'My son was never trans – instead he had severe OCD', a mother revealsFebruary 18, 2023
‘My son was never trans – instead he had severe OCD’: Mother reveals she was ‘let down’ by those who were meant to help during her son’s harrowing experience with the Tavistock clinic
- The referral of children for puberty-blockers wasn’t the only thing troubling staff
- Her son was subjected to vile homophobic slurs, called ‘gay filth’, and ‘paedo’
The referral of children for puberty-blockers wasn’t the only thing that troubled some staff at the Tavistock. They were also concerned that sometimes assessments, if completed too quickly, would overlook other factors that might be causing distress for these children.
An audit published in 2002 of the first 124 patients to be seen by the service showed that only 2.5 per cent of those referred had no associated problems.
At that time, a quarter had spent time in care, nearly half had lost one or both parents through bereavement or separation (predominantly the latter), and close to a quarter of those aged over 12 had histories of self-harming and ‘inappropriately sexualised behaviour’.
We don’t know how the thousands of young people referred more recently compare. In the Netherlands, the pioneers of the medical treatment of gender difficulties, young people have to have experienced it from childhood, and, crucially, be psychologically stable, with no other major mental health problems.
GIDS (Gender Identity Development Service) — according to almost every clinician I have spoken to — was referring young people for puberty-blockers who simply did not meet those conditions.
An audit published in 2002 of the first 124 patients to be seen by the service showed that only 2.5 per cent of those referred had no associated problems
It’s a significant trip from Diana’s home on the south coast of England to the Tavistock in North London. Alex couldn’t touch anything without getting in the shower, says Diana, and yet here he was attempting to embark on a long journey across the country on crowded trains as a practice run
And it didn’t rule out assessing people for whom it was clear gender issues were secondary — as in the case of Alex.
The teenager came home from school one afternoon in October 2013, same as he always did, but when his mother Diana asked him to pick something up from the floor, he said, ‘I can’t, I’m covered in germs.’
It didn’t make much sense. He had been showering each day but Diana just thought she’d been blessed with a teenage boy with good hygiene habits. His sister hadn’t thought anything was out of the ordinary either. Neither realised that the showering was part of worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). ‘He felt he was contaminated,’ she says.
She made an appointment for him to see their local doctor but he didn’t go. He couldn’t get out of the shower. At 6 ft 3 in and wearing size 14 trainers, the 15-year-old Alex was a ‘gentle giant’, Diana says. He wasn’t effeminate, but had always preferred female company and didn’t like football. He had come out as gay a couple of years earlier and was proud of it.
But after he told another boy at school he had feelings for him, he was subjected to vile homophobic slurs, called ‘gay filth’, and ‘paedo’. Some parents didn’t want him associating with their kids.
Pretty soon, Alex’s OCD meant he could barely leave the house. Then one day, as Diana tried to get him up and out of bed, he yelled at her: ‘You don’t understand! I’m transgender. You’ve misgendered me since I was born.’ He then accused her of being transphobic.
Diana didn’t know what he meant. She hadn’t really heard the word ‘transgender’. ‘I was in shock. And I just said, “You’re not very well,” because he wasn’t. Alex had been having counselling sessions with the local adolescent mental health team and he’d told them he was trans.
‘I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: that he needed to go on hormones, that he was born in the wrong body. I felt like a juggernaut had hit me.’
A referral had been made to GIDS but there was an 18-week wait to be seen and during this period, Alex was suicidal, threatening to stab himself in the jugular. There was talk of him being sectioned. Alex was now housebound and not attending school, his OCD so severe he could not tolerate the outside world.
‘I had to put a plastic sheet on the floor to walk into his bedroom,’ Diana says. ‘He was showering five times a day. He developed severe IBS [irritable bowel syndrome].’
And all the while, the mental health team were treating him as a woman and saying all this would be cured when he went to the Tavistock. Their focus was not on how they might help Alex’s mental health problems, but rather on getting him to his first GIDS appointment.
It’s a significant trip from Diana’s home on the south coast of England to the Tavistock in North London. Alex couldn’t touch anything without getting in the shower, says Diana, and yet here he was attempting to embark on a long journey across the country on crowded trains as a practice run.
She made an appointment for him to see their local doctor but he didn’t go. He couldn’t get out of the shower. At 6 ft 3 in and wearing size 14 trainers, the 15-year-old Alex was a ‘gentle giant’, Diana says
Aware of how daunting this might be for a young man who was unable to leave his house, a psychiatrist prescribed him an anti-psychotic drug to self-administer if he felt ‘panicky’ while in London. Diana was surprised that a mental health professional could think this was a sensible plan.
The trip was a disaster. Alex managed to get home, where he passed out. While he was asleep, a distraught Diana looked at his phone and found he was using the blogging and social media website Tumblr. He was connected to hundreds of other young people, all of whom identified as trans. And, Diana says, he was being groomed by an older user who told her son that everything would be fine once he had had all his surgeries.
Alex was too ill to travel to his first GIDS appointment. Diana thought this might be taken as an indication that he was too unwell to be considering transitioning. But a senior GIDS clinician said they would come to him instead.
And that’s what happened, despite Diana telephoning the Tavistock and saying it was ‘insane’.
The appointment was held at the local mental health clinic, where Diana claims the clinician welcomed her son with the words ‘many transgender people go on to live full and happy lives’.
‘That just set the tone,’ she says. The offer of a meeting at some stage with an endocrinologist was immediately held out.
Diana struggles to understand how any stretched NHS service would send a senior clinician several hours across the country to meet someone with mental health problems so severe that he could not leave home, and yet still raise the possibility of physical transition — arguably the most invasive option — as a way forward.
Meanwhile, no one was dealing with Alex’s OCD, which was getting worse. Diana was furious. This was a boy who wanted to cut his penis off, she says, who saw things crawling up the walls. She believed this could not be explained by saying he was trans. Her son needed counselling and proper help for his OCD.
And so she acted, opting out of the treatment path the NHS was offering and sending him to a private counsellor instead.
Two years later — and three years after saying he was trans — Alex told Diana ‘he was through with gender’.
Diana had never been against transition per se; she just thought it wasn’t safe to consider it while Alex was so unwell. The fact that he now ‘desisted’ — stopping identifying as trans before starting a medical transition — has, in her eyes, shown that ‘he didn’t need anything other than time’.
All along, she had believed her son’s behaviour was a reaction against being bullied for being gay. Diana believes Alex’s identifying as a woman was ‘an escape mechanism’, a ‘maladjusted reaction to being told your innate personality is that of a paedophile’.
Alex is now in his mid-twenties. He is a gay man, with a boyfriend. He still has severe mental health difficulties but is secure being male.
Diana feels desperately let down by those who were meant to help. She is a mother who loves her son, and desperately wants him to be happy and healthy. She makes one thing clear: ‘I’m not anti-trans. I’m pro my son. I’m pro-health. And trans was the most unhealthy thing for him to be.’
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