Pressure

I’m struggling at the moment, not so much with my breakup as with the emotions it has released.  The feeling that I will never find someone who can see past my considerable baggage and drawbacks (the religious inadequacies, but also my low income and professional status, lack of a full-time job, still being quite dependent on parents etc.).  I had real stabs of envy recently.  I won’t go into details, but I got hit with strong feelings of envy and even anger about other people’s success and settled family life.  This is completely incongruous, absurd even, as other people’s happiness is not taking away from mine.  I find it hard to deal with powerful destructive emotions like this.  It’s probably taken me years to really admit that I have them.

The good that came out of this is that I was discussing things in the comment section of a blog I read (I’m not going to link, as I didn’t comment anonymously there – I still have some non-anonymous (nonymous?) accounts out there), but I was discussing my religious inadequacies with someone frum (religious) and, in the course of the discussion, I came to realise that a lot of my feelings of envy and anger at frum people and, even more so, my feelings that they will reject and hate me are reflections of my own fears and perceptions of my own religious inadequacies.  I hate myself and I think I’m not meeting my religious obligations, so I think no one in my community could like me and certainly no woman from my community would want to marry me.  It’s hard to know what to do with those feelings, though.

There’s a lot of pent-up emotion inside me at the moment.  This post has only scratched the surface, partly from lack of time and partly because I don’t want to share all my dark thoughts, but also because I don’t really understand everything I feel, which makes me worry that I’m just going to explode dangerously one day, in some way that I can’t predict.

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The Costs of Staying Frum

I still feel very depressed.  I seriously overslept this morning and was a couple of minutes late for work.  I was lucky it was only three minutes, as it could have been a lot worse.

I haven’t really got the energy to write much, but I want to offload a few thoughts, as I have another four hours of work followed by depression support group, so I probably won’t get to really relax for another ten hours or more.

I feel that I’m struggling a lot to stay frum (religious).  As I said yesterday, I still believe, but I lack the energy to perform the mitzvot (commandments).  Not just, or even primarily, physical energy.  At the moment Judaism just takes from me without giving back.  I’m not looking for reward, but trying to be frum, even in the inadequate way I do it, leaves me very depleted in terms of energy (physical and emotional) and it’s hard for me to get that energy back.  It’s a huge drain on my psychological resources, which are not that great at the best of times (this whole question was at the root of my breakup, because E. has weak psychological resources too, which was the source of our financial woes).

I know it’s difficult for everyone to be frum, but other people get that energy back from Judaism in other ways: meaning, inspiration, friends, community, family.  The feeling of trust in HaShem (God) and being loved.  I have family, at least to some extent and I have Shabbat (the Sabbath), although I largely sleep through it at the moment, but I don’t have those other things.  I suppose I get structure a little bit too, but it doesn’t really feel like enough.

Everything in my life seems a struggle with little reward.  That includes my job too, but my job at least has concrete rewards (salary and perhaps self-esteem, or at least I would have less self-esteem if I was unemployed) and is not really negotiable in the way that Judaism sort of is.

One thing I was probably wrong about in this regard was dating.  It probably wouldn’t be much easier to date if I was not frum, particularly as I’m pretty sure in my mind I wouldn’t want a casual liason.  It would widen my dating pool enormously to date non-religious Jews or even non-Jews, but I think I’m sufficiently weird/mentally ill/autistic as it is to be hard to match and the salary/not working full-time issue would still remain (in my experience, despite decades of feminism, most people seem to regard it as normal and ‘right’ for the man to be the main breadwinner – from that point of view things would probably be easier if I was a woman).  Plus my lack of romantic experience would be more obvious and burdensome/laughable in a community with a freer ethic.

There probably is more to say, including my fears of going to depression group tonight (simultaneously wanting and not wanting to talk and being worried people will try to solve my problems and end up belittling them as I felt happened last time I went), but I’m almost out of lunch break, so farewell for now.

Break Up Breakdown

I feel very depressed today.  I struggled to get up and to get to work on time.  I nearly skipped davening completely, partly from lack of time, partly from anger with HaShem (God).  More on that below.  It’s hard to tell how much of that depression is work rather than breaking up with E.  I’ve been working on the library move for the college reorganisation for more weeks than I can remember now.  It’s hard to remember that my job did once consist of more intellectually-challenging things than scanning books, putting stickers on them and crating them up.  Although I have been wondering lately if, even at the best of times, this job is intellectually-challenging enough for me.  I might make fewer mistakes if I were more engaged, but it’s hard to know what would engage me and be within my depressive/autistic capabilities.  I think I really want a job where I get to read books rather than just catalogue them.  That said, I will accept a renewed contract here if it gets offered to me.

I’m going to New York in August.  It was at the back of my mind during my awful summer break last year to go to New York to meet people from Hevria, but I only acted on the thought because I wanted to see E. and now that’s fallen through, but my ticket and hotel are booked so I have to go.  I am still hoping to see some Hevria people (and maybe E., if she wants to), but from my lack of feedback so far, I’m not sure that anyone really wants to see me (including E.) so this could be the most miserable holiday ever.  I have never travelled alone before, so I’m having nightmares about missing my plane, not finding my hotel, not finding kosher shops and restaurants, getting mugged, missing my plane home…  At least they speak English in America (allegedly).

I have depression group tomorrow.  I should be eager to get this (E. and work, not the holiday) off my chest, but I don’t really feel like sharing it with anyone.  I don’t know if that’s frustration or anger or humiliation and shame.  I blame myself, although I shouldn’t.  I’m really angry with HaShem (God), not for this per se, but for never letting me be happy for more than a short period.  Never letting me enjoy even my religious life.  Never letting me live.  I’ve never even really had simcha shel mitzvah (joy in performing the commandments) which is pretty much essential to be frum (religious) long-term.  I’ve been feeling lately (even before breaking up) that I wonder how long I can stay frum.  I still believe, but I’ve just run out of fuel to keep going with something that consumes so much of me and gives so little back to me.  Not that I think I would have more success finding a serious relationship in the mainstream world and I know I don’t have the emotional capability to have any less formal liaison.

When I look at my life, I get so angry with HaShem.  I’ve been depressed and lonely fairly consistently since my mid-to-late teens with only rare short breaks.  This (young adulthood) is supposedly the happiest time of one’s life, when one has independence, but no responsibilities, so I don’t think I have much to look forward to.  Certainly not to a loving marriage or even any kind of relationship.  I can’t imagine anyone finding me worth marrying any more, unless by some miracle I get a lot less depressed and then rapidly scale the work ladder.  I’ve just got too much going against me, in terms of autism and depression, low income, religious inadequacies and general geeky weirdness.

The New Normal

E. broke up with me.  Aside from the obvious issues I knew about (religious differences, geographic distance, her earning more than me), she listed a load more I didn’t expect: that she thinks she wants a higher standard of living than I want or could provide; and she worries that I can’t handle practical things like finances without help and advice from my parents and so on.  All probably true, although I don’t think I’m quite as incompetent as perhaps I make out.

It’s funny, a frum (religious) woman once turned me down saying I was “too worldly”; now it seems I’m not worldly enough.  Anyway, the already impossibly long list of things I need in a prospective wife has now been expanded to: gentleness; a supportive nature; mutual physical attraction; compatible personalities; compatible interests; compatible values and goals; acceptance of my depression, OCD, social anxiety and borderline autism; accepting of my geekiness; a compatible level of frumkeit and compatible hashkafa (religious philosophy) but acceptance that my mental health issues severely impact my davening (prayer) and Torah study; acceptance of the fact that I didn’t go to yeshiva; acceptance of the fact that I’m not really integrated into the frum community; acceptance of the fact that I’m on a low income; acceptance of the fact that I don’t really function well in the world (I’m not sure how much that’s depression, social anxiety or autism, but it doesn’t really make much difference either way); and preferably being based in the UK, despite the tiny size of the Jewish community here and the even smaller size of the frum community.

It all seems staggeringly unlikely to happen.  I feel I should do something to warn myself off dating ever again, although as no shadchan (matchmaker) will take me on and as I don’t know enough people in the frum community to be set up on dates informally, and as I’m largely too shy to talk to women, and as there are few opportunities for single men and women to meet casually in the frum world anyway, it hardly seems worth the bother.

I feel that the odds would be against me even in the mainstream Western world.  In the narrow world of frum Jews, with its mishegases (“crazinesses”) and bizarre rules and expectations, I don’t have a chance.

I do wish my geekiness/autistic special interests were focused on Torah study, though, as I would be a lot better integrated into the frum community if they were, not just regarding dating, but regarding friends and community in general.  As I’ve noted before, I think autistic men can not just live in the frum community, but actively thrive and attain positions of responsibility, respect and leadership in it, provided they can make Talmudic study their autistic special interest.

The weird thing is that to me, most people, in general, do not seem particularly pious or intelligent or even particularly interesting.  There aren’t that many people I’m desperate to have as friends and it’s interesting that a lot of my romantic crushes have been from a distance, or on people who I knew had significant differences from me.  I assume that this is a function of my depression/autism-warped brain, or possibly just plain old arrogance, because most people make friends and find a partner just fine.  Maybe I’m too judgemental or elitist, or maybe I’m too neurodivergent, or maybe everyone looks boring if you’re too shy to start a conversation with them.

I’m not ruling out dating again one day, although I find it unlikely, but it looks like it won’t be for another five to ten years, when hopefully I will be more comfortable with myself and my community and maybe earning more money.  However, this in turn makes having children much less likely, as I don’t want to be a creepy forty-something dating women fifteen years younger than himself.  I just hope I can build some kind of life for myself in the meantime.  I probably do need to come to terms with my position in the frum community (not really inside it, but not exactly outside it either, more tangentially touching it) before I can really think about dating again.  The thing is, the community is too big and established to change for me, so I either need to change to fit in or leave.  I don’t really want to do either of those things.  I don’t think there is much of a position for the neurodivergent, mentally ill or just plain weird Jew is in the frum community.

I felt so alone today, even before E. broke up with me (although I had known she was likely to break up since Sunday).  I found myself crying at work again and I wasn’t sure if it was hay fever or depression.  I think it probably was not hay fever.  I just want to be loved, and to give love, passionately and romantically, physically as well as emotionally (obviously my parents love me, but that’s not the same thing at all), but it never seems to last long on the very rare occasions that it happens.

I hope that things will somehow miraculously rectify themselves, but somehow I doubt it.

I feel that I’m a wretched disappointment today.  I disappointed God by not being a good Jew, I feel I disappointed my parents by not giving them grandchildren or nachas (reflected glory) (not much nachas, anyway).  I disappointed my schoolteachers and didn’t justify the effort they put into my education by meeting my promise as an early high flyer.  I know my boss considers me a disappointment at work, too slow, lacking in confidence with the students and prone to making stupid errors (speaking of which, I feel I have made a serious blunder in my role in the reorganisation of the library as part of the college restructure).  I disappointed E. in the end.  I think of the all the children who scorned and bullied me at school and who now have some modicum of money, status, love or happiness, looking down on me and feeling vindicated.  (Actually, they probably don’t care any more.  They probably don’t even remember me.  To be honest, I struggle to remember them a lot of the time and they had a much bigger effect on me than I ever had on them.)

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading Moshe Koppel’s fascinating Judaism Without Apologies blog, which has been looking at the interaction between traditional Jewish values and Jewish society and comparing them with secular liberalism, essentially combining ethics with descriptive sociology and a little microeconomics and game theory.  He concluded that Jewish life – rich, meaningful, multidimensional Jewish life, of the kind I want, religiously and culturally rich, non-ghettoised and open to the wider world, but without being assimilatory – is increasingly possible in Israel, but nowhere else.  I asked him if he thinks there is any hope for those of us unable to leave the diaspora (there are many reasons why I can’t leave); his response was a paraphrase from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (which pleasingly he expected me to recognise and understand in the original Hebrew), that “in a place where there are no people [i.e. distinguished people], endeavour to be such a person.”  That’s complimentary, but not very reassuring, as it paints me as the sort of lone voice in the wilderness that I tend to think of myself as when very depressed, but which is counter-productive most of the time, as it stops me reaching out to other people and just encourages my solipsistic introversion.  Maybe it’s just as well that it seems that I won’t manage to have children, as I’m not sure what sort of Jewish heritage I could leave them.

There is more to say, but I ought to have some dinner and go to bed.

Tawdry Quirks

“If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop. The madcap vehicle, the tousled hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student? I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog, just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” Doctor Who: Amy’s Choice Simon Nye

I’ve been thinking of that line today.  I’m not sure why.  It could be because I realise I’ve been rumbled, that various people around me realise that I’m a fraud.  I am actually quite good at some fairly complex tasks, but I can be really rubbish at some (many) very, very basic ones.  Which may or may not be the results of depression, social anxiety and/or autism, but that’s not really the point.  Well, I’m not exactly a fraud, as I never claimed to be very good at anything much, but I’m worried about rejection in a big way.  In two very big ways.  And it frightens me.  Because I think my “tawdry quirks” would make it hard to pick myself up again, in general and in those particular areas.

Leap of Faith

I could write a whole post about the predestination/free will paradox at the heart of Judaism.  But sometimes you just have to do what you think is right and hope that God is thinking the same way you do and will make sure it all works out in the end.  It’s still scary, though.

It’s Complicated

I never thought I would write the words in the title, but these are interesting times.

E. said she’s OK with me dating other women as it may take her a long time to decide if we can resolve the practical problems with our relationship.  She thinks someone might set me up on a promising shidduch (blind date) some time soon, which isn’t really how my experience of dating has gone in the past, but she doesn’t want me to turn done the possibility of finding someone out of fear of hurting her feelings.  I have no intention of dating other women any time soon, but it’s sweet of her to say.  Have I mentioned that she’s amazing?

I think E. and I both want each other a lot and are beginning to have strong feelings for each other, but we’re terrified that this can never work and don’t want each other to get hurt.  Although funnily enough at shiur (Bible class) this evening the assistant rabbi said that he recently met a family where the wife was not religious at all and the husband was very religious.  Maybe I should have asked for contact details to see how they do it.  Although it’s really the long-distance and financial issues that are the real problem for us, and the mental health ones (because it’s the mental health issues that stop us both from having high-paying jobs, causing the financial problems).  It’s silly that two people who like each other a lot find themselves thinking that logically they shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but life isn’t straightforward.  It’s scary.

My romantic history, or really my history in general since hitting adolescence, started as boy meets girl, boy is too shy and self-loathing to talk to girl, girl goes away without knowing boy exists.  Then it moved on to boy meets girl, boy eventually summons up courage to talk to girl, girl discovers boy is a mentally ill geek, girl goes away.  Now it’s boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, circumstances and logistics prevent boy from being with girl, even though they both really like each other.  Then what?

Sometimes it’s hard not to imagine God looking down and laughing at me as he rings the changes in the format of my life in increasingly painful ways.  I do believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent and that therefore there must be some positive reason for all of this, but it’s hard sometimes to reconcile these beliefs with the reality of what I feel.  I’m holding on to the idea that if E. and I are supposed to be together (it’s bashert), then we will and if we aren’t, then being together wouldn’t make us happy in the long-term anyway, but it’s difficult.  I have problems with the concept of bashert generally, which seems to undermine free will.  I mainly worry that we can make the wrong decision and miss each other.  The idea of missing one’s soulmate is very scary.  I can’t think of many things more terrifying.  I can think of a few, but not many.

Last Temptation

I’ve been thinking about a couple of quotes or images from things today and how they reflect my current mood.  I vaguely remember a quote from somewhere to the extent that sex is like water; if you have it, you don’t think about it, but if you don’t have it, you can’t think of anything else.  You can take it from this thirty-five (nearly) year old virgin that the second part of this at least is very true.  I suspect the same applies to love as to sex, but here things get nebulous for me… I have strong feelings for E. and I know she has them for me but we’re struggling to work out how to deal with our differences.  It’s the geographical differences as much as the religious ones that are the problem, and the fact that neither of us is ever likely to be a high earner (isn’t money one of the biggest sources of relationship discontent?).  As we were both clear that we were dating seriously, with an eye to marriage in the relatively short-term, not just for ‘fun,’ we’ve decided to back off a bit for a while and try to work out how a long-term relationship could work, although we’re still in contact multiple times a day (which is a lot for an extreme introvert like me), just not so flirtatiously.  It’s hard, though, and worrying to think things might not work out, as I really like E., and I think she likes me, and in many ways I think we are well-matched, if we can find a way to get around the one or two big problems.  (She’s OK with me saying all this, by the way.)

 

The other quotes are inevitably Doctor Who-based, but really spiral out from here.  It doesn’t help that I’m doing a lot of extremely tedious work at the moment in my job which leaves me lots of spare brain capacity for thinking about E. and about my life in general.

“Being without becoming – an ontological absurdity!” is probably not the most pretentious line ever in an episode of Doctor Who, but it comes close.  I feel the reverse at the moment, that I am always becoming and never arriving or just being, whether it’s my romantic life, my job or my religious development.  My love life has only twice reached the stage of an actual relationship and never got any further than that, while I’m probably better at my job than I was a year ago, but still nowhere near as good as I should be.  As for my religious development, I still feel stagnant, but as I have related recently, it’s hard at the moment to want to grow, when so much of my religious life just seems to be painful and where I know I will never be a good Jew or a holy person.  It’s hard knowing that I could remove some of my problems with E. (not all, but some) by becoming less frum (religious) and not wanting to do that, but at the same time, finding fewer and fewer reasons not to do that.  I’ve already told myself I might or even would compromise on some things that a few months ago I would have thought were non-negotiable.  Some of this is just the reality of being in a real relationship as opposed to a thought-experiment (which is what most of my previous relationships were), seeing the sacrifices E. has made for me and wanting to reciprocate, but some of it is probably disillusion.  I do increasingly feel a fraud in shul (synagogue) and shiur (Bible class).  But I’m scared that if I become less frum now, five years down the line, when the infatuation has worn off, I might want to become more frum again, with worse results that staying frum now.

Which I suppose leads to the third image, “The Last Temptation of Doctor Who” scene from the story Human Nature/The Family of Blood*, whereby the Doctor, having wiped his own memory and hidden on Earth disguised as a human schoolteacher, John Smith, is suddenly confronted by the need to abandon his human life, and his girlfriend, and resume his life as a Time Lord for the greater good and sees images of the life he could lead, being married, having children and grandchildren and generally being happy, tempting him away from doing the right thing.  I suppose in the past I’ve consciously or unconsciously purloined those images for myself, telling myself that I’m giving up my happiness (not that I have a choice) out of a nebulous feeling that God wants me to be miserable, to convince myself there is some reason behind my depression, that some good will come out of it, but never has that happiness felt both nearer and further than right now.

* Probably the best story of David Tennant’s Doctorate.  That or Midnight.

Heresy

I seem to have fallen down a deep depression hole again.

I feel like I’m not only in the wrong job, but the wrong life.  It’s hard to imagine a job that could be good for me, unless I somehow do manage to end up as a professional writer, which doesn’t seem very likely.  Which has a knock-on effect on relationships, the possibility of having children, the possibility of ever being independent of my family and so on.

I feel like I’m being  punished, and I know what I’m being punished for (or I have some idea anyway, at least some of the time), but it’s for things that I feel I can’t avoid doing, given how my life has gone.  But all the Jewish sources say HaShem (God) doesn’t give a challenge a person can’t meet.  This is trotted out as a mantra by frum people (I suspect the original source is somewhere in the Talmud), sometimes at insensitive times.  The only source I’ve heard of that contradicts this is the nineteenth century mystic, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, but I haven’t studied his writings to know what he meant.  But I do feel like my biggest mistakes (if you want to call them that rather than the more loaded ‘sins’ which lots of people are allergic to these days) are things I was to some extent at least pushed in to by my mental health issues and borderline autism.

I am supposed to trust HaShem that everything will turn out OK in the end, but it’s hard when things seem so bad so much of the time and where “in the end” could mean “on another plane of existence in seventy years’ time after I’m dead.”  And that’s assuming that I haven’t really lost my share in Olam HaBa (the next world) as I fear.

It’s getting harder not to hear the voice of my yetzer hara (evil inclination) when I start feeling depressed (or more depressed than usual).  Lately he sounds like Richard Dawkins.  He’s telling me that I’ve been frum (religious) for about half my life, about fifteen years or so.  In that time I’ve been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder that has never gone away for more than a couple of months and with religious OCD which is mostly under control, but flares up at times of stress.  I haven’t acquired the benefits that people are supposed to accrue from religion in general and Orthodox Judaism in particular: family, friends, community, joy, inner peace, equanimity, purpose, meaning, trust in God, gratitude, removal of doubts, belief that my life will continue in some state after death and the feeling that I will be rewarded for my effort and my suffering in some way at some point.  (The one benefit I do have is Shabbat, it must be said, and I wouldn’t survive a week without it.  Even so, I spend most of it asleep these days.)  Nevertheless, I am still paying all the Orthodox dues, in money, time, energy, guilt and opportunity costs (particularly opportunity costs relating to relationships and career).

It is very hard to keep going sometimes.  The Dawkins-yetzer hara tells me that not only is Torah irrational (I would disagree with this, but haven’t really got the strength to argue right now), but it isn’t even giving me the material and emotional benefits I’m supposed to gain from it.  So why don’t I just leave?  It’s not like anyone would care.  I’d maybe lose a few friends from shul (synagogue), but no one really close.  My parents wouldn’t care and most of my friends are not frum or not Jewish.  I could even still keep Shabbat if I wanted.

I’m not actually sure what keeps me going.  Part of it is that Richard Dawkins annoys me and the more he takes up residence in my head, the more I’m going to davka go out of my way to be ultra-religious.  It’s partly that I believe very strongly that God exists and that He wrote the Torah.  I also think that God wants me to be miserable and as He’s omnipotent and I’m not, I don’t see that rebelling will change that.  At least this way there’s possibly an end point, if I behave myself (but as I don’t always think I’m being punished or that I’m growing from all this suffering, it’s hard to see what that point is.)  But it’s mainly that I have a strong sense of duty and integrity and feeling myself commanded to be Jewish, and having made a start in being frum, I feel obligated to God and to myself to continue.  This is probably not a particularly rational way of ordering my life, but I’m not sure that I can do it any other way.  I believe and I at least try to serve.  Inwardly I feel angry and doubting and hurt, but I’m not sure that I can live any other way.  It’s probably just as well that I don’t have any children, though, because this isn’t much of a religious inheritance to bequeath them.  I’m certainly not much of a poster-boy for Judaism right now and I’m a bit scared to put this out there for fear of the reaction it will create and what people will think.

Struggling

Well, I suppose the sky didn’t fall on my head yesterday after all (insert your own Asterix joke here), but it’s bulging worryingly.  Unfortunately, I can’t really speak openly about it, for various reasons.  I hope things will turn out OK, and it’s by no means certain that things will go wrong (and in one area at least they are likely to be at least OKish), but it’s all very worrying.

I worry I will never have a reasonable job (where reasonable equals a living wage and enough intellectual stimulation, but not massively outside my comfort zone in terms of ability, self-confidence and social interaction and an environment that is reasonably depression/social anxiety/autism-friendly).  Partly because of this, I worry I will never get married and have kids.  I’m thirty-five next month.  It feels like everyone else has sorted this stuff out by now, or at least everyone else in my peer group (young professionals, usually intelligent high achievers, often ex-Oxford or Cambridge).  It isn’t quite true that everyone has this sorted out, but most of them seem to have done so, although there may be some confirmation bias or discounting contrary evidence.

My main ambition in life used to be that I wanted to be a tzaddik (saintly person).  I did eventually realise that I simply don’t have the right personality or background for that.  I’m basically too messed up, religiously and psychologically.  Now I just want to be a good man and a good Jew, somewhat happy with someone to love and to love me.  Even that seems far beyond my reach, though.

I feel like HaShem (God) has decided that I should never be happy.  I think I could even accept that; what is hard to accept is feeling taunted when happiness is placed before me and snatched away as I begin to accept it.  Am I being punished?  Am I supposed to grow from this torture?  Is my suffering helping someone, somehow?  (I hope so, but I can’t see how.)

I guess the frummie (religious) answer to unmarried or otherwise miserable people in their twenties is that one should stick with things and HaShem will make it all work in the end.  By the time you get to middle age this doesn’t work so well, so sadly many people just victim-blame the person suffering and say it’s their fault rather than confront the theological problem of suffering.   I’m somewhere in between my twenties and middle age, so I suppose I don’t have to accept either of these answers.

The even more general frummie answer to every problem, beyond “HaShem will make it work out in the end”, or really just taking it into further detail, is that I suffer here for reward in the world to come (afterlife), but it’s hard to accept that when (a) I don’t feel that I’m doing enough to have a share in the world to come, especially given my rabbi’s recent shuirim (classes) related to this topic and (b) it’s hard to accept that I’m suffering now to get a reward in the future when I need something concrete in the here and now to keep me going so I don’t go completely off the derekh (stop being religious) and lose my share in the world to come completely out of utter misery and despair.  What am I supposed to do to keep going?

The Sky Falls

I feel terrible right now, despairing and self-loathing.  I wish I wasn’t a delicate snowflake (in the fragile sense, not the political sense) who gets upset by everything.  I know life has to be hard so that we grow, but I wish it didn’t have to hurt quite so much, so much of the time.  I wish I could be happy for more than a couple of months at a time, before being separated by several years of depression and things going wrong.  I wish I could have the everyday happiness that other people seem to get, even when things are hard.  I wish I could cope with disappointment and failure better.  I wish I could just deal with things the way other people are able to do, to just get up and get a new job, a new home, a new life.  And I wish I didn’t blame myself for everything.

Less Mediocre

I wrote a piece last week called Mediocrity in which I basically had a go at myself for being inadequate.  E. rightly said I was being too hard on myself (have I mentioned how amazing my girlfriend is?).  The funny thing is that that article had been at the back of my mind for some time without my having the time to write it.  It was unfortunate that the day I did have the time I was feeling quite depressed.

What I intended to say was less to beat myself up for not achieving things and more to say that I feel a bit more comfortable lately with not being amazing.  I know that I fall far short of what many (most? all?) men in my community are doing in terms of prayer (frequency; mindfulness during it; with a community) and religious study (amount; complexity; studying Talmud), but I am slowly learning to accept that I am me and I do struggle with these things and I probably always will.  HaShem (God) has, for whatever reason, decided to give me these mental health and developmental issues (depression, social anxiety, religious OCD, borderline autism) and they do have a major impact on my life.  Even on good days (and lately I have at least had some good days – have I mentioned that I have an amazing girlfriend?) it’s a struggle to do a lot of things ‘normal’ people take for granted, not just religious things, but going to work, making dinner, shopping, cleaning the flat and so on.  I am slowly trying not to beat myself up so much about all this.

At the start of this Jewish year, nine months ago, I made three resolutions for the coming year: study a Mishnah every day; say the first paragraph of Shema, the first paragraph of the Amidah and the first paragraph of bentsching with kavannah (mindfulness); and work on my depression and social anxiety.  I haven’t really managed any of these, but I have done bits.  I study a Mishnah on the commute to work every work day, but generally not at the weekends and holidays (although sometimes I study other things).  I daven (pray) those prayers with kavannah sometimes, but not always, perhaps not often.  I have done a little work on my social anxiety, but not much and nothing on the depression other than staying in therapy and on my meds.  I think most of the improvement in my mood has come from upping the dose of my meds and finding someone who really likes and supports me (have I mentioned that I have an amazing girlfriend?).

Even at the time, I thought that three targets was too many, but I didn’t know how to prioritise.  I think for the last three months of the year, I will quietly drop the first and last targets (although I’m not giving up on Mishnah study completely; I will do it when I feel able, but I think E. was right to suggest I should prioritise things I enjoy more in my religious study.  I will try to stick with going to my Talmud shiur once a week and at least trying to keep up with the reading for it).  I will just stick with the davening target, as I usually say those prayers anyway, so it isn’t an extra time commitment (or a very slight one in terms of taking a bit more time over it; I won’t pressure myself to do it so well in the mornings when I’m usually running late) and it may have benefits beyond the spiritual, using it as a kind of mindfulness as I have tried in the past.  Perhaps if I can make some improvements there, I will feel a bit better as a person and as a Jew.

There is another side to this, which I’m a bit wary of raising, as it takes me towards lashon hara (malicious speech) territory, but lately I’ve noticed recently various frum (religious) people behaving in a way that I would not and which I do not think is entirely appropriate.  While I don’t want to judge them, it probably is good for me to be reminded that mitzvot bein adam leMakom (ritual commandments) are only part of the picture and mitzvot bein adam lechavero (ethical interpersonal commandments) and just being a mentsch (good person) are a big part of Judaism too and that I can try to succeed here, inasmuch as social anxiety lets me, even if I can’t always manage to succeed in other areas.

Mediocrity

Most things are average, by definition, but it is hard to accept one’s own mediocrity.  As a lonely and bullied child, I comforted myself, at least on some level, with the thought that I was somehow different to the children who rejected and hurt me, that I was more intelligent and a better person morally and that one day I would get my reward.  I thought that when I got to university I would come into my own among like-minded people, but in Oxford I was distinctly average compared to some of the geniuses there and it became clear that I lacked the social skills to make friends and that even in a community that might be expected to have an above-average amount of geeks, I didn’t fit in.  I did well in my first year exams, but as the depression took hold in my second year, I achieved less and my final grade at the end of the BA was distinctly average.

This struggle over my identity has never really gone away and lately I have been thinking a lot about what I want out of life.  Some of it comes from dating E. and discussing what kind of a life we might build together, but I was thinking along these lines even before we started dating.  A lot of the things that I told myself were important to me have come to seem unattainable, at least for me and in some cases I am losing interest in them, particularly regarding religious activities.

I feel I can’t do as much Torah study as I would like or focus on the subjects I would or ‘should’ want to study (Talmud, mainly).  I feel I can’t daven (pray) with the right kavannah (mindfulness), the right number of times a day and with a minyan (prayer quorum).  I feel my life lacks meaning and spirituality.  I’m only vaguely aware, and by repute, of what ‘spirituality’ even is or what it means to experience God as being close.  I’ve been very religious about half my life, over a decade and was moderately religious even before then, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a “spiritual experience.”  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve heard conflicting things from rabbis about whether it’s even possible for me to get simcha shel mitzvah, joy in Judaism, while still depressed, which makes me feel hopeless as I can’t see a time when I’m ever not at least vaguely depressed, in the background.  While I know that not everyone in the Jewish community or even the frum (religious) community is living on a permanent spiritual high, the conversations  I’ve had or heard and the fact that people persist in living a frum life, with all it’s costs (financial costs, psychological costs, opportunity costs) indicate that they are getting something out of it.

Even aside from joy, I’m living a fairly hand-to-mouth existence at the moment.  My depression is less prominent, but it is there and even when my mood is low, my energy and concentration are affected and I can’t do what I would like.  Most of my energy goes on work, some on trying to nurture my relationship with E. so it isn’t stillborn, most of the rest goes on basic chores (shopping, cleaning).  Only a small amount is available for Jewish stuff, so I don’t have much time or energy for religious study or prayer.  I’m trying to make some time at least for studying Jewish topics that interest me rather than just Mishnah and a bit of Gemarah, but, again, it’s hard, and results in my taking several big books in my rucksack to work (I will have back issues one day).  I tried to take on a volunteering opportunity, but they never got back to me.  As for other things that are important to me: cooking, exercise, writing… forget it.  These things have largely faded away lately.  I haven’t even been reading much, concentrating on watching Doctor Who as research for my book.

It is very clear now, if it was ever in doubt, that I am not a tzaddik (saintly person) Jewishly, nor am I ever going to be a great a writer, based on the quality of what I write and my failure to fight for it… a real writer would give up religious ritual, or find a way to combine the two (the Hevrian way, but Hevrians wouldn’t understand my lack of spiritual experiences, given that they all seem to experience miracles every five minutes).  And I guess that’s OK.  I have plans for low-key writing and at some point I’m going to have to decide whether to take time out from contracted work to pursue serious, but non-literary, writing as a career or not.  But a real writer wouldn’t be sitting here feeling exhausted and stressed and depressed and hot and hungry and frustrated that this post isn’t saying what I want it to say, he would make it sing!

And I guess it was silly of me to even hope that I could aspire to being a good Jew.  I didn’t even go to yeshiva!  I can’t even make it to shul more than twice a week!  I do half an hour or less of very basic Torah study a day (sometimes only five minutes, when I’m very stressed or busy or the depression is bad).  I can’t concentrate on my prayers at all and I find it impossible to get any positive emotions from my ritual observance, even if I can write long essays justifying halakhic (Jewish law) observance and ritual as a key part of the religious life.  I can engage intellectually, at least when I’m not too exhausted and depressed, but not emotionally.  I can’t live my Judaism, I just go through the motions and observe myself and others from a distance.

I’ve tried to be OK with all of this lately and I thought I was getting there.  I thought I was learning to accept that other Jews will look down on me and that on some level they are right to look down on me.  I thought I was learning to accept that while I might be able to make some kind of basic career as a jobbing writer, true literature (and acclaim) will always escape me.  But today I just feel depressed and unable to accept anything.  Part of that is work stress and part of it is probably hunger and exhaustion.  But those aren’t going away; well, the hunger hopefully will, for a few hours, but work stress and exhaustion and new relationship anxiety (worth a post in itself) and the intense heaviness of living an ordinary life: working, shopping, cleaning, cooking, showering – the heartache and the thousand chores that flesh is heir to – they aren’t going away.  So I need to find some other way to accept my mediocrity.

Not Fitting In

I feel slightly down right now.  Not really badly, but a little bit.  It doesn’t help that I have a headache (I have long been prone to headaches and migraines on Shabbat (the Sabbath) for reasons I have never really understood) and possibly a slightly upset stomach, but it’s mainly shul (synagogue) that has brought me down a bit.

It started positively.  E. brainstormed some suggestions to help me to get to shul for Shacharit (the morning service) on Shabbat, which I haven’t managed much lately.  I tried a couple of her ideas.  I’m not sure how much it was them per se, but I did get to shul for 10.00am.  Granted shul started at 8.45, but I figure that being there for the second half is better than not at all.  Even if I did eat too much cake while trying to avoid talking to people in the kiddush (refreshments after the service).  I’m being a little facetious, as I was a bit socially avoidant, but did talk a little to some people.  I did eat too much cake, though.

I slept quite a bit when I got home and again after lunch, so goodness knows how I’m going to sleep tonight (last week I slept so much on Shabbat that I couldn’t sleep on Saturday night at all and went through to Sunday evening without sleeping).  But I did get to shul for the Talmud shiur (class) and Mincha and seudah shlishit (the third meal).  This was what brought my mood down, because the shiur over seudah was on Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith.  It got off to a bad start with the rabbi rubbishing a book he apparently hadn’t read and seemed to be dismissing on the basis of its title.  I have read it, and I don’t think it says what he thinks it says (what the book actually says is not dissimilar to some of the opinions he mentioned as legitimate (if not necessarily what he believes) later on).  The shiur itself was mostly introductory (it’s the first of a series) and while the rabbi didn’t say anything about Jewish belief that I outright disagreed with, the general attitude made me uncomfortable and left me looking for legitimate alternative opinions within the masorah (Jewish tradition).  It just reinforced a feeling I’ve had for a long time that this shul is not a good match for me in terms of hashkafa (religious philosophy), which is a shame as it is a good match in other ways.

But the thing that really upset me was feeling that the rabbi and congregation might not accept E. if we get married.  E. is Jewish, but she isn’t as religious as I am, and I’m worried that the rabbi/congregation will say I should marry a ‘typical’ frum (religious) woman.  As far as I’m concerned, the typical frum women had their chance with me and blew it.  They were mostly not interested because of my mental health or because of my geekiness or because I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary).  So I ended up open to someone who isn’t frum, but who isn’t turned off by my mental health and is supportive of my geekiness, my writing ambitions and, yes, my frumness, even if she doesn’t share it (see what I said above about E. brainstorming ideas to help me get to shul – it was her idea to do that, not mine).  In any case, I’m not exactly a typical frum man, so why would a typical frum woman be right for me?

I think E. is a really good match for me in so many ways, not least how supportive she is of me (again, something I haven’t experienced much of in the frum world, in relationships or otherwise).  But I worry that other people won’t see it that way.  Still, my rabbi mentor (whose judgement, as I’ve mentioned before, I respect more than that of pretty much anyone I know) is also really supportive of me being with E. and is hoping it turns out well for us, as are, I think, my parents, although they seem to be a little shocked at how serious the relationship has become so quickly (to be honest, E. and I are more than a little shocked by that ourselves).

The formula I came up with for how much I respect and listen to people turned out to be:

God > E. > my rabbi and congregation

(Don’t ask me where my rabbi mentor fits in on that.  Or my parents, sister and friends for that matter.  It’s simplified.)

The other thing I that made me feel out of place was a tangent the rabbi went off on about imagination.  He seemed to be positing ‘imagination’ as the opposite of ‘reality’ and criticising imagination as something that distracts from real things like God.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant, as he did the frummie thing of not explicitly stating what he was annoyed about because it was too treif (non-kosher) to spell out.  He started with computer games, but I’m not quite sure where it went from there; possibly to internet pornography, but apparently also to imagination generally.  I’m not sure if he meant to say that any immersive fiction that is not reflective of “spiritual reality” is problematic, but that was what it sounded like.

I don’t share this view of imagination and I’m fairly sure that other major Jewish thinkers of the past didn’t either.  I’m pretty sure that Maimonides himself saw the imaginative faculty (to use his neo-Aristotlean language) as the source of prophecy.  Certainly Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the nineteenth century thought along those lines and his thirteen allegorical stories, sometimes seen as the start of modern Yiddish literature, are full of symbolic ideas, incidents and characters that have no literal relation to ‘real life’ yet are symbolically linked to spiritual concepts.  Many take the form of quest narratives and feature imagery that would fit in folklore or fantasy fiction; I have a secular anthology of Jewish fantasy fiction that features several of his stories.  This was very much on my mind, as I’m kicking around ideas for a writing project of my own rooted very much in Rabbi Nachman’s stories, for which I have a great love, despite not really understanding them in all their details; I just love their the language and imagery and every so often a part of the meaning slots into place for me.

So, here I am, wondering if I’m in the right community.  I probably am, inasmuch as out of all the communities I could join at this moment in my life, this is probably the best one for me.  It’s small, it’s friendly, the rabbi and the assistant rabbi have a reasonable understanding of mental health issues and they take davening (prayer) and Torah study seriously, with a strict ‘no talking’ rule during davening.  But I do wonder if I will ever find the community that is 100% right for me and this is not the first time that I have wondered this.  Maybe no one finds that, any more than anyone finds the spouse who is 100% right for them.  But I do wonder if I will ever find a shul where I feel a reasonably good fit.

The Way of the Worrier

I’m trying to get back in the habit of writing more regularly again.  I’ve had a few emotionally draining days, but I don’t really want to go into details here.  Suffice to say that, while it’s all resolved now, I wasn’t surprised that I was burnt out today and slept through the morning and missed shul (synagogue) again.  I feel bad about it, but I don’t think there’s much I can do about it at the moment.  I slept again after lunch, so I’m not sure how I will sleep tonight.  It didn’t help that we start dinner late on Friday nights at the moment because Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts so late in the middle of the summer and we usually spend a long time over Shabbat meals, generally for good reasons (we have a good time and talk a lot) but then we finish and I usually still have Torah study and hitbodedut meditation/prayer to do and I need a few minutes of what I call my ‘introvert time’ – time to unwind by myself.  So most Friday nights in the summer I get to bed any time between midnight and one in the morning, after a day that has included a lot of draining activities for me (therapy, being around people in shul and at home), so it’s not surprising that I oversleep the next day, even though I really want to get back into shul attendance.  I probably need a new strategy, but I don’t know what.

My OCD has got a bit worse lately.  Not really bad, but it is more noticeable.  It’s mostly ‘pure O’ OCD, so stuff in my head rather than wanting to do nullifying actions of some kind, although there still can be checking behaviours, either going over stuff with other people or in my head.  It’s hard, but I’m trying not to let it take over.  I know where it’s coming from.  Just as my first clear bout of religious OCD was triggered by the stress of moving house three years ago, I’m sure that this is triggered by my relationship with E.  Obviously a serious relationship that could lead to marriage is a major life change even without the fact that in E. and my case there are the complications of the relationship being long-distance and the fact that we have different levels of religious observance.  So my OCD is increasing in response to the stress, but the relationship is too good for me to let it win!  I’m trying to remember the coping strategies that I learnt from my CBT therapist, using my ‘wise mind’ (logic) against my ‘OCD mind’ and telling myself that even when I think X (e.g. that I could become a violent person), that “That’s just a thought, and a thought can’t hurt me.”  It is hard though.

The shiur (class) at shul this afternoon over seudah shlishit (the third meal) was about desires.  I couldn’t follow all of it, as it started at 9.30pm and I was tired and had a bit of a headache, but part of it was about replacing desires for physical things with desires for spiritual things.  Apparently a barometer for how spiritual we are is how much we desire to do Torah study, prayer, mitzvah (commandment) performance and acts of kindness as opposed to doing them by rote.  I score very badly on this at the moment, as my enthusiasm for all of them has dried up in recent years.  I still believe in God and Torah and I still want to be a religious Jew, but I just get no ‘buzz’ out of it.  It’s hard to be sure that I ever did.  I’ve mentioned before that the rabbi from my shul feels that I won’t get any simcha shel mitzvah (joy of performing the commandments) while I’m depressed, but my rabbi mentor thinks I should be able to get some.

I’m not sure where this leaves me, especially as I think I’m always going to be depressed, at least on some level.  It probably makes me want to get married and start a family even more, as I feel I failed at Torah study and davening (praying) and mitzvot and acts of kindness, so the one frummy (religious) thing I haven’t tried is having a family.  I haven’t failed at that one yet!  But it does make me worry that I would fail at that too.  Trying to be more positive, E. says I’m a supportive boyfriend, so I’m apparently not failing there, surprisingly, and certainly she is an amazingly supportive girlfriend to me, so that would hopefully be a base from which to grow religiously, if we could find the right community that fits both our needs (this is IF we get married, which is still some way away!  Don’t leap to conclusions yet!).  Also, even though I’m usually super self-critical, I have a gut instinct that I would be a good father.  Certainly a number of people have told me that I’m good with children or that they think I would be a good father.  So it’s not just a case of hoping I would succeed at something I haven’t tried yet.  And I still have some ideas for writing projects that I haven’t tried yet, and which E. is really encouraging me about, projects that might give me a way to tie my religious and non-religious areas of my life together better.

But as with the relationship itself, this is all in the future.  I’m trying to just live in the present and at the moment, while the present has some bad things (work), it has some very, very good things (E. and my current writing project).  But it is very hard not to worry about the future at all, particularly when I am a pessimist and a worrier by nature.