Torah from the Depths: Noach: Just for a Day

I thought I would write about Noach’s (Noah’s) drunkenness, what Rabbi Lord Sacks describes as his survivor syndrome, but oddly the thing that grabbed my attention this week was the rainbow and God’s promise not to destroy the world in a flood again.  It’s an oddly circumscribed promise, as if God had His lawyers draft it: I won’t destroy the world in a flood again (but maybe some other way, or maybe I’ll let you destroy it yourselves).  Not that I think that God will destroy the world like that, but that He isn’t giving any real reassurance here.

From a mental health point of view that resonated with me.  I have lost track of the number of times I have felt myself to be “recovered” only to fall back into depression.  I think the message here is that every recovery is only in this partial way.  Every recovery is only for today.  And from this we have to try to build a new world, without any strong guarantees that the sky won’t fall on our heads tomorrow.

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Insecurity

It’s been a tough couple of days.  I don’t normally work on Fridays, but I had to yesterday as it was a staff development day.  Part of the training was a lecture on Prevent, the government’s counter-extremism programme.  One slide on the slideshow showed the factors that should be warning signs of potential extremism.  I didn’t take notes, but I noticed that I had a lot of the signs, even more when I was an adolescent.  Things like social isolation, mental illness, anger at people around me and things in the news… it’s quite scary.  This was not the first time I have had a thought like this – there but for the grace of God, etc.  Maybe I’m lucky that there aren’t any Jewish terrorist groups out there.  Still, I took those negative feelings in different directions than violence.  I turned the anger inwards into depression and OCD, which wasn’t good, but was probably better than projecting it onto others and hating them (God forbid).  And I took my pain and turned it into empathy.  But it is still a scary thing to confront the potential for violence and anger that lurks inside you.  Growing up, my sister used to hit me and my Mum would tell me to hit her back and she would stop, but I never did.  I was too scared of where that road would take me.  I don’t drink for the same reason, I’m too worried what alcohol or drugs could do to me.

Having had to go in to work on Friday, I was exhausted today.  I need that day at the end of the week to unwind before Shabbat (the Sabbath) and especially before shul (synagogue) and the socialising that entails.  I missed shul this morning, but I was due to do security duty at 11.30am, so I dragged myself out of bed shortly beforehand and walked down there, only to find the person doing the shift before deep in conversation with someone else.  They both said they would stay out there to continue their conversation and I should go into shul instead.  I felt bad about this, but they insisted.  I wouldn’t go into shul, though, because I thought they would be nearly finished or already on the kiddish (refreshments after the service), but it was hard to explain that I didn’t want to go in.  I said I had davened  (prayed) elsewhere (which was basically a lie, as I’d only had time to say about five minutes of prayers before leaving and I implied I was at another shul when I meant I was at home) and, after asking (I think jokingly) why I was davening somewhere else, they said I should go to the kiddush.  I didn’t feel like doing that either as I was feeling too depressed to be in a social situation and I couldn’t face eating cake and crisps so soon after getting up, so I said I wasn’t feeling well (basically another lie as I implied I was physically ill when it was more mental illness that was the issue).  So I went home, but I felt bad as these were two of the friendlier people in the shul to me and they were both being nice to me, but I slunk off back home because I felt depressed and socially anxious, but I couldn’t even be honest with them about my behaviour.  I felt like I should get a badge that says “HI, I’M LUFTMENTSCH!  I’M DEPRESSED, SOCIALLY ANXIOUS AND BORDERLINE AUTISTIC!” to “warn” people about me or even just to explain my eccentric behaviour and the white lies I continually tell about how I am (saying I’m OK when I’m not, implying I’m physically ill when I’m mentally ill, making excuses to avoid social events – this is hard because I’m basically a very honest person, but it is hard to be honest about mental health and neurodiversity).

This came the day after the rabbi had asked me to attend an educational event on Friday evening, and I said I would consider it, but didn’t show up because I was too tired from work, again leading to my feeling bad for lying to him (as I knew I was unlikely to go) and for missing something that would have helped me to meet more people from the shul.  (I reckon that if I want to meet more people, attending educational events is a better bet than social events, because it’s easier to deal with a text or a class than just talking, even despite my feelings of religious and intellectual inferiority around the other men from the shul, who all seem to be better Jewishly-educated than I am.)

Today ended up being a wasted day.  It wasn’t very Shabbosdik (Shabbat-like), but it wasn’t exactly a relaxing mental health day either.  After having slept in late then dashing to shul for security and then coming straight back home, I dozed before lunch and then slept for longer after lunch.  I was feeling too lethargic and depressed to go back to shul in the afternoon for Minchah, seudah and Ma’ariv (afternoon service, the third Shabbat meal and the evening service).  I only did a few minutes of Torah study.  I read for fun a little bit, but not much.  I was too lethargic and depressed to do much.  Mostly I ate, slept and talked to my parents.  The OCD was a bit worse too.  And now it’s gone 10.30pm and I haven’t had any dinner.  I feel vaguely hungry, but I don’t really feel like eating, but I need to eat something to take my medication and, anyway, if I don’t eat something I’ll get hungry when I want to go to bed.

Finally, as a supplement to what I wrote about my financial situation the other day, I spoke to my parents after Shabbat about my financial situation and dating, particularly my feelings that I don’t earn enough because I can only work part-time and am ten years behind my peers on the career ladder from having been unemployed through illness for so long.  My Dad said I’m never going to be rich, which I knew already (I’m a librarian, for goodness’ sake!), but he felt I could get married, but this was because he was willing to help support me, which wasn’t really what I wanted to hear.  I still feel like I’m a child, having to rely on my parents so much and being aware that I would probably never be rich enough to help my own children in the same way (if I ever manage to have any).  I don’t really want to be rich, I don’t need much money, particularly if I don’t ever get married, but I would like to be independent and more settled and secure and to at least have the possibility of getting married some day.  Because right now I feel no one would ever want to marry me for financial reasons as well as my weird interests and personality, unclear position in the Jewish community and mental health issues.

(I also realised today that I’ve experienced romantic rejection about seven times this year, which is some kind of record for me.  Two of those were mutual things, but all of them were frustrating and upsetting.  I suppose it’s good that I’m putting myself out there, but it frustrating when no one the only people who are interested are not compatible.)

Stuff Happens

“I might as well be useless for all it means to you”

I have been feeling better at work the last few days, although I made another mistake yesterday.  It was pretty much all my fault this time.  I’m not sure if I had Asperger’s “rigid thinking” and “poor social interaction” or if I was just stupid and inept this time.

“You’ve had your fun, you don’t get well no more”

The price for feeling well at work seems to be feeling terrible before and after it.  I still struggle to get up and get going in the mornings because I feel tired and depressed.  I’m barely saying anything at all of Shacharit (morning prayers) and I worry that if things get any worse I’ll have to skip it entirely.  The news and social media the last few days have left me feeling alternately angry, depressed, anxious, despairing, frustrated, silenced, guilty, ashamed, self-loathing and righteously indignant.  I started to write a blog post yesterday, decided it was better not to post it, emailed a friend saying some of the embarrassing stuff I would have said in the post and then somehow managed to send it to her sister too.  Not my finest hour.

“You said, ”Young man, I do believe you’re dying'”

My commute to and from work has been getting harder too.  I’ve been having intense ‘pure O’ (obsessional) thoughts about jumping in front of a train.  I’ve had these on and off for years, but at the moment they’re really intense and distressing.  It’s not suicidal ideation as I don’t want to die, I just think about it.  I can’t even stand back from the edge of the platform until the train comes in as at rush hour only those people standing closest to the train can squeeze on to the over-crowded train (don’t even mention how much of a death trap the London Underground would be in the event of a terrorist attack or even an accidental fire, I’ve spent years staying sane by not thinking about that.  Today the train smelt like it was catching fire; the driver said it was just the brakes overheating, but it was quite scary, and we weren’t even underground at the time and could theoretically have escaped).

I also find it harder and harder to stay on the crowded trains in the morning and evening rush hours, not that there is anywhere to go.  The morning isn’t so bad as my station is the first on the line, so I always get a seat and I try to bury myself in a Jewish book (if I’m awake enough), but I still get somewhat more anxious as the train fills up.  The evening is harder, though, as I generally don’t get a seat for the first twenty minutes or so, standing pressed against other people and unable to read, listening to music on my iPod (listening to a lot of Elvis Costello recently was probably a bad choice).  I don’t know what the difficulty is, if it’s invasion of space or the fear of being trapped and not being able to get off at my stop, but I just feel hot (which I probably am, dressed for winter in a tiny metal cylinder full of equally hot people), oppressed and suffocated.  A couple of times I’ve been worried that I’m about to have a panic attack, as my father has had on crowded Tube trains.  I hope I’m not developing another neurosis, because that would be too much.

“But there’s no danger, it’s a professional career”

I catalogued a career guidance book today and, flicking through it, I whimsically looked at the entry for librarians.  Big mistake.  I should say I’m vague about money.  I’m neither spendthrift nor miserly, I can budget and I know how much my rent and food cost, but money doesn’t matter much to me and I’m only vaguely aware of what is a ‘normal’ salary and how much many things cost.  My Dad is always trying to get me to move my money to better bank accounts, but my parents have never spoken much about how much they earn or how much things cost, which probably contributes to my vague feelings of unease about money.  My parents still help me out financially, somewhat against my will.  I would still need their help a bit, even on my new salary, but I could just about pay most of my bills.  But my parents want to help me more so I can save a bit, and have some money for luxuries, although luxuries for me are a few second-hand books and DVDs (I bought two good-condition books for 50p each today from the library withdrawal pile, one popular history, one popular science) and I really don’t spend much other than that.  I don’t really go out, as my friends all live on the internet.

However, looking at how much a librarian should be earning compared with how much I am actually earning, and how much other professionals are earning (most people in my milieu, by which I mean educated young professionals, are accountants, doctors, lawyers, the traditional Jewish professions), drove home a few things that I’ve been vaguely-but-not-concretely aware, mostly that while I am not on the breadline, I am far from rich, mostly because I am still working part-time (and the experience of the last few weeks has shown me that I’m not ready to work five days a week, although I would still like to work through some of my enforced holidays), because I lost about ten years of my professional life to depression, being too ill to study or work, and because I have chosen to work in a lower-paid sector.  I can’t really complain about the last one, as I knew that going in, but the others worry me a bit.

As I said, my income is low, but so is my expenditure, hence happiness in a Dickensian balanced-budget sense (except for my parents helping me).  I’ve been a bit envious of my friends and peers before for having large flats or houses, but more for the lifestyle they entail in terms of being able to invite friends over, needing a house because of starting a family and so on.

No, the problem is I still want to marry and start a family of my own.  I obviously don’t want to marry someone who just wants to marry someone rich, but I would want to marry someone who wants a family and she would be entitled to expect me to be able to at least contribute something reasonable to the family budget, especially given that the default in the Orthodox-but-modern community is for the man to be the main breadwinner in the household.

“They beat him up until the teardrops start/But he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart”

This led me to think that I shouldn’t be thinking about marriage.  Not now, probably not ever, really.  It’s silly really.  I spent the last six weeks waiting for the end of the Yom Tov (festival) season so I could start dating, if I was well enough, but given the state of my mental health the last couple of weeks and my financial worries, I am too scared of rejection to go to a shadchan (matchmaker) or pursue the match my Mum suggested.  I’m too fearful that I’m too depressed, too screwed up and now too poor for anyone to be interested in me.  But I still get lonely.

“I woke up and one of us was crying”

Autumn Thoughts, Depressive Thoughts, Obsessive Thoughts

The nights are drawing in, literally and metaphorically.  I can’t believe it’s starting to get dark at 6.00pm; it seems like only a few weeks ago I had to stay up late for sunset to daven Ma’ariv (say the evening prayers).  My depression, bad enough during the summer, often seems to get worse in October-November time.  Most of my episodes have started in autumn or winter.

I was off work today to balance having to go in this Friday for a staff development day (I usually work Mondays to Thursdays).  I managed to transfer my therapy session to today.  I let myself sleep in, waking naturally around 11.00am feeling quite exhausted and depressed.  I wasn’t able to daven Shacharit (say the morning prayers) at all as I was just too depressed and tired to get dressed.  I wanted to take today as a mental health day after having spent the last few weeks rushing through work, Yom Tov (festivals), preparation for Yom Tov and other chores with little real break, Yom Tov itself mostly being occupied with sometimes pleasurable, but draining activities like shul (synagogue) and socialising as well as long meals with my family which were generally good, but left me coping without my much needed ‘introvert time’ (as I call it), time alone to read and watch favourite DVDs, that I need for my mental health.

It was not to be.  After a rushed lunch and therapy over Zoom (video conference software like Skype, but less temperamental) I spent two hours going over my accounts, trying to make them balance properly (I eventually succeeded in finding the errors); the rest of the afternoon was spent in my eternal battle with mould in my flat and in reading things online, mostly depressing news or news-inspired articles about antisemitism, sexual abuse and domestic violence that I haven’t been able to get away from last night and today.

I don’t know why I’m wallowing in this stuff.  I don’t want to read it, but I find it compulsive.  Perhaps the depression and anxiety feeds on the antisemitism to make me feel even more isolated, anxious and despairing, as well as justifiably angry at the way antisemitic discourse has re-entered our political life, often introduced by those who claim to be most ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’

As for the stories of abuse, my heart is in such pain reading them, but I can’t stop.  Sometimes I worry that I could hurt someone if I let my guard down, that I’m really an evil person and I need to be on my guard the whole time against doing anything wrong.  This is really the ‘pure O’ (pure obsession), which makes me torment myself with fears that I am a terrible, wicked person, even though, according to the CBT therapist I saw for my OCD and the books I have read on the subject, people with these obsessions are the least likely to ever act on them; it is because they are anathema to the sufferer that the mental illness takes this form to torment them.

I guess I also feel sad, maybe frustrated, that so many people are trapped in violent and abusive relationships, while I want to have to love someone fully and selflessly yet am unable to find anyone who will let me love her.  I guess my ‘white knight’ fantasies of ‘saving’ someone come into play here, even though I know that women do not need ‘saving’ and that salvation isn’t a sound basis for a relationship, which should be built on mutual care, good communication and shared values.  But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that I would only be considered marriageable material in contrast to the very lowest forms of human life.

Perhaps related to this, my Mum was trying to set me up with someone on Saturday, the daughter of some friends of hers who also has mental health issues.  I actually know this person by sight, although I have never spoken to her, and find her attractive, but I’m terrified of going on a date with her because I’ve irrationally convinced myself that we would have nothing in common besides OCD and that she isn’t frum (religious) enough for me.  I’m not quite sure how things have been left; I think my Mum is planning on trying to quietly find out if the woman is single or not and if she might be interested.  But it is another thing making me feel hopeless, a mixture of more self-sabotage and being convinced that there is no one out there who would be a good match for me.  I guess it is a bit silly to feel depressed because I might have to go on a date with a woman I really fancy…

And suddenly it was dinner time and I had done almost nothing all day.  The time that I could have spent on my Mishnah study has gone on my Torah-themed post, which is probably a worthy trade-off, but perhaps not.  I’m postponing my other outstanding chores until I am off work on half-term next week as I’m too tired and anyway I need to get ready for bed so I can be up early for work tomorrow.  I feel like I haven’t really caught my breath for about a month and even today was not a relaxing day in the end, between bank accounts and poor mental health and not getting out of the flat all day (except to throw some rubbish in the recycling bin, which doesn’t count).

Torah from the Depths: Bereshit: God’s Depression

Orthodox and Conservative/Masorti Jews read through the whole of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) each year, one section a week.  Each weekly section is called a sedra or a parasha.  I had the idea of writing something related to mental health each week on the sedra, not a devar Torah as such, but just a reflection, letting the Torah illuminate mental health or vice versa.  This is probably impossible (the run of sedrot from the second half of Shemot (Exodus) through Vayikra (Leviticus) and on to the beginning of Bamidbar (Numbers) is going to be difficult), but I thought I would try.

Traditional Jewish hermeneutics (textual interpretation) places great emphasis on opening words, first appearances, first lines of dialogue.  Obviously the early chapters of Bereshit (Genesis) are full of firsts, but I noticed one I hadn’t noticed before this week.  Right at the end of the sedra it states that God saw the evil of mankind (which has only been around for a few generations at this point) “And the Eternal regretted that He had made the man on the earth and He was pained to His heart” (Bereshit 6.6).  This, so far as I can tell, is the first time that an emotion is imputed to God.  He isn’t said to be happy with His universe in the creation story (He says it is good, but we do not hear what He feels about it) or angered by the sins of Adam and Chava (Eve) or Kayin (Cain), but He is pained by the evil of mankind as a species.  Without getting into the theological question of whether God really experiences emotions or whether (as per the Rambam) He is merely described as having them for educational purposes (an argument I do not feel qualified to enter into), I think it is significant that He is described as feeling regret and inner pain and that this is in fact our first introduction to His emotional life (or “emotional life” if you prefer). While on one level this sets the scene for Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) as a whole, which is one big story of God’s usually unrequited love for mankind in general and the Jewish people in particular, it also seems to be a way of legitimating depressive emotions as natural and suggesting that they should be expressed and not repressed or sublimated as some Jewish thinkers (particularly Chassidim) would say.

Happiness vs. Service

I’m typing hurriedly in my lunch break again and this may be too big a subject to deal with in fifteen minutes, but here goes: I had a sobering, if not shocking thought last night.  For years I had been telling myself that what I want most of all in the world is to serve God wholeheartedly.  This, I realised yesterday, is a lie.  What I most want is to be happy: to have a reasonable degree of psychological stability, a loving wife, happy and healthy children and enough money that they don’t have to worry about the basics in life.

I don’t think this is a particularly shocking or unusual desire, but it does reframe my life.  When I told myself I wanted to serve God, I felt I should be satisfied with my mental health issues (because obviously He wants me to have them, so I was serving Him) and felt guilty for feeling pain and wanting the misery and loneliness to end.  Now I feel that my desires are at loggerheads with His desires for me, an argument I can not win.  I think I also consoled myself, at least unconsciously, regarding my perceived lowly position in the community by telling myself that even if I achieved less than others, I was aiming at a complete, wholehearted service that they probably did not even think about.

This morning, I was worried that I was losing my emunah, usually translated as ‘faith,’ but more accurately ‘fidelity,’ loyalty to God and the covenant despite obstacles.  I do not think that this is the case.  I still believe in God and I still want to serve Him and fulfil His commandments, despite the pain and suffering they often cause me (because of my mental health).  However, I can not lie to myself any more and say they are what I most want out of life and it is hard to know what I would do if presented with a direct choice between service and happiness, although for various reasons I suspect such a choice will never be presented to me in such stark terms.  For example, I would increase my dating pool enormously by dating non-Jews, but it is far from certain that I would find a wife even then e.g. my mental health issues would still be a problem and I am so steeped in Judaism that I would find it hard to build a relationship with someone totally estranged from it, so the stark choice of “Judaism or marriage” is unlikely to ever precisely manifest.

I do believe that God wants ‘good Jews’ to have successful, happy and loving marriages, happy, healthy children and financial security.  I do believe God wants us all to be happy, at least in the long-term, albeit that that happiness comes from growth which is often stimulated by pain and suffering.  Many Jews do get this on some level, so they are never faced with the choice between happiness and Jewish observance the way I have been faced with it, although so have even harder choices than I do (e.g. homosexual Orthodox Jews).  I do feel that I have had so much suffering that it is impossible to make anything other than getting away from such suffering my goal right now (right now or forever?  I just don’t know).  I do believe that happiness in this world rarely comes as an end in itself, but as a by-product of other ends, such as loving someone or pursuing a project or a cause.  Unfortunately, at the moment I do not have such a person to love or such a cause to pursue, so I am not sure where I go from here.

A Difficult Mastery of the Usual

I’m still at my parents’ house, having been here for nearly two weeks now.  I hope to get back to my flat this evening, but it will depend on my parents.  They are going to my sister’s future sister-in-law’s birthday party soon, which I have ducked mostly because I felt I just would not cope.  I don’t drive, so I need a lift to take all my stuff back to the flat.  Although I have a lot to do, I wanted to take today as a mental health day to recover from Simchat Torah, but had to help Dad take down more of the sukkah and then go to Brent Cross Shopping Centre to buy a dinner suit (translation for Americans: tuxedo) for my sister’s wedding.  I hate shopping, I hate shopping for clothes and I hate big busy shopping centres (I’m not by any means an anti-capitalist, but I felt a bit sick about the advertising and consumption and that’s aside from the sensory overload and the people), so I’m glad I’m not going to the party.  Even without that, I’ve got to do some Torah study and cook dinner as well as packing and getting home in time to get an early night before work tomorrow, so I doubt I’m going to get much of a mental health break.  It will be nice to have the house to myself for a bit, though.

I’m still slowly working my way through Daniel Deronda and came across a great quote that I meant to append to the Simchat Torah post, but forgot: “To be an unusual young man means for the most part to get a difficult mastery over the usual” which sounds a lot like me and Asperger’s/mental health/generally being considered academically ‘gifted’ and socially inept.

I had my end of probation period review at work on Wednesday.  My boss seems pleased with my work and I was surprised and pleased to get an “excellent” for the “Work relationships (team work and interpersonal communication skills)” tick box.  I’m not sure how much that relates just to working with the team and how much is about interactions with students, but either way it’s good.

The slightly negative thing that happened at work is that I have to work this coming Friday because of a staff development day that my boss wanted me to attend (I usually work Monday to Thursday).  She has said that I can leave early to get home before sunset and the start of Shabbat (the Sabbath) (I want to leave at 3.15pm, but may have to leave at 3.30pm which will be tight) which I hope will be OK.  I can see her point in wanting me there for team-building reasons, but it is another disruption to my routine after months of enrolment and Yom Tovim (festivals) disrupting work.  I think I’ve only had one or two ‘normal’ weeks this term, if that, and it’s half-term the week after next.  On the plus side, I am getting Tuesday off to compensate and not only have I been able to switch therapy from Friday to Tuesday for one week (therapy has also been disrupted because of Yom Tov and my therapist being away), but I will at least have some time for the chores I won’t be able to do today.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to Lehodos Lecha by Eitan Freilich, a modern arrangement of a traditional Jewish prayer that translates as “If our mouths were as full with song as the sea/And our tongues with joy as the multitude of its waves…/We would still be unable to thank you/HaShem our God and God of our forefathers.”  I try to feel this, but I don’t.  I feel like a hypocrite, particularly as the song is catchy and I find myself singing it.  If Yisrael (Israel) is One-Who-Wrestles-with-God, Yehudi (Jew) is One-Who-Gives-Thanks, but I can’t feel grateful.  I’m better off than a lot of people, but I just feel lonely, depressed and social awkward and isolated.  I’m supposed to feel happy with my lot, but because of depressive anhedonia, I can’t enjoy anything, not even simple pleasures or mitzvot and it’s hard to be grateful if you feel like that.  I just feel frustrated with my lot and occasionally angry and bitter.

Simchat Torah

It’s been a busy few days with through Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) including my end of probation review on Wednesday and then straight into Yom Tov (festival) on Wednesday evening until Shabbat (Sabbath) today and then helping take down two sukkot (shul (synagogue) and home) (actually, there is more to do on both of them tomorrow).  I have a lot to write, but I will split it into two or three posts for time reasons and to avoid a mammoth post.  Today I am going to slip out of chronological order and focus on Simchat Torah (the festival of the Rejoicing of the Torah, really day two of Shmini Atzeret, itself a semi-independent holiday, but in some sense the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles)) and then hopefully I will go back to what happened at work tomorrow or during the week.

I went into Simchat Torah badly, having missed shul on Thursday morning (Shmini Atzeret) as I was too exhausted and depressed.  It seems to be hard for me to go directly from work mode to Shabbat/Yom Tov mode without an intervening day to adjust.  I went to shul on Thursday evening nervous about what to expect as I hadn’t been in my new shul for Simchat Torah before.  It is a boisterous festival, the second most boisterous after Purim and is celebrated with ecstatic dancing in shul.  I have never liked it much for reasons I will explore below.  In short, it is hard for me to enter into the appropriate spirit of things.  Once or twice I have managed it, but very rarely.

Ma’ariv (evening prayers) started OK, but once we finished the bulk of the prayers, the difficulties began.  First, they started auctioning off honours.  I had heard of shuls where honours (e.g. reciting passages aloud in the service or carrying the Torah scrolls) are auctioned off for charity on Simchat Torah.  This was different, as the ‘price’ of the honours was a commitment to study a specific amount of Torah in the coming year.  The first few honours went for a low ‘price’, forty or fifty chapters of Mishnah, but the more important honours went for literally hundreds of pages of Talmud.  (I think the rabbi bid something like 400 daf (800 pages) of Talmud for one honour, which is a lot.)

I felt uncomfortable with this.  Partly it’s my inner Kotzk Hasid being angry at public declarations of goodness, even good intent, as well as anything that seems to set some people up as better than others.  But mostly it was that I felt unable to join in.  As I have written, I am struggling to keep up with my private decision to learn one Mishnah a day without taking on an additional set to study and even if I could count my current Mishanyot for the bidding (which I don’t think I could, as people were assigned particular Mishnayot so the community would complete certain Sederim) I do not know if I will be able to continue studying them if I get too disheartened or too depressed to set aside much time to study each day.  I already feel inferior to people who can study a lot of Gemarah without having this to rub it in.  The assistant rabbi, who was the auctioneer, tried to get me to bid, so I left the room and stood in the corridor because I was worried I would be forced to bid for something.  I didn’t want any of the honours either – I didn’t really want to read anything out aloud because of social anxiety and I didn’t want to carry a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) in case I dropped it.  Standing in the corridor did attract a certain amount of attention, but I thought it was safer than going back inside.  I stood in the doorway so I had some idea of what was going on and so I looked like I was involved in some sense.

Then they started the hakafot, the circuits around the shul carrying the sifrei Torah and dancing.  The dancing was Jewish dancing, which is dancing in a circle holding hands with those next to you or with your hands on their shoulders and vice versa.  I tried to join in, but I couldn’t manage it and ended up standing at the edge watching.  Pretty much every single one of my issues except the OCD was triggered here.  I was too depressed to get the sense of joy needed to dance, I was too socially anxious to do anything that would risk people looking at me and my borderline Asperger’s was stopping me from being touched by other people or just standing close to them and sharing personal space.  I was generally to inhibited and repressed to let go of my depression and anxieties and just join in.

On top of all this was my usual aversion to being part of a big group and being deindividuated and losing my sense of self.  This is always scary for me and explains why I don’t like big crowds especially when designed to unite everyone there in some way e.g. political rallies, concerts (public transport is less of a problem because you are not supposed to give up your identity, accept a political or religious viewpoint or listen to the same music).  I don’t know why I have this problem.  It may stem from having a weak sense of self and being worried about losing it, it may stem from being bullied at school and associating crowds with bullies or it may be because the bullying meant I had to fight hard for my identity and I’m reluctant to let go of it, even for a few hours.  (Incidentally, this article talks about why we do circle dancing; he talks about what I say about deindividuation, except from a positive viewpoint.)

Whatever the reason, I just could not join the crowds dancing around the shul.  I stood there for the beginning of the first hakafa (of seven), before I felt awkward just standing there and went into the corridor again.  I came back for the start of the second hakafa thinking maybe it would be easier to quietly and unobtrusively join this one, but it wasn’t.  I was sort of hoping one of my “friends” (the people I like; I don’t know if they think of me as their friend) would see me and drag me in, to give me the boost I needed to get in (I thought once I started I would probably be OK), but no one did.  The rabbi did try to get me to join and dragged me towards the circle, but he then went off somewhere else before I got there and I lost my nerve again and went back away.  So I gave up and went home.

I should say that the Simchat Torah dancing is fuelled by whisky.  Aside from the children and the young men, I think most people would have difficulty getting past their inhibitions without alcohol.  I can’t drink because of medication interactions and because alcohol is a depressant.  Also, based on the one time I accidentally tried whisky, I think it’s disgusting.  I was also struggling because most of the men vaguely my age were dancing with their young children, so I just felt a failure for not getting married and having kids.  This is before taking into consideration the fact that two of the three most important honourees were people I was at school with, who now have families and rabbinic ordination and basically seem to be better than me in every possible way.

On the way home I was feeling very depressed and self-harming (hitting myself).  I felt bad for missing shul and not being involved.  I also felt bad because I was thinking that I had missed a lot of shul this Tishrei and as I was using the Yom Tovim as a test to see if I was ready to date again, I thought maybe this means I shouldn’t date, in which case, will I ever be ready to date?  I have only managed to dance once or twice on Simchat Torah in my entire life!  If I wait until I manage that again, I might never date again.  Even waiting to have a ‘perfect’ Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot could take a long time.  I came home and told my parents that I hadn’t stayed “because I’m crap.”  I don’t usually use even mild profanity, but I did here because I hated myself so much.

What I omitted to say is that when I was trying and failing to join the dancing, I really wanted to curse God for making me like this, making me so I can’t even enjoy my own religion (which matters to me more than anything else, even Doctor Who) or do the simple things that most people do to get some enjoyment out of life, which is often fairly miserable for most people unless you can seize the day and enjoy basic pleasures like dancing with your friends (assuming you have friends; I don’t always feel like I do.  I suppose I shouldn’t say that, as I do have a couple of friends, but it’s hard to feel it sometimes).  I wasn’t even that angry with God, I just wanted to “act out” and get His attention as I learnt from childhood that the children/people who misbehave the most are the ones who get the most attention.  I do wonder what I’ve done to make Him punish me like this when all I want is to be a good Jew.  If He does miracles for people at Hevria to get them to become frum, maybe He’s telling me to go away because He hates me and doesn’t want me to frum any more.  But Judaism is a one-way ticket; you can convert in, but once you’re in (by birth or conversion) there’s no way out.

I felt terrible the rest of the evening.  I missed shul the next morning fairly deliberately, because I couldn’t face the second lot of dancing.  I went for Shabbat in the evening, but missed Shabbat morning today because I was still feeling depressed and nervous about going back to shul after what I did (or didn’t do).  I managed to go back this evening for Minchah, seudah and Ma’ariv and to help take the sukkah down which made me feel a bit better, as I was doing something for the community in a way that I could manage, but writing this has just brought it all back and I think I had better stop now.

The Waste Land

“To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” – T. S. Eliot on The Waste Land

A dull, exhausting day at the library.  I originally wrote in some more detail about this, but then worried that there would be consequences if anyone cracked my not-very-secret secret identity.  So, I will leave it at dull and exhausting.

I’m tired, very tired.  I have to get through another compressed day tomorrow, six hours of work with only half an hour for lunch, then leaving early and rushing to get home and get ready in time for Yom Tov (festival).  Shmini Atzeret on Wednesday night and Thursday should be fine, no special mitzvot (commandments) ergo no OCD or anxiety (I hope), but Simchat Torah on Thursday night and Friday is likely to be difficult.  It is mainly celebrated with ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue), often whisky- or vodka-fuelled, difficult with depression or social anxiety, let alone both, and that’s before taking into account the fact that two of the three honours are going to people I was at school with, now both rabbis and married with children, presumably not intentionally chosen to make me feel inadequate, but that’s how it feels, and then, incredibly, there’s another Shabbat to get through before a full work week (only my second in the last month) and finally half-term.

I came home to find the latest issue of The Jewish Review of Books had arrived.  This is good, but flicking through it, I wonder if there’s a parallel universe where I’m an academic actually writing challenging and opinion-forming articles and books rather than just reading and cataloguing them, just as I wonder if there are parallel universes where I went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary, not necessarily leading to smikhah (ordination)) or made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) and, of course, one where I married (but who? And happily or unhappily?).  My job is socially worthwhile and reasonably well-paid (I think… having been unemployed for so long, I’m just glad to be well enough to work and am rather of hazy on what constitutes a good salary, especially for someone working part-time with rather less work experience and career advancement than someone my age should have) and every so often I come across a teenager who seems to genuinely like serious literature or a couple of students from the college get to Oxbridge or some other good university, as happened this year, and I glow with job satisfaction for a moment, but often it’s hard work and dull and I can’t work out if that’s a genuine problem with the job or just depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) yet again.  It was probably worsened today by working on weeding the stock today, getting rid of books – good books – that have been unread for twenty-five years.  But between my poor mental health and the choices I’ve made, I’m not sure there’s an alternative right now.

Speaking of bad choices, I am already failing at my targets for the new year.  My three targets were:

  1. Study one Mishnah a day (on average);
  2. Daven (pray) the first paragraphs of the Shema, Amidah and Bentsching with kavannah (concentration);
  3. Work on my depression and social anxiety.

I have mostly been keeping up with the Mishnah study and for a while was even managing two or three Mishnayot on some days (albeit occasionally missing it completely due to depression or lack of time), but I’m not sure how much I understand, still less remember.  The last few days it has just left me feeling inadequate, even without comparing myself to people my age who seem to be mastering vast tracts of Talmud (those three honourees again).  I thought I was doing OK with the davening with kavannah, but lately that has been getting harder, especially as I rush through davening to get to work or to get through it and have dinner and try to relax.  I have at times been repeating parts of prayers when I thought my kavannah was poor, which I probably shouldn’t do, because halakhically one probably should not (although I’m not sure about this) and because it can fuel the OCD (a common type of religious OCD is repeating prayers until they are said ‘right’).  As for point three, I still don’t know how to formulate more specific targets here.  I have been socialising a little bit over Yom Tov, but it’s hard.  I ducked out of a shul event last night because I thought I would be miserable there.  I suppose I need to set small targets like trying to talk to people at kiddush for the social anxiety although I still don’t know what would be reasonable targets for the depression.

 

Never Give a Sukkah an Even Break

(I can’t claim the dubious honour of having written the pun in the title.  I heard it years ago, from someone whose name I have forgotten.  I guess it makes a change from lines from Hamlet and Elvis Costello songs.)

It was lucky that I am still staying with my parents, as I overslept this morning.  Despite going to bed at 10.45pm last night (too tired to relax in front of a DVD), I slept through my first two alarms (or was it three?), being woken at 6.15 by my Dad and my alarm going off more or less at the same time.  I was feeling pretty depressed, though, and it took me an hour to slowly get dressed (I have no idea what I was doing, probably sitting on the bed staring into space and thinking), leaving me without enough time to daven the whole of Shacharit (say the morning prayers) including the long Chol HaMoed (intermediate days of the festival) prayers.  I davened a bit and felt guilty about missing so much when I could have said more had I got going faster.  I then had about five minutes to make and eat breakfast in the sukkah before going to work (work being permitted on Chol HaMoed if there is no alternative or one would incur significant loss (e.g. being fired!)).

Dad gave me a lift to the station and I got to work on time, but it just reinforces the feeling of not being well, of having to rely on special consideration that other people wouldn’t need.  I feel that other people are able to live a frum (religious) life without too much difficulty and even to enjoy much of it, whereas I struggle to do the most basic things and don’t really enjoy that much of it.  I started crying while trying to do my daily Mishnah study on the Tube, perhaps because I couldn’t understand the Mishnah and felt so stupid in comparison with people at my shul (synagogue) who can study not just Mishnah, but Gemarah too.

Other things that have upset me today are: reading about child-on-child sexual assaults skyrocketing in the last year on the cover of the newspapers other people were reading on the Tube; reading about an abused child on a blog I read written by a primary school teacher (she has called the police, but is scared the abuser (the child’s guardian) will run off with the child before the child can be taken into care); reading real-life stories about people being murdered because they were disabled or because they were Goths in a book I catalogued on hate crime; worrying about someone who reads this blog who I don’t know in person, but who is really suffering right now; and reading in sociology textbooks I was cataloguing about the education system and how it (supposedly) works in favour of middle class, clever children, who (supposedly) get more attention from the teachers.  This isn’t exactly how I remember my childhood (my teachers largely ignored me, although I had friends who seemed to be more memorable to them), but I still felt guilty in case someone under-achieved because of me, somehow.

The bottom line is that everything just seems to set me off today, even if I don’t actually cry.  I feel lousy: depressed, exhausted and hungry and only the last of those has a quick fix.

There is a Simchat Beit Hasho’eva party (Sukkot party) at shul (synagogue) tonight, but I can’t face going after my mixed success at socialising on Friday and in any case I feel too tired.  I wish I were the type of person who could actually enjoy things, by which I guess I mean I wish I were a normal person rather than an anhedonistic depressed one.  My friend (I hope she won’t mind me calling her that) Rivki Silver posted a piece on Hevria today about the simcha (joy) that comes with persevering with something despite difficulty and eventually achieving a goal, which leads on to greater achievements, whether in creativity, marriage, other relationships or in character development.  I just barely managed to restrain myself from posting a comment about the fact that I never get any joy from anything, which is why I rarely persevere with my creativity or personal growth.  I wouldn’t know about marriage and relationships, as I’m not sure how good my relationship is with my parents and my sister, objectively.  I guess I have a few friendships, but I don’t really have to persevere with difficulty there, because I don’t open up so much and they don’t open up to me.  I’ve only had one proper romantic relationship and I persevered with that for months despite getting hurt more and more.  I don’t know what that proves.

I’m Too Depressed to Think of a Witty or Appropriate Title

It’s probably a mistake to post two long posts in one day, but I feel depressed and need to vent, so here goes.

I went to bed late last night.  I’m not sure exactly when as, unusually, I didn’t look at the time, but it was around 1.15am.  I intended to sleep in this morning, but, perhaps because I slept so much yesterday when I was burnt out (at night and in the afternoon), I woke up about 7.15am and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Eventually I got up, lethargic and a bit depressed, too down to daven (pray).  I ate some cereal (mezonot so I didn’t need to go in the sukkah in my pyjamas) and watched some Doctor Who.

I did eventually get dressed and start the day properly.  I managed to sort out my desk drawer, which was the big achievement of the day.  I’m usually tidy, but since moving out of my parents’ house I had been shoving post in there to be dealt with later (my post still comes to my parents’ house because my flat doesn’t  have a postal address, being a converted garage, and I don’t want it to go to my landlords’ house), so I finally dealt with that.  Some of the papers had been sitting there for eighteen months or two years!

Other than that, and writing my blog post about Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve been fairly lethargic and a bit depressed.  I’ve taken today as a mental health day.  I think I accidentally messed up eating in the sukkah yet again.  I won’t go into how, because I would have to go into a lot of technical detail about halakhah (Jewish law) and you wouldn’t thank me for it.  I wonder how I keep messing things up, though.  Some of it comes from living (even if only temporarily, for Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals)) in my parents’ house.  When I’m in my flat, I can do things my way, use various safeguards, maybe accept some chumrot (protective stringencies).  But here sometimes I have to do the bare minimum required by halakhah, or do ‘risky’ things and try to remember to watch out.  Inevitably, sometimes I slip up.  I haven’t freaked out about it and gone into an OCD spiral the way I did last year, which is good, but it is contributing to my air of depression today.

I went out shopping, briefly.  I hoped to see the cat I saw on Friday night and be brave enough to pet it, but I didn’t see it.  I continued trying to catch up on the classes I missed from my Talmud shiur when I was too tired and depressed to go, but I couldn’t really understand any of it, even the stuff I was actually in the class for.  It’s at times like this I regret not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) or having the skills to study Talmud independently, like the people I was with at the oneg on Friday night.  To be honest, I struggle sometimes with my daily Mishnah study and Mishnah is the beginner’s slopes compared to Gemarah (to explain: the Oral Law that discusses, clarifies and analyses the Written Law (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, but especially the Torah, in this case the Five Books of Moses) stems from the Talmud and contains two parts.  The Mishnah is a series of legal statements and arguments in deceptively simple form from late antiquity.  The Gemarah, redacted a couple of centuries later, discusses the Mishnah at great and complex length and goes off at tangents covering anything from elaborations of the biblical text (narratives and legal texts) and stories about famous rabbis to folk sayings and recipes.  While technically Talmud is Mishnah plus Gemarah, the term is usually treated as synonymous with Gemarah alone because the Mishnah only takes up a small proportion of the total length of the Talmud).

Let’s face it, in Jewish terms I’m an am ha’aretz, idiot and an ignoramus.  I find this hard to accept, just as it was hard to go to Oxford and realise that I’m not particularly clever, although even at school I was aware that I was far from being the cleverest person in the year.  It’s horrible to realise that, actually, the kids who bullied me at school were right, and I am nothing special.  All those years I told myself they were wrong to bully me and one day I would… not have my revenge (I’m not a vengeful person), but be vindicated in some sense, that I would do something that would show that the world, or someone in the world, in some way benefits from my existence.  But it seems like it’s not to be.  No wonder I retreat into solipsistic fantasies (my own and other people’s; I was  hoping to to re-watch Blade Runner in preparation for seeing the new sequel when I’m on half-term later in the month, but I think I’m out of time, which sums up the day pretty well).

Asperger’s Syndrome and Me

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about how I fit with the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism.  I’ve had two formal assessments, which said I wasn’t on the spectrum, but on the other hand, my former psychiatrist said I was.  She didn’t do a formal assessment (and by that stage in my treatment she was saying some unhelpful things e.g. “You’re on the autistic spectrum, so you’re never going to understand people and you should stop trying”), but she had seen me for a long time by then.  Looking at the report from the assessment I had in September 2006 at the Maudsley Hospital, they found no significant symptoms of any developmental disorder whatsoever.  On the other hand, I find when people write about their experience of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome online, I find I share a lot of the experiences and difficulties and when people on the spectrum have produced their own lists of the symptoms that they consider significant, I tend to score more highly.

It is hard to know what to think about this.  I tend to respect the opinion of medical professionals (unlike some people I have encountered on the spectrum, who insist that psychologists have no real knowledge of the experience of autism and are just trying to pathologise people for neurological variation).  On the other hand, since childhood (maybe not early childhood though) I have felt ‘different’ and not just because of my mental health issues, which came later.

I really do feel I think differently to other people, that I have genuine problems with socialising, making eye contact and making small talk (which bores me).  I don’t speak in a monotone, but my voice sometimes seems to come across as flatter than I intend, which sometimes makes me sound angry when I’m not (I was often told off by my parents as a child for looking or sounding angry when it was not my intention).  I can understand non-literal language, but I do like taking idioms literally for humorous reasons.  I learnt to read early and have always been an avid reader with a vocabulary that was in advance of my years, but I can be quite pedantic about language use, although I have learnt to be less so in recent years.

I much prefer interacting one-to-one or in small groups to big ones, although this could be introversion or social anxiety.  I think I get sensory overload sometimes, particularly at busy restaurants and parties (if I can’t avoid going to them) and I think I do stim in various ways, mostly fairly subtle, although there may have been a stimming aspect to my self-harming when the depression is bad.  I’m not sensitive to normal levels of light or sound, but I can’t sleep with the light on (noise is fine; my flat backs on to the A41 and I have no problem with the traffic noise, but the light from my neighbour’s security light, even with blackout blinds, makes it hard for me to sleep and I use an eye-mask).

I have a strong interest in Doctor Who and can reel off lots of lists about it (episode titles, writers, producers etc.).  I’m probably less interested than I used to be, but as a child it was an all-consuming interest.  Judaism might also count as a special interest, albeit a more socially acceptable one where one is actively encouraged to learn, memorise and think about information.

I’m not clumsy, but have never had great hand-to-eye coordination.

I get stressed or even panicked if I have to deviate from my routines.  I think part of me likes to create systematic theories about things that interest me, even as another part is aware that these theories are often not true, or at least simplistic; I certainly love order and clarity.  I can concentrate on things that matter to me to the exclusion of all else for long periods.

I don’t know how I fit in with empathy.  I can feel a lot of empathy for, say, things on the news, particularly anything involving children.  On the other hand, sometimes it is hard to empathise with my family if they are complaining of something I feel is trivial.  Also, even when I do empathise, it is hard to know what to do or say to make someone feel better.  I remember when I was a child and we were on holiday.  I was in bed and my mother leant over me to kiss me goodnight and hit her head on a low beam.  I knew she was in pain, but I didn’t know what to do and my Mum got annoyed with me for not hugging her, which did not occur to me.

I do find it hard to recognise my own emotions, as my therapist pointed out to me.  It’s hard to tell how much is not knowing what I feel and how much is the depression drowning out everything else, especially as I’ve probably been depressed since my mid-teens (at least).  I suspect that at times I have a maelstrom of negative emotions in which it’s hard to identify particular feelings, so I just tell people I’m depressed (by “people” I mean my parents and my therapist and maybe my sister, as I don’t tell other people how I’m really feeling).  I do cry sometimes without knowing why, including at work, but that’s probably the depression again.

It is very confusing to know what to do with all of this.  It clearly is important to me to think of myself as potentially being on the spectrum, because I still go on about it eleven years after being told that I’m not on it.  I used to say that it was enough that I know who I am without having a label, but I think I do want a label.  I guess some of it is the desire for neatness and being systematic, to know for sure who I am.  Some of it comes from worries about dating, feeling I should tell the shadchanit (matchmaker) everything about me and therefore needing to know where I stand as well as wondering if I would be a good match for a woman on the spectrum.  Less positively, perhaps part of me wants an excuse to feel bad about my difficulties socialising and my burn out afterwards (although my depression and social anxieties arguably already provide this).

I would particularly like to hear from other people on the spectrum about this post.  Please do comment!

(Ideas about autistic traits from people on the spectrum from here and here.  I also found this useful.)

Sukkot Part 2: The Sukkah that isn’t a Sukkah and Guilt

We’re sitting in the sukkah and I’m feeling pleased that I’m not too anxious when Dad suddenly announces that he’s forgotten to remove the removable roof that protects it from the rain when we’re not in it.  This means that we haven’t technically been sitting in the sukkah, in a halakhic sense, because there is supposed to be only a foliage cover through which the sky can be seen, not a proper roof.  I had assumed the roof was off when I came out because everyone was already sitting there and eating.

I suppose there is a funny side to this, but I find it hard to see it.  I just feel really guilty that I was eating bread outside the sukkah on Sukkot when I shouldn’t have been.  This is the kind of thing that sends me spiralling back down into depression and OCD anxiety.  I see everything as my responsibility and my fault even when it isn’t and I assume that God is going to be angry with me.

Sukkot Part 1: Socialising, Burn Out and Talking to a Cat

I don’t really feel like blogging, but I want to get my thoughts down from the last three days.  We had another three day Yom Tov (Jewish festival: actually two days Yom Tov, one day Shabbat (Sabbath)) – the way the festivals this time of year are spaced out, if you get one three day Yom Tov, you get three (got another one to look forward to next week…) and those are draining even for people without mental health issues.  Three days of prayer and over-eating is probably too much even for the super-frum (pious) (i.e. people not like me).

Tuesday night I went over to my parents’ house to help prepare for Sukkot (Tabernacles) and went to bed quite late as a result.  Wednesday was spent hurrying around.  I did six hours at work (my usual work day is seven hours, so this was nearly a full day) with only half an hour for lunch so I could leave at 3.30pm to get home in time to get ready for Yom Tov).  I went to shul in the evening and atein the sukkah (the makeshift hut in the garden where we eat and ideally sleep (not usually in England, though!) during Sukkot to remember the Israelite’s life in the wilderness) was fine, with no real religious OCD (it was very bad at Sukkot last year).

However, by Thursday morning I was burnt out from a couple of busy days and couldn’t get up.  I missed the whole of shul (synagogue) that morning.  In the evening I was out to dinner at the sukkah of a friend from shul (I’ll call him H) with his family another shul friend.  The OCD was a little worse, but mostly under control and I had a good time without social anxiety.  When the second friend had left and the family had gone indoors I was sitting in the sukkah with H talking and I opened up a bit about my mental health issues.  Not a lot, just a little bit to see if I could do it.  That seemed to go OK.  I don’t think I need to tell everyone all about my depression, OCD, social anxiety and borderline Asperger’s, but I think I can open up a little to selected individuals to explain things like why I wasn’t in shul that morning.

On Friday morning I got to shul very late, but I did make it.  I hate walking in late feeling like everyone is judging me, but I managed it.  I was given an honour of holding the Torah scroll when the community processes around the shul singing Hoshanah.  This is usually given to a mourner (as they aren’t allowed to join the procession), but my shul is small and doesn’t always have a mourner present, which I guess was why they needed someone else, although I have no idea why the shammash picked me.  I made the mistake of telling my Dad, though, as he gets superstitious about it – he was given the honour one year and his mother died a few months later, so I did wish I hadn’t said anything to him.

On Friday evening there was an oneg at the assistant rabbi’s sukkah.  An oneg is a sort of Shabbat party with drinking, junk food, singing and religious stories and chat; this was combined with a Simchat Beit HaSho’evah which is a Sukkot party.  I forced myself to go thinking I wouldn’t like it.  I got in this time, which is more than I managed last time I tried to go to one.  It was OK, but not great.  I seemed to be very sensitive to the noise and found it uncomfortable; I can’t tell if I noticed this because I’ve been thinking about sensory sensitivity because I’ve been thinking about having Asperger’s lately or if I would have felt like this anyway.  I also felt religiously inadequate compared with everyone else there.   It was the usual feeling of feeling bad for not having gone to yeshivah, not doing enough Torah study or Torah study of a high enough standard (Talmud), not being married and not having kids unlike everyone else (in reality or in my head).  Also a bit of envy of people who can keep and enjoy Yom Tov (simchat Yom Tov) as a Jew should without having OCD and anxiety about whether they have kept all the halakhot (laws) properly that stops me fully enjoying it.  To make it worse, the assistant rabbi (whose house it was) and one other person there were people I was at school with and whenever I see them, I reflect on how our lives have led us in different directions, them to get smichah (ordination, although I don’t know if the second one works as a rabbi in some capacity or has a ‘normal’ job), get married and have children and me… not having any of those positive things.  It didn’t help that I didn’t know many of the songs people were singing and I don’t drink so I don’t have the benefit of the good whisky that is always provided at these things and even a lot of the food didn’t really appeal and the food I really wanted was at the other end of the table and I was too shy to ask someone to pass it down.

I did manage to stay for an hour and I wasn’t crawling up the walls trying to escape, so I must have enjoyed it a bit on some level and I will probably try to go to another one before I give up on these things completely.  At any rate, it was good to get seen as part of the community and participate in a collective event, but it was hard and it did make me a bit envious of people who can easily enjoy these types of social events and the camaraderie there is at them.

On the way home I saw a cat I used to see sometimes when I went to my parents’ shul.  I stood in the road talking to the cat for some reason, making silly jokes, including one bilingual one.  I am probably a bit crazy for speaking more to a cat than to the people in the oneg.  I’m not even an animal person.  The cat must have liked me, because it kept purring and trying to rub against my legs and get me to pet it, but the laws of petting animals you don’t own on Shabbat are complicated so I thought it was best not to touch it; I was also worried it would bite or scratch me.  Maybe I’ll walk back to that road tomorrow and see if I can see it again so I can stroke it.  I would have liked to have stroked it, I think.

I came home a bit depressed that the evening didn’t quite go the way I liked and I was still feeling that religious envy, wishing I could be a good Jew, feeling lonely and wishing I could get married and so on.

I was burnt out again today and missed shul in the morning again although I did go in the evening.  I feel really bad about this.  I also wonder if it means I shouldn’t date.  I was trying to use the Yom Tovim to gauge whether I am ready to date, to see if I was able to get to shul, to socialise and if I was consumed with depression, OCD and social anxiety.  I hoped I would get a clear answer, but it’s mixed: I have had some depression and social anxiety, but not all the time and the OCD has mostly been under control.  Simchat Torah next week will probably be extra-hard and confuse things even more, but I will probably write more on that next week.  My Mum said to contact the shadchanit (matchmaker) who specialises in people with health issues and see if she can match me with someone who might accept that I can’t always do the ‘normal’ frum male things (have spent serious time in yeshivahdaven three times a day every day, preferably in shul; go to shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov; do serious Torah study regularly if not every day).  Of course, this makes me wonder if I’m mature enough to accept her issues because undoubtedly I will need to make compromises, more than in a ‘normal’ marriage…  We were talking in the sukkah one night about how many of my parents’ friends children are now divorced.  It’s scary.  I was envious of them when they got married and now I’m scared I’ll end up like them, because I’m not great at interpersonal stuff, although I think like a lot of people with depression or Asperger’s, I’m very loyal to the few people I open up to.

I’m off to have a bite to eat in our sukkah, hopefully before it starts raining again.  My parents have friends here in the sukkah, which is not ideal for me, but I get on with them so it should be OK.  I would like to unwind in front of some Doctor Who later although I don’t know how much time I will get; unfortunately as I’m watching Doctor Who in order, I’m stuck on Underworld which is probably my least favourite story of the seventies.  It isn’t even amusingly bad, it’s just D-U-L-L.

The Rest is Silence

I was going to write a whole post about how depressed I’m feeling today, that I was struggling at work, wondering if I need to give up Talmud shiur (class) because it leaves me too drained, wondering if I’m doing my job properly and well, wondering if I’m too depressed to think of dating again… then I got thrust back into the news from Las Vegas, which I’ve been aware of since waking up this morning.  I pushed it out of my mind at work, although it drifted back a bit during the day (the library subscribes to a news service for teenagers which we print out and put in a stand on the issue desk and it was all about the shooting and gun control today), but then on the way home all the newspapers people were reading on the train were full of it and the six o’clock news on Radio 4.  I had to turn the news off because it was too upsetting.

I’m not sure what to feel.  I feel bad, but I’ve been feeling bad all day, because of my own personal reasons.  What should one feel about something happening on the other side of the world to people one has never met?  And why is this in my head (and in the media) more than Mexico or Syria or Burma or a hundred other things?

Some of the Hevrians wrote a response.  I wanted to write a comment there, but it sounded cheap and show-offey.  Likewise, I’m trying not to make this about me, but it keeps slipping back to whether I think I’m a bad person for not reacting in the way I would like myself to react (whatever that is).

I’ve noticed that the secular West has evolved a series of rituals for dealing with national tragedy now it can no longer use traditional religious ones (I think it started around the time Princess Diana died): the flowers, the eulogies, the reprinted poor-definition photos, the sending of “thoughts and prayers” (but how do you send prayers if you don’t believe in God any more?), the vague statements about the dead being at rest, the opprobrium heaped on the villain, if there is one, the resolve to “solve” whatever problem has caused this mess, quickly shelved when the political deadlock over what solution will work becomes clear.  But nothing about meaning or the fragility of human existence, the heartland of religion.

We Jews have just done the fragility of human existence, we’ve done Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Unataneh Tokef prayer.  Who will live and who will die.  The starkness of it.  The inscrutability of the future.  The attempt to find meaning in something that defies meaning (death).  Does that help?  No, not really.  Or maybe yes and no.  Yes, that we have our own rituals and theodicies.  No, that it can’t bring anyone back or explain the inexplicable, why someone would want to murder a bunch of people he never even met, apparently without even an ideological motive or hatred behind it.  In the end, the only meaningful response is to turn back outwards, to life, to meaning, to purpose, however brutal that seems.

The Four Horsemen of the Self-Destructive Apocalypse

Tiring day.  I had some bad news this morning (my sister’s future grandmother-in-law died), but it was fairly distant from me (I never met her) and I wasn’t desolated.  I also had some good news, being invited out for dinner on second night Sukkot (this Thursday), going to the people I was supposed to go to on Rosh Hashanah, before I got ill.

But the day was just tiring.  I struggled at work, cataloguing some difficult books and while I managed to offset the difficult ones with some easy ones to get through a reasonable amount, I gave up some of my lunch break because I thought I had been wasting time.  I need to have some familiarity with our stock to help students find books and to know which new ones to buy.  I also need to skim over books to catalogue them.  However, being an avid reader with a wide range of interests, it’s easy to get caught up in a book (fiction or non-fiction) and I tell myself off if I think I’m reading for too long.  As “too long” is entirely subjective, this is another opportunity for self-loathing, blame, shame and guilt, who I suppose are the Four Horsemen of the Self-Destructive Apocalypse (not that that’s a Jewish belief).

On the Tube home I sat opposite a beautiful, heavily pregnant woman (who looked a bit like Freema Agyeman from Doctor Who) and her husband.  I sat there, trying not to stare at them, feeling envious.  This is what I want: spouse, children, love.  Of course, the Four Horsemen ride in immediately.  I said this year would be different.  This year, I would stop envying others their lives.  This year I would accept HaShem’s (God’s) plan for me.  If He says jump, I say, “How high?”  If He says, “You will be lonely forever,” I say, “You know best.”  But I can’t do it.  I just can’t do it.  I want to be happy too much, I want to be loved too much.

Touch and Fear

I don’t know if this is really what a nice, frum (religious) boy should be writing about so soon after Yom Kippur, but here goes.  It’s a subject I’ve touched on before, but not in as much detail (hopefully not too graphic).

I’ve been thinking seriously lately about going to a shadchanit (matchmaker).  I think I’ve mentioned I found one who specialises in dealing with people with ‘sensitive’ situations, particularly medical conditions.  I told myself I would see how I coped with the Yom Tovim (festivals) and with adapting to my longer work hours and so far things are going reasonably well.  I’ve been thinking lately that maybe it would be a good thing if the shadchanit could set me up with someone with Asperger’s as regardless of whether I’m actually on the autistic spectrum, I have a lot of characteristics of someone who is on the spectrum and I think in some ways I would be a good match for such a person, certainly more so than matching me up with someone with depression or OCD.  In the latter case we could well end up in a situation where neither of us could cope with each other’s problems or where we even reinforce the problems and bring each other down, whereas with another Aspie I think there would be a stronger chance of a shared outlook on life and similar behaviours that would lead to a shared understanding of each other and which wouldn’t necessarily reinforce each other in a negative way (e.g. feeling uncomfortable with crowds, not liking small talk, finding it hard to communicate with neurotypical people… although reading this back, I could probably get that just from someone who is strongly introverted).

Aside from the fact that there simply aren’t many autistic women diagnosed out there, so it may be hard to find a frum one my age and compatible in other ways (not all autistic people are the same!), my fears really come down to this: I’m scared of what will happen about sex.  I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject and I know that some people with autistism/Asperger’s do manage to have sex lives and even to have families (which I very much want), but others can’t cope with physical intimacy at all.  The sensory overload is just too much.  Cynthia Kim in Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate says that people with Asperger’s can have sexual relationships, even with neurotypical people, but it does take good communication, patience and sensitivity.  I’m OK with that, as I think those are important for healthy relationships generally, but I do get scared about being with someone who can’t cope at all with sex.

I guess I should worry about that if and when I’m in a relationship with an Aspie.  But more than that, I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope at all with sex.  My ex-girlfriend thought I was frigid and that my desire to keep the Jewish laws of no physical contact before marriage was just an excuse to avoid making out with her.  I did give in and did some minor touching.  I liked hugging, but I found hand-holding awkward, I hated it when she stroked my arm while we were watching TV (but didn’t know how to say so without upsetting her) and when she once tried to kiss me, I instinctively jumped about two feet away from her.  It was mostly due to shock, as I wasn’t expecting it, and guilt, but there was also a strong feeling of disgust at her lips on mine, wet and fleshy.  I felt guilty and thought I should try again, but I literally couldn’t do.  Nothing to do with dislike, I simply couldn’t work out how to do it.  Yes, I’m so bad at physical stuff that I couldn’t actually work out how to kiss my girlfriend!  Our brief attempts were inept and abortive and after the third or fourth time I happily gave up (as none of the kisses actually worked, I tell myself I’ve never been kissed because as a first kiss, that was too horrible to contemplate).  Soon afterwards, I wanted to go back to no physical contact at all, as I was feeling too guilty from the whole experience, but she decided she would rather break up.

Ever since I have worried that I won’t be able to kiss even if I get married or if I will find it as disgusting as when my ex tried to kiss me.  And if I can’t cope with kissing, maybe I won’t be able to cope with sex at all.  Maybe my ex had a point when she said I wouldn’t have sex with her even if we were married.

The thing is, I’m desperate for intimacy, physical and emotional (the two are linked for me, I know I could never have sex except with the woman I love and have pledged my life to even if this was not required by Jewish law).  When my rabbi rhetorically asked in his sermon a while back, “What is the thing you can never get enough of?” I knew it was intimacy.  Not sex or even love, but intimacy.  Really opening up to someone, really being known and vulnerable and accepted and having her open up to me in the same way.  But I’m really afraid that I won’t be able to manage it and I won’t know until I’m actually married, which frightens me even more.

I’m kind of pinning my hopes on this book, a sex guide by two sex therapists, one of whom is also an Orthodox rabbi, designed for frum newly-weds who haven’t had any physical contact with the other sex before marriage.  You can’t see much on the Amazon look inside feature, but from reviews and from the contents, it looks like it has a lot about things that would concern an Aspie or a socially-anxious person about sex that I assume isn’t in the normal type of sex manuals aimed at people who have some sexual experience already e.g. discomfort with nakedness, sex smells, negative body image, transitioning from not touching at all to full intercourse etc.  Also guilt about previous sexual experiences (I feel very guilty about not being 100% shomer negiah (not touching) with my ex).

My therapist encouraged me to buy a copy to read to try to set some of my fears about sex to rest and I actually ordered a copy from Amazon, but there was a problem with the order and I was given a refund instead of the book.  I wondered if this was a sign I shouldn’t buy it, especially as I was already worrying how I would explain owning the book to a future wife, so I didn’t try to order it from somewhere else.  Maybe that was a mistake.

The thing is, it really matters to me that I should be able to satisfy my wife, even more than myself.  I wouldn’t want her to have to sacrifice that for the sake of the relationship.  I also don’t want to have sex just to have children, which sounds horrible.  I desperately want to be able to express my love for my wife physically in a way she would enjoy, but I’m terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Yeah, I know, I should find the woman first before I worry about all this.  But it makes me wonder if I should even be looking.

The Happiest Day of the Year

(The title isn’t ironic, it’s a reference to how Yom Kippur is describedin the Mishnah and for once it seems semi-appropriate.)

This is quite a long post, perhaps appropriately for a long fast.  Here we go:

This was the weirdest Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) ever for me.  Possibly the best, but definitely the most all-over-the-place emotionally.

Yesterday evening, Kol Nidrei evening, was moving.  I had what can only be described as An Experience.  I think it was an emotional experience rather than a purely religious one (certainly it was more existential than mystical), but it was powerful and fairly positive.  I’m not going to talk about it in more detail, though, because it was personal and anyway, I doubt I could put it into words.

The flip side of that was that, although I went to bed fairly early, I slept for ten hours, waking up around 9.00am (after briefly waking up earlier).  Even then I felt completely drained and was unable to get up until around 10.30.  I tried, I even sat up a couple of times, but I kept going back to bed with depressive exhaustion.  Normally I would at least try to drag myself downstairs to the kitchen and eat some cereal to boost my blood sugar level, but Yom Kippur is a strict twenty-five hour fast (it actually works out nearer to twenty-six hours by the time you factor in getting to/from shul and saying Ma’ariv (the evening service)), no food, no drink, not even water.  (This is now the only fast that I’m allowed to fast; it’s dangerous to fast while taking lithium.  When I was put on lithium for my depression about ten years ago or more I consulted with my rabbi mentor and my psychiatrist and thankfully they both agreed I should fast on Yom Kippur but not the minor, rabbinic fasts.)

I got to shul (synagogue) around 11.10am, which was incredibly late as they had started at 8.00am.  I felt terrible walking in so late (this is a frum (religious) shul where pretty everyone, or at least all the men, turns up on time and stays all day, not one where people are constantly drifting in and out all day).  I was worried people were watching me and judging me.  I know that I have a valid reason for being late, I know that HaShem (God) knows and I know the rabbi knows, but literally no one else in the community knows of my mental health struggles (I’d like to open up to a couple of people, but I don’t know how).  I know I shouldn’t care what other people think, but it’s hard not to.  Someone was really staring at me later in the day, and I wondered why and if he was judging me.  Sigh.  I love all those stories about hidden tzadikim (saintly people) who seem vulgar and ill-educated and receive a certain amount of social scorn and judgment, but who actually turn out to be super-pure and holy and wise and full of Torah knowledge (I don’t have time to relate any, but you can look up the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, his wife and his brother-in-law or the story of the Holy Miser of Warsaw (the location varies with the telling) for a couple of my favourites.  They might even be true.  Maybe).  But it’s hard to experience it first-hand knowing that, even on Yom Kippur, I’m not super-pure and holy and wise and full of Torah knowledge.

I caught up most of Shacharit (the Morning Service) and davened Musaf (the Additional Shabbat (Sabbath)/Yom Tov (Festival) Service) with the community.  We had a break of a bit over an hour before Mincha (the Afternoon Service) and I went home.  By this stage I was getting a headache and feeling light-headed and wobbly on my legs.  By the time Mincha started, I was feeling quite ill.  I went through the Amidah faster than I would have liked and skipped my personal Vidui.  To explain (because even my frum readers might not know this): on Yom Kippur we confess our sins, but we don’t confess to a rabbi or anyone human.  Twice in each of the five Yom Kippur services there is a set confession (Vidui) we all recite, once whispered in the private Amidah, once all together during the public repetition by the Chazan (cantor).  There are various reasons given for doing a set, fairly short, confession that focuses more on broad categories of sin (“And for the sin we have sinned before You in speech”) and negative personality traits (“And for the sin we have sinned before You in hardness of heart”), but I think the main reasons are so that no one is ashamed to mention his or her sins in case someone else overhears and because of the concept of collective responsibility, that all Jews are responsible for each other.  The categories listed are broad to cover all possible sins in a reasonably short confession.  However, precisely because the list is so vague and impersonal, some people add in a list of specific things they have done that they want to put right.  I have been doing this for a number of years, making a list of the things I feel bad about from the last year and adding it in the private Amidah (not the public repetition).  (It was when I was doing this that I noticed someone staring at me, so maybe he didn’t know you could do this.  Or maybe he was just shocked at the length of my list…)  But I felt so ill during Minchah that I skipped my personal Vidui and just did the set one.  As I didn’t add in my own Vidui in Ne’ilah (the fifth service, unique to Yom Kippur) because the Vidui there is structured somewhat differently, this meant I didn’t say my private Vidui after Musaf.  I tried not to feel bad about this.  I told myself maybe it was HaShem telling me I was forgiven, but obviously I can’t know that.

Anyway, I rushed through Minchah because I was feelings so ill that I was worried I was going to throw up.  I dashed to the nearest loo, which happened to be the ladies’.  To be fair to me, the men’s was down a long corridor and up a long flight of stairs and I was seriously worried I wouldn’t make it.  Fortunately after a minute or two I felt I wasn’t going to be sick, but I didn’t feel well enough to go back in, especially as the hall where we pray is very hot.  Another digression to explain: the shul is only a shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov; most of the time it is a school and weekday services are held elsewhere.  Shabbat and Yom Tov services are held in the small school hall, which is fine most of the year, but crowded and hot on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, especially as there aren’t enough windows and those there are don’t open very wide, perhaps as a security measure.  So I went and sat outside for a bit.

This is the first positive bit: a few people came outside while I was sitting there and a number of them saw me and asked if I was OK.  Some of them I knew, but not all of them and one was a doctor, who I didn’t know at all and who came over to check if I needed help.  One other guy I know a little bit came over and talked to me for quite a few minutes (later on, after I had gone back inside, he came up to me a couple of times to see  how I was doing and even offered to walk home with me if I needed help).  It did make me think that I’ve definitely made the right decision in joining this shul; this type of thing would not happen at every shul; I think this is a particularly friendly and caring one, perhaps a result of its small size.

After a while I went back into shul, not because I was feeling better, but because I wanted to hear the rabbi’s drasha (sermon) and because I was feeling a bit embarrassed that people were making such a fuss of me.  And this was the second positive thing: once I got back inside, I immediately started feeling a lot better.  My headache and nausea both went away completely and didn’t come back.  For the last two hours of the fast, and the forty-five minutes after that that it took to say Ma’ariv, get my stuff together, walk home, make havdalah and get something to eat, I was almost completely fine, just a bit light-headed near the end and with a bit of cramp in my ankles from standing for so long today.  I have never had as good a Ne’ilah as this since I started fasting when I was twelve (it is customary to ‘practise’ fasting the year before one is halakhically obliged at bar or bat mitzvah).  I usually spend Ne’ilah sitting with my head in my hands, vaguely aware of the service, clock-watching and hoping I can last until the end without throwing up or my head exploding from the pounding going through it.  Today I was completely fine and able to daven (pray) properly.  The only difficult bit was having some pure O when we make our declarations of monotheism right at the end (pure obsession – obsessive thoughts without compulsions, in this case triggered by trying to focus on monotheism, which makes my mind throw up imagery from other religions).  But I have this problem every year and know to expect it and try not to worry about it too much.

When I got home I even kept an even temper and didn’t lapse into irritation or anger even when Someone was being a bit annoying (none of my family fast well and usually the first few minutes after Yom Kippur are spent getting annoyed with each other until we’ve had something to eat and recovered our tempers, which is a really inappropriate thing to do after spending a day fasting and saying we’re going to be better this year).

Of course, after eating, we put on the news and discovered that, no, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn weren’t inspired to make public declarations of teshuva (repentence) and resolve to change their ways.  Reality sets in.  But I’m hoping to stick to my fairly limited and manageable resolutions (read an average of one Mishnah a day with commentary alongside my other Torah study – the “average” is because I know there will sometimes be days like today when I am too busy with legitimate needs or too depressed to do it, so I have a mechanism to catch up; try to say the first paragraphs of the Shema, Amidah and Bentsching prayers with good kavannah (concentration); and work on my social anxiety and depression – this one needs specific targets, which I’m still struggling with, beyond, “Try to say “Gut Shabbes” to someone I wouldn’t normally talk to each week” and also “If the social anxiety tells me not to do something, make an extra effort to do it instead”).

Inadvertent Asperger’s Post

So much to say, so little time and energy… I’ve just been told that I’ve been added to a list of autism blogs.  I feel a little disingenuous being there.  I have not actually been diagnosed as having Asperger’s or autism and moreover have twice been assessed and told I don’t have it (despite at least one other psychiatrist being very sure I do!). I do have a lot of autistic traits, but I’m not sure how much that’s from undiagnosed/borderline/high functioning Asperger’s or from having a number of neurotypical character traits that are just very similar (introversion, social anxiety, poor social skills, stimming etc.).

Anyway, I seem to be getting back into a routine with work again, ready for it to be disrupted by Yom Tov (Jewish festivals) again over the next two weeks (not liking disruption to routine, another Asperger’s trait!).  Work seemed unproductive today, but I did catalogue ten books despite spending considerable time manning the issue desk, so it can’t have been too bad.  I’m getting better at telling the students off when they break the library rules, but I do find I struggle sometimes with communication sometimes, generally less with the naughty students.  The main problems are those with poor English and/or difficult accents (a lot of the students speak an accent that to my uneducated ear sounds half-Bengali, half-Cockney, which would not be surprising in this area) or who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).  I was trying to help one student today who was having difficulty with the computers and I was aware that she seemed like she might be a SEND student, but I was unsure how to raise the subject or find out what extra help she might need and if she had a genuine technical problem or simply didn’t know how to log on properly.  I do try to address the students directly, but when they have limited English, or limited verbal skills generally, I sometimes end up talking to their friends/carers/teachers out of necessity, which I feel bad about.  The fact that at least some of these SEND students are themselves probably autistic, much more so than I might be, is not lost on me.  There was some talk at one point of library staff getting special training for dealing with SEND students which would be very helpful, but nothing seems to have come of it.

And I seem to have turned a work post into an Asperger’s/ASD post, which wasn’t my intention!

Social Anxiety Victories

Some good news regarding social anxiety: I did most of an induction today for about twenty English as a second language students (I would have done the whole thing but I had to leave as I was due at the other campus).  I hadn’t done one by myself before.  Not only did I do it, without any of my colleagues around to help if I got stuck, I even turned down an offer to switch lunch breaks to get out of it.  I did ask my colleague what I should say, but I don’t consider that cheating as the difficulty for me is presenting, not working out what to say.  Not only that, but I didn’t shake either, despite being worried that I might, which can trigger it in itself.  I don’t know how much of the induction the students understood (although some of them seemed to have reasonable English), but it’s always pot luck on that score anyway.  To some extent it’s just a formality so that when we give them overdue fines, they can’t say they weren’t warned (although they say that anyway).  The important thing for me was actually presenting to a group fluently (well, reasonably fluently) for the first time in a very long time.

Even more good news: I asked some rowdy students in the library to be quiet and get on with some work.  They even listened to me (for a bit).  I always get scared of doing this, not just because of social anxiety, but because I’m worried they’ll get argumentative or even violent.  I’m not sure if this fear is rooted in tabloid journalism or memories of being bullied at school, although no one was actually violent towards me at school.

Today I did feel like I’m a bit more confident at the library issue desk and able to deal with more problems, although I still have difficulty thinking of solutions while someone is standing over me with a problem.  Let me go off for five minutes and I can usually find some kind of solution, even if it’s not ideal, but with someone standing over me the social anxiety makes me panic and my mind goes blank and all I can think is that I want to get out of there (probably the adrenaline rush).  And generalizing from knowing specific solutions to specific problems to finding general solutions for whole classes of problems and then narrowing that back down to specific solutions for different specific problems is difficult.  This may be a borderline Asperger’s thing.

Just Plain Wrong? (Rosh Hashanah Post)

I had a longish post in my mind all over Yom Tov, but I don’t really feel well enough to write it now.  To summarize, (sorry, not translating Hebrew to save time.  Google is your friend) I had a really bad cold over Rosh Hashanah.  I made it to shul first day Rosh Hashanah, but I missed second day (including the shofar blowing) and Shabbat Shuva.  I spent most of the day in bed, with what might have been a temperature and certainly was a lot of acheyness, tiredness and congestion.  I felt really bad about this.  I was excited that I would hear the shofar properly both days which the depression has stopped me managing for many years and I was very disappointed when I missed second day.  It really felt like I was trying hard to come closer to God and He was pushing me away (again).  I was supposed to go out for lunch on the second day too, which would have been the first social thing I’ve done in ages, but I missed that too and felt I let my would-be hosts down.  I part-missed another social thing, which was when my second-cousins came over with their young children today.  I slept through most of their time here and although I joined them at the end, I was wary of playing with the kids because I didn’t want to give them my cold, which was a shame as I had been looking forward to playing with them (I like children, but don’t get to be around them much).

Just to make it worse, on first day Yom Tov, on saying the word “be’ahavah” in the Amidah, I really felt that God loved me, which I don’t usually feel.  Of course, there was a downside, which was that I immediately felt utterly unworthy of His love and started crying (in shul).  I felt, not that I had done something wrong, but that I am intrinsically wrong.  Just plain wrong.  And then the next day God stopped me fulfilling His commandments.  It is hard to know what to feel about this.  Certainly feeling that I am wrong is abused child territory.  I was not abused as a child, but I suffered a lot of bullying and emotional neglect and it left me with a lot of self-loathing.  So I don’t know what to think about all of this.

The one good thing that came out of this was that I forced myself to go to shul for Ma’ariv tonight to pick up my tallit and machzor so that they would not get lost (the shul is only a shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov; in the week it is a school and stuff left out goes missing).  A couple of people asked where I had been and if I was OK, including someone I don’t even know very well.  So that did at least make me feel that I’m beginning to be accepted into the community.

Anxieties

I had a tough day, a lot of anxiety and depression at work.  At lunch time I started writing a blog post listing the anxieties I have regarding the (nearly upon us) chaggim (Jewish festivals), but I was running out of time and decided to work on my Doctor Who book instead.  Suffice to say every festival (and we have one a week for a month now) has its own unique anxieties, alongside general anxieties like the fact that I’m finding it harder and harder to get up in the mornings for work and shul (resurgent depression), I keep being too tired to go to Talmud shiur (class) and general social anxiety and work anxiety.  I just sent an email to pretty much every Jewish relative, friend and acquaintance in my address book wishing them shana tova tikatev vetikatem (may you be written and sealed for a good new year), but even that was a struggle with social anxiety.  I kept asking myself if they would want an email from me, maybe they would even be offended by it (now I’m worrying if my non-Jewish friends and readers would want to be included… if you do, consider the greetings extended to you too).

Work was hard not just because of anxiety and depression, but because I was cataloguing a lot of books on childcare (and I have literally just discovered that the catalogue was spelling ‘childcare’ wrongly as ‘child care’ – I should have caught that earlier and am now worried I will get in trouble, although I am really supposed to stick with what is already in the catalogue, which I did) and catalogued a book on learning disabilities and read a lot about Asperger’s Syndrome and autism which reminded me of my odd non-diagnosis.  I was assessed twice for Asperger’s and was told that I have a lot of the symptoms, but not broken down in the right way across the diagnostic categories to be diagnosed.  Then another psychiatrist said she thought I did have it, but without doing an assessment (I think by that stage she didn’t know what to do with me and was just throwing stuff out there).  These days I think I probably don’t have it, as my early childhood was fairly free of symptoms.  I think a naturally introverted personality developed a lot of social anxieties and had somewhat retarded social development as a result of family stress, school bullying and a degree of emotional neglect, but I do feel a certain kinship with people who have Asperger’s and have never worked out quite what to do with my non-diagnosis.  So the book I was cataloguing raised questions I wasn’t really in a fit state to answer, as well as reminding me of some of the more upsetting parts of my childhood.

I missed Talmud shiur again tonight, as I hinted above.  I was too late to say most of Shacharit (morning prayers) this morning too.  I’m struggling to keep my head above the water at the moment and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, with the chaggim and the onset of winter, which always triggers depression in me.  It occurred to me over Shabbat (the Sabbath) that both my rabbi mentor and the rabbi of the shul I am joining are aware that my mental health issues affect/reduce my Torah study and davening (praying) and both are supportive of what I am currently managing to do, so if they are OK with it, maybe I should stop beating myself up.  It’s hard, though.

Anyway, shana tova tikatev vetikatem to anyone I missed out before.  May 5778 be a year of blessing, health, prosperity and peace for us, the Jewish people and the world as a whole.

 

I Am OK (Explosion on the Tube)

Just wanted to reassure anyone who heard the news about the explosion on the London Underground that my family and I are OK.  I don’t use the Tube on Fridays as it’s my day off work and my therapy is now over Skype, although when I was having therapy in person I actually went through Parsons Grove, where the attack was.  I do worry sometimes, not quite in a mental-health-anxiety way, about how dangerous the Tube is, not just from the point of view of terrorism, but of fires.  It really is a death trap, especially at rush hour: deep underground, hundreds of people packed like sardines in tiny trains and tiny corridors…  I try not to think about it or I freak myself out.

I guess no where is safe, though.  I get haunted by a story from the 7/7 bombings.  One of the victims was Israeli and had moved to the UK because she was frightened of being killed by Palestinian terrorism in the second Intifada.  She narrowly escaped being on one of the trains that was blown up only to be murdered on the bus that was blown up as she was going to (as she thought) safety.  It’s a real Death in Tehran story.

The psychologist Viktor Frankl tells the story of Death in Tehran in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

I guess you’re going to go when you’re going to go, which is the message of the next few weeks in the Jewish calendar, with the exception that “repentance, prayer and charity, avert the evil decree.” (Unetaneh Tokef, from the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  May we all be written for life this year, physically and spiritually.

I wasn’t intending to blog today, but I seem to have written a fairly substantial post, but I must leave things here and get on with lunch and pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores.

“being a good kissing carrion”

Warning: this is going to be another miscellaneous post that blatantly ignores the classical unities by ranging over various places and dealing with various themes (admitedly all loosely connected with my mental health).  It does mostly stick to the last twenty-four hours, though.  One out of three ain’t bad.

I have been quite depressed again all day, but some unusual things happened at work that are worth recording, for my own records if nothing else.  I struggled to get up again and yet again had to skip most of Shacharit (morning prayers) to get to work on time.  I prayed a tiny bit in the flat and a tiny bit more off by heart while walking to the station. I felt quite down all day and intermittently wanted to just crawl into bed and give up.  (Fortunately I don’t have a bed at work, otherwise I might have got into it.)  I cried at work again.  I wouldn’t mind, but my glasses get tear-spattered even though I don’t produce that many tears and it gets hard to see out of them.

I had a Conversation with my boss.  She asked me how I was getting on with the longer hours and I surprised myself when, for the second time this week (the first being my conversation with the rabbi on Saturday night) I avoid the temptation to say “Fine” and actually admitted to having a problem.  I said my mood has been down since the summer and it hasn’t gone back to normal yet.  I could have said more, but I didn’t have enough courage.  It was a start.  My boss said that I should talk to her if I need to (I think in a practical, “I’m not coping, what can we do about work stress?” way rather than a more “shoulder to cry on” way), which was good.  Unfortunately, at that moment the phone rang and as I was due to take over on the issue desk, I couldn’t wait until she finished the call (which seemed to be too personal for me to be in the room at the same time anyway).  She did later ask if I’m still in therapy and mentioned that she wants to have weekly one-to-one meetings.  I think the latter is more a result of the new job she has given me (see below) than my mental health, but hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I’m doing.

The new job is to select and purchase new books for the library, alongside clearing out old stock that is either falling to pieces or out of date (obviously books date at different rates in different subjects.  A computer science book from ten years ago is worthless, while an English literature book from the same time may still be very valuable).  I felt quite socially anxious while we were having this conversation.  I could feel my eyelid twitching again, as it has been on and off all day, and I was feeling overwhelmed with anxious and obsessive thoughts (pure O) and had to struggle to concentrate.  At one point I felt that I was about to have a panic attack, although I did not.  I hope I took everything in.  I also hope that this apparent upsurge in the social anxiety is merely a product of taking more notice of it to try and deal with it and not a genuine worsening of the situation.

It didn’t help that a couple of the books I was reading this afternoon triggered difficult feelings in me.  One was a book on diversity and prejudice that failed to mention antisemitism in the index or contents page; Judaism got a couple of mentions in the index, but that turned out to be only in the context of either “The Nazis persecuted lots of people, such as Jews, homosexuals etc.” or accusing Judaism of being discriminatory towards homosexuals and the disabled.  The author said that religious discrimination probably doesn’t exist in America, except for Muslims.  This despite Jews reporting experiencing more hate crime than any other religious group in the US (it was an American book).  From his name, I think the author is an assimilated Jew (the worst antisemites are all Jews).  So that triggered a lot of my politically-minded anger, which I usually try to repress (hence the lack of politics on this blog).

The other trigger was more personal.  I was cataloguing a book on dealing with difficult children in a pre-school childcare situation e.g. kindergarden.  It reminded me of my experiences as a child, that the children who act out end up getting more attention than the “good” children, although to be fair I think the author was trying hard to avoid rewarding bad behaviour with attention.  This in turn reminded me of a story my rabbi told a while back, about a teenager called Tzvi who was dared by his friends to make a prank call on Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, probably the leading Orthodox halakhicist (Jewish legal expert) of the twentieth century.  Despite the fact that the prank call occured after midnight (the young man had got the rabbi out of bed for what he said was a life or death question, which was actually something deliberately inane), Rav Moshe Feinstein sensed the disaffection in the young man and rather than slamming the phone down on him and going back to bed, he spent an hour studying Talmud with Tzvi to prepare the teenager for his next school class, even telling him a kasha (a question or difficulty, usually a logical inconsistency found in an earlier text) he had on a comment in Tosafot (one of the main Medieval commentaries on the Talmud) that he had never put in his books so that Tzvi could impress his teacher the next day, thereby showing him that studying Talmud could be more enjoyable than making prank phone calls.  Tzvi is apparently now a Rosh Yeshiva (head of a religious seminary and about the most prestigious job in the Orthodox Jewish community).  I thought, when I first heard this story, that if I had been at that school, I would have struggled through Talmud class without ever being disaffected enough to make rebellious prank calls and have a chevruta (paired study session) with a great rabbi to teach me how to learn and fill me with enthusiasm for the Talmud.

I shouldn’t sound too put out, as I got enough attention to get to Oxford, but I do feel that I was left to my own devices a bit at home and at school growing up and no one really noticed how badly I was doing emotionally, least of all myself.  My Mum made a couple of efforts to get me to counselling, but she didn’t really convince me that I should go and I never went.  I did go to counselling when I was sixteen and having my first episode of depression, but I sat in silence for four sessions and then gave up, although I remember the counsellor trying to dissuade me and saying that she thought I really needed help.  I wasn’t really ready to talk, mostly because I wasn’t sufficiently aware of my emotions to actually be able to talk.  I remember the counsellor asked something about my sexuality and I literally didn’t know what to say.  I knew I had a massive crush on a girl who barely registered my existence and probably didn’t like me much, but I couldn’t put that into words, let alone describe my loneliness and the confusion, guilt and shame that my desires instilled in me.

I spent a chunk of my lunch break today working on my Doctor Who book at the office.  I’m not sure how ethical that is, but it actually refreshed me more than just eating my sandwich and reading would have done.  I definitely think I need more intellectual stimulation of some kind, although how I fit it in with all the other things I should be doing/want to do is another question.  The book itself is proceding too slowly and sporadically to be that intellectual stimulation in a consistent way.  I am basically working my way through fifty-plus years of episodes finding new ideas to fit into what are essentially fourteen existing chapters (originally blog posts on my other blog) with another chapter to be written from scratch (more chapters if the book takes long enough that they make a lot more episodes!).  I need something more rewarding than my current life, although depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) might prevent that.  Certainly it prevents me enjoying my religious life, as I have noted in the past.  Currently I feel like today’s Dilbert cartoon.

The other thing I might enjoy is dating.  I am still not sure whether I should be thinking of dating again soon.  One of my non-biological older sisters remarked to me recently that more interesting and rounded people find it harder to find a soul-mate corresponding to them.  I suppose that makes sense, but I know interesting people who got married at a young age and while my arrogance and tendency to solipsism half-convince me at times that I have a more fascinating and complex inner life than most people, I don’t seriously believe that that is the case.  (It would be nice, though, but also isolating.  Reminds me of this xkcd cartoon.)

I went round to my ex-date’s flat for a few minutes to give her a present to say thank you for Shabbat lunch the other week.  When I got there, someone else was there, another friend of my sister who I was once vaguely interested in only to quickly pick up the vibe that she wasn’t interested in me (not that I asked her out or even flirted, I’m not that brave).  I was surprised that she even remembered who I am.  I felt bad that my Mum had given me a lift because I don’t drive and that she saw me going to my Mum’s car and getting in on the passenger side.  (I don’t normally ask for lifts from my parents, but occasionally necessity forces me to do so.  The not driving, incidentally, is probably another anxiety I ought to confront at some point.)  Sometimes I wonder if everyone is laughing at me when my back is turned, or if they just secretly can’t stand me.  I think I’d prefer being laughed at.  I’m not sure if either is better than the most probable reality, which is simply that I’m ignored and no one actually thinks of me at all when I’m not around.  No wonder I turn to solipsism, at least if I’m the only person in the universe I can be sure exists I matter in some way.

That Was (Nearly) The Year That Was

I’m blogging in my lunch hour again (finishing, proof-reading and posting later) because in the evenings I lack the time and energy to blog.  I have a load of ideas for posts that are more in depth than these kinds of “what happened to me today” posts, but I simply don’t have the time to write them; what energy and time I have for more analytical writing goes on my Doctor Who book.

In a week and a few hours, it will be Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  According to the Talmud on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ten days later, we get judged for life or death in the coming year.  I can’t remember how it goes exactly, but I think with regard to physical life (whether we live or die in the coming year) we get judged on Rosh Hashanah, but with regard to spiritual reward within this world (whether we get to enjoy living a religious life in the coming year so that we can continue with it more easily), the clearly righteous and the clearly wicked are judged for spiritual life and death respectively straight away and the rest of us have until Yom Kippur to sway the balance in favour of spiritual life and enjoyment.  This being the case, I feel I must be pretty bad, or have not prayed well enough in the past, as I don’t really get much enjoyment out of my religious life, or anything else really.  I don’t know how depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) fits into this.  Still, apple dipped in honey is nice.

I feel this year has overstayed its welcome.  It was a crazy year, full of ups and downs.  At one stage I was so depressed I thought I would have to be hospitalized to stop me from trying to kill myself; at another stage I thought I had finally got over the depression and now I’m somewhere in between the two, functional, but still quite depressed.  I have got my OCD more under control, but I have become more aware of how much my social anxieties are holding me back.  I started I started a new job much closer to full time, but find myself asking if it was the right decision.  I feel I can’t think on my feet quickly enough to deal with users on a regular basis, especially teenagers, I feel I’m learning the procedures of the new job too slowly and I don’t yet feel comfortable in the working environment.  I worry that I’m not doing a good enough job.  I wonder if have over-extended myself by working so many hours.  Moving back to this year, I did try some dating again, but just ended up more lonely and depressed, although I have made some friends.  And my little sister got engaged, something that I think I’m only just beginning to process, while the thought of the party hits me with dread (including the interaction with work – my family say to ask for time off the day after the wedding, but I’m wary of asking for more TOIL given the problems I have had with it for Yom Tov (festivals) so I may end up going to work like a zombie on three hours sleep the next day).

This morning was another struggle to get up.  I actually overslept slightly, which is worrying as usually I do at least wake up on time even if I don’t get up.  I wanted to just stay in bed which is bad as it’s always a sign of depression with me.  I cried on the Tube into work, actual tears rolling down my face.  I don’t know if anyone saw (it is a point of etiquette on the Tube to take no notice whatsoever of the other passengers no matter what they do).  I cried at work yesterday too, I think.  I’m coming to think that I cry more often than I realized.  It’s hard to tell because, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I have two ways of crying, either just trying to carry on as normal with tears rolling down my face or giving in to intense sobbing without tears, but I can’t get tears and sobs together, which is what I associate with crying.  I think the “tears rolling down my face” crying happens quite a bit, but most of the time I just assume I’ve got something in my eye, as I’m not consciously more depressed than normal, although this may just be an indication of how depressed my ‘normal’ is.

Work was OK today, but slow.  Cataloguing was particularly slow because not only was I finding it hard to concentrate, but I wanted to read the books I was cataloguing.  I guess there aren’t many people who would be equally interested in books on politics, child development and neurodiversity (dyslexia in this case), but there you go.  Incidentally, I may have been self-harming a bit at work these last few days, but it may be normal ‘stimming’ behaviour for someone on the borderline of Asperger’s Syndrome (pulling hair, putting pressure on my fingers etc. as well as general fidgeting).  I really must get around to writing about that at some point as I still wonder about my non-diagnosis.

I spent a while at lunchtime agonizing about the potential date I thought I had, but it was a waste of time.  It turns out she thinks she knows me (I have no idea how, as I don’t know her, but people do sometimes know me when I don’t know them; I guess they say, “Who’s that weird guy who never talks or makes eye contact?”) and thinks our religious differences are too great.  So that’s that.  It does at least spare me a decision.  I might go to the specialist shadchan (matchmaker) at some point in the new year, if I think I’m coping with my mental health and with work (ha ha).

Another Day

I feel rather depressed and anxious today.  I made some more mistakes at work.  I know, mistakes are how we grow and no one died and the college didn’t lose any money and the mistakes were trivial in the grand scheme of things.  I still feel bad and am worried that I’ve upset my boss.  I don’t know whether I’m misreading the situation or if she’s genuinely annoyed with me (and if she is, whether she has reason to be annoyed).  I want to ask if things are OK, but I don’t want to sound needy by looking for reassurance, which would also stoke the social anxiety (which is what this is).  I’m worried that I’ll be fired, not for anything I’ve done so far, but that things will deteriorate further somehow.  I’m probably being silly, but my mood has plummeted (although it wasn’t great when I woke up – it was very hard to get going) and the muscles in my eyelid have been twitching, which is a nervous thing that hasn’t happened for a while (although I did briefly have other muscle spasms in my meeting with the rabbi on Saturday night).

Something else I’ve been thinking about recently: at the weekend, my uncle was trying to set me up on a date with a friend of a friend, but he wasn’t sure if she was frum (religious) enough for me.  I won’t go into all the details to protect her identity, but I wasn’t sure whether to say yes or not, so I asked for more details, but all I got was her name and told if I wanted to find out more about her I should go out with her.  I had sort of decided that I would go (assuming she wants to) purely because I’m trying to take the social opportunities offered to me as a way of fighting the social anxiety (for the same reason I’m probably going to go for Shabbat lunch at friends of my parents’ even though normally I would stay at home by myself), but once I knew her name I gave in to weakness and googled her (it’s an unusual name and I had been told her profession which is also unusual).  I had two responses from her Facebook page: one was wondering whether we would actually have anything in common, the other was thinking that she looks far too pretty to consider going out with me.  Really out of my league.  And she has interesting and unusual hobbies that make her seem rounded and interesting.

So now I’m nervous of saying yes, because I think it will end badly, either because she isn’t frum enough for me or because I’m basically not good enough for her.  I told my uncle it would have to wait a few weeks until we’re past the chaggim (festivals) because I want to check I’m OK with working four days a week (today I’m struggling…) and also because I want to see that I don’t fall back into deep depression over the chaggim.  Which is another reason it won’t work, of course, because I could easily fall back into depression and anxiety and OCD (like today, although no OCD so far) which makes me fundamentally unlovable cf. previous possible relationships abandoned because of my mental health and general weirdness (and I resolved to stop putting myself down so much!).

Also by unfortunately coincidence her name is the same as (a) the first woman I asked our (she said no and later stopped talking to me) and (b) the woman I had my first and thus far only relationship with… a name I associate with bittersweet memories and rejection.  I don’t know why it keeps coming up in my life.  I suppose there is some hope in there, wondering if it could work out, but it gets quickly shot down by the feeling that it would never work and it’s silly even to try.  I do feel a bit of anger mixed in with the despair, at the whole “he’s a guy, she’s a girl, let’s put them together and see what happens” school of matchmaking, rather than researching to see they have compatible interests and personalities, but I guess that’s another rant entirely…

Shul News

Today was focused on shul (synagogue) despite quite a lot happening at home.  I was with my parents as usual for Shabbat (the Sabbath) and my uncle and sister were staying with my sister’s fiancé coming for lunch.  I had some OCD, unfortunately, although it wasn’t too bad.

Shul started earlier today and unfortunately I overslept and was fifteen minutes late (so I would have been on time most weeks!).  I forced myself to talk to people at the kiddush and on the way home on Friday night which was a positive step to dealing with the social anxiety.  I was called to the Torah again, which was nice, but I wonder if it’s more than my fair share as I seem to have been called three or four times in the last few months.  The part I was called for started with curses, but ended with blessings, which part of me wants to see as a good sign, but I try not to look for signs because (a) we’re not supposed to and (b) once you get into that mindset, there is no end to the things you can convince yourself that you’ve seen, good and bad.  It’s true that last year started badly but seems to be ending a lot better.

Bizarrely, the most profound religious moment for me came during the rabbi’s sermon, when a two year old child wandered in to shul and interrupted proceedings calling “I fell over!  Where is daddy?  Where is daddy?  I fell over!”  I reflected that’s how I feel right now: I fell over and I’m looking for Daddy  (Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King).  I know there are militant atheists who see religion as a childish search for love and security and normally I would disagree, but at the moment I think the only mistaken word in that is “childish.”  Because adults need love and security too and I don’t see anything wrong with getting that from God as well as other people (let alone money, fame, drugs, meaningless sex or the other things some people turn to fill the void in their life).

The evening was more positive.  I met with the rabbi of the shul I’m joining.  The meeting turned out not to be a scary interview, but simply a little chat to get to know me a bit better and to see how I will fit into the community.  I had mentioned my mental health issues a bit to the rabbi in the past and we spoke a bit about them (it was good that I felt able to speak about them), about the way that my personal growth as a Jew is tied up with managing my mental health, about the need for realistic, small goals for the future and so on.  The rabbi seemed very understanding and sympathetic, especially when I said that I struggle sometimes to get the energy or mindset for prayer or Torah study, which was good as I had been particularly worried that he wouldn’t understand and would try to cajole me into going to shul more often that I feel comfortable with.  He was pleased that I get to a weekly beginners Talmud shiur.  We spoke a bit about dealing with religious OCD and I said that while he would normally answer questions, sometimes with the OCD it’s better to say that something is not a serious concern and not get into it any further, because otherwise it actually fuels the OCD, which he seemed receptive to.  He offered to meet every few weeks if I would like just to “touch base” which I thought was a nice offer and one I might take him up on in the future.

I spoke about going down a bit over the summer and I was just going to leave it at that, but on impulse I mentioned that the low mood had been triggered by dating, by a date that seemed to be going somewhere which did not work out.  I didn’t make a huge thing about it, but I thought I would drop a hint that I am “in the parasha” as they say (literally “in the paragraph/passage” but idiomatically at a particular stage in life, usually referring to the life-stage of looking for a spouse).  Who knows, he might meet someone who he thinks is suitable for me (rabbis meet a lot of different people) and arrange a shidduch (date).  I also mentioned that there is a rabbi I speak to regularly about my mental health and personal growth (the rabbi I refer to here as my rabbi mentor) as I thought that was worth saying.  As it happens, he turned out to know him a bit, which didn’t surprise me as my rabbi mentor knows lots of people and used to live in this area and fortunately he approved of him.

One little thing I noticed that indicated that the community rabbi understands me is that he said that normally when someone joins the community, they make an announcement in shul, but he wanted to check that I was OK with that, presumably because I mentioned that I have some social anxiety.  I said I would like it, because I’ve been going to that shul about eighteen months now and I’m beginning to be recognized so I think it will be nice to announce that I’m finally paying my dues, literally and metaphorically, and becoming a proper member, but I’m glad he checked it was OK with me first.

I came away from the meeting feeling very positive about be accepted into the community more and having the positive relationship with a rabbi that is necessary to be part of a frum (religious) community.  I definitely feel that a small, friendly, observant community is the place for me to be right now.  Hopefully it will be somewhere I can grow both as a human being and a Jew and maybe even make some friends and feel accepted.

Roads Taken and Not Taken

Another miscellaneous post:

Today was probably the best work day this week, in terms of mood, energy, concentration and not making mistakes (although I still made a few), but even then on the way home I found myself reflecting that I’ll probably kill myself one day.  It’s frightening how a despairing and self-hating thought (if it was self-hating – it came more from resignation and despair than self-loathing) can spring from nowhere and make me assume that I will always be sad and lonely until eventually I won’t be able to take it any more.  On the way home I also found myself reflecting that my lapse back into depression means that I still haven’t managed to go more than six months or so without clinical depression since the start of 2003.  That’s almost the entire lifetime of some of the students I’m dealing with!  (Registering people to use the library today I reflected that many of them were born in the twenty-first century, whereas I can remember when the twenty-first century seemed a distant and unobtainable science fictional future to me).

My CBT therapist suggested a while back that my mental health is worsened by a lack of intellectual stimulation.  At the time I thought that my work was intellectual stimulation enough, but now I’m not sure.  I don’t think blogging or writing my book help either.  I don’t know what to do about this.

I have an appointment set up with the rabbi of the shul (synagogue) I am hoping to join.  I’m terrified that I’ll somehow be caught out, embarrassed and forbidden to join.  I’m sure it’s just a friendly meeting to get to know me better, but I can’t stop catastrophizing and feeling that this will be yet another situation where I don’t fit in.  I have also booked to go to the shul‘s siyum Mishnayot next week (a siyum is a big party to celebrate finishing some Jewish study, typically Mishnah or Talmud).  I’m a bit nervous and worried about who I will talk to, if I will embarrass myself, if I was supposed to do some study to be allowed to attend…

I mentioned volunteering yesterday as something that I should consider doing instead of dating.  I had a quick look on the Jewish Volunteering Network website, but there was very little that was suitable for me, although my lack of confidence in my abilities probably didn’t help; I used the site’s filters to rule out a whole load of areas assuming that I couldn’t do those things.  I’d like to do something interpersonal, maybe with children or the elderly, but I doubt that my social skills are good enough and expect that I would probably be a mess of social anxiety the whole time and be a liability rather than an asset.

So dating seems like more of an option, if I get through the chaggim (Jewish festivals) without collapsing under the strain of depression, social anxiety and OCD (I already feel anxious just thinking about them!).  But I still can’t see myself finding someone who both likes me and is compatible with me, even if I go to the shadchan (matchmaker) who specializes in dealing with people with health issues.  The better option would seem to be accepting being single and find other ways to give (but see my comments about volunteering) and receive love and companionship (unfortunately, people are not queueing up to be my friend).   I’d be tempted to get a pet, but I don’t have room in my flat and anyway I’m not really an animal person.

A thought that has bothered me for the last twenty-four hours or so: one Valentine’s Day I was on a crowded Tube train going to school.  There were some girls from my class in the same carriage.  I could hear them talking, but they couldn’t see me through the crowd and I could hear them saying that they had a Valentine’s Day card and were going to write a fake message to one of the geeky boys as a practical joke.  My name was one of the ones mentioned, I think.  At another time, I was sitting in French class working when I could here the girls behind me writing a frankly obscene “romantic” note supposedly from one of the geeky girls to me, as another practical joke.  My friend intercepted the note, not realizing that I had heard what they were saying as much as he had.  (This was the same friend who got production of our yearbook when we finished GCSEs aged 16 stopped because the writers were so rude about the geeky crowd I was friendly with.  I never found out what they said, although sometimes I wonder what they said about me.  Maybe it is better not to know.)

I don’t know why I keep thinking of these two incidents.  Maybe it’s another way of beating myself up, of saying that everyone has known for years that I am weird and unlovable, laughably so, and I should just stop trying to be happy and loved.  Maybe it’s because I wonder what would have happened if I had asked one of the geeky girls out (they were geeky in terms of being clever and academic rather than being interested in science fiction and the like, but still).  My oldest friend did that and they got married and have two children.  Most of the geeky girls were not frum, so far as I was aware, but I wasn’t frum then either.  I doubt I would have married any of them, but perhaps if I had dated a bit when I was sixteen or seventeen I would have had a better self-image.  I know, I’m frum now and supposed to disapprove of casual dating and focus on dating for marriage.  But I still wonder.  I guess my life could have gone very differently, but there is no end to self-recrimination if one goes down this route.

Envy

I don’t think of myself as an envious person, but over the last few years I have been increasingly visited by envy.  It probably started a few years ago, when Hevria was launched and I felt strongly that I wanted to write for it, but wasn’t asked.  After about six months I volunteered, only to be turned down; I’m still not entirely sure why.  I got very upset and my writing never really recovered.  I’ve written odd bits and pieces since then, including a couple of guest posts for Hevria and one piece for Den of Geek that I got paid for, but almost no poetry and it took a long time before I turned back to writing regularly when I started this blog and started editing various Doctor Who blog posts into a book.  (In the end I was sort of offered the chance to write regularly for Hevria, but I no longer have the time and I still feel blocked from that kind of writing, although I’m not sure how serious the offer was anyway.  But it felt good to be offered anyway.)

Then last year I managed, somehow, to go out for a Shabbat tisch (community Sabbath party thing) hosted by someone from the shul I’m trying to move to.  He is my age or even younger and as I walked into his house and saw his lovely home and cute children and beautiful wife (I didn’t actually see his wife.  I once saw him talking to a woman who I assumed was his wife, given that he’s very frum and probably doesn’t talk to other women if he can avoid it, but I could be wrong) and felt that he had all the things that I wanted.  I had to force myself not to feel envy and it was hard.  I felt a similar thing when I went to my ex-date for lunch this last Shabbat: her flat is so much larger and more comfortable and attractive than my tiny converted garage.  I told myself more space means more housework, but I’m not sure how convinced I was.

I envy a lot of my peers their lives, their friendships, their relationships and their children, all the things I want and lack, but I also envy their Torah learning and mitzvot (commandments).  I want to be a better Jew and I assume my peers are all doing better at that than I am.  I know we are told that what matters is the effort, not the achievement, and I have to put in a lot of effort just to stay in the same place, let alone to grow and I have no idea how much effort they put in.  But it is hard not to feel inadequate, to feel that I could be better if I was more like them.  I feel I lack the joy and passion others can find in religion; I feel as if I’m doing things out of obligation and saying prayers by rote rather than really connecting with God and Torah.  I still believe, I just don’t feel, I suspect my depression stops me feeling.  It is difficult.

I suppose what it all boils down to is a feeling that life has passed me by, that I will never have the joy or pleasure or love or simple satisfaction in my achievements that other people get to experience.  Funnily enough, it has been suggested to me that other children were envious of me at school and that this was why they bullied me.  I find this hard to believe, but also vaguely unfair, given that I think my academic achievement was the product of hard work rather than natural cleverness; I was intelligent at school, but I had to work hard for my grades.

I try to feel gratitude as the antidote to envy.  I try to thank God for at least five things every day (even if it’s “Thank you that I didn’t hurt myself when I felt so depressed”).  I get on better with my family than I used to do, certainly better than a lot of other people do.  I have a job (two-thirds of a full-time job now), which is worth something in this economy and also given that a few years ago it seemed completely impossible that I would ever be working.  I live by myself without trouble and I have some friends, even if they do largely live inside my computer.  But I feel I need something more.  I have no joy, no romantic/sexual love, no passion, no purpose and it is hard not to envy those who do have these things.

I suspect I need something else in my life.  Sherlock Holmes turned to drugs to stimulate his brain when work dried up; I suspect I too need something to fill my non-work hours, but hopefully something healthier and more socially acceptable.  My work on my book precludes other hobbies, but it offers one possible outlet, but it is going slowly thanks to my having to watch so many old episodes of Doctor Who for research.  I’m not sure my religion can offer me anything more than more frustration at the moment.  I can’t stand any party enough to get involved in politics.  That leaves dating and volunteering.  The former is tempting, but maybe the latter is more sensible (in the sense that I don’t know if I’m ready for dating, but also that I doubt anyone would want me anyway and maybe it’s just easier not to bother looking).  But I haven’t the time or energy for either at the moment; I’ll just have to hope things get easier if and when I have settled into a new work routine.