I Am a Seclusion Survivor, Or Am I A Casualty?

“As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation–either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”

~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

I often wonder of those who most vehemently support restraint and seclusion in schools as “safe,” what percentage of them are seclusion survivors? How many of them are restraint survivors? I guess it’s important to define “safe” first. When I looked up the word in the dictionary, I found: 

Safe adjective

1. protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost. 

Safe noun

1. a strong cabinet with a complex lock, used for the storage of valuables. 

I think restrainers and secluders think they’re referring to the adjective form, but as someone who has been locked alone and afraid in a seclusion cell, I’d say it felt more like the noun. Except, by erasing me in a closet, it told me I was anything BUT “valuable.” It felt more like all the other children were valuable and being protected FROM me. My feelings or pain never mattered. That was clear. I was little, but I got the “behavior is communication” piece, and adult behavior towards me was never patient or kind in my first years of school. Nobody bothered to figure out how we’d so often arrive at the precipice of having no other way to manage me than lock me away in the “naughty closet.” They communicated loudly through their cruel behavior towards me, that I was nothing, and I carried that with me for many years, and still struggle with it. 

Every minute spent in seclusion was humiliating and demeaning. Just as every moment spent outside of the naughty closet had me fearing when next I would be sentenced to it again. Being caught in a restraint and seclusion cycle as a child was something I experienced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I spent all day at school thinking about it. I spent my weekends thinking of it; the feeling of dread on Sunday nights thinking of it was worse than the worry my summer was ending and it would resume once I started back to school. Seclusion wasn’t just a periodic “last resort” or safety measure for me, it was my lifestyle. A lifestyle I would never have chosen but was foisted onto me by people who make assumptions about children, but who do not ask enough questions. 

The cycle of trauma, restraint and seclusion

Was I safe? 

I suppose I was safe from what schools and legislatures refer to as “physical injuries,” which to most, means any harm done to a body from the neck down. I was not safe from trauma, however, which studies show causes permanent physiological damage to the brain. When last I checked, my brain is indeed a part of my body, an organ no less, the most vital organ in my body. Yet trauma being inflicted onto my young developing brain, was not considered a “physical injury?” 

That makes no sense. 

So many laws around restraining and secluding children focus on “physical injuries” incurred in the struggle of taking a child to the floor for a restraint, or a child’s bones broken or breathing impeded, or a walking escort restraint to the seclusion cell. Must not block breathing they say. Because apparently, the lungs are an organ that is more worth protecting than the brain. Must not break bones, because the skeletal system, again, is more vital than the brain. And honestly, I agree we must protect skeletons, hearts, lungs, and vital organs, that if impeded, can kill a child. And every time we take a child to the floor in restraints or do a walking restraint of a child and place them alone, dysregulated into a seclusion cell, we are risking their lives, make no mistake. Even the companies who teach restraint and seclusion for-profit teach that restraint and seclusion can be dangerous and life-threatening. The big lie they tell is that training prevents injuries and deaths, when in fact, trained people have also injured and killed children. 

I think I should be grateful I survived it. I know when I see photos of the faces of children who have been killed by restraint asphyxia, I am always relieved that I never got that call that my child was in an ambulance on the way to the Emergency Room, or worse, that my son had stopped breathing. I think I should be grateful I never ended up on a cold morgue slab from restraint or seclusion, that injures, maims, and kills children. I’m grateful I was never forced to go identify my little boy’s cold dead body, lifeless because of his autism, killed by people who make assumptions but don’t ask questions. 

I’m grateful, both my son and I, both of us neuro-divergent people, both of us misunderstood, not appropriately accommodated, erased, and denied personhood, are not dead. I’m grateful that despite persistent breaches to our bodily autonomy, never once with either of our consent, we are alive. I am a survivor, so is my son. We’re both alive, but at what cost? I know Moms whose children were restraint and seclusion fatalities, and when I talk to them, I sometimes have survivors’ guilt. I do. I feel terrible for them; I mourn for their children, and I feel guilty for surviving. Because not one, but two of us in our house are restraint and seclusion survivors. 

My son and I are both survivors of restraint and seclusion.

Yet while we survived, are we both casualties from restraint and seclusion? Are we wounded? Are we not whole? Are we both injured? The answer to all these questions is yes. 

I am 55 years old and have frequent nightmares of every detail of my closets. My son has nightmares too. I fear small spaces, so does my son. Every time someone asks me to chat, I think they’re angry or I’m in trouble. I live in fear of being in trouble, still. Because adults communicated to me through their secluding me, that I am inherently bad. My son, who was far more subjected to seclusion torture than I was, cannot go into any rooms alone. He cannot go to the restroom alone. He cannot sleep alone. He’s 14 years old. Certain smells from the seclusion closet and even smells I associate with school trigger me, almost 50 years later. The worst part, the part that pains me most, was my grooming into this being normal for neurodivergent people. 

When the seclusion of my child was first proposed, I went storming out of the meeting. I ran to my car, shaking, and smashed into the side of my car, I was so dysregulated and triggered, more so than most other IEP meetings. We fought it, couldn’t stand the thought of it. I remember, having to stop my car on the way back home because I thought I was going to throw up. Yet we were talked into it. I had a form of Stockholm Syndrome at that point really, where I still believed I was a terrible child, and that my captors were wonderful people who’d been forced to treat me as they did. And it made me believe the same about those who wanted to hold my son captive similarly. I believed they had no other choices.

My son and I protesting against restraint and seclusion

My own experiences as a neuro-divergent child who was denied appropriate accommodations and abused made me think this was normal. My gas-lighting began when I was 5, in Kindergarten, in 1970. I still loved my teachers who’d harmed me. I was saturated in my own internalized ableism until very recently, and it impacted the parenting decisions I made for both my autistic sons. My seclusion cycle started in 1970, the first time I was ever secluded myself, and it controlled my thinking in many ways until my autistic son stopped being secluded in 2018. 

I am a seclusion survivor, but also a casualty. The damage done to my brain by denial of accommodations for my ADHD and dyslexia, along with being punished with the naughty closet for adult failures to accommodate me is still a large part of who I am, what I think of myself, and everything I’ve done. I often think now what I would say to my captors if I could talk to them:

Dear Ms. Horton, you think you fixed me temporarily by locking me in that closet every day in Kindergarten. I was your inconvenience. I was hard for you. But I loved you. I thought you were beautiful. I wanted more than anything else for you to love me, but I knew you never did, that you thought I was a bother. I cried when you left to have a baby in January of 1971, a baby, who would now be almost 50. You harmed me. You harmed my child. You also changed me. When you opened the door of the “naughty closet” to let me out the last time, it never ended for me. Did it end for you? I wonder if you still think about me. If you regret what you did to me. I wonder if you still think locking children away who cannot read or sit down like everyone else is a good idea. You were a young teacher at the time; I wonder if you ever evolved away from secluding children. I hope so. Ms. Horton, I wonder if you were locked up in seclusion yourself, and the teacher who locked you up? What about her? How long has the seclusion cycle my son and I were caught in, how many generations has it been passed down? 

When will it end? I cannot erase what happened to me in the past, nor can I remove my son’s pain. What I can and will do is break the seclusion cycle, so it doesn’t continue with another generation of children. I can commit to working to change the way marginalized children are treated, and “transform their suffering into a creative force.” Because brains need protection, so do souls and hearts, just as much as lungs and bones. There are some wounds that never bleed overtly, but trauma never leaves a person; it never fully heals. We have to find ways to work around it for the rest of our lives because trauma is forever. Maybe turning pain into power is the medicine I need to heal. Maybe passing a law, an overt sign that the cycle of seclusion abuse is finally broken and will break nobody else, is the salve I need to help soothe wounds to my brain so long ago inflicted. 

Scripture tells us there is a time for everything, among those are a time to heal, a time to build up, a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.

Now is the time to speak, to transform, and to heal. I wailed loudly in my naughty closet as a little girl: nobody cared, nobody released me. Then I screamed silently for decades from the open wounds it inflicted onto my brain.

And now is the time to speak of it, painful as it is, because I believe people are very powerful, and that pain revealed, can become a great power and lead to social change. I believe in the power of kindness, and that kind people when they hear of the pain endured by far too many of us, will listen, evolve, and change. 

I forgive you Ms. Horton. I don’t know why you did what you did to me, but maybe it was to make me an instrument of change now. Seclusion must end. Not just for those who might be secluded in the future, but for all of us who suffered through it; we’re owed the closure of ending it. I am a good person; I always was. I deserved better than seclusion, so does every child. I just needed extra help and understanding. There are so many children like I was. Let’s make it stop for them, together. Children need much less restraint and seclusion and much more help and understanding by people who make no assumptions before they ask a bountiful number of questions. 


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