I spent Shabbat (the Sabbath) struggling with social anxiety and autism. It was the last official Shabbat in the community for both the rabbi and the assistant rabbi and their wives and there was to be a celebratory seudah shlishit (third Shabbat meal) in their honour. On Friday night, after Lecha Dodi, people started circle-dancing. I dislike this at the best of times. Autistically, I dislike the enforced close proximity and having to hold hands with two strangers (or at least people I don’t know well). Social anxiously, I feel self-conscious, that everyone is looking at me and judging me. Depressively, I can rarely enter into the spirit of things and really enjoy it. Plus, our shul (synagogue) isn’t always big enough for all the people, so the circle can be rather tight and uncomfortable. Sometimes I force myself to join in with this, but after a tiring job interview on Friday and perhaps being somewhat disorientated by the layout of the shul being different to usual and, as a result, my not being able to sit with my friends, I just couldn’t face it, so I stood outside the circle with the mourners, feeling self-conscious.
In the morning I woke up on time to go to shul, which you may recall I’ve been trying to do for some weeks now, but then I remembered the previous night and couldn’t face the large numbers of people who would be there this week. I went back to bed, which was a mistake, as I could have gone to a different shul or even stayed awake and davened (prayed) at home, but I was obviously too tired to think straight. I did at least avoid napping after lunch by forcing myself to go for a walk.
The real test was in the afternoon. Talmud shiur (class) passed fine, but then, because the school hall wish usually serves as the shul was being used for the seudah, we davened in a classroom, about eighty men squeezed into a room intended for thirty children. I felt terrible. I was just overwhelmed by the proximity to other people. I managed to stay for the whole of Mincha (the Afternoon Service), although I didn’t really have a choice, as it would have been hard to push past dozens of people to get out.
I washed and went through to the seudah. I tried to sit with my friends, but I wasn’t able to do so. I made motzei and ate a bit, but I was feeling very uncomfortable. There were probably around 120 people, including some young children, all making a lot of noise and crammed close together. I wasn’t with anyone I knew and no one was talking to me and I did not feel confident to talk to anyone else. To be honest, this is what usually happens at seudah: I just eat and sit silently and wait for the shiur to start, but I assumed there wouldn’t be a proper shiur here, just a few speeches. I felt like I couldn’t cope and that I was being overwhelmed, so I decided to quietly bentsch to myself (which I know I shouldn’t do when there is a zimun, but I considered it a health matter) and go. I went home and read and then went to my father’s shul for Ma’ariv (the Evening Service) even though I think they daven too fast and with too much talking because I couldn’t face the crowded classroom a second time.
Since I was screened for autism and found out that I am probably on the spectrum, I am more confident about avoiding social events if I feel they aren’t right for me. I know I’m better off coming home when I feel OK than going and feeling terrible. When I was a child, my parents told me to go to social events and to talk to people I didn’t know, on the grounds that eventually my shyness would go away and it would become easier to cope. I now know that my brain is wired differently to most people and it will always be like that, however hard I try to make things different. I feel less inclined to “force myself” to go to social things now.
Still, I wonder how to build a social life for myself. I feel like I’m some kind of social diabetic. If I socialise too much – and “too much” is really very little – I get overwhelmed and can’t cope. But if I don’t socialise at all, I feel lonely and unloved. It’s hard to find the right level. Moreover, how can I meet friends, have a sense of community or find a wife (in a community where people are usually set up on dates by mutual friends or family) if I can’t bear to go to social events at shul? I’ve been going to my shul for several years now and I still only have two or three friends and no one I can really open up to. Certainly no one in my shul has ever tried to set me up on a date.
Even though I left feeling more positive than on some previous occasions when I have forced myself to attend events where I felt socially anxious and autistically overwhelmed, I was left with a vague sense of resentment and unfairness, a mixture of envy and hatred for all the frum men I saw in my community today who manage to do what I can’t do and socialise happily, with their laughter and their whisky and their sports conversations, not to mention their attractive wives and cute children, all the things I don’t have. It’s bad of me to feel this mixture of envy and hatred with a dash of lust (for married women at that), but I do. I beat myself up for it, but it doesn’t go away. The loneliness it triggered has also led on to “crush” thoughts about someone (not from my shul, but who I’m very unlikely to meet again any time soon), despite my telling myself, and my shadchan (matchmaker) that I don’t want to date until I’ve sorted out my work situation.
A curious side-light on this: there is someone at my shul who irritates me. I try not to be irritated, because it’s pointless and because it’s sinful, but it’s unavoidable sometimes. This person always has to answer the questions in shiur and he talks over other people, even the assistant rabbi. He doesn’t really seem to take much notice of other people’s conversation, but just focuses on what he wants to say. I never thought much of it, but today he started a huge argument with the people setting up the seudah, saying that he couldn’t sit near a particular food because he can’t stand the smell and that they shouldn’t put it on the table near him. He got incredibly, shockingly angry about it until someone calmed him down. I found myself wondering if he was autistic himself (possibly undiagnosed). It would explain his lack of awareness of social cues and the ‘taking turns’ aspect of conversation, as well as sensory issues (the smell of the food) and emotional management issues around them (getting angry might even have been a meltdown, although this was before the seudah started, so he couldn’t really have been overstimulated). I thought this would help me to empathise with him, but I just got more annoyed with him. I feel that I want to say, “You just walk blithely through life not noticing all the people around you who you’re snubbing, you expect people at the seudah to fit in with your needs and your wishes and you don’t care what happens. You don’t even seem to realise that you are inconveniencing people. You go to the shiur and enjoy it and enjoy showing off your knowledge, you go to seudah and enjoy it. I go through life terrified I’m going to upset somebody, I rarely speak for fear of saying the wrong thing (upsetting someone or appearing stupid), I can’t cope with the seudah and have to leave early, yet I’m the one who can’t cope with the deep, powerful, terrifying emotions aroused inside me all the time, I’m the one who represses himself to avoid getting angry with people and takes it out by acting out on himself in different ways (thankfully I don’t self-harm often, but it has happened, and I beat myself up emotionally a lot and lapse into behaviours I’m not proud of like eating junk).” I suppose it just seemed unfair, but then I don’t believe that life is fair, so I shouldn’t be surprised or complain, but it does upset me, the way I just can’t cope, but other people who may have similar issues somehow do cope, while most people don’t face these problems at all.
Despite all this stress, I did spend some time in hitbodedut prayer/meditation thinking about how my life is going. I still don’t know what I could or should be doing with my life or my career, but I do feel that the law library job would not be right for me. I just don’t think I could cope in that high-pressure, money-focused environment. How I explain that to other people if I get offered the job is another question.
I do feel that I need to spend some (more) serious time working on my writing. Rabbi Lord Sacks, Emeritus British Chief Rabbi says that “Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.” I only have a vague sense of what I want to do and what needs to be done (being a socially anxious autistic person means at times I have only a vague sense of other people’s needs), but at the moment I feel it’s pushing me towards writing.
I do feel that I am making progress in my life, albeit with glacial slowness. I feel I understand myself a bit better than I did even a year ago: what I can do, what I could do, what I should do. But it is hard; I’m crawling on my hands and knees in the dark, feeling my way forwards an inch at a time.