Meet My Brother, Tim: Growing Up with a Mentally-Handicapped and Severely Emotionally-Disturbed Sibling
Permit me to introduce my brother, Tim. He’s the oldest of the four of us. We just celebrated his 55th birthday on Saturday.
When we were growing up, we would explain to new acquaintances that Tim was mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed. We didn’t use those words to offend. They simply were the labels used to describe people like my brother back then. During the last decade or so the word retarded has been deemed highly offensive despite the fact that its denotation simply is “less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age.” Its connotation, however, is the troublemaker. It’s been twisted to mean a very foolish or stupid person, so I, in turn, have learned to modify my explanation to say that Tim is mentally handicapped instead of using the “R” word.
Regardless of the label used, the situation is the same. By any name, he has been dealt a terrible hand, and has lived an internally tortured life that I wouldn’t wish on a mortal enemy let alone a brother.
Tim defies categorization. He’s not exactly autistic but has many autistic tendencies. Generally speaking, he has the intellect of a first grader, yet can recite the entire dialog for “Sink the Bismarck” complete with character accent changes . . . “Dive, Cap’n! Dive!” He can read an analog clock, but has no idea what a digital clock is trying to tell him. He balks at being touched. He’s highly sensitive to sounds, can’t handle chaos of any sort, and even takes issue with everyday noises at times. “Quit breathing!” was a command we heard often while in close quarters, such as the car, when we were kids. Unfortunately, we were unable to comply with his request, but we learned to go about our lives fairly quietly so as not to awaken his wrath.
He loves nothing more than to get cash for his birthday, however, giving him a couple of large bills is verboten. With Tim, singles are the only way to go since more is always better in his mind. He’d trade a twenty for five singles any day. And if you decide to tack on a gift along with the money, you had better not wrap it tightly. You had also better be ready to proclaim immediately what is in the loosely-wrapped package, or his anxiety level will shoot through the roof. When someone walks in the door on his birthday, the greeting goes something like, “Happy birthday, Tim! I’ve brought you twenty-five dollars in singles, and a pair of rubber boots.” I’ve actually given up wrapping his gifts and typically just hand them over still in the Kohl’s bag. Less stress is a good thing, especially with someone so volatile.
How must he feel being the only one of his siblings who has never had the option to get married and have kids? I know he recognizes the difference, and I know he’s frustrated by the limitations within his handicapped world. He’s always going on about his latest crush, and is quick to pull out his wallet full of copied photos of whomever it happens to be at the moment. But that’s where his affection and obsession must and does stop: a few creased photos of a girl with a vacant smile who has momentarily captured his heart. There will never be a soulmate, a lifelong partner, nor any children for my brother.
To be frank, growing up with Tim was no picnic.
At his worst, he was violent; he slammed an oak chair on my toe when I was a girl, sending me to the hospital, jabbed a sewing needle in my arm, smashed a door into my friend’s forehead, pushed my sister over in her stroller face first onto the sidewalk when she was a toddler, shattered each and every prized porcelain figurine I had received yearly for my birthday, and the list goes on.
At his best, he was momentarily subdued. The rest of the time, he talked incessantly about anything and everything that was whirling around in his head and came pouring out in a looped, incoherent soundtrack, to which the listener must have the appropriate response at the ready despite not having a clue as to what he was talking about. “Mm hmm,” was usually a safe fallback reply.
Having a sibling with a severe handicap that required the majority of my parents’ attention taught my sister, brother and I independence at a very young age. It also required that we conduct ourselves in a way that resulted in a seemingly issue-free childhood since my parents had all they could handle dealing with Tim’s outbursts and needs. There were no teacher reprimands, no visits to the principal, no sub-par grades and no typical teenage shenanigans that might have led to reprimands from authorities. There simply wasn’t any room for any of that in our family dynamics considering all of the angst created by Tim’s behavior.
I’ve often heard stories about how parents or siblings say that they have been incredibly blessed with a child with “fill in the blank” mental handicap or emotional disturbance, and I’ve always paused and wondered.
Blessed? Really? That’s very interesting because absolutely no one in my family would ever use that term to describe our situation. Not in a million years.
When I was younger, it made me consider: were the folks who felt blessed just that much kinder than we were and therefore better equipped to somehow find the silver lining in a tornadic storm? Were they sugar-coating their relative’s mental handicap or emotional disturbance to outsiders? Or was there just such a dramatic difference in the handicap, rendering one individual loving, gentle, and understandable, whereas my brother was the exact opposite?
As I’ve matured, I’ve reached the conclusion that, while there may be fragments of each of those points mixed in, the last scenario is probably the most accurate. Dealing with a mental handicap is one thing, however, when it’s coupled with a severe emotional disturbance that manifests itself in bouts of uncontrollable rage, it’s a whole different ballgame.
I vividly remember sitting in the kitchen talking to my mother after high school one afternoon when Tim shuffled in. He very calmly looked my mom in the eye and asked, “Why am I the only one in our family who’s wrong in the head?” His momentary clarity and heart-felt query was devastating. The fact that he was able to work through that thought and verbalize it was astounding. After he left the room, my mom and I stared at each other in stunned silence until we heard a horrifying screeching sound coming from the next room. We raced into the living room, only to find that Tim had somehow cornered our cat and ripped out most of its whiskers.
Blessed? No, I wouldn’t say that blessed is a very fitting word for anyone or anything involved in that situation, whether you’re talking about Tim, or us, or our poor cat.
Tim currently lives in a group home. He takes several prescriptions to help control his outbursts as well as his epilepsy. As a result, his speech is most often garbled to the point of being unintelligible, merely serving to exacerbate his anger when others can’t understand what he’s trying to communicate. His primary emotion is disgruntled befuddlement with rage always brewing just under the surface.
Once in a while, however, he’ll surprise us.
Saturday afternoon, as we lit the candles on his birthday cake, his face suddenly and unexpectedly scrunched up, and his eyes filled with tears. Then, later, as he was about to leave, he gave me a very long, uncharacteristic hug. I can’t say for certain what he was feeling because he’s truly an emotional enigma, but clearly it wasn’t his typical rage. I’m going to go with the sentiment that most of us would have had in that situation: that he felt blessed to have a loving family with whom to celebrate his birthday.
Perhaps a little sugar-coating of a bitter situation might not be such a bad thing after all.