I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive

Elisabet Velasquez reckons with a lifetime of disharmony with her religious, mentally ill mother.

Read ‘A World Where Mothers are Seen,’ an introduction to the Writing the Mother Wound series.

Elisabet Velasquez | Longreads | October 2019 | 11 minutes (2,943 words)

 Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love. 

* * *

This morning my phone rings, a call from a number I do not recognize. I think it must be someone I do not know or care to speak to. People who truly know me know to text me before calling. Privileged shit.  

The phone sings itself into a siren. I give in to its urgency. My mother has changed her number again. For the fifth time this year. Her mouth is working faster than her mind. She has questions. She wants to know if she can go to court to sue the demons. This time they have gone too far. They’ve resorted to attacking her physically. They keep scratching her, and she wants them out of the house. Can she take them to court?  Maybe, she suggests, I can google it. She wants to get them in trouble somehow. Evicted, arrested? What, exactly, are her options? She asks me if this is a logical thought. If they will laugh her out of the courtroom when she arrives with bruises and scratches as her only proof of spirits. She wants me to know that she has carefully considered the thought that she may sound crazy to the world. She knows I believe her, though. I am sometimes safer than her mind. She pauses for a moment to digress. She could just go to church again and pray. She wants me to know she has exhausted all of the usual answers; the spiritual realm is failing her. There must be something in the physical realm to help her. I must know. 

I am not expecting this phone call. It is the end of the school year and I am in the middle of preparing a lengthy report that showcases all of the work I have done with my students. I pause to think about how much more I do with them than with my own family. Guilt floods my throat. I pack my shame into a swallow.

Most days I avoid my mother at all costs. I’ve spent the past 18 years dedicated to my own motherhood. At 16, I gave birth to my daughter, and four months later I was homeless. When she kicked me out of the house with a newborn, I decided it would be the last time my mother hurt me.

On the other side of the call my mother is panting. There is a race happening somewhere inside her body. All of her organs are running away from her. I think it must be exhausting to occupy her body. 

* * *

I grew up across the street from Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The park is named after a mother of three who was shot through her window in her apartment across the street from the park. The newspapers reported that she was murdered in an act of vengeance by local drug dealers. Maria and her husband were known for physically removing dealers from their block. Like most Bushwick residents in the ’90s, they were dedicated to survival.  


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The park and my mother have similar names. They are both a familiar heavy on the tongue. The “no middle ground” kind of name. The kind of name that is either embraced or discarded. This small connection to my mother always made me feel like I was the park’s daughter, too. I came to expect it to mother me in ways she did not. On the days my mother refused to hug me, my body would melt into the heat from an aluminum slide. In the summer, I entered the park’s table hockey tournaments just to see if I was better at winning something other than my mother’s affection. The park gave me moments where I was good at existing, where I was celebrated for trying. 

Everything in the hood lasts longer than it needs to. Preservation is a skill you learn when you sleep and wake up in a place that is designed to kill you. We do things environmentalists would be proud of: keep butter containers to store our food, use old clothes for rags. Even the way people love in the hood has to be sustainable. Love in the hood is a kind of loyalty to your own survival. Everyone lived by this, even Maria. Even the dealers who killed her. 

* * *

I became increasingly aware of my mother’s mental illness when I began to work in the field of mental health at the age of 22. I was part of a collaborative team that included social workers and psychiatrists. We’d conduct home visits to individuals with mental health issues who would not normally seek treatment on their own. One morning, we received a referral to evaluate a woman’s need for treatment. The referral mentioned hallucinations, both visual and auditory.

We arrived at an apartment building in the Bronx. The hallways were alive with the smell of urine and cheap cologne. The brown apartment door had a straw cross covering the peephole. We knocked with a careful hand. The intensity of the rapping is important. Too soft and you risk not being heard over the din of a New York City home: children, Caso Cerrado, Biggie Smalls or Hector Lavoe. Too loud and you’re the police or a loan shark.  

¿Quién es?” The woman we went to visit, I’ll call her Marta, wanted answers before she made a decision to open the door. We gave a brief introduction to the cross. An emaciated version of my mother slowly creaked open the door and slid her eyes through her carefully measured opening. My coworker introduced herself as someone sent to help. The great white hope. Marta dismissed her and darted her eyes my way. “I’m sorry, no hablo inglés.” My coworker flashed a knowing smile to me. The great Latin help. 

On the days my mother refused to hug me, my body would melt into the heat from an aluminum slide.

As someone whose highest degree was a GED, I had no clinical role on the team. I was a notetaker, at most. I did, however, feel a great sense of responsibility to ensure that I was careful interpreting not just language but also culture. Cultural practice is sometimes categorized incorrectly as disordered or pathological. 

We sat across from Marta on white sofa cushions kept suffocated under clear plastic.  We conducted the intake. “Do you sometimes hear voices? What do they tell you? What do you see?” Marta was religious. The answers leaking from her mouth were a familiar church to me. My mother used them. Marta’s words spilled onto my coworker’s notepad, which drowned in words like espíritus, demonio, brujería. I watched as my coworker used clinical language to help her float over what she could not make sense of. Words like: religious preoccupation, delusions, rule out paranoid schizophrenia. I was confused. Marta was Pentecostal like mami. It was not unusual for me to hear someone say that they heard the voice of God or felt or saw spirits. It was not uncommon to go to church on a Sunday and witness an exorcism. I left Marta’s house wondering if my mother was mentally ill or just a tortured Christian?

* * *

(& because you watched your mother’s hands praise the sky
you have held your god accountable for your suffering
& because you never heard I love you
it is neither a noun nor a verb but mostly a myth that you cannot trust truly exists
& because your mother’s mouth was always a grenade
you are sometimes afraid to kiss your children
& because you were always told you were wrong
you apologize for everything, even for your joy
& because no one has ever held your hand across a busy intersection
you know exactly how close you can get to death before it becomes dangerous
so close to dying
daring yourself to live.)

* * *

Sometimes I am my mother’s anger. Sometimes I am all of her monsters. I fought so hard to be nothing like her and here I am, lighting the same fire that burned me.

Growing up, my mother would often say the devil was using me. This was her way of explaining any behavior that was not agreeable to her. This was her way of justifying any reaction of hers that was abusive in nature. One Sunday, just as we were getting ready for church, my mother was ironing our church clothes. While I waited, I began clowning around with my older sister. I don’t recall what in my laugh triggered the burning or what happened moments before she pressed the iron into my arm. I do recall the moments after, the smell of melting flesh, the flap of skin hanging off my arm, the moment I first met my blood.

I fought so hard to be nothing like her and here I am, lighting the same fire that burned me.

This moment paralyzed me in such a way that I did not cry. My unemotional response to being burned with an iron made me question if I was indeed demonic. If I was used to this kind of hell. She wiped my skin off of the iron and back onto the dress as I watched the dress steam under the weight of my trauma. 

I walked solemnly to the bathroom and applied toothpaste to my open wound. I only cried when I realized I wasted the last of the toothpaste. How in the morning my skin would begin regenerating and there would be no healing for my mother’s teeth. 

* * *

Some days, I look in the mirror and search for the parts of my face that are not my mother’s madness. 

As a child, my mother’s behavior was a cruelty I learned to love. As an adult, I want to make excuses for her abuse and emotional abandonment. In my writing, I search for reasons to forgive — I need her to have a valid excuse. I need her cruelty to have a name since things with names are easier to forgive. 

At night, mami’s cruelty was transformed into a somber litany. She would kneel and pray by the edge of the bed we shared. Her prayers were a gloomy bedtime story. They were one part devotion and one part autobiographical confessional detailing her years suffering physical, sexual and emotional abuse as a child. One by one, she would list every person who had done her harm. They were sinners, she was merciful. I would listen to her ask God to forgive them until I fell asleep. 

I’d very much like to talk about forgiveness, both the burden and the gift of it. When forgiveness is the only thing that is yours, it becomes a thing to be earned. I decided my mother would have to work for my forgiveness. But there was a point in my search for healing I realized I had been hoarding forgiveness as a means to receive a kind of closeness from mami — a way to get her to need me. I was so starved of her attention that I held all of her abuse hostage and used forgiveness as a negotiation tactic. If she could just apologize, if she could just acknowledge my pain, if she could just see me, then I could forgive her and heal. My mother never has and probably never will admit to hurting us so intentionally, and after that realization, came another one. For many years, I had been conflating forgiveness with absolution. I believed granting her forgiveness meant she would be free from any wrongdoing. Unlike my mother and the abusers she prayed for, there was no mercy on my tongue for her. I held onto forgiveness because I did not feel she was deserving of any release of guilt, obligation or punishment. I only recently began to think of forgiveness as a gift to myself rather than a gift to her. I began to realize that I was deserving of all the things I did not want to give: a release of guilt, obligation, and punishment. I thought of all the ways I had already granted forgiveness to my mother through my writing. How I would carefully write about the kind parts of her, real or imagined. Or how I would write poems that were empathetic to her pain. These small acts of mercy serve as examples of forgiveness as a gift to the self; validating her humanity so that I am able to believe in my own. 

* * *

I promise myself I will give my children a life full of memories they can place in albums. I will pull them out of a dusty basement and show embarrassing pictures of them at family events like I see the white people do in the movies. I buy the new iPhone because of its camera feature. I take more pictures than I have storage for. I delete apps on my phone to make room for more pictures. I take a picture of myself. It is not beautiful; I do not share it with anyone other than my sadness. I keep it, the way I have learned to keep ugly secrets. I look older. Compared to what version of myself? I do not have baby pictures. Mami could not afford to keep buying film, or she lost them all in a fire, or she is the fire, or she did not believe in archiving struggle or poverty or children from men who did not love her.

* * *

Mami is an asylum I have escaped from. I do not visit my mother as often as a daughter should. When I do, she offers me her best chair. “Can you believe they threw this out?”  I can. The chair is tired and groans underneath the insistence of my weight. Her home is full of things other people do not want. Broken radios & black & white television sets. Bibles stuffed with yellowed bills. I remember being one of these things. Her apartment smells. There is something dead here and for once it is not me. I look alive, she says. She means that I have eaten a full meal today and she has not. It is an awful feeling.

I reek of privilege and guilt. I cannot remember the last time I was hungry and it was not a choice. She is still poor. She tells me that I look whiter than before, like a gringa, which means she thinks I am successful now. I am a new kind of poor. The kind that complains they can only afford a car or an apartment but not both. The kind that makes economic decisions in the summer around using the fan or the air conditioner. The kind that skips one bill to pay another. Still, I can buy food at the supermarket without the government’s permission. I reach in my pocket and give her a $20 bill. It is not enough. I pull out another 20. This time I am not enough. I am a daughter trying to buy my mother’s smile. It is after all why I’ve come to visit. 

There is something dead here and for once it is not me.

I want to take her picture. I want proof that she is capable of happy. I want a memory I do not have. Mami does not smile in photos. She stares at the camera or away from it. Her mouth is partly open, a paralyzed prayer. Her face is grim and curious, even bold. She dares me to document her sadness, to look at the way she lets it live on her face. How she makes a home for things people do not want. I go home and take a selfie. Another. Another. Until my mother’s face disappears. 

I had to leave my mother so that I could live.  

* * *

Being unmothered means a lifetime of caring for what does not care for you. It is a funeral procession dedicated to mourning the mother archetype. In Boricua culture, the mother is a revered saint with hands like prayer and a bitter but loving mouth. In the case that my mother’s hands were ever a prayer, I am still waiting for an answer. If her mouth ever knew love, she never gave herself permission to taste it. Some days when I look in the mirror I see her torture. It is a different kind of anguish when your own eyes haunt you. A grayscale gradient in my skin reminds me of an organ disconnected from its host.

The thing about organs that make their way out of the body intended to feed them, is that their survival depends on a very specific preservation process. Organs separated from the host body can survive for a while if they are kept chilled in a preservation solution, but they can ultimately never last for longer periods without a host.

Being unmothered is a lot like this: 

  1. The exit: leaving the body that gave you life.
  2. The winter: a chilled state of unbelonging to anything or anyone while trying to maintain your vitality.   
  3. The transplant: finding new life in other bodies.

Leaving my mother so that I could survive has meant finding a page, a lover, a friend to abide with me. When I have no one to make a home of, I am the coldest winter. I lose sleep at the thought of running out of ways to love myself. I am most times the only thing keeping me alive. A tattoo of a tree in its wintered state lives on my forearm. I have been this tree. My mother has been this tree: a stump of a woman with a barren ensemble of branches, an overgrown sapling with no fruit or leaves as evidence of its existence or value. No proof of life on the body except for the body itself. Sometimes simply the idea that I exist is enough. Other times I have to tattoo it somewhere, my arm, a blank page, the deep-inked process of self-preservation. 

* * *

Elisabet Velasquez is a Boricua Writer from Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work has been featured in Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Centro Voces, Latina Magazine, We Are Mitú, Tidal and more. She is a 2017 Poets House Fellow and the 2017 winner of Button Poetry Video Poetry Contest. Her work is forthcoming in Martín Espada’s anthology What Saves Us: Poems Of Empathy and Outrage In The Age Of Trump. She is currently working on her memoir. You can find more of her work on Instagram @elisabetvelasquezpoetry.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross