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Two Ways of Looking

Posted on October 17, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

I sit contentedly in my little house today, bundled up in wool, flannel, and cotton.  Outside, the huge oak tree sways gently in the rain, manna from heaven for this delighted soul.  I am sick with a head cold, and strangely enough, I couldn’t be happier. I have finally learned the importance of being absolutely and only myself. There really is no one else to be.  I’ve learned it’s good to ask for help, and I have done so many times since last week, after the cold’s unexpected entrance.  That’s what being ill has always meant for me: a forced and necessary respite from life.  For me, it’s both Sabbath rest and active participation in the healing God has for me.  What a gift!

Part of me knows the way of discontent and I could travel down that way today, familiar groves in the neural pathways of my brain.  I could bemoan my circumstances, fuss about all the things that need changing in the world and or in my own life.

Or I could find another way instead.  I sit at the little brown dining table and look behind me at a Mid-Century American buffet one of my best friends gave me.  In the center of the table sits a bouquet of fresh flowers my husband bought me.  I wear freshly laundered clothes and stay warm and dry in a cozy, albeit small, home in a beautifully green neighborhood with sidewalks and autumn trees shedding their leaves. For lunch, I eat homemade chicken noodle soup my husband made me.  And I look out through the windows, watching the cold rain fall steadily upon the great big post oak tree outside my front window, the cold weather finally arriving in Texas.

Is gratitude simply denial dressed nicely in fancy wordplay or is it the best and only way to live in a beautiful, unpredictable, and dangerous world?  I could lament about my illness, the damp and rainy weather, and the lack found in the world.  That’s something our culture tells us to do, doesn’t it?  Find the culprit and blame them till they bruise.  And of course, nothing real gets resolved and tempers flare and we miss out on the amazing miracle of being alive.

For me, each day is a gift from God, and in between the sorrows of loss, I will surrender my way for another, perhaps something that connects me with thousands who have gone before me on the path of faith.  That’s what gratitude is: it’s joy in the face of unmitigated suffering and saying “I refuse to give in. I refuse to despair. I will take it all and make it beautiful.”

I will enjoy this day. I will turn from the urge to whine and complain and project my fears onto the future (or others) and surrender to the good found in today.  Each day is filled with endless possibilities for trusting that healing and growth happens, even though we cannot see it now.  But we trust and enjoy anyway.

Show me a day when the world wasn’t new. (Sister Barbara Harce)

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    Rest – Part Three

    Posted on September 17, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    So I am in full-blown compassion fatigue, or mental and physical exhaustion from helping others who have experienced trauma.  I’m sure the chronic back pain isn’t helping.  I feel like an empty well with little to give others.  Although this is a painful reckoning, I do not think I am alone in it, which is saying a lot.

    Upon opening a book recently, I found a bookmark that reads “The heart which gives freely is never lonely,” and it’s one that I’ve had since childhood.  A beautiful little girl is holding an apple toward you, the reader, and she is dressed in old-fashioned clothes, drawstring gray boots, white tights, and a little red coat with a white frilly dress underneath.  The little girl’s long hair blows in the wind, and she is incandescent, beaming with joy at giving away her food.

    I sort of hate this bookmark but have kept it around for years because I am a lover of anything related to books.  But I know why I’ve kept it around: it represents why I believed, as a twentysomething, that I had to fix the world’s problems and somehow save others. It is why I joined a Catholic work program up North in Indiana, right after university.  I wanted to save the world except they placed me in a lawyer’s office, filing papers.  I remember crying on my first day there, falling into the lie that this is where I would be forever.

    I didn’t understand then that I could have found a bit of work helping others outside the law office.  I was only twenty-twenty, a very scared emerging adult who didn’t have the necessary life skills to process how to find a nuanced way to help others. It never occurred to me that filing papers could be a way to help clients with trauma, albeit indirectly.  Back then, I lived in the land of the black-and-white, the all-or-nothing zebra thoughts that consumed my lovely tired brain, and if it wasn’t what I absolutely expected, well, then I was in for emotional tumult.

    How I wish I could go back and hug that girl.  She was so young, impressionable, and kind.

    When I found the bookmark the other week, I reacted as if I had touched something hot and repulsive. I slammed it down on the sofa, next to my elder cat who scampered away.  To my husband, I lamented about my reasons for going into the helping professions, for having an unhealthy compulsive need to fix others and for it to turn out perfectly, just according to my expectations.

    God, what a way to live, right?  It is exhausting and not surprising for a child of an alcoholic who also had delusions of saving the world.  I saw in my father a great need to help others and that was one of the great things he gave me: a pull towards social justice activism, a love for minorities and their plight against systemic oppression, and a desire for goodness.

    It would have been nice had he been able to be kind to me, but that’s a whole other essay.

    As my husband took in the bookmark, with the pretty child giving her shiny red apples away, he remarked to me, “But look at how she gives.  Do you see it?”

    And then I wept with grief, longing, and frustration because I finally saw the truth.  The girl’s basket that she holds is overflowing with apples.  My husband said kindly, “She gives out of her abundance and not her lack.”  How could I have missed it all these years?

    I grieve for all the years I thought I had to give until I couldn’t  anymore. I am deeply saddened by the years lost to the locusts of perfection, performance, and people-pleasing.  I think of the young woman I was at university who believed that she had to be stunningly perfect and give and give to others, no matter the cost.  This girl believed she had to be an evangelical Christian and win others for Christ as the cost of herself and relationships.  I felt I had to believe as my Christian friends did and gave up my love for seeing the connection between religions, the belief that we are all deeply connected, and signed up for a Catholic program to help others, whilst not even being Catholic.

    Sometimes I wish I could give the girl an informative talking-to in addition to a hug. I would warn her that giving to others with perfection is completely impossible and that she believe differently than others. I would tell her she is a gift to the world and that her father’s alcoholism, manifested in his complete inability to maintain emotional sobriety, makes her a fine candidate for Al-Anon. I would encourage her to go to the meetings, save money, and make plans to move out of her father’s house before the abuse becomes violent.  I would, in essence, nurture my young self.

    This tiny revelation, found in an old bookmark, marks a new chapter in my life: it is the first time that I have compassion for the girl I once was, and not egregious self-hatred.  It has taken me a few decades to understand that my desire to give to others perfectly, at the expense of self, came from my childhood desire to be loved by my parents.  And it has taken about that long for me to realize that radical self-care, as Anne Lamott coined, is one of the most dangerous and dissident practices a woman can engage in.

    So while I’m not exactly grateful for being in burnout and for having a physical issue (i.e., the back pain) manifest my burnout, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to practice radical self-care today. I get to take exquisite care of the one person I have control over: me.

    When it comes to self-care, sometimes it’s best to start off small.  Eat healthy food, listen to relaxing music, pray, meditate, walk in nature, and spend time with people who are uplifting and not people who believe the world is a dumpster fire and believe it is their job to complain about it at every chance they can.

    I say this in the nicest possible way, of course.

    Another thing to remember is that our worth is not dependent on what we do but who we are. If Christianity is true, then our worth is about stepping into our identities as beloved children of God and rejecting the Puritan notion that work is the main reason why we are here.

    What if we are here to enjoy life? To live freely? To enjoy the gifts that God gives us, including healthy work and rest? To relax and heal from helping others? What if it is true that when we stop listening to the inner critic we begin to hear the calming voice of the Lover instead?

    The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17, New International Version).

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    The Most Liberating Thing

    Posted on September 2, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    While I waited to begin a medical procedure last week, I read a book about a woman who reunited with her family in another country.  Her long-lost family were thrilled to connect with her, and while that is wonderful for her, it was a huge shame trigger for me.

    I have tried to reconnect with my father’s family up north.  They say they want a relationship and then they do not answer the phone, return emails or text messages when I reach out to them.  This is all very confusing for me, baffling, really.  Previously, several Christians had informed me that I HAD TO WORK VERY HARD to get my family to like me.  This kind of pressure is sort of like slapping a puppy that’s been hit by a car.  Growing up, I worked very hard for my parents and they left me still, so even though I worked myself to the bone, I have nothing to show for it.

    I think this is where the prosperity gospel hurts us.  Good people believe that good things happen if you just trust God enough and if you do not, then, well, you are somehow responsible for the actions of others not responding to you, having mental health issues, or not getting the things you want.   All the power lies in us to change things.  How do you make others do what you want them to do?  I don’t think there is anyway to change others.  As much as I wish that were true, I can tell you that in my own life, people do what they want to do.  I can certainly respond with grace and create conditions for respect, love, and kindness, but if someone does not want a relationship with me, I cannot change that.

    If only it were that simple.  If only saying a simple set of words or praying a few simple set of scriptures changed everyone else.  It changes me when I say them.  There is no guarantee that it would change others.

    ***

    Later that night, I sat in my therapist’s office, in a comfortable burgundy wing-back chair and released the storm of emotions and fears to him.  I noticed his huge painting of a New Mexico sunset that hangs on the wall above the soft tawny couch, the lacy window curtains behind him, and the soft black drawings placed across on the other office wall.   This man’s office reminded me of a cowboy’s home, which makes sense given that the therapist dresses in full cowboy regalia, complete with a silver pocket watch, colorful vests, tall cowboy boots, and billowing dress shirts.

    I feel very safe with this man, which is part of the reason I chose him.  He understands pain. He lived that way for decades.

    After I lamented for awhile, he queried “What do you want?”  He asked me to stay with the question as long as I needed, and I let myself sink into it, moving slowly from my head all the way down to my heart, the core of my being.

    To be frank, I couldn’t pin down what I wanted at first.  I think this might be why sitting with God is so hard. God basically just wants to be with us and so there are no circus of readings, scriptures, prayers, incantations, or things we can perform that will make Him love us anymore.  He just wants our presence.

    After sitting in the silence for a very uncomfortable time, I realized I wanted to be happy and let go of the pain narrative, which no longer serves me.  He led me through a visual meditation, calling me to my highest self, stating truth over me including “Stand as your most authentic self, in the fullness of your being.  You are a warrior, Jenn.  What do you see?”

    With my eyes closed, I saw myself standing tall and looking out across a mountain vista.  My head was held up and my eyes were bright and calm and I smiled.  There was wind and it was blowing all around me. I was, dare I say it, happy. I was just being. I was not working to fix anyone or make others come to know Christ or force others to seek counseling.  I just was me.

    Then, the most remarkable thing happened.  After we talked about the experience, I returned to apologizing for not doing it right, and he stopped me, and asked “Wait, who are we, Jenn?”

    I return very much to my head, or overthinking concepts, whenever this therapist asks me what the truth is.  Like a great therapist, he called me to stop messing around with wordplay and asked me to step into deep truth and said emphatically “I do not care what you think. I want to know who we are.  Who are we, Jenn?”

    Peers, I say, and I begin with, I think all of us–

    Stop, he says again, I don’t want your thinking. I want another word for this relationship, and he sends his hands as a flourish between us, to describe our relationship, waging his fingers back and forth between us.

    And then it dawns on me.

    EQUALS.

    I smile as I type this word now. We. Are. All. Equals.

    Why is this a big, earth-shattering deal for me? Because I have been walking around for decades believing that you are better than me and I am the rotten trash that lies on the ground.  Like Martin Buber penned in his famous book I and Thou, there are a few types of relationships in society, and the first one is the I-It relationship. You see this scenario played out when you visit a cafe or a drugstore or a department store and a furious woman or man is yelling at the store clerk.  The clerk is a veritable “it,” nothing more than object for the other person to use and abuse.  This dynamic plays out everywhere, and for me, it defined the type of relationship I endured with my parents.

    But there is an ideal relationship, the “I-Thou” relationship, a dynamic that is sacred, holy, and imbued with Divinity.  The Jews believe the space between individuals in this sort of relationship is filled with God.

    Equals.  The space between you and me is holy because you and I are equals, living partners of the Divine spark that flows between us.

    That night, after I wrote the shocking post, following the meditation, I knew, bone deep, that I am equal to everyone else on the planet. No matter the title of others, the prestige, status, wealth, family ties, religion, or whatever other barriers that create false divisions among us, I am equal to everyone else.  Our culture tells us that this isn’t so, that what we have or who we know or what we do, somehow, makes us more special, grand, helpful, or beautiful than others.  It elevates us as a special “I” status over the lowly “it” of others while leaving out the richness of relationships, of sacred encounters that last briefly and those that can last a lifetime.

    What a terrible way to live.

    I got up the next morning and prayed a different sort of prayer, one that I gleaned from my therapist, and I’ll leave it with you today:

    Dear God, help me today to walk with grace and peace to be my most authentic self, to accept myself just as I am now, and love myself well.  Help me to walk in the truth of who You made me to be and rejoice in the gifts You have given me.

    The most liberating thing we can do each day is give ourselves back to ourselves. (Unknown)

    (Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash)
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    Letting Go

    Posted on July 22, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    After the end of a long work week, I locked up my counseling office, and walked slowly toward the main hallway leading downstairs. Two of the residents at the home stopped me and asked for help, their brown skin gleaming beautiful and sweaty thanks to the relentless hot weather and tending to rambunctious children. I smiled at them, grateful for distraction from my back pain and for the holy wonder of intimacy that occurs between newly acquainted strangers. They wished me a good weekend and I returned the goodwill, marveling at the paradoxes of life.

    There is so much violence in the world and it occurs on our earth, between people and animals, to our children and the marginalized. It is heartbreaking. And yet there is so much beauty in creation, in the love and grace and peacekeeping that occurs between people, in music, in art, and in spirituality that it frequently stuns me to tears. I practiced gratitude for being of service to others and did so in those seemingly mundane events of getting to know some of my new counseling clients this past week.

    But for now, it was time for me to get some help of my own. Back in graduate school, one of the most gracious counseling professors reminded us regularly that the best counselors have their own counselors. She would say this calmly yet firmly, with a hint of urgency in her voice, as if she knew once we fled her nest we would work to help others beyond our own limits.

    Thank God for teachers.

    I drove away from the home and weaved my way through the older neighborhood, driving with intention, making my way across town to see my therapist. I looked at the homes, colorful clapboard houses, and stately bungalows with wraparound porches, and the burnt grass, baked to spun gold, and pondered contacting a family member. A part of me sternly reminded myself that I needed to honor my elders, and the litany of negative self-talk began. Why don’t you try harder? Maybe if you were different things would be better?

    It’s funny, but these voices usually say the same old things; they don’t really have any new material to work with.

    Over the years, interactions with this person have been tense, sparse, and grief-stricken, and not for lack of trying. I reviewed all the times I sought her approval and fell short, wondering if I were doomed to repeat a very ancient childhood story of constant performance and rejection.

    So I did something new. I turned on some music and sang, bellowing as loud as I could. I sang for me and for everyone who has been hurt, rejected, and abandoned by others. We all of us are singing to be seen and known, and these two desires, to be deeply seen and known, are the most marvelous gifts that family, friends, members of recovery meetings, clergy, and counselors can give to people.

    The problem is that love and belonging, affection and nurturing, does not often come from one’s origin family. It is the ideal, of course, but not the reality for many humans.

    As I kept driving in the blinding hot sun and breathing deeply, I considered the problem from a few angles: I could reach out to her and try again for relationship. I could suggest dinner at a local restaurant or invite myself over to her home, hoping and praying that this time things would be different. I could be the one to make things happen.

    I was becoming mentally ill in the process of trying and failing to find a solution in my own mind. This is where having a relationship with Jesus helps.

    As I got out of the car and walked slowly to the shady office building, surrounded by large post oaks, I asked again to Spirit what I needed to do, and this response came:

    Why would you go seeking mercy from someone who can only offer harsh judgement?

    I stopped and looked around and smiled in wonder. Opening up to Spirit and letting God talk to me has been one of the most joyful and adventurous things I have ever done. These experiences jar me from my tangled thinking, and help move toward a more compassionate and loving response toward life, others, and myself.

    So what if the most compassionate response I can do for myself is to stop clinging to the false expectation that this person can give me what she herself does not have to give? What if the most loving response is to forgive her for the times she has hurt me? What if I gave myself permission to do what I advise my counseling clients to do, and simply let go of hoping for a better relationship and accept what is?

    Grace comes in many forms, and perhaps the most stunning one is an answer that involves rest and waiting, rather than frenetic attempts to grab at connection with people who are simply unable and unwilling to do so.

    So do me a favor and remember that it really is okay to rest in the space between encounters with others.  It is right and good and divinely inspired to take care of the one person that you can only care for today. You honor yourself with mercy and grace when you admit “I do not have the emotional energy to reach out right now.” It really is holy for you to find the people in your life who love you for who you are, who offer you a safe respite from the pressures of modern life, rather than heap on more condemnation.

    As I drove home after the appointment, I watched the night sky settle over the city like a cloak, deep indigo with streaks of ruby red disappearing into the horizon. The air was hot but cooling off slightly, and I slipped into my house and settled down with a good book and a cat, and took my own advice and rested. Things may or may not change with this family member, but I am relaxing, loosening my grip, and letting Spirit do the work in the waiting.

    (Photo by Neill Kumar on Unsplash)
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    Freedom

    Posted on July 3, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    Recently, I have been told that I push people away and that I have to let people in and be vulnerable.  But, quite frankly, when I have let certain people in I get the shit kicked out of me.  In the past, I have taken the risk of being vulnerable, revealing my somewhat insane past, only to have been abandoned by friends and parents.  In fact, when I told one of my friends that my mother assaulted me, she stopped calling and pushed me away.  At the time, it only reinforced the lie that because of where I come from I am not worthy of love and belonging.

    So what in the world do you do when your templates or maps for attachment are disorganized, based on family-of-origin issues?  (By the way, disorganized attachment, the most common for trauma survivors, means that a child does not feel safe with his or her caregivers but must rely on them for life.  For a child to be in a family, he or she must feel safe, secure, loved, and nurtured.  For many trauma survivors, especially sexual abuse survivors, this is basically impossible, and so children react in a myriad of unhelpful and unhealthy ways. The previous information is based on The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk.)

    This is what you do: you find the people who are kind, loving, responsive, and accepting of you.  You make time to take care of your own exquisite, lovely, playful, joyful and delightful self and continue to buck the traditional notion that one must have a relationship with family as the standard parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and whatnot. You forgive yourself for indulging in darkness for decades while recognizing that it makes sense, given what you went through.  You find compassion for yourself

    Do I wish that I had fabulous parents who treated me like I deserved? Absolutely.  Do I honor them by telling the truth about their behavior of me while recognizing that they too were beaten, mistreated, and neglected? Yes.  Do I acknowledge that God wants me to rest in love and peace? You bet.

    Do I keep trying to make certain family members like me, respect me, talk to me, when they are neither able or willing to do so?  No. Do I continue to move toward God, wholeness, grace, acceptance, healing, etc.? Of course.

    I accept full responsibility for my life. I accept that God loves me and always has and He will make it easier and easier to find the safe people in my life to be vulnerable with.  Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the standard family that we all hear about in movies, books, and Christian culture.

    I suppose that’s one of the hardest things about being a Jesus person: the expectations.  As a greenhorn Christian in my twenties, I was told, well-intentioned of  course, that I would have a great family, that my father would come to know Christ eventually, and if I just prayed hard enough, that my family member would get help.

    All those expectations are dead and gone.

    If you read the Gospels closely, Jesus never, ever said all our wildest dreams would come true.  He just said that He would be here with us (God or “Immanuel”) in the muck of things and, paradoxically, that we get to enjoy our lives.  For someone like me, with no Christian parents, engaged and active Christian siblings, and huge cadre of childhood Christian friends, this truth helps tremendously.

    Our country’s national holiday is tomorrow, and while I am not exactly patriotic, especially given our country’s dangerous leader and various other sundry reasons, I’ll focus on freedom.  There is freedom in accepting the truth of one’s past and powerlessness of changing anyone but ourselves.  There is also deep, expanding, and gracious joy when we lean into the discomfort of being loved just as we are today.

    I get to be the tender, merciful, and loving parent I never had today.  I get to decide who I want to have contact with and who the safe people are in my life.  I choose to practice kindness toward myself on the big freedom day.  The same goes for you. There are no exceptions.

    PRACTICE

    It might be a good idea to write down a list of adjectives that describe your gifts, after you sit in silence and wait for God to show you.  The trick will be taking time to be still, to practice staying in your body, and to breathe.

    (Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash)
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    Rest – Part Two

    Posted on June 27, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    I am not sure when the burnout started. It might have begun the first day I saw a counseling client, back in autumn of 2012, in which I was tasked to help a recovering alcoholic find stability through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous and the counseling process of attentive listening.  Perhaps the burnout began when I started my counseling internship in 2014, in which I was instructed to make state-agency clients learn about their diagnoses, persuade them to take their medication, and convince them to volunteer their time in the hopes of making a better life for themselves.

    If only it were that simple.  People don’t like to give up their problems that easily.  They marry them, have children with them, become one with them.

    I suppose the counseling burnout really began with mom and dad, where I served as the peacemaker while my parents fought and raged at each other.  Mostly, I remember strained silences in which I physically could not find peace in my body because my father (when he wasn’t gone) would shoot dirty looks at my mother and my mother would project her own anger of my father onto me in the form of relentless harsh criticism, evaluation, and judgement.

    I thank God daily that I am an adult now and get to do things differently.

    Perhaps ancient childhood stories of pain, of growing up too fast, of having to “figure out” how to save my parents’ marriage, are getting in the way of my current vocation.  I would certainly believe they are, and that in my own counseling, I’ll need to work on those issues in further depth, taking the time to allow myself to feel anger, grief, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of my past.  Dr. Kubler-Ross was spot on in her understanding of the grief and forgiveness process.

    But the thing is that all I know is that right now, I am weary of counseling.  I am done with frantic texts from clients, asking for immediate assistance, of calls late into the night begging for help.

    I suppose I feel used. I am quite sure it’s not the intention of my clients who are soliciting counseling advice.  They are doing the very best they can, but I mostly feel as if my worth as a human being lies in my ability to help others, rather than in my inherent worthiness as a human being.  Like you, the fact that I am breathing air in my lungs makes me worthy of love and belonging.

    The problem is that counseling is a worthy and noble profession, and in many ways, obtaining my graduate degree led me back to my favorite thing to do: writing.  The problem, of course, is that writing is not really the main feature of counseling.  Listening to people is. The other problem, of course, is systems.  Many systems require workers to exert power over clients, i.e., that somehow, by the sheer force of will, those of us can “make” clients come back to counseling, make them want help, and make them choose good things.

    The power, then, lies within me, but the truth is a lie.  I am not Jesus.  It is not my job to fix anyone nor can I because I am merely a human being, complete with beauty and chaos within, just like every other human being on the planet today.

    I’ll be at another counseling agency soon, and I am hopeful.  The great surprise is my future supervisor outright rejected the lie of power over others.  In the interview, she said “We only ever plant seeds and there is nothing we can do to make anyone change. They have to be the ones to do so.”  I can do that. I can provide information, education, and a listening ear.  I just won’t buy the lie anymore that I can fix anyone anymore.  I can bear witness to the suffering of clients (when I am spiritually fed by the Divine and my tribe) but I can do nothing else.

    PRACTICES:

    In order to alleviate my anxiety and practice detachment, I now practice EMDR on my phone via the Anxiety Release app.  EMDR is an evidence-based therapy for anyone who has survived trauma, and let’s face it: that’s all of us.  The app provides several short sessions of tonal bilateral stimulation, which helps us get unstuck from obsessive thinking and allows for a greater sense of relaxation and peace.  I can’t recommend it enough.

    I recite the first line of the Serenity Prayer during difficult client sessions to find stability:  God, grant me the serenity. Truly, it is a remarkably healing prayer.

    Coloring with markers is a wonderful way to release stress and making affirmations using markers is even better.

    Reminding myself that I don’t fix but educate others is a helpful antidote for me.  It breaks much of the counseling theorists’ advice, which centers on feeling the feelings of others to make psychological contact.  BS, y’all, BS.  It is okay to detach oneself and remember that everyone, even those living in chaos, are not forgotten about by the Divine.  In fact, one might even go so far as to suggest that God is right there with them, in the muck doing what She can to honor their choices and to help. (Eve by William Paul Young).

    I practice gratitude daily and remember that counseling is not forever (necessarily) but simply for now. I can do most anything one day at a time.

    I let go of perfectionism, people-pleasing, and performance as measuring sticks for my worth.

    In my meditation, I ask God to help me sit with the difficult feelings of overwhelmment, compassion fatigue, and neglect.  My feelings are a clue for me that I need to slow down, pray, and rest, and there is nothing better than doing absolutely nothing and waiting for answers from the Divine.  I sometimes think that God would talk more to us if we just stopped moving for awhile and stayed still long enough to listen.

    (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)
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    Mother

    Posted on May 18, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

    ***trigger warning: the writer touches upon difficult subjects like childhood abuse, systemic racism, and forgiveness***

    So last weekend was Mother’s Day, and I was tempted to write an essay about the day, my experiences thus far as a human being with a complicated relationship with a woman I do not even see.  It isn’t easy having a disrupted relationship with your own mother.  People are very quick to judge you, shushing you and clucking their teeth, as to why you choose to remain distant.  Attempting to explain the reason for the distance is sort of like trying to explain verbal language to the surreal aliens that Amy Adams encounters in the recent movie Arrival.  In this scenario, I am Amy, trying my best to help the other humans understand the aliens who access reality in vastly different ways from them.

    Who is my mother in this metaphor? It can’t be taken too far, of course, but metaphors are one of the things that help us, human beings, process our daily experiences.  Metaphors fill the earth, our religions, school playgrounds, and civil discourse. I hear them everyday in the counseling room, in my own head as I think of poems and stories to write, as I read words on a written page in a beloved memoir, or in daily conversation with others.  It is part of being human, I think, to use poetry to express the ineffable, the mystery of being human and being alive in a jarring yet beautiful world.

    The week leading up to Mother’s Day, I experienced increasing panic and apprehension about the day, and I had good reason.  I am in a Twelve-Step recovery group for people affected by the disease of alcoholism, in which a few woman have advised me to connect with my mother, in spite of the physical assaults, emotional abuse, and sexual misconduct.  Several of them wail and lament the loss of contact with my mother, perhaps projecting their own tiny insecurities about losing their own mothers or whatever, onto my life and advise me, repeatedly, to make contact, to try and engage her, to make her want me.

    Sometimes people in Twelve-Step groups can be so helpful, well-intentioned, and exhausting.  Sometimes I wish they would check their “help” at the door and simply accept that sometimes some parents do unconscionable things to their children.  It is not their job to fix anyone, but to listen well, to support and encourage, and to stay in the solution.  The problem is that sometimes the solution is respectful, prayerful distance, and that usually doesn’t sit well with most folks.

    ***

    When I was a little girl, I lived on the outskirts of a small country town with my father and mother, isolated from our New England family.  Our nearest neighbor was a young couple about a mile down the white gravel road that led to their double-wide mobile home.  Mother was the social one of my parents’ marriage, and there were many happy times I remember us driving to the five-and-dime store and the closest library (about a thirty minute drive away), and swimming at the local community pool.  Mother and I would often visit the ladies who lived around the small town, with my mother listening to their tales of woe and heartbreak.

    I loved both my parents very much, but I was very aware that my mother was different from the other mothers.  It was mostly due to her skin color, which I loved: milk chocolate brown (due to a birth defect).  The atmosphere in North Texas in the early 1980s remained steeped in White supremacy and it continues to remain so.  I know because I experienced it, along with my mother.  Growing up, many times people thought my mother was my nanny. I would proudly exclaim that no, indeed, this woman, was my own beloved mother, but I would wonder why they would assume she was the help.  It only increased my anxiety that something was very wrong with the world and led to an early racial awakening and very real understanding of how racism continues to thrive in our country.  It is madness and creates isolation, leads to mental illness, mass incarceration, and tears apart relationships including the one we have with ourselves.

    I cannot imagine what stress living in North Texas in the early 1980s put on my mother.  She was a gregarious person, charming with a huge toothy grin, and all my friends loved her for her warmth, affection, and humor.  Sometimes when I am with little children now, and I make them laugh and smile and see how they do not judge my beautiful (yet unruly) curly hair, my large glasses, and my height, and think to myself, This is why Mother loved working with children. They are precious gifts, beams of light that do not judge you but only welcome you in with love.

    The darker side to the story includes things that may make you uncomfortable: beatings, hair-pulling, brutal criticism for most anything I did that was not perfection.  This is the sort of thing we usually like to read about in scary stories, but when our lives are scary stories, we seek solace in a variety of ways, some of us through drugs or alcohol, some of us through controlling others, and some of us by cultivating the very Death instinct we received from growing up. The latter was my addiction, and for many years, I chose darkness, actively participating in my own death through various ways. Then, a few years ago in the middle of my work in the Twelve Steps, I woke up. Both God and the Twelve Steps saved my life.

    ***

    The last time I saw my mother was in 2004. I was in the midst of my twenties, a lonely time for me, as I was trying my best to find stability in a variety of areas.  One of my friends suggested I try again to cultivate a relationship with my mother.  His recommendation touched a deep chord within me, so I found her phone number, long buried in a stack of papers near my living room computer, and gave her a call.  She was not happy to hear from me.  This should have been my first clue, but a frenzied desire to restore and reconcile our relationship compelled me to push an encounter with her, which I did but at my own expense.

    Dear reader, it did not end well with hugs and kisses and amends made for past mistakes.  I had huge dreams and expectations that it would end in harmony. (In counseling circles, we call this magical thinking.)  It had the opposite effect: it sent me back in my own healing, practically damaging any chance there would be for a restored relationship with my mother.  Unbelievably, I totally forgot about the assault until last year when I completed my Fourth Step, a grueling account of sorts in which you analyze your life, looking for any fears, resentments, and past hurts and discover your part in them.  The goal is to free you from victimhood and help you embrace ownership in your life choices.

    The question is where does a child find her contribution in the participation of physical and emotional abuse from parents?*

    ***

    One of the most freeing things I receive from being in a  Twelve-Step community is that I get a glorious opportunity to detach with love from the hurt people in my life, including my own mother.  Detachment is simple: you remember that the hurt person is one of God’s kids and that this is the truest thing about them, beyond their weird behaviors, difficult mannerisms, and strange ways of relating.  It’s the royal road to forgiveness, which folks in Twelve-Step groups say is letting go of all hope for a better past.  It means I get to take off the lenses of denial, face the swampland of my own soul (Carl Jung), and realize the negative self-talk I struggle with comes (in part) from my mother.  However, it is something I choose to reject on a daily basis, and embrace healing and the long road of forgiveness, compassion training, and actively wishing my mother well.

    And here is the real deal, friends: I do love my mother. I wish her all the best, health and happiness, and most importantly, I wish her peace.  I wish her all good things and know that if or when God intends for us to connect, that He will do it in his own time.

    A Scripture that brings me comfort when others are trying their best to get their “help” all over me is from 1 Corinthians 13.  In The Message, Paul writes “love does not force itself on others. . . but keeps going to the end.”  So I smile calmly as the chorus of women try their best to fix me, reminding myself that I am worthy of love and being helped (even if it pisses me off now and again) because these women truly care about my welfare.  They are the mothers I always longed for and now have, thanks to a program of ragamuffins and spiritual vagabonds who want recovery and freedom from the past. I remember that I often fall into wanting to fix others, my help getting in the way of their dignity, and I pause and breathe deeply, knowing that the long slow work of redemption takes time.  I trust that God knows about our complicated relationship and that wishing her well is the best Mother’s Day gift I can offer to my own mother.

    *To clarify, there is nothing that a child does that warrants parental abuse.  Children are by their very nature helpless and dependent upon their parents for security, safety, warmth, and love.  When parents engage in physical violence, emotional taunts, and sexual abuse, then children suffer greatly. It is never the fault of the child to receive such abuse.

    (Photo by Jasper Boer on Unsplash)

     

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