I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know if it was from taking my tablets late, sleeping too much in the day, drinking tea late at night or something else. I got about four hours of sleep in the end, but I had to be up early to see PIMOJ. Yesterday it was so warm that I went for a walk in the afternoon without a coat or jumper. This morning, it snowed. I wrapped up warm, but it was difficult to tell what to wear, as it was warm when sunny, but cold in the shade.
I think PIMOJ had been having some of the thoughts I had been having about our lack of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, although she phrased it differently, saying we haven’t really got to know each other well yet. We had a long talk (in the park, not ideal – thank you COVID) and PIMOJ opened up to me about some things in her past and I tried to be a bit more open about my mood dips and persistent lack of energy. I think we’re OK, we just agreed to try to be more honest and open with each other in the future. Not that we were lying previously, but we were both hiding things, I guess from fear of rejection. I had some further thoughts after the date and texted PIMOJ to tell her that I’m often not good at talking things over spontaneously and need time to think about responses because of autism (hence texting her later because I didn’t think of this at the time!) and maybe it’s worth discussing things over a few days and/or letting me text some ideas later after I’ve thought it over. Unfortunately, neither of us likes video calling much, which is hard at the moment. She hasn’t got back to me about that.
The rest of the date was good, except that we were seen by two of my parents’ friends. I’m not sure if they recognised me, but it’s the type of thing that can start rumours in small communities. PIMOJ and I were together for over four hours and did a lot of walking. We got takeaway falafel. Still, I was left with some anxiety. I worry that my autistic brain simply isn’t wired for a relationship. “Autism” etymologically refers to morbid self-absorption (you may have noticed this here…). Meaning, being unable to relate to others. That although I pine away in loneliness while single, I’m not able to be in a relationship “properly.” Now I’m in a relationship with someone where I know there will be lots of extra obstacles beyond a regular relationship if we want to make this permanent. I want to do that, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself out trying or just won’t make it, and perhaps that fear is stopping me from fully committing to the relationship (unconsciously), along with guilt feelings that the relationship came about in a “wrong” way, religiously. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Autism is hard. Life + relationships + autism = very hard.
I keep thinking of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s parable of The Turkey Prince. The prince goes mad and believes that he is a turkey, sitting naked under the table and eating food off the floor. No one can cure him until a wise man takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, claiming to be a turkey too. Once the prince accepts him, the wise man puts on trousers, saying a turkey can wear trousers. When the prince wears trousers, the wise man puts on a shirt until the prince does the same, and so on until the prince is fully clothed and eating normally and is (we are told) fully cured.
Superficially, the story is about the need of the religious mentor to descend to the level of his followers to win their trust and to understand them and inspire them. However, as Arthur Green noted in his biography of Rebbe Nachman (Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), there is a uneasy air about the conclusion of the story. Is the prince really “cured” or has he just been tricked into acting in a more socially acceptable way? Does he really think he is a human again, or just a turkey who wears clothes and eats off a plate? (This is surely a big question in clinical psychology: how much are we “curing” people and how much socialising them into “normal” behaviour even when the “abnormal” behaviour is harmless?) Green suggests that the wise man, and even the other courtiers may be just as insane as the prince.
I feel I need someone to model behaviour for me, to show that an autistic person with a history of mental illness can: get a full-time job; make friends; write fiction; build a relationship and a family; and so on. But maybe this is not addressing the fundamental problem, which is my tendency to see myself as defective and to assume that everything I try to do will be affected by this defectiveness. Otherwise I’m in danger of being a Turkey Prince, acting in a socially acceptable way while still believing myself to be a turkey (“defective” autistic person).
Another thing that happened this afternoon has been on my mind. PIMOJ asked if my family were as religious as I was, and we got onto the subject of how religious I am. PIMOJ felt I am quite religious, but not exceedingly so, as I perform the mitzvot (commandments) as God commands, but have no interest in the spiritual reality behind them. I let this go at the time, but it’s annoyed me a bit since then and I don’t know whether to say anything (my natural conflict aversion versus our newly-stated desire to be honest with each other). I know kabbalists (Jewish mystics) say there are spiritual realities behind the mitzvot, and perhaps there are, but I have never managed to get my head around them. Rather than the mystics, I prefer the religious rationalists like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) who said that every mitzvah “serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.” Some mitzvot have an obvious logic (don’t murder, don’t steal etc.). Those that don’t have obvious social benefits are symbols that teach important historical/theological concepts (like eating matzah on Pesach to remember the exodus) or inculcate character traits (eating only kosher food might instil self-control). Thinkers like Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spent a lot of time and energy finding rational reasons for symbolic actions and it bothers me a bit to see that dismissed as not religious (see especially Rav Hirsch’s Horeb, which provides reasons for all the mitzvot observed today).
Maybe I ought to bring this up with PIMOJ tomorrow, although I feel that there are other things that might be more important to discuss. I guess it just makes me realise that we see the role of religious observance differently. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I can communicate the way I see it. It’s somewhat similar to the way she sees connection with God, and “hearing” His answers, as relatively easy things, whereas I see them as very hard, even a life’s work. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but they are very different.
There are actually other things that came up on the date that I’d like to discuss with someone, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to speak about here. I hope to speak to my rabbi mentor on Friday, and it would be good to raise some of this with my therapist too next week (I’m on fortnightly therapy at the moment). Still, it adds to the feeling of juggling a lot of balls and not knowing if I can keep them all in the air or what will happen if I drop one or two.
I was pretty exhausted when I got home after this, maybe not surprisingly. I took some time to write parts this post, which was hard as it meant focusing on the anxiety-provoking parts of the date as well as the more successful parts, and focusing on the work I will need to do in the relationship. I did a little Torah study, but I was too tired to do much. I watched some TV. My mood has been variable and I’m definitely dealing with some anxiety about the relationship, even though I think today went well.
I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.
Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.
It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.
Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.
Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.
I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.
I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.
I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.
I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.
I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.
In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.
Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.
All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.
Given the disruption to my sleep pattern lately, perhaps it’s unsurprising I struggled to fall asleep last night. As I don’t like drinking milk, normally I would eat porridge to make myself drowsy, but porridge is not kosher for Pesach (approved for Passover). I tried eating Pesach cereal with boiled water added to warm the milk, but it didn’t taste great. In the end I sat up watching Babylon 5 to relax, which may have been the problem in the first place – a lack of passive recreation can keep me awake.
I was a bit burnt out on waking. I actually managed to get up earlier than I expected, given that I fell asleep around 4am, getting up at 10ish, but I went back to bed after breakfast and got dressed slowly after that.
I spent much of the day enjoying not doing very much after the busy weeks before Pesach. I did a bit over half an hour of Torah study and spent forty minutes or so writing a devar Torah (Torah thought) that I’m not too happy with. I’ve used some of the ideas before, plus it’s mostly my own chiddush (original insight) which always makes me worry that (a) I might be completely wrong or (b) people might demand something more rigorously rooted in the traditional sources.
I went for a run too. It wasn’t a good one; after nine minutes I came back home to change from tracksuit bottoms to shorts because it was a lot hotter than I expected for late March. Then I got a headache when I restarted, but insisted on forcing myself to continue to 5K as usual. I was worried for a while that I was going to be sick, but a combination of painkillers, cooling strip and a load of water (in case of dehydration) and crisps (in case of loss of salt) seemed to help get rid of hit fairly quickly in comparison with some previous exercise migraines, but it came back later, although not as bad.
I wonder if I have a lot of undischarged anxiety at the moment, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way Pesach ramps up my anxiety levels. It was one of my reasons for going for a run. There may be some unconscious guilt too. Related to this, lately I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for me to think positively about myself, why I see it as morally wrong. I think I feel that I’m not good enough to deserve to think positively about myself; that even if I have good points, they are far outnumbered and outweighed by the bad ones; that thinking positively about myself just makes me look down on other people; and that thinking positively about myself stops my personal growth. I’m not sure what to do about this. There does seem to be a part of myself that thinks I’m one bad decision away from becoming a serial killer and that I have to beat myself up the whole time to (somehow) prevent this.
I’m still wondering what to do about my novel, currently sitting in its third draft and waiting for a friend to read it and give feedback. (Despite the title of this post, I’m not currently writing it.) I think my mistake was thinking I could write mainstream literary fiction. I’m beginning to feel I’m more likely to find my voice as a writer of middlebrow pulp fiction, which is what I read (and watch) a lot. Or maybe I’m just not a good writer.
I want to write Jewish fantasy/science fiction/mild horror, which is not a very crowded genre to work in, although I don’t know how many publishers would be interested if there aren’t many readers. My audience would be non-religious Jews and non-Jews interested in Judaism, or at least interested in fantasy and not averse to a Jewish setting and details (like Faye Kellerman’s detective novels set in the Jewish community). I don’t want to preach or go down the Narnia route exactly, but I’d like to deal with some of the questions that face contemporary Jews (or face me) in an exciting setting.
Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the first two days of Pesach (Passover) were, on the whole, good. I wanted to do a blow-by-blow account, but it’s too late and I don’t have the time, so I’ll do bullet points. (I’m also not catching up on blog posts I’ve missed tonight; hopefully tomorrow, but even then maybe not all of them.)
- I saw a beautiful rainbow on the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. This got Yom Tov off to a good start.
- Shabbat was weird. (I’m not even going to try to explain how or why Shabbat the day before Pesach is so weird. Sorry, it’s just too complicated. If you don’t know, you might just want to skip to the next bullet point.) We had egg matzah for hamotzi. This is not entirely in the spirit of not eating matzah on Erev Pesach, but I felt the alternative was to eat pita bread and freak out about chametz (leaven) crumbs all through Pesach. I managed to get up around 8.00am to daven (pray) a bit and make hamotzi before the cut off time.
- Having Shabbat the day before Yom Tov gave the whole experience a weird Groundhog Day time warp effect where none of us were sure what day it was, something only compounded by the clocks going forward on Saturday night, when religious Jews can’t change them (because of Yom Tov) — except that some modern clocks adjust themselves, so on Sunday and Monday we kept having to check what time it was on different clocks to work out what time it really was.
- The sederim went pretty well. Even though there were only three of us (me, Mum and Dad), we had some back and forth of questions and suggested answers. I learnt some things, which was good. We had a good pace, not too fast or too slow. I do feel I’m too old to look for the afikoman, especially alone. I didn’t mind saying the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions, traditionally said by the youngest person present), and sang it, something my sister generally refuses to do. I do feel sorry for people doing solo sedarim though.
- My OCD anxious thoughts were mostly under control, more so as time went on. I am still struggling with a few thoughts intermittently. My rabbi mentor is usually uncontactable during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and won’t talk about Pesach after the event, but I have some questions to ask him for next year.
- I went to shul a few times. This occasioned some social anxiety, although I pushed through it, as well as discomfort (feeling suffocated) from wearing a mask too long.
- I read a bit: more of Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah by Erica Brown, the Haggadah I used at the seder this year (it has eight essays, one for each day of Pesach); a bit of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc; and Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman’s follow-up to Anno Dracula, itself a spin-off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, positing a world in which Dracula was not defeated and became Prince Consort of the British Empire. In the sequel, expelled from Britain, Dracula becomes Commander-in-Chief of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in World War I. One hundred pages in, not a lot has actually happened, but the “vampires in spiked helmets” imagery is strong and there are lots of cameos from real and fictional figures from the early twentieth century.
- I think I feel more comfortable in my head at the moment. I’m OK sitting with myself without reading, watching TV or listening to music. On Friday and today I got exhausted and took time out just to lie on the bed silently. I think I need to decompress from sensory overload more than I realised in the past, or maybe I actually need to do it more often as I get older. I’m wondering if I should set a “No screens for the first half-hour after I get home from work” rule so I can decompress properly. I’ve been feeling lately that I want to be on my computer less, but unsure how to do it when my main social interactions are through the internet: my blog and other people’s.
- I went for a walk today without a coat or jumper. Spring is finally here.
- It occurred to me today that so many of my thoughts about not fitting into my community because I don’t feel I’m appropriately religious (Haredi) might actually be about not fitting in because I’m autistic. I realised that while I have a few possibly mentally ill Jewish hero figures (with the usual caveats about trying to diagnose people who have been dead for centuries), I don’t have any high functioning autistic Jewish heroes and its hard to find my place in the community without them. I know there are not many female role voices and models in Orthodox Judaism but there isn’t a single autistic one.
I’m pretty burnt out, which is why I’m writing with two hours until Shabbat (the Sabbath). Fortunately I’ve done all my chores, but I wanted to help my parents more. We haven’t laid the seder table yet.
I woke up feeling burnt out after everything I did yesterday and only managed to get up when PIMOJ phoned me at 10.00am. I managed to get going and do various Erev Pesach (day before Passover) chores that have to be done today because actual Erev Pesach is Shabbat. I did a lot, but by 3.00pm I was struggling. I’m just totally out of energy (or spoons, if you want to go that route). I booked to go to shul (synagogue) tonight, but I’m not sure I’m going to manage it. I just want to sleep. Actually, I just want to vegetate in front of the TV, but that’s not an option for the next seventy-five hours or so. I’ve also cut myself on the edge of the thick aluminium foil we covered the edge of the kitchen sink with.
In terms of OCD, I’ve been worried about a lot of stuff. However, I’ve mostly got the worries under control quite quickly. I resisted the temptation to message my rabbi about a worry too. So I’m probably not drifting into actual OCD, I’m just getting spikes of anxiety that I can slowly bring under control, always with a residual sense of “I hope I’m doing the right thing and don’t really need to ask a shayla (religious question)…”
I’m going to eat something, read for a bit, and try to get the energy to shower and go to shul.
Chag kasher ve’sameach to those celebrating!
On the day before Pesach (Passover), it’s customary for first-born Jewish males to fast, in memory of the plague of the first-born in the exodus story. The custom has also arisen to get out of this fast (unlike other fasts) by attending a siyum a religious celebration, usually for finishing some religious study. When Pesach starts on a Sunday, this all gets pushed back to the Thursday beforehand. This is why I got up early this morning to attend a siyum on Zoom. I decided it wasn’t realistic for me to go to shul (synagogue) for this. I couldn’t sleep last night, but even before that, I thought I was too tired to manage it. I don’t know what I would have done in a “normal” year, but this year there is still COVID, so I attended virtually. I didn’t manage to get up early enough to pray beforehand (the siyum is usually immediately after the morning service) or even to get dressed; I just got up and switched on my phone, leaving the camera switched off as I sat there in my pyjamas.
After I managed to eat breakfast, get dressed and pray, I hoovered my room and went for a walk. My mood dropped quite a lot while out. I was feeling negative (depressed and anxious) about Pesach, but also about my writing. Coming home and eating lunch helped quite a lot. Tiredness and low blood sugar can push my mood very far down, very quickly.
In the afternoon I made the charoset and baked cinnamon balls (biscuits). I was pretty exhausted after that, and after my anxiety got pushed up by something that happened, so I had to take time out to watch Babylon 5 to try to regain my composure.
Then came the worst task of the year: kashering the kitchen sink i.e. getting it ready for Pesach by pouring boiling water over it to remove any trace of food. The difficulty is that it has to be boiling water not boiled water, i.e. poured within just a few seconds of the kettle turning off. And it has to reach the surface of the sink (bottom, walls, drainer, taps) from an area of a couple of inches of where the spout hits the sink, or it will have cooled off too much. And ideally you should do it in one go.
I don’t know why I find it so hard. My rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi have both said it’s easy. Mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) do it all the time. But something – perhaps some autistic body coordination problem, the reason I’m awful at ball games? – stops me doing it. Of course, OCD kicks in too: after two or three seconds I stop, convinced I’ve spent too long pouring when I probably still have a second or two to keep pouring.
Whatever the reason, I can’t do it in one go. I take seven or eight, maybe more, doing the drainer and taps, than the base of the sink, then the walls one by one, sometimes repeating bits I’m not happy with. This time I got to the end and couldn’t remember if I’d done the side nearest me. I was 80% sure I had, but not 100%. I decided 80% would have to be good enough; do it again, and I’ll be there all night doubting myself, redoing bits, fuelling the OCD. My rabbi mentor says I only have to get 51% of the sink for it to be considered done. I have no idea if I managed that. We put a plastic bowl in on Pesach anyway, which is a useful belts and braces approach.
It didn’t help that Mum and Dad were in and out of the kitchen the whole time while I was doing this, which just made me feel more awkward. I felt pretty rotten afterwards, not sure if I’d done the right thing and feeling undischarged anxiety pent up inside me. I hate this job, but I worry my parents wouldn’t do it the way I would like, so I have to do it myself.
I appreciate that this is probably very far from what most people would see as the place of religion. For what it’s worth, I feel that if I do this every year, despite hating it, purely because it is what God wants, according to the rabbis, then that is a kind of sacrifice.
Even this was not the end of the day. After dark, we did the traditional search of the house by candlelight for chametz. We were all pretty exhausted and not in the best temper. Usually this would be done on the night before Pesach, but that’s Shabbat (the Sabbath) this year, so we do it earlier.
With all of this, it’s probably no surprise I barely managed ten minutes of Torah study. Hopefully I can catch up over Pesach.
I feel that maybe I shouldn’t talk about OCD thoughts and anxiety here. Or at least, it’s hard to know what to say about them. They aren’t anywhere near the intensity of when my OCD was at its height a few years ago. Although I would like to hear from my rabbi mentor about one or two things, I’m mostly feeling OK, although something happened today that (frankly) freaked me out for five or ten minutes into stronger anxiety. Everyone has OCD-type “weird” thoughts all the time. The difference is that most people dismiss them easily, but people with OCD fixate on them and worry about them and their implications. I’m not at the OCD end of obsessing about things endlessly, but I’m not at the point of just brushing things off either.
The problem is that checking is bad for OCD, as it just fuels it. You can never be 100% certain, so checking just encourages double and triple checking. In Orthodox Jewish culture, it feels normal to check questions with a rabbi, particularly at Pesach, when the dietary rules are so different from the rest of the year, but that’s counter-productive with OCD. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I’m just trying to focus on trying my best and hoping that’s enough, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it would be.
Ashley pointed me in the direction of this article on autistic burnout. I found it interesting that it sees burnout as being long-term, over a period of weeks or months. I have probably had burnout like that (possibly some of my depressive episodes were actually major burnout), but I experience extreme fatigue and desire to withdraw also on a regular basis for short periods (days or even hours). I certainly agree that burnout can cause loss of skills. I am fairly sure I lose skills in the short-term when burnt out, and I suspect I have lost skills long-term too, particularly my librarian skills. I also seem to make more mistakes in writing than I used to (wrong words, apostrophes), and find it harder to spot them. I used to be a good proof-reader; I’m not sure that I still am.
I’m not sure if I’ll get the time to write tomorrow. It’s not technically Erev Pesach (the day before Pesach), but as Erev Pesach is Shabbat, most of the usual Erev Pesach tasks get done tomorrow. It’s the busiest day of the year and I don’t know if I’ll get time to write. And then I’ll be incommunicado until Monday evening! I’ll be glad to actually get to Pesach after such a stressful build up.
I think today was an OK day that I nearly turned into a bad day by trying to fix it badly.
Work was OK, but dull, mostly going through old papers to see if I could throw them away. Looking at the paper trail left by office politics and arguments from a decade ago feels both voyeuristic and depressing – events that clearly angered people to the point that legal action was considered has now left no discernible trace, except for a few letters that have now gone in the bin. It really will all be the same in a hundred years.
I feel that my Pesach (Passover) religious OCD has really kicked in. I’m anxious about a couple of Pesach-related things. However, my parents don’t think I’m much more anxious than the last few years. To be fair, I’ve been a lot worse in the past, I just thought I was over this. I thought Pesach didn’t make me anxious any more, or not this anxious. Maybe it’s not something you are ever “over” just as getting over depression doesn’t mean you won’t have days when you feel depressed.
I got back from home fairly early and decided I would go for a run. This was where I wanted to fix the day. I thought exercise would help shift the OCD anxiety and boost my mood, but it went a bit wrong. I didn’t manage my usual 5K run because my foot hurt. I also got tired, probably because I’d already walked a lot today (to the station and then to the bank and back at work). I probably continued running longer than I should have done, given that my foot was hurting. So I came home feeling tired and down rather than tired and satisfied.
Possibly on an unconscious level, going for a run was influenced by having a bad body image day. I don’t have particularly great body image (does anyone?), but I don’t really think about it much either, except when I see myself in the mirror getting in and out of the shower. I’m on the fringes of being overweight, and have been since being put on clomipramine, but I’ve learned to accept it (sort-of) as the price I pay for a medication combination that keeps me reasonably well. But today I was just feeling fat. It’s not exactly an easy time of year from a healthy eating point of view, as we try to finish all the leftover chametz (leavened) food and then spend eight days eating matzah, which is pretty fattening, especially as you have to eat it with something (butter, cheese, jam, etc.) which makes it more fattening.
I did feel somewhat better after dinner, just very tired and apprehensive about the rest of the week. I’m not sure why this Pesach feels so hard. It’s a lockdown Pesach, but so was last Pesach, and last Pesach Mum was undergoing chemotherapy and while the prognosis was good, we had no way of knowing that it would ultimately be successful. The stakes should feel a lot lower this time. I guess there are a few factors that make this Pesach hard: it starts on Saturday night, which adds a whole load of hassle for reasons that would take a long time to explain (just trust me, it’s not good); I’m working for the first time around Pesach since 2018 (I’m glad that J basically told me not to come in on Thursday, which is a big help); and I have a girlfriend for the first time since I broke up with my first girlfriend on Pesach in 2013 (that was a bad Pesach), which is good, but adds a lot of stressful thoughts about how we can meet during lockdown and how the relationship is going and whether we will weather all the difficulties inherent in it. I think what I’m saying is that this is a Pesach where I’m juggling a lot of non-Pesach-related balls along with the usual Pesach ones, in a way that I haven’t had to do for a while (even last year when Mum had chemo it didn’t impact me so much personally, except that I did a bit more cooking).
I made a tactical decision not to do any more Torah study after dinner, even though I had only managed about thirty-five minutes today and worry I won’t finish the haggadah commentary I’m reading before Pesach. I thought that trying to study more would just deplete me and make me feel worse. I watched Babylon 5 and helped Mum and Dad by polishing some of the silver, although I was too tired to do much of that.
So it was an OK day in the end, but I nearly tipped it over to a bad one by trying to hard to turn it around. There is probably a message there.
It’s weird. I don’t think I have a particularly punitive view of God. With other people, if they do even very slightly good things (religiously speaking), I praise and encourage them. And I genuinely believe God will look favourably on them. I don’t know who exactly gets in to Heaven, but I know I don’t believe in a God who condemns billions to eternal suffering. And yet. It’s so hard to take the view of, “I do the best I can and leave the rest to God” as at least one rabbi encouraged me to do.
I think I’m a person who fears sin. This is a concept in the Talmud. It’s very different to a person who fears punishment. Fearing punishment is a low level, kind of the lowest level of doing the right thing, just doing it to avoid being punished. Fearing sin, on the other hand, is much higher, a sensitivity to the spiritual consequences of apparently trivial actions.
The way it seems to me is like I’m in a palace made of delicate crystal or even ice, representing the world as it exists on a spiritual level, not necessarily the spiritual universes described in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but a metaphor for the way the life prescribed by Judaism creates a way of life with tangible effects in the physical world. Moving without the correct attention, as laid out in the Torah, risks cracking or even breaking off the delicate ornamentation. Do enough wrong and the fabric of the building is at risk.
Switching metaphors, I also fear the consequences for my relationship with God of transgressing His word. Even if I do it unintentionally, I worry if I could have tried harder or found some other solution. I don’t want to risk cutting myself off from Him, which is cutting oneself off from life, as God is the source of life. The thought of doing that is horrifying. This is why Pesach is such an ordeal, because the punishment for eating chametz (leaven) on Pesach is karet, being “cut off” from God (probably referring to losing one’s share in the next world and possibly to premature death in this world too; it’s debated among the authorities). The fact that Pesach is once a year doesn’t really help. Shabbat is a major commandment with a serious punishment too (I actually wrote a devar Torah on this recently; the Talmud says keeping – or breaking- Shabbat is equivalent to keeping or breaking the entire Torah), but it comes around every seven days, so I get a lot of exposure therapy that means that most of the time I can enjoy Shabbat without thinking of the potential consequences of error. But Pesach is once a year, so I don’t get much exposure therapy. (Although the thought of doing Pesach once a week is pretty terrifying!)
OK, considering I didn’t think I had enough material for a post today, this has got too long. I don’t feel tired enough to sleep, but I think I’ve had enough screen time for today (or will have soon, as PIMOJ asked me to text her about my day).
I struggled with burnout again on Friday, but forced myself to do my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, as well as thoroughly hoovering and dusting my room for Pesach, including moving my bed and bedside table to hoover under them (not my desk though – too heavy, and food is unlikely to get under it as the three exposed sides are flush with the floor). At least that’s out the way for now; I won’t eat food (other than water) in there now until after Pesach.
I embarrassed myself phoning the hospital about the report from my autism assessment. I had misunderstood when it would be available, which turns out not to be for another two or three weeks. I was very apologetic to the secretary for wasting her time, but I felt bad.
Shabbat (the Sabbath) went well. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. We davened Kabbalat Shabbat (said some of the Evening Prayers) outside so that we could sing. It was good to sing, but very cold, even if Saturday was the first day of spring.
I got up earlier than usual on Saturday morning, although I went back to bed after breakfast and dozed for a bit. I napped in the afternoon too, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t do much Torah study, partly because of napping, partly because when Shabbat went out I got an awful migraine that took hours to shift. I didn’t even feel up to saying all of the Ma’ariv (Evening) prayers; usually I somehow soldier on, but I skipped the after Shabbat verses of blessing because just reading made me feel like I was going to throw up. This is an improvement, as in the past I would carry on. The last time I had a bad headache when davening (praying) was on Simchat Torah, when bowing at the end of the Amidah prayer actually made me throw up. Perhaps I’m willing to make more excuses for myself now.
I spent much of the evening wrapped in my weighted blanket, watching Babylon 5 (hence the title of this post from one of the episodes, used in a rather humorously melodramatic way). The painkillers I took finally kicked in, along with the cool and soothe strip. I feel a bit tired now, but not particularly sleepy. I’m going to have something to eat (I need to take my antidepressants with food) and maybe go to bed. My room is freezing cold; I opened the windows wide before as I prefer to be cold if I have a migraine, but I wonder how I will fall asleep now.
I’ve been missing PIMOJ a lot lately. I realised that I experience this not as pining after her the way I pined after various crushes in my earlier life, but in worrying that she will lose interest in me, that I’m not good enough for her and so on. I’m not sure what to do about this. Hopefully we can meet after Pesach or maybe even during it. We had a text conversation tonight, a bit more in-depth than either of us has had the time or energy for this week, and we’re hoping to speak tomorrow.
It’s strange thinking that not only do I now have autism, but I have had autism all my life, even when I was a child doing well at school. It still seems a little strange how well I did at school compared with how badly I’ve done since then, but school was a strange micro-environment, plus “doing well” is relative, as I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety when I was in the sixth form and maybe earlier, and I struggled a lot socially, with bullying and (not) making friends. I would do a lot differently if I knew what I know now, but it’s too late. Still, the thought of being autistic and still doing well academically seems slightly jarring, even though many people on the spectrum are the same. I wish I could identify how I succeeded then and work out how to apply it now, but the answer seems to be to seek out opportunities for rote memorisation of lists and tasks, focus 100% on work with no social or romantic life, and concentrate very hard on doing what I’m told, which does not necessarily make for a healthy adult life.
I was looking over Shabbat at a new haggadah (Passover prayer book) commentary I just bought. It has open questions to stimulate discussion at the seder service. Many of them ask the participants to think about major life events. I keep coming back to my autism diagnosis for so many of these questions. I definitely haven’t worked it through yet.
I search for the truth, in what I suppose is a very old-fashioned way. I took a decision at some point, initially unconsciously, lately very consciously, not to cut out of my life people I disagreed with purely on matters of religion or politics. I feel that this is unusual. I try not to read material that is just supporting my views, although it’s hard to find the time to read things from “my” side let alone other opinions in depth, and naturally I prioritise material I think is going to be more accurate which correlates with material I agree with. But I do tend to try to work out what the other side thinks, more or less automatically, probably a hold-over from my university days, where my essays tended to sit on the fence and examine both sides of the issue without really being drawn to one over the other. Anyway, I feel that this behaviour is unusual and most people do not do this. I’m not sure what to think about this.
(Title quote from Amateur Hour by Sparks)
Today was not good, although I suppose it could have been worse. But I felt overwhelmed (my new keyword) most of the day. I overslept this morning. Actually, I didn’t oversleep; I was awake, I was just too tired to get up and then suddenly it was half an hour later and I had to rush. On the way in to work I felt overwhelmed and anxious: about Pesach (Passover), about autism, my relationship, my life, and the guy opposite me on the Tube not wearing his mask so he could drink beer 9am. (I’m open to the idea of beer-drinking at 9am being OK for some people, but I don’t consider it sufficient reason to remove one’s mask.)
At work I made mistakes, and also discovered mistakes made earlier e.g. the stationery order I placed on Monday arrived and I discovered that I had ordered one ream of printer paper instead of one box as J, my line manager, had requested. There were other mistakes, and J noticed some of them. He didn’t say much about it, which is good, but also makes it hard for me to judge how satisfied he is with my work. I think there tends to be a programme running in my head all the time wondering about that.
At lunch J asked what book I was reading, the first time he’s shown any interest in my lunchtime reading. Perhaps because my interests were the focus of much childhood bullying, I tend to get really nervous about talking about my interests with anyone outside of narrow “boxes” – so I only feel comfortable talking about Doctor Who with people I know from fandom, only talk about Judaism with other frum (religious) Jews and so on. (Somehow the internet is OK to share and overshare all kinds of stuff, don’t ask me why.)
In the afternoon, J got me to start going through old papers from the office, the start of a long clear out. I tend to be a hoarder with my own papers and property, but if I’m not responsible for the articles in question, I end up wanting to throw everything away. I asked J about a lot of the papers and he told me to keep a lot of it, so I’m not sure how much autonomy I’ll actually have over this task. To be honest, I’m not terribly keen on having autonomy over other people’s things. I did throw away a load of invoices from before 2010 that were unlikely to be used again, but I do feel vaguely apprehensive thinking about it. Unfortunately, it was a dull task that did not use much of my brain and I got stuck in negative thoughts and feelings again and wondered if I am becoming depressed again.
My Mum said that I should tell J about the autism diagnosis. I’m reluctant to do so, partly I admit because J is a friend from before when he gave me the job. I mentioned above about compartmentalising things, and I’ve been reluctant to tell people from shul (synagogue) even about my depression history, let alone something like autism that is understood and accepted even less well than depression. If I do that, I would want to prepare what I would say about autism (if people ask me suddenly I tend to blank and struggle to articulate the symptoms, let alone how it affects me personally) as well as what adjustments, if any, I would want.
That was not the end of the day. The journey home was stressful, with a lot of traffic. I don’t know why sitting in traffic is stressful. A half-hour journey with heavy traffic seems more stressful than a forty-five minute with no traffic. So I came back pretty frazzled, only to be thrown into dealing with Pesach OCD stuff. I’m OK, I know things are OK and I’m not falling back into serious religious OCD, I’m just trying to stay calm and cope with things. My OCD is always worst when I’m hungry and tired and I was both of those things when I got home from work. It’s OK now.
PIMOJ haven’t been able to meet much recently, not that we can really go anywhere at the moment anyway because of lockdown. She is doing a full-time job with significant compulsory overtime two nights a week, plus she’s doing a degree and getting ready for Pesach. At least once the clocks go forward we can buy coffee or takeaway dinner after work and eat in a park, but at the moment it still gets dark too early. I know she’s not avoiding me, but I miss her and I still worry about the stress it puts on our relationship.
So, now I write, write, write, because it helps to get things out of my head and process them. I’m only writing on my blog, as I’ve put my novel on hold until I can show it to someone, which won’t be until after Pesach. To be honest, I’ve lost faith in it. I’d be tempted to start working on a different novel that I’ve been thinking about (is that writing bigamy? Or cheating?), but it requires significant research, both factual (details for the setting) and literary (reading other books in the genre) and I don’t have the time or headspace for that at the moment.
I feel too exhausted to do any Pesach preparation or further Torah study tonight. Yesterday, I said on my blog that I was going to watch more TV, but then felt too tired to actually do so, so I’m not going to do anything as reckless as say I’ll watch TV now. I feel tired, but I want to unwind more before I go to bed. I guess it’s a race to see if I can stay awake long enough to read or watch Babylon 5.
Today I feel less burnt out than yesterday, but still subdued and struggling to do things, like I feel after a migraine. I would be tempted to take things easy, but it’s a week and a half until Pesach and I can’t really afford to do that.
I went out and did some shopping and spent well over an hour writing my devar Torah (I wasn’t sure I would have the time or energy this week) as well as doing a few small, but time-consuming, Pesach chores. However, my Dad cleaned the sinks in the garage that we use for Pesach, which was supposed to be my job yesterday; I was too tired yesterday and did not have enough time today. I vaguely feel I should do more things around the house.
The other important thing today was therapy. We spent a while talking about my autism diagnosis and what it means for me and my sense of self. We spoke about coming to terms with it being like grieving in a way and about whether I can use it as an opportunity to work on self-regard, which I feel very nervous about as I tend to assume that any positive self thoughts will lead to narcissism. In my head, someone gave Donald Trump (for example) too much praise as a child and now he has an ego the size of a planet, and I worry about that happening to me.
After therapy I found myself getting sucked into low mood and anxious thoughts again, some about my relationship and whether it can survive several more months of COVID, let alone other stresses. Then it segued into general feelings of gloom and impending doom. I found myself thinking about bad things I’d done in the past and being sucked back into bad experiences from childhood.
I really want to crash, but, again, there are things I have to do e.g. I told Mum I would do ironing and polish the silver over the next two days. I will do the ironing and watch The Simpsons, which I haven’t seen for years. Twice in the last twenty-four hours or so I thought about the episode The Mysterious Voyager of Homer, so I figured that, as I currently have access to it on Disney+, I might as well watch it. And then maybe another Babylon 5 episode before bed; I don’t really feel up to reading.
Today the oven cleaner (that’s a person who cleans ovens, not a spray) came to clean our ovens before Pesach. From here on in, things become increasingly Pesach-related and stressful for the next week and a bit. It feels increasingly “real” as we get past more pre-Pesach milestones (clean fridges, buy Pesach food, clean ovens, kasher ovens etc.). My rabbi mentor said that everyone’s entitled to one pre-Pesach meltdown, and I wonder how I can cope with that (my parents’ as much as my own).
Today was an out of spoons day. I felt very burnt out, probably no surprise after a busy day Zooming shiurim (religious classes) on Sunday and then work yesterday. I’m glad I wasn’t working today, but had a lot of Pesach (Passover) stuff to do and didn’t really want to get up as late as I did. Even when I got up, I was very tired and struggled to get going. I went back to bed for a bit after breakfast, just enjoying being in the dark and quiet and not being over-stimulated. I hoped I would feel better after lunch, but I just wanted to eat and watch TV. It’s a bit easier to give myself permission to be burnt out now I have my autism diagnosis, but it doesn’t help when I have external deadlines to meet, in this case Pesach in under two weeks!
Probably because of this, I felt some Pesach anxiety. When I break down what needs doing into individual tasks, I feel a bit better, but just thinking about EVERYTHING that needs to be done is daunting (and the amount I’m actually doing is pretty small in comparison with what will be done by my Mum and the paid cleaners, not to mention the guy who takes our oven apart to clean it). I’m also a bit worried about the Shabbat (Sabbath) the day before Pesach. For complicated reasons, this is very difficult and I’m particularly worried about burnout and missing deadlines for things that need to be done in the morning, although I have back-up plans for some of them.
I also miss PIMOJ. It’s hard not seeing each other in lockdown. At least we can meet outdoors now, but as she works full-time it’s still difficult as it’s too dark to go to the park at 6pm and we can’t go indoors to cafes or restaurants. Plus, we still have the practical obstacles to our relationship to negotiate, which I feel hang over the relationship a bit, even though we can probably overcome them. I’m trying to be honest with PIMOJ about my autism and sometimes precarious mental health, but I do worry about scaring her off, even though I don’t think she would leave me over that (not least because she would have done it already if she was going to).
I’m still thinking about my autism diagnosis. Maybe there’s a Kubler-Ross grief thing happening, although I’m not sure if I’m still on anger or sometimes on depression. I guess I feel that I know who I am now, and that to some extent explains or even excuses things I’ve done (or not done), but also I wonder just how much can I live with this or even change it, or am I locked into a predestined life forever (worth thinking about in the run up to Pesach, the festival of freedom).
I was thinking about the diagnosis when I went for a walk and came back feeling insignificant and somewhat depressed (I know I’m not supposed to say “depressed” any more now I’m not clinically depressed, but this felt as bad as some of my worst depressed days) even before my Mum started talking about my brother-in-law being made a director of the company he works for and a trustee of a charity he’s involved with. What, I wonder, not for the first time, am I actually doing here? On Earth, I mean. I wonder what PIMOJ sees in me, and when she’ll realise I’m not a good catch.
Then I was phoned by my friend from shul (synagogue) to ask about contributing to the fund for the new building. He spoke a bit about the amounts raised so far and the amount still needed. I didn’t realise that there are some very generous, not to mention wealthy, people in my community. When they want four-figure sums and some people have given five-figure sums, to offer £100 (as I was thinking) seems paltry. My parents actually convinced me not even to give £100 in one go, but to give some now and decide about the rest in six months’ time (the appeal is over two years). This is probably good, as I didn’t really want to give as much as £100. I wouldn’t say I was trying to save face exactly, but it did make me feel like I’m not a real adult among people my age… which brings me back to autism and my negative experiences in the workplace.
I managed to do some things: hoovering the garage (which basically functions as our Pesach kitchen, although we don’t have an oven out there); cooking dinner (macaroni cheese, my easiest recipe); a thirty minute walk; and finished typing up my notes from Sunday’s talks and a tiny bit of Torah study. I did feel that the more I did, the worse my mood got, so there is definitely a trade off there between activity and mood. There was a lot I wanted to do that I didn’t do, mostly preparation for Pesach (Mum and Dad offered to do some of it).
When I was out walking, I noticed someone had parked their car and left their lights on. I would normally go and tell them, but I just did not have the social energy to ring the doorbell and speak to them. I felt awful about it, but I was just too drained to fight the social anxiety enough.
A book I ordered a while back arrived today, a haggadah (prayer book for the Pesach seder service). I wanted a new haggadah as it would have a different commentary, so I could read some new things out at the seder to go beyond the set text. I was worried in particular about not having time this year for much research, so I wanted to get a new haggadah with a commentary I hadn’t read before that hopefully would be full of new ideas. This one in particular (Seder Talk by Erica Brown, who I’ve heard lecture twice at the LSJS on Zoom) has prompts for conversations too. Ideally the seder should lead to flowing conversations on the story of the exodus from Egypt and the concept of freedom in Jewish thought. I find interesting ideas to share at the seder, but I struggle to get actual conversations going, so I thought this would help, even though it’s just going to be my parents and me at our seder this year because of lockdown.
(Why do I always think haggadah should be spelt with one ‘g’ and two ‘d’s while I think armageddon should be the reverse?)
I feel a little better now, but I do feel bad that I didn’t do as much as I wanted (not just Torah study for once), but also aware that realistically I probably did as much as I could, maybe even a little more than I should have done. It’s frustrating, but I guess I need to learn to live with it. This is part of the reason I find it hard to identify autism as a ‘difference’ rather than a ‘disability.’ It feels disabling when I can’t do what I want (or even need) to do, just as it feels disabling when I’m aware of not having a good job, let alone a career, compared with my peers.
Today was a difficult day. Perhaps the stress of the season is beginning to hit me, or perhaps I just did too much Zooming yesterday. I experienced intrusive thoughts of different kinds in the morning and felt overwhelmed and anxious at work. The anxiety was fairly unfocused, touching work, Pesach (Passover) preparations and my relationship (not the relationship itself but the obstacles to moving it forward). I felt an inner tension. At work, I was continuing with the inventory of relatively expensive objects and when I stood on a chair to reach those on the top shelf, I felt a bit of vertigo and anxiety about falling off the chair or dropping the objects and breaking them. I had to get J to help me get one of them down because I was worried I would shake and drop it, although I made out that I just couldn’t reach it (J is taller than me).
After that, J and I practised the new task he wants me to do and I found it difficult. There’s a lot to memorise and it requires quick thinking to follow different permutations of responses based on what the other person says. I’m unwilling to play the autism card yet, but I need to see how I can cope with it in real life rather than role play. He suggested that we role play it some more. I agreed, and also said that the next time the situation arises in real life, he should let me take the call with him in the room so he can prompt me if necessary, rather than waiting until he’s out of the office and I have to do it alone.
On the way home, J reiterated that he’d like to give me a permanent part-time job. I had thought this was dependent on finances, but it sounds like it’s more dependent on institutional politics. I couldn’t follow all of what he was saying as he had the radio on and I find it hard to tune background noise out and was too socially anxious to ask him to turn it off, but it sounds like there’s someone in the organisation who would potentially block making my job permanent, but he retires in June, so if I can stay for another four months, I’m likely to get a permanent job. This would be very good.
Otherwise the journey home was a bit stressful with more depressing news on the radio, more on misogyny and murder, as well as the withdrawal of the AstraZeneca vaccine in much of Europe. This was the vaccine I had, so I’m vaguely nervous, although I think there’s a lot of politics at work here and the number of deaths supposedly related to the vaccine seems tiny. I came home to news of another alleged abuse story, this time in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Abuse seems depressingly prevalent in all societies.
I could have gone to depression group tonight, but was too exhausted for more Zooming. Also, last time I spoke about my then-upcoming autism assessment, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my diagnosis yet. I can’t really explain why, I just don’t feel ready. I haven’t spoken to my therapist about it yet (my first therapy session since the diagnosis is on Wednesday) and there’s an aspect of the diagnosis that I have not told anyone else about yet that I really want to speak to my therapist about and maybe that has something to do with it.
I managed about twenty-five minutes of Torah study on the Tube into work and spent half an hour typing up some of my notes of things I learnt yesterday that I want to share at the seder. I’m trying to look at the average amount of time I study Torah each week rather than the amount each day; doing five or six hours yesterday should stand me in good stead for a bit.
I’m still watching Babylon 5. It’s very well-written, particularly the character arcs for G’Kar and Londo. How the writers (mostly J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about 85% of the series) turn G’Kar from a violent hothead into a man of peace, and turn Londo from a washed up joke into a ruthless politician and war criminal and then give him a hint of redemption without any of this progress seeming forced or unnatural. How G’Kar and Londo go from being bitter enemies to firm friends. How neither character is unlikeable or two-dimensional even when doing terrible things. Most of this is ahead of me (I’m only halfway through season two of five), but it already makes my own writing feel inferior, reminding me how I failed to make the abuser in my novel into a rounded character and how I’m not sure how to change that.
I guess thinking myself into the head of an abuser is on my mind today because of the murder and misogyny in the news. Some of the intrusive thoughts have been around this. I’ve wondered for many years about how people can hurt other people. I find it hard to get into their heads. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about murder, how people can do it, how they can live with it. I can’t even imagine living with myself if I killed someone in self-defence or in a just war, let alone in cold blood. I guess this is the writer (and reader) in me, the part of me that wants to explore other lives, although I’m not so good at thinking it through beyond the initial revulsion, let alone writing about it.
There’s a short story by perhaps my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges, called Deutsches Requiem, where he writes from the perspective of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal on the eve of his execution. It’s a chilling piece of writing that somehow makes you see the world through the eyes of a thoroughly evil person and feel some kind of empathy for him. I have a long way to go to get to that level of writing.
I didn’t write yesterday. I didn’t have much to say and just felt too tired in the evening after work, housework and doing some Pesach (Passover) stuff. I guess I’m also still processing things in the light of my autism diagnosis. I still don’t know what it means for me in terms of career, telling friends, telling my community and so on. Maybe I won’t know for some time, until after Pesach when I have more time to think.
I don’t have much to say today either. I don’t feel that I have much to say at the moment except for relatively mild Pesach anxiety, but the blog is my main social outlet, so I feel the need to post most days even if I don’t have much to say.
I had an OCD moment today when I worried that I had missed part of the freezer when I cleaning it for Pesach on Sunday and was about to clean it again before deciding that it was OCD and I shouldn’t give in to it. It’s good that I stopped myself.
I’m going to go to shul (synagogue) later today. Aside from Purim, this is the first time I’ve been in months, not considering the risk of COVID worth running for an normal Shabbat (Sabbath). I just feel drained right now and I don’t know why. I guess I’ve had a busy and emotional week, although it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
J gave me a lift home from work yesterday and had the radio on in the car. He listens to talk radio and they were talking about violence against women in the light of the Sarah Everard murder case (an ongoing murder investigation that has pushed COVID and the royal family off the front pages for the last few days).
In the light of this conversation, I’ve been trying to work out if it’s good or bad that my novel deals with domestic violence in the Jewish community (I know I’ve wondered about this here before; it does still worry me). I worry about being accused of appropriation. I don’t find appropriation a particularly helpful concept, but that isn’t really the point: I can be judged whether I agree with it or not. My thinking is that the number of Orthodox Jewish women willing and able to write about abuse is very small — able in terms of both skills and time, and willing in a community where saying anything provocative tends to be seen as risking jeopardising marriage chances (yours, your children’s, your grandchildren’s…), not least given the tiny size of the Orthodox community as a whole. My feeling from reading the anonymous website neshamas.com is that abuse and violence against women is a very real problem in the community, but also that almost no one is willing to talk about it publicly. I feel like I can’t be pushed much further out on the fringe than I already am and I feel that if I’m not willing to talk about it, maybe no one else will. But I worry about being patronising, or being whatever the feminist equivalent of a white saviour is.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ devar Torah email this week states, “Here, there is a call for us always to speak out; to try our utmost to neutralise the forces of persecution and never to be silent when we witness the suffering of others.” So I guess that means I’m doing the right thing.
I’ve been feeling better today, although I still feel that I’ve got things to process and think about. I’ve actually been more social than I’ve been in a long time. I had a Skype call with my oldest friend. I had already told him about the autism diagnosis and we spoke about that a bit. He had had some (very different) long-term health issues when we were at school, and he felt there’s a difference between before and after diagnosis, even if you know that the diagnosis is coming; a switch from reading things and saying, “Is that me?” to saying “That is me.” It was good to catch up with him again. In recent years we haven’t seen each other so often for various reasons, but we still connect well. I did shake a little while talking though, which I found a bit strange and frustrating.
Then in the evening I went out with PIMOJ, largely because it was the first chance we had after lockdown. It was raining and windy and we couldn’t go anywhere because most of the lockdown restrictions are still in force, it’s only the ban on meeting people outdoors that has been lifted so far. So we walked around Golders Green in the rain and cold, but we had a good time. I think we were just glad to meet in person again after over two months. But “seeing” two people in a day is a big step for me.
Other than that I did a little Pesach cleaning and some Torah study and that was about all I had time for. While I was doing the Pesach cleaning I listened to the Tradition journal podcast tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl. Not for the first time, I wished I could have spoken to him. I mean, really spoken to him, not just meet him at an event and say hello (as my father did, I think). On the podcast, Dr Daniel Rynhold spoke about the way Rabbi Sacks supported young people into positions of leadership in the Jewish community. It made me feel that I missed out, not just on the chance to meet him, but on the chance to have some kind of role in Orthodox Jewish life in this country. Jewish teenagers tend to join youth movements which gives them contacts and experience as they move into university, where they tend to become active on campus Jewish life and then on into adulthood in communities. I missed that because I was too withdrawn and scared of being bullied if I was around people my own age when I was a teenager. At university I knew people who were involved in the Jewish Society, but I felt it was mostly a social group and I didn’t know how to run social groups, so I didn’t get involved, to the anger of at least one person who thought I was being selfish and stand-offish. I didn’t even go to events much as I was scared of talking to people and didn’t think I would enjoy socialising with other people much anyway. The reality was I was mostly scared and uncertain: of myself, of other people, of what needed doing. Then my depression started and I was on a downward spiral that took over my life until I was on the way out from the “young person” label.
Speaking of community involvement, I have mentioned that my shul wants to buy its own premises, having rented space in other people’s institutions since the community was founded thirty years ago. I was supposed to get a fundraising brochure about it, which was not delivered, although I eventually got a pdf version that I squinted at on WhatsApp. I’m going to be phoned to ask how I can help. I’m not sure what they mean by “help” – is it a polite way of saying how much money can I give? The pdf brochure had a list of possible donations; the smallest is in four figures and most are in five or even six. The cheapest thing listed is that for £1,800 I could donate a cover for a lectern for the small Beis Hemedrash, which is about two orders of magnitude greater than I could afford. That’s if I want to get my name on something, of course. You can give less, but I think they will still want a heftier donation than I feel able to give. But my real worry is what if “help” actually means “do something”? A WhatsApp message from the shul yesterday said that they are looking for people to help with admin, fundraising and marketing. I guess I might be able to help with admin, but fundraising and marketing sound worryingly like talking to people, probably on the phone.
I don’t want to sound negative. I don’t have a problem with the shul trying to raise money for a good cause, and promising to slap someone’s name on a wall or bit of furniture is a time-tested way of doing that, even if it means that some people are in more of a position to give (and be seen to be giving) than others. If it comes to practical help, it’s a nice idea, I just worry that I’m at capacity already, even just working two days a week and trying to help at home. Plus, I worry that I have an ability to screw up even the simplest of tasks lately.
I appreciate that this sounds a lot like I sounded when I was at university and not helping the Jewish Society. Maybe the photos of people having fun at shul events in the brochure sent me back in time a couple of decades, the feeling that everyone fits in and has a good time except me. I don’t know. I have a few days to think about things before I have to have that phone call about how I can help. The hardest thing is that it’s my closest friend in shul who is going to be phoning me, which makes the whole thing ten times more awkward.
I struggled to get up today, more than usual on a work day. I’m not sure why. I felt that I was falling asleep on the Tube too and did a lot less Torah study than I would normally manage (which I’m recording to show how tired I was more than how little Torah study I was doing). Work was mostly OK, but J was talking to me about the new task I’m going to be doing and it left me a bit panicked. Firstly, he gave over all the information verbally (although I was taking notes this time), which is not ideal for someone with autism (people on the spectrum tend to have problems processing verbal instructions). However, I have not told him about my issues and at the moment don’t feel comfortable in doing so, and in a tiny organisation realistically there isn’t really a better way to transmit the information. Secondly, the importance of the task and the relatively distressed people I will be coming into contact with is in itself anxiety-provoking, especially as they will be telephone conversations (my least favourite kind). I would like to say more, but can’t without revealing too much about the job. Also, realistically I know that in a new job or with a new task one learns from one’s mistakes, but I worry about making mistakes with distressed people.
I seemed to be quite anxious by the late afternoon. I’m not sure how much was thinking about this task and how much was anxiety about the final part of my autism assessment tomorrow morning. I was also anxious that PIMOJ asked me to message someone on her behalf. I was anxious about what to say and what his response would be. This is an ongoing thing that I’d like to talk about here, but don’t really feel able to do so yet and which provokes nuclear-level anxiety, as well as coexisting with general anxiety about whether I’m too much of an autistic loner to be able to maintain a relationship (my first relationship was probably somewhat immature, although I was in my late twenties; my second was long-distance (and on-off); and this is my third).
I came home feeling awful, terribly drained and overstimulated. I don’t think I’ve felt this overloaded since I was volunteering at the asylum seekers’ drop-in centre, where I would spent three or four hours in a very loud and busy environment, “peopling” and looking after small children and I would come home unable to do anything for hours. I did send the message and one or two other things, but I wasn’t able to do more Torah study or anything productive.
I did watch the first episode of This Is Us, the TV programme PIMOJ wanted to share with me. It was OK. I’m going to hold off from passing a verdict on it until I’ve seen more in a better state of mind, but at the moment I’m not hugely excited at the prospect of watching more episodes.
I didn’t have much to do at work today. I haven’t had much to do for the last couple of work days. I think the usual winter rush that J told me about is over. I hope that doesn’t mean that I won’t be needed for much longer, especially as I’m nearing the end of the long-term project I’ve been working on at times when there hasn’t been any more immediate work.
I’m re-reading Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s book The Strife of the Spirit. I read it years ago, but can’t really remember much about it. I lent it to PIMOJ recently and she really liked it and said I should re-read it, although I think the mysticism of the early parts (it’s a collection of essays and interviews from different places) is more to her religious taste than mine.
However, today, in a chapter on the soul, Rabbi Steinsaltz says that our souls are not our thoughts or emotions. This intrigued me. I have mentioned here before that I find it very hard to have any sense of selfhood that isn’t connected to my thoughts and, to a lesser extent, my feelings. I’m very bad at meditation, mindfulness and other techniques for “switching off” our thoughts. So I was interested to see him say that our souls are not the same as our thoughts and feelings. When I try to visualise the afterlife (which in recent years I’ve found myself doing a lot for some reason), it tends to be as disembodied thought or feeling, even though I suspected (and this agreed) that disembodied being would be closer to the mark. I don’t know what that would “disembodied being” would entail, though. Maybe it’s beyond human perception in this world.
“The universe doesn’t give you any points for doing things that are easy” was a quote from a Babylon 5 episode I watched today (The Geometry of Shadows by J. Michael Straczynski). I’d agree with that, replacing the quasi-pantheistic “The universe” with “God” (Straczynski self-describes as atheist, but much of Babylon 5 has a vaguely mystical pantheist feel). Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard though. It often feels that I have to struggle just to get to the starting line, let alone to finish the race.
On which note: I’m still worrying about my autism assessment next week, worrying what will happen (practically and to my self-esteem) if I’m not held to be on the spectrum. I should really try harder not to think about it, because the psychiatrist has almost certainly already decided her diagnosis and there’s nothing I can do about it. I asked some friends and family members to pray for me, something I don’t think I’ve done before, not like this anyway. I asked them not to pray for any particular diagnosis, but just that I should have understanding and acceptance of myself and peace of mind. I did it less because of any practical effect I thought it might have and more because I thought it would help me to feel supported and cared for.
I heard the Jewish biblical scholar Dr Erica Brown talking about The Book of Esther recently and she used the image of standing on the threshold at key moments of our lives, as Queen Esther stands at the threshold of the king’s throne room, risking death if she walks in without being summoned there. I immediately saw the relevance for my own position. It really feels like Tuesday morning (the diagnosis appointment) is a threshold moment that will either concretise my self-understanding as someone on the spectrum or force me to look in a completely different direction in order to understand and accept myself.
I got up at 10.00am today, which was good, but I was still very tired and went back to bed briefly after breakfast. Sometimes it’s hard just to keep going and I struggle to understand why I still feel like that when I’m not really depressed any more and don’t have obvious sources of autistic burnout. Even at the best of times, I tend to go slowly with things, which is why my current job is good for me, both because the work is not so high-pressure and because J tends not to stress or work flat out either. PIMOJ is very energetic and leads a busy life and sometimes I wonder if she thinks I’m too slow.
I had an emotional and draining therapy session. Other than that it was the usual: working on my devar Torah, Torah study, a short walk in the rain. I got a weird text that purported to be from the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. It looked like a scam, but I realised it came from a number that I’ve had genuine DWP communications from before and what details were given seemed to be accurate. Also, in my experience, poor writing does not stop a communication being from the DWP. I didn’t click on the link in the text, because it looked too dodgy, but I’m vaguely worried about the consequences. If they want me for something important, they should write to me properly, not send texts HALF WRITTEN IN CAPITALS FOR NO REASON with no clear contact details.
I spent an hour (!) discussing Pesach (Passover) cleaning, kashering and other Pesach preparations with my parents. Things are extra difficult this year as Pesach starts as Shabbat (the Sabbath) finishes. I don’t really have time or energy to explain this if you don’t know what it involves or why Pesach after Shabbat is so tricky (it’s all quite complicated). Suffice to say, I now have some idea of what I need to do and when, but am a bit freaked out about how much I have to do in the next three weeks, alongside my paid job. I’m glad my writing was already on hold and I don’t know how much exercise I’m going to get in the next few weeks. I hope to still have some time to see PIMOJ when the lockdown ends. I also want to find some time to prepare some extra ideas to share at the seder although I don’t know when, or how I can fit that in with my weekly devar Torah. PIMOJ and I are going (online) to a Pesach seminar day at the London School of Jewish Studies, so I’m hoping to pick up some ideas there that will be suitable to share at the seder. A frantic month starts here. I just hope my religious OCD, which is worse about Pesach than anything else, doesn’t come back.
On the plus side, if it’s nearly Pesach, then it’s nearly spring! Although before I really get into Pesach mode, I’ve got my vaccination on Friday (there’s some “new situation” anxiety although the whole thing is likely to be over in a few minutes) and my autism diagnosis on Tuesday, so there’s potentially a lot of anxiety around in the next few days. I feel OK at the moment though.
I didn’t blog yesterday. I had a busy day, but there wasn’t much to put on a mental health blog, except for one thing that wasn’t time-related and was too long for the time available to write. The only other thing worth mentioning is discussing with my rabbi mentor my OCD anxiety about missing words of the Megillah (Book of Esther) on Purim. He said that it’s not my responsibility to check it is read correctly and that there should be other people in the room to do that (usually the rabbi, although he wasn’t in my reading this year because of the socially distanced parallel readings). He said he was once in a Megillah reading where someone in the congregation kept calling the ba’al koreh (reader) out on real or imagined mistakes. It was embarrassing for everyone and eventually the rabbi had to intervene to stop him.
As for today, I woke up early (6.50am) today to try to pray more before going to work, but I stayed in bed too long, actually getting up later than when I usually try to get up, so it was not a success.
At work J started training me for a task which is scary, because it’s client-facing and very serious and potentially dealing with people in emotional distress, so I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s definitely social anxiety provoking. However, I think it’s positive because it means J is at least still hoping to have a permanent job for me. It could also be exposure therapy for social anxiety. I’d like to explain more, but I don’t think I could do so without making where I’m working too obvious. I didn’t take notes when J was explaining it and although I wrote some notes once he had finished, I’m not sure I got it all down. He did say we would role play some situations on Thursday so I can practise it.
I went to depression group on Zoom this evening. We split into smaller groups this time with breakout rooms, which seemed to work well. I do feel lately that I’m not sure how much to share, how much I have the time (or the energy) to share of my history, particularly now the depression part (the reason for being there) is no longer really present for me on a day-to-day basis. I spoke mostly about my worries about my autism assessment next week. I experienced a lot of social anxiety and mostly looked at the keyboard rather than the screen or the camera. I am definitely struggling to keep going to the group now it’s Zoom only, and the fact that I’m not feeling so depressed means I feel I have less of a reason to go, although I do want to hear how other people are getting on. (Some people do keep going to the group after recovery for that reason and to support others.)
I also struggled to concentrate on the group because I was feeling agitated about something I didn’t want to bring to the group. Just before the group started, I was reading Contact. I thought it was going to be a fairly realistic science fiction book about what a near future first contact with aliens would look like, but it’s turning into a religion vs. science story. Or a Christianity vs. science story, as Carl Sagan’s arguments are more anti-Christian than anti-religious. The idea that Tanakh would be more believable if it contained a testable scientific law seemed to be a spectacular exercise in missing the point, like saying King Lear would be a more meaningful expression of the meaning of love and power if the Fool related Newton’s Law of Motion. Christianity is about belief and in a sense so is atheism; Judaism is about deeds. The test of Tanakh from a Jewish point of view is living Jewish practices and values and seeing how it changes you. Tanakh isn’t meant to be a science book. When I get annoyed by something like this, it runs over and over in my head
It reminded me that years ago I started writing a short story with a similar premise to Contact (radio telescope picks up signs of alien life, with a realistic tone, although I knew a lot less of the science than Sagan, obviously) except mine saw the presence of alien life in the cosmos as perhaps affirming of the existence of God, although I can’t remember how I reached that conclusion. Anyway, I didn’t finish it and now I can’t find the draft I started.
I don’t want to abandon the book, because I’m interested in its realistic presentation of a near-future first contact scenario and because I believe in encountering alternative viewpoints. I may end up skimming bits (maybe. I’m pretty bad at skimming things). I looked at the review on Goodreads and people were suggesting it’s positive about religion, but I think it’s positive about awe in nature, which isn’t the same thing. I find nature beautiful, but I find God in the miraculous survival of the Jewish people and perhaps in good deeds and “I-Thou” interactions (I’m actually not sure what I find God in).
Goodreads might need to refine their algorithm. It just suggested that “Because you read The Complete Peanuts 1987-1988: Volume 19 [you might like to read] 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep“. Aside from the fact that I automatically switch off whenever anyone says “late capitalism” (capitalism has been “late” for about 150 years now), I struggle to see the link between Snoopy and Marxist economics. Maybe Snoopy wrote “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly the end of capitalism rang out!”
I struggled to sleep last night and had weird dreams again, but I got up earlier today. Not early early, not even as early as I do on work days (which are not so early given I currently leave at 8.30am to avoid rush hour), but 10.00am, earlier than midday (or later) as I’ve been getting up on non-work days for the last week or two. I actually woke up about 9.30am, before Dad came in about 9.50am to tell me to check my phone in case I’d been offered another vaccination appointment (no, not yet) and before PIMOJ rang me at 10.00am as we’d agreed to help me get up.
I wasn’t working today, as J and I both wanted to make sure we could get to shul (synagogue) in time in the evening for Purim and the Megillah (Book of Esther) reading. J can work from home today, but I can’t, but part of me at least is glad to give up a day’s wages so that I could at least try to approach this strangest Purim with a degree of calm. I actually did feel quite calm when I woke up, despite all the worry I’ve had for the last few days (weeks), like I’m finally facing the fear. However, I did feel at a bit of a loose end and anxiety grew as I got a bit bored. I don’t usually get bored as there are always things I want to do, but here I just wanted to get to shul and get Purim under way. As well as OCD-type anxiety that makes me worry about not hearing a word of the Megillah reading (we are supposed to hear every word of the Megillah, both morning and evening), this year, because of COVID, there is autistic new situation anxiety about having to go to a different room in the building to the one where we normally daven (pray) and social anxiety about possibly having to ask someone for directions to said room.
I did about half an hour of Torah study, but I wanted to save myself for the Megillah reading later rather than exhaust myself with heavy concepts in advance. I tried to make some changes to my novel, but aside for one or two slight edits, I feel stuck with it. I need to hear from someone outside my head about whether it’s any good. I have got a friend who will do that, but not until after Pesach which is not for another month.
It was a strange Purim. Purim with masks, but not fancy dress masks as usual, but COVID masks. I wore my jester’s hat, but almost no one else seemed to have been in fancy dress. I don’t know if I really saw a representative sample (I didn’t see many people), but perhaps people must only dress up for parties or for their children (children under eight were banned from shul to keep the numbers down). Someone handed out sheets of paper, which I thought were Purim shpiels (satirical writing), but turned out to be solemn warnings not to congregate in groups or go to parties.
My shul ran three parallel Megillah readings in different rooms, and a fourth one later, so that people could socially distance instead of having seventy or eighty people in one room at a go. It was permitted to make noise when the villainous Haman’s name was read as per usual, but only stamping or using rattles, no vocal noise. The person who read the Megillah was a boy of about fourteen or fifteen, but very good.
From an OCD worrying about missing words perspective, it was pretty good. There were few enough people in the room that no noise was really a problem, and the reader was good at waiting for quiet, and he repeated words he thought might have been lost. I worried that at one point I thought I heard a wrong word, but wasn’t sure. This seems to happen to me every year since the really bad religious OCD year. This time I reflected that there were some very frum (religious) and Jewishly knowledgeable people in that room, and they had corrected one or two minor mistakes, so they were unlikely to all let a major mistake such as I thought I heard go. This has mostly caused the fear to subside without turning into OCD anxiety.
Howard Jacobson said in an article somewhere that Pesach is the best Jewish festival because it has the best story, but I think the Purim story is even better. In recent years, I find myself reading along with the Megillah in fear and anticipation. That’s partly OCD-type anxiety that I might miss a word, but it’s also becoming involved in the story. Not only was the fate facing the Jewish people worse at the time of the Purim story than at the exodus from Egypt, the salvation was more unexpected. God had promised Avraham (Abraham) that He would rescue his descendants from slavery and once the ten plagues started, the outcome was not in question, but Purim is a festival with no prophecies, no miracles and, on the face of it, no hope, which is why it’s a festival about finding hope, about finding Providence in random chance (the word ‘Purim’ means ‘lottery’). I’m trying to hold on to that at the moment, with the confusion in both my personal life and the world.
Tomorrow I need to be up even earlier than today (6.15am or at least 6.30) to get to the morning Megillah reading (we have to hear it night and day). Given that attendance has to be booked this year because of COVID, I don’t have the option of going to a later reading if I miss it. I feel very tired now as the tension of the day dissipates. I’m not too worried about tomorrow; even in a normal year, morning Megillah readings are quicker, quieter, more straight-forward affairs. I will turn off my computer after this. I want to watch TV, but I watched TV all afternoon. OK, it was about an hour and a half of TV, but I don’t usually watch TV in the afternoon at all. But my brain is just not in gear to read and I need to do something to unwind or I won’t sleep from all the tension I’m still storing inside my body.
I struggled to fall asleep last night, probably as a result of having slept too much over the weekend. That’s probably the context in which the rest of this post falls, that I was a bit sleep deprived and not at my best. I think I was worrying when I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t think I was being kept awake by worry, just that with not much to think about, I worried. Again, that’s probably relevant later.
At work I spent five minutes looking for a cheque before I remembered that the person had paid twice by mistake and we posted their second cheque back to them. I had just forgotten to delete the second cheque from the incoming payments spreadsheet. Until I realised what was going on, I worried I had done something really stupid, like throw the cheque in the bin or post it back to the sender instead of their receipt, something I have nearly done on several occasions. I hope I didn’t seem too stupid to J.
In the afternoon, I worked on the inventory again. I struggled a bit emotionally. My therapist says it’s not so helpful to talk of “depression” now, given that my mood is mostly stable, and I think that’s true, but my mood did dip, perhaps because of my lack of sleep. The inventory is not a completely straightforward task, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of concentration either, which is a recipe for my mind to wander, apparently to worries and negative thoughts about myself, somewhat like last night when I couldn’t sleep. I did get through it, but I fear that my work was not particularly fast or efficient, and I’m still only about halfway through the inventory (or really through stage one of the inventory).
I worry a lot about not having peace of mind, including today while feeling like this, so it was interesting to see in the Jewish book I just started re-reading (The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) that peace of mind is a negative thing in Judaism. We should feel inner conflict: “there are [spiritual] goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.” (p.5) Elsewhere (The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 132) Rabbi Steinsaltz states that “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.” This is rather different from what a lot of self-help books say. Alan Morinis writes that the Jewish idea of equanimity is like a surfer on a wave, staying balanced, but aware of what is around him. This approach intrigues me. It seems more feasible than complete calm and lack of emotional upsets.
I feel that I’m reading less. I should qualify that and say I’m reading less recreationally. I read a lot of religious material, in Hebrew and English. But I think I’m reading less for fun. Certainly I haven’t found a novel that really grabbed me, that I became immersed in, for quite a while. And I’m not sure if my idea of mixing more non-fiction into my reading schedule is so good. I like to learn about history, economics and politics, so setting aside time to read about them is good, but then I want to be a professional author, so I should read a lot of fiction. It can also be harder to get motivated to read non-fiction than fiction. Then again, I want to write Jewish historical fantasy, so a solid grounding in Jewish and world history and mythology is also important…
I also find that it’s easier to read blogs and news articles online than books or even longform online journalism. The Jewish Review of Books periodically posts long articles that they don’t include in the print magazine and I save them, but it’s hard to get around to reading them. Sometimes I print things like that off and read it on Shabbat as it’s easier to set aside the time to read then. Despite this, I still spend hours idly surfing blogs, BBC News and other news sites.
I guess the bottom line is that I haven’t found reading so much fun lately, so I’ve been prioritising television, particularly when tired (which is a lot of the time). I’m not sure what to do about this, or if this is even something I should do anything about. Reading has been my love since I was a toddler, it will probably reassert itself at some point, maybe when I’m sufficiently at peace with my own novel to be able to read other people’s work without taking it to pieces to see how it works and what I should (or shouldn’t) learn from it, which I’ve been doing lately (mind you, I do that with TV too).
I don’t normally post links, but as I was complaining about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) lockdown non-compliance recently, I want to link to this interesting post that says that the data suggests Haredi compliance was greater than the community has been given credited for, at least in the first lockdown. And while I find many aspects of Haredi life personally uncomfortable, not to mention antithetical to my understanding of Judaism, I agree that demonising “Them” isn’t helpful. It opens the door to all kinds of nasty social engineering projects once you decide that some life choices are inherently wrong and need policing (or “helping”) by other groups (with obvious caveats for where those life choices affect those unable to choose, whether children or people vulnerable to COVID).
I didn’t have a very good night’s sleep. I used my new weighted blanket and it was good, but I wonder if it was warm enough as I kept waking up in the night. If I continue to have interrupted sleep, I may put a summer weight duvet over it and see how that is. I slept badly anyway through going to bed late and having slept too much in the afternoon, so it took me a long time to fall asleep. I had weird dreams, although none interesting enough to be worth sharing, and woke up late and burnt out so that I lay in bed a long time trying to get the strength to get up. I felt a bit better after breakfast, but I don’t usually feel 100% until after lunch, even on work days when I do manage to get up early.
I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above the water at the moment. Some of it is the time of year, as I’ve mentioned, when the days are still short and cold and wet, but the anxiety about the spring Jewish festivals is growing. In addition, my sleep is still disrupted, I’m still worried about doing the wrong thing at work, I feel negative about my novel (vaguely wondering if I should give up on it and start a new one, although I don’t realistically feel that would be a good idea at this stage) and I miss PIMOJ in the lockdown. And, like pretty much everyone in the world, I’m sick of COVID and lockdowns in general, I just want life to be normal again (for all that I struggle with “normal”). PIMOJ is stressed about things in her life too, which only magnifies the problem.
I know other frum (religious) Jews don’t get so anxious about Jewish observance. They perform the mitzvot (commandments) to the best of their ability and that’s that. I don’t know how they get to that point. Some of it is probably being brought up frum from a young age (which I wasn’t) and some is feeling a strong level of community integration and support (which I don’t have).
I was feeling today that I’m an understudy in my own life, thrust onto the stage unprepared. Or, I’m a new actor playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, trying to play it my way, while keeping faith with my predecessors (i.e. other Jews, especially my ancestors).
I went for a run and while running I started thinking about the two questions Babylon 5 is built around, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” I want to be a good Jew and a good writer. I’m not sure if that answers the “Who?” or “What?” question and I’m not sure how to achieve either of them. I feel like I should have better answers and more of a plan for achieving them now I’m in my late thirties.
After my run, though, I started thinking about gratitude, how grateful I am for supportive parents and a supportive sister, for a brother-in-law I get on with even though we’re quite different, for friends online and in person, for the fact that I’m in work with a tolerant boss, for the fact that I’m reasonably psychologically stable at the moment, and for the fact that I have a supportive girlfriend. I know not everyone has these things, and I’m grateful for them.
Last Wednesday, my therapist encouraged me to focus on “I can cope” as an affirmation. I’ve not found affirmations hugely useful in my recovery from mental illness, but this seemed fairly pithy and realistic. I know I can cope. I’ve coped with my mental health for years and I’ve had several reasonably good Purims and Pesachs, at least from a mental health point of view, since the ones that were my nadir (around 2015 and 2016). So I can cope – I just have to learn to believe it.
Other than that, it wasn’t much of a day. I did some Torah study (less than I wanted) and, as I said, I went for a run, but that was about it. I didn’t get to work on my novel. There are some changes I want to make to the current draft before I send it out for feedback and I don’t know when I will have time to make them. I guess I feel I wasted time, although given how I felt on waking, I probably shouldn’t blame myself too much, not that that has ever stopped me.
I feel I’ve put myself “out here” a bit more in my blog over the last few months, occasionally posting more potentially controversial political and religious things. I guess that means I have a certain degree of trust in the people who read and comment. I don’t want to post a huge amount of this type of stuff, I still see this as primarily a daily journal-type blog about surviving with autism and residual mental illness on a day-to-day level, but it’s interesting because it suggests I can put these feelings out here in some circumstances, bearing in mind that I tend to hide my thoughts about politics and religion in Real Life. I do still get the, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, what will people think of me?/what will they say?” feeling though, the desire to go back and edit or delete what I’ve written.
I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.
I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?
I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.
The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.
It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.
To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.
I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.
So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.
Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.
And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…
Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.
Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.
Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)
I woke up feeling really burnt out again. I didn’t get up until nearly 1pm, which was very late. I feel worried about how easily I get burnt out. I want to have children one day and I know PIMOJ does too, but at the moment if we had children she would virtually be a single mother in terms of childcare. OK, not quite that bad, but it certainly wouldn’t be a 50:50 split. I’ve mentioned that we won’t be able to get married for a couple of years, even if we decide to do so, so I’m hoping that my life will magically turn around in that time and perhaps it could, if I get a firm autism diagnosis, get my novel published and maybe if my job with J becomes more permanent, but it seems a lot to hang on a lot of ifs.
I booked in for Megillah readings at shul (synagogue). The Megillah is the Book of Esther which is read twice on the festival of Purim (next week). There’s an obligation to hear it evening and morning in full – literally every word. There’s also a custom of making noise whenever the name of Haman (the villain, who tried to wipe out the Jews) is mentioned, which makes the idea of hearing every word rather harder. In the past this has provoked religious OCD in me and I’m still nervous of what might happen. Plus Purim has a carnival atmosphere with dressing up in fancy dress and partying (admittedly not so much this year because of COVID) which can be intimidating from a depression and autism point of view. I have had a some good Purims over the years, but also some difficult ones, and I think my first episode of depression started (or became obvious) on Purim many years ago. This year, COVID adds a whole other layer of uncertainty and anxiety.
My parents got my olanzapine, which saved me some time. I was glad it was there and I didn’t have to phone the GP again as I feared I might have to do. Speaking of olanzapine, my psychiatrist phoned just to check on how I’m doing being back on it. I said I’m doing well, aside from the continued tiredness and difficulty working out whether it was residual depression, medication side-effects or autistic burn out. I’m leaning towards the latter and she said autistic burnout is very real and might be the issue. We spoke a bit about what help might be available, but unfortunately I need a diagnosis first and am still waiting to hear when my final assessment will be.
I had a good therapy session too. We spoke about trying to remind myself daily that I can cope with things (work, COVID, unexpected events that faze me and so on). That’s particularly pertinent at this time of year as we approach the Jewish festivals of Purim (next week) and Pesach (a month later) which have historically been very difficult and triggering festivals for me for different reasons and which still provoke anxiety in me in advance, even knowing that for the last couple of years I’ve been coping with them much better (doubtless more on this in the coming weeks).
I just ordered a weighted blanket. I’m hoping this might improve my sleep and make it easier to wake up and get up in the mornings. To be honest, I don’t have much hope, but at this stage I’ll try almost anything. Perhaps more pragmatically, I’ve said I should set a time to get up on non-work days and make myself accountable to PIMOJ to get up then. Hopefully between them, those strategies will help.
I was burnt out and slept through the morning again, which is not good when it is nearly Shabbat. Today has been a slow day, forcing myself to do things that need to be done before Shabbat while not really feeling like doing much. I wish I knew why this happens to me so much; depression and autism are the main candidates.
I asked a writer friend if she would be willing to read my novel and give me some feedback. She said yes, as long as I don’t hate her for giving criticism, which has now made me panic about it, as I’m not good with criticism, even though I need it to grow as a writer. It doesn’t help that I’m currently in “My novel is awful and I should just give up on it” mode. I do think I’m not really cut out for writing mainstream literary fiction, so I guess I’ve learnt something from writing it at least, although I’ve no idea if I could write genre fiction. The idea of showing my work to people is producing some anxiety though.
I think some of my Babylon 5 discs have died. Season one discs 1 and 2 both jammed. I found tiny dirt marks on them (not sure how they got there) and after wiping with a damp cloth numerous times, they finally played properly. Disc 3 looks pristine, but simply won’t read, either on my DVD player or my laptop D drive. The DVD player just makes horrible clunking noises. I tried wiping with a damp cloth to no avail. I tried the other three discs from season one, and only one would play.
I’m not sure why this should be the case. DVDs are supposed to be very durable; that was why I replaced my videos. I’ve had the discs for about twelve years, but they have only been watched twice (I think) and have been kept clean and at normal temperatures. I’d like to re-watch the series, but I don’t really want to pay £60 or £70 all over again to watch it. After Shabbat I will test some of the other DVDs in the big box set (box set of all Babylon 5 episodes) and try to work out how many might need replacing, if it’s just season one or all the seasons.
It does make me wonder about my other DVDs. I don’t think of myself as materialistic, but it’s true that part of my identity is tied up with all my books and DVDs (well over a thousand books; not sure how many DVDs, and it depends how you count box sets, but a bookcase full, and full stacked on top of each other warehouse-style, not displayed library-style). Books are a durable format as long as they can avoid either water or fire. I thought DVD was durable, but apparently it’s not as much as I thought. It probably is a lesson about not investing your identity in “things,” but as watching DVDs is one of my key coping strategies for dealing with depression, anxiety and autistic overload/burnout, it’s not easy to cut them out of my life/identity completely, especially given the connection to my autistic special interest in Doctor Who and similar science fiction.
It occurs to me that on Shabbat I can’t watch DVDs, yet I’m not noticeably upset or cut off from my support, although I do often watch TV after Shabbat.
If this was a religious inspirational site, at this point I would say that I’m putting my materialism about books and DVDs behind me, but, to be honest, I don’t feel anywhere near ready to do that. But I am wondering what it would be like to try to cut them out a bit, although I’m not sure how to do that healthily. Soon after we started dating, PIMOJ gave me a little motivational picture she drew about “Joy is not in things, it is in us” which I have up on my bookcase, but I think she’s better at living that approach than I am.
It occurs to me that my difficulty throwing away, or even putting away, mementoes and bric a brac is probably relevant here too… more reasons to feel bad about myself…
I weighed myself this morning for the first time in ages. I was about 74kg, which is lower than previously, which is good. In the past I thought the NHS BMI tracker had said this is still too high and that I shouldn’t be much more than 70kg, but checking today it put me just in the healthy weight range. It does seem to depend on whether I round my height down to 5′ 7″ or up to 5′ 8″, so I’m borderline rather than fully healthy.
There’s a famous quote from Mark Twain (which I think is really by Mark Twain, even though he’s someone that random quotes are often ascribed to on the internet, like Einstein and Lincoln) that says that, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which have never happened.” I feel like that today, as I slept badly (weird dream about a giant orangutan), and struggled to get up, worrying about something that didn’t really happen in the end. I felt relieved, but also somewhat guilty and very drained, which may have been relief rather than tiredness from sleeping badly.
I wonder if the giant orangutan in the dream was a wish-fulfilment me, so big that I could do what I liked and couldn’t be harmed by tranquiliser darts shot by anyone around me i.e. impervious to criticism and other people’s opinions. That is what I would like to be with regard to self-esteem and confidence.
I feel very depressed and burnt out again today. Some of it is probably sleeping badly. Some of it is that I always seem to feel like this the day after working, which does not bode well for the idea of me ever being in anything like full-time employment. Some of it is probably the time of year.
This is the worst time of year for me, late January/February. When the days are still short (albeit slowly growing longer), the weather is bad (it snowed again today), everything is cold and dead (even without lockdown) and when the spring festivals of Purim and Pesach (Passover) begin to loom on the horizon. This ought to be good, given that they herald the arrival of warmer and sunnier days, but these are the most difficult festivals for me. Purim is difficult with autism, depression, social anxiety and religious OCD. Pesach is super-difficult with religious OCD; it has, in fact, always been the worst focus of my religious OCD. I imagine I’ll write more on this when we get closer to those festivals so I won’t go into detail now.
Beyond that, lately I’ve found all religious festivals difficult because I feel a pressure to have some kind of intense religious experience. Not mystical hippie-tripping, but somehow feeling closer to God and becoming a better person. This is a lot of pressure to put on myself. Normally it’s enough just to cope with all the peopling from extra shul (synagogue) attendance and meal guests, and the stress and potential religious OCD of all the special festival mitzvot (commandments). I’m not sure how much of this pressure really comes from me or how much from “inspirational” articles. I don’t feel the pressure on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but paradoxically, I think I probably have more of a religious experience then. There’s probably a lesson there.
As someone who is influenced by Jewish religious existentialism, I feel that I should try to have “I-Thou” encounters. First identified by Martin Buber, an I-Thou encounter is when two people meet and relate in a very personal and authentic way as opposed to an I-it encounter, which is encountering the other person like an object. Yet I am scared of opening up to people, and when I do, I’m left feeling an awkward mixture of gladness, social anxiety, shame and self-blame. There’s a strong sense of “Did I say the right thing?” which I guess is social anxiety.
I feel that I can’t write here about the thing that is most troubling me at the moment. This is problematic, as I process things by writing. I tried writing just for myself, but it didn’t help so much. Hopefully I can talk to my rabbi mentor about it tomorrow. I did discuss it with my therapist last week. She said to try to note my thoughts and feelings without analysing them, which is hard when my thoughts and feelings do not exist in the abstract, but influence my actions in the present and future.
In practical terms, I phoned the doctor today and have hopefully got the issue about the dosage of my olanzapine sorted. I cooked dinner (spicy rice and lentils). I also went to my Tanakh shiur (Bible class), which this week was about Yechezkiel (Ezekiel). We did the “dry bones” passage in groups, which cheered me up a bit. That was about all I managed today though.
I’m back in “I hate the NHS” mode. I realised that the reason the doctor only prescribed half the only olanzapine I need is because he (or she – prescriptions can be done by anyone in the practice) misread the letter from the psychiatrist and thought I was on one tablet a day, not two. I know, there’s a global pandemic, doctors are super-busy and stressed. Even so, it’s annoying, and makes me wonder how many other, more serious, mistakes have been made by over-stretched medical staff during the pandemic – there must be a number of indirect COVID casualties as well as those actually killed by the virus.
I got my new glasses (and walked back in the cold and snow after getting them). I tried them on in Specsavers, including tilting my head to see if they slipped, and they seemed to be OK, but they seem to be slipping now, so I may have to go back at some point and get them adjusted. I’m just glad to have them for now.
I spent a bit over an hour on my novel and finished the third draft. It ended up at 79,766 words, slightly under the 80,000 I was aiming for. Now I need to find some people willing to read it and give me feedback. I’m not quite sure how to do this; I don’t have other writer friends where we can exchange work, and I don’t want to go to a writers’ group at the moment. I’m also terrified of negative feedback.
Given the snow this morning, I thought my walk back home from Specsavers would be my exercise for the day, but mid-afternoon I started feeling anxious and depressed for no obvious reason and, as it wasn’t snowing, and the earlier snow hadn’t settled, I went for a run, despite the fact that it was fast getting dark. I did 5K again and I had a better pace than I’ve had for a while too. I don’t mind running in the cold (it can be bracing) although I worry about pulling muscles despite doing a longer warm up and cool down than usual.
I did some Torah study too, although not quite up to the hour I was aiming for as I ran out of time and energy.
I came across an interview today, a religious Jew interviewing someone raised in the Orthodox world, but now outside it. The non-religious Jew says he warns religious Jews thinking of leaving because they don’t fit into the frum (religious) community that they may not fit into the secular world either; they may, in fact, be misfits who won’t fit in anywhere.
I have long suspected that this would be true of me. For all my struggles to fit in to the frum world, I can’t really see myself fitting in to the wider Western world easily either. I guess I’m a bit of a misfit, or even that not fitting in is a part of my psyche; I’ve begun to suspect that when I fit in somewhere, I self-sabotage to find a way to feel like a misfit.
On a related note, a while back I wrote about feeling myself to be a “Tory anarchist.” Lately the anarchist part is stronger. I have limited patience for big business or big government and just want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s easy to want to pull society to pieces and start again. I feel a lot of anger and resentment at the ruling class and I’m not sure where it’s coming from, from politics or from my inner self as it’s the class so many of my peers from Oxford now belong to, people in politics, academia, law, and other places I might have been had depression and autism not intervened. I feel like a class traitor sometimes.