My main activity today was a workshop on autism and employment and higher education. This included a lot of helpful information about whether to disclose autism (and by implication mental health issues I might also want to disclose) and employers’ legal obligations towards the disabled. I was hoping for some information on coping strategies and adjustments for various problems one might experience, but I guess people with autism are too varied for a ‘one size fits all’ approach or perhaps there will be a workshop on that topic at another time.
In fact, the workshop really did bring home to me how autism affects different people very differently. I knew this in an abstract way, but it was interesting to see it in action. For instance, some people get affected by bright lights or loud noise and needed warning about a video that included these; I am usually fine with those, although sudden loud noises make me jump (I guess that’s the same for a lot of neurotypicals, though), but put me in a room with a lot of talking, even quiet talking, and pretty soon I will start spacing out as my brain tries to work out what everyone is saying (not consciously; I’m not eavesdropping ) and gets overloaded. Similarly, even bright or flashing lights during the day are fine for me, but when I’m trying to sleep, even dim light or a little light under the crack in the door, will keep me awake. Similarly, with communication, I did not feel confident saying much at all, and some other people looked similarly socially anxious and reluctant to join in, whereas other people were chatty or even a little disruptive by not know when to stop talking.
Part of my brain was trying to work out how I fitted in with this diverse group of people: was I ‘more’ or ‘less’ affected? It’s not really a helpful perspective. My therapist said that I tend to see mental illness as a competitive sport and part of me wants to be the ‘most depressed’ person or the person with the most diagnoses. This, I would guess, stems partly from self-pity and partly to try to explain (to myself as much as to others) how badly my life has seemed to have gone wrong over the last fifteen years and to make excuses for myself or at least to provide mitigating circumstances. But it was impossible really to create such a hierarchy at the autism workshop; even on the very superficial level at which one can get to know people in a two hour workshop, we all seemed incommensurable, each too different to compare to anyone else.
Related to this, I have been finding it hard over the last few days to work out how to conceptualise myself. I think one problem of our society (by which I mean Western society rather than Jewish society for once) is a tendency to think in terms of oppressor/victim binary pairs (the Leninist “Who? Whom?” – who is oppressing whom?), whereas in reality (a) things are not usually so clear cut and (b) even if one is a victim, it is not particularly helpful to think of oneself as a victim. It leads to learned helplessness and low self-esteem. Take it from someone who has ended up there. But how to think of myself in a more positive light is hard. Judaism as a culture/religion is less focused on victimhood, despite the fact that for many centuries Jews were (are) victimised. Unfortunately, Jewish religious identity would focus on fulfilling the Torah,or at least fulfilling one’s potential, and being loved by God, which is problematic for me as I feel that I do not meet my religious obligations or even my potential and that consequently God does not love me. I hope that CBT will help me frame things in a more helpful way.
It’s hard to do this with so few role models. I don’t really expect there to be loads of books or TV programmes about autistic-depressive-socially-anxious-Orthodox-Jews, but there isn’t really much I’ve come across remotely like me. I’m currently reading the novel Turtles All the Way Down, which is a reasonable portrayal of OCD. However, in terms of portrayal of autism, The Imitation Game made me feel lonely and useless and that was a reasonably positive portrayal; I absolutely hated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which I felt failed to engage with people with autism at all sympathetically.
As for Jews… well, there are lots of Jews out there in fiction, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred they’re ultra-assimilated, there to provide a dash of ‘diversity’ without the author actually having to do any research. In terms of detailed, positive portrayals of religious Jews, there’s Chaim Potok and that’s about it. I haven’t read/seen Disobedience because the story wasn’t my type of thing and I worried it was going to be critical of Orthodox Judaism. Don’t even mention The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which started promisingly, but ended up by supporting every crazy antisemitic conspiracy theory going (author Michael Chabon has since distinguished himself as a rabid critic of Jews, Judaism, the Jewish State, and pretty much everything Jews do other than assimilating themselves out of existence).
So I’m left to turn back to nineteenth century Yiddish literature which is (a) hard to get hold of in translation and (b) often targeting Orthodoxy satirically as much as positively and even when it’s not, I find it hard to see myself as peasant or even a rabbi back in the shtetl (Jewish towns of Eastern Europe). I did watch a bit of webcast comedy series Soon By You but the relationship-driven plots just made me feel more alone and upset that I don’t live in the USA where I would have a statistically greater chance of meeting someone like myself. I haven’t seen Israeli drama Srugim, but I imagine that would inspire similar feelings, only replacing the USA with Israel.
Most of my heroes growing up were outsiders in other ways (aliens, robots and time-travellers) and were role models only via metaphorical interpretation. More recently, watching Sherlock again I expected to empathise with Sherlock Holmes, but while the nineteenth century original was possibly autistic and probably bipolar, the modern-day TV version is, by his own admission, a “high-functioning sociopath” and almost sadistically rude. I find myself more drawn to the minor character of Molly Hooper, a pathologist with apparently low self-esteem and an unrequited crush on Sherlock. To be honest, if she was real, I’d want to date her (if she was Jewish), but I fear I wouldn’t measure up to Sherlock, even if he does manipulate her and generally treat her appallingly.
The sad truth is that, here in the real world, 99% of the time people with autism, depression, anxiety or OCD don’t actually have compensatory superpowers.
(As an aside, there’s an amusing poem by Philip Larkin called A Study of Reading Habits in which he reviews the literary heroes and anti-heroes of his childhood and adolescence, notes that these days he identifies more with the cowards and failures than the heroes and finally advises the reader to “Get stewed:/Books are a load of crap.” Thus spake the Librarian of Hull University.)
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Israeli statesman Shimon Peres was asked if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he replied, “There is a light, the problem is there’s no tunnel” which I took to mean that the outlines of a peace deal are obvious to most people (other than fanatics on both sides); the problem is working out how to get there.
Similarly, I know what my ideal life would look like: mental health issues under control (I’ve given up on comprehensively escaping them and want just to manage them); a job I can do, which pays the bills and which stimulates me intellectually; the time/energy/mental health to meet my religious obligations (prayer, Torah study etc.); a wife and children; a certain amount of free time; a few friends; and a community I feel comfortable in. This seems a lot (although most people seem to manage with most of these things) and I have absolutely no idea how to achieve these goals. I don’t think I have a realistic image in my head of what they could look like in the real world. I’m not even sure that I have a clear fantasy image of my dream job, let alone a realistic one and while I do have a fantasy image of being loved by someone, I’m not sure I really have the experience to know what a real relationship is like. I don’t know how it is that some people can plan out their lives and then systematically achieve their goals; it seems quite beyond me.
The frum (pious) thing to say is that I trust that HaShem (God) will provide for me, but I don’t. I fear that He hates me because of all my sins; worse, I worry that His plan for me involves only suffering, which is worse than punishment, because punishment can be mitigated by repentance, whereas if He simply plans for me to suffer for some reason that is beyond my comprehension, then there simply isn’t anything I can do about it. I don’t know what to do about this or even how to raise the issue with other frum people e.g. my rabbi mentor.