Guest post by Tassja
For as long as I can remember I’ve had this paralyzing fear of dying.
I grew up in suburban Mississauga Ontario with my mom, grandma and grandpa. My mom had me at a young age and my father was in and out of the picture for the first few years of my life. Finally, he just stopped coming around. Grandma and Grandpa stepped in to help their daughter raise me while she attended University. They acted as my second parents and I loved them more than anything.
The absence of my father never seemed to consciously affect me as a little girl. My adoring family showered me with constant love and affection; after all, I was the first-born daughter and grandchild.
My grandparents (being devout Anglican Christians) brought me to church with them on Sundays, and after church, Sunday school. They ensured that I was baptized and raised with traditional Christian beliefs. My mother is not a religious person. She has always believed in a “higher power”, but she has never influenced my religious beliefs one way or another.
I can’t say that I understood the concept of G-d. My grandfather tried to explain to me that G-d is Jesus and Jesus is G-d, which is pretty complex stuff for a 5-year-old to understand. It always puzzled me and kind of freaked me out; the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. The idea that people die was a very disturbing revelation for me as a child. It just didn’t sit well with me. Where do they go? What happens when you die? Of course any Christian family will tell you that if you’re good you go to heaven and if you’re bad…
And that’s exactly what I was led to believe. The notion of heaven was never comforting to me. All I could think about was the fact that one day I am going to die. I believe this was when my fixation with death began.
From the day I was born, I had a special relationship with my mom. She was the centre of my world and I was crazy about her. Always a doting parent, my mother put me before everything else in her life. Becoming a mom had really changed her and she was adamant about spending a lot of time with me growing up.
My mom had been dating Steve* for quite a while before she finally introduced us. I had lukewarm feelings for Steve. Let’s just say our personalities clashed.
Up until this point I didn’t have to share her with anyone. Steve posed a threat to me and I started to harbour resentment towards him that progressively grew stronger over time. We had some good times and it’s not that he was a bad person – I just always felt like he was taking my mom away from me. This is when I first remember thinking I was a bad person, but I was a little kid and my world felt like it was being invaded.
Darkness set in and I began to feel that there was only a finite amount of love and that Steve was depleting my share. I carried this way of thinking with me throughout my entire life. It was never a conscious feeling; on the contrary, it was completely subconscious. Only after years of reflection, and Freudian teachings, did I come to recognize the burden I was carrying.
If you’re wondering “how does this have anything to do with Judaism?”, read on. It is imperative that you have a clear understanding of who I am and how I grew up. All of these experiences have contributed to my decision to convert.
Years later my worst nightmare became reality: my mother married Steve. My coming-of-age marked the beginning of a very long, rebellious, angry and vengeful stage of my life. These years were hard for my family and as a result, I was on my own at a young age.
My grandparents attempted to step in, and allowed me to live with them on a contingent basis. There was a list of conditions I would have to agree to follow if I was to stay with them. One of them was to attend church every Sunday.
I hadn’t gone to church since I was a kid (unless it was a special occasion) and the thought of sitting through a long boring service didn’t exactly appeal to me at fifteen. “Church is sooo boring,” I protested. My grandpa (who at this point was completely fed up with my teenage attitude) responded with “Well we know where you’re going”.
Those words never left me.
Grandpa didn’t mean what he said. It was an empty comment made out of anger. However, this wasn’t the first time I had thought about going to hell.
Finally, my grandparents made a deal with me: They promised that if I went to live with my aunt and uncle in Calgary for a month, that they would help me find an apartment and pay my first and last months’ rent when I returned. Reluctantly, I agreed. I packed my bags and hopped on a flight with $5 in my pocket.
Little did I know that my ticket was one-way and it would be up to me to find my own way home. That bomb will be dropped later.
This is where I had my first encounter with Judaism. My uncle Ian* had been married to a Jewish woman named Esther* for several years. Eventually, after having two children together, he decided to go through with a conversion to Judaism, himself.
Calgary was the lowest point of my teenage years. Ian and Esther believed they would be able to help ‘ground me’, but unfortunately their efforts were unsuccessful.
It felt as though I was in complete isolation from the world that I knew. There was a long distance block on their phone, so I couldn’t call my friends, and my mother and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms.
When the bomb finally dropped that it would be up to me to find a way home, things went from bad to worse. I fell into a deep depression. I couldn’t fathom how in the world I would be able to come up with that kind of money. To a teenager, this felt like an impossible hurdle.
A few weeks later when my uncle went on a business trip, Esther almost immediately sent me home. While I was anxious to get back to Toronto, I didn’t have a place to live and I was scared. My life was a mess. One might call this my wake-up call: I knew it was time to make some changes.
The first time I had a panic attack I thought I was dying or being possessed by the devil.
I was out of my mind with fear. I am aware that this sounds insane, but I was convinced something truly horrible was happening to me. Not knowing what to do and in a state of supreme distress, I called 100 Huntley Street (a Christian television show that has a prayer line) and I begged the operator to talk to me and pray for me on the phone. Nothing could calm me down. Running on fear-fuelled adrenaline, I stayed up for two full days without food or water, reading the bible. I was never the same after that episode.
My doctor’s official diagnosis was ‘panic disorder’ and she prescribed me medication to help control the attacks. Unfortunately the pills made me sick to my stomach so I discontinued the prescription immediately.
Following the initial panic attack, I spent three months battling anxiety on a daily basis. The attacks never seemed to subside. I had a hard time leaving my house and being in social settings. I was a complete nervous wreck. However, as the old adage goes: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” It was the fight of my life, but in time I learned to manage my panic disorder and I started living life again.
Throughout my twenties, my best friend Julie* secretly suffered from an eating disorder.
When I met Julie, she was a beautiful, talented dancer. You would never look at her and think that she was anything less than perfect, but clandestinely, she was broken. For years Julie was plagued with guilt about eating food. Some days she would binge and then cry about it, while other days all she would eat was an apple. This went on for years until finally she managed to grab a hold of her illness. Sort of. I guess you could say that Julie was one of the lucky ones – She no longer practiced her anorexic rituals and she managed to overcome the disease on her own.
Nothing ever seemed to be going right for her: she was unhappy with her job, she was often in physical pain (stomach and back) and I was basically her only friend. I knew Julie relied on me and I was always there if ever she needed someone.
Her highs and lows were like night and day. When Julie was herself, we would have the best time! We would share a bottle of wine on a patio, we would go clubbing, we often had sleepovers, and we laughed a lot. She was like my sister and I loved her.
It was autumn when Julie first revealed to me that she was planning to end her life.
She sat me down and calmly explained that nothing was really wrong in particular, but she expressed how extremely unhappy she was. “Every day I wake up, go to work, and come home. It’s always the same.” she told me.
I was shocked and completely devastated. The thought of losing her was absolutely unbearable. I frantically attempted to reach out to her brother, tried to get in touch with her mother, called crisis centres, etc… all to no avail. When I found her suicide note, the magnitude of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks: She was serious. Sick with worry, I didn’t know what to do. All I could do at that point was keep her close to me.Then one day while shopping at the mall, Julie randomly asked me if I was interested in meeting some ‘Jesus guy’ (as she called him) with her. She proceeded to tell me that he added her on Facebook a while ago and she accepted, not thinking anything of it. Apparently there had been no interaction between Julie and this ‘Jesus guy’ until she changed her Facebook status to “G-d where are you” and he immediately sent her a message.
To sum up David’s* message to Julie, he basically introduced himself, professed that he was a man of G-d, acknowledged how pretty he thought she was and invited her to his church. David also extended an invitation to meet him for a coffee so that he could share some religious videos that he thought would speak to her.
Before I knew it Julie had given up sex, swearing, parties and drinking. She finally ended it with her boyfriend and became a member of David’s church.
I guess one might say that Julie really was saved.
Being born again changed her whole life – she finally HAD a life and it was one that she wanted! I should have been happy for her, but instead I was extremely disturbed by her radical transformation.
She would often try to influence me with her religious beliefs and it only pushed me further away. The more I spoke to her, the more I felt like a bad person (and bad people go to hell). I began questioning everything I did and became terrified that I was doomed to an eternity of fire. I was completely consumed by my fear and it felt like everything Julie said to me just made things worse. Neither of us could bear the thought of losing each other, so we continued to cling to the friendship hoping it would mend itself; but deep down we both knew it was truly the beginning of the end for us.
I met Joshua at the end of summer and we hit it out of the ballpark on our first date.
From day one we couldn’t get enough of each other. Josh would work till 10pm in Vaughan, then drive across town to Roncesvalles Village just to see me. He did this every day until he asked me to start staying with him. We’d be up all night, every night in complete awe of each other.
“So this is what my wife looks like” he would say while gazing into my eyes.
“It’s over for me” he promised, and he meant it. I don’t know how either of us were able to function at work during the first couple of months. We were sleep deprived and running on love. When we weren’t together, we were texting or talking on the phone. We never spent more than 2 days apart. Ever.
I knew he was the one after our second date, but I warned Josh right off the bat that if he wanted to end up with a Jewish girl, then I wasn’t for him. Thankfully the issue of conversion was never a sore spot in our relationship. We were just so in love – nothing else seemed to matter.
Things moved quickly and before I knew it, we were moving in together. Josh was close with his family and we would go to his dad’s house for Shabbat dinner whenever we could. Every Friday they lit the candles, passed around the kiddush cup and blessed the challah bread. I don’t know why, but it just felt like home to me. It was so nice to sit at the table with his family. I loved the Jewish customs and traditions. I even voluntarily fasted with Josh on Yom Kippur, just 2 weeks into our relationship!
Julie and I had been drifting for months now and I really missed her. I didn’t want to give up on my best friend, so when she asked me to come to her church with her, I reluctantly agreed. I woke up early on Sunday morning and caught a ride from Josh to the church.
It wasn’t a typical church; the service was held inside a public school. I found it a bit odd, but proceeded to take my seat beside Julie. The congregation was made up of about 50 (mostly young) people who all gathered in the auditorium to worship. A live band comprised of a drummer, keyboardist and singer began to perform on stage. In unison (it seemed), everyone in the auditorium stood up and lifted both of their arms straight up above their heads.
I stood there, wide-eyed. I had never seen anything like this. As the band continued to perform their new-age Christian music, the entire congregation began to jump up and down, waving their arms in the air. People were hopping around everywhere! I looked around and noticed that practically everyone was murmuring their prayers to G-d. Some bowed their heads, some sat on the floor, and some were even crying.
If there has ever been a time in my life where I felt like I didn’t fit in, this was it.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and I told Julie that I would never ever go back.
For the first time in years my anxiety took over my life and caused my panic attacks to pick up full force. I felt like my brain was on a hamster wheel of repetitive, intrusive thoughts; and they weren’t just about me anymore. Now I was worrying about Josh, his family and our future children all going to hell.
Were all the people I loved going to burn for eternity because they don’t accept Jesus as their Messiah? How could a loving G-d punish good and decent people just because they don’t believe? It didn’t make sense to me and I was tortured by the thought of it. I was in a living hell! I turned to Julie hoping that she would say something to help me, or tell me it wasn’t true; but that was a terrible idea. Julie wanted to make me feel better, but she believed that G-d gives you the power to make your own choices and decisions.
I fell into a black hole of depression. I lost 20 lbs and I felt completely hopeless.
Josh, (who was never a supporter of SSRIs) as a last resort suggested that talking to my doctor was absolutely necessary. I agreed.
I made an appointment to see my doctor immediately. Josh sat with me as I described the nightmare that I had been living every day. I had no peace. My doctor wrote me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication and asked me to try taking it for a couple of weeks.
At this point, I was so low, there was nowhere to go but up. It was time to take care of myself by any means necessary and unfortunately that meant breaking ties with Julie.
Ending my friendship with Julie was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I had to put myself first. I started taking the medication and it was exactly what I needed. Within a couple of weeks my anxiety subsided and slowly but surely I became my old self again.
Josh, who has always been an advocate of education, encouraged me to learn more about the things that were scaring me so much. He reasoned that “knowledge is power” and I decided to take his advice.
I started at the very beginning and began to read everything I could find about Judaism and Christianity.
I read about the beginning of the concept of hell. It wasn’t even created until around the second century! The Hebrew word “satan” literally means “adversary”. In the Old Testament “satan” is a metaphor for “temptation of wrongdoings” or refers to the “evil inclination” that we all experience during our lives. Satan didn’t become a “devil” with a “lake of fire” until the New Testament.
Most people are brought into religion (not just Christianity, but whatever religion they are born into) and the majority of the time, they are like sheep, simply believing whatever they’ve been taught by their elders, without regard for history, other religions, agendas or perspectives. The crazy thing is, I don’t blame them. Why question it? I, too, was following the herd; basing my beliefs and fears solely on what I had been told, not what is factual or historical information.
I wonder where people would stand if they decided to educate themselves (with an open mind) about their religious beliefs. I wonder who would stay true to all of their traditional teachings and ignore reality or actually develop an opinion and build on it. Would they deny facts? Would they acknowledge any illegitimacy? Would they grow through knowledge?
I have discovered so many things that have really caused me to reflect, but the most important takeaway I have gained from this journey is that G-d loves all his children. You can call him Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Hashem, The Universe, etc… But G-d is One.
My conversion to Judaism became official in June 2015. I have come leaps and bounds and finally managed to change my way of thinking. This experience has wholeheartedly transformed me into a kinder, conscious and more sensitive person.
Finally, for the first time in ages, I feel free from the burden of fear.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this extremely long, short version of my life. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share my story with you. I am so touched and flattered that you chose to take this very special journey with me.
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NAMES WITH * HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE IDENTITIES OF THE PEOPLE MENTIONED IN THIS STORY.