I’ve been reminded a couple of times today of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” It feels like that at the moment, with my struggles, that I’m running just to stand still or even to go back just a little bit rather than a lot, while others are moving ahead just by casually walking.
Work today was hard. I don’t have any great anecdotes, nothing notably bad or annoying happened, it was just a boring day doing boring work for people I can’t communicate with (I mean that literally, not in terms of Asperger’s or social anxiety – I was in our secondary campus where most of the students are either immigrants with very poor English or people with very serious learning disabilities) in a library that is dark and gloomy and generally depressing-looking. (It also smells, which doesn’t help, especially as my boss said I can’t use air-freshener because of allergies.) Thankfully, I only have to go to this campus once a week. I don’t think I could stand any more. To make matters worse, for much of the afternoon teacher was working with an adult student in the library, who was practising his reading and comprehension by reading aloud a newspaper article on Islamic fundamentalism and female genital mutilation, really not what I wanted to listen to when feeling depressed and trying to get on with my own work.
My boss has agreed to speak to me tomorrow about my mental health and I hope to mention my sister’s wedding. I need to plan what I want to say. I’m hoping that it goes well.
I just deleted a load of stuff because it was just whinging about an unprofessionally-run shiur (religious class) and an equally problematic GP’s surgery. A more interesting thought occurred to me while davening Ma’ariv (saying the evening prayers). Growing up, I was religiously traditional, but not shomer mitzvot, which means that my family kept elements of Jewish law, but not all of it. Shabbat (the Sabbath) was special and I didn’t do homework on it, but I watched TV and my Dad went to football. We kept a reasonably kosher home, but not entirely and we ate vegetarian food in non-kosher restaurants and so on. Still, as I got to my teens, I began to become more interested in Judaism and Jewish study and to think about taking on more aspects of Jewish law.
I think a number of people wanted me to get more involved in Jewish life, particularly in terms of study events, shul (synagogue) youth services, religious youth movements, kiruv organisations (organisations that try to make non-religious Jews more religious, essentially a sort of internal proselytisation) and the like, culminating ultimately in my school teachers wanting me to go and study in yeshiva (rabbinical seminary. One can study there for a year or two without obligation to become a rabbi). I think various rabbis wanted me to go so I would become more religious; my Mum was just looking for a social outlet for me that was more introvert-friendly than sport or scouts.
At the time, I shied away from all this stuff without really being able to articulate why. In later years I would say that these groups were too Charedi (ultra-Orthodox), which was not always true. Later, I was able to get past that and thought that being in large crowds of people my own age brought up too many memories of being bullied at school, often by the very people attending these groups (I still find it a bit weird that some of the kids who used to mess around in school and bullied me are now super-religious and married with lots of kids. I really can’t reconcile who they were (not like me) with who they are now (like me, or at least how I want to be). I don’t know if that says more about me or them).
But I think there is more to it than that. It strikes me that all this stuff is really bad for someone with social anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome. I certainly had the former and may have had the latter. These things are all about crowds of people getting together and while some of them focus on study, all of them have a socialising component built in that can be overwhelming and any youth movement is going to have an element of deindividuation in a group which I find so frightening. I correctly identified that some of that sense of being overwhelmed came from being bullied at school and fearing that the patterns would repeat in youth movements or kiruv organisations, but even without that, just being in a loud room full of strangers is always going to freak me out, no matter what the context. Add to that the fear (justified or not, I don’t know) that some at least of the rabbis wanted to change me into something I wasn’t comfortable with being (deindividuation again) and it’s no wonder I ran a mile. Similarly, when I got to university all my friends were on the Jewish Society committee and tried to get me to join, but I resisted. I said it was because the society was essentially a social group, not a religious one (which was basically true) and I had nothing to offer in that context, but I was very afraid of deindividuation and being in social groups, even in an environment where I was realistically safe from overt bullying (although someone did have a real go at me for not joining in).
It’s a bit reassuring realising this after all these years. I don’t feel I need to worry so much about what might have been if I had gone to these things, as I would probably have just panicked and stood in painful silence rather than making life-long friends or meeting my wife. It is less helpful knowing how to apply that information to events that I could potentially go to now. I am still trying to see how much I can push myself to fight the social anxiety. The way to beat social anxiety, like any anxiety, is to expose yourself to what you fear, but if I am autistic, then I’m just not going to be comfortable in certain situations no matter how hard I push myself. It is hard to know what to do, particularly given my weird non-diagnosis regarding Asperger’s.
My rabbi mentor just told me not to be so hard on myself. He wasn’t thinking about this, but I guess it applies here too. I just wish I knew how not to be hard on myself…