The Bureaucracy Carousel

While I was in the Tower of London yesterday, I got a phone call from the Jobcentre saying they needed to speak to me. I didn’t want to speak there, obviously, so arranged to speak this morning, as E was working this morning. Unfortunately, I crashed last night/this morning and was still in pyjamas when they phoned.

Apparently I should have spoken to them when I applied for benefits last year, but they didn’t arrange that meeting, I assume because of COVID. Today they talked me through various things. Apparently the Benefits Office, which I had written to about my change in work status (starting working for J), isn’t the same as the Jobcentre. I think I should have written to both. Bureaucracy, etc. The takeaways, which didn’t surprise me, are that I should have told them about my job (like I said, I told the Benefits Office, but not the Jobcentre) and I should have told them about my diagnosis change. I think either could lead to them stopping my benefits. I didn’t want to say, “I’m not depressed” as in the past I’ve had months of remission and then a relapse just when I think I’m back to ‘normal,’ but obviously they want to stop my benefits as soon as I feel better. I can’t lie directly, so sort of waffled about being less depressed, but struggling in the workplace with my autism symptoms, which is true, but I don’t know if they’ll allow benefits for autism; they will almost certainly want a new letter from my GP. I have a meeting in person tomorrow, which I didn’t really want to do while E is here, but I didn’t feel I had much choice. So the bureaucracy carousel goes round. I won’t be surprised if they stop my benefits, and it’s not such an issue while I’m working for J, but I hope they don’t make me pay back the last few months’ benefits.

Speaking of the GP and bureaucracy, no sooner had I got off the phone to the benefits office than the GP’s secretary phoned about my referral for autism-adjusted CBT. She said that the GP does not know how to apply directly to the CCG for funding for my treatment and wants a letter from the hospital telling him what he should do. So, more delay and more phone calls while I try to get a letter from the hospital. Round and round the carousel goes…

It was a pain having to deal with this with E here, but fortunately she had a work meeting this morning, so we would not have been doing anything together anyway. I’m not going to blog everything we’ve done together, but over the last few days we’ve visited quite a few bookshops, new and second-hand, and have ended up with less money, but more books. I bought two James Bond books (You Only Live Twice and Octopussy and The Living Daylights), a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery (Gaudy Night) and a Jeeves and Wooster book (Pigs Have Wings), all second hand. I picked up a free copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from the local book swap box too; perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never read or seen any of the Harry Potter books/films. A couple of books I ordered about sex and pornography addiction for research for my novel arrived recently too, so my attempt to keep the ‘to read’ pile to a manageable length has been set back a bit. E and my parents are getting on well and tonight she met my sister and brother-in-law, so that at least is a success.

Stress, and Political Narratives

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Hive Switch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Overwhelmed, and Overwhelmed Friend

I woke up drained again today. I had gone to bed early (for me) last night, but I’d done a lot during the day and I overslept and woke up late. I felt overwhelmed for much of day. I feel bad about this, even though I know I wouldn’t if I had a physical illness (actually, given how I behave when I have a migraine, I possibly would feel bad about the effects of physical illness). I just feel I could/should do more despite autistic fatigue or the remnants of depressive fatigue or whatever it is.

I had my flu jab today. I don’t usually get one, but the NHS still seems to consider my Mum as vulnerable and I was offered one as I live with her. It seemed sensible to take it. I shook a bit when I was injected. That happens a lot when I am injected or have a blood test. It’s anxiety, not about needles, but about shaking; fear of shaking ironically triggers shaking. In the past I would breathe deeply to calm myself, but with a mask on that makes things worse if anything. The nurse got a bit worried about me and insisted that I sit in the waiting room for a few minutes. I think she was worried I would faint.

I cooked dinner while trying to listen to a podcast E had been on for her job, but I struggled to multitask and abandoned the podcast after twenty minutes. I struggled during the afternoon and evening with intrusive thoughts about antisemitism (not helped by watching an episode of The Twilight Zone about a former SS officer being put on trial by the ghosts of the people he killed). I don’t know why I sometimes get focused on this and can’t stop thinking about it.

My other main achievement, aside from planning E’s trip here with her over Skype, was writing my devar Torah (Torah thought). I wanted to write something about the balance of universalism and particularism in Judaism, but I couldn’t work out what to say, so I wrote about Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, mostly taken from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. It was one of those divrei Torah that I’m less proud of, where I’m taking my ideas from one (credited) source, rather than mixing sources or adding my own ideas.

I decided not to go to volunteering tomorrow, as I feel like I’m still recovering from the Yom Tovim (festivals) and have not made any progress on finding an agent for my novel, which is my main task for tomorrow. I did spend a bit of time planning the second novel, so I guess that’s another achievement. I do still feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m trying to focus on the positives, namely that E will be here next week (God-willing, COVID-permitting) and also on my excitement at writing my second novel, although with all the planning and research I want to do, it will probably be a long time before I sit down to write it.

***

I’ve been emailing a friend who is also on the spectrum who I hadn’t communicated with for a while. She is struggling with her job. She has been working at home because of COVID, but her employers want her to return to the office. She feels that public transport during rush hour is more than she can bear and would have left the job earlier if COVID had not allowed her to work from home. She sounds very overwhelmed in many aspects of her life.

I don’t know what to do about this. I feel I should do something to help, but I don’t know what. Although she is working full-time and I am not, her autism is worse than mine in many ways. She is much more sensitive to noise and crowding and perhaps more rigid in her needs and her ability to find solutions. Also, English is not her first language and I struggle to understand her sometimes. She has already contacted AS Mentoring. I don’t know how I could help her and I’m wary of taking on her troubles and overwhelmed feelings in addition to my own, especially as she is not a close friend. I suppose if I had some idea of what might help her I could see if I could take on some of it, but I’m wary of giving her a blank cheque. But I feel really bad at not helping someone else on the spectrum.

***

If I go into the artists section of iTunes and click on the label for George Harrison, iTunes shows me a photo of John Lennon. I guess, it’s understandable that in 2021 someone working for a massive music related company can’t tell the difference between Harrison and Lennon; it’s not the like The Beatles are the most successful band in history or anything. I like to think it’s the ghost of Lennon trolling from beyond the grave.

Ego Depletion

I woke up about 8.40am today, got up to go to the toilet and then tried to stay up, but gave in too easily to tiredness and went back to bed. I finally got up around 12.00pm. I could have done with using an extra two or three hours time today, so I really regretted going back to bed. The problem is that my will power when tired first thing in the morning makes me behave uncharacteristically. Normally I am the type of person who will defer pleasure to focus on necessary, unpleasant tasks, sometimes to the point of discomfort or worse, but when I wake up, I mostly just want to sleep until the last possible moment. If I could work out how to make my sleep more refreshing, maybe this would change, but I am not sure how to do that.

I would have liked to have had more time to write a query letter to an agent, for example. However, the one I found on Friday, who dealt with Jewish-themed fiction, turned out to have retired from agenting to become a school teacher. I’m going to look for agents who deal with general literature, but if I can find one who deals with minority characters or settings, that might be helpful. Although diversity-orientated people tend to see Jews as “white” and not in anyway different to white Christian/atheist people, which is not helpful or realistic (just read my blog), but there you go.

As it is, I did a few chores today, including writing to my GP about my autism-adapted CBT referral. The surgery seems to have no email address, or not one they publicise, so I will have to physically post it through the door. I went for a run and came back with a headache, which further limited what I was able to do. I did about an hour of Torah study, with head aching too much to find much of interest for my devar Torah, and that was about it.

***

My parents both have what we all hope are heavy colds, but they went for COVID tests all the same, just in case. Mum works with vulnerable people, so it’s a reasonable precaution. I couldn’t have a free test, as I don’t have any symptoms, but I’m worried that if my parents do have COVID, I will have to have a test and will test positive despite being asymptomatic, which will disrupt E and my plans for her trip here soon. I guess I should hope that my parents just have colds.

Shabbat with Rav Shagar and Rav Kook

Friday felt like the first “early Friday” of the winter, when sunset, and the start of Shabbat (the Sabbath), are early and Friday is just a rush to get things done. I woke up late, at 10.40am, and jumped out of bed as I was Skyping my rabbi mentor at 11.00am. I don’t usually oversleep that badly if I’ve got an actual commitment (rather than just wanting to get up to get an early start or to daven (pray)). I felt awkward at talking to him before having davened, but I didn’t have time. The conversation was good. He reminded me that we have only just had one ‘normal’ week after all the autumn festivals and that it’s normal to still feel overwhelmed at this time of year, even without the nervous excitement of E visiting soon. He also suggested that I should talk to J about my work mistakes and see if he has any suggestions. Even being able to take a five minute break every hour might help with concentration. J sometimes talks to other people who work in the same building (including his father) who come into our office on pretexts or just to chat, but I generally stay out of the conversations because of autism and social anxiety, as well as feeling I should work, but, as my parents said, I probably do need breaks. I am pretty nervous about the conversation, although it’s unlikely that he hasn’t noticed the number of mistakes I’m making, even if he hasn’t made a big thing out of it.

I decided I would go to shul (synagogue) early after all, contrary to what I said in my last post, as I felt guilty about not helping to set up. However, E had a last minute problem and I prioritised helping her and so didn’t make it to shul early after all. I still felt overwhelmed by all the table thumping and clapping during Kabbalat Shabbat (part of Friday evening prayers). I wondered if it has got louder in the last year or if I just can’t cope at the moment. Autistic tolerance for noise can vary a lot based on factors like tiredness and general well-being. My parents pointed out that the layout of the room has changed twice in the last year and a bit, first when it was rearranged to socially distance everyone after the first lockdown and then when a third of the room was walled off by the school who own the building, so that may have changed the acoustics somewhat and made them more overwhelming.

I struggled to sleep again. I’m not sure why, and on Fridays it certainly isn’t screen time before bed. I wonder if I do need a new mattress. I read more of The Righteous Mind, and, when non-fiction got too heavy for me, half a Doctor Who graphic novel. I did eventually fall asleep, I think around 3.00am.

I didn’t go to shul today, morning or afternoon. I do feel that I’m drifting away from it and I don’t know what to do about it. I have so much to focus on at the moment and I’m trying just to narrow it down to a couple of things, otherwise it’s not achievable, and shul doesn’t seem urgent or important enough right now. I slept late in the morning and napped in the afternoon, so I’ll probably struggle to sleep tonight too.

***

I was reading Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rabbi Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) over Shabbat and found a couple of interesting quotes.

One was in the essay Love, Romance and Covenant:

The romantic metaphor for intimacy is one of self-discovery. But the self cannot be grasped, and neither can the Other, the object of love. At best, the self will briefly flicker into view, always through its attributes, which may bear the imprint of the other’s uniqueness. Like the hidden God who reveals Himself only through His actions — “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20) — so too the self. The very attempt to grasp something obstructs intimacy. Paradoxically, only through distraction can the self be discovered. (p. 141)

This made me think less about romantic relationships and more about my search for a sense of self, and for a sense of God. It suggests I can’t find either directly, only grasp them briefly, while doing something else, and probably through things I say or do or God says or does rather than from seeing myself or God directly. This connects with other thoughts I’ve been having recently based on my reading of Rabbi Shagar that I’m not ready to share here yet, but connected with the idea of finding God ‘in passing.’

The other is a passage, actually a quotation from Rav Kook, in the essay Mysticism, Postmodernism and the New Age which needs some introduction. The “Shattering of the Vessels” is the kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) creation myth. It differs somewhat from that in Bereshit (Genesis) (I think the Shattering of the Vessels is thought to have occurred before creation as described in Bereshit). According to this, God poured His “light” into “vessels” that were not strong enough to contain it, shattering and sending sparks across the now-created universe. The myth functions in part as an explanation of the problem of evil: how can evil exist in a universe created by a benevolent God? In answer, it suggests that evil was a by-product of the shattering of the vessels. The universe is broken and in need of repair. However, this provokes another question: why did God not make the vessels stronger to begin with? This is where Rav Kook begins:

Why does the shattering of the vessels occur? For, as the Godhead provides according to Its capacity, while the recipient is limited, the benefit would be limited as well. That is why He provides influence without limit, according to His aspect… even thought the created recipient cannot receive it without shattering completely, and then rebuilding himself through his desire to return to his unbounded source… And thus the created can make himself and attain the perfection of a creator, and transcend the limitations of the created. (Orot HaKodesh, quoted in Rabbi Shagar p. 127)

Rav Kook takes this in a mystical way and Rav Shagar uses it as part of an argument about postmodernism, but I want to use it in a psychological way.

We (those of us with mental health issues or trauma) are like the broken vessels. Previously, we were formed (in childhood) by nature and nurture, our DNA and childhood experiences. As we grew, we were overwhelmed by something we could not contain (trauma or mental illness triggers), like vessels shattering from the Infinite Light. However, the breakage is not irreparable. The process of therapy and recovery allows us to actively rebuild ourselves, instead of passively accepting our identities. In this way, we become (self-)creators and not passive creations.

“It’s all about telling stories. Nothing else matters.”

“Move fast and break things” was Mark Zuckerberg’s motto. Today I tried to move slowly and not mess stuff up. I went slowly over my work and checked it all slowly when I finished it. Even so, I made mistakes. One might have been because J didn’t tell me what to do properly, or I didn’t take it all in. The other was just absent-mindedness. Or perhaps concentrating too hard: I was so focused on getting one thing right, that I got something else wrong. I find there is so much to keep in mind at once when flipping between different spreadsheets and databases. It didn’t help that I struggled to sleep again last night. I can’t get by on four hours and several cups of coffee. I don’t have that ability to survive on low sleep the way some people do. It doesn’t help that I don’t know why I can’t sleep, although my Mum has been saying for a while that I should switch my mattress with one that, while as old as mine, hasn’t been used nearly as much. (My mattress is something like twenty years old.)

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the wrong job, although I don’t know what the right one would look like and I don’t want to give up the working hours that allow me time to write and the supportive, easy-going boss. J hasn’t said much in the way of rebuke for my mistakes, but he hasn’t made my contract permanent either, so I feel stuck in limbo.

Recently there has also been some office politics of the “X hates Y and comes to Z to complain about her”-type, which brings me down further. I don’t thrive on conflict.

I had a recruitment agent contact me to ask if I’m looking for a job. I am, inasmuch as I still glance at adverts every day. And I’m not, inasmuch as I have totally lost confidence in my ability to successfully do things in return for money. I feel that I mess stuff up so much that I have to do things for free, either because they’re voluntary or because they’re not monetary transactions (being a son and a boyfriend).

Reading The Righteous Mind made me feel I’m not “autistic enough” today too. Apparently if I like reading fiction over non-fiction, that makes me empathetic and less likely to be autistic. I just like the stories. I don’t think Jonathan Haidt meant it as an either/or thing, just to show tendencies on the spectrum, but reading it probably didn’t help my mood today. Haidt seems to be basing himself on Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and Baron-Cohen is somewhat notorious in the autistic community for having a view of autism that many autistic people feel is limited and overly-focused on the idea of autistic people having “extreme male brains.” Many high functioning autistic people feel that they are more able to feel empathy than is presumed. We can feel emotional empathy, sharing other people’s moods; we struggle with cognitive empathy, predicting other people’s thoughts.

Looking back over the last paragraph, “I just like the stories” reminds me of something late 1970s Doctor Who producer Graham Williams said in an interview about, “It’s all about telling stories. Nothing else matters.” That’s really what is keeping me going (in terms of work thoughts, rather than knowing that E and my family care about me), the thought that I might one day write stories professionally. As to whether I have the skill to do it, or the skill to get published [1] — I go back and forth on that. It seems so daunting, just thinking about sending out more query letters, and somehow it drifts down the priority list.

***

My shul (synagogue) wants people to volunteer to help set up before Shabbat (the Sabbath) and tidy up afterwards. The teenage boys who usually do it can’t do it this week. I feel torn. I used to help with things like this, but on days like today I feel like I’m struggling just to keep my head above water. I also feel like I have ‘autistic help disorder’ — with the best will in the world, unless someone gives me a specific task, I just sort of mill around not being sure what to do and getting in the way (Amanda Harrington described this as typical Asperger’s behaviour, although the name is my own). I don’t feel comfortable enough in shul to say, “Please give me a specific task.” I wouldn’t even know who to ask.

***

Looking at birthday cards on the Card Factory website, it astonishes me how unfunny most of the “funny” ones are. The best ones are feeble puns; the worst just insult the recipient. And that’s without the sexual “humour” cards available in their high street shops. There’s a lot of cards about getting blind drunk, as if that’s the only way people celebrate. Who buys these things? No wonder the trend seems to be to make your own card from photos pasted onto a template.

***

[1] The skill to get published is definitely different to the skill to write. I suspect some good writers do not know how to get published, while some mediocre ones do. At the moment, I’m not sure if I have either skill.

Back to the NHS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief and Love

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Tomorrow Never Knows

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Overthinking

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Experiences, Conformity, and Autism in the Workplace

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

Reading Ashley’s post on conformity, I commented:

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

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

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

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

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

A Serious Day on Serious Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Fred Karno’s Army

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Autistic Fatigue and Masculinity

My blog is back in “autistic disrupted sleep mode” again. I went to bed very late after post-Shabbat stuff (praying, tidying, writing fiction (or trying to), blogging, eating, relaxing in front of the TV, texting E) and then slept for eleven hours. I wish I knew why I do this, and why on work days and volunteering days I can get up after six or seven hours, sometimes fewer. It’s easy to call myself lazy, but I don’t think that’s it. I do seem to have a lot of autistic fatigue, and if I let it build up too long it threatens to turn into autistic burnout. But it’s a mystery as to how I coped when I was younger, in a very autism-unfriendly school, although maybe ‘coped’ is the wrong word, as by the time I was sixteen, I hit my first episode of what seemed at the time depression, but in retrospect may also have been autistic burnout too. I wonder now whether my episodes of depression were caused primarily by prolonged burnout (as well as autistic loneliness) rather than the depression being the main issue. It would explain why the depression was so treatment-resistant: it wasn’t the real problem. That said, I definitely have been deeply depressed at times, to the point of being suicidal, so it’s obviously a complex situation of autism and mental illness feeding off each other.

Inevitably, I feel bad about missing the morning, and not helping Dad much with the sukkah, the shack Jews build in the garden to live in (weather-dependent) during the festival of Sukkot, which is coming soon (Yom Kippur comes first, this week, but that has minimal practical preparation). I feel that if I could sort my sleep out, my life, my integration into the frum (religious Jewish) community, and my integration into the world of work would be so much better, with knock-on consequences, but I just don’t know how. When I feel down, I try to remind myself of the good things in my life, that my parents love me and E cares about me. It does help. RoBIN commented on a previous post that, for people on the spectrum, nothing can be taken for granted, and I do feel like that. I’m just trying to be happy for what I do have. Realistically, I need people I can be open with and who support me a lot more than I need a wide circle of friends or a satisfying and/or full-time job (although more money would be nice, if only for marriage/immigration reasons).

I helped my Dad a little with the sukkah, and to be fair it was the part he most needed help with. There’s still a lot to do on it, and he will need my help with that later in the week. I always feel awkward helping. I’m not good on ladders; I’m not scared of heights per se, but I don’t like feeling that I could fall, and the patio is rather uneven making the ladders wobble. I’m better with ladders indoors, maybe because the floor is more even, or maybe my brain thinks the carpet could somehow break my fall. I’m not great as a handyman either. The paternal side of my family is full of war heroes from both World Wars, sportsmen and handymen, but I didn’t inherit any of that (some of them were, perhaps surprisingly, also good with a needle and thread or sewing machine; like many Jewish recent-immigrant families, they worked in the clothing industry in London’s East End). In this, as in most things, I take after my mother’s side, who were not hugely masculine in this way.

My sister and brother-in-law came for tea, or late lunch in my case. I had cherry pie and coffee for maximum Twin Peaks fannishness (OK, I didn’t really have them because of Twin Peaks. I did really want them, but it amused me all the same). I joined in the conversation more than I usually do, probably because we were mostly comparing notes about our respective Rosh Hashanahs (experiences of) and Yom Kippurs (plans for). I do still find it draining to be around people for two hours, and wasn’t able to do much afterwards and my mood dropped quite a bit.

Other than that, I didn’t do much, just a little Torah study and a half-hour walk. No writing or running or any of several different chores I wanted to do. I Skyped E, which raised my mood quite a lot, but still left me tired. I just wish everything wasn’t so hard for me.

***

I watched some of the Doctor Who episode Gridlock. I’m not sure I have time to finish it tonight. It is not a particular favourite, although I don’t dislike it as much as I did on original transmission. There was one very good scene I had forgotten about. I think my problems with Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner are partly that he writes the Doctor as hugely bombastic and shouty, full of declaimed speeches about “This stops — TONIGHT!!!” (which, to be fair, Davies’ successors Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall did/do too and may be a standard feature of modern science fiction/action storytelling), but primarily that he’s willing to sacrifice consistency of plot, characterisation or credibility for the sake of a shock moment, an emotional scene or a even cheap gag. This annoys me no end, but it might explain why his writing was so popular with the general audience, who don’t obsess over nuances of plot, character or pseudo-science the way fans do.

Nature and Nurture Vs. Me

Another dull day at work, which I don’t mind so much, but it’s another day when I made what seemed to me like foolish mistakes and generally handled myself badly. I don’t know what to do about that. Whenever this happens, I start to self-blame and pretty soon I’m comparing myself to school or Oxford peers who are doing better than I am (or who I assume are doing better than I am). To be fair, I mostly kept that in check today, but it’s there in the background. I would like to be doing a job that I felt good at, doubly so if it was one that seemed socially-acceptable given my level of academic success and/or allowed me to support a family, or at least to support myself. Contrary to what your parents and teachers told you, success at school or even at university does not correlate exactly with financial, social or cultural success later in life.

It didn’t help that I only had about four hours of sleep last night as Yom Tov finished late and then I felt I needed to blog to process my thoughts about it and then watch TV to try to unwind a bit. Then I just couldn’t sleep. At least it’s not so hot today.

***

Ashley and Margaret commented on my previous post, about God moving away as I try to move closer to Him. Margaret’s comment reminded me of the comment I posted recently from the Kotzker Rebbe, that “the moments of labouring are the finding.” It’s strange how it’s easy to say that in the abstract, but not when confronted by my actual feelings of hollowness or even failure. I think I was happy after the first day of Yom Tov, despite my failure to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) or even to pray at home at the correct time. However, I was upset more by the second day, when I was too burnt out to do much and missed shul in the morning completely. Perhaps I expect too much of myself. I wonder what other frum people manage, those without autistic burnout or social anxiety. From the outside, it looks like they mostly make it to shul early in the morning on Shabbat and Yom Tov (at the very least).

I guess related to this is the difference, as I said yesterday, between a punitive God and a loving God. This is, in part, the difference between God in the Written Torah (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and God as presented in the Oral Torah (Midrash and Talmud). You can get into this very deeply, about the Written Torah coming from the side of din (strictness and justice) and the Oral Torah coming from the side of hesed (lovingkindness) and the fact that I generally tend to line up with din in numerous ways. I don’t really want to get so kabbalistic. But obviously there are these two different sides to God which we believe is a difference more apparent than real, because obviously we’re monotheists and not dualists (like the Gnostics or the Manicheans).

I can believe that a loving God exists, but it’s hard to feel that a loving God could love me. I know this is rooted in childhood experiences and my lack of self-love, but I don’t know how to move on from that. No one has given me practical steps I could do to love myself, let alone to believe that God loves me. Even so, I’m not sure how my inability to love myself corresponds to my inability to find meaning on festivals. Unless I expect too much from them. Similarly, why do I struggle to feel the kind of spiritual joy I feel I am ‘supposed’ to feel or that others seem to feel — is it my old friends anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and alexithymia (inability to recognise emotions) again? Or something else?

It’s uncomfortable to feel that I’m still held hostage by my autism (nature), as shown by my experiences at work today, and also by my formative years (nurture). I’m not sure what the solution is.

***

I feel torn between trying to find an agent for my novel, working on the short story I started recently or planning my next novel, but it’s too late to work on any of them (too late at night, not too late to ever work on them). I doubt I will have much time in the next couple of weeks given Yom Tov. Which is a shame, as I feel somewhat creatively-stifled at the moment. I also feel like a bad writer, and the only real cure for that is to write. But, it’s probably on hold for a while.

Success but Hollow Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Day of the Year

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

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

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

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

Behind-the-Sofa Scary

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Talk with the Rabbi

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

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

Answering

It’s the last day of August, which seems unbelievable. The year has dragged with regard to COVID, but in other ways it has sped past. It is also Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) next week, which also seem unbelievable. Rosh Hashanah is very rarely this early in the solar year (the Jewish lunar calendar moves about with regard to the solar calendar).

The Jewish year has been good for me on the whole. I feel a bit bad about that, when COVID has made it so terrible for so many people. But it’s good that I’m back together with E, that I’m working, albeit part-time (all I can cope with), and that I finished my novel. I just feel a lot of gratitude at where my life is, albeit coupled with a desire for help in moving it on to the next level (which would be marrying E and monetising my writing at least by getting my novel published).

Despite this, my mood today has been up and down, largely because of more boring data entry work and nervousness about speaking to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s (yes, that’s happening). I have tried to hold on to the good things, like Skyping E.

***

I listened to the Jewish educator Erica Brown speak about her book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. She spoke about the difficulty of translating ‘teshuva,’ which means ‘penitence,’ which sounds rather heavy. It can also mean ‘returning’ and that’s a common translation in frum (religious) circles, but she prefers ‘recovery,’ having worked with addicts.

It occurred to me when listening to this that teshuva also means ‘answer’ in Hebrew. Perhaps our teshuva is an answer to God. What is the question? Perhaps the primordial question that God asked Adam and Chava (Eve) in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3.9) The Midrash sees this as a question designed to tease out a repenting/returning/recovering/answering response from Adam and Chava, but instead they blamed other people and refused to take responsibility for their actions. At this time of year we can ‘answer’ God realistically about our lives.

Erica Brown talked about the importance of not focusing solely on the negatives in our lives, but also on the positives, asking ourselves what we are doing right morally and religiously. I think I have grown and improved in some ways over the year, although I won’t go into that here. I have also come to feel confident that my life should be with E, and that I should also be trying to write fiction professionally, tough though it will probably be to get published. This was reinforced by listening to the latest Intimate Judaism podcast, where they were talking about the way sex is spoken about at yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) and whether there is a rape culture, a hookup culture or a generally unhealthy sexual culture in these places, and how the frum (religious) community should be encouraging young adults to view their burgeoning sexuality.

The podcast made me desperate to write my idea for a novel about a pornography-addicted rabbi. This is probably not what Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn intended as a response to their podcast, nor what Erica Brown intended as a positive to focus for the coming year, but that’s where I am at the moment. I need to get some books on pornography addiction as background reading before I can go any further with planning (I know Joshua Shea sometimes reads this so – yes, your books are on the top of my list!) which I probably won’t do until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I have a short story to work on until then, but I hope I can find the time to write between work, therapy, Yom Tov and general religious practice (Torah study, prayer). It’s a busy time of the year for religious Jews.

At any rate, I feel that writing is my current ‘answer’ to God, that I want to move on with my relationship and my writing, but that I need a lot of divine help.

The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Curses of COVID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

The Existential Threat

The Very Scary Task today had different people angry with me, or in my direction. Trying to help Person 1, I inadvertently annoyed Person 2. Sometimes I find it difficult to know what to do. I’m glad this is only a small part of my job, as it’s not really very suitable for someone on the autism spectrum with social anxiety and low self-esteem. By 10.00am, I was pretty much ready to crawl back into bed and cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have anyone to vent to either, as Dad was davening (praying), Mum was on her way to work, E was asleep (stupid time difference) and I didn’t want to tell J that in trying to appease Person 1, I had annoyed Person 2, and still failed to get an answer that would mollify 1. Then the call to Person 1 that I was dreading went fine, to my surprise.

I did eventually get it all sorted just after lunch, but even that was not the end of my anxiety which manifested as more of an OCD-type anxiety, doubting whether I had organised the VST properly and making me want to phone everyone back and re-confirm what is supposed to happen tomorrow. I didn’t do that, as it would annoy everyone and I giving in to anxiety just fuels the self-doubting, but I felt anxious much of the day. I went for a walk hoping that would help, but I just catastrophised more.

I told J before he went away that I can’t work tomorrow as I have another commitment (therapy, although I did not say that). It’s just as well I do, as I could not do this job for three days running. I would be an anxious mess. I do worry a bit about what kind of job I can do, as so many seem impossible for autistic reasons: too much interpersonal interaction, workplace too noisy, needs too much multitasking or switching tasks. I miss social cues and then anxiety kicks in and I annoy people by looking for reassurance or not knowing when to leave them alone. There aren’t really reasonable adjustments I can ask for regarding not accidentally annoying other people in the workplace.

I’m not the kind of person who is good with numbers or computers, to pick the most stereotypical autistic jobs. At least this job is mostly OK. Even doing the Very Scary Task in the office isn’t so bad, as J is around to advise or take over if I get stuck. But doing it without him, from home, is too draining, and I couldn’t handle a third week of it. Also, I would like the chance to start some kind of career where I can earn realistic amounts of money to live on, but that doesn’t seem likely working part-time with limited capabilities.

I know that I need to be less dependent on other people for my self-esteem needs, but no one has ever told me how to do that. It’s not like I have an “Need of Esteem of Others for Self-Esteem” dial that I can set to “Low.” I’m not good taking the at initiative either. Neither of these things are good in the workplace, or in general.

****

I did the one hour of work I set aside from yesterday, as I thought the VST would take an hour or so today. Then I did an hour of work in advance for Thursday, so I won’t have to force myself through a six hour day when I may already be exhausted from this week (the advantage of working from home).

Other than work and a walk, I cooked dinner, drafted my devar Torah and did a little extra Torah study, but really I spent the day wrestling with anxiety and just trying to function. I guess it’s good that I managed all that with such high anxiety levels. The title of this post refers to the Sparks song The Existential Threat which came to mind today. I’d pick a verse, but almost all of them seem relevant (it’s a good song about anxiety). It’s good that I don’t often lose days to mental illness like this any more, but it is frightening when it suddenly reappears. It reminds me how thin the ice I’m skating on sometimes feels.

On the plus side, when I went for a walk, I was catastrophising, but it struck me that there are four people who will stick by me no matter what (E, my parents and my sister), plus my rabbi mentor who gives me more time than I really deserve. I feel this makes me luckier than a lot of people.

***

This will probably sound weird, but I feel more afraid of other people than God. By this I mean that I trust God to understand why I do the things I do, and how powerless I feel over my life sometimes, and that whatever He puts me through is in that context, but I worry that other people will not understand and will do I-don’t-know-what in response. I would much rather face God on Judgement Day than a jury of my peers. This is why I worry so much about doing things wrong at work, the fear that I would never be able to convince anyone that I acted in good faith and to the best of my abilities.

Einstein’s Theory of Working From Home Relativity

I was somewhere on the borderland between sleep and wakefulness a little before 10am today when my phone rang (realistically, I was probably mostly in sleep). As I guessed before answering, it was J asking me to do the Very Scary Task (VST) again. I did not (could not) know when I would be asked to do it, but I guessed it probably would happen once more (at least) before J gets back from holiday and goes back to covering the out of hours calls (although this technically was not out of hours; J had given me flexibility to start and finish work later this week, but 10am on a Monday is usually work time for me).

I spent much of the day dealing with the VST. It possibly got a little easier, but I was still given to anxiety, self-criticism and feelings of being overwhelmed, particularly when someone was checking the details of an email address with me over the phone and I got flustered (as I had two different email addresses on different sheets) and he ended up shouting at me. Without going into too many details, the people we’re working for with the VST are going through a major negative life event, so it isn’t surprising if they shout sometimes. I’ve seen J take a lot worse over the phone in the office. Even so, it was upsetting.

About the same time I checked my personal email and got my first novel rejection email from a literary agent. I know that pitching a novel is like looking for a job or a spouse: almost no one gets it right on the first go and some people spend years looking in vain. Nevertheless, I experienced a feeling of shock and numbness like loss.

In the aftermath of both these things (the shouting and the rejection), I felt numb and unable do things. I crashed. I didn’t stop working, but for a while I was not able to do much. I wasn’t sure whether to phone anyone about the VST, or who to phone. I wanted to go into autistic shutdown mode, but I couldn’t, as I had hours of work left to do, but I didn’t know what to do or if I had done anything wrong. I kept going. I’m not sure how. I guess I just had to. I kept making phone calls, albeit somewhat slowly, and everything sort of slotted into place. I do still need to get up early tomorrow to work on the VST.

I’m not going to volunteering on Wednesday, so hopefully I can sleep a bit later, unless I have to do this all over again. I told J I couldn’t help on Wednesday (because I have therapy), but I’m a bit nervous that somehow I’ll have to anyway.

I wonder if I am too eager to please people in this role (or generally). I fear I try to hard to be nice to everyone, which sometimes makes me duck difficult conversations or confrontations. I feel that people can manipulate me into doing things for them easily — in today’s case, getting me to confirm a provisional time for something when it’s not 100% confirmed, even though J advised to leave it to later. I didn’t even consciously intend to do it, I just ended up in a situation where I said I would phone for options and then phone back, even though I should have phoned for options and left it until tomorrow. Sigh. At least I did stress it was a provisional time so if someone makes arrangements based on it, it’s not my fault. Not entirely my fault anyway.

Einstein says time flows differently on work from home. I got up before 10am, I seemed to spend all day working, yet work seemed to extend indefinitely… but by 6pm I still had an hour to do, which I’m leaving for tomorrow as I’ll need it for finishing the Very Scary Task. I am probably over-generous to the company when it comes to counting time spent working, leaving out time spent thinking about what to say on phone calls (which I think of as procrastination) or having short breaks.

***

I didn’t have much time or energy for other things. I went for a walk after work which helped destress a little, although I still feel pretty stressed. I didn’t have time or energy to write, not even to type up some ideas I had for the plan of my next novel. I only managed fifteen minutes of Torah study too, and didn’t touch the cheshbon nafesh (inner self-analysis) I wanted to do as part of my Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) preparation. I wanted to finish the short story I was reading at lunch before I go to bed, but I feel too tired to read. I feel pretty much completely done in and just want to crawl into bed, although I know from experience that if I don’t do something relaxing for a little while, I will just lie in bed feeling anxious.

***

Given that I’ve had a stressful week with work, I was glad to be able to buy this book. I read the author’s blog and I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, but it’s only published through Amazon, and Amazon are evil and I don’t use them. But I found a second-hand copy on World of Books. Hopefully it will give me some ideas about coping with autism in the workplace, as I feel like I’m struggling with that right now. Although now I feel bad that the author won’t get any money because I bought it second-hand, whereas if I bought new through Amazon, she would (admittedly she would not get very much as Evil Amazon would take most of it).

***

Looking at lists of Victorian names at work, I came across Trespoles Myers. Myers I understand, but Trespoles looks like random letters thrown together. You get a lot of duplicated names too, like Moses Moses, Nathan Nathan or Abraham Abrahams. The Victorians had a different sense of humour to us. I can imagine some of these people reading Catch-22 and thinking, “Major Major? What’s funny about that?”

More Damage Limitation

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, with some struggling. Shul (synagogue) was difficult on Friday night. It smelt of paint (it’s being renovated). I got there a minute late, and struggled to find a seat because it was so crowded — not that many people, but the renovations mean we have very little space, especially with it still set up somewhat socially distanced. Then the gabbai asked me to move so that a father and son could sit together, because there weren’t two seats available next to each other. I moved and I could sort of see why he asked me (I think I was just the nearest person where moving one person would leave two seats next to each other), but it did feed my fear that single people are seen as less important than families. I shot off as soon as the service finished, even faster than I usually do.

Dinner with my parents and cousin 4 (henceforth C4) was fine. There were a couple of problems, but nothing that turned into an argument as I feared. I had almost all my Israeli family down as very noisy, and most of them are, but a couple are very quiet. I had never really seen C4 without the rest of the family before, so I didn’t really realise how quiet she is. I do struggle to connect with my cousins as well as I would like, partly because of the cultural differences I mentioned the other day, partly because of the age difference (C4 is still a teenager, and basically a different generation to me), partly I guess because of my difficulty connecting with anyone (autism).

I did some more Torah study after dinner and went to bed rather late. I woke up intermittently during the morning, but didn’t get up. I guess that was a mixture of burnout and social anxiety about going to shul again. I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know how to work on the social anxiety about shul or my general struggles about getting up early. I can get up early for work, but when working from home last week I got up very late and had to work later than I intended, or split the work over two days. I wish I understood this dynamic better.

I forgot to take my morning medication and took it after lunch, which is unlike me.

I slept again after lunch. I think I fell asleep around 4.15pm; I was woken at 5.15pm by my pre-shiur (religious class) alarm, but I fell asleep again and/or just lay on the bed for another two hours, just too drained to do anything other than lie there and try to recover from a week of overload. It meant I didn’t really have much time today for Torah study or recreational reading (I did a bit of both last night, but not today).

I decided to skip Talmud shiur and shul so I could spend more time with C4. I wasn’t in much of a state to go anyway. Seudah (the third Shabbat meal) with my parents and C4 was fine and then suddenly Shabbat was over and C4 was going. I spent some time tidying up as Mum and Dad went to take C4 back to where she’s staying and then did some Torah study. I tried to get through what Talmud they would have done in shiur today, but it’s hard to judge (the rabbi tends to bring in a lot of comments from Tosafot, which I don’t have in translation) and I ran out of energy and brainpower. And I guess that was it. I hope I’m more alert tomorrow.

Now it’s gone midnight and I’m tired, but I don’t think I’ll sleep yet. I need to do something to unwind, probably watching TV as I don’t feel up to reading. Someone nearby is playing loud music again.

Damage Limitation

I feel burnt out again, unsurprisingly after yesterday. I feel like I’m in damage limitation mode at the moment and will be at least until J is back at work, if not until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) are over. I’m going to try to relax tonight and tomorrow. I had chores to do before Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I tried not to do other things, although I did some Torah study. I would like to go to shul (synagogue) tonight, but as my cousin is staying with us for Shabbat, I’m not sure if I’ll go for Talmud shiur (religious class) and Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) tomorrow so I can spend more time with her instead.

In other news, my rabbi (my shul rabbi, not my rabbi mentor) said we could speak and that I should message him next week to arrange time. This is to tell him about my autism/Asperger’s and speak about my place in the community, although he doesn’t know that yet. I feel pretty anxious about it. It doesn’t help that I don’t know exactly what I want from the meeting, I just feel the need to open up to someone in the community so that I feel less alone and misunderstood.

***

In other other news, E and I have been watching the earliest Doctor Who episodes, from 1963 and 1964, and E is becoming a total fangirl. She is mostly enjoying it, but complaining about continuity errors in later stories. Having a girlfriend who was into Doctor Who was not one of my ‘essential needs’ in relationships, but it’s very good that it’s turned out that way. Otherwise, E and I have both been catastrophising about our relationship — not the relationship part, but the external things keeping us apart, like COVID and immigration law. But we both think we will be together in the end, somehow, if we can just hang on.

***

I wrote yesterday about having wanted to make friends online in the past, and it occurred to me afterwards that I do now have what I wanted on my blog, inasmuch as there are half a dozen or a dozen people who read most of my posts and leave friendly and helpful comments, which is what I really wanted from online interactions. So, thank you.

Busier Than I Think

I woke up earlyish (9.00am), probably because I slept so much yesterday. I actually managed to get up, albeit partly because I worried that if I stayed in bed, I would just feel anxious. I spent some time writing some notes about the way autism affects me at shul (synagogue) and in my religious community so that I can speak to my communal rabbi when he gets back from holiday later this week. I’m not really happy with what I’ve written, but it’s a start and I still have time to talk about it with my parents (I already spoke to E), although probably not with my therapist, who is on holiday until next week.

I also spent some time typing up my notes on my “pornography-addicted rabbi” novel idea. Notebooks are good for jotting ideas down, but Word documents are better for moving things around and ordering them. At the moment I have some characters and vague story ideas, but no real plot. Well, I have an idea of where I want to go, but not how I get there. I’m already scared of what publishing such a story would mean for me as a member of the frum (religious Jewish) community, whether there would be any backlash like the backlash around Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. I don’t intend the book to be anti-religious (if anything the reverse, but I can see that some people might not see that). However, this seems the best way (well, a way, maybe not the best way) to talk about issues around sex and gender, and around addiction and mental health, in the frum community.

I guess this has become an ‘aspiring writer’ blog, now that it’s not exactly a ‘mental illness blog’ or a ‘fighting for an autism diagnosis’ blog. I probably shouldn’t say much about ongoing projects, but I find it hard to keep total radio silence. If I speak about my projects, I feel I have to follow through with them. I can’t chicken out of writing a novel I’ve ‘trailed’ here. I probably also should call myself a ‘writer’ rather than an ‘aspiring writer,’ but I still feel that I’m not there yet.

***

Despite this, and having also gone for a run, done over an hour of Torah study and Skyped E, I have a vague feeling of not having done enough, and of having procrastinated online (despite my attempt to limit my internet use at the moment) instead of actually relaxing. I really do need to talk to my therapist about this.