(Content warning: this story contains sensitive material related to child sexual abuse, rape. Please read at your own discretion.)
At the height of summer in the pandemic, I went to the mountains to leave my mother behind. Sometimes with family there are things you have to let go. For years now, I’ve sought to release the toxic narratives of shame my mother gifted me with, and my time up in the mountains was the perfect occasion to mark the leaving.
The day of leaving dawned brilliant and cool, the Colorado landscape experiencing a tiny respite from the hazy smoke blown in from wildfires as far north as Canada. My partner and I checked the air quality map and our hopes were confirmed: we would take our chances and drive up the picturesque mountain highway to the Crags trailhead and spend the day hiking the fertile wilderness, the northwestern shoulders of Pikes Peak always in our sight.
After an hour of driving, we arrived at the trailhead and headed east up the steep hillside, past quaking aspens and subalpine fir trees, amid skittering mountain chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, slowing our pace when we heard the faint sounds of rushing water. I exhaled with a deep joy I only experience when I’m nourished by the quiet wonder of the woods. We followed the sounds and discovered a tinkling creek shaded by enormous pine trees a few yards away from the trail. My partner reminded me ash can float in water, but I knew this wasn’t the place for me to mark the leaving. No, I said, it must be the side of a mountain.
And as we hiked further up the narrow valley, gawking at the lush beauty and helping others find their way back down the mountain, I knew we were close. After another thirty minutes of hiking, we stumbled into a place of exquisite beauty. The narrow gravel trail opened into a broad grassy expanse with granite outcroppings and shrubby bushes to our left and towering spruce and fir trees standing guard at the far edge of the meadow. Turning north by northwest, I raised my eyes to the sky and felt deep resonance within: ensconced between jumbled piles of boulders lay a sunny hillside strewn with tiny yellow flowers on a bed of verdant grass against a cerulean blue sky. I knew beyond words this was it. This place of ancient beauty amid so much calamity, this is where I will mark the leaving.
The knowledge of my mother’s sexual abuse sits squarely next to its disappearance: since childhood I confided to counselors about my mother’s erratic behavior, the inappropriate touch, the secret showers, the nightmares of rape, and all disbelieved me. The shame of speaking the truth to these helpers and their unwillingness to examine these memories with my mother set in motion a lifetime of self-disappearance, an ebbing away of my essential vitality. Quite simply, I mistrusted my own experiences, developing a destructive pattern of self invalidation, looking to others to show me I mattered.
Additionally, to live in a place and time, here in the Southwest, where so much of one’s existence as a woman is defined by her family relationships, especially in religious contexts, is a lonely and isolating existence. As a young woman in the nineties and new to Christian faith, I failed to understand the social expectations placed on me to withhold the truth that my mother’s touch killed. At prayer events, I would bravely share my desire to heal from my mother’s abuse but was swiftly silenced for speaking ill of my mother at all. I soon discovered that I must keep it a secret, the white-hot shame locked tight in my chest but eking out in terrible ways that chained me to my past, preventing me from finding the liberation my faith promised us. How do you reconcile the wounds gifted to you by your mother when your memories are denied by helpers and church people alike?
The complexity of acknowledging my mother’s abuse while also forgiving the failure of others helped me tap into deep springs of compassion for myself and all of us who have suffered. I think about growing up in the late twentieth century, long before shame researcher Brene Brown, TikTok videos on abuse recovery, and scores of therapies devoted to trauma work existed. My pain, like yours, is a universal experience of betrayal and suffering, a record of bad love that many of us experienced at the hands of imperfect people who could not give us the love we needed. We learned instead to neglect our younger selves who have always deserved tender compassion. I wondered how to honor my mother who did her best to care for me while also acknowledging the awful weight of suffering she gave me. Perhaps Twelve Step programs and psychotherapy exist so that we can return to the joyful children we once were before the world got ahold of us.
My voice threatened to all but disappear, until a few years ago, when God offered me two good turns. First, I began counseling with a helper who, unbeknownst to me initially, had seen my mother professionally when she was in and out of the local psych ward. Over the years in his work as an inpatient therapist, he observed the depths of her cruelty and rage, and he offered me the shelter of his trust and faith in my ability to rise above the pain. I remember sitting in his comfortable office, surrounded by his huge oil paintings of New Mexican mountains and a quaint rocking chair in the far corner when he looked at me calmly and said, “Jenn, I know who your mother is and what she did to you. You are unsullied, undefiled at your core.” The experience of being affirmed and witnessed in great love was a pivotal moment in my healing. I began to see myself in the same light too.
The next good turn happened shortly after that experience with my counselor, and it came in the form of a book written by religious historian and Episcopalian priest Lauren F. Winner. In The Dangers of Christian Practice, Winner explores harms enacted by Christians who have practiced the sacraments of prayer, baptism, and communion throughout the centuries. A passage about baptism caught my eye and offered a middle path on the long road toward healing: Winner makes the case that Jesus’s teachings both affirm and transcend our family bonds. Through her careful scholarship and balanced examination of scriptures, I acknowledged the inescapable truth that I would always remain my mother’s daughter. I would always have dark curly hair, brown eyes, a love for reading, and feeding the poor. I would always have a generous smile and love connecting with people, just like her. Not everything my mother gave me was harmful. That much was clear.
I would learn through meditation, deep trauma work, and time out on the land that I had taken on her harsh condemnations of me as fact. And healing would come with intentional effort to focus on the truth of my baptism and release my deepest wounding. No matter what happened to me growing up with my mother, Christ lives in the deepest reaches of my soul and loves me unconditionally. I belong to God and the earth who made me.
On the hillside under the watchful gaze of the mountain, I found a cradle in the earth to lay my heavy burdens down. Along the darling green meadow dotted with bright yellow cinquefoils and soft bluebells, amid colossal Pikes Peak granite and stately spruce and fir trees, I took the ashes from the small plastic container and paused to reflect on my experience. Before traveling, I had written an inventory of harm and burned the paper, grateful for the gift of fire offering the first release, the darkening paper curling upwards in flame. With my partner by my side, we blessed this sacred ritual, speaking words of peace and healing over me. We paused again after praying and saw no hikers around except the endless blue sky, the sounds of faint creek water, and the high summer sun, preaching glory all around us.
As the birds flew overhead, I smiled widely and cast the ashes to the meadow, grateful to my bones for being at such a majestic place to mark the leaving. The gray ashes scattered upward, the winds throwing them against the glare of sun, and I watched them disappear, becoming dust. Afterward, I noticed a palpable shift inside as the ashes blew away to become food for the earth, my neck and back tension released as I gave up the dead weight of my mother’s mad love.
We hiked joyfully back into the woods and up to the stunning vista as I let go of the shame, my true belonging confirmed: I’ll always be my mother’s daughter, but my true self resides in what I choose to acknowledge and leave behind. I belong to God and the earth who made me.
Jenn Zatopek is a writer and counselor who hails from North Texas, living on the ancestral lands of the Comanche, Wichita, Kickapoi, and Tawakoni peoples. She has written for publications such as Fathom, Ruminate Magazine, and elsewhere. A native Texan with New England roots, Jenn’s life-long quest is to encounter God in the most unexpected places. More at Jenn's website or follow along on Instagram.