“I really wish I was less of a thinking man/And more a fool who’s not afraid of rejection.” – Sleeping with the Television On, Billy Joel
On Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) I got to shul (synagogue) for Mincha and Ma’ariv (afternoon and evening services), but I missed Shacharit and Musaf (the morning and additional services), as usually happens. I used to think that this was caused by the depression making me oversleep (depression makes me tired and sleep longer), but I increasingly think that it is social anxiety that is holding me back from going to shul as much as I would like, particularly in the nineteen months since I moved to this community. I am too nervous to go to shul, so I sleep late to avoid it.
As with my non-diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, I do not have a diagnosis of social anxiety. I get anxious in social situations, but apparently not severely enough to be diagnosed. It should be said that that (non-)diagnosis came before I realized that I was experiencing panic attacks in social situations sometimes. I experienced them for many years before I realized what they were just six months ago. Basically, when I am very depressed and in shul (the main threatening social environment I go to), I sometimes feel very anxious and despairing, feeling like everyone is watching me, feeling that I just have to get out as quickly as possible. Sometimes it is bad enough that I just leave early; there have even been occasions when I arrived and more or less immediately left. This has been going on since I used to leave the Jewish Society Shabbat dinner early at university. Now I understand that I am suffering panic attacks, I realize that this is the opposite of what I should be doing – I need to stay and sit out the anxiety rather than leave early. I have not experienced an attack that severe since realizing this, however, so I do not know what would happen if I was really tempted to leave.
I find social anxiety particularly hard being Jewish because of the communal nature of the religion. Activities like prayer and religious study that can be private in other religions are often communal in Judaism. Men especially are expected to participate actively in the community. Now, I have led religious services and given drashot (religious talks) in my old shul in the past; I don’t want to seem like I am paralyzed by social anxiety, because I am not. I am shy, but I have overcome that shyness to do public speaking or to lead services. But it is hard and I have avoided taking an active role in the community these last nineteen months, since moving, partly because of the depression and partly because of the feelings of indequacy that accompanied the change of community – I feel religiously inferior to many of the people in this community and feel that people are looking down on me and that at the very least I have nothing to contribute to the community. Hence sleeping through shul, from the fear that if I go, I will commit some terrible faux pas and never be able to go back. I get particulary worried about the eruv, the boundary within which it is permitted to carry in public on Shabbat, something normally forbidden. I worry that I will make use of it in a shul where people do accept the eruv and do not carry, even though the shamash at the shul I go to announces that the eruv is up every Friday night, implying that people there do indeed use it.
I have just got back from my beginner’s Talmud shiur (class) where the social anxiety plays out in a slightly different way. I am always reluctant to say anything in the shiur for fear of being wrong and seeming foolish, despite the fact that my thoughts are often correct or meaningful, if only I would have the confidence to ask and answer questions. I did at least volunteer to read and translate aloud (despite the fact that making my way falteringly through poorly-understood Aramaic is not exactly easy with poor confidence), but I wish I could participate more, because I think I am just as good as the other people in the class. I think it has less to do with my ability to handle Gemarah (the main part of the Talmud) and more to do with my perception of my place within frum (religious) society, feeling I am not frum enough and too ‘modern’ to be accepted in the community that I want to be part of. I feel particularly ashamed that I did not spend a year or two studying in yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) as is the norm in the frum world (not just among men who want to be rabbis). I actually took another beginner’s Talmud shiur a few years ago, at a Modern Orthodox institution and there within a few months I was asking and answering questions more freely; a couple of people, including the rabbi who took the shiur, even asked what yeshiva I went to, which made me feel like I had finally arrived! However, that institution no longer offers that shiur, so instead I go to one at a more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) kolel (adult education institution, usually full-time although this one is mostly for evening classes) and my fears about not being good enough/frum enough for other people come into play, just as with moving to a somewhat more Haredi shul.