It’s been a slightly strange day, with a lot of emotions this evening in particular. As usual, I’m writing as much to process and understand my thoughts for myself as I am to present them for other people. So, apologies if this is less coherent than usual. Also, apologies for the mammoth length, about twice as long as usual. There’s a lot to say, and I feel I could probably write more if I had the time.
I’m only vaguely aware of my anxiety. I think I mentioned that at the CBT assessment I had a few weeks ago, the result was that I was told that I have at least elements of anxiety as well as depression, but over the years I have not been so aware of the anxiety, other than social anxiety and, at times, OCD (which is an anxiety disorder). This is despite the frequent comorbidity of anxiety with both depression and autism. One therapist felt that the depression was so strong that it drowned out the anxiety except when the anxiety was itself very strong. It’s also possible that I just haven’t noticed the anxiety because of alexithymia (difficulty identifying and understanding my emotions). Certainly when my mental health issues first became identifiable, at school, I was feeling nauseous every morning on the way to school, but it was only years later that I realised that that was almost certainly anxiety rather than general feelings of being “emotionally low” (which was the non-diagnosis my doctor gave me at the time to try to avoid prescribing any medication). At any rate, the anxiety this morning may have started as social anxiety about volunteering, but quickly spiralled into general catastrophising about other aspects of volunteering and my new job.
I volunteered at the asylum seekers drop-in centre again today. As mentioned, I was feeling rather anxious about it beforehand, primarily because I wanted to slip out near the end to go to Mincha (the Afternoon service) in the shul (synagogue) (the drop-in centre is in the shul hall, not the main shul building) and I was worried about not knowing the code to the shul door and getting locked out (I should clarify that the drop-in centre is not in my shul, but another one some way away).
The format of the day is two hours of preparation for the asylum seekers, which I usually spend sorting donations of clothing, two hours with them, where they can get food, donations of clothing, nappies and toiletries and see professionals (varying according to who has been able to come, but usually lawyers and doctors, sometimes dentists or counsellors) and then a certain amount of tidying up afterwards. I was initially sorting donations of clothing to start with and as is often the case, I felt more than a little awkward. The clothing tends to come all mixed up and I’m not always good at separating male and female clothing or adult and children’s clothing. Obviously there are some things that are clearly in one category or another, but others are less clear. To be fair, other people struggle sometimes too, but I do not feel confident asking for help. I also feel that the other volunteers are able to talk to each other more easily; I always feel like I have a sign on my forehead saying AUTISTIC-SOCIALLY ANXIOUS-DEPRESSED and that everyone can see how awkward I am. This is probably my paranoia, but it feels real.
After that, when the asylum seekers came, I volunteered in the childcare area again. There were a lot of children there today. Thankfully there were quite a few volunteers, although many were older children themselves (the children of volunteers tend to help in the childcare area, probably because it’s more fun than helping adult asylum seekers sort through clothes and unused nappies. That’s why I help there, anyway). The autistic side of me I was quite overwhelmed by the amount of noise and things going on at times. I tried to focus one level of attention on the children I was with at the time while I focused another level of attention on the childcare area as a whole, to check nothing dangerous/unpleasant was going on. The children were well-behaved (actually, they almost always are well-behaved), although one boy has a habit of trying to take my glasses off me. I spent a lot of time today looking after a toddler who kept trying to crawl over to where some of the older children were playing with a ball. As I had visions of her getting trampled, I kept trying gently to encourage her away from them and at one point picked her up and carried her away, although I’m not confident carrying children and try to avoid it, as they can usually sense I’m anxious and sometimes start crying.
I realised, for all my parents say I’m good with children (and I’ll concede that on some levels I am good with children; I’m certainly patient with children and willing to play repetitious games for long periods), I don’t know how to talk to them. If I recall correctly, one of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders can be difficulty talking in age-appropriate ways and I do struggle to do that. My instinct is to talk far too formally to them. I usually suppress that instinct, but I don’t really know what to say instead and tend to ask very simple questions or distract them with toys. (Bear in mind that most of the children at the drop-in centre are five or six at most, often much younger, although I’m not quite sure how that should affect how I talk to them.) I’m struggling to put this into words, but when I see the other volunteers talk to the children they seem to do it much more naturally and age-appropriately. To be fair, as I say, I do have the patience and stamina to spend two hours sitting on the floor drinking imaginary cups of ‘tea’ and waving teddy bears about, which the other volunteers tend not to do, going for breaks or changing activities. I just point this out as another autism symptom I need to note before my assessment.
Another social thing I struggle with at volunteering is talking to the other volunteers. I do know a few people by sight or even by name now and one volunteer I actually know from my previous shul, before I moved house. But I find it hard to make conversation with them or to introduce myself to people I don’t know. I’ve heard people say that volunteering is a good way for shy people to find a partner, but that hasn’t been my experience, partly because I’m the wrong age (most of the volunteers are ten or twenty years older than me), partly because I’m too shy and don’t really know what to say to women I don’t know. I know the first time I went I did get talking to two sisters who seemed to be about my age, but I haven’t seen them since, sadly.
(Pause, change ends, eat oranges)
(I really did just eat an orange)
In the evening, after coming home for a much needed shower and Doctor Who break, I went for dinner with a couple of old friends from my university days at Oxford. We get together every six months or so to catch up. Our lives have gone in quite different ways, so it’s good that we still want to meet. One of my friends is a political scientist working on migration and statelessness (a hot topic at the moment, obviously – she was recently in Mexico interviewing women on the caravan bound for the USA). She spoke at length tonight about the plight of the stateless. I had no idea that there are so many people in this category (an estimated fifteen million) nor the reasons for it. I would have assumed they were mostly refugees, but apparently a lot are people who have simply failed to fill in the appropriate paperwork through suspicion of the authorities (e.g. Roma) or traditional lifestyles (e.g. migrant pastoral farmers), particularly when new states have been created in post-colonial territories or following the break up of states like Yugoslavia and the USSR. They have now missed the appropriate deadlines for application for citizenship and fallen through the gaps in the bureaucratic systems and can’t work, marry or travel; they can’t even officially die.
I mentioned the asylum seekers drop-in centre. I was pretty blatantly virtue signalling, but I wanted to find common ground with my friend. I usually avoid politics as I feel my political views are a little unusual. I suppose they aren’t monumentally weird; I’m not a Fascist or a Pantisocrat. Realistically, I’m just a centrist with small-l liberal and small-c conservative aspects to my personality, but I have a fondness for George Orwell’s term ‘Tory Anarchist’, which to me reflects not a hyphenated identity, but a dialectical tension between the ordered and anarchic sides of my nature (it’s an anarchism rooted less in Bakunin and Kropotkin and more in the prophets and rabbis of ancient Israel, who had a deep-seated suspicion of governments, money, power, authority and militarism. As Philip K. Dick said, the Jews have always fought for freedom). Whatever the reason, I have an instinctive ability to take the opposite view of whoever is talking to me. This is not from natural contrariness on my part, or not consciously. I am naturally conflict-averse and long to avoid any kind of political quarrel. But I seem doomed to offend everyone if I speak my mind. My frum (religious) friends and acquaintances are likely to be conservative. I don’t know, so I could be stereotyping, but Orthodox Jews tend to be conservative. On the other hand, my other friends tend to be very liberal. When I’m with the former, I feel liberal, even anarchist, but when I’m with the latter I feel super-conservative.
Today I did not feel super-conservative. I was actually deeply moved by my friend’s account of the plight of the stateless. In retrospect, I fear that there is very little that can be realistically done in the short to medium term, but I guess this is the conservative side of me speaking (progressives tend to see all problems as solvable; conservatives tend to see some problems as manageable at best). In retrospect I can see why governments might be unwilling to award citizenship to literally millions of strangers from unstable parts of the world, sight unseen. But I feel that dialectical tension again, because I want to do something to help.
Hence, my doing something I would not normally do and virtue signalling by bringing up my voluntary work. I am not entirely sure what I was thinking, but I think I wanted to signal agreement and empathy for the people she has met, as well as tacit support, in broad, non-committal terms, for her goals (“tacit support, in broad, non-committal terms”… I even sound like Sir Humphrey Appleby. Ugh).
On the way home I thought about my friends, and how I feel too liberal for some and too conservative for others. I thought about my shul, and how the rabbi would probably not approve of my voluntary work at a centre for non-Jewish (often Muslim) asylum seekers, even though the shul that runs the centre is Orthodox. I was in a Jewish part of London and, seeing the frum men and women, I thought as usual about wanting to have a frum wife, but in this context I wondered if it would be possible. After all, I could end up with a wife who liked my friends, but not my shul, or one who my rabbi would accept, but my friends would loathe. I remembered that E. was quite adamant about not being married by my rabbi when we were dating. At volunteering, I wondered if I would ever meet someone right for me. Sociologically, the Anglo-Jewish community is polarising into the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) and the Jewishly unaffiliated and uninterested. Even the United Synagogue middle-of-the-road types are generally not frum enough for me any more.
I sometimes feel like a man of far too many parts, unable to really fit in anywhere. I want my wife to be someone I feel completely comfortable with and accepted by, but this seems impossible. Granted, that’s partly because I feel so ill at ease with myself, but even if I did like myself, it seems impossible for anyone else to accept me. And now I remember a friend who I opened up to a bit about my political thoughts who never responded to that email… did he simply overlook it or run out of time? Or was he shunning my views? He is at least still my friend, so he can’t have found them that obnoxious.
And, if it wasn’t nearly 2.00am, I could raise the Z word (‘Zionism’) which is a whole can of worms in itself. But I should get to bed.
Sigh. Writing this was supposed to help me calm down and sort out my thoughts before bed, but it has actually made me much more tense and anxious as well as more alert and not ready to sleep. I wish I just could be a normal person, with normal, straightforward views, rather than trying to make myself an outlier in every community of which I could vaguely be considered a member. And I wish I could accept that it’s possible for people to like me without their agreeing with every political, religious and cultural opinion I have.