More Anxiety

I slept badly again, waking up in the middle of the night. I actually slept in two blocs of five hours, which shouldn’t be bad, but somehow with a gap in the middle felt incomplete. Plus, I woke feeling very anxious, which I think was about my appointment at the optician, although I had some mildly disturbing dreams too. Autism hates the unknown, and I didn’t know how my appointment would go under COVID. Even not knowing if I was going to be left standing outside for a long time before they let me in made me nervous. Of course, some of it could be the general anxiety I’ve had lately, and the usual burnout after work and depression group.

I had managed to mostly cut out the cereal I was eating before bed, on the grounds that I was rarely genuinely hungry and it had just become habitual, but I’ve been eating porridge when I wake up in the night to help me get back to sleep. This is because warm milk helps me sleep, but I dislike the taste of milk by itself. I suppose I could try to get some cocoa or something, but aside from the fact that I’ve never had it so don’t know if I like it, I’m not sure it would have less calories than porridge. I tend to sweet the porridge with sultanas, which is better than sugar, but probably still quite calorific. More problematic, from a diet point of view, was the ton of ice cream I ate last night to reward myself for getting through a difficult day at work and depression group with anxiety…

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I had sick-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach anxious nausea all day, as well as well as feeling myself to be in agitated in “fight or flight” mode. It’s unusual for me to have anxiety for so long without an obvious cause and I don’t know how to cope. I might look online. In the past I’ve been so depressed that I was actively suicidal and while I wouldn’t say that was better than this, over time I evolved coping strategies for depression. This feels very new and alien and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m pretty sure it’s a medication change issue.

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I had my eyes tested and chose new glasses. I shook quite a bit while the optician was testing my eyes, although she said it didn’t matter. I’m not sure how much was anxiety and how much the usual I-shouldn’t-shake-so-I-worry-about-it-until-I-start-shaking tremor I get in situations like this (eye test, dentist, doctor, barber, etc.). More awkward was when I attempted to pay. My first credit card was rejected by the machine. I’m not sure why. With my second (debit) card I forgot the PIN and only remembered it after I was locked out of it. And I couldn’t remember the PIN for the third card at all. I’m not sure how much of this was the result of anxiety and how much is because when I buy stuff in person (which I haven’t done much recently), it’s usually under £30 and I can buy it without needing to type in my PIN, so I’ve just forgotten it. Fortunately, my Mum was also having her eyes tested, so I just had to wait for her to finish and she laid out and I paid back. It was very embarrassing though. I felt pretty useless and immature.

The other unhelpful thing I did today was buy a vitamin D supplement without realising that it was considerably higher dosage than Boots usually sell (75 micrograms rather than 10 micrograms). I almost certainly don’t get anywhere near enough vitamin D (mostly indoors, mostly covered up even in the summer), but I’m not sure if 75 micrograms is still too much. The NHS site would seem to indicate that it’s OK. I might phone 111 (NHS non-emergency helpline) later to double-check.

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I didn’t work on my novel today or do much in the way of Torah study because the anxiety feelings were too strong, plus the eye test and cooking dinner (cashew nut casserole) took up a lot of time. I did get an idea of what I’m doing for my devar Torah this week which I can hopefully write up tomorrow.

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I listened to the first episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast, even though I am not a woman and am probably not normal. It was quite useful for my understanding of myself vis-a-vis the frum (religious Jewish) world. They quoted psychotherapist Elisheva Liss as saying that rather than asking if we are “normal” we should ask if we are causing harm or distress and, if not, we shouldn’t worry about what we do. Other people being judgemental is not considered causing distress. This makes a lot of sense, although it’s hard to do something that other people in your community will consider “wrong” even if you know you are not harming anyone.

I think my problems with fitting into my shul (synagogue) community come partly from not always being sure of the community’s values, not least because it is a community with some more modern elements and some more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) elements. For instance, I know some people do have TVs and others do not and it is hard to know what the “official” line on TVs is. (I’ve also noticed in recent years that some people who won’t own a TV do stream on Netflix and the like, something that I don’t fully understand.)

More contentiously, I know that many (all?) people in my community would not approve if they saw me walking arm in arm with PIMOJ, and that does make me a little nervous. However, I feel that I’ve only stayed frum in the last few years by making compromises to my preserve my sanity. This mostly involved bending rules rather than breaking them, but I break the rule about touching women who aren’t relatives for PIMOJ because I just can’t cope any more, and I feel that people who haven’t got to their late thirties without a “legitimate” physical relationship (i.e. marriage) don’t really get to judge me here. It’s break the rules in a small way to stay sane and keep the “bigger picture.”

On a related note, I found this article about passing, intended from an autistic POV (although it is written by a religious Jewish autistic woman). I feel the need to pass, both as neurotypical and mentally healthy in the world in general, and as “normal” in frum world. However, the effort involved can be pretty soul destroying as the article noted. I would like not to feel that need all the time.

Épater Le Bourgeois

Work was fine. I finished the data checking and did a load of filing. My Dad said I looked happy when I came home, which partly may be the result of a truncated working day (six hours plus a forty-five minute lunch) and J giving me a lift home instead of commuting on the Tube, but is probably also from feeling that I achieved something practical and from being in a non-hostile, reasonably autism-friendly environment. I did come home feeling OK and not exhausted, which hasn’t really happened in a work environment for many years.

I got home reasonably early and for a while was hoping to work on my novel for a bit, but I started answering emails and responding to blog comments and suddenly it was an hour later. I did finish and send my devar Torah; did a little bit of Torah study, as I had done some on the Tube in to work, but not much; and did some ironing, so it wasn’t a wasted evening, but I felt that I didn’t get 100% out of it. This is possibly me being too self-critical.

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I mentioned that last night I went to a virtual shiur (religious class). The rabbi said that given how hair-splittingly legalistic Judaism is (not his words, but not that far off), we would expect great Jewish leaders to be “bland and boring” (those were his words), yet they have vivid personalities. I thought about this. I can think of great Jewish religious leaders who did have vivid personalities. However, I also sometimes feel that contemporary Orthodox society can feel monolithic. That anyone who doesn’t fit the mould leaves, or gets thrown out. (I also don’t know if contemporary Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders fit the “vivid personalities” model, but I’m prepared to admit there that I don’t know them well enough to pass judgement.)

I’ve been thinking about this today. I don’t have any great answers. Orthodox society probably is monolithic. This is partly from overt religious conformism, but more because it’s mostly middle class. Orthodox families are talking about the same things non-religious middle class families talk about. Maybe not TV and popular culture (at least not at the Haredi end of the spectrum), but politics and house prices and which are the best schools to send their kids to and where they’re going on holiday and so on. Middle class people in general are not always noted for being daringly original and avant-garde. It’s why “bourgeois” is a term of abuse, particularly in artistic circles (for all that many artists are also middle class, much of their work is about épater les bourgeois). After a while it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people start to feel that they have to leave if they think differently almost without pausing to see what is actually available. The creatives assume religion is conformist and meaningless; the religious establishment assumes that art and individuality are dangerous (which is true) and unnecessary (which is not true).

For me, part of the attraction of figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (late eighteenth/early nineteenth century) and the Kotzker Rebbe (nineteenth century) is their willingness to shock the conventional religious and social pieties of their day while remaining fully Torah observant. As for today… I don’t know. I’ve met some unconventional Orthodox figures. I would like to meet more, although it’s hard to know how. For a while, Hevria.com was a place to “meet” creative frum (religious Jewish) people, but the conversations moved from the website to Facebook, and I won’t use Facebook, and I think they started focusing on in-person events instead of online content which is fine if you live in New York or Israel, but I don’t. Someone there really upset me too, on a very personal level, and that tainted it for me.

Of course, it has also occurred to me lately that maybe the reason I never fit in wherever I go is not because the sub-cultures I try to identify with are flawed, but because I have some kind of self-sabotaging fear of fitting in and conforming and start looking for reasons to feel like an outsider as well as an anxious fear of rejection that pre-empts future rejection by not getting connected in the first place.

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According to my friend, who knows these things, this special Doctor Who magazine has sold out twice from the publisher’s website and once from a general magazine site. Science fiction shop Forbidden Planet seems to have sold out too. All this in the space of a week. Actually, as I’ve been looking since before it was published, I suspect it sold out largely from pre-orders. Certainly the publisher’s website seemed to sell out more or less immediately. I’m probably going to have to resign myself to not getting hold of it.

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I’ve got four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return left. It picked up around the halfway point, with the various plot strands coming together, which in turn helped me to figure out who on Earth all the new characters were, how they related to each other and what they were doing. I will probably have to watch it at least once more to really understand it. I have discovered that I’m not as squeamish for screen gore as I thought, coping with some on-screen nastiness, although I prefer the original series were the gore (and sex and swearing) was mostly implicit. I feel vaguely bourgeois for saying that (see above). I do believe gore (and sex and swearing) can be dramatically justified, but not everything here seemed to pass that test, although some did. It’s hard, something I have struggled with in my writing, not gore per se, but violence, sex and swearing. It’s hard to tell when less is more sometimes. Just this week I cut something from my novel (sexual rather than violent) because I felt it was a distraction, but the novel features sexual violence that I think is necessary to be true to the subject (domestic abuse).

Attitudes

I just stopped following a site I was occasionally reading.  It was for ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later in life).  I thought it would be good to find people who share my struggles, but they seem to be on a much higher spiritual level than me.  The article that made me give up said that “as long as a person remains outside the world of closeness with Hashem [God], he will never attain it [closeness to God]”.  One is supposed to have trust in God and in genuine Torah leaders to attain this.  It concludes “If the reader is still doubtful at this point about the words here, then there is no proof we can bring to convince him otherwise. But one thing we can ask of him: For your own sake, and for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of giving your Creator a satisfaction, cry to Hashem every day, hour after hour, and ask Him that he guide you to the truth. If a person really begs Hashem for this, and if he really wants it, Hashem will surely help him get to the truth, that he be able to give a nachas ruach (satisfaction) to Hashem all his life.”  I do at least try to cry out to be guided to the truth, despite the depression and exhaustion.  Maybe I don’t cry out enough or good enough or I don’t really want it.  Maybe, after everything I’ve been through over the years, I don’t believe that things will get any better for me, or that God wants things to be any different for me.  That God created me for anything other than suffering and punishment.  I don’t know.  But I don’t feel satisfaction or love in my life.  Apparently if I loved God, I wouldn’t care about being so lonely among people (perhaps – the article actually said that I would give up lust, which may not be the same thing).  I wish I could, but it’s not working out for me.

(I also don’t think we can give HaShemnachat ruach/satisfaction” and that statements in the Talmud and other authoritative texts to the contrary are “speaking the language of man,” but this is me being Maimonidean and is not the main issue (we can’t give satisfaction to God, because this would imply that God has a lack that we can fill, which is not possible).)

My issue isn’t really this post, it’s the entire outlook of the site which is super-frum (religious) and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and negative about the wider world and assuming that everyone is on a high spiritual level, which I am not.  I wish I was on the level of the writers and commenters for this site, but I am not.  I wish I could find people on my level and going through things I am going through to support me, but I can’t.  I suspect someone who has been frum for as long as I have isn’t supposed to still be struggling with basic things like davening (praying) and studying Torah every day.

On frum sites like that one, one thing you hear a lot is, “HaShem doesn’t give anyone a test they can’t cope with.”  I don’t think I’m coping with my tests.  Maybe I’m just lazy or wicked, but I don’t feel like I’m coping with autism, unemployment, loneliness or especially depression at all well.  The book Calling Out to You (on depression and anxiety from a frum perspective) did at least say that “coping” is not the same as “functioning normally as if there was no test” and that it’s OK to be sub-par when depressed or anxious.  That helps a bit, but I don’t feel like I’m coping at all.  I feel that every frum site I come across does this to me sooner or later, leaves me feeling wicked and distant from God and other Jews, who apparently don’t have the issues I have.

I do wish I could find a forum for talking with other frum Jews who have these kinds of issues (mental illness, autism, trouble trusting God because of childhood experiences etc.).  I was looking at a frum forum for another issue in the hope that some ideas would transfer or I would see some commonalities, but I couldn’t connect with the attitudes there.  They were just frummie attitudes that I can’t imitate.

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I felt depressed this morning and while I felt a bit better after lunch, once I tried to do some interview preparation for tomorrow, my mood worsened.  I looked over my notes on ‘classic’ interview questions.  I still doubt my ability to answer them fluently under pressure.  So much depends on feeling confident in the interview despite social anxiety and responding promptly to unexpected questions despite autistic slow processing time.

It’s hard to do anything at the moment and I wonder what will happen if I do get a job.  I am largely caught up in depression and loneliness and struggle to be able to do anything.  I try to find small tasks (go for a walk, do thirty minutes of Torah study, write a job application for an hour), but it can be hard to do anything.  I just went for a walk and did some shopping and I became completely exhausted, even though I was only out for forty-five minutes.  (Low blood sugar may have been a contributory factor, to be fair, but it wasn’t that long since lunch.)  The job I’m up for tomorrow is full-time and I don’t have a clue how I would cope with that.

It’s tempting to say I just want to watch TV all day, but I don’t think I do.  That would show too much initiative, motivation and concentration.  I don’t really want to do anything at all.  I just have to exist, somehow.

The thing that scares me is being like this forever.  I already know that I’ve lost much of my teens, my twenties and half of my thirties to depression.  I feel like I will never have any joy in my life, having lost what are considered the most carefree and enjoyable years.  Even if I fully recovered, I would be struggling for years to establish myself in a career and to build friendships and relationships, all the things normal people do in their youth and twenties before moving on to build families and taking their career to the next level, things that I will probably never get around to doing.  And people have fun when they’re young.  I didn’t and now I feel that I never will.  It’s all very well saying that true spiritual joy will substitute for fake secular joy, but I’m not getting either.

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(The next two paragraphs are about TV science fiction, past and present, so feel free to skip if that’s not of interest.)

I’ve been watching Star Trek Discovery lately.  I’m about of a third of the way through season one.  It’s very good, probably the best Star Trek since the best days of Deep Space Nine, but it is very, very bleak, full of gore and unpleasant, hard-bitten characters.  It is also more an action series than a science fiction one.  I have never been particularly interested in Klingon culture and wonder why the writers of Star Trek in all its iterations, have been so fascinated by language them.  I would like to see more of the Vulcans.

When I need some non-bleak TV, I’ve been re-watching random episodes of The Avengers and The New Avengers – the British, John Steed and Emma Peel Avengers, not the Marvel one.  I’ve been mostly watching The New Avengers, which most fans don’t like.  I actually like the first season of The New Avengers (although the second one is mostly not good), possibly because I actually saw some of The New Avengers before the original series, so I’m more nostalgic about it.  It’s cheerier than Discovery at any rate.

Identity

I have not written much lately.  This is not for want of things to write about.  So much has happened or is happening, but I simply have not had the time or energy to write.  Pesach (Passover) was better than it has been for a couple of years; there was some OCD and some family tensions, but better than the last few years.  I have started a new job, which is going well.  The team are friendly and the work is challenging, but not impossible.  In the background I have various writing projects and am trying to get to shul (synagogue) more often and to do more religious study as well as keeping up with the household chores.

I am trying to find the balance in my life, to make positive changes (the new job, trying to daven (pray) more with a minyan (prayer quorum), trying to study more Torah) without getting overwhelmed by the changes.  It is hard sometimes as, although I am not depressed as I once was, it can still be hard to enjoy things.  In particular, I have been thinking lately about not having simcha shel mitzvah (joy in performing the commandments).  I heard from a rabbi a while back that I won’t experience this until after I have recovered from the depression, but it makes it hard to get motivated to do things if I can’t experience joy in them, especially as I am thinking more these days of managing my mental health than of being “cured.”  It is hard to know what to do sometimes.

I have also been struggling with questions of identity, about trying to find a place in the Jewish community and in the wider world with my niche interests.  I have been thinking about politics quite a bit, unsurprisingly given the news, and thinking that my political views probably come across as complicated if not confused.  I don’t really feel comfortable with any party, but, given that I do force myself to vote for someone, I suspect I will be voting for a party that a number of my friends do not approve of.  There is so much anger in the world at the moment, especially regarding politics and identity that I feel under attack a lot of the time, especially given my fragile ego, whether it’s Doctor Who fans insisting that you have to be progressive to enjoy the programme or people at seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal) in shul being scornful of giving tzedaka (charity) to non-Jews or the horror stories I hear from American friends of Orthodox Jews bullied at the Shabbat table for not voting for Donald Trump or the ongoing antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party…

Even as my own world is improving, the wider world feels increasingly like a frightening and tribal place where a slightly unusual and (I hope) thoughtful person like myself is forced to squeeze himself into uncomfortable boxes or lose his friends.  I am trying to go slowly, to focus on my recovery and to take things one step at a time, but sometimes it seems as if events in the wider world are pushing on faster than I would like.