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Deathlands

Posted on August 29, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek

The chronic physical pain began after a terrible car accident when I was ten years old.  A group of us children rode in a horse-drawn carriage on a highway stretched out in Alvarado and were hit by a drunk driver at ten o’clock in the morning.  I wonder how what happened to the horses, to the other children.  I have no memory of what happened to them, another failure on my part for not caring enough to make sure they were okay.  I wish I had a non-dramatic story for you. I hate how dramatic my life is because the early drama set the stage for creating more and more and more chaos later in life.  I cannot go back and change the past.  I wish that I could. 

The chronic emotional pain began at birth, perhaps even before.  Many children grow up hearing stories about how much they were longed for, but I had the misfortune to hear how I was feared, even before I was born.  My mother stole items in fancy New York department stores when she realized she was pregnant with me.  My father threatened to call the police on her if she did not stop.

How long will it take to undue the damage that was done to me?  The ache that I have for the woman my mother was and the woman that I am now burns at a steady pace. We still cannot speak today.

The emotional pain continued when my mother abandoned me at twelve, and I moved in with dad. He started telling me to “fuck off” at age eighteen. Like a flashbulb memory, I will always remember standing in the narrow apartment hallway, near the one bathroom we shared, seeing the spittle dangle gently from his mouth as he said those words.  He said those words a second time, a shadow benediction, and stormed off, slamming the apartment door behind him. I knew then that I was a bad seed. The lies festered and became chains around me.

How long does it take to destroy the spirit of a human being? Does it take a minute or a lifetime? How long do you have?

Emotional pain continued in my twenties, which I fully acknowledge wrecking after I returned from a bad job up north. I tried and failed to find community in church. I was rejected from churches because I was told that I needed to try harder to form relationships with my family of origin, that taking medication for depression was “evil,” and that if I just prayed hard enough, then I would be healed.

Where do  you go when the church turns you down, the place that is supposed to take anyone in, no matter what?

Then I had the misfortune to try and reconnect with additional family members who let me know that my presence is not exactly wanted.  It’s when I try and engage with them on social media, through letters, or phone calls and receive no response.  Silence.  I buy cards and send texts and leave voice messages, and I never get what I really want, which is connection, relationship, and belonging.

I’ve been in the family since forever.  When will I turn into family?  Will I always and forever be an outsider?  How do I forgive and forgive and forgive?  Surely Jesus was joking when he said seventy times seven?  He wasn’t, was he?  Is this my lot in life?  The lies continue onward, growing rapidly with more shame and sorrow, the chains growing heavy upon me.

A few years ago, I joined a recovery group, determined to do life with joy.  I left evangelicalism, began seeing a different therapist, said positive affirmations, exercised, gardened, meditated, and did all that I could to distract myself from the shame that surrounds me and chokes out my own voice on a daily basis.

And now, this . . . Chronic back pain, which has been with me since before I started my new and stressful job.  Nine weeks and counting.

I understand why Robin Williams killed himself.  To lose his ability to perform was his deadly blow and to an addict, that’s tantamount to death.  Who are you without your performance, your achievements, your accolades?  In this society, you are nothing and no one.

I am not a chemical addict, but I struggle with thought addiction.  I am addicted to my own pain, as you can see, my own sick and twisted shame narrative, that I have been trying to fight back, seriously, for the past year now.

The back pain gets worse and better.  On Monday, the older male doctor scolded me for asking too many questions regarding my condition, stating he works with back pain daily.

How much worse will it get?  How much more pain will I go through that carves itself into my being and transforms to joy? 

The back pain means that most likely I will not be able to bear children, and this is a very hard dream to die, as I just began thinking I would be an awesome mother.  I should have listened to the kind women, long ago, who said I would make a marvelous mother.  How much can a person take before they give in to oblivion?

I have no answers for you.  I know that now I ask God to help me stay alive for the rest of the day.  The thoughts come around and I ask again for help not to do the unthinkable. I take deep breathes.  I cry. I reach out and call people, when I am a hot fucking mess.  Thankfully, I have a few people who can take it when I am this distraught. I am grateful for them.

A week ago, a new friend reached out to me and said that God is testing me by giving me back pain.  I simply cannot utilize this form of theology anymore.  I cannot began to sit in the presence of Someone greater than me who deliberately sets out to harm me in order to draw me closer.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” captures the essence of what I call the bend-and-break theology.  I simply cannot abide by it any longer because it makes me think that all the emotional horror inflicted on me by my insane alcoholic father and violent mother was somehow created by God.   Violence used to make me a new and whole human being.  No wonder we have people leaving the church in droves.  Why would you want to believe in God who kills you to make you better? 

Right now, I look at the pretty cursive tattoo that I got last year; hope was imprinted on my body.  The real story behind the tattoo is that when the suicidal thoughts surface (as they are doing right now) that I have a promise, in the tattoo, that there is reason to keep going. To endure.  To know that even this pain will all pass away one day.  I know that even in this madness that Christ is here.

He descended into hell / And on the third day He rose again in accordance with the scriptures. (Nicene Creed)

(Photo by miro polca on Unsplash)
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  • Valarie

    What a beautiful and devastating story. Thank you for being vulnerable. May you be free from your suffering.

  • Lori Williams

    Hey Jenn, I appreciate your courage in writing this. Your words strike a familiar chord with me. I’ve been to similar places, and I know how dark it can get. I am really sorry for the pain you have been through and continue to go through. I know about those poisonous lies that take hold of your mind and crush your spirit to dust. It’s truly awful. I also understand some of your frustration with the church. So many well intended pat answers. I don’t have any of those answers. But you are right Jesus descended into hell and He is with you. I’m here, too, praying God will give you what you need to get through this. ❤️

  • Pamela Elliott

    I could quote one hundred scriptures from the Bible, but I feel like that’s not what you need right now. I know I love you. Even if we do not see each other frequently, I would be devastated if you left me. I can and will pray for you. You’ve got to hold on to today. One moment at a time. That’s how I made it 20+ years ago. I love you!😘😘😘😘

  • Julie O’Neill

    Hi Jenn, thank you for your insightful words. As a church leader, this reminds me of the importance of unconditional acceptance, the practice of grace (both giving and receiving), and our need for True Love. If I may be so bold, I’d like to share with you the God-moments and people I see in your story…. the tattoo artist who shared his/her gift with you as a reminder of Hope, the friends who help you through the hot fucking mess moments, the perseverance in recognizing who God is not AND STILL trying to figure out who God is!, the bravery in being so Honest with other mere humans who are also on a quest for unconditional acceptance, grace and true love! Thank you for not giving up, thank you for sharing, thank you for reminding me that God is not always (maybe even not usually) found in the church, but in tattoo shops, recovery groups, in the tapping of the keyboard, and in gentle friendships. May you seek and find God in the most unexpected places and people – and therein find your joy! Peace!