Today I’ve been up and down. I’m fine, I’m low, I’m fine, I want to cry, I’m fine… It’s hard to tell what triggered this, or maybe there are too many possible causes. Possible causes:
1) I haven’t had any response for my pitches to the Jewish newspaper, Jewish website or from the last couple of novel agents I submitted to. I haven’t had any time to submit to more agents. I don’t know what other websites or publications I might pitch to at the moment. This probably isn’t unusual and might not even mean that those publications/agents aren’t interested at this stage, but I’m finding the total radio silence unnerving. I’d like to hear something, even if it’s to say that I’m pitching the wrong way or to the wrong people.
2) I’m a bit upset that social anxiety seems to be winning in my life, at least at shul (see yesterday’s post) and a bit at work, inasmuch as I hope to avoid the Very Scary Task, although to be fair I’m not actively avoiding it. I would like to do autism-adapted CBT to work on this, but who knows when I will be able to do so?
3) I’m frustrated at not having much time for writing either, although I did spend some time on novel research last night. To be fair, part of my frustration is about being stuck in research and not writing mode.
Not everything is in limbo: I have E, and I have a job, even if it’s only two days a week. Being long-distance with E is hard now we’ve been in person, but it’s better than nothing. I also feel like I only get things when I’m at my wits’ end about them, and I’m not there yet with work and writing (or writing for work). I’m somewhat nervous about meeting E’s parents on Zoom later this week, but I have to do it sooner or later, and it’s better to do it sooner.
Otherwise it was a dull day: I got up a little earlier than usual, did some Torah study, went for a run, and Mum cut my hair. C’est tout.
Doctor Who was good (Village of the Angels), surprisingly so, although perhaps not so surprising given that it basically rehashed tried and tested set-pieces from other Weeping Angels stories. I feel there is only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels. I suspect it will turn out to be the best episode of the six part season story, as I’m expecting the concluding episodes to drift into technobabble and incoherence; already I feel I’m vague on anything to do with the ongoing storyline about the Flux and the villainous Swarm and Azure (good costumes, though) and more focused on the plotlines of individual episodes like the Sontarans in the Crimean War in episode two or the Village of the Angels tonight.
I feel that sometimes bad things happen and I write about them, but when they get resolved, I forget to mention it. I think I forgot to mention that the ringing I had in my ears a while back stopped after a few days of steam inhalation. Similarly, I had a couple of recent days of emotional lowness and worried I was drifting into depression, but I mostly seem to have been OK since then, albeit with the caveat that my ‘normal’ mood is generally somewhat lower in the winter than the summer, and that I can dip into low mood for a while during a day in response to external events, or just being hungry or tired.
Yesterday I applied for the writing job I wrote about recently. That took much of my Sunday afternoon. I didn’t do much else. I went for a walk, skyped E, did some Torah study. That was about it.
Today at work I had to go to one of our other sites, which at least got me out of the office. I was absolutely exhausted when I got home (then had to make supper as Mum wasn’t feeling well). I couldn’t do the things I was hoping to do tonight, although planning to do anything after work is always risky. I worry how I will cope if I work more hours.
J pointed out that I’d made a fairly big mistake last week. It’s possible I just misheard what someone said to me over the phone. The more worrying interpretation is that my brain simply wasn’t working properly as I was trying to listen, write and think (and ‘people’ a bit, which is harder over the phone) all at the same time, while also trying not to give in to social anxiety. I guess Explanation 2 is just an elaborated version of Explanation 1. All of which makes me worry about my future in the workplace (any workplace). It’s hard to tell how annoyed/concerned J is about this, as he’s pretty laid back about everything and I can’t work out if that means this is OK or he’s angry, but chooses not to show it.
Lately I’ve been reading Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, a nicely put together (and surprisingly long) tribute book to Rabbi Lord Sacks published by the United Synagogue for his first yortzeit (death anniversary). The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of Rabbi Sacks taken at various events during his Chief Rabbinate. The Anglo-Jewish community is very small and I’ve already spotted a number of people I know in the photos with him.
Today I spotted my first girlfriend in one of the group photos. According to the caption, it was almost certainly taken while we were together. It was a bit of a shock, being reminded of my previous life. I was a different person back then. It did make me reflect, not for the first time, that E is really the best person for me. None of my other girlfriends/dates/crushes (not that there were many of the first two) came close to connecting with me, understanding me or caring for me as well as she does.
The downside of reminiscing is that part of me still struggles in the way I did back then with a lot of day-to-day tasks, and with sleep and energy levels, and I am not sure how to deal with that, because finding True Love apparently doesn’t magically stop you being autistic and socially anxious.
This week’s new Doctor Who episode was pretty much typical new Doctor Who. I was going to say something about the fact that I could barely understand it and none of it really resonated with me, but I keep coming back to the idea that the programme isn’t made for people like me (resolutely non-fashionable middle aged fans), it’s being made for a family audience and especially children of the twenty-first century. If it didn’t have the name Doctor Who I probably wouldn’t watch it and I probably wouldn’t care, but because it has the name on it, and because I’m emotionally invested in ‘Doctor Who‘ (whatever that means), I care.
It’s funny how much of my fan life has been spent trying to define the difference between the Doctor Who I like most and the Doctor Who I don’t like as much (or at all). There’s a fan joke that goes, “What’s the definition of a Doctor Who fan? Someone who hates Doctor Who” and, while I don’t think that’s entirely true, it does define a certain type of person, and certain part of most fans. We (i.e. fans) try to maintain that there’s just one big thing called Doctor Who, but really it’s made up of lots and lots of little bits and it’s OK to like some of it and not other parts without needing to explain yourself (he said, explaining himself).
I posted this on Margaret’s blog and thought it was probably better here than in a comment thread. It was responding to a meme about books being more lavish, detailed and beautiful than the films that are based on them. I wrote:
I don’t think that meme about the book vs. the movie/film is always true. I can think of a number of stories where the film is as good or better than the book, although to be fair, in some cases the book was written primarily as the first stage in writing the screenplay (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Third Man). I think the meme discounts the artistry present in good direction, acting, cinematography and even design e.g. Blade Runner, which purely in plot terms is worse than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, cutting out the subplots as well as over-simplifying plot and character, but the direction and design work add a whole level resulting in a film that feels like an immersive environment.
As a librarian, bibliophile and aspiring novelist, I feel vaguely treacherous for saying that the film can be better than the book, but I am a Dispassionate Truth-Speaker and will not lie!
I went to bed late last night, which was my fault, and then I struggled to fall asleep and to stay asleep, which was not my fault. I overslept a bit, but got to the office more or less on time despite train delays.
I got to leave work earlier than usual today, which was good, as it gave me more recovery time before depression group (see below). This was a double relief after having done some of the Very Scary Task again, although J will be handling most of it tomorrow.
I went to depression group on Zoom. I hadn’t been for ages as I find it too draining after work. I didn’t have much to say, as I didn’t want to talk too much about my situation with E (I’m still pretty private about it and don’t want to say anything until there’s something to say), but I also didn’t want to sound too negative from having had a few bad days in the last week or so. I was just glad that I went, as going has felt too much for some time now, and that I spoke, as I was somewhat anxious about speaking. The group will be restarting in-person meetings soon and I might try to go to them as well as, or instead of, Zooming in the future. The time demands are greater in person, as I have to get there by bus or get a lift from my parents and come home by bus, but I think it’s easier to speak in person (although this could be selective memory after eighteen months) and it feels less confusing blurring the boundaries between home and group by being in my room and in the group at the same time. As for the journey time, I find those transitions are actually important to me, being on the spectrum, to help me handle changing tasks and situations, particularly switching from peopling to be alone. Also, the day of the meeting is shifting to Tuesday, which suits my work schedule much better.
Although I said I don’t want to say anything until there’s something to say, E and I are having Serious Conversations about moving our relationship on. It’s hard to move things on while we have limited income, although we both are 100% committed to finding a way to do so, somehow. That’s where the conversations come in, to plan what to do. I think I unconsciously assumed that sorting my career out would happen at the same time as finding my relationship, but I guess there is no reason why they should have done so. I just spent so many years praying and fantasising that I would get over my depression and get a “real” job and get married… it’s hard to avoid seeing it all as one big thing, especially as the first time E and I dated was the highpoint of my working life (I can’t really say ‘career’).
This also ducks the question of whether I really am ‘over’ my depression; certainly depression group tonight reminded me that many people experience depression as cyclical, with periods of remission and relapse. This has certainly been my experience, and it is worrying when I think about the future. Winter has traditionally been a period of relapse for me, relapses that do not always depart with the arrival of spring. I certainly feel bored and somewhat anxious and down at work at the moment, but I think it’s just that the job is a bit boring and the premises dreary. In other ways it’s fine, and my mood at home is much better, at least if I make allowances for the time of the year. I hope this is the end of the cycles, but who knows?
I am OK today. I am quite a bit down, but I’ve been used to that over the years. It’s a rush today because Shabbat starts at 4.10pm, but I wanted to note a few things briefly.
I’m hoping for a restful Shabbat (the Sabbath). My parents are out for dinner tonight, so I should have some time for recreational reading. E says I should read more for fun on Shabbat even if that means doing less Torah study and she may be right. Tomorrow Talmud shiur (religious class) at shul (synagogue) returns and I’d like to go, even though that means staying on for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and then staying afterwards to help, where I feel I usually just get in the way, however hard I try to be helpful. But I’ll see how I feel tomorrow afternoon. It’s eighteen months since we’ve had this format for the shiur, because of COVID and because the timetable is different in the summer when Shabbat afternoons are very long compared with the winter when they’re very short.
There is an oneg being hosted by someone from my shul tonight. An oneg is a kind of Shabbat party where you sit around a table and there are snacks and soft drinks and alcohol, and people talk and sing religious songs and share divrei Torah. I used to try to force myself to these things to make friends. Usually I just sat there terrified, not speaking. Sometimes I stood outside crying at my social anxiety and social impairments and my inability to face my fears. I can’t really be bothered with that now, but I do wonder how else to make friends.
I found, lurking in my email inbox, an email from over a year ago from a job agency that helps people on the autism spectrum into work. I think I didn’t go down that path a year ago because I wasn’t diagnosed then, and because my current job appeared soon afterward. I might contact them again soon.
There’s a woman who keeps writing for Chabad.org about her fertility issues and the fact that she might never have children, and I want to read her articles, but I can’t, perhaps because they’re too close to home. Not that I have fertility issues per se, but that E and I worry that with all the mental health, neurological and financial issues that we have between us that we’ll never be able to support children, practically and financially. I guess that’s my main worry at the moment. I think E and I will be together, but I worry how we’ll cope, even without children.
I keep being drawn back to this interview with the late Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl where the interviewer lists Rabbi Sacks’ achievements and asks if he ever failed anything and Rabbi Sacks bursts into laughter and says, “I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.” I heard another interview where he said that being a rabbi was his fourth career choice, after he failed at becoming an economist, an academic philosopher and a barrister (lawyer). So that gives me a little hope, because I’m nearly forty and I haven’t done anything with my life.
He also says, “I think all that goes with the affective dimension of Judaism, the emotional life, is being neglected… I think we haven’t done enough with the affective dimension, and music is probably the most important… Cinema, too, isn’t used enough in this regard. I think we haven’t done enough with that to tell people what the life of faith does for you. I have so many stories that I think ought to be made into film. Stories of ordinary people I know who have done extraordinary things.”
He doesn’t talk about prose fiction, but I think it applies there too, particularly in terms of telling stories. Although the stories I want to tell are not necessarily ones he would want to tell. But I think/hope there is an audience out there, although not necessarily or purely a frum one or even Jewish one. I just hope I can convince the gatekeepers (agents, publishers, reviewers) of that.
I know I say things like this a lot, but, honestly, I have to keep saying it or otherwise I stop believing in it myself.
The reason the interview was posted is that it’s just over a year since Rabbi Sacks died. I still feel his loss acutely, even though I never really met him (although I was in the same room as him a few times). I wish I had had the opportunity, or made the opportunity, to speak to him — really to speak to him about my Jewish life, my creative life and my aspirations to unite them both. I struggle to understand my place in the world in general and Jewish world in particular. I don’t understand why God made me autistic, or what He wants from me. I feel he would have understood, and would have had good advice. It’s too late now.
I went to bed late last night because I was trying to Do Stuff. This was basically a mistake, as I struggled to get up in time for work today. Although if I hadn’t done it, I would probably be feeling even more useless and even further behind with all the things I have to do. I felt intensely depressed today and was wondering again if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or an element of it. My depressive episodes tend to start at this time of year, although they can persist through spring and summer, so it’s probably SAD co-existing with an underlying vulnerability to depression. Although I should see how I feel over the coming weeks, as I’ve only had a couple of bad days; I might feel better next week (maybe).
I don’t think I made any mistakes at work, but J discovered a bad one I must have made recently, not updating the address on an invoice that I was revising from a template. I’m not quite sure how it got to the right person. But even without many obvious errors, I was stuck in self-criticism and negativity today. I felt that it’s so hard to change my life, particularly to change it enough to be able to get married (having enough money to support ourselves, but also so that E can be allowed to immigrate). I wish I could work more and earn more, just for those practical reasons rather than because I want money or consumer goods in and of themselves.
Since I’ve got home from work and have snacked on some fruit, I feel quite a bit better. I think work is a not-ideal environment for me. The people are really nice, but the building itself is dark and gloomy and that does affect my mood, doubly so when I’m also tired or hungry. I don’t really begin to feel myself until after lunch most days because of that.
On the way home I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about whether Judaism is ‘sex positive’. There was some talk on the podcast about how the Jewish community should think about people who can’t have sex in the way that Judaism wants because they’re gay, transexual and so on. The sex therapist on the podcast was probably more liberal here than the rabbi. I’m not gay or trans, but that feeling of moral dissonance is something I’ve been experienced I hit adolescence over twenty years ago. E says I’m “strong” for staying a virgin for so long, but I rarely had the option not to be one. The actual times I’ve consciously made a choice not to have sex can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand, the times I’ve deliberately or unintentionally broken Jewish law around sex and sexual fantasy (without ever actually having sex) are far too many to be counted. However, I really feel strongly against any kind of “making excuses” for myself. But at the same time, I want people to understand what I’ve been through, hence the books I want to write. I want people to understand without lowering their standards, but having more compassion.
Some months ago, E sent me a link to an Instagram post from Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt where she said:
How about we invest in real Orthodox art? What if instead of investing in askanim & bloggers to whine about misrepresentation – we empower frum independent-minded artists to do creative work, tell stories of our communities, bravely, *candidly*? The beautiful & challenging, the inspiring but also the systemic issues that emerge in communities in which there is the inevitable tug-of-war between individualism & conformity, tradition & modernity...
No, not “my Orthodox life is fun & perfect” tales, but stories of faith, conflicts, struggles? Not sanitized hagiography, but flesh & blood. Not “content,” but art. Stories that show we are human & nothing more.
I want to do this, to the limit of my ability, and it’s one of the main things that motivates me to want to keep writing and keep searching for an agent/publisher even when (as at the moment) things are hard both in my head (mood) and in the world (rejection or just lack of time and energy).
I don’t think I’ve suffered more than most people, although I don’t think I’ve suffered less than them either. I’m not sure that many people are free of suffering for long. When I think of other people suffering, it motivates me to want to write to let people know that this suffering exists. However, when I think of my own suffering, I just want to give up. It’s hard to get to the right mindset.
It did occur to me last night that Rebbetzin Chizhik-Goldschmidt, as a prominent Jewish journalist and also as a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) might have contacts in the world of publishing and I was vaguely thinking about trying to email her to say what I’ve just said here and outlining some of my projects and ask if she had any suggestions of where to look for an agent or publisher. But when I started to look for contact details online I discovered that her husband has literally just been fired from his job and the family has been made homeless, as well as facing a huge amount of criticism from their former community. So it’s probably not the best time to try that.
There was a time when I tried to read one poem a day. I stopped doing that in an earlier episode of depression; it was just one more ‘should.’ Now I only read poetry when blog friends post it, and not always then (sorry). I have been wanting to re-read T. S. Eliot lately, though, primarily The Waste Land, but The Hollow Men has been on my mind a bit, thinking about wanting to write and writing not being the same thing:
Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception And the creation Between the emotion And the response Falls the Shadow Life is very long
I woke up late again, and drained/fatigued. I feel that I need to make more money so E and I can get married, but I don’t know how. I feel I have so little confidence on my abilities in the workplace in general, and librarianship (the career I’m actually trained for) in particular. My attempts to sell magazine articles have not succeeded up until now, although I find it hard to think of ideas and worry that I don’t pitch them properly. I have a vague idea of writing something about being high-functioning on the autism spectrum and frum for one of the Jewish newspapers (my Mum has been saying for ages that I should write this), but I feel that professional magazines and newspapers publish from a small group of regular journalists they know they can trust. As with anything, I feel I don’t know how to get accepted in the first place. It’s hard even to find submissions guides and find out what word count or format they want.
I guess it’s come to a head partly from having a serious conversation about finances with E yesterday, and also because I keep coming across things written by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, who is a very successful frum (religious Jewish) journalist (and community rebbetzin!) and I wonder how other people can juggle creative (or non-typically-frum) careers and frumkeit and I can’t — is it just because I’m neurodivergent? How do I get around that? I really hope I’m not just congenitally useless. I know other people who juggle creativity and frumkeit. I guess they are not autistic, but then they have families and other responsibilities too.
I know, it’s hard to get established as a creative. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Stephen King was rejected by thirty publishers and gave up on writing completely until his wife secretly saved his manuscript and sent it to another publisher. The Beatles were told that “Guitar bands are on the way out.” And so on. It’s hard to stay positive sometimes. At least I’m trying to think of ideas. Autism and low self-esteem tend to shut me straight into “I can’t do this, it won’t work” catastrophising mode.
Other things bringing me down: it’s less than a week since E went back to the States, but it feels like longer, especially as we don’t know when we’ll be together again. And now the clocks have gone back, it feels like winter is suddenly here. The nights have been getting longer, but suddenly they feel a lot longer, an effect that is probably at least in part psychological, as the clocks only go back one hour, but it still feels grim, especially with gloomy weather. I’m aware that this is exactly the time of year when I usually relapse into depression, even if I’ve been in recovery since spring. I hope this is just a bad day and not the start of a relapse.
I feel like both my chosen careers are very woke and focused with inclusion, diversity and minority voices — but not for Jews. Today I was looking at a supplement produced by CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals) on children’s books, very focused on racial and gender minorities; no Jews. Although judging by what I’ve read, including the Jewish science fiction and fantasy anthology I’m currently reading, most Jewish writers have little interest in or knowledge of most of Jewish history and culture, particularly the traditional and religious parts (which is most of it, historically).
E suggested I have a rest day, but I wanted to try to do something productive. Possibly this attitude just stores up trouble for me. Maybe I should listen when my body/mind tells me it’s tired. I seem to be caught in a no-win situation sometimes of feeling exhausted and needing rest, but also feeling like time is running out on me and I need to sort out my career ASAP, and that taking a day off (other than Shabbat) will just leave me feeling lazy and useless. So I push myself to do things and feel exhausted again the next day.
I sent my updated CV to a recruitment agent. She is supposed to specialise in library jobs and did actually get me one or two short-term jobs (I can’t remember exactly which ones, I think the really awful one outside the library sector and the surprisingly good one at a university library). I just wish looking at my CV didn’t make me feel like I totally failed at building a CV.
I also wrote a pitch email to a major Anglo-Jewish newspaper, pitching that article on high-functioning autism in the frum community. I do feel it’s problematic that most of the stuff I’ve had published in professional or semi-professional websites isn’t stuff I really want to show to prospective editors, given the subject matter, often depression, suicide or sexuality (but not in a good way, rather about loneliness and celibacy). I probably spent two hours or more in pitching mode today, whether talking about it with E and my parents; sketching a plan; and writing a pitch email (that took nearly an hour and a half by itself). I should probably apologise to E and my parents for being negative; I feel I have to vent a load of negativity before I can actually start a scary task. It’s generally just best to let me vent and then quietly wait for me to start regardless.
All this meant I didn’t get a chance to pitch my novel to another agent or to research the second novel. I wish I could do more in a day, but there it is. I probably won’t send the pitch email until Tuesday, as one site I read advised not to pitch on Thursday night or Fridays (no one wants to deal with a new project at the end of the week), over the weekend or on Mondays (editors are dealing with the weekend email backlog on Mondays and will delete pitch emails unread).
Other than that I went for a walk and spent some time on my devar Torah, but most of the stuff on my To Do list is still there.
Yesterday was fairly ordinary. I submitted my manuscript to another agent, went for a run and Skyped E. I got an exercise headache again. I didn’t blog because there didn’t seem much need for it.
Today was more difficult. I had some OCD-type anxiety in the morning and again this evening. I had vague anxiety and intermittent vaguely low mood across the day. It’s hard for me to understand my feelings sometimes (often), but I felt some gloom and lethargy, albeit that that’s probably usual for me when I’m at work. Work was OK, though, not too many mistakes.
I came home determined to work on my novel(s). I did manage about half an hour of work on them, doing some research for my second novel and also trying to track down the publisher and agent of someone who has written an award-winning Young Adult novel that is Jewish-themed (frum), but aimed at a general audience. I am tempted to submit my first novel to the agency, and maybe the publisher, although I’ve been warned to be wary of approaching publishers directly even when they permit it.
I would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really possible for reasons I can’t go into here. I did some Torah study too and ate dinner with my parents (we try to eat together on Mondays) so it was pretty productive. I’m too tired to read now, so will probably vegetate in front of the TV. I guess there is always a price (although I did read quite a bit on my commute and during my lunch break).
There was Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) in the shul (synagogue) where my workplace is housed this afternoon and I went, my first weekday prayer service in quite a while. The rabbi asked if I wanted to lead Minchah and I turned him down pretty much instinctively from social anxiety. I wish I had had the confidence to lead the service, as I’d like to find that talent again. Also, the people who did lead the service were too fast. I like Goldilocks davening (praying): not too fast and not too slow. Unfortunately, davening at this shul is, as J says, “Nusach Einstein: davening at the speed of light.”
I’m in the middle of a Norman Frum Women podcast episode where they are talking to a psychiatrist about parenting neurodivergent children. I’m finding it interesting, not least from hearing the parents’ perspective, although my neurodivergence was undiagnosed when I was a child, so my parents didn’t deal with it in the same way. (I was walking while listening to this and so could not take detailed notes, so any mistakes are mine not theirs.)
There was an interesting functional definition of neurodivergence as being about having a brain that accumulates excess stress in everyday situations. There was a stress on the idea of neurodivergent disability being environmental (I think ‘situational’ might be a slightly better word), in that it manifests in a particular set of circumstances, but not others. I can cope with noise and people being in my space sometimes, but then throw in a day of work stress or my HALT triggers (being Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and suddenly I’m not coping (that’s my example, not theirs, again in case of errors).
I was particularly interested to hear about “twice exceptional” children: children who are exceptional in being neurodivergent, but also exceptional in terms of being clever and often also well-behaved (which sounded like it could be a bad thing if they’re avoiding testing boundaries for the wrong reasons). These twice exceptional children can find it hard to get support in school, because everyone assumes they’re doing well. This definitely resonated with my school experiences, although realistically I’m not sure what help was actually available for me twenty-plus years ago when high-functioning autism was even less well-understood than it is now.
There was a positive note about adult neurodivergents often finding a “better fit” for their lives once they no longer have the artificial and stressful environment of school. I think there is some survivorship bias here, as the psychiatrist seemed to be judging based on some of her academic mentors/supervisors who she thinks are on the spectrum. I would suggest there are a lot more people on the spectrum who aren’t in high-powered academic jobs. Certainly I feel that the kind of life that would work for me is not one that is really on the table at the moment, if ever. I’m really only functioning with any kind of independence because a lot of people (my parents, E, J) are not making the demands of me at home or in the workplace that would perhaps normally be expected of a thirty-something with two degrees. I would like to build some kind of career of a writer, either full-time or with a small amount of part-time office work, but I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do so; my steps so far have been extremely faltering and rarely successful. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just my viewpoint.
I would be interested in a follow-up episode on adult neurodivergence in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Although maybe Normal Frum Women isn’t the best place for that, as there is a lot to say about men. The frum community makes considerable demands on both men and women. Men are more forced to do particular things at particular times (especially communal prayer) and are forced into noisy, crowded communal spaces like shuls and batei midrash (study halls). Women are encouraged/expected to support large and often noisy and messy families, so I can see there would be problems for neurodivergent women too. It would be interesting to hear how other autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, male or female, manage it. I’ve struggled to find a place for myself communally, in shul and “learning” (adult education) and lately I feel as if I’m detaching myself from my current community. If anything, COVID has only accelerated this trend, by adding health anxiety to already existent social anxiety and showing me that I can survive well enough without communal prayer or Torah study. I’m not sure if our shul has got louder in recent since we got a more Hasidish rabbi about a year before COVID, but I am definitely struggling with the noise more since lockdown. By noise I mean clapping and thumping tables during Kabbalat Shabbat, rather than talking (there is very little of that at least). There is also occasional dancing, which I can’t cope with at all.
Yesterdaysaw the start of the new series of Doctor Who, structured as one big, six episode story. It was vaguely diverting, but I think twenty-first century Doctor Who isn’t really for me. I used to think it was due to things like pop cultural references, sexualising the Doctor/companion relationship, and hyper-sexual characters like Captain Jack and River Song, but even without all these things, I struggled to get involved. I just find it fast, loud, melodramatic, self-important and portentous in a way the twentieth century version was not (OK, the twentieth century version was melodramatic, I’ll give you that). I think it’s a charge you can level at a lot of popular culture e.g. superhero films, the Daniel Craig Bond films and so on.
I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. But I watch, perhaps out of loyalty or nostalgia, and I’ll probably give it a second viewing at some point, because re-watching when I know where the bad bits are helps me to find more good bits. Possibly I’m the epitome of the obsessive self-hating (or insane) fan. Even so, I’m glad the second-hand back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine from 1996 that I ordered arrived today. The issue is a tribute to third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, tying in with the fact that I’m about to introduce E to him via one of his most memorable stories, The Green Death.
E is somewhere over the Atlantic. She will be landing soon. I was OK before she left and even in the car on the way to the airport (Dad gave her a lift and I came with), but my mood plunged on the way home and I’ve been low and irritable all afternoon and evening. My parents have borne the brunt of the irritability, but the low mood is mostly in my own head. I forced myself to keep occupied: write my devar Torah (on an idea I’ve shared here, about changing the narratives we have for our lives), go for a forty minute walk (longer than my usual walks) and do some ironing. I watched Twin Peaks, ate ice cream and bought a back issue of Doctor Who Magazine for retail therapy. I feel I should be able to regulate my emotions better without external aids.
The trip was definitely a success. E and I got on really well in person (we were vaguely worried that somehow we wouldn’t), even better than over Skype. E got on well with my parents, sister and brother-in-law and vice versa. E and I had some Serious Conversations about moving our relationship on and we seem to be on the same page as each other about that. We are both really happy about the way things are going, while nervous about subsidiary issues like immigration and finances. But we are very into each other, and I have to say we engaged in Public Displays of Affection, something that usually irritates me when I see other people do it.
I do feel vaguely bad that I got exhausted so easily and had to ask for time out quite a bit. This was probably exacerbated by wearing a mask on so many dates as I find even mild activity while wearing a mask leaves me uncomfortably short of breath. E was really understanding about my fatigue, though. I feel that if I had an obvious physical disability, I would be more understanding of it, but as I have an invisible and non-physical disability (autism and autistic fatigue), I blame myself and feel ashamed. It doesn’t help that autistic fatigue is so poorly understood. But it’s good that E understands, even more than I do.
I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast about increasing a connection to Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). It was pretty down to earth, which was good, as it could have been either very preachy or very abstract. Listening, it occurred to me that while most people becoming frum (religious Jewish) are encouraged to live in a strongly Jewish community, my Jewish engagement was at its strongest when I was in a small and declining community where I was one of the most Jewishly-engaged and knowledgeable people there. I led services and gave drashot (religious talks) because there were so few people there who could do things like that. Once I moved to my current community, I stopped, because I felt intimidated by how religiously knowledgeable and competent everyone seemed to be. I suppose the ideal for me would be a small and mixed shul (synagogue), mixed in terms of religious knowledge and practice, in a vibrant wider community that provided the shops, restaurants and other facilities for everyday Jewish life.
I mentioned I bought a Doctor Who Magazine back issue on eBay for retail therapy. It was the tribute issue to Jon Pertwee after he died. Pertwee played the third Doctor in the early seventies and is probably the second most well-remembered original series Doctor among non-fans, after Tom Baker. In the fan community, his reputation has ebbed and flowed. Those fans who grew up with him loved him (fan wisdom has it that your favourite Doctor is the one you grew up with), but a later generation saw him as rude and even reactionary. Then, after Pertwee’s death, fandom seemed to make its peace with him and accept him.
He is certainly sharp with those he disagrees with and is the only Doctor to have a day job, with the military (even if it is a UN-run outfit dealing with the unknown rather than the conventional military). He is also one of the more straight-laced Doctors, with fewer eccentricities than others. You tend to know what you’re going to get with him. My own opinion has gone back and forth, but in stories like Carnival of Monsters and The Time Warrior he is very loveable in a ‘weird uncle’ way. The series encourages us to laugh at him sometimes, not something the new series tends to do, and the character’s flaws are probably more intentional than some fans credit, creating a more rounded character, something emphasised in Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, which tries to deconstruct his character a bit.
I bring this up because E wanted to watch another old series story before we watch David Tennant’s final season and I decided to go for a Pertwee story, as E hasn’t seen one yet and I’m curious as to how she will react. I haven’t chosen the story, and we’re limited by what she can borrow from her local library, but I’ve got it down to The Daemons, The Green Death or The Time Warrior. I’m inching towards The Green Death, giant maggots (yuk) and all. It’s an original series story with the emotional clout associated with more modern stories, and also the slight environmentalist preachiness. It has some seventies groovy-ness too, and has a decent plot, and it showcases the ‘classic’ early seventies regular cast line-up.
While I was in the Tower of London yesterday, I got a phone call from the Jobcentre saying they needed to speak to me. I didn’t want to speak there, obviously, so arranged to speak this morning, as E was working this morning. Unfortunately, I crashed last night/this morning and was still in pyjamas when they phoned.
Apparently I should have spoken to them when I applied for benefits last year, but they didn’t arrange that meeting, I assume because of COVID. Today they talked me through various things. Apparently the Benefits Office, which I had written to about my change in work status (starting working for J), isn’t the same as the Jobcentre. I think I should have written to both. Bureaucracy, etc. The takeaways, which didn’t surprise me, are that I should have told them about my job (like I said, I told the Benefits Office, but not the Jobcentre) and I should have told them about my diagnosis change. I think either could lead to them stopping my benefits. I didn’t want to say, “I’m not depressed” as in the past I’ve had months of remission and then a relapse just when I think I’m back to ‘normal,’ but obviously they want to stop my benefits as soon as I feel better. I can’t lie directly, so sort of waffled about being less depressed, but struggling in the workplace with my autism symptoms, which is true, but I don’t know if they’ll allow benefits for autism; they will almost certainly want a new letter from my GP. I have a meeting in person tomorrow, which I didn’t really want to do while E is here, but I didn’t feel I had much choice. So the bureaucracy carousel goes round. I won’t be surprised if they stop my benefits, and it’s not such an issue while I’m working for J, but I hope they don’t make me pay back the last few months’ benefits.
Speaking of the GP and bureaucracy, no sooner had I got off the phone to the benefits office than the GP’s secretary phoned about my referral for autism-adjusted CBT. She said that the GP does not know how to apply directly to the CCG for funding for my treatment and wants a letter from the hospital telling him what he should do. So, more delay and more phone calls while I try to get a letter from the hospital. Round and round the carousel goes…
It was a pain having to deal with this with E here, but fortunately she had a work meeting this morning, so we would not have been doing anything together anyway. I’m not going to blog everything we’ve done together, but over the last few days we’ve visited quite a few bookshops, new and second-hand, and have ended up with less money, but more books. I bought two James Bond books (You Only Live Twice and Octopussy and The Living Daylights), a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery (Gaudy Night) and a Jeeves and Wooster book (Pigs Have Wings), all second hand. I picked up a free copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from the local book swap box too; perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never read or seen any of the Harry Potter books/films. A couple of books I ordered about sex and pornography addiction for research for my novel arrived recently too, so my attempt to keep the ‘to read’ pile to a manageable length has been set back a bit. E and my parents are getting on well and tonight she met my sister and brother-in-law, so that at least is a success.
I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.
Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders, improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades . They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.
(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)
Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.
Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.
So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.
The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)
I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.
Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.
 I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.
 Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.
 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.
Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.
I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.
I didn’t post yesterday because I was busy, but wasn’t having any particularly interesting, troubling or autistic-ey thoughts. I achieved quite a bit, but the sudden decision to go for a late afternoon run left me with an exercise headache and nausea for much of the evening. As a result, I went to bed late and I couldn’t sleep when I got there. I’m not sure why I seem to be struggling more with insomnia lately, albeit not to a huge extent.
At work today I was still making mistakes. Well, technically I made the mistakes previously and J told me about them today; hopefully I didn’t make any today, but it’s likely that I did. It’s like I can concentrate enough to do 80% of a task, but not 100%, and the bits I forget vary each time. It’s not a case of just reminding myself “Do X” because sometimes I remember X, but forget Y. I have to have five or six spreadsheets and databases open at once for some tasks, going from one to the other. I know what to do, but the multitasking aspect (not something autistic people are good at) leaves me confused and I forget what I came to a spreadsheet for and do the wrong thing, which then makes me forget the thing I should have done after the right thing. It’s an executive function issue. I don’t think I’ve fully persuaded my father that this is an autistic thing, so I definitely don’t feel able to tell J. Besides, if I can’t do this and I can’t do the Very Scary Task, it begins to look like I can’t do this job at all. My best answer for now is, instead of, or as well as, checking as I go along, wait until the end and go over the whole task from scratch, piece by piece, spreadsheet cell by spreadsheet cell. That would make it take much longer, but if it’s more accurate, it might be worth it.
This kind of concentration and multitasking issue makes me worried about learning to drive too, although I told E I would at least try to take some lessons at some point soon(ish). I should say I have high, and possibly irrational, anxiety of being in an accident and killing someone (being killed myself doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much).
By the afternoon I was feeling pretty overwhelmed again and near tears at one point. I’m not sure why. It’s not like J got angry at me, although he probably would have been justified in doing so. I just don’t like feeling incompetent, plus the more incompetent I feel, the less confident I feel that I will ever be able to earn enough money to help support a family or have the levels of emotional and practical competence needed to have children.
One thing I have been trying to do lately at work is to write down J’s instructions instead of trying to remember them. I think that is helpful. But if anyone has any tips or ideas for improving concentration and memory in the workplace or adjustments that might help, I’d be glad to hear them.
JYP has been writing about grief lately (latest post in the series here). It prompted some thoughts in me. I’m writing here because what I want to say seems too distant from the topic of her posts and I don’t want to take over the comments with my feelings or make it all about me.
I don’t know that I’ve ever really experienced grief for someone dying. I cried when my paternal grandmother died, the first time someone close to me had died, but I don’t think I did when any of my other grandparents died. Maybe when my maternal grandfather died, I’m not sure. When my paternal grandmother died, people told me not to bottle things up, but I didn’t have anything to say. I did tend to fall into episodes of depression or autistic burnout (it’s not always clear which in retrospect, and it could be both) after the deaths of grandparents, and I fell into a very deep depressive episode a few weeks after the death of my maternal grandfather, which involved a lot of crying for no apparent reason. Maybe it was just a delayed response.
I find it hard to put my feelings about my grandparents into words and I haven’t really spoken much about them in therapy. When my paternal grandfather died, the psychiatrist I was seeing rather brutally told me that I wasn’t close to him, because we didn’t have deep personal conversations. On that criterion, I’m not really close to anyone except my parents and E, and even those have only been in recent years (I share more with my parents now than I did as a teenager).
I wonder sometimes what I feel for my parents and my sister and how I would cope without them, not just in the practical sense (I do need a lot of help), but emotionally. It’s as hard for me to articulate love as it is grief. I instinctively feel that I would feel something if they weren’t there, but it’s hard to know what, or how I would cope. I worry that I would either shrug bereavement off unfeelingly or, conversely, get stuck in it for years.
A lot of this is probably due to alexithymia, the inability to feel and understand my own emotions. (I have never been ‘officially’ diagnosed with this, but one therapist did point out that I struggle with this even if she didn’t use the term.) A lot of the time I don’t know what I feel about things, even very broad things like if I’m happy or sad. It’s part of the reason I write here, to try to process my feelings better, or at least more consciously. It’s hard to know what I feel about my parents or my sister. I can see that there would be a hole in my life without them, but it’s hard to work out what I feel, let alone put it into words. I think this is a common autistic issue, but I’m not sure how other people deal with it. Perhaps some of them don’t care (I’ve met some autistic people who seem to be pretty uninterested in others.)
When I was with PIMOJ, I didn’t feel much of a ‘spark.’ I felt that I was finally experiencing a mature relationship without “crushing,” but the reality was that I didn’t feel much towards her, she just seemed a good match on paper. With E, I feel positive feelings when we Skype or even when we text, but it’s hard to analyse or quantify those feelings. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe they don’t need to be analysed. It’s hard not to, though, as I analyse everything (overthinking, you may have noticed). It’s kind of a calm feeling that I have with E, whereas my crushes were anxious feelings, constantly trying to work out if they liked me or how I could make myself more likeable/fanciable. However, it’s not too calm, as happened with PIMOJ, where I had to constantly remind myself why I liked her. There’s passion and desire with E, and playfulness, which is very rare for me.
OK, I’m going to stop now, as I’ve wandered very far from grief and into areas that are really between me and E and not the whole internet.
Sukkot (the Jewish festival that started on Monday night and goes on until — well, that’s actually hard to say, but basically until next Wednesday evening (nine days)) is supposed to be the most joyous of festivals. So far my Sukkot has not been bad as such, but it has been stressful, and doesn’t look set to let up for a while yet.
On Monday morning I woke feeling depressed and self-critical. Reading JYP’s anti-self-deprecation post just made me feel worse, as I couldn’t think of five things I am good at. Perhaps fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to post about it, as J texted to me to get me to do the Very Scary Task for work. As it was technically a work day for me, I didn’t think I could get out of it. It did at least distract me from my incipient depression with some anxiety instead.
I spent the day doing what I could on the VST (it will have to be continued tomorrow and maybe on Friday). It involved a lot of phone calls and texts back and forward, as it usually does. We (my father and I) also had to dash out to replace the willows in our arbah minim (branches waved during prayer on Sukkot) as they had sold us dead willows, and inevitably someone I was trying to get hold of decided to phone me back when I was about to go into the shop. The day was a rush to get everything done in time for Yom Tov (the festival). I did not go into Yom Tov in a very positive state of mind. I won’t say I spent the whole of Yom Tov worrying, but I did worry a bit.
I went to shul (synagogue) and afterwards we (my parents and I) ate in the sukkah (temporary home in the garden) as we are supposed to and I felt a bit better. I stayed up late reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood to try to relax, as I didn’t expect to make it to shul in the morning anyway.
Day one of Sukkot (Tuesday) was mostly spent reading. In terms of religious books, I read bits of Divrei HaYamim/The Book of Chronicles in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen and Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rav Shagar. In terms of secular reading, I finished The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I didn’t really connect with it and stayed up late to finish it as I wanted to get it over with. Rena Rossner, who wrote it, was the literary agent who turned down my novel, so I can see why we don’t connect. I think her writing is ethereal and mythic whereas mine is somehow concrete and grounded. Or maybe that’s just over-rationalising it.
I went to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers). There was a shiur (religious class) in between. It was about halakhah (Jewish law). I didn’t understand much of it and what I did understand made me worry about whether our sukkah was kosher. It probably is, as this is not the first time a Sukkotshiur has made me worry about such things, but I worry about triggering my OCD. I think some speakers can be irresponsible in the way they present topics, or maybe I’m just vulnerable to self-doubt.
Today I got up very late as my parents went out for lunch. I ate my own lunch by myself in the sukkah and started reading the James Bond novel Goldfinger. I hadn’t planned to read it yet, but I wanted to read something that was as unlike The Sisters of the Winter Wood as possible and I couldn’t think of anything further from it. I did a load of religious reading as well, as I knew I wouldn’t go to shul for the shiur in case it did trigger my OCD. I made a last-minute decision to at least go to shul for Minchah, as I feared I was giving in to social anxiety and laziness in skipping shul, especially as I know I won’t be going much next week, as Simchat Torah is a nightmare with autism and social anxiety and I have no intention of putting myself through that whole experience any more (unless E and I are able to have children, I guess).
I need to be up early tomorrow, as I could start getting calls about the VST at 9.00am – hopefully not earlier, although J has been known to text earlier (I think he assumes I get up at 6.00am for Shacharit). As well as work, I would like to write a devar Torah as I didn’t write one last week, but I’m not sure I will have the time or energy. I’d like to work on my short story too, but the same applies. Just in case things weren’t difficult enough, my father’s best friend (a man I have always found hugely intimidating even before he got sent to prison for four years for smuggling drugs) is coming for lunch and my parents have some other friends coming in the evening. This is all in order to eat in the sukkah and do festival socialising. Unfortunately, as I will need to eat in the sukkah too, I will more or less have to see them, make small talk with them and be prevented from sticking my head in a book or watching TV as I would normally do at mealtimes, particularly if stressed from VSTing. The only alternative is to eat at weird times, which wouldn’t really work for practical reasons.
I don’t feel particularly tired (I haven’t done much for the last two days), but I should be trying to unwind and sleep before VSTing tomorrow. I feel the urge to avoid going to bed, as if that will avoid finishing the VST. I’m nervous about tomorrow, so many social anxiety-triggering things. I should watch TV or something and try not to think about things.
My blog is back in “autistic disrupted sleep mode” again. I went to bed very late after post-Shabbat stuff (praying, tidying, writing fiction (or trying to), blogging, eating, relaxing in front of the TV, texting E) and then slept for eleven hours. I wish I knew why I do this, and why on work days and volunteering days I can get up after six or seven hours, sometimes fewer. It’s easy to call myself lazy, but I don’t think that’s it. I do seem to have a lot of autistic fatigue, and if I let it build up too long it threatens to turn into autistic burnout. But it’s a mystery as to how I coped when I was younger, in a very autism-unfriendly school, although maybe ‘coped’ is the wrong word, as by the time I was sixteen, I hit my first episode of what seemed at the time depression, but in retrospect may also have been autistic burnout too. I wonder now whether my episodes of depression were caused primarily by prolonged burnout (as well as autistic loneliness) rather than the depression being the main issue. It would explain why the depression was so treatment-resistant: it wasn’t the real problem. That said, I definitely have been deeply depressed at times, to the point of being suicidal, so it’s obviously a complex situation of autism and mental illness feeding off each other.
Inevitably, I feel bad about missing the morning, and not helping Dad much with the sukkah, the shack Jews build in the garden to live in (weather-dependent) during the festival of Sukkot, which is coming soon (Yom Kippur comes first, this week, but that has minimal practical preparation). I feel that if I could sort my sleep out, my life, my integration into the frum (religious Jewish) community, and my integration into the world of work would be so much better, with knock-on consequences, but I just don’t know how. When I feel down, I try to remind myself of the good things in my life, that my parents love me and E cares about me. It does help. RoBIN commented on a previous post that, for people on the spectrum, nothing can be taken for granted, and I do feel like that. I’m just trying to be happy for what I do have. Realistically, I need people I can be open with and who support me a lot more than I need a wide circle of friends or a satisfying and/or full-time job (although more money would be nice, if only for marriage/immigration reasons).
I helped my Dad a little with the sukkah, and to be fair it was the part he most needed help with. There’s still a lot to do on it, and he will need my help with that later in the week. I always feel awkward helping. I’m not good on ladders; I’m not scared of heights per se, but I don’t like feeling that I could fall, and the patio is rather uneven making the ladders wobble. I’m better with ladders indoors, maybe because the floor is more even, or maybe my brain thinks the carpet could somehow break my fall. I’m not great as a handyman either. The paternal side of my family is full of war heroes from both World Wars, sportsmen and handymen, but I didn’t inherit any of that (some of them were, perhaps surprisingly, also good with a needle and thread or sewing machine; like many Jewish recent-immigrant families, they worked in the clothing industry in London’s East End). In this, as in most things, I take after my mother’s side, who were not hugely masculine in this way.
My sister and brother-in-law came for tea, or late lunch in my case. I had cherry pie and coffee for maximum Twin Peaks fannishness (OK, I didn’t really have them because of Twin Peaks. I did really want them, but it amused me all the same). I joined in the conversation more than I usually do, probably because we were mostly comparing notes about our respective Rosh Hashanahs (experiences of) and Yom Kippurs (plans for). I do still find it draining to be around people for two hours, and wasn’t able to do much afterwards and my mood dropped quite a bit.
Other than that, I didn’t do much, just a little Torah study and a half-hour walk. No writing or running or any of several different chores I wanted to do. I Skyped E, which raised my mood quite a lot, but still left me tired. I just wish everything wasn’t so hard for me.
I watched some of the Doctor Who episode Gridlock. I’m not sure I have time to finish it tonight. It is not a particular favourite, although I don’t dislike it as much as I did on original transmission. There was one very good scene I had forgotten about. I think my problems with Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner are partly that he writes the Doctor as hugely bombastic and shouty, full of declaimed speeches about “This stops — TONIGHT!!!” (which, to be fair, Davies’ successors Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall did/do too and may be a standard feature of modern science fiction/action storytelling), but primarily that he’s willing to sacrifice consistency of plot, characterisation or credibility for the sake of a shock moment, an emotional scene or a even cheap gag. This annoys me no end, but it might explain why his writing was so popular with the general audience, who don’t obsess over nuances of plot, character or pseudo-science the way fans do.
I wrote most of this during the day, when I was feeling quite down. I’m posting it just as a record of my emotions, and that I can come out of slumps better than I used to be able to do.
I feel down today, even somewhat depressed. I’ve been a bit self-critical and I’ve been catastrophising a lot. I don’t know why I feel like this suddenly. I guess there are reasons. There’s family members struggling with things; COVID is getting to me, and making me worry when E and I will be able to meet again; I’m stressed about the coming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals); and I’m probably a bit hurt still from my novel rejection and wondering what my next step is, trying to process that now my intense two weeks covering for J at work is over. So I guess there is over-causation, if anything. Still, I thought I was getting better at emotional regulation and dealing with the down days. I still struggle to understand my own emotions a lot of the time, which doesn’t make dealing with them any easier.
As there has often been a seasonal element to my depression, it could be that as the days get shorter and the weather colder and more inclement (not that we had a particularly hot or dry summer!) I am still going to get more down/mildly depressed, despite no longer suffering general depression. Or maybe it’s my worries about getting through the next few weeks.
I missed E a lot and worried about how we can move our relationship on. There are so many obstacles: COVID, long-distance, finances, dealing with our separate ‘issues’… I worry that more will appear as we progress and can already catastrophise some into existence if I’m not careful. In terms of COVID, it’s not at all clear that the UK will still be allowing visitors from the US over the next couple of months. I worry that the US will become some kind of permanent plague zone that Europeans avoid contact with, like something out of a zombie film, and the type of Americans that refuse to get vaccinated won’t care because they have zero interest in the outside world anyway.
Another possibility is envy, sadly. I’m just feeling the “Will I ever make anything of my life? Will I become a successful writer? (Will I actually get the energy/headspace to write anything else?) How did I become such a professional failure when I did so well at school?” feeling again looking at more successful peers or even younger contemporaries. To quote Crusade, the abortive spin-off from Babylon 5, “When Mozart was my age, he was dead.” I don’t want to be Mozart, or the literary equivalent, but I do want to be able to at least help support E and myself and hopefully even children one day. I’d also like to write something that I can be proud of, something clever, idiosyncratic and unique like the stories I love like The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The Third Policeman or Ubik. But at the moment I’m too focused on getting through the next couple of weeks to write much, and today everything feels such an effort.
A while back E sent me the link to this Instagram post, saying that there’s a need for my writing in the Jewish community. I look at it periodically when I need encouragement about my writing, but I guess today it just makes me think, “There are already Jewish creatives, why would anyone want to read my writing? I can’t write nearly well enough to capture the conflict between tradition and modernity. My writing’s too humdrum for the secular market and too negative for the religious market. And I don’t know how to get an agent.” And so on, back into catastrophisation.
I managed about three hours of work today, which is probably a minor miracle and I shouldn’t be surprised I can’t write too. Today is a bank holiday (public holiday), but I agreed with J to do a day’s work, split over today and tomorrow. I didn’t really want to do it, but I wanted to show willing, given that I want J to make my job permanent, and I’m aware I won’t work much in September becauseof Yom Tov (Jewish festivals) and hopefully I’ll want time off in October if E comes here.
I went for a run. It wasn’t very good, but I was just glad to get out, as I felt like going back to bed. I think it did help shift my mood, as did speaking to E in the evening. I feel OK now.
It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to speak to the rabbi about my autism before Yom Tov, which is vaguely annoying, but he’s been away and then I had that not good time when I was covering for J and now it’s nearly Yom Tov. Maybe I can try to speak to him before Sukkot at least.
Last night I had a dream that seems somewhat relevant. I was watching some Hasidic men dance. They tried to drag me into the dance, but I didn’t want to join in; however, I didn’t want to go away either, I wanted to watch.
When I awoke, it made me think of Otto Rank, Freud’s pupil who postulated that life divides into the fear of life (fear of individuation) and fear of death (fear of absorption and losing individuality). I want to watch the dance (connect), but I am afraid to join in the mass of dancers (lose individuality). It’s probably about me and the Orthodox Jewish community, my inability to find my place in it and my uncertainty about where E and I will feel comfortable.
There seems to be a lot of drunken partying/arguing/fighting going on in someone’s back garden with a lot of noise reaching us despite the lateness of the hour (gone 11pm). It might be a long night…
I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.
I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.
Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.
Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?
Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.
I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.
In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.
I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.
The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.
I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.
It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)
I struggled to sleep with the noise from the party outside last night. I actually tried to sleep in my sister’s old room, but I found the mattress uncomfortable, there was too much light from the streetlight outside and from downstairs (Mum routinely stays up watching TV until the small hours), and the room made odd noises of the kind pipes make at night. Eventually the music from outside stopped and I went back to my room, falling asleep around 3am.
I’ve put aside We Need to Talk About Kevin for now. I’m vaguely upset that I can’t seem to read heavy books any more, and there’s an element of “It was a present so I should read it” thing, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite like this before. In the end I was worried that the book’s relentlessly negative view of relationships and parenting would have some kind of bad influence on me, so I thought it was best to put it aside. Fortunately, the other books I got for my birthday don’t look so intimidating.
I went to buy a suit. I was going with my Dad, as he needed new trousers and I feel I’m a poor judge of fashion and fit, and I was worried about going into socially anxious/autistic shut-down mode and not communicating what I needed to the shop assistant. My Mum decided to come too, which was probably too many people. I think the shop assistant thought I was much younger than I am, or maybe my parents are just more forceful personalities than me, as I felt that I was not really the dominant person choosing the suit, even though I would be the one wearing it. I swung into autistic ‘too many people’ mode instead, just feeling there was too much noise and too many people giving me orders about what to wear and which way to stand so they could see it better. I felt self-conscious of how much weight I’ve put on with clomipramine and I felt really uncomfortable when the assistant was trying to see how well the suit fit and to make alterations. It’s wasn’t a #MeToo situation or anything like that, but I feel really uncomfortable with strangers getting into my personal space. Because of this I shook slightly, which made everything even worse. I drifted into a vaguely passive aggressive bad mood afterwards, which was not good.
When we got home, my sister popped in for tea, which I was dreading, but somehow it got me out of my bad mood. I went for a run even though it was getting late and that did help burn off some of the negative feelings I was carrying around, although I also ended up with a persistent headache, albeit not at migraine level. I spoke to E, which was good too; it’s good that we connect in so many ways, and bring out the best in each other, although I don’t really want to say more here.
I feel that I don’t have much to say today, but I want to say something. So apologies if this post doesn’t really say anything. I feel like little things are stressing me out a lot at the moment, and there are some big things coming up soon, and if I can’t cope with the little things, how will I cope with the big ones? Will I fall back into depression? But I probably will cope somehow, I just feel I should be doing more with my life than just coping. I’d like to be actually thriving, but it seems impossible, even aside from the ongoing effects of COVID.
I wrote a draft query letter for an agent about my novel. The process was pretty terrifying. I asked E for some advice as writing a query letter seems to be a very different skill to actually writing a novel, more like marketing and (self-)promotion than creative writing. I feel a bit like I’m writing a job application, and those have not always gone well for me, although I feel more confident submitting sample chapters than having an interview. E suggested a few changes and additions, which I hope to add later in the week, as I’m pretty exhausted now (see below).
I also made a couple of very small changes to my manuscript, rewriting a few of mentions of real-world things that could get me into copyright/product placement trouble of one kind or another.
That all took about an hour and a half, including some procrastination time. This was unfortunate, as today was another slow day with lack of energy and low mood, particularly on waking. I hope I am not drifting back into burnout or depression, although there’s really no way to tell at this stage. I went for a walk, but it left me more drained than reinvigorated. To be honest, I was more invigorated by spending an hour working on my (rather long) devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which was longer than I really predicted or intended. It’s on a topic that fascinates me, but which hardly ever gets asked in the frum (religious Jewish) world, namely, why was it so hard to stop the Israelites worshipping other gods?
I also read another chapter of the biblical book of Nehemiah; I have an idea why so many of the chapters of this book and that of Ezra are just long lists of names, but they are frustrating to read. I think people who haven’t read Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) assume it’s all like that, but mostly it isn’t, it’s mainly Bereshit (Genesis) and the last few books that are full of name-lists. Somehow takes longer to read the name-lists than ordinary narrative too, which seems counter-intuitive; I suspect my brain takes longer to process unfamiliar words like names, particularly as relatively few names in Tanakh are ever repeated. Apparently the idea of naming a child after an ancestor hadn’t taken root at that stage.
I guess I’m having a day when I feel overwhelmed by the world and unable to cope. I’ve got a lot to do, although realistically not much of it needs to be done today, but I still feel overwhelmed.
I woke up very late feeling depressed again, or pseudo-depressed, as I’m not “supposed” to be clinically depressed at the moment. I wasn’t sure whether to be glad I don’t have work today (J wanted me to come in tomorrow instead of today) or if I would have felt better if I’d had to force myself to go into work, which would at least have provided distraction. I think a lot of it is nervousness about submitting my manuscript, and also about getting through a pile of other chores I need to do.
Strangely, I think positive changes can make me depressed. Change is scary for anyone, doubly so on the spectrum, so even things like finishing my novel can trigger depression. It’s even possible that E’s plans to come to the UK in October (the “exciting thing” I hinted at last week) could push me downwards in the short-term, even though I’m very excited about it. It’s just that anything out of the ordinary can be difficult for me.
I looked at some websites I’d been recommended to see which ones would help with looking for a literary agent. It seems particularly scary. I do actually know which agent I would like to submit my novel to first, but one site suggested sending submissions to ten to twenty agents at a time! That is, frankly, terrifying. Just the thought of contacting twenty strangers in one go, even without them judging my writing! It said I should also find similar novels to compare mine to in my cover letter, but I’m not sure that there are any, depending on how you define what my novel is “about,” and I’m not really sure how to find them. Also “Read my novel because it’s a bit like another novel” seems really shallow to me, although I can see why an agent might be more willing to look at “A book that’s a twenty-first century Chaim Potok novel, that would appeal to people who watched Unorthodox and Shtisel” than some random novel that turned up in their inbox unannounced. I do think my tendency to read eclectically and not particularly modern books, will probably hamper me here, as I’m not sure what parallels to draw. The Chaim Potok parallel is probably stronger than anything more recent (Potok died in 2002). My novel is definitely closer in style to Potok than Unorthodox.
The problem is compounded by my novel being thematically rich/unfocused (depending how generous you want to be), inasmuch as it has themes of Jewish identity, autistic identity and domestic abuse. I’m not sure how to promote all angles (anyone who knows books about domestic abuse in particular would be a help here!).
I did manage a few tasks: went for a walk, did a few minutes of Talmud study (reviewing material from Saturday’s class) and cooked dinner (and ate with my parents, so peopling). I did some online clothes shopping too. So I guess that was all good. On the other hand, I can’t face doing substantial Torah study or going to depression group online or really doing anything this evening other than watching TV, so things seem a bit negative.
I feel bad today, what I would term “depressed” if it continued for a period of days. At the moment I’m just thinking/hoping it’s a one-off bad day, perhaps a result of a somewhat negative Shabbat. I have felt a bit overstretched recently, particularly at work, even though I’m not really doing that much. I feel like the famous Fuseli picture of The Nightmare, with the horrible imp thing squatting on the woman’s chest. I feel as if there’s something heavy sitting on my shoulders, and I have the old feeling that someone replaced my brain with cotton wool while I was sleeping. I hope this isn’t the start of another episode of depression.
My parents went to a lechaim (drinks) for the son of friends who just got engaged. He’s about ten years younger than me. I’m glad I have E so I won’t fixate on this as I would have in the past.
Because of all of this, I’ve postponed reducing my olanzapine for a few days, just in case.
E is being supportive, but it’s hard for us to be so far apart when one or other of us has our periodic ‘downs.’ It makes me worry how we would cope if we had children to deal with too, or how we are going to get to a work/financial situation where we can afford to have children when neither of us can work full-time. I wish we could just have a chill out day together, although I’m very bad at chilling out. Even today, feeling bad, I spent an hour on Torah study, half an hour sorting out bank statements and emails and went for a run. The run was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not very good, with poor stamina and a lot of walking, but at least I was running for the first time in month (thanks to family get-togethers and Jewish fasts, as well as bad weather).
I spoke to E in the evening. I had a bit of an exercise headache and she was really tired, but we had an interesting and fun chat regardless and my mood was rather better afterwards, which is very positive.
Why do I fixate on antisemitism when I feel depressed? I don’t know, but I have done so for years. I still can’t get over the fact that “#HitlerWasRight” was trending on Twitter earlier this year, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas. I assume it’s defended as, “Not antisemitic, just critical of Israel,” which is how antisemitism is usually normalised these days. How is supporting the Holocaust not antisemitic? Or the convoy of cars that toured Jewish parts of London with the drivers shouting “Fuck the Jews and rape their daughters!”
I suppose that I feel that I should be able to “fix” things somehow, but, of course, I can’t. It’s pointless to complain. The people who need to hear it won’t listen.
I’m reading We Need to Talk About Kevin, which probably isn’t the best thing to be reading right now, in terms of being down, as it’s about a high school shooter, told from the point of view of his mother. It’s well-written and involving, but also dark and heavy. Although the thing I’ve really noticed is how many metaphors and similes author Lionel Shriver uses. I hardly use any in my writing, I know, something which I put down to somewhat autistic language use. I also don’t write long descriptions. My Dad said the other day that I don’t waste a word in my writing, which is the positive way of looking at it, although I’m vaguely worried about publishers equating interesting metaphors with good writing, even in prose.
Otherwise I guess things are OK. I’m not into the Olympics, but my parents have been fascinated by dressage, BMX biking and skateboarding; I joked that Dad should take up the latter. I didn’t even know that skateboarding is a sport, let alone that it is Olympic-standard.
I have been trying not to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath) goes out late in the summer (“goes out” is a metaphor for finishing, as Shabbat is anthropomorphised as a person, the Shabbat Queen or Shabbat Bride). However, I didn’t have a great Shabbat and feel the need to offload.
Shul (synagogue) last night was difficult. The previous rabbi, who took a position abroad some years ago, was visiting and the shul was packed with people who wanted to see him. I felt very uncomfortable, both for COVID reasons (even fewer people seemed to be wearing masks this week, as it’s no longer mandatory) and autism/social anxiety reasons. I just felt overwhelmed by the number of people, their proximity to me, and the noise from clapping and banging on tables when previous rabbi led a very noisy and enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat service. I felt uncomfortable and I left quickly once the service finished, hoping that previous rabbi didn’t recognise me with my mask on and no glasses, as I didn’t feel able to speak to him.
I spoke to my parents about some important stuff over dinner. The talk went well. I’ll elaborate on some of this below.
This morning I actually woke up early. I got up and said the Shema, perhaps the most important Jewish prayer, which is to be said early in the morning and again at night; I usually say the morning one far too late. But after I said it, I went back to bed. I’m not sure what my thought process was, but I’m pretty sure social anxiety and avoidance was part of it — I didn’t want to go to shul after what happened yesterday. I did think about getting up and just staying at home, but somehow drifted off to sleep again. This meant that I missed when a friend of mine who is visiting her parents in the area knocked on the door. I haven’t seen her since my sister’s wedding nearly four years ago (she is a close friend of my sister and a more casual friend of mine, but I rarely see her now she lives in Manchester).
I had lunch by myself, as my parents were at a friends’ house. I don’t mind that. I read a bit of the latest Doctor Who Magazine (which, despite its flaws, I’m probably going to keep subscribing to). I slept after lunch, which wasn’t particularly sensible, as I don’t feel tired now.
Shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) was still a bit distressing, but not as bad as last night. I mostly followed the Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards. I fell into a slight depression afterwards. I’m not sure why I feel down and slightly agitated. I probably need to do something relaxing, like watch TV before bed, as Shabbat was so stressful. The book I just started reading, We Need to Talk about Kevin, about a school shooter, is not exactly light reading either.
Of the things I spoke to my parents about last night, one is about changing my medication slightly. When I last saw my psychiatrist, she gave me a road map to reduce my olanzapine dose. This would hopefully help me be a bit more awake and lose some weight, without the rapid fall back into depression that happens when I try to come off it completely. However, the last few days I’ve felt somewhat stressed and overwhelmed, culminating in this not very good Shabbat, so I feel nervous of fiddling around with my meds, which often goes badly for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do now; maybe wait a week or so and see how I feel.
I also spoke to my parents about telling my community rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s in the run up to the autumn festival cycle (September this year), which is always extremely difficult. They agreed with me that it would be good to talk to him and suggested that I encourage him to read the article I had published online about being high functioning autistic in the Orthodox community, although I feel I need to make some kind of clear request of him rather than just dump all my negative thoughts on him and walk off. I’ve got some time to decide, as he’s going away on holiday this week.
A thought I’ve been wrestling with literally all Shabbat (it came to me in shul on Friday night):
Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl, in his book on science and religion, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, writes the following:
The story I am about to tell concerns the human mind’s ability to do two quite different things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships. The best example of the first is science; of the second, religion.
Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.
My first thought about this is, that while it’s probably true in general, halakhic study is a lot more like the first approach than the second. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his classic work Halakhic Man, the scholar of Talmud and Halakhah (Jewish Law), which he dubs “Halakhic Man,” has as much in common with the secular scientist or philosopher (Cognitive Man) than with the mystical religious (Homo Religiosus). Halakhic study is very much about breaking things — laws, concepts, actions — into their parts and analysing them. It’s not really about telling stories or forming relationships, let alone spirituality or homiletics.
The Talmud does not just contain halakhah. A substantial minority of it is aggadah, non-legal material, much of it narrative. However, Orthodox society has come to focus on halakhah as the main topic of study for Jewish men. I believe in some yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries), students are advised to skip the aggadic passages.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, though, beyond noting that my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts are rarely halakhic and more about crafting, if not a narrative, then some kind of homiletic argument. Most divrei Torah are like that, but other people (communal rabbis, certainly) seem to be able to do that and still understand halakhic argument.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, and I’ve been on my computer for an hour (admittedly not writing the whole time) and it’s midnight, so I’ll leave things there for now. I guess it’s just about my feeling of not having a place in the Orthodox community. I wish I had asked Rabbi Sacks about this (somehow) while he was still alive.
Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.
I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).
Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.
Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.
My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).
I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.
My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.
Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).
The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.
A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.
Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.
I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.
 Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.
As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!
I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.
Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, except that I did not manage to fall asleep until 3am on Friday night, possibly because of the heatwave, so I overslept and missed shul in the morning again.
I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class), then went again after seudah for a pre-Tisha B’Avdrasha. It was good, but I felt self-conscious not just in a blue shirt, but no jacket or tie. I think I could have got away with no tie, but I should have worn a jacket. My parents said I would be too hot and I agreed, but deep down I knew that everyone in my shul would be wearing a jacket even if they took it off on reaching shul. Also, the rabbi had said something about my wearing a blue shirt during the Talmud shiur — not critical, but it made me feel self-conscious.
I didn’t have a low chair for Tisha B’Av and was planning on just sitting on the floor (Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; in Judaism, sitting low down or on the floor is a sign of mourning). Someone lent me a low chair, but I didn’t want to use it. I’m not sure why. I was a little worried it was higher than permitted, but I think mainly I just felt too self-conscious by that stage: was he being friendly or did he think I was a total am ha’aretz? And my non-leather trainers (not wearing leather shoes is another mourning custom) weren’t particularly comfortable either, although that could have been from sitting on the floor. I also got confused too about when to wear a COVID mask, and realised that I gave my mother mistaken instructions regarding end of Shabbat ceremonies when Tisha B’Av starts immediately afterwards.
Along with this, I couldn’t really follow Eichah (The Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av). I don’t know why I’ve found it so hard to engage with it the last few years. I just can’t follow or connect. To be fair, I find the Hebrew quite hard to translate in my head, but even following along seems to be hard. I just can’t concentrate that much at 10pm, especially in a heatwave and while sitting on the floor (and feeling socially awkward). Then in my shul we do kinot (laments) to ourselves, really quickly rather than slowly and communally as in my old shul. I read some kinot in Hebrew without really connecting with the poetic Hebrew, so I switched to English (really the only time of the year where I say set prayers in English), but still ran out of time. I did the last kinah at home, in Hebrew, but looking at some of the English, which felt a bit better.
As usual after Shabbat when I’m in shul I helped to fold up the tablecloths, but I’m so bad at that that I feel I would be better off not helping, except that it feels wrong to just walk out without helping. I was reminded of something I said on Ashley’s blog last week about autistic people wanting to help, but actually just getting in the way.
I struggled to sleep again last night, because of the heatwave, because of creative thoughts I kept having that I kept getting up to write down, and perhaps because shul had left me feeling disquieted. Perhaps consequently I overslept today, and when I woke up, I was not able to get up for a long time. I felt utterly drained again, and perhaps somewhat depressed, and aware that I didn’t want to break my fast until halakhic midday, a little after 1pm. I missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers. I think I finally got up about 2.30pm, made havdalah (on tea) and had something to eat. I felt a bit better after that, but I did feel that I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for Tisha B’Av, but also that I was scared to get into that dark mindset. I read Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for a bit (a book I’ve been reading only on Tisha B’Av; in about five years, I have not finished it yet, although I might try to finish the few remaining pages before next year) and listened to a Zoom talk on antisemitism via my shul. I also went to a Zoom shiur (religious class), again through my shul, but the organiser hit “Mute all” and forgot to unmute the speaker’s computer, so it was inaudible. Someone posted in the chat to say there was no sound, but it took a while for someone present at the shiur to notice and unmute it.
I feel like I don’t find Tisha B’Av as meaningful as I used to, and I don’t know why. Not fasting (because of the danger of fasting while taking lithium tablets) is probably a big part of it. Fasting used to make me ill (headache, nausea, sometimes vomiting), but not fasting feels like not really participating. I tended to avoid shul during the day even pre-COVID, because I don’t want to have to turn down a mitzvah because I’m not fasting. Plus, I often experience burnout after the night of Tisha B’Av from the shul experience (as much social anxiety as religious devotion this year, as I said above) and then crash on the morning and struggle to get up, especially as I try to fast until halakhic midday. Or maybe not being depressed means that Tisha B’Av is not the day that I most connect with emotionally any more, the one where I can easily get into the right state of mind. To be honest, I feel like as a general rule I’m not as connected to the festivals and fasts as I’d like to be, and I don’t know how to change that. I spend so much of holy days either worried about social interactions or sleeping and trying not to oversleep that religion struggles to get in there.
I did write a Tisha B’Av thought, on the suggestion of my rabbi mentor that it would make the day more meaningful for me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, though. In the end I posted it here, although it’s not really a good match for my blog, but I don’t want to send it to my devar Torah mailing list as it doesn’t seem right for there either — maybe not quite frum (religious) enough and a bit too daring.
I went to bed ridiculously late last night. I’m not sure why; I don’t really have an excuse except bad time management and the fact that I generally prefer to go to bed late and get up late unless I have a good external reason not to do so. Still, I felt shockingly drained and burnt out when I woke up today, low mood and zero energy, and I’m not really sure why. I didn’t think I did that much yesterday, but maybe I did, or maybe I’ve just been pushing myself too hard cumulatively lately, to try to finish the latest draft of my novel so that E can read it and so that I can start looking for an agent and a publisher; trying to keep up with my shiurim (religious classes) and divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) as well as prayer and other Torah study; trying to exercise (which has almost dropped off the radar totally), to help around the house a bit and so on.
I listened to music to try to lift my mood a little and get energy. I feel bad about doing that in the Three Weeks of mourning when religious Jews are not supposed to listen to music. I know my rabbi mentor said it was OK, but part of me at least feels too functional to take advantage of that, and I have a lot of uncertainty about whether what I feel is “really” autistic burnout or what. Autistic burnout is a poorly-understood phenomenon, only recognised as a real thing by the psychiatric world about five years ago. But what I really want is to shave my itchy Three Weeks beard off, which is driving me crazy. But I will wait until Monday afternoon for that, as I’m supposed to.
E is really supportive, but we both feel frustrated about being on different continents and not knowing when that will end.
After lunch, I felt a little better. I drafted my devar Torah. It ended up not being what I intended, as the introduction grew too long and became the bulk of the piece, with an also longer-than-intended unrelated Tisha B’Av thought at the end. In fact, the whole thing took longer to write than I’d hoped, about an hour and a half. I spent half an hour or more working on my novel too, which wasn’t much, but I was reasonably pleased with what I had done. I Skyped E in the evening too, so it ended up being a better day than I expected when I woke up. I do usually manage to get to a point where I can do some things regardless of how tired/depressed/burnt out/whatever you want to call it that I feel when I wake up, I just wish I could move that point earlier in the day.
I’ve been feeling really drained all over the weekend, really drained and burnt out rather than just fatigued. On Friday I was drained even before I went to shul (synagogue). I was a bit late, for various reasons, and someone was sitting in my usual seat, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Then there was a lot of noise, clapping, thumping tables and so on during Kabbalat Shabbat. I’m not sure if there was more than usual or if I’m just worse at coping with it mid-autistic burnout. I thought a bit about leaving in the middle of the service, which I haven’t done for a long time, but I stuck with it until the end. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision.
I didn’t do much in the way of hitbodedut/spontaneous prayer at home in the evening, and I didn’t do any extra Torah study, I just read for a bit and went to bed about as early as is possible on a summer Friday, about midnight. Even so, I slept for thirteen hours, completely sleeping through the morning and missing shul. I slept for another hour and a half after lunch too, despite drinking coffee to try to stay awake as I was worried about not sleeping in the evening.
I did get to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards. I struggled with external things again. This time the table where I usually sit was simply not there; I’m not sure where it was moved to. Then I was given Peticha (opening the Ark and taking out/putting back the Torah scrolls), but there were no tallitot (prayer shawls) and there was some confusion over who should do what as we come out of COVID regulations (should I take out the Sefer Torah and put it back or should the chazan etc.). I know this doesn’t sound like much, but with autism this kind of confusion and uncertainty can be a great deal, particularly if I’m already burnt out. I did cope with it, but I was drained again by the evening and read in my room after seudah (the third Shabbat meal) instead of playing a game with my parents.
Perhaps inevitably, I had insomnia after all that sleeping during the day, although I felt too tired to do anything useful. I ended up watching The Twilight Zone, which may not have been the best thing to watch, although it was a good episode – ten episodes in, I feel I’ve reached the type of eerie stories with a twist that I was expecting. I do admire the economy of storytelling needed to create characters and tell a whole story in just over twenty minutes, usually including establishing a fantastical premise, even if it sometimes seems like it could have done with another five or ten minutes to breathe.
Today I woke up drained again, too drained to do very much, certainly too drained to go for my usual Sunday run. I went for a walk instead, primarily to buy coffee, so I got some exercise. I relied on the heter (permission) to listen to music in the Three Weeks of mourning if you’re depressed. My rabbi mentor said it applies to autistic burnout too, but I’m not sure how to distinguish burnout from ordinary fatigue any more. There seem to be different views among people on the spectrum and researchers on whether burnout is just a long-term phenomenon (months or years), or if it can apply over a day or a number of days. My instinct is that it can be over a number of days, and that I’ve burnt myself out doing too much last week, so I let myself listen to the music to try and get myself to a normal state of mind, but it didn’t really help.
If anything, my mood slipped over the afternoon and now I feel drained and also somewhat depressed and lonely. Loneliness is more apparent than real as my parents are here (albeit absorbed in the football) and E has been texting during the day. I do miss E, though, and it’s frustrating not knowing when we will be able to see each other in person. Perhaps it’s harder to bear the uncertainty on a day like today when I don’t feel well.
I did a bit of Torah study in the early afternoon, but I didn’t feel up to doing any work on my novel. I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or just read a novel (I stopped awkwardly in the middle of a chapter of The Master and Margarita at lunchtime), but I was too drained to concentrate. I did go on a virtual tour of Jewish Rome (as in ancient Rome) which was booked for the afternoon, and I did enjoy it although my attention wandered by the end. E was supposed to come on the tour with me, but she had to duck out as she’s going to look after a friend who had surgery. She tried going at an earlier timeslot, but it didn’t work out; hopefully she’ll be able to watch a recording. After that I was exhausted and watched TV, The Twilight Zone and The Blue Planet, where, bizarrely, David Attenborough kept talking about “The twilight zone,” by which he meant the deep part of the ocean where there is almost no sunlight light.
It feels like I didn’t do as much as I wanted, but also that I probably did more than was wise, which just makes me feel that coping with autism is like navigating a maze in the dark while blindfolded. Just trying to feel myself along and often falling over. I’m just glad I have my parents and E to help me.
While I was listening to music this afternoon, TheBeatles’ song Dig A Pony came on. It’s one of John Lennon’s “nonsense poetry” songs where the words don’t really mean anything and are just there for the sounds and rhythms. This lack of coherence seemed appropriate to how I feel today, or rather, how I am (or am not) thinking, hence it became this post’s title.
I’ve been thinking about my life again and trusting in God. For a long time trust in God seemed impossible. My life seemed dominated by bad decisions that I had made that had ruined everything. Now I feel that even if I had changed small things in my life (choice of school, not going to yeshiva), I probably would not have changed the outcome that much. It was determined too much by the big things. And if I had changed any of those big things, I would have been a totally different person. Maybe a better or happier person, but not me. And these days I have a degree of peace of mind in the thought of being me, certainly enough not to want to be someone else, at least not as much as I might have wanted to be in the past. So now I have some peace when I look back on my life and feel that it probably was for the best, and that it’s harder to totally derail my life than I thought it was.
I was slow to get going again this morning, although not surprised as I did quite a bit yesterday. As I messaged to E, I was probably feeling a little down and looking for a reason to justify feeling like that, as nothing that I felt vaguely upset about was really enough to make me feel down. They were just explanations after the event. I think I was probably just exhausted. I don’t always find it easy to tell the difference between depression and exhaustion (alexithymia), which is something I need to bear in mind in the future.
Shiur (religious class) was very good, except that right near the end someone asked a broad question about academic Biblical criticism that was only tangentially related to the topic of the shiur. It took the teacher five minutes to deal with the topic even in a brief way, as it was such a massive question and so unrelated to what she had been talking about, and it ate up the end of the shiur. I was left feeling that I hadn’t really heard or understood her final point, even though what I did process was fascinating and I would have liked to have heard more, or understood better.
Being on the spectrum, I’m not always good at sudden changes of topic and don’t like it when people ask irrelevant questions, which seems to happen a lot in shiurim. I’m not sure if Jews are particularly bad at sticking to the topic or if lots of people do this and I’m just around groups of Jews more than I’m around other groups of people.
I was also left with a feeling of perhaps inappropriate responsibility again (as happened last week), as the teacher suggested one (very good) book on biblical criticism that I have read, but I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to recommend one that I’m reading at the moment that also deals with biblical criticism from an Orthodox viewpoint. I wrote the name of the book in the chat section on Skype, but then felt that it wasn’t appropriate and didn’t send it. In retrospect, that might not have been the best thing to do.
I spent some time working on my novel, about an hour of redrafting, excluding procrastination. There wasn’t much procrastination compared with the past, which is especially good as redrafting is tiring and the chapter I was redrafting brings back a lot of negative memories, almost triggers.
I actually dreamt about one of my stories last night, not the novel I’m currently working on, but the one I’m jotting down ideas for as they percolate into my brain. I guess it shows I’m thinking about my writing a lot and taking it seriously.
I also feel a bit more reassured about being able to write about sensitive topics while remaining in the frum (religious) community from something I heard today. Ashley Blaker is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian (I actually see him in real life sometimes as he lives in the same area as me) who has a comedy series coming up on BBC Radio 4. I heard a trailer for it today and it had a joke which was… surprising to hear from someone the Haredi community (about his teenage son trying to use the satnav to access PornHub). It occurred to me that Blaker gets away with a lot of stuff lightly making fun of Judaism, whereas I would not go that far. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t consider the Haredi community his audience, although he has performed in Modern Orthodox settings, so he can get away with a lot. I don’t really see the Haredi community as my audience either (people in the community tend not to read books written by outsiders or not approved by their rabbis), so I should be OK. Although I wouldn’t write about PornHub. Actually, there probably is a novel to be written about a frum man struggling with pornography addiction, having read several articles about this exact issue from the point of view of both the addict and his wife. I’ve felt that for some time. However, I don’t think I would have the knowledge, ability or guts to write it. I think it would take a lot of courage to write about that even from a secular point of view, let alone an Orthodox Jewish one. There are so many mines you could step on there…
…or OK yesterday, but hopeless and burnt out today (quote from Don’t Get Me Wrong by The Pretenders). I probably did too much yesterday. I didn’t want to write a long, not to mention political, post, but I just had stuff in my head to let out. I stayed up too late writing it when I should really have been taking time out (or doing the ironing). The result is that today I feel drained and somewhat unwell. I didn’t pressure myself to work on my novel today, but I feel upset that I’ve lost valuable writing time. I also will at least try not to pressure myself to do a lot of Torah study. I’ve booked for shul (synagogue) tonight, tomorrow morning and tomorrow afternoon, but I think it’s likely that I’ll miss the morning service at least. I am still hoping to make it tonight.
I guess days like today are why it’s never been easy for me (and possibly mental health workers) to tell burnout from depression. I just feel drained physically with low mood. Whenever I think about the wider world, it just seems relentlessly negative.
I didn’t do very much other than my usual Friday pre-Shabbat chores, as well as twenty-five minutes of Torah study (all I could manage, and perhaps more than I should have done). I really just wanted to go to bed and wrap myself in my weighted blanket. I avoided doing this for most of the day, but eventually decided it would help, so I went back to bed for twenty minutes in the afternoon with no screens, music, etc., which helped a bit. I would have liked to do so much more (walk, ironing, work on my novel, more Torah study…), but I’m just trying to do what I can and try to get to shul later.
I watched an episode of Doctor Who to cheer myself up as well. I thought that now we’ve watched the first season of the new series, E might like to see a couple of older stories “together.” Plus, I admit, I couldn’t really face watching twelve seasons of the new series uninterrupted! We’ve started with City of Death from 1979, which is a very popular story with fans and one of my favourites, but I feel incredibly self-conscious, wondering what E makes of it and how it looks through modern eyes and compared with the modern version. She enjoyed the first two episodes at least, even though she enjoyed the 2005 season more, which is fair enough.
Work was OK today. I was very tired and could hardly do any Torah study on the train in, but I was OK once I got to work and drank a second cup of coffee. The morning was mostly spent sorting out paperwork. I don’t mind doing this, although it’s fairly routine. I’d say it’s not challenging, except I seem to find almost everything challenging these days. Anyway, it left part of my brain free to be miserable (see below).
The afternoon was mostly spent trying to phone people to get them to pay their membership fees. It was not always easy. To my secret relief, a lot of phones weren’t answered, or went to number not available.
I feel that I haven’t done much reading this year. This is not true, although arguably I have not done much recreational reading. I’ve been doing quite a bit of Torah study/reading. I tend to do Torah study on the way to work or volunteering. I would normally do recreational reading on the way home, but J gives me a lift home from work, which becomes dead time in the car, as these days I can’t read in the car without getting motion sick, plus it would be rude to read and, anyway, J has the radio on so I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.
A while back I decided to alternate fiction reading with non-fiction, not least because I had accumulated a big pile of non-fiction books from charity shops and library withdrawals. Worse, these were books I was often not that fussed about, but owning them meant I wasn’t buying or reading non-fiction I might like more. So I started adding in more non-fiction to get through the backlog and maybe buy books I might like more, but now I worry that my writing will not be so good if I read less fiction, especially as, on a page-by-page basis, I read fiction faster than non-fiction, both because it’s easier and because I’m more likely to pick up a fiction book than a non-fiction one. So one non-fiction book probably displaces more than one novel. Then again, having a wide general knowledge is also good for a writer.
I also have some classics to read or re-read (on the grounds now I’m older and will understand them better) which I never get around to reading either. In the last few years (decades, if I’m honest, since I was depressed), they have often seemed too daunting. I’m not sure why. When I was very depressed it was understandable that I didn’t want to read “heavy” books, whether fiction or non-fiction (although periodically I did read them, and sometimes enjoyed them), but now I’m just tired so much of the time, it’s still hard to read heavy-going things.
Lately I’ve come to realise that although the book I’m working on is mainstream and somewhat literary fiction, I’m never going to be a “serious” author. I want to write science fiction, fantasy and maybe horror hybrids with Jewish themes and characters, partly for my own amusement and hopefully to amuse others, partly to get Jewish ideas out there, to Jews who don’t know their own heritage and non-Jews who see Judaism as weird, or more likely just don’t see it at all.
So I feel I need to be reading quality popular fiction. This isn’t such a problem, as I already read a lot of it. My problem is more that I tend to read particular authors in great depth rather than read around particular genres. There are quite a lot of authors on my bookshelves where I have all, or at least a significant amount, of their work, often piled up vertically to save space. I also re-read books I’ve already read. On the other hand, while I’ve always been a fan of what I once pompously referred to as “non-mimetic fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, horror… anything that doesn’t aim at reflecting the world just as it is), I often feel like I’ve never explored any genre in great depth. I’ve always been quite a small-c conservative reader, afraid of trying new things in case I don’t like them, or simply because I’m autistic and love to turn to the same things again and again to explore them in depth. I feel this is not ideal for an aspiring author. I want to write a Jewish fantasy/horror/time-travel book, and I feel I need to do a lot of research reading fantasy and horror (and Jewish books, I guess) as well as the more obvious research on the relevant time period.
I’m nervous of writing the next bit, because I can see myself being attacked from two sides, but I have been thinking about it and feeling miserable about it all day. There’s a video going around on social media showing Israeli youth on a march shouting “Death to Arabs!” I’m not sure why this upset me so much. And I think it was shame, sadness and maybe even anxiety I felt, not righteous indignation and superiority (which seems to be the main thing people feel when they criticise Israel). I wasn’t naive enough to think that there’s no racism in Israel before this, so it wasn’t shock per se. I’m aware of the internal “Jew vs. Arab” violence inside Israel during the war a few weeks ago, which had not really happened in previous conflicts. I’m also aware of a Kahanist (Jewish Fascist) party getting a member elected to the Knesset in the most recent elections. I suppose I should say that I was worried about the chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name — making it look like God supports violence) or about pushing off the coming of the Messiah again (and with the Three Weeks around the corner), but I wasn’t thinking it through that much, I just felt emotionally sick and fixated on returning to it again and again all morning (and never has Mishlei’s/Proverbs‘ simile of the dog returning to its vomit seemed more apposite).
It fed into something I’ve been feeling for a while, but haven’t spoken aloud, the feeling that Israel was manipulated into the last war by Hamas. To clarify, Hamas started and was morally responsible for the war, but Israeli politics created the situation where Hamas thought it was worth firing at Israel and where it thought it could get away with it. Once the rockets started flying, Israel had a right and duty to defend its citizens; my — not anger, but astonishment and fear — is how a civil court case about occupancy that didn’t even involve the government and that had been drifting through the courts for years led suddenly to war. It is hard to avoid blaming Binyamin Netanyahu, if not directly, then at least indirectly for causing the constitutional crisis that led to politicians desperately scrabbling around trying to put together some kind of government to avoid the fifth election in two years, because of Netanyahu’s refusal to accept defeat and step down. Because I can’t see Hamas chancing their luck in this way without that context, thinking things were confused enough in Israel that they might get away without much in the way of reprisals.
As an editorial in The Times of Israel said towards the end of the war, in Hamas has been thinking strategically, while Israel has merely been thinking tactically, not just now, but for years. The war enabled Hamas to position itself (and not Fatah) as the leader of the Palestinians, and of “resistance” to Israel generally. It let Hamas show its value as a proxy army to its funders in Iran. It won a propaganda war in the Islamic world and in the West (actually two propaganda wars, with very different messages: to the West they presented themselves as passive victims, but to the Islamic world even the dead were martyrs and mujahideen — warriors on jihad). It may well have sabotaged a potential Israeli-Saudi peace deal, which could have improved Israel’s strategic position. All Israel managed to do was destroy some of Hamas’ arms, which will doubtless be restocked soon by the Iranian government.
Contrary to most people who berate Israel’s position, I don’t have a magic solution. Years ago, the political scientist Shlomo Avineri suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble and the focus should be on de-escalation, not solution, as per other long-running conflicts. Some problems are insoluble, at least within the terms available. Hamas is not interested in compromise, but is not powerful enough to destroy Israel. Israel is neither willing nor interested in genocide (contrary to what its enemies say). This being the case, neither side can win, and all that can be done is kick the can down the road a bit further with sporadic outbursts of violence until something game-changing happens (like an Iranian nuclear weapon, God forbid).
I guess I sound depressed. Well, lately I am depressed, not clinically, but when I look at the world. There is an idea in Judaism that the Messiah (if you don’t believe in a Messiah, think of utopia) will come when everyone is absolutely good, or when everyone is absolutely terrible. In the first instance he comes not so much as a reward as the culmination of the individual narratives of redemption. In the latter, God gets so fed up with mankind’s misbehaviour that He intervenes to pull the plug on history before we wipe ourselves out. I feel that we are not absolutely good (obviously!), but the world isn’t absolutely terrible either. Despite excitable media coverage, I can’t see the world today, or the position of the Jews in it, as anything like as bad as the 30s and the 40s. Or even later (think of Cold War flashpoints like the Berlin Airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis where a nuclear war seemed likely). I wonder how long the world can go on being awful, but not absolutely awful.
Ugh. I feel I’m just rambling, and I’m afraid what the comments will say, so I’ll wrap this up. Genetic testing shows that the ethnic group most closely related to the Jews is (you guessed it) the Palestinians. Some people think the Palestinians are the descendants of Jews who weren’t exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans, but hung around and, when the Arabs invaded a number of centuries later, converted to Islam and forgot their Jewish past. The similarities between Judaism and Islam are manifold, much more so than the more well-known similarities between Judaism and Christianity. The conflict seems just pointless. I can’t do very much about that, but since the war I’ve been reading Islam by Alfred Guillaume (tying this back to my reading) to try to understand more. To be honest, I probably already knew a lot more about Islam than most Jews, having studied some Islamic history at university. I want to read the Qu’ran (I do actually have a copy), although I think a person can misunderstand a lot by reading ancient religious texts without context and interpretation. But I want to understand more, even if I can’t actually do anything. I’ve said before htat, contrary to the “You can change the world!” message endlessly repeated in the media, I don’t think individuals can do very much at all to change the world, but I think we can aim to improve our understanding and empathy and gain some kind of personal redemption for ourselves and those around us.
I had another bad “waking up burnt out” day. I’m not sure what can do about this. I think autistic burnout isn’t terribly well understood. Also, I haven’t really found much about people waking up burnt out rather than becoming burnt out during the day. I’m not sure how much my parents understand it either. I mean, they accept it, they aren’t calling me lazy, but I don’t think they understand it, or they see it as leftover from the depression — which, to be fair, was my understanding for a long time.
Because I was burnt out, I wasn’t up to phone the doctor for an appointment when they start taking appointments at 8.30am. Dad tried, but was number twenty-eight (!!!) in the queue after twenty minutes and gave up. My surgery only allows the booking of regular appointments at 8.30am; at that time, the phones get jammed with people trying to phone (as you can see). There aren’t any appointments later, except emergency ones (they question you and if you phone with a non-emergency, they won’t give you an appointment), and they don’t allow online booking any more, although they rarely used to release more than a handful of those appointments at a time either. Basically, my surgery makes it really hard to get an appointment, and has only made it harder since COVID. So I’m not sure what to do. After all, the GP wrote to me asking me to book an appointment (about my Asperger’s diagnosis)! And I do want to get on the (very long) waiting list for autism-adapted CBT, especially now I’m dating E (I’m hoping it will help my communication, although my communication with E is pretty good, all things considered).
I cooked dinner, which was my main achievement for the day, except that I had a teaspoon/tablespoon mix up and put too much spice in, although it tasted fine (which is odd, actually). I do this a lot and I don’t know why. I think it’s an executive function issue from trying to process the recipe and do various things at once, or maybe I just want to think that because it’s a stupid thing to keep doing. I guess that might explain why it is worse on a burnout day.
I wanted to get my books back from PIMOJ, but she was suddenly working late and couldn’t return them. She said I could pick them up later, but I was worried she would still be running late and I would have to wait, and I didn’t want to be out late with volunteering early tomorrow, plus I didn’t want to mess up my Dad’s evening as he offered me a lift (as the books are quite bulky and heavy to bring back on public transport). So that’s still hanging over me. E thinks my mood was lower today because I was expecting to see PIMOJ and she may be right. Now it’s hanging over me still, and will be for at least another week, given PIMOJ’s late working hours. I’m not sure what to do about this. I was wary of lending her my books for this reason, that I would need to get them back if we broke up.
I did try to sort the tallit (prayer shawl) issue. Hopefully I can get it fixed tomorrow, although it looks like it will cost a lot. I’m not sure if I’ve made the right decision; days like today are not the best for decision making.
I tried to work on my novel, but just felt gridlocked, unable to write anything. The main thing I did was work out what things could be fixed by adding small sections in to the existing text and what would need to be rewritten by going through the whole novel and making many small (or larger) changes. Eventually I decided that I was wasting my time trying to write today, that anything I wrote in this mood would be subpar anyway, so I went for a walk instead. I hoped that would help my mood. It did a little, but not much.
I felt a bit better after dinner and Doctor Who, although still very drained, something not helped by the heat. My bedroom faces west and gets very hot in the afternoons in summer, which has apparently now started. I guess it is June now.
I actually did some reading about autistic burnout, not least because I was having a rather burnt out day. There isn’t much research, as it’s only been recognised by psychologists for five or six years. There seems to be some discussion about what burnout entails: a lot of the writing is about severe burnout that can last weeks or months (which may have fed into, my depressive episodes), whereas I tend to experience a daily cycle of waking exhausted (I’m not sure why), slowly building up steam after lunch, having a reasonably productive afternoon and then sometimes crashing in the evening, in terms of energy and mood, particularly if I was at work or around people a lot in the day. Even if I don’t crash, it seems that the next morning is difficult; my sleep just isn’t refreshing. Maybe that’s something other than burnout? This article seems to be the closest to what I experience.
It would be such a relief to understand that I’m not lazy, I have a genuine struggle with mornings, work and socialising. I mean, my autism diagnosis has already helped with the latter two, but the first still seems a little mysterious and unexplained.
I woke up late today, but I felt good, at least after breakfast and coffee had dispelled the waking burnout feeling. It does feel that in the last few months, since my Asperger’s diagnosis, or maybe even a little before, my life has begun fitting together in a way I never predicted. I think my relationship with my parents has improved over lockdown and Mum’s cancer, I have a part-time job that gives me time to write and my relationship with E is great, even if it is awkward being long-distance and not knowing when we can be together in person because of COVID. I don’t feel I deserve it, but I thank God it’s happened.
Today felt odd because it’s a bank holiday. If I’m not at work, and not busy with other things, it should be a Sunday or a Tuesday, but it’s neither! I struggled to email a friend who is having marriage problems. I think I mentioned her last week. I wasn’t sure what to say, even whether she wanted advice or just wanted to vent.
I phoned the Judaica shop about buying new tallit strings. This sounds trivial, but it takes a lot of courage for me as (a) I hate phoning because of social anxiety and autism and (b) I’m not even sure if they sell tallit strings or if they will tie them for me. Nevertheless, there was no answer again, which makes me wonder if they’re even open at the moment. I can borrow Dad’s tallit for now, but I would like to get it sorted.
I spent an hour working on my novel. Actually, I spent most of an hour procrastinating, but I did a bit of work on the novel. It’s always hard to come back to writing after a long break, and it’s hard to start a new chapter, let alone a new draft.
I then spent over an hour working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week. I was mostly working on that and not procrastinating, but after two and a half hours sat in front of my computer, I was exhausted, as if I’d done a whole day’s work. I was going to go for a walk, but Mum and Dad wanted me to have tea with them in the garden. They were having scones and cream; I don’t like either, but they had bought me rugelach (chocolate pastries), so I decided I would be a good son and sit with them for a bit. Then I cooked dinner, as Mum had some other things to do, and listened to a short shiur (religious class) while doing so.
By this stage my mood had plummeted and I don’t know why. I get disconcerted that my mood can change so quickly and with so little reason. I was thinking about antisemitism, but I’m not sure if that triggered the low mood; I think the reverse may be true.
The thoughts were that in France the Chief Rabbi said many years ago that Jews in France shouldn’t wear the kippah (skullcap) because of the risk of violence, and now the German (!) government is saying that German Jews shouldn’t wear it either, and the US, which was supposed to be the safest diaspora country for Jews, has had loads of antisemitic attacks in the last few years which the authorities have done very little about. Statistically, I believe a Jew in the US is more likely to experience a hate crime than an African-American, but you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage. So I wonder how long it will be seen as safe to wear a kippah here. I’m not terribly anti-authority, but I hate people trying to stop me being religious, so I would want to wear it regardless. On the other hand, I’m a coward. At any rate, I’m glad I no longer work at the further education college where I had students making antisemitic remarks behind my back not quite out of earshot.
I went for a walk in the hope that would help my mood, but I just feel tired as well as depressed now, and my bedroom is hot and stuffy; I doubt sleep will be easy. I wish I knew how these low moods can appear out of nowhere. I guess it’s good that it’s the bad mood that seems to come out of nowhere, with the good (or at least not bad) as the default. In the past it would have been the other way around.
I feel too tired and depressed to write or read, so I’ll watch The Simpsons for a bit (season five of Babylon 5 is sufficiently not great (not bad exactly, but not great) enough for me not to want to watch two episodes in one day).
I had a lot of anxiety this morning, including at one point worrying seriously that there was a suicide bomber at the Tube station. The fire alarm went at work and I was worried about some kind of antisemitic incident (antisemitic incidents have gone up 500% since the flare up in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict). Sometime around midday the anxiety switched over to depression and lethargy, although I tried to do a reasonable amount of work. I texted E more than I normally would at work. When I said I feel useless, she said I have a lot to share with the world, but my abilities don’t translate to being good at typical jobs, which I guess is good, although frustrating (and impoverishing). I do struggle to hold on to a sense of my own worth and abilities though. E thinks that one day I’ll see my autism as the source of my good traits as well as bad ones. I hope so.
The journey home was pretty awful. J’s satnav suggested a really roundabout way home. We went the usual way instead, and hit really bad traffic. The journey took an hour and a half where it usually takes an hour or less. I read articles on my phone out of boredom and ended up feeling carsick. Then I had to do some shopping and walked home, so I got home much later than usual.
By that time, I felt pretty burnt out. There was quite a lot I wanted to do (writing important emails, Torah study, Skyping E), but I couldn’t do anything before dinner. Then as I was finishing dinner my sister phoned. I think I sounded a bit vague, but even at the best of times I get thrown by last minute disruptions like sudden phone calls, and I’m still feel burnt out a lot, not having had enough alone time lately to really recover. Plus, I haven’t told my sister or my parents that I’m back together with E, which lends an air of furtiveness to things when I should really say, “Oh, I can’t talk for long, I’m speaking to E soon.”
In the end I spoke to E, did a tiny bit more Torah study and wrote some important emails, but I wish I could have done more, as usual.
I’m still daunted by the things I’ve got to do before I can really have a day off to recuperate properly. I’ve just cancelled an interview I was having with a psychology student to talk about my experience of autism as it affects me at job interviews for her PhD. That was supposed to be on Sunday, but Shabbat is turning into an anxiety-inducing peopling event and not recovery, and if I had the interview on Sunday, the burnout would run on to work on Monday, dinner at a restaurant (I vaguely remember those…) for Mum’s birthday on Tuesday, therapy on Wednesday, work on Thursday…
I also ran out of time for writing a devar Torah this week, which I feel a bit bad about.
I didn’t get the job I was interviewed for yesterday, but I got some positive feedback from the interviewers, which is good (assuming they weren’t just being polite). However, I feel bad, as I may have cheated in the cataloguing test. I was required to include the MARC21 numbers and indicators indicating different descriptive categories (title, author’s name etc.). Usually a cataloguer would look these up. It’s not something we’re expected to just know. In the past, when I’ve had cataloguing tests, I’ve been allowed to look them up online or in a book. The test didn’t say I could do this, but it also didn’t say it couldn’t. To cut a long story short, I was in such an anxious state when I sat the test that I couldn’t think how to ask about this and I was so convinced I was going to fail, and that I would turn down the job even if it was somehow offered to me because it’s too much for me, that I just looked up the MARC21 numbers online so that I didn’t look a complete idiot. Now I wonder how much of the positive feedback was really for me and how much for my false MARC-memory skills.
Related to this, on yesterday’s post, Ashley suggested I’m applying for too many interviews for jobs that I feel I couldn’t get and wouldn’t manage to do if I did get them. I do this to please my parents and the recruitment agency; the latter in particular I treat as if they are doing me a big favour by trying to get me jobs and not like they are going to receive commission if I get one (hence they try to get me to apply for unsuitable jobs like library assistant, even while asking me what my precise requirements are). I had pretty much come to the same conclusion myself, but I’m not sure how to have the conversation with my parents, let alone the agency. I’m not sure which conversation I’m dreading more, this one or the one about E.
My uncle sent me an article on the author Holly Smale who was diagnosed with autism in her late thirties (I would link to the article, but it’s behind The Times‘ paywall, which I was somehow able to bypass on my phone before, but can’t now). A lot of it resonated with me, particularly the quote that “high functioning” regarding autism is just a euphemism for “good at faking it.” I feel like that’s how I went undiagnosed for so long. Although I disagree that Smale would have been diagnosed younger if she was a boy. I know under-diagnosis of autistic women is a genuine issue, but being male is no guarantee of correct diagnosis. I’m the proud owner of a Y-chromosome, and I got missed too, mostly because, like the author, I was good at faking being reasonably normal (or as normal as a geeky child/teenager gets). I feel that being high functioning just set me up for failure later in life, when work and social tasks got harder, there was less support and I was burnt out from excessive masking.