Meet a Religious Trauma Recovery Badass (and Mean Girls Extra): Spotlight on Tassja Dawn
For our third story spotlight, I'm excited to introduce the one and only Mean Girls extra-turned-mental health advocate I know! Meet Tassja Dawn. Tassja's a perfect fit for our Far From Alone series, where I spotlight the stories of folks who are breaking tradition, healing, and building new lives -- because we're in good company.
Tassja and I found each other through the #ReligiousTraumaSyndrome tag on Instagram, and I'm happy to share her story with you. It involves an up-and-coming in the Toronto film industry, a stint at a tattoo shop, losing a best friend to a high-demand religion... oh yeah, and Mean Girls.
If you haven't heard of @itassja, go give it a look -- you'll find videos and blog articles about Tassja's journey to recover from Religious Trauma Syndrome and #nosuchnormal, her campaign to create more openness around mental illness experiences.
Without further ado, here's Tassja.
Max: Hey Tassja! I’m excited that we’re getting to do this. For anyone who’s new here, would you introduce yourself and your @itassja account in a few sentences?
Tassja: Hey Max! Thanks for allowing me to share. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for 20 years, but only after my best friend became a born-again Christian did I have my first experience with Religious Trauma Syndrome. I didn’t know what was happening to me and it was the most traumatic time of my life.
Currently, my Instagram page and my blog are dedicated to helping others suffering from mental illness. I recently started the #nosuchnormal movement to bring awareness to mental health. It’s very important to attempt to “normalize” mental illness as much as we can in order to remove the stigma.
*** (For our readers, Religious Trauma Syndrome is a condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian religion or coping with indoctrination. RTS is comparable to C-PTSD, with symptoms like flashbacks, anxiety/panic attacks, black and white thinking, and unfamiliarity with the secular world. It was first outlined by Dr. Marlene Winell.
Max: When I first came across your IG account and saw that your mission is to speak up about Religious Trauma Syndrome, I was so excited! You’re a badass lady, I have to say -- from an Unfriendly Black Hottie in Mean Girls who came up in the Toronto film industry to a woman using her voice to speak up about the impact of religion on mental health. It's very I came I saw I conquered!
How did you end up realizing your experiences had a name? And what made you eventually say, “okay, I need to actually talk about this?”
Tassja: Thanks Max! You’re so kind to say that. When I was suffering from Religious Trauma Syndrome, like I said, I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt like I had completely lost control of my brain and couldn’t stop the intrusive thoughts about hell from taking over my life. I lost my best friend, I lost my job and I knew I had to do something.
I searched and searched and eventually I stumbled across an article online about Religious Trauma Syndrome. I had never heard that term before, but it caught my attention. Once I started reading the article, I realized that this was exactly what I had been suffering from. I continued my research and found a book by Dr. Marlene Winell called “Leaving The Fold”. I couldn’t put it down. I felt like she was talking about me!
Max: Okay, so imagine you’re dropping a recovery care package to someone trapped on the island of RTS. What would you put in it? Books, tips, coping methods, quotes, anything goes.
Tassja: This is a great question! For me, I always say education is what set me free. I believe that once you identify the root of your fear (in my case it was hell) you should try to find the first place it was documented, in addition to assessing the source, the timeline, and the evidence. So I guess I would recommend a book I read as a starting point, “How Jesus Became A Christian” by Barrie Wilson, as well as some mindfulness techniques.
Max: You recently began #nosuchnormal, a campaign to encourage people to be more open about their mental health experiences. I’m a huge believer in the sheer power of stories -- we take our voices back, we connect with each other, we heal together. (That’s why I have this series!)
My blog was originally focused on my personal journey recovering from religious trauma, and hands down the favorite part of my work is hearing the stories people come to me with because I’ve shared mine. Are there any stories you’ve heard so far that stand out to you?
Tassja: Someone I used to work with for years reached out to me after I posted about Religious Trauma Syndrome on my blog and she couldn’t believe that she had suffered through the same thing. She was tormented by this for years and battled her inner demons in silence. For me, this was a game-changing moment because I never in a million years would have guessed that she could relate to me in such an intimate way. You really never know what others are going through. This is why it’s important to speak out to show people that they also have a voice, they aren’t alone and there is no shame in battling mental health.
Max: This is a toughie but one of my favorite questions: could you describe a day in the life during the worst of your religious anxiety versus a typical day in your life today?
Tassja: Oooh this is a tough one. One moment that stands out in my mind is a day I was at one of my lowest points. I had a breakdown in the middle of the day at work and bawled my eyes out to my boss (who wasn’t even a nice person) about how I was afraid I was going to hell. I had to leave to go home in the middle of the day.
I was so distraught and I couldn’t stop the thoughts from tormenting me, so I walked 45 minutes to get to a local hospital and checked myself in. I cried and cried to the intake nurse and she was so kind to me. She assured me that mental health is just as important as physical health. I knew I needed help getting better.
Today, I’m living my best self. I’m working at a job I love, as a Digital Marketing Coordinator. I’m happily married to the love of my life. I have a beautiful home, a cute kitty and most importantly, a healthy mind. If I can overcome this trauma so can you.
Max: Imagine that someone who’s wrestling with religious anxiety is sitting right in front of you. What do you want them to know that you once didn’t?
Tassja: First, I want them to explain what they’re afraid of. I suspect that a lot of people (if not all) are afraid of going to hell. I would want them to know a couple of things:
This too shall pass, as long as you put in the effort to help yourself through learning.
I would show them all of the contradictions in the Old vs New Testament and talk to them through each issue until they understood why it can’t be true. Once you understand the why, then you just have to deal with the emotional attachment that we all seem to have to our trauma. More often than not, it’s rooted in a fear of abandonment and low self esteem.
Max: I’d ask questions all day if I could, but I’ve got to wrap this up so… where would you like to see yourself in terms of recovery in the future? And what are you looking to tackle next on @itassja?
Tassja: My dream is to use my experience and knowledge to help others overcome their depression and anxiety. I know how alone I felt and in a way, I felt stupid. Like I was crazy and delusional. That feeling in itself is part of the stigma we need to erase. I hope to encourage more people to get involved in the #nosuchnormal movement by having the courage to share their story and use the hashtag. People need to realize they are not alone and there is always someone who can relate.
Thanks so much, Tassja!
Want to see more of Tassja? You can find her here:
Tassja's story ("My Obsession with Death and How It Made Me Jewish... Really")
And if you are struggling with religion-related issues, please check out Recovering from Religion, a fantastic organisation with a trained help chat/hotline and resources galore.
If you know of anyone who might be encouraged by this story, please pass it on! That's what we're here for. And if you know of anyone who might have an encouraging story to tell, shoot me a message -- I'd love to grow the list.
Remember, wherever you are in healing, stepping off the beaten path, or facing down stigma and tradition to find some freedom -- we are so far from alone. ✨
Originally posted 8/29/2018 on Max Goes Godless (now deactivated).