I was a 9-year-old lesbian ... or so I thought

My mom scared me to death when I said I might be gay.

Published March 24, 2006 11:57AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

When I was 9, I saw a movie where one of the characters was gay and had a horrible life. The next morning I told my mom that I thought I might be gay. What I remember happening next, while probably not 100 percent accurate, is this: She started crying, hugging me, and kept me home from school that day. She asked me if I had been molested (I hadn't been). I saw a therapist who asked questions like "Why do you think you're gay" and "Do you feel uncomfortable in the gym locker room?" The therapist also asked me to look at some pictures, and I refused, terrified to do so in case my reaction to them proved if I was gay or not. These appointments ended abruptly after a few visits.

After that I couldn't sleep in a room alone for some time and started thinking about suicide. I was not a happy gal. At 10 or 11 years old I decided that, if by 14, I was still worried about being gay, then I probably was. I started developing some strange habits -- if I was walking and had thoughts about being gay, I would have to "erase" them by walking backward, starting again, and thinking about something else. Twenty-two years later, this continues to some degree, although now I have a system, complete with acronyms and lists, to fend off any thoughts I consider "bad." I also repeat these words to myself in stressful or unhappy times; often, my first thoughts when I wake up are occupied with these crazy lists. I'm so used to it now I sometimes forget that it's not what most people do.

So life continued, things got better and this whole theme started to fade and merge with typical teenage stuff. My 14th birthday came and went uneventfully; by this time I was already dating boys.

I've often heard that if you are gay, you know at an early age. But at 9 years old, how can you know such a thing? I was always really affected by TV and movies -- I once thought my parents might give me away because it happened to a girl on TV. How do I know it wasn't just the movie that put the idea in my head? Or what if my mom, or anyone at all, had just said, well if you are a lesbian it's fine, it's no big deal? I'm worried that even if I were gay, I would never accept it because for me it's always been equated with misery.

My boyfriend and I recently split and I've never been with a woman. With some exceptions, I'm mostly attracted to men and enjoy sex, but enjoy it a lot more if I imagine being degraded or devalued. That fact alone is disturbing, and I'm not sure if it's connected to the whole gay thing or something else entirely.

I do wonder if the OCD, problems in romantic relationships, and general anxiety stem from the experiences I had when I was 9. However, I don't fancy spending years in therapy delving into past events and looking for answers to why things are how they are now. I have a strong aversion to therapy and am egoistic enough to think that it won't help me. I also fear that therapy would open up a Pandora's box of disaster. How could magnifying a problem and analyzing it to the death improve anything? At the same time, I would love to find a way to be in a happy relationship and wake up without lists in my head.

Do you have any suggestions?

List Maker

Dear List Maker,

As you probably know, I often suggest psychotherapy, and I would do so in this case. It seems to work for me and other people I know. Like you, I also thought that it might open some Pandora's box of issues and memories that were upsetting and embarrassing that I wouldn't want to deal with. I thought the therapist was going to take the lid off and monsters were going to pop out.

But that isn't what has happened. In fact, my complaint about therapy is not that it is too scary and strenuous but that at times it's not dramatic enough. But what I am beginning to see about the lack of drama is that my psychotherapy is, for good reason, a slow and gentle process.

Especially since your situation involves more than just the problems of adjusting or learning to alter your behavior, I particularly think that seeing a trained specialist is the way to go. I offer people general advice about how to think about their problems in new ways. But I cannot offer you any help about what to do about your obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's not the sort of thing you can just figure out and fix on your own.

So I suggest you talk to some psychotherapists or psychiatrists about the OCD. See what you can do about getting some help. Tell them about your concerns as well -- that you don't want to get into dredging up a lot of old, scary things. Knowing that may help them figure out how best to be of help to you.

So I hope you will do that. Let me know how it goes.

And I've got to say this too. Your letter points up something that I hope lots of people notice. Whether what happened when you were 9 had any direct effect on the OCD you later developed, it sure does indicate how important it is for parents and teachers to learn to handle issues of sexual identity appropriately. It shows how early such ideas can take root in young people, and how important it is to respond to children in ways that are supportive and don't utterly freak them out for the rest of their lives.

As you suggest, it probably would have been a whole lot better if your mom had just said, "Well, if you are a lesbian it's fine, it's no big deal," perhaps adding, "And if you ever want to talk about anything at all, you know I'm always happy to hear what you are feeling and thinking."

Maybe some mom out there, hearing how this incident affected you, will take this to heart in raising her own daughter.

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