Working on Myself, and On My Novel

As I’ve mentioned, we’re now into the Hebrew month of Elul, which is the introspection month before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a few weeks’ time.  I’m signed up for a couple of daily ideas videos/talks for Elul and one idea that keeps coming up this year is the idea of mitzvot (commandments) that govern your relationship with yourself.

When I was growing up, I was always taught that there are two categories of mitzvot: those between me and God and those between me and other people.  An example of the former is eating only kosher food.  An example of the latter is not gossiping.  When I got older this idea of mitzvot between me and myself appeared, but I’ve rarely heard it dealt with until recently.  To be honest, this time last year I sat through a whole shiur (religious class) on this topic and still left wondering what an example of a mitzvah between me and myself is and how I can work on this area.

I know I do need to work on this area.  I know I have self-esteem issues, needless guilt issues and unnecessary shame.  I know that if I could accept myself more, I would feel more comfortable in my community and find it easier to make friends and to go to shul (synagogue) more often, so there would be wins in the categories of mitzvot between me and other people and between me and God too.  So it would be a win-win, but it’s hard to even begin to unravel what I should do, especially as I haven’t seen many people deal with it at length.  One article I found online suggested it’s about developing good character traits, but that’s still somewhat vague in terms of what the actual mitzvot concerned are.

***

I had my penultimate CBT session today.  My therapist suggested a couple of YouTube videos to watch about self-esteem and CBT.  I do wonder whether I will be able to continue using the techniques I was taught.  I feel as if I haven’t finished learning them all yet.  Still, I had some anxiety today and managed it better than I would have done in the past using techniques of grounding, postponing worry and putting things in perspective.  The therapist was enthusiastic about my volunteering in the museum, as it would give me an opportunity to practise talking to people in an environment where I am knowledgeable, so I guess I should try to pursue that, although it’s very scary.

One of the videos my therapist suggested I watch was a talk from Lizzie Velasquez, who is a woman with a rare genetic disorder (so rare only three people in the world are known to have it) that means she can’t put on weight (not “excessive weight” but any weight at all), which has obviously  affected her body shape and she was bullied a lot at school because of her appearance.  A video of her was put online by someone from her school claiming she was “The ugliest woman in the world” and was watched by nine million people, attracting all kinds of hateful comments, including people saying she should kill herself.  She was talking about how to take the negativity she has experienced and how she channelled it to push herself forward to achieve her goals in life.

I don’t always find “inspirational” stories that inspirational, but I found this quite inspiring.  I suppose I feel that if she isn’t letting herself be defined by her bullies, I don’t have to be defined by mine.  I do feel glad I was at school before social media, so I didn’t experience this kind of super-public online bullying.  The worst I had was when the school yearbook for GCSE (exams taken aged fifteen or sixteen) year, was banned by the teachers, which apparently was because the kids who wrote/edited it put in a lot of nasty stuff about myself and my friends, although I never found out what they said.

***

I read an article today by Howard Jacobson (having coincidentally just finished one of his novels yesterday) about finding his voice as a Jewish writer rather than trying to channel his literary heroes.  I feel that something similar has happened to me.  The books I read are mostly science fiction, murder mystery or nineteenth/early twentieth century classics.  I don’t have the type of logical, analytical mind to write a world-building science fiction novel or to plot a murder mystery story and, as Jacobson writes, trying to channel Dickens or Dostoyevsky isn’t really a sensible strategy these days.  I don’t read much contemporary literary fiction.  I did for a couple of years, when I was attending a book club, but I often struggled to engage with the books.  I thought it was me being an SF geek and not liking anything without a space ship, or at least a murder, but lately I’ve come to suspect that I often didn’t engage with the characters because there was no one like me, someone with mental health issues or from a religious Jewish background (I tended to connect more with stories set in religious cultures in other countries e.g. the devout Muslims in Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s novels).  The breakthrough I’ve had just in the last few months is realising I can write stories about people like me, people with depression or high functioning autism, people caught on the fault-line between traditional Judaism and (post)modernity, people not sure where they fit in Western culture or outside it.  It’s quite exciting.

I spent about an hour working on my novel this evening – really too late in the day to achieve much, but I want to keep the momentum going.  I wrote a thousand words, which was good for (a) one hour and (b) 9.00pm.  I’m pleased with my progress so far, although it’s very early days still.

The Happiest Days of My Life

Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner alone went OK.  I read more of The Complete Peanuts and was distracted by the craziness of the forthcoming Israeli general election in The Jewish Chronicle, so I didn’t read much of 13 Minutes, which is less of a thriller than I thought from the blurb on the back and more of a teenage school story (I had a similar experience with Turtles All the Way Down a few months ago).  I slept too long and missed shul (synagogue) in the morning again and dozed off as well in the afternoon, which is frustrating.

Now I’m facing a busy and stressful week combined with my parents being away and am wondering how I will cope.  At least the hardest thing, the networking workshop, is over first.

***

On Shabbat in shul (synagogue), I found myself reflecting about the values of my shul against my own values.  We both value prayer and Torah study (in both cases the shul value both much more than I’m able to right now with my mental health issues).  But the shul places value on quarantining oneself from the wider culture, to a greater or lesser extent, while I do not.  I think Jews can learn things from the best of other cultures, if we’re careful, and we can teach things too.  I wouldn’t want to be set up with someone like my shul on a date, which is problematic as someone from shul might try to set me up with someone one day… but as it’s never really happened before now (slightly, once), that’s not really much of a concern.  More pertinent is the fact that I don’t know how to find a shul that fits more of my values.  I would probably have to be earning a lot more money and be more emotionally stable and independent so I could move out of my parents house and to another area and even then I might not find one.

***

I found myself feeling glad that I have Judaism, and books, and Doctor Who and other vintage science fiction/telefantasy to hold onto.  (Are they autistic special interests?  I’m not sure that they all are; I feel uncomfortable with the way some autistic people I know list all their hobbies as ‘special interests’ which I feel devalues the notion.  My interest in literature and even Judaism, important though they are, don’t seem as intense and self-soothing as my interest in Doctor Who and vintage telefantasy)  They give me a refuge and alternative ways of conceptualising the world.  A link to the past, something bigger and older than myself, somewhat bigger and older in the case of Doctor Who, immeasurably bigger and older in the case of literature and Judaism.  I feel sorry for people who have nothing larger than themselves.  I suppose that’s why it’s so important to me to try to find friends/a partner who share all of these interests, because they are so central to my sense of self.

***

I was feeling OK, but I suddenly felt quite depressed.  I don’t know if it’s apprehension about the week ahead, especially the networking workshop and coping without my parents, or if 13 Minutes is bringing up bad memories from school.  I would stop reading it, but I don’t like giving up on books, plus I want to know the reason behind the book’s central mystery, how Natasha Howland ended up drowning in the river in the middle of the night.  So much for trying new things.

My depression and autism make me feel that I won’t enjoying new things and they are sometimes right, but I’m not sure that they don’t sabotage things to prove themselves right.  When I was a child, my parents would push me to do social stuff saying, “Just try it once.”  Then, if I didn’t like it, they would press me to try it again on the grounds that the first time might be atypical.  I actually did more social stuff when I was very young (pre-teen), cubs, scouts, karate, but I’m not sure that I actually enjoyed any of them and I certainly didn’t make friends through them.  Mostly I just pined for my mentor friend and felt unable to talk to other people or feel comfortable without him.  I don’t think I could express or even understand my ambivalent-going-on-negative feelings about these activities.  I just avoided doing things as much as possible.

When I was eleven and twelve I got invited to bar and bat mitzvah parties of people in my class at school.  I hated them, all noise and music and dancing and emergent adolescent sexuality (boys and girls were dancing together (they weren’t frum simchas), which I simply didn’t understand as I didn’t hit puberty for another year).  Although I knew everyone, I had few friends, especially as my mentor friend simply didn’t go on the grounds that he didn’t enjoy discos and his parents didn’t push him to go, whereas mine said that if I was invited, it was rude not to go.  I used to hide in the toilets, which I thought was ruder than not going at all, but my parents disagreed.  I put it down to shyness, as did everyone else, but in retrospect the whole thing is an autistic deathtrap.  The funny thing is that I can’t remember consciously disliking the noise.  Trying to think back to it, I get a strong feeling of get me out of here, but it’s hard to identify the cause and I can see why I and everyone else assumed it was just my shyness at work.  Even my own bar mitzvah was like everyone else’s, because no one told me I had the option of another way.  My parents would have allowed something else, but, I suspect that in the absence of being presented with other options, I couldn’t think of anything.  Or perhaps I had been offered other options, but didn’t really understand them because I hadn’t been to similar parties, or lacked the imagination and self-awareness to predict what I would like.  Anyway, at my own bar mitzvah, I went outside and played in the entrance hall with a friend for most of the evening.  I remember that at my sister’s bat mitzvah my Mum got really angry with me for not standing with the rest of the family at the end of the evening; I think my issues was less noise and sensory overload there and more shyness and not wanting everyone staring at me.  At least these days my parents are more understanding of my mental health and neurodivergence, although I worry that I hide behind these things.  Then again, without them, maybe I wouldn’t want to hide.

***
I’m just struggling to do things today, to go for a walk and cook dinner.  I don’t exercise or cook as much as I used to, even when the depression was worse than it is now and I was still working more days per week.  I don’t know why this is the case.  I’m cooking red bean chilli because I’ve done it loads of times before.  I feel guilty that I’m not using the cookery book I got in the summer for my birthday.   I’ve only used it once, but I’ve hardly cooked anything since then and have mostly relied on known recipes.  I shouldn’t feel guilty about this, but I do.  I feel guilty about lots of things that aren’t my fault, and some that are.  I feel guilty that I burnt the onions again and that I probably damaged my Mum’s pot.  Actually, I probably should feel guilty about that.

***

Feeling like an anxious mess now.  I volunteered to help with something today; it took an hour, but I can’t do very much and that plus shopping plus cooking plus Talmud study has eaten up my whole day, so I probably won’t be able to work on my books as I wanted.  I still plan to do too much each day, or at least each non-work day.  I don’t know how most people manage to live much busier lives than me; I’m barely functional.

I’m so anxious about tomorrow, coping with the networking workshop and getting to the theatre on time in the evening for the Jewish Book Week talk and then getting home in time to get some sleep before work on Tuesday.  I feel, probably somewhat arrogantly, that I ought to be giving talks at Jewish Book Week one day.  I don’t mean that I’m a gifted or insightful writer, merely (yet again) that I feel in some nebulous way that everyone expected me to be a “success”, whatever that means, that I got through school telling myself that once I left and was free of the bullies, once I got to university, I would be a success, and yet I am a miserable failure who can’t even cook dinner.  How can I even think of careers and relationships when I’m such a non-functional mess?  I do feel that if the kids who bullied me at school could see me now they’d die laughing.

The Great Clomipramine Shortage of 2018

The Great Clomipramine Shortage of 2018 is continuing.  To cut a very long and boring story short, I should be able to get a repeat prescription tomorrow, but not the 50mg tablets I want and had been prescribed initially or the 10mg tablets the doctor prescribed as a ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ fallback, but 25mg tablets.  The pharmacy are at least saving them for me while the surgery comes up with the requisite paperwork.  But I think when I see the psychiatrist on 8 November (if the NHS ever deigns to tell me when my appointment is…) I need to talk seriously about changing meds, because these aren’t available and aren’t doing much when they are available.  No idea where we go from here though.  MAOIs?  ECT?

The other thing I need to talk to the psychiatrist about is alternative diagnoses.  I’m still going back and forth in my mind about autism and social communication disorder.  Tony Attwood writes in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome that diagnosis is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  When it is 80% complete (enough diagnostic criteria are met), the jigsaw is considered completed, BUT only if the corners and edges are in place too (certain criteria have to be met, regardless of how many other criteria are met).  I have the 80% complete, but I don’t have all the corners and edges, there are some symptoms I just don’t have, or not at a high enough level, to count as autistic.  I can see the autism picture, but because I haven’t got the right pieces, no one will give me any help with it.  So maybe social communication disorder is a better bet, or going to a CBT therapist and trying to work directly with self-esteem and social anxiety.

The other thing I get from reading the book at the moment is gratitude.  I thought my childhood was not great, but it could have been so much worse.  The bullying could have been even more intense and violent, I could have been unable to defend myself in any way except violence (which would have got me in bigger trouble) and, most of all, I could have been without my “mentor friend” who guided and protected me (literally protected me – he was tall and strong and even though he was a geek, he wasn’t bullied as much as I was).  No wonder I used to get upset and maybe even anxious if he missed a day of school.  My Mum wanted to split us up, because she thought he was holding back my social development and I would make more friends in another class or school, but I suspect I would just have been even more alone if that had happened.

Speaking of mentor figures, Attwood says of romantic partners sought by people with autism, “The partner they seek is someone who understands them and provides emotional support and guidance in the social world – someone to be a ‘mother figure’ and mentor.”  I’ve realised this before about myself.  It makes me pessimistic.  I’m a weird enough person to be trying to matched up as it is, without putting pressure on women to mentor me and even mother me (even without getting into the complexity of my far-from-straightforward relationship with my actual mother).  This seems like asking too much.  I can’t imagine anyone ever consenting to marry me on those terms.  But I worry about what will happen when my parents are gone.  Complex though my current relationship with them is, they are still doing a lot of mentoring and guiding, e.g. today, when Mum came to resolve the clomipramine prescription confusion at the doctor’s surgery, when my social anxiety/autism/social communication disorder/shyness/whatever was just making me shutdown and run away.

I just got back from shiur (religious class).  It’s become quite difficult.  I really enjoy the content, but the number of people going has gone up and I feel uncomfortable with the number of people in the room, especially as some are noisy and constantly interrupting with questions and interjections (Jews don’t really do quiet listening).  I don’t really cope very well with people who like to talk for the sake of talking, or because they like the sound of their voices, doubly so if I’m trying to concentrate on someone else talking.  Plus just being around so many people is anxiety-provoking for me – Attwood says that for autistic people the difficulty of being around people, in terms of energy needed in alertness, anxiety and reasoning out the correct social interactions on the spot, increases exponentially (rather than linearly) with the number of people.  At shiur, as well as normal fears of a social faux pas, I’m worried about a religious faux pas too.  Just to make things worse, I’m juggling more balls because some people at the shiur know a bit about my mental health issues and some don’t and some have been acquaintances since childhood and some have not, so there is a lot to think about.

I’ve been thinking again about pets.  Attwood recommends them as affectionate and understandable companions for autistic children (unlike neurotypical children, who are difficult to understand).  I’ve see them recommended for people with depression too.  As a child I had a couple of goldfish, but that was it.  My family aren’t really pet people.  But now I wonder if it would help me to have a pet.  It would also let me see if I can cope with responsibility, given that I want to have children one day (although, as I say, that seems unlikely to happen).  Small mammals seem the best bet, guinea pigs or rabbits (both are social animals and should ideally be kept with at least two – I’ve done some reading on this already).  But I haven’t got the confidence to mention this to my parents (who in any case think the pet will die and leave me even more depressed), not least because I worry whether I am non-depressed enough to look after a pet, especially when I come home from work exhausted.  And then there’s the financial cost.

In other news, my contract isn’t being renewed at work, if I happen not to have finished the work by the end of my current contract (23 November).  I was told it was because of internal problems and bureaucracy, but I worry that it was secretly because I was a disappointment and they aren’t happy with my work and the mistakes I make.  It’s rather academic, as I strongly suspect I will be more or less finished by 23 November anyway.  To be honest, I think I might be self-sabotaging my job hunting.  I don’t really feel capable of working, at least not until I have dealt with my self-esteem and social anxiety issues and the autism/social communication disorder/whatever issues, plus I’m just plain exhausted from two months (with another to come) of constant alertness and anxiety to deal with social interactions and noise at work.  I need to stop for a bit and calm down and get my bearings.  I know that sounds lazy and entitled, but I feel like I’m at breaking point and I need time out – more than the three day weekends I have (which tend to be spent on chores and job applications and sometimes volunteering).  Although I was tempted by the job I saw advertised for Information and Records Manager for MI5 and MI6.  I want to be licensed to kill people who talk in the library or bring back books late.

Quick Notes from the End of the Week

I had my last session with  my therapist.  We spoke a bit about the C-PTSD book I’m reading.  She said that lots of things can be traumatic to a child, so I could well have experienced childhood events as trauma even if I wasn’t actually abused in the strict legal sense, especially as there was bullying and other difficult events for me.  We spoke about not necessarily needing a label of PTSD/trauma, just an awareness of how I feel and why I feel it.

She sounded pretty hopeful about my chances for the future and we’ve left things open so that I can go back to her if I want/need to after I’ve tried some CBT.  But I really do feel I need to try a more practical form of therapy to work on my low self-esteem now, especially as I feel (and she agreed) that psychodynamic therapy has done a lot of good for me in understanding my feelings and where they come from historically and now I need to move on to something more practical.

My father’s uncle died yesterday.  I didn’t know him very well, but my father was close to him and is very upset.  The funeral was today (Jewish funerals are usually done as soon as possible, preferably within twenty-four hours).  My great-uncle was the last person of that generation (grandparent/great-uncle/great-aunt) in my family, on either side.  It’s sobering to think that my parents are now the elder generation (albeit that my parents both have cousins who are ten or fifteen years older than they are) and that I’m now of the ‘younger adult’ generation; I already have second cousins once removed who see me as an adult figure, and there will perhaps be more children, closer to me one day, who will see me as an uncle, maybe even as a father (it could happen, theoretically).  It’s another reminder of mortality and the inexorable passage of time at a time of year when such things are omnipresent.

The Other ABC: Asperger’s, Bullying and Communication

I’ve been thinking yesterday and today about bullying and Asperger’s/autism.  Not so much in the obvious way, whether being on the spectrum left me open to bullying (although obviously it did), but whether it contributed to it in a more subtle way.

When I was about thirteen, I was bullied by two girls who were friends with each other.  I don’t remember much of what they said or did to me.  I guess I’ve blotted it out.  I imagine it was a lot of verbal harassment (the usual pattern for when I was bullied), although I do have vivid memories of them throwing bits of broken saw blade at me in woodwork class.  After a couple of weeks I went to the teacher to complain about them, only to discover that they had already complained about me.  One of the girls was black and they said that I was bullying her because I was racist and bullying her friend for being friends with her.  This horrified me and I didn’t know what to say.  When the teacher asked if I was racist, my self-doubt kicked in and all I could say was that I didn’t think so.

At the time I was very upset by all of this.  In retrospect, I feel the teachers could have handled it better, maybe getting her to tell why she thought I was racist and what she thought I had been doing to bully her.  Lately I’ve been wondering if my Asperger’s played a part.  At the time, I assumed that the racism allegation was a deliberate lie to get me in trouble and to avoid being punished for their own bullying of me.  Now I wonder if it was a misunderstanding.  As virtually the only black girl in a Jewish school, I’m sure the girl who bullied me was on the receiving end of bullying herself.  This thought didn’t occur to me at the time, when I divided the world into bullies and victims with no movement from one side to the other; I probably also only associated racism with neo-Nazi extremists, not the more subtle everyday racism many people experience.  I wonder if, primed by her own experience of being bullied, my bully took my social anxiety and possible autistic spectrum disorder as evidence of deliberate rudeness to her on my part.  I can’t remember if she ever tried to be friendly towards me and I reacted awkwardly, but it certainly could have happened.

The pain and confusion around the incident still hurts, though, and the racism accusation may well have fed in to my pure O (pure obsession) OCD, my belief/fear that I could do terrible things and my pure O and depressive/low self-esteem thoughts that I am a terrible person.  By a curious chance, I happen to know that she seemed to turn out OK, becoming an actor and musician.  I saw her on TV a couple of times, although IMBD and Wikipedia don’t list her as having done anything for a couple of years, so I don’t know if she is still working in those industries.  I used to feel resentful about that, but now it’s just yet another instance of other people doing well while I stay lonely and in psychological distress.

Even many years on, my inter-personal communication is not always good.  I can be blunt and to the point at times; at other times I over-compensate by becoming too verbose.  I just had a conversation with my parents which went downhill rapidly, probably in part because of communication differences.  It was over the phone, which I always struggle with anyway, but I like focused conversation, whereas my parents like to ramble, with all kinds of unnecessary details and tangents.  I think they also like to talk for the sake of talking, to get things off their chests or just to create a social interaction, whereas I, like many autistic people, assume that every conversation has a point my interlocutor wants to get across or a problem to solve and I become confused, frustrated and/or irritable if I can’t find the point of what they are saying.

I also tend to be precise with my language and I can be quite pedantic about things like grammar and correct word usage, whereas my parents, my father in particular, can make mistakes in grammar and use malapropisms.  These annoy me a lot, even though I know they shouldn’t.  I can usually understand what they are saying, but part of my brain says that this is not standard English and I can’t understand it, so I query it, resulting in annoyance for them as well as for me, as they think I’m being pedantic and deliberately obtuse, which I suppose I am in a way.  They also make huge jumps from one subject to another and sometimes back again later that make sense in their heads, but not in mine or, again, I sort of understand what they are talking about, but find myself impelled to question to be sure.  I’m not quite sure how many of these communication issues are autistic, but I know some of them are.

Otherwise today has been a difficult day.  I had a blood test in the morning and an eye test in the afternoon.  The latter was very problematic because I shook again, which I haven’t done for a while.  It’s probably a medication interaction, but triggered by anxiety.  Before the test I had to stare into various machines for physical measurements of my eyes and when the puffed air into my eyes to check their pressure, I shook a little from the shock of it.  This probably set me up to feel that I would shake in the eye test itself, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Sure enough, I felt my space was being invaded when the optician was changing the lenses I was wearing or held anything over my eye and I shook, which I guess is Asperger’s again, as it’s the sense of space being invaded that creates the anxiety.  I hope that didn’t change the outcome of the test, because apparently I need new lenses in my glasses.