Although I have a great memory, there’s a part of my life I’ve almost completely shut out: my autistic brother Nicko’s teenage years. The fear, shame, anger, and most of all, hurt still bubble over the surface like a pot of boiling water when the flame is turned too high, so I’ve tried my hardest to wipe it away completely. When I was 10 years old, my brother’s agitation, or “getting hyper,” as we called it, was getting worse every day.
You never knew precisely when it would happen, but it seem to always be approaching, creeping up on us like a lion sneaking up behind the antelope it’s about to eat for dinner. Throughout my late elementary and early middle school years, my sister and I morphed into the antelopes in the African jungle of our home. It got to the point that my brother was having violent outbursts six times a day. Although we patched them up, new holes were always appearing from him punching the wall, the dents in the car roof from his flailing kicks only deepened, and the resentment continued to build in my heart against him. Our parents constantly reminded us that it wasn’t Nicko’s fault. He couldn’t control it. He didn’t mean to upset, hurt, or disrupt our lives. Regardless, he did.
Close your eyes. Think about being a teenager – all the difficulties you face and the emotions you feel. Now try to imagine struggling through these years without being able to express anything you’re thinking, the thoughts screaming in your brain but nothing coming out. Now you have an idea of what it was like for Nicko.
When Nicko was a teenager, the only way he could release his emotions was to erupt in an explosion of anger and sadness. I still can feel it, see it, and hear it as if it’s happening right now. He would scream about past experiences, repeating his trigger words over and over until they played on repeat like a symphony in my mind. His fists pounded against the walls of our house or the windows of our car. His fingernails would dig into his face, opening wounds that had just healed the day before. There would be blood everywhere, like a murder scene. Too many times we had to lock him in our basement while he raged, breaking things and all of us simultaneously. He was a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any second. It didn’t matter when. It happened during school, at night, even at 2 a.m., and it seemed to come from nowhere.
Throughout Nicko’s childhood many people had come to spend time with him, and he grew to love them. Most were college students, and once they graduated they were gone from his life. Their names always came up during his outbursts. “Amy, Amy and Nalima! Jake Jake the pillow snake! Mary the hooper!” he’d scream.
Though they may seem like random gibberish, these phrases are very representative of this time in my life. They meant a new storm was brewing. Another clue was when Nicko played certain songs. My brother loves music, but he always played the same five or so songs on repeat, and eventually they made him agitated. Once a song agitated him, any future listen led to an explosion.
One night, my parents had gone to a movie. Our babysitter, Lindsey, had been helping our family for years, but she hadn’t experienced the worst of it as my parents, my sister, and I had. That night, the only warning sign was Nicko saying, “Jenny Jenny, who can I turn to? You give me something I can hold on to … 8675309,” which is one of his frequently recurring songs. To this day, I can’t listen to that song, or any by Johnny Cash, because all I can think of is my brother’s bleeding face.
Although our babysitter was adroit when it came to our family and Nicko, this was the most agitated I’d ever seen him, and Lindsey was understandably overwhelmed. She, too, became an antelope in our suburban safari. First, she called our parents, but it was clear that even if they left immediately they wouldn’t be home soon enough. Fueled by the terrifying environment and the adrenaline rushing through her veins, Lindsey called the police.
After a few nerve-wracking minutes, my parents and the police showed up. I felt as though my heart was doing back dives off a 6,000-foot cliff. The police had no choice but to put my brother, who was 17, in handcuffs. I practically choked on the inner explosion of desolation, yet this wasn’t a new experience for my young eyes. It was the third time I’d seen him handcuffed.
Though at times I couldn’t help despising him for distressing our family, for upsetting me and my sister, and for destroying our home and cars piece by piece, I knew inside Nicko was an amazing person. Seeing him treated like a criminal was painful. My brother is one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever known. He would never judge anyone, and in the best way possible, he couldn’t care less what others think. Nicko also has an amazing artistic talent, a great sense of humor, and a fascinating way of captivating everyone’s interest. Once they meet him, no one ever forgets my brother, and their memory of him is warm and wonderful, like a cup of hot chocolate on a snowy winter’s night.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the image of him being dragged from our home to the police car, wrists bound by handcuffs, and the car driving off. That moment in our family room listening to my parents, my babysitter, and the police deciding my brother’s fate seems frozen in time. Later that week, my brother was placed in Mendota Mental Health Institute, a place we all despised with a passion. He had been there before for a week and then come home. This time, he would not.
My brother now lives with a couple whose job it is to live with and care for adults with special needs. Our family knew that having Nicko in our home was no longer the best option for him. Although I see my brother once a week, I’ve never felt so torn emotionally from another person. While a small, sad part of me will forever resent my brother and wish he was “normal,” I understand, respect, and love him. No, we’ll never have the typical sibling relationship, but nothing could have strengthened me more than the true relationship I’ve had with my brother.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.