by Kara Petrovic
My mother holds me down, her hands locked around my wrists as I am screaming, writhing in pain. It is midnight, or sometime after. The fluorescent lights of my room feel too bright, they burn against my skin, cursed with hypersensitivity. I can hear my mother cooing at me, gently whispering it is time to stop. Covered in cold sweat, my skin is slick, and my hair sticks to my forehead. This is a snapshot of my life at its lowest, which happens more often than I care to admit. It is a panic attack, or something similar, some days I cannot tell the difference. Yet, with unyielding patience, my mother hears my screams and we go into our usual song and dance: where my hands are scratching at my skin as if I were digging for gold, and her hands are petting my head, snaking their way around my body to make me still.
My mother never really understood mental illness, not when it first crept into my bed and made itself a home. She thought I was attention-seeking, the youngest child tired of raising their voice just to be heard, that this was the newest of my attempts to gain her affection. My mother thought she could shake it out of me, that if she grabbed me by my shoulders enough times or slapped me across the face hard enough I would snap out of it and be the child she had envisioned.
I am 22 years old now, and I have a cornucopia of diagnoses, all of which seem to be trying to outdo the other. In my youth, I was a lost soul — to put it kindly. A fire raged in my chest while a demon followed my every footstep: I was enamored with death.
If death was a man, with sickly grey skin and bones for fingers, he followed me throughout my adolescence, before I even knew how to correctly spell suicide. At 12 years old, I would write notes to my mother and leave them on the threshold of her bedroom, apologizing for being the way that I was, stating I knew she would be better off if I were dead.
I would watch her read these notes, hidden behind the pillars in the house. With the scoff of a laugh accompanied by a quick roll of her eyes, her staple response to my behavior, she would crumple the paper up. To her, this was a cry for attention, and I suppose in some way it was. It was also a cry for help, one she would make me wait several years to receive.
Meanwhile, I played surgeon with myself. I seemed to believe that if I cut deep enough I could find the source of my sickness and remove it from my skin. Since I had to eradicate this on my own, I had to navigate without a sense of direction. I would lock myself in my room and map out the corners of my brain, go hunting in the depths of my subconscious to try and locate the cause of my misery. At the dollar store, I would buy razors, take them home and break apart the safety barriers. I would mark up my arms, my legs, my stomach. I experimented at first, marking Xs all over my skin, but it quickly became methodical lines and, each new session, I challenged myself to dig even deeper.
A therapist once told me that the pain I carry is liquid gold, and it fills up the cracks inside of me and creates a new work of art each time— I stare at my pain and try to see the beauty in it, in its curves and twists, the knots in my forearms and the scars on my body. All I see are cracks. White lines that look nothing like gold. I trace my fingertips along the hypertrophic scars and, suddenly, I am engulfed in loneliness and vulnerability. Though I want nothing more than to hold on with an iron fist, I let go of the abyss and tell myself the wounds have healed. Yet they burn each time I see someone trying not to stare.
My mother believes pain can be expunged, as if my pain and I should separate. My mother says happiness is a choice. I promise I am trying to choose happiness every day, but maybe the words stick in my throat, maybe I’m so used to excelling as her disappointment that I can no longer tell the difference.
I am fifteen years old and I have been living with an unnamed illness for three years. It’s November, 2011, and my sister and I are setting up the Christmas tree. My parents are still together, out for the evening at a concert, desperately hoping this date night will save their marriage. At some point in the evening, my lungs and heart plummet in my chest and my mind repeats one track. I sneak into my parents’ bedroom and find my father’s sleeping pills I had stumbled upon several weeks prior. I read the label with care, noting all the warnings. “Do not operate machinery. Take with food. Do not consume with alcohol.”
Do not consume with alcohol.
Before I know it, I’m standing in front of the liquor cabinet, 26 pills in hand. I look through my options, and settle on the one with the highest alcohol content: tequila. I down the pills, chase them with the tequila, in seconds. The alcohol burns my throat, my body contorts in protest and I shiver as it enters my stomach. For a moment, nothing happens.
I walk upstairs into my bedroom. I pick out the outfit I would like to be found in: I change my shirt. I put one leg into my favorite pair of jeans.
When I wake up, I’m in the hospital. My mouth is black, covered in charcoal, and there are light burn marks on my chest. My mother sits across the room from me. Her thumbnail is in her mouth. She has been crying but when she realizes I am awake, her face hardens. I can hardly hear anything; the world is muted. She draws near and kneels by my bed. Her brown eyes I inherited are cold. “Listen,” she says, “there will be a psychiatrist who comes to see you. You must listen to me. You must lie. You must not tell the truth. If you do, you will be hospitalized and this will ruin your life.”
Ruin my life.
She coaches me, over and over, on the things I have to say. I stand up groggily and stumble towards the bathroom. She follows me, stands behind me, watching as I wash my face. She follows me back into the room, saying, “This was a mistake, an accident, you didn’t know what you were doing.”
“This wasn’t an accident,” I say, wincing as the words make their way from my throat.
“Don’t be stupid. You must tell the psychiatrist, ‘no, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.’”
When the psychiatrist visits me the following day, I say, “I made a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
I answer, “No, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.”
When my 24 hours are up, I am released, and the next day I go to school as if I hadn’t just died two days prior.
This becomes a standard play for us. The following year I make the same attempt. I steal painkillers, head to the liquor cabinet, swallow tequila. Again, I wake up in the hospital and follow the same script. When it happens again, and again, and again, we eventually manage to avoid going to the hospital, and it is my mother’s turn to play doctor. As she wraps gauze around my wrists when I am 17 years old, her lips in a hard line though the rest of her face has softened over the years, I note her expertise: it had always been second-nature to her, healing my physical wounds in ways she could not mend the disorders in my mind.
Somewhere along the way, without much notice or declaration, everything changes. I have moved out and am living an hour’s drive away. We see each other on weekends. Some weekends I skip. I ignore my mother’s messages, her phone calls, and the more I do, the more they increase in frequency. No longer does she look at me with disdain. On this visit, I am 19 years old, sitting on the porch and smoking a cigarette with my mother. Even when we are the same, both smokers, we are different. She smokes thin sticks, I smoke 100s.
She asks, “How are you doing?”
I say, “Better than I have in years.”
I look toward the setting sun as she flinches. I flick my cigarette away. The conversation is strained, painful, and I’m checking my phone at five-minute intervals; waiting for when I can take my train to a home that is no longer with her. She sends me care packages, tells me not to worry so much, kisses my forehead, and I realize this is the most attention I have gotten from her in years. Except now, I think, I no longer need it. I am independent, grown, away from her. I am eating healthy, sleeping well, saving money. For all intents and purposes, I am well and stable.
But I am not cured.
The illness returns.
I find myself coming home more and more. My mother welcomes this. We have a family dinner every Sunday, just the two of us, and I can see the happiness etched into her face. I feel her warmth for the first time in years, and I suddenly begin to loathe when it is time for me to return to my house.
At the end of the year, I move back home and nestle myself into her. She calls me baby, and reminds me that the world is not my enemy, and neither is my mind. I realize, then, that finally: neither is she.
My mother never understood mental illness, no, but she grew to accept me. We had lived in parallel, traveling in the same direction, never once touching. In the years that followed my first splitting of skin, I learned to come to terms with my mind. My darker inclinations left shadowy traces on me that I have filled with gold. My body is a work of art I cherish, each mark a reminder not of my lowest, but of what I have survived. I fell out of love with my own melancholy. In ways unclear to me, my mother did the same.
My mother holds me down. After a few minutes, my breathing evens out and my tears dry themselves on my face.
That night, we sleep together, cocooned around each other and still.
Kara Petrovic is 23 years old and is currently living in Toronto, Ontario. They are a survivor of trauma three times over and are living with a variety of mental health disorders. They have been writing poetry since they were 8 years old. In 2017, they self-published a collection titled beyond rock bottom. Their poetry has been previously published by CONKER magazine. In 2018, they were selected to read for Toronto’s Emerging Writers Series. They are also currently writing a book of fiction with a co-author who lives in Belleville, New Jersey. Philadelphia holds a special place in their heart, as their father and youngest sister live there. They identify as genderfluid and pansexual.