Dig A Pony

I’ve been feeling really drained all over the weekend, really drained and burnt out rather than just fatigued. On Friday I was drained even before I went to shul (synagogue). I was a bit late, for various reasons, and someone was sitting in my usual seat, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Then there was a lot of noise, clapping, thumping tables and so on during Kabbalat Shabbat. I’m not sure if there was more than usual or if I’m just worse at coping with it mid-autistic burnout. I thought a bit about leaving in the middle of the service, which I haven’t done for a long time, but I stuck with it until the end. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision.

I didn’t do much in the way of hitbodedut/spontaneous prayer at home in the evening, and I didn’t do any extra Torah study, I just read for a bit and went to bed about as early as is possible on a summer Friday, about midnight. Even so, I slept for thirteen hours, completely sleeping through the morning and missing shul. I slept for another hour and a half after lunch too, despite drinking coffee to try to stay awake as I was worried about not sleeping in the evening.

I did get to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards. I struggled with external things again. This time the table where I usually sit was simply not there; I’m not sure where it was moved to. Then I was given Peticha (opening the Ark and taking out/putting back the Torah scrolls), but there were no tallitot (prayer shawls) and there was some confusion over who should do what as we come out of COVID regulations (should I take out the Sefer Torah and put it back or should the chazan etc.). I know this doesn’t sound like much, but with autism this kind of confusion and uncertainty can be a great deal, particularly if I’m already burnt out. I did cope with it, but I was drained again by the evening and read in my room after seudah (the third Shabbat meal) instead of playing a game with my parents.

Perhaps inevitably, I had insomnia after all that sleeping during the day, although I felt too tired to do anything useful. I ended up watching The Twilight Zone, which may not have been the best thing to watch, although it was a good episode – ten episodes in, I feel I’ve reached the type of eerie stories with a twist that I was expecting. I do admire the economy of storytelling needed to create characters and tell a whole story in just over twenty minutes, usually including establishing a fantastical premise, even if it sometimes seems like it could have done with another five or ten minutes to breathe.

Today I woke up drained again, too drained to do very much, certainly too drained to go for my usual Sunday run. I went for a walk instead, primarily to buy coffee, so I got some exercise. I relied on the heter (permission) to listen to music in the Three Weeks of mourning if you’re depressed. My rabbi mentor said it applies to autistic burnout too, but I’m not sure how to distinguish burnout from ordinary fatigue any more. There seem to be different views among people on the spectrum and researchers on whether burnout is just a long-term phenomenon (months or years), or if it can apply over a day or a number of days. My instinct is that it can be over a number of days, and that I’ve burnt myself out doing too much last week, so I let myself listen to the music to try and get myself to a normal state of mind, but it didn’t really help.

If anything, my mood slipped over the afternoon and now I feel drained and also somewhat depressed and lonely. Loneliness is more apparent than real as my parents are here (albeit absorbed in the football) and E has been texting during the day. I do miss E, though, and it’s frustrating not knowing when we will be able to see each other in person. Perhaps it’s harder to bear the uncertainty on a day like today when I don’t feel well.

I did a bit of Torah study in the early afternoon, but I didn’t feel up to doing any work on my novel. I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or just read a novel (I stopped awkwardly in the middle of a chapter of The Master and Margarita at lunchtime), but I was too drained to concentrate. I did go on a virtual tour of Jewish Rome (as in ancient Rome) which was booked for the afternoon, and I did enjoy it although my attention wandered by the end. E was supposed to come on the tour with me, but she had to duck out as she’s going to look after a friend who had surgery. She tried going at an earlier timeslot, but it didn’t work out; hopefully she’ll be able to watch a recording. After that I was exhausted and watched TV, The Twilight Zone and The Blue Planet, where, bizarrely, David Attenborough kept talking about “The twilight zone,” by which he meant the deep part of the ocean where there is almost no sunlight light.

It feels like I didn’t do as much as I wanted, but also that I probably did more than was wise, which just makes me feel that coping with autism is like navigating a maze in the dark while blindfolded. Just trying to feel myself along and often falling over. I’m just glad I have my parents and E to help me.

***

While I was listening to music this afternoon, The Beatles’ song Dig A Pony came on. It’s one of John Lennon’s “nonsense poetry” songs where the words don’t really mean anything and are just there for the sounds and rhythms. This lack of coherence seemed appropriate to how I feel today, or rather, how I am (or am not) thinking, hence it became this post’s title.

***

I’ve been thinking about my life again and trusting in God. For a long time trust in God seemed impossible. My life seemed dominated by bad decisions that I had made that had ruined everything. Now I feel that even if I had changed small things in my life (choice of school, not going to yeshiva), I probably would not have changed the outcome that much. It was determined too much by the big things. And if I had changed any of those big things, I would have been a totally different person. Maybe a better or happier person, but not me. And these days I have a degree of peace of mind in the thought of being me, certainly enough not to want to be someone else, at least not as much as I might have wanted to be in the past. So now I have some peace when I look back on my life and feel that it probably was for the best, and that it’s harder to totally derail my life than I thought it was.

Bitachon; and Doctor Who (2005)

I won the jackpot with the post today: new shoes, a book, a DVD and, most importantly, a corrected Asperger’s diagnosis report and resources leaflet. I’m glad that’s sorted. The resources leaflet turned out not to be that helpful, given that I’ve been aware of my autism for a long time and have already discovered many of the resources and got beyond the “But what is autism?” stage, but I feel more comfortable now speaking to my GP next week and trying to get referred for autism-adapted CBT.

I had a reasonably busy day today, going to the dentist, going for a walk, doing some Torah study and having therapy as well as tackling a few odd chores. I did run out of time and energy to work on my writing, which frustrated me, but didn’t surprise me. I jotted down a couple of ideas for the next novel, though, and I feel that that’s developing well, probably better than the first novel, which I fear lacks a clear plot and suffers from a lack of supporting characters.

Therapy was good, although I didn’t have enough to talk about for an hour, which itself is an indication that things are going well for me at the moment. I spoke about feeling that I have more resilience than I have had in the past. I also don’t think I wonder if things in my past could have gone differently any more. I guess I’ve got to the stage of thinking that everything in my life really had happen the way it did, even if I can’t really articulate why I feel like that. Perhaps this is finally bitachon (trust in God) or just acceptance of my childhood and difficult adolescence. I do still wonder what people from my past think of me and whether they might find my recent Asperger’s article and think differently of me, but that’s not really a thought about changing the past so much as wanting people to think well of me and not to think I’m an antisocial weirdo.

In therapy we also spoke about telling my parents that I’m back with E, which I plan on doing this coming Shabbat, but am rather nervous about. I’m not sure how they will react. I think my Mum worries about me being in an unending on/off relationship with E, which to be fair is something I worry about sometimes, although less so now that I think we can move the relationship on.

One thing that came up in therapy is that I think my relationship with E is a lot better than my relationship with PIMOJ was. E and I connect on a variety of levels, whereas I don’t think PIMOJ and I really connected as anything other than friends. Certainly I was unable to feel comfortable opening up emotionally to PIMOJ, and she was unwilling or unable to open up to me. Despite that, I probably did need to go through my relationship with PIMOJ to appreciate how rare my connection with E is (that bitachon/acceptance thing again).

***

E and I are starting to watch Doctor Who “together”, i.e. in our separate houses on separate continents, but roughly at the same time, allowing for the time difference. We’re initially watching the twenty-first century version. I prefer the twentieth century version, but appreciate that there are many obstacles to it for contemporary viewers in terms of very different pacing, production values, writing and acting styles and so on, plus nearly 100 episodes of the twentieth century version are lost from the archives and unwatchable, so starting at episode one and going straight through doesn’t really work. That said, I may suggest slipping in some twentieth century Who later for context, and because I’m not sure I want to watch the twenty-first century version indefinitely without a break.

We started tonight with Rose, which is showing its age in places, but still feels a fairly tight and lean revival of the franchise. I do definitely struggle with Russell T Davies’ writing style even in his better episodes (Rose is more a middling one). I’m not sure if I dislike his style in general or just for Doctor Who. The other distracting thing was that I did keep thinking about the recent Noel Clarke sexual harassment allegations, which are.

Fears for the Future

Lately I have a lot on my mind that I don’t want to share here, or at least not yet. This is hard, as I like to work things through in writing. I may try writing private posts. I’ve done that in the past. I find it helpful to work things through a little in writing to get inchoate thoughts and feelings into a shape where I can take them to therapy or to my rabbi mentor.

***

Shabbat was OK. I struggled a lot with burnout again which made it hard to do much. I wish I knew what burns me out so much. I didn’t get up until 1pm, although I woke briefly several times across the morning, as I was just too tired. Other than that, it was the usual mix of eating, sleeping, Torah study, prayer and recreational reading.

I had some negative or difficult thoughts over Shabbat, but I can’t remember about what, exactly. I have quite a few areas giving me difficulty at the moment, so it could be one of a number of things. I’ve been thinking about trusting God lately. PIMOJ gave me a book about it, and it’s annoying me a lot even though I’m not yet a quarter of the way through the book. I can accept intellectually that if God is benevolent and all-powerful, everything that will happen to me is for the best. I can even accept that bad things that happened for me are for the best, especially as some bad things seem to have led to good results down the line, something I can see now I’m heading for forty that I couldn’t see when I was in my teens and twenties. What is hard to accept is that I can be happy and confident that everything will be fine, as so much of my life was painful to experience and there is no guarantee that everything good will be painless (in fact, it is extremely unlikely to be painless) or even bearable. So often things are painful, and that scares me. It scares me on a personal level and it scares me on a national and global level. Like many Jews, I worry about a second Holocaust (admittedly my generation worries about this less than my parents and grandparents). I worry something will happen to me that will hurt terribly, physically and/or emotionally (I can probably handle emotional pain better than physical, but that’s a whole other post). And I worry a lot about something happening to me that is so painful and difficult that I lose my Jewish belief and practice. I know that’s a strange thing to worry about, or at least I’ve rarely heard anyone with strong faith worry that they will lose it – usually people only worry when they start to lose it, or so it seems. But I do worry about it.

***

I watched the Star Wars film Rogue One with my parents. I had seen it in the cinema. They tried to watch it a while back, having recorded it off the TV, only to discover the end hadn’t recorded. It was OK, but I felt disengaged remembering the ending as the characters and dialogue were not enough to engage me by themselves.

***

I tested my Babylon 5 DVDs. The season one to four box sets each have at least one disc that won’t play, usually more. The season five discs seem OKish, in that they all play, but one or two start by making some horrible clunking noises which make me think the DVD players is going to reject them, but they do eventually play. I think the cost of replacing them with second-hand DVDs from eBay is similar to the cost of paying to stream them. I’m not sure whether to buy seasons one to four or to assume that season five will stop working at some point and buy that too. I’m also still clueless as to what has happened to stop them working.

***

Googling to find details about Babylon 5 downloads, I found out that Mira Furlan (Delenn) died last month. It’s weird, loads of Babylon 5 cast members have died quite young. Furlan joins Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Jerry Doyle (Mr Garibaldi), Richard Biggs (Dr Franklin), Jeff Conaway (Zack Allan) and Stephen Furst (Vir) (I didn’t know about Furst either until checking the details on the list). Compare with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was broadcast around the same time with a similar sized cast, but only one regular cast member has died to date. There were two married couples where both partners appeared in Babylon 5 too (Jerry Doyle and Andrea Thompson (Talia), and Bruce Boxleitner (Captain Sheridan) and Melissa Gilbert (Anna Sheridan)) and they both ended in divorce. I also just discovered that O’Hare left the programme after one season because of severe mental health issues. I don’t believe in curses, but it is vaguely eerie, although I imagine that statistically it’s not that odd, just one of those random clumpings of data that happen. It makes me feel a bit sad at any rate.

***

WordPress is showing this post to me in what looks like Times New Roman font, or some other font with serifs. I wonder if it’s going to post in Times New Roman. I used to like fonts with serifs, but I’ve gone off them since discovering that they decrease readability, particularly on screens.

Trust and Control

I slept badly again last night, waking up in the night and struggling to get back to sleep. I’ve taken a bigger pillow and wonder if that will help. As a result, I was very tired at work in the morning and had to drink coffee to stay awake. I don’t like it when I feel I’m drifting off at work. The work was a bit depressing too. Aside from dealing with subscription payments, I was processing death records for this year and came across one for someone ten years younger than me with bipolar disorder who had committed suicide. This really upset me and I’m not entirely sure why, just a feeling that I wish I could have done something to help her, not that I ever met her. Then PIMOJ texted to say she was upset because of a suicide in her workplace and it seemed like it was catching.

I went to the bank in the afternoon, which probably left me too much time to think and brood while I walked there and back and spent a long time queuing. I think I’ve been less anxious today, but a lot more depressed.

J gave me a lift home again and the conversation on the radio was all about the UK COVID death toll reaching 100,000, so it was a pretty bleak day all round.

I had a shiur (religious class) in the evening on Zoom, perhaps appropriately on Yishayahu (Isaiah), the chief prophet of hope. This was interesting. I knew some of it, but not all of it. I tried to psyche myself up for the bit where we broke into smaller groups to discuss a passage, but my microphone took that moment to break, although I suppose it was interesting to observe other people doing group work from a distance, as it were, and see I’m not necessarily as bad at it compared with other people as I thought.

***

I worry a bit whether I could do a full days’ work at the moment. At the moment, J is letting me come in forty-five minutes or so late so I can avoid the Tube at rush hour because of COVID, and we finish work around 4pm. I only take forty-five minutes for lunch, but even so, that makes for a day that’s not much more than five hours long. Which is nice, but I worry if I’ll ever have the stamina for full working days again.

***

I had a thought about bitachon, trust in God. I find this very hard. I believe in a benevolent God Who wants the best for His creation, but I also believe that sometimes the best option is still something very painful to undergo. But I realised today that a lot of my problem is about control, specifically about accepting that I don’t have very much control over my life, which is scary. I probably have rather less control over my life than many people, certainly people of my age, class and educational level, because of my autism and mental health issues and chequered work history.

It’s easy to tell myself that I can somehow control my career or my romantic life or my mental health by thinking about them (which mostly means being despairing or anxious about them), but really I can’t. I have no idea if I’ll ever get married, to PIMOJ or to anyone else; or whether I’ll build any kind of a career as a writer or a librarian; or how I will support myself when my parents aren’t here; or umpteen other things. That’s very scary, to give up that degree of control. I guess it could be liberating. People with a lot of bitachon (e.g. PIMOJ) seem to live very liberated, carefree lives. But I find it terrifying.

Anxiety, Romance and Masks

Things are going well, but I still feel a little anxious, although less so today. I spoke a lot about this in therapy today. Things with PIMOJ are going better than I expected, but I worry they won’t work out. PIMOJ is a lot more positive than me, and a lot more active in her life, and I worry she’ll find me negative and lazy (among other things). I’m trying just to sit with the anxiety rather than give in to it and worry, but it’s not always easy. Anxiety can sneak up on you when you’re looking the wrong way.

It could be several years before we overcome the obstacles in the way of the relationship (including, but not exclusively, my lack of income). I guess the difference between me and PIMOJ is that she thinks it might take just a few years whereas I think it could take quite a few years. I guess it’s a difference of presentation rather than substance, and I’m trying to look at it her way, but it’s hard sometimes. I guess I worry how I will get through things sometimes, and the psychological barrier of realising that I’ll probably be over forty before I can marry (PIMOJ is younger than me and potentially would be in her thirties still). Mind you, regardless of what happens romantically, I feel like I’ll probably be over forty before I really feel myself started in a career, whether writing or librarianship. I feel a bit like God is telling me I can have everything I want BUT I have to trust that He will deliver in His own time. Still, it’s good to have found someone who seems so caring and religious when I thought I was going to have to compromise on those things, and if PIMOJ can’t get me to trust God then no one can.

***

When does discomfort become exemption? I hate wearing a mask. I find it hugely uncomfortable. I have a friend, also on the autism spectrum, who has an exemption card because she literally can not wear a mask. It’s just impossibly uncomfortable for her. Do I find it difficult because I’m autistic or because everyone finds it uncomfortable? How long can I wear one for? I’m OK wearing it for half and a hour or so, but I’m dreading going to shul (synagogue) with one or commuting into London. It is hard to know what to do. At the moment I’m trying to comply, out of courtesy to others and to avoid attracting negative attention. Still, I wonder how long I’ll be able to bear it, as the new normal becomes as busy and demanding as pre-COVID, but with masks and other difficulties. But I don’t think I could bear to get a exemption card, particularly before being formally diagnosed, so I would just avoid situations that require masks (which I’m basically already doing).

***

I missed a phone call, and then found I had an email from someone from shul (synagogue) asking me to call him back. I struggled with social anxiety, but I called him back and found out that he wanted to check that we’re still shielding Mum on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, this weekend) as the shul is sending a small gift (I’m guessing some kind of food, probably sweet) to people who are shielding and unable to attend services.

I thought this was really nice. I know I don’t always feel 100% comfortable in my shul, but they are friendly and welcoming and the community is small enough that I get noticed even if I don’t really say anything. The thing I was really pleased about was phoning him back with minimal procrastination, which was hard given that my social anxiety has worsened lately.

I also went to Tesco today to challenge the anxiety around shopping at the moment. It was OK, but it was a small Tesco and I couldn’t find reasons to stay there for more than a few minutes. I’m hoping to spend as long or longer in a shop or shops tomorrow.

Bonus Post: Faithful Trust and Loving Trust: A Devar Torah

As I mentioned in my last post, I thought the devar Torah (Torah thought) I wrote this week might be of interest. Because it’s not for a general audience, my use of Hebrew isn’t explained as much as usual and I don’t have time to edit it, but it should be broadly comprehensible.

This week’s sedra of Shoftim contains a difficult commandment: “You shall be wholehearted with HaShem your God.”[1]  This appears to challenge us to be completely wholehearted in our attitude to HaShem, a difficult thing to undertake.  If we look at the wider context of the passage, we see that this commandment is not quite as daunting as it appears.  The verses immediately preceding this one prohibit the use of charms, augury, soothsaying and other methods of trying to foresee the future or of contacting spiritual entities to receive hidden information.  Our verse is therefore telling us to focus wholeheartedly on our relationship with HaShem and not to turn to other supernatural methods of communication, regardless of whether such methods work or are merely foolishness, as Rambam would say – either way they distract from our relationship with HaShem, which should be our sole focus.

Rashi[2], basing himself on the Midrash, draws out a wider message from the verse.  He states, “Walk with Him [HaShem] wholeheartedly and put your hope in Him and do not inquire about the future, rather accept everything that happens to you wholeheartedly and then you will be with Him and be His portion.”  Here we see that not only should we avoid trying to predict the future, we should also accept the present wholeheartedly.  Even if challenging things happen to us, we should accept them as HaShem’s will, trusting that He knows what is good for us better than we do ourselves.  This will have the effect of bringing us closer to HaShem.

The issue of trust in God is very difficult, particularly at the moment when the news seems full of terrible things happening to lots of people.  It can be hard to believe that this is good for us, either on a personal or a global level.

Help here comes from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who distinguished between two types of religious trust, both valid, but slightly different.  He said that the most common is what he terms “faithful trust.”    This is trust that God will ensure that the best outcome will come to pass in any given situation.[3]  Rabbi Lichtenstein quotes the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Karelitz) as questioning the nature of “faithful trust”, saying “as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, that outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know God’s judgements and providence?” meaning that a humanly desired outcome may not be God’s will.  Instead, the Chazon Ish states that “trust means realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of God’s decree.”[4]  This is what Rabbi Lichtenstein calls “loving trust”: that even if the worst comes to the worst and a negative outcome occurs, we will still trust that this is part of God’s plan and will stay loyal to Him and to Torah observance.  Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to quote Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher that trust in God means, if necessary, giving up one’s life rather than transgressing the Torah.  It is, as Rabbi Lichtenstein puts it, a demand rather than a promise, but also “a source solace and strength” that HaShem is with us.

A famous example of this approach is found in Rabbi Akiva.  The Talmud [5] quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying that one must say that everything God does is for the best.  This is illustrated by a story.  Rabbi Akiva was travelling with a lamp, a donkey and a rooster.  He came to a town where none of the townspeople would let him stay the night, so he slept in a field saying that everything God does is for the best.  The wind extinguished his lamp, a cat ate the rooster and a lion ate the donkey.  Then an army came and took the townspeople into captivity.   Only Rabbi Akiva escaped.  If his lamp had been lit, he would have been seen and captured.  Likewise if his rooster had crowed or his donkey brayed, he would have been found and captured.  Rabbi Akiva said that this demonstrated his point, that everything God does is for the best.  Had he slept in the town or had his lamp not been extinguished or his animals killed, he would have been taken captive too.

This would seem to indicate that things will somehow always turn out for the best.  However, Rabbi Akiva is also famous for the story of his painful death at the hands of the Romans.[6]  While the executioners tore the flesh from his body, Rabbi Akiva said the Shema, extending the final word “One,” referring to the unity of God, until he died.  This can be seen as an example of trust in God as a moral demand on us that offers solace and strength in times of difficulty, as Rabbi Lichtenstein put it.  Rabbi Akiva showed his trust that everything that God does is for the best even when it seemed diametrically opposed to what he would have chosen for his life, even when he was called on to make the greatest sacrifice possible.  Indeed, Rabbi Lichtenstein saw Rabbi Akiva as a paradigm of both forms of trust: the faithful trust that God would redeem the Jewish people in his lifetime and the loving trust of willingly dying a martyr’s death even when this desired outcome did not materialise.

Let us all draw inspiration from Rabbi Akiva’s example in these difficult times.


[1] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18.13

[2] Rashi Commentary to Devarim 18.13

[3] Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Bittachon: Trust in God in By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God : Based on Addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Adapted by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler

[4] Chazon Ish, Ha-emuna Ve-ha-bitachon, quoted in By His Light

[5] Brachot 60b

[6] Brachot 61b

Trying to Trust

I had some anxiety again today, mostly work/job hunt anxiety and dating anxiety.  I’m trying to keep my focus on the present, and trusting that what God plans for me is for the best, but it’s not always easy, particularly when I feel hungry or tired.

The tiredness is because I didn’t sleep very much last night.  I went to bed early (for me), before midnight, but I couldn’t sleep.  Then I woke up at 5.15 and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I didn’t feel tired, so I rested in bed for a while and then got up.  I think I dozed for an hour or so mid-morning, but I’ve been going on about five hours of sleep in total, which probably hasn’t helped my anxiety level.

***

I watched a disturbing documentary on domestic violence in lockdown as research for my novel.  I worked on my novel after this, but it was hard to focus.  I was probably a bit upset from the documentary, then there was a thunder storm and we think the house got hit by lightning, damaging the phone.  I tried to help Mum and Dad a bit with sorting the phone problem, so that took some time.  I felt tense after this and struggled to concentrate and couldn’t work out if it was from the disturbing documentary or the loud thunder that made me jump.

I also stopped working on the novel so I could discuss some things with my parents.  One was a possible job that’s come up at the institution I worked in back in 2019, but with a very different job and a different part of the (very big) library team.  I’m not sure it’s a great job for me, but I’m going to put my name forward to get more information, as I found the information I was sent (via an agency) unclear.

I did manage some work on my novel (aside from the documentary), re-reading the first two chapters to refresh my memory so that I can see how the plot flows.  It’s many months since I looked at the early chapters, and I have not read the whole novel straight through to see how it reads as a whole.  I would have liked to have done more, as ever, but ran out of time and energy.

I wrote most of my devar Torah for the week too, which took over an hour and led me to re-read a transcript of a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein on trust in God, to help with the feelings I mentioned above.  I went on a Zoom call with my family in Israel too, so from a productivity point of view, today was pretty good, although I left the Zoom call a bit early as I was exhausted coming straight to it from a webinar.

***

The webinar was on autism in the workplace.  It was interesting, although I’m not sure how much of it is relevant to me at the moment without an autism diagnosis.  It was interesting to hear that a lot of autistic people end up self-employed because it gives them more control over their workplace and interactions; that’s part of what has pushed me towards writing.  It was reassuring to hear that other people have problems with things like needing extra processing time during job interviews or struggling with informal office procedure like who makes the tea.

***

I’ve been hearing lately about autistic burnout.  This is a newly-discovered concept that researchers have only become aware of in the last few years.  It is when autistic people become exhausted and unable to function.  One website states:

Burnout is often a consequence of camouflaging, or masking, a strategy in which autistic people mimic neurotypical behavior by using scripts for small talk, forcing themselves to make eye contact or suppressing repetitive behaviors. These strategies can help autistic people in their jobs and relationships but require immense effort.

It can also result from sensory overstimulation, such as a noisy bus commute; executive function demands such as having to juggle too many tasks at once; or stress associated with change.

It’s obviously difficult to say what is autistic burnout and what is depressive burnout, but I certainly experience a different type of exhaustion after work outside the home or intensive socialising as opposed to working a lot at home.

This post speaks about a more severe burnout, when masking and over-stimulation continue in the long-term, resulting in a more long-lasting burnout that can lead to, or be mistaken for, clinical depression.  I am beginning to wonder if, while I am genuinely depressed, my major episodes of depression have often been triggered by autistic burnout rather than anything else, particularly the huge episode that lasted from around 2003 to around 2010, during and after my undergraduate degree.  Unfortunately, I am still on the waiting list for assessment, the waiting list having been frozen for months due to COVID.

***

I mentioned yesterday that I realise that lockdown would have been very hard on my parents if I had not been here.  That’s been helpful to me in understanding why I’ve struggled with depression for so long.  I believed that logically, God could make me struggle for any number of justifiable reasons, but I always found it hard to accept emotionally.  Now I feel that I have a reason why I have struggled, I find it easier to accept, and also to accept that maybe I can move on now.

 

Anxiety and Trust

I struggled to sleep last night.  Often, after experiencing a migraine, I feel tired, but not actually sleepy.  I don’t know what the migraine does to my brain chemistry to do that.  I didn’t fall asleep until long after 2.00am.  Despite that, I woke up at 9.15am, feeling very tired, but also upset by an unpleasant dream I had (no relation to my usual worries) and feeling rather anxious about dating.  I decided there was no point in lying in bed feeling anxious, so forced myself to get up and have breakfast, which was a good decision.  I did at least say some of the Morning Prayers on time.

I tried to focus on staying in the present, difficult though it feels at times.  I learnt a grounding technique recently that works for me, so I’m trying to stick with that (when I spiral into depressive or anxious thoughts, I try to notice five things I can see, four things I can hear, three I can touch, two I can smell and I you can taste.  The last two are not always easy.  I think some people carry sweets or smelling salts, but I haven’t gone that far).  Despite this, I did have quite a bit of anxiety over the day.

***

I applied for another job.  It was a simple application on LinkedIn, just sending them my CV and profile page link.  Much easier than yesterday’s one.  There was an unexpected question at the end about how many years of experience I have with a particular software that I’ve never heard of before.  I don’t know why that wasn’t on the job specification.  It’s not a library job, but would use some information management skills.  The hours sound a lot though – forty hours a week.  I think that would be too much for me, if that’s all they will accept.  About fifteen minutes after I sent the application, I got phoned by the agency who was recruiting for the position.  They talked me through some questions.  I felt I did badly, because I was unprepared and on the phone and couldn’t always understand the person I was talking to well (I hate the phone), but they said that they would forward my application to the company.

I also emailed a recruitment agency who got me two jobs in the last two years to say that I’m still looking for work.

***

I spent some time working on my novel, reading about plot structure.  I can see what I was already intuiting: that my novel is under-plotted, particularly in the middle.  What is harder is to see how to change it.  I may have to ditch some of what I have written completely and re-plot some of it.  That’s somewhat dispiriting.  On the other hand, I feel the structure the “how to write” book suggests is overly schematic and forcing myself to follow it slavishly will disrupt the flow of the novel.  I need to work out what will work and what won’t, which may involve trial and error.  It’s also possible that my novel, or the autobiographical plot-line, is based too much on my own life.  I changed chunks to make it flow better, but even so, I think some things don’t “fit” properly.  Real life doesn’t always flow the way fiction should.

I ran into these issues right before dinner.  I couldn’t come back to it after dinner because I was going to a Zoom depression group meeting , so I finished work today on a downer, worrying if my novel was workable.  This led to some catastrophising about the novel, my career, my dating prospects, everything really.  It was partly anxiety and partly low blood sugar – this was late afternoon and I had not eaten much.  After dinner I had better perspective, especially as I got an email from a writer friend saying not to feel bad if my novel seems bad when I re-read the first few times.

***

I attended depression group on Zoom.  I was glad I went, as it’s good to talk to people, but the meeting was emotionally draining and I felt exhausted afterwards even though it wasn’t yet 10.00pm.

I signed up for an autism group peer support meeting on friendships and relationships next week too (not the informal autism group I used to go to, a more formal one).

***

Overall, I felt very anxious today with dating (waiting for responses to my messages or getting one line answers that imply that the person doesn’t really want to engage any more), job applications and working out what I need to do to my novel.  Part of me thinks, “Why am I doing all this if it’s going to make me so anxious?”  But I guess the anxiety is itself the reason why I have to push through this, if I’m going to make any progress with my life.  I’ve been feeling “stuck” lately, with lockdown and loneliness and depression.  Maybe that was why I unconsciously felt the sudden need to move on with things, so suddenly signed up for dating services and applied for jobs and support group things.  It is all scary, but I have to go through with it.

I’m trying to be gentle with myself.  I’m going outside my comfort zone suddenly and that’s going to be difficult even without the ongoing COVID situation.

***

I’m about two thirds of the way through Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible).  It’s more interesting than I remembered, although there seems to be a lot of repetition of similar ideas (ancient societies had greater appreciation for repetition than we do, perhaps because it made memorisation easier in mostly oral cultures).  The terse, context-free, stand-alone proverbs can be very hard to translate, often just seven or eight words.  A couple of verses stand out strongly.  “The heart alone knows its bitterness,/And no outsider can share its joy.” (14.10).  I’ve felt that a lot over the years.  Also, “A man’s spirit can sustain him through illness;/But low spirits — who can bear them?” (18.14) is something I’ve often thought.  People say things like “I had cancer, but I kept going because I was happy,” but what do you do if a symptom of your illness is the inability to be happy?  (Translations from The JPS Bible).

***

I’ve been a bit sceptical of Divine Providence stories in the past, but I find myself finding them in my own life suddenly.  At Purim this year, I was upset not to be invited to friends for the seudah (meal), especially as Mum and Dad were at a medical appointment so I had to eat alone.  But the friend who I was hoping would invite me came down with COVID soon afterwards and perhaps I would have contracted it from him if I had gone (it has been suggested that Purim parties and seudahs partially explain the disproportionately high fatality rate in the Jewish community.  Purim this year was just as COVID hit, but before most people were taking it seriously and many parties and events went ahead as planned with large numbers of people together, some of whom may have been carrying the virus).

Similarly, if I had still been living away from home, I would either have been in lockdown alone (including doing Pesach alone) or would have had to pay rent on an empty flat while I locked down with my parents.  If I hadn’t been here (because I had my own flat or because I was married), my parents would have had much more of a struggle dealing with lockdown and shielding with Mum’s cancer, both in terms of practical things like the fact I’ve been cooking a lot and also emotionally from being separated from both their children for months on end.

I tell myself things like this to try to “prove” to myself that I shouldn’t assume that God only wants to do negative things to me and that He won’t let my life get any better.  It is difficult to believe that sometimes, but I’m trying.

Tisha B’Av in Auschwitz

Today I felt depressed and subdued, but it kind of goes with the territory, as it was Tisha B’Av the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day we’re supposed to be sad to mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.  (It might sound surprising, but we’re not supposed to be sad most of the time.)  I read some more of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.  I’ve been reading this book for about five or six years, only on Tisha B’Av.  I can’t bear to read it on any other day, it’s too upsetting.  I hope to finish it in a couple of years.  Some of the stories did move me to tears, I admit, although I’m probably more sceptical about the supernatural than some of the people who related the stories.  I also went to some online shiurim (religious classes) via my shul (synagogue).

In the afternoon I went on a virtual tour of Auschwitz organised by a Jewish educational group.  (Thanks to Eliza for pointing me in their direction!)   I’ve never been there in person.  I feel vaguely uncomfortable about going to Holocaust sites, although I can see why it’s important for some people.  I discovered there’s not actually much there at Auschwitz any more, which I think I knew, but it had never really registered.  The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and the crematoria to hide the evidence of the Holocaust.  I was surprised how big the site it was.

It was quite moving, but sometimes with Holocaust things I feel I’m not feeling what I “should” feel, maybe because most of my family did not directly experience it.  Perhaps it’s also hard in a way for me, being frum (religious).  With some secular Jews, their entire Jewish identity is built around the Holocaust and/or Israel; whereas I have so much more to my Jewish identity than that.  There is definitely a danger of being overly-obsessed with how Jews died rather than how they lived (to paraphrase Rabbi Lord Sacks*), but Tisha B’Av is a day to confront these memories.

I still would like to feel that I’m moving on somewhere as well as just focusing on the past.  It’s easier to focus on the Holocaust rather than the destruction of the Temple, because the former is more relatable.  There hasn’t been Judaism based around the Temple ritual for nearly 2,000 years, so it’s difficult to understand what it was like.  But the Holocaust isn’t much easier to focus on, although it has the human dimension, because it’s just unlike anything else.

(As an aside, it’s depressing doing a virtual Auschwitz tour and then after the fast was over going online to see the latest iterations of the “Jews are all rich, powerful, privileged and racist” stuff that’s been coming out in the last few weeks.)

In this respect the rabbi leading the virtual tour said something similar to what my shul (synagogue) rabbi said yesterday, about trying to find areas to grow.  I’ve already said here that I want to focus more on being present in the present and not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.  That doesn’t sound a very Jewish or religious thing, but I think it is.  It’s connected with ideas like bitachon (trust in God) and kavannah (mindfulness, particularly in prayer).  But to do that, I need to be able to trust that God has my best interests at heart, even if painful things happen to me.  That’s hard on a day like today, when I confront the many tragedies of Jewish history, including the Holocaust.

It’s just an effort to focus on NOW with gratitude and mindfulness, not what I fear/hope will happen in the future.  I will try it for six or seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and see what happens.

***

I already mentioned I believe less in the supernatural than some Orthodox Jews, so I’m taking this with an Everest-sized mountain of salt, but at one of the shiurim today, the guest rabbi presenting told a story about a frum (religious) Jew who was in a coma four days with COVID and had a near-death experience.  He says that his soul was tried in Heaven and he discovered that although keeping all the mitzvot (commandments) are important, the afterlife primarily depends on loving other people and being kind.

As I say, I am sceptical about how true that story is, but it did make me think that while I agree that love and kindness are of the utmost importance (regardless of the afterlife), I struggle to show them the way I should.  I get irritable with my family.  I get annoyed by other people and although I don’t usually show it, I find it hard to love people sometimes (as Linus said in Peanuts, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”).  I have a some inchoate anger and resentment towards the frum (Orthodox Jewish) community sometimes because of how I feel I’ve been treated, which I need to work through in a healthier way.  I want to be kind, but so often social anxiety stops me from acting on my kind impulses, or autism means that I can see someone is in need, but don’t know how to respond correctly.  My parents say I’m kind (usually when I say I have no assets to attract a potential spouse), but I guess they would.

I know this is turning into yet another “should” and another “beat myself up” session, so I don’t want to pursue it too far, but it has been on my mind this evening, thinking about how I could be more kind and loving in the future.

 

* What he actually said was that an educationalist complained to him that at Jewish schools, students “Learn about the Greeks and how they lived, and they learn about the Romans and how they lived, and they learn about the Jews and how they died.”  Both Rabbi Sacks and the educationalist felt that with a curriculum like this, it was no wonder so many Jews are just looking to escape from their Jewish identity through assimilation.

Trying to Be Present in the Present

Today my mood has been OK when I’m busy doing things, but it drops pretty quickly when I’m not.  I especially low at the moment (see final section).

I feel sexually frustrated again, not the in obvious way, but just wishing that I was with someone I loved and could give to that way.  Also, to have that type of intimacy.  I think I’m generally a sensible, play it safe, type of person.  I don’t take risks.  I don’t drink or smoke and illegal drugs scare me.  Yet, for most of my adult life, I’ve found myself constantly wishing that I was in a relationship, even though I know that would not have been a sensible thing for me to do most of the time, given how much I’ve been struggling with mental illness since I was sixteen (at least).  I guess it’s loneliness and feeling that I’ve never been completely accepted and understood.  I felt that acceptance with E., until suddenly it wasn’t there, which was frightening.

I’m trying not to think like that (about wanting to be in a relationship), but it’s hard.  I guess it’s better to accept those feelings, and to sort of make space for them in my head, but to acknowledge that I shouldn’t be focusing on them right now.  It’s hard not to focus on them.  Lately my mood has been OK when I’m doing something, but then I stop and suddenly the depression and loneliness rush in.

We’re in the introspective time of year.  The Three Weeks of Mourning are introspective, thinking about what we’ve done wrong to contribute to the exile of the Jewish people and the destruction (or non-rebuilding) of the Temple in Jerusalem, then we go into Elul which is the month of introspection before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and then we have the Ten Days of Repentance bookended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement).  Even though this introspection is only really starting, I already feel that I know what to focus on this year.  I need to learn to be in the present and not worry about the future and to stop trying to predict it, because it’s impossible to predict accurately.

The Medieval Torah commentator Rashi says (on Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18.13): “‘You shall be wholehearted with HaShem Your God’: walk before him whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion.” (translation via Sefaria, slightly modernised)

I think Rashi is quoting or paraphrasing the halakhic Midrash (I haven’t checked which).  It’s talking primarily about not engaging in soothsaying, divination and the like (that’s the context of the verse), but Rashi makes a wider homiletic point about having faith in the future and accepting whatever happens.

I’d like to have the mindful/present-centred mindset of not worrying about the future or feeling excessive guilt and shame about the past, but it’s hard.  I worry a lot, and when I think about my past, it almost always seems to lead to guilt or self-blame.  It would be so nice to think of myself married to someone who I love and who loved me, just as it would be nice to think of myself as making a career writing Jewish novels, but both seem so distant that they seem like I’m taunting myself rather than setting realistic goals.

I guess I feel scared because it seems like I’ve passed the point in my life where I could have the things I want in life.  I could still get married any time until I’m ancient, but if I want children (and I do) I have to either find a wife in the next few years or marry someone significantly younger than me.  I know people who have happy marriages who do have a big age gap, but I feel it’s not so likely for me.  Likewise with careers, it’s really hard to be building a career from nothing in my late thirties, especially as I am struggling with librarianship, but not confident enough in my writing ability and struggling to get started with that too.  If I built some kind of career and if I got married, then I think I could have some happiness even if I couldn’t have children, but I struggle to feel positive about being unemployed, single and living with my parents in the long-term.  And of course in the frum community almost everyone my age is married, just as most of my Oxford peers (that I still know of) have important jobs in law, politics, academia, the rabbinate or the like.  This is why I left Facebook, to try to stop myself from comparing myself to others.  I have to accept that my life is going to be very different to other people’s (including my sister’s), but it’s hard to do that when I don’t have a clear idea of what type of life I could realistically build.

***

I woke up early, about 7.15am.  Despite only having had four or five hours sleep (I went to bed late and then struggled to sleep, probably from sleeping too much in the day), I didn’t feel too tired, but I didn’t feel inclined to get up and just stayed wrapped up in my duvet.  It wasn’t a particularly sensible thing to do, as I eventually fell asleep again, for several hours and ended up getting up no earlier than usual.

Achievements: an hour and twenty minutes spent on the novel (admittedly with some procrastination).  I finished another chapter.  I’m up to 66,000 words, with two chapters left to go, so hopefully the word count will be OK.  There’s a lot to do in redrafting, though.  I see this taking at least four drafts, maybe more.

I also did forty-five minutes of Torah study, reading this coming Shabbat’Torah portion (Va’etchanan, my bar mitzvah portion).

I got changed to have a run, put insoles in my trainers to see if that makes them more cushioned and stops hurting my feet, and warmed up, but once I started running, I could feel my ankle hurting again.  Not badly, but I didn’t want to risk making it worse, so I decided not to run for a few days.  I went for a walk instead, which isn’t as good at sublimating negative feelings, but is better than nothing.

***

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do or think.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about China persecuting the Uighurs, and also the Tibetans, Chinese Christians and adherents of Falun Gong, who are also being persecuted, but aren’t in the news.  I want to do something, but I don’t know what.  I feel very small and insignificant.  It’s hard even to talk about it without sounding like I’m making a point about some other issue.  The Jewish newspapers have been drawing parallels between the treatment of the Uighurs and the Holocaust, but it is hard to know what can be done.  There aren’t large numbers of refugees here that I could help in some practical way (I used to volunteer at a refugee drop-in centre, although it’s been shut from COVID), nor is escalated confrontation with China a promising option, when it could easily become a nuclear standoff that would destroy the planet.

***

The Doctor Who bit; also the antisemitism bit (skip if not interested):

Asking for the Doctor Who Series Twelve box set for my birthday looks more and more like it was a mistake.  I watched episode three, Orphan 55, which I hated first time around, in the hope that I would find something to like now I know what the bad bits are.  I didn’t.  In a word, awful.  In two words, really awful.

Unlike first viewing, I’m not completely sure that there’s an antisemitic bit.  There’s a montage of images of natural disasters and riots that includes a shot of fighter planes flying over Jerusalem, the only identifiable place in the sequence.  I feel it shows that BBC-types see “Israel” as a shorthand for “evil” in a way they wouldn’t with other countries.  At least, I hope it’s “Israel”; it’s possibly “Jews,” a thought not dispelled by the BBC’s low-key coverage of the weekend’s Twitter antisemitism storm compared  with the coverage of other forms of prejudice.

I told myself I wouldn’t write negative reviews any more, for various reasons, so I’m going to let it go rather than reviewing it on my Doctor Who blog, but I hope I get more out of the rest of the series or this will be a waste of time and money.  I think the series did get somewhat better as it went on.

The sad truth is that I’m enough of a completist that I still want to have every TV episode and that I will watch episodes at least twice because I know a first viewing sometimes obscures good points.  Experimental episodes in particular can improve on second viewing once you can see what they are trying to do, although very little of this series was experimental.  You can call that autistic obsession on my part if you want, and certainly the BBC makes a lot of money out of people like me.  Still, there are more expensive hobbies out there.  I’m just glad I don’t have the need to own every Doctor Who novel, audio drama, comic strip, computer game, etc. which would be an enormous drain of time as well as money.

Thinking Versus Feeling

Possibly I did too much yesterday, as I felt very depressed on waking again today and struggled to get up and get dressed.  I felt a bit lonely today, despite my parents being around, and I miss E.  We don’t know when we’ll get to see each other in person again, which in some ways is no different to before coronavirus, except that previously E. was supposed to be coming to the UK for work reasons and now that’s been postponed indefinitely.  I didn’t really feel like doing anything, but my parents were depending on me for dinner, especially as Mum was feeling quite ill today with chemo side-effects.

Even once I had worked through the initial depression, or some of it, I had quite a lot of anxiety.  Some of that was Pesach (Passover) related.  Some was listening to another Intimate Judaism podcast and worrying about my relationship with E., although there isn’t any rational reason to do so.  Worrying that our religious differences would be too big to bridge despite all the other similarities.  Wondering if we will ever get to move our relationship forward, and how.  Wondering when we will be on the same continent!

On the plus side, I dropped the parev (neither dairy nor meat, according to the kosher food laws) measuring spoon into the milchig (milk) sink and calmly rinsed it off and moved on rather than going into a religious OCD panic and emailing my rabbi mentor as would have happened a few years ago.

***

In terms of achievements, I cooked dinner (while listening to the podcast) and helped look after Mum who, as I say, was quite ill today.  I also went for a jog.  I jogged for longer than usual both in terms of time (another five minutes or more) and distance (over half a mile more) and my pace was reasonably good; I think it actually improved in the added bit as I got my second wind.  I did end up with an exercise migraine, though, and I hurt my foot somehow, although both feel better now.  I Skyped E. and did about twenty-five or thirty minutes of Torah study; I don’t seem to be able to do much more at the moment except on Shabbat (the Sabbath).

***

I feel a bit like I should be volunteering at the moment.  In a way I am, because I’m helping with housework and especially cooking now Mum is ill and we don’t have a cleaner.  Still, I feel I should do more for the wider community, but the sad truth is that I’m barely coping with everything I have to do as it is (in fact, I’m not doing stuff I would want to do, like write fiction) and the Pesach stress is only just starting; next week will be much harder.  It’s hard just to keep going at the moment with depression and anxiety.  The clinching argument, of course, is that volunteering would probably expose me to coronavirus and other contagious illnesses that we’re trying to keep away from Mum at the moment.

***

I watched a(nother) silly Star Trek Voyager episode where the ship was attacked by a virus that has grown to macroscopic size and is now a foot long and flies through the air attacking people with its stinger (?!).  Maybe coronavirus isn’t so bad.

***

Two religious thoughts I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Although a lot of Judaism is intellectual and text-focused, much of it is emotional and experiential, especially the festivals, none more so than Pesach with the symbolic foods we eat and the foods we deliberately don’t eat.  Given the problems I’ve historically had accessing and accepting my emotions, it is perhaps not surprising that I struggle with this.  On seder night, the first two nights of Pesach, when we tell the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and eat the symbolic foods of matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) and drink the four cups of wine (grape juice in my case, because of medication interactions), I seem to end up thinking hard about the symbolism rather than emotionally connecting to it.  Possibly if I could stop thinking about things (things in general) and just experience them, my life, and especially my Jewish life, would be much better.  I need to focus less on thinking and more on feeling.

(An aside: the Kotzker Rebbe was once confronted by a Chabad Hasid who waxed lyrical on the Chabad mode of prayer, all emanations and unifications.  But where, said the Kotzker, is the pupik (literally the belly button), where are the emotional guts of the matter?)

2) I have historically struggled with bitachon, trust in God.  In particular, the idea that good can come of my long mental health history is something that I struggled to engage with emotionally, even if I could vaguely see it intellectually (that thinking-feeling dichotomy again).

Lately, as E. and I have tried to make our long-distance relationship work, I can sort of see how some negative or difficult things brought me to where I am now, where I’m in a relationship with her.  If I hadn’t been depressed, I would never have set up this blog and I would never have met E.  If I had been better integrated into the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community, I probably would not have contemplated being with E.  If I hadn’t struggled growing up with being more religious, or at least wanting to be more religious, than my parents were, I wouldn’t have learnt how to handle such conflicts in my relationship with E.  And so on.

Still, even though I can see that maybe there was a reason for all those things, I’m still terrified that things won’t work out for E. and me, that this is setting me up for another disappointment, the worst one yet.  I’m trying to trust, but it’s hard.

***

It’s also late.  My “No screens after 11pm” rule has been broken flagrantly this evening, but I am up late partly because I was being a good boyfriend and a good son, talking to E. and looking after my Mum, so I don’t feel too bad.  I am tired though, and hungry.  So hitting ‘Publish’ now.

The Tunnel at the End of the Light

My main activity today was a workshop on autism and employment and higher education.  This included a lot of helpful information about whether to disclose autism (and by implication mental health issues I might also want to disclose) and employers’ legal obligations towards the disabled.  I was hoping for some information on coping strategies and adjustments for various problems one might experience, but I guess people with autism are too varied for a ‘one size fits all’ approach or perhaps there will be a workshop on that topic at another time.

In fact, the workshop really did bring home to me how autism affects different people very differently.  I knew this in an abstract way, but it was interesting to see it in action.  For instance, some people get affected by bright lights or loud noise and needed warning about a video that included these; I am usually fine with those, although sudden loud noises make me jump (I guess that’s the same for a lot of neurotypicals, though), but put me in a room with a lot of talking, even quiet talking, and pretty soon I will start spacing out as my brain tries to work out what everyone is saying (not consciously; I’m not eavesdropping ) and gets overloaded.  Similarly, even bright or flashing lights during the day are fine for me, but when I’m trying to sleep, even dim light or a little light under the crack in the door, will keep me awake.  Similarly, with communication, I did not feel confident saying much at all, and some other people looked similarly socially anxious and reluctant to join in, whereas other people were chatty or even a little disruptive by not know when to stop talking.

Part of my brain was trying to work out how I fitted in with this diverse group of people: was I ‘more’ or ‘less’ affected?  It’s not really a helpful perspective.  My therapist said that I tend to see mental illness as a competitive sport and part of me wants to be the ‘most depressed’ person or the person with the most diagnoses.  This, I would guess, stems partly from self-pity and partly to try to explain (to myself as much as to others) how badly my life has seemed to have gone wrong over the last fifteen years and to make excuses for myself or at least to provide mitigating circumstances.  But it was impossible really to create such a hierarchy at the autism workshop; even on the very superficial level at which one can get to know people in a two hour workshop, we all seemed incommensurable, each too different to compare to anyone else.

Related to this, I have been finding it hard over the last few days to work out how to conceptualise myself.  I think one problem of our society (by which I mean Western society rather than Jewish society for once) is a tendency to think in terms of oppressor/victim binary pairs (the Leninist “Who?  Whom?” – who is oppressing whom?), whereas in reality (a) things are not usually so clear cut and (b) even if one is a victim, it is not particularly helpful to think of oneself as a victim.  It leads to learned helplessness and low self-esteem.  Take it from someone who has ended up there.  But how to think of myself in a more positive light is hard.  Judaism as a culture/religion is less focused on victimhood, despite the fact that for many centuries Jews were (are) victimised.  Unfortunately, Jewish religious identity would focus on fulfilling the Torah,or at least fulfilling one’s potential, and being loved by God, which is problematic for me as I feel that I do not meet my religious obligations or even my potential and that consequently God does not love me.  I hope that CBT will help me frame things in a more helpful way.

It’s hard to do this with so few role models.  I don’t really expect there to be loads of books or TV programmes about autistic-depressive-socially-anxious-Orthodox-Jews, but there isn’t really much I’ve come across remotely like me.  I’m currently reading the novel Turtles All the Way Down, which is a reasonable portrayal of OCD.  However, in terms of portrayal of autism, The Imitation Game made me feel lonely and useless and that was a reasonably positive portrayal; I absolutely hated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which I felt failed to engage with people with autism at all sympathetically.

As for Jews… well, there are lots of Jews out there in fiction, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred they’re ultra-assimilated, there to provide a dash of ‘diversity’ without the author actually having to do any research.  In terms of detailed, positive portrayals of religious Jews, there’s Chaim Potok and that’s about it.  I haven’t read/seen Disobedience because the story wasn’t my type of thing and I worried it was going to be critical of Orthodox Judaism.  Don’t even mention The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which started promisingly, but ended up by supporting every crazy antisemitic conspiracy theory going (author Michael Chabon has since distinguished himself as a rabid critic of Jews, Judaism, the Jewish State, and pretty much everything Jews do other than assimilating themselves out of existence).

So I’m left to turn back to nineteenth century Yiddish literature which is (a) hard to get hold of in translation and (b) often targeting Orthodoxy satirically as much as positively and even when it’s not, I find it hard to see myself as peasant or even a rabbi back in the shtetl (Jewish towns of Eastern Europe).  I did watch a bit of webcast comedy series Soon By You but the relationship-driven plots just made me feel more alone and upset that I don’t live in the USA where I would have a statistically greater chance of meeting someone like myself.  I haven’t seen Israeli drama Srugim, but I imagine that would inspire similar feelings, only replacing the USA with Israel.

Most of my heroes growing up were outsiders in other ways (aliens, robots and time-travellers) and were role models only via metaphorical interpretation.  More recently, watching Sherlock again I expected to empathise with Sherlock Holmes, but while the nineteenth century original was possibly autistic and probably bipolar, the modern-day TV version is, by his own admission, a “high-functioning sociopath” and almost sadistically rude.  I find myself more drawn to the minor character of Molly Hooper, a pathologist with apparently low self-esteem and an unrequited crush on Sherlock.  To be honest, if she was real, I’d want to date her (if she was Jewish), but I fear I wouldn’t measure up to Sherlock, even if he does manipulate her and generally treat her appallingly.

The sad truth is that, here in the real world, 99% of the time people with autism, depression, anxiety or OCD don’t actually have compensatory superpowers.

(As an aside, there’s an amusing poem by Philip Larkin called A Study of Reading Habits in which he reviews the literary heroes and anti-heroes of his childhood and adolescence, notes that these days he identifies more with the cowards and failures than the heroes and finally advises the reader to “Get stewed:/Books are a load of crap.”  Thus spake the Librarian of Hull University.)

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Israeli statesman Shimon Peres was asked if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he replied, “There is a light, the problem is there’s no tunnel” which I took to mean that the outlines of a peace deal are obvious to most people (other than fanatics on both sides); the problem is working out how to get there.

Similarly, I know what my ideal life would look like: mental health issues under control (I’ve given up on comprehensively escaping them and want just to manage them); a job I can do, which pays the bills and which stimulates me intellectually; the time/energy/mental health to meet my religious obligations (prayer, Torah study etc.); a wife and children; a certain amount of free time; a few friends; and a community I feel comfortable in.  This seems a lot (although most people seem to manage with most of these things) and I have absolutely no idea how to achieve these goals.  I don’t think I have a realistic image in my head of what they could look like in the real world.  I’m not even sure that I have a clear fantasy image of my dream job, let alone a realistic one and while I do have a fantasy image of being loved by someone, I’m not sure I really have the experience to know what a real relationship is like.  I don’t know how it is that some people can plan out their lives and then systematically achieve their goals; it seems quite beyond me.

The frum (pious) thing to say is that I trust that HaShem (God) will provide for me, but I don’t.  I fear that He hates me because of all my sins; worse, I worry that His plan for me involves only suffering, which is worse than punishment, because punishment can be mitigated by repentance, whereas if He simply plans for me to suffer for some reason that is beyond my comprehension, then there simply isn’t anything I can do about it.  I don’t know what to do about this or even how to raise the issue with other frum people e.g. my rabbi mentor.

The Costs of Staying Frum

I still feel very depressed.  I seriously overslept this morning and was a couple of minutes late for work.  I was lucky it was only three minutes, as it could have been a lot worse.

I haven’t really got the energy to write much, but I want to offload a few thoughts, as I have another four hours of work followed by depression support group, so I probably won’t get to really relax for another ten hours or more.

I feel that I’m struggling a lot to stay frum (religious).  As I said yesterday, I still believe, but I lack the energy to perform the mitzvot (commandments).  Not just, or even primarily, physical energy.  At the moment Judaism just takes from me without giving back.  I’m not looking for reward, but trying to be frum, even in the inadequate way I do it, leaves me very depleted in terms of energy (physical and emotional) and it’s hard for me to get that energy back.  It’s a huge drain on my psychological resources, which are not that great at the best of times (this whole question was at the root of my breakup, because E. has weak psychological resources too, which was the source of our financial woes).

I know it’s difficult for everyone to be frum, but other people get that energy back from Judaism in other ways: meaning, inspiration, friends, community, family.  The feeling of trust in HaShem (God) and being loved.  I have family, at least to some extent and I have Shabbat (the Sabbath), although I largely sleep through it at the moment, but I don’t have those other things.  I suppose I get structure a little bit too, but it doesn’t really feel like enough.

Everything in my life seems a struggle with little reward.  That includes my job too, but my job at least has concrete rewards (salary and perhaps self-esteem, or at least I would have less self-esteem if I was unemployed) and is not really negotiable in the way that Judaism sort of is.

One thing I was probably wrong about in this regard was dating.  It probably wouldn’t be much easier to date if I was not frum, particularly as I’m pretty sure in my mind I wouldn’t want a casual liason.  It would widen my dating pool enormously to date non-religious Jews or even non-Jews, but I think I’m sufficiently weird/mentally ill/autistic as it is to be hard to match and the salary/not working full-time issue would still remain (in my experience, despite decades of feminism, most people seem to regard it as normal and ‘right’ for the man to be the main breadwinner – from that point of view things would probably be easier if I was a woman).  Plus my lack of romantic experience would be more obvious and burdensome/laughable in a community with a freer ethic.

There probably is more to say, including my fears of going to depression group tonight (simultaneously wanting and not wanting to talk and being worried people will try to solve my problems and end up belittling them as I felt happened last time I went), but I’m almost out of lunch break, so farewell for now.

The Blog Post That Dares Not Speak Its Name

I know, I’m still not blogging much.  And when I do, I’m still alluding to things without spelling them out.  The anxiety-provoking-thing is still provoking some anxiety, but is also really amazing and wonderful.  Although I’m still not going to talk about it in detail for fear that it will evaporate if I do.  Work is tedious at the moment, as I’m mostly scanning and tagging books that will need to move to our secondary site in the summer as part of a massive reorganisation of the college.  It’s just scan, click, click, scan, click, click all day, with long spells on the issue desk (my least favourite part of the job), because we’re understaffed as one of my colleagues is still off sick (actually, we’re understaffed even if she’s here, but her being off just makes it worse).  It’s all tedious, but very necessary.  Actually, there’s an anxiety-provoking-but-hopeful thing at work too, but I don’t want to talk about that yet either.

I’m trying really hard to have bitachon (trust) in HaShem (God).  The main anxiety-provoking-but-hopeful thing came about through a concatenation* of different events, so I’m pretty sure that, for whatever reason, this is where HaShem wants me to be right now; He’s made this happen very deliberately.  The hard part is accepting the hope that He wants this to turn out well for me and that He hasn’t taken me up the mountain just to make it hurt more when He throws me off the peak.  I’m trying really hard to trust that He’s doing this because He loves me and wants me to be happy, but whenever I start thinking that, I tell myself that I’m too bad to deserve to be happy and, anyway, my life so far seems to indicate that He wants me to be miserable, for whatever reason.  The hopeful thing (or one of them) is that a lot of the miserable events in my life have led me to the anxiety-provoking-but-hopeful thing, so perhaps they were necessary to get me here to have things go well.  Hopefully…

* I like that word.

Trying to Trust

I’m still feeling very anxious and I still can’t say why (and might not say why for a long time).  I was so anxious last night it was a struggle to eat anything and I couldn’t even watch Doctor Who.  I stopped after three minutes.  I’m not that bad today, things seem to be moving OK at the moment, but they could change in an instant.

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes feel like Charlie Brown coming to kick the football: I try so hard, but it’s always moved away at the last minute.  It’s funny, I think I’m actually a trusting person overall.  I think I trust most people unless they show me I shouldn’t.  But it’s so hard to trust HaShem (God).  I wasn’t abused as a child, but I did have a difficult childhood, with a lot of isolation and bullying and I guess that’s left me feeling like a lot of abused children, feeling that I can’t trust HaShem to be there for me, or at least assuming that His plan for me probably includes a predominant amount of loneliness and pain.  It’s hard to believe things could suddenly swing around and get better, although as a Jew I have to believe this, and recent events have at least shown that things can change very quickly (it’s hard to believe it is less than a month since Pesach; it feels like something from years ago as so many things seem to have happened in between).

So, I’m trying to have bitachon, to trust that good things can happen to me.  It’s hard though.  I know that trusting HaShem is the religiously correct thing to do, but I’m so scared that if I do, He’ll turn around and say, “How can a sinner like you think you deserve good things?  For that, I’m going to make things even worse.”  I know rationally it doesn’t work like this, but it’s hard to push through thirty years of emotional programming.

The fact that the freak heat wave we had earlier this week seems to have gone and April showers have set in probably doesn’t help my mood.  I don’t know whether the heter (permission) I had to listen to music in the mourning period of the omer, when music is normally forbidden, applied to anxiety too, but I had to take a chance and listen to some music on the way home, because I could feel my anxiety slipping down into depression again.  It helped a little.  I’m trying to hold on.  But it’s hard.

I just commented on AshleyLeia’s post about writing a letter to one’s younger self that, “for many years, long before this fad, I’ve wanted to go up to my really young self (about five years old) and just hug him and tell him that he’s OK.”  And I kind of wish someone would do that to me now, really.

Insight into my Trouble Trusting HaShem (God)

I had a thought about feeling that HaShem (God) hates me and that I have no share in Olan HaBa (the Next World/Heaven).  I have known for a long time that these fears are connected with the family trauma I suffered as a young child and from which I have never fully recovered, which made me fear that my parents would abandon me.  My feeling that HaShem hates me is holding all my fear and anxiety about that, which I have never been able to express to my parents, because obviously they didn’t actually abandon me, it was just my childlike understanding of the problems that were around at that time, and what happened wasn’t their fault and I don’t want them to blame themselves for my issues by opening up to them about this.

I realised that the Pesach (Passover) fears are a precise parallel to this.  If one deliberately eats chametz (leaven) on Pesach, one is theoretically liable to karet, which is generally accepted to mean losing one’s share in Olam HaBa (although there are other interpretations.  Also, in practice most people probably wouldn’t get such a severe punishment, or at least so I was taught at school).  The idea is that one does something so bad that one is completely cut off from HaShem (karet mean literally ‘cut’).  For me, this is the equivalent of worrying that my parents would abandon me and so my anxieties got focused on Pesach.  No matter that, as one rabbi said to me, to incur karet you have to deliberately and knowingly eat chametz on Pesach; you don’t get it for doing the wrong thing through ignorance of the law or accident.  I was just fixated on the fact that we had done our Pesach preparations wrong in the past (through ignorance) and I was worried that we would do them wrong again even if it would be an accident.

Of course, this has now been going on so long that it is mixed up with my feelings that I can’t trust HaShem for other reasons, that I have suffered so long with the depression and other issues that I can’t trust that He will heal me or help me to get married.  I don’t know how to resolve this.  It is very hard to trust when I feel that I have been struggling certainly all my adult life and, on some level, even for much of my childhood.  I don’t know how to achieve the level of bitachon (trust in God) that I should have.  Although the funny thing is that it’s only regarding recovering from depression and getting married that I feel like this.  I have no problem trusting that I will muddle through somehow financially, despite my somewhat precarious employment position (maybe because I’ve never really been on the breadline, even though my parents have always had to help me), nor do I really worry too much about the survival of the Jewish people, something that historically has never been assured, although I do worry somewhat about serious persecution or another war in Israel.  But it’s only about achieving some kind of mental health and managing to get (and stay) married and have children that I feel absolutely pessimistic.