The Hardest Kind of Forgiveness

During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I try to focus on forgiveness.

As a kid, this meant literally going up to my friends and family and asking for forgiveness for everything I’d done in the past year. I was happy to check that off my to-do list and move on, and even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the seemingly-endless services, I found my meaning in the holidays in that way.

All of that came to an abrupt stop when I first became sick seven years ago, and especially two years after, when such powerful depression and panic attacks hit me that I had no clue how I was going to survive.

When everything was first starting, I begged God to help me, staring up at the hospital room as I lay there alone, having been told that I may die that night of a heart attack or a stroke. I prayed through my surgeries, through the painful recovery process, through the weeks afterwards when every time I bent my knee hurt so badly that I wanted to give up. Through everything, I couldn’t have felt more alone.

And then, after I finally thought I’d gotten better, I was faced with the worst mental health crisis I’d ever experienced, where I spiraled out of control so deeply that every moment of mine was plagued with horrific thoughts I was terrified of. I couldn’t see anything at all without being plunged into flashbacks and obsessive cycles and everything seemed to hurt instead of help. Again, I begged God for help, only to get worse and worse until I finally reached my breaking point.

It was another year filled with intense therapy and heavy medication until I started to feel like myself again, until I wanted to write stories and play games and hang out with friends, until I was able to have a few moments without the incessant and incredibly painful thoughts assaulting my mind. And when I did manage to crawl out of that pit, I found that I was almost completely disinterested in my religion.

Traditions that meant so much to me, like reciting the prayers I’d lovingly learned in school and synagogue, suddenly meant very little. After all, if they didn’t work when it mattered, what was the point in pretending? I felt so fake when I went to services, going through the motions but not actually meaning anything.

I still enjoyed the more secular traditions of Judaism, and the things I’d learned thanks to my religion - like speaking Hebrew - but being more religious left a sour taste in my mouth. It was something I was completely unused to, as someone who’d chosen to spend my time devoted to Judaism. It was like I’d been in a dark room with everything I loved as switches that were turned off, and although the rest were able to come back, my Judaism switch is still turned off.

Nowadays, I only ever go to services on the High Holidays, and when I do, I feel obligated, unenthusiastic, and often, like I’m wasting my time. It’s an unpleasant feeling as I try to find some way to make my religion have meaning. I don’t feel like I can make the same choice as many of my friends, who have abandoned religion altogether; nor do I feel like I can just sink back into the faith I loved as a child. So what can I do to find my way forward?

I finally got an idea when I met with a rabbi at work recently, and we started talking about the High Holidays. Forgiving other people was so easy, I felt, compared to what was going on in my head and my heart that pushed me away from the religion I’d always loved.

“What happens,” I blurted out, “if the one I need to forgive is God?”

The rabbi didn’t miss a beat. “That’s the hardest kind,” she said. There’s no good way to do it, and it doesn’t happen quickly.

I’ve experienced that myself. Years later, even though I’m almost entirely recovered physically and mentally, I still struggle with those feelings of wondering why, after so many years of learning how to beat OCD in the form I knew to the point that I no longer experience compulsions, only to experience two crises so profound that I barely came through alive and sane?

And I fought my way through it myself. Yes, there were people who supported me from the sidelines, like my incredibly supportive family and my best friend, but there were hundreds of times I was besieged alone, where I knew I was being too much of a burden as-is and couldn’t call home for the tenth time that day or take my best friend out of class. It took me a full year to claw myself out of despair, and I missed so much along the way, including enjoying my junior year of college.

Of course I’m aware that plenty of bad things happen to good people, and that this is a question that touches everyone in some way. But that didn’t help when I was alone and hurting. It didn’t make me resent any less that I had always participated in Jewish activities even when I was miserable and had such a hard time making friends, and did what mitzvot I could, and nothing came along to help me when I needed it. It didn’t make me question any less that I have to marry someone Jewish one day, that a religion that confuses me and makes me struggle will dictate who I can love and how I have to raise my future children.

The rabbi I spoke to is right - working through all of these complicated questions and feelings will be far from easy.

I want to do it, though, even if right now it’s more for my family’s sake than my own. I like the idea of carrying on traditions and finding a way to make them mean something to me as an adult who has struggled rather than a child who believes blindly. I want to pass that on, and maybe, that can be the way I find forgiveness.

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to forgive, but writing this blog over the past almost-year has helped me get to the point where I’m ready to try. 

It took me until I was 25 to be ready to try to work through my food-related obsessions. I hope it won’t take me quite so long to be ready for this, but in the meantime, I can do my best to keep an open mind. I can go to Jewish events and try to put aside the resentful thoughts that come first, and try to love what comes next. I can wade my way back in slowly, and maybe I’ll never quite reach the level of devotion I felt in my childhood again, but I can find a meaningful way to be a Jew who questions.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.