Puberty is difficult enough. Imagine going through it when you’re nine.
“Never underestimate the power of testosterone,” the endocrinologist told us. His tone was grave, no longer the there’s-nothing-to-worry-about jocularity he’d had when Alex was in the room, laughing and making jokes about successful short men. Now came the warnings, told in the prophesying gloom of a medical oracle. The pediatric specialist left and returned quickly with two chairs that he placed beside the examination table. We sat, my husband and I, the parents of the boy who exhibited symptoms of age beyond his years.
The doctor leaned against the counter. He was Michael J. Fox-short, confident despite his stature. He paused to look me straight in the eye, as if I would doubt his words unless he stared very firmly at me. “Do not, under any circumstances, ever leave your son alone with a girl,” he said, writing on his clipboard as he talked. “There could be serious consequences. A big complicated embarrassing mess that could affect his whole life. And yours. He can get a girl pregnant. He will not hesitate if given the opportunity.”
I laughed. Had he just said that my 9-year-old boy could get a girl pregnant? It was our fourth visit in a month to the Maine Pediatrics Clinic in Portland, but I was only just beginning to grasp what the doctors were telling me—that Alex suffered from central precocious puberty, a condition where sexual maturation happens before age 11 in boys and 10 in girls. The last thirty days had been a festival of tests: blood work checking thyroid, testosterone and DHEA levels, ultra sounds, MRI and CT scans, bone X-rays, and repeated physical examinations. “You are very fortunate that you homeschool,” he continued, looking at my husband, Eric, someone who was intimate with testosterone’s brawn. “It will limit his exposure to girls as well as limit potentially aggressive situations. Not to mention the teasing and his own comfort level.”
The doctor paused thoughtfully, his pen suspended above his notes. I wondered if he was writing something like mother fails to see the seriousness of the situation. He went on. “You might want to consider therapy,” he told us. I pictured Alex, who was waiting outside the room, trying to eavesdrop like Samwise Gamgee beneath Frodo’s window. Therapy? For whom?
Sex, aggression and rage. My husband and I would hear these words again and again over the next weeks and months, always spoken in somber tones by concerned medical professionals. It was hard to accept that they were talking about Alex, a cute boy with straight blond hair, an impish grin, and thin, barely defined arms. He was a child—a fun, good-natured, happy, intelligent, rational child. We snuggled together and read J. K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkein books aloud, the Lord of the Rings trilogy twice. Alex played Sonic the Hedgehog and Zelda video games and took my computer apart for fun. He loved leaping out at me around corners, laughing when I screamed. I couldn’t see it, this idea of Alex as sexually dangerous. He couldn’t possibly do anyone harm, could he?
We knew Alex was advanced intellectually for his age. He’d learned to read at 4 and was reading at the high school level by 7. His math and science skills were exceptional. But he was so far ahead of kids his own age that we had major socialization concerns. Mothers called me to complain that Alex had made their child feel dumb. “Did he say Tyler was stupid?” I asked one angry mother, ready to speak to Alex immediately if he was being mean.
The mother stammered. “Well. Actually, I’m not sure what Alex said because Tyler says he uses long words on purpose just to confuse him.” Then there was the mother who called to say that Alex wouldn’t let her son win at Mario Kart. “Zachary was very upset and says that Alex cheats,” she said. I didn’t know what to say. Is it even possible to cheat at video games?
The story was different with girls. Alex sat and listened when they talked, offering to help them with their schoolwork. When I drove a pretty 10-year old to martial arts with Alex, he pretended he had to fall into her as I turned a corner, resting his head on her shoulder. They giggled and whispered. I thought of her now as the specialist planted images of pregnancy into my head.
The doctor knew of Alex’s lack of social skill with boys. “The gap between himself and children his own age will continue to widen both physically and intellectually,” he said, handing us brochures about precocious puberty. The front picture of one was of a boy standing alone in a school hallway leaning against a locker. Groups of children huddled in the distance, wary and taunting. “If Alex’s puberty isn’t stopped by medication,” he continued, “he will have the testosterone of an adult male just as his peers are beginning puberty. The embarrassment and frustration will be intense.”
I struggled to grasp the behavioral implications of precocious puberty. Internet research had answered many of my questions, but I couldn’t fathom why doctors were so concerned about Alex’s mental health. Why couldn’t we just sit him down and explain that he was too young to have sex? And why did they assume my son was going to lose his communication skills as he gained body hair?
At that moment, though, the question that most concerned my husband and I was whether Alex would reach his full adult height. Vague images of male and female growth charts from a college biology text flitted across my inner eye. When puberty ends, growth stops, too. Early growth spurts in children with precocious puberty make them taller than their peers, but they stop growing sooner and often end up considerably shorter. Sadly, height seemed to be where the foretelling powers of the doctor ended. “I can’t answer that,” he said, handing us the diagnosis sheet. “Your son will stop getting taller when his bones fuse, which for most males is 18, but for Alex could be as early as 11. We’ll know more in three months.”
The doctor reached for the doorknob but then turned back toward us. “More than concern for his height,” he said, “I’d consider preventing him free access to the Internet. Hardcore porn could be very damaging at such a young age, and boys with the level of testosterone your son has will obsess.”
Were we talking about Alex’s bone age, or his chronological age? I realized I’d never know for sure again. But, if his bone age was really that of a 14-year-old, wouldn’t looking at pornography be better than chasing girls and engaging people in violent confrontations, both of which the doctor had just alerted us could happen? Wouldn’t virtual sex be preferable to actual sex? Is this why we needed a therapist? To help us answer these questions?
It started with pubic hair on the toilet seat. I’d stared at the small hairs, wondering why there were so many. I wouldn’t have questioned them if there hadn’t also been so much urine on the outside of the toilet bowl. This pubic hair belonged to someone with lax bathroom habits and poor aim, two characteristics I had long identified as belonging to Alex.
Then there was the razor episode, when Alex cut his lip trying to shave. I’d noticed a darkening of hair beneath his nose and on his cheeks, but I come from a very hairy family and hadn’t thought much of it. Alex, though, was deeply concerned and tried to remove the spattering of dark moustache hair without my knowledge. I didn’t understand his discomfort, and I explained to him that the hair hadn’t been nearly as noticeable as the bloody wound.
I called our primary care provider. She examined Alex and recognized the signs of early puberty, but she advised thorough testing and sent us to a pediatric endocrinologist. Precocious puberty is considerably less common in boys than girls, and an array of serious congenital anomalies, tumors, and diseases had to be excluded as an underlying cause. Eric and I worried about all that could be wrong with Alex and blamed ourselves for not recognizing the signs. But what parent looks at her 8-year old son and wonders if his testicles are an age-appropriate size? Alex was very modest, and I’d always respected his privacy.
When he was 7, Alex had gone to the emergency room for a twisted appendix testis. A urologist had examined him multiple times while monitoring the testicle’s bloody supply. Why hadn’t he noticed? It wasn’t until the endocrinologist took the “wooden balls on a string” out of his white coat pocket to measure testicular size that Alex’s biological age was revealed. My son’s testicles were the size of a 14-year-old’s and would grow to the size of a man’s in fewer than twenty-four months if we didn’t do something to stop it. That something was a medication, Lupron, which needed to be injected daily. But Alex was terrified of needles, and when the doctor mentioned the daily shots, Alex went still like a deer in headlights. The mention of the side effects made Alex’s eyes go wider, his body stiffer: Loss of body hair, shrinkage of genitals, depression, and acne. The list also included constipation, abscesses, swelling at the injection site, and weight gain, but I don’t think Alex heard a thing after shrinkage and genitals.
I felt sorry for Alex. He looked bewildered and vulnerable, sitting on the exam table in a hospital jonnie. He didn’t look capable of getting a girl pregnant or spending hours gazing at hardcore pornography. I wanted to protect him, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was somehow all my fault. Was it the McDonald’s chicken nuggets I’d allowed him to eat? Deep fried chunks of chemicals mixed with hormonally injected fowl? Was it the hormones in the milk? The cheese?
The doctor assured me that it was most likely genetic, and phone calls to family members soon revealed that my father had experienced precocious puberty back in the 1940s. No one would have thought to diagnose it back then, but my father remembered. He’d had a mustache at 9, beard growth at 10. I carried a precocious puberty gene.
Eric and I agreed to involve Alex in decisions about medication. This was Alex’s life, after all, and I wasn’t going to force him to submit to daily injections. I didn’t need to be an oracle to foresee the nightmare ahead of me. I remembered all too clearly having to administer eardrops for an infection, him screaming and kicking on the kitchen floor. Besides, how could anyone know the long-term effects of any medication with a surety that made it absolutely safe?
Alex didn’t ponder or hesitate, “No medication,” he said. Eric’s dad and several other family members disagreed. “It’ll be easier on Alex if you give him Lupron,” my sister said. Eric’s father warned, “Height for a man is like beauty for a woman. It opens doors.” At our next visit to the doctor, we told him of our decision and were comforted when he volunteered that his own son was going through precocious puberty—and that they’d also opted to forego medication.
A few weeks later, I needed a babysitter and hired a young teenage girl from the neighborhood. When Eric and I came home, we were greeted by red faces and giggling. The next morning, the girl’s mother called and said her daughter wouldn’t be babysitting again. She refused to tell me why.
“What happened?” I asked Alex.
“Nothing,” he said, barely looking up from his computer keyboard. He didn’t stop typing. “I don’t know what her mother’s talking about. We played video games.”
“Something had to have happened.”
Eric and I stopped hiring babysitters.
Over the next few months, Alex’s appearance began to change drastically. His hair, always straight, started curling and morphed to a dark brown. His rounded baby face altered into that of a young teenage boy and sudden oily skin and body odor required constant reminders to shower. At 10, Alex decided he wanted to move his bedroom to the basement, as far away from us as he could get and still be in the same house. Eric said we should support his move, that Alex needed his privacy for contemplation.
Alex built his own desktop computer. There was no limiting his access to the Internet even if we’d wanted to—which we didn’t. Eric and I agreed that Internet pornography would allow Alex a sexual outlet that was the safest of all the alternatives. We didn’t tell Alex of our decision, but we chose not to control the pornography unless he used it inappropriately—sharing it with friends, or revealing his physical location to strangers. Looking back, I realize I knew nothing about boys and pornography. I’d never seen online porn and assumed that Alex was viewing still pictures similar to print magazines. It wasn’t until Alex was 12 that we learned that he’d been downloading video clips and visiting adult chat rooms.
Our technological proficiency was no match for Alex’s. There were rapid clicks of the mouse when either his dad or I entered his vicinity, and he often blocked the screen with his body. He lived in the gloom of the basement like a modern Gollum, protecting the privacy he considered precious. But I worried that Alex would think all women were similar to the thin and eager porn stars he googled, and I initiated hundreds of conversations with him about women and acceptable behavior in relationships.
I bought It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, where the women and the men are overweight cartoon figures. This, I told Alex, is what most women look like. He glanced at the pictures. “I don’t think that’s accurate,” he said. Then he dropped the book on the kitchen table and descended to the basement. Later I noticed the book was gone. When I asked him about it, he was sitting in front of his computer with headphones on. He removed only one cup from his ear when he saw me and rolled his eyes at the question. “None of your business,” he said, four words that were Alex’s new signature ending to all conversations deemed uncomfortable. I could hear a tinny distant Pete Seeger singing about all the little boxes made out of ticky tacky that looked just the same.
Alex built a gaming computer and began writing his own programs. He learned HTML and Java and was obsessed with source codes and algorithms. He became a specialist in behind-the-scenes mechanization and executed the major part of his work when everyone was asleep. He never went to bed before 4:00 a.m., and his mood during the day, especially if his father was home, was surly. Whenever I lost patience with Alex’s ill-temper, he accused me of PMS, an enraging accusation that made me worry if I’d made the right decision about medication.
Hormonally and intellectually, Alex accelerated into maturity. The gap was so wide between him and homeschooled children his age that at 11, he gave up pretending he could sit in the privately taught science classes with other boys and begged me to enroll him at the University of Southern Maine. Too young for the university’s Early Studies program, I got permission for Alex to take classes in the computer science department as a part-time student. Eric went with him for the first few days of the semester, but it was obvious Alex didn’t want him there. Now shaving daily, Alex seemed to want his professors and new teenage friends to think he was a grownup orphan.
A local news station discovered that Alex was attending the college and called to do a story on him, and soon a video crew was following him to classes. For several months after the spot aired, Alex experienced local fame as strangers shook his hand and congratulated him for his hard work. His professors were equally impressed with his intelligence and maturity. Alex’s future was brimming with possibility.
We returned to the pediatric endocrinologist every three months. The wrist X-rays showed that Alex, at the chronological age of 11, was the biological age of 17. His bones had fused. He was 5-foot-7, one inch taller than his doctor. But the journey was only half over, and the real battle for Alex was just beginning.
Alex wanted a girlfriend, but he wasn’t interested in any his age. Young girls looked like children to him. He lusted after the few females in the computer science department. When other parents told me how they’d force their 13-year-olds off the Internet at 9 p.m. and send them to bed, I didn’t say anything. They would have been shocked to know that I allowed my son free access to porn. We showed only a small portion of our home to friends. I worried about all the secrets.
“Do you want a therapist?” I asked Alex. “Do you need a therapist?”
“No,” he’d snarl. “I’m just fine.”
Pornography and programming languages occupied all of his nights. We knew this without Alex having to tell us. He missed classes because he couldn’t make himself get up. If he managed to go through the motions, he was explosive and obnoxious. I worried that his sister toddling around the house might be affected by his anger. I worried that she might go through puberty precociously, too.
So out of sync with his age and his desires, at 15 he found himself a 21-year-old homeless girl on Craigslist. Demonstrating considerable initiative, he took the bus and met her at a Chinese Restaurant in Portland. He bought her dinner and, because he was so desperate for a female, immediately thought he was in love with her. Now the words sex, aggression, and rage echoed in my inner ear in a way that I could process them. I had not thought my 9-year-old capable of all that the medical professionals prophesied, but now I could see that my 15-year-old was different.
Maybe we should have called the police and told them that an adult was molesting a minor, but would that have been the truth? How old was Alex, really? Besides, we didn’t think the relationship would last long. She didn’t have a license or a high school diploma. What kind of 21-year-old woman wants to date a 15-year-old boy?
We were wrong. Alex’s drive to engage in sexual acts gave him a staggering tolerance for a woman who didn’t share any of his goals or communicate with him beyond mundane conversation. Our strategy was to have the two where we could see them. To avoid Alex running off to Portland and having sex while we slept, Eric and I allowed the young woman to stay at our house, firmly invoking a no smoking rule. Multitudinous rolls escaped her faded scooped-neck tops, and I took her shopping and bought her several outfits, a bra, and shoes that she wouldn’t have to bend to tie. Then I encouraged her to apply for jobs and chauffeured her to grocery and clothing stores to fill out applications. I met with her mother, who lived in a low-income housing complex and survived on food stamps and government supplements. She begrudgingly agreed to let her daughter move back home.
Driven by testosterone and sexual fantasy, Alex wanted to spend every second he could with his girlfriend. Eric and I argued with Alex constantly about the relationship, usually ending with him slamming and locking his bedroom door. Two months into the relationship, she gave him head lice. Alex refused to cut his Arlo Guthrie hair and was careless with the treatment. When I told him that his girlfriend couldn’t come to our house until her lice was gone, he pounded his fists against the wall, cracking the wood of my bedroom door. Then he left on foot and headed into Portland, returning with stories of exploits that were too outrageous for us to believe. We knew he’d spent the day having sex.
Over the next few months, each time we tried to explain to Alex that he might have chosen his first girlfriend poorly, he called us elitist and threatened us with the loss of his filial love. When he realized that his insults no longer had the desired effect, he became physical, shoving me against the wall, his face inches from mine. “You’re the worst mother ever!” he hissed through clenched teeth, leaning his weight into me. “I can marry whoever I want. I don’t need your permission.” He pushed harder, desperate to intimidate me. He no longer looked cute and cuddly. “Any judge would emancipate me.”
Although I knew his biological age was 18, his strength surprised me. I didn’t falter but yelled right back in his face, remembering the advice of a dog trainer. “Right now you’re the worst son ever, and if you want to leave, leave,” I told him. His face twisted with emotion. “I can’t be around you anymore,” he shouted as he stomped away. “I just hate you so much!”
Several days later, Alex rushed at his dad shoulder first. I wasn’t in the kitchen where it happened, but the noise reverberated through the house’s core up the stairs to where I was watching The Little Mermaid with Alex’s sister. I heard, “This behavior is unacceptable. You will not treat us this way.” The scuffle ended with Alex running out of the house in tears and Eric driving himself to the emergency room with a broken rib. Never underestimate the power of testosterone. There could be serious consequences.
Suddenly, therapy didn’t seem like an option but a necessity. There was no doubt—we we were in a big complicated embarrassing mess that could affect Alex’s whole life. And ours. I hoped we weren’t going to have to cut off anything of Alex’s to help him complete his journey through childhood.
I began calling therapists, but most were reluctant to work with Alex. They didn’t know enough about precocious puberty or its family dynamics. After several weeks, I located a man who reluctantly agreed to meet with us. I made it clear that the therapy was for Alex, that I wanted a safe place for him to discuss his issues. I wanted to be included as little as possible, but he insisted that we all come to the first session.
After listening to us talk for thirty minutes and expressing disapproval that we’d allowed Alex unsupervised Internet surfing, the therapist positioned himself to look directly at Alex, who sat at the end of the couch—as far away from us as possible. “Are you afraid of your father?” he asked our son, his hands clasped over his rotund stomach like a suspension bridge. “Do you feel that you need to defend yourself because your life is in danger?”
Alex saw a way to remove himself from all responsibility and took it. “Yes, I’m terrified of dad.”
Terrified of dad? We were dumbfounded. Eric is a patient and placid person, but the truth apparently didn’t matter. “You don’t have to go home,” he told Alex. “There are other options.” Alex took the therapist at his word and walked out of the office to go live with his girlfriend. He was 15. I reported the incident and the therapist to the Department of Human Services and called the police, who monitored Alex from the distance. Two-and-a-half difficult days passed before Alex returned home, his body language meek and his words—to me, at least—repentant. He barely spoke to his father.
Eric said no more therapists, but I insisted that Alex needed a trained adult confidante. The next therapist was a hippie who, after meeting with us as a family, turned to Alex and told him he lived in a teenage nirvana. What could possibly be the problem, he asked him? Perhaps out of intellectual curiosity (or a need to prove me wrong), Alex continued seeing the therapist for a few months before quitting because he thought the therapist might be “crazy.”
I was waiting in the parking lot of the therapist’s office one afternoon when Alex opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat. It was January, and the wind blew hard into me. Alex picked up the Snapple he’d left in the car and drank before speaking. “We sit there, and he wants me to close my eyes and balance my shakras,” he told me. “That’s what we did for thirty minutes, sit with our eyes closed.” Even as I questioned if Alex was telling the truth, I could feel myself get angry that the therapist charged $100 an hour to sit in silence.
“And get this,” he said, pausing for effect and balancing the bottle on his knee. “You’ll be happy to know you’re paying a guy to tell me it’s healthy to have sex with a lot of women before committing to one person, that I should start initiating new relationships immediately.”
You might want to consider therapists. We had. We wouldn’t again. There are a lot of screwed up people out there. Many of them are therapists.
Alex was nearing 17, a sophomore in college. His testosterone levels were waning to that of a man in his early twenties, well on his downward journey from his sexual peak. He had reached a place in his life where he could once again think, debate, and plan. He was rational, and he wanted to live on his own for a few years before he left the state for grad school. Alex’s homeless girlfriend was long gone. He had his eye on several older women, but Eric and I weren’t worried. Although other parents questioned our decision, arguing that he was too young, we supported Alex’s need to live in Portland—away from us. “You know, mom, most teenagers are on drugs and really messed up,” he said. “I could get pot and alcohol without trying and I don’t.” He hugged me. “You’ve really got it quite easy, considering.”
We gave Alex a car, and he moved out for several months but returned regularly for food and conversation. At 18 he began dating another 21-year-old, Katie. The gap was closing. Katie enjoyed hiking, yoga, mountain climbing, and video games, and she was the first girl to tell me that Alex’s chronological age made her uncomfortable. A college student in a five-year math education program, she preferred her boyfriends older but was content that Alex looked the part with his full beard and adult physique. In addition, Alex would graduate with his degree in computer science at 19, several years before she finished her own program.
Alex stood in the kitchen as I experimented with a new eggless veggie burger recipe. He talked as he dipped chips into salsa. A strict vegan, Alex had just apprised me of new research on latent carcinogens in poultry as well as the news that he was to receive the award for the university’s Outstanding Computer Science Student of 2010. Holding a corn chip midway to his mouth, he said, “I appreciate all that you do for me. I know I couldn’t have come this far without you.”
Maybe Alex was referring to my support of veganism, his award, or his homeschooling. But he might have also been referring to his passage through precocious puberty and the anger and confusion that we’d all endured because of it. I’d heard enough stories about other teenagers to know that the behavioral problems could have been much worse. We might have made it all the way to Mount Doom, but we’d made it out safely without losing an appendage. Or ourselves.
Alex had changed. His hair, receding slightly, was short and wavy, his arms were muscled and strong, and he no longer played Sonic the Hedgehog or Zelda, having long defeated Dr. Robotnik and saved the twilight princess. He played Warcraft III and games he wrote himself, but he still had that impish grin. Often he read to me, long excerpts from Al Franken and Richard Feynman books. He was still out of sync with his peers, teaching labs for the University of Southern Maine, tutoring daily, and grading for multiple professors, but precocious puberty and its effects on his life were waning. Like Frodo, Alex had emotional scars and many regrets. But he had survived, and, unlike Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth hero, Alex’s journey was real—and his story goes on.