I think as we all do in times of hardship, and I’m happy to see there there are four or five other students who were awake and sober who had witnessed bits and pieces of this night gone so terribly wrong. We sort of formed a little band and come up with a plan, which is an excellent one because it involves pancakes.
And searching for the syrup and mixing and baking it’s a welcome distraction. At this point it’s maybe 4:00 in the morning so we think, ah, we’ll go outside. We will take a night hike. We’ll look at the stars and name the constellations and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do. And what we decide is that we are indeed going to get on that boat, this is the research cruise that we’d come all this way for, regardless of what our professor may or may not be able to do.
So we make our way back and when even a cowbell rung immediately over his head fails to rouse him at all, we roll him onto his side into the recovery position hoping that he won’t aspirate and choke and die on his own vomit. I’m standing there looking down at him and I’m thinking what is this gray, stinking thing in front of me that I’m supposed to identify? Is this a scientist? Is this what this is all about? I don't know.
So while he's the one covered in vomit, I’m certainly feeling nauseated in a nice change of situation. Getting on the boat actually helped that situation quite a lot.
So we spent all day on the Chesapeake Bay and I’m looking at seagulls and sea grass and I’m starting to realize I do know these animals, these species. I know where to look for them, how to identify them, what they do, what they're like. I recognize them. They're like friends. There's the little blenny that’s got this Mohawk. It’s always angry. Chasmodes bosquianus. There's the Mytilus edulis, the mussel. There's the blue crab whose name Callinectes sapidus means beautiful swimmer. And these species become like a litany to me. The genus and species are soothing.
And at the end of the day, as we’re starting to motor back making our way over the waves home, I’m reflecting. I’m thinking about all that’s happened to me on very little sleep. I realize biology may not be about being perfect and being really good at exams. In any case, if this was a test, I wasn’t the one who failed it.
I think maybe biology is about realizing that the way you do it is you shake off a bad night, you grab your colleagues and collaborators and you go get on the damn boat and make sense of whatever happens to fall in front of you. Thank you.
Part 2: Erin Barker
When I was in my early 20s, I was diagnosed with two very painful conditions: interstitial cystitis and vulvodynia, that affect this area, the lady parts I think is the scientific term.
So my doctor brought me into his office and he told me that because the medication that treats these conditions takes so long to work, usually years, sometimes never, that I was going to have to go a very long time, possibly forever, without four very important things. Those four things, tragically, are:
Alcohol. That’s one.
Caffeine. That one hurts.
Pants. That’s a weird one.
And the fourth one — this is the really big one, everybody — sex.
To which I of course responded, “Oh, just those four things? Just the four things that make life vaguely livable? Cool.” So I was really upset about this.
I’m leaving his office with this prescription for this medication that may or may not work and he slips me these two business cards. One of them is for a vaginal physical therapist, which is too weird for me to even think about in that moment, and the second one is for a vaginal surgeon which is, like, a nightmare to me, the idea of having surgery there.
I just leave his office feeling so overwhelmed and upset and, honestly, frustrated. Like, what is the deal, medical science? We can put a man on the moon but we haven't uncovered the mysteries of the human vagina yet? Let’s start here on the ground.
So I did what every New Yorker has done at some point: I cry on the subway all the way home in public. And it’s New York so no one talks to me. And I’m really devastated because, if I’m honest, I really don't think that my boyfriend of three years, Justin, is going to stick around for all of this. He's really supportive but who really wants to sign up for an indefinitely sexless relationship? Not a lot of people.
Even really good people. Even people who have seen every Jason Statham movie ever made with you or bake you a Funfetti cake every year for your birthday, or clean you up after you shit your pants and barfed over a Kroger’s grocery store. All of which may or may not be things that Justin had done for me over the course of our relationship.
And it felt like every time I turned on the TV or I opened up a magazine, I was just bombarded by messages that if your relationship doesn’t have sex, it’s not good. It’s not real. It’s not healthy. And I couldn’t help but think, Is Justin thinking the same things?
My doctor would always try to cheer me up after all of our appointments by giving me some encouraging advice, but it always just ended up depressing me more. There's really nothing like having a 60-year-old gynecologist remind you that heavy petting and oral sex play can be just as enjoyable as vaginal penetration. Thank you so much, doc. Also, no. No.
Even aside from that, I felt like I was losing part of my identity because I am a blue-jeans-and-beer type of girl. I’m not a skirts-and-chamomile-tea type of girl.
I tried really hard to hold onto my old habits for as long as I could. When we went out, I would still order a beer. I would just spit it back into the bottle instead of swallowing it, which it turns out is kind of a turn-off for some people. Who knew?
And I kept wearing pants to work but when it got too painful I would undo them under my desk. As long as I remembered, everything was fine. Except of course, inevitably, one day I did not and I ended up in the hallway face to face with my boss’s boss with my pants hanging wide open. My favorite part of that incident is that I never explained myself. I just let that one lie.
There were times when I felt like maybe I should explain to my co-workers what was going on with me, but I just couldn’t picture myself going through that explanation. Like, “You see, Carl, my bladder doesn’t produce lining on its own anymore and the inflammation irritates my vagina.” It just doesn’t feel like a professional conversation.
After this, though, after the pants incident, I decided maybe try dresses. Maybe it’s for the best. So I went to work one day in a dress that my mom bought for me, one of two dresses probably that I owned at the time, and I just felt really uncomfortable all day. I couldn’t be myself, like I was pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t. And I left work at the end of the day just feeling so bummed out, like I was doomed to be this lady that I wasn’t, forever.
I’m walking to the subway and I walk by this guy and he goes, “Hey, where are you going?”
I’m in such a bad mood from this day that in this moment when I would normally just keep walking or laugh, I glare at him and I go, “Fuck you,” and I storm off.
But then he comes after me and I’m like, Oh, God. What’s happening? I thought I had brought closure to this exchange.
But he stops me and he goes, “Erin, it’s Dan from class. I didn’t mean to freak you out.”
It was my friend Dan. He had gotten a haircut and I didn’t recognize him. I thought he was saying, “Hey, where are you going,” but he's actually just saying, “Hey, where are you going?”
At this point, it became clear that I was on a downward mental spiral. I was hallucinating street harassment, which was a serious problem, so I decided it was time to start telling people about my condition and what I was going through.
They were surprisingly supportive. My boss even let me start working from home part time, which was really helpful. And I took out one of those business cards that the doctor had given me. I still wasn’t ready to think about vaginal surgery, but I started doing vaginal physical therapy.
It was just as weird as I thought it was going to be. You should try it sometime — having a casual chat about the latest Matt Damon movie with someone whose entire hand is inside your vagina. I can’t say I recommend it.
But I certainly made a lot of progress. Between that and the medication, I started being able to have a cup of coffee every now and then or glass of wine. I started being able to wear pants. Do I amaze you?
But at a certain point, I hit a plateau and I stopped making any more progress. At this point it had been two years and I still hadn’t gotten to that fourth thing. Sex still was not a possibility.
So I broke down and I told Justin, “I understand if you want out. You deserve to be with a normal person. You're in your 20s.”
And he looked at me and he said, “Erin, I love you. We've been together for years. Do you really think that I’m going to leave now just because things aren’t easy?”
For the first time in two years, I realized how lucky I actually was.
But if I’m really honest, there was a part of me that didn’t believe him, that thought, eventually, he would get sick of it, especially when two years turned into three years, turned into four years.
Until one day in 2013, in front of all of our friends and family, when he got down on one knee and proposed to me. I thought, Wow. How real must this be if despite everything he is willing to commit to me for the rest of his life?
So I decided to match his sacrifice with a sacrifice of my own. I took out that card for the vaginal surgeon and I made an appointment. I went in and I filled out the intake form. They had that section where you had to rank your pain on a scale from one to ten, and I circled all tens because I wanted them to know I was serious.
He examined me and he told me that I was not a candidate for vaginal surgery. My heart sank because this was the very last thing that I could think of to do. There was nothing else.
But then he told me that I was a candidate for a new experimental procedure and that is how I ended up paying $5,000 to have a great deal of Botox injected into my vagina. That’s right. My vagina is very wrinkle free. It’s like Billy Crystal’s face down there. Sorry, Mom.
But here’s the amazing thing. It worked. Thanks to the magical powers of Botox, I have a fully functional vagina. In fact, and I don't mean to brag or anything, it functions on a pretty regular basis. Thank you very much.
And so even though I would never want to go through any of this again, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I hope that medical science catches up and uncovers the mysteries of the human vagina sometime soon. I still can’t help but think that in some ways it’s a blessing to know that the person that I have now been married to for five years truly loves me unconditionally. Thank you.