Vague Anxieties

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK. It was the first Shabbat without compulsory masks in shul (synagogue). I wore mine anyway, despite the discomfort. About ten or twenty per cent of the people there wore them. There didn’t seem to be any particular demographic (age, religious observance etc.) that wore them more than others.

I missed shul on Shabbat morning. I woke up about 8.45am and could have gone to shul an hour or so late, which I have done before, but I couldn’t face walking in so late and ended up staying in bed until I fell asleep again, which is social anxiety avoidance, I think. I told myself not to feel guilty, that I had a hard week, with last Shabbat being Erev Tisha B’Av and so not being as restorative as usual, then Sunday being Tisha B’Av (the saddest day of the Jewish year), not sleeping Sunday night, difficult phone calls at work on Monday, Zoom shiur (which was very draining) on Tuesday, my family birthday get-together on Wednesday, a lot of car travel and more difficulty sleeping on Thursday night and the shock of discovering more dark secrets from my family history the same day. That’s all true, I did have a tough week, but I did feel somewhat guilty. I wanted to go, and now I worry I’m back in the socially anxious, “out of the shul habit” mindset.

I’m having weird guilt thoughts or feelings about something else too at odd times, so I guess I’m in the guilt mindset more generally.

I was worried I would not sleep last night, as I slept so much during the day. I tried drinking hot chocolate before bed, which seemed to help me sleep. I had never drunk it before. I wanted to find a less calorific alternative to porridge, as I don’t like warm milk by itself. The hot chocolate was OK, but it’s very sweet to the point of making me feel somewhat sick.

***

My parents were going out to friends’ house at lunchtime today and I wished them a good time. “Not really, as we’re going because we couldn’t make it to [friend’s mother’s] stone-setting [tombstone consecration].” Ugh. I have a lousy memory for things that don’t directly concern me, and sometimes for those things too.

***

I’ve had some vague anxiety today, a bit like the anxiety that I used to get every Sunday evening as a teenager, when I would be anxious about the new school week, although I didn’t recognise it as anxiety at the time. (I think I was a lot more anxious and unhappy about school than I realised until years later.) I don’t know what is fuelling it today. I guess there’s the realisation that I’m at the stage with my book where lots of people are going to criticise it, even in the best-case scenario, and also realising the challenges that E and I are going to have moving our long-distance relationship on. To be honest, we’re both pretty sure that we want to get married to each other, but also that if we tell anyone that at this stage, when we’ve been actually together in the same country for about four days in total, they will think we’re completely mad. Even when it’s socially acceptable to get engaged, there will be a lot of practical and financial difficulties in getting married and finding somewhere to live. I even worry a bit about what if I suddenly die and E is left alone (yes, I’m a cheery person… listening to the song Moonlight Shadow probably didn’t help with this — it’s a song about a woman whose boyfriend is shot dead by a criminal on the run. Good song, though).

“Am I a good person?” ‘Pure O’ OCD

I’m slightly wary of writing this in case it exacerbates a delicately-balanced situation, but here goes: lately I’ve been having thoughts that verge on ‘pure O’ OCD (obsessive thoughts without compulsions). These never completely went away before, but had been quiescent for a while. Lately, they’ve sprung up again. I’m not sure why, perhaps, perversely, a response to various things in my life going better (job, getting back together with E, progress on my novel, feelings of religious progress).

Pure O OCD can take many forms. It often manifests in ways centred on moral worth, one way or another, hence its other name of ‘scrupulosity.’ It can appear as doubt about moral or religious worth: “Am I a good person?” or “Do I really believe in God?” It can also manifest in other ways, particularly where a concern about moral worth shades into fear of performing immoral actions: “Am I a racist? Do I want to hurt people? Do I want to abuse children?”

I’ve been having thoughts like this recently. Actually, I’ve had them for years, but they might be more frequent and disturbing lately. I don’t think they meet the requirements for diagnosis with OCD, certainly in terms of distress. I do not feel hugely distressed the way my OCD distressed me in the past. I know this is my brain, not me. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the “Am I a bad person?” thoughts completely, especially when they are pushing on an open door inasmuch as I wonder about my moral life a lot anyway.

The other, related, thing I’ve been doing lately is ruminating on certain things I’ve done in the past that were less than morally perfect. I’m aware that, objectively, the misdeeds were minor. If we have a scale of bad deeds from 1 to 10 where 1 is a minor breach of traffic law, for example, and 10 is genocide, then these are a 3 at most, probably lower (small breaches of lockdown laws included). And they were a long time ago, some going back to adolescence. There also isn’t really anything that I can do to change what happened or rectify things. But I keep thinking about them.

Part of me wishes there was some kind of ritual I could do to atone, or in Jewish terms, to make a tikkun (rectification), to draw a line under the past. But then, wanting to do a ritual to remove obsessions is OCD, so it’s probably not a good idea.

Like I said, I don’t think this is pathological OCD, so I don’t want to go to a doctor or psychiatrist. I might talk to my therapist, as I’m seeing her anyway. I’m not hugely distressed by the thoughts, I just worry where they might lead. I would be tempted to do some exposure therapy, but I find exposure therapy for thoughts without compulsions tricky and would probably need a CBT therapist to help, which, as I said I don’t want to do, particularly as I don’t think I’m actually diagnosable. If anything, I would worry that focusing on my thoughts for exposure therapy would make things worse. But the situation is there, and it’s upsetting and worrying me a little.

Bitachon; and Doctor Who (2005)

I won the jackpot with the post today: new shoes, a book, a DVD and, most importantly, a corrected Asperger’s diagnosis report and resources leaflet. I’m glad that’s sorted. The resources leaflet turned out not to be that helpful, given that I’ve been aware of my autism for a long time and have already discovered many of the resources and got beyond the “But what is autism?” stage, but I feel more comfortable now speaking to my GP next week and trying to get referred for autism-adapted CBT.

I had a reasonably busy day today, going to the dentist, going for a walk, doing some Torah study and having therapy as well as tackling a few odd chores. I did run out of time and energy to work on my writing, which frustrated me, but didn’t surprise me. I jotted down a couple of ideas for the next novel, though, and I feel that that’s developing well, probably better than the first novel, which I fear lacks a clear plot and suffers from a lack of supporting characters.

Therapy was good, although I didn’t have enough to talk about for an hour, which itself is an indication that things are going well for me at the moment. I spoke about feeling that I have more resilience than I have had in the past. I also don’t think I wonder if things in my past could have gone differently any more. I guess I’ve got to the stage of thinking that everything in my life really had happen the way it did, even if I can’t really articulate why I feel like that. Perhaps this is finally bitachon (trust in God) or just acceptance of my childhood and difficult adolescence. I do still wonder what people from my past think of me and whether they might find my recent Asperger’s article and think differently of me, but that’s not really a thought about changing the past so much as wanting people to think well of me and not to think I’m an antisocial weirdo.

In therapy we also spoke about telling my parents that I’m back with E, which I plan on doing this coming Shabbat, but am rather nervous about. I’m not sure how they will react. I think my Mum worries about me being in an unending on/off relationship with E, which to be fair is something I worry about sometimes, although less so now that I think we can move the relationship on.

One thing that came up in therapy is that I think my relationship with E is a lot better than my relationship with PIMOJ was. E and I connect on a variety of levels, whereas I don’t think PIMOJ and I really connected as anything other than friends. Certainly I was unable to feel comfortable opening up emotionally to PIMOJ, and she was unwilling or unable to open up to me. Despite that, I probably did need to go through my relationship with PIMOJ to appreciate how rare my connection with E is (that bitachon/acceptance thing again).

***

E and I are starting to watch Doctor Who “together”, i.e. in our separate houses on separate continents, but roughly at the same time, allowing for the time difference. We’re initially watching the twenty-first century version. I prefer the twentieth century version, but appreciate that there are many obstacles to it for contemporary viewers in terms of very different pacing, production values, writing and acting styles and so on, plus nearly 100 episodes of the twentieth century version are lost from the archives and unwatchable, so starting at episode one and going straight through doesn’t really work. That said, I may suggest slipping in some twentieth century Who later for context, and because I’m not sure I want to watch the twenty-first century version indefinitely without a break.

We started tonight with Rose, which is showing its age in places, but still feels a fairly tight and lean revival of the franchise. I do definitely struggle with Russell T Davies’ writing style even in his better episodes (Rose is more a middling one). I’m not sure if I dislike his style in general or just for Doctor Who. The other distracting thing was that I did keep thinking about the recent Noel Clarke sexual harassment allegations, which are.

Dating to the Right and Left

I should say that “right” and “left” here refer to more or less traditionalist Jewish rather than politically right and left.

Yesterday my therapist encouraged me to stay in the present, to think about being able to succeed in my current job rather than worrying about my future career and to try to build a connection with someone rather than worrying about marriage. This is easier said than done. She suggested I “check in” with myself every few hours (I decided on every four hours) to see if I am staying in the present. I am not doing very well. Worries about marriage kept surfacing.

Early this morning I was thinking about a Jewish idea — possibly a popular spirituality idea rather than something in major primary sources; certainly I don’t think I’ve seen it there, but I’ve seen it on popular sites like Aish.com — that you have everything you need for your mission on earth. This is problematic when you think about people who lack the basics of life (historically, many important rabbis lived in extreme poverty at one point in their lives e.g. Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and others). Fortunately, my parents are supporting me financially, but, if I have everything I need, why do I feel such a need to give and receive love? It is a basic human need and I can’t pretend I don’t feel it. Maybe I need the need, but still, I don’t know what to do with it.

On the way to work, I was overtaken by hordes of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) primary school-aged girls on scooters, going to school. I see them every time I go to work. I found myself wondering where they would be in ten years time, how many would still be in the Haredi community and how many would be married. Statistically speaking, the answer to both questions is “Most of them.” The retention rate is much higher in the Haredi world than the Modern Orthodox one, and early marriage is the norm.

Thinking about the Haredi community and its higher retention rate, I found myself wondering if I should be looking for a moderate Haredi spouse. After all, I go to a moderate Haredi shul (synagogue) and have some friends there. I can, apparently, “pass” on a basic level, even if I’m not a complete match for the ideology, and even if I worry a lot about being caught out. I feel a bit like I may not get the choice, as there are not many frum (religious) young people in the Modern Orthodox (United Synagogue) community in the UK, while the Haredi community is booming, and is younger (thanks to a high birth rate and high retention rate). There is also a tendency in my family for the men to marry “up” religiously and the women to marry “down” i.e. more religious women marrying less religious men. My previous girlfriends have mostly been less religious. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong?

That would involve being set up on dates with Haredi women. The sex therapist from Intimate Judaism who responded to my email the other day offered to try to find a shadchan (matchmaker) specialising in people with “issues” for me. I’m not sure that she’s going to be able to do so, as I tried to find one myself some years ago, without success. But if she does manage it, I would imagine they would be more to the Haredi end of the spectrum, as shidduch dating (arranged dating) is more common there. So, again, that might push me in that direction.

Nevertheless, there is an issue here, which is my reliance on Doctor Who and other British TV science fiction as a coping mechanism as an autistic special interest and a coping mechanism for life stress. This is a bit weird even in the Modern Orthodox world (my Modern Orthodox rabbi mentor doesn’t even have a TV) and in the Haredi world TV is viewed with suspicion and even people who have one tend to keep it hidden. Being so into a TV programme (bear in mind I have even written and self-published a book on Doctor Who, for love rather than money) — well, it’s weird and geeky even in the secular world, let alone the Haredi world. I fear it would be a deal-breaker for many Haredi women and maybe even some Modern Orthodox ones.

I thought about the other obstacle I have to frum marriage, the fact I haven’t been to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Realistically, not going was probably the right decision for me, although if I hadn’t been in the depths of despair, a gap year after university instead of before might have worked. I worry about not being attractive to frum women by not being able to study Talmud, and potentially teach it to my children.

My parents think that I’m a good person and should therefore find a good wife, sooner or later. I’m not strongly convinced that I’m a good person (I think it’s more that lots of other people are subpar, and society is OK with that), but I worry that the type of woman I’m looking for will be looking for a good Jew rather than a good person, and that I’m not a good Jew because of my problems studying Talmud. I don’t think a frum woman would be faced with a choice between me and a bad person, but between me and an equally good person who can also study Talmud. This pushes me to date more non-frum women who wouldn’t care about Talmud studying ability, despite the problems I’ve had there. Then again, I could also say that a woman (frum or otherwise) would be faced with a choice between me and an equally good person who doesn’t have a shedload of other “issues.”

Which brings me back to the “special needs” shadchan. I haven’t tried this, but I worry that I would not be set up with the right sort of women. My one brief attempt at dating with a shadchan ended badly when, possibly because I had mentioned my depression and autism, she set me up with someone with learning disabilities who simply was not on my intellectual level. Admittedly, it didn’t help that there was zero chemistry between us, but I do wonder what would happen if I go down this route. Asperger’s is frustrating as it can involve being extremely intelligent and functional in academic areas, but absolutely not functional in basic social skills, which doesn’t make finding a compatible partner any easier.

So, for a day when I was supposed to be in the present and not worrying about my future, I was worrying a lot about my future. It didn’t help that work was quite slow. The morning was OK, but the afternoon was largely spent on fairly mindless work that left my brain free to worry about things. Being at work probably didn’t help, as I couldn’t really write things down to get them out of my brain until I got home. I’m going to post now, rather than before I get ready for bed as I usually do, to see if that helps me get rid of the thoughts and lets me sit in the present more this evening.

Also, the Talmud thing is a big issue for me (you may have noticed…), not just with dating, but with self-esteem and social conformity generally, and I don’t know what to do about it. Actually studying Talmud (the obvious solution) doesn’t work as I struggle so much with it. I’ve tried all kinds of different ways: different types of classes, chevruta (one-to-one) study, private study, all without success (actually, I did have some success with the LSJS class, but that was years ago and it hasn’t run since). I’ve been told it’s not an issue and I shouldn’t worry about it, but it seems like a big thing to me. I don’t know how to fit in comfortably to the frum community, whether looking for friends, community or a wife, without it. But my brain seems not to have been designed for Talmud study and now lacks the plasticity to learn.

Fear of Living, Fear of Dying

We have local elections next week. An election for the Mayor of London and a by-election to replace a local councillor who died. I didn’t want to go to a polling station in the pandemic, so I have a postal vote and need to send it soon. I don’t know who to vote for. I still feel pretty annoyed about all the parties. If I’m a “Tory anarchist” (as George Orwell wrote), lately the anarchist part is dominant. I’m pretty angry at the moment with political parties of all stripes, and big business, especially Big Tech.

Local government, including the London Mayor, doesn’t really have much power in the UK, so the whole election seems pretty pointless. I don’t know who my local councillors are or have much of a sense of what they do. I did know the one who died, sort of, but only because he was well-known in the local Jewish community, and because he was the solicitor who acted for the people my parents bought their house from in the sale. As for the Mayor, in theory he has powers about a range of things, but I only really have a sense of him as the person who decides if the Tube fares go up. Most people just use local elections as a glorified opinion poll on whichever party is in power in central government.

In the last European elections, mid–Brexit, I spoiled my ballot and wrote abusive comments by the candidates’ names, the only time I have done this, because I was so angry that the parties could not get their act together to sort Brexit out, to the extent that we were having European Parliament elections while trying to leave the EU. I didn’t even have particularly strong views about Brexit, I just wanted to get it over with and get back to reality. When the last general election happened, I was still angry and voted mainly to keep Jeremy Corbyn out than because I was impressed with anything anyone else was offering. Now I’m mainly apathetic. I don’t think there’s one party that represents what I think, not even close. I don’t even think I have the energy to spoil my ballot.

I was brought up to take voting seriously because “people died to get you the vote” (which is actually a really stupid reason to do anything). And I think people should take voting and politics seriously, it’s just very hard to admire the current crop of politicians, and hard to feel that anyone listens to people like me at the moment. I’m not even sure what I would say if someone was listening.

Ugh, I didn’t mean to write 400 words on politics, I just feel annoyed and confused.

***

Other than that, it was a quiet day. I had therapy, I drafted my devar Torah (pretty much on autopilot, it’s not one I’m particularly proud of) and looked over the next Talmud section before shiur (religious class) on Shabbat. I didn’t go for a walk as it rained a lot and I was too drained to walk in the rain after therapy. I feel like I’m doing a lot of what I want to be doing… but I haven’t done any fiction writing for about two months! The friend who said she would read my novel said to wait until after Pesach, so I waited until then, but then I got cold feet about sending it to her as I wasn’t sure if she wanted to be paid, or how enthusiastic she was about reading it. I didn’t want her to do it out of some kind of sense of obligation. Now JYP is reading it, but I feel I ought to try to write something else to keep the writing habit going while I’m waiting, but I don’t know what. I have an idea for another novel, but I’m not sure it’s sensible to start it yet. I’m not sure what will happen to my work, exercise and Torah study regime when I try to factor in an hour or two of fiction writing a day, but we’ll see.

***

In therapy we spoke about being in the present rather than falling into anxiety about future careers and future relationships (or the lack of either). I said that I feel I missed some developmental stages when I was a teenager. Because I was autistic, but didn’t know it, and because I’d been bullied a lot, I withdrew into myself. Autism made me fear change and the unknown, and being bullied made me fear other people my age (I still struggle to feel comfortable with older children or teenagers). I didn’t go to youth groups the way most Jewish teenagers do. I didn’t date or party or do any kind of leadership or personal growth activity. A bunch of my friends went backpacking in Europe the summer after we finished school and I was originally going with them, but fairly early on in the planning I stage I panicked and backed out of it.

Now I find I need to go through the adolescent maturation stage, twenty years too late, regarding finding what I like to do and what I can do, career, friendships, relationships and so on. This was when my therapist spoke about staying in the present and not trying to worry about the “What ifs?” of career and relationships. To focus on being satisfied with the work I do and not worrying about how it will lead to a career, and to focus on making a connection with someone and not worrying about whether we will get married. I do feel like the clock is ticking on both things, though.

I didn’t mention this in therapy, but a while back I heard about Otto Rank, who was a student of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, he saw the human psyche as being driven by two fears, the fear of living and the fear of dying. Rather than their literal meanings, he saw the fear of living as being the fear of individuation and separation, and the fear of dying as the fear of being absorbed into the collective. I tend to bounce between these two quite violently, wanting to individuate and be different from other people, particularly in a religious community that I find quite conformist, but I also want acceptance in the community, close friends and a romantic relationship, which involve, or seem to involve, making at least some concessions to the expectations of other people. What I want more than anything is to be fully accepted, with all my “issues” and geeky quirks and complicated history, but I’m scared of making myself vulnerable enough to discover whether anyone could accept me.

The email I received from Intimate Judaism yesterday said that they don’t have time to answer every email sent to them, but my “sense of isolation” was very apparent in the email I sent them and they wanted to respond. I guess it seems a bit strange to see that written down. I am a lonely person and have been so since my teens (if not earlier), but it’s just a kind of constant background noise for me. I do have a ‘loneliness’ tag on my blog, but I think I use it much less frequently than tags for ‘depression’, ‘autism’ and ‘anxiety’.

I wrote a whole essay for Hevria years ago on loneliness, where I think I said that the term obscures the fact that there are different kinds of loneliness. Someone can have family and yet still lack friends, for example. I myself have family and a few friends, especially online, but have few in-person friends (which I instinctively feel I would like, even if I can’t express why) and also lack anyone for my romantic/sexual side. I also, as I said, want to feel completely known and accepted. Above all, I feel that I want God to accept me, as only He can really know me, but I want to be accepted by human beings too, even though I’m hiding much of myself from them, even here.

***

I’m currently bearded, because of the omer, the period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost), part of which is observed as a time of national mourning, involving not holding celebrations, listening to music, cutting hair or shaving. I feel really self-conscious seeing myself bearded on Skype and Zoom calls. It just looks wrong. I kept looking at myself rather than my therapist on my Zoom therapy call today. Plus, people ask me why I’m growing a beard; “I’m not growing a beard, I’m just not shaving” is a confusing response. It itches too. At least I can shave it off on Friday.

Beating Myself Up

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

Now I need to find the confidence to respond…

***

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

Reassessments

I haven’t posted publicly recently because I’m dealing with some difficult thoughts and feelings that I didn’t want to express publicly, or even the semi-publicly of my anonymous blog. And I’m not going to write about those things here either. But I wanted to write about something else.

Since my autism diagnosis a month ago, everything seems different somehow. This seems nonsensical. I struggled to explain it to my rabbi mentor earlier today. I was pretty sure for the last few years that I was on the spectrum. I had been screened and found likely to be on the spectrum. The psychiatrist who assessed me said that it did look like I was on the spectrum. Getting the final diagnosis was in no way a surprise. And yet, I look at things differently since February 9th.

Things that I do or have done in the past take on a new significance. I look back at events from my childhood and adolescence or even more recently and say, “I was autistic when that happened.” Autism is a life-long condition, so obviously I had it at every point in my personal history, but it feels like I’m recognising and internalising it with regard to every bad memory I have. I’m not sure if this is good or bad. Sometimes it seems like a way of forgiving myself. Other times it seems more like a threat, that I was autistic then and now, so I could end up repeating that behaviour.

I find myself wondering if my life will ever get better. If I’ll get a full-time job, and an actual career, rather than a succession of jobs for a year or two. I wonder if I’ll get married and have children, if I could actually cope with those things and commit to them 100% with all my issues (it goes without saying that I don’t believe a person should get married or have a child without being 100% committed to them). If I’ll ever be financially independent. If I’ll ever feel really comfortable and active in a religious community. If life will ever seem like anything other than a prolonged exercise in damage limitation. I know that some people on the spectrum, at the “high functioning” end (if that phrase even means anything), do get these things, but lots of others don’t. The uncertainty is hard to deal with.

The Long Twilight Struggle

I struggled with burnout again on Friday, but forced myself to do my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, as well as thoroughly hoovering and dusting my room for Pesach, including moving my bed and bedside table to hoover under them (not my desk though – too heavy, and food is unlikely to get under it as the three exposed sides are flush with the floor). At least that’s out the way for now; I won’t eat food (other than water) in there now until after Pesach.

I embarrassed myself phoning the hospital about the report from my autism assessment. I had misunderstood when it would be available, which turns out not to be for another two or three weeks. I was very apologetic to the secretary for wasting her time, but I felt bad.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) went well. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. We davened Kabbalat Shabbat (said some of the Evening Prayers) outside so that we could sing. It was good to sing, but very cold, even if Saturday was the first day of spring.

I got up earlier than usual on Saturday morning, although I went back to bed after breakfast and dozed for a bit. I napped in the afternoon too, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t do much Torah study, partly because of napping, partly because when Shabbat went out I got an awful migraine that took hours to shift. I didn’t even feel up to saying all of the Ma’ariv (Evening) prayers; usually I somehow soldier on, but I skipped the after Shabbat verses of blessing because just reading made me feel like I was going to throw up. This is an improvement, as in the past I would carry on. The last time I had a bad headache when davening (praying) was on Simchat Torah, when bowing at the end of the Amidah prayer actually made me throw up. Perhaps I’m willing to make more excuses for myself now.

I spent much of the evening wrapped in my weighted blanket, watching Babylon 5 (hence the title of this post from one of the episodes, used in a rather humorously melodramatic way). The painkillers I took finally kicked in, along with the cool and soothe strip. I feel a bit tired now, but not particularly sleepy. I’m going to have something to eat (I need to take my antidepressants with food) and maybe go to bed. My room is freezing cold; I opened the windows wide before as I prefer to be cold if I have a migraine, but I wonder how I will fall asleep now.

***

I’ve been missing PIMOJ a lot lately. I realised that I experience this not as pining after her the way I pined after various crushes in my earlier life, but in worrying that she will lose interest in me, that I’m not good enough for her and so on. I’m not sure what to do about this. Hopefully we can meet after Pesach or maybe even during it. We had a text conversation tonight, a bit more in-depth than either of us has had the time or energy for this week, and we’re hoping to speak tomorrow.

***

It’s strange thinking that not only do I now have autism, but I have had autism all my life, even when I was a child doing well at school. It still seems a little strange how well I did at school compared with how badly I’ve done since then, but school was a strange micro-environment, plus “doing well” is relative, as I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety when I was in the sixth form and maybe earlier, and I struggled a lot socially, with bullying and (not) making friends. I would do a lot differently if I knew what I know now, but it’s too late. Still, the thought of being autistic and still doing well academically seems slightly jarring, even though many people on the spectrum are the same. I wish I could identify how I succeeded then and work out how to apply it now, but the answer seems to be to seek out opportunities for rote memorisation of lists and tasks, focus 100% on work with no social or romantic life, and concentrate very hard on doing what I’m told, which does not necessarily make for a healthy adult life.

I was looking over Shabbat at a new haggadah (Passover prayer book) commentary I just bought. It has open questions to stimulate discussion at the seder service. Many of them ask the participants to think about major life events. I keep coming back to my autism diagnosis for so many of these questions. I definitely haven’t worked it through yet.

***

I search for the truth, in what I suppose is a very old-fashioned way. I took a decision at some point, initially unconsciously, lately very consciously, not to cut out of my life people I disagreed with purely on matters of religion or politics. I feel that this is unusual. I try not to read material that is just supporting my views, although it’s hard to find the time to read things from “my” side let alone other opinions in depth, and naturally I prioritise material I think is going to be more accurate which correlates with material I agree with. But I do tend to try to work out what the other side thinks, more or less automatically, probably a hold-over from my university days, where my essays tended to sit on the fence and examine both sides of the issue without really being drawn to one over the other. Anyway, I feel that this behaviour is unusual and most people do not do this. I’m not sure what to think about this.

Short Update

My novel is on pause again as I want to get some new perspectives on it, ideally from having other people read it (but who can I ask?), but at the very least by going on a break and coming to it fresh in a while, maybe after Pesach (nearly two months’ time). Strangely, as soon as I stop writing the novel, I had an idea for a longer, more analytical blog post than I’ve written for a while (on Judaism and social responsibility). It will probably take a bit of time to write it though. I spent a bit of time on it this evening.

As for today, I was reasonably busy. I drafted my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week and actually feel quite pleased with it. I went for a walk and requested a repeat prescription. I emailed a few friends and my Dad showed me how to use filters on MS Excel, which might come in useful at work. And I dusted my room, which is harder than it should be because of all the bric-a-brac I have out. I think I’ve written about that before. I’m not sure how much of it “sparks joy” (© Marie Kondo), but as of yet I haven’t been able to bring myself to put it away, much less throw it away. It’s probably that I don’t want to think about it – thinking about it would entail thinking about holidays I only vaguely remember (apparently due to autistic autobiographical memory issues), an unconsciously unhappy adolescence, the deterioration of my miniature painting skills due to medication-based tremor, and friends who fell out with me.

I Skyped my rabbi mentor too, which was helpful in dealing with some of the issues that I don’t feel I can write about here, although some of his advice was scary in terms of having to do scary social things.

Not Losing My Religion

I had a blood test this morning, my regular lithium level test. I had some slight tremor, which I often get at blood tests. I’m not scared of needles, but the fear of shaking actually causes shaking. It wasn’t too bad. I had a longish walk back.

In the afternoon I worked from home on the data collation again. I managed to finish it in under two hours, which was good, as J thought there was too much for me to get through in one day. I cooked dinner (chilli) and burnt it slightly, but it tasted OK.

I had my Tanakh shiur (Bible class) at the London School of Jewish Studies, on Yirmiyah (Jeremiah). I was able to participate in the chevruta (paired learning, although we were actually in groups of three) section this week, which was good. “Able to participate” both in the sense that the camera and microphone worked this week, unlike last week (I was on my Dad’s computer to be sure), and also in the sense of having the confidence to speak. I did also put something in the text chat facility right at the end recommending Dror Burstein’s novel Muck, which is a modern day version of Yirmiyah. I wasn’t sure if I was “allowed” to do that, or if anyone read it as it was right at the end, but I guess it was good I had the confidence to write it.

There’s not a lot else to report about today.

***

I saw this blog post about Rabbi Abraham Twerski, whose death I mentioned the other day. Granted that he came from a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbinic background where university education was rare, but seeing the precautions he was advised to take against his religious observance slipping when he was in medical school makes me wonder if I’m unusual for coming out of university religious. Well, I know I’m unusual. Religious observance (any religion) is, I think, lower in graduates than in the general population. Lots of people lose their religion at university or college, for whatever reason (doubts based on secular studies; peer pressure; temptations; away from home community; lack of time, etc.). I just didn’t really notice it at the time as I was mixing with people who were also frum (religious Jewish) at the Jewish Society albeit that my other social group, the Doctor Who Society was mostly non-religious and non-Jewish.

I tend not to give myself credit for things like this, but maybe I should. I think the chances of me getting to this point in my life and still being this religious were not that great, in terms of becoming religious as a teenager from a not fully observant background, getting through university and getting through major depression with my faith and practice intact, as well as my difficulties being accepted in the frum community from autism and social anxiety and feeling rejected in my attempts to marry someone frum. Probably on some level at least that is better than someone who has been enclosed in the Haredi world all his life and never really encountered anyone who thinks or acts differently from “normal” frum people.

***

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament today that there are “Eleven cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and thirty-two in Liverpool.” Life seems like a horror film at the moment, albeit a boring, slow-motion one. Although given how many governments are handling things, it’s less Quatermass and more Quite-a-mess.

“The future lies this way”

I got up early again (9.20am, on a Sunday, is early for me), despite setting my alarm wrongly, so things are looking good on that score. I had dreamt about a kid who bullied me at school bullying me as an adult (or quasi-adult… in the dream, I mean). It made me wonder if a lot of my feelings of inadequacy around work and my life in general are about feeling I have to “show” the kids who bullied me at school that I’m competent, or fitting in with my childhood/adolescent feelings that one day I would succeed in some nebulous, undefined way and that that would be some kind of revenge or self-justification. It would be better to focus on what I want to be doing right now, for myself.

It was a busy day. I had a nice date with PIMOJ. We had to cut it short because we both had things to do afterwards, but it was still two and a half hours. We had a really good time though. It’s strange how two people who are, on the surface, opposites (quiet, reserved and pessimistic vs. ebullient and upbeat) are so alike in many other ways. I came home and had a difficult, but positive conversation with my parents, arranged an important and scary conversation with a rabbi I haven’t seen in fifteen years and always found a little intimidating (I’m cutting a lot of relevant information here that maybe one day I’ll be able to reveal in full), started getting stuff ready for the next stage of my autism assessment on Tuesday… and promptly threw up. Perhaps it was anxiety about all the things happening this week, especially the important and scary conversation with the rabbi. I’m kind of hoping it was, because I don’t want to have a bug.

I’ve spent the last couple of hours watching Doctor Who and slowly eating toast and sipping water, while intermittently dealing with texts from PIMOJ (who is worried about me) and the slightly intimidating rabbi (who I’ll call Rabbi B to distinguish him from all the other rabbis on this blog), setting up a Zoom meeting with me and PIMOJ for Tuesday (no, we’re not about to get married). I don’t feel sick any more, but I do feel a bit faint, despite all the toast and water, and I might be coming down with a temperature; at any rate, I keep feeling hot and then cold (my parents think this is just a side effect of being sick). I texted J to say I won’t come to work tomorrow. Even if I’m not infectious, I don’t want to go on the Tube with a lowered immune system, particularly not as I’m paid on a day to day basis anyway rather than having a contract.

***

When watching Doctor Who, I watched some of The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, Tom Baker’s final two stories in the title role. Every couple of years I forget enough about these stories to think that they’re intelligent and brooding and I watch them again, alongside with Castrovalva, the next story in sequence, which forms a loose trilogy with them. And they are intelligent and brooding, in places, with a few good lines (including the title of this post). They’re also portentous, jargon-filled and incomprehensible in other places. Tom Baker is good, but has clearly had his wings clipped by the production team. But after a while I forget all that, and then I remember them as I feel they should be and watch them again… and then I remember.

I really liked Logopolis as a child, at least from the novelisation. I think I want to experience that version of the story, the version that appealed to a quiet and intelligent eight year child, rather than the version that makes the thirty-seven year old wannabe writer redraft the whole thing.

Celibacy

Despite my worries, I managed to get up early for volunteering and got there on time. It was fine. A couple of people asked if I was OK as I haven’t been for a fortnight, which was nice. I’m always amazed when people notice I’m absent. Someone donated fresh jam donuts for the volunteers and I had one. Possibly my waistband says I shouldn’t have. I still feel that I make mistakes and do stupid things there, although it’s more that what seems logical to me doesn’t always seem logical to other people and vice versa for various (autistic?) reasons. Sometimes it’s probably poor executive function or me not processing spoken instructions properly, but other times it can be me applying rules over-rigidly. Then again, maybe I’m being perfectionist and looking to autism to excuse behaviours that don’t really require excusing (again).

I was pretty exhausted in the afternoon and didn’t do very much other than a few minor chores. I intended to listen a shiur (religious class) that I missed, but it wasn’t up online. I did some other Torah study, but it was just bits and pieces, little audio vorts (short religious ideas) and articles in a religious magazine. I couldn’t face anything heavier. I did a little bit of ironing and thought about trying to force myself to do more chores, but I was worried about being burnt out tomorrow when I have work. I wish I knew why I still get so tired so easily even with the mood aspect of depression being rather easier than in the past. I just read and watched DVDs. I had been eating dinner in front of the Chanukah candles this week, but at dinner today I was drained and couldn’t face eating dinner alone with noise from my parents’ TV and ended up eating in my room, which was also alone and with TV, but at least it was my TV.

Reading this back, I see I actually did quite a lot, but I still feel guilty about not doing “enough” and not having “enough” energy considering I’m not depressed “any more”. There probably are imaginary standards of “normality” and “mentally ill” here that aren’t helpful to me.

***

I saw the next two paragraphs a few days ago on Elisheva Liss’ Jewish mental health blog. The bit I’m about to quote actually isn’t the main point of the post, but is the part that is pertinent to me and set me thinking.

As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved…

What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.

This isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish world). I’m conscious of not wanting to reveal my entire life history online, but also of wanting to talk about this for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. (I’ve tried speaking about it in therapy, but I feel that writing this has made me realise there’s a lot more to say there.) My background is that I was brought up traditional, but not fully Torah observant and gradually became more observant in my teens. At the same time, I went to a co-educational (Modern Orthodox Jewish) school and eventually became interested in girls when I was about sixteen (I was a late developer, which I definitely think was a blessing). I also had sex education, at home and at school, but it was pretty functional. It was not the Haredi minimal or no sex education, but it focused on the biological “How do we make babies?” side of things. It was a long time before anyone ever really spoken to me about the emotional side of things, and probably most of the conversations I have had about dating and sex have been in therapy.

The problem with this is, being (probably) on the autism spectrum, I do not always pick things up easily if they aren’t explicitly spelt out to me, particularly regarding social interactions. No one ever said anything about masturbation, but somehow I intuited that it was wrong, and that sexual fantasy was likely to lead to it. Pornography was a lot harder to access when I was a teenager than it is these days, but there was already a lot of quasi-pornographic imagery in society; I think the infamous Wonderbra “Hello Boys” billboard advert (the one that supposedly caused numerous car crashes from men looking at the model’s cleavage and not at the road) came out shortly before I hit puberty, and there was a lot of similar adverts around and, anyway, you shouldn’t underestimate what sexually-frustrated teenage boys can find arousing (illustrations of Dark Elf warrior women in the Warhammer rule book…).

Being autistic, depressed and socially anxious did not make it easy to find girlfriends, or to work out how to find girlfriends (to this day, my few relationships have been either via dating websites or from the other person making the first move). During my time at school, I hardly spoke to girls, except a bit to my best friend’s girlfriend. In retrospect I wish I had, as looking back I see that there were intelligent, gentle girls in my year and even in my social group, and maybe my life would have gone differently if I’d just tried to talk to them, not necessarily to date, but just to get practise socialising with women, but I was too shy to really speak to them. I had a huge crush on one girl throughout my time in the sixth form (equivalent of high school, broadly), but was rarely able to speak to her and when I did, I think she was bored and embarrassed by me.

I did manage to build female platonic friendships at university, but that backfired when I asked one out. I was twenty, and it was the first time I had ever done that. She wasn’t interested and it ended badly.

I didn’t actually go on a date until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty-seven and still a virgin and unmarried. I don’t have any particular animus about the Jewish “no sex before marriage” rule, as I know that, emotionally, I couldn’t cope with casual sex anyway. I’m sure some people can, and chafe at the rule, but I know I can’t. I have just slowly begun another relationship, but there are reasons, that I won’t go into here, that mean that it will be years before we can get married, should we decide to do so, so I’m stuck with celibacy for now.

I can’t really put into words the huge amount of frustration, fascination, confusion, envy, guilt and even anger I feel around sex and celibacy. There is also fear, but I wrote about that on Hevria a number of years ago. (That’s aside from the worry that I have so much anxiety around sex that I’ll never be able to have a genuine healthy sexual relationship, even if I get married.) As a frum Jew, I’m not supposed to talk about it; as someone somewhat internet-savvy, I’m worried about being branded a misogynist “Incel” just for raising the topic. I’ve spoken about it in therapy quite a lot, and in more detail than I will go into here, but somehow I feel that I’ve never got to the bottom of it. I’ve barely spoken about it with my current therapist, even though I’ve been seeing her for over seven months. I don’t have the words. I’m not sure if that’s because of my upbringing or my issues.

From adolescence onwards, I’ve had a huge amount of guilt and shame around my sexual thoughts and feelings. For many years I tried to repress them and mostly failed. I’m not sure if it is really feasible to repress sexual thoughts and feelings long-term; it’s certainly not possible if one is at all engaged in hyper-sexualised Western society. Sometimes I can see why Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews try to avoid Western society entirely, but I know that’s not my path.

One of the reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) between school and university as many people expected to was because of feelings of guilt around sex and the belief (which I now realise was completely mistaken) that I was the only frum or would-be frum teenage boy struggling with it. Admittedly there were half a dozen other reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva, but that decision had massive repercussions for the rest of my life, down to today, including why I feel so unmarriable in the frum community. I already had low self-esteem and a tendency to over-intellectualise things, and that and the added sexual guilt probably triggered an emotional downward spiral that fed in to my depression. It may not be coincidental (although it has only occurred to me writing this) that my first episode of depression followed about six months after the start of my first “real” crush (by which I mean the first one where I actively thought and fantasised about her all the time when she wasn’t around, rather than simply feeling vaguely anxious and attracted when I saw her).

Sometimes I feel that it’s eating away my insides. I feel that, at thirty-seven, I should not be desperate to have sex, and certainly I know it’s a bad idea to get married just to have sex. I wonder if I will ever be “ready,” emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling that middle aged sex (which is all that’s left for me) is dull and perfunctory and that if I was going to ever enjoy sex, it would have happened before now. I know this isn’t true, but it’s another lie the media perpetuates, and I can’t shake free of it.

Another thing I’ve never really got to the bottom of is whether I really want sex, or just (“just”?) intimacy. To be honest, I probably want both, and that’s probably healthy; I don’t think secular society, which says you can have healthy sex without intimacy, is particularly well-adjusted in that way. But if I absolutely had to choose, I think I would choose emotional intimacy over sex. I think that’s my absolute desire in many areas: marriage, yes, but also I want a few close friends (rather than many distant ones) and my conception of Heaven is an intimate closeness with God and perhaps with loved ones. But a successful, intimate marriage is the one I want most of all. Although I don’t feel myself particularly successful at achieving intimacy in those other areas either. I think I’m a very lonely person, and have been since my teens. Again, I can blame autism, depression and social anxiety, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I’m not sure what I want in writing this. I think a lot of it is about recognition. That I think I’m carrying some kind of burden by following Jewish law in this area, and especially doing it while more open to the sexualised Western culture than some parts of the community. I think it’s the best – or least worst – option for me right now, for a host of halakhic (Jewish legal), emotional and moral reasons, but it’s still a burden and one I hope I will put down one day, but fear that I will be carrying it for a long time. And somehow I want that acknowledged, which it isn’t, not by hyper-sexualised Western society or by the frum world, where most people are married by twenty-five. In some ways I don’t mind that many non-religious would not understand why I’m doing this, but I feel that I would like people in the frum community to understand the strain of long-term celibacy for “older singles,” beyond issues like loneliness, not fitting into the community etc. (not that those are particularly well-appreciated).

Actually, I’m not sure how much is recognition from society and how much is recognition by myself. That I really want to hear (ideally from God, but at least from someone frum who knows me well and who I respect) that I’m a good person, that I’ve done well in staying a virgin all these years, despite my failure to be 100% Torah observant in other areas of sexuality.

***

Today’s donuts: jam (very fresh) at volunteering.