Week 3 of Serialization: Where Does My Autistic Son Belong? (Serialized): Chapter 3

Kah Ying Choo
30 min readDec 21, 2020


In 2019, I published Where Does My Autistic Son Belong? that chronicles my journey of setting up a new life for Sebastien, my autistic son, after struggling with his aggression that erupted during his puberty and raged unabated for more than five years. This book has been very much part and parcel of A Mother’s Wish initiative (amotherswish.com.sg) to educate parents, educators, and the public about how we can interact with autistic individuals out of genuine empathy and respect. In the hope that as many people as possible will read it and learn from my parenting mistakes, I will be serializing this book on Medium on a weekly basis (click the link above).

And if you do want to purchase the book, please use this link: https://www.amotherswish.com.sg/product-page/crowdfunding-pledge-s-30.

Funds are still being raised for A Mother’s Wish that supports programs and families of autistic individuals and Sebastien’s future.

Please feel free to spread this message to others who may find this of value. Thank you very much. 🙏



(May — June 2011)

The descent into the dark days happened so quickly. I felt like a protagonist in an episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, waking up in a familiar world that had gone askew — the same town, but in a different era. In my story, time and space stayed the same. However, Sebastien’s reversion to aggression as a teenager was turning our lives upside.

Once upon a time, I had felt like a veteran mother who was confident that she was up to any challenge her autistic son could throw at her. Now, fear was the central inhabitant of my being; its companions were shock and confusion. What is going on with Sebastien? What is happening to our life? Are we ever going to go back to things the way they used to be?

While Sebastien’s early experimentation with bedwetting and walking had seemed slightly odd, it was always characterised by an element of restraint and control. I felt that he could turn it “on” or “off” if he wanted to. They were even tinged with a degree of light-heartedness and humour, even if I did not find it as amusing as he did.

However, there was nothing restrained, light-hearted, or humorous about Sebastien’s explosive mood changes that could sometimes lead him to attack me. Each time he unleashed his animalistic screams out of the blue, I would lurch so hard at the pit of my stomach that my whole body would shudder involuntarily. Holding onto the edge of the table, I would resist the impulse to flee into the safety of my bedroom. Instead, I willed myself to confront Sebastien with a façade of authority: “Stop it! What’s the matter with you? Do you want me to cancel your painting?” I was still hoping to restore my control and authority in the household.

Sometimes, my command would seem to work: he would settle down and return to whatever he was supposed to be doing like taking a shower. At other times, he would rush me, with his arms raised up high to pounce on me. I would just have a split to turn tail and dash into my bedroom. It was important to me that he didn’t have the pleasure of “scoring” a strike against me. Of course, the satisfaction of eluding Sebastien’s attack was cold comfort, but I was grasping at anything I could to make me feel like he didn’t have his way entirely.

Thus, my bedroom — a place of privacy and rest — was turned into a “safe house”. The cool quiet and calmness of the room would feel almost eerie, compared to what had just occurred and how I felt, with my heart beating wildly and my breathing shallow and heavy. I would often slump down on the bed, panting in a state of abject relief, relieved that I had gotten away unscathed, but crushed by the complete erosion of my parental authority over Sebastien. On a few occasions, when Sebastien’s pounces had left blood-streaked scratches on my upper arms, I would sit on the bed, my mind stuck in a flashback mode. I would compulsively replay the fleeting moments of violence, as though I needed convincing that this unpremeditated event had truly happened. It was a mind reeling in shock, wanting to cast doubt upon the occurrence of the horrible past, in lieu of treating my wounds, which would have forced me to confront the awful truth of what had just transpired. Did my son really charge at me? Did I really stagger back from the weight of his body hurtling towards me? None of the images was clear in my mental visualisation; all I could see was a blur of flesh and motion.

Finally, the sensible voice of reason would interrupt my replays and stir me into action with its wise counsel: “It’s time to clean your wound. Just get up.” As I would feel the sharp sting of the antiseptic ointment upon the scratches on my skin, I could no longer be in denial. With the occurrence of each episode, my flesh would serve as its own record of what had transpired, even though my mind’s eye would not be able to offer an accurate visual recording. In fact, the etchings of this difficult chapter of my life would become far more profound and multi-layered than I could ever imagine, as new wounds would take the place of recovered ones in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

It was not just the meltdowns that made my life difficult. While the eruptions of aggression took place only occasionally, the threat of aggression was perpetual. I was stuck in a limbo of not knowing when the next strike would happen and operating in a crisis mode of anticipating it so that I wouldn’t be caught by surprise. Getting into the safe house before Sebastien could get to me was still a tiny “victory” I strove for.

When I look back upon this phase when Sebastien’s aggression reared its ugly head again, I wonder why I had been so cowed by him so quickly and easily. Why didn’t I hit back? I guess the prospect of engaging in physical combat with anyone, let alone my own son, just went against my natural predisposition. Certainly, as a parent, I did not believe that I should effect change by inflicting pain on my son. I prided myself on being a parent who never resorted to corporal punishment even when Sebastien the young boy was pinching and scratching me, or pulling my hair. It made sense to me to set a good example for Sebastien by not using force with him. How could I expect him to abstain from aggression when I was using force to deal with his transgressions? Nonetheless, adopting a pacifist stance made me feel defenceless and terrified. I was at the mercy of an enemy that could strike any moment.

* * * * *

And then one day, something happened to change the dynamics of our relationship. We were on the verge of starting our homeschooling day that typically began with an exercise programme. When Sebastien emerged from his bedroom in T-shirt and shorts, I noticed that he didn’t look comfortable in the shorts he was wearing; he had outgrown them during his pubertal growth.

Without thinking much about my comment, I pointed to his shorts and said, “Sebastien, your shorts are too small. Go change them.”

“A-A-ARGH!” With a blood-curdling scream and eyes flashing with anger, Sebastien charged towards me with all his body weight.

It all happened so quickly for there was not much of a distance separating the two of us. That was the day when I had reached instinctively for a cane umbrella and inflicted a bump on Sebastien’s forehead. Despite my mindset about fighting, I had hit back and prevailed in the “battle”. My body had taken over instinctively, making its moves unthinkingly. Although I was still reeling from the confrontation, it also felt good to be liberated from the trauma and fear, which had had a stranglehold on me for the past month.

Still, it wasn’t easy to confront the swollen bump that protruded from the top left corner of his forehead. It was as though the bump was reproaching me: “What kind of mum does this to her child?”

My motherly guilt chased away any vestiges of fear I could have had about Sebastien retaliating.

“Sorry, is that ‘ouch ouch’?” I pointed at the bump.

“No… Yes,” he replied stonily.

“I am going to put some ice on it. You should sit down.”

I walked towards the refrigerator to retrieve some ice. When I returned and sat on the floor, Sebastien rested his head on my lap, while I placed a bag of ice on his forehead. It was almost surreal to get to be a caring mother after our physical confrontation. This reprieve from my fear of Sebastien could almost make me believe that all was well between us.

However, suddenly, a glint of anger flashed in Sebastien’s eyes and his menacing look returned. He grabbed my arm that was holding the ice. It was likely that he had felt the pain penetrating through the coldness. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I shouted “Hey!” and shoved him off my lap. Then I leapt to my feet and rushed to my room. It was a reflex reaction to another possible confrontation. With the condensation from the ice dripping from my hands onto the floor, the spell of feeling like a caring mother was broken.

I would not realise it that day. But when I had instinctively fought back to hit Sebastien, I had crossed some kind of a threshold, broken free from some kind of restraint. My first real “victory” was both empowering and invigorating. From that day onwards, Sebastien’s animalistic screams and cries no longer made my stomach contract with fear and anxiety. Instead, it only triggered my desire to fight back: I turned into a “streetfighter” overnight. The instant Sebastien turned on me, I would leap towards him and pummel him with my bare fists, without any conscious thought. From a position of weakness and reaction, I had moved towards one of strength and action.

Still, I needed to “sell” my confrontational approach to my reluctant parenting mind. So I justified it as the way for me to manage Sebastien. Without resorting to force, I did not have a fighting chance against Sebastien, the adolescent. It was a way for me to continue to “manage” his behaviour. How could I manage him if I were scared of him?

At the end of the day, my “streetfighter” persona only took me out of a place of fear. Fighting Sebastien did little to repair our relationship; in fact, it only made things worse.

* * * * *

In tandem with our deteriorating relationship in the household, our outings became fraught with challenges. Just walking to the nearest commuter train station from our home, 15 minutes away, felt like an eternity. By this phase of our relationship, Sebastien was blatantly flouting my rules about veering away from our route to pick up pieces of trash, as well as scraping off stickers and labels on benches, garbage cans, and the ground. I had to refrain from issuing any form of criticism. The last thing I wanted to do was to trigger a confrontation in public, which could lead to police involvement.

However, my restraint seemed to have no effect on Sebastien. Perhaps, he had caught my disapproving gaze from the corner of his eye. So as we were walking across the housing estates to get home from the commuter train station, Sebastien would suddenly turn around and unleash a barrage of words about the punishments I could mete out to him: “No skating, no painting, no movie, no tandoori chicken, etc.” The fact that there were others within earshot of him was no deterrent.

From the way that he was spitting out the list of the privileges that were used to persuade him to behave properly at my face, I felt as though the bigger and strong Sebastien was taunting me: “I know all the tricks you have up your sleeves. And I don’t care. I am done following your instructions.” It was hard to believe that for four years, Sebastien had abided by the system with little or no resistance. But at that point, one could hear the strands of the rewards and consequences, which had once acted as restraints on Sebastien’s behaviour snapping, one by one. He knew what was right and wrong, but he had decided that he could not care less about the rewards and their denial in his life. He would do whatever he wanted and deal with the consequences later.

Realising that I had become transformed from Sebastien’s mentor into a catalyst for poor behaviour, I decided to take the risk of letting him travel on his own, in the hope that he wouldn’t have any reason to lash out in public. Thus, instead of accompanying Sebastien on these routine trips, I allowed Sebastien to take the local transport on his own to the gym (once a week) and the private school centre he attended three afternoons a week. Neither of these trips to the two different locations was straightforward: with the gym, he would have to change from the bus to a commuter train; in the latter case, he needed to take two buses.

Implementing such a strategy constituted a considerable leap of faith, one taken more out of desperation than of hope. So many things could go wrong. Sebastien could engage in reckless and impulsive behaviour that would violate society’s limits. Who knew how the authorities and the general public would then respond to his actions? And then what would Sebastien do next? It was hard to contemplate.

To do whatever I could to mitigate the adverse outcomes of a potential clash between Sebastien and the outside world, I created an information card about him. This card was laminated and then attached with Velcro strips to the outside of a small pouch-like bag with long straps, which he carried around his neck. It contained a phone and the card that he used for taking public transport. Passers-by reading the card would learn that Sebastien had autism and could contact me via my mobile number if needed. I even incorporated Sebastien’s interests of painting and skating so that people would look beyond his odd and bizarre behaviour to see a different side to him.

With this information card, I was essentially letting go of my previous role as a buffer against the outside world, who could step in on Sebastien’s behalf and explain away his wrongdoings. Instead, I was relying on the public to be my eyes and ears. And perhaps, some of its members would turn out to be the impromptu “teachers” to stop Sebastien in his tracks and teach him a lesson.

Despite this measure, I was terrified for Sebastien. Whenever he left the house, I would go about the household chores or my work with bated breath. My true reprieve from my worries about Sebastien took place when I received messages that he had arrived at the destination. Throughout his commuting period, the sound of my phone ringing would make me jump.

In fact, two weeks would go by without incident. But just when I was about to contemplate the possibility that Sebastien could be doing better, two disturbing incidents would torpedo my serenity within the space of just three days…

* * * * *

One afternoon, Sebastien showed up at the gym without his backpack. Under Coach Randy’s questioning, all Sebastien kept repeating was “backpack”. Coach Randy walked him back to the train station to speak to the officials there and lodge a report about the missing backpack. Sebastien had taken both a bus and the commuter train, as well as walked on the streets to get to the gym. The backpack could have been left behind at any of these locations. With no precise input from Sebastien, the backpack could have been anywhere.

However, as Sebastien got easily distressed about losing things ever since his puberty, I adopted a calm attitude towards the whole situation. The backpack was “lost”: there were no valuables; it was no big deal. I would just chalk it off to an unsolved mystery.

Concerned about Sebastien’s state of being, I went to the gym to console him. I was relieved to see that he had appeared to recover from the loss. At that moment, my phone rang. It was a number I did not recognise. The caller turned out to be a friend of my mother. Apparently, she had ridden on the same bus as Sebastien and called to tell me that he had left his backpack behind on the bus! Based on the information she gave me, I was able to call the bus company and locate the correct bus depot. The person on the line verified that Sebastien’s backpack was there. Hallelujah! I pumped my fist in the air and told Sebastien excitedly: “I found the backpack. Mama is going to pick it up after I take you home.” He repeated “Backpack” with a smile. It had been quite some time since I could feel like I was a hero around Sebastien. I was super-elated that the day would have a happy ending after all!

At the bus depot, I navigated past the buses and bus drivers to get to the office, primed with a beaming smile and poised to express my profuse gratitude to the personnel for finding Sebastien’s backpack. However, when I enquired about the backpack, a bus driver thrust Sebastien’s backpack at me gruffly and walked away before I could even say a word. I wasn’t too put off by his brusque manner. I had Sebastien’s backpack. That was all that mattered! A day with a happy ending was really rare these days; I would take it!

Later that evening, when I was attending a friend’s birthday celebration, my victory bubble burst when my mother called. Her friend had not dared to give me the full account of what had happened on the bus. Apparently, Sebastien had run up and down the bus, peeling off the large stickers like the transparent emergency sign from the windows of the bus and thus creating quite a commotion. The bus driver had gotten so annoyed that he had contacted the headquarters to determine what he should do.

As he pulled up at the bus stop near the train station where Sebastien, along with many other commuters, wanted to alight, the bus driver who was still waiting for a response from the headquarters refused to open the bus door. At that point, many of the commuters were protesting at the bus driver to get him to open the door. From their perspective, Sebastien hadn’t done anything to warrant them all being locked up in the bus.

To this day, I am still amazed by how Sebastien thought out of the box to get out of this unexpected situation. He forced the automatic doors open with his bare hands and tried to squeeze through them. When he found that his backpack was impeding him from this escape, he just left it behind! What strength, nerve, and initiative! I was incredulous.

At the same time, I was devastated. Sebastien had shown strength, temerity, and initiative to get himself out of trouble! What I had thought of as victorious day turned out to be one of damage control. I was not a hero, just a disempowered mother picking up the pieces of the mess that her son had left behind.

For his disrespect of bus property, I prohibited Sebastien from leaving the house for the next three days to deny him the privilege of riding on public transport. This meant that Sebastien would miss the annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner at my sister’s house. Even in the face of protests from my family, I refused to relent. I was adamant that Sebastien learnt his lesson.

In the end, what was significant about the episode was Sebastien’s impression of my ability to find out the truth about what had transpired on the bus that day, even though I wasn’t present. Thinking that Sebastien might exercise some restraint in his actions if he thought I was watching him, I didn’t want to correct his erroneous thinking about my superpower.

However, his perception of my superpower would have consequences that I did not fathom at the time…

* * * * *

Three nights later, at about ten o’clock, while I was watching a movie with Jerome at his home, the phone rang. It made me jump. Still feeling annoyed with Sebastien’s transgression on the bus, I had decided to take an evening off by staying at Jerome’s place.

This time, my paranoia about Sebastien getting into trouble was confirmed. It was the police. Frightened neighbours had called the police: Sebastien had been streaking through the corridor outside our flat, wearing nothing but a disposable underwear, while making strange noises and jumping up and down in agitation near the lift lobby area. The police had been unsuccessful in persuading Sebastien to return to the flat.

When Jerome and I arrived, I was shocked to see Sebastien in his disposable underwear, looking wild-eyed and agitated. When he wasn’t walking in and out of the flat, he was shifting his weight from side to side. I could sense the suppressed judgment of the two uniformed policemen directed towards me.

“Sebastien, get into the house! Go put on your pyjamas,” I spoke to him sharply. However, Sebastien didn’t budge. He didn’t seem to register what I was saying. For a few seconds, I stared at Sebastien in disbelief. Who are you? What have you done to my son?

At that point, the flustered police officers began to pressure me: “Madam, he needs to go into the house. Or we’ll have to take him down to the station.”

“I’m trying to get him into the house. He’s autistic. But I don’t know why he is behaving like this. He is not like this normally. He has never done this before. He can be really good, cooks, hangs clothes…”

“Madam, it doesn’t matter. He needs to go into the house now.”

“Sebastien, get into the house now!”

“NO!” Sebastien barked.

Amidst this impasse, Jerome grabbed Sebastien by the arm and ushered him into the flat firmly.

Now that Sebastien was safely in the house, I wished that the police officers would go away. The last thing I wanted to do was to hang around outside in the corridor answering the questions of police officers who couldn’t possibly understand the autism universe I lived in. I didn’t know to speak about Sebastien the young man to these without making him come off as a half-crazed and dangerous young man. At the same time, I also wanted to defend myself: I didn’t want them to think of me as a neglectful and deranged mother who would leave her teenage autistic son, who still needed to wear disposable underwear, alone by himself.

At the same time, I spoke in a soft and distressed voice that I could barely recognise as I struggled to explain how Sebastien was not such a developmentally delayed autistic teen who needed to wear a disposable underwear and required constant supervision. Rather, the disposable underwear was my strategy of depriving him of regular comfortable underwear to dissuade him from purposefully soiling himself in his underwear — yes, his latest bizarre behaviour. Of course, the fact that Sebastien would deliberately soil himself in his underwear only made him sound even more bizarre. It was truly hard to paint a portrait of Sebastien without making him come off in an entirely negative way. At the end of the day, none of what I said made mattered. It would have been befuddling to anyone who didn’t have an autistic child, let alone to two police officers who wore the mask of an impersonal, institutional façade.

But the truth was that even I could not make sense of Sebastien’s behaviour that night. What was he doing out here in the corridor in his underwear? What has my son become? I don’t understand what is happening.

However, the police officers were not quite done. There was still one more thing they brought up: “Look, your neighbours, they called because they have young kids. They were worried that your son would expose himself…”

“Did he?” I was terrified.

I really didn’t know what they would say. A new antic that Sebastien had been getting into occasionally was putting his hand into his shorts to grab at his penis and even pulling his penis partially out from the top of his shorts such the tip of his penis could be seen. Apart from shaking my head at him, I didn’t want to over-focus my attention on it in the hope that it would fade out by itself. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to stop it from getting out of hand, as with every other inappropriate behaviour he was doing.

“No, madam,” one of them replied immediately.

As I breathed a sigh of relief, the other quickly pointed out: “But if he had done it, or the neighbours had seen that, we would’ve taken him down to the station…”

What was he pointing at? With my back facing the door, I did not see Sebastien behind me. I turned my head to see what they were looking at. Even though he was now wearing his pyjama pants, the pink tip of his penis was peeking out from the top of it!

“Sebastien!” I quickly pulled up the top of his pyjama pants to conceal it.

I think seeing Sebastien materialise near the front door made them nervous. The policemen quickly reminded me to keep him in the house and turned to walk towards the elevator. However, Sebastien took off from the gate of our flat, running agitatedly behind them.

“Sebastien! Get back!”

The policemen spun around in a panic, their arms thrown wide open, as though they were poised to ward off a possible attack or to block Sebastien from running towards the neighbours’ flat. They shouted at him, “Step back! Go back to your flat!”

Sebastien halted a short distance from them. I caught up to him, holding onto his arm. I was grateful that Sebastien had decided to stay put. After the policemen pressed the “call” button for the elevator, Sebastien stared transfixed at the elevator, watching it intently until the “ting” signalled its arrival, even though he continued to bob agitatedly on his feet. The hesitant policemen moved cautiously towards the elevator door, with their bodies half-turned towards Sebastien and eyes locked on him. Their look of concern lingered until the closing elevator doors obliterated them from our sight. Only then did Sebastien move from the spot and return to our flat without any prompting from me.

Once the policemen were gone, I could feel myself think more clearly again. Sebastien’s behaviour of following the policemen to the elevator made total sense. He had simply wanted to make sure that they were truly gone. Sebastien’s agitated demeanour was one of fear, not of aggression. Yet the policemen’s reaction to his action revealed the extent to which they had misinterpreted his emotion. Now, I had actual confirmation of the authorities’ inability to “read” Sebastien’s movements accurately and calmly. I feared for the day when Sebastien would get in trouble with the authorities and their mishandling of the situation would cause everything to escalate out of all proportions.

But there was no time to think about an imminent future when I had an unpleasant present still to figure out. I stepped into the house, distraught about the latest incident. Both Jerome and Sebastien were in his bedroom. As I sank down onto the couch, I caught sight of some broken white pieces in the kitchen near his bathroom. I moved to the kitchen to investigate further. What I saw made me clutch my forehead in despair and cry out: “Oh my god! What have you done?” The sink in Sebastien’s bathroom had been completely ripping away from the wall, leaving a gaping hole that exposed the pipes! Half a sink remained, with a hint of its original shape to remind one of its previous incarnation, while the other half had shattered into shards of white fragments, from tiny, barely visible pieces to larger ones. They were scattered all across the floor in the bathroom and its vicinity in the kitchen.

Both Jerome and Sebastien had come to the kitchen when they heard my cry. At this point, I had crumbled to the ground. I stared at him in disbelief: “What have you done? First, the policeman, and now this!” He stood there, with his head hanging low, muttering in his usual garbled and monotonous voice: “Sorry for me…” With the prospect of having to cover another expense and sharing the only bathroom left in the house, which was in my bedroom, with Sebastien, for the next few days, I yelled at him in complete frustration: “Just go away! Go to your room! I don’t want to see your face!”

After Sebastien slunk away to his bedroom, Jerome and I cleared up the mess. All the while, I was furious. In contrast, Jerome was mostly filled with relief: “He could have really hurt himself.” Yes, despite all that had happened, he pointed out that Sebastien had escaped relatively unscathed from this situation. We should take heart in this little blessing. I barely heard him.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. While Jerome was deep in slumber, I kept replaying these words in my mind: “What am I supposed to do? How could I make Sebastien behave better?” As my breathing got shallower and faster, I could almost feel my beating heart jumping out of my chest. It’s okay. Slow down. Take a deep breath. My voice of reason intervened. For someone with a history of manic depression, who had not been taking medication for years, I needed to be careful about the temptation of falling into the dark abyss of depression. I got through the night by tapping into my repertoire of emotional self-regulation tools: deep breathing accompanied by placing my fingers on targeted acupressure points. At the same time, I came up with a new mantra: There’s nothing more for you to do tonight… You will figure it out tomorrow…

When I opened my eyes the next day, the events of the previous night came back to me. Only then did I put two and two together to figure out the relationship between the broken sink and Sebastien streaking through the corridor. Weeks later, when I caught Sebastien hopping onto the kitchen sink, it dawned on me that he must have done something similar with the bathroom sink to wash his buttocks. However, unlike the kitchen sink that was embedded in a sturdy cabinet, the sink in his bathroom was simply attached to the wall without any additional support. Sebastien’s innocent experimentation with this novel approach of washing his buttocks would rip the sink from the wall. In his state of panic, Sebastien had streaked through the corridor to the lobby area of the elevator to wait for my arrival. Because of his perception of my superpower, he was confident that I would find out about this incident, even though I wasn’t there. Thus, he was waiting for me at the elevator, in a complete state of agitation! Now Sebastien’s behaviour made perfect sense!

Nonetheless, solving the mystery about what happened the night before did not make me feel any less agitated about Sebastien. I still had a broken sink to deal with, which would cost money to repair. I was still clueless about how to deal with the excesses of Sebastien’s reckless experimentation. And most immediate of all my concerns was my day ahead with Sebastien. What were we going to do on his “punishment” day? It was hard not to feel resentful that, on what should have been a leisurely Sunday spent with Jerome, Sebastien and I would be stuck inside the flat, in each other’s company. Ultimately, I would be just as punished as he was.

Only fragments of that awful day remained in my memory. I think we were taking down some of his old colourings from the wall to make space for putting up new ones. But Sebastien could hardly manage to remove the long strips of scotch tape he used to tape up his pictures because he was continually sticking his hand into his shorts and kneading his penis. After a close call with the police about this behaviour, I got so furious that I implemented the approach of whacking his hand lightly with a cane every time he stuck his hand into his shorts.

After half an hour into this terrible exchange, Sebastien had had enough. When he pounced on me, our physical struggle, with me moving backwards and flailing at him with the cane, would push the site of our confrontation from his bedroom to the kitchen. But, suddenly, Sebastien decided to stop fighting. At that point, only a small distance separated us: I was leaning against the counter with the stovetop, while he stood in front of the washer.

Instead of feeling relieved that he had exercised some restraint, I started screaming at him through the film of my tears: “Do you think it is cool for people to think that you are crazy? They just lock you up in a place with all the other crazy people? Do you want to go to the crazy hospital?! You think you are the only one who knows how to be crazy? I do crazy! You think you are crazy?! I am the original crazy in this house!” After this teary tirade, I sank to the ground, burying my face in my hands, and bawling my head off.

At that moment, I felt as though the universe was out to get me by turning Sebastien against me. He was supposed to have been my redemption for my life racked by manic depression, which I had written about in my book, Five Little White Pills… And Then There Were None. To look after Sebastien, the baby, I had found the motivation to turn away from the seductive euphoria of mania and go on medication. And after his diagnosis of autism at just 18 months, I was even more steadfast in staying on medication over the next 10 years, which enabled me to institute a life of stability. Throughout the past decade, I was so preoccupied with caring for Sebastien that there was only one chronic condition in the household; my manic depression was so well-regulated that I seldom talked about it. And when I managed to wean myself off medication, Sebastien was the anchor and inspiration, which propelled me on the homeschooling journey. But now, in a 180-degree turnaround, the baby who had brought out the best in me and given me a sense of direction had become my nemesis, pushing me towards the precipice of insanity.

In retrospect, I would realise that Sebastien was the scapegoat of my fury at the unfairness of the universe. While I might not have conjured up these very thoughts, they drove the tears that poured out of me: Haven’t I paid a high enough price? Haven’t I stepped up and taken responsibility for my life and raised Sebastien with commitment and love? Don’t I deserve a happy ending because I have turned my life around? Why am I still paying the price that seems to have no end in sight? On that afternoon, as I unleashed all my angry tears, I was flirting dangerously with my own demons. For a person with manic depression, going crazy almost felt like a tempting prospect, an escape route from maddening circumstances.

Suddenly, something interrupted my tears. Almost mirroring my stance, Sebastien also crumbled onto the ground, burst into tears, and erupted in howls of anguish. This was nothing like his usual indifference or attempt to laugh away my tears. Through his uninhibited cries that reverberated in the air that had been thick with anger, I could sense his suffering. No, Sebastien was by no means “happy” with the chaotic state of our life. He was racked with heart-wrenching angst.

If I were not so steeped in my self-pity, I could have built upon that fleeting moment of our connection when we were collapsed on the kitchen floor with our flushed and tear-stained faces. For that fleeting instant, we were linked together by a common realisation that whatever was happening between us was making both of us extremely unhappy.

It was a pivotal moment that I let slip away. I was too blinded by my anger, anxiety, and fear to seize the opportunity. Instead, I chose to be unmoved by his tears: Why is he crying? After all, isn’t he getting what he wanted? Hasn’t he been destroying our homeschooling life and making our life a living hell? How dare he cry when he is the one who is creating our misery? So instead of reaching out to him and hugging him, I just glared at him and walked into my room. It was easy to dismiss his outburst as “crocodile tears”. Today, I would come to regret that I repelled his “cry for help” when he had reached out to me.

Nonetheless, I also lacked the accurate knowledge and the appropriate expectations at the time to turn the situation around. After our big cry, I had actually entertained the unrealistic hope that his reaction represented his awakening to the errors of his ways and we could get back on track to move towards a “happy ending” from this point onwards. But I was just setting myself up for a huge disappointment. There were far larger forces beneath the surface, which needed to be to acknowledged and addressed. I was still clueless about them…

Over the next two days, Sebastien produced two paintings, which deviated from the usual ones that featured a vibrant rainbow of colours. If a painting truly spoke a thousand words, Sebastien’s “dark” painting with smeared with blotches and streaks of black, grey, and dark brown, which reminded one of a catastrophic oil spill on the ocean, would open the window to his soul with devastating clarity. For the first time in our relationship, I could sense how he was feeling inside. It made me frightened for I did not know whether he would emerge from this terrible space.

Pulse of Life vs. Oil Spill
Out of the Woods

When I entered his room as usual to retrieve his completed painting to take out to dry, Sebastien didn’t react any differently about it from his typical indifference. The value of painting for Sebastien had always laid in the experience, not the result. While he didn’t speak about his painting in words, he communicated through his painting. Thus, it was patently evident Sebastien did not speak the same language as most with regards to the matters of the heart. There was a huge and unbridgeable distance that separated Sebastien from the rest of us, which included me.

In the end, Sebastien got through the dark period by himself — a development that unravelled through his paintings. On the third day, he moved away from the bleak hues to produce a predominantly green painting that I named Out of the Woods.

I saw it as a representation of Sebastien’s endeavour to make his way out of his dark place. It was the last atypical piece he painted before he reverted to the multi-coloured hues of his typical paintings.

The door to his soul was closed again. Our fight continued.

* * * * *

To this day, more than six years later, our standoff in the kitchen had lodged itself firmly in my mind. The hardness of the counter and the coldness of the kitchen floor, in contrast to my hot and sticky face, still seem as visceral as though the event had happened just yesterday. If I could rewind the clock and go back in time, I would have wrapped my arms around Sebastien and consoled him, even if I hadn’t known how to move on from there. There was my son who was in tremendous emotional pain, but I had hardened my heart against him, feeling fully justified to turn my back on him.

My callous reaction towards Sebastien that afternoon was a reflection of how far I had strayed away from being a mother who was a true advocate of her child. By that point, I had gone into a very dark place myself. All throughout Sebastien’s earlier life, I had always been on his side. While I had not often been able to figure out how Sebastien the boy was feeling inside, I had at least tried to see things from his perspective. It had been easy to do compared to what I was dealing with, in the case of Sebastien the young man. I struggled to stretch my tolerance of his bizarre behaviours. Even when I was not tussling with him physically, I was yelling at him for all his aberrant behaviours: “Why are you pooping in your underwear?”; “Stop being meany (aggressive)!”; “Stop grabbing your penis!”. My cry of the rhetorical question — “What’s wrong with you?” — was such a constant refrain that my voice became raspy from screaming it so often. Not only were his behaviours disgusting and reckless, they were liable to get him into trouble. His clashes with the bus driver and the police only further confirmed the need for me to extinguish them before they got out of hand.

What I couldn’t see back then was that the more I judged him and sought to suppress his behaviours without understanding him, the more I was seeing him with the eyes of an outsider. I was essentially abandoning Sebastien to his own devices in his challenging transition into young adulthood. At the time, I couldn’t see any of it; I blamed Sebastien for preventing me from being his mentor by shutting me out with his bizarre and hostile behaviour. Not once did I turn inward to look at how I was treating him.

Perhaps, if I had not been so dead set on changing Sebastien back to the compliant child he once appeared to be, I might have recognised that I was the one who had begun to behave very badly. This phase was not a proud chapter of my life. After overcoming my fear of Sebastien’s physical attacks, I moved deeper and deeper into the “dark realm”. Raging within me was a roiling cauldron of rage, hurt, and hate of a mother who felt betrayed by the person she loved more than herself, which drove me to feel justified at hitting out at Sebastien.

So although I was initially fending off Sebastien’s aggression, I began to land a few more blows on him with my fists or a cane even after he had backed off. Sometimes, I would even pick up a cushion and whack him 10 or 20 times more just to unleash my fury. At other times, I would stomp my feet and clench my fists to stop myself from hurtling towards him and pummelling him to his senses.

All in all, for one and a half months, I could not have behaved in a more “unmotherly” fashion. At the time, I was aware of how far I had deviated from society’s ideal image of the loving and self-sacrificing saintly “mother figure”. She is selfless in taking on the burdens of her loved ones and forgiving of their wrongs in a heartbeat. There was a time when I had even thought about myself that way.

However, I could not have felt more estranged from Sebastien the teenager. For the first time in my life, I begrudged being the mother of an autistic child. I remember the day I deliberately screamed this condemnation at him, which had been replaying in my mind: “I cursed the day you were born.” I didn’t know whether he understood me or not, but I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to feel as hurt as I did. My cry was no less animalistic than his. I had become a madwoman flailing at a situation that I was unable to control and change. Instead of stopping his momentum and giving him the guidance he needed, I got sucked into our self-destructive cycle, resorting to behaviour that was no less ugly than his.

Our homeschooling universe resembled more like a mental asylum on an island, forgotten by the rest of modern civilization. It operated by its own rules that were characterised by a dire lack of decorum and sanity, with Sebastien and me its only inmates. And during my moments of restraint, I was still stuck on the island, albeit in a role of an attendant.

* * * * *

Then one day, I stopped. The awakening came in the form of a quiet voice, when I felt alone and safe in our tiny and cosy flat, putting away Sebastien’s clothes. During these solitary moments, I could genuinely appreciate the loveliness of my very first home with the chandelier lamps, the Ikea shelves that we had installed to display Sebastien’s paintings, and the photographs of our travels on the narrow walls flanking the doorways of the entries to the apartment and our bedrooms. Immersing in this nurturing serenity, which was in stark contrast to how I had been conducting myself in this home, made me feel ill at the pit of my stomach. I had been acting like a hoodlum bracing for a street fight in a bad neighbourhood!

This was not the person I wanted to be and the home I wanted to create. “Freeing” myself from my place of fear had come with a high price. It was not worth it. From that day onwards, I renounced the use of physical force against Sebastien. Regardless of what would happen in the days ahead, I needed to be able to look in the mirror and see a “me” I could respect.



Kah Ying Choo

Mother of an autistic young man, who has been my muse and my teacher, published author, educator, and learner, schooled by the University of Life