Long Division

I don’t have much to say, but I feel I need to offload a bit. Work was OK. I went to the bank, which I always like as it’s good to get out of the office (which I’m finding increasingly dark and claustrophobic as we head further into winter), even if it was cold outside. Coming home wasn’t fun though. I had my first proper Tube ‘packed like sardines’ crush since COVID started, and it wasn’t even rush hour. I don’t know how I managed to cope with this regularly for so much of my life despite my autism. No wonder I kept burning out! And now I have COVID fears about being stuck with a crowded carriage of people breathing on me. Mask compliance was perhaps a bit better than it has been for a while, but not like it was last winter. Everyone was wearing a mask in shul (synagogue) tonight, but it’s hard to feel confident about that when it feels such a retrograde step.

I have been pretty burnt out this evening. I had a good time with my family last night, but I had to ‘people’ all evening and then go to bed without much downtime. Then I had work today, the Tube crush and then eating dinner with my parents again, which is still ‘peopling.’ I desperately need some TV time. I did half an hour of Torah study on the train to work; I would have liked to have done some more, but I just don’t feel up to it.

Also, E and I are facing some big decisions, but we’re facing them together, which is good. We both feel anxious, though, and frustrated at being so far apart. I’m not saying more about this for now.

***

I laughed out loud a couple of times when I was listening to Hancock’s Half-Hour on my headphones while walking home from the station (despite it being a very dated episode in multiple ways). I’m glad it was dark and people couldn’t really see me as it would look pretty odd.

***

I watched yesterday’s Doctor Who. It was mostly quite good and I wasn’t going to comment here, but then there were some bits, small and, unfortunately, very big, that were very, very bad. So feel free to skip the rest of this post, unless you’re a fan, or you just want to see me angry.

I liked the Yaz/Dan/Professor Jericho stuff. It felt like proper Doctor Who, exciting, funny, mysterious and different. More please.

The Grand Serpent was nasty. Somehow he seemed to do more than Swarm and Azure, who look good, but, in my mind at least haven’t done much (they killed some abstract people in a somewhat abstract way), a big ‘show don’t tell’ violation. And I find myself guiltily thinking the programme is better without the Doctor being engaged in the main storyline — no slight on Jodie Whittaker, just on the general level of bombast that new series Doctors are supposed to exhibit in comparison with the original series (Yaz and Professor Jericho arguably both seemed more Doctorish in their plotline).

The mildly irritating stuff: the Ood mask was rubbish (eyes too big, tentacles too rubbery and the whole thing screaming ‘fake’). The story as a whole is sort of beginning to make sense, but some stuff just isn’t explained properly. And no upper class British general in the 1950s would use ‘task’ as a verb.

The small, but annoyingly awful bit: the in-joke vocal appearance by Lethbridge-Stewart. No one of his class and accent and paternal background (see Twice Upon a Time) rose through the ranks. He’d have gone to Sandhurst and trained as an officer from the start. And even if you take the latest dating for the UNIT stories of (our) 1970s, he must have risen through the ranks superfast to get from corporal to colonel in time for the dates to work. It’s even worse if you assume the scene takes place after The Web of Fear (as is also a possible reading) and he somehow got demoted from colonel and re-promoted. Sometimes one badly-thought through in-joke is not just unfunny, but actively annoying and undermines any good feeling the in-joke might have generated.

The very big and very awful bit (MASSIVE SPOILERS with spoiler space, although WordPress blocks might mess that up EDIT: it did mess it up, sorry):

We really didn’t need to meet the Doctor’s mother, even if she is her adopted mother. It was bad enough seeing this much of her past in The Timeless Children. Even Russell T Davies held back from overtly doing this (the woman in The End of Time is supposed to be his mother, but it isn’t actually stated on screen). It’s just a silly soap opera thing, particularly if it isn’t done for any reason other than the cliched ‘villain says the Doctor is “Just like me”; Doctor says, “No I’m not!”-parallelism.

There is an argument that the Doctor hasn’t had any real mystery since The War Games revealed his/her/their background back in 1969 (real world chronology), but this is taking it to a ridiculously self-obsessed extreme. Doctor Who isn’t fundamentally about the Doctor, it’s a show that takes the Doctor as a character and uses him/her/them to explore different environments and story styles. The problem is that the programme goes through cyclical periods of thinking that the show is absolutely about the Doctor and the Time Lords and now Division and obsessing over them until the programme can’t breathe under the weight of its own mythology. Then someone else comes along and hacks the whole thing back to basics, which is what needs to happen right now. I hope maybe the Flux will provide some way of resetting the whole universe, because I can’t see where we can go from here.

Now I feel like I need to watch some other TV to recover from the TV which upset me instead of calming me down.

Useful Phrases and Toxic Positivity (and Doctor Who)

Work today was mostly OK, except for a bit when I was on the phone to someone I often struggle to understand and then J started talking to me. I could not listen to both people and once and I heard nothing. At the time, I thought this was an autistic sensory or processing thing, but it’s probably something lots of people would struggle with it.

***

I’ve been thinking today about a couple of useful phrases for mental wellbeing. One was something I heard on an NHS group therapy thing I went to a few years ago. “I’m not responsible for the first thought, I am responsible for the second.” I can’t remember the exact context where I first heard this. I think it was mostly directed at self-esteem, as in I’m not responsible if a self-critical thought comes into my head, but I don’t have to follow it up with more. It’s good for dealing with those kinds of thoughts, but I use it with a lot of other difficult thoughts, particularly the type which, if dwelt upon, can push me towards pure O OCD (idolatrous thoughts, violent thoughts, sexual thoughts). I can just say that I’m not responsible for random thoughts that come into my head, so no guilt and catastrophising about being a terrible person for having such a thought, but also that I have the power not to dwell on them so I can move on, which is empowering.

The other phrase was something I learnt on a confidence and self-esteem course I did many years ago. I think some of the course veered towards toxic positivity, but one thing that was useful was the mantra, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.” That’s actually quite powerful and I focused on it today after the telephone awkwardness. I do tend to think that a lot of people have negative thoughts about me (people who don’t know my issues/struggles, but who witness my social awkwardness), but I can at least try not to care about it.

***

Speaking of toxic positivity, I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast on the subject yesterday. It was good, but I felt that they didn’t really get into the issue of toxic positivity in a Jewish religious setting. They spoke a bit about the sociological side of things, like mourning rituals creating time and space for sadness, but they didn’t really get into the theology. A lot of people would argue that Jews are supposed to be grateful and joyous all the time. This is an idea that is identified most strongly with Hasidism (particularly Breslov Hasidism), but can be found in other places too. This can be hard to accept or follow.

Part of the problem is that most of the sources dealing with joy and sadness date from before the development of modern psychology, so they don’t really distinguish sadness from clinical depression. Even accepting that, I think it is OK to say that sometimes the emphasis on joy and happiness isn’t always healthy or achievable, and that there is a place for sadness (they said this on the podcast, just not with religious sources). I used to know a Yeshivish rabbi who used to say that he was very glad that he isn’t a Breslov Hasid as he couldn’t be happy all the time. (It is also worth noting that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was also far from being joyous all the time and quite possibly had bipolar disorder, so we shouldn’t feel bad about not living up to a standard even he didn’t reach.)

Beyond that, I think there is a sense that joy is not the same as happiness or positivity. Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl wrote an essay on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in his Sukkot machzor (Tabernacles prayerbook). It’s a while since I read it, but I think he says that Kohelet is a book permeated with death and the sense of the shortness and futility of life, but it also has the word ‘joy’ more than any other book in Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible). The paradox is resolved because joy is not about always being happy and more about living in the moment and being grateful for what you do have, something that is compatible with feeling sadness from time to time.

***

Doctor Who thoughts, feel free to skip: I watched The Fires of Pompeii with E (long-distance). It’s a strange story, full of postmodern comedy, then it ends with the city being destroyed and loads of people dying. Doctor Who has done this before (the original series story The Myth Makers, about the fall of Troy, is very similar, tonally, although it’s hard to compare them directly as the older story no longer survives), but it seems weirdly awkward.

It seems like when Doctor Who, original or modern, does a historical story set within living memory, the writers and designers bust a gut to get every detail right and it’s all taken very seriously. No one is going to suggest the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Rosa) or the partition of India (Demons of the Punjab) were anything other than serious, tragic episodes, and while there is humour (e.g. the Doctor claiming to be Banksy in Rosa), it’s low-key and it doesn’t send up the period. Nothing like the Cockney Roman stallholder in The Fires of Pompeii.

If it’s set beyond living memory, however, suddenly the most outrageous errors (beyond artistic licence), anachronisms and silliness are permissible, even if it ends badly. The Witchfinders in particular sticks in my craw, for many reasons. Hence The Fires of Pompeii, an episode that mostly feels like Asterix… right up until the city gets destroyed. Weird.

There is a sense that, if no one in the audience can remember it, it’s ripe for comedy, which is a bit shocking for a programme that was originally supposed to teach children about history and to present the past on its own terms, as being as valid as the perspective of the present. Admittedly it wandered from this attitude very quickly, also in a story set in the ancient Roman Empire ending in catastrophe (the Fire of Rome in The Romans, a story very much in the same vein as The Fires of Pompeii). The Fires of Pompeii is far from being unique here, but the tragic nature of the climax, combined with the broadness of the comedy beforehand, make it particularly noticeable. I would like it if we could go back to really well-researched historical stories, but I suspect I’m in a minority here.

(Actually, I’ve just remembered Let’s Kill Hitler, a story that isn’t actually about killing Hitler, but does not exactly get to grips with the brutal reality of the Third Reich. It’s more about River Song trying to kill the Doctor, but I guess if I were inclined I could see it as more evidence of Jews not being considered a real oppressed minority in the eyes of the woke/BBC, although 2011 is a bit early for true wokeness. Anyway, as a general rule, my point still stands: recent tragedy: serious; further back: mockery.)

(Trivia point I noticed a while back: The War Games (1969) is closer in time to World War One (1914-1918) than Rosa (2018) is to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), yet it doesn’t feel that way.)

On and On and On

Today I’ve been up and down. I’m fine, I’m low, I’m fine, I want to cry, I’m fine… It’s hard to tell what triggered this, or maybe there are too many possible causes. Possible causes:

1) I haven’t had any response for my pitches to the Jewish newspaper, Jewish website or from the last couple of novel agents I submitted to. I haven’t had any time to submit to more agents. I don’t know what other websites or publications I might pitch to at the moment. This probably isn’t unusual and might not even mean that those publications/agents aren’t interested at this stage, but I’m finding the total radio silence unnerving. I’d like to hear something, even if it’s to say that I’m pitching the wrong way or to the wrong people.

2) I’m a bit upset that social anxiety seems to be winning in my life, at least at shul (see yesterday’s post) and a bit at work, inasmuch as I hope to avoid the Very Scary Task, although to be fair I’m not actively avoiding it. I would like to do autism-adapted CBT to work on this, but who knows when I will be able to do so?

3) I’m frustrated at not having much time for writing either, although I did spend some time on novel research last night. To be fair, part of my frustration is about being stuck in research and not writing mode.

Not everything is in limbo: I have E, and I have a job, even if it’s only two days a week. Being long-distance with E is hard now we’ve been in person, but it’s better than nothing. I also feel like I only get things when I’m at my wits’ end about them, and I’m not there yet with work and writing (or writing for work). I’m somewhat nervous about meeting E’s parents on Zoom later this week, but I have to do it sooner or later, and it’s better to do it sooner.

Otherwise it was a dull day: I got up a little earlier than usual, did some Torah study, went for a run, and Mum cut my hair. C’est tout.

***

Doctor Who was good (Village of the Angels), surprisingly so, although perhaps not so surprising given that it basically rehashed tried and tested set-pieces from other Weeping Angels stories. I feel there is only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels. I suspect it will turn out to be the best episode of the six part season story, as I’m expecting the concluding episodes to drift into technobabble and incoherence; already I feel I’m vague on anything to do with the ongoing storyline about the Flux and the villainous Swarm and Azure (good costumes, though) and more focused on the plotlines of individual episodes like the Sontarans in the Crimean War in episode two or the Village of the Angels tonight.

Post-Shabbat Blues

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was tranquil on the surface, but I think it pointed out hidden tensions in my mind and I feel quite drained and low now.

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. When I got home, I had quite a long talk with my parents about the cremation they had been to for my Mum’s cousin. I hadn’t really been able to speak to them about it before, as they only got back from it an hour or so before Shabbat and I was busy showering and getting ready for Shabbat. There was something Mum said that I won’t talk about here that I think I need to spend some time internalising, maybe in therapy.

***

Mum told me that my oldest friend was in one of the Jewish newspapers. I had emailed him last week as I hadn’t heard from him for ages. He hasn’t got back to me yet. I struggled with some thoughts again. I’m pleased that he’s doing well with his life, but sometimes it seems like our lives were so similar in primary school and the early years of secondary school and then we grew apart as we got older, although we never fell out or lost touch, just went in different directions. The fact that I’m not on social media probably doesn’t help us stay in touch, as I think he uses Facebook quite a bit for life announcements.

I try really hard these days not to feel jealous of other people’s lives, when they seem to be doing much better than me, and a lot of the time I succeed, but my oldest friend is ultra-hard given how parallel our lives once were. We even looked alike, except that he was a lot taller – people assumed he was my older brother. I kept thinking of the two identical goats for Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in ancient times, the one for God and the other thrown off the cliff (the origin of the word ‘scapegoat’). I think I was the one who got thrown off the cliff.

After a bit of time on Friday night I got to a point of relative equanimity about this, but then I dreamt about my friend last night, so it’s obviously still bothering me unconsciously.

***

The other dream I had last night was about Rabbi Sacks. I feel like I’m still grieving him, and grieving the guidance I feel he could have given me about my life if I’d been able to engineer a situation where I met him. If I could have had the confidence to go to some events where he was, or if I had been in a Jewish youth movement especially as a youth leaders, or a leader at the university Jewish Society, as so many prominent people in the Modern Orthodox community were. But I was terrified of most people my own age as a teenager because of being bullied at school and perhaps also because autism meant I simply couldn’t communicate easily with them and understand unspoken communication. The result was that I avoided most group social stuff until it was too late. By the time I was in my late twenties or thirties and wanted to meet people, they were all married and settling down.

I should probably stop going on about this. I’m not sure how I can grieve someone I never met and only knew through his writing, which I still have.

***

After lunch I could have had seudah (the Third Sabbath meal) and gone to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), Talmud shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), but I went to bed for a bit and then davened (prayed) at home, and did Talmud study at home after Shabbat. I’m not sure why I did this, but it’s definitely an anxiety thing, probably fear of being asked to lead Minchah in shul as the second Minchah has few people and fewer who are willing/able to lead the service. I struggle to keep up in shiur and I feel uncomfortable helping to tidy up after Ma’ariv; I always feel I just get in everyone’s way and I don’t know how to help (I’ve mentioned before Amanda Harrington’s idea about people on the spectrum wanting to help, but just getting in the way). There’s probably some common or garden social anxiety too. It’s also hard to go out on Shabbat when it’s cold and overcast; it’s harder when the event I’m going to inspires so many negative feelings.

I feel like I’ve gone backwards over COVID time and the social anxiety that used to be around Shabbat morning prayers has spread to the afternoon too. Lately I’ve given up even trying to go in the mornings.

***

I finished reading The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen, about the rabbis of Przysucha (pronounced Peshischa) and Kotzk. It’s a book that clearly resonates with me as this was the third or fourth time I’ve read it in thirteen years.

In the closing pages of the appendices (p. 355-356), Rabbi Rosen writes:

Yet with all its concern for the people, it must be said that the average Jew would not have found his place in Przysucha. The Kotzker might have been more strident, but the value system of Przysucha by definition excluded the Jew who did not want to think deeply, who did not want to extend himself, who wanted neither the agony nor the ecstasy, but who just wanted to identify and feel heimish (at home). There was no place in Przysucha for the Jew who simply wanted to pay his dues to the religious party, as it were, without being forced to ask the question, “But why?”…

By its very nature, membership or identification with a group entails some personal compromise. Przysucha was strongly opposed to such compromise. Thus its very nature entailed a dilemma, and perhaps the seeds of its end. However, for many of those who have a reflective personality, the quest for authenticity must have been almost irresistible.

I think I’ve been very reluctant to make real or apparent compromises over the years, hence my resistance to so many groups where perhaps I might have made friends and been accepted if I’d just let my guard down and gone. I also feel that nowadays most of the Jewish community is closer to the “feeling heimish” end of the Jewish spectrum than the “quest for authenticity” end. Maybe, post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust, heimish is the most we can hope for from the community as a whole. Or maybe it was ever thus. Or maybe organised yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) study for young people provides a mechanism for some people to grow and develop, although I’m not convinced that this is always the case from what I’ve heard. Ironically, it is the sense of authenticity and fear of dropping my guard that contributed to my not going to yeshiva (as well as my not being a youth/Jewish Society leader), although there were other reasons too.

***

There’s a lot of negativity in this post. I don’t really feel negative, just a bit down. I mostly feel cautiously positive these days, but I guess there’s a lot of anxiety and fear below the surface about the fact that I’m still trying to get my life together. I can see the next step or two, but not beyond that, and that’s scary when you’re nearly forty, only working part-time and, in some sense, disabled, and want to settle down and try to start a family.

Then and Now

I feel that sometimes bad things happen and I write about them, but when they get resolved, I forget to mention it. I think I forgot to mention that the ringing I had in my ears a while back stopped after a few days of steam inhalation. Similarly, I had a couple of recent days of emotional lowness and worried I was drifting into depression, but I mostly seem to have been OK since then, albeit with the caveat that my ‘normal’ mood is generally somewhat lower in the winter than the summer, and that I can dip into low mood for a while during a day in response to external events, or just being hungry or tired.

***

Yesterday I applied for the writing job I wrote about recently. That took much of my Sunday afternoon. I didn’t do much else. I went for a walk, skyped E, did some Torah study. That was about it.

Today at work I had to go to one of our other sites, which at least got me out of the office. I was absolutely exhausted when I got home (then had to make supper as Mum wasn’t feeling well). I couldn’t do the things I was hoping to do tonight, although planning to do anything after work is always risky. I worry how I will cope if I work more hours.

J pointed out that I’d made a fairly big mistake last week. It’s possible I just misheard what someone said to me over the phone. The more worrying interpretation is that my brain simply wasn’t working properly as I was trying to listen, write and think (and ‘people’ a bit, which is harder over the phone) all at the same time, while also trying not to give in to social anxiety. I guess Explanation 2 is just an elaborated version of Explanation 1. All of which makes me worry about my future in the workplace (any workplace). It’s hard to tell how annoyed/concerned J is about this, as he’s pretty laid back about everything and I can’t work out if that means this is OK or he’s angry, but chooses not to show it.

***

Lately I’ve been reading Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, a nicely put together (and surprisingly long) tribute book to Rabbi Lord Sacks published by the United Synagogue for his first yortzeit (death anniversary). The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of Rabbi Sacks taken at various events during his Chief Rabbinate. The Anglo-Jewish community is very small and I’ve already spotted a number of people I know in the photos with him.

Today I spotted my first girlfriend in one of the group photos. According to the caption, it was almost certainly taken while we were together. It was a bit of a shock, being reminded of my previous life. I was a different person back then. It did make me reflect, not for the first time, that E is really the best person for me. None of my other girlfriends/dates/crushes (not that there were many of the first two) came close to connecting with me, understanding me or caring for me as well as she does.

The downside of reminiscing is that part of me still struggles in the way I did back then with a lot of day-to-day tasks, and with sleep and energy levels, and I am not sure how to deal with that, because finding True Love apparently doesn’t magically stop you being autistic and socially anxious.

***

This week’s new Doctor Who episode was pretty much typical new Doctor Who. I was going to say something about the fact that I could barely understand it and none of it really resonated with me, but I keep coming back to the idea that the programme isn’t made for people like me (resolutely non-fashionable middle aged fans), it’s being made for a family audience and especially children of the twenty-first century. If it didn’t have the name Doctor Who I probably wouldn’t watch it and I probably wouldn’t care, but because it has the name on it, and because I’m emotionally invested in ‘Doctor Who‘ (whatever that means), I care.

It’s funny how much of my fan life has been spent trying to define the difference between the Doctor Who I like most and the Doctor Who I don’t like as much (or at all). There’s a fan joke that goes, “What’s the definition of a Doctor Who fan? Someone who hates Doctor Who” and, while I don’t think that’s entirely true, it does define a certain type of person, and certain part of most fans. We (i.e. fans) try to maintain that there’s just one big thing called Doctor Who, but really it’s made up of lots and lots of little bits and it’s OK to like some of it and not other parts without needing to explain yourself (he said, explaining himself).

***

I posted this on Margaret’s blog and thought it was probably better here than in a comment thread. It was responding to a meme about books being more lavish, detailed and beautiful than the films that are based on them. I wrote:

I don’t think that meme about the book vs. the movie/film is always true. I can think of a number of stories where the film is as good or better than the book, although to be fair, in some cases the book was written primarily as the first stage in writing the screenplay (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Third Man). I think the meme discounts the artistry present in good direction, acting, cinematography and even design e.g. Blade Runner, which purely in plot terms is worse than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, cutting out the subplots as well as over-simplifying plot and character, but the direction and design work add a whole level resulting in a film that feels like an immersive environment.

As a librarian, bibliophile and aspiring novelist, I feel vaguely treacherous for saying that the film can be better than the book, but I am a Dispassionate Truth-Speaker and will not lie!

Neither Here Nor There

I went to bed late last night, which was my fault, and then I struggled to fall asleep and to stay asleep, which was not my fault. I overslept a bit, but got to the office more or less on time despite train delays.

I got to leave work earlier than usual today, which was good, as it gave me more recovery time before depression group (see below). This was a double relief after having done some of the Very Scary Task again, although J will be handling most of it tomorrow.

I went to depression group on Zoom. I hadn’t been for ages as I find it too draining after work. I didn’t have much to say, as I didn’t want to talk too much about my situation with E (I’m still pretty private about it and don’t want to say anything until there’s something to say), but I also didn’t want to sound too negative from having had a few bad days in the last week or so. I was just glad that I went, as going has felt too much for some time now, and that I spoke, as I was somewhat anxious about speaking. The group will be restarting in-person meetings soon and I might try to go to them as well as, or instead of, Zooming in the future. The time demands are greater in person, as I have to get there by bus or get a lift from my parents and come home by bus, but I think it’s easier to speak in person (although this could be selective memory after eighteen months) and it feels less confusing blurring the boundaries between home and group by being in my room and in the group at the same time. As for the journey time, I find those transitions are actually important to me, being on the spectrum, to help me handle changing tasks and situations, particularly switching from peopling to be alone. Also, the day of the meeting is shifting to Tuesday, which suits my work schedule much better.

***

Although I said I don’t want to say anything until there’s something to say, E and I are having Serious Conversations about moving our relationship on. It’s hard to move things on while we have limited income, although we both are 100% committed to finding a way to do so, somehow. That’s where the conversations come in, to plan what to do. I think I unconsciously assumed that sorting my career out would happen at the same time as finding my relationship, but I guess there is no reason why they should have done so. I just spent so many years praying and fantasising that I would get over my depression and get a “real” job and get married… it’s hard to avoid seeing it all as one big thing, especially as the first time E and I dated was the highpoint of my working life (I can’t really say ‘career’).

This also ducks the question of whether I really am ‘over’ my depression; certainly depression group tonight reminded me that many people experience depression as cyclical, with periods of remission and relapse. This has certainly been my experience, and it is worrying when I think about the future. Winter has traditionally been a period of relapse for me, relapses that do not always depart with the arrival of spring. I certainly feel bored and somewhat anxious and down at work at the moment, but I think it’s just that the job is a bit boring and the premises dreary. In other ways it’s fine, and my mood at home is much better, at least if I make allowances for the time of the year. I hope this is the end of the cycles, but who knows?

Opportunities, Missed and Otherwise

I am OK today. I am quite a bit down, but I’ve been used to that over the years. It’s a rush today because Shabbat starts at 4.10pm, but I wanted to note a few things briefly.

I’m hoping for a restful Shabbat (the Sabbath). My parents are out for dinner tonight, so I should have some time for recreational reading. E says I should read more for fun on Shabbat even if that means doing less Torah study and she may be right. Tomorrow Talmud shiur (religious class) at shul (synagogue) returns and I’d like to go, even though that means staying on for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and then staying afterwards to help, where I feel I usually just get in the way, however hard I try to be helpful. But I’ll see how I feel tomorrow afternoon. It’s eighteen months since we’ve had this format for the shiur, because of COVID and because the timetable is different in the summer when Shabbat afternoons are very long compared with the winter when they’re very short.

There is an oneg being hosted by someone from my shul tonight. An oneg is a kind of Shabbat party where you sit around a table and there are snacks and soft drinks and alcohol, and people talk and sing religious songs and share divrei Torah. I used to try to force myself to these things to make friends. Usually I just sat there terrified, not speaking. Sometimes I stood outside crying at my social anxiety and social impairments and my inability to face my fears. I can’t really be bothered with that now, but I do wonder how else to make friends.

***

I found, lurking in my email inbox, an email from over a year ago from a job agency that helps people on the autism spectrum into work. I think I didn’t go down that path a year ago because I wasn’t diagnosed then, and because my current job appeared soon afterward. I might contact them again soon.

***

There’s a woman who keeps writing for Chabad.org about her fertility issues and the fact that she might never have children, and I want to read her articles, but I can’t, perhaps because they’re too close to home. Not that I have fertility issues per se, but that E and I worry that with all the mental health, neurological and financial issues that we have between us that we’ll never be able to support children, practically and financially. I guess that’s my main worry at the moment. I think E and I will be together, but I worry how we’ll cope, even without children.

***

I keep being drawn back to this interview with the late Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl where the interviewer lists Rabbi Sacks’ achievements and asks if he ever failed anything and Rabbi Sacks bursts into laughter and says, “I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.” I heard another interview where he said that being a rabbi was his fourth career choice, after he failed at becoming an economist, an academic philosopher and a barrister (lawyer). So that gives me a little hope, because I’m nearly forty and I haven’t done anything with my life.

He also says, “I think all that goes with the affective dimension of Judaism, the emotional life, is being neglected…  I think we haven’t done enough with the affective dimension, and music is probably the most important… Cinema, too, isn’t used enough in this regard. I think we haven’t done enough with that to tell people what the life of faith does for you. I have so many stories that I think ought to be made into film. Stories of ordinary people I know who have done extraordinary things.”

He doesn’t talk about prose fiction, but I think it applies there too, particularly in terms of telling stories. Although the stories I want to tell are not necessarily ones he would want to tell. But I think/hope there is an audience out there, although not necessarily or purely a frum one or even Jewish one. I just hope I can convince the gatekeepers (agents, publishers, reviewers) of that.

I know I say things like this a lot, but, honestly, I have to keep saying it or otherwise I stop believing in it myself.

***

The reason the interview was posted is that it’s just over a year since Rabbi Sacks died. I still feel his loss acutely, even though I never really met him (although I was in the same room as him a few times). I wish I had had the opportunity, or made the opportunity, to speak to him — really to speak to him about my Jewish life, my creative life and my aspirations to unite them both. I struggle to understand my place in the world in general and Jewish world in particular. I don’t understand why God made me autistic, or what He wants from me. I feel he would have understood, and would have had good advice. It’s too late now.

Twice Exceptional

Yesterday was fairly ordinary. I submitted my manuscript to another agent, went for a run and Skyped E. I got an exercise headache again. I didn’t blog because there didn’t seem much need for it.

Today was more difficult. I had some OCD-type anxiety in the morning and again this evening. I had vague anxiety and intermittent vaguely low mood across the day. It’s hard for me to understand my feelings sometimes (often), but I felt some gloom and lethargy, albeit that that’s probably usual for me when I’m at work. Work was OK, though, not too many mistakes.

I came home determined to work on my novel(s). I did manage about half an hour of work on them, doing some research for my second novel and also trying to track down the publisher and agent of someone who has written an award-winning Young Adult novel that is Jewish-themed (frum), but aimed at a general audience. I am tempted to submit my first novel to the agency, and maybe the publisher, although I’ve been warned to be wary of approaching publishers directly even when they permit it.

I would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really possible for reasons I can’t go into here. I did some Torah study too and ate dinner with my parents (we try to eat together on Mondays) so it was pretty productive. I’m too tired to read now, so will probably vegetate in front of the TV. I guess there is always a price (although I did read quite a bit on my commute and during my lunch break).

***

There was Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) in the shul (synagogue) where my workplace is housed this afternoon and I went, my first weekday prayer service in quite a while. The rabbi asked if I wanted to lead Minchah and I turned him down pretty much instinctively from social anxiety. I wish I had had the confidence to lead the service, as I’d like to find that talent again. Also, the people who did lead the service were too fast. I like Goldilocks davening (praying): not too fast and not too slow. Unfortunately, davening at this shul is, as J says, “Nusach Einstein: davening at the speed of light.”

***

I’m in the middle of a Norman Frum Women podcast episode where they are talking to a psychiatrist about parenting neurodivergent children. I’m finding it interesting, not least from hearing the parents’ perspective, although my neurodivergence was undiagnosed when I was a child, so my parents didn’t deal with it in the same way. (I was walking while listening to this and so could not take detailed notes, so any mistakes are mine not theirs.)

There was an interesting functional definition of neurodivergence as being about having a brain that accumulates excess stress in everyday situations. There was a stress on the idea of neurodivergent disability being environmental (I think ‘situational’ might be a slightly better word), in that it manifests in a particular set of circumstances, but not others. I can cope with noise and people being in my space sometimes, but then throw in a day of work stress or my HALT triggers (being Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and suddenly I’m not coping (that’s my example, not theirs, again in case of errors).

I was particularly interested to hear about “twice exceptional” children: children who are exceptional in being neurodivergent, but also exceptional in terms of being clever and often also well-behaved (which sounded like it could be a bad thing if they’re avoiding testing boundaries for the wrong reasons). These twice exceptional children can find it hard to get support in school, because everyone assumes they’re doing well. This definitely resonated with my school experiences, although realistically I’m not sure what help was actually available for me twenty-plus years ago when high-functioning autism was even less well-understood than it is now.

There was a positive note about adult neurodivergents often finding a “better fit” for their lives once they no longer have the artificial and stressful environment of school. I think there is some survivorship bias here, as the psychiatrist seemed to be judging based on some of her academic mentors/supervisors who she thinks are on the spectrum. I would suggest there are a lot more people on the spectrum who aren’t in high-powered academic jobs. Certainly I feel that the kind of life that would work for me is not one that is really on the table at the moment, if ever. I’m really only functioning with any kind of independence because a lot of people (my parents, E, J) are not making the demands of me at home or in the workplace that would perhaps normally be expected of a thirty-something with two degrees. I would like to build some kind of career of a writer, either full-time or with a small amount of part-time office work, but I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do so; my steps so far have been extremely faltering and rarely successful. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just my viewpoint.

I would be interested in a follow-up episode on adult neurodivergence in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Although maybe Normal Frum Women isn’t the best place for that, as there is a lot to say about men. The frum community makes considerable demands on both men and women. Men are more forced to do particular things at particular times (especially communal prayer) and are forced into noisy, crowded communal spaces like shuls and batei midrash (study halls). Women are encouraged/expected to support large and often noisy and messy families, so I can see there would be problems for neurodivergent women too. It would be interesting to hear how other autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, male or female, manage it. I’ve struggled to find a place for myself communally, in shul and “learning” (adult education) and lately I feel as if I’m detaching myself from my current community. If anything, COVID has only accelerated this trend, by adding health anxiety to already existent social anxiety and showing me that I can survive well enough without communal prayer or Torah study. I’m not sure if our shul has got louder in recent since we got a more Hasidish rabbi about a year before COVID, but I am definitely struggling with the noise more since lockdown. By noise I mean clapping and thumping tables during Kabbalat Shabbat, rather than talking (there is very little of that at least). There is also occasional dancing, which I can’t cope with at all.

***

Yesterday saw the start of the new series of Doctor Who, structured as one big, six episode story. It was vaguely diverting, but I think twenty-first century Doctor Who isn’t really for me. I used to think it was due to things like pop cultural references, sexualising the Doctor/companion relationship, and hyper-sexual characters like Captain Jack and River Song, but even without all these things, I struggled to get involved. I just find it fast, loud, melodramatic, self-important and portentous in a way the twentieth century version was not (OK, the twentieth century version was melodramatic, I’ll give you that). I think it’s a charge you can level at a lot of popular culture e.g. superhero films, the Daniel Craig Bond films and so on.

I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. But I watch, perhaps out of loyalty or nostalgia, and I’ll probably give it a second viewing at some point, because re-watching when I know where the bad bits are helps me to find more good bits. Possibly I’m the epitome of the obsessive self-hating (or insane) fan. Even so, I’m glad the second-hand back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine from 1996 that I ordered arrived today. The issue is a tribute to third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, tying in with the fact that I’m about to introduce E to him via one of his most memorable stories, The Green Death.

Mental Hangover

I really just wanted to check in. I am OK today, just really drained. I am a bit down, but it will pass, but my mind feels scattered as sometimes happens to me when drained, where it’s hard to focus on anything or get energy to do anything. I wish I had more downtime, though. My uncle is coming to stay for the weekend, as he’s working in the UK. I like spending time with him, but he’s quite a personality and I’m not sure I want that right now. I’ve already ducked Sunday night dinner with him, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law at my sister’s and BIL’s house. It was just too much. I need alone time to process the last two weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to shul (synagogue) tonight, I just feel too drained.

I wrote a To Do list, as I felt I have a lot of stuff to do in coming weeks and lists help me get a grip on things without anxiety. It’s a relatively short list, which is reassuring, but many of the tasks are repetitive and are going to be ongoing for a long time, particularly finding an agent for my novel and researching my next novel Some of the one-off tasks are scary too, like trying to sort out the situation with the autism-adapted CBT referral.

Stress, and Political Narratives

I haven’t posted for a couple of days as not much happened. I’m trying to reduce my blogging. I started this blog as a mental health blog, and it became an autism blog. I feel that, as my mental health has improved (although it’s not perfect) and I’m getting more used to my autism diagnosis and what autistic life means for me, there is less to say, albeit with the caveat that whenever I’ve spoken about blogging less in the past, something has happened to push me back towards it.

Certainly today was a bit of a mental health-straining day. I woke up just before 7.00am. I lay in bed wondering whether I should get up, as I’m trying to force myself to get up if I wake up early (not with much success so far). Then I started thinking about E’s trip to the UK and got into a complete panic about whether we had booked the right COVID tests for her. It took me half an hour of searching online to confirm that we had booked the right tests. By that stage, I thought I should stay up. I had breakfast, but went back to bed afterwards, probably because I was still overwhelmed with anxiety that I had not discharged. Inevitably, I fell asleep again and woke up late. Then when I was davening (praying), I had intrusive OCD-type thoughts, albeit not with OCD levels of anxiety, but still some anxiety. I hope I’ll feel better once E is actually here safely.

At lunch time one of the circuit breakers went and kept switching off whenever we reset it, but we couldn’t see why. Then, a few hours later, we found a leak in the garage, which has probably got into the electrics somewhere. As a result, we’re going to have a plumber and an electrician here later in the week, which is not ideal consider E is staying with us, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Other than that, things were pretty good. I gave my bedroom a thorough dust before E comes to stay, I did some Torah study and went for a run. I got an exercise headache again, but I did have the best pace I’d measured since May.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt argues that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” He quotes the psychologist Dan McAdams that people create “life narratives” to understand their lives. The narratives may not be objectively true, or at least not entirely, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to shape an understanding of the self and the world. Haidt brings this to explain why people who are predisposed to one sort of political worldview by genes or upbringing (yes, our political views are partly genetic, he argues) can end up with a very different worldview in the end, influenced by the narrative they create to explain their world.

This made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand the way my political views have evolved over time, particularly the way I started somewhat left-of-centre (probably in part because of my family and friends), but increasingly felt that “people like me” were not welcome on the left and drifted rightwards, even though I don’t strongly identify with all conservative ideas and especially conservative attitudes and parties, including on Haidt’s multi-polar six ‘flavour’ model of morality.

On a non-political level, it underlined to me that my improved mood in the last eight months or so is at least partly from having my autism diagnosis, which enabled me to create a new narrative about myself, one where I no longer perceive myself as a person repeatedly failing at simple tasks for no obvious reason, but as an autistic person doing my best with tasks that are not always suited for me. I think that more than anything has stopped me drifting back into depression (well, that and E).

That said, I think Haidt perhaps focuses a little too much on politics as ideology or values rather than pragmatic factors. I feel strongly about caring for other people (which Haidt sees as something liberals feel more than conservatives, although he says conservatives do feel it), it’s just that my experience of the NHS and the benefits system led me to believe that the state is often inefficient and even counter-productive when it tries to help people.

***

Ashley was asking how people chose their blog names and I thought some people here might like to see what I responded (slightly amended from what I posted there):

“Vision of the Night” is a quote from Job. I wanted to write a Jewish mental health blog (having blogged about mental health in a not very Jewish way previously) and was looking for something biblical and somewhat depressed-sounding, but not taken by other people. This was what I ended up with.

I find thinking of titles generally hard and titles for blogs more so (I mean the title of the blog, not the particular post). My most obscure blog title was one of my Doctor Who blogs, which was called “From Lime Grove to Beyond the Sun” which is a very obscure Doctor Who reference, Lime Grove Studios being where the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were filmed, and Beyond the Sun being an abandoned title for the story fans refer to as The Daleks. I think it sounds quite good as a title.

In case that wasn’t crazy enough, it had a subtitle for a while, “The blog for fans of Cliff, Lola, Biddy and the older man with a character twist” (the idea was I would change the subtitle periodically to something funny). Doctor Who doesn’t feature anyone called Cliff, Lola or Biddy. They were suggestions for characters in the early proposals and story guides from before the series was filmed; by the time of transmission, they had become Ian, Barbara, Susan as well as the Doctor (older man with character twist). I think I was trying to reach out to the cognoscenti, but it didn’t really work. I see it as very much part of my mindset of trying to write stuff that could have been in Doctor Who Magazine in the late nineties rather than what was actually going on in fandom at the time when the series had been revived and had suddenly become popular with people who were only vaguely aware that it had a history before 2005, let alone shown the obsessive background knowledge developed by fans who were around for the wilderness years when it wasn’t on TV.

The Hive Switch

I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.

Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders[1], improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades [2]. They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.

(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)

Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.

Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.

So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.

The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)[3]

I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.

Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.

[1] I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.

[2] Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.

[3] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.

***

Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.

I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.

Anticlimaxes

My parents’ suspected COVID has turned out to be a heavy cold, fortunately, although I’m still hoping to avoid it. I’m actually not particularly susceptible to colds and viruses, so I’m hopeful. It would not be good if E comes to the UK and I’m too ill to leave the house!

I went to bed early last night as I had had an exercise headache after running and was not feeling 100% even though the pain had subsided. However, I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying, or if I just had time to worry because I was lying in bed unable to sleep. I thought I would write down my anxieties and possible plans for dealing with them. I didn’t want to go on the computer in case the light made the insomnia worse, so I wrote it on paper. I tried to write some suggestions to deal with the anxieties too, rather than just rehearse them.

Looking over it today, some of it seems catastrophising. It’s true that the publishing industry leans somewhat progressive/woke, and that few books (fiction or non-fiction) presenting the Orthodox Jewish community (or other conservative religious communities) in a positive light exist. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t find an agent or a publisher for my book, especially as I think the Jewish non-representation issue is as much a problem of supply as demand; there aren’t enough good writers in a community that does not value artistic creation highly. On a practical level, as I am struggling to send query letters to five or ten agents in one go each month, maybe it would be more realistic to send to two agents a week.

I do also worry that the novel I am planning will get me a terrible reputation for writing about sex and pornography use in the frum (religious Jewish) community, but I feel driven to write the novel regardless. A bigger problem is my fear that I won’t be able to pull the whole plot together and created rounded characters, but I have no way of knowing except by trying. I also fear that writing about sex when I’m a thirty-eight year old virgin is not the most sensible thing to do, but I guess I have a unique voice, and writing about pornography addiction is not exactly the same as writing about sex (not that I have experience of addiction either, but I’m researching).

More realistically, I was worried that COVID would disrupt E’s trip here. That’s less likely now my parents’ tests came back negative, but it’s still possible. It’s just something we (= the world) will have to learn to live with.

My biggest worry last night was actually the easiest to resolve today. I was worried about talking to J about mistakes at work, but when I did that today, he seemed laid back about it. On reflection, I think it’s only one or two tasks where I continually make mistakes and J seems to think I will improve with experience.

Other than that, it was an ordinary day at work, but I managed to do about an hour of work on my new novel in the evening! I wanted to plan out the story, but realised I needed to work understanding the characters first. It’s that idea of knowing if I can do it by trying. I have a better idea of character and plot now. I don’t think I’m going to get much time to focus on it in the immediate future, though, with E coming here soon and the fact that I want to spend some serious time finding an agent for my first novel. But I’m glad to have made some progress, as I want to get some kind of an outline written for the novel soon, so I can see if it has potential before I invest too much time in it. I would have liked to have spent even more time on it, but I got too tired.

I probably shouldn’t write too much about my creative process here, for fear of killing it, but it helps me to process things to speak a bit about it.

Back to the NHS

I struggled to sleep again last night. I think I need to be strict about no screens after 10.30pm, except for texting E good night, but I’m not sure how much that would actually help, as I sometimes struggle to sleep on Friday night, when I haven’t been on screens for hours.

I waited for an hour at the doctor. I was about to ask the receptionist if I had been forgotten, when I got a text saying I had missed my appointment! I showed that to the receptionist who said she had checked me in when I arrived. I don’t know what happened, but somehow the doctor didn’t know that I was sitting in the waiting room. I probably have confirmation bias about the NHS being useless, but sometimes it’s hard not to feel it. Atypically for me, I didn’t have anything to read, as I’ve noticed lately I don’t read in waiting rooms any more, as I seem to have too much social anxiety. I’m not sure why this has suddenly come about. It’s possibly partly fear of the meeting itself and partly fear of being caught in the middle of reading something and creating some kind of social faux pas through carrying on reading.

When I saw the doctor, she couldn’t see anything wrong with my ears (which are still ringing and a little muffled), except my eardrums were “cloudy” (I think that was the word she used). She seemed pretty stuck for solutions. She said to do “steam inhalation” — basically breathe in steam from boiling water for five to ten minutes twice a day for two weeks and see if that clears the Eustachian tubes, which might be congested. (I think Eustachian Tubes sounds like a character from Victorian literature, probably an obese parson.)

The doctor hadn’t spoken to anyone about my autism-adapted CBT referral either. She seemed to be a relatively new and junior doctor, so I can see she didn’t want to do anything without knowing all the case history. Still, it’s frustrating. Technically the practice doesn’t let patients have a specific doctor that they always see, but I’ve usually tried to get one particular doctor if I can and he handled the previous round of discussion about the autism-adapted CBT, so Dad suggested writing to him. I don’t have an email address, but I could email the practice and mark it for his attention. Or even write an old-fashioned letter, address it to him and stick it in the letterbox. It’s better than just waiting and casting myself on the tender mercies of NHS bureaucracy again.

Other than that, it’s been a low-key day. I did some more work on my devar Torah and a couple of chores, notably investigating the UK and USA travel and testing requirements for E. I had therapy too, which was good, but I don’t want to say much about it here. Maybe I’ll say more about it tomorrow; I need to process a bit for now.

OK, going to watch Doctor Who and then inhale some steam…

Grief and Love

I didn’t post yesterday because I was busy, but wasn’t having any particularly interesting, troubling or autistic-ey thoughts. I achieved quite a bit, but the sudden decision to go for a late afternoon run left me with an exercise headache and nausea for much of the evening. As a result, I went to bed late and I couldn’t sleep when I got there. I’m not sure why I seem to be struggling more with insomnia lately, albeit not to a huge extent.

At work today I was still making mistakes. Well, technically I made the mistakes previously and J told me about them today; hopefully I didn’t make any today, but it’s likely that I did. It’s like I can concentrate enough to do 80% of a task, but not 100%, and the bits I forget vary each time. It’s not a case of just reminding myself “Do X” because sometimes I remember X, but forget Y. I have to have five or six spreadsheets and databases open at once for some tasks, going from one to the other. I know what to do, but the multitasking aspect (not something autistic people are good at) leaves me confused and I forget what I came to a spreadsheet for and do the wrong thing, which then makes me forget the thing I should have done after the right thing. It’s an executive function issue. I don’t think I’ve fully persuaded my father that this is an autistic thing, so I definitely don’t feel able to tell J. Besides, if I can’t do this and I can’t do the Very Scary Task, it begins to look like I can’t do this job at all. My best answer for now is, instead of, or as well as, checking as I go along, wait until the end and go over the whole task from scratch, piece by piece, spreadsheet cell by spreadsheet cell. That would make it take much longer, but if it’s more accurate, it might be worth it.

This kind of concentration and multitasking issue makes me worried about learning to drive too, although I told E I would at least try to take some lessons at some point soon(ish). I should say I have high, and possibly irrational, anxiety of being in an accident and killing someone (being killed myself doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much).

By the afternoon I was feeling pretty overwhelmed again and near tears at one point. I’m not sure why. It’s not like J got angry at me, although he probably would have been justified in doing so. I just don’t like feeling incompetent, plus the more incompetent I feel, the less confident I feel that I will ever be able to earn enough money to help support a family or have the levels of emotional and practical competence needed to have children.

One thing I have been trying to do lately at work is to write down J’s instructions instead of trying to remember them. I think that is helpful. But if anyone has any tips or ideas for improving concentration and memory in the workplace or adjustments that might help, I’d be glad to hear them.

***

JYP has been writing about grief lately (latest post in the series here). It prompted some thoughts in me. I’m writing here because what I want to say seems too distant from the topic of her posts and I don’t want to take over the comments with my feelings or make it all about me.

I don’t know that I’ve ever really experienced grief for someone dying. I cried when my paternal grandmother died, the first time someone close to me had died, but I don’t think I did when any of my other grandparents died. Maybe when my maternal grandfather died, I’m not sure. When my paternal grandmother died, people told me not to bottle things up, but I didn’t have anything to say. I did tend to fall into episodes of depression or autistic burnout (it’s not always clear which in retrospect, and it could be both) after the deaths of grandparents, and I fell into a very deep depressive episode a few weeks after the death of my maternal grandfather, which involved a lot of crying for no apparent reason. Maybe it was just a delayed response.

I find it hard to put my feelings about my grandparents into words and I haven’t really spoken much about them in therapy. When my paternal grandfather died, the psychiatrist I was seeing rather brutally told me that I wasn’t close to him, because we didn’t have deep personal conversations. On that criterion, I’m not really close to anyone except my parents and E, and even those have only been in recent years (I share more with my parents now than I did as a teenager).

I wonder sometimes what I feel for my parents and my sister and how I would cope without them, not just in the practical sense (I do need a lot of help), but emotionally. It’s as hard for me to articulate love as it is grief. I instinctively feel that I would feel something if they weren’t there, but it’s hard to know what, or how I would cope. I worry that I would either shrug bereavement off unfeelingly or, conversely, get stuck in it for years.

A lot of this is probably due to alexithymia, the inability to feel and understand my own emotions. (I have never been ‘officially’ diagnosed with this, but one therapist did point out that I struggle with this even if she didn’t use the term.) A lot of the time I don’t know what I feel about things, even very broad things like if I’m happy or sad. It’s part of the reason I write here, to try to process my feelings better, or at least more consciously. It’s hard to know what I feel about my parents or my sister. I can see that there would be a hole in my life without them, but it’s hard to work out what I feel, let alone put it into words. I think this is a common autistic issue, but I’m not sure how other people deal with it. Perhaps some of them don’t care (I’ve met some autistic people who seem to be pretty uninterested in others.)

When I was with PIMOJ, I didn’t feel much of a ‘spark.’ I felt that I was finally experiencing a mature relationship without “crushing,” but the reality was that I didn’t feel much towards her, she just seemed a good match on paper. With E, I feel positive feelings when we Skype or even when we text, but it’s hard to analyse or quantify those feelings. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe they don’t need to be analysed. It’s hard not to, though, as I analyse everything (overthinking, you may have noticed). It’s kind of a calm feeling that I have with E, whereas my crushes were anxious feelings, constantly trying to work out if they liked me or how I could make myself more likeable/fanciable. However, it’s not too calm, as happened with PIMOJ, where I had to constantly remind myself why I liked her. There’s passion and desire with E, and playfulness, which is very rare for me.

OK, I’m going to stop now, as I’ve wandered very far from grief and into areas that are really between me and E and not the whole internet.

“Well, I tell them there’s no problems/Only solutions”

I’m still haunted by the Very Scary Task. Although my work on it was already completed, the actual event I was organising happened today. My Dad woke me up early (not very early, but early for me), thinking I still had work to do on it. Then I got a call less than an hour before the VST was due to start which scared me into thinking something had gone wrong until I saw it was Mum. She couldn’t get to work because of traffic caused by people panic-buying petrol at all the petrol stations. (Panic-buying seems to be a persistent issue of recent years and I’m not sure how to stop it. Ministers going on TV saying, “Stop panic-buying” does very little and might even make it worse.) Anyway, that Very Scary Task must be over by now and no one phoned me up to complain, so hopefully it went OK.

***

The good Sukkot weather we’ve been having came to an end with heavy rain this morning, although the skies are clearer now. At least I got out there for lunch and dinner every day. Tomorrow we start praying for rain, which always feels like the ‘official’ start of autumn.

I think I’ve coped OK with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I coped with ‘peopling’ and general religious stress better than I expected, if anything, although I got to shul (synagogue) less than I would have liked. I plan to go to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) tonight and maybe for Minchah tomorrow, but not at all over Simchat Torah. I’ll just pray at home. It saddens me to have to just completely give up on a Jewish festival, but the alternative is to end up thoroughly overloaded and miserable.

Simchat Torah is just too stressful for me as someone with social anxiety and autism, with the raucous singing and dancing, not to mention the auctioning of honours in return for commitment to Talmud study, which just drives home to me how little Talmud study I do in comparison to some people, and my unwillingness to commit to much for fear that a mental health relapse will stop me meeting that commitment. The shul community tries to study the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest stratum of the Talmud, every year, with different people committing to study different chapters in return for different honours in the shul over Simchat Torah. The biggest honours are reserved for people who will study hundreds of pages of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemarah) over the coming year. While I prefer this system to those shuls that auction Simchat Torah honours in return for donations to the shul or to charity, it still makes me feel uncomfortable on multiple levels. It seems prideful and lacking in humility, as well as creating (or maintaining) a de facto hierarchy based on intelligence and study skills. Actually, the three very biggest honours are awarded to three people who have done things for the community, which I find preferable, although usually one of them is someone my age and I realise I will never get an honour like this, as I don’t have the ability or headspace to do community work. Although I think I would freak out if I was the centre of attention like that.

There was one year I did really get into Simchat Torah, and I’m not sure how I did it. I think my depression was in remission at the time and I was in a community where I felt more comfortable, the one I had grown up in, and there probably weren’t that many people there, as it was a declining community.

***

I finally got through to the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out where I am with autism-adjusted CBT. Apparently my GP should have referred me and applied for funding, instead of handing it back to the psychiatrist who assessed me, so I’ve just lost a couple of months and am still not on the waiting list. I don’t blame the GP, as NHS bureaucracy seems so convoluted that it doesn’t surprise me that even NHS doctors don’t know how to navigate it. I am so past surprised that this has happened. But now I have another reason to try to see my GP next week, if the NHS gatekeepers will deign to allow me an appointment (none were available online today).

***

I feel like I need a holiday. I’ve found the Yom Tovim draining and I didn’t get a real break over Chol HaMoed because of the VST. I haven’t had a proper holiday since the end of 2019, and, while I often find holidays stressful, at least on some level, COVID and a job that sometimes stresses me out more than I would like have left me longing for some kind of break, especially after such a disruptive month. I’ve got to get through the next month before E comes over. That’s probably the best kind of break for me, in that I don’t have to go anywhere, pack, travel, and do all the things that stress me as an autistic person going on holiday. Also the best kind of break in that it’s with E!

Tomorrow Never Knows

I’m wondering if the Very Scary Task should be renamed the Very Stressful Task, as that’s how it seems today. I wanted to get up at 7.30am to be dressed and have davened (prayed) the long Chol HaMoed prayers before I had to deal with it, but I was too tired and didn’t get up until after 9.00am. At 9.30am I did some work phone calls, still in my pyjamas, and discovered that things were a little bit better than yesterday evening. Apparently computer problems among the bureaucrats delayed the paperwork yesterday.

I had to try to set a time for something where everyone involved wanted different times. Actually, most people wanted one time, but one person was being difficult, so I tried to move it half an hour later to help them, but that annoyed someone else who swore at me, which was unprofessional, especially as he was just trying to leave early. It’s hard juggling these people and knowing what to say or do sometimes. I want to please everyone, which is probably a bad trait in some ways, and I don’t know the job well enough yet to tell when people really can’t do something or are just being difficult. As ever with social things, I need a guide to the unwritten rules of human interaction, like so many autistic people do. Then someone had to have a COVID test and I had to find a potential replacement in case he tests positive and can’t do what he needs to do. It seemed a nightmare.

I got it finished in the end, although I’m worried that something will go wrong. In particular, the person who wanted it later has not confirmed that he had my confirmation text. I told him about the new time on the phone, but I felt he wasn’t really listening and worry that he’s going to suddenly say he wants it even later. I guess the blame is on him if that happens, for not listening to me, but I’m still nervous about it.

I should feel good about what I achieved, but I just feel drained and exhausted, as well as anxious that something will still go wrong. Possibly I’m mentally taking responsibility for things that aren’t under my control. I don’t know if this is just a really hard task generally, or if I’ve been unlucky in having things go wrong when I’ve had to do it, or if I struggle because of autism or social anxiety or all of the above. Not knowing what the problem is makes troubleshooting difficult. Obviously there would be little point in asking for adjustments for autism if the problem is that the job is inherently stressful and draining.

After I got everything sorted, the anxiety turned into a sort of lethargy and it was hard to do anything. I wanted to write, to work on my new novel, but I didn’t want to do writing for money on Chol HaMoed. For the same reason, I didn’t want to send out query emails for my written novel. Instead I went out for a walk and to do some shopping. The nearest kosher supermarket unfortunately has for poor COVID compliance, with all staff members and most customers not wearing masks. I was only in there for two or three minutes, but I felt uncomfortable. Then I watched my weekly Twin Peaks episode, delayed by Yom Tov (Jewish festival). Now it’s nearly time to get ready for shul (synagogue) for Shabbat (the Sabbath).

***

I was wondering recently if my life would have been different if I had been born into a frum (religious Jewish) household. I wouldn’t have had to have struggled so much to become frum. On the other hand, I may have found it stifling and stopped being frum, the opposite trajectory of my real life. I might have gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and fitted in to frum society better as a result, or I might have had fallen into depression (as I did at university) and dropped out. I might have got married to someone who was willing to settle for me (or even really wanted me) or I might have been a weird reject in the shidduch (arranged dating) scene. I don’t think about this much now that I’m with E, but I used to wonder a lot if I could have been married and happy (and I don’t think I thought much about being one without the other) if I had just been born into a different, more religious, family. The whole train of thought assumes there’s a ‘me’ that is somehow separate to my experiences and I guess the only really worthwhile thing about it is that it shows how uncomfortable I feel with my current place in the frum community and how unlikely I feel it is that I could be more comfortable in it or find somewhere else that’s a better fit.

Overthinking

I struggled with insomnia again last night. I still managed to get up reasonably early to do the Very Scary Task for work. At first it seemed to be becoming a bit more manageable with experience, although it still is quite scary as I have to balance the needs of lots of stakeholders alongside important halakhot (Jewish laws), as well as making phone calls, which socially anxious and/or autistic people tend to see as one of the hardest social tasks. I feel that I’m not good at reading people, particularly on the phone, and I lack the experience of doing the task to make judgement calls and see how things are going, especially judging timescales, which is important. I feel J can judge these things, but I can’t, and he was not checking his texts all the time today. Hopefully I will gain experience with time, but reading people is hard, although it’s an issue in any work situation. It’s still a struggle to do something involving so many people, so little time, and which is a very serious and important thing in itself.

As time went on, the task became harder. As is often the case when I have the VST, I found myself hanging around waiting for phone calls, not willing to start anything in case I suddenly have to stop. I wish I understood this process and the time it takes better, but I guess I will only learn by doing it. I had time to think and overthink what I had done, which was not good, especially as there was no one around to talk it over with. Mum was at work, Dad with his friend, E asleep and J out with his family. This left me too much time to overthink and catastrophise. I wrote essentially the same work ‘to do’ list twice in the space of a few minutes without realising what I was doing, trying to get my thoughts out of my head. I don’t like being left by myself to brood on things, as well as feeling as if I’ve dropped off the planet when people don’t answer phones or texts. I shouldn’t be so insecure in my work and emotional needs to require constant reassurance that I’m doing the right thing, but given that I do feel like that I don’t know what to do about it, especially as the consequences of making a mistake are potentially quite serious.

I feel like I spent all day working on this and it’s still not completed, so I need to get up early to work on it tomorrow too. I actually only spent an hour or two in terms of actual activity, but I’ve been on edge all day waiting for phone calls, and planning phone calls, and I haven’t been able to do anything else. By the mid-afternoon, I felt really tense and uncomfortable. I also don’t know many hours I can justifiably bill J for. In the end I texted some people instead of phoning, as it was 7pm and I was totally out of energy spoons. I think if this becomes a regular part of my job, I need to think seriously about how I manage the stress and if I can claim any adjustments. And I’ve still got to deal with it again tomorrow, because we’re waiting on some bureaucrat to get off their backside and send the paperwork so people can do their actual jobs. I would be quite worried about what will happen tomorrow and how I will cope, except that I’m now too tired to care, which I guess is good. Isn’t it?

“Let go and let God” is a term from addiction treatment. I’d seen it before, but today I saw it right when I was struggling with things. It seems to apply to me. Unfortunately, I’m not good at letting go, particularly when I feel I’m letting other people or God down, or both, in the case of the VST.

***

In terms of other scary things, I survived a prolonged social interaction with my Dad’s best friend (despite having eaten lunch quickly to avoid him). He seemed a lot older than when I last saw him and more subdued than he used to be. I think he’s been through a lot. I shouldn’t have mentioned his criminal conviction yesterday, as it makes him sound like a career criminal, rather than someone who made some bad decisions. I’d also forgotten that he has mental health issues that influenced those bad decisions. So, I feel a bit guilty. He asked me a lot of questions about work, which is good in that it makes me seem normal, but bad in that sometimes I’m unsure of the answers. Despite having been there for ten months, I feel there’s a lot I don’t know.

Then I had to have dinner with my parents’ other friends in the sukkah, with no spoons (of the energy kind, but it was pizza so no literal spoons either). I didn’t want to “people,” I just wanted to watch TV, but it’s Sukkot, so I had to eat in the sukkah, which meant people and no TV (and no spoons). It wasn’t as bad as I feared, mostly because I tuned out of the conversation and just ate my food and went. Then I skyped E, which is strange for me, as it seems to be a social interaction that doesn’t drain me and maybe even restores me, which obviously bodes well for our future.

***

I decided I didn’t have the wherewithal to write a devar Torah (Torah thought) this week, especially as there is no regular Torah reading because of Sukkot. I missed last week too, which makes me feel a bit bad. Next week is back to the beginning of the Torah, so hopefully I’ll be able to write one there. I tried to do some Torah study, but first was too on edge waiting for phone calls, then too tired and stressed, and worried about tomorrow. Sigh. I did a little, but not much.

I did at least spend a little time on my short story. I got it to a point where I was happy enough with it to be able to let E see it (she liked it). I’ll probably post the short story in a day or two in a locked post. Please let me know if you want me to email you the password so you can read it.

I did realise recently that the novel I’ve written is about the demons and mistakes of my adolescence and early adulthood, whereas the one I want to write next is about the demons of my childhood and also the present day, at least in some sense. I’m not a rabbi who is secretly a porn addict, but in other ways it is about me. I’m very drawn to the idea that a novel about addiction is really a novel about teshuvah (repentance/return to God/return to the true self/soul), at least in a Jewish context, an idea that is hard to explore in the secular Western setting, which has become a lot more about public shame than private guilt.

***

I went for a walk to try to destress (it didn’t entirely work, I got two work-related calls). I went to the book box and re-donated IT, along with Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, a big history book that I bought at a charity shop years ago and instantly regretted because the cover was such a mess (coffee stains) that I could never bring myself to read it. It is now easily the most intellectual thing in the box. I hope someone else can see past its cover.

***

E booked her tickets to the UK for later this year, which is exciting, although because of COVID there is a layer of uncertainty and the worrying feeling that everything could get called off at the last minute because of a bad test or an escalation of infection in the US or UK. It seems strange to think there was a time when you could book a plane ticket and, aside from extreme unforeseen incidents, you would know that you would definitely be in that country on that date. We seem to have drifted back to a pre-twentieth century idea of travel.

Work Anxiety and Reading

Sukkot (the Jewish festival that started on Monday night and goes on until — well, that’s actually hard to say, but basically until next Wednesday evening (nine days)) is supposed to be the most joyous of festivals. So far my Sukkot has not been bad as such, but it has been stressful, and doesn’t look set to let up for a while yet.

On Monday morning I woke feeling depressed and self-critical. Reading JYP’s anti-self-deprecation post just made me feel worse, as I couldn’t think of five things I am good at. Perhaps fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to post about it, as J texted to me to get me to do the Very Scary Task for work. As it was technically a work day for me, I didn’t think I could get out of it. It did at least distract me from my incipient depression with some anxiety instead.

I spent the day doing what I could on the VST (it will have to be continued tomorrow and maybe on Friday). It involved a lot of phone calls and texts back and forward, as it usually does. We (my father and I) also had to dash out to replace the willows in our arbah minim (branches waved during prayer on Sukkot) as they had sold us dead willows, and inevitably someone I was trying to get hold of decided to phone me back when I was about to go into the shop. The day was a rush to get everything done in time for Yom Tov (the festival). I did not go into Yom Tov in a very positive state of mind. I won’t say I spent the whole of Yom Tov worrying, but I did worry a bit.

I went to shul (synagogue) and afterwards we (my parents and I) ate in the sukkah (temporary home in the garden) as we are supposed to and I felt a bit better. I stayed up late reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood to try to relax, as I didn’t expect to make it to shul in the morning anyway.

Day one of Sukkot (Tuesday) was mostly spent reading. In terms of religious books, I read bits of Divrei HaYamim/The Book of Chronicles in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen and Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rav Shagar. In terms of secular reading, I finished The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I didn’t really connect with it and stayed up late to finish it as I wanted to get it over with. Rena Rossner, who wrote it, was the literary agent who turned down my novel, so I can see why we don’t connect. I think her writing is ethereal and mythic whereas mine is somehow concrete and grounded. Or maybe that’s just over-rationalising it.

I went to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers). There was a shiur (religious class) in between. It was about halakhah (Jewish law). I didn’t understand much of it and what I did understand made me worry about whether our sukkah was kosher. It probably is, as this is not the first time a Sukkot shiur has made me worry about such things, but I worry about triggering my OCD. I think some speakers can be irresponsible in the way they present topics, or maybe I’m just vulnerable to self-doubt.

Today I got up very late as my parents went out for lunch. I ate my own lunch by myself in the sukkah and started reading the James Bond novel Goldfinger. I hadn’t planned to read it yet, but I wanted to read something that was as unlike The Sisters of the Winter Wood as possible and I couldn’t think of anything further from it. I did a load of religious reading as well, as I knew I wouldn’t go to shul for the shiur in case it did trigger my OCD. I made a last-minute decision to at least go to shul for Minchah, as I feared I was giving in to social anxiety and laziness in skipping shul, especially as I know I won’t be going much next week, as Simchat Torah is a nightmare with autism and social anxiety and I have no intention of putting myself through that whole experience any more (unless E and I are able to have children, I guess).

I need to be up early tomorrow, as I could start getting calls about the VST at 9.00am – hopefully not earlier, although J has been known to text earlier (I think he assumes I get up at 6.00am for Shacharit). As well as work, I would like to write a devar Torah as I didn’t write one last week, but I’m not sure I will have the time or energy. I’d like to work on my short story too, but the same applies. Just in case things weren’t difficult enough, my father’s best friend (a man I have always found hugely intimidating even before he got sent to prison for four years for smuggling drugs) is coming for lunch and my parents have some other friends coming in the evening. This is all in order to eat in the sukkah and do festival socialising. Unfortunately, as I will need to eat in the sukkah too, I will more or less have to see them, make small talk with them and be prevented from sticking my head in a book or watching TV as I would normally do at mealtimes, particularly if stressed from VSTing. The only alternative is to eat at weird times, which wouldn’t really work for practical reasons.

I don’t feel particularly tired (I haven’t done much for the last two days), but I should be trying to unwind and sleep before VSTing tomorrow. I feel the urge to avoid going to bed, as if that will avoid finishing the VST. I’m nervous about tomorrow, so many social anxiety-triggering things. I should watch TV or something and try not to think about things.

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

At this time of year, no sooner is one festival finished than we start preparing for the next one. The last few days have seen Dad and me building our sukkah, the portable ‘home’ (shack sort of thing, with tent like walls, but a bamboo-thatched roof) for the next festival, Sukkot. Timewise, we’re halfway through the festival season, but Sukkot, and the semi-independent, semi-connected festival of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah that follows it, go on for nine days. On about half of those (Chol HaMoed), many types of work are permitted, so it’s not a massive enforced break from the norm, but the flipside of that is that I may have to do the Very Scary Task again to cover for J’s Chol HaMoed daytrip with his family on Thursday. Sukkot isn’t as emotionally intense as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as it’s a time of great joy, but it’s also more time in shul (synagogue) and with guests for meals — my parents’ friends rather than mine (my parents would let me invite friends over, but I won’t do it right now for a variety of reasons). And no TV to help me switch off; immersing in Doctor Who or whatever is more restorative for me than reading, important though books are to me, but while I can do it on Chol HaMoed, I can’t on the other days.

Shul was quite difficult over Shabbat (the Sabbath), which is one reason I’m apprehensive of the approaching festival. I found the clapping in Kabbalat Shabbat really loud and almost physically painful; at one point I wanted to run out the room, which was a strong reaction for me. There was dancing after Lecha Dodi (well, holding hands and shuffling around in a circle — there isn’t really room for real dancing). Someone tried to get me to join in; I just shook my head. I feel bad staying out, but I would feel bad if I joined in too. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I missed prayers on Shabbat morning as usual, but I did go back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), as I didn’t want the social anxiety to grow. I need to work out how to beat it back a bit. I did manage to cope OK, although not brilliantly, with some jealousy-provoking thoughts. I was OK with seeing someone I was at school with in shul with his young daughter, but struggled more with him leading Kabbalat Shabbat (I used to be able to lead prayer services, but haven’t done it much in the last six years through social anxiety).

Today, aside from helping Dad with the sukkah for a while, I made a few small, but hopefully significant, changes to my novel before submitting it. Other than that, I didn’t achieve much. Typed up some notes to (hopefully) help me stop making mistakes at work, went for a walk, managed a few (very few) minutes of Torah study, did some ironing and Skyped E. My mood was rather down and I’m not sure if I was down because I didn’t do much or if I didn’t do much because I was down. I suspect a bit of both, but I think some of the “down” was exhaustion from shul recently and awareness that there’s a lot more to come (plus sukkah guests and possibly the Very Scary Task).

***

E and I both feel frustrated that we haven’t got where we expected to be in life by this point (our thirties), and that other people seem to manage it so effortlessly. We aren’t really sure how we catch up or get to where we want to be. Maybe other people don’t really manage it, or not so effortlessly, or maybe they do manage it, but it’s not our fault that we haven’t managed it too because we have our own challenges, but it’s easy to fall into self-blame and negativity (neither E nor I could ever be mistaken for an optimist).

***

Do I enjoy being scared? I always think of myself as a nervous child who avoided anything scary. I was too scared to watch Doctor Who for years after I first came across it, and I remember running from the room at the opening minutes of the James Bond film Live and Let Die. I also remember being terrified by the cover of a murder mystery novel my mother borrowed from the library; it showed nothing more frightening than a blood-stained shirt, although the black skull icon on the spine that indicated it came from the library mystery and thriller section was just as scary. Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel were programmes that were intended to be somewhat scary, but they were also aimed at a family audience, not an 18-rated one, and by the time I watched most of them, I was too old to be really scared. Then again, I was probably in my twenties when I watched Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (the 1950s version) and found it mesmerising and chilling, even though it was probably a PG by modern standards.

Yet as a teenager or even a pre-teen, I read a lot of Victorian pot-boilers that laid the foundations of the horror genre: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (I’ve read that so many times I’ve lost count, probably half a dozen; the image clearly resonates with me), The Island of Doctor Moreau. I missed The Invisible Man, but picked it up later. None of these particularly scared me and most of them didn’t gross me out (Dracula a little bit, but Doctor Moreau was the only one I found really uncomfortable). Even before then, when I was seven or eight, I was always reading “non-fiction” children’s books about UFOs and ghosts (I don’t believe in either now, but was more agnostic then and wanted to find the yeti and the Loch Ness Monster when I grew up) and not-quite scaring myself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Jewish fantasy series I’d like to write and how it is somewhat on the boundaries between fantasy and horror: vampires, dybbuks etc. I wonder if I should read some horror novels to get a sense for the genre. Aside from those Victorian classics, I’ve only really read a couple of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula alternative history/horror novels (“What if Dracula hadn’t been defeated?”). I did watch Twin Peaks, which I mostly put off watching in the past because I worried it would be too scary or gory. The original series turned out not to be much scarier than Doctor Who, but the 2017 series had some gory moments. Yet I seem to be able to put up with some scares or gore if the essential story is good enough (Twin Peaks, the Blade Runner films). Similarly, I’m watching The Twilight Zone and I definitely prefer the eerie stories to the fantasy or funny ones, but there isn’t anything gory about them and the scares are mostly psychological.

This came to a head a few days ago. Someone has set up one of those free book-swap boxes in a nearby road. I look inside periodically, but hadn’t found anything I wanted to take. Then the other day they had IT by Stephen King and I picked it up impulsively. I have never read it, even what I’ve heard about it scared me (although I’m not coulrophobic). It was almost like I was daring myself to read it. (It’s also flipping enormous, over 1,100 pages, longer than The Lord of the Rings and not much behind War and Peace.) It’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I’ve flicked through a couple of times, but can’t decide what to do with it. Should I read it or send it back to the book-swap box? I haven’t entered it on my Goodreads account yet, because I know once I’ve done that it will be hard to return it. The logical thing to do would be to start it and see what it’s like, but I don’t really do logical. Maybe that’s why I scare easily, because I can’t see how illogical most of my phobias and fears are. Or maybe I worry that I would be the impulsive kid who goes down to the cellar alone in the middle of a storm.

I guess the bottom line is that I like eerie atmosphere a lot, but I don’t like gore or sadism and I certainly don’t like jump-scares (which aren’t really an issue in prose as opposed to TV or film). And I’m not at all sure about how this fits in to my writing ambitions.

Spiritual Experiences, Conformity, and Autism in the Workplace

I couldn’t sleep last night, which perhaps was inevitable after sleeping so much during the day (even if it was Yom Kippur) and having an evening that was not-brilliant from a sleep hygiene point of view. I just have to deal with it now. I lay in bed resting for a while and got up around 5.45am to eat breakfast. I had therapy at 10.30am, so trying to sleep through the morning wasn’t an option. I napped for an hour and a half before therapy, which was probably a good thing even if it meant I wasn’t fully present in therapy.

Therapy was good. We spoke a bit about my frustration at not having intense religious experiences on festivals. I mentioned that my rabbi mentor said that probably most people were not having them, whatever the Jewish websites say. I also reflected that I do have some religious experiences, sometimes, as I think happened on Wednesday evening at shul (synagogue) and I shouldn’t discount them just because they are fleeting and/or inchoate and hard to put into words afterwards. I also feel that Shabbat is a time when I’m less distracted by social anxiety in shul and anxiety over ritual than on festivals and that I do have spiritual experiences on Shabbat more frequently as a result, and that I could be more accepting of them, but also unconsciously discounting them. One of the things I want to work on about myself this Jewish year is being more “present in the moment” and not worrying about the future or focusing on abstract thoughts. I think this openness to fleeting, inchoate spiritual experiences is something I can work on in this area too.

***

When I couldn’t sleep, I finished skim-reading the autism memoir I’ve been reading. The main thing I take away from it is that it’s important to ask for adjustments if you want to get them, as people aren’t psychic and often don’t know much about autism. I can see that it will be hard for me to learn this lesson, as I was diagnosed relatively late in life (thirty-seven) and have spent most of my life being told to “force myself” to do things that I don’t feel I can’t do because “everyone else can do them.” My mentality (probably for psychological and religious reasons as well as experiential ones) is indeed to try to force myself to do things and hope they will become easier with practice. Some of the things the author got adjustments to avoid doing (such as making phone calls) are things I struggle with, but “force myself” to do with a lot of anxiety and internal resistance.

Also, in my current office set-up it’s just me and J, so if I can’t do something, I’m putting it all on him, which is uncomfortable. I’m mostly OK with what I have to do (my occasional absent-minded incompetence aside), aside from the Very Scary Task and one or two other things. J usually handles the Very Scary Task that unless he really can’t. It’s basically our core task, and it has to be dealt with quickly for halakhic (Jewish law) and other reasons and it is basically a mitzvah (religious commandment), all of which make it hard for me to back out of it. On which note, I may have to do it next Thursday, when J will be at a theme park with his family on Chol HaMoed (the semi-festive middle days of the festival of Sukkot, when the work restrictions are looser than on the other days). The unpredictability of when I have to do the VST is another issue, and, again, unchangeable given the nature of the task (which I don’t want to go into here).

The author of the book is also a lot more obviously autistic and in many ways less functional than me, although sometimes I feel that I’ve spent so long masking, I’m not sure I can do it much longer. It makes me feel that I “should” be able to cope better. If she can hold down a full-time job, I should be able to too, if I’m not so autistic. But it doesn’t really work that way, especially if you don’t have the fortunate autistic ‘good at numbers’ gift as she does.

***

I helped Dad put up more of the sukkah. Dad and I putting up the sukkah, or doing any DIY really, is worryingly like Laurel and Hardy (or the Chuckle Brothers, depending on what your comedy frame of reference is). I worry how I could put up a sukkah by myself, even a (supposedly) easy-to-assemble one like ours. More worries for the future.

Aside from that, I spent forty-five minutes or so finishing the first draft of the short story I was writing. I’m glad to have made progress on it.

***

Reading Ashley’s post on conformity, I commented:

I find it hard to tell how influenced by conformity I am. I pretty much always feel ‘different’ in a social group, but I’m not sure how much I am different or how much it’s just my perception. Maybe on some level I want to feel like a non-conformist.

I certainly have beliefs and practices that are different to my religious community, but I’m not sure whether there’s any pluralistic ignorance going on (thanks for the term!).

Politically, I’ve shifted quite a bit from where I was brought up. I have friends across the political spectrum, but my more political friends are the ones most different to me. But mostly I keep quiet about politics, even more so than religion, to avoid that kind of trouble.
I do feel that in politics, like religion, I don’t really fit in one ‘box’, but, again, that could be more my self-perception.

I do find it very hard to disagree with people to their face, though, even if I disagree strongly in my head, even on trivial things like whether I enjoyed a particular film or book. I don’t often leave disagreeing blog comments; I would more likely walk away from a situation like that unless I felt extremely strongly or felt very secure in my relationship with that person.

Thinking about this after posting, I can see that not being authentic in my social interactions and fearing rejection would be stressful, particularly as authenticity is an important value for me that I am often not observing. However, I also feel that hiding my opinions has let me have a wider friendship network than many people have, in the era of social media echo chambers, not in terms of absolute numbers, but in terms of the diversity of the views they hold.

A Serious Day on Serious Earth

I didn’t intend to blog tonight after breaking my fast, but I’m not tired and the fast doesn’t finish where E is for another hour and a half, so I might as well.

I went to shul (synagogue) last night for the start of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). I ended up doing twenty minutes of security duty instead of five. I didn’t even see a rota, I just assumed I got the time I put down for (ten minutes before the start of the service, when people were coming in) and then had to wait when no one relieved me. It’s possible that there wasn’t a rota after all. I didn’t actually mind, and letting everyone in at least challenged my social anxiety a bit and made me think that many people in the shul wish me well, at least in The Simpsons’ sense that they don’t actively wish me harm.

The service was actually good even outside, although I had to strain to hear the sermon because I was too socially anxious to walk round to the door where the acoustics were better. I did feel that the service had meaning for me, although I would be hard-pressed to say what that means, exactly, or what part of it stayed with me once the service was over.

I came home and did some Torah study for about twenty minutes and read The Sisters of the Winter Wood (the novel I just started reading) for another twenty minutes and then went to bed not long after eleven as I was very tired. However, I completely failed to sleep and was on the point of getting up to read again around midnight when I must have fallen asleep.

I woke up about 8am and should have got up and gone to shul. I’m not sure what held me back. Choose from: autistic fatigue; social anxiety; incipient dehydration; lack of food; laziness. (I don’t think it was really laziness, but who knows?) This pattern repeated itself for the next several hours until I finally got up some time after 3pm. I then sat on the edge of my bed for the better part of an hour (and briefly went back to bed) as I felt too fatigued/anxious/dehydrated/lacking food to get dressed. I spoke to God a bit. I did eventually get dressed, although my parents were a bit surprised to come home (their shul was on a break) to find me still at home and only half dressed at nearly 4pm. I focused on autistic fatigue as an explanation as I was embarrassed that social anxiety might have defeated me so badly.

The later it got in the day, the more anxiety I had about turning up late to shul. By the time I caught up with those prayers that I could catch up with, it was very late. I could conceivably have to gone shul for Neila (the final Yom Kippur prayer service), but by this stage I felt dizzy standing up, so I decided to do the final couple of hours of the fast at home too. I davened (prayed) more and did some Torah study, but I felt something was lacking and couldn’t escape feeling that I should have gone to shul, although I don’t know if I would have found more meaning or inspiration there.

The one thing this did all prove to me is that I need help to make progress on the way my autism and social anxiety affect me. In a virtual shiur (religious class) I attended a few weeks ago, Rabbi Joseph Dweck said that teshuvah (repentance/return) is as much about returning to the self as returning to God. I somehow felt today that I’m probably not such a bad person (unusually for me, and probably inappropriately for Yom Kippur), but that achieving my potential is currently stymied by autism and social anxiety. I need to chase up getting autism-adjusted CBT and see if that will help social anxiety (the CBT I already did for social anxiety didn’t help, perhaps because it wasn’t autism-adjusted, but also because I didn’t push myself as hard as I should have or keep up pushing myself after the CBT finished. Also, the ten session NHS maximum was too short; I probably need at least twenty). I also need to see what help is available for autism sufferers in the workplace. I looked into that a while back and got some help, but that was before I got a diagnosis. Now I have a diagnosis (a) I may be eligible for more help and (b) I have a better idea of what specific help I need, rather than just looking for help with CVs and finding autism-friendly careers (although the most autism-friendly careers, the inevitable accounting-investment banking-IT triad, does not play to my skillset). I knew some of this anyway, but my Yom Kippur experience just confirmed it to me.

The other thoughts I had were about abuse of differing kinds in the Jewish community and how it gets sidelined and covered up so often, particularly as those who suffer it are usually not those with power, or connected to those with power. I’m sure if a great rabbi’s daughter was abused by a teacher or couldn’t get a religious divorce from her husband the outcome would be different — but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe a great rabbi’s daughter did suffer this, and the victim-blaming and don’t make waves and don’t inform on fellow Jews and the bad for shidduchim circuits all kicked in as usual and silenced her too. I feel culpable, on some sense, through being part of a community that allows this to happen, and I felt that culpability today when making our formal communal sin confessions in the plural. It makes me angry, but I don’t know what I can do about it, except to carry on writing about it and trying to get my novels published.

I broke my fast with my parents, as usual. We all fasted reasonably well, but Mum had a headache towards the end. I didn’t get a headache, which may be because on E’s suggestion I drank a litre of Lucozade sports drinks yesterday afternoon, in the hope the sodium in it would stop me getting a headache. It may have worked, but then again, I didn’t really get a headache last year either when I was at home all day, so maybe it’s not going to shul that is the game-changer.

***

The title quote for this blog post is a paraphrase of a line from Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going. Yom Kippur is a serious day and I feel I only skirted the surface this year, maybe even most years. I search for meaning, but struggle to find it, or to hold onto it. Larkin’s poem, written by a very secular poet, is about visiting churches for historical reasons, wondering what will happen to them when religion has died out, but finally thinking that:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Judaism is not a religion of sacred space in the way that Christianity is. I once wrote a poem inspired by Church Going about finding the sacred through Judaism’s ancient texts, but now it seems to me that I was wrong and that Judaism’s parallel to Christianity’s sacred space is sacred time, of which Yom Kippur is the holiest of holies, and somehow I keep fumbling it, with autistic fatigue, social anxiety and generally being bad at fasting and having to spend much of the afternoon outside, nursing a headache and hoping not to throw up even when I do make it to shul. I am not sure what to do about this, except that Judaism’s sacred times do come around quite frequently, including Shabbat in less than twenty-four hours, and I seem to fumble that one (Shabbat) rather less than the other ones.

Fred Karno’s Army

We are Fred Karno’s Army, the ragtime infantry./We can not fight, we can not shoot;/No bleedin’ use are we./And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:/Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott! What a bloody awful lot/Are the British infantryBritish World War I trench song

***

Today felt pretty bad. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t. I only got about four hours of sleep, which was partly my fault and partly not, but it probably didn’t set me up for a good day. I experienced some anxiety on waking. There’s an idea I came across a few years ago about the acronym HALT: don’t do anything you might regret if you’re Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired. When my religious OCD was bad around that time, I found that the times when my OCD anxiety felt worst were also the times when I was HALTed. So, I guess that lies underneath everything that happened today.

On the way to work, I decided it was probably a mistake to catalogue my every work mistake here, as it makes me focus on the negatives too much. I resolved not to do it today. But then at work I thought I’d made a couple of big mistakes. In the event, they probably weren’t such a big mistakes, and I possibly over-compensated. Still, I feel frustrated that I keep making mistakes, including repeating some mistakes multiple times, which indicates I’m not learning properly. My Dad is worried about this although my Mum thinks I’m just overwhelmed. I guess the problem is I find the work environment inherently overwhelming at the moment. I try to make lists of what to do when doing different tasks, but then I don’t consult them as I think it looks unprofessional. In any case, when I’m dealing with many cells in multiple spreadsheets at once, it can be easy to miss something.

I was pretty exhausted when I got home. I haven’t done much other than write this, watch TV, daven (pray) and eat dinner (with my parents, so I guess I get points for peopling while exhausted). I wanted to do more Torah study, but my brain is just switched off. After I’ve posted this I’ll probably give up for the evening and watch TV until bedtime. I don’t feel able to do anything else.

***

At lunch I started reading a memoir about autism in the workplace that I thought might give me some ideas for ways I can function better in my own workplace. I rapidly switched from reading to scanning, as it’s not very well-written. This surprised me a bit. It is self-published, but I read the author’s blog and she can write well-enough there. Maybe she struggled to move from focused blog posts to carrying narrative over a long period. Or maybe she wrote the memoir before she started blogging in earnest. The book is also lacking in explicit advice or suggestions about coping in the workplace, which is what I really wanted, although so far it’s mostly been dealing with the author’s university experience.

The other thing that annoyed me is that repeatedly the author thinks she’s going to be thrown off her college or university course due to some requirement for group work or group presentation that she doesn’t think she can cope with because of her autism and anxiety. Then the situation resolves because she gets adjustments from staff that allow her to stay on the course and she is relieved, but she never seems particularly grateful. She could have been grateful and just not recorded it in the memoir, but it rankled with me. Yes, disabled people are entitled to reasonable adjustments by law, but I feel that if someone goes out of their way to help you, you should be grateful, even if they were obliged to do it by law or institutional policy.

I skim-read it on the way home and I’m about a third of the way through now. I probably will stick with it, at least skimming it, just in case it’s helpful. It’s not terribly long or heavy-going, I just hoped it could help me more.

***

The other thing that annoyed me today was mask compliance. On the Tube, where mask wearing is compulsory, a majority wore masks, but a substantial minority, perhaps a third of passengers, did not. For comparison, in the shopping centre I went into on the way home, mask compliance was almost as good even though it was entirely voluntary there. When I got on the train this morning, one man was berating the woman opposite him for not wearing a mask (“This is my choice,” she insisted, although technically it wasn’t), but there were so many maskless people in the carriage, it seemed pointless to protest.

I wish that COVID would just go away or at least drop to an ‘acceptable’ level, like flu, but it won’t, and I take it too seriously to disregard precautions. Already the government is talking about possible future restrictions in case of a (likely) winter surge. Based on my experience today, I think if there’s another lockdown, people just won’t obey, American-style.

It can’t go on forever, can it? The Black Death, the Great Plague, Spanish Flu, all ended eventually, right? Right?

***

I’m thinking about purpose again, and writing, and whether my purpose is writing… I’m feeling vaguely more positive about my novel (my first one, the one I’m currently trying to find an agent for). I think it could benefit from a few changes and additions, but not another full redraft. It probably won’t take long, but only once I get down to it, which will probably not be until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals).

I came across this video clip today. I think I’ve seen it before. Certainly I’d heard Rabbi Sacks z”tl say similar things previously and had been thinking about them recently. It makes me hopeful that I can find a place in the world with my writing, but I still worry that it’s illusory and that I have nothing to offer the world and I won’t ever find my place in it (combined with worries about what type of Jewish community E and I could end up in, which is a whole other type of place to worry about finding).

Success but Hollow Inside

I’ve only got a short time to write, but I wanted to write something and try to process my feelings about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

The background to Rosh Hashanah was a mini-heatwave that hit us unexpectedly. I was expecting it to be pleasant, but it was uncomfortably hot, which had an impact on my mood throughout. The other background is that I had asked to sit in the covered area outdoors, by the window of the shul (synagogue), intended for people who were unwilling or unable to sit indoors because of COVID anxiety or reduced immunity. The acoustics at the window were bad and I spent a lot of my time at shul round the corner by the door, where I could hear and see what was going on rather better.

I don’t really remember much special about the first night in shul. I think I did feel pretty positive, despite the poor acoustics. At home we ate the simanim, special symbolic foods eaten to symbolise a good new year. We have only been doing this for a couple of years and it still has novelty value. Even though it was late, I did some Torah study after dinner, as I hadn’t done much during the day and felt that I wanted to connect to God. I struggled to sleep that night, whether from the heat or the mixed feelings I had being at shul, feeling I was missing out by being outside, but also feeling that I would have a lot of COVID anxiety inside.

I woke up early the next morning, but struggled to get up, I think because of social anxiety rather than burnout, although maybe a bit of both. I find it hard to accept social anxiety as a legitimate excuse for missing shul, even though it happens a lot. I got to shul in time for the sermon and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. Even though I was very late, I still stayed for another three hours until the end of the service; Rosh Hashanah services are very long. I slipped into the shul standing just inside the doorway to hear the shofar, otherwise staying outside except when I was asked to open the Ark for Alenu. I felt I couldn’t really turn it down as I had come in for the shofar, and I think it was an hour to be asked for that particular prayer (where we bow on the floor, something we only do here and on Yom Kippur).

I napped after lunch, then went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and then on to the brook for Tashlich, then came home. I was getting a headache, which I managed to stop turning into a massive migraine with early intervention, but I felt drained and justified in my decision not to go back for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).

I didn’t sleep well again and I struggled to get up in the morning. I had the “flat battery” feeling where I just don’t have the energy to sit up, let alone get dressed and go to shul. I eventually managed to get up around lunchtime. I was upset to have missed shul, but not surprised to be so burnt out. I was too burnt out to catch up on prayers and I didn’t want to delay my parents’ lunch.

After lunch I was still tired, so I napped again before saying the Mussaf prayers. I read the Jewish Review of Books for a bit, then went to shul for Minchah. I somehow found the confidence to tell the rabbi I had missed the morning prayers and the shofar blowing and he arranged for someone to blow it for me before Minchah started. I was pleased, and surprised that I found the confidence to do it, but I felt so socially anxious about drawing attention to myself asking for this that I struggled to focus on the shofar, and later on the prayers for Minchah. I decided I did not have the energy left for the shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv, so I went home.

J left the same time as I did and said he didn’t see me in the morning and asked if I was OK. I said I’d been unwell, but was OK now; I didn’t want to go into a big thing about autistic burnout in the street. He said if I’m unwell tomorrow not to force myself to come into work, which was nice.

On the whole Rosh Hashanah must be a success, as I got to shul quite a bit and heard the shofar both days. However, I feel kind of hollow and down now and I don’t know why. Some of it is lack of passive relaxation time or alone time. I’ve spent most of my waking hours the last two days with other people, at shul or at home. Beyond this, I suppose I just wonder if I’ll ever get back to being the person who can go to every single service and shiur during the festival.

I suppose I also always focus on the next goal rather than the one just completed. There’s a story about a Hasidic rabbi (I think the Maggid of Mezeritch; I don’t have time to check) who was asked by a Hasid why, whenever he tried to move closer to God, God seemed as far away as ever. The Maggid said that it’s like a father with a toddler. The father calls the child to him, who takes a few faltering steps towards him, but as he gets near, the father moves a few steps away and calls him again, and so on. This is frustrating for the child, but is how he learns to walk. Similarly, God moves further and further away to call us towards Him, but I don’t know how to deal with the lack of self-esteem that results from feeling I have not reached God and am as far away as ever.

I actually spent a lot of time over Rosh Hashanah thinking about what it would mean to accept that God loves me. I’m not sure I came to any great conclusions. I find it easier to see God as punitive than loving, at least towards me, and I’m not sure why or how to change that. I don’t see God as punitive in an abstract, theological sense, or towards other people, but I find it hard to believe He could love me unconditionally.

The other thing I thought about a bit over Yom Tov was abuse (child abuse, get withholding etc.) in the Jewish community. It’s been in the news again lately. I wonder how God can forgive us while it goes on. There isn’t really anything I can do about it, except write about it, which makes me want to get my novel published. On which note, a book I’d ordered, a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents, arrived today, which may help me to plan my next step.

OK, I’m off to get ready for tomorrow, and to see if I can have something to eat and fit in Midweek Twin Peaks before bed.

Last Day of the Year

I couldn’t sleep last night, possibly the result of eating ice cream late at night (it can give me a sugar rush, I think). It was a bad decision, but I felt that, after several difficult days, with several more to come, I needed a treat. About 3.00am, I decided to get up and do some work in the hope it would bore me to sleep. At the very least, I would wake up to less work in the morning. I did just under an hour of work at night and another hour today. All the bits I’ve done since Friday work out at roughly a full day for me, and I’ve also conveniently finished all the work I had to do at home, which I guess is a good way to finish the Jewish year.

I filled in the form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. I didn’t have the payslips they wanted as I’m freelance and invoice J every month. I hadn’t kept all the invoices either, which I should have done, because the taxman may want them. I found the last two. I wish I wasn’t so vague and clumsy about practical and financial things. I don’t know what I’d do without my Dad here, really. There are courses in personal finance and the like for people on the spectrum. I’ve always resisted going on them, because I felt I’m too high-functional, but maybe I’m not really.

In a few hours it will be the start of a new Jewish year, 5782. I like that Jewish year numbers are so big, even though the count was only started (retroactively) in the Middle Ages and I don’t believe that Adam and Chava (Eve) were created literally 5782 years ago tomorrow. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about crowning God as our King. This entails accepting that He knows what He’s doing with everything He does. To this end, I’m going to try not to worry about stuff over the next two days and accept everything He has planned for me for the next year, regardless of whether it’s what I want or expect. This includes trying not to worry about getting to shul, hearing the shofar, about talking to people or about walking in hours after the service has started and the like.

Shana tova – happy new year! May we all be signed and sealed for life, and a good life at that!

Muddling Through

I overslept dramatically again, as I basically do every day when I don’t go out to work. Sigh. Anyway, I managed to put in two hours of very dull work from home work (data entry and sorting my predecessor’s emails – I think he never deleted an email, even spam, and had something like 2,500 emails from a five or so year period when I started). It was boring, but hopefully will take some pressure off tomorrow.

I’m still pretty stressed. As well as the two hours of work, I did a couple of small chores and I went to a virtual shiur (religious class), but I still need to do an hour and a half or two hours work tomorrow and I have a load of paperwork about benefits and bank accounts that have suddenly been thrown at me at this busy time of year. It’s like everyone decided, “Hey, Luftmentsch is stressed! Let’s throw him some pointless busywork too!” Then I had to change some plans at the last minute and I’m not sure how I avoided a meltdown. I went for a walk and tried to be mindful which helped a bit and then I had a Skype call with E and felt a lot better after that.

Even so, I feel pretty overstretched, which is not the best way to go into the busiest month of the year, especially when I want to get to shul (synagogue) so much, but am aware that shul attendance is the first thing to become impossible (because of burnout and social anxiety) when I’m stressed. I guess remembering what I discussed with the rabbi last week about being strategic in my shul attendance is important here, and my general attempts not to beat myself up about everything. To remember that God loves me and knows my struggles.

On the plus side, I feel this year that for the first time, as well as goals for the coming year, I can set long-term goals for the next five years, which is exciting and scary. The long-term goals are more life stages to try to move to, while the short-term goals are more to improve aspects of my character.

***

The virtual shiur was interesting. It was about teshuvah (repentance/returning to God/returning to ourselves) being as much an inner psychological process for mental health as an external one. Rabbi Dweck was wary of the approach to teshuvah that says, “Take on another mitzvah (commandment)” instead of looking inside at our inner drives. This is a realisation I’ve come to myself over the years, at least for my (not always mentally healthy) self, but it was good to have external validation. I felt the shiur could have been a bit deeper, maybe with more practical suggestions. Rabbi Dweck did suggest journaling and just being aware of oneself during day to day life, which is part of why I write here, to process and understand myself.

The shiur reinforced the feeling I’ve had for a while that the novel I want to write about a frum pornography addict isn’t actually primarily a story about sex or addiction, but one about teshuvah, although I can see that many people will not be able to look past the surface to that. There is a quote I came across from Rav Kook recently about teshuvah being a subject for poets and artists, which is similar to what I want my novel to be.

***

I did a COVID test for the first time. My shul (synagogue) wants everyone to do one before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish festivals. The first time I tried, I spilt some of the liquid, so I had to redo it. Then I’m not sure I got my tonsils properly with the swab. I just stuck the swab in until I wanted to gag, then repeated on the other side. I don’t like the way COVID is triggering OCD-type thoughts in me, less contamination thoughts than scrupulosity: “Am I doing it right?”-type thoughts. I still have guilt about hugging my ex-girlfriend (just hugging!) although it won’t stop me hugging E when she comes to visit. One site I found said that if you’re infected, swapping the uvula and perhaps even the cheeks will show up enough virus for a positive result, so hopefully I’m OK. I feel like this could turn into the COVID equivalent of kashering my sink for Pesach if I’m not careful, something I repeat and obsess about endlessly.

Behind-the-Sofa Scary

(There’s a cliche in the UK about children watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa because it’s so scary, at least for a family programme. For Doctor Who fans, that’s kind of the litmus test of genuine terror.)

I didn’t blog yesterday as not much happened. Today I had weird dreams, overslept and went into a panic about Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) in the next few weeks. I did some work today. I’m working from home on Monday, but I worried about oversleeping and not working enough, so I thought I would do some work today and tomorrow, but it’s been a bit of a rush. I’m about to do a little bit more, although I won’t do much Torah study today. I might have to leave writing next week’s devar Torah (Torah thought) until Thursday evening. I usually like to have it almost finished by then, so I can just proof-read it and send it, as I’m usually tired from work, but I can’t see how I’m going to get the time. I do at least know what I’m going to say (unlike the week after).

I am going to the rabbi’s house tonight for dinner. I’m a bit nervous about this, although I surprised E by saying that I’m usually OK talking to rabbis without additional social anxiety from their position, just ordinary social anxiety of talking to anyone. I’m not sure why that is, probably because I’ve been talking to rabbis from a young age and I know they’re just people, usually with a corny sense of humour. Usually quite laidback too. I know some people who leave the frum (religious Jewish) community complain of strict upbringings (or abusive upbringings, which is something else entirely), but most frum people I know are laidback, often surprisingly so. I find it’s hard to get frum people to commit to things because they often have a “Whatever, we’ll work it out eventually” attitude. This always seems at odds with how I think religious people should behave, which is precise and even a little anxious. Maybe this is something to do with trusting in God that everything will work out. Or maybe it’s just my Yekkish background. Yekkes (German Jews) are stereotypically precise, punctilious, and the only Jews who are remotely punctual. I’m actually only one-eighth Yekkish, but I feel a strong affinity for the stereotype.

***

E found me an article on autistic burnout! It doesn’t say much I didn’t already know, but it’s useful to show family and it’s reassuring to be told that it’s “a thing.” It’s unclear on the thing I’m unclear on, which is the extent to which autistic burnout is a short-term thing triggered by a few hours of that can be alleviated by a few hours of rest and sleep or a long-term thing somewhat like depression that sets in after weeks or months of stress and can last indefinitely. My feeling is that it can be both, but I don’t think everyone agrees.

***

After I saw my rabbi and told him about my autism, I sent him the article I wrote about being autistic in the frum community. He really liked it and asked if I would like him to circulate it in the community. I’m not sure what I feel about that. I can see pros and cons. I don’t have time to list them in detail (maybe next week), but I can see big pros in starting a conversation about autism and neurodiversity in the local community and maybe finding some more understanding and support at shul (synagogue). On the other hand, telling literally everyone in shul seems scary and awkward, and I could end up defined as “that autistic guy,” at least for a few years until I become defined as “that frum author who writes a lot about sex.”

Talk with the Rabbi

Today was one of those days that got away from me. I had therapy in the morning, which was good. Then I went to speak to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my Asperger’s in the afternoon. The meeting went well. He was very understanding and supportive. We spoke a bit about being strategic in my shul attendance to handle burnout, maybe trying to go less often but more focused or to more inspiring services. I need to think about what that would mean in practical terms. We spoke a bit about social anxiety too, and wanting to challenge that, but in a safe way, and about COVID making that harder by adding a new layer of anxiety to social situations. He said I looked more animated than he had ever seen me before (we hadn’t really had a one-on-one conversation before).

When I got back from that I spent a while speaking to my parents about the meeting and some other things and then, unfortunately, wasting time. I wanted to do things, but couldn’t get down to anything. In the end I did some Torah study and spent half an hour on my short story, writing about 500 words, which was good. But other than that I haven’t done much, and I need to be up early for work tomorrow. I’ll watch the rest of the pilot episode of Twin Peaks before bed, which I started at dinner, but I don’t feel particularly sleepy. I probably should have taken time to relax after speaking to the rabbi instead of just procrastinating.

The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.

I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.

Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.

Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?

***

Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.

I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.

In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.

***

I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.

The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.

I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.

It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)

The Curses of COVID

I set an early alarm because I had a vague magical thinking fear that J would call me to do the Very Scary Task again early today. In the event he did not, thankfully, and I fell asleep again after turning my alarm off. It’s interesting how much magical thinking I’ve had around the VST this week. I don’t usually think of myself as a superstitious or magical thinking person, but I can’t deny the evidence of my own thoughts.

It’s been a fairly tough couple of weeks covering for J and working from home and I’m aware that it’s going to continue to be tough for a while, albeit for varying reasons. Next week I hope to ‘come out’ as autistic to my shul (synagogue) rabbi. I’ve prepared notes of what to say, but I really have no idea how it will go or even what I really expect or hope from the meeting. Then, for unrelated reasons, I’ve been invited to his house for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner next Friday. I accepted, but only afterwards did I wonder how safe it would be, COVIDly. I mean, the government COVID regulations permit it, but I wonder if I’m being reckless. It’s hard to tell. But the real thing worrying me about it is the usual social anxiety stuff.

E was surprised that I don’t get extra-socially anxious with rabbis than I do with other frum (religious) people. To be honest, I think I’m nervous enough with ‘ordinary’ frum people that there isn’t anywhere else for the anxiety to go, plus I feel I’ve had exposure therapy with rabbis over the years. I have eleven Orthodox rabbis’ phone numbers on my phone (a minyan and a spare), so I do have experience with talking to them. They don’t intimidate me the way they do to some people.

If I get through that, then we’re into the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), but I’m trying not to worry about that now, albeit that I’m starting religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

This week in shul we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (I admit I’m not that likely to get there for this in person). This contains the curses that will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with God. The Talmud says we always read this a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah so we can say, “Let the old year with its curses end, and the let the new year with its blessings begin.” I think we’re all looking forward to new blessings after eighteen months of COVID curses, although COVID doesn’t look to be vanishing any time soon.

E and I have both taken COVID very seriously, mostly followed regulations and are both double vaxxed; still, we’re both sick of it and want to get back to normal life, life without masks, travel restrictions and noisy social media arguments about masks and vaccines. We wondered last night how long it can carry on for like this and whether governments are secretly aiming for zero COVID deaths, which seems as unachievable and flawed a target as zero flu deaths. I don’t think the UK or US governments are aiming for this, although the New Zealand government seems to be doing so; I think it’s only possible in a small, sparsely-populated and out of the way country. However, I’ve heard people (experts and callers) on the radio who seem to really want zero COVID deaths. One expert even seemed to want zero COVID infections, on the grounds that infection, even in the young and vaccinated, can lead to long COVID and long COVID is debilitating, therefore the government should aim at eradicating it, presumably like smallpox and bubonic plague. This seems as crazy as vaccine refusal, albeit in the opposite direction.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ever getting back to normal. It just goes on and on. I still feel nervous at shul, one of only three or four people still wearing masks now they are no longer mandatory. At the moment E is worried about being able to come and visit me, in terms of fear that the USA might be put on the UK’s red list and Americans banned from entry, and at the moment I couldn’t visit her, because direct travel from the UK is banned, and also because I’ve had the AZ vaccine, which the USA still hasn’t recognised (all of which strikes me as a bit rich, considering how poor vaccine uptake has been in the US; please get your own house in order before criticising others). We just want to spend some time together this calendar year! Is it too much to ask? Sigh. At least we have Skype.

***

My shul is still bringing Shabbat in early, at 6.25pm today, so I didn’t have much time to do things, considering I slept late and struggled to get going. I did my usual pre-Shabbat chores and spent some time on my cheshbon nafesh, my self-reflection on the previous Jewish year. I didn’t get time to work on the short story I planned yesterday or to do much in the way of Torah study. The latter doesn’t bother me much, as I can catch up while I wait for my father to daven (pray) tonight, as his shul isn’t starting until 7.35pm.

***

I just wrote this comment on Ashley’s blog: “My self-esteem has been pretty low since adolescence, maybe earlier. Getting my autism diagnosis earlier this year has really helped, though, inasmuch as I can now see myself as an autistic person who is trying hard with some success rather than a neurotypical person who is frequently failing for no obvious reason.” I don’t think there’s really anything to add to that.

***

I read a Philip K. Dick short story last night that was extraordinarily misogynistic and generally misanthropic (Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked). It rather made me regret my decision to read rather than just watching TV. Dick had issues with women, to put it mildly (he was married five times). His last completed novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has a female narrator who is a likeable and interesting character, but most of his other female characters are not, to put it mildly. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how negative the short story would be.

Mid-Week Twin Peaks

I woke up late, drained, but not particularly anxious, which was good. No one contacted me about the ending of the Very Scary Task today, so I guess it went OK, otherwise someone would have phoned in anger or dismay or J would have texted to say something. So that’s good. I did have a bit of a headache after lunch, which may have been a delayed stress response. J contacted me after lunch to say I may well have to do the Very Scary Task again tomorrow, which is stressful, but hopefully won’t be made more stressful by bureaucratic mistakes outside of my control as the previous one was.

***

I had therapy for the first time in a month or so as my therapist has been away. It was good, although I don’t really want to say much about it here, except we spoke a bit about acting with integrity, which is one of my core values. We spoke about thinking (with regard to work and elsewhere) that “I acted with integrity and did the best I can; I can’t blame myself for external factors or how other people reacted.” That was helpful and I will try to keep it in mind in the future, including tomorrow.

***

I mentioned on here a few days ago that I wanted to do a Twin Peaks re-watch, but didn’t want to disrupt watching Doctor Who with E, and also that I was aware that there are periods with Twin Peaks when it gets into a rut of silliness or being bizarre to the point of incoherence and that those episodes are hard to watch in one go. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I will watch one episode a week, on Wednesdays, as I’m usually at volunteering and/or therapy on Wednesdays and am exhausted by the evening and just vegetate in front of TV, so I can watch both Twin Peaks and Doctor Who. I wanted to come up with a snappy title, probably with alliteration (I’m not sure why, as I’m doing this alone), but the best I could come up with was “Mid-Week Twin Peaks” which is a rhyme, but not a very good one. If you count the feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there are forty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks, so this should take me about a year.

Today I watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. As a prequel, it adds more to the original story than the Babylon 5 prequel In the Beginning did, inasmuch as the latter doesn’t do much more than show what the original series said had happened, whereas Fire Walk with Me is interesting even if you know how Laura Palmer died from the original Twin Peaks. I’m not sure why it has such a bad reputation, although the likes of Kim Newman and Mark Kermode have pushed for positive reassessment.

It’s a sometimes disturbing film about a disturbing subject (abuse), and the surreal elements don’t really detract from that. I like that there is redemption at the end, with the dead Laura appearing in the red room (Twin Peaks‘ Heaven/Hell/Purgatory) and crying tears of joy as she becomes an angel. The film lacks humour compared with the original series and probably doesn’t have as much of a sense of place (actually the opening section which isn’t in the town of Twin Peaks probably has more of a sense of place), but I found the balance of surreal moments amidst mostly realistic drama good. There probably is some truth in the criticism that Laura Palmer isn’t enough of a character to fully hold the film together. In the original series, the late Laura was as much a symbol as a character and we don’t learn much more about her here than we already knew, that she had been abused since she was twelve and has turned to alcohol, drugs and casual sex to cope. Nevertheless, I found it intense and compelling.

(I don’t intend on doing an episode-by-episode review, I just wanted to write a few thoughts as I didn’t have much else to say today.)