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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- My experience of restraint in a psychiatric hospital: This is not a love story - March 18, 2020
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- A Child in a Straight Jacket - January 27, 2020