Sahar, a young Pakistani-American woman who has a psychological history of self-inflicted cutting, is uplifted and overcomes her bipolar disorder with the help of an affectionate pet, and a new outlook on life.

“Self-Portrait as a Reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s ‘The Broken Column’” by Saima Shamsi

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” 
 — Rumi

A clown in front of a shop waved at Sahar, its red plume of hair tangled and matted in places. Outside yellow and orange leaves carpeted the soggy ground, their delicate edges bound tightly together by the mud on the ground. Inches from her face the world dripped and glazed over. People in cars looked like demons. Through the glass windows the faces and features of strangers seemed warped and tortured. They looked possessed, and for a moment she imagined that they were, as they made odd gestures and unusual expressions at each other that she couldn’t interpret. She wondered who these strangers were and where they came from. Sometimes she would watch people and make up stories about their lives. A man with a bad haircut and a moustache passed by her and she decided that he was the conductor of a symphony orchestra from Berlin. In reality, he was probably just an accountant from Delaware.

Sahar pulled at the side of her face as if it was made up of silly putty, a clay-like substance which she used to play with as a child. She grimaced as she kneaded her cheek with a naked hand. It was autumn, but she could feel a light film of perspiration already on her skin. She touched the pores on her face and then put her finger to her lips, tasting the thin coat of sebum as she watched a young man and woman cross the road holding hands. In the park across the street, a lonely goose opened and closed its wings at the world. She grazed the scar on her left cheek. Touching it, she reflected on where she had been for the past three years. Sahar had just been released from a psychiatric hospital she had been admitted to three years ago by her parents. At that time, it had become clear to both her and her family that she could not trust herself.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

She had just overcome bipolar disorder, also known as “manic-depressive” disorder. Sahar was entered into the facility because she could not control her suicidal thoughts and her bouts of volatile rage. What she went through was more complex than the typical label and diagnosis of what most people understand to be “manic-depressive” disorder. Depression and anxiety manifest in widely ranging ways and take different forms in each individual person that they affect. And each person’s plight with mental illness is unique and diverse. Instead of going through the manic highs characterized by euphoria that most sufferers describe, Sahar went through patterns of severely debilitating lows interspersed with more disturbing and erratic episodes of extreme anger. When she was at her worst, she had a strong need to control everything in her life. This urge didn’t extend to other people, but she was obsessed with controlling her future. When life didn’t go the way she planned or desired, she would lose her patience and fly into sudden furies, because she just couldn’t tolerate the unpredictability of life. She would also experience dysphoria, an emotional state characterized by depression and an inability to calm herself down. She was self-destructive and the rage she experienced would trigger drastic mood swings, which were difficult for her and her family to bear.

Sahar dealt with her condition in an unconventional way. She was used to cutting the surfaces of her skin, as a form of self-medication and psychological release. In the beginning, she started by slicing the almond colored flesh of her upper thighs. She chose this part of her body because she could easily hide the scars from everybody. Growing up as a young Muslim woman, she was always told to dress modestly and to especially keep her legs covered. It was a synchronistic convenience for her to be Muslim and to have this habit because it allowed her to conceal the scars from the rest of the world and go unnoticed, by covering herself up. Over time, this led to making more cuts, arranged widely all over various regions of the canvas of her skin. In the suburban privacy of her bedroom, she would lock the door and create intricate patterns of scars that ran the length of her naked body. When she cut herself, she felt like she was in control of her destiny. The pain reminded her that she was alive. With each clean incision, she was convinced that she could finally feel something. In bleeding, she experienced a guilty, but ecstatic discharge of repressed energy. All of the tension and pressure that would build up in her body would be released with a simple, uncomplicated cut. It made her feel real, not like a ghost simply drifting passively through life, but like a real human being, with bright red blood boiling through her veins.

Because of her problematic and radical behavior, her family didn’t know what to do with her. Her first-generation immigrant parents from Pakistan were at a loss when it came to dealing with her intensity. What she was going through seemed so foreign and unfamiliar to them. When her bipolar disorder began in her early twenties, her parents strongly regretted having come to the country. Sahar was born and raised in America. They were certain that if they had only stayed in Pakistan rather than moving to America, their daughter would have grown into a normal, ordinary and refined young muslimah; not the defective, wayward girl that they had become burdened with. She didn’t blame them, instead she knew that they had no precedent to look to, in dealing with their daughter’s diagnosis. In other words, there was a long history of shame strongly related to mental illness in the Muslim community; issues like bipolar disorder were not openly discussed among many Pakistani-American families. For the most part, Sahar’s parents were sure that such “mental illnesses” were a purely Western phenomenon. This was partly because, back in Pakistan many people like her lived in the unseen wrinkles and figurative underground caverns of a deluded nation. Her parents were convinced that bipolar disorder simply did not exist back home, because they had never seen it happen to anyone else where they were from. In truth, many people in Pakistan who suffered from mental illness endured their afflictions in secrecy and were, for the most part, hidden from the blinded eye of society. But deep down, Sahar knew that people like her did exist, even in Pakistan; they were just relegated to living in an opaque and controversial silence, shrouded in guilty whispers and low murmurs; hidden in dimly lit rooms, far away from the disapproving eyes of their Muslim community.

Sahar’s family had lived in America for thirty-five years, and although they had managed to integrate into the culture for the most part, they still submitted to many traditional ways of thinking, while also conforming to the more conservative aspects of Islam. Sahar was raised and inoculated with the same customs that most girls were brought up with in Pakistan. This included a regular schedule of Islamic school on Sundays and prayer five times a day. Her parents hoped that this would produce within her an immunity to the West. However, Sahar had an adverse reaction to her conventional upbringing and retaliated against it by exploding into the antithesis of a demure and subservient little Muslim girl.

Three years ago, over a holiday at her parents’ house in New Jersey, she got into a fight with her older brother and locked herself in the bathroom. She became upset when he put her on the spot, having noticed a series of troubling cuts on her lower arm while she was washing her hands in the kitchen sink. He confronted her about it and asked her what she was doing to herself, and instead of facing the situation, she ran upstairs and locked herself in her bathroom. On that day, she realized that there was no more space on her scarred body for new cuts, so she looked in the bathroom mirror and stared at her face for what seemed like a decade; its surface was pristine, untouched. In the most desperate moment of her life, she took a razor to it, slashing a deep gash down the front of her left cheek. It was the only way to convince herself that she could still feel. Then she fainted and her mother and father had to break down the door to reach her. Her parents were unable to cope with her behavior any longer, as she escalated out of control and fell into a downward spiral. After that episode, she rarely saw her family and for three years, remained alone and afraid of herself in a psychiatric institution far from home.

Shame was a strong element in this situation. Sahar’s parents seemed to have had no option but to place her in a suitable facility. Her ambivalence to this was laced with frustration, as well as conflicting feelings and an innate understanding that she needed to be there. But she had trained herself to keep her unresolved emotions deep inside, far away from the surface. For three years, it became a struggle to endure a distant and sterile life in the facility, wrought with painful feelings, while she was kept away from the rest of the world.

After her recovery, when she became more open about her bipolar disorder, Sahar heard of other young people in the Pakistani-American community who had suffered from various kinds of mental illnesses and disorders. But unfortunately, many of them, along with their families had to suffer to some extent in silence. For the most part, the communities failed to support them because there was not enough, or any, education about issues like mental illness and disability; those subjects were considered taboo, scandalous and covered by a thick and dense veil of ignorance. Many of those who had been affected by mental illness didn’t know what else to do, so they remained in the shadows, marginalized and sadly under-represented in society. There seemed to be little to no acknowledged precedence for what they had to endure, so each family endured it, alone.

Now, at twenty-six, age had become something to reflect upon. Her dreams fizzled at the surface of her new life like fresh soda pop. Suddenly, everything was new and there was a crispness in the air, an undeniable sweetness, which she could taste and feel all around her. She walked past the shops downtown, running her Sunday errands. It was October in New Brunswick, and she could smell fresh pumpkin pie wafting out of a café as the trees changed and the autumn breeze blew all around her, buffeting her and pushing her forward; lifting her heels as she strolled down the street.

“Why did I waste it, why didn’t I taste it? You’ll have time…” A rueful voice sang on a passing radio, about loss and getting old.

Sahar thought about her mother and how often after the age of forty-six she would sit for long stretches of time alone in the sitting room of her cold, lofty and extensive boudoir, in their desperately suburban home. She couldn’t help but wonder if her mother had been clinically depressed during those muted gray days. And then she wondered if it had some relation to what she went through. It was strange how her mother had seemed to selectively forget about the dark period she had gone through in her own life, when she would regularly confine herself to her bedroom, seem miserable most of the time and hardly ever speak to her father. Sahar then recalled the moment she herself was admitted to the psychiatric institute, when one of the mental health counselors mechanically asked her whether anyone in her family had any history of mental illness. She told him that in her culture, such things were talked about just as frequently as sex was discussed. Repudiation and sweeping the truth under the rug were fatal symptoms of the disease of denial, which seemed to plague many in the Muslim community.

Tossing the image out of her mind, she walked into a pet shop. Inside of a cage was a little kitten, a tiny gray distraction. She picked it up, and after some quiet consideration, decided to adopt it. After signing the papers she scooped it up, and placed it safely in her shoulder bag.

Outside a fat pigeon sat high on a telephone wire, perched on cakey bird droppings.

She looked at herself in the reflection of a shop window and marked the difference. The scar on her face was somewhat lighter now, although still very obvious. But for three years it had been a spot of contention for her. For a while, she had been ashamed of it, but eventually as time passed she acknowledged and appreciated that this scar, however unsightly it was, still made her feel real. She understood that the scar was symbolic of a milestone in her life. It reflected what she had been through, and in healing itself, represented her resilience in the face of adversity. Although it was more of a scar than a spot, it made her feel better to think of it as a mere spot, a blemish that reminded her of where she had been, where she currently was and where she would one day be: far away in time and place from the darker recesses of her past and her history. She had hidden her damaged face from the world, in shame, for a long time; the scar was a remnant trace of her troubled past.

It’s been three years, she mused.

When she reached her new apartment, she opened her handbag and out popped a curious furry face with big, green almond-shaped eyes.

I could get lost in those lovely eyes, she thought.

Sahar picked up the swiftly breathing little treasure and named it Humphrey. She let his furry body travel the length of her couch and settle, just below the healing scar on her face.

The little gray cat rubbed its nose on the scar and licked it, innocently.

It was a relief for them both, and as Sahar turned out the light, her tiny companion fell asleep.

“Thank you,” Sahar said as she faced her new universe, full of endless possibilities.

A Short Story by:

Saima Shamsi

Email: [email protected]



Originally published at

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