By Julie Levitt Roberts
Forgiveness is never easy. It’s even harder if you’re suffering from a debilitating illness.
In 2004, life as I knew it was brought to a halt when I was diagnosed with autoimmune neuromuscular disease. I went from working at a job I loved and raising two children as a single mom in our beautiful new house to needing a walker to go anywhere, then a tilt recline wheelchair. Eventually, I became dependent on oxygen 24/7.
So, there I was: a highly educated (an M.B.A. and a master’s in technology) young woman, headhunted by the best technology companies in the world, not able to work or even take care of myself and my children.
During the next four years my health went from bad to worse. My doctors told me to get my affairs in order. My daughter, Tiara, was turning 13; my son, Colin, was not even 2.
My family didn’t understand what was happening. Some even blamed me for getting ill. My anxiety was overwhelming.
In 2008, I was looking forward to the High Holidays, hoping to find solace. On Yom Kippur I listened to the rabbi at the Temple of the High Country in Boone, N.C., talk about atonement and the power of forgiveness. I realized that the person I needed to forgive was me.
During the meditation, I thought about my bitterness, guilt and at times self-hatred over my body failing me. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t my fault. But I realized that until I forgave myself, nothing would change.
In a sermon about forgiveness, Rabbi Aaron Levitt, Judaic principal at Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, said, “We can’t move forward if we’re still stuck in the past.”
Right after the High Holidays of 5769, I set out on a journey to become closer to G-d. When I moved to New York, my family joined Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst.
I began following a type of holistic healing called the Wahls Protocol, which emphasizes that a nourishing ancestral diet can combat autoimmune disease. I incorporated prayer, meditation, exercise, yoga, relaxation, mindfulness, sunlight and socialization. My goal was to reduce my symptoms to as close to zero as possible.
As a recent baal teshuva (newly observant), I found that yoga’s focus on the breath helped me find meaning in the spiritual side of Judaism. It also enhanced my understanding and respect of Jewish practices.
But I learned it wasn’t black and white — I am sick, then I am well. Instead there are gradients of wellness. It is a journey of ups and downs that continues today. I also learned that Western medicine alone doesn’t address chronic and complicated illness.
Over the next seven years my MRIs and neurological exams became more stable, eventually almost normal. My body was healing from the most debilitating symptoms. I no longer needed oxygen and could walk on my own.
By 2015, I was walking 3 to 5 miles a day. My doctor kept looking at me, smiling, looking up to the sky, shaking his head, knowing where I had been.
During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we fast and pray in an effort to alter our behavior and seek forgiveness. The dictionary defines forgiveness as giving up resentment against something or someone. We do teshuva (“return” to G-d) for all those we feel we have wronged.
Forgiveness is at the center of our Yom Kippur prayers, which we recite throughout the day. The steps of forgiveness include being aware of our wrongdoing, communicating remorse, asking forgiveness, fixing what we can and not repeating the misdeed.
This year during the High Holidays I will renew my vows to forgive myself. I will use the tools to be at peace with my body and stop being held captive by anger.
The High Holidays are a time to be cherished, revered and honored. They are a time for peace. This is a period of reconciliation, renewal and recovery. This year, especially, I hold high hopes for the future. Amazing things can happen.
We are reminded as we say Yizkor, the memorial prayer, that “as long as the candle is still burning, it is possible to mend.”