Seclusion Broke My Heart6 min read

He was my little brother, and my whole life was cen­tered around pro­tecting him. We lived in a rural area in the back­woods, and aware­ness and accep­tance was far behind. Elementary school was the worst, because what­ever teacher you had– you had them and only them until the year was over.

I was in sev­enth grade, and my brother was in third. He’d been held back a year, and so this was the second year with this same horrid teacher.

I hated her with the fire of all the stars in the solar system because the dis­dain she felt for my brother was pal­pable. You could almost see it teeming up out of her like an acrid sul­furic smoke… but what could I do about it?

My brother was a gentle soul, quiet, humble, utterly and com­pletely self­less. He was so quiet, in fact, that he rarely talked. When he did, his voice was sur­prising– sev­eral octaves higher than you’d expect, almost like an infant speaking a sen­tence. It was a reflec­tion of the inno­cent wonder he felt about the world.

Mostly, all you heard from him were the tics from Tourette Syndrome and his rep­e­ti­tion from the word, “Sorry” over and over. That was the OCD. He had to say it thirty-two times, at least. If he didn’t feel purged of what­ever he was apol­o­gizing for at thirty-two, he started over.

If you touched his right side, he had to touch his left. Kids picked up on this and would start hit­ting him in one arm. They’d do it and count with random num­bers, trying to dis­tress him and throw off his count, “3, 18, 44, 7, 99, 2, 63, 87…” and just keep hit­ting one arm. He would need to count how many times they hit him and then hit him­self in the other arm an equal amount of times.

On top of Tourette’s and OCD, there was also dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and epilepsy. His writing, when he could steady his hand, looked like a blind­folded two-year-old had scrawled it.  He didn’t have the fine motor con­trol to do better. That fre­netic script could no more stay within the lines than he could, half the let­ters were back­wards, and the spelling was a loose approx­i­ma­tion of phonics.

To keep him from my par­ents’ frus­tra­tion, I sat with him– all night, every night– trying to finish that evil teachers’ home­work with him. It wasn’t appro­priate for him, wasn’t ben­e­fi­cial for learning, and just caused him so much dis­tress that he couldn’t hold still or stop his tics from even pre­venting him to putting the pencil to paper.

He had to be reminded mul­tiple times per sentence–sometimes per word– to press for­ward, stay on task. He wasn’t learning. He was suf­fering. When I could get away with it, I would wink at him, grip the pencil in the fist of my left hand, and slop some­thing down for him. I’d wink and nod, and he’d smile, a silent thank you in his eyes.

All he wanted to do was go to the garage and dis­as­semble our father’s tools and gad­gets to rebuild them into some­thing amazing– a pulley system to move things around his imag­i­nary tree­house, a dis­penser for the cat’s food, a buffer to make the lawn­mower seat bouncier…

The best edu­ca­tion was the one he silently gave him­self, immersed in the rich­ness of the 56 immaculately-maintained and hardily fleshed-out imag­i­nary worlds he accessed from that garage.

Every day at lunch, I’d walk to his end of the school. It was recess for his class, a time he needed so des­per­ately to spend all the energy he had and to zone out from the work he tried so hard but couldn’t focus or con­trol his body enough to finish. And every day, there he sat, shut in the class­room, alone, lights out. Alone.

I’d watch through long, slender window in the door. There he sat, his head bob­bing and jerking to the right, his eye­brows and ears moving uncon­trol­lably, grunting and hoo-ing over and over with the tics that got worse and worse the more he was stressed. He was writing. Always writing.

I’d dig my nails into my arms so hard with rage and abject sorrow that I’d draw blood. And then we were both bleeding.

My brother would reach up and wipe the cor­ners of his mouth, trying to pre­vent the blood from get­ting on his paper. One of his tics was opening his mouth so wide that these sores started forming in the cor­ners of his mouth– and for months on top of months, they never stopped bleeding.

Over night, they’d scab over, then in the rush of trying to get him ready for school, our mother yelling in frus­tra­tion trying to get her­self and three chil­dren fed, dressed, and out the door, he’d start again. The sores grew over time, too, these big, sad punc­tu­a­tion marks on this mouth that would open so wide you could hear his jaw grind.

The thing that was the most sad was that he never com­plained. Ever.

And every day, there he sat in that room, alone. I’d begged my par­ents to do some­thing about it. They seemed to oscil­late between sym­pathy for him, sharing my indig­na­tion, and believing he just needed more dis­ci­pline. My undi­ag­nosed autism was less obvious, my dyslexia mostly self-accommodated by that age.

But I under­stood him. I knew how he felt, and they couldn’t. Maybe if they had more infor­ma­tion, or access to the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment– but they didn’t.

So one day, standing in the hallway, dig­ging my nails into my skin again hoping that the pain would keep me more angry than destroyed so that I didn’t start crying, I couldn’t help myself any­more. I went into his class­room to talk to him.

He was writing sen­tences. “I wil bo my work.” But the “r” was back­wards, too. He never did any­thing wrong, never swung back at his bul­lies, never talked back to his teachers, never said no. This was learned help­less­ness. I told him that he didn’t have to finish the sen­tences. He looked at me like, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I told him. “You can just get up and play in the room.”

I left him there and walked out of the building, my feet kicking up a trail of dry dust behind me as I marched with pur­pose to the play­ground around the back­side of the school.

All eight swings were going, kids waited in line at the monkey bars. Two little girls in pig tails and matching dresses were spin­ning on the new merry-go-round. And there, in the shade, his teacher leaned against the brick, grin­ning warmly and watching her kids. That was not the face she wore when she looked at my brother.

She saw me coming and smiled at me, then her smile melted into a con­cerned gri­mace. My approach was not a friendly one. My adren­a­line and rage was con­sum­mate. I believe I could’ve turned over a vehicle with the energy of the raw elec­tric sense of jus­tice coursing through me.

“You are the devil,” I told her, “And I will send you back to hell if my brother spends one more recess in the dark, alone.” The teacher didn’t tell my par­ents every­thing, maybe because it didn’t seem plau­sible, and maybe because she didn’t want them to realize just how cruel she’d been for how long.

I paid dearly for that stunt. I knew I would pay dearly. I was the hon­or’s stu­dent with the rigid rule-following and per­fec­tionism, and so any infrac­tion was a big deal. This was the biggest– but it was worth it.

My brother spent no more days in seclu­sion after that.

International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion
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  1. A child of sorrows,a pre­cious lamb who did not resist his accusers and tor­menters.

    (There’s only one star in the solar system tho)

  2. I love you for this story. I am you, and I am your brother waiting for my savior.

  3. That was a huge act of courage. You are the sib­ling that your brother deserves. In your writing I can see you have so much love and caring for him. If only the world under­stood like you do.

    How awful that such a thing hap­pened. That teacher should not be allowed to work with chil­dren. Your brother deserved so much better. I hope he and you are doing well now.

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