Updated: Aug 17
By Sandra Smithey
At 14 years old, my son was bottled up inside himself and wouldn’t talk to me, so I begged him to write down whatever was bothering him. He went to his room and a couple hours later walked by me, tossing a folded, tear-stained piece of notebook paper in my lap before disappearing to his room again. As I read the note, my heart broke. He felt completely alone and outside every circle that should have been a welcoming, safe place for him. The last line on the two-page note confirmed what his father and I had suspected for many years. He wrote, “Oh, and you might as well know. I’m gay and I don’t want to talk about it, so please don’t try.”
Numb, I handed the note to my husband. While he read, I flipped open my laptop and tearfully crafted an email to M – just 20 feet away from me – letting him know that we had known that he was gay for many years and it changed nothing. We loved and accepted him exactly how he was and we always would. I glanced at my husband – my oil-field mechanic, burly, country boy with grease-stained hands husband – and he was in tears. Not because of our son’s admission, but because he—like me—felt a deep sense of sadness that our boy hadn’t felt comfortable talking to us….mixed with relief that we could all begin to move forward with our new reality.
Where other parents may have seen that note as a cause for mourning, my husband and I celebrated. Our son had always been very tender-hearted, and while we suspected he was gay, we were terrified that if we asked him about it and we were wrong, it might devastate him. His coming out was our opportunity to begin anew, supporting and celebrating him, showing that our love was unconditional, with no pretense.
His admission did not come with a gleeful unicorn, farting rainbows and glitter all over our home! In fact, storm clouds were on the horizon. He did not want us to tell anyone because he was afraid they would reject him. And he still didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted to just go on, pretending nothing had changed. We honored his wishes; after all, it was not our news to share. While we were relieved to learn that he was making more friends and finding acceptance at school in the Theater department, we still hoped that he could become comfortable being himself with us, his parents.
At 15, he met a young man and they started talking. I was not comfortable letting my 15-year-old date, but that had nothing to do with his orientation. My older son had not been allowed to date until he was 16, and my younger girls will be 16 before they are allowed to date. Since neither my son nor his new friend could drive, we would pick up the other boy on weekends to run errands with us. It gave the two an opportunity to spend time together in a safe setting, and M became more comfortable around us when faced with the assurance that we accepted him, through our words as well as our actions.
Just as we thought things were going well, the storm clouds broke open. M came to me one evening and said he thought he was depressed. I was concerned and told him I would look into our Employee Assistance Program at work and set up an appointment for him. At work the next morning, I contacted our EAP and was given several practices to contact.
Preparing for a work meeting shortly thereafter, I was exasperated when my office phone rang, so I let it go to voicemail. Almost immediately, my cell phone began ringing. Though I didn’t recognize the number, I answered the call. It was M’s high school counselor, telling me that he was in her office, had admitted he was suicidal, and needed to be picked up immediately. I hurriedly told my boss, gathered my things, and handed off a priority assignment. The high school counselor called again to make sure I was coming because M couldn’t be left alone.
It took a couple of days to get an appointment with a counselor, so I worked from home to be with M during his crisis. My husband and I locked the guns in the safe behind our locked bedroom door. We secured all the medicine—prescription and over-the-counter. We hid the knives, the alcohol, our car keys. We barely slept.
Finally, the day of the appointment arrived. The counselor, a soft-spoken young man with a gentle nature, welcomed us, asked me what was going on, and spoke with M alone. After no more than 15 minutes, I was called into the room and told that I needed to take M to the closest psychiatric hospital for an evaluation because the counselor was genuinely concerned for M’s wellbeing.
When we arrived at the hospital, they made me leave my purse in a locker along with our phones, shoe strings, and belts. S**t was getting REAL, but I felt certain this was an overabundance of caution…until the intake nurse came into the room, telling me that she recommended M be hospitalized immediately, and if I were to leave with him against medical advice, they were legally required to report it to Child Protective Services. Signing those papers while my son cried and begged me not to leave him there shattered my heart and my illusion that everything was okay. I was committed to supporting my son, and that love had taken an unexpected form.
After two weeks of in-patient care, he transitioned to an intensive out-patient program that involved daily sessions – two weekly sessions for the families and three for the patients themselves. Some of the daily sessions were conducted in a group setting and some were one-on-one with a counselor. My husband and I were at every single session for families. M saw his original counselor once a week and a psychiatrist every other week. Our young daughters didn’t understand why their big brother was in the hospital and why they couldn’t go visit him. My parents queried, “What has he got to be depressed about?”
While my employer, the largest healthcare company in the US, offered paid FML (Family and Medical Leave), they were less than understanding of the reality of our crisis. In spite of my having continued to manage and run several employee events outside of regular work hours, my director told me, “Everyone has problems; not everyone brings them to work.”
That was my breaking point. I started sobbing and left to go see my OBGYN, the doctor who had treated me for 16 years and knew me best. She started the paperwork for FML leave and between her and my family doctor, the paperwork was filed quickly and correctly, allowing me to continue supporting my son while I had a complete nervous breakdown. Our family was chest-deep in crisis when I was laid off weeks later. Thankfully I received severance and continued insurance coverage for a few months.
My husband became the sole breadwinner and stepped up to keep our household running. If I wasn’t taking M or myself to an appointment or session, I was in bed – listless, lethargic, and swaddled in depression. My parents pitched in with our younger children where my husband physically (and I mentally) couldn’t. As time passed and our actions repeatedly demonstrated that we loved and supported M, he and I bonded and helped each other heal. His needing me in a way that none of my other children ever have and my being able to focus on his needs and mine allowed us to grow and learn together.
After graduating high school, M found his passion, and is currently completing the cosmetology program at the local community college. He is comfortable in his own skin, shares his story broadly, and proudly participates in Houston Pride events. We have been blessed with an amazing village of straight and gay families who surround us with love and support. While my parents still don’t know of our son’s orientation, M is okay with where he is now, socially, physically, emotionally. He no longer hides who he is from the world. He is a funny, loving, accepting, intelligent, purple-haired representative of the LGBTQ community, and we are his fiercest allies, learning and growing with him every day.