You Don’t Have to Be Neurotypical to Work Here – But It Helps!

I struggled to sleep again last night, despite not feeling consciously anxious.  I did my usual trick of eating porridge as a way of ingesting soporific warm milk (I don’t like the taste of milk ‘straight’) which worked, but I wonder how much of my weight gain is due to things like this.  Although the dark chocolate Kit-Kat I had for dessert at dinner because I was so depressed was probably worse.  The result was that I overslept this morning and rushed out to my networking workshop and got the Tube rather than the bus to save time, only to discover I’d been overcautious and arrived half an hour early.  I was too embarrassed to go in straight away and paced up and down outside for quarter of an hour.  I was still the first person there.

The workshop was quite good and, to my relief, didn’t involve too much interaction.  We did have to sell ourselves with an ‘elevator pitch’ which I struggled with.  The whole morning just underlined for me, if I could have forgotten, how vague I am on my career aspirations (not least because I really want to be a writer and librarianship is a time-filler while I work on my first books or second-choice in case I can’t write), how few people there are in my social network, how few professional contacts I have in the sector I work in and so on.  I did feel that with all the emphasis in the workshop on building networks of people, using casual conversations to build careers and using body language to put across meaning that the world of work is built for extrovert neurotypicals, not introverts or autistics.  The whole experience did make me feel somewhat negative about my career prospects.  At least I’m not a salesman like one of the people in the workshop.

I got home minutes before the torrential rain, which was good.

***

A strange thought this morning: when I had my first ever psychiatric assessment, at the university counselling service at Oxford, the psychiatrist was surprised that, at the age of nineteen, I’d never had a girlfriend and asked if I was gay.  When I said I wasn’t, he asked if he was sure I wasn’t gay.  (Goodness knows what he would have made of the fact that I didn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.)  I hope that nowadays something like that would flag up high-functioning autism as a possible explanation as well as non-heterosexuality (and that non-heterosexuality would include asexuality as well as homo- and bi-sexuality).  To be fair to him, high-functioning autism was a lot less well-known sixteen years ago, but you would think that a mental health professional at Oxford would encounter more high-functioning autistics than the average person.

***

Another thought this morning: because of the way my mental health issues interact with my religious practices, I have to make an at least semi-conscious decision to remain Jewish frequently, whereas many Jews, frum (religious) as well as non-frum, can coast on autopilot.  But I constantly have to choose to put my energy into prayer, Torah study and being part of the community, just as I have to constantly choose to artificially limit my already limited (because of depression and autism) dating pool to the frum community.  This has disadvantages, in that I’m much more likely to go off the derekh (stop being religious), I am not well-integrated into the frum community and Judaism is not as organic a part of my life as it should be, as well as the fact that my issues interfere with my mitzvah observance to a significant extent.  However, perhaps it makes me more thoughtful about my beliefs and practices and more understanding of other ‘fringe Jews’ (as a now-defunct blog used to refer to Jews on the edge of the frum community, by choice or otherwise).  I do feel guilty that I invest such a small percentage of my time and energy in prayer, Torah study and communal activities, but this is the only way I can function right now.  It helps to be neurotypical here, too.

***

This evening I’m out, doing something cultural/religious, listening to Robert Alter speak about translating the whole of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  I’m going by myself as I don’t know anyone currently in London who would like to go to hear someone talk about academic (as opposed to frum) Bible translation, although I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to ask a friend even if I had one.  I tend to assume that I should do cultural things by myself, whether from habit or because my friends don’t share my interests, although I do sometimes go to art galleries with my sister and try to see a ‘straight’ play with my Mum once a year, usually at the Open Air Theatre.  It will be a late night and I’m worried about getting up in time for work in the morning, so I’m doing as much of my evening routine as I can beforehand.  Hence blogging now.  Other than that, I hope just to relax and recuperate from the stresses of this morning before going out, which will doubtless tax my autistic self in various ways.

The Happiest Days of My Life

Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner alone went OK.  I read more of The Complete Peanuts and was distracted by the craziness of the forthcoming Israeli general election in The Jewish Chronicle, so I didn’t read much of 13 Minutes, which is less of a thriller than I thought from the blurb on the back and more of a teenage school story (I had a similar experience with Turtles All the Way Down a few months ago).  I slept too long and missed shul (synagogue) in the morning again and dozed off as well in the afternoon, which is frustrating.

Now I’m facing a busy and stressful week combined with my parents being away and am wondering how I will cope.  At least the hardest thing, the networking workshop, is over first.

***

On Shabbat in shul (synagogue), I found myself reflecting about the values of my shul against my own values.  We both value prayer and Torah study (in both cases the shul value both much more than I’m able to right now with my mental health issues).  But the shul places value on quarantining oneself from the wider culture, to a greater or lesser extent, while I do not.  I think Jews can learn things from the best of other cultures, if we’re careful, and we can teach things too.  I wouldn’t want to be set up with someone like my shul on a date, which is problematic as someone from shul might try to set me up with someone one day… but as it’s never really happened before now (slightly, once), that’s not really much of a concern.  More pertinent is the fact that I don’t know how to find a shul that fits more of my values.  I would probably have to be earning a lot more money and be more emotionally stable and independent so I could move out of my parents house and to another area and even then I might not find one.

***

I found myself feeling glad that I have Judaism, and books, and Doctor Who and other vintage science fiction/telefantasy to hold onto.  (Are they autistic special interests?  I’m not sure that they all are; I feel uncomfortable with the way some autistic people I know list all their hobbies as ‘special interests’ which I feel devalues the notion.  My interest in literature and even Judaism, important though they are, don’t seem as intense and self-soothing as my interest in Doctor Who and vintage telefantasy)  They give me a refuge and alternative ways of conceptualising the world.  A link to the past, something bigger and older than myself, somewhat bigger and older in the case of Doctor Who, immeasurably bigger and older in the case of literature and Judaism.  I feel sorry for people who have nothing larger than themselves.  I suppose that’s why it’s so important to me to try to find friends/a partner who share all of these interests, because they are so central to my sense of self.

***

I was feeling OK, but I suddenly felt quite depressed.  I don’t know if it’s apprehension about the week ahead, especially the networking workshop and coping without my parents, or if 13 Minutes is bringing up bad memories from school.  I would stop reading it, but I don’t like giving up on books, plus I want to know the reason behind the book’s central mystery, how Natasha Howland ended up drowning in the river in the middle of the night.  So much for trying new things.

My depression and autism make me feel that I won’t enjoying new things and they are sometimes right, but I’m not sure that they don’t sabotage things to prove themselves right.  When I was a child, my parents would push me to do social stuff saying, “Just try it once.”  Then, if I didn’t like it, they would press me to try it again on the grounds that the first time might be atypical.  I actually did more social stuff when I was very young (pre-teen), cubs, scouts, karate, but I’m not sure that I actually enjoyed any of them and I certainly didn’t make friends through them.  Mostly I just pined for my mentor friend and felt unable to talk to other people or feel comfortable without him.  I don’t think I could express or even understand my ambivalent-going-on-negative feelings about these activities.  I just avoided doing things as much as possible.

When I was eleven and twelve I got invited to bar and bat mitzvah parties of people in my class at school.  I hated them, all noise and music and dancing and emergent adolescent sexuality (boys and girls were dancing together (they weren’t frum simchas), which I simply didn’t understand as I didn’t hit puberty for another year).  Although I knew everyone, I had few friends, especially as my mentor friend simply didn’t go on the grounds that he didn’t enjoy discos and his parents didn’t push him to go, whereas mine said that if I was invited, it was rude not to go.  I used to hide in the toilets, which I thought was ruder than not going at all, but my parents disagreed.  I put it down to shyness, as did everyone else, but in retrospect the whole thing is an autistic deathtrap.  The funny thing is that I can’t remember consciously disliking the noise.  Trying to think back to it, I get a strong feeling of get me out of here, but it’s hard to identify the cause and I can see why I and everyone else assumed it was just my shyness at work.  Even my own bar mitzvah was like everyone else’s, because no one told me I had the option of another way.  My parents would have allowed something else, but, I suspect that in the absence of being presented with other options, I couldn’t think of anything.  Or perhaps I had been offered other options, but didn’t really understand them because I hadn’t been to similar parties, or lacked the imagination and self-awareness to predict what I would like.  Anyway, at my own bar mitzvah, I went outside and played in the entrance hall with a friend for most of the evening.  I remember that at my sister’s bat mitzvah my Mum got really angry with me for not standing with the rest of the family at the end of the evening; I think my issues was less noise and sensory overload there and more shyness and not wanting everyone staring at me.  At least these days my parents are more understanding of my mental health and neurodivergence, although I worry that I hide behind these things.  Then again, without them, maybe I wouldn’t want to hide.

***
I’m just struggling to do things today, to go for a walk and cook dinner.  I don’t exercise or cook as much as I used to, even when the depression was worse than it is now and I was still working more days per week.  I don’t know why this is the case.  I’m cooking red bean chilli because I’ve done it loads of times before.  I feel guilty that I’m not using the cookery book I got in the summer for my birthday.   I’ve only used it once, but I’ve hardly cooked anything since then and have mostly relied on known recipes.  I shouldn’t feel guilty about this, but I do.  I feel guilty about lots of things that aren’t my fault, and some that are.  I feel guilty that I burnt the onions again and that I probably damaged my Mum’s pot.  Actually, I probably should feel guilty about that.

***

Feeling like an anxious mess now.  I volunteered to help with something today; it took an hour, but I can’t do very much and that plus shopping plus cooking plus Talmud study has eaten up my whole day, so I probably won’t be able to work on my books as I wanted.  I still plan to do too much each day, or at least each non-work day.  I don’t know how most people manage to live much busier lives than me; I’m barely functional.

I’m so anxious about tomorrow, coping with the networking workshop and getting to the theatre on time in the evening for the Jewish Book Week talk and then getting home in time to get some sleep before work on Tuesday.  I feel, probably somewhat arrogantly, that I ought to be giving talks at Jewish Book Week one day.  I don’t mean that I’m a gifted or insightful writer, merely (yet again) that I feel in some nebulous way that everyone expected me to be a “success”, whatever that means, that I got through school telling myself that once I left and was free of the bullies, once I got to university, I would be a success, and yet I am a miserable failure who can’t even cook dinner.  How can I even think of careers and relationships when I’m such a non-functional mess?  I do feel that if the kids who bullied me at school could see me now they’d die laughing.

Alone

Sometimes I think I should go off and become a hermit somewhere, but I dreamt about Brexit last night.  So, you see, there is no escaping the real world…

I’m having another day when I can’t tell if I’m depressed or just tired.  I suppose I’m so used to be both that it’s hard to tell when there’s just one without the other.  I’m looking at potential jobs to apply for and updating my CV and my confidence in my ability to work is still very low.  I can’t see myself doing any of these jobs.  I feel that between my depression-interrupted career and my social anxiety- and autism-impaired ability to network and go to CPD conferences and the fact that my librarianship MA was at a not very good university (because of the depression, in a complicated way), I’m not really able to do all the things that, in theory, I ought to be able to do.  I know I’m over-qualified for my current job, at least on paper, but I’m OK with that, as I feel I can do my work without freaking out about things.  I know lots of people with autism end up under-employed and I’m worried about being one of them, but I’m not sure what to do about it at the moment.

I’m on my own for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner tonight as my parents are going to friends.  I could go to the oneg (Shabbat event) at my shul (synagogue), but, as I said last week (I originally thought it was last week), I don’t enjoy these things and having a more certain autism diagnosis makes me feel that I won’t enjoy these things however much I try.  These days I feel less inclined to force myself to try things that I really feel I’m unlikely to enjoy.  I am forcing myself to go to a networking workshop on Monday, but that’s because, although I’m sure I won’t enjoy it, I might get something out of it.  But I was quite looking forward to having time alone tonight, to do some Torah study and read more of 13 Minutes, at least until my mood dropped.

I’m alone again all next week, as my parents are away in sunnier climes (Sarn Lanzarote).  I hope I cope OK.  I’ve got a busy week, with the networking workshop on the same day as the Jewish Book Week event I’m going to (the first time I’ve gone to Jewish Book Week) and then two consecutive days of work followed by an appointment with a psychiatrist.  With my parents away, I will need to fit in cooking, laundry and probably also shopping as well, somehow.

Even on days like this, when I’m not really so depressed and haven’t been for a few days, I wonder if I’m always going to be like this.  I feel like I’m 50% or 60% there.  I’m functional at a basic level.  I’m working part-time.  I’m doing some basic Torah study and I pray sometimes and occasionally make it to shul.  I have some friends (mostly long-distance, but in a way that suits me as I prefer text and email to speech).  And I’m working on my books and worrying I’ll never get them finished, or published.  But there’s so much more I want.  It would be too much to say I have career plans or even goals, but I want to do something useful, enjoyable (on some level) and closer to full-time.  I want to have more friends who are really on my wavelength.  I want to get married and have children.  I want to get my books published.  And all these things seem far away.

And then suddenly, mid-afternoon and mid-Shabbat preparations, I was hit by a wave of depression and loneliness, I don’t know where from.  It’s scary that it can come out of nowhere like that and hit me.  I just feel overwhelmed by things and unable to do anything and I’m no longer looking forward to an evening by myself.