“Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”

Today was another day where I struggled to get going because of depression.  I spoke to my rabbi mentor just before lunch; afterwards I went shopping and took a long route home to get some exercise.  I had hoped to walk for half an hour, but it ended up being fifteen or twenty minutes because it was so cold and I didn’t have coat and gloves.

I did some Pesach cleaning and cooked dinner (bean burgers, which stuck together a bit better this time as I used an egg to bind them on my Mum’s suggestion).  Shopping plus walk plus cleaning the freezer plus cooking in rapid succession left me completely exhausted by dinner time.  I wanted to eat quickly and then work on the short story I’m writing and/or do some Torah study and preparation of divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) to say at the Pesach seder, but I felt too exhausted to do anything other than vegetate in front of the TV and try to get in a state where I felt well enough to Skype E. as arranged at 10pm.  I did about half an hour of Torah study, mostly after talking to E.  I wanted to do more, and to do seder preparation, but I was too exhausted and ran out of time (as it is I’m posting this long after my “No screens after 11pm” deadline).


I was watching Life on Mars, where Sam, Gene and Annie are being held hostage and discuss the moments of their lives that they want to relive if they die.  I realise I can’t really think of happy moments of my life, because I coloured all of them with guilt, embarrassment, shame, self-criticism or inadequacy of one kind or another.  When I passed my BA I was furious as I felt that I should have got a first; it took me a long time to accept that I was so depressed that passing at all was an achievement, let alone getting a 2.1.  When I passed my MA I was primarily relieved that my ordeal was over, although I think I felt a bit of happiness.  I graduated in absentia both times.  The BA would have been difficult, as Oxford graduations are generally on Saturdays, but I missed the MA graduation from social anxiety, autism and general annoyance at my university; probably from low self-esteem and desire to punish myself too.  In retrospect I regret that a bit.  I doubt I’ll ever graduate ‘properly’ from anything now.


This time of year is always a bit strange, the month between Purim and Pesach.  It’s spring at last, the world is waking up again and the days are getting longer and I get more energy and less of the seasonal aspect of my depression, but that extra time and energy gets spent on Pesach preparation rather than anything else, there is anxiety about Pesach (even without coronavirus and Mum’s cancer) and I have less time to spend on writing and exercise.  I don’t know if I’ll have time to go for a run this week or next week, even though I think I really need it.  Ditto for writing and for finding some divrei Torah for this week’s sedra (Torah reading) and for seder.


Stuff is feeding my religious OCD.  I saw something on the website of the umbrella organisation my shul (synagogue) is part of saying ideally I should not kasher my oven for Pesach, but have a dedicated Pesach oven in the garage (or wherever) for use at this time of year.  That would be nice, but it isn’t practical (for health and safety reasons).  The reality is that people in the shtetl (the Jewish towns and villages of Central and Eastern Europe in the pre-Holocaust era) didn’t have two ovens.  They kashered a lot more utensils used during the year for chametz (leaven) than we do nowadays.  Go back far enough and people didn’t have an oven in their house at all; the whole village went to the baker each day to bake their bread, or to bake their matzah at Pesach.

On the other hand, my rabbi mentor has given me some extremely lenient instructions about Pesach to prevent my OCD getting out of control, and I’m struggling to accept them.  I just feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Angry with God

A while ago, when I started writing about not knowing what my mission is in life, Louise Dennis commented to say that testifying might be part of it.  This seemed meaningful to me, but it is hard to know what exactly I am testifying to, how I am supposed to do it and how big a part of my life it is supposed to be.  I mention this because I am in two minds about this post and this perspective of testimony only makes me more confused.  Is what I am about to write a meaningful testimony, or does it even undermine what I have said until now?  I am not sure.

Last night, I felt very angry with God.  This is not new and I think I have even mentioned it here before, but what did seem new was the ferocity with which I felt it and my willingness to express it.  I felt really ‘mad’ with anger, not something that I often feel.  I should point out that being angry with God is not the same as atheism.  Even the ‘New Atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens are arguably not angry with God.  Angry with religious believers, certainly (and Hitchens’ preference for disease metaphors when discussing Jews was notorious – he surely knew that the Nazis had done the same thing in their antisemitic propaganda), perhaps angry that the concept of God persists, but to be angry with someone, you first have to concede the existence of what you hate.  No one ever got angry with Sherlock Holmes.

I acknowledge that my anger stems from incomplete knowledge and from ‘trivial’ personal reasons.  In Judaism there is a conceptual difference between emunah, belief that God exists, and bitachon, trust that God intervenes in a positive way in your life.  I believe very strongly that God exists, that He wrote the Torah, that I should live my life according to the Torah and so on through the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith.  Conceptually, I completely agree that God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent and that whatever happens that seems bad is only a product of our lack of omniscience; if we could adopt God’s perspective, we would see the event’s necessity (albeit that that necessity might be “Action X is bad, but removing man’s free will by miraculously preventing his bad actions would be worse” – the classic ‘free will’ answer to theodicy).

However, knowing that someone is doing something for a good reason is an intellectual process.  It doesn’t deal with the emotions aroused by the actions and indeed I have heard rabbis speak of the need to distinguish between intellectual and emotional questions about suffering and to respond in the correct way, not because one is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’, but because emotional questions can not be answered intellectually and vice versa.  To pick a mundane example, if you are running late for a meeting and have to pull over to allow an ambulance to pass, you might still get angry, even though intellectually you realise that the ambulance’s need for access is greater than yours.

Emotionally, I feel very angry with the way my life has gone.  I feel that I have spent most of my adult life, perhaps most of my whole life, lonely and depressed while others who seem no better than me (and sometimes rather worse) have achieved success in many areas where I want to succeed.  The roots of my depression go deep back into childhood experiences of bullying and mild emotional neglect and I used to feel anger at the people involved, both those who actively perpetrated them and at the adults who let those situations develop; although I thought I had put those feelings behind me, yesterday evening, probably not for the first time, I extended that anger to God, Who at the very least let the situations arise.

Yesterday this spilt out into active anger.  I can’t remember what the trigger was.  Perhaps there wasn’t an obvious one.  I just felt really angry late in the evening.  I thought that I needed to express the anger rather than just let it bubble up inside of me, so I hurried to my hitbodedut (spontaneous prayers) to say how angry I felt.  Interestingly, once I did that, a number of other emotions were, so to speak, dragged up from my unconscious with the anger: depression, leading to crying, and intense anxiety leading to my unhealthy coping mechanisms for anxiety, notably mild self-harm (hitting myself, hitting my head on the wall) even while I was still talking.  I do not experience anger like this very often, so it is hard to know how much of this was from the anger itself and how much was from my guilt over being angry specifically with God.

Afterwards, I felt upset and exhausted, as after a draining therapy session, but it was late, so I hurried to bed.  In retrospect, I should have watched TV or read something light to ‘come down,’ as I couldn’t sleep and when I did fall asleep, it was not refreshing sleep and I could not get out of bed in the morning.

I drafted the above paragraphs on my lunch break today at work.  I had intended to continue with some thoughts about where I go from here with these feelings, but I can’t remember what I intended to write because I’m too upset about what happened next.

About 3.30pm, my boss asked if she could have a word with me.  “Don’t worry, it’s not a disciplinary matter,” she said, which immediately got me worried about what I might have done that is nearly, but not quite, a disciplinary matter.

It turns out she knew about the blog.  I was anxious to stress that I only write during my lunch hour, which she knew already.  The issue was that the computers in the college can detect key words being used online and they had been picking up some of my blog posts.  I don’t know what the words in question are, but I would imagine that ‘self-harm’ and ‘suicide’ are on the list as today was apparently not the first time my blog posts have been detected.  (No, I didn’t write any of the posts about being scared of sex and frustrated by my virginity in college.  I’m not that naive.)  Copies of suspect material are automatically sent to HR who sent it on to (in my case) my boss, my boss’ boss and the principal of the college.  Short of sending copies to Scotland Yard, the Home Office and MI5, I’m not sure I can imagine a more embarrassing scenario.  So now everyone I work for knows I’m a mentally ill, melodramatic, religious hypocrite and loser with a childish prose style and a self-destructive streak.  I think I can say goodbye to any chances of my contract being extended beyond April.  My Dad (because I was so upset that as soon as I finished work at 5pm I had to phone my parents and vent, thereby adding another two people to the list who know of my frailties and mistakes), eager to put a positive spin on things, says that maybe they’ll make me a mental health ambassador.  It doesn’t seem very likely that I’ll be any kind of ambassador for anything, ever.

The main good thing to come out of this is that it has reminded my boss that I have issues and that she promised to refer me to the college occupational health team, something she had forgotten.   My boss also stressed that I’m free to continue blogging in my lunch hour, but I should be aware that what I write may be scrutinised, and it’s an automatic process that they can’t stop.

I suppose I should be careful what I wish for, as I have reflected here in the past that I sometimes wish that other people could know that I am struggling without my having to find the courage to tell them.  Somehow I didn’t think it would happen like this.  And I don’t know which old posts showed up, whether they included anything about the social anxiety and borderline Asperger’s or just the depression and self-harm/suicide.  I suppose I should be grateful that at least I didn’t write anything that might have been a sackable offence.  I tend to be careful what I say online because I’ve always been aware that my anonymity was far from secure (I’m a fundamentally honest person and bad at keeping secrets like that and I’m too honest and open about myself here to hide crucial information that could identify me to anyone who really wanted to find out).  Anyway, it isn’t in my personality to go around complaining about other people, only about myself.

Still, it does reinforce my anxiety, which I had again only this morning, that I’m going to be fired for something at some point.  And also my feeling that God is punishing me, although I’m not sure that I’ve said anything actually sinful here; I’ve heard from rabbis in the past that it’s OK to be angry with God.