Today seems to have been a day for beating myself up. Most of the things below happened independently of each other, but all seem to have provoked me to beat myself up. I kind of take my low self-esteem for granted and don’t write about it much, but it is there a lot of the time, closely linked with social anxiety and autistic communication difficulties.

***

I was tired when I woke up this morning, but my mood was initially OK. I did spend too long online before getting dressed though. I don’t know why mornings are so hard. I went out to get my lithium blood test form and do some shopping and my mood dropped. I was somewhat self-critical and negative about the future. When I’m at home, I can feel OKish about where I am in my life: part-time work, single, living with my parents. But when I go out, I see other people and start to compare. Even if I’m not consciously comparing, I think I’m doing it unconsciously. I live in an area with a lot of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) families, so I invariably see people ten years or more younger than me with children, which just makes me feel like I totally missed the boat regarding marriage and family.

I used to rate my mood each day out of ten, to track my progress. It occurs to me that maybe I should do that again to see how it fluctuates from day to day and even across the day. Today I felt bad compared to the last few days, but, trying to rate it objectively, I doubt my mood was less than 5/10, which is obviously much better than when it never rose above 3/10 even on a “better” day.

***

Someone at depression group last night spoke about people on the autism spectrum being good at noticing things and spotting patterns and discrepancies. This is an idea I struggle with. I have heard it often; I know the psychologist Simon Baron Cohen has published a book recently about autistic people being “pattern seekers” and therefore able to contribute to society in that way. I know some finance firms deliberately recruit people on the spectrum on the grounds that they can see patterns in the money markets better than neurotypical people.

I feel uncomfortable with that because I don’t know if I “pattern seek” at all; if I do, it’s not in a socially useful way. I do notice some things other people don’t. I stop suddenly in the street to look at an interesting insect and it’s hard for me to walk past writing without reading it, whether on a billboard, on a scrap of paper or leaflet on the street or on the newspaper of someone opposite me on the Tube. That might count as noticing things and seeking patterns, although it might just be that my interests are weird (which would also be typical for someone on the spectrum).

I can find patterns within the things I like. For instance, it excites me that David Bowie had a cameo appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me because it’s two things I like (David Bowie and Twin Peaks) meeting unexpectedly. However, I don’t feel I can do anything useful with this ability, if it even is an “ability.” I can’t do anything that other people can’t do and I don’t think I am particularly good at finding patterns in the abstract or noticing things. In fact, in many ways I’m very bad at noticing things. I notice immediately if anyone moves anything in my bedroom, because I jealously guard my own territory, but I don’t necessarily notice if my parents rearrange the furniture downstairs, because “their” territory doesn’t really interest me or register on my consciousness.

I guess I would like to find an area where my autism/Asperger’s gives me some kind of advantage, if only to feel better about myself, but it’s hard to think of one.

***

A related issue is that of analytical ability. People on the spectrum are often very analytical. I’m not and I’m not sure if I ever was, or if it was eroded by depression. I did well at school, including in science, so I must have had some analytical ability as a child and teenager. Somewhere along the line I lost it though. In particular, I’ve never been good at studying Talmud, whether Mishnah or Gemarah (Mishnah, the earlier part of the Talmud, is somewhat clearer and easier than Gemarah, the later part of the Talmud which analyzes the Mishnah), back from when I first encountered it in voluntary lunchtime lessons at school. This was one reason among several why I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Why would I spend a year of my life in a foreign country studying texts I can’t understand and don’t enjoy?

The problem, as I was reminded today listening to a shiur (religious class) online while I cooked dinner, is that Talmudic study is considered the paramount religious activity in the frum (religious Jewish) world, at least for men. Tanakh study (biblical study), which is probably my favourite Torah activity, along with the study of Midrash (the rabbinic expansions of the biblical text, which function as both creative commentaries and non-literal ways of exploring theological and ethical topics). It is more intuitive and creative that Talmud study, which tends to be strongly based on logic, but is largely ignored for men, except in parts of the Religious Zionist world.

The shiur I listened to was poorly recorded and had lots of untranslated Hebrew, neither of which endeared it to me (to be fair, the fact that I was cooking at the same time probably didn’t help matters), but it was mostly about the importance of studying Torah for its own sake, which mostly means Talmud. Even when I study Tanakh, I’m not sure how much I’m studying to “know the mind of God” and how much just because I’m frum and it’s what I’m supposed to do, just as I don’t enjoy fasting on Yom Kippur, but I do it anyway.

It’s strange that I have a strong connection to a form of Judaism that I’m unable to really practice or enjoy. If you look at the major aspects of frum life, I can’t study Talmud and halakhah; I find it hard to connect to God with prayer, whether set prayers or spontaneous prayers (years ago I could connect this way, but I haven’t been able to for a long time, at least not consistently); I’m too socially anxious to really engage in communal activity or chessed (acts of kindness); I have failed to get married and start a family… I can’t do these things well or at all, no matter how hard I try, and I do not enjoy most of them (which admittedly is not a brilliant measure of anything, as I’m pretty anhedonic even when not actually depressed and struggle to enjoy anything, but certainly the idea of enjoying studying Torah and enjoying doing mitzvot are key ideas in Judaism). Yet I continue to try to be frum, and to beat myself up for not succeeding. I’m not sure what spiritual or psychological drive is pushing that. It’s like I want to set myself a target I can’t attain. I suppose that no other religion or philosophy of life seems to offer a better alternative to me, and I believe in God and the Torah, and want to connect to the Jewish people, my contemporaries and my ancestors. But it’s very hard to actually do it.

***

I also heard back from the Intimate Judaism sex therapist. I just cringed when the email came in, the way I always do when I reach out to people and they respond positively — yes, I mean positively; positive responses can be as shame-inducing as negative ones, with less reason. I guess I feel that I am not worth it, or that there will now be another stage of possible failure e.g. the sex therapist says that she can suggest shadchanim (matchmakers) who might be willing to work with me to find a spouse, which raises all the fears around dating and rejection there. Actually, even beyond a further stage of failure, I’m so used to being ignored that when people are nice to me, I panic and don’t know what to do, and don’t feel like I deserve it. I think across my life the times when I wanted the ground to swallow me up were as much for compliments and positive attention as for shame and negative attention.

Now I need to find the confidence to respond…

***

Where has WordPress moved the tags box to? Why do they keep changing things? EDIT: it’s back now. Maybe the page wasn’t loading properly.

14 thoughts on “Beating Myself Up

  1. The focus on Talmud to the exclusion of all else for frum men sounds hard. I doubt I will ever have the technical skills to study Talmud, but even if I did I’m not at all sure I’d be able to enjoy it. I follow some Daf Yomi accounts on Instagram, that sort of summarize or share some interesting tidbit about each day, and while some of it sounds cool a lot of it… doesn’t.

    I know there’s a social stigma, but putting that aside do you think God values your learning Tankah less than He would your learning Talmud? I mean, if God gave you the skills and interests you have (and didn’t give you the ones you don’t have), maybe this is the right approach to Torah for you. (Though I suppose you could just as well argue that God gave you this challenge because he wants you to have to work extra hard to push through it and become a Talmudic mastermind.)

    I’m exactly the same about freezing up when people are nice to me; I don’t think I deserve it at all and it makes me so intensely uncomfortable sometimes I just end up ignoring the person and situation altogether. Which is an awful way of dealing with things, and has doubtless cost me some very good opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do find the Talmud focus in the frum world hard. You are right that there are interesting things in there, but it can be hard to find them, particularly if you can’t follow the legal arguments (and I usually can’t). Some of the narrative parts are interesting, but you can go through long stretches of legal debate before you reach them.

      There is a book from the sixteenth century called Ein Yaakov that compiles all the narrative material from the Talmud (I think originally compiled to get around a ban on the Talmud in some Christian countries). I would like to get hold of an English copy, but it’s seriously expensive.

      Interesting question about what God thinks. I honestly don’t know. I feel that even if what I study is OK, I don’t find it meaningful “enough,” but I’m not sure what “enough” is, or whether it’s sensible to expect to get much out of anything when I struggle so much to get pleasure even in things I enjoy, let alone things that are difficult like Torah study.

      Yes, the temptation to walk away from people and opportunities isn’t good!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Autistic attention to detail: maybe this can be seen in your writing – your use of language, your grammar, spelling and punctuation is impeccable. You take care to always italicise Hebrew words and translate into English the first occurrence of each one in every blog entry, always putting the translation in brackets – and always consistent in the choice of words used etc. This, of course is also the hallmark of the good cataloguer – where every dash and colon must be used accurately in its place. I think you’d probably make a good proof reader and editor. I could see you editing academic theses and papers for example. Nowadays such services are much needed as the standards of literacy have fallen so much … students studying at degree level are often unable to write proper English (and increasingly their teachers are similarly handicapped).

    I would also imagine that when it comes to things that you are really interested in, you probably have the ability to hyperfocus. And in things you care about, you are likely to be a perfectionist – hence the tendency to be so self-critical.

    Nice that the Intimate people got back to you so quickly, and with an offer! Did you tell them about your AS? Would you consider a matchmaking service?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true about my writing. Although I get annoyed that sometimes typos slip into my devar Torah. I did make a half-hearted effort to get into proof-reading a while back, but I struggled with knowing things like how much to charge and how quickly I could proof-read, and what the industry standard speed was, as well as with making myself known to get commissions.

      I can hyperfocus, although I find I do it rarely these days. And I am a perfectionist in things I care about, but, again, it’s not such an issue at the moment.

      I did tell the Intimate Judaism people about my AS. I would consider a matchmaker, especially one who deals with people with “issues.”

      Like

  3. Perhaps your autism superpower is that it pushes you to stay frum, even while at the same time its alter ego is getting in the way.

    It seems odd that reading Talmud ranks higher in frum circles than reading Torah. Why should getting closer to God have to be that difficult?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know if it’s autism that pushes me to stay frum, although I suppose something must do it. It feels more like a sense of belief and obligation.

      Re: Talmud vs. Torah, Talmud is seen as originating in Revelation from God at Mount Sinai too, but one preserved orally at first rather than written. And Talmud is much more detailed. The Torah doesn’t really tell you how to fulfill the commandments, just says in a vague way “Keep Shabbat, keep kosher.” So there isn’t a sense of one being closer to God.

      As for difficulty, I think maybe the difficulty is the point, that it’s an effort. In which case I suppose the thing is to try even if you don’t get anywhere (there are sources that say this), but it’s hard to keep enthusiasm for studying something I don’t understand at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, I feel like there is a lot written about women who don’t fit the frum ideal model, but the frum male talmud scholar / yeshiva bochur ideal model can be just as limiting. My knowledge of men’s yeshiva study is all secondhand (and obviously, there is a lot of variation), but it sounds like the emphasis on Talmud and Gemora alone at the expense of Tanakh and hashkafa is needlessly narrow and it does miss something. If you prefer studying Tanakh, study Tanakh.

    Sometimes, if you don’t fit the model, it doesn’t necessary mean that there is something wrong with you. It could be that it’s the model that is the problem.

    I hope this next part isn’t insensitive or offensive (I truly don’t mean to offend, but of course, please delete or discard if you need to): I get the sense reading some of your posts around your autism diagnosis that you see autism as something of a model or label to fit into. That you feel should be good at analytical things or pattern-sighting or something else. But everyone is different, autism manifests differently in different people, and it almost reads as though you are trying to fit a specific ideal model of autism, which can be just as unrealistic and unhelpful as trying to fit any other ideal. As I understand it, your diagnosis is a tool intended to help you understand yourself; it’s not a label of who you are supposed to be. Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With Talmud study, I guess it’s hard to say that the model is the problem, because in the Orthodox world, people don’t really question the social model, even if it isn’t literally from God.

      I think with autism as a label, I’ve spent the last three or four years trying to prove to the NHS that I’m on the spectrum, which involved proving it to myself first, and I still have the habit of thinking, “Is this really me?”

      Like

  5. I’m not sure what spiritual or psychological drive is pushing that.

    Regardless of how/why this started, to some extent you may be used to it by now and scared (at least to some extent) of changing it for something that you’re less accustomed to.

    I’m so used to being ignored that when people are nice to me, I panic and don’t know what to do, and don’t feel like I deserve it.

    Who ignores you? This isn’t something that I recall reading about much in your blog.


    David

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Giving space to people who don’t seem comfortable can feel like ignoring. I’ve been guilty of that myself. I don’t know that any of use fit completely or even well into any boxes, especially those that have many rules and restrictions. We are human after all with all the faults and issues that that entails.

    Liked by 1 person

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