Prayer Mindsets

I went to bed late last night, as I didn’t think I would sleep, having forgotten to take my meds when I got home from the restaurant, plus I needed passive unwinding time in front of the TV. I watched Doctor Who (Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways), and felt myself frustrated by Russell T Davies’ writing style again. To be fair to him, some of it is just contemporary TV in general rather than him in particular, but I can put up with other writers more easily.

When I did get to bed, I remembered something I need to do today, but I was too tired to get up and write a note, which was a very bad idea, as if it’s not written down, I don’t remember it and now I can’t work out what it is. I think I figured it out in the end, but frustrated and worried me for much of the day.

I woke up very late and after breakfast was so tired I went back to bed (or laid on the bed, as it was hot). I’m not sure if I dozed; I think just lying in a cool (ish), quiet, dark room helped restore me after all the social interactions, social anxiety and sensory overload of yesterday. I felt a bit fatigued afterwards, but not burnt out. Unfortunately, it was 3.30pm by that stage and I was still in pyjamas.

I spent a while trying to track down the complete Hebrew original of a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) that I had only read in part for my devar Torah; when I finally found it, I couldn’t make much of the bits that I didn’t have the translation for, which was frustrating. Aside from that, I spent about half an hour starting to write my devar Torah. I’m glad to have got the bones of it down, although I need to work on it some more tomorrow. I am conscious that I could have done more if I hadn’t been burnt out, which is frustrating, but there isn’t a lot I can do about it.

I didn’t really have time to exercise today, and I thought it was too hot even for a walk.

After dinner it was cooler outdoors than in. I sat in the garden and worked on my novel. Making amendments after having finished a couple of drafts turns out to be like remodelling the bottom layers of a house of cards after I’ve finished it; one false move and everything collapses. That’s how it feels, anyway. I’m terrified of accidentally repeating myself or introducing a continuity error or just introducing a very obviously interpolated and out-of-place passage. When writing a new passage, I “merely” have to think up something interesting, original and true and write it down, but rewriting requires revisiting written (and half-forgotten) passages and restructuring them, keeping them doing what they were doing, but also fitting with my new writing.

***

One of my religious targets for this Jewish year was improving my kavannah, my concentration, or, better, mindfulness, in prayer, although I wasn’t really sure how to do this.

There is a kind of paradox in Jewish prayer, that if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, He knows what we need and supplies it, so what is the point of praying? There are many approaches to this. I once gave a shiur (religious talk) about just three of them. To summarise very briefly:

  1. Prayer is a process of building a relationship with God by asking Him for everything we need and telling Him all our thoughts. The content is less important than the interaction, which builds relationship. (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)
  2. Prayer is a means of establishing a “covenantal community” which happens to include God as a member. Asking for things isn’t the point as much as establishing the community. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith)
  3. Prayer is a self-reflexive process of examining ourselves and whether we truly need the things we want and whether we will use them well. If we undergo the process correctly, we can become worthy of things that we did not deserve previously. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb)

(1 and 2 are quite similar, except 1 is personal and 2 is communal, including other Jews. I’m not sure if Rav Soloveitchik views the covenantal community as being the local community or the entire Jewish people.)

The last week or two I have been trying to focus on one of these mindsets of prayer while saying the Amidah, the most important prayer and the centrepiece of every prayer service. It’s been an interesting experiment and it has definitely helped with kavannah. I’ve mostly been focusing on numbers 1 and 2, as 3 is more self-reflexive than I’ve felt up to lately and doesn’t really apply on Shabbat (when I have most time and energy for prayer) as Shabbat prayers are not petitionary, at least not to the same extent as weekday prayers.

Hidden Joy

I had some somewhat confusing task at work today, looking over bank statements and papers related to investments. I don’t really know about shares or serious financial investment stuff. I found it somewhat confusing. I had a couple of social mishaps too, which I’m deliberately not going to relate, as I suspect that rehashing things like that here as I usually do just encourages my social anxiety rather than discouraging it.

I also went to the bank, which got me out of the office on a nice sunny day, but also took me into parts of London that are becoming very busy again, which perhaps left me more drained than normal by the end of the day (although I get pretty drained even on a normal day).

***

I was thinking about my religious life and whether I find joy in it. I’ve worried in the past that I don’t, which makes me wonder if I really am just being frum (religious Jewish) out of habit or fear. I don’t think that’s the case, but it was only today that I realised why. I think it all gets mixed in with the remnants of depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and autistic alexithymia (inability to recognise or understand one’s own emotions).

I think I do get joy and/or meaning out of at least some davening (prayer), Torah study and other Jewish activities. I can’t necessarily feel or understand it directly, but I know some prayers feel less fulfilling than others, some Torah study sessions are harder going than others and so on, so by comparison at least some of the time I must be more engaged or it would all seem the same. I can see a difference, even if I can’t always put that difference into words. Even with Talmud study, which I do find hard and a bit of a chore, there are times when it clicks and it doesn’t seem a chore, and times when I find it interesting even if not necessarily for the reasons I’m supposed to feel it (for historical reasons as much as because I’m “thinking God’s thoughts”).

I do get a lot of pleasure from sitting and thinking about Jewish concepts, playing with ideas and putting them, and disparate texts, together to try to generate new ideas (chiddushim). Even though I’m not sure how many rabbis would list “sitting and thinking” as a legitimate or productive religious activity, even if some of the ideas do end up going into my divrei Torah.* Certainly my parents find it a little weird when I’m just sitting staring into space, or pacing up and down rapidly (I tend to pace when thinking).

Similarly, although not religious, I used to worry that I didn’t love my family enough. However, lately I’ve been having some morbid thoughts about death and I realise that losing my parents would be devastating for me, beyond any practical or selfish thoughts about the change that would necessitate in my life. I can, so to speak, see the hole it would leave and infer the love that must surround it unseen.

Less morbidly, socialising often leaves me feeling awkward, anxious and miserable, but the times when I have socialised and not been left feeling awkward, anxious and miserable were presumably the times I enjoyed myself (as with the Shabbat lunch I went to a few weeks ago), even if I wasn’t sure that that was what I was feeling. So I must enjoy some social events.

Possibly I was living a life of (at least some) joy and love all along and I never realised…

*This is a digression, but I think contemporary society in general and frum society in particular has a real problem prioritising busy-ness over idleness. I mean real idleness, not staring at your phone. Sometimes idleness can be very productive. It’s no surprise most of these “sitting and thinking idly about Torah” sessions happen on Shabbat when there is no phone, computer or TV.

Positive Shabbat

I have been trying not to turn on my laptop after Shabbat (the Sabbath), as it finishes so late at the moment (it finished after 10pm today, then there’s a longer Ma’ariv (Evening Service) afterwards and tidying up). However, I had a good day and didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to share.

I actually managed to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Service) today, something I hadn’t managed for months if not years because of a mixture of autistic burnout, depression, social anxiety and fear of wearing a mask for three hours straight. I managed this despite a not very good night’s sleep, where I think I woke up every time I turned onto my left side, which is where I was vaccinated yesterday. I didn’t have any side-effects other than that, fortunately.

I was only about fifteen minutes late (it started at 9.00am), which would be early in some shuls, but most people arrive on time in mine. I was so busy worrying about other things that I forgot until I got there that I might get an aliyah (called to make the blessing over reading the Torah). I did in fact get one, but was OK with it, including navigating the revised COVID restrictions on what we can and can’t touch while there. I feel relieved that that’s out the way for a while and I can try to get back to regular Shabbat morning shul-going.

My kavannah (concentration/mindfulness) in prayer was pretty good and I found the whole experience much more meaningful than shul or davening (prayer) have been for quite a while.

The reason I went to shul was because I had been invited to lunch with friends, now that COVID restrictions have been lifted somewhat. Technically only six people are allowed; my host informed me that there would be seven and gave me the option to leave if I was uncomfortable. I was a bit uncomfortable, but felt that it was too late to leave, so I went. I wonder a bit that even someone as law-abiding as me has bent or even broken the COVID rules in minor ways a few times, so I guess it’s no surprise that less scrupulous people have totally disregarded them.

Lunch was good. This my first real social event since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but I think I felt a bit more open speaking to people, also helped by the fact that there was only one person there that I didn’t really know. Interestingly, I owned up to feeling challenged by halakhic (legal) passages in Talmud and to preferring aggadah (narrative) only for other people to agree with me, which surprised and reassured me a little.

I came home tired and read a novel for a bit before going back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class), the latter of which I followed a bit better this week. I also noticed that the number of people who speak up a lot to ask or answer questions in the shiur is very small, maybe four or five people out of a dozen or more attendees, so maybe I’m not the only one who struggles to follow the thread without actively participating. I do wonder a bit how much Talmudic ability is innate or acquired. I suppose you would expect lawyers and other people with very analytical jobs to do well, but the person who speaks up the most is a shopkeeper. His two teenaged sons also have sharp Talmudic minds, so maybe there is a genetic element (I think he also has two other children who have left home, one who is not religious, so there are obviously a lot of factors at play).

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and had a headache, which perhaps was not surprising. I read a little, but felt too headachey. I had seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) with my parents and that was it really. I would have liked to have gone back for Ma’ariv (Evening Service) and got a full house of Shabbat prayer services, so to speak, as I used to do, but I was too tired and headachey. Maybe next week. The headache did eventually go, and that has to be considered a successful day overall, part of a general upward trend over the last few months since my Asperger’s diagnosis, the occasional setback (like last week’s job interview) notwithstanding. I hope to continue my Shacharit shul attendance next Shabbat. Definitely the thing to do is keep up the momentum, as I know from experience that skipping a few weeks lets the social anxiety creep back in.

Pre-Yom Tov Burnout

I woke up still feeling burnt out and exhausted, but my mood was better on waking. It’s gone downhill as we get towards Yom Tov, I don’t know why. I don’t think Shabbat and Yom Tov are good for curing burnout, even though they are supposed to be relaxing. I spend too much time “peopling,” whether at shul (synagogue) or family meals and much of what time I do have alone (and not sleeping!) is spent on Torah study or prayer, which are not usually restoring for me, regardless of what other merits they may have.

I did sleep very late today, although that was probably inevitable given how late I went to bed, due to a late shiur (religious class) after Shabbat and a headache that wouldn’t shift. I’m resigned to not doing well on the interview and blaming it on burnout and Yom Tov (festival) even if the interviewers will probably think I’m useless.

I looked over some old interview notes with suggestions of how to answer frequently-asked questions, but I’m not sure how much it will help. I think the only way to practise at the moment is to do a practise interview, but this interview was at such short-notice that I haven’t had time for that.

I did half an hour or so of Torah study, so that I didn’t have to leave reading all of this week’s sedra (Torah) reading until later in the week, that being the one thing I absolutely always keep up with (even though I do it once rather than twice a week as required). I still have to do the end of the sedra, which is one of the most repetitive parts of the Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 7).

I intended to stay for the shiur between Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Ma’ariv (Evening Service), because it’s silly to go and come back again almost straight away, but I’m not going for the cheesecake (yuk) and alcoholic drinks and shiur before Minchah because I’m pushing myself up to and probably beyond the limit of “peopling” this Yom Tov as it is, even without going straight into a job interview the day afterwards. Indeed, I’m going in to Yom Tov already peopled out from Shabbat, and the closer I get to time for shul, the less I feel able to actually go.

My shul has relaxed the laws around mask wearing and food on the premises in accordance with the government’s new guidelines. This means that the things keeping me away from Tikkun Leil (all night Torah study on the first night of Shavuot) don’t actually apply any more. However, I feel disinclined to see if there are any spaces left. I guess I don’t feel up to that long and intensive a shul session, particularly for Tikkun Leil, which is a relatively recent custom and not a law (Tikkun Leil was introduced by kabbalists (mystics) in the sixteenth century and seems to correlate with the arrival of coffee in the land of Israel i.e. only after the introduction of coffee did anyone manage to stay up all night studying).

I do wonder how much other people get out of all the Torah study sessions scheduled over Shavuot (even excluding Tikkun Leil). As I mentioned yesterday, my shul seems to have scheduled an hour and a half to two hours of shiurim (religious classes) around afternoon and evening prayer services over the coming festival. These are often strongly halakhic, which isn’t my favourite type of study (although arguably I neglect it too much), but even the format of one speaker speaking for an hour or so isn’t going to be right for everyone, whether those who prefer something more interactive or those, like me, who prefer to study from books with time to re-read or pause and digest.

I watched some Babylon 5 to kill time before Minchah, which may not have been the best choice, as season four is pretty grim. I feel I should be helping my parents, but I genuinely do not have the energy. It’s going to be a struggle even to go to shul, particularly in the torrential rain. Plus, there have already been warnings of an increase in antisemitic incidents over the last few days so my shul is getting everyone to do security duty and that’s just another ball for me to juggle. Actually, I feel less like I’m juggling balls at the moment and more like flaming clubs, and like I’ve been juggling them for a week with no break.

Just in case things were getting too easy, I’ve felt for the last day or so that I’ve been just about keeping the lid on some pure O OCD thoughts and that it wouldn’t take much for them to suddenly become more anxiety-provoking.

I’m genuinely not sure if I’m going to make it to shul tonight, or at all over Yom Tov.

Reasons to be Cheerful

My main focus today was therapy. I didn’t have a lot to say, as things seem to be going well. The last week or so I have been fairly focused on the present rather than worrying about the future. I also seem to have coping strategies that help me to deal with things better than in the past, and my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis has made it easier for me to forgive myself for mistakes and quirks that would have upset me in the past. The two (coping mechanisms and forgiveness) go together, as a key coping mechanism is to know my limits and not force myself to go beyond them, even if part of me says I “should” be able to do so.

I mentioned in therapy that I have been reflecting recently that my life seems to be suddenly going a lot better. I’ve finally got my Asperger’s diagnosis (which seems to be the key turning point); I have a job I can manage which leaves me time to write; I have a core of online friends who read my blog and leave helpful comments (I’ve written blogs with no readers before, and writing does serve a purpose for me even without readers, but writing without an audience can be lonely); I am beginning to wonder if I am more accepted at shul (synagogue) than I thought previously; I have greater kavannah (concentration or mindfulness) in davening (prayer) than previously; I’m somewhat happier with the amount and content of Torah study I’m doing (an average of fifty to sixty minutes daily, with some Talmud study); and I’ve restarted volunteering. Best of all, E and I have got back together and think that this time we might be able to make the relationship work permanently.

The latter point is the thing I’ve been hinting at for the last week or so without explicitly stating, as I was curious to see what my therapist said before saying anything here. At the moment I haven’t told my parents or my sister, which I feel a little bad about, but I want to give the relationship a few weeks so that I can say it’s working before I tell them. This is because my Mum in particular was worried about E and I getting into an endless on/off relationship. To be fair, I worried about that too, but I think this time both of us have undergone significant changes and growth that make me feel a lot more positive about our future together now. There is much more to say about this (it’s quite a story), but I’m too drained from therapy tonight to write it, so you’ll just have to wait a little longer.

I’m always scared to say that things are going well, as it seems almost inevitable that they go wrong afterwards, but as my therapist and I discussed, the difference this time is that it’s as much about coping strategies and being able to stay in the present as about external things boosting my mood, which will hopefully enable me to stay well even when things go wrong, as something will eventually.

***

My boss, J, texted me to say that by chance, he had come across my article online. He liked it. I felt a little awkward, but it’s probably good that he saw it, although I’m glad I told him about my autism a couple of weeks ago so he wasn’t learning about it entirely from the article. The big question I’m wondering is whether anyone else from my shul has seen it and whether they will say anything when they see me on Shabbat. The site it was on is very well-known and read by a lot of people, so it’s entirely possible that some other people I know have seen it.

Cope/Not Cope/Cope?

Today felt stressful, although objectively not a lot happened. Actually, “objectively” is a bit of a weasel word there, as not a lot happened for a “normal” person. “Normal” in scare quotes because no one is “normal”; I mean that some people would have coped OK, but others, including, but not limited to people on the spectrum, would not, and I am one that did not.

The Tube is definitely more crowded in the mornings now, which is good inasmuch as it means things are opening up again, bad inasmuch as I’m afraid of infection. The person sitting next to me for several stops had a persistent (albeit mild-seeming) cough which worried me a bit. I did consider changing carriages, but I wasn’t sure of finding anywhere better to sit. He was at least wearing a mask correctly.

Work this morning was routine. In the afternoon, J asked me to phone some people who hadn’t paid their membership fees to remind them. Most of the calls were not answered, or had “number not available” messages. One was answered by someone who said she is seriously ill, immobile and has poor eyesight. I wasn’t sure how to respond and J was out of the office. I didn’t want to pressure her to pay, and thought that J wouldn’t want that either, but I didn’t want to leave the payment hanging indefinitely. She said she would pay over the phone, but struggled to read her credit card number. In the end I said she could leave paying until she can get a relative to help her make the payment, whether by cheque in the post or credit card over the phone. J was fine with that, but the call (which went on for ten or fifteen minutes) left me drained. I’m OK when I have a “script” to follow, but a call like that where I had to make a number of on the spot decisions, is extremely draining.

This was worsened by another call, where the person I called said they had already sent a cheque. On inspection, I had processed it this morning. I checked the database, and the payment had not been processed. I thought I had made a mistake and not processed it correctly (I have done this by mistake in the past) until I realised that none of the mornings’ payments had been processed. I didn’t think I could have forgotten to process all of the cheques. Fortunately, I then remembered that J and I had accidentally been logged into the database at the same time, which can mess up saving data, so I saved myself from unnecessary self-criticism.

Curiously enough, I feel I’m more confident using the phone at work. I have a role, so to speak, and it’s easier to write a script for myself. I was able to do that when I was doing library work too, although the number of scripts I had to have to hand was not always easy to manage. I certainly didn’t have the gnawing anxiety in the pit of the stomach that I would get if I had to make a phone call at home.

My final task for the day wasn’t emotionally/socially draining like the phone calls, but was difficult and I came home exhausted. The heavy traffic on the roads didn’t help, especially as J had a very political talk radio programme on in the car, and news of violence in Israel. When I got home, I just crashed and watched Babylon 5. I tried to do more Torah study, but felt ill and stopped, focusing on getting in a good state of mind for depression group later.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel less exhausted as time went on. In fact, I started to feel light-headed, even after dinner, so I ended up missing depression group and vegetating in front of James Bond (Skyfall). I did eventually feel better. I don’t know what made me feel ill, if it was just a response to the emotions of the day, or if I’m coming down with something, but I did at least accept that it was OK to feel drained after the phone calls and that it wasn’t my “fault” or that I should have done “better,” which is progress.

I realise that I started this post saying that I didn’t cope, whereas the reality, now I read the post back, is that I did cope, even though I had to deal with stress and possibly psychosomatic light-headedness. It’s good that I can realise that I can actually cope.

***

Today was the second and final day of my shul’s (synagogue’s) fundraising campaign to raise money for new premises. I feel a bit bad as I couldn’t afford to contribute much (particularly compared to the millions of pounds needed, or even the tens of thousands being raised in this part of the campaign) and haven’t been trying to get friends and family to pay. Some of my friends are from shul so don’t need me to prompt them to give; the others are mostly non-religious and non-Jewish and I don’t feel comfortable asking for them to donate, although I’m not sure how much I would feel comfortable asking even if they were Orthodox and frum (religious Jewish). It’s not easy to ask people to donate money. I think most of the money has come from a very small number of presumably super-wealthy congregants and philanthropists/philanthropic trusts, which makes me feel like I can’t contribute much.

I do feel generally that I don’t contribute much to my shul. I don’t mean just or even primarily financially. I know I’m not in a position to donate much money anywhere right now. However, before I moved to this area, I was a regular shul-goer (two or even three times a day) and service-leader in my old shul, but now shul-going is hard because of social anxiety, more draining work and living further from the shul, and while I have led services a couple of times in this shul, I don’t feel at all comfortable doing it in this community which is more frum (religious) and which I still don’t feel completely comfortable in even after having attended for five years or so. It probably is true that my anxiety of not being “good enough” or “frum enough” for the shul means that I am discouraged from doing even what I could manage to do.

***

I had a lot of feedback about my article on Asperger’s/high functioning autism for the Jewish website. It’s all been positive, although I haven’t looked at the comments on the site yet. My friends and family have been very positive (my aunt said it showed “guts and integrity” while my Mum’s cousin said it moved her to tears). My sister’s sister-in-law was also very positive (her son just got diagnosed with Asperger’s) and I’ve only met her a couple of times, so that feels like a “real” person, not just someone close to me.

I’m doing what I always do when I’m praised, which is run away and hide. OK, in this instance there isn’t anywhere physically to run away to, but when I think about it, I feel embarrassed about the positive attention I’ve been getting. However, the main reason I haven’t responded to most of the comments and emails about this is simply that I didn’t feel well enough to do so earlier and now I’m tired and it’s late. Hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow and reply then, but thank you everyone who left positive comments about the article (and my smile).

***

I’m getting annoyed by the anthropomorphism of COVID. Today I heard that it is “retreating,” but also that it might “bite back.” Perhaps people can’t cope with the idea of an abstract, indifferent problem and prefer some kind of sentient “enemy.”

Gimme Some Truth

Warning: this is rather more rambling and pity partyish than usual. Please don’t feel obliged to read.

Nietzsche wrote about mental illness being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” I think they’ve been barking a lot more in the last few days and I don’t know why. I was practically in tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) again today, and again at lunch, and a third time in the afternoon when doing Torah study, and I still don’t know why. I don’t know why specifically Shacharit and not the other prayers either; Shacharit is the least logical service for me to cry in, as I’m invariably late and rushing through just a few prayers before the final deadline. It would make more sense if I was in tears in the other services where I say the whole thing and at least try to have some kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).

I was actually doing OK early today at trying to stay in the present and not worry and obsess about the future, but over the day I drifted into one of my “I’m Fouled Up Beyond All Hope” moods.

***

Early today I felt that I should just rip up my novel and my Asperger’s article and start over, because neither of them have truth in them. Perhaps truth is the main thing distinguishing a good writer from a hack. George Orwell wrote about this, I think. Not some transcendent religious or philosophical truth, but simply the truth of someone’s experiences. I think my blog sometimes has truth, but not my other writing.

I thought of a particular saying from the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic leader) “The Evil Urge has found a new method, in which it succeeds; no longer must it do battle day and night. It toils only to take from you the delicate chord of truth in your heart, and afterwards it lets you do as you will: to work, to study, to pray… for without the point of truth, whatever you do is no longer important to the Evil Urge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [sic] edited by Simcha Raz, ellipsis in original) I think it’s a long time since I’ve had the “point of truth” in my writing, my study or my prayer.

I don’t think I’m that truthful in friendships and relationships either. By truthful I don’t mean ‘not lying’ (I’m not dishonest), but being fully open and ‘myself.’ I’m quite truthful with my parents, but I generally only talk about the dark stuff when it gets unbearable. I’m not always truthful with my sister. I can joke around with her, and my parents, but not always talk about the dark stuff. With most of my friends, I’m not really myself and not open at all. I would want to be truthful and to be myself in a relationship, but I don’t know if I could. I think I did with E. There were things that didn’t work in that relationship, but that aspect did work. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision in breaking up, although it was already an on/off relationship, so clearly something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to be truthful with PIMOJ at all, which is why the relationship failed, although to be fair she expected me to be truthful without being the same herself. I was truthful with my first girlfriend, but, again, she wasn’t with me, and again, it contributed to the failure of the relationship.

I was going to say I’m truthful with my therapist and my rabbi mentor, but even then I’m not entirely. I’m fairly truthful with my rabbi mentor, probably more than with other people. I try to be truthful with God. I don’t know how much I succeed. I can’t hide anything from God, although a lot of things seem too trivial to mention to him, even though they upset me a lot. I don’t joke with Him much, but it hardly seems important to do so with Him.

***

On a more positive note, when I went to look up that quote from the Kotzker, I found a bookmark pointing to the page that had this quote that I had forgotten about: “We have not found in any place in the Torah that a person is commanded to be a scholar and erudite in all the chambers of the Torah. For the purpose of study is not to be a scholar, but to be a good man, to do what is good and to act beneficently towards your fellow.” This is pretty much entirely against the prevailing worldview of the Haredi world, or at least the Yeshivish part of it, which sees becoming a great scholar as the only purpose of Judaism, at least for men. It reminds me of the man who boasted to the Kotzker Rebbe that he had been through the whole Talmud three times. “Yes, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?” the Rebbe responded.

Of course, it’s entirely open to question whether I’m a good man who does what is good and acts beneficently towards my fellow, but it’s a more viable target for me than going through the Talmud three times.

***

I did eventually sit down to work on my article. I read some published articles about Asperger’s and learning disabilities on Aish as research and I think my article isn’t hugely wide of the mark, although there are still many reasons it might be rejected. I spent about an hour reading and re-writing. I think tomorrow I will actually write the pitch and see what happens. I tend to be less successful at pitching things than writing them, I think.

I went for a walk after that. It was very windy, the wind blowing clouds of blossom around so that it felt like walking through snow or confetti.

I spent half an hour researching my devar Torah (Torah thought), using the English translations on Sefaria more than I would like (Sefaria translations are often crowdsourced and sometimes inaccurate). I have an idea of what topic to write about, but not really what to say, which probably means it’s going to be another week where I feel like I’m bluffing my way through it. I think writing a devar Torah each week is a good exercise for multiple reasons, but some weeks I do feel a bit of a fraud (truth again). I doubt I could do it if I worked full-time.

***

It gets REALLY pity partyish from here. Honestly, I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

I wish I knew how to cope with being celibate. The internet is monumentally unhelpful about this. After more than twenty years of celibacy since I hit adolescence, I feel at my wits’ end. I emailed Intimate Judaism about this, but the sex therapist there didn’t respond to that aspect of the email, only saying she would try to set me up with a shadchan (matchmaker) who works with people with special needs in the UK. She said she has asked her colleagues and is waiting for an answer. I am doubtful, as I have made similar inquires in the past. Even if she finds one, there is also the realistic likelihood of me being too modern for such a shadchan and her clientele. And I still need help to cope with celibacy in the interim, especially as I’m not sure if I should go to a shadchan while only working two days a week and financially insecure, not to mention being emotionally fragile.

(I should probably add in terms of the special needs shadchan that when I tried looking for one a few years ago, my father asked the wife of the then-assistant rabbi at his shul (synagogue) if she knew anyone who could help someone with depression get married — at that stage, depression seemed to be the main issue as I wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum. She said “Rebbetzin D” who I never got around to phoning. There always seemed to be good reasons (it was nearly Pesach; I found a relationship independently; I went to a different shadchan that seemed more promising and so on), but I suppose unconsciously I was socially anxious and unsure whether she could help or even how I would start the conversation as Rebbetzin D isn’t a shadchan and I was wary of what “help” she might be able to provide and how she would respond to being phoned out of the blue by a stranger. I suppose I could try to contact her now, although it’s three or four years down the line, and, as I said, I don’t know if I should be looking to get married in my current financial situation.)

I need touch sometimes. I live with my parents, so I can still get hugs, although physical contact with my parents can still be awkward for autistic reasons and reasons based on my past. I do long to be with someone I really connect with again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a partner, but could be a close friend; nevertheless, since adolescence, I’ve only had such close friendships with women, which makes them awkward when they are platonic, because usually I want them to be more, but the other person doesn’t, or because the other person isn’t Jewish or isn’t religious enough for me, which is also awkward. I have dated women less religious than me, at my rabbi mentor’s encouragement, but I don’t know how viable such a relationship would be in the long-term. Certainly it put strains on those relationships which contributed to their ending.

Above all, I want to learn how to deal with sexual and romantic desire when single from a halakhic (Jewish law) point of view. I don’t think I have a particularly high sex drive, but I do have a greater desire for love and sex when depressed and lonely — in other words, when marriage seems most distant from me. This is rather cruel. I can’t say that I live my life entirely halakhically regarding sex. I just try to do the best I can, but I don’t know whether I could do better if someone guided me, or if I had more willpower or more control over my thoughts and emotions (autistic emotional regulation is not always the best). And I don’t know what God thinks about me, whether He thinks I’m at least trying to keep halakhah or if He thinks that frankly I could do better and wants to punish me. Or is punishing me. To be honest, while my low self-esteem is rooted in negative childhood experiences like bullying (among other things) the constant level of sexual guilt since I was thirteen and hit puberty probably hasn’t helped much. The Orthodox world’s only answer to this is early marriage, which doesn’t really work when you’re thirty-seven.

(And I should say that although I feel hugely guilty about my sexuality, I’ve still never had anything approaching actual intercourse, which somehow makes the whole thing seem even more pathetic.)

It feels like the most realistic option for me is to learn to be happy alone and celibate, but everyone just says, “No, you can get married,” without doing anything practical to advance that outcome. It’s weird, because I’m used to people saying that you should be “happy with your lot” rather than endlessly daydream about some eventuality that might never come to pass. Yet everyone encourages me to stay positive about finding a mate even after so many years and so many rejections. It’s like everyone was suggesting I should solve my financial problems by trying to win the lottery when I want to find a job.

I feel that what I want more than anything is for God to tell me that He thinks I’m a good person (God, not human beings who don’t know me and might lie to make me feel better). But He won’t, not in this world.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

I felt short periods of sadness about breaking up with PIMOJ over Shabbat (the Sabbath), with some doubt about whether I did the right thing, but mostly I was OK.

I went to shul (synagogue) last night and again this afternoon, for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and the restarted Talmud shiur (religious class). As we were inside last night, I assumed we would be today and so brought a mask, but no coat and no glasses (as wearing a mask makes them steam up); I also wasn’t sure if the Talmud shiur would be restarting where we left off when COVID started last year or if we would be somewhere else, so I didn’t bring my copy of relevant volume. I was wrong on all counts, but was OK, aside from being a little cold towards the end of the shiur. At least I know for next week. I still can’t understand much of the Talmud shiur and feel a bit bad about not being able to do so when so many other people seem to be able to follow, although I don’t know how many can really follow and how many just seem to be doing so. I do want to go back to doing some preparation for the shiur each week as part of my Torah study, which may help. I try to remind myself that until about one hundred and fifty years ago, the proportion of Jews expected to understand Talmud was very small.

I’ve actually been timing the amount of time I spend on Torah study each day for the last five weeks, and finding the weekly average. It’s actually better than I expected. The first week was distorted by going to a six hour plus study day at the LSJS on Zoom, but the other weeks were never low than an average of forty-seven minutes a day and mostly over fifty minutes a day, which was much higher than I expected. This is counting my time writing my devar Torah as Torah study, though; I’m never sure if that’s legitimate.

The other thing that happened at shul was someone telling me that they are trying to get every family in the community to set up a “team page” to raise funds for the new building. Apparently I count as a family. I am not entirely sure what a “team page” is (some kind of fundraising page, I assume) and I feel uncomfortable asking people for money at the best of times, and raising for the shul is harder. I have very few friends. Of these a couple go to the shul and will be doing their own fundraising. The others are not frum (religious) or not Jewish and I don’t feel comfortable asking them for money for the shul. Most of my friends I only see once or twice a year anyway, so asking them for money does not seem polite. I feel this is something that I can’t really do as an autistic introvert with social anxiety.

I was actually wondering on the way to shul if it would be worth “coming out” as autistic to my community, or to select members (e.g. the rabbi), but as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really know what kind of response or understanding I would want from them, besides understanding of my intermittent shul attendance and avoidance of things like circle dancing in Kabbalat Shabbat or Simchat Torah, as well as, I suppose, of not being married and not finding it easy to talk to people at kiddush or social events.

Perhaps because of the novel I’m reading (Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron — basically World War I with vampire flying aces) I had an idea of another metaphor for autism and social interactions, where neurotypical people are flying modern 747s, with all kinds of instruments (GPS etc.) and autopilots, only needing conscious thought from the pilot occasionally, whereas autistic people are flying World War I planes with fragile wings, limited instrumentation and no autopilot, requiring constant attention despite the distraction of being open to the freezing air. I have to navigate conversations consciously, not really knowing what to say or what the other person means, while also having to consciously make sure that I don’t interrupt them or, conversely, pause too long and try to find signs that indicate whether my interlocuter wants to continue the conversation, change the subject, or finish it. All this and also often having to ignore background noisy from a noisy kiddish hall or whatever. It’s no wonder that neurotypicals can manage conversations with several people at once or several conversations consecutively, and can do so without breaking a sweat while I find a two or three minute conversation in kiddish to be terrifying and confusing. Unfortunately, I don’t have a parachute.

Vulnerability (Fragment)

I had killer burnout this morning and missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers) completely, even though now the clocks have gone forward you can say it until after 1pm, although Chol HaMoed (semi-festive day) prayers are off-puttingly long, and the Anglo-Jewish custom is to wear tefillin even though it’s semi-festive (I feel uncomfortable wearing tefillin, which I’m sure feeds in to my tendency to pray Shacharit late).

I had a long WhatsApp conversation with PIMOJ which was good, as I was worried the relationship was burning out. It turns out she dislikes video calls as much as I do. So that makes me feel better. I told her about feeling burnt out and she was sympathetic, but I didn’t dare to tell her that I was still in pyjamas, and in bed, at 1pm. I realised last night that I need to make more of an effort to be vulnerable with PIMOJ. It’s hard, because she’s understanding, but also very different to me, very outgoing and happy, and I worry about scaring her off with my issues. Being vulnerable is scary. But I think the relationship will only move on if we open up to each other more. I think we’re both hiding some inner thoughts. It’s hard to work out how much to open up and when, though, especially as I didn’t always have good experiences with this in previous relationships.

The Long Twilight Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

Autism Fears

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

Minor Trials and Tribulations

Today seemed quite busy. I slept badly again, struggling to fall asleep and then struggling to get out of bed. Today was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) I managed to get up a little earlier to say some of the extra prayers, although I’m still saying a much-reduced Shacharit (Morning Service).

I spent the morning at work processing cheques people have sent in to pay fees. I think I had a few moments of autistic executive function block where my mind went blank and I didn’t know what I was doing and possibly I didn’t save data properly. I think/hope that I caught all of those. I intended to check all of them at the end, but checking forty-six payments seemed excessive (not to mention likely to send me back down the path of OCD compulsive checking), so I checked three or four random accounts and the data was always saved properly, so hopefully it was all OK. Later I processed a credit card payment over the phone and made a mistake, but the payment still went through when it probably shouldn’t have done. I put the wrong name on the card because I was confused by a woman paying on behalf of her mother. Hopefully that won’t be a mess that I need to sort out next week. Other than that, the main diversion was another trip to the bank to pay in the cheques. The cashier looked at the big pile of cheques and said I obviously hadn’t done any banking for a while. “Not since Monday” was my response. Almost everyone pays their annual fees in January, so we have to pay a lot of cheques in, although J says more people are paying by phone or online this year, which is easier for us.

J and I left work early today and despite going a different route home to avoid traffic, I had time this evening to finish and send my devar Torah (Torah thought) and work on my novel for twenty minutes or so.

I spoke to PIMOJ for an hour. She wanted to call on WhatsApp, which was fine, but I didn’t realise my phone hadn’t connected to the wifi properly when I came home, so I used 80% of my data for the next month (it just refreshed a few days ago). Not good. It’s not disastrous, as I don’t generally use much data, but it is frustrating.

PIMOJ bought me chocolate, which she sent in the post. I feel a bit apprehensive about the amount of gifts she gives me. They’re mostly small things, but I don’t really express affection that way and I wonder how she wants me to express affection to her. I wouldn’t know what presents to buy her and it wouldn’t really occur to me to do so without prompting. I’d say it’s an autistic thing, but it’s probably a male thing. Possibly PIMOJ and I need to talk about “love languages” (if you believe in love languages), but we already had one serious conversation today and it’s probably just as well we didn’t have another. At least we were on the same page about the serious conversation we did have.

I got given a confectionary package from my shul (synagogue) today too. Do they think I’m still shielding? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure who to ask/tell. It was probably a bit unfortunate that it came today as I sent off the email asking for a shul fee reduction given my employment/financial situation.

But certainly dieting with this much junk food around will be hard!

***

My glasses broke last night. I’m not sure how. The arm came off the little hinge. I suspect it’s either really easy to fix, or completely impossible and I need a new pair. Dad tried to take them in to Specsavers today. In ordinary times, it would be a simple thing, but because of COVID you have to get an appointment just to speak to someone about a broken pair of glasses and they forgot to phone him back. I wore my spare pair of glasses to work, but they have an old prescription. They were OK, but after a day wearing them, I think my eyes were getting strained, so I took them off. I generally only get new glasses when my prescription changes; then I take the older pair as an imperfect spare. I rarely need to use my spare glasses and even then usually for only a day or two, so it’s not usually a problem, but of course COVID makes everything a problem.

***

From my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week:

Finally, Rashi tells us that sometimes Moshe [Moses] is put before Aharon [Aaron] and sometimes Aharon is put before Moshe to teach us that they were equal.[1]  This is puzzling, as we know that Moshe was the greatest prophet, so how could Aharon be his equal?  According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Aharon was equal to Moshe in two senses.  First, that Moshe would not have succeeded without him, so his participation, like Moshe’s, was essential even if Moshe was greater.  Second, Aharon achieved the maximum of his potential, just like Moshe.  Although Moshe’s achievement in absolute terms was greater, both brothers achieved 100% of their potential and are equal in God’s eyes, as He judges success by the proportion of a person’s mission that is achieved and not the amount achieved in absolute terms.[2]


[1] Rashi Commentary to Shemot 6.26

[2] Quoted in Rabbi Nosson Scherman ed, The Stone Edition Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings

This idea, about achievement being relative to a person’s potential in God’s eyes rather than an absolute value, is not a new idea to me. So why it is so hard to accept?

***

The pharmacy I use is one of the six in the country that are providing COVID vaccinations. It’s just been on the TV news because the minister in charge of vaccine roll-out was there today. Selfishly, I am vaguely worried about whether this (the vaccinations, not the minister or the news) will have any impact on how fast and easily I can collect my monthly repeat prescriptions, particularly as I have one that needs collection on Monday.

***

None of what I have written here is serious, but it has all left me pretty exhausted. I’m going to do a bit more Torah study, then watch Doctor Who for a bit and go to bed.

Hyperfocus, Procrastination and Spies

I was able to spend longer on Shacharit (morning prayers) yesterday and got a lot out of it. I wanted to do the same today, but struggled to get up and get going again, feeling tired after yesterday. I’m glad the emotional symptoms of depression are largely (although not entirely) gone, but I wish the physical symptoms (oversleeping, lack of energy) would go too as they really stop me living the life I want to live. I struggle to understand why one has gone and not the other (autistic burnout is a possible explanation, or partial explanation). That said, I did get up a bit earlier than I had been even on work days, and spent a bit longer on Shacharit, even if not as much as I would have liked.

I felt very tired on the train into work and was unable to do much Torah study. It was hard enough to stay awake, and it took two cups of coffee at work (after an earlier one at breakfast) to wake up enough to work adequately.

Work was OK. I was doing something that was not, in the abstract, particularly interesting, but I got involved in it. I know I feel negative sometimes about the presentation of high-functioning autism as a positive thing, but maybe I do have the ability to focus on things that are not so interesting. I do still worry about making mistakes. I feel that I am less meticulous than I used to be, and I don’t know why. It occurred to me today that maybe my anxiety about making mistakes is actually causing me to make mistakes.

I did also realise that procrastination for me is more about anxiety than boredom. When I started the task, I was daunted by it and worried that I would mess it up and I was easily distracted, but as I got hold of what I had to do, it became easier to focus on it.

***

I dreamt last night that I was with one of my shul (synagogue) friends and realised he was abusing his wife and children. I woke up feeling guilty that I could think that about him even on an unconscious level (he’s a nice person and I’m sure he treats his family well), but I also tried to work out what my mind was trying to tell me. My best guess is that I’ve had a break for a couple of weeks from my novel, which deals with themes of domestic abuse, and my unconscious is sending me a message to get back to work.

***

I seem to be on a spy kick at the moment. James Bond, writing about John le Carré yesterday and now I’m watching one of my Chanukah presents, the DVD of The Sandbaggers. This is a 1970s TV spy drama. I heard about it years ago, but only got around to checking it out now. It’s my sort of spy drama, low on violence and action, but with lots of politics (Cold War geopolitics, but also internal politics in Whitehall), jargon and strong characterisation. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but they were very good.

That makes three strong “new” (to me) TV series I’ve seen this year: Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, Twin Peaks and now The Sandbaggers. I’ve also dated two women and found a job, (re-)started volunteering and got to a much more stable place of mental health. Dare I say it, I think my 2020 has actually been better than most people’s. Even the biggest personal shock/worry – Mum’s cancer – turned out alright (cured), albeit with the usual caveats about worrying about cancer returning.

3 Shopping Days to Lockdown

When my alarm went off at 9.00am (I usually set an alarm, even though I often turn it off in my sleep when it goes off), I actually thought I would get up. My mind felt reasonably alert, but my body was just too drained and burnt out after yesterday and I couldn’t get up and I fell asleep again after a few minutes. I didn’t end up getting up for another two hours, which was not good. The vaguely ill feeling I had yesterday has gone, fortunately, but I do feel drained. I’ve become better at seeing this as a symptom of autism (social burnout) rather than a sign of weakness, even before my assessment, but it is frustrating.

I think I had a dream about my novel and suddenly getting an idea for a much better novel that I had all planned out in my head and not knowing whether to switch to work on it. It’s sort of reflective of where I am at the moment, inasmuch as I worry that my mainstream novel is not working and I should switch to an idea I’ve had for a series of Jewish fantasy novels. I’m not actually going to switch at the moment as I don’t like leaving things half-finished and I want to see this project through. I also know that many authors have doubts when sitting down to extensive redrafting, so I shouldn’t set too much store by them at this stage. Nevertheless, I do wonder if the mainstream novel is going to be readable, let alone sellable.

Since writing the above, I read something, a blog post about sexual harassment. Although this is not the same as my novel (which is about domestic abuse in the Orthodox community, culminating in marital rape), it was similar enough that it made me think that I have a mission to write this book to the best of my ability and try to get it published.

***

I bought the new trainers I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. Hopefully these will support my arches better when running. My Dad took me to a big retail park with a number of warehouse-sized shops, including a sportswear shop. I wouldn’t have been able to get there easily on public transport, so I was grateful for the lift. On the other hand, when I shopping with my parents, I tend to let them take over. I guess it’s lack of confidence and social anxiety as well as a sense that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dad felt that in the past I had been sold over-priced and unsuitable running shoes by asking the shop assistants what shoes they would recommend for running. Dad said instead to go for a well-known brand (he said Nike), find some I like and then ask the assistant if they’re suitable for running. I’m not sure this is necessarily a better strategy, but I tried it and have black Nike trainers now. Hopefully they will be better for running than the previous ones.

***

My other real achievement (aside from scanning my autism assessment from 2006 to send to the psychiatrist doing my current assessment) was writing my devar Torah for this week. I am reasonably, but not completely, happy with it. It has more of a moral or even slightly polemical point than usual.

I also attended (on Zoom) a shiur (religious class) at my shul (synagogue). I was attracted by the fact that it was based on the teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the early twentieth century Hasidic rebbe and Holocaust martyr. I read his book Sacred Fire a few months ago and was very moved; I quoted a few times here ideas about suffering and God’s empathy.

A few points I took from the shiur were that hinukh (education) should be about revealing the potential of the student; that we should aim for nothing less than spiritual greatness in our lives and not accept mediocrity; that we should daven (pray) as much as we are able, which sometimes might be less than other times (this was important to me as I can’t always daven properly due to depression and burnout) and to focus in prayer on consciousness of standing before God; and that we should be human and eat, drink and rejoice with our friends. The element that I struggled with was the injunctions to avoid sadness and worry; it is hard to tell what to do when these become pathological depression and anxiety.

Last-Minute Date

I struggled to sleep last night. I probably slept too much during the day. I finally fell asleep after 2am, then woke around 9.00am after an anxiety dream. I don’t really remember the content of the dream, just that I woke a bit anxious and very burnt out, but somehow I managed to get up. I said some of the morning prayers on time, which was good, although I skipped a lot of prayers because I felt so tired, more than I would usually skip if I got up so early and did not need to leave early.

I went on a date with PIMOJ. We were supposed to go on a date in town on Thursday and PIMOJ had already booked time off work, but then the new lockdown was announced and we hurriedly rearranged for today so that we could see each other one more time before the lockdown. I didn’t really want to go into town, given that infection rates are rising, so we went to the same park we went to on our previous three dates. Even I, with my autistic predilection for the familiar, found this a bit much, but we both agreed it was the best option available. Fortunately, we managed to go to another part of the park, a wooded area that was quite tranquil, although very muddy and slippery in places. We enjoyed each other’s company and I was glad to go out in nature, which I think I have needed to do for a long, long time – it helped me to calm and focus, I think. We also found a pergola, which I had been to before, but forgotten was in this park, so that was a nice surprise. Afterwards we went for a coffee.

I think I spoke more than on our last date. I was nervous at first, more so than on previous dates, but I think that was a product of opening up a bit more about myself and my world, being more willing to voice a differing opinion and so on. There was a slightly awkward moment at the end, but it led to an important text conversation afterwards and I think we’re in a good place right now.

And now we have to freeze for a month (at least). Fortunately there is Skype and instant messenger!

Other than that I didn’t do much today, an hour of Torah study and not much else. I feel a little ill now, achey and with some stomach cramps as well as quite hot although that’s common in the winter because my parents like the house warmer than I do. I hope I’m just tired and not coming down with something.

***

It’s been a busy few days, but when not busy, I’ve drifted into political thoughts again about the craziness in the world, this time about the Labour antisemitism scandal which has resurfaced again (first time as tragedy, second time as farce, so Karl Marx was right about one thing) and the religious murders in France. I don’t really feel that I have much original to say, and I don’t really want to get into an argument about them, so I stay silent, but there is a price to pay for silence in terms of silently carrying tension and sometimes anger. Sometimes I feel I might change someone’s mind if I spoke up, but that seems to happen so rarely in online discussions that there hardly seems any point.

So, TV to try to relax, and bed.

Yom Kippur

I nearly forgot to blog about today, I was so busy instant messaging PIMOJ after breaking my fast (which is good). Yom Kippur was strange, but I guess it was strange for almost every Jew this year. I didn’t go to shul at all as I’m still wary about infection risks. I’m hoping to go over Sukkot (next week), but Dad isn’t planning on going until after Mum has finished radiotherapy, saying he is worried about falling ill (from COVID or anything else) and not being able to drive her to her appointments (Mum can’t drive at the moment because she’s still recovering from surgery and has limited use of her arm).

Yom Kippur is the only biblical fast day in Judaism and the only one I’m allowed to fast on while on lithium. My medication gets disrupted, as I take the first dose early, before the fast starts (before 6.00pm yesterday) and then skip the morning dose entirely. As a result, I became very tired in the evening and dozed off as soon as I finished davening (praying) last night, slept for two and a half hours, woke up, did some Torah study and recreational reading, struggled to fall asleep again, then slept for something like ten hours or more and struggled to get up and get going without being able to eat breakfast, which I usually rely on to kick-start my day.

I lay in bed for quite a long time (I think several hours), feeling too faint and drained to get up, but apparently not tired enough to fall asleep again. I tried to think about teshuva (repentance), but my mind kept coming back to the idea that I am getting better (as a person/Jew, I mean, not necessarily mental health-wise) and that, considering what I’ve been through, it’s quite amazing that I do still believe in God and am still frum (religious). I’ve met autistic people who have left religion, lots of mentally ill people who have left it, plus there are “older singles” in the frum community who leave the community in their thirties feeling, regardless of God, that the community has no place for them at that age without a spouse and children.

Once I got going I davened, going through the set liturgy of confession as well as my own private one (the idea is that Jews confess a set liturgy in the plural as a sign of collective responsibility which covers everything anyone might have done at a basic level; I then add in specific things that I’ve done and want to atone for, but not everyone does this). I did feel I have room for growth, obviously, but I still felt that I’m doing well. Which I guess is good, although I’m not sure how much it was in the spirit of the day. I wrote the other day of a shiur (religious class) I heard the other day from the psychotherapist Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, where he spoke about the importance of having a mature and honest dialogue with God about our relationship to Him and how we feel honestly about the mitzvot (commandments) and why we are meeting them or not meeting them, rather than expecting to get a list of praise/blame like a school report, so I guess it was in that spirit.

As I said, I did eventually get up and get dressed and davened some of the prayers, albeit that some can’t be said without a minyan (prayer quorum) and others I was too late for. My parents and I mostly davened together in the dining room though, which we haven’t done until now in lockdown (I usually daven in my bedroom) and it was nice to sing some bits together; we also read Yonah (Jonah), the haftarah (reading from the prophets) for Yom Kippur afternoon together, which was nice.

So, although I was not really conscious for most of it, that was a fairly meaningful Yom Kippur. I didn’t even get ill for once. No headache at all and just some dizziness when standing in the afternoon.

Rosh Hashanah (Religious Experiences)

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) was good. I felt bad about sleeping through most of the mornings and missing the right time for most of the morning prayers. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly my meds doing that, but it’s hard to be sure, plus I wonder if that’s really an excuse. I can get up when I need to, for work, so why am I in such a deep sleep when I need to get up to pray? When I was thinking about going to shul (synagogue), social anxiety was playing a part in keeping me away, but shul hasn’t been an option for six months or more. I don’t really understand it.

Otherwise it was good. I enjoyed time with my parents and we heard the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet blown on Rosh Hashanah to acclaim God as King) at a socially-distanced outdoor blowing in my parents’ shul‘s car park. I was glad as I didn’t want to miss it; I missed it too many years because I was too depressed and socially anxious to go to shul. I did quite a bit of Torah study (Rav Kook, Mishnah, Iyov (Job)), although not much recreational reading. I don’t mind that – Rosh Hashanah is always a religious-focused time rather than a relaxing one.

I think I had reasonable kavannah (usually translated as ‘concentration,’ but I prefer to translate as ‘mindfulness’) when davening (praying). I did go into a bit of a downward spiral about that last night, thinking that my kavannah and my religious experience in general was not good enough. In retrospect, I don’t think we can expect peak experiences every time we do something religious. It takes time to build up to a peak experience, and you can kill it by overthinking it, as my guilt was trying to do. Plus, I think there still is a residue of depression that stops me from truly having wonderful experiences. At least with Judaism you’re never far from another opportunity for a religious experience, particularly this month, with so many festivals.

We didn’t do tashlich (special prayers by a body of water on Rosh Hashanah talking about God throwing our sins into the sea) because we were worried about crowds again. It’s permitted to do tashlich for another three weeks, so it’s not a huge problem, and in the final analysis it’s a minhag (custom) not a mitzvah (commandment), so I wasn’t worried about postponing it until later in the week.

And that was it, really. I’m going to get something to eat, as if I hadn’t eaten enough already.

Trying to Do Things

I think I may have found a really simple way to improve my kavannah (mindfulness) during prayer: speak slower. Like a lot of frum (religious) Jews, I have a bad habit of gabbling my prayers, perhaps because of the sheer amount of prayers that Jewish men are expected to say every day. If I speak slower, my brain gets the opportunity to take in the meaning of the Hebrew. I’m sure I will still end up gabbling them sometimes, from lack of time, energy or concentration, but it’s something to bear in mind for the coming year.

***

I got up a little earlier today again, but still later than I wanted, and, again, I ended up checking emails and blogs after breakfast because I felt too tired to get dressed straight away. I felt very drained today, perhaps a product of going to the Zoom depression group meeting yesterday, which I tend to find draining.

I applied for a school librarian job. I’m not really sure that I have the right experience for school librarianship, or that I’m really suited to it, particularly after my experiences in further education (although these children would be much younger). I applied via the job website where the job was advertised, only to get an email from HR at the school saying that they can’t accept applications that way and I have to send in an application form (one of those fiddly Word document ones too). Why did they not say that on the advert? I would not have wasted my time sending it. I don’t know why so many employers try to make things deliberately difficult for job applicants. I will try to fill out the proper application tomorrow.

The application and therapy were my main tasks today, although I had to bring in the supermarket delivery by myself as my parents were out, which seemed to take longer than usual, perhaps because I was tired. I tried to work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, but struggled to concentrate. I spiralled downwards towards sadness as therapy time approached and I’m not sure why.

Therapy was helpful, although I felt I struggled for words a lot and stumbled over them semi-incoherently. We spoke about career stuff, about the fact that I feel out of my depth a lot of the time with work and job applications. My therapist said that lots of people are struggling with coming out of lockdown even if they aren’t depressed or anxious and that I shouldn’t beat myself up about it and to try to stay in the present and not catastrophise. I did feel overwhelmed not just after therapy, but even during it, feeling the desire to withdraw and cut myself off from the world, to retreat to bed and wrap myself in my duvet. Just feeling too tired to say or do anything. I did get through the whole session though.

I wanted to go for a walk after therapy, but it was raining, so I didn’t. I still felt rather tired, but wanted to Do Stuff because I felt I hadn’t done much earlier (which is not strictly true, as I applied for a job; it wasn’t my fault I have to apply again).

I did write an email I’ve been putting off, asking a friend if they want to go on my devar Torah mailing list. This person I suspect would want to go on the list, but I was scared of asking her because of social anxiety and not wanting to appear presumptuous. I did about twenty minutes of Torah study too, which is a lot less than I’ve been doing recently, but I was very tired in the evening.

I can see that I did quite a lot today, but it never feels like I’ve done enough. That’s true every day, but particularly on a day like today when I feel I wasted time and accomplished few of my aims.

It is not yet 10.30pm, but I need to go to bed as I’m completely exhausted, so goodnight.

Quiet Shabbat

Someone is playing loud music outside at 10.30pm…

Shabbat was pretty good. No insomnia this week. I woke up at 9ish and said the Shema (the most important morning prayer, which at the moment should be said by 9.30ish). I wanted to stay awake, but was tempted to wrap myself in my duvet to self-comfort and fell asleep BUT I woke up in time for the later deadline for saying the Shacharit Amidah (second most important morning prayer), so I’m counting this morning as a win as usually I don’t manage those at all. I didn’t doze this afternoon either (read, studied Torah and went for a walk), so I might go to sleep at a reasonable time tonight (if the music stops).

I mentioned to my parents my theory that my depression is now mostly autistic burnout after doing too much and they agreed. They said they’d thought that for a while, but hadn’t known how I would react if they said anything. I definitely still have odd days when I hit clinically depressed-type lows when burnt out, but I don’t think they stick around long enough to be classified as clinical depression (which should last two weeks). I look forward to hearing what my therapist says about this on Tuesday. (For what it’s worth, I think I still do have things to bring to therapy at the moment.) I do still struggle with mornings, although as my Dad said, none of us in the family are morning people (actually my sister is now, but only since she married a morning person).

That was it, really, aside from some dating anxiety. I seem to be able to keep a lid on it during the day, but it explodes in the evening for some reason. I’m excited to be messaging the person I’m messaging and so far things seem good, we seem to be connecting well, but I’m just terrified some unsolvable problem will open up somewhere down the line. I know, it’s been LESS THAN ONE WEEK that we’ve been messaging each other, I really shouldn’t be worrying that far ahead. But I do jump ahead when thinking about dating. I get so terrified of rejection, or of losing someone who I have come to care about, that I worry about it from the off, which is not good on multiple levels.

***

Speaking of JDate, I got an amusing message from someone who does not think we are a match but who recognised me from primary school! I have to say I don’t recognise her, but I suspect her hair in her profile picture is not her natural colour or style. In any case, I don’t really remember most of the girls from primary school, I didn’t really speak to them much at that age. I mean, I didn’t speak to most of the boys, let alone the girls.

***

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Mishlei (Proverbs in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and that I’ve struggled in the past with its rather rigid theology that good is always rewarded and evil punished in this world, which is not what I see. It’s fair to say that many of the proverbs do read like that, but some don’t. I found one I liked over Shabbat: “The way of a man may be torturous and strange/Though his actions are blameless and proper.” (21.8, The JPS Bible translation). I like that. I don’t know if my life is bad, but it does feel torturous and strange at times, so it’s good that I don’t have to blame myself for that. Also, the Hebrew word translated as ‘torturous’ is ‘hafakhpakh,’ which is a good word to say aloud (the ‘kh’ is a guttural like in the Scottish ‘loch’).

ANXIOUS!!! Scrupulous?

In the last few days I’ve been feeling confident in some ways, not in others.  I feel curiously confident about my ability to write – I don’t think I’m a great author and I’ve definitely got a lot to learn, but I feel I could write.  However, I don’t feel confident about my ability to get published, in terms of producing what publishers want as well as persevering through rejection and learning the technical procedures for laying out submissions and so on.

I’ve found a job to apply for that might be good for me.  It’s slightly unusual.  The job description was not detailed, but it involves working to improve search engines by rating keywords and search terms.  From the company site, I think it is really about training AI algorithms, although I won’t be doing the technical stuff, just collecting data.  The attraction is (a) although not intended for a librarian/information manager, my information management skills may be useful, (b) I can work from home, (c) I have flexible hours, maximum 20 hours a week.  So this would be in a non-stressful environment (home), allowing me to work, say, 10am-6pm each day, three days a week with two days for writing!  It is a freelance, contract position, so no job security, but you can say that about most jobs nowadays (even before COVID).  I spent nearly two hours applying (one of those annoying cases where they want a CV plus an online application form that just paraphrases your CV).

***

Eliza recommended Shabbat.com as a dating site, which I had not heard of (I’d possibly heard of it as a site to find a Shabbat host, but not as a dating site).  I signed up and created a profile.  Unlike JDate, it’s free.  There were a lot of Anglo-Jewish women on there (including the daughter of friends of my parents who lives down the road and who my Dad has been trying to set me up with for years, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign that she’s interested in me), but I just got overwhelmed and shut it down.  Sigh.  Maybe I don’t have the stamina for online dating, to contact so many people to try to find The One.  It’s an effort for me to open up to anyone.  I suppose it does reassure me that there are women out there, if only I could work out how to meet them.  Someone has to like me, right?  (No, they don’t, says my inner critic.)

I couldn’t cancel my JDate subscription (the three day grace period turned out to be only in parts of America) so am committed for three months and might as well use them.  Losing £90 is a pain, but it’s only money, and money isn’t a huge problem for me right now (I have no job, but I also have no life beyond buying occasional books and DVDs, mostly second-hand and cheap; my parents aren’t charging me rent).  I’m trying to focus on trusting God that everything is for the best, even if nothing works out and it all just turns out to be expensive social anxiety exposure therapy.

That was my thought in the early afternoon, when I realised I couldn’t cancel.  Since then, four people sent me a “flirt” on JDate, which as far as I can tell is a way of signifying interest in someone’s photo and profile without saying anything substantive in case they don’t reciprocate.  You just get a message saying “Person X sent you a flirt” and you can decide whether to respond with a more substantial message or not.  Two of the flirters didn’t have information or photos on their profiles beyond living in the US, so I put them to one side for now.  Both looked slightly suspicious (beyond the lack of data) in apparently being willing to date anyone from 35 to 75, which seemed an suspiciously large age range.

As for the women who looked more legitimate, one is Modern Orthodox, but living in the States – which is not impossible given my experience with E.  The other is from someone whose profile says she’s “culturally Jewish,” but when I responded to her flirt with a short message introducing myself, she sent me a longer message which seems very religious.  It is true that some people really don’t like labels and particularly “Orthodox” (which admittedly is kind of a dour and unattractive thing to call yourself: “Right-thinking”).  I’m going to respond to her before going to bed, and to the American woman tomorrow – I don’t think I have the stamina to reply to both now (see below for why).

I guess it’s nice to be thought attractive, given that these women “flirted” me based on a photo and a short profile.  Still, the thought of actually messaging them, or anyone else on either site, makes me feel anxious.  When I’m single and lonely, I just feel how nice it would be to be in a relationship with someone I like and trust.  I forget that to build a relationship of love and trust, I have to start by talking to a lot of women I don’t know and am scared of, and face a lot of rejection.  At the moment, I want to cower under the table until my bashert (soul-mate) finds me.   Sadly, life doesn’t work like that.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased at getting a reaction, though, nor that both these women, but particularly the UK-based one, seem like the type of person I would be looking to meet.

***

I’ve been feeling very anxious today about both applying for the job and internet dating and I wonder if the latter at least is not more than just social anxiety.  ‘Pure O’ OCD (obsessions without compulsions) can sometimes be called “scrupulosity,” because sufferers are often obsessed with being morally perfect.  In the past I have had this with Jewish dietary laws (on the plus side: yesterday someone did something at home that would have sent me into a huge panic and sending emails to rabbis just a couple of years ago and I was fine with it, so I’ve made progress there at least).

While I’m not sure I have scrupulosity regarding dating in a strictly clinical sense sense, I do have a lot of worries about not wanting to mislead women, not wanting to waste their time dating them if I think it won’t work out and so on.  It adds to general social anxiety about dating and makes it hard to cope.  I can have it a bit (to a much lesser extent) with job applications, trying to be honest in my application about my skills and experience.  Whether because of autistic black-and-white thinking or scrupulosity (autistic people are disproportionately likely to suffer from OCD), I have always struggled with the idea that it’s OK to bend the truth a little on job applications, or that it’s OK to chat on dating sites with women up to a point without being sure that you want to go out with them.

Because of the tendency in frum circles to only date if ready to marry, I kind of feel I shouldn’t date without a firm career and good mental health, but if I pursue a career as a writer, I may never have real job security (if anyone does these days) and I don’t think my mental health is ever going to be perfect.

After I’d done all of this, I remembered an email from my rabbi mentor some time ago where he said I should just try to meet a lot of women to see what I want/need from a relationship.  That sounds weirdly unrabbinic advice, but I’m pretty sure it’s what he said (although I can’t find the email).

I did find the email where he said it’s OK to email two or more women at once, as long as I don’t do that once I move one relationship to the point where we’re actually dating.

***

Achievements: aside from job application, setting up a dating profile and messaging on JDate… thirty-five minutes of Torah study (I might try to do a little more) and a run.  So a pretty busy day.  The run led to another exercise migraine, sadly.  I only realised after the run, and after the headache had set in, that I hadn’t davened Minchah (said afternoon Prayers), so it was a struggle to do that by the deadline.  I pushed myself to start, then I stopped and had to go to the toilet because I was retching, came back and restarted, stopped and actually threw up… even then I wanted to finish the service until I realised how silly it seemed.  I suppose it shows how much I push myself to do what I feel I “should” do religiously without taking into account my health.

Someone To Love

I slept badly, waking up exhausted and covered in sweat.  I really need summer pyjamas, although I’m not sure it’s worth it for the few weeks I would actually need them each year.  It’s hard to believe it was so much cooler at night just a couple of weeks ago.  The hoped-for thunderstorm never materialised yesterday.  Today we could hear distant thunder all afternoon and also saw lightning after a while, but the rain has not reached us, and the sky remains blue.  The thunder has stopped, but there is more of a breeze, which helps a bit.  In late afternoon it was cool enough to go for a walk, which was good, although I came back with a headache.

All I could think of today was how hot and uncomfortable I am, which I guess means I am not feeling anxious about anything else, but also means I am not doing anything productive.  I wish we had air conditioning.

Mum had her last chemotherapy session today, so there’s progress there at least.  Now she has a break for recuperation before surgery in a month’s time.

Achievements: the walk, half an hour of Torah study, an hour or so working on my devar Torah (which still isn’t finished, even though I’m taking most of it from just one book, Rabbi Joshua Berman’s The Temple: It’s Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now).  I did a bit of reading of a book on writing.  That’s about it.

***

At some point I stopped praying every day to get married.  I’m not sure when.  I suppose it was some months ago, when my hitbodedut (spontaneous prayer) became shorter and sporadic, sometimes abandoned completely.  It was around the time I broke up with E.  Hitbodedut was when I used to ask to get married.  I think I stopped asking for much at all, other than the set prayers, and prayers for people I know who are sick in my Amidah (I have also been saying special prayers for the whole world since COVID hit).  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I say when I do my hitbodedut at the moment.  I probably do ask for things, but not consistently, and mainly small things like meeting my goals for the next day.  I probably do still pray to get married, just intermittently and not every day.

I suppose it was hard to believe that the big things I asked for would ever be granted.  It felt like God had no interest in giving me what I was asking, so why bother ask?  Like, I suspect, many things I think or feel, this is theologically problematic.  For one thing, we’re supposed to ask for what we want.  For another, there are plenty of Jewish approaches to prayer that see it as a lot more than “Ask, Get.”  I once gave a fifteen minute shiur (religious class) on three approaches to prayer; one did not even deal directly with asking for things at all and the other two saw the asking as subsidiary to other processes.

But still, I struggle to ask.  Some of it is feeling hopeless about ever meeting the right person (or coping with meeting a lot of wrong people first), but a lot of it is what I wrote the other day about not feeling ready to get married, but wanting to be in a serious, committed relationship, even if it’s non-physical.  That doesn’t really exist in Orthodox Jewish culture and it’s hard to ask God for something that is ostensibly wrong.  Sinful, even.  (Admittedly the Talmud says that the burglar prays to God that he won’t get caught before he burgles a house, but this is hardly intended as an example to follow.)  But praying to get married seems silly when I may never get to that stage.

I think I do still sometimes pray to get a job, get married and have children, but not every night, consistently.  Just sometimes.  Praying to get a job AND get married AND have children sounds a lot and something that couldn’t happen for ages, if at all.  I suppose I should be praying to feel a bit less depressed and exhausted, and to sell some writing or something.  Small steps.

***

One of the things I struggle with because of autism is reading people (in the sense of understanding them) and knowing if they’re interested in me, interested either in being my friend or, in some cases, having a relationship with me.  I have probably lost potential friends who I misread or who panicked me and I didn’t know how to talk to them, even though I thought they were nice and would have liked to be friends with them (this is social anxiety).  Similarly, I probably bored and upset a lot of women who I wanted to date, but was too shy to ask, so I just hung around them, hoping something would happen and we would magically be dating.

A third category, which I was thinking about a bit today, is people who drifted into my life and then drifted out again, leaving me puzzled and confused.  This happened mostly online; I think the nature of the internet and blogs is that people drift in and out very quickly.

I came across an email today from 2014.  This was from someone I “met” online, where we were both commenting on a Jewish website.  She was really complimentary and asked for my email address and we emailed back and forth for a bit, but most of her emails were short emails saying she was slowly writing a long email that would tell me more about her.  I never got the long email; after a while the short emails stopped too.  I don’t know if she was interested in me romantically and then lost her nerve or something else.  She was about to start an Orthodox Jewish conversion (her father was Jewish, but not her mother), and the bet din (rabbinical conversion court) would not have been happy to know she was in a deep personal conversation with a Jewish man before conversion (it might make them see the conversion as not motivated by sincere belief, but in order to have a Jewish marriage), so it would be understandable if she wanted to stop emailing.  She was also starting a programme of study abroad, although I forget what, so that might have explained her lack of time to write too, but ghosting me just left me wondering what happened.  That’s an extreme example, but similar things have happened to me and they always leave me feeling puzzled and confused, wondering if I did something wrong or if I misread the whole situation from the start (although in that situation I was fairly confused about what she wanted even from the start).

***

I’m sitting in the garden, because it’s cooler than the house and my room is so hot that my headache gets worse if I sit there.  I just finished reading Muck, Dror Burstein’s quasi-modern reimagining of the biblical Yirmiyah/Jeremiah.  I feel too tired to do anything, but not tired enough to sleep, plus my room, as I say, is uncomfortably hot.  I might watch Star Trek Voyager on my laptop in the garden, with headphones in, as Mum and Dad are out here talking and they will probably go inside and put the TV on loudly soon (the TV is right by the French windows into the garden, which are open).

Heat and Light

Shabbat (Sabbath) was OK, but a bit of a struggle.  It’s just too hot.  I know that in some places it gets hotter and more humid, but bear in mind houses in the UK are built for cold.  They are insulated and sometimes poorly ventilated.  So it’s pretty sweltering.  I couldn’t sleep at all last night.  I stayed up reading.  I eventually fell asleep around 5.00am.

Once I slept a lot again over Shabbat, despite the insomnia.  I slept late once I got to sleep and I napped in the afternoon, so I’m super-awake now, which is not good.

***

Today we ate in the garden, both lunch and seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).  I was apprehensive about this, because I had a vague sense it ought to be religiously prohibited, but I couldn’t think of a reason why, or at least, not a reason I couldn’t argue against.  That said, if I hadn’t seen our super-Hasidic next-door neighbours do it last week, I don’t think I would have done it.  Still, I guess it’s progress in being less religious OCD-defined, and more open to things generally.  There’s probably a good deal of autistic “I don’t want to do anything new” in the “It’s halakhically forbidden (forbidden by Jewish law),” as much as OCD and over-caution.

***

My mood was variable.  I had the weird thought that in terms of dates, I’m doing about as well by just posting stuff on my blog and occasionally meeting people romantically that way (meeting online or in person) than I am being proactive in the real world or even hoping non-internet women would want to date me.  Obviously my online presence is more confident, more charming, more I-don’t-know-what than my in-person presence (unsurprising, as in-person presence is socially crippled by social anxiety and autism).  Who knows whether I’ll meet someone else that way?  Still, I do feel the odds are against my finding anyone soon, or even really being able to manage a relationship soon.  It’s just counter-productive to dwell on those thoughts.

(It’s strange, but despite my shyness and social anxiety, I do quite like meeting people in person who I have “spoken” to online.  I’ve done it quite a lot.)

I realised that somewhere along the line I stopped praying to find my spouse.  I’m not sure why.  I know in the last year or so I’ve cut down a lot of voluntary/spontaneous prayer because of feeling depressed and tired and overwhelmed and far from God.  That was probably a bad idea, making me more distant from God, but it’s hard to know how to get back to it.

I never know what to pray for about dating anyway.  I don’t exactly feel like I could get married at the moment, certainly financially and maybe emotionally.  Maybe I should pray to find some other activity or social network that would take away the loneliness?  But it feels unJewish to be in my late thirties and unmarried and not doing the one proactive thing I can really do about it (prayer).

Plus, how would I pray to feel less sexually frustrated, from a Jewish point of view, without praying to get married?  There isn’t another option.  It’s pretty clear from the Talmud that praying to reduce your libido doesn’t work (“There are no half blessings from Heaven”); marriage is the only option.  But what if, financially and emotionally, that isn’t possible right now, maybe never?  What should I pray for?

***

Those thoughts about finding a spouse by just waiting until she finds my blog (maybe) cheered me up a bit, but others brought me down.  I started crying while I was davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers), I’m not sure why.  I had been thinking about a chiddush (novel Torah thought) I had and I’m not sure if it was connected.

In Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 6, God tells Noach (Noah) to build the ark and that it should have a “tzohar.”  It is not clear what a “tzohar” is.  The Medieval commentator Rashi (based on the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah) gives us two options: “Some say this is a window and some say this is a precious stone that gave light to them.”

However, contrary to the way a lot of people read it, Midrash isn’t just about finding quirky facts about the Torah.  It is about finding deeper meanings.  What is this teaching us?

In his book Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet notes that the description of the flood undoes the Creation narrative from chapter 1 of Genesis, with the world being uncreated stage by stage in reverse order as everything is destroyed, back to the point where the waters above and the waters below were divided on day two, leaving only the light created on day one.  The only thing not mentioned are the luminaries, created on day four.  We can assume they were covered by clouds, from the point of view of the ark, but this is not explicitly stated.

We might then argue that the “window” opinion assumes that the luminaries were still visible and all that was needed was a window to let the light of the sun and moon in, whereas the “luminescent stone” opinion assumes that the luminaries were invisible, and some artificial (quasi-supernatural) light source was necessary for the ark’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the deeper symbolism is this.  The “window” option assumes that even at a time of strict justice, when God withdraws his mercy and lets destruction reign on the world, even then there is hope as a natural part of the world.  There are intrinsically positive aspects of creation still around, still shedding their light from a distance.  God’s Presence can always be felt.

The “luminescent stone” approach is darker, in all senses.  It says that sometimes the world is so dark that you can find no natural source of light altogether.  The world outside is absolutely awful with no exceptions.  At a time like this, we have to rely on God to cast light for us directly and miraculously because the outside world is just too dark and horrible for us.  (I feel that this is a post-Holocaust type of perspective.)

I thought about the above, then I immediately went to daven Minchah, as I said, and I suddenly started crying and I didn’t know why.  I strongly suspect it is connected to what I was thinking, but I don’t know if I felt overwhelmed that God was providing light for me after all, or upset and alone that I feel He is not providing light for me.

***

My parents and I didn’t play a game on Shabbat this week, partly as Shabbat is finishing earlier now and partly because our neighbours came to the door for a socially distanced conversation with my parents towards the end of Shabbat, when we’d been playing (we all nap in the afternoon).  I’m trying to persuade my parents to play a longer, more involved game on a Sunday afternoon, as we’re all in at the moment, maybe Trivial Pursuit or Risk (my family don’t like to play Trivial Pursuit with me because I win.  I think at one stage they would only play if I answered the Genius Edition questions and they answered questions from a similar, but easier, quiz game).  I don’t remember the rules to Risk, but I’ve been thinking lately that I want to play it again.

***

I’m trying to listen to a long playlist on Spotify, but someone keeps editing it, so every time I open Spotify to listen to it, the track order has been changed and it’s hard to keep track of what I’ve heard to and what I haven’t.  Very annoying.  It’s one of the Spotify-produced (as opposed to user-produced) playlists too.

OCD Slightly Resurgent, Otherwise Quiet

I woke up and got up early again (at least by my standards), which was good.  Less good was that I woke up from a very disturbing dream, in which I had tried to do something to promote unity between different groups of Jews and instead inadvertently created a situation which led to more division, and the burning of some religious papers by someone else out of spite (religious papers in Judaism should be buried respectfully, not burned).  The dream ended with me crying uncontrollably as a rabbi said I had done the right thing, but had been let down by other people.

I think the dream was primarily about my feelings of discomfort with the frum (religious Jewish) community.  I feel some (not all) people in it can be divisive and even spiteful, like the people in my dream.  However, I also feel that my feelings of discomfort are a product of my own prejudices as much as reality, so I could be the spiteful people in the dream too.  It is hard to be objective.  I woke up feeling sombre and upset, but I somehow managed to get up rather than just go back to sleep as part of me wanted.

The dream did at least get me up early again today, so I could say the most important morning prayers at the right time, and say more of the morning prayer service than I usually manage.

***

I spent two and a half hours working on my novel.  My main character/narrator just got assessed and diagnosed with high functioning autism.  It brought to mind my worries about whether I am on the spectrum and (different question) whether I will be diagnosed as being on the spectrum, bearing in mind I’ve been assessed twice and told that I’m not on the spectrum, but am challenging that diagnosis given that I have now done more research and have observed myself in new work and social environments (my previous assessments were before I had worked or even volunteered).

I started to worry that I’m not on the spectrum.  I made myself worried enough that I did an online screening (similar to the one I had in person eighteen months ago) which showed that I probably am on the spectrum, but I wish I didn’t have this kind of obsessive worrying about it.  As someone in my novel says, getting a diagnosis won’t change who I am or what I experience, even if it explains it.  However, it would change my perception of myself, so it is no wonder that it seems important and anxiety-provoking.

***

Other than that, today was mostly the usual stuff: cooked dinner (vegetarian kedgeree, because it’s one of my easy recipes), a walk, nearly an hour of Torah study.  I lost a lot of the time I had gained by getting up early.  I’m not sure where it went.

I did write a letter to E., not to send to her, just to express my feelings to myself.  Reading it back, I sounded a lot angrier than I thought I was.  Maybe I’ve been carrying a lot of anger around for the last couple of months since we broke up, or even before then.  I worry about how E. is doing, but I still haven’t got back in contact with her.  I noticed she’s posting stuff on Goodreads (I didn’t unfriend her, I’m not sure why, maybe because I don’t use Goodreads as a social media, only as an online catalogue of my books), so I know she’s still alive and functioning, but I am still reluctant to communicate directly.

***

My religious OCD has been dormant for a while, but it never goes away fully.  Everyone has “crazy” thoughts sometimes; what turns them into OCD is when they won’t go away and you end up obsessing about them (‘pure O’ OCD) or performing compulsions to get rid of them (more stereotypical OCD).  I have in the past had ‘pure O’ OCD about the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), among other things.

Lately there have been a few kashrut issues where I thought on balance they were OK, but I wasn’t 100% sure.  When my OCD was at it’s height, I would have asked a question of a rabbi or the London Bet Din (yes, I emailed their food technologist a lot when my OCD was raging a few years ago.  I still blush to think of it).  I was trying hard not to ask the question, because asking just provokes more questions – the way OCD grows is that you can never be 100% sure of anything, so every answer provokes more questions, as well as accustoming you to asking questions rather than relying on your own judgement.  I was fairly sure things were OK and was intent on just leaving it like that.

Unfortunately, today I gave in to ask a question, and then it snowballed.  I think I’ve got it under control now, and even for the hour or so that it happened, my anxiety levels were nothing compared with a few years ago.  Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of how fragile my mental health can be and how easily things can unravel.

***

I haven’t got much else to say today.  I feel a lot calmer and present-focused now I’ve cut a lot of internet use.  I haven’t strictly kept to only using the internet and email twice a day as my therapist suggested, but I’m not doing a lot more than that, except for novel research.  I’m also not looking at news and opinion sites much and not at Twitter at all (I haven’t been on other social media sites for years).  I feel a lot happier and peaceful, but I worry that I’m becoming ignorant of the world.  I guess I feel I can’t change the world much anyway, and the areas where I could change it, I still keep up with.  Still, we’re constantly being bombarded with messages about the importance of making a stand, demanding change, “silence is violence” (which I think is a glib and misleading phrase, although it has an element of truth) and so on that not being super-aware of what’s going on seems vaguely immoral.

Another Busy Day

I woke up early today, at least by my usual standards.  I usually wake up in the early morning, but then I feel tired and usually fall asleep again until much later.  I decided the other day that I would try to force myself to stay up, which I managed today.  I was pretty tired (even though I had about seven hours of sleep), but I managed it.  I was OK once I drank coffee and I was glad to get an earlier start on the day and say the morning Shema and Amidah on time.

I did doze for half an hour in the afternoon though.

Achievements (although the above are really achievements too): I spent two hours on my novel and finished another chapter.  Only one more chapter to go!  I’m up to 72,000 words too, which is novel length, just about.  Hopefully the manuscript will grow a bit in redrafting.  The time taken to write each chapter seems to be becoming shorter too, even though they chapters are mostly the same length.  I have mixed feelings about the quality though.  Some of that is probably low self-esteem and it is just a first draft.  My English teacher used to say that a first draft is 99% of the work, and for non-fiction I would tend to agree, but I think writing fiction is more organic and individual and I need to redraft more, particularly as I’ve never written something this long before.

I did an hour of Torah study, much of it difficult Mishnah, which was good.

I also went for a half hour walk.  My ankle felt a bit strange when I woke up.  I’m not sure how to describe it – kind of weak and fragile.  It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t want to put too much weight on it.  I think something is wrong when I run, but I’m not sure if it’s my trainers or if I’m running incorrectly (it can happen).  I don’t really want to go shopping for new trainers at the moment because I’m avoiding shops except for essential items to shield Mum.  I could mail order, but my parents have put me off that by saying that returning them would be hard if they’re a bad fit.

I attended depression group online via Zoom.  I hadn’t attended for a while because I’ve been having therapy on Mondays and was too tired after that to go, but I’ve moved therapy to Wednesdays so that I can go again, plus my therapist is away this week anyway.  I mentioned my novel and people were really supportive, which was nice.

My mood was mostly good today, although it was drifting downwards when I dozed off in the afternoon, so maybe it was just as well that I fell asleep at that point.  My mood did dip slightly into self-recrimination and worry while walking, but mostly I was able to focus on the present.

Someone at depression group asked if I find it easier or harder online.  I find it harder, but I’m not sure why.  I think some of it is feeling that I’m being stared at by the camera the whole time, whereas in person I can see people are focusing on the person speaking, not me.  I also think there’s blurred boundaries when Zooming in from home (am I at home or in the group?) and less of a transition from home to group and back again and transitions are really important for people on the autism spectrum.  I find it hard to give people my full attention on Zoom, harder than in person, and I was getting fidgety by the end, which I know is autistic stimming and my way of trying to focus (rather than boredom), but I was glad that people couldn’t see that I was tapping my fingers because it might have looked rude.

I didn’t stick exactly to my limits on internet usage/email checking that I agreed with my therapist, but I did mostly stick to them and that does seem to help stay present-focused, not to compare myself with others so much and to avoid negative thoughts.  Actually, depression group can provoke comparing thoughts, a kind of procrustean bed where if they’re doing well, I feel I should be doing as well as they are, but if they aren’t doing well, I feel that I should be doing more things as I’m not so depressed.  I try not to think like that, but it’s not always easy.

I didn’t feel like I’d done much today, but writing it down I see that I have done quite a bit.

***

I made a mistake online.  Not a major one (it was less something I didn’t know and more something I phrased badly), but normally I would beat myself up about it, but I’m trying not to, which I guess is good.  With CBT for social anxiety, one technique is to make deliberate mistakes to become inured to them (one nineteenth/early twentieth century yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) used to get the students to do something similar, and there is an XKCD cartoon with a similar point…).  I did not do that when I did CBT for my social anxiety; as I think I’ve said, I don’t think I tried hard enough with CBT for social anxiety, although what I did seemed quite difficult at the time.

***

This passage in Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World (by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Erica Shapiro Taylor) resonated with me: “A sensitive child, burdened by his natural physical desires and the emotional and intellectual demands he inherited… Rebbe Nachman entered into depressed periods throughout his life.”  My emotional and intellectual demands were not inherited, but came partly from social expectation and partly from my own inner drive for excellence, but otherwise it was very similar to my childhood and adolescence.

Like a Lion

I’ve been struggling to get to sleep this week, not hugely, but persistently.  I woke up early (for me) this morning and rose “like a lion,” like I’m supposed to (per Jewish texts).  I managed to get going quite quickly and say the Shema prayer and the Shacharit Amidah (the main Morning Prayer) on time, which I almost never manage these days because of depression, even though I skipped most of the other morning prayers.

My mood was quite good today, except while I was davening (praying) I suddenly had self-critical thoughts about myself, thinking that I must be a disappointment to my parents compared with my sister.  Still, I’m trying not to get sucked into depression and negativity.  I try to tell myself I’m on my own path.  Try to focus on the present.

***

Today is 10 Av, according to the Jewish calendar, and my Hebrew birthday.  The morning is still a sad period from Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks of mourning, but from the afternoon, the mourning restrictions are lifted and one can listen to music, go on holiday, shave, trim nails etc.  I’ve done or am looking forward to doing all those things, except no holidays this year because of COVID and Mum’s cancer.  I’m not a great traveller anyway.  Maybe it’s good that my Hebrew birthday always starts sad and gets better (except when 9 Av falls on Saturday, then the fast is postponed to 10 Av and the whole day is miserable).

***

I tried to apply for a librarian job at a charity, but the online application system said I have already applied there.  I have actually applied for three different roles there, most recently in February.  I assume they never recruited because of COVID and are looking again.  I emailed them to check that my previous application will still be considered.  I did get called for interview for one of the three jobs, so I think it’s worth applying again.  I’m unsure about applying to a different institution where I also had an interview, but I felt that I wasn’t a good match for the institution’s culture.  I also applied for a job I don’t think I’m qualified for, because it was an easy LinkedIn application that only takes two minutes.  I’m not sure how sensible that was.  My thinking was that if I’m really not qualified, they won’t even call me to interview and that the risk was worth it considering how little time it took to apply.

I’m still concerned that most jobs in my sector are full-time and I don’t think I can cope with more than three days a week (at most) at the moment.  My parents say, “Apply and worry about that when you get the job.”  I’m not sure.  I think I need to think about other jobs in other sectors.  I did go to a careers advisor before COVID, but I felt he didn’t know the library sector and skill set so well.  He suggested being a private tutor, but I feel I need training in how to teach someone (including how to mark work, not something I’ve had to do before) and was not sure how to get it.

***

Achievements: aside from the job stuff and the usual pre-Shabbat chores, I went for a walk and worked on my novel.

***

I’m feeling pensive at the moment because today I’ve been reminded of a number of my friends and friends of my parents who are struggling with major health issues for themselves or their families right now.  It makes saddened and empathetic, and also puts one’s own problems in perspective.  The only way I can really believe in God, given the amount of suffering in the world, is to assume that this world is a “vale of soul-making” as Keats put it or the “ante-chamber” to the “banquet hall” as the Mishnah says and that we are here purely to grow, not to be happy.  Not that there is anything wrong with accepting happiness where we find it, but happiness is the natural state of the Next World; in This World our natural state is to struggle so that we can make our souls (Keats) and prepare ourselves (the Mishnah), which are really two ways of saying the same thing.

I didn’t really want to end on a down note, but I need to go as we’re heading towards Shabbat now, so Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath).

Two Years

Shabbat was good.  The usual mix of praying, studying Torah, eating, sleeping (too much) and reading.  I came last at Scrabble.  I had some rotten letters, far too many vowels.  I’m not very competitive, but I am getting annoyed that I’ve only won one game so far this summer.  There was some discussion as to whether ‘boxy’ (my word) is a word or not.  Our dictionary (Collins) says no, but now Shabbat is out, Merriam-Webster online says yes.  Maybe I’d have been better off with ‘oiled,’ but I couldn’t remember how many ‘L’s were in it.

I finished Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939-1942, kept up with weekly page of Talmud and read a bunch of Tehillim (Psalms) in Hebrew.  I didn’t do much recreational reading, just a little bit more of Muck, which is very good.  I didn’t go for a walk, partly because I slept and then wanted to study Torah and read, partly because it looked like rain.

***

Yesterday I realised it is nearly two years since I left my further education job (it’s nearly two years since I stopped working, although I was technically under contract for a couple of weeks in August when I was on holiday).  It feels much longer.  I think leaving may be the worst decision I ever made, and I’ve made some pretty bad ones.

For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t reading then, my initial contract was up.  I was not sure if it would be renewed, as everything in the library world, and the education world, is suffering from lack of funds.

I was offered a permanent contract, but my boss made it quite clear that she didn’t think I was handling the job as well as she expected.  The permanent contract was in many ways a new job, working all the time at the college’s secondary site (instead of once a week there and usually at the main site) where I would be expected to have much more contact with staff, talking to them, getting book recommendations from them and trying to get them to bring students to the library more often.  This terrified me given my social anxiety and the fact that the interpersonal aspects of the job so far had convinced me that I am autistic.  My boss had also made it clear that she felt that this interpersonal interaction side of the job was something I was particularly bad at.  I agreed, and decided to turn the job down, which seemed to astonish her, even though her vocal lack of confidence in my skills was a major factor in my turning it down.

If I’d realised how hard it would be to build a career or even to find a new job that is mostly backroom librarian stuff with minimal interpersonal interactions, maybe I would have taken that job.  Since then I’ve only worked for seven months in total out of twenty-three (not counting that August when I was paid, but not working).

I made a list of everything I’ve done in the last two years to try to work out if they were good or bad.  Aside from only seven months working, I had some interviews and tests and did badly in a lot of them, but not quite all (obviously two I did well in as I got the jobs).

I went on two dates with one person via a matchmaking site (not a success) and was in a long-distance relationship with E. for four or five months that also ended badly.

My mood (depression) has been extremely variable, and although I had some CBT last year for social anxiety, my social anxiety has got worse because of lockdown.  I also think I didn’t push myself hard enough with the CBT, although being restricted to ten sessions on the NHS didn’t help.

On the plus side, I finished my Doctor Who non-fiction book, but failed to get a publisher, or many readers when I self-published.  I have written most of the first draft of a novel.  This is the biggest thing in my life at the moment, aside from helping around the house now Mum has cancer.

My therapist, who I’d been seeing for years (seven?  Something like that) stopped seeing me in late 2018 because she said there was nothing else she could do for me.  That made me feel hopeless (not the first time mental health professionals have basically said that they can’t do anything for me as my issues are too difficult for them).  I started with a new therapist a few weeks ago.  She seems good, but I have seen so many therapists over the years, I see it as being more about letting off steam than being “cured” or one day having a “normal” life.

I still haven’t had an(other) autism assessment, despite being pushed towards it by the further education job and then by the following office job, which nearly drove me insane and made me realise my brain really isn’t wired like most people’s.

I made some new friends, mostly online, but quite a few friends have stopped talking to me, or I’ve stopped talking to them to prevent arguments (or from fear we would drift back into a relationship again in the case of E.).  I feel incredibly bad about this, but don’t know how to stop it happening again.

I think I had begun to fit in slightly better at shul (synagogue) and talk to one or two more people before lockdown.  I led services a couple of times too, but wonder if I should have done that (I had tremor issues again someone said I looked “like you were going to have a coronary”).  I still feel the community is not a perfect fit for me, but it’s the best on offer.  A few people know I have medical issues even if I haven’t told them the details, but I don’t always feel supported, although the rabbi has been messaging to check in regularly during lockdown, which is good.

Reading this back mostly makes me feel despairing, seeing how little has gone right in the last two years.  The plus side, I suppose, is that a lot happened, even if much of it was bad, so perhaps I should be hopeful that the next two years won’t be stagnant, even if I feel the chances of finding a job (let alone a good job), finding a girlfriend/wife or finding a publisher for my book all seem slim.

Negativity and Meaning

I felt quite depressed again today.  Dad took Mum to her appointment with the surgeon and then for a socially distanced visit to my sister’s house, so I had the house to myself for a bit, which I like.  It’s nice to have personal space, not that we get in each others’ way very much (I’m usually in my bedroom, my parents in the lounge or office).  I did feel very depressed and lonely, trying not to catastrophise my thoughts about the future into complete despair (about marriage, children, having my writing “cancelled,” etc.).

I tried to work on my novel before therapy, but really I just wanted to cry.  I did, eventually get down to it and wrote quite a bit.  It was a violent scene, and although that was hard on one level, because domestic violence is pretty draining to write, I did find the actual writing flowed more than recently.  I definitely think that mainstream literary fiction is not 100% right for me (although I intend to finish the book) and I should be writing science fiction/fantasy adventure or something similar in the future.  It’s bits like that that have been easiest to write.

Therapy was difficult and very draining.  We spoke a lot about family and childhood.  Also about Mum’s illness and being increasingly conscious of my parents’ mortality.  I mentioned what Ashley has said about my having lots of “shoulds” and we worked a bit on finding alternative thoughts.  I don’t like replacing “should” with “could” because I feel I could do just about anything so saying, “I could do X” doesn’t help me make decisions, especially as it makes it hard to see how urgent or important a task is.  So we’re trying with phrases like “I would like to do this because…” or “This is in line with my values because…”  I like the latter, because sometimes I do things I don’t enjoy because it’s in line with my values e.g. prayer (which is not always enjoyable or uplifting, although it can be) and housework.  I’m also writing some questions to identify when I’m being self-critical e.g. “Is this my critical voice?” and “Would I talk to someone else like this?”

I often go for a walk after therapy, but I felt too tired today, especially as I knew I had shiur (religious class) later.  The shiur was on meaning, the last of three shiurim on the topic.  The first was on what meaning is; the second was on whether a person has to be religious to have meaning; and this one was on how can we make our lives more meaningful.  The shiurim were given by Dr Tamra Wright and Rabbi Dr Michael Harris.

The shiur this week was not so much a religious shiur as a talk on philosophy and positive psychology, but it was interesting.  Some points I took from it:

  • The optimal level for a meaningful element in your life is not always the maximal one.  In other words, if praying is meaningful for me, that doesn’t mean that praying 24/7 would be the most meaningful level of prayer.
  • Meaningful events/things can be small, not major life-changing things.
  • Recognising meaning or value that is already present is important.  Even increasing this recognition a little is good even without recognising the good perfectly.  (All of the above points taken from a book by the Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau.)
  • Writing a gratitude journal of things that went well and why they happened helps make life meaningful.  I already list things that I’m grateful for, but I don’t write it down or write why they happened.  Maybe I should change that.  Writing why they happened is supposed to show your agency more clearly.
  • One can have a flourishing, meaningful  life even without a cheerful disposition via pro-social emotions (e.g. compassion), engagement, relationships, a sense of something greater than me and achievement.
  • Spirituality is independent of religion (I knew that) and is “a sense of a close personal relationship to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power) and a vital source of daily guidance. (From work by Lisa Miller)  This is associated with meaning.  I’m not sure how much I have this.  I struggle to feel a close personal relationship with God, although I believe in Him.  I suppose He is a source of daily guidance for me inasmuch as I try to live according to Jewish law and values, but I’m not sure that that was quite what was meant.
  • George Vaillant identified six tasks of adult development.  They’re too long to list here, but I’m not sure I’ve achieved any of them yet, maybe not even “identity” fully (separation from parents), which I should have managed by now.  The only one I might have achieved is “Becoming a keeper of the meaning – role of ‘wise judge’; impartial; conservation, preservation, passing on traditions.”  Because I’m more Jewishly observant and knowledgeable than my immediate family, they look to me for religious guidance.
  • Vaillant also says that self-worth is a dead end and meaning is found in thinking of ourselves less.  I find this hard.  I have noted my rather solipsistic self-absorption, which is perhaps partly from autism (after all, the name “autism” is about being self-contained), partly from social anxiety (not reaching out to others) and partly by temperament (tendency to ruminate).

Speaking of which, I did not really interact in the discussion because I was feeling too socially anxious.  Sigh.  I need to think about how to add some of those meaning-techniques to my life.

Brushes with Criminality

Sigh. I was trying to write less about disrupted sleep here, but I got woken again at 8.15am by the illegal minyan (prayer meeting) in the garden next door, which now seems to be a fully-fledged, three times a day minyan – basically an open-air shul (synagogue).  I decided I was rested enough after seven hours of sleep to get up and get an early start on the day, and was glad they aren’t davening (praying) before 7.00am, as would be normal if people were going out to work.  Later this week is the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), when it is customary to stay up all night studying Torah and pray at first light, so I have worries of being woken at 3.30am.  I can’t bring myself to inform on a minyan, however illegal, so I have to put up with it somehow.  I don’t want to sleep with my windows shut, because it makes the room stuffy and I worry about waking with a headache.

I will try not to mention the illegal minyan again, as it’s probably not good to make this type of thing well-known (chillul hashem); there’s been enough in the mainstream press about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews breaking lockdown here, in the US and especially in Israel.  But I can’t promise they won’t do something outrageous that I have to offload here.

Getting up early did at least mean that I davened a bit more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than usual, and at the proper time for once.  I also used some of that time gained to work on my novel, managing about an hour and a half in the morning. Quite a bit of that time went on research, but I wrote 600 words before lunch.  Overall I spent nearly two and a half hours on the novel today, despite doing several other things (see below), writing over a thousand words, which was very good.  So maybe some good will come of the illegal minyan after all, if it sorts out my disrupted sleep pattern.

I had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor.  Unfortunately, it was a short call and I did what I’ve been doing with therapy and have done in the past at depression group, which is just blurt out a huge load of stuff at the start, expressing a lot of thoughts and emotions that I’ve had lately, all in one go, like a tidal wave of anxious/depressive emotion.  My rabbi mentor felt that I was doing well at understanding and processing these feelings and thoughts, which is good, and he helped me with one or two specific matters.  I do feel a bit strange when I just blurt all this stuff out, though.  Slightly embarrassed, and vulnerable and exposed.  Exhausted too and even a bit shaken, which I suppose is unsurprising if I’m revealing a lot of private thoughts.

It was Mum’s birthday today.  We had a socially distanced tea in the garden with my sister and brother-in-law.  They were very nervous about getting close to Mum, so there was good social distancing.  It was good to see them again.  We’ve had some doorstep conversations, but nothing as long as this since before lockdown.  I think it’s getting harder to stick to lockdown; half lockdown is perhaps harder to maintain than full lockdown (that’s somewhat analogous to Jewish law where very difficult things are often psychologically easier to stick to than apparently trivial ones).  I know I’ve complained about people bending the rules, but I think Mum would have been really upset if she couldn’t have seen my sister, given that she starts the next bout of chemo tomorrow.  I tend to be very rule-abiding (I suspect that people on the autism spectrum tend to be either extremely rule-focused or totally anarchic) and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been the person who lived outside the family home.

Then we had a more legitimately lockdown-approved Zoom talk with my Israeli family, but I found it draining after a while especially as it was a long call.  It left me somewhat peopled out, particularly after the tea with my sister and BIL.

As it was Mum’s birthday, we had takeaway and watched the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian Ashley Blaker’s latest show, which was posted online for people who paid.  Then I went for a walk in the gathering dusk, as I had been sitting all day and needed to stretch my legs.  I managed forty-five minutes of Torah study too, although it was a bit of a struggle not to feel bad about not making it up to an hour.

I decided to break my “no screens after 11pm” rule (which is much honoured in the breach anyway) as after such a busy day with so much peopling, I need a passive TV-watching break to avoid burn out tomorrow.

***

Two things that have left me thoughtful today:

  1. My rabbi mentor says he enjoys my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought).  OK.  My uncle said that he enjoys it to and has been forwarding it with some other divrei Torah to his friends from shul (synagogue).  I’m not quite sure what I think of that.
  2. Ashley Blaker told some really rude jokes in his act.  Jokes I won’t repeat here because I would blush.  This has made me ponder a lot more about what the rules are in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community and who has the impunity to break them, given that he is very frum-looking (beard, dark suit, velvet kippah (skullcap), black hat).  It matters to me because I’m writing about sexual violence in my novel, which I feel is an important subject, but I wonder if that will get me a bad reputation (I would do it anyway, I think).  Is this one of those cases where if you ask the question, you’ll be told it’s forbidden, but if you have the chutzpah to just do it, you can get away with it?  Does the transient nature of a comedy show mean he can get away with more than in a permanent medium like print?  Unless people from his shul are in the audience, no one is going to know.  Is he assuming that any frum person who gets the sex jokes is going to have to pretend not to understand lest it become clear that they have dirty minds too?  Particularly given that part of the routine was about frum people being so naive that there are hilarious double entendres in the frum press apparently unnoticed.  Hmm.

Hypotheticals and Counter-Factuals

I was up late last night.  I mean, I’m up late every night, partly because depression makes me nocturnal and partly because having a girlfriend in a timezone five hours behind me makes for a lot of late night Skype calls, but I was up particularly late, partly writing my blog post (which shouldn’t have taken that long) and partly dealing with difficult emotions.  Watching an episode of Ashes to Ashes had triggered a lot of thoughts and feelings about could I have become a really bad person, like the villain in that episode (a sexually frustrated and religiously-motivated rapist and murderer), if my life had gone just a little bit differently.  Really there’s no end to counter-factual questions like that, because there’s no way to test which of our characteristics are innate and which are acquired, or even how much of each.  But depression (and, I guess, pure O OCD) love those kind of “Am I really a bad person?” questions, particularly if they can lead to me beating myself up for things I’ve never done and would never too.

I probably do ask myself these type of hypothetical questions too much.  I know I was asking here the other day about whether I would continue any Orthodox Jewish practice if I lost my belief, and I do often wonder if I was an atheist what my source of moral inspiration would be and so on.  Up to a point those questions are interesting, but once you go down the “How close am I to being a murderer?” route it’s more a sign of mental illness.

Then I realised (this is still late last night) that an invitation I had to a Zoom anniversary get-together for a shul (synagogue) friend’s thirtieth wedding anniversary (yes, my shul friends are mostly a lot older than me) was yesterday and not next Tuesday.  I was a bit upset to have missed it.  I wasn’t entirely looking forward to it, as I find Zoom events hard, but if I didn’t go I would have wanted to send a message beforehand to explain why I find them hard, rather than just not show up.  I sent an apologetic text today, but I still feel a bit upset.  I guess it is easy to lose track of time in lockdown.

I got woken up early in the morning, unfortunately by Mum being sick from chemo side effects.  I got her some water and she said she thought she was OK, so I went back to bed and then fell into a deep sleep for hours, waking up after midday, which was disappointing when I’ve been trying so hard lately to move my wake up time a bit earlier in the day.  It was almost the end of time for Shacharit (morning prayers), so I somehow managed to get dressed quickly and pray a little bit before breakfast, which I usually find impossible because I’m too drained and depressed until after eating cereal and drinking coffee.

I didn’t do as much as I would have liked today, partly because of that late start.  I spent a bit over half an hour working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which might not have been the best use of time.  I’ve been trying to give my divrei Torah more definite conclusions.  The typical way most people would do this is either ending on a takeaway practical moral or personal development point or a quasi-prayer that the world should be redeemed soon.  I don’t really feel comfortable with either of those, but I feel like I should try them.  The topic for this week pretty much forced me down the “prayer for redemption” route this week, but I think generally I’d be happier with the “moral point” version.

I worked on my novel for a little while, but I didn’t do much.  That was partly due to starting late and finishing early (as I had a Zoom shiur (religious class) this evening), partly due to feeling a bit stuck.  I’m starting to write a new chapter, and that can be hard, and this time it’s 100% events from my research and imagination, not drawing from my personal experience except in the most general sense.  It doesn’t help that my confidence in this project is a bit reduced.  I don’t think it’s going to be amazing.  I am trying to stay confident that it might get published and speak to people, but I think there’s a limit to how good could be, and that’s difficult for a perfectionist like me.  In the end I wrote about three hundred words in an hour so, which I guess illustrates how productive I have been recently, that this now seems very substandard.

I also went for a walk for half an hour or so.  It has turned cold again.

In the late afternoon, my mood dipped.  I tried to accept the difficult feelings without fighting or giving in to them, but it was hard.  I was thinking that my life is so much better than it was a number of years ago, when my depression was a constant and unbearable thing, but I also reflected that I’m still struggling with my mood and especially with my engagement with the world (which is a combined depression/social anxiety/high functioning autism thing).  I no longer have the confidence in my ability to work as a librarian or cataloguer.  At the same time, I don’t yet have confidence in my ability to write professionally, and especially not in my ability to sell my writing to publishers, which stems from a mixture of low self-esteem and social anxiety, perhaps also some autistic social ineptitude.

***

As I mentioned, I had an online shiur (religious class) for an hour and a half on Zoom this evening.  The class was on Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), the most important biblical commentator.  I struggled with it.  I find Zoom classes very difficult.  Even in speaker view, where you see primarily just the person talking (as opposed to gallery view, where everyone on the call is visible at once) the picture changes too much for me and there is often too much extraneous noise.  I think a lot of people struggle with this even without autistic sensory overload issues.  I feel self-conscious moving even slightly knowing that I’m on everyone’s screens and my usual lack of confidence in answering questions was magnified.  I didn’t really say anything at all, even when we were in smaller groups.

It didn’t help that I think I seemed to be more familiar with the texts in question than most people there, so I knew a lot of the answers in advance, but not because I worked them out, just because I had encountered them previously, so I was reluctant to say anything.  I struggle to find the confidence to speak out in classes and shiurim in general, even though by this stage I know that I am often right, and that at the London School of Jewish Studies I’m usually one of the more knowledgeable people in the class, and my confidence could use the boost of being told I’m right sometimes (which is probably a horribly arrogant thing to say).

So, I’m slightly apprehensive about the other five classes in this course.  I’m also somewhat apprehensive about another Zoom shiur I’m booked for next Monday, but I think that will be a more traditional “one person talks and everyone listens” format; likewise a three session course I’m thinking of going to in a few weeks on meaning (I feel desperately in need of more meaning in my life).  Monday’s course might help me decide what to do about the meaning course, although my current thinking is that I should have skipped the Rashi course and done the other two shiurim/courses.  However, I have paid for the Rashi course, so I will try to get the most out of it.

Avoidance, Esteem and Too Much Theology

I got up at 10am again today.  I tried to make it for 9.30, but I kept drifting in and out of sleep, having weird dreams.  I did go online before getting dressed though.  I try to tell myself I am a work in progress.  The problem is that, particularly early in the day, when I’m not doing anything, the depression rushes in.  It stops me getting started on my day and it can also creep in when I’m doing other things.  I felt pretty depressed while davening (praying) this morning, for instance, without an obvious trigger.

I had another day that got away from me, another autistic-bad-at-planning day when I made an over-enthusiastic plan and quickly drifted away from it.  Actually, it’s as much depression’s fault as autism’s, given that I would be OK for a bit and then suddenly hit by a wave of depression.  I feel like I use autism and depression to make excuses for myself, but then again maybe I just use them to blame myself in different ways.

I did manage about an hour and a half on my novel, just over a thousand words, battling procrastination and not really wanting to confront some of my less than stellar times at Oxford.  I would have liked to have written some more, but I could feel the kind of tension inside my skull that I associate with exhaustion and imminent burn out, so I stopped.  By that stage I had also drafted my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, done some hoovering to help with the housework, and been for a forty-five minute walk.  I did about twenty minutes of Torah study too.  So, not a bad day productivity-wise, even if I would like to do MORE all the time.

***

(The next paragraph or two gets a bit theological, so you might want to skip ahead.)

This evening is the start of my paternal grandfather’s yortzeit (death anniversary).  Usually my father would go to shul (synagogue) for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and say the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.  This has to be said with nine other men, and doing it on Zoom is not permitted.  Instead, we davened Ma’ariv on Zoom, with a whole bunch of Dad’s friends and some family, but without Kaddish (and one or two other things that can’t be said remotely).  Instead, following rabbinic advice, afterwards I read out and explained a Mishnah (the oldest part of the Talmud, the Jewish oral tradition).  I just read the most recent Mishnah in my ongoing study of Seder Zeraim, the order dealing with agricultural law, specifically Terumot chapter one, mishnah one, the volume dealing with the portion of the crop given to the priests in ancient times.  It’s really not the best thing to pick, but I wasn’t sure what else to do and picking another mishnah at random seemed a bit arbitrary.  At least it wasn’t a very complicated one to explain.  The idea is that by us studying the mishnah together my grandfather has prompted Torah study, which results in him attaining greater reward in Heaven.

My problem is that I struggle theologically with the idea that we can do anything meaningful to help the dead.  I see Kaddish as being primarily for the mourner, to reconnect with God after loss.  The idea that Torah study by a person’s descendants can help a dead person is only about a hundred and fifty years old, which is yesterday in Judaism.  Not ancient at all.  Even Mourner’s Kaddish “only” goes back about 1,000 years.  Before teaching the Mishnah on Zoom, I was supposed to say “May my grandfather’s  neshama (soul) have an aliyah (be elevated), but I really feel uncomfortable saying that, as I’m really not sure reward works that way.  I feel very uncomfortable with the idea, widespread in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, that we can transfer our merits around to anyone in need, living or dead.  I don’t believe reward (and punishment, for that matter) is something external.  As the former rabbi of my shul said, “Heaven isn’t a palace in the sky and if you do enough good things they give you the keys.”  Occasionally, we get material reward in this world, which is external, but usually reward is in the next world, where I believe it is a form of closeness to and understanding of God, a product of what we made our souls into in this world, not an external gift given to us by God.  As one rabbi said, it is like memory, and just as you can’t give your memories to someone else, you can’t give the connection you made with God from doing a mitzvah or studying Torah.

I think this is perfectly Orthodox, but I know that 99% of Orthodox Jews disagree with me, so it’s a(nother) thing I just keep quiet about.

Anyway, in my head I was teaching the mishnah in memory of my grandfather (to perpetuate his memory among the living), but I said something like “hopefully it will be an aliyah for his neshama.”  I felt I had to say it because people might have prompted me if I didn’t and partly just in case I’m wrong and it could do something for him.  But I feel vaguely dishonest and hypocritical.

I also felt a bit bad that I had written an explanation of the mishnah and just read it out.  When I do public speaking, I usually prefer to write notes and speak partially from memory rather than reading out, but I didn’t feel that I understood the mishnah well enough to do that.  At least I didn’t shake.

I didn’t stay for the lechaim (drink) afterwards as I don’t like Zoom and it sounded like the organised chaos of twenty or thirty people on Zoom at the same time, talking at the same time, shouting to be heard, and interrupting each other, plus, of course, I don’t drink.  Eventually my Dad’s friends left the call and it was just family.  I felt like I should have been there for more of the family call, but I needed to eat and unwind a bit.  Only a few hours earlier I was writing about my fictionalised younger self’s tendency to withdraw and not connect with people when the opportunity presented itself and then I was falling into the same patterns of avoidance.  I did eventually decide to go down and join in the rest of the call after I had eaten, so there is some progress since I was in my early twenties.

***

I have a folder where I save positive blog comments and emails that I’ve been sent.  I use them to cheer myself up and boost my self-esteem when it’s low.  The problem is that I don’t remember to look at them.  I used to have some printed out and blue tacked to my cupboards so I saw them.  Speaking about this to my new therapist on Monday, I decided that I should do that again.  I’ve been cutting and pasting some quotes from people and feel quite emotional… there’s a lot of people, most of whom I’ve never met in person, who seem to have positive things to say about me and my writing and I’m not entirely sure how to deal with that.  My mind is trying to make me beat myself up for losing contact with some of them, but I know that the way the online world works; long-term contacts are rare.  I’m more inclined to beat myself up about people who were once my friends, but who have fallen out with me, usually for reasons I do not fully understand or agree with.  I have thought about deleting these comments and emails in the past, but so far I have not done so.  Aside from it seeming a bit like a Stalinist rewriting of history to pretend that we were never friends, I like to remember that we were friends once, even if it didn’t last.  I’m not really a grudge-bearer.

Also, while looking in the folder, I found the first email E. ever sent me, which I thought I had lost forever, so that cheered me up.  It’s weird to think if she had never sent that email, both our lives would have gone on completely different paths.