The Long Dark Night of the Soul

I was hit by a thought today that surprised me.  Since blogging on WordPress, I have come across a lot of Christian mental health blogs.  Sometimes there’s a kind of conversion narrative of a fall from the world into a pit of suffering and despair (this is particularly the case when substance abuse features in the narrative), followed by the turn to religion and the feeling of grace and salvation, which leads to renewed success (if that’s the right word) in the battle with mental illness or addiction.

The surprising thing is that this kind of writing does not really exist in post-Biblical Judaism at all.  I mean very deeply personal introspection of the long, dark night of the soul and the religious journey from suffering to redemption.  Judaism is a non-missionary religion and the vast majority of Jews were born Jewish even if they did not have a religious upbringing, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so few literal conversion narrative, but there could be narratives of suffering and despair leading to faith and joy, but by and large there are not.

There are Tehillim and Iyov (Psalms and Job) in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  In post-biblical literature there are some of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings that deal (directly or indirectly with his suffering).  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik deals a little with this in The Lonely Man of Faith and parts of Halakhic Man .  There are bits in the Sacred Fire of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe where he approaches this, but his focus is not so much the personal journey as the communal experience of Nazi persecution.

I am not familiar enough with the Holocaust literature to see how that fits in.  I think you might find something there, but not quite the same as the Christian type, not least because of the presence of clear villain figures in the Nazis, not to mention the fact that many Jews lost their faith in the Holocaust rather than finding it.  I’m not sure that I would class the writings of Elie Wiesel, for example, in this category.  I don’t think it is really that personal, inner type of despair, rather the despair from being dehumanised by an outside force.

I don’t know the Medieval poetry of the paytanim (liturgical poets) to know whether they dealt with these feelings.  Possibly they did (they did right rather erotic love poetry, something airbrushed out of the biographies of some major figures).

I have a few Judaism and depression books which include personal narratives.  The Road to Resilience by Sherri Mendell is a fairly practical book about overcoming loss.  I remember very little of Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz, although it probably is the closest to what I’m looking for, in that it deals with the author’s despair in detail (but by a Reform rabbi, not an Orthodox one, tellingly).  It might be worth me re-reading that soon.  Some of the personal stories in the anthology book Calling Out to You edited by Tehilla Edelman fit in this category at least partially, but as I recall the focus is more on the practical story of mental illness and recovery than the spiritual crisis.  Some are definitely what I have in mind e.g. “I had to unravel all of my preconceived notions about Hashem.  I used to think that G-d only loved me if I behaved.  The idea that Hashem loves me like a father didn’t work for me, because with a father like mine [abusive] it didn’t mean much.  I also didn’t understand how Hashem could let abuse happen to children, and I didn’t know if I could ever trust Him…  After much soul-searching, I came to believe that Hashem does care about me and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t call Him Father.” (From My Journey to Hashem through Depression and Addiction: Miriam’s Story in Calling Out to You.)

That’s about all I can think of, in a three thousand year tradition.

It’s worth comparing with the narratives I’ve seen written by people who became Orthodox Jews in adulthood, either non-Jews who converted to Judaism or ba’alei teshuva, non-religious Jews who became Orthodox.  These seem to be largely calm and peaceful narratives that start by laying out the writer’s initial antipathy to and/or ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, the story of how they encountered it close up for the first time, their experience of the beauty of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) and how they overcame a few sticking points (e.g. Torah/science conflict or gender and sexuality issues) to become devout Orthodox Jews.  There is occasionally tension with friends or family members who do not like the religious change, but there is no sense of suffering or trauma here, the dark night of the soul to which religion is the solution.  The truth is that if I was writing my own ba’al teshuva narrative, it would also be largely separate from my mental health journey, which did not really start in earnest until I was some way along my religious journey.

It’s just interesting that we don’t really have the vocabulary to express this kind of narrative.  I am experiencing that first-hand, in the difficulty I have expressing my inner religious life here and, fictionalised, in my novel.  I do not have a model to use.  It’s doubtful how much anyone could model themselves on Tehillim (Psalms) nowadays without falling into self-parody, let alone the difficult, complex poetry of Iyov (Job).  But there are few more recent models to look to.

I wonder if this is another reason why “leaving Orthodoxy” narratives, fictional and non-fictional, are so much more common than “joining Orthodoxy” narratives, as I have discussed here before.  It’s not really a genre that we promote (not that Orthodox Judaism encourages the writing of fiction or memoirs, or creative writing generally).

Doubtless part of the reason is that Christianity is a religion based on the personal salvation of the individual through the personal sacrifice of Jesus and mediated through the introspective writings of Paul in the New Testament.  Whereas Judaism is a communal/national religion based, at the very least, on creating communities based on love and mutual aid, building together to a nation state built, ideally, on love and compassion and eventually an example for a new world order built on love and compassion through monotheism.  There isn’t much room in that narrative for the individual’s long dark night of the soul.  It’s just not relevant.  It took some fairly unique circumstances to produce figures like Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav or Rav Soloveitchik who can let us peek a little at what a kind of Jewish dark night of the soul literature might look like.

***

As for Yom Tov (the festival), it was OK, but I struggled to connect with the religious ideals of the festival (hence, in part, this post).  I prayed a lot, studied Torah a lot, ate a lot, slept a lot.  I had a lot of aches and pains from my workout on Wednesday.  I think I’ve pulled a lot of muscles in my arms, legs and torso.  I did still go for a couple of walks despite the pain.  I also woke up in the middle night with a migraine yesterday.  My mood was mostly OK, but dipped a bit this afternoon.  That’s about all there is to report, though, aside from continued irritation at the illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door.  I think I’m getting a better idea of why that annoys me so much (aside from all the obvious reasons), but it’s too late to deal with that now and this is a long enough post already.

Victories

I had a number of  victories today: I got up before 11am (just).  I got a text this morning from one of my shul (synagogue) friends, checking that my parents and I are OK (he knows about Mum), which was nice, although it was only later in the day that I discovered that I hadn’t sent my devar Torah (Torah thought) properly on Friday, which was probably why he was concerned.

I did an hour or more of Torah study, a very difficult double sedra (weekly Torah reading), Tazria and Metzora (Leviticus 12-15), difficult in terms of length; repetitive and technical language; comprehension (in terms of simple understanding as well as deeper spiritual understanding); and lack of immediate relevance, concerning complex rules of ritual purity and impurity that have largely not been a practical part of Judaism for nearly 2,000 years.  At the back of my mind I was also trying to think of things I can say about this for my devar Torah later this week.

I spent over an hour (quite a bit over an hour) working on my short story.  I wrote 1,300 words, finishing the first draft.  I’m quite pleased with it, although I can see a lot of flaws, most of all the ending, which is the hardest thing in stories like this.  I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, as I might post the story in a locked post in the near future.  I also went for a fairly decent run and had a long Skype chat with E.

Overall it was definitely a good day.  I didn’t want to add a “but,” but… I do feel there’s a tension inside me that could easily explode into despair, anxiety, self-loathing, guilt and all the rest.  I already feel some anxiety and obsessive thinking creeping in.  Going for a run helped a bit, but I’m not sure for how long.  Hence my task for tomorrow is to take steps towards finding a reputable qualified therapist in the UK who sees people over Skype, is currently taking on clients and (the really tricky bit) is within my limited price range (my previous therapist used to charge some clients on low income below the market rate).  On the other hand, I don’t anticipate this being open-ended therapy (although I know how easily it can turn into that), so I potentially could afford more than with my previous therapist.

***

More adventures in malfunctioning technology.  The laptop touchpad issue seems to have provisionally sorted itself since the latest Microsoft updates downloaded last night, but my second-hand Life on Mars DVDs are not playing properly, with pictures freezing and pixelating at times.  At first I suspected damage to the discs, but damage to three discs in two separate box sets seemed unlikely, and one seems to play on my laptop fine (I neglected to note where the others stuck).  My video/DVD player is ancient (not least in having a video player), so it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s on the way out, but I can watch on my laptop for now.  Star Trek Voyager appears to play fine.

Struggling

I found the last two days of Pesach (Passover) a struggle.  I was still dealing with some religious OCD from earlier in the week.  Added to this was depression, anxiety and pure O OCD (obsessively worrying I’m a bad person who could do illegal things).  The latter has not been seen for a long time and I was upset by its return, although in many ways it’s easier to deal with than the other OCD.

I did the usual Yom Tov (festival) stuff: pray, eat too much, sleep too much, go for one government-sanctioned exercise walk each day, study Torah and read.  I didn’t do so much Torah study or recreational reading as last week, as I was feeling too depressed and anxious.  I finished The Ritual Bath, a mystery novel set in the Haredi community, and decided that I don’t like police procedural mystery novels as much as Golden Age mystery novels.  I think I prefer impossible crimes, locked rooms, bizarre clues and eccentric detectives to sordid crimes, gangs, detectives with dysfunctional lives and mundane police work.  I started re-reading Decalog, a Doctor Who short story collection that I know I have read, but about which I can remember very little.

After Yom Tov ended, I helped with the big tidying up, even though I felt very tired and depressed and drank Coke Zero (I prefer Diet Coke) and ate chocolate to try to get energy, without much success.  I accidentally broke a dish that previously belonged to my grandmother and that was older than I am (from the seventies).  I put it in a cardboard box that I thought was sealed at the bottom, but the sellotape had rotted or been pulled away and the dish fell through.

Eventually I became exhausted and had to stop helping, although I would have liked to have continued.

***

I have a feeling today that I’m not coping so well.  I had various coping strategies and some of them were very maladaptive, but I stuck with them for lack of alternatives.  Now I can’t use them and I wonder how I will cope.  Maybe I’m catastrophising.  I hope so.  I wish I was in therapy still.  I feel being able to talk to someone objective would help.

***

I had a weird dream where I stood for election as chairman of my shul (synagogue).  I only stood to see if I could get any votes, as I thought someone else would win, but there was a split vote between the two leading candidates and I won.  I panicked, thinking I couldn’t cope with this, especially not with my mental health situation and Mum’s illness, but before I could resign, I was removed by the community, who felt I wasn’t involved enough in the shul and that I didn’t rebuke people enough for break Jewish law.  Then the dream shifted into upsetting stuff about antisemitism.

***

There probably is more to say, but I feel exhausted.  I’m thinking of watching TV even though it’s really late, as I don’t think I’ll sleep, despite exhaustion, as I slept too much today, as well as drinking caffeinated Coke Zero.

Caught in the Tentacles

I feel caught in the tentacles of bureaucracy.  I requested an updated medical certificate for my benefits.  The surgery told me to book a telephone appointment with a doctor.  I looked online; they have none available.  If I booked on the automatic booking system on the phone, I wouldn’t be able to choose which doctor I got (I would like to speak to the one who wrote the original medical certificate) so I phoned, got through the long list of automated options, and managed to speak to a receptionist.  My doctor isn’t available until the 17th, which is quite long to keep the Department of Work and Pensions waiting, but I feel at the moment it is better to stick with the doctor who knows how serious my symptoms are if I want to get a sympathetic hearing from the DWP.

I did struggle with social anxiety to make that appointment, so I should probably feel glad about that.  I do feel that I’m just getting tied up in other people’s bureaucratic knots when I had to finish my job application, cook dinner and work on my devar Torah for the week, as well as wanting to get back into working on my novel and exercising (I haven’t been for a run for ages).  Now I’ll probably need to write an interim covering letter to the DWP to explain why the medical certificate is being delayed…

I finished and sent another job application, but I feel like I’m just not hitting the mark with these things any more, if I ever was.  The frustrating thing is that I can’t work out why I’m missing the target.

I cooked dinner, which took ages.  Vegetable curry is not the most technically difficult recipe I know, but cauliflower takes ages to check for insects as per Orthodox Jewish practice, plus the curry itself takes a while to cook.  I successfully fought a couple of religious OCD thoughts.  I think I don’t note and congratulate myself for fighting this enough; I say when I struggle with the OCD, but fail to note that this is a relatively rare occurrence now.  One of the things they teach you in CBT for OCD is that you will continue to have OCD thoughts in recovery, because everyone has OCD thoughts.  The difference is whether you give in to the thoughts and obsess about them or ignore them.

I listened to a couple of installments of the Intimate Judaism podcast while cooking.  It’s basically an Orthodox rabbi and an sex therapist talking about sexuality and intimacy issues in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community, in a sensitive and insightful way, not a cringey one.  I could have done with something like this when I was in my teens or twenties.  Still, at least it’s here now I’m navigating having a girlfriend again.

I have stomach cramps and sensitivity around my abdomen again.  This has happened intermittently for a couple of months now.  At first I thought it was constipation (which I’ve struggled with since I was put on clomipramine), but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s a stress reaction, as it doesn’t seem to correlate obviously with anything else (although I haven’t been keeping records, so this is just what it seems to me).  It started a bit before Mum was diagnosed with cancer, I think, but I had been feeling stressed about unemployment for some time before Mum was diagnosed.  And of course my relationship with E. moved back to being a romantic relationship rather than a platonic one around the same time.  That was a very positive change that I’m very glad happened, but I find any change difficult (an autistic trait) and this one entails confronting the difficulties of a long-distance relationship so it would not be surprising if it manifested psychosomatically alongside the other stressors.

I did some Torah study and devar Torah (Torah thought) preparation at the same time by listening to an online shiur (class) by a rabbi whose blog I used to read (he rarely posts there now, sadly, as his posts were good), which was interesting.  The shiur was on the parallels between the stories of Yosef (Joseph), Daniel and Esther.

I did some chores, but I didn’t get any further with my novel.  I just ran out of time and energy, which is frustrating.

***
I watched episode one of the original series Doctor Who story The Awakening yesterday.  It is a reminder that slightly incoherent Doctor Who is not a new phenomenon.  Still, I find it easier to connect to something like this than to some recent episodes.  I’m not sure how much is nostalgia and how much something else.

Quick Update

Not much to report today.  I decided I was too tired to go for a run.  I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week and was pretty pleased to get something fairly coherent out of an idea that I was not initially sure was going to work.  I did some more research on domestic abuse for my novel, which is depressing, but I have a better idea of plot for the second half of the novel now.  I did some miniature painting, hopefully finishing the thirteenth Doctor, Davros and the TARDIS, but sometimes I find bits I’ve missed or done badly later.  I think I’m going to rest my painting for a bit so I can concentrate more on my novel.  To be honest, I get frustrated that my painting nowadays isn’t as good as when I was a teenager.  That’s partly due to my tremor and partly, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, to lack of patience.  There’s a limit to how much time and energy I’m willing to invest in a hobby like this now; maybe that’s depression, or just growing up.  Maybe tomorrow or next week I’ll post a pic spammy post with my latest miniatures alongside some from my teenage years for comparison.

And that was it really. My parents were out most of the day, coming back in time to light Chanukah candles; one of my cousins from Israel arrived a little later.  I don’t “do” Christmas and there wasn’t anything I wanted to watch on TV.  I started watching the Bond film For Your Eyes Only, but it was dull and uninvolving so I stopped halfway and will probably finish it tomorrow.  A nice, quiet day.

Bridget Jones-Style

Torah studied (OK, not exactly Bridget Jones-style): 30 minutes/one essay and 2/5 of an amud (page) of Talmud.

Ironing done: 40 minutes/eight shirts and a handkerchief (I think).

Pasta cooked: 12 oz. (sauce from a bottle, sorry; I am hoping to cook properly tomorrow).

Distance jogged: 2.20 miles in 25 minutes – apparently averaging 11 minutes 38 seconds per mile.

Material submit to publishers on spec: 1 article, 1 book.

Time spent worrying about politics even though I can do NOTHING about any of it: far too much.  (I would say I could vote or protest or something, but it’s painfully clear that that achieves nothing if the Establishment isn’t listening.)  I worried about Brexit, and… I won’t say I worried about the Vietnam War (I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary series again while I did the ironing), but I pondered the lessons of that conflict and how they could apply to the Arab-Israeli Conflict and to Brexit, and I was saddened and despairing.

Also saw my sister briefly and wrote 750 more words of my novel (I don’t know how long I spent, probably somewhat more than half an hour).

I still feel that I haven’t done much.  Or at least, I have, but I wanted to do more.  I wanted to do a full hour of Torah study and finish that amud.  I wanted to write more of my novel than I did.   I forgot to clean out the fridge where I spilt pickled cucumber brine the other day, leaving the whole thing smelling a bit of pickled cucumber.  E. says I don’t give myself enough credit for the amount that I manage to do given how depressed I feel at times (I wanted to go back to bed after lunch), but I just see the list of things to do and wonder how I will ever get it all done.  At least my mood did pick up as I did more things and I stopped feeling that I wanted to go back to bed.

Short Notes from Shabbat

Not much to report.  Shabbat (the Sabbath) was quite difficult.  I’m really struggling with Friday nights at the moment: overwhelmed by noise and people at shul (synagogue) then trying to be social with my parents at dinner and then doing meditation and hitbodedut (prayer/meditation) and a bit of Torah study and bed late without any real time to recuperate.  I don’t want to skip anything, though, so it’s hard to know what to do.  As with the last few weeks, I woke up about 7.00am and felt too socially anxious to get up and go to shul.  Then I slept a lot in the afternoon and read a bit (Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem and Doctor Who: The Spear of Destiny) before shul.  I spent much of the day feeling very depressed and far from God.  Actually, I spent much of Shabbat asleep, but when I was awake I was feeling depressed and far from God.

One of my shul friends is running a little group learning thing where they are studying the laws of Shabbat for half an hour before Talmud shiur (religious class) and he invited me along, but I don’t think I can cope with that then shiur then Mincha (Afternoon Service) then seudah (the third Sabbath meal) and another shiur then Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) then helping to tidy up the shul then coming home and helping my parents to tidy up.  That’s about four hours of STUFF, much of which is difficult for depressive, socially anxious or autistic reasons.  It would be a good way to build up friendships with a couple more people though.

The shiur over seudah was interesting, but I think I need time to digest it before saying anything about it.

And that was it, really.

Pesach Cometh

Well, it’s nearly half past midnight and I’m wide awake for reasons I will explain shortly.  I thought I would write up my experiences over the first two days of Pesach (Passover).

I’ve been doing a lot better than in previous years, but the last few days have not been without their difficulties.  The sederim were the hardest things.  The seder is the ritualised meal on the first two nights of Pesach where we discuss the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and eat symbolic food.  There are readings from Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), including several Tehillim (Psalms) known together as Hallel, and further readings from the Talmud.

Some tension emerged, not so much at the time as over the two days, because my brother-in-law felt that he wanted to do more at the seder, whereas I felt replaced by him when he sang some of the Psalms and songs with tunes I didn’t know and couldn’t join in with.  I spent some time thinking about it afterwards, and decided there were two issues.  One was that, since my grandfather died, I’ve read the whole of Hallel each year, most of it alone.  Everyone says how well I do it and compares me to my grandfather (who I was probably closer to than to my other grandparents, at least in the last years of his life).  So I felt sidelined from the family and no longer linked to my grandfather.  I was especially aware over the weekend that my sister and BIL are both professionals with advancing careers and a large, recently refurbished, house and I assume (from the size of their house) that they are planning to start a family.  So I felt that I’m being pushed out of the family and that my sister and BIL and their future children will be the focus of family events from now on.

I know no one is deliberately sidelining me, but that’s how it felt.  I did speak to my BIL today and we did work out a compromise to divide some of the readings of the seder, so I feel a bit better now, but the feeling that my sister and BIL are living a better life than me and that they are more of a source of nachas (pride) to my parents than I am isn’t going to go away and will probably only get worse if they do have children (although I’m looking forward to being an eccentric bachelor uncle).

The bigger struggle is with the seder itself.  I try to find some inspiring Torah thoughts to expand on the set text of the haggadah and try to make it more than just reading the same passages every year, to find something different and, hopefully, meaningful.  I don’t know how much anyone gets out of this.  My parents appreciate it, but I’m not sure that our other guests (usually family and a couple of friends of my parents) do.  At least, they don’t say anything to me.  I would like to start discussions, which is what a seder should be, but it doesn’t seem to happen.  Yesterday one person did ask me something, but I struggled to understand what he was asking (I think it was based on a misunderstanding or false premise, but could not pin down what he was asking to work out what), but it just underlined how much the seder is not what I want it to be.

The problem is this.  This is going to sound arrogant, but at the seder, I’m usually the most Jewishly knowledgeable and religious person present by some margin, so I struggle to find anyone to engage with and surprise or inspire me.  Add to this an autistic lack of social skills that make it hard for me to engage with other people generally and bring a subject to life and it’s a recipe for disaster.  My rabbi mentor and my oldest friend are both rabbis, intelligent and knowledgeable, but I suspect (know, really) that both would enjoy the challenge of this kind of environment.  They would find ways of connecting, of getting the people present to talk about their own experience and thoughts on freedom, liberation, Judaism and so on even if they couldn’t anchor it to specific Jewish texts without help.  I just can’t do it.

At both seders I fell at times into depression because of this.  It didn’t help that sometimes I needed a time-out for autism (too much noise, too much talking) or for OCD (I went out to breathe deeply and to calm myself after being triggered).  I found myself thinking of an old joke after the seder last night.  A man goes to the doctor and says, “I’m really depressed.”  The doctor says, “Pagliacci the clown is in town.  Go and see him, that will cheer you up.”  The man says, “Doctor, I am Pagliacci!”  (Assume this is before the invention of antidepressants.)  I try to inspire everyone year after year, but what do I do if I need inspiration?  I feel the pressure sometimes of being the frummest (most religious) person in my family (OK, second frummest after my cousin who is training to be a rabbi (and a civil engineer), but he lives in Israel).

One thing that was popular was some visual aids I made, which I haven’t really tried before.  They were just some photocopies from the biblical archaeology book Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier, pictures of things like slaves and overseers from Egyptian temples, a brick store and a map of the Nile Delta and the probable route of the exodus, but people seemed to like them, so I need to work out what similar things I can find for next year.

I mentioned needing some time-outs during the seder for OCD and autism.  The autism was the main problem, and I couldn’t cope with the meal part of the evening yesterday: the noise, combined with all the emotional upheaval (which triggered my depression) was too much for me and I ate quickly and went upstairs to read The Complete Peanuts until we were ready to resume the ritual side of the evening.  I only had one or two time-outs for OCD, which was pretty good going.  On the whole the OCD has been OK.  I even coped with the weirdness of products that were hechshered (stamped) as kosher for Pesach by some kashrut agencies, but also certified as only suitable for non-Pesach use by others on the same packaging.  I suspect that this is down to differing stringencies (Pesach is a great time of year for some rabbis/communities trying out weird stringencies that no one else worries about).  More taxing was a shiur (class) in shul (synagogue) titled “Kashering Ovens for Pesach“.  My heart sank when I saw that title.  Sure enough it triggered me, even though I knew that my rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi had approved how we kashered our oven.  The excessive use of Hebrew halakhic (legal) terminology I didn’t understand just made me feel further alienated and ignorant and reinforced my feelings about not being part of my community.

I woke up earlyish on Shabbat and made it to shul about an hour late.  I stayed for about two hours, until the end of the service, the first time I’d been to a Shabbat or Yom Tov (festival) morning service since Yom Kippur.  However, I struggled to sleep last night and overslept this morning.  I then dozed for two and a half hours in the afternoon and am wide awake now, hence blogging.

And that’s it really.  Another six days of Pesach left.  The last six days are usually easier, but I had a bad spell late on day five and day six last year, so I won’t predict plain sailing from here, but hopefully it should be more manageable.  It’s 2am now (I haven’t been writing this uninterruptedly, but it has taken me a while).  I don’t feel at all tired and I’m vaguely anxious (OCD anxious) about something, but I guess I should at least try to go to bed.

Everything and the Kitchen Sink

I’m going to switch my computer off in a minute as there is a lot to do this afternoon, but I just wanted to update the blog as I’ll be out of contact for a couple of days.

Things are going well.  I nearly said “surprisingly well” which would be a bit unfair, but I am surprised how well things seem to be going.  I did have an issue with kashering the kitchen sink last night, but I got it resolved OK and I kashered the sink in four or five goes rather than eight or nine.  The trick, it seems, is not to boil a whole kettle of water at once, because I lack the strength and dexterity to move that about fast enough.  Even when I made a mistake with the sink, I saw it as one of those things and not as a sign that I’m useless and that God hates me.

I got up in time for shul this morning (can I do that on Yom Tov too?  At least one day out of four?), went to the siyum, came home, helped put the last bits of chametz (leavened bread) away and tidy the kitchen, emptied the hoover and made the declaration nullifying any chametz I might have missed, all done on time.  There’s still a LOT to do today to get ready for seder, but this is an amazing start.  The atmosphere at home is very calm for Erev Pesach, everyone is just pulling together and getting things done as a team.

The one bad thing was that I couldn’t sleep last night and only got about five hours in the end, so I’m slightly worried about making it through the day and then on to seder in the evening.  I actually went for a nap for an hour and a bit after the chametz was all disposed of and that has helped, so hopefully I’ll be OK.

Pesach in six hours!

I’m not pretending that this isn’t anything other than a blatant bid for sympathy…

… even by my usual standards.

I woke up early this morning feeling achey and nauseous.  Since then I’ve thrown up three times.  Lying in bed just makes me feel worse, so although I’m still in my pyjamas and dressing gown (with my hand inside my dressing gown breast soothing my stomach like Napoleon), I’m going to try to stay up.

I watched two episodes of House of Cards (the BBC version from the 90s) before deciding it was too grim and, in an odd way, realistic.  The plot is wildly improbable (I don’t believe politicians in Western countries literally murder their way to the top or that a conspiracy on that scale could be kept quiet for long), but the arguing and backbiting and scandal and privileged white men taking it upon themselves to speak for minorities got too much (not to mention the government’s poor response to a disaster in a council estate in the middle of an election), so I’m switching to Star Trek for a bit, maybe with The Avengers (the British John Steed and Mrs Peel Avengers) later.  I’m just trying not to brood on my job situation and why the shadchan (matchmaker) from the values-based dating service didn’t phone yesterday.

I hope I can keep down some food later; I don’t want to have to take the rehydration powders we bought when my sister had norovirus some years ago, which by all accounts were vile.  Going to autism group certainly seems out of the question.

The Day of the Great Fast

I really ought to go to bed, as I have to be up early for work, but I need to write to process the day.

Today was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.  It’s the only fast day I’m allowed to fast on given my current medication.  I don’t fast well, never have done (most of my family don’t either), which always makes the day problematic.  I secretly envy people who can get through the day without so much as a headache, spend the whole time davening (praying) intently in shul (synagogue) and still be in good spirits by the end.

Yesterday night (Jewish festivals start in the evening) was pretty good.  I went to shul and I remember that I had a fairly moving experience, although I don’t remember the details.  I know I felt very, very angry with HaShem (God) at the start.  I have heard that expressing anger at HaShem in prayer is permitted because prayer is supposed to be authentic, that Chana’s (Hannah’s) paradigmatic prayer in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) which is the model of all Jewish prayer, was an angry prayer according to the rabbis.  I think after a few minutes it turned into intense sadness and perhaps also anxiety about what kind of a new year I might have.

I was tired afterwards and went to bed at 11.00pm.  Unfortunately, I slept for something like fifteen hours.  I spent the morning drifting in and out of sleep with bizarre dreams (meeting an old friend who promptly treifed up our kitchen; being attacked by gorillas in the garden, who turned out to be people dressed as gorillas; and, most strangely, being a Cabinet minister in John Major’s government.  God alone knows what any of those dreams mean, particularly the last one (which was chronologically first)).  When I was awake, I felt too drained, depressed and anxious to get up.  I could tell that I had low blood sugar.  I knew that all I needed was a glass of water, a bowl of cereal and a wash, but all these things are forbidden on Yom Kippur.  I think for the first time I was tempted to eat on Yom Kippur (fasting on Yom Kippur is one of the most widely-accepted Jewish laws.  Even people who do nothing religious all year fast on Yom Kippur).  I didn’t, but I’m slightly worried by how tempted I felt.  Maybe I’m just judging myself harshly.  I don’t think there was a serious chance that I would have eaten something, but it was strange that the thought even entered my head.

Eventually I got up and went to shul.  I arrived at about 4.30pm; Mincha (the afternoon service) had just started.  I struggled through the next four hours or so.  At times I felt so faint and frail that I had to sit down because I was afraid I would fall over if I stayed up, even in parts of the service where one is supposed to stand.  On the plus side, I didn’t get a bad headache and most of the time I didn’t feel like I was actually going to throw up, so that’s actually an improvement on most years.  But I did feel terrible for missing most of the day, even though I know I was too depressed to get through it.  I know I would have felt less depressed if I had eaten, but I also know that my priorities were right (fasting is a biblical commandment and outweighs the rabbinic commandment of set prayer), but somehow this doesn’t make me feel better.

The rabbi in his drasha (sermon) before Ne’ila (the fifth and final Yom Kippur service – only on Yom Kippur do we pray so many times in one day) spoke of not being an mediocre Jew.  The idea is that ten days ago on Rosh Hashanah we could be judged as righteous, wicked or in between, but on Yom Kippur HaShem takes all the in-betweens and reassigns them to one side or the other.  From now on, we’re all righteous or wicked, spiritually alive or spiritually dead.  No compromises.

The rabbi spoke about taking on one area to improve in, religiously, in the coming year.  I had already decided I was going to focus on curtailing my negative self-perception, ending my “internal critic” as the C-PTSD book I’m reading puts it, or talking lashon hara (malicious speech) about myself as I think of it, to try and make it sound religious and therefore more important to deal with, to encourage me not to back off from it.  (The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen) spent his life campaigning against lashon hara and he said it’s forbidden to speak maliciously about yourself too – there’s an amusing story about this which sadly I don’t have time to share now).  I still feel I should do something more overtly ‘religious’ like commit to davening  with a minyan more, or with more kavannah (mindfulness) or saying more of Shacharit (morning service) or studying more Torah… I feel lacking in so many crucial areas, and knowing that it’s largely due to my emotional/mental health issues doesn’t make me feel any better.  But I feel that I’ve put off dealing with my low self-esteem for years and that’s probably why I haven’t succeeded at dealing with these other emotional issues.

The rabbi also spoke about the need to do something that is a kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God’s name – something that makes people think positively about Jews, Judaism and the Jewish conception of God).  I don’t know that I really do that, and I’m not sure that dealing with my negative self-talk will really help with that, but I don’t think I can prioritise that today.

After Yom Tov I checked my emails and saw that the CBT therapist who I saw about my OCD and who I emailed to ask if she could help me with my self-esteem and social anxiety isn’t taking on any more clients right now, so I’ll have to find another option.  I’ve got one potential idea, but I need to make some inquiries.

I never know what one is supposed to wish other people after Yom Kippur.  It seems strange to wish shana tova (good new year) now the new year period is officially over and we’re moving towards Sukkot, but it also seems anticlimactic to wish people shavua tov (good new week), particularly as the week is nearly over.  Technically you can wish people Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath) from Wednesday onwards, but that always seems strange.  Still, whatever it is you’re supposed to have at the moment, I wish you a good one.

Rosh Hashanah

In the end I did a half-hearted chesbon nafesh (assessment of my spiritual standing last year) in the closing hours of year while I was doing other stuff.  I didn’t write it down, unlike the previous twelve years or so that I have filed on my laptop.  I’m not sure I can remember what I found, but did feel I had done slightly more than I expected, but not much more.

I had a surprise short-notice invitation to the rabbi of my shul (synagogue) for dinner.  I must have slipped out at the end of Ma’ariv on first night Rosh Hashanah (New Year) last year because I didn’t know that the rabbi gives everyone (well, every man, but there weren’t many women there) a personal bracha (blessing).  He wished me a year of equanimity, which was nice.  The assistant rabbi blessed me that I should find someone to marry “at right time”.  I’m glad that he said “at the right time” because I really don’t think I am marryable right now.  See also the person from shiur (religious class) who said a fine person like me deserves beautiful wife… there are several questionable assumptions right there, but I’ll leave that for now.  It’s all meant well, but I feel realistically I would be better off with a blessing to accept that I’m always going to be single.  I can’t tell the rabbi or assistant rabbi about E, but I don’t think either would approve (my rabbi mentor does, but he is probably more broadminded).  But the Talmud says that a man without a wife is without blessing, life, joy, help, good and peace so opting to stay single doesn’t really come in to it.  Plus, one has to be socialised into the norms of the community (more on this later).

I enjoyed dinner, but I didn’t say much.  I really take with me two things from the evening: the person sitting next to me played a little practical joke on me, telling me something obviously untrue that I completely fell for and one of the other women at the dinner looked familiar, but I couldn’t work out why; only later did I realise I think tried to talk to her on a Jewish dating site years ago (she wasn’t interested – she thought I was too “wordly” and would find her boring).

On the morning of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I was too depressed and socially anxious to get up, so I missed shul and the blowing of the shofar yet again.  I feel bad about this, but it has happened so many times that I don’t feel that bad about it any more and not in a good way.  It was harder to explain my absence to the people I was sitting with (the seating has been rearranged for chaggim (festivals)) when I saw them in the afternoon.  I said that I have health issues without say what.

Based on a dvar Torah sheet I read on first night, I tried to focus on accepting my feelings when davening (praying), even thought that meant most of my davening was full of very sad feelings.  It wasn’t always possible, though, and sometimes I was on autopilot or just too socially anxious to concentrate.

On the second night I went to dinner with one of the people I usually sit with in shul, the closest friend I really have there, and his family and the other person who sits with us.  This was a less anxiety-provoking meal and I enjoyed it, but on the way home I suddenly developed a migraine.  It’s like I’m not allowed to enjoy myself without something going wrong.

I was supposed to be on security duty at 12.30pm on the second day.  I was feeling depressed, but forced myself out about 12.15pm (shul had started at 7.45am, I think) only to discover there was some kind of mix up about the security rota and I didn’t need to be there.  I took the opportunity to daven and to hear some of the shofar blasts, although I’m not convinced I heard enough to fulfil the mitzvah because I was so late.  I was overwhelmed by the noise and the close proximity other people (far more people come for Rosh Hashanah  and Yom Kippur than for ordinary services, so we are packed in to the small school hall where we daven).

There was a shiur in the evening between Mincha and Ma’ariv which made me quite depressed.  It was given by a rabbi who does kiruv (outreach) work with teenagers.  He was talking about the lack of self-esteem in teenagers, which made me feel depressed, similar to the way the rabbi, at dinner the first night, said that one should find one’s tachlit (purpose) by the end of one’s teens; I’m thirty-five and I have absolutely no idea what my tachlit is or how to find out.  On the way home I reflected on my own teen years and felt very lonely and depressed.  I feel there was a way I could have succeeded in my life, particularly my religious life, but probably my mental health too, if I had made certain decisions when I was thirteen or fourteen, even when I was eighteen.  But social anxiety and a feeling of non-conformity, a feeling that other people (peers, but also kiruv rabbis) were trying to bully and twist me out of shape kept me from doing that.  Now I don’t fit into a frum (religious) community; I can’t get married (I’m in a weird non-relationship with a non-frum woman); I have few frum friends, but not many; I have no role in my community, nowhere where I fit in.  I made some bad choices, but I was also pushed into bad choices by family dynamics, social interactions, bullying, loneliness and a fear of a one-size-fits-all approach to kiruv and acceptance in the frum community that allows the secular world to enter in some ways, but not others (yes to football and politics, no to geekyness).  I don’t know where I go from here.

I couldn’t sleep last night, probably due to sleeping too much over Yom Tov (so much for the minhag of sleeping less over Rosh Hashanah).  I eventually got four or five hours sleep and spent much of the day struggling at work, feeling exhausted and not knowing what to do and thinking that I can’t actually do the fairly simple task I’ve been set.  On the way home I saw the frum woman I dated briefly last year only for her to drop me instantly when my mental health issues came out.  And then I managed to run into her again.  I can accept that life is miserable, but why does it have to be so hard?