“Everyone’s a superhero, everyone’s a Captain Kirk”: Diversity and Me

News first, please scroll down if you just want the stuff on diversity.

The last few days have been busy, although there isn’t a huge amount out of the ordinary to note here.

I forgot to mention in my last post that on Wednesday we had a Zoom call involving myself, E, my parents and E’s parents. It went pretty well, especially considering I thought there were at least three cultural divides that might be difficult to bridge. The two sets of parents even want to Zoom again soon.

On Friday, as well as my normal pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, I worked on my novel for an hour and a half. I would have liked to have worked on it even longer, but I was getting eye strain.

In shul (synagogue) on Friday night, Rabbi L came up to me and asked if we had made progress with the wedding, which was nice. Dad also told him about Mum’s recent health issue, which he was unaware of. He was shocked and concerned.

Shabbat was fairly good. I managed to avoid sleeping in the afternoon (although I did lie down for twenty minutes), going instead for a brisk walk and doing fifty minutes of Torah study. I went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) only. I tried to get to bed soon after the end of Shabbat, but still ended up going to bed at 1am. It’s difficult when Shabbat doesn’t finish until after 10.30pm.

Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).

Shul Minchah

Torah 50m

Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).

I somehow avoided eating rugelach when my sister and BIL were here. I am serious about losing some weight, despite the lack of time for running.

My sister and brother-in-law brought their wedding photo album. This has finally arrived, four and a half years after the wedding (Just. Don’t. Ask). It reminds me why I don’t like big parties, which I guess is good as E and I plan our small wedding.

My mood sank in the evening, under the weight of peopling and wedding planning. My Dad said he would do some searching for me tomorrow for plane fares, which will help me. I feel bad that when I’m struggling (like today), I find it hard to communicate with him for various reasons that aren’t really either of our faults, and we end up getting annoyed with each other.

***

(I should say that I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as I wanted to spend on the second half of the post, but I just want to vent about this anyway, even if it could be better written/argued.)

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things recently. One is about the trend towards greater diversity of representation in the media. This was partly prompted by the latest Doctor Who Magazine. The current Doctor is the first woman Doctor; her successor will be the first black Doctor, and there was recently an official Doctor Who podcast story written by a trans woman and starring a trans actress as a trans character. There was a lot in the article about the podcast about how good it is for LGBT people to see themselves represented positively. It made me think about the way I have seen myself in fiction, or not, over the years.

There is a bit more representation of autism than there used to be. I can think of The Imitation Game, which was a good film, although it left me very upset (it was one of the things that made me think I really am on the spectrum despite being initially assessed as neurotypical; it also made me feel I would be lonely and miserable forever as a result). On the other hand, I thought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a intent on making autistics look stupid and unfeeling, although the narrator was a lot less functional than I am.

There is some representation of secular Jews, mainly on American TV, where there are more Jews generally e.g. The West Wing. They aren’t allowed to show more than a little interest in Jewish ideas though. When The West Wing did an (unrealistic) plot-line about the President solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Josh and Toby didn’t seem more emotionally involved than any of the other characters, despite being Jewish. The only real time Jewishness was involved in a substantial way was an episode about capital punishment, which had Toby’s rabbi argue against it. I didn’t really watch Friends, but several characters were Jewish, but not really Jewish. They were Jewish in a safe and non-threatening way, they didn’t do weird rituals (OK, the Chanukah Armadillo was weird, but that was deliberate).

Ivanova in Babylon 5 was not very religious either, but we saw her light Chanukah candles in one episode, and there was an episode that had a sub-plot about her sitting shivah for her late father, which was quite surprising in a secular science-fiction show.

Orthodox Jews are less prominent. They are usually shown as narrow-minded and backwards. (Incidentally, pretty much all Orthodox Jews on TV and film are Hasidic, even if this makes no sense.) The Attractive Young Rabbi was a Radio 4 sitcom about a female Reform rabbi living next-door to an Orthodox rabbi. I didn’t listen to more than a little bit of it, but I think the rabbis disagreed about everything, with the Orthodox rabbi presented to the audience as reactionary and wrong. I think his wife was more understanding because feminism or something. In reality, my oldest friend is the son of two Reform rabbis, male and female, who lived next-door to the local Orthodox rabbi, noted for being quite strict. My friend said they all got on well. I guess that makes for bad drama/comedy.

An exception was the 1970s Quatermass. Quatermass was a 1950s science fiction/horror series of serials. They revived it for a mini-series in the late 70s. There were a couple of Jewish characters in the 70s version. They mishandled pretty much every ritual and mispronounced every Yiddish word shown, but in a story built on binary divisions (young/old; superstition/science; irrationality/reason), they put Judaism on the science and reason team, for which I am grateful.

There are more representations of Judaism in novels now than previously e.g. Sisters of the Winter Wood. E has read more of these than I have, and finds the presentation of Orthodox culture variable.

I definitely think there is a problem that a significant minority of fictional Jews are in Holocaust stories, which does warp how both Jews and non-Jews see Jews past and present. There’s also an increasing tendency to universalise the Holocaust. Rather than seeing it as a specific crime directed at a specific culture because of a specific historical context, there’s a sense of “It could happen to anyone” and that (as Dara Horn argued in People Love Dead Jews), killing Jews is bad because it could lead on to normal people being killed too. As Horn argues, Holocaust fiction tends to focus on survivors, whereas the majority of Jews who were in the Holocaust were murdered. I think (although I haven’t done any real research) that Holocaust fiction also tends to focus on secular, westernised Jews from Western and Central Europe, rather than religious and Orthodox Eastern European Jews, even though the latter were again the majority of Holocaust victims..

I haven’t looked at other religions, but I think there’s a trend to see ‘open’ cultural expressions of religion as OK, but more traditional and more insular religious content as negative. Yaz in the last few seasons of Doctor Who is a Muslim, but she doesn’t do or believe much that’s religious, no mention of halal food and the only mention of prayer is in the context of her receiving Islamophobic insults on her way to the mosque. There is an episode about her grandmother marrying a Hindu with tragic consequences when her husband is killed by his fundamentalist brother. That there’s a type of religious identity that holds on to religious beliefs and practices strongly in a particularistic (non-syncretic) way, but which is open and tolerant towards the rest of the world isn’t really an idea that gets shown much.

The Doctor Who episode The God Complex did have a more religious and interesting Muslim character in Rita. It’s slightly weird that the Doctor Who character I connect with most religiously is a Muslim woman, which I guess gives the lie to the idea that we can only identify with people who are exact representations of ourselves.

Then there’s Zionists, who are increasingly only presented as racist land-grabbers who don’t belong in the Middle East. In America, I guess there are still some old-fashioned Mossad super-spies, like Ziva in NCIS. I’m going to leave this paragraph at that because I don’t want to get into an argument.

It also goes without saying that anyone even vaguely conservative on film or TV is absolutely Evil and usually in cahoots with Evil Big Business or Evil Religion (usually Christian or Jewish, sometimes Muslim). Big Business is always seen as conservative, even though in real-life many businesses are falling over themselves to be woke, particularly Big Tech, which is a big contributor to Democratic Party funds.

As for long-term celibates, don’t even bother looking. I was going to say that anyone celibate or sexually unsatisfied is likely to be either autistic, misogynistic, or an oppressed minority group in a conservative religious setting in need of liberation (woman, gay, etc.), but to be honest, I’m not sure if that’s even true. I think celibate people are pretty much not shown at all (I haven’t seen Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, but it sounds like it broadly fits the “sexist liberation” narrative).

Granted, this reflects my own weird interests and viewing patterns, which is mostly skewed to stuff from decades ago, but the impression I get from what I read and hear about modern shows is that these patterns still hold.

The thing I really want to stress is that I didn’t really care about this in the past. I assumed that Jews in particular were too small a population to really be noticed and didn’t object to their absence. Now the inattention of people very focused on representation (e.g. the makers of Doctor Who) makes me feel deliberately snubbed. I feel like there’s a list of “acceptable” identities in the Western media, and that most of the aspects of my identity aren’t on it, and in some cases are seen as primarily privileged and oppressive, which is not at all how I experience them. Now not being included seems like a calculated insult, which wasn’t the case twenty years ago. It feels like being a black trans lesbian is seen as normal or even praiseworthy, but being a celibate Orthodox Jew is something abnormal and shameful, and I’m not sure where that comes from or what we do about it, or how we can even label it ‘diversity.’

The Glittering Prizes

I spent an hour writing a whole long post yesterday evening and then WordPress ate it! The autosave somehow jammed mid-save and when I went to publish, I could not, because it was still trying to save. I tried to save manually, but that didn’t work either. In desperation, I refreshed the page. I’ve done this in the past when the autosave has jammed, and I’ve lost a minute or two of work, but this wiped the whole hour. I rewrote most of what I wrote yesterday, plus more on today, but I struggled with my energy and didn’t write in as much detail in places. So apologies for a somewhat abbreviated post.

***

Rabbi B phoned me at work yesterday. I got rather anxious waiting for him to phone, more because I was worried about being interrupted or missing the call than for what he would say, but I was a bit worried about that too. He said E and I should get in touch with a beit din (rabbinical court) in America about confirming E’s Jewish (and unmarried) status. E got upset about this, fearing extra bureaucracy and wait time. I felt we should get in touch with the Beth Din while also moving forward with our civil wedding in the US. I think E was surprised that I wanted to commit to the civil wedding without being 100% certain the religious one will happen as we want. But I am very committed to making this happen no matter what, and I think the chance of us not getting married at all religiously is pretty remote. We did eventually agree about this and wrote to the American beit din today. There is a $100 charge, though, which is annoying.

Otherwise work yesterday was dull, with a sudden burst of stuff near the end of the day. I did get to listen to some good podcasts while doing boring work copying and pasting or copy typing data and also walking home from the station.

One podcast was the Orthodox Conundrum interview with lesbian Orthodox Jewish comedian Leah Forster. It was interesting to hear her say she forgives the community that disowned her and that she still identifies with it, given my difficulties fitting into the frum world. I also found it interesting that she feels strongly that God loves her, something I struggle with a lot. I would have liked to have heard more about her beliefs here.

I also listened to a Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast on Jewish inspiration. I struggle with inspiration a lot. Listening to this made me wonder if this is due to alexithymia (difficulty identifying and understanding my own emotions) and poor autobiographical memory, both autistic traits. This would explain why I invest so much time and energy in Jewish activities (prayer, religious study, mitzvah performance) while struggling consciously to explain why Judaism matters so much to me. Beyond this, as I’ve mentioned recently, I see the religious life as being more about the quest for a God Who “hides His face” and the journey to Him (which is also an inner journey to the self and journey to connection with others) than about times of connection and inspiration. I also have a strong connection to other Jews, now and in the past, and to Judaism as a body of literature and thought.

This podcast and another Orthodox Conundrum interview with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein about “kiruv versus outreach” made me think about what kind of Jewish household E and I will build together. It is clear that it will have to be one that presents Judaism as interesting and fun and not just something that must be done. I (somehow) inspired my parents, my sister and E to increase their observance levels by example rather than by actively trying to argue with them. I am not at all sure how I did this, but apparently I did it. This relates to the difference Rabbi Bookstein described in the podcast between kiruv, which he sees as religious people essentially condescending to teach non-religious Jews about Judaism with the aim of making them become fully religious, and outreach, which he sees as about giving non-religious Jews meaningful Jewish experiences even if they go no further religiously and about seeing them as equals and people who can teach as well as learn. I greatly prefer the latter approach.

***

Today I found out that I had won a Jewish journalism award for the article I wrote for a Jewish website in 2021. I won the ‘honourable mention’ in my category, which is basically third place, but as first and second place went to professional journalists, this seemed impressive. Weirdly, the award also went to the editor of the site. He was very apologetic and didn’t know why they gave him the award too as he didn’t help me with it. There’s no money, but it’s a weird and somewhat annoying mistake. I wonder if they thought my autism prevented me from writing without help? Or if they thought I must have had help because I’m not a professional journalist?

I went to volunteering too and stayed for coffee afterwards this week, speaking to the woman in charge of the volunteers. We spoke a bit about my writing aspirations and I wanted to speak about the award, but found it hard to find the confidence and an opportunity and then hesitated and lost the chance.

In the afternoon, I phoned the hospital about the blank appointment letter I received. It turns out it is for the sleep clinic, but the appointment is just the doctors discussing the referral. Theoretically they could phone me then for more information if the GP left something out, but I probably won’t hear from them that day. Hopefully I would get an appointment call from the secretary the next day offering me an appointment.

More adventures in bureaucracy: I signed up to pay self-assessed income tax for the 2021-2022 tax year (when I was working in my current job, but not on a permanent contract). This was about as exciting as it sounds, but it took a non-trivial amount of time, energy and brainpower, so I’m mentioning it.

I did some novel writing after dinner, but after a while I ran out of energy, motivation, concentration or something and just ended up procrastinating, so I quit for the night. Shiur (religious class) was cancelled as the rabbi who takes it is ill, but he’d done the early afternoon class (the class takes place at 1pm and again at 8pm) and recorded it, so I watched that. I tried to sort my cluttered desk drawers at the same time, which didn’t work very well, so I had to pause it. The shiur went deeper than the previous shiurim in this series, which I appreciated, although it made multitasking harder than expected.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Luftmentsch

I didn’t really want to blog after the longest Shabbat of the year, but I had a pretty awful time and need to offload, so here goes. I had one of those days of autistic burnout that basically feel like depression, with no energy, low mood, and agitated and perhaps somewhat obsessive thoughts. I’ll go through what happened and then some of the thoughts.

I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) last night. I was just too physically drained to manage it. I had a lot of agitated thoughts all evening, including at dinner with my parents, which was uncomfortable and made it hard to concentrate. After dinner, I did Torah study for about forty minutes, reading two difficult chapters of Yehoshua (Joshua) listing Levitical cities, and the commentary on them in Rabbi Hattin’s commentary book. I am now through all the chapters that just the tribal boundaries in ancient Israel, which is a relief. Afterwards I was not sleepy and wanted to read something lighter than the book of contemporary Israeli writing that I’m sort of reading (where contemporary is circa 1973 as it’s an old, second-hand book), so decided on James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), which might not have been the best choice as the idea of dying as soon as you get married, or just before, ended up haunting my thoughts. I got to bed around 1.40am.

I woke up around 9.30am to go to the loo. I should have stayed up, but wanted the comfort of being wrapped in my weighted blanket and went back to bed, and to sleep. I got up at lunch time, which was bad. I went for a brisk walk for forty minutes after lunch, which was good (that I went), but struggled with agitated thoughts during it and afterwards. I tried to read some of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (more on that below), but it left me feeling anxious and depressed. I fell asleep for a while, despite drinking coffee. I’m not sure how long I slept for, as I was lying in bed thinking agitated thoughts for a while before I fell asleep.

On waking, I davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers). I had missed Minchah in shul and, anyway, I felt so low when I went for a walk that I didn’t really want to go out of my comfort zone (=house) again. In the summer, Jewish tradition is to read a chapter of Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud that deals with ethics) at Shabbat Minchah. Rather than just reading rapidly as I usually do, I spent twenty minutes studying somewhat more carefully, and a few things hit me that I had never really noticed before which helped my mood somewhat. It would take too long for me to explain them now (it was in chapter three). After that I did some other Talmud study for twenty minutes, then read James Bond again and got seudah (the third Shabbat meal) ready. I did struggle with that, as I didn’t really feel like ‘peopling’ with my parents, but I got through it, declined to play Scrabble afterwards and spent the remaining hour and a half of Shabbat reading Bond again and fighting some of my thoughts, finally feeling a bit better.

As for the anxious agitated thoughts themselves, a lot proceeded from something I read from therapist Elisheva Liss about narrative therapy, that we can rewrite the story of our life to change our mood and outlook and be less envious of other people’s skills and success. This appealed to me for several reasons. As a writer, this approach seemed more intuitive to me than other approaches such as CBT (for example). I had already noted that getting diagnosed with high functioning autism ended twenty years of depression by telling me that I am not an incompetent neurotypical who inexplicably can’t do basic things like use the phone and make small talk, but an autistic person who naturally struggles with these things.

Despite that change in outlook, recently I feel that I’ve been falling backwards, feeling myself useless especially in comparison to my (neurotypical) peers who have careers and families. I feel envious of people, envious of their happiness and their skills, not that I want to take anything from them, but to have things for myself, to have skills and a career, to marry E and for us to be OK financially, as well as to be able to have children with her and to have the energy and skills to raise them properly. Over Shabbat I felt negative about this, particularly worrying that some unforeseen obstacle will stop E and I marrying. This then bled into feelings that God hates me, that He sees me as sinful and wants to punish me, and that if things go well for me for a while, it’s just so it will hurt more when it all gets taken away from me again. I hadn’t had these thoughts for a long time, probably over a year, so it seemed like a backwards step.

Lately, I feel like I’m carrying a huge weight of the loneliness and depression that I struggled with for twenty or twenty-five years (maybe more), more than half my life. Just knowing, “Oh, I’m autistic, that’s why I struggle with work and relationships, that’s why I was bullied at school” doesn’t really feel enough any more. The suffering I endured brought me to E, but that feels like it can only be a part of the new narrative, not the entirety of it. I feel so overwhelmed by it still that I need to reshape my narrative (to use Liss’s terms) or (in more kabbalistic terms) to make a tikkun, to do something that will retroactively redeem my past and make it worthwhile, to convert the heavy weight I’m carrying into forward momentum. I hope my writing is at least a part of this, if I can help other people somehow (I’m not convinced I can help anyone, or that I will even get published, but that’s not my main concern right now).

I am thinking of buying Elisheva Liss’ book which apparently deals with narrative therapy at length. I am wary, though, as I wonder if I need to actually do something first before I can change the narrative, to create a new happy narrative. Also, I have a big stack of self-help books, most of which did not do much for me. Some were CBT books, and CBT does not work well for people on the spectrum (not that I knew that I was on the spectrum when I bought them). Beyond that, I suspect I need the accountability of a therapist to help me. I might raise some of the issues from this post with my own therapist on Wednesday and see where that takes me. (There are a couple of other self-help books I’m procrastinating about for the same reasons.)

I just feel so useless so much of the time, such a disappointment to other people, such a failure to achieve anything, and it feels like autism isn’t really enough of an excuse. I know E loves me, but I feel I should be a better husband to her, plus, as I said, when I feel down, it’s easy to get into a negative thought spiral about the United Synagogue not permitting our wedding or the Home Office rejecting her visa application.

The other train of negative thoughts[1] came from reading, or trying to read, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This is a sex manual designed for frum couples i.e. religious Jews who haven’t had sex before their wedding night. (The Hebrew title is Et Le’Ahov, which means Time to Love. That may be a better title even if it sounds like a cheap TV movie.) I bought this when E and I first dated, about four years ago. I started reading it to try to alleviate some of my anxieties about sex, but stopped reading when we broke up, as I was sceptical whether I would ever get to have sex. I didn’t dare to open it again when dating other women or even when dating E again until now. I guess I felt irrationally that it would somehow jinx things, or that God is waiting for me to get complacent enough to think that, one day, in middle age, I might actually be able to have sex, before He ruins everything for me again.

Now that, rationally, I know that E and I are probably going to get married some time in the next year, it seemed a good idea to read it, but I didn’t get far as it prompted a lot of anxious thoughts. Some of them were the “God will stop me getting married no matter what I do” type, but some were just the confusion and anxiety I get when thinking about sex generally. I guess celibacy and loneliness were a part of my life for so long that they became part of my identity. Not in a good way, but like being an orphan or having a disability.

I’m not sure where I go with this, except back to therapy. E and I did have a conversation a few days ago about sex and I do feel comfortable at the thought of having sex with her, it’s just that thinking about sex makes me feel that God will stop me, and that He wants to punish me for not being perfectly pure, and that somehow sex is just something not for me and there’s no way for me to change this.

Anyway, that’s how I’ve been for the last thirty hours or so. I actually feel OKish now. There’s some anxiety and low mood, but perhaps fewer agitated thoughts. I do mostly still feel that E and I will get married, although I’m still worried about being bowled more googlies[2] on the way. But I do want to go to bed soon, albeit after watching The Simpson to try to relax a bit, even though it’s 1.00am (this took well over an hour to write).

[1] I should probably say that the thoughts weren’t as neat and packaged as they seem here. I flipped back and forth between different thoughts throughout the day, and they did slowly develop to get to their form here.

[2] I am awful at all sports, but the one thing I can do is bowl a mean googly at cricket. Improbably, I learnt it from a book, because I’m me.

The Rain It Raineth Every Day

It’s not actually raining. It might rain later, but it might not. The title is a quote from Shakespeare (Twelfth Night. I was props manager on a production when I was in the sixth form, in one of the few non-academic things I ever did as a teenager). It just sums up how I feel when I get sucked back into exhaustion and burnout, like I can never escape from feelings of exhaustion, low mood and general non-functionality.

I had a busy week and a very busy day yesterday. Yesterday I had work. The morning was spent on the usual paperwork and similar jobs, I spent my lunch break looking at pictures of wedding venues and spent much of the afternoon doing a boring cut-and-paste task, but was able to listen to podcasts while doing it. Surprisingly, I felt OK after work so I did Torah study on the commute home (usually I just do it on the commute to work in the morning), went shopping, went for a slightly longer walk home from the station, listened to Mum’s description of her awful day at length, and did some novel writing when I got home. Then I had dinner with my Mum and sister (Dad and brother-in-law being at cricket together), heard about Mum’s awful day at length again, and skyped E. Realistically, this was far too much for one day. In my defence, no one actually told me my sister was coming for dinner until I got home, otherwise I might have not done all these things. I could still have skipped writing, but by that stage, I had my mind set on it and it’s hard for autistic people to change plans.

(I also broke my diet by eating ice cream last night, as I needed some kind of treat.)

The result was massive exhaustion today. I slept too long, couldn’t get up, couldn’t get dressed once I did get up, missed the time for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) entirely and basically couldn’t start my day until the early afternoon. My main task for the day was to phone the United Synagogue again about E and my wedding issues, to find out if Rabbi B is away or how to get hold of him, but by the time I did it, I just got the answer phone. They probably leave early on Fridays. I intend to email Rabbi B again on Sunday so that, if he’s been away, my email is on the top of his pile on Monday morning. I think I need to be the squeaky wheel on this, which is not something that comes easily to me.

After lunch (and Doctor Who) I had a little more energy, so I did some of my usual Shabbat chores, then tried to write, as I had by this time brainpower, but not much physical energy for hoovering, the main task left to do for Shabbat. I figured that being drained, fed up and frustrated probably wasn’t a bad mood to be in for the book I’m writing. Even so, it was very difficult. I did manage to write for nearly an hour, and to write about 700 words, but it was difficult and I suspect many of those words will vanish in the editing.

I’m struggling with the idea of the “male gaze”. The novel is very “male gaze-y” — which is rather the point, as the protagonist is a pornography addict, and one of the themes of the book is the way pornography can rewire a person’s brain in that way, and another theme is the way religious sexual restrictions can make people more aware of sex rather than less [1], but I worry readers will see it as reflecting my viewpoint and not the character’s and mark me down accordingly. E says you can’t write a book without offending some people, which is probably true, and I probably underestimate readers, but I just worry about not getting published or read.

It’s weird to write it though. It’s getting in touch with a part of myself that I have always repressed and been ashamed of, the part that notices women, and it’s been strange to try to channel that deliberately. I would never normally write (of a man in a supermarket queue) that he was “trying to avoid staring at the slim hips and wider backside of the attractive twenty-something in a tight miniskirt in front of him.” So it feels strange and more than a little wrong (from a feminist point of view as much as a religious one) to write it.

After writing, I hoovered, but ended up feeling rather ill, faint, headachey and generally bad. I may have done too much. The weather, hot and humid, doesn’t help. I do feel somewhat better now, but not really ready for Shabbat: no writing or blogging or DVDs and lots of peopling albeit probably just with Mum and Dad (that can still be draining, though, especially when I feel like this). I do have to go now, though.

[1] I understand that there is indeed evidence from psychological studies that people from religious backgrounds that forbid or restrict sexual thoughts have noticeably more sexual thoughts than other people, probably from the same effect that makes it impossible not to think of a pink elephant as soon as someone tells you not to think of one.

Chances of Rejection

I had a surprisingly busy day today. The scariest thing was phoning Rabbi B to move E and my wedding forward, but he didn’t answer the phone. I left a voice message asking him to phone me back, but I don’t know if he will. If he does, it will probably be tomorrow morning at work (his voicemail message says he works Monday to Wednesday and Thursday mornings), which may be a bit awkward. The situation is frustrating and I don’t know how to push it forward at the moment.

I do feel optimistic about getting married, but there’s a nagging fear that I’m going to get stuck in some kind of Waiting for Godot situation of constantly moving towards getting married, but never quite getting there.

***

Ashley gave me permission to quote the following discussion which we had on the comments section of her blog:

Luftmentsch: My question about CBT for social anxiety, which I haven’t really seen answered or even posed anywhere, is what if people really would reject you if they knew you better? What if you really are doing things that are considered socially unacceptable in your sub-culture? I feel this in particular in the frum world, but also in other places too, that some of my actions or beliefs would be socially unacceptable if people knew about them. It’s why I hide so much of my life, even on my blog.

Ashley: Regarding being unacceptable, I think CBT would probably consider a few things:

-How balanced is the thought? There probably are some people who will find what you think/do to be unacceptable, but are you overestimating the probability?

-Have you tested the belief? If it’s something that you’re expecting, then you’re already carrying that burden around with you. Testing it at least clears up some of the hypotheticals so you can make decisions based on what’s actually happening rather than what might happen.

-Is the behaviour associated with the belief serving you? Even if it is true that some people will reject you as being socially unacceptable; is hiding much of your life an acceptable price to pay to reduce the odds of that? To use a simpler example, traffic accidents are common, and you can greatly reduce the risk of being hit by a car by never leaving your house, but the pros of living your life without being housebound likely offset the risk of stepping outside.

Luftmentsch: Regarding my current, Haredi shul:

1) It’s very hard to tell how balanced some of the thoughts are. It can be hard to tell what people really believe, as opposed to what the rabbi tells them to believe, and I often find it hard to gauge what things are acceptable anyway. The previous rabbi of my shul was a surprisingly erudite person in many ways, but he was also a creationist who always the referred to the Enlightenment as “the ironically-named Enlightenment.” I’m not a creationist and I have a more positive view of the Enlightenment. Did other people in the community agree with me or with him? It is very hard to tell. Which brings me to

2) it’s hard to test without knowing what the consequences would be of being right (that people would disagree). Would they reject me? Throw me out of the community? I don’t know. I never had the guts to risk it.

3) Before E and I started dating again, I guess the price seemed worth it. I hoped people at shul would set me up with a “nice frum girl.” Over time, it became clear that I probably wouldn’t connect well with someone that my shul considered appropriately frum, if there even were any women my age still unmarried, and that no one had any intention of setting me up anyway (my paranoia said they had already sussed me out as an social and ideological deviant and were trying to keep me on the fringes of the community and especially away from single frum women). It still seemed worth staying, as I preferred praying there to any of the alternatives. But now I’m leaving to marry E, I find it more tiresome, particularly as the shul building works mean I’m not around the community anyway and find it harder to connect with them any more.

The Modern Orthodox community should be more welcoming, but I’m still scared to test things. Evolution and secular studies would be OK there, but I find it hard to tell what level of cultural involvement is permitted.

But I struggle even outside the frum community. I’m wary of showing off any breadth of knowledge to most people because I was bullied so much for it as a child. I can say I haven’t tested it with adults, but (a) I kind of did, because adults didn’t like me showing knowledge either when I was a child and (b) it’s hard to do the tests having failed them once, even if I might get different results now. And I don’t dare talk politics anywhere, in my experience most people I know have different thoughts and, as I don’t care that much about politics, it’s safer not to say anything than to out myself as different and see what response I get.

I could probably safely talk more about Doctor Who, given that it’s more popular now than when I grew up, but being bullied for liking it as a child has scarred me for life and stops me mentioning it to anyone now. I guess I like it being “mine” too.

(Of course, if my novel gets finished and published, it’s going to be boundary-pushing in a big way even in the Modern Orthodox world, and I’m not really happy about that.)

Ashley: I can definitely see how bullying would have a major impact.

It seems like it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to ever feel accepted anywhere while keeping a lot of things actively hidden, as any apparent signs of acceptance could easily be dismissed as contingent on continuing to hide the things that feel unacceptable.

Luftmentsch: That is pretty much how it has actually been for the past thirty or so years, except with a few trusted people e.g. E. I would like to challenge it, but the risk of losing the few friends and connections I do have always seems too great.

(End of quotes)

I would add to this discussion that the effects of childhood bullying and some other childhood stuff (which I don’t discuss here, but have spoken about in therapy) has left me feeling pretty broken and unlovable, like I can only be accepted if I pretend not to be myself, or even just efface myself, just don’t say anything, just sit there and try to be invisible. Autism probably just makes this worse. It is hard to know how to challenge this when the risks of losing the few friends and the little social standing in the frum community that I do have seems so great (although apparently I believe my muse justifies taking even greater risks, which I don’t understand at all).

The partial exception to this is my blog, where I’m a lot more open about my thoughts, although I still largely avoid politics. I feel more confident that my friends here accept the different facets of my personality, and my character flaws, although I think it took me quite a while to feel like that. Also, I met E through my blog and that was probably a big reason why I was able to open up to her and connect to her more than to other people. I do feel completely accepted and unconditionally loved by E and able to tell her almost anything (I’m not sure it’s healthy to tell even your spouse literally everything).

Egos and Alternatives

I volunteered at the Jewish food bank for the first time in a year or more. I had stopped going because getting up early an extra day in the week was draining me, and volunteering on therapy days was also exhausting. However, the volunteering starts later now and is on a different day, so it seemed a good idea to try it again, not least to see if it could get me up earlier another day in the week. I did still struggle to get up at 8am, even after eight hours of sleep, which suggests to me that there is something wrong with my sleep, whether it’s medication or something else. But the point here is that I made it there on time.

Some of the paid staff were the same as when I volunteered previously, although most of the volunteers were different, I suppose because it’s on a different day, plus food bank volunteering is on multiple days now, so some people may go to those other days. A couple of the paid workers I knew were pleased to see me, which always disorientates me. It’s a long time since I was bullied at school, but my default still seems to be to assume that people are going to be indifferent to me at best, hostile at worse, and when that doesn’t happen, I am surprised, which is sad, I suppose.

Unlike many autistic people, I don’t usually have problems understanding humour, but I did do a kind of mental double-take a couple of times this morning when people said something and it took me a second to realise it was a joke. I guess it’s the unfamiliar people and lack of context of their lives as it seems to happen more at volunteering than elsewhere.

I possibly left early. The advert for volunteers said 10.30am to 1.30pm, but when I emailed, I was told 10.30am to 12 noon. At midday we had finished what we were doing and one volunteer left and others were getting coffees, so I thought it was over, but in retrospect maybe it was just a break. I said goodbye, but maybe people thought I needed to leave early. I’ll have to see what happens next week. To be honest, it was tiring work, and I had a fairly long journey home, so it wasn’t such a bad thing I left when I did, especially as I had been drinking water to avoid dehydration and there is no toilet there.

In the afternoon, I worked on my novel, finishing Chapter Two and starting Chapter Three. I spent an hour and three-quarters on it; I would have liked to make it up to the round two hours, but I could feel my brain had checked out and decided against forcing myself to write a few more, sub-standard, paragraphs, especially as I wanted to go to shiur (religious class) later.

***

Rabbi B (who isn’t the Rabbi B I mentioned having to see over a year ago, when I was dating PIMOJ) still hasn’t got back to me about E and my wedding. I wonder if he’s away. I found his phone number online. It’s the next extension to the person who gave me his email, which makes me think that (a) he wasn’t in the office when I called last week or she would have put me through to him and (b) she may not know when he will be around, or she would have got me to phone him. These may be an unwarranted assumptions though. Either way, I suppose I will have to make a phone call tomorrow, to Rabbi B’s extension and, if he doesn’t answer, to the person who gave me his email to ask what I should do. Have I mentioned that I hate the phone? E and I just want a way through the wedding bureaucracy, Jewish and immigration!

***

George Orwell wrote that people write for four reasons: (1) “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm for words or the beauty of the world; (3) desire to preserve certain ideas for posterity; (4) political purpose, to change the world and people’s opinions. To be honest, I think egoism is the main reason for me, to want to show that I’m worth paying attention to, after all the people in my childhood who told me, directly or indirectly, that I wasn’t. I’m trying to care less about that, as it’s a pretty stupid reason to do anything. I shouldn’t rely on other people for my self-esteem, and, anyway, lately I’ve come to the conclusion that my thoughts are changeable (not in a good way, in an inconsistent, irrational way) and generally not particularly profound (but neither are most other people’s).

***

Another thing I’m trying not to do is to think about how my life could have gone differently. There are so many Sliding Doors (or Turn Left) possibilities: if I hadn’t been bullied, if I had gone to a different school, if I had been diagnosed autistic earlier, if I hadn’t gone to Oxford, if I hadn’t trained as a librarian, if I had coped differently in various library jobs, if I hadn’t made such a fool of myself in the further education library job, and on, and on, and on…

It’s pointless to think like this without knowing where my life is headed. Sometimes I feel that everything bad that happened to me was necessary to get the experience to write (I’m not great at imagining emotional states I haven’t experienced, I need to tap into something I’ve felt or that I’ve read by someone who did feel it). If I hadn’t been through the negative experiences I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want to write the books I want to write, which I believe in, even if agents and publishers don’t (so far). If I didn’t feel not-quite-connected to the Jewish community, I wouldn’t have had those negative experiences, and perhaps I wouldn’t have had the guts to write about things the community prefers not to talk about. And if I had a more conventionally Orthodox fiancee, she probably wouldn’t have been supportive of my writing in the way E is (PIMOJ was pretty horrified by my first novel, and that was tame compared to the one I’m working on now). But this all assumes that I’m “supposed” to be a writer, which may also seem untrue in ten years time.

Sometimes you just have to accept that life is the way it is and there isn’t much we can do about it. It’s hard though.

Failures (Griping)

I just posted this on the autism forum. I probably shouldn’t; it’s like I slipped back to my Hevria commenting days.

I feel like I can’t take my own advice.  Lately I said to a couple of people here that they shouldn’t see themselves as “failures” because of their lives and careers (or lack thereof), that people on the spectrum have extra challenges in life and need to celebrate their successes.  Yet today, and most work days recently, I feel like a failure myself.

I’m not in a great job.  It’s an admin job, two days a week (I can’t really manage much more).  It requires me to do things I find hard, such as using short-term memory to use multiple windows at once, as well as periodically having to make difficult phone calls.  There are times when it’s very quiet and I have to do a lot of dull sorting through boxes of old papers.  My boss is supportive, but I worry that he thinks I’m an idiot.  I frequently find myself feeling both bored and stupid, as well as useless for even being in this job.

I did really well at school and went to a very good university, then crashed with years of depression (or more likely autistic burnout, but I wasn’t diagnosed then).  I slowly pulled myself out of that and towards an MA that would lead to a career in the library sector, then crashed again and struggled through the MA.  Then struggled through a couple of jobs in librarianship before finally running out of job offers in that sector and taking the admin job when a friend offered it to me out of desperation.  I feel I’m pretty much out of librarianship, that my skills are rusty and that there are far fewer part-time jobs in the sector than I expected, especially as I won’t work on Saturdays.

I worry about my finances when I get married (hopefully soon, but dependent on immigration bureaucracy).  I want to build a second career as a writer and proofreader, but am nervous about my chances of success.  I tried to work as a freelance proofreader once before, and couldn’t get any clients.  I’ve been writing for years and had pieces published in various places, and people say I write well, but I struggle to get anyone to actually pay me for anything I’ve written.  I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book about Doctor Who (special interest!), available through Amazon, but only bought by people I know in person because I don’t know anything about design or marketing, and didn’t know I could easily get people to help me with them until it was too late.  I wrote a novel (about a young man struggling with Asperger’s and mental illness at university and in the Jewish community, because write about what you know), but haven’t found an agent for it yet.  I’m working on a second novel, which I think will be better, but I’m scared I’m doomed to write and never get published.  People praise my writing, but I can’t live off praise.  I’m up for a Jewish journalism award soon for a non-fiction piece I wrote online about being on the spectrum in the Jewish community (again, write about what you know).  I hope that might lead to other, better, things, but who knows?

I try not to compare myself to other people.  I’ve mostly lost track of peers from school and university, but periodically I run into people working as lawyers, academics, rabbis, senior staff in NGOs.  Good jobs.  And I just dropped off the radar.

In art and literature, at least, I prefer interesting failures to slick, predictable successes, but feeling like an interesting failure isn’t noticeably different from feeling like any other kind of failure.

Milestones

I got up late today. It didn’t really surprise me. The last couple days, have been a bit stressful and I was likely to need to crash, plus with my parents away, I woke up to an empty house, which always encourages me to sleep late and go slowly.

When I did get up, I felt like I had a million things to do: cooking, extra chores as my parents are away, shiur (religious class), wedding stuff, exercise, phoning the doctor about slightly abnormal results in my recent regular blood tests (I’m sure it’s fine or the doctor would have said something, but I feel they should have texted me to say it was fine), and novel writing. In the end I did some of these things, which I guess is good. I hope to do some more tomorrow. Then I have work on Thursday and my parents are home in the evening, which hopefully will make things easier.

The scariest thing in the near future is tomorrow, when I have to phone the United Synagogue Marriage Authorisation Department with some questions. Usually they would want to check documents that prove E and I Jewish before our marriage, but I need to ask (a) are copies (perhaps notarised ones) going to be OK, as we really can’t bring E’s uncle’s ketubah (marriage certificate) or her mother’s birth certificate to the UK? and (b) can they see E by Zoom, otherwise it is going to make everything very tight, as she won’t be allowed into the country until after her visa is approved, which hopefully won’t be too long before the wedding? I am nervous about this, more because of social phobia and autistic phone and communication issues than the wedding aspect per se, although I am a little worried that they might be very strict and make things difficult. I would have liked to have emailed, at least in the first instance, but their website only had a phone number (it also had a photo of a crowd at a Jewish wedding in which I recognised one of the people, maybe two. The Jewish community is very small). I’m sure they must have done international weddings before, though.

I skipped shiur. I’ll catch up on the recording, but I think this shiur was a mistake. First, as I said last week, my knowledge is really too advanced for the class and I’m not learning much (so far). Second, I’ve just got so much going on at the moment that committing to spending ninety minutes a week on this for eight weeks was not clever. I think I should stick to only one-off shiurim until E and I are married and leave the longer courses. That said, another thing on my to do list is to look into volunteering at the Jewish food bank again, as I’ve heard that they need volunteers later in the day than they did previously (previously getting up so early while still working led to burnout). I hope this might be a way of getting me to get up earlier on Tuesdays again so I can write in the afternoon.

Other than that, I did manage to cook dinner, water the garden, go for a walk and to write for nearly an hour. I wrote nearly 700 words, which was good, and reached two milestones on this project: 10,000 words and 50 pages written (well, I’m on page 50, I haven’t quite finished it yet).

Turning Points

The last few days have been fairly busy. I surprised myself by not being very anxious on Shabbat (the Sabbath) even knowing I had the meeting with Rabbi L on Sunday. I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), though. I felt slightly ill (headache, light-headed) on Friday night and while it passed fairly quickly, by that stage I had missed a lot of the service. I had insomnia on Friday night and, when I woke up at 8am on Saturday morning, I went back to sleep instead of forcing myself to get up as I did on the first day of Shavuot. Minchah (Afternoon Service) is at an awkward time at the moment, either 6pm for the early service or 9pm for the late service, so I missed that too. I want to try to make more of an effort to get to shul next week. I did some Torah study, went for a walk and read a lot of Harry Potter. I felt vaguely under the weather on Saturday evening and my parents made me take a COVID test ahead of their brief holiday in Tunbridge Wells this week, but it was negative.

On Sunday I did some novel-writing, although not so much and with poor concentration, perhaps partly from anxiety about E and my Zoom meeting with Rabbi L about getting married. That meeting went very well, and I’m now a lot happier about feeling we don’t have any insurmountable halakhic (Jewish law) obstacles to our getting married, and am reasonably confident of getting married in early 2023. The Zoom call ended abruptly when the forty minutes free call finished. Rabbi L phoned me for a few minutes to finish the call and seemed genuinely pleased that I’m getting married and approving of E, more than he would be for someone he didn’t know. I guess he knows some of my story (I used to bombard him with some of my religious OCD (kashrut) questions when my OCD was bad), so he can see how far I’ve come.

Strangely, immediately after the call, I drifted into depression and OCD anxiety. There was also some anxiety (not OCD) when I woke up this morning, but it drifted away after breakfast. I’m not sure why my mood went down when things were going well. Some of it was probably the tension release. Some of it is probably that E and I have a lot to do in the next eight or nine months, starting this week. And some of it is probably the expected response to a looming major life-change. I also have some “I don’t deserve to be so happy” thoughts. I wonder why I get to get married when so many people I know are single, divorced, widowed, or in struggling marriages. I have to remind myself that I had decades of loneliness, singledom and rejection to get to this point.

I had a lot of racing thoughts last night. After a while, they weren’t anxious or depressed thoughts, but they would not stop and I struggled to sleep. I got about four hours in the end before I had to get up for work.

Work today was boring, but when I got home I had some energy so worked on my novel for forty-five minutes and wrote about 500 words before I started to feel burnt out and went downstairs to make dinner. I feel pretty exhausted now, but not sleepy. I’ll probably watch something light on TV to unwind; I don’t really feel up to reading, not even Harry Potter, but I need some proper relaxation time or I won’t sleep and I’ll be burnt out tomorrow.

***

I feel like I’ve had some paradigm shifts in how I view aspects of the world in the last few days:

  1. I find it easier to believe that God supports me and that good things have happened to me and been achieved by me. I don’t focus so much on the bad things that have happened to me or see enduring mental illness as my only real achievement. (That said, I wish I could have seen this article about enduring depression and anxiety being spiritual success and holy work when I was at my worst. Like the author’s husband, I’ve also put on tefillin moments before sunset. I never really thought of it as anything holy.)
  2. I’m trying to move from thinking, I don’t fit in whenever I’m in a group, I have so many differences to most of the people, because I’m not normal to I can connect with many people even if I don’t have a lot in common with them.
  3. In the past I’ve felt I owed people from my personal history an explanation: “I’m like this [weird, different] because I’m depressed/autistic, and I’m sorry if I hurt you as a result.” It’s actually been a major motivator for me to write, fiction, articles and blogging. But today I wonder if I do owe anyone an explanation. There are people I have hurt, undoubtedly, and it would be nice if I could explain that, but I didn’t deliberately hurt anyone. I had a major neurodevelopmental disorder that I didn’t know about, which resulted in my spending nearly forty years trying to push a very square peg in a succession of round holes. I even wonder a bit what I would hope to gain from explaining myself to people.

***

Lately I’ve been listening to a big Glam Rock compilation CD I bought. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, although you could probably have a long and pointless argument over genre demarcations and how much of it is really Glam (Glam vs. Bubblegum Pop vs. early Disco etc.).

I’ve never really worked out why I like Glam Rock. Words I associate with Glam are: loud, theatrical (even camp), quirky, gender-bending, attention-grabbing. I am not any of those things, except maybe quirky. I am not David Bowie with lightning on his face or Noddy Holder in a glittery tailcoat and mirrored top hat. Maybe that’s the appeal, that it’s really not me, in the way I like the James Bond novels because they’re really not me. Or maybe I just find the upbeat nature of the music fits with the way I use music, to cheer myself up and motivate. Certainly it’s often not particularly clever music in the way other music I like is (The Beatles, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Sting), except for Bowie again (who isn’t on the CD). Unless you can find deep meaning in Cum on Feel the Noize or Tiger Feet.

I think someone (JYP?) should write a Perfect Day parody: Pluperfect Day: “It was such a pluperfect day/I was glad I had spent it with you…”

***

On the way home today I saw someone wearing a Visit Rwanda shirt and couldn’t tell if it was dark satire or if they had actually been to Rwanda (for non-UK readers, the British government is going to be deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, beginning tomorrow, to widespread dismay and bewilderment).

Tremor and Procrastination

I felt low on waking and exhausted from yesterday, which I guess was not surprising (work, online shiur and long call with E late at night). I had a dental check-up, which did at least get me up and out the house. I had some tremor, not very bad and the dentist didn’t say anything, but I felt self-conscious. I think it’s mostly psychological now, I get so worried about shaking that I sort of overthink it and shake. It happens whenever I need to hold still: doctors check-ups, dentists, opticians. I’m OK when my Mum cuts my hair, perhaps because I’m relaxed. I don’t know what I would be like going back to a professional barber; I haven’t done that since lockdown. I shake sometimes when taking photos too and especially when my photo is taken. I’m not sure what I can do about it at this stage. I distracted myself thinking up a whole silly joke about Boris Johnson in the wake of the “Partygate” report: during lockdown, the Prime Minister was ambushed by a cake, surprised by a leaving party, confused by a works-drinks event, and misled by a small bar mitzvah. Boris Johnson denied having an aliyah at the later, but later ITV published photos of him doing petichah. The Prime Minister denied having deceived the public, claiming that, “Everyone knows that a weekday petichah isn’t a proper aliyah.” (Sorry, no time to explain all of this if you don’t get it!)

When I got back, I spent a while procrastinating about phoning the Jewish mental health charity to see if they can help with my disrupted sleep, which may or may not be mental health-related. I eventually found the courage to phone, only to discover their referrals process is automated, so I just had to speak to a non-scary answerphone. I also emailed a contact at a charity that deals with autism support to see if they can help. I don’t know if I will qualify for help from either. I feel I fall a bit between two (or more) stools on this; it may be autistic exhaustion; it may be social anxiety and avoidance; it may be medication side-effects; or it may be something else entirely. It is hard to know who to ask for help. I got an email back from the second charity and I think the person was a bit confused as to why I was writing to her. Maybe I didn’t stress that it might be autistic exhaustion enough.

I spent some time working on my novel, finishing the first draft of the first chapter. I probably shouldn’t show my work to anyone at this stage, but I was worried that my plans for this novel just won’t work (in terms of what I said the other day about wanting to be honest and not prudish, but also not pornographic), so I sent it to E, who fortunately liked it and felt it worked.

I did a little bit of Torah study. I would have liked to have done more, but I procrastinated too much and ran out of time. In the evening, my parents and I went to my sister and brother-in-law’s for dinner. I tried to do some more Torah study in the car, but started to feel travel sick. I used to be able to read in cars without a problem, but don’t seem to be able to do it any more. I can still read on trains, but buses can go either way, I’m not sure why.

I wanted to write about my anxiety about getting married — not the decision to get married, but my fear that something will go wrong and prevent us getting married at all. However, it’s very late and I have work tomorrow, so that will have to wait for another time.

The Desperate Housewives, Husbands and Teenagers of Orthodoxy

This morning at work I reflected that I make far fewer mistakes now than when I started. Then I made a whole shedload of mistakes today which made me wonder if I was too hasty. I spent much of the time doing database-printing again (and there’s a lot still to do) and I struggled with transitions whenever J interrupted me with a more important task that had just come up to do immediately (autism).

While printing I listened to some Jewish podcasts (I feel uncomfortable about listening to pop/rock music in a shul (synagogue), even on headphones). I tried the Orthodox Conundrum podcast. I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before, as it is hosted by Rabbi Scott Kahn, who is the rabbi on the Intimate Judaism sex podcast, which I get a lot out of, and Orthodox Conundrum deals with equally controversial topics, just not regarding sex.

The first one I listened to was on art and music in the Orthodox world. It was OK. It reassured me a little that it’s OK to be creative and frum (religious Jewish) and that you shouldn’t stifle your creativity, even if that means doing less Torah study, but it also stated that it’s hard to make a living from your art. Much of this applies to writing, but I think it’s easier to be a hobby artist or musician than novelist. If you are quite good at painting, you might have something to put on the wall (my sister has a painting of hers on her wall and my parents have three of hers). If you are quite good at singing or playing an instrument, you can probably find opportunities to play for people. If you are an unpublished novelist, it’s hard to get people to read your work, given the extensive investment of time in reading and the difficulty of just leaving it “around” casually to be noticed. In other words, unless you can get published, or are very good at marketing on Amazon, your audience is probably going to be in single figures.

The podcast made me feel a bit better about the bittul Torah (neglecting time that could be used for Torah study) aspect, although I wasn’t convinced writing would improve my Torah study as was suggested. I wonder if there is an element of “moral luck,” a concept I was coincidentally thinking about this morning before listening to this podcast (if you believe in coincidences). I think it was coined by the philosopher Bernard Williams (Rabbi Lord Sacks’ PhD supervisor although that’s not relevant) to suggest some gambles are only justified retroactively, if they pay off. One example he gave is Gaugain abandoning his family to paint in Tahiti and becoming a great artist; if he had failed to become a great artist, would his abandonment of his family be less morally justifiable? Similarly, if I neglect Torah study to write unpublished novels, is my writing less justifiable?

What intrigues/worries me more is the question of what I want to create. The podcast guests were musicians and an artists and I guess this is less important to them, unless they go down the My Name is Asher Lev route and paint nudes or crucifixions. And the lyrics in frum songs are often quotes from religious texts or inspirational lines; frum song-writers are generally not, to my knowledge, writing love songs as I think some of the paytanim (Medieval liturgical poets, often rabbis) did.

I once had an exchange in the comments section of the Jew in the City website with the site’s founder, Allison Josephs, about writers in the Orthodox community. I felt that she was saying that frum writers should write at least in part to celebrate the positive aspects of the frum community. Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable with this outlook, which smacks of propaganda to me, and I think people would see through it.

As regular readers know, I am drawn to less pretty topics in my writing: mental illness, addiction, abuse. If there is one theme that unites my novel writing and my blog writing, it’s probably the feeling of not fitting in, of being on the edge of a community and not safely inside it, wanting to fit in, but not knowing how. I write about what I know about, so thus far the community has been the frum community, although if I ever write my satirical science fiction novel, I hope to broaden the scope. I’m interested in the not fitting in, the trying, but failing to fit in, the apparently fitting in, where people can’t meet the community’s standards for some reason or where they seem to meet those standards, but very different things are happening behind closed doors. I’m interested in this not least because that’s where I usually am and, rightly or wrongly, I sometimes find myself wondering about what other people’s lives are really like, whether they are also struggling. Statistically, out of X many people in a shul, some are going to be in failing marriages, struggling with mental illness or addiction, close to the breadline, struggling with questions of faith and so on. Doubtless some are dealing with abuse of one kind or another, or have done so (I’ve met, in person and online, abuse survivors and abuse perpetrators, in the frum community and outside it). This interests me a lot more than the “nice, frum, high achieving, well to-do community where everyone helps out” narrative, even though that is also based in reality.

Coincidentally (again), this actually fitted in with the second Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened too, which I found much more interesting, about the drinking and especially binge-drinking problem that apparently exists among Modern Orthodox teenagers in the US (I should say that they thought that this might exist in other Jewish communities too, but they only had data for the Modern Orthodox ones).

I went to a Zoom shiur (religious class) in the evening on Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). Afterwards E and I skyped. It was only supposed to be a quick call, as she had a headache and I was tired and it was late, but we ended up speaking for an hour. There aren’t many people I can speak to like that, without running out of things to say or the ability to “people.”

Mission and Identity

I haven’t blogged publicly much recently. I’ve had some issues that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing openly. Hopefully these are resolving now and I can go back to more regular public posts.

***

Work was hard today. I realised I made a mistake that could have cost us £80, throwing out the office shredder that might have been working because I thought it was broken when it may have been that it just wasn’t plugged in. On testing it again, I think it really was broken, but I felt stupid and feel like I made myself look stupid in front of J again. This may be low self-esteem. Then I had to make some difficult phone calls dealing with someone who owes us a substantial sum of money, but who has cancer. I want to be sympathetic, but, as J said, being ill does not mean being poor, especially in the UK where the NHS does at least mean people don’t usually impoverish themselves seeking treatment. Moreover, this person’s son was supposed to be dealing the matter, but has let it drag on for a year. He said he would pay in two months’ time once J authorised me to waive 50% of the money owed. Again, I want to be sympathetic, but if we just write off large debts it’s not fair on those who do pay. Then I spent most of the day printing off a database again. I did at least listen to music some of the time.

***

On the train to work I was reading The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Yes, I know, I’m nearly forty, but I feel I haven’t got the “sorting your life’s mission out” aspect of my life down right yet. I have mixed feelings about the book. I’ve heard Rabbi Tatz speak a couple of times. He’s an engaging speaker, and writer, but I don’t always share his outlook on Judaism and life, not least because he’s a Haredi kabbalist (mystic) and I’m not either of those things.

Rabbi Tatz said to draw a circle and write inside it all your character traits, interests and so on and to write outside it all the traits and interests you admire. The stuff in the circle is you. Your mission will involve all those things and only those things. The idea is that you can concentrate on those aspects of your life. Your supposed to be able to do this by the time you are twenty or so, an idea I’ve also heard from another Haredi rabbi.

I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t know what my mission is at thirty-eight! Granted, I’m probably unusual as I have a disability that impacts social functioning (autism) that I didn’t know about until last year; until then I was pushing myself to do things that I just can’t do and feeling guilty or embarrassed about some things that are normal (for me). To be honest, I’m still struggling with this. It has certainly affected what I think my mission in life is and what I can reasonably expect myself to do.

Nevertheless, I’m aware I’ve moved from one career idea to another over the years with no consistency or success. I wanted to be an academic (actually, it was more that I thought I would stay in academia by default because I had no idea what else to do and wasn’t good at anything other than studying), then an academic librarian, then a writer. I have achieved none of these things and currently work in a non-career-advancing low status job. I don’t think your career and your mission are necessarily the same thing (although they are for some people), but Rabbi Tatz implies a strong correlation. I hope my mission is writing, but who knows if it is? And what if my mission is to bear suffering with dignity? It could be. It’s not an optimistic thought. At least Rabbi Lord Sacks said that the rabbinate (let alone the Chief Rabbinate) was his fourth choice career after failing to become an academic (philosopher), economist or barrister. I find those odds more reassuring.

***

On a related note, I’ve been thinking about identity a bit lately, partly the result of reading an article that complained that millennials use medical diagnoses, particularly mental health or neurological conditions, and particularly self-diagnosed from the internet, as their identity. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but it did make me wonder if autism is part of my identity, and what I would consider my identity to be.

I feel like my autism affects my identity, while not being my identity. I don’t feel being a Doctor Who fan is my identity either, although it apparently is for some people. I do feel being Jewish is part of my identity, a key part as it shapes so much of what I do and think, how I see the world and engage with it, but it isn’t the whole of my identity.

In the end I concluded that my identity, inasmuch as I can identify it, is a sort of zone where “What I am” meets “What I do” and “What I think and feel” even though none of those things by themselves would consist of my identity. It’s a dynamic process rather than an objective “thing.” But I’m still thinking about this and am open to suggestions.

***

You may have detected an undertone of self-criticism in much of this post. I have been struggling a bit with negative self-thought today, sometimes apparently justified, like with the shredder, sometimes perhaps not. I’m not sure how justified it is. I guess it’s good that I’m noticing it and being mindful of it.

Playing the Autism Card

I somehow got up early, ate breakfast and did some things online, but felt depressed and went back to bed. I don’t think I fell asleep again, but I’m not sure; certainly I was in bed for over an hour. I hope these depressed feelings pass soon and don’t turn into another episode of clinical depression.

I did some work on my application for the Emerging Writers’ Programme I’m applying for. I’m not sure how well it’s going to be honest. I am playing the “autism” card as well as the “Orthodox insider” card, hinting that I might write an UnOrthodox-style anti-religious story when that is not my intention, while also talking about wanting to show the Orthodox in a realistic light, which can mean positive or negative, however the judges want to read it. I do mention God, though, and repentance, which might be a bad idea, but at least it’s a Unique Selling Point. It’s not like there are many contemporary literary authors writing about pornography addiction, or anything really, through the prism of repentance and encountering God.

It reminds me of an article in Tablet Magazine a while back about university bursaries and scholarships intended to go to disadvantaged teenagers going to middle-class teenagers who are taught by their (private) schools and their (middle-class) parents (probably working in academic, law or HR) how to write applications with the correct narrative, a narrative of, “I struggled against prejudice because I’m a member of minority X, but I triumphed over it because I’m strong, resilient and successful, therefore you should accept me both for reasons of diversity and because of my skills and capabilities in fighting oppression.” Less-privileged teenagers are not taught how to write this way and fail to get the money and places intended for them.

***

I went for a run, but ended up feeling light-headed, dizzy and slightly nauseous at times, even after my warm-up, let alone the run. I was slow and sluggish while running, with low stamina. I only managed to run for thirty minutes rather than my usual forty and got a headache when I got home. I wondered about this, and about other health issues on my mind lately.

I’ve mentioned that my cholesterol is slightly high. I looked on the NHS patient site and it looks like my cholesterol has been increasing for several years now (with one slight dip), which worries me as I certainly haven’t been steadily increasing the amount of cholesterol-heavy foods I eat. In fact, I rarely eat meat and especially not red meat and I’ve cut back my consumption of cheese (and eggs, although apparently that’s considered less of an issue now) so I’m not sure why my cholesterol continues to rise, unless it is a(nother) medication side-effect.

Then I have frequent issues with low energy and feeling “ill” in vague and undefined ways, particularly when tired after work or days out with E, plus I have problems sleeping too long and struggling to get up. I assumed these were medication side-effects and/or autistic exhaustion, but now I’m not sure. Also troubling is that several times recently I felt like I have nearly lost my balance and just stabilised myself in time, twice in the shower and a couple of times on the stairs.

Unfortunately, some of these issues cut across each other. When I got an exercise headache after running, I knew (or at least suspected) that eating crisps (for salt) would help, but crisps are hardly good for weight loss or cholesterol, so I put off eating them. It got to dinner time and I felt headachey, nauseous and my hand was shaking as I tried to drink my soup, so I ate a packet of crisps. Before I had even finished the packet, the headache was less intense, the nausea went and I stopped shaking. Sometimes I have these “salt-withdrawal” issues without having exercised first. I know salt issues can be related to taking lithium, which I do.

I think I should see my GP, even if it means waiting ages on the phone to get through to the receptionist and then playing the autism card again to get an in-person appointment and one with my preferred GP (currently appointments are supposed to be on the phone in the first instance and with the first GP available, not my preferred one). I will have to say that, being on the spectrum, I struggle with phone calls and new people, which is completely true, even if it feels a little disingenuous to say it.

***

Looking at my unpublished novel to find an excerpt to submit for the Emerging Writers’ Programme application, I’m struck by how many references there are to toilets in it. I didn’t mean to be vulgar, but since childhood I’ve been struck by how artificial it is that toilets, and toilet functions, aren’t mentioned in “realistic” fiction. My toilets appear for solid narrative reasons, not to gross people out (although one of them smells bad), but do seem somewhat unusual. I guess I’m aware of it because the toilet has long been an escape room for me when suffering from autistic overload in social spaces, which is how it appears in the novel.

***

I should probably mention that they announced the new Doctor in Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa. I can’t judge whether he’ll be any good, as I haven’t seen him in anything. As I mostly watch old TV, I generally don’t know new Doctors in advance, unless, like Peter Capaldi, they already appeared in the show as another character. But he’s the first new Doctor to be younger than I will be when his first episode airs (you know you’re getting older when the Doctors get younger). I still feel the Doctor should be older. I know I liked Matt Smith a lot, and I don’t dislike Peter Davison, but I still feel the Doctor should be played by someone over forty. I definitely feel David Tennant was too young (and too good-looking…) although that’s the least of my problems with the Tennant Doctor. Not for the first time, I feel returning showrunner Russell T Davies has a very different understanding of the show to me.

Other Planets

E and I went to Hampton Court Palace yesterday. We saw the palace and the gardens. I had been to the palace before, but nearly thirty years ago, and I don’t think I saw all of it then. I was surprised that the palace was still a royal residence in the eighteenth century; I was also annoyed that a famous TV historian who was once rude to a friend of mine (also a historian) featured prominently on the audio guide. The gardens were pleasant too, and full of tulips for the tulip festival, although not many other flowers were blooming yet. It was cold, as E and I had dressed for warmer weather.

After seeing the palace, we had time to kill before meeting a couple of my friends for dinner. We could either go home for about an hour or spend two hours in Golders Green. We couldn’t agree, so I went home to read a bit and E visited ethnic grocery shops in Golders Green, which would have bored me stiff. E and I have a lot in common, but I’m glad we don’t feel the need to be joined at the hip and do everything together.

We had dinner with a couple of friends of mine from university days. E liked them and I think they liked her, which was something of a relief overall.

Today I was not as burnt out as I feared I might be, but I overslept by more than half an hour and had to rush to work, although I wasn’t late. I was very tired all morning and drank a lot of coffee. It was a rather boring day, despite a trip to the bank, which I always enjoy. E met me at Sainsbury’s on the way home, which was nice. During the walk home and afterwards I felt less than 100% and was unsure why. I was exhausted from work and possibly also too hot, slightly dehydrated, hungry, lacking salt, or generally out of shape, or all of the above, and maybe something else. I do feel less fit and healthy lately and don’t really know why, beyond the general point that I’m slightly overweight and don’t exercise enough, although I walk quite a bit. I ought to get an app that records footsteps per day the way so many other people do. It’s hard to unpick medication weight-gain from eating too much weight gain, especially when medication seems to lead to eating too much.

***

E and I spoke a bit about autistic exhaustion. I think she is trying really hard to understand it, at least as much as anyone understands this mysterious and under-researched subject. I was really touched that she wants to understand this negative, but significant aspect of my life better.

***

How many years does it take for me to stop hating a Doctor Who episode and enjoy it? E and I watched The End of Time recently, which I hated on first transmission over Christmas/New Year 2009 and 2010. On re-viewing, I sort of grudgingly found parts of it somewhat amusing, although I still got annoyed at how silly and unplotted it seemed. Then tonight we watched the Paul McGann TV Movie from 1996 (the story with no name). I hated that on transmission, for the Doctor kissing Grace and for him being half-human. Now I can enjoy it. This isn’t new. Since the new series came along, the TV Movie has seemed less a desecration of Doctor Who and more a step towards the new series, albeit sometimes by showing what not to do. The Doctor-companion romance has become a semi-regular part of the format, to my continued annoyance. The half-human thing was quietly ignored, although Steven Moffat hinted that it might be true in Hell Bent.

One thing I noticed is that Grace is really a woman. Most female Doctor Who companions, old or new, are essentially written/presented as teenage girls, even if the character is supposed to be older (e.g. Jo, Sarah). I guess the other exceptions are Barbara (1963-1965), Liz (1970) and sort-of Romana (1978-1981), who was a 125 year old Time Lord, but was played somewhat girlishly by Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward (and, of course, for a Time Lord, 125 is just out of university). It’s probably not coincidence that Barbara’s time coincided with Verity Lambert’s time as producer, the only female producer on the original series. The absence of a really mature female companion in the new series is a pretty damning example of the way it’s not always more ‘modern’ and diverse, or necessarily more interested in telling stories about real characters than the original series.

I wonder if E thinks, “I finally meet the right guy and he’s from another planet” about me, as Grace said? “Another planet” being the UK, autism or the frum (religious Jewish) world, take your pick. (I am writing this mainly because I know she’ll read it!)

Exhaustion and Resilience

I had a long and boring day at work yesterday, then in the evening went to a customer-facing work thing for E’s job, as her plus one. It was OK, but I didn’t really say anything at all, even when I might reasonably have had something useful to say (explaining about Jewish religious customs to non-frum (non-religious) Jews). I did it because it seemed important to her that I went, even if I was not entirely sure what my role there was supposed to be.

I think it was the first time E has really seen how autism and social anxiety can shut me down in social settings. By the time we got home, I was struggling not to be in a bad mood (I think I probably snapped at my Mum a bit). E and I ate dinner and watched Doctor Who, and even though it was not a great episode (The End of Time part 2, David Tennant’s final episode in the title role), I felt a little better, but not much (dinner probably helped more than Doctor Who).

Then today I crashed, and although E tried to get me to wake up at 9am, I actually fell asleep afterwards, on and off until 1pm, feeling really burnt out and exhausted. After breakfast, I went back to bed for twenty minutes, cocooning myself in my duvet and weighted blanket until I realised I was just upsetting myself, thinking about antisemitism. Eventually I played the, “I can listen to music in the omer if I have autistic exhaustion” card to try to get dressed. I ate lunch before davening (praying), which I hate doing, but I had no choice, I just needed energy. I ate cheese on toast, which was probably a mistake given that I ate a lot of cheese over Pesach, have (marginally) high cholesterol and probably eat too much generally (although it was only an issue once I went on clomipramine), but I felt I needed a treat. I didn’t even like it that much, which made it all seem pointless.

I just feel tired and withdrawn, although I’m aware that to other people this probably looks like laziness and bad temper. I’m vaguely worried that this will just have added to E’s fears about my autistic dysfunctionality. Even if E is on the spectrum, she is a lot more functional in social settings and after draining days than I am. She was a bit surprised that I did nothing while she was out all day other than cook dinner.

***

I’ve been catching up with the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast (formerly Normal Frum Women). They did an episode on resilience, where the guest was someone I do actually know in person, who is a frum research psychologist and has written a self-help book on resilience as a psychologist, but also from a Jewish perspective.

One thing she said was that venting is counter-productive; it can make us feel better in the short-term, but worse in the long-term. However, reframing the situation is a positive thing. I feel I mostly vent here, although the comments do help me to reframe things sometimes. It did make me wonder if I should blog less or try to complain less or something. She did also talk about the need to normalise experiences like mental illness, which does make me feel there may be a point to writing even a very negative post like this one. For what it’s worth, I am aware that my mood and energy will probably be better tomorrow, which is positive reframing, but I do worry that the burnout days will always be there, which will be bad for me and might scare off E. I’m also aware I’m likely to have some more burnout days before E goes back to the US.

I actually knew about the book and I had vaguely thought of buying it. I guess I held off because I feel I’ve read a lot of self-help books and I struggle to act on them and integrate their teachings without some kind of therapist to guide me. But I do actually have the email address of the author of this one! Not that I would bombard her with questions, but maybe it’s worth getting the book. Particularly as it seems there isn’t much “wrong” with me that can be diagnosed or “fixed” medically/therapeutically at the moment, just a propensity for autistic exhaustion, which perhaps greater resilience could help with, if only to keep me going on the down days. It does seem to be difficult to get hold, possibly already out of print even though it was only published last autumn. It was published in hardback, so maybe a paperback will come out one day.

“They think it’s Passover… It is now!”

I haven’t blogged what happened so far during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the Pesach festival when work is permitted if necessary or contributing to the enjoyment of the festival). I was too busy and tired, and used my blogging energy for a password-protected post about Yom Tov that was more important. But I want to quickly catch up here.

For those who didn’t see the password-protected post, E and I mostly had a good Yom Tov, with interesting seders and E was OK meeting some my parents’ friends and family.

On Monday we (my parents, E and I) went to Cliveden, a National Trust stately home. The house is now a hotel, but we wandered around the grounds all afternoon. Thankfully, my parents left E and I to walk alone. E wanted to see bluebells, so we walked through the woodland until we found some big patches. We also walked around some of the more formal gardens on the site. It was the first time E and I really had proper alone time/date time since E came over last Tuesday and we both really enjoyed it.

In a second-hand bookshop on site, I found a Doctor Who book, The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who. Despite the name, this is a reissued and expanded edition of the official BBC Television Companion issued a few years earlier. I was uncertain whether to buy it, as I had read the online version of the first edition, which was on the official BBC Doctor Who website, but in the end nostalgia for the Doctor Who of the wilderness years when it was off TV (1990-2004) won out (the first edition was published in 1998 and the revised edition I bought in 2003). I’m not sure how much extra material there is, but for £2, it was probably worth it.

Yesterday E and I went on a Pesach LSJS tour of the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. It was fascinating and even though I knew some of what was said (I’ve done my own research on biblical archaeology), I learnt a lot. The rabbi taking it, Rabbi Zarum, spoke to me briefly. I’m not sure if he recognised me or not; I’ve been to a number of his shiurim (classes) in the past, but I tend not to say much and try to blend into the background. He asked me which shul (synagogue) I go to, which is a standard Orthodox Jewish conversational opening gambit, and I explained about going to [Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) shul] but probably transferring soon to a Modern Orthodox one because of E. I probably cut a strange figure as a quasi-Haredi Jew, wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt and holding hands with someone I’d just identified as not married to me. I feel my life would be easier if I just found my “tribe” or community and stuck there, but I seem to have this restless desire to fit into several very different communities at the same time. (Similarly today I think someone from my current shul saw me wearing a Beatles t-shirt and holding hands with E again.)

In the afternoon E and I went to the Stonehenge exhibition, also at the British Museum. This was interesting to me as I know very little about prehistoric society. However, I felt the exhibition lacked context and was confusingly laid out, with the order you were supposed to read the exhibits unclear and poor signage. There was also ambient noise (sound effects and music) that annoyed me after a while. This seems to be becoming a thing in modern museums and galleries. They are super-diversity aware, but apparently have a blind spot when it comes to sensory sensitivity.

Afterwards we walked around Bloomsbury for a little while, but we got a bit bored and a bit lost and came home. We watched Doctor Who in the evening, Planet of the Dead, which E enjoyed more than I did.

***

Today I was burnt out, perhaps unsurprisingly, given everything we had done (including walking well over 10,000 steps both days – more like 14,000 yesterday). E had to go out for work all day. I wanted to get up to see her off, but failed and slept through most of the morning. I got up when the Tesco food delivery arrived, but went back to bed afterwards. I had weird dreams, but not particularly memorable, except for wanting to move in the dream and not being able to, which I think is an unconscious desire to get up. I also dreamt about snakes, I’m not sure why. E and I are both concerned about this (the sleep/exhaustion, not the snakes). I still don’t know whether I should be looking for help from doctors, occupational therapists or someone else, or if it’s just autistic exhaustion and I have to just accept it, or find workarounds, or if serious energy accounting might help and how I could manage going on fun days out if I know I’ll run a massive energy deficit the next day. All I know is that the exhaustion is very real and not just me being lazy (although I don’t always remember that).

In the afternoon helped Dad with some chores and spent an hour working on my novel, writing about a thousand words, which was extremely good. It was hard, though. My mood definitely declined in the afternoon, despite the good work on my novel, and I felt depressed and frustrated, and missed E even though I knew I’d see her later. I had the usual feeling of wanting to just be able to get up early and do more during the day. It’s frustrating.

I can’t believe tomorrow is Yom Tov again! E and I will be out for dinner at friends of mine from shul. They are really nice people, but I’ve been masking somewhat around them (and everyone else from that shul) and I wonder what will happen when the meet E and possibly see there’s more to my personality and outlook on life than I’ve let on in the past. I also don’t know if anyone I don’t feel as comfortable with will be there.

Autistic Day

Today seems to have been an autism-focused day. I guess they all are, on some level, but this more than most.

In the morning, at work, the rabbi from my parents’ shul (synagogue) phoned the office and I answered. He didn’t recognise me, and in the past I might have pretended not to recognise him, but I identified myself to him, which I guess was a victory over social anxiety. However, afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about this interaction, which probably took all of two minutes and had no negative aspects. It sort of “echoed” around in my head. I’ve heard other people on the spectrum describe similar experiences of mental perseveration.

In the afternoon, I mostly corrected other people’s mistakes for a change, instead of making my own. This was when I was searching for missing data on our database. A lot of it was there, just entered wrongly (typos or names from one column on the spreadsheet transposed with those in another when entered on the database). I was a bit relieved to see it’s not just me who makes mistakes. The errors date from about five years ago, so I have no idea who made them.

J was on a video call while I was doing this and I could not concentrate at all. I had to listen to music to blot out the talking. I didn’t really want to listen to music, as it was a somewhat complicated task and I only really listen to music when doing mindless tasks, but I needed to blot it out.

Then I went to Primark to return the clothes I bought last week, because I am not a size medium any more (thank you, psych meds). I was overwhelmed with the number of people in the shop, which I still can’t get used to. It took two years of lockdown and not seeing people for me to realise how difficult I find these environments. Now I wonder how I ever coped with them. It’s strange how I just coped with things, not realising how difficult I found it. The silly thing is that I feel somehow less entitled to call myself “autistic” or “struggling” than the autistic people who would have a meltdown in the shop, or just refuse to go in.

It wasn’t just the noise and crowds that was an issue. Like lots of people on the spectrum, I seem to have some proprioception issues i.e. difficulty being aware of where my body is at times and finding it hard to get out of other people’s way. I think this is partly behind the autistic phenomenon I have written here before about autistic people wanting to help with tasks, but just getting in the way of other people.

There was something on the autism forum too today about autistic brains working fast, faster than we can follow. I do feel like that at times, although not all the time. It seems to happen most when I hyperfocus on a train of thought that I like (often about Judaism or perhaps Doctor Who) or when I’m anxious and depressed about something. Certainly when autistically fatigued/exhausted/burnt out/whatever it’s called my thoughts become slow and almost physically painful.

***

In terms of consumerism, I’ve had mixed success the last few days. The Simpsons: The Complete Seventh Season DVD box set I bought second-hand on Music Magpie (second-hand DVD/CD website) turned out to be region 1, which means it won’t play on UK DVD players. I’m not sure why they were selling it, but I didn’t think to look at what region it was for when I ordered, so I can’t swear that it was advertised wrongly. I am trying to return it.

I’ve found some real bargains on Music Magpie, but also had some problems with damaged or incorrectly-sent goods. I feel I should stop using them, but the alternative is eBay, which I have used, but don’t really like, I’m not sure why. I don’t like bidding for stuff at auction, but you can get items to buy immediately. Nevertheless, I just somehow find the site awkward to use and the items often expensive. The other alternative is Amazon, but E and I are both boycotting them over their poor employee treatment and for driving small booksellers out of business as well as underpaying authors. We were boycotting them independently, before we met — a meet-boycott-cute.

The items I’ve been buying on Music Magpie are cheap (a few pounds for a CD or DVD box set), so I’m not at risk of losing much money, but complaining and returning items is a hassle, and I worry that after I’ve made a certain number of complaints they’ll assume I’m lying. They refund damaged goods priced under £5 without asking for the item to be returned, so technically someone could steal a lot of free stuff by buying cheap items and then complaining that they were damaged and asking for a refund without it ever being checked.

On the plus side, I found a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle in the free book box, one of those books I’ve always meant to read, but never have.

***

E and I have been watching the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (1977). E was not impressed; I didn’t tell her fan wisdom sees it as a Classic, whatever that means. I see it as somewhere between Classic and E’s “ok”. It has one of my favourite Doctor Who put-downs: “You’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.” I should warn you that I tried to use it on the bullies at school and it did not work as well as it did for Tom Baker. I don’t have that air of Bohemian cool.

Not a Number

Today was mostly OK, but I struggled with some autistic stuff. I hadn’t had much time so far this week for Torah study, and much of what I had done was preparation for the Pesach seders, so I read this week’s sedra (Torah portion) on the Tube, not something I like to do as (a) you are supposed to say the words audibly (even in a whisper) and (b) even with my slim volume of Vayikra (Leviticus) only in Hebrew (as opposed to all five books of the Pentateuch in Hebrew and English) and my pocket JPS English Bible, it’s awkward reading it on a Tube train. I really need a table. I haven’t been wearing a mask on the Tube lately, but I wore one today so people wouldn’t see my lips moving as I whispered the words. (Someone once told me that his brother did this without a mask, pre-COVID; halfway through the journey he could see out of the corner of his eye the man next to him texting “Some nutter is reading to himself next to me” on his phone.)

Work was slow and I made some mistakes and felt like an idiot (again). I spent much of the afternoon comparing a spreadsheet with a database to try to work out which entries have apparently vanished from the latter and why. I have more to do on this next week. It was very dull and I became bored and somewhat depressed, but at least I realised partway through that it was mindless enough that I could listen to music on my headphones, which cheered me up a bit.

J wanted me to drop a file off at the auditors on my way home and let me leave early to do so. On the way, I went shopping in Primark on Oxford Street. This would not have been an ideal choice even pre-COVID as it was hugely busy. I had been in busy shops since COVID, but usually ones I was familiar with. I’m not sure if this was literally my first new, busy shopping experience in two years (the airports were quite busy when I went to New York), but it was harder than I remembered and more draining. I just bought what I had come for and left as soon as possible.

There is the added element with Primark of guilt knowing that their clothes are not very ethically-sourced, but as I can’t afford to shop in more upmarket shops all the time, I’m not sure what else to do. Walking around naked isn’t very healthy.

I found the auditors alright, despite nearly losing both my kippah (skullcap) and glasses to the extremely strong wind, but hesitated outside. It was a converted house with two entry buzzers and I wasn’t sure which was the right one. I hesitated, wondering if I should text J, when the door opened and someone came out and I slipped inside. The sign for reception pointed to a shut door and I wondered if I should knock or open it or try to find out if this was reception for both offices when someone came up from behind me, saw our organisation’s logo on the folder and said, “Is that for X?” He seemed to be on the same team and told me to give it to the receptionist and told her to leave it on his chair. I hope that was the right thing to do. Only afterwards did I worry whether he was who he said he was, but he had got inside the office which he should only be able to do if he worked there (except that I managed it).

There was both social anxiety here and autistic ‘new environment’ anxiety, as in Primark. By the time I got on the Tube home, I realised my heart was racing and my adrenaline rushing. I’m pretty sure this was an abnormally strong reaction to this for me. I guess COVID and lockdown have left their mark.

I came home and responded to blog comments, but I rapidly felt burnt out and went to bed, not because I wanted to sleep, but just for the comfort of wrapping myself in duvet and weighted blanket. E wonders if I should deliberately do stuff in bed. I mean like read, write, blog and so on. She things I might find it easier to get up if I was going back shortly. She may be right. Churchill spent a lot of the war in bed in his room in the Cabinet War Rooms bunker, with advisors and Cabinet ministers coming to see him.

The other excitement today was that Mum kashered the ovens for Pesach (Passover). They were cleaned by the oven cleaner the other day and now heated to remove any trace of leaven food or ‘taste’. (The Jewish dietary laws assume that taste can be absorbed and emitted by porous materials. A lot of the dietary laws, both regular and Pesach, stem from this idea. I struggled with this in the past. It’s not totally crazy, as seasoning cast iron pans and aging whiskey in sherry casks both work on the same principle, but I do sometimes wonder if the rabbis had very sensitive palates to note such subtle tastes. Still, it’s the model we have and I think there’s value in sticking with established law regardless of personal opinion.)

***

I have been thinking a lot about The Prisoner lately. The Prisoner, for those who don’t know, was a “spy-fi” (espionage/science fiction hybrid) TV series from the late sixties. They only made seventeen episodes (there was a noughties remake/re-imagining that is not without merit, but is not as compulsive). It’s about a secret agent who resigns from his job, gets knocked out, and wakes up in a weird mini-society called The Village where people have numbers instead of names. He is Number 6, although, as he declares in the title sequence, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” He wants to find out who runs The Village (the unseen Number 1; day-to-day running is invested in the ever-changing Number 2s) and escape; the Village authorities want to find out why he resigned.

It starts as a thriller with slight fantastical and weird elements (e.g. the Rover weather balloons that smoother anyone trying to escape), but by the end becomes a surreal sixties ‘happening,’ complete with Beatles soundtrack. The surrealism and the deliberate obscurity of many of the episodes, particularly the final one, Fall Out, meant that interpretations of the series are legion (political, religious, psychological, postmodern, etc.). It was one of the first TV shows that cultural and media studies academics homed in on, unsurprisingly.

Former Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts wrote an essay about The Village seeming more like Britain in the 2020s than the 1960s. That’s partly why I’ve been thinking about it. Certainly I thought today that the public announcements on the Tube, particularly the ones about mask-wearing, are very Village: officious, sanctimonious and pedantic, with an ostensible nod towards diversity while asking for conformity. But that’s only part of why I’ve been thinking about it.

Doctor Who has been my favourite TV programme since I discovered it aged eight, but when I was at Oxford and saw it for the first time, The Prisoner rapidly became the series that I identified most with. It’s a mirror for anyone who feels counter-cultural and under pressure to conform. At the time, I thought I was friendless and lonely, and stressed and eventually made depressed and suicidal by over-work. I now see I was mid-autistic burnout, struggling to fit in to an environment that I just did not understand with people who I wanted to connect with, but somehow could not.

I think autistic people would find a lot they recognise in The Prisoner. The whole idea of making people conform, that society runs better if everyone thinks and does the same thing, and the individualists who instinctively rebel against this mindset is really the source of the drama in The Prisoner, as well as in the lives of many autistics, particularly those diagnosed late and/or forced to act the way other people want instead of how they want, or how they need.

In the penultimate episode, Once Upon a Time, there’s a sequence where a hypnotised Prisoner is made to relive his schooldays. His “headmaster” (actually Number 2) has a speech that goes, “Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilisation. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must conform! It is my sworn duty to make you conform!” before beating him for disobedience. I quoted the speech here from memory; it made such an impression on me that I learnt it by heart.

One episode, Living in Harmony, is, bizarrely, a Western, with The Prisoner as a sheriff who chooses to get beaten up rather than violate his moral objections to carrying a gun. This idea of personal morals being more important than society’s rules, even at extreme personal cost, is another thing that probably resonates with many people on the spectrum (and off it, of course). Other things that might be familiar to autistics might include: the uncertainty that runs through the entire series about who you can trust and who is working for the authorities, analogous to navigating the school playground (and later the workplace) not being able to read body language, intonation, subtext and so on to tell if people are being friendly or bullying; the authorities’ hostility to questions, particularly those directed to the foundations of their society (“Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself” — another quote I learnt by heart); The Prisoner’s sense of alienation from the constant Village celebrations particularly in my favourite episode Dance of the Dead, where a fancy dress ball turns into an angry mob trying to tear him limb from limb; the sequence in A Change of Mind where The Prisoner is effectively ‘cancelled’ as the villagers shun him as an “unmutual” and refuse to engage with him for the sin of using his own gym equipment and then mocking the Village disciplinary procedures; and the general pervasive sense of paranoia, of one person against The System, of being seen as essentially, even ontologically wrong and made to be something you are not.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that “The series’ thesis may be that freedom is impossible, as is opting out.” This is something I feel strongly, and not just for autistic reasons.

I did not mean to write all of this! I went into autistic hyper-focus, and an hour had gone. I guess it shows how much it means to me. I should have a re-watch. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it (a lot; the low number of episodes facilitates that). I don’t know if E would like it, though.

One day I’ll to go Portmeirion, the strange, real-life village/holiday resort in Wales where it was filmed (also the Doctor Who story The Masque of Mandragora, which E and I watched recently) and run along the beach shouting, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”

The Stressed Time of Year, Forum Discussions, and Culture in the Frum World

We’re in the busiest time of year, the weeks before Pesach (Passover), when we’re focused on preparations. Think Christmas plus spring cleaning, multiplied by ten (or a hundred). I tend to be OK during the day because I’m busy, but at night I feel stressed and anxious when I’m not doing things, but also lack significant relaxation time to unwind. Yesterday I cleaned the larder for Pesach, but I was too tired to continue to clean the Pesach worktops and sinks in the garage as I had intended. Afterwards, I had difficulty sleeping, being very agitated and anxious (fidgeting/stimming in bed, which is unlike me). I had taken olanzapine that night, but I wonder if it had not got into my bloodstream yet, given that I am taking it every other day at the moment.

Work was dull today and difficult on four hours of sleep, but I got through it. I did a little bit of writing when I got home and went to an online Pesach shiur (religious class). Which is a lot, on four hours sleep.

In between times, I was online. I was on the autism forum quite a bit. There are lots of people in distress there and I can only respond to some for reasons of time, emotional capacity, and knowing what to say without saying the wrong thing. I have some guilt for arbitrarily connecting more with some people than others. I have long had this feeling, that I should like everyone equally, which is not really possible (or Jewish; Judaism is about loving individuals for their individuality as opposed to agape). We just connect with some people more than others; it’s normal. Still, I feel bad that things like typos can influence whether I respond.

I am also less likely to respond to people who are very blunt about being depressed and suicidal and don’t give much of an opening to respond or seem open to conversation/suggestions from other commenters. I feel bad about this, as I’ve done my own share of self-focused blog writing/commenting when severely depressed, but I know that when I was in that mood, I really wanted to vent (or possibly to argue that my life would inevitably be awful) rather than be open to suggestions. I was trying to speak to someone in crisis just now, but I think another user was doing much better.

Elsewhere online, on a Jewish site, I saw an article by a woman I had a crush on years ago (she was the person who rejected me because I didn’t go to yeshiva, which pretty much made me despair of ever finding a frum wife). I don’t have any crush feelings for her now, but I feel an envious kind of feeling that I can’t get paid for my writing or do something with my life the way she seems to have done.

The article was on finding religious messages in popular culture, part of a series of articles on this site. I have argued this myself in the past (e.g. that Doctor Who has Jewish messages), but now I’m sceptical. I think most of it is the residual Judaism in the residual Christianity in now mostly-secular art and much of it is not really significant or profound enough to be worth mentioning. I think it’s OK to like popular culture, but I don’t think much of it is profound, religiously or otherwise.

The debate always seems to be organised around popular culture. There are obviously big things to discuss about religion in writers like Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Graham Greene and so on, but they don’t get mentioned, possibly because they don’t lead to pat, “And this teaches us to do tikkun olam!” messages (this seems to be the main “Jewish” message of Doctor Who, that and questioning/learning). Years ago I found an article online by Rabbi Dr Alan Brill complaining that Orthodox culture is so bourgeois and unchallenging, and I agree (although I think most culture full stop is bourgeois and unchallenging, pretty much by definition). I know that this is one of E’s biggest reservations about joining the Orthodox world, the conformism and the lack of serious culture, and I share her reservations while not seeing any alternatives for myself.

Zzzzzzzzzz, OCD, and the Countdown to Pesach

I massively overslept again on Friday morning and woke up drained. I’m back to wondering counter-factuals like whether writing late at night after work costs too much the next day. I had some weird dreams that I’m not going to relate here, but shul (synagogue) stress and missing E figured. Also Purim anxiety — my unconscious tends to feed stuff into my dreams a couple of weeks after things have happened, for some reason.

I did my usual Shabbat chores and managed to carve out forty or fifty minutes to work on my novel, which was good, especially as it’s likely to be interrupted now for a few weeks because of Pesach (preparations then the festival) and E being here. In the evening, I went to my parents’ shul (synagogue) with Dad. Their usual chazzan (cantor) was leading the service. I’d forgotten just how much his style of davening (praying) does not fit with my tastes. Very loud and elongated, like opera; even the bits we’re supposed to read silently, he reads loud enough to be heard (and I was sitting near the back), which annoyed me immensely. But I guess we’re back to looking for perfect “unicorn shuls” again.

Dinner with my parents was pretty long, although mostly fun. I did some Torah study afterwards, but it meant I went to bed very late, without much time for recreational reading to relax after a busy day. Then I slept through the morning and napped again after lunch.

I think some of the oversleeping, or going back to bed, is an autistic sensory thing about feeling cozy and ‘held’ wrapped up in my duvet and now my weighted blanket. I’ve always slept wrapped up tight in my duvet, but when I became depressed in my teens and twenties, staying in bed became a way to avoid the world as well as feeling comfortable and held close (by the duvet/blanket). I do wonder if I can use this information somehow – get up and sit wrapped in my weighted blanket?

(It also occurs to me that E and I may need two duvets when we get married to stop me hogging it!)

When I napped this afternoon, I had a dream about my maternal grandparents that I found upsetting, although I’m not entirely sure why. To be honest, I can’t really remember it clearly any more, but I lay in bed for a while coming to terms with my feelings. Then it was time for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Seudah Shlishit (the Third Sabbath Meal) so I didn’t have time for Torah study or recreational reading. It feels like I spent most of the day eating and sleeping with some davening and not a lot else. I would have liked to have gone for a walk as I haven’t had even mild exercise since Thursday.

Today was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) of the month of Nisan. This is a hard time of year for me. Late winter is very hard, when I struggle from lack of sunlight, so passing the equinox and putting the clocks forward is somewhat helpful, albeit not so much of a difference at this stage. But then we go straight into Pesach preparations. Even if I can avoid religious OCD, it’s time-consuming and tiring, with little time for non-essential tasks like exercise, recreation or fiction writing. And this year E is coming, which makes me feel even more anxious. My brother-in-law found the way we do Pesach somewhat extreme the first time he came, so I worry what E will think. Still, as my Dad says, Pesach comes and goes. Every year it seems hard, but every year we manage it. We even managed it in 2020, when we were in lockdown and Mum was sick from chemotherapy.

***

I’m reading a book on OCD, not actually for my OCD issues, but there has been some useful stuff in there for me, reminding me that OCD thoughts never go away fully and their return at this time of year doesn’t mean I’m backsliding into OCD. What matters is how you deal with them, not whether you have them. Also, some useful stuff about grieving even during positive life events for “The Road Not Taken“. E and I are both very happy with each other, but I guess there’s stuff about us both that isn’t 100% what we would have chosen in an ideal world (which doesn’t exist!) that we need to grieve a bit. It reminds me of something in William Kolbrener’s Open-Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love where he talks about Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s idea that moods are simple and unipolar whereas emotions are complex and multidimensional. Judaism wants us to have emotions, not moods, hence our festivals contain sombre moments amidst the joy.

“Marry the freak”

I was looking today at websites for couples therapy for couples where one is autistic and one neurotypical. Some were fine, speaking about difficulties both partners might experience. Others were — I hesitate to throw around words like ‘ableist,’ and maybe this is partly my paranoia, but some definitely felt like, “Well, you could be in a relationship with an autistic person [or man, as female autism hasn’t really registered on most of these sites], but you should know that they won’t love you, care for you, or understand you and you’ll spend your entire life bending yourself out of shape to fit in with their crazy whims. And they probably won’t even want to have sex with you, at least not as often as you want or in the way you want. But, here are some resources if you do still want to marry the freak.” Obviously they didn’t literally say that, but it seemed to be the subtext.

E and I struggle with some things (particularly finances), but we’re both pretty good and communicating our needs and trying to meet each other’s needs (the couples therapy is to help with one very specific topic that we think we might need some objective support with). I know living together will be harder in some ways than living separately, but I’m not really worried about that. Of course, we’re wondering if E is on the spectrum too, which might make a difference.

***

I don’t think it was because of those therapy sites (although they didn’t help), but I’ve felt somewhat down all day. I’m still wondering if I should up my olanzapine dosage towards what it was previously. I was on 2.5mg twice a day; I’m now on 2.5mg every other evening, so one quarter of what I was on before. I should probably try to monitor that more rigorously and think about increasing to 2.5mg every day if necessary.

I realise that the last year and a bit have seen a number good things for me. I got my autism diagnosis, my family accepted my diagnosis and support me, I got engaged to E, my part-time job was made permanent. Still, I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of all the things I still want/need to do, in both the short and long term.

In the short-term, Pesach (Passover) is getting really close now and the tension is beginning to rise (I had a few Pesach OCD thoughts which I managed to keep under control so far). In the longer-term (in no particular order) I want to: organise a wedding; deal with my exhaustion/burnout/oversleeping/whatever it is so I can do more during the day; try to find a way to work more days in the week and earn more money; learn to drive; investigate whether E is neurodivergent; find a place in the Jewish community for E and me; and find the right balance of work/writing/religion/family/relaxation for me. And more.

There’s a lot of fear of the “will I ever get the life I want: wife, kids, some financial independence, friends, life balance?” Reading on the autism forum can be dispiriting, because, on the one hand, there are people who seem to have got their lives completely together, and I can’t seem to do that, but on the other hand there are parents with young children who are school-refusing or otherwise having extreme difficulty, and part of me thinks: “I could manage school. I was mostly fine at school (bar some bullying and loneliness), even though many people on the spectrum think that school is just Hell for autistics. I coped. So why can’t I cope now, when, in theory, I have more self-awareness and more control over my life?”

***

I did manage to submit my novel manuscript to two agencies and spent half an hour writing my next novel, so from a writing point of view it was quite good. I’m trying to use fewer Hebrew and Yiddish terms in my second novel than in my first one, as I worry that that has put agents off, but without them, dialogue for frum (religious Jewish) characters sounds ridiculously stilted and unrealistic. Imagine writing a teenage character, but not allowing yourself to use any contemporary slang in case people don’t understand; it’s a similar thing. It just sounds wrong.

I came across a literary agent today who is also a practising lawyer. Last week, I found an agent who is also a dentist (not sure if she’s practising though). Sometimes it feels like other people are living several lives, while I don’t even have one.

I used to feel that “good sense of humour” is a stupid thing to put on a dating profile, as it’s completely subjective and no one in the world thinks that they have a bad sense of humour, even if others disagree. I think “strong storytelling” is the literary agency equivalent. So many agents say they are looking for “strong storytelling.” Are there are lots of fiction writers thinking, “Well, I can’t tell a story at all, but I have beautiful prose”? Perhaps some, but many? I find it a profoundly unhelpful thing to ask for.

***

Other than that, I went for a walk and did some shopping, but didn’t accomplish much else other than some emails. I wanted to do more, but by the evening, I was drained and very low, bordering on depressed (by which I mean, if I felt like this consistently for two weeks, it would be diagnosed as depression). I thought of posting some of these thoughts on the autism forum to see what response it would get, but I’m scared to admit these complicated feelings about autistic people struggling more or less than I am. I’m also wary of talking about my religious practices and community there, because I don’t know what response I would get (I haven’t seen anyone else talk on there about religion, any religion). I’ve already asked about autistic burnout/exhaustion and no one really seems to have any solutions.