Reaching Out

Aside from over-thinking some things I’m worried about, today was a normal Sunday (and arguably even the over-thinking was normal for me). I spoke to my sister on the phone. I went for a run in the cold and rain; even aside from the weather, it was not a great run. Pesach has left me even more out of shape than before. I did about fifty-five minutes of Torah study, but it felt a lot longer; the combined sedrot (Torah readings) of Tazria and Metzora (Vayikra (Leviticus) 12-16) are probably the hardest to get anything out of from a contemporary perspective (admittedly a lot of Vayikra is in that category), and Tazria in particular is full of weird Hebrew terms that don’t appear elsewhere just to make understanding it even harder. I have to write a devar Torah about this soon…

My mood went down after my run. I’m not sure why. Eating dinner helped, but not hugely. I got stuck in a lot of negative thoughts and feelings. I did some activities my therapist suggested, to try to clarify for myself what I’m worried about and get my thoughts in order so that I can hopefully do something about these anxieties. That helped a bit, but not hugely.

***

It occurs to me that while I have come across a few Jewish/frum mental illness blogs over the years (albeit not many), I don’t think I’ve come across any Jewish high functioning autism blogs. I’m not quite sure what to make of this or what to do about it.

Searching online, it looks like there’s a Jewish Autism Trust, but that it’s run by and for parents of children or teenagers with autism, not high functioning adults with autism. I want to reach out somehow, but I’m not sure what exactly I would want. Maybe some kind of discussion forum for high functioning Jewish adults on the spectrum? I suspect there may be Facebook groups, which I think are what people use these days instead of forums and chatrooms. Or do I want to speak to neurotypicals in the community about the needs of people on the spectrum? Or both?

I just searched and found a couple of (non-Jewish) autism discussion forums. I’m wondering if these will be useful to me, helping me to reach out to other people in the same situation, or if they will be a huge drain on my time and resources if I get involved with them (or both).

Shrugs Shoulders

The last two days of Pesach (Passover) went quite well. No real religious OCD-type anxiety, which was good. I went to shul (synagogue) every evening. Today I decided not to wear a coat, as it was still quite warm in the afternoon, only to discover that we were praying in the outside area so we didn’t have to wear masks. I like not wearing a mask, but when we finished Minchah (Afternoon Service) and had a shiur (religious class) before Ma’ariv (Evening Service) it got cold quickly, especially once the sun went down.

I left soon after shul finished, not really staying to help tidy up as I normally would do, partly because I’m not sure where things go in our new socially distanced layout, partly because I wanted to get home and help Mum and Dad clear up the Pesach things (which normally takes several hours). I was pretty tired, though, and felt I didn’t do much to help and spent more time eating than tidying, although Mum and Dad said I did help significantly. 🤷‍♂️

Communicating in emoji rather than words indicates how burnt out I feel. I wish I knew what tires me out so much. I struggled to sleep last night, but slept through most of the morning and napped in the afternoon after a walk. I just seem to be tired a lot of the time and can’t function in mornings at all. Is it really autistic burnout? 🤷‍♂️again.

I enjoyed most of Pesach, but I again have the feeling that my chag (festival) lacked meaning and spirituality. Did I really meditate on the meaning of freedom? Did I really come closer to God? I feel like I didn’t. Do some people really manage this? I don’t know again, and I’m scared to ask anyone. This is when I feel like I struggle from not having many frum (religious) friends to talk to. Sometimes I wish I was an FFB (frum from birth i.e. raised as a religious person) who could take the basics of the festival for granted and concentrate on the deeper meaning. Or a BT (ba’al teshuvah, ethnic Jew who became religious later on in life) who had a major inspirational experience at some point to reflect on when feeling distant from God, to re-energise. I just became religious because I felt guilty for not being religious, which is probably exactly the sort of thing I would do, engage in a major life-change from guilt and obligation rather than inspiration and then try to keep it going. But I feel like I’m immune to inspiration. Even now I’m apparently over the depression (for now), I don’t seem to have much of an inspirable soul, at least not with the things that are supposed to inspire Orthodox Jews.

Possibly I assume everyone else is doing a lot better than me when that is not the case.

I have a date with PIMOJ tomorrow and should go to bed, but I want to watch TV for a bit to unwind or I doubt I will sleep easily. I’m going to try not to catch up with my missed blog posts from the weekend, part of an attempt to be online less. I skimmed down my friends list to see I wasn’t missing anything important, and I admit I read one or two posts, but I’m going to try not to read the rest. Sorry if I missed your opus, it’s nothing personal!

Frum and Autistic

I didn’t have insomnia last night, but I woke late again and felt burnt out and even sugary Pesach (Passover) cereal and coffee didn’t help. Lately I wonder how much of my depression was actually autistic burnout. Some of it was definitely clinical depression, no question, but all of it? I suppose there’s no real way of knowing from this distance.

I had a quiet day again today. I did about half an hour of Torah study, went for a walk and collected my repeat prescription and had therapy on Zoom. We (my parents and I) also went to my sister and brother-in-law’s garden for tea and biscuits after dark now the ban on seeing people outdoors has been lifted. It was pretty warm even before they turned their outdoor heater on. It was good to see them again. I found I was clock watching a bit though. I often do this when I’m with people or at social events. I think not knowing when something will end leads to some kind of anxiety. I suspect this is an autistic thing about wanting control rather than coming from social anxiety or disinterest in socialising because I don’t just do it when “peopling.” Even watching TV I have one eye on the clock to see how much time is left and if I’m streaming something online I will bring up the time left counter even though it’s a distraction from the image on screen.

***

Therapy was good. We spoke more about my autism diagnosis and fitting into the frum (religious Jewish) community, that maybe I can open up to some people about my autism and why it makes communal involvement difficult for me. Potentially I could speak to the rabbi about it, although, as Ashley suggested regarding “coming out” as autistic in the workplace, it probably would be helpful to come with some suggestions of what practical adjustments I would like (if any) rather than just dumping all my difficulties on him. I do have a lot of fear about autism stigma and ignorance in the community and I’m not sure how many of the adjustments I would like are “reasonable.” In British disability discrimination law, employers have to make “reasonable adjustments,” but not adjustments that are considered unreasonable. I would like people not to bang on the tables to accompany Kabbalat Shabbat (part of Friday night prayer services), for example, but given that it’s an accepted part of the service, particularly in the current COVID climate where loud singing is forbidden, I’m not sure it would be reasonable of me to try to change it.

I did talk about the frum community being generally conformist and not necessarily an ideal place for people who are quite individualistic even without autism or mental illness. I have encountered other individualistic frum Jews online, particularly on Hevria.com, but that site seems fairly dead these days as are many of the Orthodox blogs I used to follow; I think discussion has moved to Twitter and Facebook, where I don’t feel comfortable.

My therapist felt that speaking to the rabbi as a first step might also have the benefit that he will know other rabbis and can see if they have dealt with autistic congregants. My therapist felt that there must be other autistic people in the community. I’m sure this is true, but I suspect a disproportionate number of those diagnosed are young, given the trends in autism diagnosis generally. There may not be so many diagnosed autistic adults out there.

***

I had an awkward moment at my sister’s where I misunderstood something in the conversation and said the wrong thing, perhaps as a result of losing the thread of the conversation because of autism. My parents have two friends’ with the same name and I got confused about which one we were talking about and said something that would be completely innocuous regarding the one I thought they were talking about, but hugely tasteless about the other one. Naturally it was the other one they were really talking about. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone heard me.

I feel unheard a lot in social situations and wonder if I mumble. I was often told that I did as a child, although I never sounded quiet to myself. On this occasion it was probably for the best, although it is possible that everyone just politely pretended I hadn’t said anything because it was so tasteless.

Time Warp Pesach

Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the first two days of Pesach (Passover) were, on the whole, good. I wanted to do a blow-by-blow account, but it’s too late and I don’t have the time, so I’ll do bullet points. (I’m also not catching up on blog posts I’ve missed tonight; hopefully tomorrow, but even then maybe not all of them.)

  1. I saw a beautiful rainbow on the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. This got Yom Tov off to a good start.
  2. Shabbat was weird. (I’m not even going to try to explain how or why Shabbat the day before Pesach is so weird. Sorry, it’s just too complicated. If you don’t know, you might just want to skip to the next bullet point.) We had egg matzah for hamotzi. This is not entirely in the spirit of not eating matzah on Erev Pesach, but I felt the alternative was to eat pita bread and freak out about chametz (leaven) crumbs all through Pesach. I managed to get up around 8.00am to daven (pray) a bit and make hamotzi before the cut off time.
  3. Having Shabbat the day before Yom Tov gave the whole experience a weird Groundhog Day time warp effect where none of us were sure what day it was, something only compounded by the clocks going forward on Saturday night, when religious Jews can’t change them (because of Yom Tov) — except that some modern clocks adjust themselves, so on Sunday and Monday we kept having to check what time it was on different clocks to work out what time it really was.
  4. The sederim went pretty well. Even though there were only three of us (me, Mum and Dad), we had some back and forth of questions and suggested answers. I learnt some things, which was good. We had a good pace, not too fast or too slow. I do feel I’m too old to look for the afikoman, especially alone. I didn’t mind saying the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions, traditionally said by the youngest person present), and sang it, something my sister generally refuses to do. I do feel sorry for people doing solo sedarim though.
  5. My OCD anxious thoughts were mostly under control, more so as time went on. I am still struggling with a few thoughts intermittently. My rabbi mentor is usually uncontactable during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and won’t talk about Pesach after the event, but I have some questions to ask him for next year.
  6. I went to shul a few times. This occasioned some social anxiety, although I pushed through it, as well as discomfort (feeling suffocated) from wearing a mask too long.
  7. I read a bit: more of Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah by Erica Brown, the Haggadah I used at the seder this year (it has eight essays, one for each day of Pesach); a bit of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc; and Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman’s follow-up to Anno Dracula, itself a spin-off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, positing a world in which Dracula was not defeated and became Prince Consort of the British Empire. In the sequel, expelled from Britain, Dracula becomes Commander-in-Chief of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in World War I. One hundred pages in, not a lot has actually happened, but the “vampires in spiked helmets” imagery is strong and there are lots of cameos from real and fictional figures from the early twentieth century.
  8. I think I feel more comfortable in my head at the moment. I’m OK sitting with myself without reading, watching TV or listening to music. On Friday and today I got exhausted and took time out just to lie on the bed silently. I think I need to decompress from sensory overload more than I realised in the past, or maybe I actually need to do it more often as I get older. I’m wondering if I should set a “No screens for the first half-hour after I get home from work” rule so I can decompress properly. I’ve been feeling lately that I want to be on my computer less, but unsure how to do it when my main social interactions are through the internet: my blog and other people’s.
  9. I went for a walk today without a coat or jumper. Spring is finally here.
  10. It occurred to me today that so many of my thoughts about not fitting into my community because I don’t feel I’m appropriately religious (Haredi) might actually be about not fitting in because I’m autistic. I realised that while I have a few possibly mentally ill Jewish hero figures (with the usual caveats about trying to diagnose people who have been dead for centuries), I don’t have any high functioning autistic Jewish heroes and its hard to find my place in the community without them. I know there are not many female role voices and models in Orthodox Judaism but there isn’t a single autistic one.

No Screens

My vaccination this morning went OK. I got there on time and the long queue moved quite quickly, probably because a socially distanced queue looks a lot longer than it actually is. I was a bit overwhelmed on walking into the surgery, which was very busy, but my usual GP happened to be doing vaccinations today, saw me come in and said he would vaccinate me, which was helpful. I did shake a bit, which I know is a mixture or anxiety and olanzapine side effects, but which still upsets me a bit, although I’ve got a bit used to it after so many years. The jab itself was painless and only took a couple of seconds; in fact the whole process, from joining the queue to being outside the surgery again took only ten minutes. I’ve been critical of the NHS in the past, but they do seem to be managing this well.

Unfortunately, an hour later I was on the phone to the surgery again. I had tried to pick up my repeat prescription on the way home, but it had not arrived at the pharmacist. Having spoken to the pharmacist and the GP’s secretary, I’m not sure where the problem was, but I was going to run out of olanzapine tomorrow night and, because of Shabbat (the Sabbath), I needed the repeat prescription today. The GP’s secretary said she would pass the prescription request back to the doctors and I was able to collect the prescription from the pharmacist this afternoon before Shabbat started. I had been thinking about going to shul (synagogue) this evening, but held back for various reasons, which turned out reasonably well, as it would have been stressful getting the medication in time to go out again.

***

Reading this interesting article on online culture and the erosion of the difference between public and private space prompted a few thoughts:

  1. It’s weird to see two secular thinkers repeating something that a very Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi said about twenty years ago about the internet: that its chief danger is that it brings the outside in. When I first heard that (from the person the Haredi rabbi said it to in the early days of the internet), I thought it was ridiculously reactionary, but reading the article, I wonder if he had a point after all.
  2. The article made me thankful for Shabbat and reminded me of David’s recent post on the subject. As I commented over there, I regard the outlawing of electricity use on Shabbat as nothing short of providential. Even though electricity use does not intuitively violate any of the forbidden labours, as far as I’m aware, no major posek (decisor of Jewish law) permitted its use on Shabbat, albeit for different reasons, sometimes simply because it was not held to be fitting for the atmosphere of the day, or because it had become customary to avoid it. Although it may seem impossible to those who have never tried it, Shabbat without internet, TV, computers and phones creates an island of peace and reflection in the midst of the week, a time for building relationships with family and friends (pre-COVID, anyway), reading, thinking and generally living at a slow and gentle pace, not constantly stimulated and provoked in different ways. Inasmuch as I have any profound ideas about anything, I’m pretty sure that most of them come on Shabbat.
  3. In terms of online echo chambers, I’m glad that blogging about autism and mental health has brought me into contact with a group of people who cut across borders of politics, nationality, religion and gender. It can be discomfiting to meet people who think differently, but the alternative is a world made of hostile cliques. I recently deleted my barely-used Twitter account because I worried I was only interacting with people I thought I would agree with. Twitter as a whole seems to be designed for performative anger and self-righteous virtue signalling rather than open-minded discussion.

And now it’s nearly Shabbat so I’m going to shut down for twenty-five hours!

Equanimity, and Reading

I struggled to fall asleep last night, probably as a result of having slept too much over the weekend. That’s probably the context in which the rest of this post falls, that I was a bit sleep deprived and not at my best. I think I was worrying when I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t think I was being kept awake by worry, just that with not much to think about, I worried. Again, that’s probably relevant later.

At work I spent five minutes looking for a cheque before I remembered that the person had paid twice by mistake and we posted their second cheque back to them. I had just forgotten to delete the second cheque from the incoming payments spreadsheet. Until I realised what was going on, I worried I had done something really stupid, like throw the cheque in the bin or post it back to the sender instead of their receipt, something I have nearly done on several occasions. I hope I didn’t seem too stupid to J.

In the afternoon, I worked on the inventory again. I struggled a bit emotionally. My therapist says it’s not so helpful to talk of “depression” now, given that my mood is mostly stable, and I think that’s true, but my mood did dip, perhaps because of my lack of sleep. The inventory is not a completely straightforward task, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of concentration either, which is a recipe for my mind to wander, apparently to worries and negative thoughts about myself, somewhat like last night when I couldn’t sleep. I did get through it, but I fear that my work was not particularly fast or efficient, and I’m still only about halfway through the inventory (or really through stage one of the inventory).

***

I worry a lot about not having peace of mind, including today while feeling like this, so it was interesting to see in the Jewish book I just started re-reading (The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) that peace of mind is a negative thing in Judaism. We should feel inner conflict: “there are [spiritual] goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.” (p.5) Elsewhere (The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 132) Rabbi Steinsaltz states that “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.” This is rather different from what a lot of self-help books say. Alan Morinis writes that the Jewish idea of equanimity is like a surfer on a wave, staying balanced, but aware of what is around him. This approach intrigues me. It seems more feasible than complete calm and lack of emotional upsets.

***

I feel that I’m reading less. I should qualify that and say I’m reading less recreationally. I read a lot of religious material, in Hebrew and English. But I think I’m reading less for fun. Certainly I haven’t found a novel that really grabbed me, that I became immersed in, for quite a while. And I’m not sure if my idea of mixing more non-fiction into my reading schedule is so good. I like to learn about history, economics and politics, so setting aside time to read about them is good, but then I want to be a professional author, so I should read a lot of fiction. It can also be harder to get motivated to read non-fiction than fiction. Then again, I want to write Jewish historical fantasy, so a solid grounding in Jewish and world history and mythology is also important…

I also find that it’s easier to read blogs and news articles online than books or even longform online journalism. The Jewish Review of Books periodically posts long articles that they don’t include in the print magazine and I save them, but it’s hard to get around to reading them. Sometimes I print things like that off and read it on Shabbat as it’s easier to set aside the time to read then. Despite this, I still spend hours idly surfing blogs, BBC News and other news sites.

I guess the bottom line is that I haven’t found reading so much fun lately, so I’ve been prioritising television, particularly when tired (which is a lot of the time). I’m not sure what to do about this, or if this is even something I should do anything about. Reading has been my love since I was a toddler, it will probably reassert itself at some point, maybe when I’m sufficiently at peace with my own novel to be able to read other people’s work without taking it to pieces to see how it works and what I should (or shouldn’t) learn from it, which I’ve been doing lately (mind you, I do that with TV too).

***

I don’t normally post links, but as I was complaining about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) lockdown non-compliance recently, I want to link to this interesting post that says that the data suggests Haredi compliance was greater than the community has been given credited for, at least in the first lockdown. And while I find many aspects of Haredi life personally uncomfortable, not to mention antithetical to my understanding of Judaism, I agree that demonising “Them” isn’t helpful. It opens the door to all kinds of nasty social engineering projects once you decide that some life choices are inherently wrong and need policing (or “helping”) by other groups (with obvious caveats for where those life choices affect those unable to choose, whether children or people vulnerable to COVID).

The Understudy

I didn’t have a very good night’s sleep. I used my new weighted blanket and it was good, but I wonder if it was warm enough as I kept waking up in the night. If I continue to have interrupted sleep, I may put a summer weight duvet over it and see how that is. I slept badly anyway through going to bed late and having slept too much in the afternoon, so it took me a long time to fall asleep. I had weird dreams, although none interesting enough to be worth sharing, and woke up late and burnt out so that I lay in bed a long time trying to get the strength to get up. I felt a bit better after breakfast, but I don’t usually feel 100% until after lunch, even on work days when I do manage to get up early.

I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above the water at the moment. Some of it is the time of year, as I’ve mentioned, when the days are still short and cold and wet, but the anxiety about the spring Jewish festivals is growing. In addition, my sleep is still disrupted, I’m still worried about doing the wrong thing at work, I feel negative about my novel (vaguely wondering if I should give up on it and start a new one, although I don’t realistically feel that would be a good idea at this stage) and I miss PIMOJ in the lockdown. And, like pretty much everyone in the world, I’m sick of COVID and lockdowns in general, I just want life to be normal again (for all that I struggle with “normal”). PIMOJ is stressed about things in her life too, which only magnifies the problem.

I know other frum (religious) Jews don’t get so anxious about Jewish observance. They perform the mitzvot (commandments) to the best of their ability and that’s that. I don’t know how they get to that point. Some of it is probably being brought up frum from a young age (which I wasn’t) and some is feeling a strong level of community integration and support (which I don’t have).

I was feeling today that I’m an understudy in my own life, thrust onto the stage unprepared. Or, I’m a new actor playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, trying to play it my way, while keeping faith with my predecessors (i.e. other Jews, especially my ancestors).

I went for a run and while running I started thinking about the two questions Babylon 5 is built around, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” I want to be a good Jew and a good writer. I’m not sure if that answers the “Who?” or “What?” question and I’m not sure how to achieve either of them. I feel like I should have better answers and more of a plan for achieving them now I’m in my late thirties.

After my run, though, I started thinking about gratitude, how grateful I am for supportive parents and a supportive sister, for a brother-in-law I get on with even though we’re quite different, for friends online and in person, for the fact that I’m in work with a tolerant boss, for the fact that I’m reasonably psychologically stable at the moment, and for the fact that I have a supportive girlfriend. I know not everyone has these things, and I’m grateful for them.

Last Wednesday, my therapist encouraged me to focus on “I can cope” as an affirmation. I’ve not found affirmations hugely useful in my recovery from mental illness, but this seemed fairly pithy and realistic. I know I can cope. I’ve coped with my mental health for years and I’ve had several reasonably good Purims and Pesachs, at least from a mental health point of view, since the ones that were my nadir (around 2015 and 2016). So I can cope – I just have to learn to believe it.

***

Other than that, it wasn’t much of a day. I did some Torah study (less than I wanted) and, as I said, I went for a run, but that was about it. I didn’t get to work on my novel. There are some changes I want to make to the current draft before I send it out for feedback and I don’t know when I will have time to make them. I guess I feel I wasted time, although given how I felt on waking, I probably shouldn’t blame myself too much, not that that has ever stopped me.

***

I feel I’ve put myself “out here” a bit more in my blog over the last few months, occasionally posting more potentially controversial political and religious things. I guess that means I have a certain degree of trust in the people who read and comment. I don’t want to post a huge amount of this type of stuff, I still see this as primarily a daily journal-type blog about surviving with autism and residual mental illness on a day-to-day level, but it’s interesting because it suggests I can put these feelings out here in some circumstances, bearing in mind that I tend to hide my thoughts about politics and religion in Real Life. I do still get the, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, what will people think of me?/what will they say?” feeling though, the desire to go back and edit or delete what I’ve written.

Shabbat and “Organised Religion”

Shabbat was mostly good. I finished reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy. It was very detailed (it’s much longer than the other books I have in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series even though Ruth is a very short book), perhaps a little too detailed, but it was very thorough and gave me a new appreciation for the literary and theological depth of a book that I had perhaps dismissed in the past as merely a pleasant story and a bit of an “origin story” for the Davidic monarchy.

I couldn’t sleep at night and read a lot of the graphic novel Final Crisis. I found it fairly incomprehensible. I knew that was likely to happen, as it’s a “crisis” story where Detective Comics put all their superheroes together against a massive foe. As Batman, to a much lesser extent, Superman, are the only superheroes I know well, I was expecting to be faced with many characters I didn’t know well or even at all. However, no characters seemed to stick around for more than a page or two to get to know them, except for a long interlude of Superman with parallel universe Supermen in a weird limbo universe. I didn’t really understand what was going on or why an equation can drive the entire population of Earth to despair and servitude of a super-powerful alien being (Darkseid). I’m reading it as it’s part of Grant Morrison’s wider Batman story arc, but it doesn’t seem to be as good as the other, Batman-only, stories in the arc. Or maybe I’m still too much of a Detective Comics novice to appreciate it. I think Morrison isn’t such a great plot author and tends to rely on spectacle and innovation and reimagining existing characters to pull the reader along.

I told PIMOJ I would get up at 10am today. I’m trying to see if I can get up earlier if I make myself responsible to her. I didn’t manage it, but I did get up at 10.37 instead, which was reasonably good. Unfortunately I napped for two hours after lunch; not good, I won’t sleep tonight (hence it’s gone 12.30am and I’m still writing).

I had a headache after Shabbat. I hope I’m not getting back in the habit of getting a headache every week.

My parents and I watched a Zoom talk this evening. Someone from my shul (synagogue) was speaking about his life story, from birth into a non-Jewish Austrian family in the 1920s to conscription into the Hitler Youth and later the SS, to being captured by the Americans and being a prisoner of war in England and eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism quite late in life. It was interesting and he really had enough material to speak for two evenings.

After that I spoke to PIMOJ for a while and then did some Torah study that I hadn’t managed earlier because of my headache.

***

I had some thoughts about organised religion, based on the comments to my previous post. A number of people spoke about believing in God, or at least being open to God, but getting turned off by organised religion. I guess that’s something I can’t always understand emotionally, although I can see why some religious institutions would annoy people. Maybe it’s partially because Judaism doesn’t have the kind of structure that the Catholic and Anglican Churches have, the sense of a vast institution with wealth and power and a religious hierarchy.

When people say “organised religion” to me in a Jewish context I think of stuff like having a community with some kind of funding to own or lease a building for regular prayers, to ensure the lights and the heating there stay on, and having some kind of administrative set-up to ensure that the money is overseen safely, with no fraud, and that poorer people in the community can be supported from communal tzedaka (charity) funds and so on. Maybe also paying a rabbi to provide pastoral support. That’s not really anything that upsets or annoys me, or turns me off in other ways.

On the other hand, I do get annoyed by, and feel rebellious when confronted with various things. I don’t particularly care about being told what to eat or when to pray or who I can marry; I take that as coming with the territory of being an Orthodox Jew. However, I do react strongly if I feel people are telling me what I can read or are dismissing my beliefs, even if I know they’re minority views in the Orthodox community and more ‘modern’ than Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Also if I feel people are saying I can’t watch Doctor Who, which is an obsessive autistic special interest for me and looms larger in my life than it probably should; I feel I couldn’t cope without it.

I don’t really associate this with “organised religion” though. To me it seems more of a sociological thing, maybe because it’s enforced by peer pressure rather than by overt means. I mean, when I joined my shul (synagogue), no one asked if I take the Genesis Creation story literally or whether I think non-Jewish religions are religiously valid for their adherents. But then I hear people (including) rabbis taking a different line on these things to me and I feel out of place and worried of being “found out.” I doubt they would (or could) throw me out of the shul if they did find out, but it would probably change how some people interacted with me.

I feel a lot of it comes from the nature of my community, with some very Haredi congregants and certainly Haredi rabbis, but other congregants who are more ‘modern’ like me. I used to go to my parents’ shul, which is definitely more modern, but I felt that people at my current shul took prayer and Torah study more seriously. Plus my current shul is much smaller; I felt overwhelmed by the number of people at my parents’ shul even on ordinary Shabbats, let alone festivals. I have an identity in my own right in my shul too, rather than just being an adjunct of my parents. So I stick with my current shul even though doctrinally it’s not a perfect fit.

This may sound strange to Christians in particular, but doctrine or dogma isn’t such a big thing in Judaism. Jews tend to focus more on what you do than what you believe. If you dress in an acceptable way, don’t publicly violate Shabbat or Yom Tov (festivals), are polite to people, and attend prayer services and shiurim (religious classes) regularly, people will probably accept you, at least on a basic level, without asking what you actually believe.

Make-Believe Work

I got up reasonably early today, but somehow slowed down somewhere and was a bit late leaving for work. Then, when I was partway to the station, I realised I’d left my mask at home and had to walk back to get it, so I was a bit late for work, although J didn’t seem to mind. I tried to walk mindfully on the way to the station, but got rather overwhelmed by the sounds and smells. Maybe this is why I usually listen to music.

I felt impostor syndrome and negativity at work, feeling that I can’t really do my work. Sometimes it feels that I’m doing make-believe work like a child rather than a real job. I feel I can do difficult things like write books, but not easy ones (I messed up writing an invoice twice, even though it was based on a template). Not that I feel particularly confident about my novel at the moment; I actually feel quite negative about it and am wondering why I want to show it to my editor friend. I felt a bit better after lunch, but then I realised I’ve been going about an inventory of some property the wrong way and have wasted time in the process.

It’s funny, because after work I saw Ashley’s post for today, about mental health and Britney Spears. I’m not terribly interested in Britney Spears, but her comment that she is “taking the time to learn and be a normal person” didn’t seem that strange to me, or at least it feels like it’s what I’m trying to do now that I think I’m on the autism spectrum (if I don’t get diagnosed then there’s a whole new identity crisis… I need to chase when my final assessment appointment is as I should have heard by now). I think I still have a long way to go if I want to learn to be a normal person.

***

It’s my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary today. It’s a bit muted in lockdown, but we had a Zoom call with my sister and brother-in-law. I still find these difficult. Everyone seems to shout. I’m not sure if the microphones aren’t good enough or everyone just thinks you have to shout for some weird psychological reason. Either way, I find it painful. I’m not usually someone whose autism makes loud noisy physically painful, but Zoom shouting down my ear seems to do it. Plus, a lot of the conversation was about work, specifically BIL’s promotion at work and voluntary charity work, so I felt a bit like the idiot child with his make-believe job again (back to learning how to be a “normal” person again).

We had take away dinner to celebrate. It threatened to set off my religious OCD again, as although it was from a kosher restaurant, the delivery company was a mainstream company, and the restaurant did not package the food according to the London Bet Din’s ideal guidelines. It met the more lenient “What if my food turns up packaged wrongly?” minimum guidelines, so I ate it, but I felt a bit anxious about it. At least I didn’t go into full-blown OCD meltdown. I’m not sure whether to complain about it. It’s probably too late to complain to the restaurant, but I might ask the Bet Din for more guidance for the future.

I feel just about ready to crash now. I wanted to do some Torah study this evening, as I only managed twenty-five minutes on the Tube and of the book that wasn’t helpful, but I’m too tired.

***

PIMOJ gave me a book on emunah (faith) that I’ve been reading on the train but I think I will stop. It seems to be lacking in nuance and reinforcing negative thoughts I have about myself. It talks about the importance of emunah and that someone who has it will feel happy whatever happens. I have two problems with this. One, it doesn’t say how to get emunah. It just seems to assume it can be switched on by a conscious act of will. Two, I know that, given that I believe in an all-powerful, benevolent God, I should logically believe that everything in my life will work out for the best. And on one level I do believe that. But I also feel that the long-term, overall best can still involve a lot of suffering in the short-term, and usually does, and that upsets and worries me. What if God thinks it’s for the best that I be lonely and depressed forever so that I can be happy in the Next World? That’s not something I would look forward to, even if I can accept intellectually that it’s for the best.

The book says that most suffering is rooted in punishment for sin, which seems questionable to me, although when I’m in the depths of depression I can believe it. My depression started when I was in my teens, but the Talmud states that a person doesn’t get punished for their sins until they reach the age of twenty (to give them time to become mature and repent) and obviously my autism would be lifelong from birth, so it seems that it can’t be down to sin completely — unless you want to go down the route of previous lives, which the author does, but which I’m sceptical of (it’s fairly accepted in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but seems relatively new to Judaism as a whole). I think using suffering as an opportunity for introspection and repentance is one thing, but assuming all suffering is due to sin is counter-productive and victim blaming.

Beyond this, it has a Hasidic attitude of sadness being a sin and a sign of ingratitude for God’s blessings, which, again, is something I don’t agree with and which I know is hardly universally accepted in the Jewish world. The book is based on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who said it is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be happy all the time, but he himself had many intense bouts of depression (if you read Arthur Green’s academic biography, it seems likely he struggled with bipolar disorder) which makes me struggle to accept it as a rule. I’m actually very interested in Rebbe Nachman, but part of the interest is the dichotomy between the joy and despair in him.

Overall, the book seemed not to be the type of thing you would want to put in the hands of someone with a mood disorder. I didn’t want to do a big attack on the book (hence the fact that I’m not naming it), but I do feel like these attitudes, if unchallenged, can do a lot of harm in the frum (religious) community. So, I think I will rest this book for a while if not permanently. It makes me a bit sad, though, as PIMOJ says she got a lot from it and I’d like to see that, but I just don’t. I think we have quite different ways of looking at things, which I guess is part of the attraction.

***

I feel a bit bad that I complained here about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children still going to school despite the lockdown. Apparently most of them are allowed to go, as they have crowded houses and no internet for online learning.

Misfits

I’m back in “I hate the NHS” mode. I realised that the reason the doctor only prescribed half the only olanzapine I need is because he (or she – prescriptions can be done by anyone in the practice) misread the letter from the psychiatrist and thought I was on one tablet a day, not two. I know, there’s a global pandemic, doctors are super-busy and stressed. Even so, it’s annoying, and makes me wonder how many other, more serious, mistakes have been made by over-stretched medical staff during the pandemic – there must be a number of indirect COVID casualties as well as those actually killed by the virus.

***

I got my new glasses (and walked back in the cold and snow after getting them). I tried them on in Specsavers, including tilting my head to see if they slipped, and they seemed to be OK, but they seem to be slipping now, so I may have to go back at some point and get them adjusted. I’m just glad to have them for now.

I spent a bit over an hour on my novel and finished the third draft. It ended up at 79,766 words, slightly under the 80,000 I was aiming for. Now I need to find some people willing to read it and give me feedback. I’m not quite sure how to do this; I don’t have other writer friends where we can exchange work, and I don’t want to go to a writers’ group at the moment. I’m also terrified of negative feedback.

Given the snow this morning, I thought my walk back home from Specsavers would be my exercise for the day, but mid-afternoon I started feeling anxious and depressed for no obvious reason and, as it wasn’t snowing, and the earlier snow hadn’t settled, I went for a run, despite the fact that it was fast getting dark. I did 5K again and I had a better pace than I’ve had for a while too. I don’t mind running in the cold (it can be bracing) although I worry about pulling muscles despite doing a longer warm up and cool down than usual.

I did some Torah study too, although not quite up to the hour I was aiming for as I ran out of time and energy.

***

I came across an interview today, a religious Jew interviewing someone raised in the Orthodox world, but now outside it. The non-religious Jew says he warns religious Jews thinking of leaving because they don’t fit into the frum (religious) community that they may not fit into the secular world either; they may, in fact, be misfits who won’t fit in anywhere.

I have long suspected that this would be true of me. For all my struggles to fit in to the frum world, I can’t really see myself fitting in to the wider Western world easily either. I guess I’m a bit of a misfit, or even that not fitting in is a part of my psyche; I’ve begun to suspect that when I fit in somewhere, I self-sabotage to find a way to feel like a misfit.

***

On a related note, a while back I wrote about feeling myself to be a “Tory anarchist.” Lately the anarchist part is stronger. I have limited patience for big business or big government and just want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s easy to want to pull society to pieces and start again. I feel a lot of anger and resentment at the ruling class and I’m not sure where it’s coming from, from politics or from my inner self as it’s the class so many of my peers from Oxford now belong to, people in politics, academia, law, and other places I might have been had depression and autism not intervened. I feel like a class traitor sometimes.

Rants (Redacted and Otherwise)

More NHS woes. I wrote a rant here, but then deleted it. I had to make a lot of phone calls and still didn’t get my olanzapine. Mum did some more phoning for me (I was peopled out after the calls I made, and in autistic black-and-white thinking mode) and it looks like I should be able to get the olanzapine tomorrow, but I won’t feel happy until I’ve actually collected it. And I feel vaguely bad that in the end I dropped out before the crucial final call and my Mum got the answer I wanted for me.

It occurs to me that the NHS is less different to the US free market system than the NHS’s defenders admit. In the USA, treatment is triaged largely based on wealth. In the NHS, it’s triaged based on blind luck, location and the confidence and ability to navigate bureaucracy. I strongly suspect that, other than luck, those factors work more in favour of the educated middle classes than other people.

***

Other than that, today was OK. I overslept a little, rushed and caught up the time, but then spent too long davening (praying) and was a few minutes later than usual for work, although I don’t have an official start time. J was leaving early today, so I was allowed to finish early too; add in another trip to the bank, and I wasn’t actually in the office that long. I did a little more work on my novel in the evening, which may have been a mistake as I was tired and doing other things, but I wanted to have something to show for leaving work early other than all those phone calls to the NHS that went nowhere. I somehow managed to fit in some Torah and speaking to PIMOJ too. I’m not quite sure how I fitted everything in; I feel exhausted now and it’s rather late. I’m glad it’s nearly Shabbat as I’m likely to be burnt out tomorrow.

***

Second rant: today I’ve been pondering the difficult of the mitzvah (commandment) of loving my neighbour, when so many of my Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) neighbours (literal neighbours as well as metaphorical ones) are breaking the lockdown. I blogged last summer about the illegal minyan (prayer service) happening three times a day in our next-door neighbours’ garden. That’s stopped since the places of worship reopened, and they did at least make a vague show of social distancing, but you can still see loads of Haredi children going to school every weekday. I appreciate that Haredi households can have eight kids crowded in one house with few or even no computers or internet phones, not good conditions for home schooling. Even so, the numbers of children still going to school seems troubling. And that’s without mentioning the large weddings still going on, reported in the (non-Haredi) Jewish press. Or the jaw-droppingly awful super-spreader event like the wedding of a Hasidic rebbe’s son in America that had hundreds or even thousands guests from across the world, or the funerals for Haredi rabbis that had tens of thousands of mourners.

It’s very hard, in these cases, to feel at all loving towards people who are living in a different reality and/or who feel no obligation at all to anyone outside of their narrow community, not just in terms of COVID, but also in terms of giving the Jewish community as a whole a bad press and providing openings for antisemites everywhere (“Jews spread plague” is a libel that has been around for centuries, baselessly until now). Bear in mind that the Haredi community comprises only about 10% of the global Jewish population, but is easily the most visible part of it, and the part that non-Jews see as most authentically Jewish. Newspaper articles about Jews are invariably illustrated with pictures of bearded Hasidic men, even if the article has little to do with Hasidim in particular.

I find myself wondering what figures like Rav Kook and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, notable for their love for all Jews, would think or do. It’s hard to feel respect for people’s (genuine) dedication to prayer and Torah study when they are blatantly ignoring the commandments to follow the secular law of the country, preserve life and not give the Jewish God and Judaism a bad name. In fact, even thinking about trying to feel love for them just provokes the opposite, more anger and hatred. But God wants us to love idiots and scoundrels as well as pious people.

***

I’ve broken my iPod headphones (earbuds) again. I can’t seem to get them to last more than six months. I get a lot of use out of them (almost daily), but I feel they should last longer. I wonder if they aren’t built to be worn primarily while walking and jogging, or if I wind them too tightly or violently when putting them away. I can be heavy-handed with things.

***

PIMOJ and I watched WandaVision separately “together.” It was odd. I like odd, but I’m not sure what it was trying to do. Having looked briefly at the Wikipedia page (trying not to get spoilered), I think it is supposed to imitate TV from different decades, but it felt like the line between pastiching bad TV and actually being bad TV is a thin one.

Unwritten Rules

I had dreams last night that reminded me of my insecurities. I know I’m insecure; I don’t need dreams to remind me!

***

I had NHS problems again, making lots of phone calls (which I hate doing), trying to get my psychiatrist to get the right information about my medication (coming off haloperidol and back onto olanzapine) in time to get a repeat prescription when I run out at the weekend. I won’t go into all the details, as it’s a long story, but a few things were messed up and by the end of the day, it wasn’t resolved, so my Mum and Dad are going to have to try to resolve it tomorrow when I’m at work. I am a bit worried whether I will get enough medication to get me through the weekend and the beginning of next week.

Therapy was good, although I don’t have much to write here about it. My therapist said I have good self-awareness and self-reflections, but I need to learn how to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings rather than judging them. We spoke a bit about writing down thoughts and fears to get them out of my system, which I do to some extent already.

Other than that I went for a walk, worked on my novel for an hour and did half an hour of Torah study. I would have liked to have done more writing and Torah study, but the phone calls to try to sort out my medication took far too long, really.

***

I’m still reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy by Yael Ziegler on the biblical book of Rut (Ruth). Rut is one of the shortest books of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the shortest if you count the twelve minor prophets as one volume, so I’m not sure how this book about it ends up as one of the longest so far in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series. It is good though, and very thorough, which I guess is why it is so long.

I saw this sentence referring to Rut the Moabite convert: “The social mores of Judaism tend to be more difficult to apprehend than the unambiguous halakhic [legal] guidelines.” (p. 263) This seems very true, for myself on the autism spectrum as much as for the Moabite Rut. I sometimes wish all the unwritten rules were written down, so I could learn them properly. In particular, the rules about fraternisation between the genders; I can’t work out why my shul (synagogue) absolutely prohibits this in some events, but allows it in others and in others still makes only a token gesture towards it.

Not Losing My Religion

I had a blood test this morning, my regular lithium level test. I had some slight tremor, which I often get at blood tests. I’m not scared of needles, but the fear of shaking actually causes shaking. It wasn’t too bad. I had a longish walk back.

In the afternoon I worked from home on the data collation again. I managed to finish it in under two hours, which was good, as J thought there was too much for me to get through in one day. I cooked dinner (chilli) and burnt it slightly, but it tasted OK.

I had my Tanakh shiur (Bible class) at the London School of Jewish Studies, on Yirmiyah (Jeremiah). I was able to participate in the chevruta (paired learning, although we were actually in groups of three) section this week, which was good. “Able to participate” both in the sense that the camera and microphone worked this week, unlike last week (I was on my Dad’s computer to be sure), and also in the sense of having the confidence to speak. I did also put something in the text chat facility right at the end recommending Dror Burstein’s novel Muck, which is a modern day version of Yirmiyah. I wasn’t sure if I was “allowed” to do that, or if anyone read it as it was right at the end, but I guess it was good I had the confidence to write it.

There’s not a lot else to report about today.

***

I saw this blog post about Rabbi Abraham Twerski, whose death I mentioned the other day. Granted that he came from a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbinic background where university education was rare, but seeing the precautions he was advised to take against his religious observance slipping when he was in medical school makes me wonder if I’m unusual for coming out of university religious. Well, I know I’m unusual. Religious observance (any religion) is, I think, lower in graduates than in the general population. Lots of people lose their religion at university or college, for whatever reason (doubts based on secular studies; peer pressure; temptations; away from home community; lack of time, etc.). I just didn’t really notice it at the time as I was mixing with people who were also frum (religious Jewish) at the Jewish Society albeit that my other social group, the Doctor Who Society was mostly non-religious and non-Jewish.

I tend not to give myself credit for things like this, but maybe I should. I think the chances of me getting to this point in my life and still being this religious were not that great, in terms of becoming religious as a teenager from a not fully observant background, getting through university and getting through major depression with my faith and practice intact, as well as my difficulties being accepted in the frum community from autism and social anxiety and feeling rejected in my attempts to marry someone frum. Probably on some level at least that is better than someone who has been enclosed in the Haredi world all his life and never really encountered anyone who thinks or acts differently from “normal” frum people.

***

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament today that there are “Eleven cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and thirty-two in Liverpool.” Life seems like a horror film at the moment, albeit a boring, slow-motion one. Although given how many governments are handling things, it’s less Quatermass and more Quite-a-mess.

Planting Seeds

I had an interesting start to the day. PIMOJ sent me some packets of seeds in the post and we spent some time planting them “together” via Skype. This was to do something to do with plants as it was Tu BeShevat (the Jewish New Year for Trees) during the week and PIMOJ wanted to do something to celebrate it, plus it was an excuse for a lockdown date that was a bit different from just Skyping or Zooming. I don’t really have much experience growing things, so we’ll have to see how it goes, but I planted a whole bunch of seeds: parsley, oregano, basil and more.

I spent time procrastinating over writing my novel, which wasn’t good. When I was finally about to start, my sister phoned and we had a long chat, which delayed things even more. I managed a bit over an hour of reading and redrafting, getting through another chapter, which doesn’t sound much, but it was a very long chapter.

I feel a bit conflicted by my book at the moment, like a parent who recognises moments of intelligence and flair in his child, but also feels that he’s very average a lot of the time and wonders what on Earth he’s going to do with his life when he grows up and goes into the world.

I went for a 5K run. It was good, my pace and stamina were good without much slowing to a walk from tiredness. Surprisingly, it was my first run of 2021 because of physical illness (medication side-effects), weather, Zoom calls with family etc. I actually ran in the rain because I didn’t want to put off running again.

***

I’m working from home tomorrow as J isn’t going in to the office and I can’t go in on Tuesday when he is going in. I’m continuing what I was working on last week, collating data that’s going to a major Jewish community organisation. My family have got me a bit worried about this, as it seems to be in breach of GDPR (data protection) law. I think it’s unlikely that the major community organisation would breach the law in this way, but I also feel uncomfortable working on it without having something in print to say that it’s OK, so I am going to ask J if he can ask for clarification on what is happening to the data before we send it on. This is provoking some worry.

***

I walked into the room while Mum was watching NCIS the other day. One of the characters was saying that she over-thinks things to stop herself feeling things and it occurred to me that this probably applies to me too. I’m probably also over-thinking things because it can be so hard to understand what I’m feeling.

***

Rabbi Dr Avraham Twerski z”tl died. He was a very well-known Orthodox Jewish rabbi, writer and educator, but also a practicing psychiatrist who did much to raise awareness of the taboo issues of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic abuse in the Orthodox community. He wrote prolifically on both psychology and Judaism and although I haven’t read much of his work, his book Let Us Make Man: Self Esteem Through Jewishness was a very useful work for me in distinguishing between self-esteem and arrogance. I recently read one of his books on domestic abuse as part of my research for my novel. He’s yet another great Jewish leader taken from us in this terrible last year, this time actually by COVID. Baruch dayan ha’emet (“Blessed is the True Judge,” the Hebrew expression said on hearing of a death, acknowledging that God is the True Judge who decides when a person’s life is over, but also expressing our grief and incomprehension over the death).

***

I finished watching The Sandbaggers. It was very good, but too cynical and bleak to be one of my favourite TV series, as witnessed by the downbeat, open-ended conclusion, which saw one character facing the sack for deliberately sabotaging an arms-limitation conference against his orders and another one shot, apparently fatally.

Disabled?

I slept too much on Shabbat (the Sabbath) again. Not a lot else happened, other than reading and Torah study. I still don’t dare risk going to shul. J says hardly anyone is going at the moment. I’m glad I don’t belong to a crazy Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) shul where COVID safety guidelines are ignored. I think there’s quite a bit of that going around in the area though. There was a lot in the Jewish newspapers this week about illegal Haredi weddings with hundreds of unmasked guests in close proximity indoors. It’s pretty provoking, although I don’t think there’s much anyone from outside the Haredi world can do about it. It would only stop if the Haredi world’s leaders (read: rabbis) protested, and maybe not even then.

I tried to work on my novel after Shabbat, but was tired and easily distracted and only managed forty minutes or so.

I should go to bed soon as I’m getting up early in the morning for a Skype coffee and gardening session with PIMOJ. But something has been bothering me over Shabbat. It suddenly occurred to me that I’m probably disabled. I always thought of depression as an illness rather than a disability, something that I could theoretically one day recover from. Even when I was on disability benefits (as I am at the moment, although probably not for much longer), I still did not think of myself as “disabled” as such. But it’s increasingly looking like something keeps me back from full “recovery” (whatever that might mean), the worsening of my mental health as a result of my attempts to change medication and improve my sleep pattern being just the latest incident in a long list of relapses.

In the autistic world, there’s a very vocal school of thought that sees high-functioning autism as a difference, not a disability. I can see where those people are coming from, but I also think a lot depends on the individual’s skillset and life goals. It’s one thing if you are a brilliant pattern-finder with a high-salaried job for an investment bank or accountancy firm; it’s another if you are unable to function in the conventional workplace. Likewise, some people are happy without close friends or a partner, but others want these things, but are not good at finding them.

I feel that I’m not ready to label myself “disabled” and work out what that would mean for me, especially given my history of giving myself negative labels. I may have to decide soon though. I should have the final part of my autism assessment soon (NHS permitting…). If I do get a definite diagnosis, that will push me down the path of thinking of myself as disabled, especially if I can claim some kind of help in the workplace under disability law. On the other hand, if I don’t get diagnosed… I’m not sure what that would mean at all. I know I’ve written before about feeling that I’m either autistic or “useless.” I know it’s not that black and white in reality, but it feels like that. I would feel like I’ve been some kind fraudster pretending to be disabled as part of some kind of scam for all the years I’ve been calling myself autistic (although I’ve never had any autism benefits, either monetary or in the workplace, except for one job interview where I was allowed to see the questions in advance).

I want to talk to PIMOJ about this, but I can’t face having the discussion via text or even video and who knows when we will meet in person again?

Surprisingly Busy Day

I had a dream over Shabbat about being put in herem (excommunicated) because some rabbis took exception to my novel. This is not likely to happen in reality for many reasons, but I think it does reflect fear of negative reviews of the “Why do they always say bad things about the Orthodox community? Why can’t they see the good in the community?” kind (I’m thinking of one Jewish site in particular here). I can sort of see their point. It’s possible that I haven’t seen as much of the good side of the community as other people despite my having spent my life inside it, to varying degrees. And I feel uncomfortable with people who say things like, “I can only speak my truth,” but beyond a certain point, everything else is impossible, and my experience of the frum (religious Jewish, and in this case, Orthodox) community has been complicated at best – partly my own fault, but I think that’s reflected in the novel too.

***

Just before I was due to go for my COVID test this morning, it started snowing heavily. Dad took me in the snow storm, but when we arrived, the drive-in tests were cancelled as unsafe. I’m not currently planning to book another one; if I still feel bad on Tuesday, I’ll try to get in contact with my psychiatrist and see what she says. I feel a lot better today, with no light-headedness or hot flushes and only brief tremor, although some restless legs, which suggests that the symptoms were from starting haloperidol. I’m still suffering some anxiety (see below) which may be from stopping olanzapine.

***

I spent some time working on my novel. I’m not sure how much I did, somewhere over an hour, without much procrastination once I got down to it. I read two chapters and made some minor changes, finally getting through the 80,000 word barrier.

I went on a rather long Zoom call with my parents, sister and brother-in-law because it was my sister’s birthday yesterday and my Dad’s tomorrow. As I’ve mentioned before, I find Zoom hard at the best of times and struggled through it, but even when my sister and BIL are around in person I have a tendency to drift out of the conversation a lot. I tend to feel that the conversation is either small talky or about “adulting” and that I can’t really join in. I feel rather stuck in immaturity sometimes as a result of autism and mental illness. The restless legs were hard to control by the end of the call too.

I did some work on my devar Torah for the week and some general Torah study. I didn’t get any exercise today because of the snow. I spoke to my rabbi mentor and realised I’ve been procrastinating about some things that really I need to confront. Not major things, thankfully, but I tend to get anxious about things as if they were major. I tried to help Dad when he accidentally deleted a load of email folders, but I couldn’t work out what he’d done or how. I suspect they haven’t been deleted, but hidden somewhere, but I’ve no idea where. I’m not terribly good at Outlook because I only use it at work.

***

I had some anxiety in the evening after having been OK for most of the day. This was probably in part the general tendency for my anxiety to get worse in the evenings and partly from watching The Sandbaggers (1970s/80s espionage drama) which tends to end in downbeat ways, in this case with a likeable character turning out to be a double agent and committing suicide to avoid shaming his family. I like the series a lot, but it’s probably just as well that I only have five episodes left.

***

J suggested I switch work days this week to give the snow a chance to clear before I go in to work, so I’ll be working on Tuesday instead of tomorrow. I was secretly relieved, as I didn’t really want to go in to work in the snow, but was reluctant to suggest changing days after having missed a day off sick last week.

More Anxiety

I slept badly again, waking up in the middle of the night. I actually slept in two blocs of five hours, which shouldn’t be bad, but somehow with a gap in the middle felt incomplete. Plus, I woke feeling very anxious, which I think was about my appointment at the optician, although I had some mildly disturbing dreams too. Autism hates the unknown, and I didn’t know how my appointment would go under COVID. Even not knowing if I was going to be left standing outside for a long time before they let me in made me nervous. Of course, some of it could be the general anxiety I’ve had lately, and the usual burnout after work and depression group.

I had managed to mostly cut out the cereal I was eating before bed, on the grounds that I was rarely genuinely hungry and it had just become habitual, but I’ve been eating porridge when I wake up in the night to help me get back to sleep. This is because warm milk helps me sleep, but I dislike the taste of milk by itself. I suppose I could try to get some cocoa or something, but aside from the fact that I’ve never had it so don’t know if I like it, I’m not sure it would have less calories than porridge. I tend to sweet the porridge with sultanas, which is better than sugar, but probably still quite calorific. More problematic, from a diet point of view, was the ton of ice cream I ate last night to reward myself for getting through a difficult day at work and depression group with anxiety…

***

I had sick-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach anxious nausea all day, as well as well as feeling myself to be in agitated in “fight or flight” mode. It’s unusual for me to have anxiety for so long without an obvious cause and I don’t know how to cope. I might look online. In the past I’ve been so depressed that I was actively suicidal and while I wouldn’t say that was better than this, over time I evolved coping strategies for depression. This feels very new and alien and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m pretty sure it’s a medication change issue.

***

I had my eyes tested and chose new glasses. I shook quite a bit while the optician was testing my eyes, although she said it didn’t matter. I’m not sure how much was anxiety and how much the usual I-shouldn’t-shake-so-I-worry-about-it-until-I-start-shaking tremor I get in situations like this (eye test, dentist, doctor, barber, etc.). More awkward was when I attempted to pay. My first credit card was rejected by the machine. I’m not sure why. With my second (debit) card I forgot the PIN and only remembered it after I was locked out of it. And I couldn’t remember the PIN for the third card at all. I’m not sure how much of this was the result of anxiety and how much is because when I buy stuff in person (which I haven’t done much recently), it’s usually under £30 and I can buy it without needing to type in my PIN, so I’ve just forgotten it. Fortunately, my Mum was also having her eyes tested, so I just had to wait for her to finish and she laid out and I paid back. It was very embarrassing though. I felt pretty useless and immature.

The other unhelpful thing I did today was buy a vitamin D supplement without realising that it was considerably higher dosage than Boots usually sell (75 micrograms rather than 10 micrograms). I almost certainly don’t get anywhere near enough vitamin D (mostly indoors, mostly covered up even in the summer), but I’m not sure if 75 micrograms is still too much. The NHS site would seem to indicate that it’s OK. I might phone 111 (NHS non-emergency helpline) later to double-check.

***

I didn’t work on my novel today or do much in the way of Torah study because the anxiety feelings were too strong, plus the eye test and cooking dinner (cashew nut casserole) took up a lot of time. I did get an idea of what I’m doing for my devar Torah this week which I can hopefully write up tomorrow.

***

I listened to the first episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast, even though I am not a woman and am probably not normal. It was quite useful for my understanding of myself vis-a-vis the frum (religious Jewish) world. They quoted psychotherapist Elisheva Liss as saying that rather than asking if we are “normal” we should ask if we are causing harm or distress and, if not, we shouldn’t worry about what we do. Other people being judgemental is not considered causing distress. This makes a lot of sense, although it’s hard to do something that other people in your community will consider “wrong” even if you know you are not harming anyone.

I think my problems with fitting into my shul (synagogue) community come partly from not always being sure of the community’s values, not least because it is a community with some more modern elements and some more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) elements. For instance, I know some people do have TVs and others do not and it is hard to know what the “official” line on TVs is. (I’ve also noticed in recent years that some people who won’t own a TV do stream on Netflix and the like, something that I don’t fully understand.)

More contentiously, I know that many (all?) people in my community would not approve if they saw me walking arm in arm with PIMOJ, and that does make me a little nervous. However, I feel that I’ve only stayed frum in the last few years by making compromises to my preserve my sanity. This mostly involved bending rules rather than breaking them, but I break the rule about touching women who aren’t relatives for PIMOJ because I just can’t cope any more, and I feel that people who haven’t got to their late thirties without a “legitimate” physical relationship (i.e. marriage) don’t really get to judge me here. It’s break the rules in a small way to stay sane and keep the “bigger picture.”

On a related note, I found this article about passing, intended from an autistic POV (although it is written by a religious Jewish autistic woman). I feel the need to pass, both as neurotypical and mentally healthy in the world in general, and as “normal” in frum world. However, the effort involved can be pretty soul destroying as the article noted. I would like not to feel that need all the time.

Time Travel

I feel somewhat better today. I don’t know if I was distracted from depression and anxiety by being at work. I had autistic executive function issues with tasks where I had to fill in multiple spreadsheets at the same time and I kept losing the place or forgetting which spreadsheets I was supposed to use. This was made worse by having to deal with people phoning to make credit card payments where I had to drop everything and sort out the credit card payment and then afterwards try to remember what I was doing before the phone rang. I am slowly learning what all the spreadsheets do, which makes it easier to work out what goes where, but I still forget things sometimes. I made a couple of mistakes that I caught; I hope there weren’t any that I didn’t catch.

I was at least proud of myself for answering the phone. I hate doing that (anxiety), so it was a big thing.

I went to the bank too. The nearest branch, about fifteen or twenty minutes away, is closed because of COVID. The second-nearest was just a little bit up the road from the nearest one, but had a long queue, so I was out of the office for about an hour. I didn’t get lost this time.

That was it, really. I’m not feeling particularly depressed or anxious, just tired. When I was getting dressed this morning, I had an image in my head from Twin Peaks: The Return, where one character removes her face off to reveal a murky darkness broken by a bright grin. I’m not quite sure why this image was in my head. Did I feel like that this morning? It’s possible. Certainly there have been times in my life where I would have felt like that, but I don’t feel like that right now. It’s possible that being at work helped me today, in which case we’ll have to see what happens tomorrow when I’m at home (cooking dinner and hopefully working on my novel).

I do feel confused about my relationship, but I’m not sure what to do that. I think we were probably moving too fast. Our relationship faces a number of unusual challenges, and the pandemic is one of then. We can’t really move things on at the moment. I think we need to slow down for a bit, but also to spend time together, which we can’t really do right now because of the lockdown.

Other than work, I went to a shiur (religious class) in the evening. It was a bit late and I struggled to concentrate. It was more a mussar (ethical self-development) shiur than anything else, about keeping going if you fail in an area of personal growth. Discussions like this always make me feel weird, as I tend to put other people on a pedestal and assume everyone is doing amazingly and only I am struggling with all my middot (character traits). I still suspect that I have worse traits than everyone really, even if they struggle in the same area. Someone asked a question at the end about how to get non-religious Jews engaged religiously when there is so much they could enjoy in Judaism. The rabbi didn’t want to answer the question in the shiur, as it was a bit off-topic, but I did wonder a bit about whether there’s a way that I could enjoy Judaism more. I can enjoy and find meaning in mitzvot (commandments), Torah study and prayer on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but it seems hard to get that during the week.

I’m not sure what to do now. I’m tired, but not sleepy. I feel I should do something to unwind to help me sleep, but I don’t know what. I’m tired enough that I just sent my sister a text meant for PIMOJ, fortunately just asking how her evening was going.

***

I realised recently that I would rather have a time machine than a spaceship. (I appreciate that this decision is unlikely to have many practical ramifications.) I have felt for a long time that I don’t belong in this time. It’s partly having “old-fashioned” interests in terms of books and TV, partly feeling my politics are not a great fit for any party currently around (although I revise my political views fairly frequently – I get the impression that most people don’t), partly feeling my general worldview (religious, cultural) is different. Not necessarily out-dated, just different. I’ve never got on well with contemporary slang and trends.

I used to feel that studying history (my BA is in history) gave me access to information about the past that allowed me to understand the present better than most people. Now I’m not sure that that’s true. In fact, I suspect it’s not true. I don’t think I really understand the world particularly well. If I have an advantage, it’s only knowing that I don’t understand it, and maybe being aware that the world is more complicated than most people suppose.

Still, I feel adrift in time, looking for a society that works for me, people that I can communicate with. I want to write about a Jewish time traveller, hopefully when I’ve finished my current novel.

Special Interests and American Pessimism

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK. As I mentioned on Friday, I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), as I thought the COVID risk was too high to be worth it. I spent quite a bit of time on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in bed, not from tiredness, but anxiety and an autistic desire to wrap up in my duvet to self-soothe. I’ve never got around to buying a weighted blanket, but I did wonder what it would be like to have one. Maybe it would just encourage me to stay in bed…

I did some Torah study and I read a bit more of America During the Cold War, but not much. I confess my recreational reading was mostly Mistress of Chaos, the latest compilation of comic strips from Doctor Who Magazine. The comic strip is arguably better (more imaginative, better-written), and more in tune with what I think Doctor Who should be like, than the TV version is at the moment. This has happened in the past, when David Tennant was the Doctor. Scott Gray, currently the main writer and editor on the strip, is one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, even though he’s never worked on the TV version.

I tried to accept that I was going to end up doing self-soothing things like reading comic strips and curling up in bed given that I’m struggling with my mood as a result of coming off olanzapine at the same time as some very stressful stuff in my personal life and in the wider world. Even so, I feel I wish I had done things differently.

A friend emailed after Shabbat to say that she now has an official high-functioning autism diagnosis. She has also gone through quite a long process to get diagnosed, so hopefully I’ll get my diagnosis soon.

My sister phoned after Shabbat and we had a long chat, mostly me talking about all the stresses I’m under at the moment. We hadn’t really spoken for a while. Later I watched the film Mr Holmes with my parents, about an ailing, nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes, losing his memory and revisiting his last case to try to remember why he retired. It was a character drama rather than a crime story, a little slow, and dark near the end, but it was OK. Sir Ian McKellan was very good as the elderly Holmes, nicely distinguished from his sixty year old self in flashback. I’m pretty sure it contradicted the original stories in several places (Sherlock Holmes is another autistic special interest for me), but not too violently.

I feel a bit agitated now. I don’t think it was the film, just anxiety about major things in my life right now. I feel like I have a lot going on. Aside from being in the middle of the autism diagnosis process, I’m a bit more settled into my new job, but still learning the ropes and conscious that it might end soon. I don’t think I’ve fully adapted to losing two days a week to work; I’m still struggling to fit everything in. Then I’m working on my novel and trying to move on my relationship in difficult circumstances (lockdown), while, like everyone, my ability to cope with COVID is getting less and less. I still get annoyed with people who don’t wear masks properly, but I feel less judgmental of people who are not social distancing or isolating properly. It’s hard. If even a shy, autistic introvert like me is struggling now, I guess almost everyone must be.

There’s not a lot else to say. I impulse-bought a lot of second-hand CDs on sale a couple of weeks ago, which I’ve been listening to recently. One CD was scratched and unplayable and I’m waiting for a replacement, but the others were good. I’ve been listening a lot to ABBA lately. I never liked ABBA, but in the last month or two, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert. I use music mostly to cheer myself up or to motivate myself, so I like fast and upbeat music, and much of ABBA’s output fits here. I bought ABBA Gold (greatest hits), which was the broken CD, and More ABBA Gold (greatest hits volume 2), which wasn’t quite as good as the first one, but surprised me by still being very good.

***

I just commented on a friends’ blog to say, “The riots in the Capitol were pretty shocking. I used to wish I had been born in the USA, where the Modern Orthodox Jewish community is so much stronger than the UK. I wondered if I would marry someone from there and emigrate [I nearly did, as E was from the US]. Now I’m grateful that I’m nowhere near. I worry what will happen to a country where the political class is divided into two groups that each think the other is irredeemably evil, where the President can’t accept he lost the election and where there are more guns than people.” I really can’t see this ending well. Maybe not immediately, but a decade or two down the line. People say Trump is like Hitler, but my worry is more that Trump is someone like Karl Lueger and that someone much worse is waiting twenty years down the line.

On that cheery note — bed!

Quick Post

I feel I need to write, but I only have a few minutes before having to shower for Shabbat (the Sabbath). I’m not going to shul (synagogue) this week as I’m too worried about COVID. The new lockdown has worried me, especially as we found out that Mum still has slightly reduced immunity. I know I’m going to work on the Tube (I’m a key worker, technically), but I don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I’m not seeing PIMOJ this week for the same reason, which I think she was a bit upset about. I’m upset too, but I don’t want to break the rules. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about volunteering, as they have changed the rules for volunteers to make it safer, and I’m not sure how they apply to me – I need time to read them again.

I feel a bit calmer today, mostly because I know none of the things that trouble me will be happening directly over Shabbat. I spoke to my rabbi mentor too, which was helpful. It wasn’t so much that he said anything new as that he validated some of my fears as understandable, but also validated my hopes that I was doing the right thing and should stick with it. Other people have said this, but I really needed his rabbinic approval rather than approval from my parents or therapist. He suggested a coping strategy for now as well.

That said, while getting ready for Shabbat some anxieties returned. I wonder if I’m being punished, or why God seems to put me in so many difficult situations. Situations which I feel someone frum (religious Jewish) should not have got in somehow. To be honest, I struggle to understand how to function in the frum community, not in terms of religious practise, but in terms of socialisation. Know what to do and say informally, when it’s not a matter of Jewish law. Knowing how to be accepted, how to present myself, what interests are allowed and so on.

OK, out of time now. See you in twenty-five hours.

More Anxiety

Wow, I feared that when the American Empire started to go, it wouldn’t go peacefully, but I didn’t expect a mob bearing the Confederate Flag storming Capitol Hill just yet. Crazy. Mind you, I was reading about the protests of the 1960s on my lunch break (civil rights, anti-war) and I think the scale and perhaps also the intensity of unrest greater then than now. It’s just that Twitter and 24 hour news coverage make it more visible now. Compare Capitol Hill with rioters storming the Pentagon in 1967. On the other hand, civil rights and Vietnam bubbled away for years, so who knows how things will look in 2030? The culture of the sixties was definitely better though.

Back here in London…

I had a lot of anxiety again today. I am going through an anxious time, but it occurred to me that I’m coming off olanzapine, which is probably making the anxiety worse. This morning on the Tube in to work, I was too anxious to do much Torah study as I usually do. I tried to practise mindful acceptance of my anxiety and guilt feelings. It helped a bit. The anxiety went away a bit during the morning as I was busy at work, but came back in the afternoon as there wasn’t much for me to do. Sometimes it felt like borderline religious OCD (anxiety that I’ve done/will do something religiously wrong). This leads to a feeling that everything I do to try and move my life on (careers, relationships) just provokes guilt for not being perfect. I try to tell myself it’s irrational guilt, but the slightest mishap (and mishaps are inevitable) just sets me to thinking that I’m being punished by God and that worse is in store for me. I am not sure how to cure myself of this dynamic.

I think I tend to see life very much in black and white terms (which is a classic autistic perspective), but specifically in black and white moral terms. It’s a kind of scrupulosity (religious OCD) whereby I want to be morally perfect and see any moral imperfection as heinous. This leads to things like me applying for jobs that are not right for me because I feel “ought” to do so. My moral integrity and honesty is a big part of my self-esteem (insofar as I have much self-esteem), so it’s hard to challenge it.

Similarly, in terms of dating, I’ve partly internalised a frum (religious Jewish) model of dating which sees the dating process in extremely moralised and black and white terms (e.g. avoiding platonic friendships with the opposite sex; no dating before being ready to marry, in terms of having a settled career and mental health; pre-screening dates to only date people with shared values; avoiding long-term relationships before marriage). I do this even though this model has not worked for me. This leads me to feel that everything I do in dating is wrong and that my dating difficulties are a punishment from God. However, I am not sufficiently integrated into the frum community to really be able to date that way even if I wanted to do so.

Both PIMOJ and my therapist struggled to understand yesterday how I can feel that I’ve never fitted into or been accepted by the Orthodox world and yet still want to be a part of it. I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question myself. I believe in Orthodox Judaism, even if I’m not really able to live the right sort of life, practically, that would enable me to function in the community. That’s the best answer I have. I know that many people would, if not consciously then at least unconsciously, change their beliefs for ones that fitted better with a possible or desirable lifestyle. That has just never happened with me, for whatever reason.

***

As a side-note on black and white morality, I’ve encountered quite a number of rabbis over the years who claimed to be very badly behaved in their youth. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Are they exaggerating to try to connect with young people? Does a disobedient, questioning, cast of mind lend itself well to Talmudic study? Probably. Can the uncontrollable energy of the boisterous child be focused into the superhuman amounts of emotional energy needed by the congregational rabbi? Possibly. Sometimes I feel weirdly that if only I had been worse-behaved at school, I might be in a much better situation today. It will be weird if I go to Heaven and they tell me that I was too well-behaved to earn much reward.

***

Speaking of which, PIMOJ and I streamed (separately) Soul, the latest Pixar film, about a musician who dies, but wants to come back to Earth, and is set to mentor a soul that is resisting being born. It was amusing enough, but I found it hard to concentrate on and triggered a lot of uncomfortable thoughts about my not enjoying life or having a clear purpose (I want to be a writer, but worry I won’t make it). I couldn’t really explain to PIMOJ that I want to enjoy the small moments of life, but all too often I can’t, and I can’t will that enjoyment into being, particularly not if it’s still an element of depression.

Rebel Rebel

I’m not sure where I am today, emotionally. I had two big things going on, the pandemic and the autism assessment. Now there’s a third, potentially even bigger, and I am not coping well. I don’t want to talk about it here yet. Or rather I do want to talk about it, but I’m not sure that I should, so I won’t for now. Suffice to say that I went to bed late last night because I was dealing with a lot of anxious and self-critical thoughts. Then I couldn’t sleep, probably because I was over-tired and hadn’t done anything to relax. Then I overslept this morning and didn’t want to get up because of the anxiety. I eventually got up because my phone was ringing, but I didn’t get there in time and whoever they were, they didn’t leave a message and I didn’t recognise the number. Hopefully it was just a cold caller, but I worry it might have been something about the autism assessment, although I know it’s unlikely that they would contact me within twenty-four hours of the last assessment.

I’ve felt lately that I was getting ahold of my life, that I was making progress with work and writing and my relationship, that I was moving towards some kind of definitive autism diagnosis, and that I was feeling like depression and mental illness, while not “cured” (I don’t know that I will ever be “cured”), are less prominent in my life. I was even wondering if I should carry on blogging here, or blogging so regularly. What is the point of a mental health blog if my mental health is reasonable?

And then, WHAM! To be honest, I knew this would happen for some time, it just happened faster than I thought it would, and it hit me harder than I expected. I still can’t talk about what is actually happening except in the vaguest of terms, but I’ve been in a state of anxiety since the weekend, and I’m not sure if it’s going to change any time soon. I guess I’m just psychologically vulnerable to mental illness at times of stress, the way some people have reduced immunity and vulnerability to physical illness.

I was able to talk about it a lot in therapy today. We ended up speaking a lot about ideas of community, individuality, conformity and so on and particularly how these apply in the Orthodox Jewish community.

I spoke about feeling a burden at the moment, a bag full of guilt and critical voices from the community and who knows what else. I want to put the bag down, if only to breathe, but I can’t, I have to keep carrying it up the hill. How much of this is actually real (real guilt, real people criticising me) and how much is just in my head is hard to tell. I do feel, on some level, like I’m responsible for the world and that I’m judged to the minutest level of detail, in a way that no one (or no one other than a total tzaddik (saint)) is judged.

My therapist suggested there was anger there too, which is correct, but I’ve never known what to do with anger other than repress it, which is not good in the long-run and arguably leads to depression. I think in the summer, when our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbours were having lockdown-breaching prayer services in their garden three times a day, I wrote a letter, with no intention of sending it, saying how angry they made me. I think that helped somewhat, but my current anger seems too nebulous and undirected at the moment for that to be a viable strategy.

More surprisingly, I found myself suggesting that maybe on some level I like or need the friction with my community. I’m not entirely sure why I said this, but I suspect that I noted that I’ve spent two decades or more trying to be an Orthodox Jew and to “fit in” to the Orthodox community, but I’ve also spent two decades or more complaining (quietly) about the conformism, narrow-mindedness and bourgeois mentality that often operates in the Orthodox community, trying to not to be socialised out of my geekiness, my non-Jewish friends, the books I read. I guess I have a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” attitude to the Orthodox world.

I can see it with my novel. Sometimes I’m terrified about the backlash I might face for suggesting that domestic abuse exists in the Orthodox community and that the autistic and mentally ill are not well-catered for there, but other times I will admit to myself that I hope there is some controversy, that it “shakes things up a bit.”

It’s hard to come to terms with this, as I was a well-behaved child and I was the absolute most well-behaved, non-rebellious teenager imaginable. But here I am, worrying that I’m going to bring the Temple crashing down around me, Shimshon (Samson) style, without really wanting to do it, just feeling driven to it by loneliness and desperation, the longing for a place where I can be accepted by people who aren’t like me. I feel I should (“should” again) be able not to care what people think about me, but somehow I can’t.

I told PIMOJ I was anxious and she called. It was a difficult conversation, not least because it was late and I didn’t really want to speak, but I felt I should as she was concerned about me. It really did become apparent that there is a psychological difference between us, that she doesn’t care who does or doesn’t like her, whereas I want to be liked and accepted, something that I don’t think she really understood. I don’t think she understood why it matters to me if other Orthodox Jews reject me. I don’t think I really understand why it matters to me, to be honest. My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t care who liked me, but I find myself unable to find the switch to turn it off.

***

There was no volunteering today, but I was supposed to be doing some work from home and I got up later than I intended for that. I got the work done (stuffing envelopes and stamping them) as well as having therapy, but I didn’t get out for a walk. Add in the call from PIMOJ and I ran out of time for more than five minutes of Torah study, although I did write my devar Torah for the week and liked it more than I expected. It’s going to be another late night. I don’t know if I’ll have time to relax before I go to bed again so sleeplessness is likely.

***

When I started this job, the Department of Work and Pensions said I was OK working part-time and still receiving some benefits. Now they’ve written to ask for more details about the work. I accept that I probably earn too much to justify the benefits, I just wish they would make their minds up. I do wonder whether other government departments and bodies (e.g. the Treasury, the Foreign Office) are as useless and bureaucratic as the DWP and the NHS. It’s easy to look at the lockdown mess and think that they are.

Celibacy

Despite my worries, I managed to get up early for volunteering and got there on time. It was fine. A couple of people asked if I was OK as I haven’t been for a fortnight, which was nice. I’m always amazed when people notice I’m absent. Someone donated fresh jam donuts for the volunteers and I had one. Possibly my waistband says I shouldn’t have. I still feel that I make mistakes and do stupid things there, although it’s more that what seems logical to me doesn’t always seem logical to other people and vice versa for various (autistic?) reasons. Sometimes it’s probably poor executive function or me not processing spoken instructions properly, but other times it can be me applying rules over-rigidly. Then again, maybe I’m being perfectionist and looking to autism to excuse behaviours that don’t really require excusing (again).

I was pretty exhausted in the afternoon and didn’t do very much other than a few minor chores. I intended to listen a shiur (religious class) that I missed, but it wasn’t up online. I did some other Torah study, but it was just bits and pieces, little audio vorts (short religious ideas) and articles in a religious magazine. I couldn’t face anything heavier. I did a little bit of ironing and thought about trying to force myself to do more chores, but I was worried about being burnt out tomorrow when I have work. I wish I knew why I still get so tired so easily even with the mood aspect of depression being rather easier than in the past. I just read and watched DVDs. I had been eating dinner in front of the Chanukah candles this week, but at dinner today I was drained and couldn’t face eating dinner alone with noise from my parents’ TV and ended up eating in my room, which was also alone and with TV, but at least it was my TV.

Reading this back, I see I actually did quite a lot, but I still feel guilty about not doing “enough” and not having “enough” energy considering I’m not depressed “any more”. There probably are imaginary standards of “normality” and “mentally ill” here that aren’t helpful to me.

***

I saw the next two paragraphs a few days ago on Elisheva Liss’ Jewish mental health blog. The bit I’m about to quote actually isn’t the main point of the post, but is the part that is pertinent to me and set me thinking.

As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved…

What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.

This isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish world). I’m conscious of not wanting to reveal my entire life history online, but also of wanting to talk about this for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. (I’ve tried speaking about it in therapy, but I feel that writing this has made me realise there’s a lot more to say there.) My background is that I was brought up traditional, but not fully Torah observant and gradually became more observant in my teens. At the same time, I went to a co-educational (Modern Orthodox Jewish) school and eventually became interested in girls when I was about sixteen (I was a late developer, which I definitely think was a blessing). I also had sex education, at home and at school, but it was pretty functional. It was not the Haredi minimal or no sex education, but it focused on the biological “How do we make babies?” side of things. It was a long time before anyone ever really spoken to me about the emotional side of things, and probably most of the conversations I have had about dating and sex have been in therapy.

The problem with this is, being (probably) on the autism spectrum, I do not always pick things up easily if they aren’t explicitly spelt out to me, particularly regarding social interactions. No one ever said anything about masturbation, but somehow I intuited that it was wrong, and that sexual fantasy was likely to lead to it. Pornography was a lot harder to access when I was a teenager than it is these days, but there was already a lot of quasi-pornographic imagery in society; I think the infamous Wonderbra “Hello Boys” billboard advert (the one that supposedly caused numerous car crashes from men looking at the model’s cleavage and not at the road) came out shortly before I hit puberty, and there was a lot of similar adverts around and, anyway, you shouldn’t underestimate what sexually-frustrated teenage boys can find arousing (illustrations of Dark Elf warrior women in the Warhammer rule book…).

Being autistic, depressed and socially anxious did not make it easy to find girlfriends, or to work out how to find girlfriends (to this day, my few relationships have been either via dating websites or from the other person making the first move). During my time at school, I hardly spoke to girls, except a bit to my best friend’s girlfriend. In retrospect I wish I had, as looking back I see that there were intelligent, gentle girls in my year and even in my social group, and maybe my life would have gone differently if I’d just tried to talk to them, not necessarily to date, but just to get practise socialising with women, but I was too shy to really speak to them. I had a huge crush on one girl throughout my time in the sixth form (equivalent of high school, broadly), but was rarely able to speak to her and when I did, I think she was bored and embarrassed by me.

I did manage to build female platonic friendships at university, but that backfired when I asked one out. I was twenty, and it was the first time I had ever done that. She wasn’t interested and it ended badly.

I didn’t actually go on a date until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty-seven and still a virgin and unmarried. I don’t have any particular animus about the Jewish “no sex before marriage” rule, as I know that, emotionally, I couldn’t cope with casual sex anyway. I’m sure some people can, and chafe at the rule, but I know I can’t. I have just slowly begun another relationship, but there are reasons, that I won’t go into here, that mean that it will be years before we can get married, should we decide to do so, so I’m stuck with celibacy for now.

I can’t really put into words the huge amount of frustration, fascination, confusion, envy, guilt and even anger I feel around sex and celibacy. There is also fear, but I wrote about that on Hevria a number of years ago. (That’s aside from the worry that I have so much anxiety around sex that I’ll never be able to have a genuine healthy sexual relationship, even if I get married.) As a frum Jew, I’m not supposed to talk about it; as someone somewhat internet-savvy, I’m worried about being branded a misogynist “Incel” just for raising the topic. I’ve spoken about it in therapy quite a lot, and in more detail than I will go into here, but somehow I feel that I’ve never got to the bottom of it. I’ve barely spoken about it with my current therapist, even though I’ve been seeing her for over seven months. I don’t have the words. I’m not sure if that’s because of my upbringing or my issues.

From adolescence onwards, I’ve had a huge amount of guilt and shame around my sexual thoughts and feelings. For many years I tried to repress them and mostly failed. I’m not sure if it is really feasible to repress sexual thoughts and feelings long-term; it’s certainly not possible if one is at all engaged in hyper-sexualised Western society. Sometimes I can see why Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews try to avoid Western society entirely, but I know that’s not my path.

One of the reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) between school and university as many people expected to was because of feelings of guilt around sex and the belief (which I now realise was completely mistaken) that I was the only frum or would-be frum teenage boy struggling with it. Admittedly there were half a dozen other reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva, but that decision had massive repercussions for the rest of my life, down to today, including why I feel so unmarriable in the frum community. I already had low self-esteem and a tendency to over-intellectualise things, and that and the added sexual guilt probably triggered an emotional downward spiral that fed in to my depression. It may not be coincidental (although it has only occurred to me writing this) that my first episode of depression followed about six months after the start of my first “real” crush (by which I mean the first one where I actively thought and fantasised about her all the time when she wasn’t around, rather than simply feeling vaguely anxious and attracted when I saw her).

Sometimes I feel that it’s eating away my insides. I feel that, at thirty-seven, I should not be desperate to have sex, and certainly I know it’s a bad idea to get married just to have sex. I wonder if I will ever be “ready,” emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling that middle aged sex (which is all that’s left for me) is dull and perfunctory and that if I was going to ever enjoy sex, it would have happened before now. I know this isn’t true, but it’s another lie the media perpetuates, and I can’t shake free of it.

Another thing I’ve never really got to the bottom of is whether I really want sex, or just (“just”?) intimacy. To be honest, I probably want both, and that’s probably healthy; I don’t think secular society, which says you can have healthy sex without intimacy, is particularly well-adjusted in that way. But if I absolutely had to choose, I think I would choose emotional intimacy over sex. I think that’s my absolute desire in many areas: marriage, yes, but also I want a few close friends (rather than many distant ones) and my conception of Heaven is an intimate closeness with God and perhaps with loved ones. But a successful, intimate marriage is the one I want most of all. Although I don’t feel myself particularly successful at achieving intimacy in those other areas either. I think I’m a very lonely person, and have been since my teens. Again, I can blame autism, depression and social anxiety, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I’m not sure what I want in writing this. I think a lot of it is about recognition. That I think I’m carrying some kind of burden by following Jewish law in this area, and especially doing it while more open to the sexualised Western culture than some parts of the community. I think it’s the best – or least worst – option for me right now, for a host of halakhic (Jewish legal), emotional and moral reasons, but it’s still a burden and one I hope I will put down one day, but fear that I will be carrying it for a long time. And somehow I want that acknowledged, which it isn’t, not by hyper-sexualised Western society or by the frum world, where most people are married by twenty-five. In some ways I don’t mind that many non-religious would not understand why I’m doing this, but I feel that I would like people in the frum community to understand the strain of long-term celibacy for “older singles,” beyond issues like loneliness, not fitting into the community etc. (not that those are particularly well-appreciated).

Actually, I’m not sure how much is recognition from society and how much is recognition by myself. That I really want to hear (ideally from God, but at least from someone frum who knows me well and who I respect) that I’m a good person, that I’ve done well in staying a virgin all these years, despite my failure to be 100% Torah observant in other areas of sexuality.

***

Today’s donuts: jam (very fresh) at volunteering.

“Marital Relations” and Violence

I struggled to get up again this morning, even more than usual. I slept for about eight hours, after going to bed late, but then spent two hours in the zone between sleep and full wakefulness, too burnt out to get up. I guess, given the emotions of yesterday evening, it’s not surprising that I felt emotionally exhausted. It was well into the afternoon before I really felt able to get going.

I did various things today: shopping, cleaning the oven for Mum, various odd chores, and a 5K run, as well as half an hour of Torah study. Unfortunately, because I was late getting up, the run was after dark, which is always harder. It still felt like a slightly wasted day, with a late start and a big pause in the early evening when I got back from my run to exhausted to do anything for a while. I couldn’t really face doing any more than that, any more Torah study or any more stuff in general. I was too tired by the end, and rather depressed.

Possibly I’m just feeling pessimistic today.

***

PIMOJ’s reaction to my novel makes me worry a bit how other frum (religious) people will respond. There’s actually very little sex in it, but there is some: a rape (which is over in a couple of lines; the book focuses more on the emotional after-effects for the female character), and also some frank discussion of sex (although no actual sex scene) where one character is trying to emotionally manipulate his wife into agreeing to have anal sex. I would say this is not what people would expect from a frum novel, except that there is very little frum serious literature to compare it with.

I didn’t want it to be “just” a frum book, but to be relevant to a wider audience. I fear I have fallen between two stools, with a ridiculous unwillingness to show actual sex for a mainstream audience, but much too much for a frum audience. The frum world won’t talk about sex except with strained euphemisms (hence Haredi comedian Ashley Blaker did a joke about the Jewish punk rock group, The “Marital Relations” Pistols). But I felt I couldn’t duck these issues, having seen (from neshamas.com, the Intimate Judaism podcast and elsewhere) that the nature of consent within marriage and the existence of domestic abuse are real issues in the frum community that we are rather in denial about and I thought it would unrealistic and untrue to duck those issues.

As an example that I should have known — in a sense, did know — what I was getting myself into, just before I started work on my novel, The Jewish News, a free Jewish newspaper, not particularly frum, ran this article about abuse (trigger warning for all kinds of abuse). The next week, they got a lot of complaints, saying it was too graphic for a family newspaper. (I’m not sure how many young children read newspapers these days.) Certainly no frum newspaper (Hamodia, Mishpacha, etc.) would ever run an article like that. But where can articles like this be run — and be seen by those who need to see them — if not in a newspaper? So I knew that if I got my novel published, I was likely to have negative feedback, but that just convinced me of the need to write it. But maybe I was wrong and this will do harm rather than good. I don’t want people to see it as saying that Jews are particularly bad people or that Judaism is a bad religion. I wanted my characters to see Judaism as life-supporting even when they were at their worst.

***

On the plus side, PIMOJ and I are connecting again. Last night we “spoke” (in text — I wasn’t up to speak on Skype) about what we admire in each other and why we want to continue the relationship (although I’ve noticed PIMOJ doesn’t describe it as a relationship, just that we’re “getting to know” each other). We’ve been texting again today. I do want to talk about what happened in therapy and with my rabbi mentor, though, especially as I feel a bit self-conscious with PIMOJ now.

I worry that we are too different in terms of personality, and also that she doesn’t know many frum men; if she did, maybe she wouldn’t find me so interesting and unique. Sometimes, even before this, I feel guilty for dating her, when I should tell her to try dating other guys first.

I guess PIMOJ doesn’t fit my mental image of the type of person I would expect to marry. To be honest, the person who most fitted that image was my first girlfriend and that didn’t work out at all, because she was already becoming a different person. There was someone at university who I thought fitted the bill too, but she wasn’t interested in me. I’m not sure what this proves, except to note that a lot of people (most people?) end up with someone different from what they think their ideal mate would be.

***

Predictive text today wanted me to say “I’ll have to wait until I get… arrested.” Now I’m wondering what my phone thinks of me and why.

Épater Le Bourgeois

Work was fine. I finished the data checking and did a load of filing. My Dad said I looked happy when I came home, which partly may be the result of a truncated working day (six hours plus a forty-five minute lunch) and J giving me a lift home instead of commuting on the Tube, but is probably also from feeling that I achieved something practical and from being in a non-hostile, reasonably autism-friendly environment. I did come home feeling OK and not exhausted, which hasn’t really happened in a work environment for many years.

I got home reasonably early and for a while was hoping to work on my novel for a bit, but I started answering emails and responding to blog comments and suddenly it was an hour later. I did finish and send my devar Torah; did a little bit of Torah study, as I had done some on the Tube in to work, but not much; and did some ironing, so it wasn’t a wasted evening, but I felt that I didn’t get 100% out of it. This is possibly me being too self-critical.

***

I mentioned that last night I went to a virtual shiur (religious class). The rabbi said that given how hair-splittingly legalistic Judaism is (not his words, but not that far off), we would expect great Jewish leaders to be “bland and boring” (those were his words), yet they have vivid personalities. I thought about this. I can think of great Jewish religious leaders who did have vivid personalities. However, I also sometimes feel that contemporary Orthodox society can feel monolithic. That anyone who doesn’t fit the mould leaves, or gets thrown out. (I also don’t know if contemporary Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders fit the “vivid personalities” model, but I’m prepared to admit there that I don’t know them well enough to pass judgement.)

I’ve been thinking about this today. I don’t have any great answers. Orthodox society probably is monolithic. This is partly from overt religious conformism, but more because it’s mostly middle class. Orthodox families are talking about the same things non-religious middle class families talk about. Maybe not TV and popular culture (at least not at the Haredi end of the spectrum), but politics and house prices and which are the best schools to send their kids to and where they’re going on holiday and so on. Middle class people in general are not always noted for being daringly original and avant-garde. It’s why “bourgeois” is a term of abuse, particularly in artistic circles (for all that many artists are also middle class, much of their work is about épater les bourgeois). After a while it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people start to feel that they have to leave if they think differently almost without pausing to see what is actually available. The creatives assume religion is conformist and meaningless; the religious establishment assumes that art and individuality are dangerous (which is true) and unnecessary (which is not true).

For me, part of the attraction of figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (late eighteenth/early nineteenth century) and the Kotzker Rebbe (nineteenth century) is their willingness to shock the conventional religious and social pieties of their day while remaining fully Torah observant. As for today… I don’t know. I’ve met some unconventional Orthodox figures. I would like to meet more, although it’s hard to know how. For a while, Hevria.com was a place to “meet” creative frum (religious Jewish) people, but the conversations moved from the website to Facebook, and I won’t use Facebook, and I think they started focusing on in-person events instead of online content which is fine if you live in New York or Israel, but I don’t. Someone there really upset me too, on a very personal level, and that tainted it for me.

Of course, it has also occurred to me lately that maybe the reason I never fit in wherever I go is not because the sub-cultures I try to identify with are flawed, but because I have some kind of self-sabotaging fear of fitting in and conforming and start looking for reasons to feel like an outsider as well as an anxious fear of rejection that pre-empts future rejection by not getting connected in the first place.

***

According to my friend, who knows these things, this special Doctor Who magazine has sold out twice from the publisher’s website and once from a general magazine site. Science fiction shop Forbidden Planet seems to have sold out too. All this in the space of a week. Actually, as I’ve been looking since before it was published, I suspect it sold out largely from pre-orders. Certainly the publisher’s website seemed to sell out more or less immediately. I’m probably going to have to resign myself to not getting hold of it.

***

I’ve got four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return left. It picked up around the halfway point, with the various plot strands coming together, which in turn helped me to figure out who on Earth all the new characters were, how they related to each other and what they were doing. I will probably have to watch it at least once more to really understand it. I have discovered that I’m not as squeamish for screen gore as I thought, coping with some on-screen nastiness, although I prefer the original series were the gore (and sex and swearing) was mostly implicit. I feel vaguely bourgeois for saying that (see above). I do believe gore (and sex and swearing) can be dramatically justified, but not everything here seemed to pass that test, although some did. It’s hard, something I have struggled with in my writing, not gore per se, but violence, sex and swearing. It’s hard to tell when less is more sometimes. Just this week I cut something from my novel (sexual rather than violent) because I felt it was a distraction, but the novel features sexual violence that I think is necessary to be true to the subject (domestic abuse).

The Much-Anticipated Politics Post

I’ve mentioned a few times about wanting to write something about politics, not in a party political way, but in the sense of my moral and political intuitions and how I feel nervous about talking about them to other people. This post probably isn’t perfect, but it’s a start and I think I should just post it by this stage, so here we go…

***

There’s a good quote I came across relatively recently: “if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.”

If you want, please consider what follows an explanation of my colossal and inexplicable stupidity…

Like a lot of diaspora Jews, I was raised in an environment that was at least mildly left-of-centre. There was a feeling growing up that one should vote Labour/socialist (arguably not the same thing when I came of age in the Blair years) or at the very least Liberal Democrat/liberal. (It’s weird that antisemites see Jews as monolithically conservative when the reality is that most diaspora Jews seem to be left-of-centre.) As I reached my teenage years, I was influenced by two things. One was studying economics at A-Level and feeling that socialism simply doesn’t work, although I was open to more moderate state intervention in the market. The other was the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. I don’t want to make this about Israel, but I felt that the news coverage and response from politicians and NGOs was increasingly one-sided. I felt that in the space of the first decade or so of the twenty-first century the “narrative” moved from a position of “There are faults on both sides, but Israel is heavy-handed” (which is a debateable point, but not necessarily antisemitic) to the demonisation of Israel as a uniquely evil state and which implicitly has to have its very existence questioned. This is much closer to antisemitism, at least in a world where no other state has had its legitimacy questioned like this. This attitude had been present among the hard-left for decades, coming ultimately out of Soviet Bloc propaganda (the USSR backed the Arabs), but seeped into the media, NGOs and the moderate left, particularly on campuses, where the atmosphere is increasingly hostile to Jewish students, something not really reported in the mainstream media, although it’s been reported widely in the Jewish press and online. Given that Zionism and the State of Israel are a major part of my identity, as they are for most Jews, this felt like an assault on my sense of self and poisoned my view of much of the left and made it harder and harder to see myself as a part of it, even though the right was not particularly appealing.

Contrary to what many people on the left feel, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about contemporary progressive thought that makes prejudice less likely than among conservatives, it’s just that the prejudice expresses itself in different ways. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jews became identified on the left with capitalism, building on earlier antisemitic ideas about Jewish wealth and power. That idea was suppressed after the Holocaust, but has gradually crept back in, initially under the guise of anti-Zionism, but, as was seen in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, classic antisemitic conspiracy theories and even Holocaust denial are passed around quite openly now on the hard-left.

I suppose I had pulled on a thread and gradually my beliefs began to unravel. This all happened slowly, over a decade or more of time, but I guess by about 2010 I became interested in hearing views I had never really considered before.

I think my views achieved a kind of stasis for a few years where I didn’t really identify with anything other than a vague centrism. Then came Brexit, the most seismic event in British politics in my lifetime. I described myself as a “reluctant Remainer.” I disliked aspects of the EU, especially its lack of direct democratic accountability, but felt being in was better than being out. Still, when Leave won, I thought that was that. In the months that followed, I was horrified to see people I admired, working to annul a democratic vote because they disagreed with it. There seemed to me to be a class element to this: middle class, university-educated Remainers trying to block working class Brexiteers. All the Remainer talk of gullible working class voters being “tricked” into voting Leave made it hard to avoid feeling there wasn’t a sense of entitlement buried under there stemming from access to higher education.

As I read more over the coming years, I realised this paralleled the white working class’ embrace of Donald Trump in the USA. I hated Donald Trump, but I increasingly felt he was the only prominent person who had noticed that in the move to identity politics based on race, gender and sexuality, working class and lower middle class people, some of them living close to the breadline, had been forgotten. Their incomes have stagnated for decades while the rich and university educated have got richer. I felt that Trump was manipulative and probably had limited real regard for these people; like a businessman, he saw an attractive market. All the same, he signalled a failure in the democratic process that was most pronounced in America, but present in other Western countries.

(I suppose, if you want to go down this route, that I’m part of the lower middle class “left behinds” – fifteen years after leaving university, I’ve never had a full-time job or owned a home. Of course, in my case it’s due to autism and mental illness rather than “elite over-production” (briefly, the idea that there are now more people with degrees than there are good jobs that require degrees, resulting in unemployment among people who are already in debt from university fees that they were told they would easily pay off once they started working). Even so, there is some resentment of the prosperous middle class that I try to repress, but probably is in there to some extent, I can’t deny it.)

All the same, I feel uncomfortable calling myself a “conservative.” I don’t agree with all conservative policies, for one thing. For another, I find conservative political parties worldwide fairly repulsive. What works on a local scale as communal help ends up on a national scale as strict needs-testing and rooting out of “undeserving” claimants, backed up by occasional jingoism. COVID in particular has shown the British Conservative Party as inefficient when faced with a new challenge, while Donald Trump has shamelessly ignored the science and tried to make it a partisan issue (although I don’t see Trump as a conservative in any meaningful sense).

Nevertheless, I believe in evolutionary change and tradition; in localism and third sector involvement in social care; I believe that many problems are not solvable, not by government and certainly not within one electoral cycle; I am suspicious of simplistic mono-causal explanations; I am strongly opposed to monopolies and big corporations, whether public or private-sector; and I feel excluded from identity politics, which often seems antisemitic, and which in any case I see as socially divisive. So all these thoughts would mark me out as a conservative, albeit a very particular kind of conservative, what in Britain is sometimes referred to as One Nation Conservatism for its vision of a mutually responsible national culture that transcends the divisions of class. I care about many of the issues progressives care about (poverty, discrimination and injustice, the environment), I just find their answers simplistic and often unworkable.

I’ve tried other ways of looking at the political spectrum. One recent UK survey identified seven types of political ideologies and I’m don’t fit any one of them, so that didn’t help. Other people look at “Somewheres” versus “Anywheres” – those rooted in a place and culture against cosmopolitans who value global living and policies. This has the advantage of explaining Brexit and Trump well; both appealed to parts of the established right (but not the neo-liberals), but also to parts of the working class that had not previously voted conservatively. But my “Somewhere” place doesn’t exist; inasmuch as I want to conserve somewhere, it’s a construct of Jewish identity that only exists on an abstract plane, not in a real place (not even Israel).

George Orwell divided the world into moralists and revolutionaries. Moralists think there is no point in reforming institutions while human nature is in need of reform; revolutionaries think the reverse. I suppose I would mostly be a moralist. More pertinently, Orwell also coined the phrase “Tory anarchist,” defined by the political theorist Peter Wilkin as “a form of cultural dissident, out of step with and in opposition to many features of the modern world” who has “respect for privacy and the liberty of individuals, a fear of the state and its expanding power over social life; a nostalgic and melancholy temper… ; criticism of social conformism; and a pervasive sense of pessimism about the fate of the modern world.”

This is a phrase I’ve taken to heart. I like it partly because it’s loosely defined and allows me to avoid pinning myself down, but also because it suggests to me (although perhaps not to other people) a kind of dynamic tension between opposing outlooks that I feel strongly, as opposed to a synthesis or compromise.

I suppose I think that there is no one way of running a society/economy. It’s all about what trade-offs you are willing to make. I’m not a libertarian, but the libertarian saying that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” seems to me to be inherently true, but frequently ignored. You can trade off economic growth against economic redistribution or unemployment against employment laws and minimum wage legislation and so on. It depends if you think the gain is worth the cost. I think that’s entirely sensible behaviour. The problem is that politicians rarely frame the decisions in that way; they tend to try to mislead voters into thinking that you can have it all. I’m very much opposed to that kind of short-term, simplistic thinking, whether it comes from the left or the right. I do very much see politics as a pragmatic business of balancing different positives and negatives and I feel uncomfortable with people who see it in a very redemptive, almost messianic, way, about “saving the world.” I don’t think we can save the world, only God can do that. We can just try to make it marginally less awful.

Even though I’ve moved rightwards, a lot of my friends and family are more left-wing, particularly online. The library sector is very left-wing, unsurprisingly, being based on public sector and education sector employment. On the other hand, some people in the Orthodox Jewish community are far off to my right. I haven’t been able to work out if most Orthodox Jews are right-wing, or just the most vocal ones. I mostly walk away from fights that are impossible to win and let other people believe what they like. It does leave me feeling “They would hate me if they knew me,” which is not good for my self-esteem. I do feel a lot of the time that I have to hide my sense of self, which probably isn’t healthy for me. Hence, I want to write this, just so I can see what happens and whether I can afford to open up to the world a bit more.

Feeling Slightly Useless

I think I’m going to pause job-hunting for a bit, or at least scale it down. My new job will probably only last two or three months, so I do need to keep looking, but it’s not such an imminent thing that I’m willing/able to apply for jobs I’m less likely to want or get. So, for the moment I’m not applying for a very user-facing public library job that would have been hard with autism and social anxiety. I’m not sure what I’m doing about the cataloguing job at the institution where I did disastrously in the interview and exam for a similar job back in 2018.

***

I spent an hour trying to work on my novel. I proof-read half a chapter or so, but did not write much that was new. I got distracted a lot and I probably felt too depressed to do much that was useful – I’m not sure whether I made the right decision about not expanding some passages or cutting others. My brain is just not functioning today and I don’t know why, but I’m certainly less productive today than I was on Friday. Maybe I’m burnt out after a busy Friday and “peopling” yesterday (on Zoom rather than in person, but that can be more stressful). I’m now halfway through the second draft in terms of chapters, but probably much less than halfway in terms of time and work, as I know the latter chapters need a lot of redrafting to fix plot and character problems.

***

I wanted to go for a run, but my knee was hurting for a bit, so I went for a walk, but tried to walk further than usual, about five kilometres.

I did about forty-five minutes of Torah study; I wanted to do more, but I ended up going to my shul‘s (synagogue’s) Annual General Meeting on Zoom and felt I had to draw a line. I was in two minds about going to this given that I felt down, but PIMOJ is the Better Angel of My Nature and suggested I should go. I watched it without my webcam on, which is discouraged, but I did not feel up to being seen or having my room seen; plus, this way I could listen with one ear while eating dinner or working on other things. I don’t really like long-winded speeches at meetings; I’ve already noted the “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it yet” aspect of meetings that drives me crazy.

There was a lot of praise for people who have helped the community in different ways, which is absolutely correct, but I always feel, “Well, I can’t help, there’s nothing I can do.” When I was at Oxford, someone actually got really annoyed with me for refusing to go on the Jewish Society (JSoc) committee. My feeling was that the JSoc was a social group to enable Jews to meet and socialise (and date) rather than a religious society and that I knew nothing about running a social group. Thus spake undiagnosed autism and social anxiety. This person got really annoyed with me though and felt I was being selfish in taking from the society and not giving back (actually, I wasn’t taking that much as I hardly attended any events, but that’s another question). I drew on this for my novel too. Of course, shul brings up feelings of religious inadequacy compared with other people, which I didn’t have so much at Oxford. On Zoom there is also the “I can see everyone my age has a lovely house and I live in my parents’ second bedroom” inadequacy feeling.

Then they started talking about financial donations, which weren’t an issue at university where we were all impoverished students, but which now set me aside from people with successful jobs.

Then the internet, which had been ropey for the first hour of the meeting completely packed up (I’ve been having internet trouble again on my laptop lately). I did eventually manage to log back in on my phone, which has a better connection, but I was feeling even less engaged.

There was some stuff about finances and fees that panicked me and I need to look into.

I guess my overall impression of the AGM was personal inadequacy and something approaching awe for mentally healthy neurotypicals who are able (a) to do stuff to help the community and (b) stay interested and engaged for the whole meeting. To be honest, if they were able to sit through the finance presentation and ask pertinent questions, they beat me (yes, I know probably a huge chunk of the community are accountants).

The meeting is still ongoing as of 10.10pm, but I think I’m going to have to call it a night or my head will explode and I won’t be able to sleep.

***

I don’t know why I feel depressed today. I’m worried about getting COVID on the commute to my new job or to volunteering. I’m worried about performing badly in the new job and letting my friend down. I’m worried about sharing an office all day with someone (is he going to expect me to talk? To eat lunch together? I like to read on my lunch break…). I guess some of it is wanting to move on with my life (career, writing, PIMOJ) and feeling constrained by external factors (mental health and autism, financial situation and more), which is frustrating. I wonder if I will ever achieve the goals I’ve set for myself. I do know that whether I build a career as a writer or a librarian or something else, it’s going to take years; likewise, getting married will take years, even if PIMOJ is The One, and sometimes that time scale feels very daunting. How am I going to do anything with my life if it takes years just to get to the start? I know, I have started already, but it’s hard to see what I’ve achieved so far. Even on a smaller scale, I don’t like waiting to start the new job; I want to dive in and get started, so that’s another cause of anxiety and depression.

I guess more prosaically I miss PIMOJ. Unlike my previous relationships, I think we communicate better in person than online, which is probably good overall, but bad during COVID. It’s a real shame we can’t meet in person very often. I think we are both serious about this relationship and want to move things forward, but are being held back, partly by COVID, but also by other things going on in each of our lives, like my autism and job situation and some things in PIMOJ’s life. In terms of feeling bad, there’s also some loneliness and touch hunger too today, and not knowing when that will change.

***

Joe Biden’s middle name is ‘Robinette.’ I’m not quite sure how I avoided knowing that until today. I have a weird fascination with the middle names of US Presidents, which are often very unusual, at least from a British point of view. I’m guessing that some Americans still do the Victorian thing, which my grandparents did with my uncle, of giving the mother’s maiden surname to the first son as a middle name.