A Shulchan Aruch for the Mentally Ill and Neurodivergent

I was very exhausted yesterday, and had suddenly realised it was closer to Shabbat than I thought, but I managed to speak to E briefly before Shabbat started in the UK. We’re hoping to have a longer conversation tomorrow, but I’m worried about how I’ll manage it if there’s a lot to do for Yom Tov (festival). But if I can’t, we’ll have barely spoken for a week, from our last long call on Wednesday evening until this coming Wednesday evening, because of Yom Tov. And this pattern will repeat for three out of the next four weeks. Being long-distance is hard, at Yom Tov doubly so, and that’s not even counting the stress of doing Yom Tov without each other.

I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) after this. I was just too wiped out and feeling physically ill from exhaustion. I did daven (pray) at home, without much energy or enthusiasm. I did some Torah study after dinner, which may have been a mistake, I’m not sure. I just want to finish some of the books I’m reading (see below).

I had weird dreams last night, including my least-favourite ex-boss (the one who basically told me that I wasn’t as good at my job as she expected and that she didn’t really have confidence in me) refusing to acknowledge my existence. Also something I can’t really remember about crocodiles. I ended up sleeping after lunch, too. I didn’t really want to, as I knew it would just mess my sleep pattern up even more, but I struggled through lunch with my parents and then basically went to autistic shutdown mode, curled up in the foetal position in bed with my eyes shut. Inevitably, I eventually fell asleep, but I think it was more about trying to reboot myself after a couple of hours of listening to my parents talk than actually needing sleep. Then I went back to bed briefly in the early evening, but didn’t sleep. I didn’t go to the shiva (house of mourning) for my parents’ friends’ son. I felt too burnt out. It was probably just as well, as it was very busy. I will try to email them tomorrow.

It’s hard to unpick the autism, social anxiety and sleep disorder from each other to work out what is really keeping me away from shul. There may also be an element of SAD now to make things even more difficult, which hopefully won’t turn into full depression. It’s hard to know where to start. So many people on the autism forum also struggle with exhaustion and fatigue. None of us really know how to cope. The medical community seems baffled or perhaps uninterested.

(By coincidence, someone just shared this story about autistic fatigue on the autism group.)

I worry what it will be like when E and I are married. Will it be easier living with someone more on my wavelength and autism-friendly? Will I be able to work more? Will that make me more tired? (I assume so.) Will we be able to have kids? How will I cope with that? Kids are not autism-friendly, even/especially autistic kids (autistic kids are a possibility given how much neurodiversity (diagnosed and undiagnosed) that there seems to be in both E and my families).

Somewhat related, I feel that this Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, I should work on forgiving myself. It just feels wrong even writing this, but I have beaten myself up so much over the years for things that were not within my control to change completely, or at all: depression, social anxiety, OCD, autism, alexithymia, exhaustion and sleep-disruption. (Also: being a heterosexual male with a normal sex drive, trying to be celibate, but that’s a whole other post.)

I don’t know how much I’m going to get to shul over the coming Yom Tovim (festivals), if I’m going to hear the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) on Rosh Hashanah, and it’s tempting to beat myself up about it in advance. I don’t think that will achieve much, but it’s easy to feel I don’t deserve forgiveness, that if I just pressure myself harder to have more energy, better sleep, a more positive mindset (etc.) that I need to study more Torah and fulfil more mitzvot (commandments), that will somehow happen. Even though it hasn’t worked for decades.

I feel someone should write a Shulchan Aruch for the Mentally Ill and Neurodivergent, to try to set out ways of living Jewishly with these issues and how they affect halakhic (Jewish legal) observance (the Shulchan Aruch is the primary Jewish code of law). In Israel, a rabbi has set up some kind of institute to teach more rabbis how to handle halakhic questions regarding people with mental illness. This is positive, but I would like someone to do it for the neurodivergent too. Unfortunately, Orthodox Judaism tends to lag ten years or so behind the secular West regarding social issues and we are only just beginning to deal with mental health, so we probably won’t catch up to neurodivergence for another ten years.

***

On the subject of beating myself up, I felt recently that I hadn’t finished any books for a while and was upset about that. Actually, it’s not that long since I finished A Guide for the Perplexed and Faith Without Fear (is it really less than a month since I was in New York and getting married?), but even setting them aside, I realised that I’ve been reading really big books lately. I’m on page 623 (of 712 pages of main text) of The Third Reich in Power 1933-1939, page 427 (of 712 or so pages) of The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who and page 491 (of 528) of Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World. These are mostly heavy-going books (not the Doctor Who one, except inasmuch as I get annoyed with some of the views expressed in it, particularly hatred for late seventies Who) and I’m finally getting near the end of most of them. It’s been a long journey through them, but I would have read several novels or shorter religious works in the same time (I did read some, actually), so I should probably beat myself up less about that. I do definitely want to tear through some light novels soon, though.

***

Shana tova tikatev vetichatem! May you be written and sealed for a good new year!

Yours Exhaustedly

I feel totally wiped out today, physically and emotionally exhausted, even bordering on physically ill (light-headed and faint and that feeling of my brain being squashed). I got up late, had to eat not just breakfast, but also lunch, before I had the energy and concentration to put on my tefillin, and found it difficult to daven (pray), just struggling to concentrate and feeling physically ill when I tried. I did my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores and finished the dusting, but I currently feel too exhausted and ill to go to shul (synagogue). It worries and upsets me that lately I miss Friday night davening as I feel too physically and emotionally exhausted. It’s my favourite service and it’s a long time since I’ve been regularly too ill to go, so missing it so often feels like a backwards step.

It’s hard struggling with this exhaustion and sleep disruption, particularly when I don’t know what causes it: autistic exhaustion or burnout (which are not understood well at all), some kind of sleep disorder or returning depression (a fear around this time of year in particular, as the lengthening nights have signalled most of my previous episodes). It’s also difficult that high-functioning autism in adults is not understood well at all, as most of the research money goes on children. (People on the autism forum also complain that most of the money goes on research to see how autistic children can be made to behave more like neurotypical children, rather than how can we make autistic children/adults happier and more comfortable. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds worryingly believable.)

My therapist has offered me a slot on Friday 7 October. This is because I haven’t seen her for weeks because my New York trip was followed by her holiday, and now the next month is disrupted by Yom Tov (the Jewish festivals) and my working on different days to accommodate them, meaning that I don’t have a free Wednesday (my usual therapy day) until 26 October. She doesn’t always work on Fridays, but offered to fit me in, which I’m very pleased about, as I really do feel the need to speak about a few things at the moment, and waiting another month was going to be painful.

Too Much

I’m feeling quite upset today. I woke from an distressing dream and was lying in bed digesting it when my Mum came into my room, visibly upset. I knew immediately that her friends’ son had died of cancer (the one who I mentioned a week or two ago as receiving palliative care). The funeral is today, but my parents couldn’t go, as Mum was having a medical procedure and Dad had to drive her home (she’s OK, it was all clear). I will probably go with them to the shiva (house of mourning) on Saturday night as they are close family friends I’ve known since childhood, even though I know it might be crowded, overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.

It made me think about the fear of God, which I’ve been thinking about lately anyway. This is not fear of punishment, which is seen in Judaism as a much lower and less effective and important motivator. People describe the fear, or better, the awe, of God as being like the awe a person experiences in seeing the ocean or the mountains, and I think that’s part of it, but lately I think it’s more about the realisation that God is so essentially, ontologically (in the nature of His Being) different to human beings, that His Mind operates on a scale and in a way that we can’t comprehend, that He can make decisions of who should live and who should die for reasons that we can’t begin to understand. If a human being tried to do this, he would be a terrible dictator, but God is essentially different to us such, that, as the prophet Yishayah (Isaiah) says, “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways, —declares the LORD. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.” (Yishayah 55.8-9, translation from Sefaria.org, capitalisation altered slightly). It is the awe of encountering an intelligence totally different from our own, with a different morality that comes from being different and beyond us. Admittedly I’ve seen no sources that confirm this, but it seems true to me.

Of course, we are supposed to go beyond this understanding to the love of God, which is even greater.

***

I struggled to get going in the afternoon. I think I was too upset about my parents’ friends’ son. I didn’t even know him that well, but I guess I feel I could have died (from suicide) at various points in my twenties and thirties and left my parents like his parents. I would never have met E or made the plans we’re making to try to turn my life around. It’s just so sad. Mum always thought I could be friends with him, but I didn’t speak to him much, mainly from social anxiety and autistic communication issues. I tend to get on better with people older than me than younger than me anyway.

I did a few things in the afternoon: a little Torah study, a quick walk to the shops, and I polished my thoughts about the death of the Queen from a Jewish perspective and submitted them to a Jewish website, although I suspect it’s probably too late for consideration now. I started dusting my room, but didn’t get very far.

I did feel there was a lot I didn’t do. My To Do list seems to grow much faster than I can actually do tasks and tick them off at the moment, particularly as so many tasks are multifaceted and require multiple actions. I also don’t think I’ll get to listen to all the LSJS shiurim (religious classes) from Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, as I have three left still.

E tried to submit our information and documents for the visa application, but the website was broken and not loading a necessary drop-down menu properly. I tried to do it on my computer, but had the same problem. There was no help button. She tried using the contact form, but it’s meant for feedback, not technical help. She sent them a message on Twitter. We’re waiting for a response. Suggestions welcome.

After my walk, I felt light-headed. I can never work out if this is due to lack of food, lack of salt or low blood pressure. I ate some crackers with butter to try to deal with food and salt, but it was extra calories close to dinnertime. My diet is stuck in an awkward place of restricting some food, but probably not enough, and weight loss and willingness not to eat junk have tailed off. When I say not to eat junk, I don’t even mean excessively. It only takes one bad day to get me thinking, “Oh, I had a bad day. I deserve one biscuit OR one piece of chocolate as a reward before bed,” and then it’s hard not to do it again the next night. Even if I resist, it’s started a “Bad day = chocolate” precedent. Today certainly feels like a junk food day. Knowing my weight gain is mostly caused by clomipramine doesn’t make things any easier.

Overall, I feel overwhelmed again, and anxious. Anxiety always feels worse on dark autumn/winter evenings, for some reason. There’s just so much to do (admittedly reading about Kristallnacht in The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939, was probably a bad move). I worry about falling depressed again at this time of year; most of my episodes started in the autumn or early winter. I feel unprepared for work tomorrow, but — bed!

How to Destupidify myself?

I didn’t have work today, J having switched my days this week.  This was probably for the best, as I slept a long time after all the stuff I was doing yesterday (tax return, visa form).  The house was almost empty when I woke up, just me and Dad.  I know that’s the usual number of people on a weekday, but after so many being around for the last few days, it felt empty.  Dad made some enquiries on my behalf about changing shul (synagogue) membership to get married by my parents’ rabbi. We don’t have to change it for a while.  When we do change, I think we get a year of free membership in any shul in the United Synagogue, so it’s worth not changing that until nearer the time, although Dad feels I should continue with membership of my current shul until then “just in case” (this is him being morbid, meaning so that I’m not left without burial membership anywhere for a number of months, just in case I drop dead suddenly). I’ll go to my parents’ shul for the Yom Tovim (festivals) as my shul will be in its new premises, twice as far away. If I wasn’t getting married, or was getting married there, I might have still gone there, but it seems silly when I won’t be going there much longer anyway.

Today was mostly spent on the tax return (which was a real headache, but which I still need to spend some time on, despite having spent about three hours on it already) and scanning documents for E’s visa application.  I didn’t manage much of the latter, as the tax return left me exhausted. I did get a walk in, which I didn’t manage yesterday, but I only did a few minutes of Torah study, compared with more yesterday.

I miss E a lot and I know she misses me.  It’s hard being apart for so long when we already feel married.

I did manage to phone about pre-marriage classes for E and myself, which is positive, especially as I had a lot of social anxiety about the call beforehand.

***

As I mentioned, I’ve been filling in my tax return.  It seems really difficult.  I feel like, “I’m autistic, I’m supposed to be good with numbers and methodical; I am (or at least I was) a librarian, which is also supposed to make me methodical; so why do I always struggle to find the documents I need, and to find the right figures on the documents once I’ve got them?”  The papers aren’t even in that much of a mess, they’re actually organised reasonably well, but somehow the piece of paper I need isn’t ever where it should be.  And I’m not that good with numbers.  Even at school, where I got good grades in maths and even did A-level physics, I wasn’t intuitively good with numbers the way some of my geeky friends were.  Maths was always a second language I could translate into in my head, but not intuitively think in.

Doing things like this just leaves me confused as I go from document to document.  I have to keep reminding myself which tax year I’m doing this for, otherwise I’ll forget and enter the wrong data.  Just to confuse myself further, midway through the last tax year, I switched from being a freelance contractor to a permanent staff member, although still doing the same job in the same institution.

I just feel incompetent these days.  At school, I was a high achiever, academically (socially was another story), but I think I survived by putting myself in a protective bubble for fourteen years, memorising vast amounts of data and filtering out the real world (noise, smells, social interactions, bullies, eventually even out-of-school-activities and almost everything other than work in the end).  My good memory for trivia stood me in good stead in exams, but after that, I had to go into university and then into the world, and suddenly critical thinking skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, flexibility and creativity were all more important than just being able to remember lots of facts or even remembering other people’s arguments.

I have two degrees, but I work two days a week in a low-skill job which I am over-qualified for, but in which I still regularly make big mistakes.  The mistakes are probably partly out of boredom, but also from having to work on multiple documents at once or just my inability to remember things nowadays.  My mistakes fuel my low self-esteem, which in turn probably causes more mistakes as I assume I will fail.  I feel like somewhere along the line, after years of autistic burnout and mental illness, I just got stupid and I don’t know how to destupidify myself.  Sadly, I think anecdotal evidence indicates that prolonged autistic burnout, and prolonged bouts of mental illness, can both lead to a decline in cognitive ability.  It now looks like I have a sleep disorder too, so I can throw sleep deprivation into the mix too.

***

Liz Truss is the new Prime Minister.  I don’t really have any thoughts about this, except that it cements my feeling that I can’t vote for any current political party.  I think I dreamt about Gladstone last night, although I don’t remember the details.   I do feel the world in general has a terrible crisis of leadership at the moment, although realistically great leaders only come around every quarter-century or so.

Leaps Into the Unknown

There’s not a lot to report today.  I woke up an hour early and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I decided to rest in bed rather than get up early.  Work was OK.  I was supposed to photocopy pairs of sheets of paper onto single, double-sided pages, and I kept doing it wrong, starting to copy the same page on both sides instead one on each side.  I stopped the printer in time each time, but I felt stupid the first time I did and stupider the second time.

There were Tube problems (a stretch of the Northern Line closed because of someone on the line, unfortunately) which necessitated me going on the other branch of the Northern Line and then getting a bus.  I did eventually get to the barber.  I was somewhat scared by the fact that, of the two people already there, one was having his head shaved and one was having some weird treatment involving waxing his eyebrows and nasal hair or something.  I didn’t think it was that kind of a barber! I was worried the barber would want to do more than just trim my hair!  In the event, it was OK.  I shook slightly, but not much, and the barber either didn’t notice or was too polite to mention it. I sent E a selfie when I got out and she liked it, which was a bit of a relief.

***

I’ve nearly finished Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  I read a big chunk today, at lunch and on my extra-long journey home.  I’ve got about seventy pages left.  I have enjoyed it, but I felt Eleanor’s naivety was too inconsistent.  I thought that early on, she didn’t have a TV in her flat, but then suddenly she did.  Perhaps that was my mistake, but the types of things she knew and did not know seemed to vary according to the jokes the author, Gail Honeyman wanted to tell.  She knew about Power Rangers but not about Spongebob Squarepants and so on.

Honeyman has apparently said that Eleanor is not autistic, but she sometimes comes across as autistic.  This led to a strange situation where I empathised with some of her thoughts and actions as things I might have done, but was alienated by others.  I should say that I don’t intend this as a criticism.  Unfortunately, representation, being “seen” or “erased” by a work of literature or art, has become a key criterion of its worth or success, and I don’t think it is, really. But it did feel strange to strongly connect with Eleanor’s struggles one minute and then feel totally astounded by them a moment later.

What I did find interesting was my reaction to the scenes of Eleanor’s breakdown and therapy (actually, it was called “counselling,” but the counsellor had a PhD, which to me implies therapy).  It made me feel strangely nostalgic for my worse days.  I don’t mean nostalgic in the sense of wanting to be like that again (I was more or less completely non-functional for several years, doing nothing other than go to meetings with my psychiatrist(s) and therapist(s), when I was able to get one), but it seemed somehow easier.

In those days I had no real responsibilities.  Unlike many people with mental illness, I had no real risks, aside from suicide, because my parents were supporting me financially and I lived with them.  At some times, at least, I felt I was constantly making new discoveries about myself and my history in therapy, which was exciting and, over time, changed how I saw myself.  I would not want to go back to that world at all, but I guess it brought home to me that my current life is a leap into the unknown: marriage, writing and various other things I haven’t even started on yet. I hope they will turn out well, but I have no idea if they will. It scares me sometimes that we can’t see one minute into the future. Anything could happen. It does seem strange looking back from where I am now: I’ve come so far, yet I feel I still have so far to go.  At least now I will be going there with E.

Existential Spirituality

I wonder sometimes about my spiritual life. I feel I have more of a religious life than a spiritual one. I would like to have a more spiritual life, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially from inside a major religion — where do you go when you’re already where you’re supposed to be, and don’t want to leave, but aren’t fully fulfilled? I want more spirituality, not less Judaism. Further, I find ‘spirituality’ a vague and unhelpful term, and Hebrew words like ruchniut aren’t any better.

I used to read a lot of Jewish religious existentialists (not all Orthodox). I found Jewish existentialism an approach that resonated with me more than many approaches in the Orthodox world, so out of curiosity, I searched online for stuff on existentialist spirituality, despite knowing that secular existentialism is very different to religious existentialism.

I found an article on existential spirituality in psychotherapy the other day that says the following:

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

I do struggle with several of these areas. I’m able to experience nature well when I’m in a natural setting, but I struggle to find one in the suburbs. It might be good for me to walk more often in a little area of land left wild at the edge of the nearby park (although it only takes five or ten minutes to walk the length of it).

Skipping number two for the moment, I am a lot more OK at being with myself than before. I still have low self-esteem, something worsened by autism-induced mishaps, and some social anxiety and catastrophising, but I’m mostly comfortable being inside my head. I feel positive about my sense of integrity, which ties into my Jewish practice as I practise Judaism less to feel “positive” or “spiritual” in the moment and more because overall I have a feeling of integrity and rightness from acting in accordance with my religious beliefs and as part of a three thousand year old community.

The really hard areas are two and four. I think being with others is very important (this is perhaps the biggest thing I take from Jewish existentialism), and it does help me when I find a way I can interact with others well, but finding that way can be hard. I definitely missed volunteering the last couple of weeks when it was on a break and I felt depressed until it restarted yesterday. The downside is that I feel depressed and burnt out today, which may be cause and effect or may be coincidence.

The fact that I go to shul (synagogue) a lot less than I did seven or eight years ago is probably a negative here too, from a social point of view as much as anything. Communal prayer does create social bonds. In recent years I have gone to shul a lot less, as a result of sleep disruption, social anxiety, changing communities and then COVID. I’m now totally out of the habit of regular shul attendance and struggling to get back into it.

I think my marriage to E might be the biggest positive change I can make here. Following the Talmud, I see marriage as the primary model of a loving relationship (the Talmud sees “Love your neighbour as yourself” applying particularly to marriage) and I think the intimacy (emotional as well as physical) there will help me feel more spiritually-fulfilled. I think already our emotional intimacy has led me to feel better in this way. It is hard at the moment, though, when we are so far apart and know it will be so long until we get married. E said it feels like we should be married now and our current status is a weird aberration, and I agree with her. E also thinks that God wants us to marry so I can help her be more religious and so she can help me to have more fun, which may be true too.

Connecting with God directly is harder. I struggle to connect with God through Torah study, except on occasions when I suddenly gain some new insight. That doesn’t happen often, but maybe I have to do a lot of study to provide “scaffolding” for those moments of connection. But often it’s easy to forget God while studying Torah and just focus on the text as a text. Possibly I should try to get back to reading something inspirational or about personal growth every day.

I have improved my kavannah (mindfulness) in prayer lately, but even then it can be hard to concentrate on God. I can focus on God or on the words of the prayer, but it’s hard to focus on both at once.

I guess a lot of the problem is the subjectivity of what constitutes a spiritual experience or a connection with an invisible God. Maybe I’m trying to over-analyse.

***

I got a phone call from A, the person who seems to be a middleman between me and the psychiatrist. He turned out to be a psychiatric nurse. He said that before my medication was reviewed by the psychiatrist with a view to reducing it, could I tell him what happened about the autism assessment I was referred for in 2019, as they had no further information. I was pretty shocked he didn’t know about my diagnosis. In fact, I don’t think he even knew I was referred for an autism assessment, as he thought it might have been for ADHD (the hospital assesses for both). I offered to scan the report and send it to them, which was fortunate as he said he could write to the GP, but that would take weeks (!). You would think that an advantage of a single, national healthcare provider would be some kind of shared data base, at least within the locality. Honestly, this service is just so useless.

***

I was going to go for a pre-wedding haircut after this, but it started raining really heavily and I decided to go after work tomorrow instead. It’s still quite hot and I think the rain and heat/humidity combination along with the disruption to my plans brought my mood down. I am nervous of having my hair cut by a stranger again. I’ve always found haircuts intrusive, probably for autistic reasons about personal space and sensory stimuli, but for many years now I’ve had tremor in some social situations and haircuts are a major trigger, indeed, they were the first trigger when it started. I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow.

I forgot to go to shul (I want to go on Wednesday evenings), although I wouldn’t really have had much time to spare. Instead, I submitted my first novel to two more agents, both UK-based. I’m trying to focus on UK agents at the moment. One is Jewish, but is super-influential and well-connected, so I probably won’t be accepted by him. To be honest, I suspect all the agencies on the list I’m using are too big for me and that I need some small boutique agency. E disagrees with me here; I hope she’s right.

***

I got sent £3.34 from Lulu.com, which means someone bought my non-fiction Doctor Who book!

Wedding Stuff

Today was a difficult Shabbat (Sabbath) because of the heat.  I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, but not today, as it was too hot and Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) were at an awkward time.  I fell asleep quite quickly last night, but woke up in the early hours and struggled to get back to sleep, probably because of the heat.  I think I woke a couple of times in the night gasping for breath again, although I’m not sure how many times or whether it’s happening more often or I’m just paying attention to it now I think I may have sleep apnoea rather than thinking I must have just woken up from a nightmare or similar.

I did some Torah study, including some Talmud study, and a little recreational reading, but it was too hot to do much of anything really.  I ended up sleeping in the afternoon despite not wanting to because the heat made me so drowsy.

***

I can’t believe my civil marriage is in under three weeks (God willing)!  I am nervous, but more about travelling alone, which I’ve only done twice before, than about the wedding itself.  The fears that something would go wrong and E and I would be stuck in engaged or semi-married (civil wedding, but not religious wedding) limbo indefinitely seems to have gone away.  Now there’s some nervousness about all the paperwork (civil and religious) this is going to take, as well as house-hunting and organising the religious wedding.

We want a very small party, although we’re still not sure how many people.  E would like to do just close family.  For a while I wanted some close friends and a couple of more distant cousins I see frequently, but now I’m wondering if close family (counting first cousins, and one or two extras, like my rabbi mentor) might be better.  I’m worried about getting autistically exhausted for days afterwards if I invite too many people, and it’s easier to say ‘No friends’ than to decide who can and can’t come, especially as, realistically, I think some of my closest friends won’t be able to make it.  I worry that all my parents’ friends are expecting to be invited to a Big Fat Jewish Wedding like my sister had, and like their children had, and invited my parents to.  Reciprocity can be a tricky thing.  My biggest worry is that I would like a quorum at the party for shevah brachot (wedding blessings) and I don’t think we’re going to get that with a very small guest list.

By this stage, after having dated on and off since 2018, and having been together continuously since May of last year, but having only spent a total of a couple of weeks together in person, E and I just want to be married.  We are hoping to be married by next Pesach (April 2022), but I’m worried that we won’t manage it.  We can’t submit E’s spouse visa application until after the civil wedding (29 August) and it will take about six months, unless things have improved at the Home Office.  The last we heard, things were delayed as the Home Office struggled to deal with Ukrainian refugees.  That takes us up to the end of February, not leaving much time for organising the wedding and finding somewhere to live, not to mention stocking a new kitchen (small party = few presents).

It is very frustrating being this far apart for so long, as well as not being able to live together (with everything that entails).  It’s kind of embarrassing to say this, but I think it’s only now, age thirty-nine, that I’m ready to get married, or to have sex, not that I would have done one without the other.  Sex in particular has been something I’ve struggled with for years in a way that is not really acceptable to talk about in either the frum (religious Jewish) world or the secular world, wanting to explore it, but being scared to do so as well as subject to religious prohibitions that generated guilt. 

Being a virgin at thirty-nine isn’t particularly normal or acceptable in either community (frum or secular), the assumption being something must be wrong, whereas I think I just wasn’t ready and hadn’t been in the right relationship.  I realise that my previous relationships (mostly just crushes; other than E, I’ve only had two real relationships) wouldn’t have worked, and I sort of intuitively feel that God was making me wait for the right time (and that therefore the religious wedding will come at the right time too), even though I didn’t believe it at the time.  But now I’m ready… and we have to wait another six months or more.

Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

Tisha B’Av Continued (Briefly)

(This really continues from the post I posted last night.)  I think I finally fell asleep about 4am (on two pillows, as I worried I was hurting my neck on one).  I slept through until almost halakhic (Jewish law) midday (the midpoint of daylight hours, which, because of daylight savings time, is currently 1.05pm).  I felt relieved, but also guilty for missing so much of Tisha B’Av (the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, see yesterday’s post for more).  Then I discovered, in rapid succession (a) that there’s been fighting again between Israel and Gaza (Islamic Jihad this time instead of Hamas); (b) that because of the fighting, and rockets fired at Israel, my cousin, who has PTSD, has been running to the bomb shelter again; and (c) that E definitely has COVID and is feeling bad, both physically and emotionally.  I can’t do anything about any of these things, other than send texts, and pray.

These thoughts got mixed up with other thoughts about my disrupted sleep, and not knowing if it’s because of a physical sleep disorder, autistic exhaustion or medication side-effects, and how so much of my life, particularly my religious life, seems to be making the best of difficult situations.  Sometimes it feels like only my life with E is completely good (there are challenges there, but I feel we can meet them).

I read some of Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World and The Third Reich in Power 1933-1939, although I’m not sure how much either of them really made me feel the “right” feelings for the day.  To be honest, I’m not really sure what I felt today, and I feel bad about sleeping through the morning.  I really wish I could sort my sleep pattern out, or get some kind of idea of what the problem is so I can move towards it, as I don’t think I’ll get my work or religious lives anywhere near to where I want them to be without doing so.  I’m pleased I was able to support E and my cousin via text.  I guess I feel I should have somehow got more into the day, but, having struggled with depression for decades, it’s hard to push myself back to that mindset.  Maybe I’m just making excuses for myself.

On the Fringes

My mood has been somewhat low again.  I’m not entirely sure why.  My religious wedding to E seems as far off as ever, and the fact that we can’t even set a date yet (because of immigration bureaucracy uncertainty) makes it worse.  The civil wedding is getting nearer (less than four weeks away), which is good, but that stokes travel anxiety.  There’s a lot to do to get married (civil and religious) and that’s daunting, but we can’t really start on much of it, which is frustrating in a different way.  Things might be easier next week, once we’re past Tisha B’Av and I can shave and listen to music again – it will just be easier to maintain a positive mood.  As I’ve said before, Tisha B’Av always seems a daunting day in advance because pretty much anything even vaguely fun is forbidden (including Torah study and, ideally, work).  It’s always a relief to get past it. My Dad says he’s struggling with no music too (and he’s shaving).

It doesn’t help that my wisdom tooth is still hurting, but I did eventually manage to get an appointment with the dentist for Friday afternoon, which was earlier than I hoped.  I’m just using clove oil to dull the pain at the moment; thankfully it’s not bad enough to need actual painkillers.

E and I had a call with someone from the United Synagogue about pre-marriage classes.  These will mainly be about the halakhot (laws) of what Orthodox people coyly refer to as “marital relations.”[1]  We can’t really move on with that until we’re further on with booking the chuppah (religious ceremony), which in turn we can’t do until we’ve had the civil ceremony and also got the American bet din (rabbinical court) to certify E as Jewish.  It’s very frustrating.

Other than that, I did some Torah study, went for a walk and worked on my novel a bit, but it was hard to get motivated or to concentrate.

[1] Haredi comedian Ashley Blaker did a joke about Jewish punk rock band The Marital Relations Pistols.

***

I’m not sure if the next bit is 100% accurate, but E said I should post it anyway.

I am still thinking about people on the fringes of the frum (religious Jewish) world.  I feel there ought to be some way to bring people together to support each other, if only virtually.  E thinks a Facebook group would be a good idea. I’m not sure.  You know my mixed feelings about Facebook, plus it’s hard to be anonymous on Facebook.  I feel inadequate to do this, but I don’t know if anyone else will.  I think there are online groups for people who are leaving or have left frumkeit, but few/none for those who want to stay, but need moral or practical support.

Yesterday I was listening to an Orthodox Conundrum episode with an anti-missionary rabbi.  He said that Jews who convert to Christianity are likely to be survivors of some kind of trauma, abuse, addiction etc.  I suspect this is probably true, although I disagreed about the wider conclusions he seemed to draw from this.  The frum community tends to refer to these people as “at risk” (i.e. at risk of “going off the derekh” (path) and stopping being frum), which I find ridiculously offensive and stigmatising in itself (as is the phrase “off the derekh,” actually). Another Orthodox Conundrum podcast reflected that the Haredi community has a lot of support for the poor or sick, but often victim-blames abuse survivors who go to the police instead of supporting them.

It makes sense to me that the community needs to provide some kind of support to these people, rather than trying to deal with the consequences them after they’ve left the frum community/converted to Christianity/had an overdose/attempted suicide/become homeless etc.

There are Jewish organisations offering specific help to groups like the mentally ill or abuse survivors or whatever, but often this is not specifically for people in the frum community, but for all Jews, even though the sociological experience of being (for example) frum and depressed is different to the experience of being depressed outside the frum community; a Jewish agnostic with depression won’t necessarily understand the needs of frum person with depression.  Even where people are offering support, it’s often practical support – which is good, but doesn’t necessarily deal with the loneliness of feeling on the fringes.  I feel there should be some kind of non-judgmental social support for people who just don’t fit in as well as people with specific issues. My hypothesis, based on my own experiences, is that someone on the fringes of the community for one reason will understand someone on the fringes for another reason, at least to some extent.

There probably is more to say about this, but it’s late and I have to go to work tomorrow…

Difficult Thoughts, and Staying Frum

I slept until 11am, which I probably needed.  Then I spent a while in bed, which was a mistake, as I fell asleep until 12.30pm, which I did not need and was not good.  I felt self-recriminatory after that, and about the over-excited post I wrote yesterday.  Sometimes I get stuck in fantasy that things are suddenly going to improve and then it’s painful coming back down to earth.

I also noticed that I’ve had a lot of difficult thoughts lately, not self-criticism so much as pure O OCD-type thoughts (e.g. thoughts about saying hurtful things to strangers).  Apparently everyone has these thoughts, or thoughts like them, all the time, but people with OCD can’t dismiss them as ‘just thoughts.’  I do wonder why people don’t discuss them more if this is true.  They do lead on to self-criticism, because I think, “How can I have thoughts like that in my head, even subconsciously?  I don’t want to say these things, so why is my brain suggesting that I should?”  I’m not obsessing over them and I don’t really think I’m a bad person, so it’s not reached OCD-level, but I just wish it would shut up.

To be honest, I would probably be a lot happier generally if my brain would just shut up sometimes.  I know someone who seems to wander around broadcasting their entire inner monologue constantly to avoid the silence.  If that really is what they’re doing, their inner monologue is a lot quieter and more banal than my inner monologue.  I do wish I could turn things down sometimes.

***

I felt down today, I’m not sure why.  The day has been a bit of a struggle.  I don’t have anything insightful to say about this.

I did phone the GP surgery this afternoon and managed to get an appointment with the doctor I spoke to last time.  This was regarding wanting to reduce my medication and being told by the psychiatrist not to do so.  The GP seemed a bit annoyed that I hadn’t been able to speak to the psychiatrist directly to explain my situation, but had to speak through a “link worker.”  This was the person I spoke to on the phone, who I thought was a psychiatrist, but apparently was not.  The GP is going to write again to request a direct phone call between me and the psychiatrist.

I spent a while psyching myself up to phone the United Synagogue about moving forward with E and my marriage application paperwork, but got the answer phone.

So many things at the moment can’t be done in one go.  A lot of this relates to going to the US and getting married, but also to other things like filling in my tax return (which I’ve never had to do before).  I just keep pushing things off or only managing to do the next step and I find it frustrating that nothing is ever finished.  Maybe that’s contributed to feeling down.

***

Sometimes I wonder how I’ve stayed frum (religious Jewish).  It’s hard to stay frum if you don’t feel connected to the community, or aren’t getting positive feelings from Jewish practice, or are just struggling to do all the stuff that being Jewish entails, and I’ve struggled with all three things at different times.  I guess I’m struggling with most or all of them now, if not necessarily to the same extent as in the past.  And autism/Asperger’s and mental health issues just makes everything even harder.  My main mental health issue at the moment is social anxiety, which isn’t as bad for me as depression and OCD were, but it’s particularly good at sabotaging anything I try to do related to being in a community, and a lot about Orthodox Judaism is ideally done in a community.  Alexithymia (difficulty sensing and understanding my feelings) probably also means that I miss some positive feelings from Judaism and community, strange though that may seem.

Does that make me a good Jew for persisting despite all this or a bad one for not being so enthusiastic, committed or involved?  I don’t know.  I feel like a good Jew wouldn’t be struggling with these things in the first place, but I also feel that I didn’t choose to be in this situation.   I once saw one rabbi write that “A good Jew is trying to be a better Jew,” but I worry that in the last few years, rather than improving, I’ve even cut back on things to try to consolidate what I’m still doing.

I am aware that people on the fringes of the Orthodox Jewish community, for whatever reason, tend to drop out.  I’ve known a number of people who became frum as a young adult, but dropped out of observance later due to mental health issues (sometimes becoming observant is a symptom of mental illness, although I don’t think that was the case with me).  So I know I should feel that I’m doing OK.  It would just be nice to have some certainty that I’m a good Jew and a good human being.  Although, as I realised a while back, but still haven’t internalised, there isn’t going to be a day when someone gives me a medal to officially recognise that I’m a good person or a good Jew, and I should really stop wanting it to happen.  At least E thinks I’m a good person and a good Jew; it probably is too much to hope for other people to say the same.

Tangentially-related to this, on one of the Orthodox Conundrum podcasts I listened to, Elisheva Rishon (fashion designer and Jew of colour) spoke about connecting with other Orthodox Jews online, but struggling to overcome stigma in real-world Orthodox settings.  I don’t think I experience stigma per se (although it’s easier for me to mask), but it nudges me towards going back on social media to try to find people I can connect with.  But then I remember how awful being on Facebook was, and I scare myself off it.

***

I am currently reading The Third Reich in Power by Richard J Evans; When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture by Elana Sztokman; and Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World by Yael Ziegler[1].  These are all good books, but very heavy-going [2].  I tried to read the Third Reich book this evening and struggled with it.  I think I have to throw a novel in there or something lighter.  It’s frustrating, as the Third Reich book is very long and I don’t want to be reading it for months on end.  I don’t want to take any of those books to New York in a few weeks (not least because they’re too heavy in a literal sense), so I’ll have to start something soon anyway.  I do want to finish the spring Jewish Review of Books first (the summer issue is out, but it takes ages to get to the UK).

[1] I am also occasionally reading The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who by David J. Howe and Steven James Walker, which is annoying in another way entirely, but that’s not a topic for now.

[2] When Rabbis Abuse is also in desperate need of a proof-reader, as I’m not sure I’ve seen a professionally-published book with so many typos and errors, but, again, that’s not a problem for now.

Sleep Apnoea, Reframing, The Three Weeks, and Podcasts

The last few days have been fairly quiet, just the usual mix of work, Torah study, novel writing and novel submitting, as well as Shabbat (the Sabbath). I woke up in the middle of the night last night panting and short of breath. I was somehow sufficiently alert to realise I was lying on my chest (I go to sleep on my side), so that’s all more evidence in favour of my having sleep apnoea, which tends to be worst when lying either face down or face up. I must have moved in my sleep. No idea when I’ll get to see a specialist to investigate it. I’d like some kind of answer about what my sleep/getting up problems are all about so I could try to work on them. I do need longer days if I want to earn more money, and I would like to be able to go to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat mornings again, both for religious and social reasons. I slept for several hours this afternoon, but tried to tell myself it was understandable if my sleep last night was poor.

I went to my parents’ shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) today. Someone from my shul (which I haven’t been to since it moved out of its regular premises into cramped temporary premises) sat in front of me, which disrupted my concentration for the whole service, as I was worried he would speak to me about why I stopped going to my shul. In the end he left early without speaking to me at all, so that was wasted worrying.

I had a weird Viktor Frankl/Man’s Search for Meaning reframing moment. I’ve felt frustrated for years about losing more than twenty years of my life to mental illness and/or autistic burnout, and during the supposedly “best years of my life” of adolescence and early adulthood too. Perhaps because the Torah reading lately has been about the end of the Israelites’ forty year sojourn in the wilderness, I found myself thinking, “It was only twenty years I lost. It could have been worse. It could have been forty.” I find it weirdly comforting. I’m not sure if this is rational or not.

We’re two-thirds of the way through the Three Weeks, the Jewish national mourning period in the summer when we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem. I find it a difficult time. My beard (a sign of mourning) itches, it’s frustrating that I can’t listen to music unless exercising and the Fast of Av at the end is an intimidating day to get through. I have only felt autistically exhausted enough that I needed to listen to music once, though, which is good (there is a heter (permission) for people with depression to listen to music which my rabbi mentor said could apply to my autistic exhaustion).

Because I’m not listening to music, I have been binge listening (if that’s a thing) to the back catalogue of Orthodox Conundrum podcasts. Many of the podcasts have provoked thought, although I don’t always get the chance to record my thoughts, especially as I tend to listen when I’m walking to or from the station. Here are some thoughts on a couple of them.

Rabbi Lopes Cardozo was talking about his latest book (at the time of the podcast, a couple of years ago). He argued that mitzvot (commandments) are supposed to instil “radical amazement” (I recognised this a term from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). Since I listened to this podcast, I have been trying to feel that amazement when saying blessings on food and the like, which is one of the main religious actions I do during the day, certainly in terms of frequency and it has been quite positive so far.

He also said that he believes in God, but doesn’t know what “God” means. This reminded me of the negative theology of Medieval Rationalist thinkers like Rambam (Maimonides) and Rav Saadia Gaon. The idea is that God is beyond understanding and description, so we can’t say what God is, only what God is not (e.g. “God is not weak” rather than “God is powerful”). This approached has been debunked by various people (Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and Rabbi Samuel Lebens just from my bookshelf), but Rabbi Lebens argues that even if it’s not literally true, it’s a useful reminder of the limits of human knowledge.

Shira Lankin Sheps of The Layers Project Magazine was talking about how The Layers Project Magazine tells the stories of religious Jewish women who are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media (because it’s not interested in religious people) and the Orthodox Jewish media (which is not interested in women). She said that the Orthodox community is often governed by shame, where people think their negative experiences are unique and therefore shameful, but in fact they are often normal. The Layers Project Magazine aims to normalise those stories.

I think this is positive, but I felt that when she presented her own story, of struggling with an unknown chronic illness, it seemed very swift. She said she wrote one post about her illness and suddenly she was getting so many positive responses and support from other people. Then she wrote another post when her grandmother died and from that a doctor who read it identified her illness. It’s the kind of thing that makes me doubt myself, because, as I said above, it’s taken me twenty years to get to this point and I’m still not sure I’ll get exactly where I want to be. I never had that kind of miraculous quick fix. It reminded me of Hevria, where it seemed OK to have had an illness or trauma in the past, but not to be struggling with one on an ongoing basis. I haven’t really read the website, so I don’t know how those stories are framed.

(The only thing I could find on the site on high-functioning autism/Asperger’s was the beginning of this post covering several different women’s stories. It’s a shame, as autism in women is even less understood and accepted than autism in men.)

“Why were you not Luftmentsch?”

I was somewhat late for volunteering today, partly because I overslept, partly because there were no buses.  To be fair, the two other people who get the same bus were similarly late.  I hung around to drink coffee with the other volunteers afterwards.  I tried to speak.  I find it hard.  There are some things I don’t really want to talk about, and other things where I can’t work out whether I should talk about them or not.  There are some questions that I would naturally answer with a yes/no answer, but I have learnt that allistics (non-autistics) often prefer an explanation or elaboration, so I try to give that where it doesn’t seem too intrusive.  Believe it or not, I’m a private person away from my blog.

I did mention that I’m engaged and having my civil wedding soon.  I’d been wondering whether to say something, then I had the opportunity to drop it into the conversation casually, so I did.  Everyone was pleased for me, although I had to explain the immigration/two weddings situation.

More difficult to handle was when I was asked if I would join everyone at a non-kosher restaurant for lunch next week (there is no actual volunteering next week).  I was not comfortable doing that, although I was pleased to be asked.  But I find these situations awkward, as I don’t want to appear holier-than-thou.  To be honest, part of me was glad, as if it was at a kosher restaurant, I would feel obliged to go and I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of social contact with these people yet.  But I know E would be inclined to go in this situation and it does make me wonder how we will deal with our different kashrut-based socialising decisions.  It can be a bit of a minefield at the best of times.

I volunteer putting together the food packages at the food bank, and then other volunteers come to distribute them in their cars.  One of those drivers was wearing a kippah like the one I was wearing.  These were produced uniquely for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding guests, so it would seem he was there (I guess as a guest on my brother-in-law’s side as I didn’t know him, most likely a relative or close friend of my BIL’s parents).  I didn’t have the confidence to ask him about it.  My Dad has actually had at least one conversation with a stranger started by the shared wedding kippah connection and I felt that my Dad would want me to ask him, but I didn’t have the confidence.

In the afternoon I spent some time on my novel.  I spent about an hour on it, not as much as I would have liked, but I wrote over 500 words, and it was a difficult passage (not yet finished), about my characters’ reactions in an art gallery.  Art is not a subject I know a lot about, so it is a learning curve.  I think this chapter will take some time

I submitted my first novel to another agent.  I had to pick one from a bunch of agents at the agency.  They did have them tagged by genre, which made it easier, although I’m not sure what I feel about ‘mental illness’ and ‘neurodivergent’ apparently being considered genres now, useful though that is to me, given my novel’s subject matter.  I feel vaguely bad that I discounted one agent for having two typos on her profile page, although it then turned out that she’s not currently looking for new writers anyway (phew, no guilt!).  I did find another one to submit to.

***

I saw a blog post yesterday about not having a victim mentality.  Then today I was in a discussion about the same subject.  I probably do have something of a victim mentality when I look back at my earlier life, in particular the bullying and the years lost to depression/autistic burnout.  I’m finding it hard to learn to accept my life without letting the negative parts of it define me, and not to see it as leaving me with something to prove or a need to redeem my life.  It’s possible that I still haven’t processed the fact that I’ve discovered that I’m disabled and have been all my life, or at least that I haven’t processed it as much as I thought I had.

Today I was thinking (for unrelated reasons) about wanting to be myself, about the famous story about the eighteenth century Hasidic master Zusia of Hanipol.  On his deathbed, he said he was scared.  His Hasidim asked why.  He said, “I’m not scared that they will say [in the afterlife], ‘Why were you not Avraham (Abraham)?’ because I am not Avraham.  I’m not scared they will say, ‘Why were you not Moshe (Moses)?’ because I am not Moshe.  I’m scared they will say, ‘Zusia, why were you not Zusia?’”

It is scary to think of going through life trying to be someone else and I have no idea if I’m doing that.  I was thinking yesterday that I wished I was more spontaneous and confident enough to say and do things in an off-the-cuff way.  Then I asked myself if I really wished I could do that or if I just had an image in my head that being spontaneous is a good thing to be and that I’m not spontaneous and don’t need to be.

Emotional Vampire

Sorry, WordPress has eaten this post again, and I don’t have time to fix the probable formatting problems of salvaging it. Yesterday I overslept, the beginning of a day marked with incipient signs of autistic exhaustion. I skipped even more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than I usually do and wondered when I would get to see someone about my sleep issues. Work was pretty dull. In the morning I was mostly locating and copying dividend statements for the auditors without really understanding the financial reports I was searching through. I hope I found everything I needed. The afternoon was spent sorting through old papers to see what could be thrown away. I found letters from the then Chief Rabbi and his successor, and two letters from fathers of schoolfriends of mine (both Reform rabbis). On way home I felt burnt out. I had the “brain being squashed” feeling again. Apparently volunteering + headache + work + peopling + work again + heatwave = autistic exhaustion very quickly. I was exhausted at home. I spent half an hour or so doing non-screen time reading, which helped a bit even if the subject matter was heavy (The Third Reich in Power). After dinner, I submitted my novel to two agents in the space of twenty or thirty minutes. I’m getting quicker as I’m getting more experienced, although that hasn’t led to more interest, just more rejections. I spoke to E afterwards, but eventually I crashed. I can’t remember when I went to bed exactly, but I must have slept for over twelve hours, despite setting alarms and Dad trying to get me up. I feel tired and numb now, but more functional, and my brain doesn’t feel like it’s being squeezed. It is hard to do anything, though. I went for a walk, even though that meant I couldn’t work on my novel today (and I probably won’t on Sunday either, as I’m busy). I wanted to be out in nature, which is impossible where I live, but there’s a little strip of wasteland and woodland at the edge of the local park, so I went walking there. I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and guilt, which did make me feel like I was, on some level, thinking about my novel, doing Torah study and getting out to look after my physical and emotional health, at least on some level. Aside from writing this post, the only other thing I’ve done today is my usual pre-Shabbat chores. I feel a need to move on with my life, particularly with marrying E and with my writing. Marrying E is moving on OK at the moment, even if it’s frustrating that bureaucracy is going to make it a prolonged process, but I want to move faster with my novel. It’s partly feeling I have something to say, and that my subject matter is going to be taken by other writers if I don’t write quickly. But some of it is feeling “I need to earn money as a writer to help support the family when E and I marry.” Days like today, when I just feel overwhelmed and unable to do much, are a reminder that I have a disability and that my life is not where I want it to be, will not be there for a while longer, and it may never be there, which is frustrating and scary. That said, I have kind of reached a point lately where, at least some of the time, I feel less resentful of having lost half my life to depression/autistic burnout/whatever it was. I don’t look positively at those times, but I feel I needed to go through something like that if I want to write about people on the margins of the frum (religious Jewish) world, and I feel I wasn’t ready to get married then, despite being painfully lonely and not having any real legitimate option in the frum world for dealing with loneliness and sexual frustration. I have a lot more maturity, understanding of myself, and ability to give in a relationship than I had even a couple of years ago. I feel less resentful of God for putting me through all this. Of course, if I believe in an omnipotent God, then I have to believe He could have achieved all this a less painful way, and I do struggle to consciously accept that this was the best way to achieve these goals, especially when so many other people reach this stage without similar levels of pain. Ultimately, I think everyone suffers, sooner or later (except perhaps some exceptionally wicked people who God lets enjoy this world so they won’t experience the next one), and it’s pointless to complain who suffers more or less. It’s hard sometimes, but the alternative is basically self-defeating. *** I had another couple of books arrive over the last two days. They were ostensibly bought for research for my novel, but I’m not sure how helpful they will actually be. Really, I was curious about them, but needed to justify reading them to myself. The books are The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know by Shira Tarrant and When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse by Elana Sztokman. For some time now I’ve been reading On Repentance, a collection of shiurim (religious lectures) given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Day of Atonement), and reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I’ve been struggling in places, not because of the text, but because it’s hard to know what to do with the optimistic view of a forgiving God when I’m aware that there are people, often very prominent people, in the frum community who are abusive and others who defend and protect them, and I don’t feel these people should be forgiven. I worry how the community as a whole will achieve forgiveness for allowing this situation to exist. I think about this sometimes when davening (praying), but it really crystallised around the idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, after listening to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher describe her abuse by Todros Grynhaus, a rabbi and schoolteacher, and how, at a time when she was trying to make the community aware of the danger he posed, she was marginalised while he was asked to lead the prayer services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a shul (synagogue) despite the allegations she had made against him. I do worry why I’ve got so interested in abuse, and writing about abuse. I was never abused (I was bullied a lot at school, but it was largely name-calling and not anything physical. I don’t know if it would be considered emotional abuse). I have known survivors, and abusers, but I think it’s more the experience of marginalisation that I empathise with, albeit for different reasons (autism and mental illness) and want to do something about. But I worry that I become a kind of emotional vampire, sucking up other people’s sorrow for benefit.

Otherstide[1]

Well, it’s cooler than it was, but I still came home really sweaty, even though I had the air conditioner on at work. Work was dullish. It was a bit weird being in the office without J. I was the only person in our office, although there were a couple of other people in the building. I would normally be worried the phone would ring and I would have to deal with it, but J still had the office phone diverting to his mobile, as he does when he’s working from home, so there wasn’t any risk of that happening. I don’t know how many mistakes I made; I printed a couple of pages by accident, but that’s a fairly minor thing, and I caught someone else’s mistake (sending us paperwork intended for someone else), albeit not before I’d wasted some time trying to deal with it.

I came home to discover that the NHS psychiatrist has decided that because of “previous complexity in [my] presentation”, I should stay on my psychiatric medication at the current levels, presumably for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to come off my meds completely and I accept I will be taking meds for a long time, but I would like to try to reduce the clomipramine given it has some unpleasant side-effects and that I’m on quite a high dose still (I think). There was no indication that the psychiatrist (who has never met me and is basing this on my notes) realised that my depression seems to have been strongly linked to the problems of being an undiagnosed, and frequently burnt out, autistic and that things are much better now I have a diagnosis. I know my mood dipped when I tried to stop my olanzapine, but even given that, I managed to significantly reduce the amount of olanzapine I was taking.

E was furious about this and my parents weren’t much more pleased. I just greeted it with a resigned “typical NHS” shrug, but they have all convinced me that I should at least try to speak to one of the two GPs I have seen before from our practice, although it’s hard to get an appointment and technically we aren’t supposed to ask for a particular GP. E asked about seeing a psychiatrist privately. I’ve done that before when I’ve run into problems with the NHS, and it costs £££. E thinks it would be worth it if I could end up healthier in body and perhaps mind, which I guess is true, although I’m not sure I agree that we should divert money from our wedding to pay for it (we haven’t had the talk with my parents yet about who is paying for what and how much — contrary to what you might think, my parents are willing to pay a lot and it’s E who is sceptical).

I wanted to do some writing when I got home, but after I’d showered, I had the “brain squashed” feeling I associate with autistic exhaustion. I watched an episode of The Simpsons instead (The Joy of Sect, where the Simpsons join a cult that isn’t at all based on Scientology, no). Pleasingly, it had a reference to one of my favourite James Bond stunts (from Live and Let Die, where Roger Moore’s stuntman really did run over the backs of a bunch of live crocodiles[2], in a sequence that would doubtless be unfilmable that way today, due to animal welfare concerns, and perhaps also insurance issues for the stuntman) followed immediately by a The Prisoner spoof sequence. Geek heaven!

***

Well, today is my thirty-ninth birthday. It will be a special year, as (barring acts of God) E and I will get married. That makes me feel more positive than on many other birthdays for the last decade or so. Other than that, I can’t find any great significance in the number thirty-nine. There are thirty-nine forbidden primary labours on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I’ve seen it argued that that should really be seen as forty (thirty-nine forbidden actions plus the one command to remember Shabbat).

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner and we (me and my parents) had dinner with them in the garden. It was getting cooler, and by the end of the evening we were feeling a little bit cold for the first time in ages. We had takeaway, a mixture of pizza and fish. I had pizza. I wanted to try something new and had a pizza with vegetarian sausage, real meat sausage not being eaten with cheese according to the Jewish dietary laws, but the taste was a little disappointing and I’m not sure why real sausage is a popular topping. So much for trying new things (says the Aspie). The chocolate cake was nice though. My parents lit candles in the shape of the letters of my name on it. Unfortunately, they’ve been using the same candles for some years now and the wax is half burnt down and misshapen, which made the whole thing seem a bit silly.

My BIL arrived when my parents were picking up my sister from the Tube station (she had been working in town) as well as the food so I had to make small talk with him for some time. I think I did OK. He appreciated my likening the Conservative Party leadership election process to reality TV (reality TV is more believable, though[3]).

I did get some nice books as presents: Yael Ziegler’s Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World (commentary on Eichah/Lamentations for the Koren Maggid Tanakh series), which I am glad to get in time for Tisha B’Av; Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy by Rabbi Michael J. Harris; and The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert. The latter is one of those famous science fiction books (or series of books) that I’ve never read. I was intimidated by the length, even before I saw the telephone directory-sized volume my sister and BIL gave me (and this is just the first trilogy; there’s a second one!). Still, my future in-laws insisted I ought to read it, so hopefully this will give me something to talk to them about in the future. Probably not when I go for the civil marriage in August, though, as I’m not going to read this while still reading The Third Reich in Power, and that will keep me going for quite a while longer. One doorstop at a time is enough.

Faith Without Fear is a book of essays on Modern Orthodoxy. One of them is titled Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy: Heirs to Historical Jewish Tradition or New Departures? Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidences), this has been on my mind over the last few days, as Haredi commenters on the Rationalist Judaism blog tend to insist that Haredi Judaism is the only “Torah-true” form of Judaism and that Modern Orthodoxy is a disingenuous cop-out. I think this is nonsense, but don’t have the time to marshal a serious counter-argument, so it’s good that this will do it for me. I wouldn’t make the argument to the Haredi commenters, though, as if you quote a secular historical source, it will be dismissed as biased, whereas if you quote an actual Haredi rabbi, you’ll be told he “Isn’t really Haredi” or even that “There is no such thing as Haredi Judaism, it exists only in the mind of its enemies.” You can’t argue with people like that.

I did think of writing an essay called Why I am not Haredi today, but don’t really have the time for that, or anyone to try to sell it too. It wouldn’t be accepted on the kiruv (outreach) site I’ve written for in the past. It probably would have gone on Hevria, although they wouldn’t have paid me.

Anyway, I had a good time with my family, but I wish E could have been here too, and I feel like I need alone time now (or possibly I’m crashing from the sugar in the cake), but it’s really time for bed as I have work tomorrow.

[1] This is possibly my most esoteric Doctor Who reference. It’s to The New Adventures novel Lungbarrow, a novel I’ve always loved despite its flaws, and despite not being the biggest New Adventures fan.

[2] The crocodiles were somewhat sedated, but very real and conscious.

[3] Let’s not forget that Boris Johnson became famous as a panellist on Have I Got News for You when he was just a journalist. Incidentally, I always felt that they should have done a special edition of HIGNFY during the Labour antisemitism scandal with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as guest panellists called Have I Got Jews for You.

Wedding Plans

Work today wasn’t very good. I think I slept badly again because of the heat and yawned away like crazy on the Tube and struggled to stay awake. There was a fair amount of work to do in the morning, but in the afternoon I was sorting old papers again, mostly minutes of meetings from circa 2002-2006. There were minutes from a number of similarly-named committees mixed up together, which was confusing. I spent a lot of time feeling anxious about E and my wedding ceremony and got into a bad state. E and I were texting about it too, and that probably made things worse, as we both got into a negative mindset where each thought that the other deserved a better partner than we could be. I probably texted too much for a work day, but there wasn’t really much work to do.

I got quite down and self-critical, so E and I had a long conversation this evening when we looked at wedding plans systematically and said how we envisioned our wedding, as well as listing our top three wedding priorities. E let me count “religious stuff” as one thing, which was generous of her (I’ve already told her that having Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) is lower down my list and might get cut). I think we both felt better after that as we have a clearer idea of what we want, and I have a clearer idea of why she wants to keep the costs down.

It’s scary that tiredness + boredom and maybe + heat can quickly = extreme self-criticism and pessimism about the future, as well as cynicism about my ability to make good life choices. I should remember that I can get quite down at work, particularly when there isn’t much to do or I’ve made mistakes (both of which happened today). It is good that E and I have talked this through now.

Unfortunately, I am no closer to determining how many people I would feel comfortable with at the wedding, or how to narrow down my list if I decide thirty people (plus E’s guests) would be too many.

***

When I was self-critical and beating myself up about life decisions that weren’t entirely within my control, I had a thought about autism spectrum disorder, namely that it seems to be entirely random whether you get a version that turns you into someone severely disabled, a version that turns you into a super-successful Elon Musk-type visionary, or something in between. I’m not sure of any other condition that can be either disabling or enabling except perhaps ADHD (which has some links to autism). There isn’t really a clear way of causing one or the other outcome (that we know of currently).

Unfortunately, these days I feel that I’m moderately disabled. I have a reasonable degree of functionality compared with someone who is non-verbal or even compared with someone who essentially lives at home and does no paid work and has no friends (which is somewhere I’ve been in the past, or close to), but I’m clearly not functional enough to fully support myself financially at present or to have the kind of lifestyle many of my neurotypical peers have attained, and I don’t know how I go about changing that. My book learning has not really helped me in a work environment that values “soft skills” and networking ability so much more than academic skills, and my inability to function in noisy environments or under pressure do not make things easier for me.

The Tribe of Dan and Not Being Left Behind

It’s the bit of summer when we get a heatwave in the UK and I feel too hot to go to bed, so I’m blogging, even though it’s nearly midnight (when I started. It’s nearly 1am now I’ve finished). It was a normal Shabbat (Sabbath) in terms of shul (synagogue) attendance, Torah study, walk and so on. I came back from Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) to find my parents in the garden with their friends. Their friends are very talkative and very loud, and the windows were all open because of the heat, so wherever I went in the house I had to listen to their conversation on health and the supposed inadequacies of the criminal justice system. (I wonder how expensive the penal system would be if we incarcerated every serious criminal literally for life as they seemed to want?) I tried to tune them out and read The Third Reich in Power, which isn’t the most cheerful read, but is interesting and engaging.

***

As well as reading about Nazis, I read a bit more of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy. I can’t read more than a few pages at a time, as it inspires a whole mixture of emotions: excitement at marrying E; frustration that immigration delays mean we probably won’t be under the chuppah until March; perhaps some sadness that I’m coming to my sexuality so much later than most people; and especially anxiety that this is going to be another thing I’m not good at (these days, I basically feel that I’m good at writing and nothing else, although E says I do have other skills). It sounds so complicated and scary! I am reliably informed that birds do it, bees do and even educated fleas do it. No information about uneducated fleas, but uneducated humans seem to manage OK, but I wonder how sometimes. I think the authors are trying to be realistic and even somewhat reassuring that “It’s not like movies and TV,” but it seems to make it worse for me.

***

I probably shouldn’t have written recently about “anxiety” as it’s mostly apprehension rather than real anxiety. I guess I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that I lost most of my life between the ages of about nineteen and thirty-seven to depression and/or autistic burnout, and that social anxiety has been an issue since a very young age. I still feel that if anything can go wrong in my life, it will, and that God wants to make me suffer as some kind of test of faith or behaviour. I have to remind myself of many things I have successfully achieved, even if some of them went wrong in the long run (nothing lasts forever), so that I feel that I will be able to achieve more things in the future. I have to try to tell myself that God wants more for me than simply enduring suffering. There’s no way to be sure that that’s true, of course, but if I tell myself I’m going to suffer forever, I probably will.

***

A thought I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks (which I’m not going to source properly as I normally would do, because it’s nearly half past midnight. Anyway, I’ve seen most of this in the secondary literature, not the primary sources): the Torah in Beha’alotechah (the third Torah reading from Bamidbar (Numbers)) states that the Israelites were divided into four camps in the wilderness, and moved through the desert in strict order. The fourth camp was led by the Tribe of Dan, who are described as the “me’asef” of all the camps. Modern translations render me’asef as something like ‘rear guard,’ but the literal meaning is more like ‘gatherer’. This led to the interpretation of Rashi that the Tribe of Dan gathered any property left behind after the other camps moved on and restored it to its owners (I assume Rashi is basing himself on a Midrash; he usually does. EDIT: I just checked Sefaria and it’s from a comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) Eruvin). The Bekhor Shor goes further and says that Dan gathered in the people who were late and missed travelling with their own tribal camps.

Elsewhere there’s an idea that Dan was the lowest of the twelve tribes of Israel and the most prone to idolatry, probably based on the fact that they were the only tribe that never conquered their allotted land in Israel (on the coastal plain) and a chunk of the tribe went off north towards what’s now Lebanon to find other land. On the way they ended up finding and essentially stealing an idolatrous sanctuary (Shoftim/Judges). There is also Shimshon (Samson), virtually the only significant Danite in Tanakh, who feels more like a Greek hero than a Jewish one.

Putting these two ideas together, maybe there’s a sense that, to reach the people on the margins, the people who are in danger of getting left behind (literally and metaphorically), you have to be halfway towards getting left behind yourself. I won’t deny that this is a further attempt to think myself into a more positive view of my life story, my religiosity and my place in the Jewish community, to try make something good out of years of depression/burnout and religious and community engagement that is perhaps a lot less than might have been expected from someone like me (maybe. Sometimes I think I do a lot more than someone dealt this hand could really be expected to do. It’s hard to tell what is right). I would like to reach Jews who are in danger of being ‘left behind’ with my writing, although I only have the vaguest ideas of how, or what would happen afterwards.

Boundaries, and Going to Dark Places

I probably drank too much coffee and especially tea at work today, as on the way home I became somewhat anxious, which may have been fuelled by caffeine. I did use some coping strategies my therapist suggested, and they seemed to help. There is still some “something will go wrong and stop E and I marrying,” fear that I’m trying to keep under control.

I do think at some point I need to have a conversation with my rabbi mentor and/or therapist about boundaries in marriage. I mean this in a slightly atypical way. It’s not about setting boundaries for myself in terms of actions, but boundaries of responsibility where I can say, “This is E’s decision, I don’t need to act as if I’m morally responsible for it.” I think I usually take on too much moral responsibility for the decisions of those around me (e.g. with my parents or at work) and this has led to a lot of anxiety in the past, including today. I need to find a way to deal with this once I get married or I’ll drive E and myself mad.

***

I listened to another Orthodox Conundrum podcast while doing a mindless data-entry task at work, this time journalist and rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife — in the Orthodox world, that’s a job title) Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt speaking about being a rabbi’s wife and also an investigative journalist. It made me think again about whether my mission in life is to be some kind of frum writer. I hope it is, and I have expressed that hope here many times, but I can’t know it until I get more things published, and paid for them (so far I’ve been published in a fairly respectable number of professional and semi-professional places, but paid for almost none of them).

When I looked at my life a number of years ago, when my depression (or autistic burnout, whatever it was) was at it’s height, I could not see any positive kind of future or role for myself anywhere in the world. I was just marking time until I died, aware that might not be for many decades. Then I had my diversion into academic librarianship, which was promising, but eventually turned out to be a wrong turn. Now I’m contemplating a new career (as opposed to job, which I already have), as a writer, and I wonder if this will be a wrong turn too. I hope not, or at least that it leads somewhere good even if it’s not where I expect.

A while back, I would have answered the feeling of being called with, “Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy!” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 1.6) Now, I’m saying, “Here I am! Send me!” (Yishayah/Isaiah 6.8) But I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, if I want to go from ego rather than mission, or if this is really my mission at all. Maybe I’m supposed to do something else. Maybe I’m just a spear-carrier in the drama of life, watching other people having speaking parts, my mission being trying not to be envious of the stars, and not bumping into the scenery on my way out.

In the podcast, Chizik-Goldschmidt spoke of the need for more frum investigative journalists. She didn’t say this, but I think the number of genuine investigative journalists in the frum world is basically one: her, and she mostly writes for non-frum periodicals because the frum ones would never publish an article on, for example, frum women who have had abortions or fraudulent frum charities.

I couldn’t be, and don’t want to be, a journalist. I struggle to imagine any autistic person being an investigative journalist like that; too much speaking to people and reading people, reading between the lines and so on. But I would like to write books that get under the skin of the type of people that a journalist like Chizik-Goldschmidt would write about, in a more dramatic and psychological way than a journalist can do.[1] That’s what I did in my (unpublished) first novel, about a frum high-functioning autistic and a frum woman in an abusive relationship. That’s what I’m trying to do in my current novel, about a rabbi with a pornography addiction. And lately I find myself wanting to write about child abuse in the frum community and the way it’s covered up by the powers that be. I even find myself wondering if I could write from the point of view of an abuser (to be honest, probably not, I think it would upset me too much and be tricky to do, but it’s worth playing with ideas).

I want to go to the dark places, and to the marginal people, to people who (like me) don’t quite fit into the frum world, to people who are ignored or squashed down to fit into a box. People who can’t quite be what they’re “supposed” to be, however hard they try. I guess I could defend this by saying I want to “elevate the fallen sparks” that have fallen into the dark places, but I think it’s curiosity, imagination and empathy as much as anything else, the part of me that thinks, “What would I do in that situation?” or “How could such a person live with themselves?” when I read the news. I just hope writing turns into something meaningful, to me and to others, and isn’t another dead end. I would consider myself successful if a few people struggling in the frum community write to me to say I really “get” them, even if some important people criticise my books. But first I just want to get my novel published!

[1] It occurred to me after writing this that fiction-writing perhaps isn’t an obvious autistic career either. Writers need empathy. Contrary to popular belief, autistic people do have emotional empathy (feeling what others feel). We just don’t have cognitive empathy (the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they would do). I suspect I get around this by thinking out my characters’ motivations and actions in a very conscious, step-by-step way, the same way I function in social situations, and by doing a fair amount of research into how real people have behaved in similar situations, both of which may be beneficial for the novel after all.

***

Speaking of which, now that I know I didn’t get on the emerging writer’s programme, I’m going back to submitting my first novel to agents. I want to submit to two a week.

In one of the Jewish newspapers, there was an interview today with a Jewish agent. It focused on a book he wrote himself, but I searched for him and found his contact details. I submitted my novel to him, although in the interview he said he receives about 5,000 submissions a year or which he takes on three or four, which is not a great ratio for me.

Re-reading the synopsis I wrote of the novel for submission, there is a lot of mental illness and suicide in there. I guess that’s where I was when I was writing it, or rather beforehand, as a lot of it was based on my life until then. It does feel kind of depressing, though, and I’m not surprised no one has really picked it up until now. The plot strand that isn’t based on my life, about an abusive marriage, seems a lot more interesting to me now. I vaguely feel I should ditch the autism/mental illness/suicide plot and rewrite the novel expanding the abusive marriage storyline, but (a) I’m writing another novel now and (b) I’m not sure I have enough to say to expand it to a full novel without it being worth starting from scratch. Still, if I hadn’t written the semi-autobiographical stuff, I would never have had the confidence to start a novel and to learn that I can actually create characters and plots from scratch, so it served a purpose.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Luftmentsch

I didn’t really want to blog after the longest Shabbat of the year, but I had a pretty awful time and need to offload, so here goes. I had one of those days of autistic burnout that basically feel like depression, with no energy, low mood, and agitated and perhaps somewhat obsessive thoughts. I’ll go through what happened and then some of the thoughts.

I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) last night. I was just too physically drained to manage it. I had a lot of agitated thoughts all evening, including at dinner with my parents, which was uncomfortable and made it hard to concentrate. After dinner, I did Torah study for about forty minutes, reading two difficult chapters of Yehoshua (Joshua) listing Levitical cities, and the commentary on them in Rabbi Hattin’s commentary book. I am now through all the chapters that just the tribal boundaries in ancient Israel, which is a relief. Afterwards I was not sleepy and wanted to read something lighter than the book of contemporary Israeli writing that I’m sort of reading (where contemporary is circa 1973 as it’s an old, second-hand book), so decided on James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), which might not have been the best choice as the idea of dying as soon as you get married, or just before, ended up haunting my thoughts. I got to bed around 1.40am.

I woke up around 9.30am to go to the loo. I should have stayed up, but wanted the comfort of being wrapped in my weighted blanket and went back to bed, and to sleep. I got up at lunch time, which was bad. I went for a brisk walk for forty minutes after lunch, which was good (that I went), but struggled with agitated thoughts during it and afterwards. I tried to read some of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (more on that below), but it left me feeling anxious and depressed. I fell asleep for a while, despite drinking coffee. I’m not sure how long I slept for, as I was lying in bed thinking agitated thoughts for a while before I fell asleep.

On waking, I davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers). I had missed Minchah in shul and, anyway, I felt so low when I went for a walk that I didn’t really want to go out of my comfort zone (=house) again. In the summer, Jewish tradition is to read a chapter of Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud that deals with ethics) at Shabbat Minchah. Rather than just reading rapidly as I usually do, I spent twenty minutes studying somewhat more carefully, and a few things hit me that I had never really noticed before which helped my mood somewhat. It would take too long for me to explain them now (it was in chapter three). After that I did some other Talmud study for twenty minutes, then read James Bond again and got seudah (the third Shabbat meal) ready. I did struggle with that, as I didn’t really feel like ‘peopling’ with my parents, but I got through it, declined to play Scrabble afterwards and spent the remaining hour and a half of Shabbat reading Bond again and fighting some of my thoughts, finally feeling a bit better.

As for the anxious agitated thoughts themselves, a lot proceeded from something I read from therapist Elisheva Liss about narrative therapy, that we can rewrite the story of our life to change our mood and outlook and be less envious of other people’s skills and success. This appealed to me for several reasons. As a writer, this approach seemed more intuitive to me than other approaches such as CBT (for example). I had already noted that getting diagnosed with high functioning autism ended twenty years of depression by telling me that I am not an incompetent neurotypical who inexplicably can’t do basic things like use the phone and make small talk, but an autistic person who naturally struggles with these things.

Despite that change in outlook, recently I feel that I’ve been falling backwards, feeling myself useless especially in comparison to my (neurotypical) peers who have careers and families. I feel envious of people, envious of their happiness and their skills, not that I want to take anything from them, but to have things for myself, to have skills and a career, to marry E and for us to be OK financially, as well as to be able to have children with her and to have the energy and skills to raise them properly. Over Shabbat I felt negative about this, particularly worrying that some unforeseen obstacle will stop E and I marrying. This then bled into feelings that God hates me, that He sees me as sinful and wants to punish me, and that if things go well for me for a while, it’s just so it will hurt more when it all gets taken away from me again. I hadn’t had these thoughts for a long time, probably over a year, so it seemed like a backwards step.

Lately, I feel like I’m carrying a huge weight of the loneliness and depression that I struggled with for twenty or twenty-five years (maybe more), more than half my life. Just knowing, “Oh, I’m autistic, that’s why I struggle with work and relationships, that’s why I was bullied at school” doesn’t really feel enough any more. The suffering I endured brought me to E, but that feels like it can only be a part of the new narrative, not the entirety of it. I feel so overwhelmed by it still that I need to reshape my narrative (to use Liss’s terms) or (in more kabbalistic terms) to make a tikkun, to do something that will retroactively redeem my past and make it worthwhile, to convert the heavy weight I’m carrying into forward momentum. I hope my writing is at least a part of this, if I can help other people somehow (I’m not convinced I can help anyone, or that I will even get published, but that’s not my main concern right now).

I am thinking of buying Elisheva Liss’ book which apparently deals with narrative therapy at length. I am wary, though, as I wonder if I need to actually do something first before I can change the narrative, to create a new happy narrative. Also, I have a big stack of self-help books, most of which did not do much for me. Some were CBT books, and CBT does not work well for people on the spectrum (not that I knew that I was on the spectrum when I bought them). Beyond that, I suspect I need the accountability of a therapist to help me. I might raise some of the issues from this post with my own therapist on Wednesday and see where that takes me. (There are a couple of other self-help books I’m procrastinating about for the same reasons.)

I just feel so useless so much of the time, such a disappointment to other people, such a failure to achieve anything, and it feels like autism isn’t really enough of an excuse. I know E loves me, but I feel I should be a better husband to her, plus, as I said, when I feel down, it’s easy to get into a negative thought spiral about the United Synagogue not permitting our wedding or the Home Office rejecting her visa application.

The other train of negative thoughts[1] came from reading, or trying to read, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This is a sex manual designed for frum couples i.e. religious Jews who haven’t had sex before their wedding night. (The Hebrew title is Et Le’Ahov, which means Time to Love. That may be a better title even if it sounds like a cheap TV movie.) I bought this when E and I first dated, about four years ago. I started reading it to try to alleviate some of my anxieties about sex, but stopped reading when we broke up, as I was sceptical whether I would ever get to have sex. I didn’t dare to open it again when dating other women or even when dating E again until now. I guess I felt irrationally that it would somehow jinx things, or that God is waiting for me to get complacent enough to think that, one day, in middle age, I might actually be able to have sex, before He ruins everything for me again.

Now that, rationally, I know that E and I are probably going to get married some time in the next year, it seemed a good idea to read it, but I didn’t get far as it prompted a lot of anxious thoughts. Some of them were the “God will stop me getting married no matter what I do” type, but some were just the confusion and anxiety I get when thinking about sex generally. I guess celibacy and loneliness were a part of my life for so long that they became part of my identity. Not in a good way, but like being an orphan or having a disability.

I’m not sure where I go with this, except back to therapy. E and I did have a conversation a few days ago about sex and I do feel comfortable at the thought of having sex with her, it’s just that thinking about sex makes me feel that God will stop me, and that He wants to punish me for not being perfectly pure, and that somehow sex is just something not for me and there’s no way for me to change this.

Anyway, that’s how I’ve been for the last thirty hours or so. I actually feel OKish now. There’s some anxiety and low mood, but perhaps fewer agitated thoughts. I do mostly still feel that E and I will get married, although I’m still worried about being bowled more googlies[2] on the way. But I do want to go to bed soon, albeit after watching The Simpson to try to relax a bit, even though it’s 1.00am (this took well over an hour to write).

[1] I should probably say that the thoughts weren’t as neat and packaged as they seem here. I flipped back and forth between different thoughts throughout the day, and they did slowly develop to get to their form here.

[2] I am awful at all sports, but the one thing I can do is bowl a mean googly at cricket. Improbably, I learnt it from a book, because I’m me.

The Rain It Raineth Every Day

It’s not actually raining. It might rain later, but it might not. The title is a quote from Shakespeare (Twelfth Night. I was props manager on a production when I was in the sixth form, in one of the few non-academic things I ever did as a teenager). It just sums up how I feel when I get sucked back into exhaustion and burnout, like I can never escape from feelings of exhaustion, low mood and general non-functionality.

I had a busy week and a very busy day yesterday. Yesterday I had work. The morning was spent on the usual paperwork and similar jobs, I spent my lunch break looking at pictures of wedding venues and spent much of the afternoon doing a boring cut-and-paste task, but was able to listen to podcasts while doing it. Surprisingly, I felt OK after work so I did Torah study on the commute home (usually I just do it on the commute to work in the morning), went shopping, went for a slightly longer walk home from the station, listened to Mum’s description of her awful day at length, and did some novel writing when I got home. Then I had dinner with my Mum and sister (Dad and brother-in-law being at cricket together), heard about Mum’s awful day at length again, and skyped E. Realistically, this was far too much for one day. In my defence, no one actually told me my sister was coming for dinner until I got home, otherwise I might have not done all these things. I could still have skipped writing, but by that stage, I had my mind set on it and it’s hard for autistic people to change plans.

(I also broke my diet by eating ice cream last night, as I needed some kind of treat.)

The result was massive exhaustion today. I slept too long, couldn’t get up, couldn’t get dressed once I did get up, missed the time for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) entirely and basically couldn’t start my day until the early afternoon. My main task for the day was to phone the United Synagogue again about E and my wedding issues, to find out if Rabbi B is away or how to get hold of him, but by the time I did it, I just got the answer phone. They probably leave early on Fridays. I intend to email Rabbi B again on Sunday so that, if he’s been away, my email is on the top of his pile on Monday morning. I think I need to be the squeaky wheel on this, which is not something that comes easily to me.

After lunch (and Doctor Who) I had a little more energy, so I did some of my usual Shabbat chores, then tried to write, as I had by this time brainpower, but not much physical energy for hoovering, the main task left to do for Shabbat. I figured that being drained, fed up and frustrated probably wasn’t a bad mood to be in for the book I’m writing. Even so, it was very difficult. I did manage to write for nearly an hour, and to write about 700 words, but it was difficult and I suspect many of those words will vanish in the editing.

I’m struggling with the idea of the “male gaze”. The novel is very “male gaze-y” — which is rather the point, as the protagonist is a pornography addict, and one of the themes of the book is the way pornography can rewire a person’s brain in that way, and another theme is the way religious sexual restrictions can make people more aware of sex rather than less [1], but I worry readers will see it as reflecting my viewpoint and not the character’s and mark me down accordingly. E says you can’t write a book without offending some people, which is probably true, and I probably underestimate readers, but I just worry about not getting published or read.

It’s weird to write it though. It’s getting in touch with a part of myself that I have always repressed and been ashamed of, the part that notices women, and it’s been strange to try to channel that deliberately. I would never normally write (of a man in a supermarket queue) that he was “trying to avoid staring at the slim hips and wider backside of the attractive twenty-something in a tight miniskirt in front of him.” So it feels strange and more than a little wrong (from a feminist point of view as much as a religious one) to write it.

After writing, I hoovered, but ended up feeling rather ill, faint, headachey and generally bad. I may have done too much. The weather, hot and humid, doesn’t help. I do feel somewhat better now, but not really ready for Shabbat: no writing or blogging or DVDs and lots of peopling albeit probably just with Mum and Dad (that can still be draining, though, especially when I feel like this). I do have to go now, though.

[1] I understand that there is indeed evidence from psychological studies that people from religious backgrounds that forbid or restrict sexual thoughts have noticeably more sexual thoughts than other people, probably from the same effect that makes it impossible not to think of a pink elephant as soon as someone tells you not to think of one.

Turning Points

The last few days have been fairly busy. I surprised myself by not being very anxious on Shabbat (the Sabbath) even knowing I had the meeting with Rabbi L on Sunday. I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), though. I felt slightly ill (headache, light-headed) on Friday night and while it passed fairly quickly, by that stage I had missed a lot of the service. I had insomnia on Friday night and, when I woke up at 8am on Saturday morning, I went back to sleep instead of forcing myself to get up as I did on the first day of Shavuot. Minchah (Afternoon Service) is at an awkward time at the moment, either 6pm for the early service or 9pm for the late service, so I missed that too. I want to try to make more of an effort to get to shul next week. I did some Torah study, went for a walk and read a lot of Harry Potter. I felt vaguely under the weather on Saturday evening and my parents made me take a COVID test ahead of their brief holiday in Tunbridge Wells this week, but it was negative.

On Sunday I did some novel-writing, although not so much and with poor concentration, perhaps partly from anxiety about E and my Zoom meeting with Rabbi L about getting married. That meeting went very well, and I’m now a lot happier about feeling we don’t have any insurmountable halakhic (Jewish law) obstacles to our getting married, and am reasonably confident of getting married in early 2023. The Zoom call ended abruptly when the forty minutes free call finished. Rabbi L phoned me for a few minutes to finish the call and seemed genuinely pleased that I’m getting married and approving of E, more than he would be for someone he didn’t know. I guess he knows some of my story (I used to bombard him with some of my religious OCD (kashrut) questions when my OCD was bad), so he can see how far I’ve come.

Strangely, immediately after the call, I drifted into depression and OCD anxiety. There was also some anxiety (not OCD) when I woke up this morning, but it drifted away after breakfast. I’m not sure why my mood went down when things were going well. Some of it was probably the tension release. Some of it is probably that E and I have a lot to do in the next eight or nine months, starting this week. And some of it is probably the expected response to a looming major life-change. I also have some “I don’t deserve to be so happy” thoughts. I wonder why I get to get married when so many people I know are single, divorced, widowed, or in struggling marriages. I have to remind myself that I had decades of loneliness, singledom and rejection to get to this point.

I had a lot of racing thoughts last night. After a while, they weren’t anxious or depressed thoughts, but they would not stop and I struggled to sleep. I got about four hours in the end before I had to get up for work.

Work today was boring, but when I got home I had some energy so worked on my novel for forty-five minutes and wrote about 500 words before I started to feel burnt out and went downstairs to make dinner. I feel pretty exhausted now, but not sleepy. I’ll probably watch something light on TV to unwind; I don’t really feel up to reading, not even Harry Potter, but I need some proper relaxation time or I won’t sleep and I’ll be burnt out tomorrow.

***

I feel like I’ve had some paradigm shifts in how I view aspects of the world in the last few days:

  1. I find it easier to believe that God supports me and that good things have happened to me and been achieved by me. I don’t focus so much on the bad things that have happened to me or see enduring mental illness as my only real achievement. (That said, I wish I could have seen this article about enduring depression and anxiety being spiritual success and holy work when I was at my worst. Like the author’s husband, I’ve also put on tefillin moments before sunset. I never really thought of it as anything holy.)
  2. I’m trying to move from thinking, I don’t fit in whenever I’m in a group, I have so many differences to most of the people, because I’m not normal to I can connect with many people even if I don’t have a lot in common with them.
  3. In the past I’ve felt I owed people from my personal history an explanation: “I’m like this [weird, different] because I’m depressed/autistic, and I’m sorry if I hurt you as a result.” It’s actually been a major motivator for me to write, fiction, articles and blogging. But today I wonder if I do owe anyone an explanation. There are people I have hurt, undoubtedly, and it would be nice if I could explain that, but I didn’t deliberately hurt anyone. I had a major neurodevelopmental disorder that I didn’t know about, which resulted in my spending nearly forty years trying to push a very square peg in a succession of round holes. I even wonder a bit what I would hope to gain from explaining myself to people.

***

Lately I’ve been listening to a big Glam Rock compilation CD I bought. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, although you could probably have a long and pointless argument over genre demarcations and how much of it is really Glam (Glam vs. Bubblegum Pop vs. early Disco etc.).

I’ve never really worked out why I like Glam Rock. Words I associate with Glam are: loud, theatrical (even camp), quirky, gender-bending, attention-grabbing. I am not any of those things, except maybe quirky. I am not David Bowie with lightning on his face or Noddy Holder in a glittery tailcoat and mirrored top hat. Maybe that’s the appeal, that it’s really not me, in the way I like the James Bond novels because they’re really not me. Or maybe I just find the upbeat nature of the music fits with the way I use music, to cheer myself up and motivate. Certainly it’s often not particularly clever music in the way other music I like is (The Beatles, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Sting), except for Bowie again (who isn’t on the CD). Unless you can find deep meaning in Cum on Feel the Noize or Tiger Feet.

I think someone (JYP?) should write a Perfect Day parody: Pluperfect Day: “It was such a pluperfect day/I was glad I had spent it with you…”

***

On the way home today I saw someone wearing a Visit Rwanda shirt and couldn’t tell if it was dark satire or if they had actually been to Rwanda (for non-UK readers, the British government is going to be deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, beginning tomorrow, to widespread dismay and bewilderment).

Playing the Autism Card

I somehow got up early, ate breakfast and did some things online, but felt depressed and went back to bed. I don’t think I fell asleep again, but I’m not sure; certainly I was in bed for over an hour. I hope these depressed feelings pass soon and don’t turn into another episode of clinical depression.

I did some work on my application for the Emerging Writers’ Programme I’m applying for. I’m not sure how well it’s going to be honest. I am playing the “autism” card as well as the “Orthodox insider” card, hinting that I might write an UnOrthodox-style anti-religious story when that is not my intention, while also talking about wanting to show the Orthodox in a realistic light, which can mean positive or negative, however the judges want to read it. I do mention God, though, and repentance, which might be a bad idea, but at least it’s a Unique Selling Point. It’s not like there are many contemporary literary authors writing about pornography addiction, or anything really, through the prism of repentance and encountering God.

It reminds me of an article in Tablet Magazine a while back about university bursaries and scholarships intended to go to disadvantaged teenagers going to middle-class teenagers who are taught by their (private) schools and their (middle-class) parents (probably working in academic, law or HR) how to write applications with the correct narrative, a narrative of, “I struggled against prejudice because I’m a member of minority X, but I triumphed over it because I’m strong, resilient and successful, therefore you should accept me both for reasons of diversity and because of my skills and capabilities in fighting oppression.” Less-privileged teenagers are not taught how to write this way and fail to get the money and places intended for them.

***

I went for a run, but ended up feeling light-headed, dizzy and slightly nauseous at times, even after my warm-up, let alone the run. I was slow and sluggish while running, with low stamina. I only managed to run for thirty minutes rather than my usual forty and got a headache when I got home. I wondered about this, and about other health issues on my mind lately.

I’ve mentioned that my cholesterol is slightly high. I looked on the NHS patient site and it looks like my cholesterol has been increasing for several years now (with one slight dip), which worries me as I certainly haven’t been steadily increasing the amount of cholesterol-heavy foods I eat. In fact, I rarely eat meat and especially not red meat and I’ve cut back my consumption of cheese (and eggs, although apparently that’s considered less of an issue now) so I’m not sure why my cholesterol continues to rise, unless it is a(nother) medication side-effect.

Then I have frequent issues with low energy and feeling “ill” in vague and undefined ways, particularly when tired after work or days out with E, plus I have problems sleeping too long and struggling to get up. I assumed these were medication side-effects and/or autistic exhaustion, but now I’m not sure. Also troubling is that several times recently I felt like I have nearly lost my balance and just stabilised myself in time, twice in the shower and a couple of times on the stairs.

Unfortunately, some of these issues cut across each other. When I got an exercise headache after running, I knew (or at least suspected) that eating crisps (for salt) would help, but crisps are hardly good for weight loss or cholesterol, so I put off eating them. It got to dinner time and I felt headachey, nauseous and my hand was shaking as I tried to drink my soup, so I ate a packet of crisps. Before I had even finished the packet, the headache was less intense, the nausea went and I stopped shaking. Sometimes I have these “salt-withdrawal” issues without having exercised first. I know salt issues can be related to taking lithium, which I do.

I think I should see my GP, even if it means waiting ages on the phone to get through to the receptionist and then playing the autism card again to get an in-person appointment and one with my preferred GP (currently appointments are supposed to be on the phone in the first instance and with the first GP available, not my preferred one). I will have to say that, being on the spectrum, I struggle with phone calls and new people, which is completely true, even if it feels a little disingenuous to say it.

***

Looking at my unpublished novel to find an excerpt to submit for the Emerging Writers’ Programme application, I’m struck by how many references there are to toilets in it. I didn’t mean to be vulgar, but since childhood I’ve been struck by how artificial it is that toilets, and toilet functions, aren’t mentioned in “realistic” fiction. My toilets appear for solid narrative reasons, not to gross people out (although one of them smells bad), but do seem somewhat unusual. I guess I’m aware of it because the toilet has long been an escape room for me when suffering from autistic overload in social spaces, which is how it appears in the novel.

***

I should probably mention that they announced the new Doctor in Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa. I can’t judge whether he’ll be any good, as I haven’t seen him in anything. As I mostly watch old TV, I generally don’t know new Doctors in advance, unless, like Peter Capaldi, they already appeared in the show as another character. But he’s the first new Doctor to be younger than I will be when his first episode airs (you know you’re getting older when the Doctors get younger). I still feel the Doctor should be older. I know I liked Matt Smith a lot, and I don’t dislike Peter Davison, but I still feel the Doctor should be played by someone over forty. I definitely feel David Tennant was too young (and too good-looking…) although that’s the least of my problems with the Tennant Doctor. Not for the first time, I feel returning showrunner Russell T Davies has a very different understanding of the show to me.