Reaching Out

Aside from over-thinking some things I’m worried about, today was a normal Sunday (and arguably even the over-thinking was normal for me). I spoke to my sister on the phone. I went for a run in the cold and rain; even aside from the weather, it was not a great run. Pesach has left me even more out of shape than before. I did about fifty-five minutes of Torah study, but it felt a lot longer; the combined sedrot (Torah readings) of Tazria and Metzora (Vayikra (Leviticus) 12-16) are probably the hardest to get anything out of from a contemporary perspective (admittedly a lot of Vayikra is in that category), and Tazria in particular is full of weird Hebrew terms that don’t appear elsewhere just to make understanding it even harder. I have to write a devar Torah about this soon…

My mood went down after my run. I’m not sure why. Eating dinner helped, but not hugely. I got stuck in a lot of negative thoughts and feelings. I did some activities my therapist suggested, to try to clarify for myself what I’m worried about and get my thoughts in order so that I can hopefully do something about these anxieties. That helped a bit, but not hugely.

***

It occurs to me that while I have come across a few Jewish/frum mental illness blogs over the years (albeit not many), I don’t think I’ve come across any Jewish high functioning autism blogs. I’m not quite sure what to make of this or what to do about it.

Searching online, it looks like there’s a Jewish Autism Trust, but that it’s run by and for parents of children or teenagers with autism, not high functioning adults with autism. I want to reach out somehow, but I’m not sure what exactly I would want. Maybe some kind of discussion forum for high functioning Jewish adults on the spectrum? I suspect there may be Facebook groups, which I think are what people use these days instead of forums and chatrooms. Or do I want to speak to neurotypicals in the community about the needs of people on the spectrum? Or both?

I just searched and found a couple of (non-Jewish) autism discussion forums. I’m wondering if these will be useful to me, helping me to reach out to other people in the same situation, or if they will be a huge drain on my time and resources if I get involved with them (or both).

Reassessments

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

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

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

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

The Turkey Prince

I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know if it was from taking my tablets late, sleeping too much in the day, drinking tea late at night or something else. I got about four hours of sleep in the end, but I had to be up early to see PIMOJ. Yesterday it was so warm that I went for a walk in the afternoon without a coat or jumper. This morning, it snowed. I wrapped up warm, but it was difficult to tell what to wear, as it was warm when sunny, but cold in the shade.

***

I think PIMOJ had been having some of the thoughts I had been having about our lack of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, although she phrased it differently, saying we haven’t really got to know each other well yet. We had a long talk (in the park, not ideal – thank you COVID) and PIMOJ opened up to me about some things in her past and I tried to be a bit more open about my mood dips and persistent lack of energy. I think we’re OK, we just agreed to try to be more honest and open with each other in the future. Not that we were lying previously, but we were both hiding things, I guess from fear of rejection. I had some further thoughts after the date and texted PIMOJ to tell her that I’m often not good at talking things over spontaneously and need time to think about responses because of autism (hence texting her later because I didn’t think of this at the time!) and maybe it’s worth discussing things over a few days and/or letting me text some ideas later after I’ve thought it over. Unfortunately, neither of us likes video calling much, which is hard at the moment. She hasn’t got back to me about that.

The rest of the date was good, except that we were seen by two of my parents’ friends. I’m not sure if they recognised me, but it’s the type of thing that can start rumours in small communities. PIMOJ and I were together for over four hours and did a lot of walking. We got takeaway falafel. Still, I was left with some anxiety. I worry that my autistic brain simply isn’t wired for a relationship. “Autism” etymologically refers to morbid self-absorption (you may have noticed this here…). Meaning, being unable to relate to others. That although I pine away in loneliness while single, I’m not able to be in a relationship “properly.” Now I’m in a relationship with someone where I know there will be lots of extra obstacles beyond a regular relationship if we want to make this permanent. I want to do that, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself out trying or just won’t make it, and perhaps that fear is stopping me from fully committing to the relationship (unconsciously), along with guilt feelings that the relationship came about in a “wrong” way, religiously. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Autism is hard. Life + relationships + autism = very hard.

I keep thinking of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s parable of The Turkey Prince. The prince goes mad and believes that he is a turkey, sitting naked under the table and eating food off the floor. No one can cure him until a wise man takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, claiming to be a turkey too. Once the prince accepts him, the wise man puts on trousers, saying a turkey can wear trousers. When the prince wears trousers, the wise man puts on a shirt until the prince does the same, and so on until the prince is fully clothed and eating normally and is (we are told) fully cured.

Superficially, the story is about the need of the religious mentor to descend to the level of his followers to win their trust and to understand them and inspire them. However, as Arthur Green noted in his biography of Rebbe Nachman (Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), there is a uneasy air about the conclusion of the story. Is the prince really “cured” or has he just been tricked into acting in a more socially acceptable way? Does he really think he is a human again, or just a turkey who wears clothes and eats off a plate? (This is surely a big question in clinical psychology: how much are we “curing” people and how much socialising them into “normal” behaviour even when the “abnormal” behaviour is harmless?) Green suggests that the wise man, and even the other courtiers may be just as insane as the prince.

I feel I need someone to model behaviour for me, to show that an autistic person with a history of mental illness can: get a full-time job; make friends; write fiction; build a relationship and a family; and so on. But maybe this is not addressing the fundamental problem, which is my tendency to see myself as defective and to assume that everything I try to do will be affected by this defectiveness. Otherwise I’m in danger of being a Turkey Prince, acting in a socially acceptable way while still believing myself to be a turkey (“defective” autistic person).

***

Another thing that happened this afternoon has been on my mind. PIMOJ asked if my family were as religious as I was, and we got onto the subject of how religious I am. PIMOJ felt I am quite religious, but not exceedingly so, as I perform the mitzvot (commandments) as God commands, but have no interest in the spiritual reality behind them. I let this go at the time, but it’s annoyed me a bit since then and I don’t know whether to say anything (my natural conflict aversion versus our newly-stated desire to be honest with each other). I know kabbalists (Jewish mystics) say there are spiritual realities behind the mitzvot, and perhaps there are, but I have never managed to get my head around them. Rather than the mystics, I prefer the religious rationalists like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) who said that every mitzvah “serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.” Some mitzvot have an obvious logic (don’t murder, don’t steal etc.). Those that don’t have obvious social benefits are symbols that teach important historical/theological concepts (like eating matzah on Pesach to remember the exodus) or inculcate character traits (eating only kosher food might instil self-control). Thinkers like Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spent a lot of time and energy finding rational reasons for symbolic actions and it bothers me a bit to see that dismissed as not religious (see especially Rav Hirsch’s Horeb, which provides reasons for all the mitzvot observed today).

Maybe I ought to bring this up with PIMOJ tomorrow, although I feel that there are other things that might be more important to discuss. I guess it just makes me realise that we see the role of religious observance differently. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I can communicate the way I see it. It’s somewhat similar to the way she sees connection with God, and “hearing” His answers, as relatively easy things, whereas I see them as very hard, even a life’s work. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but they are very different.

***

There are actually other things that came up on the date that I’d like to discuss with someone, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to speak about here. I hope to speak to my rabbi mentor on Friday, and it would be good to raise some of this with my therapist too next week (I’m on fortnightly therapy at the moment). Still, it adds to the feeling of juggling a lot of balls and not knowing if I can keep them all in the air or what will happen if I drop one or two.

***

I was pretty exhausted when I got home after this, maybe not surprisingly. I took some time to write parts this post, which was hard as it meant focusing on the anxiety-provoking parts of the date as well as the more successful parts, and focusing on the work I will need to do in the relationship. I did a little Torah study, but I was too tired to do much. I watched some TV. My mood has been variable and I’m definitely dealing with some anxiety about the relationship, even though I think today went well.

Sir Galahad

I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.

Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.

It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.

Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.

Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.

I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.

I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.

***

I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.

I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.

I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.

***

In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.

***

Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.

***

All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.

Frum and Autistic

I didn’t have insomnia last night, but I woke late again and felt burnt out and even sugary Pesach (Passover) cereal and coffee didn’t help. Lately I wonder how much of my depression was actually autistic burnout. Some of it was definitely clinical depression, no question, but all of it? I suppose there’s no real way of knowing from this distance.

I had a quiet day again today. I did about half an hour of Torah study, went for a walk and collected my repeat prescription and had therapy on Zoom. We (my parents and I) also went to my sister and brother-in-law’s garden for tea and biscuits after dark now the ban on seeing people outdoors has been lifted. It was pretty warm even before they turned their outdoor heater on. It was good to see them again. I found I was clock watching a bit though. I often do this when I’m with people or at social events. I think not knowing when something will end leads to some kind of anxiety. I suspect this is an autistic thing about wanting control rather than coming from social anxiety or disinterest in socialising because I don’t just do it when “peopling.” Even watching TV I have one eye on the clock to see how much time is left and if I’m streaming something online I will bring up the time left counter even though it’s a distraction from the image on screen.

***

Therapy was good. We spoke more about my autism diagnosis and fitting into the frum (religious Jewish) community, that maybe I can open up to some people about my autism and why it makes communal involvement difficult for me. Potentially I could speak to the rabbi about it, although, as Ashley suggested regarding “coming out” as autistic in the workplace, it probably would be helpful to come with some suggestions of what practical adjustments I would like (if any) rather than just dumping all my difficulties on him. I do have a lot of fear about autism stigma and ignorance in the community and I’m not sure how many of the adjustments I would like are “reasonable.” In British disability discrimination law, employers have to make “reasonable adjustments,” but not adjustments that are considered unreasonable. I would like people not to bang on the tables to accompany Kabbalat Shabbat (part of Friday night prayer services), for example, but given that it’s an accepted part of the service, particularly in the current COVID climate where loud singing is forbidden, I’m not sure it would be reasonable of me to try to change it.

I did talk about the frum community being generally conformist and not necessarily an ideal place for people who are quite individualistic even without autism or mental illness. I have encountered other individualistic frum Jews online, particularly on Hevria.com, but that site seems fairly dead these days as are many of the Orthodox blogs I used to follow; I think discussion has moved to Twitter and Facebook, where I don’t feel comfortable.

My therapist felt that speaking to the rabbi as a first step might also have the benefit that he will know other rabbis and can see if they have dealt with autistic congregants. My therapist felt that there must be other autistic people in the community. I’m sure this is true, but I suspect a disproportionate number of those diagnosed are young, given the trends in autism diagnosis generally. There may not be so many diagnosed autistic adults out there.

***

I had an awkward moment at my sister’s where I misunderstood something in the conversation and said the wrong thing, perhaps as a result of losing the thread of the conversation because of autism. My parents have two friends’ with the same name and I got confused about which one we were talking about and said something that would be completely innocuous regarding the one I thought they were talking about, but hugely tasteless about the other one. Naturally it was the other one they were really talking about. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone heard me.

I feel unheard a lot in social situations and wonder if I mumble. I was often told that I did as a child, although I never sounded quiet to myself. On this occasion it was probably for the best, although it is possible that everyone just politely pretended I hadn’t said anything because it was so tasteless.

Time Warp Pesach

Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the first two days of Pesach (Passover) were, on the whole, good. I wanted to do a blow-by-blow account, but it’s too late and I don’t have the time, so I’ll do bullet points. (I’m also not catching up on blog posts I’ve missed tonight; hopefully tomorrow, but even then maybe not all of them.)

  1. I saw a beautiful rainbow on the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. This got Yom Tov off to a good start.
  2. Shabbat was weird. (I’m not even going to try to explain how or why Shabbat the day before Pesach is so weird. Sorry, it’s just too complicated. If you don’t know, you might just want to skip to the next bullet point.) We had egg matzah for hamotzi. This is not entirely in the spirit of not eating matzah on Erev Pesach, but I felt the alternative was to eat pita bread and freak out about chametz (leaven) crumbs all through Pesach. I managed to get up around 8.00am to daven (pray) a bit and make hamotzi before the cut off time.
  3. Having Shabbat the day before Yom Tov gave the whole experience a weird Groundhog Day time warp effect where none of us were sure what day it was, something only compounded by the clocks going forward on Saturday night, when religious Jews can’t change them (because of Yom Tov) — except that some modern clocks adjust themselves, so on Sunday and Monday we kept having to check what time it was on different clocks to work out what time it really was.
  4. The sederim went pretty well. Even though there were only three of us (me, Mum and Dad), we had some back and forth of questions and suggested answers. I learnt some things, which was good. We had a good pace, not too fast or too slow. I do feel I’m too old to look for the afikoman, especially alone. I didn’t mind saying the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions, traditionally said by the youngest person present), and sang it, something my sister generally refuses to do. I do feel sorry for people doing solo sedarim though.
  5. My OCD anxious thoughts were mostly under control, more so as time went on. I am still struggling with a few thoughts intermittently. My rabbi mentor is usually uncontactable during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and won’t talk about Pesach after the event, but I have some questions to ask him for next year.
  6. I went to shul a few times. This occasioned some social anxiety, although I pushed through it, as well as discomfort (feeling suffocated) from wearing a mask too long.
  7. I read a bit: more of Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah by Erica Brown, the Haggadah I used at the seder this year (it has eight essays, one for each day of Pesach); a bit of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc; and Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman’s follow-up to Anno Dracula, itself a spin-off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, positing a world in which Dracula was not defeated and became Prince Consort of the British Empire. In the sequel, expelled from Britain, Dracula becomes Commander-in-Chief of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in World War I. One hundred pages in, not a lot has actually happened, but the “vampires in spiked helmets” imagery is strong and there are lots of cameos from real and fictional figures from the early twentieth century.
  8. I think I feel more comfortable in my head at the moment. I’m OK sitting with myself without reading, watching TV or listening to music. On Friday and today I got exhausted and took time out just to lie on the bed silently. I think I need to decompress from sensory overload more than I realised in the past, or maybe I actually need to do it more often as I get older. I’m wondering if I should set a “No screens for the first half-hour after I get home from work” rule so I can decompress properly. I’ve been feeling lately that I want to be on my computer less, but unsure how to do it when my main social interactions are through the internet: my blog and other people’s.
  9. I went for a walk today without a coat or jumper. Spring is finally here.
  10. It occurred to me today that so many of my thoughts about not fitting into my community because I don’t feel I’m appropriately religious (Haredi) might actually be about not fitting in because I’m autistic. I realised that while I have a few possibly mentally ill Jewish hero figures (with the usual caveats about trying to diagnose people who have been dead for centuries), I don’t have any high functioning autistic Jewish heroes and its hard to find my place in the community without them. I know there are not many female role voices and models in Orthodox Judaism but there isn’t a single autistic one.

The Hardest Task of the Year

On the day before Pesach (Passover), it’s customary for first-born Jewish males to fast, in memory of the plague of the first-born in the exodus story. The custom has also arisen to get out of this fast (unlike other fasts) by attending a siyum a religious celebration, usually for finishing some religious study. When Pesach starts on a Sunday, this all gets pushed back to the Thursday beforehand. This is why I got up early this morning to attend a siyum on Zoom. I decided it wasn’t realistic for me to go to shul (synagogue) for this. I couldn’t sleep last night, but even before that, I thought I was too tired to manage it. I don’t know what I would have done in a “normal” year, but this year there is still COVID, so I attended virtually. I didn’t manage to get up early enough to pray beforehand (the siyum is usually immediately after the morning service) or even to get dressed; I just got up and switched on my phone, leaving the camera switched off as I sat there in my pyjamas.

After I managed to eat breakfast, get dressed and pray, I hoovered my room and went for a walk. My mood dropped quite a lot while out. I was feeling negative (depressed and anxious) about Pesach, but also about my writing. Coming home and eating lunch helped quite a lot. Tiredness and low blood sugar can push my mood very far down, very quickly.

In the afternoon I made the charoset and baked cinnamon balls (biscuits). I was pretty exhausted after that, and after my anxiety got pushed up by something that happened, so I had to take time out to watch Babylon 5 to try to regain my composure.

Then came the worst task of the year: kashering the kitchen sink i.e. getting it ready for Pesach by pouring boiling water over it to remove any trace of food. The difficulty is that it has to be boiling water not boiled water, i.e. poured within just a few seconds of the kettle turning off. And it has to reach the surface of the sink (bottom, walls, drainer, taps) from an area of a couple of inches of where the spout hits the sink, or it will have cooled off too much. And ideally you should do it in one go.

I don’t know why I find it so hard. My rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi have both said it’s easy. Mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) do it all the time. But something – perhaps some autistic body coordination problem, the reason I’m awful at ball games? – stops me doing it. Of course, OCD kicks in too: after two or three seconds I stop, convinced I’ve spent too long pouring when I probably still have a second or two to keep pouring.

Whatever the reason, I can’t do it in one go. I take seven or eight, maybe more, doing the drainer and taps, than the base of the sink, then the walls one by one, sometimes repeating bits I’m not happy with. This time I got to the end and couldn’t remember if I’d done the side nearest me. I was 80% sure I had, but not 100%. I decided 80% would have to be good enough; do it again, and I’ll be there all night doubting myself, redoing bits, fuelling the OCD. My rabbi mentor says I only have to get 51% of the sink for it to be considered done. I have no idea if I managed that. We put a plastic bowl in on Pesach anyway, which is a useful belts and braces approach.

It didn’t help that Mum and Dad were in and out of the kitchen the whole time while I was doing this, which just made me feel more awkward. I felt pretty rotten afterwards, not sure if I’d done the right thing and feeling undischarged anxiety pent up inside me. I hate this job, but I worry my parents wouldn’t do it the way I would like, so I have to do it myself.

I appreciate that this is probably very far from what most people would see as the place of religion. For what it’s worth, I feel that if I do this every year, despite hating it, purely because it is what God wants, according to the rabbis, then that is a kind of sacrifice.

Even this was not the end of the day. After dark, we did the traditional search of the house by candlelight for chametz. We were all pretty exhausted and not in the best temper. Usually this would be done on the night before Pesach, but that’s Shabbat (the Sabbath) this year, so we do it earlier.

With all of this, it’s probably no surprise I barely managed ten minutes of Torah study. Hopefully I can catch up over Pesach.

***

I feel that maybe I shouldn’t talk about OCD thoughts and anxiety here. Or at least, it’s hard to know what to say about them. They aren’t anywhere near the intensity of when my OCD was at its height a few years ago. Although I would like to hear from my rabbi mentor about one or two things, I’m mostly feeling OK, although something happened today that (frankly) freaked me out for five or ten minutes into stronger anxiety. Everyone has OCD-type “weird” thoughts all the time. The difference is that most people dismiss them easily, but people with OCD fixate on them and worry about them and their implications. I’m not at the OCD end of obsessing about things endlessly, but I’m not at the point of just brushing things off either.

The problem is that checking is bad for OCD, as it just fuels it. You can never be 100% certain, so checking just encourages double and triple checking. In Orthodox Jewish culture, it feels normal to check questions with a rabbi, particularly at Pesach, when the dietary rules are so different from the rest of the year, but that’s counter-productive with OCD. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I’m just trying to focus on trying my best and hoping that’s enough, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it would be.

***

Ashley pointed me in the direction of this article on autistic burnout. I found it interesting that it sees burnout as being long-term, over a period of weeks or months. I have probably had burnout like that (possibly some of my depressive episodes were actually major burnout), but I experience extreme fatigue and desire to withdraw also on a regular basis for short periods (days or even hours). I certainly agree that burnout can cause loss of skills. I am fairly sure I lose skills in the short-term when burnt out, and I suspect I have lost skills long-term too, particularly my librarian skills. I also seem to make more mistakes in writing than I used to (wrong words, apostrophes), and find it harder to spot them. I used to be a good proof-reader; I’m not sure that I still am.

***

I’m not sure if I’ll get the time to write tomorrow. It’s not technically Erev Pesach (the day before Pesach), but as Erev Pesach is Shabbat, most of the usual Erev Pesach tasks get done tomorrow. It’s the busiest day of the year and I don’t know if I’ll get time to write. And then I’ll be incommunicado until Monday evening! I’ll be glad to actually get to Pesach after such a stressful build up.

Busy Busy Busy

I woke up at 9.30am, but didn’t feel well enough to get up until nearly 11.00am. I don’t know if autistic burnout is my least favourite part of autism, but it’s up there. The hardest thing is not really having a clear conception of it (I haven’t seen much written about it) and blaming myself for laziness even though I know, on some level, it goes deeper than that.

I planned a busy afternoon and early evening of Pesach preparation, but forgot and in some cases did not know, that other stuff would be happening and had to delay while people got out of my way or I got roped in to helping them. We had our burglar alarm serviced today, which was not a good idea (not mine).

I actually did quite a bit: kashered the hob (put pots on it and heated it up to purge it for Pesach, then covered the grates with aluminium foil), thoroughly cleaned the kitchen sink so I can kasher it tomorrow, put away the non-kosher for Pesach over-the-counter medicines (most medicine is kosher for Pesach, but soluble tablets or stuff with taste like throat sweets and cough mixture is problematic) and went for a half-hour walk. I spent some time writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week too, which is good, as I didn’t think I would get it written this week. My other Torah study was listening to a recorded shiur (religious class) while I ate dinner. I was too tired to read any more of my new haggadah.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like I did so much, considering how close it is to Pesach, but I got roped into a few other chores too and some of these things had preparation time, so by the time it got to 6.30pm I was ready to drop, even if I hadn’t made the charoset (the thick dip eaten at the Pesach seder) which I had hoped to do today.

There were a few things I did for Pesach that were not necessarily done the ideal way. This makes me worry a bit, in terms of religious OCD worries about things being done perfectly, but I’ve been trying to just push through my OCD fears. It is draining, though, and probably does contribute to my exhaustion. It’s just another thing for me to be juggling. I also feel sorry for my rabbi mentor who still has to put up with nervous WhatsApp messages from me checking that I’ve done things correctly.

***

I haven’t seen PIMOJ for a while. I’m actually not sure how long, which is bad of me. We couldn’t see each other for ages because of lockdown and mutual Pesach stress, plus she’s having to do a lot of overtime at work lately. We were going to meet next Wednesday, but it turned out I was double-booked with my sister and brother-in-law. I thought we were seeing them on Tuesday, but it turns out to be Wednesday. PIMOJ was very good about changing the date. I’m seeing PIMOJ on Monday 5 April (bank holiday). At least we’ll be able to stay out all afternoon with Pesach stress over (I will be naughty and leave some of the post-Pesach tidying to my parents).

The Long Twilight Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

“To be more like people better than you”

(Title quote from Amateur Hour by Sparks)

Today was not good, although I suppose it could have been worse. But I felt overwhelmed (my new keyword) most of the day. I overslept this morning. Actually, I didn’t oversleep; I was awake, I was just too tired to get up and then suddenly it was half an hour later and I had to rush. On the way in to work I felt overwhelmed and anxious: about Pesach (Passover), about autism, my relationship, my life, and the guy opposite me on the Tube not wearing his mask so he could drink beer 9am. (I’m open to the idea of beer-drinking at 9am being OK for some people, but I don’t consider it sufficient reason to remove one’s mask.)

At work I made mistakes, and also discovered mistakes made earlier e.g. the stationery order I placed on Monday arrived and I discovered that I had ordered one ream of printer paper instead of one box as J, my line manager, had requested. There were other mistakes, and J noticed some of them. He didn’t say much about it, which is good, but also makes it hard for me to judge how satisfied he is with my work. I think there tends to be a programme running in my head all the time wondering about that.

At lunch J asked what book I was reading, the first time he’s shown any interest in my lunchtime reading. Perhaps because my interests were the focus of much childhood bullying, I tend to get really nervous about talking about my interests with anyone outside of narrow “boxes” – so I only feel comfortable talking about Doctor Who with people I know from fandom, only talk about Judaism with other frum (religious) Jews and so on. (Somehow the internet is OK to share and overshare all kinds of stuff, don’t ask me why.)

In the afternoon, J got me to start going through old papers from the office, the start of a long clear out. I tend to be a hoarder with my own papers and property, but if I’m not responsible for the articles in question, I end up wanting to throw everything away. I asked J about a lot of the papers and he told me to keep a lot of it, so I’m not sure how much autonomy I’ll actually have over this task. To be honest, I’m not terribly keen on having autonomy over other people’s things. I did throw away a load of invoices from before 2010 that were unlikely to be used again, but I do feel vaguely apprehensive thinking about it. Unfortunately, it was a dull task that did not use much of my brain and I got stuck in negative thoughts and feelings again and wondered if I am becoming depressed again.

My Mum said that I should tell J about the autism diagnosis. I’m reluctant to do so, partly I admit because J is a friend from before when he gave me the job. I mentioned above about compartmentalising things, and I’ve been reluctant to tell people from shul (synagogue) even about my depression history, let alone something like autism that is understood and accepted even less well than depression. If I do that, I would want to prepare what I would say about autism (if people ask me suddenly I tend to blank and struggle to articulate the symptoms, let alone how it affects me personally) as well as what adjustments, if any, I would want.

That was not the end of the day. The journey home was stressful, with a lot of traffic. I don’t know why sitting in traffic is stressful. A half-hour journey with heavy traffic seems more stressful than a forty-five minute with no traffic. So I came back pretty frazzled, only to be thrown into dealing with Pesach OCD stuff. I’m OK, I know things are OK and I’m not falling back into serious religious OCD, I’m just trying to stay calm and cope with things. My OCD is always worst when I’m hungry and tired and I was both of those things when I got home from work. It’s OK now.

PIMOJ haven’t been able to meet much recently, not that we can really go anywhere at the moment anyway because of lockdown. She is doing a full-time job with significant compulsory overtime two nights a week, plus she’s doing a degree and getting ready for Pesach. At least once the clocks go forward we can buy coffee or takeaway dinner after work and eat in a park, but at the moment it still gets dark too early. I know she’s not avoiding me, but I miss her and I still worry about the stress it puts on our relationship.

So, now I write, write, write, because it helps to get things out of my head and process them. I’m only writing on my blog, as I’ve put my novel on hold until I can show it to someone, which won’t be until after Pesach. To be honest, I’ve lost faith in it. I’d be tempted to start working on a different novel that I’ve been thinking about (is that writing bigamy? Or cheating?), but it requires significant research, both factual (details for the setting) and literary (reading other books in the genre) and I don’t have the time or headspace for that at the moment.

I feel too exhausted to do any Pesach preparation or further Torah study tonight. Yesterday, I said on my blog that I was going to watch more TV, but then felt too tired to actually do so, so I’m not going to do anything as reckless as say I’ll watch TV now. I feel tired, but I want to unwind more before I go to bed. I guess it’s a race to see if I can stay awake long enough to read or watch Babylon 5.

Short Post, Much Angst

Today I feel less burnt out than yesterday, but still subdued and struggling to do things, like I feel after a migraine. I would be tempted to take things easy, but it’s a week and a half until Pesach and I can’t really afford to do that.

I went out and did some shopping and spent well over an hour writing my devar Torah (I wasn’t sure I would have the time or energy this week) as well as doing a few small, but time-consuming, Pesach chores. However, my Dad cleaned the sinks in the garage that we use for Pesach, which was supposed to be my job yesterday; I was too tired yesterday and did not have enough time today. I vaguely feel I should do more things around the house.

The other important thing today was therapy. We spent a while talking about my autism diagnosis and what it means for me and my sense of self. We spoke about coming to terms with it being like grieving in a way and about whether I can use it as an opportunity to work on self-regard, which I feel very nervous about as I tend to assume that any positive self thoughts will lead to narcissism. In my head, someone gave Donald Trump (for example) too much praise as a child and now he has an ego the size of a planet, and I worry about that happening to me.

After therapy I found myself getting sucked into low mood and anxious thoughts again, some about my relationship and whether it can survive several more months of COVID, let alone other stresses. Then it segued into general feelings of gloom and impending doom. I found myself thinking about bad things I’d done in the past and being sucked back into bad experiences from childhood.

I really want to crash, but, again, there are things I have to do e.g. I told Mum I would do ironing and polish the silver over the next two days. I will do the ironing and watch The Simpsons, which I haven’t seen for years. Twice in the last twenty-four hours or so I thought about the episode The Mysterious Voyager of Homer, so I figured that, as I currently have access to it on Disney+, I might as well watch it. And then maybe another Babylon 5 episode before bed; I don’t really feel up to reading.

***

Today the oven cleaner (that’s a person who cleans ovens, not a spray) came to clean our ovens before Pesach. From here on in, things become increasingly Pesach-related and stressful for the next week and a bit. It feels increasingly “real” as we get past more pre-Pesach milestones (clean fridges, buy Pesach food, clean ovens, kasher ovens etc.). My rabbi mentor said that everyone’s entitled to one pre-Pesach meltdown, and I wonder how I can cope with that (my parents’ as much as my own).

Ground Control to Major Tom

Today was an out of spoons day. I felt very burnt out, probably no surprise after a busy day Zooming shiurim (religious classes) on Sunday and then work yesterday. I’m glad I wasn’t working today, but had a lot of Pesach (Passover) stuff to do and didn’t really want to get up as late as I did. Even when I got up, I was very tired and struggled to get going. I went back to bed for a bit after breakfast, just enjoying being in the dark and quiet and not being over-stimulated. I hoped I would feel better after lunch, but I just wanted to eat and watch TV. It’s a bit easier to give myself permission to be burnt out now I have my autism diagnosis, but it doesn’t help when I have external deadlines to meet, in this case Pesach in under two weeks!

Probably because of this, I felt some Pesach anxiety. When I break down what needs doing into individual tasks, I feel a bit better, but just thinking about EVERYTHING that needs to be done is daunting (and the amount I’m actually doing is pretty small in comparison with what will be done by my Mum and the paid cleaners, not to mention the guy who takes our oven apart to clean it). I’m also a bit worried about the Shabbat (Sabbath) the day before Pesach. For complicated reasons, this is very difficult and I’m particularly worried about burnout and missing deadlines for things that need to be done in the morning, although I have back-up plans for some of them.

I also miss PIMOJ. It’s hard not seeing each other in lockdown. At least we can meet outdoors now, but as she works full-time it’s still difficult as it’s too dark to go to the park at 6pm and we can’t go indoors to cafes or restaurants. Plus, we still have the practical obstacles to our relationship to negotiate, which I feel hang over the relationship a bit, even though we can probably overcome them. I’m trying to be honest with PIMOJ about my autism and sometimes precarious mental health, but I do worry about scaring her off, even though I don’t think she would leave me over that (not least because she would have done it already if she was going to).

***

I’m still thinking about my autism diagnosis. Maybe there’s a Kubler-Ross grief thing happening, although I’m not sure if I’m still on anger or sometimes on depression. I guess I feel that I know who I am now, and that to some extent explains or even excuses things I’ve done (or not done), but also I wonder just how much can I live with this or even change it, or am I locked into a predestined life forever (worth thinking about in the run up to Pesach, the festival of freedom).

I was thinking about the diagnosis when I went for a walk and came back feeling insignificant and somewhat depressed (I know I’m not supposed to say “depressed” any more now I’m not clinically depressed, but this felt as bad as some of my worst depressed days) even before my Mum started talking about my brother-in-law being made a director of the company he works for and a trustee of a charity he’s involved with. What, I wonder, not for the first time, am I actually doing here? On Earth, I mean. I wonder what PIMOJ sees in me, and when she’ll realise I’m not a good catch.

Then I was phoned by my friend from shul (synagogue) to ask about contributing to the fund for the new building. He spoke a bit about the amounts raised so far and the amount still needed. I didn’t realise that there are some very generous, not to mention wealthy, people in my community. When they want four-figure sums and some people have given five-figure sums, to offer £100 (as I was thinking) seems paltry. My parents actually convinced me not even to give £100 in one go, but to give some now and decide about the rest in six months’ time (the appeal is over two years). This is probably good, as I didn’t really want to give as much as £100. I wouldn’t say I was trying to save face exactly, but it did make me feel like I’m not a real adult among people my age… which brings me back to autism and my negative experiences in the workplace.

***

I managed to do some things: hoovering the garage (which basically functions as our Pesach kitchen, although we don’t have an oven out there); cooking dinner (macaroni cheese, my easiest recipe); a thirty minute walk; and finished typing up my notes from Sunday’s talks and a tiny bit of Torah study. I did feel that the more I did, the worse my mood got, so there is definitely a trade off there between activity and mood. There was a lot I wanted to do that I didn’t do, mostly preparation for Pesach (Mum and Dad offered to do some of it).

When I was out walking, I noticed someone had parked their car and left their lights on. I would normally go and tell them, but I just did not have the social energy to ring the doorbell and speak to them. I felt awful about it, but I was just too drained to fight the social anxiety enough.

***

A book I ordered a while back arrived today, a haggadah (prayer book for the Pesach seder service). I wanted a new haggadah as it would have a different commentary, so I could read some new things out at the seder to go beyond the set text. I was worried in particular about not having time this year for much research, so I wanted to get a new haggadah with a commentary I hadn’t read before that hopefully would be full of new ideas. This one in particular (Seder Talk by Erica Brown, who I’ve heard lecture twice at the LSJS on Zoom) has prompts for conversations too. Ideally the seder should lead to flowing conversations on the story of the exodus from Egypt and the concept of freedom in Jewish thought. I find interesting ideas to share at the seder, but I struggle to get actual conversations going, so I thought this would help, even though it’s just going to be my parents and me at our seder this year because of lockdown.

(Why do I always think haggadah should be spelt with one ‘g’ and two ‘d’s while I think armageddon should be the reverse?)

***

I feel a little better now, but I do feel bad that I didn’t do as much as I wanted (not just Torah study for once), but also aware that realistically I probably did as much as I could, maybe even a little more than I should have done. It’s frustrating, but I guess I need to learn to live with it. This is part of the reason I find it hard to identify autism as a ‘difference’ rather than a ‘disability.’ It feels disabling when I can’t do what I want (or even need) to do, just as it feels disabling when I’m aware of not having a good job, let alone a career, compared with my peers.

Getting Inside Other People’s Heads

Today was a difficult day. Perhaps the stress of the season is beginning to hit me, or perhaps I just did too much Zooming yesterday. I experienced intrusive thoughts of different kinds in the morning and felt overwhelmed and anxious at work. The anxiety was fairly unfocused, touching work, Pesach (Passover) preparations and my relationship (not the relationship itself but the obstacles to moving it forward). I felt an inner tension. At work, I was continuing with the inventory of relatively expensive objects and when I stood on a chair to reach those on the top shelf, I felt a bit of vertigo and anxiety about falling off the chair or dropping the objects and breaking them. I had to get J to help me get one of them down because I was worried I would shake and drop it, although I made out that I just couldn’t reach it (J is taller than me).

After that, J and I practised the new task he wants me to do and I found it difficult. There’s a lot to memorise and it requires quick thinking to follow different permutations of responses based on what the other person says. I’m unwilling to play the autism card yet, but I need to see how I can cope with it in real life rather than role play. He suggested that we role play it some more. I agreed, and also said that the next time the situation arises in real life, he should let me take the call with him in the room so he can prompt me if necessary, rather than waiting until he’s out of the office and I have to do it alone.

On the way home, J reiterated that he’d like to give me a permanent part-time job. I had thought this was dependent on finances, but it sounds like it’s more dependent on institutional politics. I couldn’t follow all of what he was saying as he had the radio on and I find it hard to tune background noise out and was too socially anxious to ask him to turn it off, but it sounds like there’s someone in the organisation who would potentially block making my job permanent, but he retires in June, so if I can stay for another four months, I’m likely to get a permanent job. This would be very good.

Otherwise the journey home was a bit stressful with more depressing news on the radio, more on misogyny and murder, as well as the withdrawal of the AstraZeneca vaccine in much of Europe. This was the vaccine I had, so I’m vaguely nervous, although I think there’s a lot of politics at work here and the number of deaths supposedly related to the vaccine seems tiny. I came home to news of another alleged abuse story, this time in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Abuse seems depressingly prevalent in all societies.

***

I could have gone to depression group tonight, but was too exhausted for more Zooming. Also, last time I spoke about my then-upcoming autism assessment, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my diagnosis yet. I can’t really explain why, I just don’t feel ready. I haven’t spoken to my therapist about it yet (my first therapy session since the diagnosis is on Wednesday) and there’s an aspect of the diagnosis that I have not told anyone else about yet that I really want to speak to my therapist about and maybe that has something to do with it.

***

I managed about twenty-five minutes of Torah study on the Tube into work and spent half an hour typing up some of my notes of things I learnt yesterday that I want to share at the seder. I’m trying to look at the average amount of time I study Torah each week rather than the amount each day; doing five or six hours yesterday should stand me in good stead for a bit.

***

I’m still watching Babylon 5. It’s very well-written, particularly the character arcs for G’Kar and Londo. How the writers (mostly J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about 85% of the series) turn G’Kar from a violent hothead into a man of peace, and turn Londo from a washed up joke into a ruthless politician and war criminal and then give him a hint of redemption without any of this progress seeming forced or unnatural. How G’Kar and Londo go from being bitter enemies to firm friends. How neither character is unlikeable or two-dimensional even when doing terrible things. Most of this is ahead of me (I’m only halfway through season two of five), but it already makes my own writing feel inferior, reminding me how I failed to make the abuser in my novel into a rounded character and how I’m not sure how to change that.

I guess thinking myself into the head of an abuser is on my mind today because of the murder and misogyny in the news. Some of the intrusive thoughts have been around this. I’ve wondered for many years about how people can hurt other people. I find it hard to get into their heads. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about murder, how people can do it, how they can live with it. I can’t even imagine living with myself if I killed someone in self-defence or in a just war, let alone in cold blood. I guess this is the writer (and reader) in me, the part of me that wants to explore other lives, although I’m not so good at thinking it through beyond the initial revulsion, let alone writing about it.

There’s a short story by perhaps my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges, called Deutsches Requiem, where he writes from the perspective of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal on the eve of his execution. It’s a chilling piece of writing that somehow makes you see the world through the eyes of a thoroughly evil person and feel some kind of empathy for him. I have a long way to go to get to that level of writing.

The Napoleon of Higher Education

I don’t have much to say again today, but I feel the need to write something again…

It occurred to me today that “I won.” I thought I was autistic, despite my first assessment, I fought for reassessment, I got it and I got the diagnosis I wanted. I won. I’m not sure where I go now. I thought that a diagnosis would lead to greater self-knowledge and support. I feel I’ve won, but I can’t work out where that leaves me, what I can do next. I guess I need to wait a while to see how things develop, as well as waiting for the official report from the hospital, which will contain a list of available resources. At the moment I’m pretty focused on getting through Pesach (Passover), but maybe after that I can think about my options.

***

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was pretty normal. I slept too much, considering I need to be up early tomorrow morning for the LSJS Pesach study day on Zoom. I don’t want to be up late tonight with insomnia.

My parents are out shopping. One of the kosher supermarkets opens after Shabbat around this time of year so people can do Pesach shopping and my parents like to go then, believing it’s less crowded than during the week or on Sunday. It makes me realise how rarely I’ve had the house to myself for any length of time over the last year, particularly at night. Moments alone have mostly been during the day, when Mum has been at the hospital and Dad has been going to or from the hospital (not being allowed to stay and wait for her because of COVID). It’s been a pretty tough year for all of us, but I guess it’s been a pretty tough year for the whole world. And yet somehow I’ve got a job and a girlfriend, neither of which I had this time last year.

***

I watched another episode of This is Us. I probably wouldn’t be watching if PIMOJ didn’t want to watch it with me, but it’s inoffensive enough, the type of light comedy/drama that tends to be broadcast on Sunday evenings in the UK. There’s a sense that situations that could be difficult or emotional, like abandoning your baby because of your drug addiction, or the USA’s ingrained racial tensions are dealt with in an offhand way, as if they are the same type of thing as changing your job or envying your partner’s ex, these all being ongoing plot threads at the same time. As in the various Star Trek series, no one gets angry at anyone else for more than a few minutes, leading to a stable worldview in which support networks are always there and nothing incurably bad could ever happen to anyone. This is false, on one level, but also reassuring and soothing.

***

The college I worked at in Higher Education is advertising for an Assistant Librarian (my job) again, I think for the second or third time since I left. I don’t know if it’s for a replacement for my replacement or if it’s a result of expansion. When I was there, the college had four sites and three semi-separate colleges across one side of London, but their website now lists six colleges over nine sites and the job advert says they’re intending to take over colleges in a couple of other cities too.

I am not sure what I think about that. It’s like hearing your ex has moved on when you haven’t. On the other hand, the fact that they keep advertising for the job could mean that morale is low (it wasn’t great when I was there). It was bad enough being forced to go to staff training days at [redacted place that was miles away, where one of the other sites was] occasionally, let alone going to the Midlands! The same principal is still there, and it does feel that he’s expanding aggressively. To be fair, the college has a record for taking over failing colleges in poor parts of London and turning them round. They get decent results and help teenagers from poor backgrounds get into good universities and I can’t criticise that, but I wonder if they are overstretching themselves. Certainly staff were not happy about the constant expansion when I was there.

To be honest, I don’t know, and will never know, if I made the right decision in leaving, but my life since then would be rather different if I had stayed and not necessarily for the better. Whether I made the right decision or not, the life I have now is my life, including all the social and work difficulties I had that prompted me to leave, difficulties that I can now place under the umbrella heading of ‘autism.’

Feeling Withdrawn

I didn’t write yesterday. I didn’t have much to say and just felt too tired in the evening after work, housework and doing some Pesach (Passover) stuff. I guess I’m also still processing things in the light of my autism diagnosis. I still don’t know what it means for me in terms of career, telling friends, telling my community and so on. Maybe I won’t know for some time, until after Pesach when I have more time to think.

I don’t have much to say today either. I don’t feel that I have much to say at the moment except for relatively mild Pesach anxiety, but the blog is my main social outlet, so I feel the need to post most days even if I don’t have much to say.

I had an OCD moment today when I worried that I had missed part of the freezer when I cleaning it for Pesach on Sunday and was about to clean it again before deciding that it was OCD and I shouldn’t give in to it. It’s good that I stopped myself.

I’m going to go to shul (synagogue) later today. Aside from Purim, this is the first time I’ve been in months, not considering the risk of COVID worth running for an normal Shabbat (Sabbath). I just feel drained right now and I don’t know why. I guess I’ve had a busy and emotional week, although it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

***

J gave me a lift home from work yesterday and had the radio on in the car. He listens to talk radio and they were talking about violence against women in the light of the Sarah Everard murder case (an ongoing murder investigation that has pushed COVID and the royal family off the front pages for the last few days).

In the light of this conversation, I’ve been trying to work out if it’s good or bad that my novel deals with domestic violence in the Jewish community (I know I’ve wondered about this here before; it does still worry me). I worry about being accused of appropriation. I don’t find appropriation a particularly helpful concept, but that isn’t really the point: I can be judged whether I agree with it or not. My thinking is that the number of Orthodox Jewish women willing and able to write about abuse is very small — able in terms of both skills and time, and willing in a community where saying anything provocative tends to be seen as risking jeopardising marriage chances (yours, your children’s, your grandchildren’s…), not least given the tiny size of the Orthodox community as a whole. My feeling from reading the anonymous website neshamas.com is that abuse and violence against women is a very real problem in the community, but also that almost no one is willing to talk about it publicly. I feel like I can’t be pushed much further out on the fringe than I already am and I feel that if I’m not willing to talk about it, maybe no one else will. But I worry about being patronising, or being whatever the feminist equivalent of a white saviour is.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ devar Torah email this week states, “Here, there is a call for us always to speak out; to try our utmost to neutralise the forces of persecution and never to be silent when we witness the suffering of others.” So I guess that means I’m doing the right thing.

Surprisingly Social

I’ve been feeling better today, although I still feel that I’ve got things to process and think about. I’ve actually been more social than I’ve been in a long time. I had a Skype call with my oldest friend. I had already told him about the autism diagnosis and we spoke about that a bit. He had had some (very different) long-term health issues when we were at school, and he felt there’s a difference between before and after diagnosis, even if you know that the diagnosis is coming; a switch from reading things and saying, “Is that me?” to saying “That is me.” It was good to catch up with him again. In recent years we haven’t seen each other so often for various reasons, but we still connect well. I did shake a little while talking though, which I found a bit strange and frustrating.

Then in the evening I went out with PIMOJ, largely because it was the first chance we had after lockdown. It was raining and windy and we couldn’t go anywhere because most of the lockdown restrictions are still in force, it’s only the ban on meeting people outdoors that has been lifted so far. So we walked around Golders Green in the rain and cold, but we had a good time. I think we were just glad to meet in person again after over two months. But “seeing” two people in a day is a big step for me.

Other than that I did a little Pesach cleaning and some Torah study and that was about all I had time for. While I was doing the Pesach cleaning I listened to the Tradition journal podcast tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl. Not for the first time, I wished I could have spoken to him. I mean, really spoken to him, not just meet him at an event and say hello (as my father did, I think). On the podcast, Dr Daniel Rynhold spoke about the way Rabbi Sacks supported young people into positions of leadership in the Jewish community. It made me feel that I missed out, not just on the chance to meet him, but on the chance to have some kind of role in Orthodox Jewish life in this country. Jewish teenagers tend to join youth movements which gives them contacts and experience as they move into university, where they tend to become active on campus Jewish life and then on into adulthood in communities. I missed that because I was too withdrawn and scared of being bullied if I was around people my own age when I was a teenager. At university I knew people who were involved in the Jewish Society, but I felt it was mostly a social group and I didn’t know how to run social groups, so I didn’t get involved, to the anger of at least one person who thought I was being selfish and stand-offish. I didn’t even go to events much as I was scared of talking to people and didn’t think I would enjoy socialising with other people much anyway. The reality was I was mostly scared and uncertain: of myself, of other people, of what needed doing. Then my depression started and I was on a downward spiral that took over my life until I was on the way out from the “young person” label.

Speaking of community involvement, I have mentioned that my shul wants to buy its own premises, having rented space in other people’s institutions since the community was founded thirty years ago. I was supposed to get a fundraising brochure about it, which was not delivered, although I eventually got a pdf version that I squinted at on WhatsApp. I’m going to be phoned to ask how I can help. I’m not sure what they mean by “help” – is it a polite way of saying how much money can I give? The pdf brochure had a list of possible donations; the smallest is in four figures and most are in five or even six. The cheapest thing listed is that for £1,800 I could donate a cover for a lectern for the small Beis Hemedrash, which is about two orders of magnitude greater than I could afford. That’s if I want to get my name on something, of course. You can give less, but I think they will still want a heftier donation than I feel able to give. But my real worry is what if “help” actually means “do something”? A WhatsApp message from the shul yesterday said that they are looking for people to help with admin, fundraising and marketing. I guess I might be able to help with admin, but fundraising and marketing sound worryingly like talking to people, probably on the phone.

I don’t want to sound negative. I don’t have a problem with the shul trying to raise money for a good cause, and promising to slap someone’s name on a wall or bit of furniture is a time-tested way of doing that, even if it means that some people are in more of a position to give (and be seen to be giving) than others. If it comes to practical help, it’s a nice idea, I just worry that I’m at capacity already, even just working two days a week and trying to help at home. Plus, I worry that I have an ability to screw up even the simplest of tasks lately.

I appreciate that this sounds a lot like I sounded when I was at university and not helping the Jewish Society. Maybe the photos of people having fun at shul events in the brochure sent me back in time a couple of decades, the feeling that everyone fits in and has a good time except me. I don’t know. I have a few days to think about things before I have to have that phone call about how I can help. The hardest thing is that it’s my closest friend in shul who is going to be phoning me, which makes the whole thing ten times more awkward.

Actually Autistic

I had the final autism assessment today.  I was told that I do meet the diagnostic criteria for high functioning autism (what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome).  The psychiatrist spoke a bit about why she was diagnosing now when it had been missed when I was assessed back in 2006, mainly because I now had experience of difficulties in a work environment and also because some of the symptoms were put down to depression in 2006 whereas my depression is mostly gone now.

The psychiatrist also spoke briefly about help the hospital might be able to give me in the future in terms of specialist CBT. Ordinary CBT doesn’t work well for people on the spectrum, which is probably why I’ve struggled with it. That may help with social interactions. There is a one year waiting list though.

I’m also now eligible for legal support in the workplace from disability discrimination legislation (one of my main practical reasons for pursuing the assessment).

I was relieved when I got the diagnosis, but have also been feeling quite numb since then and in the last hour or so a bit sad without really understanding why I feel like this.  I guess it’s a big change to adapt to, even if I had suspected it and pursued it for several years now.  I’m going to take some time out today to process things. I guess adjusting to change is hard, even if it has been expected for some times.

I went for a walk after the assessment to try to process things, but I don’t think it helped much. I’m going to do what I don’t usually do and post this now and then maybe post something more considered this evening.

Overloaded

I struggled to get up today, more than usual on a work day. I’m not sure why. I felt that I was falling asleep on the Tube too and did a lot less Torah study than I would normally manage (which I’m recording to show how tired I was more than how little Torah study I was doing). Work was mostly OK, but J was talking to me about the new task I’m going to be doing and it left me a bit panicked. Firstly, he gave over all the information verbally (although I was taking notes this time), which is not ideal for someone with autism (people on the spectrum tend to have problems processing verbal instructions). However, I have not told him about my issues and at the moment don’t feel comfortable in doing so, and in a tiny organisation realistically there isn’t really a better way to transmit the information. Secondly, the importance of the task and the relatively distressed people I will be coming into contact with is in itself anxiety-provoking, especially as they will be telephone conversations (my least favourite kind). I would like to say more, but can’t without revealing too much about the job. Also, realistically I know that in a new job or with a new task one learns from one’s mistakes, but I worry about making mistakes with distressed people.

I seemed to be quite anxious by the late afternoon. I’m not sure how much was thinking about this task and how much was anxiety about the final part of my autism assessment tomorrow morning. I was also anxious that PIMOJ asked me to message someone on her behalf. I was anxious about what to say and what his response would be. This is an ongoing thing that I’d like to talk about here, but don’t really feel able to do so yet and which provokes nuclear-level anxiety, as well as coexisting with general anxiety about whether I’m too much of an autistic loner to be able to maintain a relationship (my first relationship was probably somewhat immature, although I was in my late twenties; my second was long-distance (and on-off); and this is my third).

I came home feeling awful, terribly drained and overstimulated. I don’t think I’ve felt this overloaded since I was volunteering at the asylum seekers’ drop-in centre, where I would spent three or four hours in a very loud and busy environment, “peopling” and looking after small children and I would come home unable to do anything for hours. I did send the message and one or two other things, but I wasn’t able to do more Torah study or anything productive.

I did watch the first episode of This Is Us, the TV programme PIMOJ wanted to share with me. It was OK. I’m going to hold off from passing a verdict on it until I’ve seen more in a better state of mind, but at the moment I’m not hugely excited at the prospect of watching more episodes.

I Am Not My Thoughts and Feelings

I didn’t have much to do at work today. I haven’t had much to do for the last couple of work days. I think the usual winter rush that J told me about is over. I hope that doesn’t mean that I won’t be needed for much longer, especially as I’m nearing the end of the long-term project I’ve been working on at times when there hasn’t been any more immediate work.

***

I’m re-reading Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s book The Strife of the Spirit. I read it years ago, but can’t really remember much about it. I lent it to PIMOJ recently and she really liked it and said I should re-read it, although I think the mysticism of the early parts (it’s a collection of essays and interviews from different places) is more to her religious taste than mine.

However, today, in a chapter on the soul, Rabbi Steinsaltz says that our souls are not our thoughts or emotions. This intrigued me. I have mentioned here before that I find it very hard to have any sense of selfhood that isn’t connected to my thoughts and, to a lesser extent, my feelings. I’m very bad at meditation, mindfulness and other techniques for “switching off” our thoughts. So I was interested to see him say that our souls are not the same as our thoughts and feelings. When I try to visualise the afterlife (which in recent years I’ve found myself doing a lot for some reason), it tends to be as disembodied thought or feeling, even though I suspected (and this agreed) that disembodied being would be closer to the mark. I don’t know what that would “disembodied being” would entail, though. Maybe it’s beyond human perception in this world.

***

“The universe doesn’t give you any points for doing things that are easy” was a quote from a Babylon 5 episode I watched today (The Geometry of Shadows by J. Michael Straczynski). I’d agree with that, replacing the quasi-pantheistic “The universe” with “God” (Straczynski self-describes as atheist, but much of Babylon 5 has a vaguely mystical pantheist feel). Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard though. It often feels that I have to struggle just to get to the starting line, let alone to finish the race.

On which note: I’m still worrying about my autism assessment next week, worrying what will happen (practically and to my self-esteem) if I’m not held to be on the spectrum. I should really try harder not to think about it, because the psychiatrist has almost certainly already decided her diagnosis and there’s nothing I can do about it. I asked some friends and family members to pray for me, something I don’t think I’ve done before, not like this anyway. I asked them not to pray for any particular diagnosis, but just that I should have understanding and acceptance of myself and peace of mind. I did it less because of any practical effect I thought it might have and more because I thought it would help me to feel supported and cared for.

I heard the Jewish biblical scholar Dr Erica Brown talking about The Book of Esther recently and she used the image of standing on the threshold at key moments of our lives, as Queen Esther stands at the threshold of the king’s throne room, risking death if she walks in without being summoned there. I immediately saw the relevance for my own position. It really feels like Tuesday morning (the diagnosis appointment) is a threshold moment that will either concretise my self-understanding as someone on the spectrum or force me to look in a completely different direction in order to understand and accept myself.

Neurotypicalism

I went to my autism support group on Zoom this morning. I was wary of it, as I find it a lot less helpful than depression group, but it was about relationships and I wanted to see if I would learn anything. The main thing I learnt is that the person who runs the meetings seems to have issues with neurotypicals and needs to work them through somewhere else rather than just ranting about them in the meeting. I left early because it was just too much. There wasn’t really much helpful advice, just some stuff about being authentic and making room for yourself in the relationship and feeling free to have non-standard relationships if that works for you. Someone there had been married for nearly fifty years, which is reassuring, although other people were speaking about not wanting to live with anyone at all. It makes me feel vaguely weird for wanting a “neurotypical standard” relationship involving marriage and living in the same house. I felt there wasn’t really enough talk about how to make compromises for a relationship rather than expecting your neurotypical partner to make compromises for you. The final straw was when the presenter said that, for autistic people, no means no, but neurotypical people are “play games” and often say no when they mean yes, which struck me as a misleading and dangerous thing to say.

I was also a bit worried by the number of people in the group who are quite happy living by themselves. Not worried for them, if they’re happy, but I’ve had mixed feelings about that. I have lived by myself at times and I coped and enjoyed parts of it, but I also found it very lonely and isolating at times. Realistically, there isn’t any easy way I can have people around me when I want them, but not when I don’t, so either living alone or with someone involves trade-offs. I also think that some of the people in the “want to live alone forever” group were OK with having casual sex, and I’m not, for various reasons, so that certainly does alter the cost/benefit analysis.

I spent an hour or so working on my devar Torah for the week, partially abandoning my original plan when I was unable to locate some quotes in the primary sources. I prefer to use primary sources than secondary ones, but I don’t always know where to find the primary sources for concepts and sayings I’ve picked up over the years, plus I’m often reliant on online sources and my imperfect Hebrew translation skills. I know I’m not alone in struggling to remember where I heard things as the internet is full of Jews either misattributing quotes and concepts or saying vaguely that, “It’s a Jewish idea that…” or “The rabbis say that…” Someone should make an index of well-known Talmudic and Midrashic stories and quotes. Famously, a lot of Jews, including some very frum (religious) ones, misremember the story about Avraham (Abraham) smashing up his father’s idol workshop as an actual passage in the Torah (it isn’t, it’s a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical narrative)).

After that, I did a mixture of Torah study and cooking and went for a 5K run, but I did feel a bit lost without either paid work or my novel to work on. I’m resting the novel for a few weeks until my writer/editor friend can look at it. I feel pretty negative about it at the moment, to be honest, and keep wondering what possessed me to try to a mainstream novel of character. Part of me wants to start on a new novel, but I know I have to stick with this one until it’s either ready for publication or definitely unpublishable.

I spoke to PIMOJ in the evening. To be honest, during and after my run I was having negative thoughts (personal worries, worries about antisemitism… the usual), but I did feel better after speaking to PIMOJ. We didn’t even talk about my issues, we just talked. It was good.

Lately I’ve had some minor religious OCD, not the Purim Megillah issue I wrote about, but “idolatrous” thoughts when I was trying to pray. I’ve had this a lot over the years. The easiest way to get rid of them is exposure therapy. Trying not to think about something tends to make you think about it, so the anxiety about not thinking X immediately prompts thoughts of X. The solution is to deliberately think about X a lot, so I spent time this evening repeating the phrase where I usually have the trouble while thinking the things I usually try not to think in the hope that I will get to a point where I’m so desensitised to thinking about them that I don’t try not to think about them (if that makes sense). I may have to do this for a number of days until it works, but I’ve responded well to this in the past.

Autism Fears

I had a usual eat/pray/Torah study/read/sleep too much Shabbat. I read more of Contact. I feel a bit like I do when I meet someone I objectively should like, but who somehow irritates me. I should like the book, and on some level I do, enough to stick with it, but part of me is getting annoyed. Maybe the feeling I’m getting from it is that the author feels that anyone who went down the humanities route at university (let alone anyone who didn’t go to university at all!) is an idiot and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Maybe even that wouldn’t annoy me if it didn’t chime with my worst fears about the “Believe science” movement. Yes, I think science (empiricism, falsifiability, repetition) is valuable and an important element in policy decisions. No, I do not think unelected scientists should be making policy decisions instead of elected policy-makers, even if that means you sometimes get an idiot in control ignoring the advice. Elected policy makers can be replaced; unelected government scientists often can’t, or not directly.

***

I just watched an episode of WandaVision followed by one of The Mandalorian, the latter along with PIMOJ (simultaneous, but in different houses). WandaVision has gone from being a strange, not really funny spoof of old television sitcoms to a fairly conventional superhero series in the space of six episodes. The Mandalorian is technically accomplished, but lacking in soul. It reminds me of the final and weakest season of Blake’s 7. I found myself struggling to care about the characters in a story when almost everyone is a ruthless killer. Also, the droid was clearly voiced by Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd, which was just weird.

***

I feel like I’m struggling to be a good boyfriend at the moment. To be fair, it’s hard. I can’t remember when the current lockdown actually started. Google says 5 January. Two months having a relationship on text and video has been difficult. It’s hard to be present and focused for someone I haven’t seen in person for months. Hopefully we’ll get to see each other soon, once the lockdown finishes on 8 March. We relate so much better in person.

***

Over the last couple of days I have been worrying a bit about my autism assessment. It’s on 9 March, a week and a half away. I worry that I’m going to be told that I’m not on the autism spectrum and I worry what that would mean for my self-esteem, when I’ve coped with work setbacks in recent years by telling myself that the environments were not suitable for someone on the spectrum. To be fair, I have done a lot better in jobs in healthier environments for me, which indicates that this is true. But the fear is there.

When I had the first part of the assessment, which consisted of me explaining to the psychiatrist why I think I’m on the spectrum, she said that it sounded like I was on the spectrum. However, after that I had to have a second assessment, where I was made to do various activities that would demonstrate whether I think in an autistic way and I have no idea how I did on this, so the fear of being told that (for example) I act autistic, but I don’t think autistic is strong. I don’t know what that would mean for me or my sense of self.

I felt on Friday that I wanted to do something I’ve never done before and ask some of my family and Jewish friends to pray for me. Praying to be autistic sounds weird and is probably against Jewish law, which says that you shouldn’t pray for things that can’t be changed, even if you don’t know what they are yet. The psychiatrist has probably decided her diagnosis, so I can’t pray for it to change. What I can pray for is to have self-understanding and acceptance. I would like others to pray for me partly, I suppose, because I think God may listen to them more than me, but also to feel supported by family and friends who were often long-distance people in my life even before COVID started, somewhat like Rav Soloveitchik’s view of prayer in The Lonely Man of Faith, where he sees it as less about asking God to do something and more about creating a “covenantal community” that includes God, but also other people. I do feel strange thinking about asking for it, though, so I’m not sure what to do.

COVID Purim (2)

There is an idea I heard the other day that Purim is the celebration of the end of the Jewish year. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is in the autumn, but Pesach (Passover) in a month’s time is also the new year (we have about four different new years for different things…). So this is the celebration that we got through another year. It feels more like New Year’s Eve than the introspection and hours in shul (synagogue) of Rosh Hashanah.

This year, Purim also marks a year of COVID. During Purim last year, COVID was around, but no one was taking it seriously and a lot of people got sick. Some died. Now we’ve gone a complete circuit through the Jewish calendar with COVID. The thought of doing a second Pesach in lockdown in four weeks’ time is making me feel a bit queasy, but that’s where we are.

Despite struggling to fall asleep and waking several times in the night, I managed to get up at 6.30am for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) at shul (synagogue). We were divided into small groups in different parts of the building again for social distancing purposes. The Megillah reading was good and I didn’t have any worries about missing words.

After breakfast, Dad and I drove around the area giving friends (his and Mum’s as well as mine) mishloach manot (gifts of food). Then we had a rather hurried seudah (festive meal). By this stage I just wanted to crash. Between six hours interrupted sleep and autistic social burnout, I was pretty exhausted and just wanted to crash, even though this year’s Purim was very low key. I watched Babylon 5 for a bit, the season one finale Chrysalis. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator, executive producer and chief writer on Babylon 5 spoke about “Wham” episodes, the ones with major irreversible plot twists and the like. Chrysalis is the first Wham episode, chronologically, and feels like the first episode to be clearly part of a much bigger story even if you didn’t know about the projected five year narrative (which I didn’t on original transmission). Re-watching the series in order, it feels like the start of what I wanted to re-watch rather than just the introduction to the characters and set-up. Not that season one didn’t have some good episodes, because it did, but that they feel a bit disconnected from the plot that runs through series two to four (season five also feels a bit disconnected, but that’s another story). So that refreshed me a bit.

Now I’m trying to move into Shabbat mode, and trying to avoid the slightly hollow, “Did I really grow from this festival?” feeling that I get sometimes at the end of festivals. I don’t feel that I did grow, but then again I’m not sure if it would be noticeable if I had grown, least of all to me. I suspect that real personal growth, like real happiness, is something that happens when you aren’t staring at it, trying to will it into existence.

Vulnerable and Fragile

The good news for today is that I have an appointment for the final part of my autism assessment booked in for 9 March, two weeks’ time. This is really all down to my Mum, who has been phoning to chase it up. Sadly on the NHS, or parts of it, there’s a benefit in having someone willing and able to make a certain amount of noise on your behalf when waiting for an appointment, in case you drop off the system, as I suspect I had done.

***

I was burnt out again this morning, sleeping for about twelve hours, although I intended to “only” sleep for ten. The problem is partly that I turn off my clock radio alarms in my sleep, or at least don’t wake up for long enough to really wake up and stay awake. I put my phone on the other side of the room, so I have to get up to turn the alarm off, but its alarm is too quiet to really wake me and I sleep through it. Even if I do wake up, I fall asleep again before I can summon the energy to get up. I’m sure this must be boring and repetitive to readers, but it’s how my life is at the moment, with this major obstacle (burnout and oversleeping) that I just can’t make progress on and don’t really understand, even though I’ve made a lot of progress with the rest of my life.

I went for a walk and to the post office. That was crowded. The post office is inside the pharmacy and the pharmacy is doing COVID vaccinations, so there were a lot of people trying to socially distance inside and outside the shop. My mood slumped again while I was out walking, which might be a late afternoon blood sugar thing, or maybe because I was listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and Orthodox Judaism and it made me think how slow and uncertain it will be to move my relationship with PIMOJ on to a point where we can marry. My mood dropped a bit again while I was cooking dinner (vegetable curry), although it improved as I focused on cooking, which suggests that not having a focus is a trigger for negative thoughts.

I went to a shiur (religious class), the last of this set of shiurim, this time on Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther). It was more in depth than the previous ones, presumably because Esther is one of the better-known books of the Hebrew Bible among Jews, as we read it every year (twice, morning and evening) on Purim, which is this Thursday night and Friday. There were some interesting points about liminal spaces and identity in Esther. It made me feel more positive about the upcoming Purim, a festival that traditionally inspires very mixed feelings in me.

Then I saw that my shul (synagogue) had sent out an email about social distancing over Purim. So the whole community can all hear the Megillah, morning and evening safely, they are running four different readings at night and another four in the morning in different rooms of the building. I’m not entirely sure where my room is, so I need to go early to make sure I get there on time. They said there will be stewards to guide us, but I’m slightly apprehensive about it and plan to get there ten or fifteen minutes early to be safe.

***

I’ve noticed that I’ve had to struggle against religious OCD thoughts more lately. So far I haven’t sent any panicked emails to my rabbi asking if things were OK, which means it’s mostly under control and no actual OCD, just thoughts. (Actually, there was one email, but it was realistically a necessary email, and I didn’t send follow-up emails even though I was still worried.) Even so, I’m a bit concerned about things spiralling out of control as we approach Pesach. I’m trying to remember my coping strategies and exposure therapy techniques. I’m also trying to tell myself “I can cope” as my therapist suggested.

I guess my life is far from perfect right now, but realistically, no one’s life is ever perfect, and my current life is manageable, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m going with that for now. I do feel kind of fragile and vulnerable though, as if I’m aware I don’t have great resilience at the moment and am worried how I might cope if things start to go wrong.

Shabbat and “Organised Religion”

Shabbat was mostly good. I finished reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy. It was very detailed (it’s much longer than the other books I have in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series even though Ruth is a very short book), perhaps a little too detailed, but it was very thorough and gave me a new appreciation for the literary and theological depth of a book that I had perhaps dismissed in the past as merely a pleasant story and a bit of an “origin story” for the Davidic monarchy.

I couldn’t sleep at night and read a lot of the graphic novel Final Crisis. I found it fairly incomprehensible. I knew that was likely to happen, as it’s a “crisis” story where Detective Comics put all their superheroes together against a massive foe. As Batman, to a much lesser extent, Superman, are the only superheroes I know well, I was expecting to be faced with many characters I didn’t know well or even at all. However, no characters seemed to stick around for more than a page or two to get to know them, except for a long interlude of Superman with parallel universe Supermen in a weird limbo universe. I didn’t really understand what was going on or why an equation can drive the entire population of Earth to despair and servitude of a super-powerful alien being (Darkseid). I’m reading it as it’s part of Grant Morrison’s wider Batman story arc, but it doesn’t seem to be as good as the other, Batman-only, stories in the arc. Or maybe I’m still too much of a Detective Comics novice to appreciate it. I think Morrison isn’t such a great plot author and tends to rely on spectacle and innovation and reimagining existing characters to pull the reader along.

I told PIMOJ I would get up at 10am today. I’m trying to see if I can get up earlier if I make myself responsible to her. I didn’t manage it, but I did get up at 10.37 instead, which was reasonably good. Unfortunately I napped for two hours after lunch; not good, I won’t sleep tonight (hence it’s gone 12.30am and I’m still writing).

I had a headache after Shabbat. I hope I’m not getting back in the habit of getting a headache every week.

My parents and I watched a Zoom talk this evening. Someone from my shul (synagogue) was speaking about his life story, from birth into a non-Jewish Austrian family in the 1920s to conscription into the Hitler Youth and later the SS, to being captured by the Americans and being a prisoner of war in England and eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism quite late in life. It was interesting and he really had enough material to speak for two evenings.

After that I spoke to PIMOJ for a while and then did some Torah study that I hadn’t managed earlier because of my headache.

***

I had some thoughts about organised religion, based on the comments to my previous post. A number of people spoke about believing in God, or at least being open to God, but getting turned off by organised religion. I guess that’s something I can’t always understand emotionally, although I can see why some religious institutions would annoy people. Maybe it’s partially because Judaism doesn’t have the kind of structure that the Catholic and Anglican Churches have, the sense of a vast institution with wealth and power and a religious hierarchy.

When people say “organised religion” to me in a Jewish context I think of stuff like having a community with some kind of funding to own or lease a building for regular prayers, to ensure the lights and the heating there stay on, and having some kind of administrative set-up to ensure that the money is overseen safely, with no fraud, and that poorer people in the community can be supported from communal tzedaka (charity) funds and so on. Maybe also paying a rabbi to provide pastoral support. That’s not really anything that upsets or annoys me, or turns me off in other ways.

On the other hand, I do get annoyed by, and feel rebellious when confronted with various things. I don’t particularly care about being told what to eat or when to pray or who I can marry; I take that as coming with the territory of being an Orthodox Jew. However, I do react strongly if I feel people are telling me what I can read or are dismissing my beliefs, even if I know they’re minority views in the Orthodox community and more ‘modern’ than Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Also if I feel people are saying I can’t watch Doctor Who, which is an obsessive autistic special interest for me and looms larger in my life than it probably should; I feel I couldn’t cope without it.

I don’t really associate this with “organised religion” though. To me it seems more of a sociological thing, maybe because it’s enforced by peer pressure rather than by overt means. I mean, when I joined my shul (synagogue), no one asked if I take the Genesis Creation story literally or whether I think non-Jewish religions are religiously valid for their adherents. But then I hear people (including) rabbis taking a different line on these things to me and I feel out of place and worried of being “found out.” I doubt they would (or could) throw me out of the shul if they did find out, but it would probably change how some people interacted with me.

I feel a lot of it comes from the nature of my community, with some very Haredi congregants and certainly Haredi rabbis, but other congregants who are more ‘modern’ like me. I used to go to my parents’ shul, which is definitely more modern, but I felt that people at my current shul took prayer and Torah study more seriously. Plus my current shul is much smaller; I felt overwhelmed by the number of people at my parents’ shul even on ordinary Shabbats, let alone festivals. I have an identity in my own right in my shul too, rather than just being an adjunct of my parents. So I stick with my current shul even though doctrinally it’s not a perfect fit.

This may sound strange to Christians in particular, but doctrine or dogma isn’t such a big thing in Judaism. Jews tend to focus more on what you do than what you believe. If you dress in an acceptable way, don’t publicly violate Shabbat or Yom Tov (festivals), are polite to people, and attend prayer services and shiurim (religious classes) regularly, people will probably accept you, at least on a basic level, without asking what you actually believe.

More Burnout and Coping

I woke up feeling really burnt out again. I didn’t get up until nearly 1pm, which was very late. I feel worried about how easily I get burnt out. I want to have children one day and I know PIMOJ does too, but at the moment if we had children she would virtually be a single mother in terms of childcare. OK, not quite that bad, but it certainly wouldn’t be a 50:50 split. I’ve mentioned that we won’t be able to get married for a couple of years, even if we decide to do so, so I’m hoping that my life will magically turn around in that time and perhaps it could, if I get a firm autism diagnosis, get my novel published and maybe if my job with J becomes more permanent, but it seems a lot to hang on a lot of ifs.

I booked in for Megillah readings at shul (synagogue). The Megillah is the Book of Esther which is read twice on the festival of Purim (next week). There’s an obligation to hear it evening and morning in full – literally every word. There’s also a custom of making noise whenever the name of Haman (the villain, who tried to wipe out the Jews) is mentioned, which makes the idea of hearing every word rather harder. In the past this has provoked religious OCD in me and I’m still nervous of what might happen. Plus Purim has a carnival atmosphere with dressing up in fancy dress and partying (admittedly not so much this year because of COVID) which can be intimidating from a depression and autism point of view. I have had a some good Purims over the years, but also some difficult ones, and I think my first episode of depression started (or became obvious) on Purim many years ago. This year, COVID adds a whole other layer of uncertainty and anxiety.

My parents got my olanzapine, which saved me some time. I was glad it was there and I didn’t have to phone the GP again as I feared I might have to do. Speaking of olanzapine, my psychiatrist phoned just to check on how I’m doing being back on it. I said I’m doing well, aside from the continued tiredness and difficulty working out whether it was residual depression, medication side-effects or autistic burn out. I’m leaning towards the latter and she said autistic burnout is very real and might be the issue. We spoke a bit about what help might be available, but unfortunately I need a diagnosis first and am still waiting to hear when my final assessment will be.

I had a good therapy session too. We spoke about trying to remind myself daily that I can cope with things (work, COVID, unexpected events that faze me and so on). That’s particularly pertinent at this time of year as we approach the Jewish festivals of Purim (next week) and Pesach (a month later) which have historically been very difficult and triggering festivals for me for different reasons and which still provoke anxiety in me in advance, even knowing that for the last couple of years I’ve been coping with them much better (doubtless more on this in the coming weeks).

I just ordered a weighted blanket. I’m hoping this might improve my sleep and make it easier to wake up and get up in the mornings. To be honest, I don’t have much hope, but at this stage I’ll try almost anything. Perhaps more pragmatically, I’ve said I should set a time to get up on non-work days and make myself accountable to PIMOJ to get up then. Hopefully between them, those strategies will help.

Make-Believe Work

I got up reasonably early today, but somehow slowed down somewhere and was a bit late leaving for work. Then, when I was partway to the station, I realised I’d left my mask at home and had to walk back to get it, so I was a bit late for work, although J didn’t seem to mind. I tried to walk mindfully on the way to the station, but got rather overwhelmed by the sounds and smells. Maybe this is why I usually listen to music.

I felt impostor syndrome and negativity at work, feeling that I can’t really do my work. Sometimes it feels that I’m doing make-believe work like a child rather than a real job. I feel I can do difficult things like write books, but not easy ones (I messed up writing an invoice twice, even though it was based on a template). Not that I feel particularly confident about my novel at the moment; I actually feel quite negative about it and am wondering why I want to show it to my editor friend. I felt a bit better after lunch, but then I realised I’ve been going about an inventory of some property the wrong way and have wasted time in the process.

It’s funny, because after work I saw Ashley’s post for today, about mental health and Britney Spears. I’m not terribly interested in Britney Spears, but her comment that she is “taking the time to learn and be a normal person” didn’t seem that strange to me, or at least it feels like it’s what I’m trying to do now that I think I’m on the autism spectrum (if I don’t get diagnosed then there’s a whole new identity crisis… I need to chase when my final assessment appointment is as I should have heard by now). I think I still have a long way to go if I want to learn to be a normal person.

***

It’s my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary today. It’s a bit muted in lockdown, but we had a Zoom call with my sister and brother-in-law. I still find these difficult. Everyone seems to shout. I’m not sure if the microphones aren’t good enough or everyone just thinks you have to shout for some weird psychological reason. Either way, I find it painful. I’m not usually someone whose autism makes loud noisy physically painful, but Zoom shouting down my ear seems to do it. Plus, a lot of the conversation was about work, specifically BIL’s promotion at work and voluntary charity work, so I felt a bit like the idiot child with his make-believe job again (back to learning how to be a “normal” person again).

We had take away dinner to celebrate. It threatened to set off my religious OCD again, as although it was from a kosher restaurant, the delivery company was a mainstream company, and the restaurant did not package the food according to the London Bet Din’s ideal guidelines. It met the more lenient “What if my food turns up packaged wrongly?” minimum guidelines, so I ate it, but I felt a bit anxious about it. At least I didn’t go into full-blown OCD meltdown. I’m not sure whether to complain about it. It’s probably too late to complain to the restaurant, but I might ask the Bet Din for more guidance for the future.

I feel just about ready to crash now. I wanted to do some Torah study this evening, as I only managed twenty-five minutes on the Tube and of the book that wasn’t helpful, but I’m too tired.

***

PIMOJ gave me a book on emunah (faith) that I’ve been reading on the train but I think I will stop. It seems to be lacking in nuance and reinforcing negative thoughts I have about myself. It talks about the importance of emunah and that someone who has it will feel happy whatever happens. I have two problems with this. One, it doesn’t say how to get emunah. It just seems to assume it can be switched on by a conscious act of will. Two, I know that, given that I believe in an all-powerful, benevolent God, I should logically believe that everything in my life will work out for the best. And on one level I do believe that. But I also feel that the long-term, overall best can still involve a lot of suffering in the short-term, and usually does, and that upsets and worries me. What if God thinks it’s for the best that I be lonely and depressed forever so that I can be happy in the Next World? That’s not something I would look forward to, even if I can accept intellectually that it’s for the best.

The book says that most suffering is rooted in punishment for sin, which seems questionable to me, although when I’m in the depths of depression I can believe it. My depression started when I was in my teens, but the Talmud states that a person doesn’t get punished for their sins until they reach the age of twenty (to give them time to become mature and repent) and obviously my autism would be lifelong from birth, so it seems that it can’t be down to sin completely — unless you want to go down the route of previous lives, which the author does, but which I’m sceptical of (it’s fairly accepted in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but seems relatively new to Judaism as a whole). I think using suffering as an opportunity for introspection and repentance is one thing, but assuming all suffering is due to sin is counter-productive and victim blaming.

Beyond this, it has a Hasidic attitude of sadness being a sin and a sign of ingratitude for God’s blessings, which, again, is something I don’t agree with and which I know is hardly universally accepted in the Jewish world. The book is based on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who said it is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be happy all the time, but he himself had many intense bouts of depression (if you read Arthur Green’s academic biography, it seems likely he struggled with bipolar disorder) which makes me struggle to accept it as a rule. I’m actually very interested in Rebbe Nachman, but part of the interest is the dichotomy between the joy and despair in him.

Overall, the book seemed not to be the type of thing you would want to put in the hands of someone with a mood disorder. I didn’t want to do a big attack on the book (hence the fact that I’m not naming it), but I do feel like these attitudes, if unchallenged, can do a lot of harm in the frum (religious) community. So, I think I will rest this book for a while if not permanently. It makes me a bit sad, though, as PIMOJ says she got a lot from it and I’d like to see that, but I just don’t. I think we have quite different ways of looking at things, which I guess is part of the attraction.

***

I feel a bit bad that I complained here about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children still going to school despite the lockdown. Apparently most of them are allowed to go, as they have crowded houses and no internet for online learning.