A Child in a Straight Jacket8 min read

I grew up in the Bronx, New York. I was born in the early 90s, and If you think the system is uneth­ical now, you can imagine the hell it was back then. This was a time when par­ents would leave their chil­dren to hor­rific fates, deeply believing– or at least con­vincing them­selves suf­fi­ciently– that they were get­ting their chil­dren some kind of help.

Unfortunately where par­ents sought help, their chil­dren only found pain, seclu­sion, and a life­time of fear. The story ahead is not for the faint of heart. It is from my per­spec­tive– the per­spec­tive of the boy inside of the “man” who is still reeling from these events.

These are the rem­nants of the mem­o­ries that sur­vived my psy­chi­atric admis­sion and the ensuing night­mares to haunt me to this date in flash­backs relived in haunting clarity. This was the pun­ish­ment I received for what was simply sen­sory over­load and stress man­i­festing as autistic melt­downs from bul­lying in school. This is my story– the begin­ning of it, at least, and cer­tainly not the end.

Bullies

As a child, I was always quite round. I was gentle and loving. I adored people, ani­mals, and the arts. Even without knowing why, it was clear that I was always a bit dif­ferent. At home, quality time and one-on-one between myself and family mem­bers wasn’t as often as I liked. My sib­lings bul­lied me, and school was no better.

I was fat and short, so I was picked on inces­santly. I used to be com­forted by food, and it became a vicious cycle back then. The prin­cipal of my school was openly jealous of me, as I was an honor stu­dent and her chil­dren were not.  I wasn’t the kind of kid that par­ents of the “normal” wanted to see out­doing their progeny. I didn’t know that I had autism back then, but she knew some­thing was dif­ferent.

Always My Fault

The very same prin­ciple and her circle of dehu­man­izing teacher friends would see other kids picking on me, and if I would try to pro­tect myself, they would somehow equate my size into an image of an intim­i­dating mon­ster. They expressed this to par­ents and others in the most slan­derous ways. I brought this on myself, they would say.

Because I loved others so much and was so gentle in nature, their sto­ries should have been dis­missed as ridicu­lous. But all of the bul­lying and deri­sion from teachers just kept building. I would cry con­stantly and have what I later learned were autistic melt­downs.

The melt­downs fol­lowed other stu­dents throwing food at me, including con­tainers of milk, and throwing my school uni­form and sweater in the garbage just to be mean. This was even more upset­ting because my family viewed me as a burden, and stained or missing clothing was expen­sive.

The strategy for bul­lying became more and more sophis­ti­cated as I went through kinder­garten up through the fourth grade with the same vio­lent class­mates.

From School to Home

Over the years within this school, the prin­cipal who had quite the grudge against me would wrong­fully attempt to diag­nose me as “emo­tion­ally dis­turbed” and drove my mother mad– lit­er­ally mad– by con­stantly calling my moth­er’s job. She did this even after my mother told her that the repeated calls were going to get her fired.

This resulted in a heavy scolding and even beat­ings for me. Although the beat­ings were severe, all of the other forms of abuse were sim­i­larly wounding. Constantly being yelled at and demeaned caused me to ques­tion my worth.

Eventually my own mother grew tired of me because of this wom­an’s rant­ings, some­thing she would find out later in life what’s the result of this prin­ci­pal’s jeal­ousy. I related very much to the film, Matilda, with the vio­lent prin­cipal Miss Trunchbull.

Hospitalized

Some event was the final straw. My mother took me to a med­ical center– one of many times in what would become a trend. Even during the times I was most behaved out of fear, this became what she did when she didn’t want to deal with me.

The med­ical center was known as Bronx-Lebanon. It was a psy­chi­atric facility that destroyed chil­dren. I believe we had gone for some kind of eval­u­a­tion when some­thing scared me. Instead of com­forting me, my mother walked away. A ter­ri­fying woman came in her place, wielding a needle. She rushed at me, and I began to cry and scream. She stabbed it into my arm and depressed the plunger.

I don’t remember much from that point until I came to. I don’t know if this is due to me blacking out, or if it’s due to the hor­rific memory being repressed, but I do know it takes courage for me to write this now as I begin to shake.

Mother Was Nowhere

I remember the inte­rior of a strange hospital-type place. It looked like any other hos­pital, except it had a small lounge area where a group of boys my age were playing video games. I found this strange. I was in this new, ter­ri­fying place with my mother nowhere to be found. I was so scared that I couldn’t speak. Back then, I didn’t know this would develop into long periods of time being mute and non­speaking.

Cold and Dark

Here I will skip ahead as my memory once again blacks out from the horror of the inci­dent. I was put in a room by myself vastly dif­ferent from the bed­room at home where I shared with my sib­lings. It was cold and dark, and I was afraid of the dark.

I remember before entering this room that light streamed in through a nearby window of what appeared to be some kind of sec­re­tary’s desk. I was told to stay in there, and that bed would be my bed– but I didn’t know what any of it meant. 

The bed had one white fitted sheet and what looked like a folded white towel as a pillow… or per­haps to cover myself with? How was I sup­posed to know? I was scared, and I’m reliving that fear just typing this. Little did I know that this was the begin­ning of my seclu­sion expe­ri­ence.

Alone

After the strange and mus­cular female nurse left, I got up, shaky and scared of this unknown and dark room. I went out into the hallway, into the warmth of the flu­o­res­cent light’s bright­ness. Light meant safety from bad mem­o­ries and from mon­sters that I thought lurked in the dark.

These days, I think about how I wish I had known that mon­sters lurk not in the dark, but in the hearts of humans, in your par­ents, and in those you were sup­posed to feel safest with.

Seclusion

When I stepped out into the hallway, I saw the same group of boys. They were a little bit older than me and were still playing video games in the lounge. I approached them, being short enough that I waltzed right past the sec­re­tary’s desk. I asked them if I could play. It was a Rugrats game, and Nickelodeon was a big thing back then.

The next thing I know, a woman sneaks up behind me, grab­bing my shoulder. I remember being scolded for being out of the room and then dragged back into the dark­ness of it as I begged and screamed and pleaded and told them I was scared.

I couldn’t find the light switch, so I pan­icked and began to cry in the dark­ness, beg­ging to see my mother again, beg­ging to be free as the reality of my aban­don­ment at this bizarre med­ical deten­tion center became a reality.

I was left screaming and crying and shaking in this room, cold and lonely, cut off from those boys out­side who seemed normal. Children should never have to know what hell is, but I sure as hell did. I will never forget the dark­ness. Both day and night must have passed… I lost track of time, as my now-hoarse voice and burning throat could no longer carry my cries.

Restraint

The burly nurse came back into the room and saw the state of me. I tried to run for it and escape past her, but I was caught. Then two others appeared out of nowhere. I began to fight and kick and cry and scream. “Mama” was gone, and I didn’t want to die here.

Unfortunately, this just infu­ri­ated my cap­tors who had secluded me all night. The world out­side seemed like the Promised Land of Biblical fame, and I wasn’t wel­comed. I was one of the Lost boys.

The Straight Jacket

It all hap­pened so fast. I was thrown into a room with a big wooden door, a rug that felt like nails on the floor, and four white walls. I con­tinued to fuss as they pulled out what I would later dis­cover was called a straight jacket. They flung this thing over my head as I began to lose air, my neck barely escaping the hole so that my head could pop out the top. I strug­gled to breathe as it con­tinued to choke off most of my air. 

They wrapped the bizarre, tentacle-like arms around me so I couldn’t move, and I fell over aching, twitching, and scared. This was my pun­ish­ment. I thought about my golden retriever back at home. He belonged to my grand­mother. I believed I would never see any­body else in my family again.

My mind begin to warp, and that was the first time the fol­lowing phrase came to my mind: “I am a bad dog, they don’t like my behavior, and now I am being pun­ished.” Those were my last thoughts before my memory of this inci­dent fades out again.

Even the dark gaps in my memory are trau­matic, because it’s hard to imagine that what is blocked is worse than what I can vividly recall. What’s so striking to me is that despite every­thing, I was always a rel­a­tively happy child by nature. I guess the family could only see what a mon­ster I was. I believed that, too, at that moment.

A Sad Solidarity

My story is no dif­ferent from that of so many others. Seclusion and restraint, and aban­don­ment via psy­chi­atric admis­sion orches­trated by ableist par­ties and family mem­bers, is a night­mare that so many autistic and dis­abled indi­vid­uals face.

I would come to be saved that time by my grand­mother who made her daughter, my mother, rescue her child. I would fool­ishly con­tinue to trust family and people in the edu­ca­tional system who did not under­stand autism in the late 90s to the early 2000s, always trying to see the good and redeemable traits in others and being con­vinced that I really was the problem.

Over the years, I would become wiser and learn to trust nobody. I would con­tinue to get honors in every school that I have ever entered, despite the con­tinued bul­lying. Finally, I would begin to make friends the fur­ther I got away from my family.

I still live in real fear every single day; how­ever, I know I am not alone. I have a cre­ated family willing to go to battle for me– the family who scouted me as a writer for a very spe­cial neu­ro­di­ver­sity advo­cacy pub­li­ca­tion.

 

International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion
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3 Comments

  1. Yes,we have started a move­ment that will not be denied.

    Let the New Age begin

  2. Tell. Tell. The story of these sys­tems must be told, for all the uncounted num­bers who never find a writing family, who are car­ried on the shoul­ders of all who do get that sur­vivor luck even­tu­ally. Maya Angelou on car­rying an untold story inside you. The story of lost boys, of the young pop­u­la­tion of an arch­i­pelago just under the sur­face all around unseeing society. Of what it is like to remember there was a time, when that was our present + was our highly pos­sible future too.

  3. Sharing that story took courage. You deserved none of what hap­pened to you.

    I am so glad you have found new people who treat you better.

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