Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

A fund-raising email from an autism charity told me today that autistic people are nine times more likely to commit suicide than non-autistic people, which is depressing, but I fear has the ring of truth. Elsewhere, a blog I follow tells me that only 16% of autistic people are in work (although I suspect there are more non-diagnosed autistic people who are in work and haven’t needed a diagnosis) and only 5% get married (it doesn’t say how many of those marriages work out). I’m not sure what happens if you take out the severe autism. Of course, secular Western society defines people by their career and Orthodox Jewish society largely defines them by their marriage and offspring, so it is easy to end up feeling like a failure – which I guess is where the suicide statistic comes in.

***

Shabbat (the Sabbath) felt like the first Shabbat of winter, cold and dark, and over early enough that it wasn’t worth eating dinner for seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal). I slept for something like thirteen or fourteen hours out of twenty-five, which was not good. I read two chapters of Iyov (Job) which was good, as Iyov is about the hardest book of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) from a linguistic point of view, very, very difficult poetry with lots of obscure words (hard from a theological point of view too, of course, but that wasn’t my main point). Other than that not a lot happened.

I was vaguely anxious, or at least apprehensive about a lot of things: maybe Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which starts tomorrow night and certainly the job interview on Wednesday and my fears about what will happen if I get the job which is at a Very Important Institution (can I work full-time? Will they let me work part-time? Can I cope with work at all? What will it be like working somewhere so important and prestigious, not to mention high security? What about commuting with COVID restrictions?).

I also worried about dating PIMOJ. At the moment I feel inhibited from telling her when I have a depressive day, because she’s so positive and I worry how she will react if I’m depressed. However, that leaves me feeling like a fake and worrying that we can’t build a relationship on honesty if I feel I have to hide how I feel for fear of rejection. I also wonder if she is too religious for me, which seems a weird thing to think, compared with my previous relationships. It doesn’t help that we’ve never met in person because of COVID and it isn’t certain when we will be able to do so. I feel that things might be better, or at least clearer, if we met in person, but at the moment we’re stuck with instant messenger and Skype calls. I do like her, though, even if I worry we’re not on the same wavelength.

In Praise of Idleness

Today I felt tired with poor concentration. It is not surprising; I went to over six hours’ worth of shiurim (religious classes) on Zoom yesterday, so it’s only to be expected that I feel burnt out today. Still, I feel bad for struggling to do things. Beating myself up a bit, although trying not to. I really wanted to work on my novel, or at least read some more of the book I’m reading on characterisation, as well as do some Torah study, but I struggled to do anything. In the end I read a little of the characterisation book (it mostly made me feel like a bad writer), did about fifteen minutes of Torah study, quickly cooked some plain pasta for dinner and went for a walk. That was about all I could manage today. Mum and Dad spent the afternoon at the hospital, so I was lucky to have the house to myself. I felt too burnt out, and Zoomed out, to go to Zoom depression group this evening, so I plan to watch Star Trek Voyager until bedtime; I don’t really feel up to doing anything else.

I wish I could just do more with my life, that intermittent bouts of depression and autistic burnout didn’t regularly derail me, and impede my functioning even on better days. As Ashley said on her post today, “high functioning” is an unhelpful term, as functionality can vary over time or in different environments or with different tasks, not to mention the fact that “high functioning” is essentially an arbitrary term that means different things to different people. I certainly feel that my “high functioning” autism is not always very functional, and the same probably goes for when my depression was more severe, but I was still working. I was present at work, but my work was sub-par and getting through each day was an ordeal.

***

Perhaps because I feel burnt out, I’ve been thinking about idleness this afternoon. Orthodox Judaism is very intense and demanding, not just with work and family, but Torah study, mitzvot (commandments) and chessed (kindness, which covers a multitude of concepts: visiting the sick and cooking for them, visiting mourners and cooking for them; hospitality to guests, including strangers; giving to charity and volunteering; and more). Relaxation is allowed primarily as a way of recharging, or when it coincides with another religious activity (e.g. recharging by spending time with friends is praiseworthy if those friends are invited as guests for a Shabbat meal). It’s not just Jews who feel like this (I just went downstairs for something and an advert came on the TV saying, “Do you wish you felt less tired so that you could do more of the things you love?”) and one could talk about capitalism and the Protestant work ethic and so on, but I feel there are perhaps even more demands on our time in the frum (religious Jewish) community, combined with an ethic that stresses that we’re here on Earth to do things with our lives, to study Torah, help people and connect with God, not to relax.

Yet I feel much more comfortable just pottering. I don’t think I’m lazy, although I’ve called myself lazy often enough in the past. I think with autism and depression I just get overloaded really easily. It’s much more comfortable to do one thing at a time, slowly, with breaks than to try to fit everything in. Doing too much triggers burnout and, if it goes on too long, depression. I need lots of downtime to recuperate from things.

Part of it is being creative. I know I’ve noted here before that when I started writing my novel, I got frustrated by the amount of online procrastination I would do when trying to write; it took me a while to realise that my brain needs this. If I get stuck on something I’m writing, browsing aimlessly online lets my unconscious work on the problem. This is often better than trying to resolve it consciously. But I do genuinely feel I need to live my life at a much slower speed than most people, even though that makes me worry (a) how I will ever earn enough money to support myself and (b) how I will ever find anyone willing to be in a long-term relationship with me. Plus, I suppose, how to justify myself religiously, beyond saying that any other work-life balance seems simply impossible right now.

I drifted into mild depression in the early evening, perhaps because of the thoughts about earning a living and finding a partner. There were other anxieties or somewhat obsessive thoughts during the day which I’m too tired to write about now.

***

I said I would write some more about some of the shiurim I went to yesterday. Rabbi Rafi Zarum spoke about the idea that Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about judging how existence is going and about our own potential and whether we’ve fallen short of our potential. To be honest, that talk didn’t say so much that I didn’t already know, but Rabbi Zarum is a very engaging speaker and always good to listen to. I didn’t take any notes on Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ brief message; he was talking about the idea of God’s House being a portable tent that we can take to our homes in COVID times.

The final shiur I went to was Rabbi Alex Israel talking about the paradox of Rosh Hashanah, that we stress that God is the powerful King, but also that he will pardon us for our sins if we repent. He quoted a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) where Avraham (Abraham), defending the people of Sodom, tells God that if He wants pure justice, He will have to destroy the world (because people are inherently imperfect and sinful); if He wants a world, He will have to suspend justice; He can’t “take the rope by both ends” and have strict justice and a world. A similar Midrash said that God had to allow the creation of the wicked because otherwise it would be impossible to create the righteous too. I thought that was similar to what Gila Fine said in the morning, which I blogged about yesterday, about God wanting our love and suppressing His justice to get it (there was some overlap with Rabbi Zarum too). Rabbi Israel stressed the idea that Rosh Hashanah is a day of love and mercy as well as justice and that God knows we are flawed. I thought this was important for me to hear, given that I get fixated on my flaws, as shown by the “lazy” worries today.

Trying to Live My Life as Well as I can

I had a slight headache when I went to bed last night, too slight to take anything for it, or so I thought.  Once I was lying down, it got considerably worse, as sometimes happens to me, so I ended up taking painkillers and waiting until they kicked in and I could lie down again.  I watched Star Trek: Voyager to pass the time, but the episode, although well-written and acted, turned out to be very dark and bleak, not the best thing to watch with a headache at 1.00am.

Once I did get to sleep, I had a weird dream.  I was at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, the museum I did a virtual tour of last week.  In reality, they have a few small live animals in small enclosures in the museum, but in the dream they were pretty much a fully-fledged zoo.  They had a large area for primates.  They wanted to introduce an orphan baby orangutan to their orangutan family, but the adults rejected him and they could not keep him in the enclosure for fear they would harm him.

On waking up, I realised that I’m the baby orangutan, or I fear I am.  I’m very fond of orangutans and gorillas; when I was a child, I had a big poster of an orangutan over my bed.  I fear that my “tribe” (the frum (religious Jewish) community) would reject me if they “really” knew me, just like the baby orangutan was rejected.  I’m not sure what prompted this thought right now, as I thought that lately I’d become more accepting of the fact that I’m never going to 100% fit in to frum society, or any other society and that I can still try to make friends there, daven (pray) there and so on.  Maybe I still have a long way to go before I can accept it emotionally.

***

I woke up to find that E. had emailed me.  She apologised for what happened at the end of our relationship and is really sorry for it and takes the blame for it.  She said that she’s trying to fix aspects of her life that I won’t go into here.  She said if I want to get in touch “in any capacity” she is willing too.

I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to get back together romantically, even if I wasn’t already talking to someone on JDate.  We had two attempts at that, and I think a third would be a bad idea.  In theory I’m open to staying friends.  I miss her a lot, as a friend.  I think she was a good friend, and I don’t think she gives herself enough credit for that.  I didn’t really blame her for what happened.  I think it was mostly a product of lockdown and the bad place she was in, literally and metaphorically.  However, I worry that the mutual attraction between us is so strong that we couldn’t stay platonic friends and we would end up in some never-ending on/off relationship, which I do not want, not least because it would stop me moving on.  So, I need to spend some time to think about this and whether I can manage a close platonic friendship that doesn’t “boil over” into something more dangerous and complicated.  To be honest, my gut instinct is that I can’t, which saddens me, but I’m not sure what I can do about it.

***

Just a few weeks ago everything seemed stagnant.  I was feeling a little frustrated, but also aware that a return to movement would be a return to anxiety.  Now, movement has come back: JDate, work (the exam I will hopefully have this week), E., the approaching Jewish festival season…  From this coming Friday my parents and I go back into very strict shielding for the two weeks before Mum’s operation, so that’s another thing approaching.  There is some anxiety at times, particularly late at night.  It’s hard to remember sometimes that it’s a good anxiety (ish), from things moving on.

***

As for today, I felt a bit down initially today, despite saying the other day that my depression is not such an issue and is mainly a reaction to autistic burnout.  I felt little motivation and low energy early on today, as well as somewhat low mood, but nowhere near as bad as it’s been in the past.  I feel today’s depression is probably primarily a response to anxiety, to things that I’m anxious about and to the experience of anxiety in the last few days.  I guess too much anxiety can lead to burnout too.

I tried to fight through the tiredness and lack of motivation to read over more of my novel.  I wrote notes to myself for when I’m redrafting, mostly to add or remove words or expand passages (especially “show don’t tell”), but I found myself writing DO NOT LIKE at one passage I particularly disliked.  I find it hard to judge how well-written the novel is.  I can perhaps tell with individual paragraphs, but assessing the ongoing narrative and character arcs is a lot harder.  This is why I’m re-reading the whole novel before really getting to grips with redrafting, to get an idea of the bigger picture.

Working on the novel helped lift my mood a bit, even if I worry that I won’t be able to get it into good enough shape to find a publisher.  At the moment, it’s a target to focus on.  I am trying to break down rewriting into small, finite, tasks, starting with re-reading the whole novel and listing the major incidents to get a better idea of how the plot is flowing, if it is unfolding evenly or not.

***

I felt anxious again by the early evening, and I wasn’t sure if it was about dating, E.’s email, or worrying that I would get an exercise migraine if I went for a run.  Or maybe something else entirely that I was consciously unaware of.  Sometimes it is hard even for me to read myself.  I had the sudden horrible worry that all I’ve done is swap depression for anxiety.  I guess time will tell.

Some stuff happened in the evening that was very anxiety-provoking, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing it here.  I think I navigated it OK, although perhaps not great.

***

Achievements: an hour or two of working on my novel (I lost track of exactly how long); a 5K run (no exercise migraine, thankfully); about forty-five minutes of Torah study.  It doesn’t look like so much, but I was fighting depression and anxiety at times, so it’s a bigger achievement than it appears.  I guess even if I think my depression and anxiety are now largely driven by external events and autistic burnout, that doesn’t mean they are going to vanish or suddenly become easier to deal with.  It’s a process every day of forcing myself to get up, to get going, to do some productive activities, to make sure I get the food, rest and relaxation that I need to avoid burnout.  Just to keep going, trying to live my life as well as I can.

The King is in the Field

I felt quite calm today, although the last half hour has seen some dating anxiety resurface. My friend Stoic Wannabe recently posted on a her blog a lists of books she wishes someone would write, and I would add to that list How to Find Your Soul-Mate, and Be Completely Sure He/She/They are the Right One, Without Suffering Rejection Along the Way. But I don’t think life works like that.

Today was mostly pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, dusting and working on my novel. Working on the novel was hard to day. I think I wrote last week about the “running out of energy” feelings of Fridays, that the mystics say that the world is rejuvenated every week on Shabbat, and that I can believe that because Friday always seems to be a day when the world is running down and out of energy, as am I. Even if I don’t do much on Fridays, somehow it’s all a bit of a struggle. I did read over another chapter of my novel. There’s a lot of rewriting to do, but somehow it seems a bit funnier than I remembered. It’s a serious book, but there is some observational humour in there.

***

It occurred to me today that perhaps most of my mental health issues now are rooted in autism and the general uncertainty of my life (which is also related to autism and the way it impacts my career and dating, particularly while I’m self-diagnosed rather than by a psychiatrist). I know in the past I had childhood issues to work through, but I think I’ve mostly processed those in therapy now. I can accept that the adults around me did not always do the right thing for me, but that this was because they were imperfect humans like the rest of us and not malicious. OK, I never felt they were malicious as such, but I did feel a lot of blame. Likewise I accept that I was bullied a lot by the other children, but that there isn’t much point still hanging on to that.

My depression tends to flare up now at times of tiredness (particularly first thing in the morning) and at times of stress and exhaustion, especially when I’m around people, which also triggers social anxiety. This could mean that it’s related to autistic burnout as much as anything else. A day of draining activity will leave me burnt out and depressed the next day; prolonged draining activity (such as working in an environment that is stressful for me, as when I had an office job for several months), might trigger a more prolonged burnout. “Draining” in this context means emotionally draining more than physically draining; a day of housework and work on my novel might be significantly less tiring than a few hours in a noisy environment where I have to “mask” my autism, such as a busy shopping centre.

I will try to observe over the coming weeks and see if this hypothesis is correct, but I think it is at least partially correct.

***

Today is the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. This is the introspective month before the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, the most solemn festivals in the Jewish calendar. Elul is a time of personal reflection and soul-searching about how we’ve grown over the last year, but it’s also seen as a time when God is particularly close and accessible to those who seek Him (“The King is in the field” as the mystics say).

I think this time two years ago I was in a bad state, deeply depressed about life and very angry with God. I believed in Him, but I was angry about how much pain He had put me through with depression, loneliness and autism. By 2019, I had more of a sense that I wanted to be a writer, but I was still struggling with getting there. I was also on the waiting list for an autism assessment and I think that just knowing that I probably am on the spectrum helped me to accept myself and my “weird” characteristics more, but of course I’m still waiting for the assessment itself because of COVID halting so much non-urgent NHS treatment.

This year I feel a lot better. It has been a very strange year that no one was expecting, and we’ve had the additional challenge of Mum’s cancer, but I’ve used much of the lockdown time to make progress on my novel, which I think in a curious way has helped work through some of those childhood/adolescent issues that I mentioned above (the novel has a semi-autobiographical thread). I also self-published my non-fiction book about Doctor Who. That has not sold well, but I feel due to marketing issues rather than anything else. I’m not sure how to promote it.

I don’t feel anger towards God any more, but I do feel some apprehension. I’m trying to accept that I’m never going to completely fit into the Orthodox community, and that that’s OK (partly the effect of autism and mental illness, partly that I have a more “modern” outlook for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, but am more passionately engaged than most people in United Synagogue shuls (synagogues)). It would be nice to feel more accepted, but I’m not sure what that would feel like. I feel like I have made a couple of friends at shul, but also that I have not managed to build up the close friends that I’ve lost over the last couple of years, now including E.

I didn’t mean this to turn into a formal cheshbon nafesh (self-analysis)! That’s how I feel contemplating Elul this year: a bit more confident and happier than previously. Of course, some of that is knowing that I will probably escape some of the harder parts of the festivals this year, particularly spending so much time in shul, because of lockdown limitations. But I definitely feel more upbeat about the new year and the autumn festival season than I did for the last couple of years.

Happiness is a Warm DVD

I sat outside last night watching a DVD on my laptop.  The weather was a little cooler.  I couldn’t get my Star Trek Voyager DVD to play (my laptop DVD player is temperamental), so I watched Doctor Who instead.  I started a re-watch of my favourite season, the 1978-1979 season, in my opinion the apogee of Doctor Who as science fantasy children’s series (thus, hated by fans who think Doctor Who is Serious Adult Drama… the fault line between fans who think Doctor Who is a children’s programme and those who think it is a Serious Adult Drama is one of the biggest in fandom).  I felt quite happy watching it, despite the fact that I could hear my parents talking despite my earphones, that the security light kept coming on and shining in my eyes, and that the picture quality was not great (my screen needs cleaning and I kept seeing my reflection in it because of the ambient light).  Normally when I watch TV, I try to immerse myself in it, but I was able to enjoy it without doing that 100%.  I suppose it does show that I can be happy, and with quite small things.  My Mum noticed I was smiling.

I had another unrestful night’s sleep.  It’s a little cooler, but still too hot for me.  There is a breeze, and around four o’clock the heavy rain we were forecast finally arrived, but only lasted a few minutes.  It started raining heavily again just before seven, with thunder, to the extent I had to shut the windows, but, again, it didn’t last long.  It’s still quite hot, with a bit of a cooling breeze, but very humid and I still feel quite uncomfortable.  I can concentrate a little better than the last few days, but not brilliantly.

***

Last night I had the thought of logging on to JDate and seeing if there were many women my age and frumkeit (religiosity) level on there, but I couldn’t log on.  I thought I still had a profile on there, but apparently not.  I assume they delete profiles if they’re inactive for a long period of time as I don’t remember deleting it.  I don’t think I could have used JDate since I met my first girlfriend on there in 2012.  My experience at the time made me feel there weren’t enough frum (religious) enough women on the site for me, but maybe I would be willing to be more flexible on “frum enough” now.  I think I probably have to be.  It’s hard to tell what “frum enough” looks like, though, as I worry that I compromised too much when I was dating E. and that it would not have worked in the long-term.

JDate is probably better for me right now than its competitor, JWed.  JWed, as its name implies, is a dating-for-marriage site, not a dating-for-dating site.  It also asks users to categorise themselves religiously, offering them seven different types of Orthodox Jewish identities and several more non-Orthodox ones.  Jews like pigeon-holing other Jews, you might have noticed.  It also asks you to say how often you pray and study Torah, whether you wear tzitzit (ritual fringed garment) if you are a man and if you would cover your hair after marriage if you are a woman, all questions designed to further pigeon-hole religiously.  These are supposed to be proxies to gauge religious devotion, but aren’t always in reality, but the problem of using them as such stretches far beyond the dating world, or even the frum world.  JDate doesn’t quite offer such craziness, although if I recall correctly, it does still offer several different flavours of Orthodoxy (I doubt there are many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews on JDate though even if there is an option for them).

My main concerns with JDate are that I can’t afford to pay the monthly subscription; and that there are more men than women on dating sites, so women tend not to respond to men on dating sites unless they appear amazing.  I do still have some concerns about not “dating for marriage.”  However, my biggest concern is how to talk about my employment situation or about trying to be a writer in my profile without having sold much, and while worrying that I’m not going to be able to make much of a success of writing.

I feel that E., like my first girlfriend, thought that I was a good boyfriend, but also that my emotional neediness and unemployed status was a lot to cope with, and eventually was too much to cope with.  I find it hard to believe anyone else could see past that permanently, not just for a few months until the novelty of having an attentive and listening boyfriend wore off.

There is also the practical problem, of course, of dating in the time of COVID and social distancing.  This may be less of a problem now, as I think we can stop shielding Mum soon as her chemo is finished.  We have to shield around the time of her surgery, but I think not when she has radiotherapy after that.

I wrote to my rabbi mentor about this today and I look forward to reading his response.  Writing it down did make me think that some of my concerns were due to anxiety or even a kind of ‘pure O’ OCD, in terms of taking the morality an action very seriously, paying more attention to it than it needs, in moral terms.  I think dating at this time is probably not against my values, although I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a product of those values at this time.  Whether it’s sensible is another question.

***

Speaking of being a writer, I’m feeling pessimistic today.  I finished If You Want to Write, the writing book I was currently reading.  It was kind of hippie-ish (although written in the 1930s), all about doing what you want and finding your own truth, which is true, but the opposite is probably true too.  I wasn’t surprised by this, as the book was recommended to me by a hippie-ish friend who I fell out with, someone who described himself as being all about empathy and compassion and then treated me quite badly.    I don’t think I can internalise the “rules” of writing from the books I’m reading, not even this one, which just says to be honest (and is against genre fiction).  I feel a great writer wouldn’t need to internalise rules, but a merely competent one probably does need to do so.  I certainly feel my book could do with more structure and more vivid characters.  But, as I’ve said before, I oscillate between thinking that there are no rules for literature and that there are rules for it, like any other skill, if only I could learn them.

I did half an hour of research for the novel, reading a rape survivor’s statement, which was understandably depressing.  I struggle to see why some men find the concept of “consent” so difficult to grasp.

I also spent twenty minutes or so working on my list of things that I want to add or change in the next draft of my novel, so overall this was a reasonably productive day for the novel.

***

Other achievements: I spent an hour on my devar Torah (Torah thought), getting it mostly sorted to my satisfaction, although I had a vague sense of not having explained it clearly enough to myself, let alone anyone else.  The sense that I sort of understand what I’m saying, but not quite perfectly.  I spent another hour on Torah study, so it was quite a productive day from a religious point of view too.

It’s funny how my feelings writing my devar Torah every week mirror my feelings writing my Oxford tutorial essays: the initial blank incomprehension with nothing to write, the slow research and analysis, the gradual revelation of what I’m going to write, then the actual writing, followed by relief, but a feeling of not having really nailed it.

I also finished re-reading Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World.  I didn’t get much from this except to recall that I didn’t like it much the first time I read it.  I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t like it.  I think maybe its use of biblical and historical models for healing from despair was too simplistic.

Incidentally, I have finished three books in two days, although as I was reading them concurrently and not consecutively, it’s not such a notable achievement.

***

Sometimes I just stand, staring into space, completely lost in thought.  My parents invariably then ask if something’s wrong or what I’m doing.  This completely breaks the chain of thought.  (This happened today.)  I’ve never been sure if this is “normal” behaviour or “autistic” behaviour or just a personal quirk.  I do find it frustrating that I can’t just stand and think without someone thinking I’m ill.  I guess if I get married, I’ll have to tell my wife to ignore me when I do this.

Catastrophising and Fatalism

The Doctor: Where’s your optimism?

Romana: It opted out.

– Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor by Bob Baker and Dave Martin

I seem to be stuck back in the habit of waking up late and depressed, even if I go to bed a bit earlier.  I think some of the slump is finishing the first draft of my novel and contemplating the next mountain to climb, which is redrafting, which is looming and ominous, but which I can’t even get started on yet, as I want a short break so I can come to it fresh.  Something else happened that I won’t go into here that brought me down too and is on my mind today.  Plus, I had a weird, upsetting dream last night.  I can’t remember the details, but it was about getting in trouble with my religious community for having the wrong religious beliefs/practices.

I looked at the chart I made for dealing with depression and, yes, some of this probably is my critical voice talking and maybe some “shoulds” and, yes, a lot of it is catastrophising.  I don’t know what’s happening with my career or my writing, which is scary, and it’s hard not to catastrophise that.

There’s a lot of catastrophising about relationships too, feeling that I don’t have ways to meet someone.  There are some ways, but I feel they all have drawbacks and most are unlikely to succeed.  I also feel that I would have the best chance of building a relationship with someone who also has “issues,” but there’s no way of trying deliberately to meet such a person, certainly not within the frum (religious Jewish) community.  There are actually shadchanim (matchmakers) in the USA who specialise in “sensitive shidduchim (matches)” where both parties have some kind of issue (not necessarily mental health), but I couldn’t get any to work with me, largely because I’m not in the US, but in one case because I’m too modern, religiously.  Maybe it’s not sensible to think like that anyway; both my exes had issues and that was at least partly responsible for the failure of both relationships.  Maybe I need someone very stable and kind, although what she would see in me is anyone’s guess.

I also worry that I won’t be able to have children, partly because my issues are too ever-present and exhausting to make it a good idea, particularly if I marry someone with similar issues; partly because, as I get older, having children means finding a wife significantly younger than me, which seems unlikely to happen.   Some shadchanim and dating sites seem to divide the dating pool in two, under-forties and over-forties, the former being presumably for people who can have children, the latter for people who are too late, or who are assumed to already have children from a previous relationship and not to want more.

As I said, this is all catastrophising.  My parents still think I’ll get married and have at least one child, which seems wildly optimistic to me.  It’s hard to turn off the catastrophising voice though, particularly when there seems so little evidence against it.  I need to focus on stuff in the present, as I was recently, but it seems hard today when I feel to depressed to concentrate on anything and when my mind just wanders down the path of least resistance, which is the path of catastrophising and wallowing in self-pity.

I try to tell myself that if God wants me to have a career and a wife and children then it will happen and if He doesn’t, it won’t, and there’s not much I can do about that… except that just reinforces the fear that he doesn’t want me to have those things and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Certainly he hasn’t wanted me to have them so far.  I don’t think belief in God is supposed to make me so fatalistic, certainly not Jewish belief, which is supposed to be proactive.  We’re supposed to think that God wants the best for us, and if it doesn’t suit our desires or plans, that’s because we’re limited whereas He’s omniscient and knows what would be good for us better than we do.  I just wish I knew what His plan is and had some idea if I would ever get there.

Do I even know what I want out of life?  I’m not sure.  Part of me suspects I wouldn’t be happy even in a loving relationship, that I’m just too negative and depressed a person to be happy for long.  I don’t know what would make me happy or bring fulfilment to my life.  Maybe I’ve hit on things like love and career as goals because they make other people happy and I assume they would make me happy too, but perhaps they would not.

Being frum, doing mitzvot (commandments) and studying Torah, which, according to rabbis, are what my soul wants to do and which should make me happy do very little for me.  Does that make a bad Jew?  Or are depression and low self-esteem just too corrosive to happiness for a frum life to make a difference?  Nothing really seems to help conquer the sense of insecurity, loneliness and despair.  Would it help if God Himself told me that He thought I was a good person and a good Jew?  I’m not sure that it would at this stage.

I want to be grateful for the good things in my life, and I’ve been stating them each day for years, but somehow often I feel too lonely, anxious and despairing about the future to internalise that.  I just end up feeling guilty for not being happier and more grateful.  Maybe I’m just selfish and ungrateful, but I just feel like my psychological needs are not being met (as per Maslow) and I can’t fully function.

***

My therapist is away, and maybe that’s hard too.  I share a lot of my life here on the blog, but not all of it.  There’s some that seems too trivial, or too personal, or too shameful or perhaps too weird to share here.  I’m not sure how much of that I would share with my therapist either, but some of it.  Lately it’s also been hard to tell my parents when I feel depressed and to talk to them about things and I’m not sure why.  I think on some level I feel I’ve let them down by being depressed for so long.  I could phone Samaritans.  I’m not suicidal, but the service is technically not just for people who are suicidal or even intensely depressed, but somehow I can’t bring myself to phone just to chat, perhaps because I can’t bring myself to open up to a stranger unless in serious need.

***

This week I’ve been writing letters to people who have upset me or aroused strong, difficult emotions in me.  The letters are not intended to be sent, just to work my feelings through.  I decided to write one to the frum community, which was a slightly flippant idea, but I thought I would see what came out, as I’ve been writing these letters in a fairly stream of consciousness way.  I was quite surprised that it really didn’t go the way I expected, so I thought I’d share:

Dear frum community,

I tried so hard to fit in, but I never felt accepted.  That’s my gut feeling.  Is it true?  I  don’t know.  I think people were willing to accept me at youth stuff at shul when I was a teenager, but I was too scared, and maybe a bit arrogant.  Did I think I was better?  Or smarter?  Or did I just think I could not be friendly with someone who was not a geek?  To be fair, I was carrying a lot of hurt, trauma and guilt, and that only got worse at Oxford, where people were also willing to accept, but I was too scared again.

Nowadays I’m terrified I’m too Modern, too “heretical,” too weird, too guilty to fit in, especially being single, childless, depressed and autistic.  Is that your fault or mine?  Neither really, it just is.

It’s true you do stuff that upsets me.  The casual sexism and racism that exists [in the frum community].  The focus on ritual over ethics.  The anti-gentile feeling.  The lack of culture and imagination, the conflicts over science and sex and gender and work and Israel.  But I think ultimately that’s not the point.  The point is that I think I don’t deserve you and that I think you couldn’t cope with me.

Yours sincerely…

Reading back this letter makes me think that if I look back at thirteen year old Bar Mitzvah Me, I see the me who tried going to the shul (synagogue) youth service, but who couldn’t talk to anyone there, and who was scared of being bullied, as some of the kids there went to his school and weren’t always nice to him and he couldn’t always tell if they were bullying him or not.  The me who got fed up with no one talking to him even though he wouldn’t have known what to say if they had.  The me who was being asked (which he understood as “pressured”) to lein (chant from the Torah) in the youth service because he “leined so well at his bar mitzvah,”  but who was suffering from extreme stage fright post-bar mitzvah because he felt overwhelmed by praise that he didn’t think he deserved and who didn’t want to lein ever again.  The me who was going to start feeling increasing guilt over the next few years about his family’s lax standards of Shabbat and kashrut observance, but not know how to change that, and who was soon going to start feeling a lot of guilt around sex, and not know how to change that either.  And I suppose I should say that I want to hug him or tell him not to worry, but I just feel angry and want to shout, “Why couldn’t you just cope with it?  Why couldn’t you just stick it out and make friends and become part of the community?  And then maybe I wouldn’t be depressed and single and childless and lonely.”  That’s not really very self-loving.

I could say the same about Oxford Me, which was probably the last chance I had to really turn things around.  “Just talk to people!  Just go to events, even if they bore you!  Go on the Jewish Society committee, even though you hate the idea of doing so and you think you have no talents to bring to the table, and even though you think your tutorial work leaves you no time for things like this!  Make the time!  Ask girls out, even if you’re not sure they’re 100% compatible!  Just do something!”

But even now I would make the same mistakes again, there just isn’t the social circle to make it in.  Everyone’s got their friendship circle now, and usually their spouses and children (some I guess are on Spouse Number 2 by now).  There aren’t organisations that cater for single frum people approaching forty (nebbukh).  I wouldn’t be able to go anyway, for the same reason I didn’t go then.  Getting angry with Past Mes is just getting angry with Present Me.  I can’t even keep close friendships going any more.  I don’t really have any close friends any more, and the only people I really open up to (aside from my blog) are my therapist and my rabbi mentor.

***

Achievements: some time finishing off my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week (although I had some negative thoughts about that, about my divrei Torah not being worthwhile).  I did a bit of Torah study.  I read more of Healing from Despair too, which is a Jewish book, but the chapter I read had no religious content and was just about the author’s experience of feeling suicidal, which was probably not the best thing to read.

I did some chores and went for a walk.  I basically did what I normally do, without two hours of writing my novel, so I feel a bit like I underachieved.  The time I would normally spend on the novel was partly spent on procrastination, partly on fiddling around with playlists on iTunes, and writing this mammoth post.

OCD Slightly Resurgent, Otherwise Quiet

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Bonus Post: Why I’m Religious

I’ve been thinking lately about why I stay frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) when I struggle a lot with Orthodox Jewish practice because of my depression, social anxiety and autism, as well as feeling uncomfortable with some attitudes in the frum community.  At a basic level it’s that I believe in God and Judaism, I just struggle on a practical level with keeping it sometimes.  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I know lots of Jews believe in God on some level without translating that to religious observance.  My fears that God does not love me could have been a push factor away from observance; certainly my religious OCD (which thankfully is largely under control now, although it still takes effort to keep it that way) was a push factor that made it hard to stay frum, although I did manage to stay.

Some kiruv (outreach) organisations talk about proofs of Judaism, generally arguments for the existence of God and the divine origin of the Torah.  I’m not going to go into them here.  I don’t really find them convincing.  I don’t think you can “prove” that God exists in the way that you can prove that 2 + 2 =4 or that the atomic number of hydrogen is 1.  I don’t think that standard of proof exists outside of maths and the physical and natural sciences.  As someone with a background more in the humanities, it doesn’t bother me so much these days that I don’t have that same degree of certainty in my beliefs, although it did in the past.

I think the survival of the Jewish people through thousands of years of statelessness, exile and persecution is inspiring, and a little eerie, especially our return to our homeland, as predicted by the Torah.  That fills me with a kind of awe, although it’s not strictly speaking a “proof” of anything.

I also find it interesting how much Judaism has shaped Western culture, and to a lesser extent global culture.  The historian Paul Johnson, who is not Jewish, says the following in his History of the Jews:

“All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time.  The Jews had this gift.  To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.  Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

(If this interests you then The Gifts of the Jews by another non-Jewish historian, Thomas Cahill, explores this theme in greater depth.)

I find this inspiring.  I’m not sure it’s really at the core of what motivates me to be Jewish, but it does help.

In terms of other things that motivated me to stay observant, while I don’t want Jewish observance to sound like a quid pro quo, there are a few things that I get from Judaism that I probably wouldn’t get in secular postmodern Western society if I wasn’t religious.

I think Judaism gives me structure.  I would probably structure my days even if I wasn’t frum, but I don’t think I would observe Shabbat as a day totally without work, chores, TV, laptop, phone, etc. without being religious.  I just know that without it seeming an absolute commandment, the outside world would slowly creep into it and ruin it.  Shabbat helps me structure my week in a very clear way, making sure I have time for physical pleasure, rest and spiritual re-connection.  And I don’t think I would structure my year the way Judaism makes me do.  The festivals are mostly connected with particular seasons and bring with them times for doing particular things, like thinking about freedom and Jewish history at Pesach or repentance and personal growth before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It provides a shape to the whole year that I would not otherwise have.

I enjoy the richness and complexity of the Jewish tradition.  The fact that it is so vast, and that there is always so much to learn and that people have spent three thousand years thinking about the big questions of life.  There is definitely something enjoyable about discovering a new idea in Judaism, a new perspective on a text or on life, particularly when it involves translating a text in a dead language or finding a sudden insight into an apparently bizarre or meaningless story or saying.

Connected to this, I find it meaningful that there is a bond between me and other Jews in other times and places.  I find the Jewish community difficult at times, but there is something to be said for being part of a three thousand year global tradition.  While it is easy to complain about the internal divisions in contemporary Jewish life (Orthodox vs. Progressive vs. secular; Israel vs. diaspora; Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi/Mizrachi), I think when the chips are down, so to speak, when Jews are in serious crisis, 90% of the global Jewish community will come together to pray together, send practical help, volunteer, whatever is needed.

I think the Jewish ethic appeals to me too.  One can obviously find aspects of Jewish/Biblical ethics that are challenging from a modern day perspective and I’m not going to deny that (religious war, sexuality).  But the Jewish ethic as a whole appeals to me.  I find it very balanced.  It praises learning above everything, but also sees the importance of putting learning into practice.  It admits that this world involves suffering, but it wants to make it better, rather than postpone happiness until Heaven, yet it also admits that utopian perfection is for the End of Days; in this world, we do small acts to make things better.  It has a strong ethic of not hurting others, not just physically or financially, but also with words; it’s understanding of the power words speaks a lot to me.  Also the fact that in Jewish thought all people are equal because created by God, but there are multiple paths to God, both within Judaism and outside Judaism; non-Jews don’t have to convert to be “good.”

Love Your Neighbour

I don’t have much to write today.  It was a normal lockdown Shabbat.  I slept too much, and at the wrong times, but that’s also normal.  I won at Scrabble this week.  I started playing strategically.  I think in the past I would just have gone for the longest or most obscure word, but sometimes a really basic word can get a higher score, if it has a high-scoring letter or hits a double word (etc.) square.  I do get a bit frustrated that it’s hard to play a lot of obscure words that I know, but I guess that’s just showing off.

I tried to stay in the present and not worry about the future or beat myself up about past decisions (breaking up with E., going to the school I went to and not the one my Mum wanted me to go to).  I probably have made some bad decisions in my life, albeit partly because a big part of my life was unknown until recently (high functioning autism – which technically has still not been diagnosed, so who knows where this will go?).  There’s not a lot I can do about that now, though.  If I do manage to build a career as a Jewish author, then I think a lot of my past decisions and difficulties will have led me to it.  If I can’t do that…  who knows, really?

My big struggle today is with loving my neighbour, literally and metaphorically.  Literally, I have a lot less time for our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbours than I did in the past, because of the illegal minyanim (prayer service).  They have stopped most of these since shuls (synagogues) reopened (although they are still doing Saturday nights).  I still feel angry and resentful.  I still feel that they were risking our lives, especially Mum’s life, for the sake of their spirituality, even though the actual risk to Mum was probably small, even when she was in our garden at the same time they were davening (praying) in their garden.  People breaking the rules annoys me a lot.  In my experience, people on the autism spectrum either obsess over every tiniest rule and can’t bend a rule no matter how justified or alternatively can’t stand any rules at all, however logical.  I’m definitely in the former camp.  It was not always easy at work to work out when I should bend the rules for people and when I should be strict.  Maybe I should write a letter to the neighbours and not send it?  That was a technique my therapist suggested for dealing with feelings about E.; I should probably try it there too.

In a more general sense, I am in this weird situation of being frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) and wanting to stay frum, but also having a lot of resentment against the frum community.  I think it’s mainly about feeling I don’t fit in, which is probably largely because of the lack of a vibrant, committed, Modern Orthodox community in this country, unlike America and Israel.  Here the United Synagogue has a hashkafa (philosophical outlook) I agree with, but most US members are not shomer mitzvot (keeping the commandments), not even close.  Most are “traditional” and are members of an Orthodox shul (synagogue) out of family tradition, convenience or a vague sense that Reform Judaism isn’t “real” Judaism.

The Haredi world is a lot more committed to Torah study, meaningful prayer and mitzvah performance (keeping the commandments), yet has an outlook I often disagree with, whether over the place of secular study and the sciences, the role of women or various other things.  I could probably cope with that if that was all, although it does make me feel that I’m hiding myself, but I feel there is a level of casual sexism, racism/anti-non-Jew feeling and so on that sometimes appears and upsets me.

I think there is a lot of hesed (kindness) in the frum world, but not much empathy.  If you have a “normal” problem, people will help, but if you have an unusual situation or something that is stigmatised and not spoken about (the classic “bad for shidduchim” (potential marriage chances) problem) people won’t help and probably won’t even be able to understand what your problem is.  My thought on this matter were provoked from reading about a Haredi woman who adopted a black girl and has experienced a huge amount of unthinking racism, but it applies to mental health stigma, homosexuality, children who stop being religious… lots of things.

I feel that I do have a lot of anger and resentment towards what really is my own community that I have to work through somehow if I’m to keep functioning and I’m not really sure how to do it.  I kind of hope that one day I’ll marry someone who fits into the community better than I do and somehow things will slot into place, that suddenly I’ll have more frum friends and feel able to be myself, but I’m not sure that that’s a realistic idea.  Realistic in that I don’t think finding a wife would necessarily let me fit in a lot better and in that I’m not sure how likely it is that I will find a frum wife.

Tisha B’Av in Auschwitz

Today I felt depressed and subdued, but it kind of goes with the territory, as it was Tisha B’Av the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day we’re supposed to be sad to mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.  (It might sound surprising, but we’re not supposed to be sad most of the time.)  I read some more of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.  I’ve been reading this book for about five or six years, only on Tisha B’Av.  I can’t bear to read it on any other day, it’s too upsetting.  I hope to finish it in a couple of years.  Some of the stories did move me to tears, I admit, although I’m probably more sceptical about the supernatural than some of the people who related the stories.  I also went to some online shiurim (religious classes) via my shul (synagogue).

In the afternoon I went on a virtual tour of Auschwitz organised by a Jewish educational group.  (Thanks to Eliza for pointing me in their direction!)   I’ve never been there in person.  I feel vaguely uncomfortable about going to Holocaust sites, although I can see why it’s important for some people.  I discovered there’s not actually much there at Auschwitz any more, which I think I knew, but it had never really registered.  The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and the crematoria to hide the evidence of the Holocaust.  I was surprised how big the site it was.

It was quite moving, but sometimes with Holocaust things I feel I’m not feeling what I “should” feel, maybe because most of my family did not directly experience it.  Perhaps it’s also hard in a way for me, being frum (religious).  With some secular Jews, their entire Jewish identity is built around the Holocaust and/or Israel; whereas I have so much more to my Jewish identity than that.  There is definitely a danger of being overly-obsessed with how Jews died rather than how they lived (to paraphrase Rabbi Lord Sacks*), but Tisha B’Av is a day to confront these memories.

I still would like to feel that I’m moving on somewhere as well as just focusing on the past.  It’s easier to focus on the Holocaust rather than the destruction of the Temple, because the former is more relatable.  There hasn’t been Judaism based around the Temple ritual for nearly 2,000 years, so it’s difficult to understand what it was like.  But the Holocaust isn’t much easier to focus on, although it has the human dimension, because it’s just unlike anything else.

(As an aside, it’s depressing doing a virtual Auschwitz tour and then after the fast was over going online to see the latest iterations of the “Jews are all rich, powerful, privileged and racist” stuff that’s been coming out in the last few weeks.)

In this respect the rabbi leading the virtual tour said something similar to what my shul (synagogue) rabbi said yesterday, about trying to find areas to grow.  I’ve already said here that I want to focus more on being present in the present and not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.  That doesn’t sound a very Jewish or religious thing, but I think it is.  It’s connected with ideas like bitachon (trust in God) and kavannah (mindfulness, particularly in prayer).  But to do that, I need to be able to trust that God has my best interests at heart, even if painful things happen to me.  That’s hard on a day like today, when I confront the many tragedies of Jewish history, including the Holocaust.

It’s just an effort to focus on NOW with gratitude and mindfulness, not what I fear/hope will happen in the future.  I will try it for six or seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and see what happens.

***

I already mentioned I believe less in the supernatural than some Orthodox Jews, so I’m taking this with an Everest-sized mountain of salt, but at one of the shiurim today, the guest rabbi presenting told a story about a frum (religious) Jew who was in a coma four days with COVID and had a near-death experience.  He says that his soul was tried in Heaven and he discovered that although keeping all the mitzvot (commandments) are important, the afterlife primarily depends on loving other people and being kind.

As I say, I am sceptical about how true that story is, but it did make me think that while I agree that love and kindness are of the utmost importance (regardless of the afterlife), I struggle to show them the way I should.  I get irritable with my family.  I get annoyed by other people and although I don’t usually show it, I find it hard to love people sometimes (as Linus said in Peanuts, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”).  I have a some inchoate anger and resentment towards the frum (Orthodox Jewish) community sometimes because of how I feel I’ve been treated, which I need to work through in a healthier way.  I want to be kind, but so often social anxiety stops me from acting on my kind impulses, or autism means that I can see someone is in need, but don’t know how to respond correctly.  My parents say I’m kind (usually when I say I have no assets to attract a potential spouse), but I guess they would.

I know this is turning into yet another “should” and another “beat myself up” session, so I don’t want to pursue it too far, but it has been on my mind this evening, thinking about how I could be more kind and loving in the future.

 

* What he actually said was that an educationalist complained to him that at Jewish schools, students “Learn about the Greeks and how they lived, and they learn about the Romans and how they lived, and they learn about the Jews and how they died.”  Both Rabbi Sacks and the educationalist felt that with a curriculum like this, it was no wonder so many Jews are just looking to escape from their Jewish identity through assimilation.

Looking for Work, Writing and Thinking

I used to think that if I was unemployed, I would take any job available, even if it was stacking shelves in the supermarket.   The reality has been different, as I’ve discovered that (a) there aren’t that many jobs I’m actually qualified to do and (b) there aren’t that many jobs that I would feel comfortable and capable of doing with depression, social anxiety and autism.  I’ve also discovered that employers view people who are over-qualified as being as unsuitable as people who are under-qualified.

To be honest, I increasingly feel anxious about getting another job as I don’t believe I will be able to cope with it with all my issues.  I feel there probably are some jobs I could do, but finding them and getting them is hard.  Part of me is glad to be out of work.  In part this is because I want the time to work on my novel, but also because I am terrified of getting another job that is bad for my mental health and bad for my autism, and because I am even more terrified of getting a job that I can’t do.  I have begun to doubt whether I still have the librarian skills that I used to have.  I have had too many cataloguing tests that I have done badly.

It is hard to tell how much of this is realistic and how much is low self-esteem and anxiety.  It does feel like the job I was happiest at in the last couple of years was the one I was probably a bit over-qualified for, although the happiness was only partly from that and partly from having a supportive manager and pleasant colleagues.  Even then, I had social anxiety at times (even though it was a backroom job) and used to come away exhausted at the end of the day, even though I was only working two days a week.  And I still felt I made some stupid mistakes, albeit usually from social anxiety when I was with my manager.

***

I worry sometimes about whether my thoughts are really my own.  Not in a psychotic sense, I hasten to add.  I just worry I pick things up from news media, social media, adverts, my religious community, everywhere really.  Political views, religious views, cultural views, desires, fantasies.  My image of what a good life would be.  I think everyone does this, but I don’t like the thought of my doing it.

I’m not so worried about religious thoughts, because I think I’m quite good about balancing belief and scepticism there and looking for sources I trust.  However, I worry about picking up political views unthinkingly sometimes.  It’s hard to tell.  I think I’m more trusting of some sources than others.  Much of social media seems to consist of being told that certain things are intolerable, but I’m not sure that they all are intolerable, or even worth mentioning.  George Orwell wrote (Politics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels) that the highest form of totalitarianism is when there is no secret police and conformity is enforced simply by peer pressure.  I think we’re getting there on Twitter.

Cultural views, desires, wants, fantasies and so on are very hard to see past, particularly all-pervasive advertising, which is about selling an idea of a fantasy life (involving conspicuous consumption) as much as selling individual products.  I don’t think I’m very materialistic, but I can see that I might pick up ideas of what sort of life I should lead.  I can see why Haredi people and other religious fundamentalists try to tune out secular culture, but then that would just leave me with frum (religious) Jewish culture, which I don’t always agree with either (the cultural aspect, more than the religious aspect).

I think I want to have a job, with the caveats mentioned above.  I think I really want to get married and have children.  I think I really want, on some level, to be a “good” Jew, davening (praying) at shul (synagogue) three times a day and doing significant religious study, but lately that feels less achievable and possibly less desirable.  But to what extent are these really my thoughts and desires.  I certainly find aspects of both secular and frum culture hard to deal with.  I think my rabbi mentor said that everyone in the frum community finds aspects of it narrow-minded.  That everyone thinks it can be narrow-minded and prejudiced.  I’m not sure how true that is (I mean, how true that everyone finds aspects hard to deal with).

***

As agreed with my therapist, I’ve been trying to stay offline today, except for one period first thing when I get up and one in the early evening (now).  It’s hard to go without constant checking of email, blog comments and blog reader.  It makes me realise how much I did it mindlessly, out of boredom, desire for distraction and desire for connection with other people.  It’s going to be hard to wean myself off it, but I’m trying.  I did have to use the internet a bit today for novel research, but I tried not to use it for email and blogs except in those two periods.

I think when I get stuck on my writing, my brain goes into ‘idle’ for a few minutes and I read online or check emails and meanwhile my unconscious is looking for a solution to the writing problem.  So maybe I shouldn’t be trying to cut all that “unnecessary” online activity.

***

Achievements: I spent an hour writing.  Then, after a break, I tried to write my devar Torah for the week, but it just was not coming, so I went out to go for a walk and do some shopping.  I did nearly another hour on the novel after that.

I didn’t finish my devar Torah.  I wrote about a third or a half and then I got stuck.  I know what I could say, but I’m not sure I really want to go down that route.  I don’t have many alternatives, though.  I’ve been trying to get it sent on Thursday evening lately, because if I send it on Friday my Israeli readers don’t always get it before Shabbat.  The problem this week is that Thursday is the Fast of Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, and Torah study is forbidden except for the sad bits of Tanakh (the Bible) and Talmud, so I can’t work on it then.  Which means I need to finish it tomorrow afternoon.  (I shouldn’t really work on it then, as the studying restrictions ideally start the afternoon before, but I don’t really have an alternative.)  So, I feel a bit stressed and disappointed about this.  I’m not sure how long I spent on it, but the creative juices just weren’t flowing.

I did about half an hour of straightforward Torah study and later might start re-reading Healing from Despair, a Jewish book about dealing with despair written by a rabbi.  To be honest, I don’t remember it being great first time around, but I’ve been desperate lately for Jewish texts about suffering and despair and even if this book isn’t so good, it might point me towards some useful primary or secondary sources.

***

I felt very depressed and sad on my walk, as I had intermittently at least all day.  It definitely feels like my mood slumps when I have free time at the moment, which I guess argues in favour of finding work, assuming it’s work that keeps me occupied.  I think of ‘sad’ and ‘depressed’ as two different states.  I think a person can be sad without being depressed, and I think I’m often depressed without being particularly sad.  Despairing and exhausted, but not sad.  I think sadness is about losing something, whereas maybe depression and despair are about not having something at all, particularly hope.  Maybe that’s not true.  I don’t know.

I felt sad partly about breaking up with E.  There isn’t a lot of point in going over this again, here or in my head, but it’s hard not to sometimes.

My novel isn’t the most cheerful thing either; currently one of my characters is trying to flee her abusive husband.  I think I need to contact a women’s charity and ask exactly what the process would be if someone asked for help, because it’s not completely clear from the websites I’ve been looking at, but I can see that they might not want to tell me, either because they don’t have time to help a writer or because they don’t tell people much for security reasons, to protect their clients.

I know it’s going to sound pretentious and arrogant, but I really hope writing is something I could make some kind of difference with.  Even with my plans for future novels, which will hopefully not be quite so heavy-going.  In the future I want to write Jewish fantasy/science fiction/historical novels that might encourage Jews to investigate their heritage more and make non-Jews more aware of Jewish history and the issues Jews have faced and still faced in non-Jewish societies.  This novel is heavier and more obviously “worthy” in that I’m trying to write about mental illness, autism and domestic violence in the frum community, where these things are not always discussed.  As the cliché goes, if even one person gets help or understands their situation from my writing, it will be worthwhile.  But first I have to write the thing!  But it does help with motivation, whereas I struggle with motivation for library jobs, even though they are also socially worthwhile, because I feel I’m just not making a difference; if anything, I worry I make things worse through messing stuff up at work.

“Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”

I was half-awake when the phone rang this morning.  It was the mental health clinic saying I had an appointment with the psychiatrist today after all, but on the phone.  Phone appointments are my least favourite kind.  Like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I do not like the phone at all.  I feel very anxious and self-conscious on the phone, even more so than in person, and I find it hard to connect to the person on the other end.  I often struggle to hear and process information on the phone too, particularly if the line is not great.  Then there is the fact that NHS telephone appointments rarely seem to happen as scheduled, but often are very late (leading to anxious waiting) or very early (when I’m not ready and am doing something else).

Fortunately, the psychiatrist phoned when she said she would, at midday.  I know I’ve had bad experiences on the NHS before, and have been critical of that, but this psychiatrist seems really good (I think I saw her twice before lockdown).  I did struggle to hear everything on the phone call though and am worried I may have missed something.  I said that I’ve been feeling worse in the last few weeks and we spoke about increasing or changing medication, but both agreed to wait a few more months to try and get out of lockdown and see if the real-world triggers (Mum, E.) subside a bit.  She did want me to go for my regular lithium blood test now (over three months after the last one) rather than in September (six months) when the GP surgery wants me to go.  She also said she would also try to see where my autism referral has got to.  I assumed it was completely frozen where it was before lockdown, but the psychiatrist said she thinks they are doing some video assessments.  We booked another appointment for October.  Hopefully things will be a bit more normal by then, the Jewish autumn holiday season notwithstanding.  Whatever “normal” is.

I tried to book the blood test, but the online appointments are not working due to COVID (?!) and I will have to phone tomorrow.  Did I mention I hate phoning?

***

I don’t feel quite so depressed today, but I am still feeling some level of depression.  I also feel lethargic and drained, lacking in energy and motivation.  I start something, but then I hit an obstacle, however small, and grind to a halt.  A few minutes later, I start up again, until I hit another obstacle.

In terms of achievements, I advanced quite a bit with the bank accounts.  I think I’ve got it all set up now, I just need to transfer the money to the right account.

I did about an hour of novel writing.  I procrastinated a bit in the middle of it, but I felt better for having done it, although I realised I’m going to have to revisit one of my worst experiences at my further education job for the novel.  Sadly, my narrator’s life has to be as difficult as mine was.  At least I know he gets an ending that, if not exactly happy, is at least on some level redemptive.  I should be so lucky.

I did some Torah study, but I lost track of how much.  I think about fifty minutes, plus some time finishing my devar Torah (Torah thought).  I also did a bit of ironing and quickly wrote a review of a Doctor Who episode which I will post to my other blog once I’ve posted this and can log off my Secret Identity and onto my real name.

***

Today’s anxious/autistic stress moment: I went to pick up my blood test form from the doctor’s surgery (walking to/from there was my exercise for today).  I hadn’t been there since lockdown started and was not sure what to expect.  When I got there the doors were locked and there were signs saying only people with an appointment could come in.  Anxiety set in – social anxiety and autistic “new situation” anxiety.  I thought of ringing the buzzer, but was too scared of being told I was doing the wrong thing and being stupid.  In the end I phoned the surgery (while standing right outside) and asked them what to do.  They said to ring the buzzer and say why I was here and they would bring the form out, which I did, so it was OK in the end, but it made me feel useless again, and anxious.

Ordinarily I would probably have gone to the charity shop around the corner from the surgery afterwards and browsed the books to try to restore myself a bit, but I decided it wasn’t worth the risk with COVID, thus potentially depriving the economy of the pound I might have spent on a second-hand book.

***

Why do I feel the desperate need to love someone?  It seems so pointless, as I struggle to imagine ever being in a relationship again, both from a practical point of view of being ready and in terms of finding someone.  “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse” says the Talmud.  It does seem hopeless, though.  I don’t know how I would even go about it now.  I guess via a professional shadchan (matchmaker), although I’m sceptical of them, or a dating website, although they seem expensive.

I feel like Orthodox Judaism is supposed to be about trading a degree of independence and freedom for security: security in terms of family, community, meaning and, above all, God.  I never got the security.  Maybe I didn’t make enough sacrifices.  I don’t know.  There is a part of me that says, “I won’t give up my books and Doctor Who and other telefantasy even if God wants it of me.”  That’s part of why I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and part of why I’ve never been able to fully embrace Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism.  There’s a part of me — arguably a neurodivergent, autistic part of me — that won’t give those things up for God, because they’re too important to me.  I can give them up for periods of time, but not permanently.  That’s a blemish in my service of God, from a religious perspective.  But, given who I am and how much a part of myself these things are, from an autistic special interest perspective, I don’t think I could ever have passed that test.  So maybe I do deserve to suffer, on some level, or at least not to be accepted by the community whose values of religious self-sacrifice I do not fully embrace.

***

I think I’m having a lot of vaguely morbid thoughts lately, sometimes going into suicidal ideation, perhaps because it’s my birthday next week.  I had hoped that thirty-six would be a good year, but it largely wasn’t.  I had vague hopes of finding work, finding love, even becoming more involved in my community.  I hoped it would be the year of “twice chai” (in gematria, Hebrew numerology, “chai” (life) is eighteen, so multiples of eighteen e.g. thirty-six are seen as auspicious).  I was also aware that the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism was thirty-six according to legend when he started publicising his teachings.

The reality was that I was unemployed for all bar one month, Mum got ill, the world imploded with COVID lockdown and exploded with riots.  I had a girlfriend for a few months, but it didn’t work out, leaving me despondent.  My one month of employment didn’t lead on to anything bigger.  I spent three months not moving more than a mile from the house.  I did a few minor things — I led some services in shul (synagogue) and started writing and publicising my divrei Torah as well as self-publishing my Doctor Who book — but it hasn’t been a great year.

I feel that I’ve missed out on so much of life.  I haven’t done a lot of the things people say make life meaningful, whether somewhat self-indulgent (I don’t mean that in a judgemental way) things like travel or going to concerts or using alcohol (etc.) or sex, or more religious/self-denying things like helping others (I have obviously helped others, but not enough), significant Torah study, meaningful prayer and so on (actually, Judaism would say that good sex should be in the religious/helping others category, but that’s not strictly relevant to my point).

What have I done?  Written a book on Doctor Who that couldn’t find a publisher and which one person has read.  Written three-quarters of a first draft of a novel.  Some library work.  A few divrei Torah and shiurim (religious classes).  It’s not nothing, but it’s not very much.  I might be over a third of the way through my life.  (I might fall under a bus tomorrow, of course, which just makes me feel worse.)  I want to help people, I want to connect with other people and with God, I want to feel good about myself.  I want to write, and to be read.  I want to feel that there’s meaning in my being here, which I fear I have not felt since childhood (if I even felt it then).  I did two good things in my life, which I won’t mention here, but I don’t feel I can keep relying on them as sources of merit.

In his biography of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, Tormented Master, Arthur Green quotes Rebbe Nachman, in his depression, as saying that we believe in two worlds, This World and the Next World.  However, while the latter certainly exists, maybe This World does not exist, because a lot of the time it feels like Gehennom (Purgatory).  That’s an image that resonates with me, and turns up a bit in stories that resonate with me (TV and prose).  It feels that way at the moment, the endless loneliness and self-loathing.

Do I really feel so self-loathing right now?  I used the word instinctively, but have I been feeling self-loathing recently so much as frustration with myself and my world?  That’s not the same thing.

Sometimes I feel the reverse, that I’m somehow carrying the world on my shoulders.  That my suffering should be redemptive in some sense.  That’s probably just as dangerous a thing to think.

I just want my life to have meaning.  I don’t know what I’m here for.

Ghost in the Machine

I thought on waking that, although I still felt quite depressed today, I was not as paralysingly depressed and exhausted as the last couple of days, but soon my mood dipped down again.

The supermarket delivery came an hour early this morning, while Mum and Dad were still at the hospital for Mum’s chemo.  I was still in pyjamas as I wasn’t expecting them yet.  I didn’t even have my dressing gown on.  I know, realistically, I’m not the only person in pyjamas at 11am during lockdown, but it’s still embarrassing, not least because I’m aware it could easily have happened outside lockdown given my disrupted sleep pattern.

I’m still struggling with bank account stuff.  I feel bad for saying it, but it is making feel completely overwhelmed.  I’m not sure if that’s depression or autism or what.  I did start to make progress with it, but then their website crashed and seemed to be not working generally, rather just for me, and I had to give up.

I did manage to go out to post Doctor Who Magazine a review copy of my book.  I would like them to review it, but I’m not so hopeful.  They basically only review official merchandise these days, and there’s so much of that that they only review a fraction of it.  I did at least overcome the autistic anxiety of going to a new place as I hadn’t used this post office before.  I am also hopeful that Doctor Who Magazine might at least mention my book on the merchandise news page.

I did spend an hour putting together a devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week.  I was relieved to get it done, as I was not sure I had anything to say, but I felt I was over-reliant on secondary sources this week, particularly Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar Numbers and some badly-referenced Midrashim in the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash.  I guess it can’t be great every week.  It did bring me a bit out of my low mood, which was good.  I wanted to do some more Torah study later on, but didn’t manage more than a few minutes.

As I was having trouble with the building society site, I used the time for working on my novel.  As is often the case when starting a new chapter, I struggled to get into it, but eventually managed an hour or so of work and about 400 words, which was not bad considering how depressed I felt.  The depression may have helped channel my narrator’s frustrations.

I went for a run too.  It wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad considering that I was very depressed and I hurt my foot somehow halfway through.  I think it helped my mood a bit as I felt a bit better afterwards.  I think I have lost some body fat in the last few months, which is good.

***

We’re in the annual Jewish national mourning period known as The Three Weeks, where frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) men don’t shave.  One week in and my beard is itchy, and it’s worse when wearing a mask I discovered today.  I wonder if compulsory masks will end the hipster stylised facial hair that’s become common in the last decade or so?

***

I guess part of what I find so frustrating about not being married is not just the celibacy, but not being able to talk about what I feel about being celibate.  There is, supposedly, a “shidduch crisis” in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world where, for reasons that are debated, there may be a surplus of unmarried frum women over frum men.  There is supposed to be a similar, but somewhat different, “singles crisis” in the wider Jewish community of a surplus of unmarried women (not frum) who want to marry a Jew over Jewish men who want to marry a Jewish woman.  And there is, apparently, a different crisis entirely of single men in the secular world who can’t find partners, again for contested reasons.

What bothers me about all of this (aside from the obvious fact that despite there being a two-fold shortage of Jewish men, I still can’t find a partner, which makes me feel useless beyond all repair), is that no one talks much about what this means emotionally.  There’s a lot of of talk about “fixing the shidduch crisis” in the frum world i.e. making matches, but not about the emotional fall out of being single.  In the wider world the only people talking about it are violent and misogynistic “Incels,” who I wouldn’t want to associate with.  I tried to talk about it a bit in my novel, but perhaps I shied away from the full extent of it.  Or maybe I don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about something that is so hidden and repressed.  Maybe that’s something to fix in the redrafting, if I can find the right words.

Then the Star Trek: Voyager episode I watched today was not helpful.  Ensign Kim fell in love with an alien and was given an official reprimand for breaching protocol.  Almost every iteration of Star Trek has one character who is persistently unlucky in love.  In Voyager, it’s Harry Kim.  After spending the first season or two pining after his fiancée on the other side of the galaxy, he fell in love with a succession of unobtainable women: a hologram, a cyborg, “the wrong twin” (one who didn’t like him, unlike her sister, who he didn’t like) and now an alien from a xenophobic race.  Later, if I recall correctly, he falls in love with a reanimated corpse (um, yeah).  The character feels like a virgin, even though he isn’t.

I feel I have a certain amount in common with him, as I suspect that I too tend to fall for unobtainable women.  Or maybe they’re all unobtainable for me?  The first woman I asked out, insisting that we did not have much in common, said that if I liked myself more, I would like someone who I had more in common with.  The reality is that I’m not sure there is such a person, or what difference it would make.  I suppose E. and I had a lot in common, although we had some big things not in common (particularly religion).  It still wasn’t enough to keep us together.  Maybe in some ways we had too much in common, in terms of needyness and low income.

Ensign Kim’s formal reprimand was unfair, though.  Star Trek characters are always having flings with aliens with no repercussions.  Captain Kirk and Commander Riker slept their way around the Alpha Quadrant without so much as a warning.  As Commander Chakotay said, Captain Janeway was being strict with Harry because he always kept to the rules in the past.  I feel like that a lot – not regarding sex, but generally.  When I was a child, I felt that my observance of the rules was never noticed by authority figures, but I was too scared to break them.  Lately I feel like God is punishing me more than most people because He expects more from me, although it’s hard to tell what He expects me to do differently, or how I should do it.  I do feel at times that my loneliness and single state is somehow a punishment for something, although I know that’s not particularly logical.

***

A different type of loneliness: Rabbi Lord Sacks’ Torah email this week is a eulogy for his teacher, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, who died recently.  He speaks movingly of the idea of the teacher in Judaism.  “In Judaism, study is life itself, and study without a teacher is impossible.  Teachers give us more than knowledge; they give us life.” (Emphasis in original)  When I think about whether I made a mistake in not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) for a gap year, the actual content I would have learnt is only third on my list of regrets.  My bigger regrets are not “learning how to learn” and not having come into contact with great Torah scholars who I would have learnt from, from their personalities as much as their lessons.  There’s a wonderful essay by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (in the book Halakhic Morality) where he says that the content of Judaism can be learnt from books, but each person also has to develop their own unique “religious style” which can not be taught, only aroused within them by watching a great teacher.

My rabbi mentor is of course a teacher to me, but only in an ad hoc way.  He has never been in the position of formal teacher to me in any long-term way.  I am lucky that he has set aside so much time for me over the years, but it is not the same as being at a yeshiva with teachers.  I have learnt from teachers in books: Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kook and (lehavdil bein chayim le chayim) Rabbi Sacks himself and Rabbi Steinsaltz (among others).  Still, I feel book learning from dead or distant rabbis is not good enough, just as my Talmudic studies seem too small and low-level and my general Torah studies disconnected and lacking focus.

I do not know what to do about this.

***

Another line in Rabbi Sacks’ essay resonated for different reasons.  “Early on, he said to me, ‘Don’t be surprised if only six people in the world understand what you are trying to do.'”  I feel like that sometimes when contemplating my own writing, what I write now and what I want to write.  Maybe I’m being arrogant.  I would prefer to say that I’m doing what all good writers should do – writing for myself – and I know from experience that I have unusual tastes.

***

I keep coming back to the feeling that everything just seems so difficult and endless.  I was feeling earlier today that I should be glad that I’m hurtling unstoppably towards death because life just seems so painful and meaningless.  Lonely and painful.  I don’t know what I really enjoy or find meaningful any more, except writing, but even then I struggle to get anything published or to get any money from it.  I just feel so pessimistic about my life ever being good.  My childhood had problems, but could have been a lot worse had I not had one really good friend, but from adolescence to adulthood, my life has pretty much never been good.  It’s hard to hold out on a hope that things will go back to how they were when I eight years old.

Doing

Today I don’t have much to say other than achievements, which is good because it means I’m doing things more than I’m ruminating about things.

I had an early (by my standards) Skype call with my rabbi mentor.  Usually when I speak to him, I have some kind of problem to talk through, but this time I just wanted to catch up.  I guess I needed to speak to someone other than my parents, my sister and my therapist.  It was good to catch up.   He encouraged me to promote my Doctor Who book more, but I’m still not sure how best to do that.  I wish I was more involved in online fandom, but, as I’ve said before, modern fandom = Twitter = scary.

I had a scary few moments when I thought I had lost the 1,300 or so words I wrote yesterday, then again when found them, but thought I had lost the first chapter of the novel.  Chapter 11 had saved as Chapter 1 on both my laptop and my USB back-up, replacing the original Chapter 1.  Fortunately I had another back-up.

I wrote for over two hours, with little procrastination (although a short research break).  I wrote another big chunk, as well as cutting and pasting some sections into a different order.  When I get into the “flow” like this, I feel that I could really do this for a career.  Then I stop and think about my failed previous attempt at a career, the bouts of writer’s block, the difficulty of getting published (e.g. my Doctor Who book) and then it’s harder to feel positive.

It was a draining passage to write (domestic violence and rape), because of the emotional subject matter; because I wanted to do it justice as a heinous crime, not a trivial thing as sometimes happens when men write about rape; and because it’s one of the key events of the novel, so I wanted to write it well.  I haven’t looked over it again since finishing for the day.  I do feel vaguely worried about writing it, but I feel that if I want to write seriously about domestic abuse, I have to take it to its conclusion, otherwise it’s trivialising.

I found an interval between the showers to go for a run.  It was reasonably good.  I spent about an hour on Torah study too, which was also good.

***

This article was interesting, by someone who had had a very strict and repressive Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish upbringing and left her family to find a more modern and spiritual type of Orthodoxy.  Quote, “I believe that He [God] is much less judgmental of myself than I am, or that my parents are. After all, he made me with all my challenges. I believe He sees my growth and that I am letting go of religious scrupulousness in order to find my true path to Him.”

I wish I could really internalise that viewpoint.  Even though I did not have a Haredi upbringing, I find it hard to let my emotional self connect with HaShem (God) the way I would like.  I don’t see Him as punitive per se, but often as distant, the Ein-Sof (Infinite) of kabbalah and philosophy, and also as constantly planning painful challenges for me which, regardless of how positive they may work out for me in the long term, are extremely unpleasant in the short term (which can last decades!) and make me worry that I will not be able to hold onto my faith and practice amidst adversity.  There is a Hasidic idea that goes something like, “We’re not allowed to say that life is bad, but we are allowed to say that life is bitter,” and that’s a bit how I feel.

I have some idea how I ended up with this instinctive viewpoint, but that has not been much of a help in shaking it, and I don’t know how to internalise a healthier one.

The article I linked to is really to promote the group Project Makom, which helps Haredi Jews who want to leave their community, but stay frum (religious), to integrate into the Modern Orthodox community rather than leaving Judaism completely.  I assume I would not be able to make use of them, as I didn’t have a repressive upbringing, I’ve just developed the mindset of someone who did; also, I think they only exist in the USA.  I do vaguely wonder what would happen if I emailed them, but I’m not sure what I would say.  So my search to find a community I would fit into goes on…

Flow, Masks and News Media

The world is just so horrible at the moment that I want to steer clear of news and Twitter, but there is some kind of masochistic attraction.  I think it’s partly fear of not being informed about something important, even if there isn’t much I can do about it (like COVID), but mostly boredom and procrastination.  It’s easy to click on something and read it, and the news is always updating.  However, we seem to have abandoned the idea of analysis.  It feels like every media or social media outlet is just a list of things or people to hate, mostly things or people I have not heard of and have no opinion on until goaded by the media or social media to come up with one.

Mind you, when I gave in to temptation today, I did read an interesting and possibly career-pertinent Twitter discussion (actual discussion, not argument, rant or invective) about whether literacy standards in children’s books and young adult books have slipped over the last few decades.

***

Away from the real world, Mum cut my hair.  That’s the most noteworthy thing about today.  I’m glad not to have to go to the barber, given how anxiety-provoking that can be for me because of autism, social anxiety and tremor.

My novel writing flowed quite nicely today, the way I feel it “should” for a professional writer.  I wrote quite a lot, although towards the end I realised I’ll have to re-order the sequence of events in this chapter a bit to make them flow better.  I’m also reconsidering the ending of the story, which is a slightly nerve-wracking thing – I’m not entirely sure where I’m going now, when previously I thought I knew.

I went for a walk to pick up my prescription.  I wore a mask because I was going to the pharmacist.  I still can’t get used to wearing it and I’m dreading when I have to use public transport again.  I suspect that they will be around for a long time.  Even if the official requirement to wear a mask on public transport is lifted, I am guessing people will still wear them out of caution and a kind of politeness.  Who knew that rush hour on the Tube could get more depressing and uncomfortable?  Then again, given what happened when lockdown regulations were eased last week, maybe I’m wrong about that.  Maybe everyone will just go crazy and mask-free.

I managed quite a bit of Torah study today too, including Tehillim (Psalms) in Hebrew and Mishnah.  The Mishnah’s point seemed straightforward, but as usual the commentary made it seem more complicated until I couldn’t understand it all, which is not good.  I spent some time thinking about what to write in my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week.  I admit I’m finding it a bit harder than I expected to find something to write about for 500 to 1,000 words each week.

***

I was feeling quite self-critical last night and this morning.  I had an interaction elsewhere on the internet that I felt went badly, which may have been catastrophising.  This led me to over-generalise that all my interactions go badly.  It’s easy to think that I can’t cope with interacting with people in general.  It is true that sometimes I try to say the right thing and fail, but I need to focus on the fact that that does not always happen.  It is more correct to say that there are certain types of interaction that I handle badly, but I’m not sure what I can do about that.

Otherwise, my mood was reasonably good today, but I feel like there’s stuff bubbling under the surface that might come up soon and I’m not sure what that’s going to feel like.

***

I realised that I’m not thinking about E. much.  In a weird way, I feel guilty that I’m mostly over the ending of the relationship.  I felt like it  (the ending of the relationship) should have affected me more.  I don’t think it means I didn’t care about her, or that the relationship wasn’t real, just that I realise it was not really possible to save it the way things turned out.  I think I also worry more about bad things that might happen before they happen; once they’ve happened, I can generally deal with them.  If only I could channel some of that emotional energy back in time to before it happens and stop the worrying in advance.

I am still trying to work out if E. and I could still be friends, if that is sensible or something I want.  I definitely lack friends at the moment and would benefit from another one, but I worry about us being sucked into an unending on/off relationship, plus if I do ever end up dating again within the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community, having close female friends will probably not go down well.

It’s hard not to endlessly probe at the, “Will I ever be in a lasting relationship?” question, although I wish I didn’t.  That’s part of what I mean about agonising over relationships before they’ve started.  It is, I suppose, the emotional equivalent of probing a painful tooth.  No good can come of it, yet it’s compulsive.

“I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time”

I’ve been told in the past that I’m a very negative person, and I know it’s true.  I don’t think I complain as much as I used to, but I do feel very despairing about the future a lot of the time and that comes across when people try to help me or offer advice, particularly here.  I just feel like whenever someone suggests something to me that I could do to change my life, I’ve often done it before and it didn’t work.   I’ve been depressed for twenty years, I feel like I’ve tried most things.  Sometimes you have to keep trying something until it works, but it’s hard when it feels that nothing ever works.  Particularly when I sometimes feel like God is deliberately sabotaging everything I do for some mysterious purpose that I don’t even understand.

I told myself I would try to believe in myself more, but I don’t knowing how to do that.  How do you just start believing in yourself?  I don’t know how some people manage to reshape the world the way they want.

In terms of building a career as a writer, I’ve tried pitching article ideas to Jewish and geeky publications and sites in the past, but I haven’t found any interest so far.  I haven’t tried for some months, because I got disillusioned and then lockdown happened.  I don’t know if I’ve done it wrong or I just need to keep persevering or what.  I also need to send a copy of the book I self-published to Doctor Who Magazine to see if they will review it, or at least acknowledge it.

In terms of pitching articles, there aren’t that many Jewish sites or publications to try out for in the UK.  There are quite a lot of geeky ones, but my interest tends to be narrowly focused on Doctor Who and other classic British telefantasy; I don’t have much interest in gaming, superheroes or horror and even a lot of contemporary science fiction passes me by.  I know Doctor Who Magazine is being aimed at people half my age whose experience of the programme and fandom is very different to my own, so it doesn’t surprise me the editors don’t want me to write for it.  To be honest, I don’t look at much other fan stuff and I only glance at the Jewish papers.  I find them focused on cultural Jewishness more than religious Judaism and are at times hostile to Orthodox observance (we don’t get the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) papers); I also find the quality of journalism and commentary poor in some of them lacking sometimes.  I’m wary of pitching to the Haredi newspapers because I don’t know them or their world, and I feel deeply uncomfortable writing for newspapers that won’t print pictures of women, which is the policy of most Haredi papers now, I think.

***

Trying to be positive about things, I’m trying hard not to get upset when I feel that my peers have achieved things and I have not, not to be upset when they get married and have children and so on.  I think I’ve improved in that area a little.  I am also trying to acknowledge and accept the Piaseczno Rebbe‘s (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s) idea in Sacred Fire that suffering does legitimate reduce our ability to pray and have faith in God and religious joy and not to beat myself up about lacking these things.

***

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I made two sleep hygiene mistakes that I thought I could get away with, but obviously couldn’t get away with one or the other or both.  One was that, after shiur (religious class), I needed “chill out”/decompression time in front of the TV just being passive, but I was wary of watching TV after 11pm in case it stopped me sleep, so I read instead, which was probably too active, intellectually, plus I made a bad choice of reading more of The Siege, which was full of depressing stuff about the Lebanese Civil War and Israel’s involvement in it.  I tried to balance this by eating ice cream as a treat for getting through shiur, but I suspect eating ice cream late at night wakes me up.  Whatever the reason, I was still awake at 2am.  I got up and ate porridge, the only way I can consume warm milk, as that helps me sleep, and watched Star Trek: Voyager.  I think I fell asleep around 3am.

***

I felt so depressed and self-critical after lunch today that I actually went back to bed and curled up in my duvet.  I had music on, but I think I drifted in and out of sleep for an hour or so (not because of not sleeping last night, as once I fell asleep, I slept for nine hours).  I felt very self-critical on getting up again, feeling I shouldn’t have gone back to bed and that I won’t do enough today as result.

I did eventually get up and force myself to do something.  As my weekly devar Torah (thought/essay on the weekly reading from the Five Books of Moses) has a looming deadline (tomorrow afternoon, to get it sent before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts in Israel), I focused on that.  I was also aware I’d been apprehensive about it this week because I knew it would largely be a chiddush I had that I want to share.  A chiddush is an innovative interpretation of Torah.  This would seem to be paradoxical, as Torah is about revealed truth, not reasoned truth, but the idea is that the Torah is infinite, therefore there are always new interpretations to find.  (Admittedly that some people, mainly in the Haredi community, have an idea that all interpretations, including chiddushim, were revealed by God to Moses.)

However, I have noticed that, sociologically, people are very suspicious of chiddushim, particularly on aggadic (non-legal) passages.  While someone might feel very confident to give on an interpretation of a halakhic (legal) passage of Talmud in a chevruta or a shiur (paired study or class) and not mind if it’s new as long as it is well-reasoned, people rarely try to interpret aggadic passages, perhaps because there isn’t a clear “right” interpretation, unlike halakhic arguments.  I suspect this is related to the idea I have suggested in the past, that Jewish education for men is very “left-brain”/logical and not at all “right-brain”/creative.  Analysing halakhah is logical, but analysing narrative requires creativity and imagination.  This sociological situation is problematic for me as I’m a creative/associative thinker, not a logical one.  But I decided to stick an idea out there and see what happens.  I might even flag it up as a chiddush in my accompanying email and see what feedback I get.

***

I went for a run.  Halfway around it started raining, but I carried on.  My iPod has been telling me recently that my runs have been burning a lot of calories.  I’m not sure if that means I’m running faster or more consistently (not dropping into walking so much) or what.  So far I haven’t had an exercise migraine.  I think my mood did improve afterwards.

I did work on my novel for a bit after dinner and made a little progress, but gave up after a while as it was late and it clearly wasn’t going any further tonight.

***

I also felt upset and angry today that antisemitism seems to be so deeply embedded in parts of the far-left that an upswing of anti-racism protest and awareness actually leads to an increase of antisemitism, and that it’s largely been ignored by the mainstream media as it doesn’t fit their narrative.  But I don’t want to be political here, so I’ll move swiftly on…

***

I’m still worried about E., but convinced I shouldn’t contact her at the moment.  I wish we had a mutual friend so I could check she is OK.

***

Mum spoke to her oncologist.  The oncologist was OK with me going to shul (synagogue) services that are outside, but not inside, while Mum’s immunity is low.  I’m still wary, though.  I think the risk of rain and a move indoors is too high at the moment, plus I’m not convinced that my shul has the space to have thirty people in the small outside area available and still have good social distancing.  I am upset at missing my Talmud shiur though and worried about keeping up with them without knowing how far they got each week.

More Loneliness, and Writing Progress

I feel lonely again, and I feel “touch hungry” like crazy.  “Touch hunger” was a term I learnt from the sex therapist Talli Rosenbaum on the Intimate Judaism podcast, but I had felt the concept for a long time without knowing that there was a word for it.  It’s the feeling of wanting to be touched and held.  I feel that a lot at the moment.  I want someone to touch me romantically/sexually.  I can hug my parents, but it’s not the same, and I don’t always feel comfortable asking my parents for hugs; I’m not sure why (it’s not because of anything they’re doing).  My first girlfriend was the only person I’ve hugged in anything approaching a sexual way because E. and I had a long-distance relationship.  Even then, with my first girlfriend, it took me a long time to feel able to touch her because I wanted to keep Jewish law about not having physical contact before marriage and there was a lot of guilt in just hugging.  The whole experience was distinctly confusing emotionally, especially in terms of the way that relationship developed and the way it ultimately fell apart.  So there’s a lot of guilt, shame and confusion as well as loneliness, longing and despair around these feelings.

I’m thinking of E. today and wondering how our relationship fell apart so fast.  Was the initial attraction and the way it became very serious very quickly (we were speaking seriously about marriage) just infatuation?  Or would we have been OK if lockdown hadn’t been so difficult for her?  I guess I’ll never know.  Sometimes I wonder if I should have tried to stay with her for longer, until after lockdown, to see if things went back to normal, but I couldn’t cope with the psychological strain of the way she suddenly wanted the relationship to be.  It was as much a trust thing as anything else.  It does make me wonder if anyone could ever really love me, for more than a few months until the infatuation ended.  I don’t blame E. for what happened.  I just want to know if the situation could repeat in future relationships.  I want to know how I can trust anyone else.

***

I feel I haven’t said much that is new here in months.  Every day (except Shabbat/Saturday) I work on my novel, take exercise, do some Torah study or work on my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought), occasionally go to a shiur (religious class) on Zoom, go to therapy via Skype once a week, cook dinner or iron or do other chores a couple of times a week…  To be honest, the repetition doesn’t bother me so much (I guess there are advantages to being autistic after all), but I feel it must be dull to my readers and it’s no wonder I seem to get even fewer ‘likes’ than I did before lockdown.

Today’s repetition: I spent one and three-quarter hours on my novel.  I wrote 1,000 words and also edited a long fragment that I wrote almost exactly a year ago into the main body of the text.  It was the first bit of the novel that I wrote, when I was excited and just needed to get something down on paper even if it wasn’t starting from the beginning.  I reduced it from 4,000 words to 2,500, which makes me worry how much the entire book will shrink in redrafting.  I did cut a lot of unnecessary stuff though.  I slip into pretentious waffle if I’m not careful.

The writing was difficult, as I was challenging difficult thoughts and experiences from my past (particularly my further education job).  I was glad that I got through it without much procrastination, just fairly solid working.

It’s scary writing something so personal and which makes me so vulnerable.  The rest of the chapter is going to make me just as vulnerable and also risky in terms of content, especially from a frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) point of view.  There is certainly a risk with some of my writing in this book that people are going to be surprised that a frum person could write those things, still less apparently have experience of them.  I think some things need to be said, although it’s hard to judge what to say explicitly and what to leave unsaid sometimes.  I think I’m writing about things that lots of people sort-of know go on in the frum community, but prefer not to think about it.  If the book does get published, I could well end up hoping that not many people I know actually read it, or at least that they don’t tell me they’ve read it, otherwise there could be some awkward conversations.

***

By late afternoon, I was feeling depressed again.  I’m not sure if that was from writing or just generally.  I went for a thirty-five minute run, just managing to dodge the showers which helped a little.  I felt depressed and lonely while running, but tried to focus on getting through the day and not worrying about the future, as per my post yesterday.

I didn’t do much Torah study as I got an exercise migraine and had trouble shifting it.  I was OK for an hour or more after running, then I suddenly had a massive headache that stopped me from doing anything.  I ended up watching The Avengers (The Bird Who Knew Too Much) on the grounds that The Avengers is upbeat and requires relatively little concentration (this is the British 1960s espionage/science fiction TV series The Avengers, not the Marvel superhero films of the same name).  I did eventually manage about thirty minutes of Torah study in small bursts.

And now I should go to bed as it’s nearly 1am, but I don’t feel sleepy.  After I have a migraine, I end up feeling too tired to do much, but not actually sleepy and it’s hard to know what to do.

“It’s so bittersweet now/When you know what you lost”

Title quote: Donnie by Ace of Base

This morning I started thinking about my birthday, which is in a month, which led on to thinking about the last five years.  Whether things have changed a lot or a little, for better or for worse, to try and work out the odds of the next five years changing substantially for the better.  We moved to this house, and this community, almost exactly five years ago, in the summer of 2015, so it’s a useful cut-off point.  At the time I was in the midst of deep depression and also religious OCD (itself at least partly caused by the house move) and I didn’t really want to move, but I was vaguely hopeful of making a new start in a frummer (more religious) community.  I had vague hopes of making friends and finding a spouse.

My depression was not initially affected by moving.  It probably has been better since going on clomipramine in late 2017, although it’s still present, mostly just in mornings now, but occasionally during the day or on mental health days.  My social anxiety is almost as bad as it used to be, despite having CBT last year.  My religious OCD is a lot better though, thanks to exposure therapy a few years ago, which is good – probably the biggest positive psychological change since moving.  I have gone to various support groups since moving, which has also helped a bit, plus I’ve been in and out of various therapies with various degrees of success.  I’ve been screened for autism and found out that I’m probably on the spectrum, but I’m still waiting for a formal diagnosis, and every new month in lockdown only pushes that further away.

I was working part-time when we moved.  Since then I’ve had four more jobs.  Only one was really a potential long-term career-type job, rather than a short contract.  I felt I messed up that job and left when they wanted to change the job description to something that I felt would give me more social anxiety, especially as I felt my boss had made clear that she didn’t have confidence in my ability to do the job properly.  That was probably a big mistake, though, as I’ve struggled to find permanent work since then.  I’ve largely lost faith in my ability to do a librarian-type job, as well as discovering that my autism stops me doing regular office work, so I feel useless and unemployable.

I wrote my non-fiction Doctor Who book (partly based on material going back to 2012 or so, but with a lot of new research done in the last five years) and self-published it after failing to interest any publishers in it.  I’m also working on a novel.

When we moved to this area, I initially went to a Modern Orthodox shul (synagogue) with my parents, but I felt swamped by the large numbers of people, I didn’t like the chazan (cantor) and choir, and I felt no one spoke to me other than my parents’ friends, so I switched to another shul, more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), but smaller and friendlier.  I did feel like an outsider at times because I am more Modern and not so Haredi.  I was slowly beginning to feel a part of that shul when lockdown happened.

Before lockdown I was still struggling to get to shul, especially considering I was going to two or three services a day before we moved.  I feel that my current shul is too Haredi in outlook and I have to hide aspects of myself, but I don’t have an alternative.  I used to lead services and give drashas (religious talks) in my old shul, but haven’t had the confidence to do that much in the new one.  I feel like the least religious person in the shul.

I do write my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought) now which I sort of enjoy.  I send it to various people, although only two from my shul.  I don’t feel I’ve grown religiously in the last five years and in some ways am probably less religious than I used to be.

I did for a while move out of my parents’ home when I was in a nearer-to-full-time job and had more money.  That was good for my independence, but lonely at times.  I used to go home for Shabbat (the Sabbath) anyway.  I’m glad I moved back in with my parents long before lockdown started.

My social life has been as insignificant as ever.  I’ve made some friends over the last few years, mostly online, but I’ve lost a lot too, which is partly my fault.  I feel bad about that, although some were probably disasters waiting to happen.  People with mental health issues probably understand me more than most people, but putting lots of people with mental health issues together is probably a recipe for Drama with a capital ‘D’.

I’ve dated five (I think) women in the last five years, plus someone tried to set me up on a further shidduch date (arranged blind date) which didn’t happen because the woman went super-Haredi and started doing lots of background checks on me and perhaps found something she didn’t like; at any rate, she did not communicate and eventually I gave up.  The three shidduch dates I really did go own were not great, usually due to lack of shared interests and values, and one had a problem with my mental health issues.  (One of the dates was with a “real” matchmaking agency, two were set up by friends or friends-of-friends.)

I had another go at online dating, but didn’t get much of a response, except for one person who I ruled out because I felt she was dishonest (no, I’m not going into details).  Maybe that was a mistake too.

I had one nearly-girlfriend (a friend of my sister’s who I asked out).  We only went on four dates, but we texted between them a lot as she was out of the country.  That seemed to be going well, but we weren’t really that similar and she didn’t like my indecision and social anxiety.

Then I dated E., who seemed almost ideal for a while, but then wasn’t right for me.  I think I’ve posted enough about that recently to avoid the need for further elaboration.

Given that my experience with shidduch dates was so awful, not to mention limited (three in five years), I’m not hopeful for finding someone in the frum community in the future, given that shidduch dating is the normal way of dating there (I haven’t seen solid evidence, but anecdotal and semi-scientific evidence suggests most frum people meet their spouses through informally-arranged dates via friends and family, not professional matchmakers/agencies).  I wouldn’t ask out any more of my sister’s friends, partly as the others aren’t frum enough, partly as most of them are married now, partly as I don’t think my sister approved.  I do vaguely feel I should try online dating again, but it was a massive drain on my income for minimal response, so it’s hard to justify it.  I did find myself looking on one site briefly today though.

E. just dropped out of the sky and found me, which is unlikely to happen again, but is sadly the most likely way I could meet someone.

Overall there are some positives in the last five years: I’ve held down some jobs, sometimes, working four days a week even when very depressed, as part of a team and using my librarian skills as well as some (admittedly limited) ability to deal with problems and queries on the spot.  I dealt with my OCD and my depression is somewhat better.  I wrote my Doctor Who non-fiction book.  I’ve found shul that is a slightly better fit than the previous one and felt like I was beginning to fit in.  I write my devar Torah.  I lived alone for a while successfully.  I made a few friends and successfully dated E. for a while which at least exercised my relationship muscles and showed me that I can still be kind and compassionate and to listen.

On the downside, my depression and social anxiety are still present.  I don’t feel I’ve grown religiously and feel in some ways like I’ve gone backwards.  I’ve done badly in a couple of my jobs.  I couldn’t find a publisher for my book.  My shul is far from being a perfect fit.  I lost about as many friends as I gained, partly through my own fault.  Most of my dating experiences were negative and none worked out in the long-term.  I felt like I did prove that I could still be “present” and emotionally supportive in a relationship, but I also proved that I lack what lots of women seem to look for (stability, confidence, the ability to support a family, having “normal” interests and hobbies).

I spoke about some of this unemployment angst and dating angst in therapy.  The therapist said to reframe my experiences to try to focus on positives from them and things I can be curious about rather than negatives and self-criticism.  This is hard.  While there are some positives, as I noted above, there are lots of negatives too and little about this analysis really makes me feel optimistic for the future, except being able to cope practically and psychologically with living alone and also the improvement in my mood since being on clomipramine.

***

Filling in a job application reminds me of how long I’ve been out of work, how hard I’m finding it to find a suitable job, how badly I’ve fared in so many of my jobs, how out of place and incompetent I feel in the “real world” so much of the time…  It’s not a good feeling.  I just feel so useless.  I don’t have a lot of the skills and experience they want.  This often happens to me.  I haven’t managed my career and CPD well enough.  I just feel like a useless librarian (also a useless person, son, brother, friend, etc.).

Also, they wanted job references.  OK, that’s normal.  But they want character references to cover periods of unemployment.  Because I might be normal when in work, but turn into a psychopath when unemployed, presumably.  Do they think I’m Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

***

Today’s achievements: an hour and a half or so working on the job application, plus therapy and shiur (religious class, although it was more of a philosophy class, or at least philosophy of religion – are God and religion needed for meaning?).  I felt a bit ill after therapy and I knew I wanted to feel better for shiur, so I didn’t go for a walk after therapy as I usually do.  Because shiur was philosophy as much as Torah, I wanted to do some additional Torah study, but after five minutes reading Sacred Fire decided I was too tired.  No time to work on the novel today because of job application, therapy and shiur.

The Cat Who Walked By Himself

I feel like I’ve become rather misanthropic lately.  That without consciously choosing to do so, I’m retreating into a sulk.  Lockdown is being eased, but I want to stay in my room.  I see myself as too scared to try dating again, and I’m worried that one day I will not feel like that and I’ll get hurt again, as I always do.  Perhaps “fortunately” I see no point in trying to date while my financial position is so negative, and I see little chance of that changing any time soon.

As I’ve said before, consciously I say I want love, but deep down, what I unconsciously need is to accept that depression and autism mean that my life is going to be different to other people’s, that I will probably never be financially self-sufficient and that I will almost certainly not get successfully paired off, as well as never having many friends or fitting in to a community.  If I could accept that most of my life is going to be miserable, perhaps I could enjoy parts of it.  But I keep getting my hopes up that I can beat the odds, somehow, and then I get disappointed and hurt all over again.  Silly boy.

***

I’m still feeling super-lonely.  I feel sexually and romantically frustrated (is “romantically frustrated” a thing?  I want to love someone), but I’m lonely in a wider sense too.  I’m thinking about (not) fitting in, one of the well-worn themes of my inner monologue, let alone this blog.

I mostly don’t say anything about my mental health or autism away from this blog and similar blogs.  It’s just easier than dealing with embarrassment, confusion and sometimes stigma.  It’s easier to let people think I’m unusually dysfunctional than to admit what the issue is.

I don’t say much about my religion or politics either.  I worry that my religious and political views are sufficiently idiosyncratic to put off everyone who knows them, so I keep them fairly private.

I don’t mind talking about religion here, but I’m not sure why.  I suppose I don’t go into details about theology here, just say what “weird” stuff I do and how it affects me emotionally.  Sometimes strangers see that I’m Jewish and ask me questions in the street.  Strangely, I’m kind of OK with that.  At least they’re curious, not belligerent (I’ve had belligerence too, and attempted proselytisation).  The Jewish population of the UK is sufficiently small that it’s doubtful whether many people have ever met a Jew in many parts of the country, let alone a frum one, although in London that’s less likely.

I don’t like to pin down my views when talking to other religious Jews.  As Rabbi Lord Sacks said, Modern Orthodox Jews are a minority of a minority of a minority (Jews are about 0.02% of the world population; Orthodox Jews are about 10% of Jews; Modern Orthodox Jews are a small percentage  of Orthodox Jews).  I know I’m more “modern” in many ways than most frum (religious Orthodox) Jews.  Actually, I avoid talking about religion outside the community too, for fear of scorn from militant atheists, but sometimes I have to bring the subject up (usually at work) to ask for special dispensation e.g. not eating the same food as everyone else, leaving early on Fridays in the winter etc.

I don’t talk about my politics with anyone at all.  I talk politics a little bit with my parents, but somewhat abstractly.  They don’t know how I vote (which assumes I vote consistently…).  I don’t really fit with any party and I’m not sure that any ideology is an adequate model of a complex reality.  I dislike most politicians and activists these days.

I don’t like the current political atmosphere.  Too violent and opinionated on all sides; also pretentious.  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

My chosen professional sector is often more radical than I am (unsurprisingly, as most members are working in the public sector).  I know a lot of my friends, particularly my online friends, wouldn’t agree with me if they knew my views.  I left an autism WhatsApp group a while back because they were criticising a particular type of political viewpoint without it apparently occurring to them that people like that could be on the list, let alone that they might pass as “normal” people.

I get very angry about antisemitism, but mostly don’t say anything about that either, because it feels like almost no one outside the Jewish community really understands or cares, or is willing to listen.

I don’t like identity politics, which I find aggressive.  I prefer existentialist encounter and dialogue.

I just try to be kind and non-judgmental, and to really listen to people.

I change my mind quite a bit.  I like reading new ideas, if they’re argued well, and I try to be open-minded about things.  I get the impression that most people don’t do that.

I don’t mind having friends who have different views, but my experience is that fewer and fewer people are willing to do that (see here for the way acceptance of inter-political (progressive + conservative) marriage has declined even as acceptance for inter-racial and same-sex marriage has grown).  These days people seem to just want to hate people who are different (often in the name diversity, ironically) and mute or unfriend people with different views.  I just keep my head down and try to avoid arguments.  Life’s easier that way, but lonelier and scarier: I don’t feel accepted for who I am and I worry about slipping up and being rejected.  I sometimes wonder how many of my friends (particularly online) would ditch me if they knew what I really think about some things.

I do feel that there’s no one like me: religiously, politically, psychologically.  It was a relief to meet E., who was like me in many ways even if she wasn’t religious.  (Maybe we were too much alike; probably we were both too unstable.)

***

Today I just feel unlovable and unacceptable to anyone I might want to befriend me, date me or employ me.  I feel utterly useless in any context.  The only thing I feel vaguely good at is writing, and I don’t feel great at that.  I’ve certainly struggled to get paid for anything I’ve written.  It’s a long time since I’ve felt good at my job as a librarian, and I only intermittently see myself as a good son, brother, friend or good boyfriend/husband material.

***

Today’s achievements: a couple of library jobs have come up.  I’m was going to apply for both even though both are full-time, short-term jobs (both are maternity cover), where I really want a part-time, long-term job.  I would go for part-time short-term, but I’m not sure whether I would take a full-time job.  I don’t think I could cope, even for nine months.  If I got offered the job, I would probably ask to job share.

I spent twenty minutes trying to navigate a badly-designed website to apply for one job, only to eventually be told that it was open to internal candidates only.  (Then why was it advertised publicly?  I suspect it has to be, legally.)

With the other job I think there would be higher risk of COVID – or any infectious illness – for reasons I won’t go into here, and we’re still supposed to be shielding Mum who will have reduced immunity for some more months.  It is in any case a high stress, full-time job on multiple sites that could involve long travel times.  I really don’t feel I could do either job, but I feel under pressure (from myself as well as other people) to apply for whatever jobs are available, which at the moment is not many.  I would rather be working on my novel…

I’m not sure how long I spent dealing with job applications in total, but I didn’t actually write much of an application.  I just looked at job descriptions etc.

I did forty-five minutes Torah study, reading this week’s Torah portion, but I didn’t get much out of it and felt very stressed while I was doing it.  I would have liked to have done more, but did not have the time or energy.

I went for a thirty-five minute run; my pace was better than it has been for a while.  I didn’t get a migraine even though it was hot out; thank Heaven for small mercies.

I wanted to work on my novel after dinner, but I was too tired.  I realise that as we come out of lockdown, job applications are going to encroach on my writing time more and more.

We had a family Zoom meeting, me, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law and my aunt and uncle from Israel.  I hardly said anything again.  I’m pretty quiet even in in-person meetings, but on Zoom I just clam up completely.

***

I’ve made my blog find-able on search engines again.  My reasons for making it hidden (that I worried that I was saying too much about other people who might be identifiable) seemed less realistic, and so many people were finding it through my comments elsewhere on the blogosphere that it didn’t seem such an issue any more.  I thought about adding a contact form again so people can email me, but I’m more reluctant to do that.  I’ve made a couple of good friends through having that in the past (and ended up going out with E.), but I had a bad experience with it recently (not E.) and don’t know if I should do it again.

Of course, a few hours on and I already think it was a bad idea to make my blog fina-able and that I should switch it back to hidden again.  I can flip back and forth indefinitely, and probably will.

Staying Jewish, But Staying Lonely

I had a comment conversation on an old post the other day in the course of which I noted that in my experience, frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) people with mental health issues tend not to stay frum.  The person I was talking to agreed.  That is, on one level, an indictment of the frum community and its treatment of mental health issues, which are not really addressed meaningfully a lot of the time and can even be ignored by sufferers and their families as something damaging to shidduch (dating) chances, for the sufferer or their family.

Nevertheless, I was thinking on a personal level, about how I have tried to stay frum all these years as I’ve seen my peers go on to very different lives (community, careers, marriage, children) while I’m stuck in the same difficult situation.  This is, I suppose, a positive achievement on my part, but I struggle to see it as such.  I keep thinking that I should be doing better: more davening (prayer) with better kavannah (mindfulness), more Torah study and of a higher standard (more Talmud, basically), more kavannah on mitzvot, and working harder on my middot (character traits) especially having a strong connection to HaShem (God).  It’s hard to admit that I’ve been struggling hard and not giving up even though the temptation at time has been overwhelming, particularly when my religious OCD was at its height a few years ago and again this year when I’ve been feeling very distanced from HaShem and Judaism as well as from the community.

As I say, it is hard to give myself praise for that; much easier to criticise myself for not being good enough, to think that if I was a good enough Jew, I would do all those things despite being very depressed, or that just thinking about the concept of God would comfort me.  As it is, I worry that one day it will all be too hard for me and I will “go off the derekh” (literally “go off the path,” a horrible frum expression for stopping being frum).  Sometimes it just seems too hard, especially as I’m aware that my dating chances would be vastly improved if I wasn’t limiting myself to just the frum community or even just the Jewish community (the Jewish community worldwide is about fourteen million, one of the smaller religions.  I haven’t seen statistics for the frum community globally.  In the USA it’s about 10% of the total Jewish population; it’s probably a bit more elsewhere, especially Israel, but still probably no more than about 15%, so maybe about one to two million people).  Of course, much of the frum community would not consider me frum enough to marry them/their daughters, so that limits it even further.

Looking over what I’ve written, it’s strange how thinking about my standing religiously and with regard to the frum community always ends up as a discussion about marriage and loneliness.  I suppose it’s an indication of how lonely I feel generally and how hard it feels to gain acceptance to the frum community without a spouse.  So much of Jewish life revolves around family – family and community, but community centres around family.

There is the issue of God and loneliness which I have been thinking about lately too.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik writes about loneliness as an essential part of the human condition and the basis of the “covenantal community” which includes God as well as other people.  He is writing primarily about existential loneliness, about the alone-ness that comes from being an individual with unique thoughts and perspectives, rather than just being single and having few friends.

There is a concept of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence (the feminine aspect of God), that is present over a sick person’s bed.  I’m not sure if that applies to mental illness (it’s talking about someone bed-bound).  Likewise it is said that the Shekhinah followed the Jews into exile and that She can be present in a marriage if a couple are worthy, but I’m not sure there is anything about Her being present to the lonely.  (I think I can accept God as loving more easily as She than He and I’m not sure why.)

***

I tried to work on my novel today, but I found it hard to concentrate.  I tried for about an hour and wrote less than 300 words.  It’s always hard to write on Fridays for some reason, even in the summer when Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts late, giving me more time.  I was feeling very lonely, wondering when (or, more likely, if) I will be well enough and earning enough to date, and especially wondering if I will ever find someone on the right religious level who can look past all my “issues” and see that I do have some things to offer in a relationship.  It all seems very unlikely, and I looked online endlessly for stuff about mental health and shidduchim.  I’m not sure what I wanted.  Maybe something to say I will get married, or conversely that I won’t get married, just something clear that would end the painful uncertainty.  I found it all very unlikely.

I am very lonely and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.  It’s been my default position since I was a teenager.  I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to accept that.  Unsurprisingly, this has been making me feel more depressed.

***

I dreamt about my novel last night, not the one I’m currently writing, but the vague (slightly more than vague) idea for the next one.  It possibly helped me out on a plot point, although I’m not sure yet.   It’s weird to have characters I’ve created permeate my subconscious almost before I’ve set pen to paper (I’ve written a few notes).  I guess it’s a good sign.

“Your love gives me such a thrill/But your love won’t pay my bills/I want money/That’s what I want”

(Please forgive the frivolous title.  I hate thinking up titles every day.  It is vaguely relevant to some of what I’ve written.)

I felt depressed and exhausted on waking again today, and lonely.  In terms of exhaustion and depression, maybe I did too much yesterday.  It seems that even a half-day for an ordinary person wears me out.  Or maybe my break-up just hit me again.  I did feel better in the afternoon.

This is what I have been thinking about in terms of loneliness.  Supposedly the Orthodox world has a “shidduch crisis” or a “dating crisis” of single Orthodox Jews who can’t get married.  There is a lot of discussion on Jewish websites and newspapers about (a) whether the shidduch crisis actually exists and (b) if it does exist, what is responsible for it (generally phrased as, “Whose fault is it?”)?  You can google for more information, if you dare (it’s a rabbit hole you may never return from).

I’m not sure the shidduch crisis actually exists, and I’m not sure that any of the proposed explanations for it hold water, but a lot of people seem to think that there is such a crisis and generally the crux problem is supposed to be, for variously suggested reasons, a surplus of single women over single men.  Supposedly this means that the men get to pick and choose between women, which results in them never committing and always looking for a “better” woman than the one they have currently been set up with.  Meanwhile the women end up being urged to “settle” for sub-standard men because of their ticking biological clocks.

At the time when we were friends rather than dating, E. said that her experience was that frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) single women in their thirties are all desperate to get married and have children and so will “settle” for anyone who can be a father, including me.  See, for example, the woman, who tellingly signs herself “Pretty Desperate”, who is asking here about dating someone with a stable mental illness (the whole letter is a really sign of how narrow-minded the Orthodox world of dating can be, with the writer considering herself on the shelf at age twenty-eight!)  I’m not sure that I really want to be a live-in sperm donor, but it depresses me that no one is even willing to “settle” for me.  I think I would be a good husband, aside from the fact that I’m unlikely to ever earn enough to support a family solo.  I’m honest, kind and gentle and probably a better listener than most men, even if things said to me verbally don’t always stick in my memory because of autistic processing issues.  Nevertheless, I can see that my “issues,” my finances and my general geekiness would put most frum women (and many women generally) off.  It’s sad.

It occurs to me that although the frum community sets marriage as a universal standard, it also writes off whole classes of people and gives them little support in finding a spouse (converts, ba’alei teshuva (people raised non-religious who became religious later in life), people with physical and mental health issues, divorcees and children of divorcees all spring to mind).  I’m not sure how these people find mates, if they somehow attract each other as the more eligible candidates pair off and leave the field or if they remain unmarried.  I think the USA there are some shachanim (matchmakers) who specialise in helping people with “sensitive” issues to find their spouses.  Meaning, if you have issues you will be matched with someone with similar issues, which in some ways is logical, in other ways is crazy and is also basically eugenics (similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, rabbinic families also interbreed, selecting for intelligence).

These thoughts were distracting me today as I tried to write my novel.  The fears, and the loneliness and sexual frustration, won’t go away.  If someone could tell me, “You will get married and have children, but not for another five years,” I could get on with my life in the meantime, but as it is I constantly worry about things, I suppose in the hope that some great idea about how to find and keep a mate will come to me that I haven’t had in the last twenty years or so.

(Have I really been single and lonely for twenty years, with just a couple of little gaps?  No wonder I’m so depressed.)

***

I suppose related to this is the fact that not only is loneliness rarely mentioned in frum society (where it is assumed that most adults are happily married), but sexual frustration (within or outside marriage) is never mentioned, not least because of the understanding that no one should talk about sex.  It is only listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast recently that I’ve realised that other people also struggle with celibacy in a culture where the only legitimate sex is within marriage, and even then only at certain times.  I am at least not having forbidden pre-marital sex as some “older singles” apparently do according to the sex therapist on Intimate Judaism.  Even so, there’s a lot of guilt around sex and sexual thoughts and behaviours for me and I worry about the guilt poisoning my sex life if I ever do manage to get married.  The guilt around sex for me probably doesn’t help me when dating, giving me more reasons to feel inadequate compared to my date, even beyond my general feelings of inadequacies when compared to frum Jews.  I feel too ashamed to think anyone could accept me with my not-always-fully-repressed sexuality, even if they got past all the other issues.

I spoke about this a bit with my therapist this week, about thinking and doing stuff sexually that, as a frum Jew, I shouldn’t.  I can’t remember her exact words, but it was along the lines of accepting my sexuality as natural, having compassion on myself and realising I’m in a difficult situation that Orthodox Judaism was not really designed for.  It’s difficult though.  I wish I could just turn my lust off.

***

Achievements today: I did an hour and a half to two hours of novel writing, about 900 words.  The exact amount is hard to estimate because of procrastination time.  I was pleased to get to 900 words and reached a sensible point to stop, so I did.  It was hard to write with all of those lonely, despairing thoughts, but I try to force myself through those thoughts and feelings and do some writing five or six days a week.  If I want to be a professional or semi-professional writer, I need to be able to work every working day, even if I’m having a lousy time with depression.

I did thirty-five minutes of Torah study.  It’s hard to get up to an hour a day at the moment except over Shabbat.  I’m not sure why.  I wanted to do more, but procrastinated and ran out of time and got too tired.  I should prioritise Torah study more, but I also want to prioritise writing, exercising and helping around the house.  I can’t prioritise everything all at once.  Sigh.

I went for a half hour walk.  I also did some ironing.  I would be a good house husband, I can clean, cook, launder and iron as well as shop for groceries.  However, my sewing is lousy.  Half the time I can’t even thread the needle.

I had a Zoom call with a bunch of friends from my university days.  We meet up once or twice a year to catch up on what we’ve been doing since we last met.  One had had COVID and nearly been hospitalised (she was triaged and judged well enough to cope at home).  I always feel vaguely awkward that they’ve moved on with their lives in a way that I haven’t.  All have good careers and one is married with a baby.  I did impress them by saying I’m working on a novel.  When I set it was partly set in Oxford, I had to reassure them it wasn’t a roman à clef and they don’t have to worry about being in it.  In fact, this isn’t quite true, as part of the novel is based heavily on my experiences with another person, not in this group, although by this stage in the writing process a lot of details have been changed or invented.  The person I’m thinking of would probably see certain resemblances, but I don’t think anyone else will.

I didn’t get the job for which I did a cataloguing test a couple of weeks ago.  I asked for feedback on the test, although I’m nervous of what it might say.

***

I wrote the following about my experience of depression on Kacha’s blog and thought I would copy it to here as it’s a useful summary of how I experience depression now and in the past.  I think depression will always be around for me most days, but I am able to control it more than I used to do.  I find it hard to ever see myself living a “normal” or “full” life though:

I had a period of many years when the depression was a constant daily phenomenon. Then I started to experience periods of remission for some months, mixed with periods of depression. I still feel very depressed for some time every day (usually in the mornings), and still sometimes have to take a mental health day every so often. However, I am able to do quite a few things during the day most days now, even if it is not like working a nine to five job plus having family and social commitments, which is what I think of as a “full” life.

I think activity helps. Once I can start doing things, that can push the depression away, although events during the day (usually things I see or read or hear) can trigger it again.

I would add that I’m glad I’m not at the stage I was at from 2003 to circa 2008 (or possibly later) when I was not able to work at all, or from 2008 to 2017 or so when extreme depression was common on many days even when I was working a fairly full week.  I think clomipramine, which I was put on after a mental health crisis in late 2017 has done a lot for me in that regard, as well as the occupational therapy of work, then job hunting (awful though that is) and, now, trying to write books.

The Meaning of Life

I was still feeling very depressed when I woke up today.  I spent about an hour and a half working on my book, finishing one chapter, which I then split into two, as it was very long and had a natural breaking point.  I’ve written about 42,000 words so far, plus I have a fragment of about 4,000 words for the next chapter.  I’m aiming for 70,000 to 80,000 words overall, so I’m somewhat over halfway.  Maybe I will get a first draft finished by the end of the year after all.

I had therapy.  I was processing a lot of emotions that I felt uncomfortable with.  Feelings that triggered my inner critical voice and the guilt/shame emotions, feelings that I usually want to just repress rather than admit to and process.  I did at one point feel that I had to check that the therapist didn’t hate me for the things I was saying.  Despite that, I think it went well, but it was just draining and difficult.

I went for a walk afterwards and there were a lot more people out than I’ve seen for weeks, now that lockdown is partially lifted.  It was hard to socially distance (that should probably be “distance socially,” but that sounds weird).  I might start wearing a mask, although I’ve been dreading doing so for fears of autistic sensory discomfort.  Mum and Dad were brave and went to a National Trust site.  The buildings were closed, but they could go around the parks.  I’m glad they went despite the risk as Mum was glad to go out the house for something non-cancer-related.

I went to a Zoom shiur (religious class) at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) in the evening, the first of three sessions.  I would not normally do that on a therapy day as I get very tired after therapy, but this was on the meaning of life and I’m struggling with finding meaning in life at the moment, so it seemed worth making the effort.  This week’s session was on whether life is meaningless (arguments for and against).  Strangely, there were a lot of people there I knew: a friend of my parents’; someone who used to volunteer with me at the asylum seekers drop-in centre; a library user from the first library I worked at; someone who used to go to my previous shul (synagogue); and someone who goes to the Wednesday shiur.  This did not prevent social anxiety; if anything, it worsened it.  I wish I did have the confidence to participate more at these shiurim.  I think I would get more out of them if I did.  Someone appeared to be Zooming in from their hospital bed, which showed dedication.

As often happens with shiurim at the LSJS, I can’t avoid the impression that if my life had gone to plan I could have been giving classes there or running the library or at least mixing in the same social circles as the people who do those things and certainly that I would want some of those things.  I want to be in a circle of like-minded people and friends, but I find it very hard to socialise at all, let alone direct my socialising purposefully towards meeting particular people.  The same goes for work: it’s hard enough finding a job, let alone building a particular career.  It’s another sign of my feelings of frustration with my life, that I haven’t achieved what people who go to Oxford usually achieve in terms of career and that I don’t mix with people with a similar outlook on life.

It was arguably a productive day overall, even if my emotions were up and down.  I find it hard to realise that, given my issues, I do have fairly productive days.  I just feel I should always be doing more.

“It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion”

Thus spake Detective Inspector Drake in Ashes to Ashes, and it feels a lot like my life at the moment.

Lately I just want to withdraw.  I spent a lot of Shabbat in bed, wrapped in my duvet even when I wasn’t sleeping.  It’s a classic autistic self-comforting tactic.  I’ve been wanting to do it today too, although I’ve fought against the urge.

I’m scared to talk to anyone, even to blog or to read other blogs, for fear of getting into an argument.  There’s too much anger in the world at the moment.

I did at least manage to watch a talk between Rabbi Rafi Zarum (British, half Yemenite) and Rabbi Shais Rishon (American, black) about race and Judaism so I’m not totally running away from the world.  It was about as depressing as I expected (I’ve read some of Rabbi Rishon’s writing before so I knew what to expect; Rabbi Zarum apparently didn’t judging by his shocked reactions), although there was one funny joke.

Achievements: forced myself to work on my novel for an hour and wrote 650 words even thought I was too depressed to write anything today.  Went for a thirty-five minute run that was surprisingly good, although an exercise migraine set in hours later.  I tried to do some Torah study, but the migraine set in then and I only managed five minutes.  I haven’t felt well enough to daven Ma’ariv (say Evening Prayers) yet either.  Going to watch TV until hopefully the solpadeine kicks in, although I feel like I could throw up any time now.

***

I spoke to my rabbi mentor this morning.  I’m still processing the conversation.  He said that everyone in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) struggles with trying to feel inspired or to find meaning in Judaism and that I’m not the only person to struggle with the way the frum community can be narrow-minded or lacking in dynamism or inspiration.

This is all true, but I wonder where this leaves me.  I still feel that I have less meaning and inspiration going for me than a lot of religious Jews, and perhaps more frustration with the frum world than most frum Jews.  Sometimes (not all the time) lately it feels like I’m very close to walking out on the frum world and there are only a few things keeping me here.  If it were possible to be some kind of Jewish hermit, I probably would be one.  I guess I am one, in a way.

***

I know I have it easy compared to a lot of other people, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  A wise person once said, the worst thing that ever happened to you is still the worst thing that ever happened to you, even if even worse things have happened to other people.  While it’s true that a man who has had his legs eaten by an alligator should be grateful that he still has his life, arms, eyes, hearing etc. I’m not sure that makes it any easier to cope with the loss of legs.  I haven’t lost my legs, but I’ve never really got my life functioning properly and I feel that I’m running out of time to sort that, plus most of the time I feel too depressed, anxious and tired to do anything about it, not to mention too alone in the world (yes, despite family and friends).

***

OK, TV now, and trying hard not to throw up…

Trying to Think My Own Thoughts

I woke up feeling OK: tired, but OK.  But then I looked at some news online and drifted down into depression and despair.  I felt disgruntled with political stuff.  I wrote some stuff here, but deleted it to avoid arguments.  I will say that it certainly is hard, when I’m being told by therapists and psychiatrists not to personalise and not to feel guilty about everything, when the media, politicians and activists tell me that I’m “part of the problem,” and that I’m full of unconscious privilege that makes me an inherently bad person no matter what I do.

I’ve been having difficult religious thoughts too, thinking I will never fit in to frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) society.  I feel like I’m torn by opposed ideas.  This is true in politics and culture, but particularly in religion.

I was thinking today about Rav Kook, one of the most important Orthodox Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was also a man of opposites: mystical, yet accepting much of modern science and academic scholarship; a Zionist, but also a universalist; a halakhicist and posek (Jewish legal expert/decisor) who was also an accomplished poet and advocate of Jewish cultural revival; a religious Jew who was friends with non-religious Jews; a Litvak who thought like a Hasid…  Somehow Rav Kook took outlooks that feel like opposites in me and integrated them into a flawless whole.  Sadly, his writings are very difficult, and the more controversial aspects were suppressed by his son and his chief student after his death to make him look more conventional.  I do have a couple of recent books that either present his thought with explanations or paraphrase more complex teachings.  But I feel like I need something more personal and more able to reach my core.  I also feel that I don’t need a book, but a teacher I can have prolonged conversations with, maybe even be set tasks.  I can speak to my rabbi mentor sometimes, but generally not for long and I don’t like to do it too often.  I would be asking a lot of anyone to guide me the way I feel I need.

In a previous crisis of faith, about ten or fifteen years ago, I read books and articles by apologists, who tried to prove the existence of God, the veracity of the Torah and the integrity of the biblical record in various ways.  I regard these attempts as mostly flawed if not nonsense now.  These days I prefer what I might call “soft” apologetics, that stress Judaism as a system of meaning and a way of being part of a living three thousand year culture and history (as opposed to what I call “hard” apologetics that try to prove God etc.).  The problem for me currently is that the “meaning and living” approach is tied up with ideas of community and family that I feel distanced from because of my situation (being single, not having a community I completely fit with) and my issues (depression, social anxiety, autism), as well as assuming a degree of joy and meaning in religious performance that I rarely experience because of depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).  It makes it very hard to keep going.

Online I came across an old debate from over ten years ago.  One of the participants was someone then struggling with Orthodox Judaism who I used to encounter sometimes in various online fora.  He could be very critical of Orthodox Jews, but once said that he felt that I was one of the few he knew who made him think that we aren’t all [rude word].  So now I feel that I’ve somehow let him down, let myself down and let down the Judaism I was modelling by slipping into despair and scepticism.  Possibly this is me making everything about guilt and despair again.

***

It’s hard sometimes to be sure that I’m thinking my own thoughts, and not having someone else think them for me.  I don’t mean in terms of psychosis, but in terms of originality, and resisting propaganda and indoctrination and even the subtle effects of peer pressure and language (not to mention the incongruous and hypocritical virtue signalling of woke multinational corporations… I don’t think Amazon are in a position to lecture anyone about ethics).  This applies regarding culture, religion and politics.  Especially politics at the moment.

***

I tried to do some practice library cataloguing to prepare for my job application test, as I hadn’t catalogued anything for nearly two years.  I made some stupid mistakes initially, but I think I was OK after that, but I don’t have much confidence.  I read the rubric for the test, and I think they are asking for a lot of related stuff I only vaguely remember from my MA course or can’t do easily without resources I don’t have in lockdown, like Library of Congress subject words, which I haven’t used since my MA.  I would have to use the online version when I’m used to the hardcopy version.  I was also taught how to catalogue with the new standard, RDA, but everywhere I have worked used the old standard, AACR2, so I can only vaguely remember RDA.  They did say it was OK to use AACR2 if necessary, but I don’t know whether to try and risk failure or not.  As I’ve said before, I’ve rather lost my confidence in my ability to catalogue and I don’t know how to get it back.  I’m not sure there’s much point in practising any more.  I need to jump in and do it.

I don’t know how long I spent on cataloguing.  Probably not long if I took out the procrastination time involved.  I also spent a bit of time on my novel (just under an hour writing over 600 words) and went for a half-hour walk again.  I feel frustrated that the novel is going slowly, but it is going steadily.  It’s hard to judge how long the first draft will take at this stage.  I discovered today that I’ve been working on it for eleven months so far.  Of course, there was a lengthy interruption when I concentrated on my non-fiction Doctor Who book.  It does seem a long time though.  I’m about half way through, maybe a bit more.

***

I had shiur (religious class) on Zoom again.  It was difficult.  I still struggle with the noise and changing pictures on group Zoom calls, and my usual social anxiety around speaking up is even worse when I need to unmute myself first.  I had an autistic “I think they’re joking, but I’m not sure” moment too.  The worst bit today was when the teacher thought I had answered a question, but it was someone else, but I couldn’t tell who.  I’m not sure that I gave the credit to the right person.  I started stimming (autistic self-soothing touch or movement), stroking my face and pressing my fingers in my desk cupboard door.  I felt self-conscious about this, but also unable to stop.  As autistic people will tell you, it is hard to consciously stop stimming especially if stressed.  I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know from the class either.

On the plus side, the handouts this week included useful lists of Hebrew abbreviations and key words.  These are primarily intended for Rashi’s Torah commentary (the focus of the shiur), but I suspect will be useful for rabbinic literature in general, as key phrases are often abbreviated in all the Medieval commentaries, as well as in the Talmud.  It can be very irritating if you don’t know what the abbreviation stands for.

***

Good things today: Ashes to Ashes series two so far is a lot better than series one, on a par with its predecessor Life on Mars; I don’t think I’ve put on weight during lockdown; and some how-to-write books I was waiting for arrived today, although I’m still waiting for one more.  It is daunting to think of reading the writing books and then applying them to my own writing.

Loneliness and Fitting In

I woke up feeling depressed and lonely again.  E. is concerned about my tendency to turn everything into guilt, that I assume that everything bad in my life is my fault and if I was a good person I could change it.  She thinks that this is not really the case.  She feels in particular that I shouldn’t feel guilty about not being emotionally connected to Judaism.  I guess it’s hard not to when Judaism presents a lot of things (perhaps most things) in moral terms and assumes that good people can change them, at least with the right tools.  It’s assumed that a person who wants a better relationship to God or Judaism can ‘fix’ that; it doesn’t take into account that my brain chemistry might prevent that, or say what I should do instead or how I should cope.

That said, I wonder if this is really guilt or if I’m misunderstanding my emotions again.  I don’t think what I see as guilt is really sadness, but maybe it’s loneliness or disconnection.  I was reading about domestic abuse again (see below) and came across the idea that abusive men express all their emotions as anger; I wonder if I express all my emotions as depression or guilt.  I don’t know if that idea even makes sense.  At the very least, alexithymia (difficulty understanding my own emotions) makes it hard to understand what I feel.

I’m worried about the future too.  I want lockdown to be over, but at the same time, that would shift my worries about career and relationship up a gear as I have to confront things again.  I’m already dreading the cataloguing test I have to do soon for a job application.

***

I’m also struggling with political thoughts that I don’t really want to write about here, worries about the situation across the Atlantic, worries about my participation in racist societies, but also about the much greater coverage of and sensitivity around racism by most people in the West compared with antisemitism.  Jews aren’t more likely than most people to be killed by the police, but they are more likely than many to experience violence.  In the USA, Jews are the victim of well over half religious hate crimes, far more than any other religious group.  I don’t feel this is a particularly appropriate time to talk about antisemitism.  We need to concentrate on racism right now.  The problem is that much of the world has shown that it never thinks the time is right to talk about antisemitism.

Mind you, I can get upset by little things, for instance, a letter in an old Jewish Chronicle criticising Orthodox rabbis unfairly.

I’m not sure how these thoughts would be classified.  They’re kind of on the boundary between depression and anxiety, with some anger, but not what people generally mean when they refer to those feelings in a psychotherapeutic context.

***

I spent an hour or more trying to work on my novel.  I wrote about 450 words, which was not bad, but not great either.  I procrastinated a lot, got upset about irrelevant things (see the paragraph above) then read abuse survivors’ accounts to try to get me back into the mindset of writing about abuse, but that just made me feel more miserable and made it harder to concentrate.

I tried to look at my notes from my librarianship MA on cataloguing in preparation for doing a cataloguing test some time this week or next for a job application.  It was hard to concentrate because I felt so depressed, and because I was aware that I probably know this stuff as well as I ever will.  I feel I probably know the stuff, I just have no confidence in my ability to show it.  I’ve really lost confidence in my ability to do librarian stuff in recent years.  It’s hard to remember that I once thought that I would be a good librarian, even a professional cataloguer.

***

I didn’t do much Torah study (about fifteen minutes).  I  wrote this rather long email to my rabbi mentor instead (slightly edited here):

I’m really struggling religiously lately.  It’s hard to daven and to learn Torah in particular. It also feels like I have no meaningful connection to HaShem [God] and to Torah much of the time. It’s hard to work out why. Or, there are many possible reasons:

– my depression/general mental health (which has got worse the last couple of weeks) – one rabbi once told me that I wouldn’t be able to connect emotionally to God and Torah until I recover, but it increasingly looks like there is no recovery for me, just being able to manage my condition better;

– resentment of simplistic theologies in the frum world that see working at Judaism and especially having bitachon [trust in God] as immediately positive results.  I think these are wrong, but they make part of my brain think, “God must be angry with me, or He would have healed me/got me a job/let me get married by now;

– feelings of despair regarding my life, relationship, career, etc. and feeling that I won’t be able to build anything because HaShem keep testing me by making me suffer and taking away what I’ve achieved;

– generally feeling like a social misfit in the frum world: the United Synagogue doesn’t take Torah and davening [prayer] seriously enough for me, in the Federation I feel like have to hide various beliefs and interests because they’re unacceptable, and the people at the London School of Jewish Studies are mostly a generation older than me. I felt in particular that my local shul has not always supported me well in terms of helping me be part of the community or regarding my mental health (as well as setting me up on shidduch dates [arranged blind dates]), although things had been a bit better at the start of the year and I felt that after four years, I was fitting in a little bit better… and then coronavirus came and disrupted even that.

Lately I wonder if I won’t fit in anywhere, ever. It seems everywhere I go, I feel that I don’t fit in, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s just in my head, or from my autism. I really feel that I struggle to fit in and to follow the unspoken social codes, which is a classic autistic symptom. On the other hand, I’ve never had the kind of support that the frum world is said to provide to most people in need.

And underneath it all is the feeling of emptiness, loneliness, isolation.  Of feeling that HaShem is so far from me and indifferent to me, or that He will invalidate all my mitzvot on some technicality.  I feel I can’t connect with Him.  Sometimes I feel that I don’t know what it would be like to feel joy at all.  I saw something the other day about the need to have spiritual pleasure, but I’m not even able to have physical pleasure.

Sometimes I worry I’m frum more out of habit than anything else these days, which does not make me feel good. To be honest, the non-Orthodox/non-religious world is just as off-putting to me as the frum world, but I know E. finds aspects of the frum world difficult, especially the lack of appreciation of serious culture, and I find it hard to “sell” her the frum life when I feel so negative about it.

I do still enjoy Shabbat, even though I feel that is partly a relaxation thing as much as a spiritual one.  Occasionally I do see Torah that resonates, but it’s hard to build on it; likewise if I daven well one day.  I do enjoy writing my weekly divrei Torah [Torah thoughts], although I do experience that as a stress sometimes, and a drain on time for Torah study.

This is what I’ve been feeling.  Would it be possible to discuss it, by Skype or email, please?  I don’t know if there is an answer, but I feel I need to try something new.  I mean a new strategy to engage with my religious life.  It’s just so hard to keep going sometimes.

I’m not sure what I expect to get from it.  He can’t wave a magic wand and solve my troubles and we have spoken about this in the past.  I suspect if I was more confident in myself and worried less about what other people think of me, I would fit in to frum society better, and if I fitted in better socially, a lot of my lack of religious connection would go away.  But I’m not sure how to do that.

My Spiritual Overdraft

Last night, after I posted, I started feeling very depressed.  I hoped sleeping would help, but the depression has stayed with me since waking up today.  Last night I felt like big and small things are mixed together, as are my problems and those of the world, and it’s hard to distinguish them.  Very trivial things, like the fact that I’m accidentally reading the books in a Batman story arc in the wrong order, are mixed up with bigger things, like guilt for things I’ve done and with things going on in the world, like the riots in America.  Everything got mixed together.  Today it’s mostly settled down as a general sense of depression and perhaps loneliness.

Lately I’ve been trying to just sit with my negative thoughts rather than either fight them or wallow in them, but it’s hard.  It’s hard to even remember to do it, as it’s not how I am accustomed to treating these thoughts, and it’s certainly hard to do.

It’s one of those days when I’m not happy being myself, where I just feel guilty about everything I’ve ever done, I feel that everything was stupid or wrong and wonder why I can’t just act like a normal person.  Maybe a normal person would do the same things, but just not feel guilty.  I’m “shoulding” myself a lot, beating myself up for things I do, or don’t do.

It doesn’t help that stuff in the news makes me think that, as much structural problems in the economy or society, violence can be rooted in small acts of thoughtlessness that are treated as normal and not serious, like gossiping and losing one’s temper with close family (it’s not particularly politically correct to think like this.  Much easier to criticise Those People or That System instead).  I do these things, but I think they normalise selfishness, reduce empathy and create a bad atmosphere in society, although I’m hazy on how that leads to major things like murder and abuse.  They do seem serious to me.  Maybe I overthink things.

***

I did about half an hour of Torah study today.  I couldn’t really do more because of therapy and being exhausted from therapy afterwards.  Some of my reading was stuff online that made me feel that I’m a bad Jew.  This was on a website written by a rabbi who has become very popular writing about spirituality and personal growth, the areas where I feel lacking, so I hoped it might help.  However, it left me feeling that I don’t connect strongly and emotionally with God.  Well, I already knew that.  I don’t know how to become more spiritually developed and connect with God when I feel so depressed.  A rabbi I spoke to about this said I won’t be able to connect spiritually and feel spiritual joy until I’m over the depression, but in recent years the idea of not being depressed seems unlikely; I’m just trying to manage my mental illnesses.   I also don’t know how to connect with God and Judaism when so much of the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community seems opposed to people like me, at least the parts of it available for me to connect to.  Sometimes I wonder what is keeping me frum.  It can be hard to tell sometimes.

I possibly didn’t give the rabbi’s site a good enough chance, I felt uncomfortable with some sweeping statements he made and that prejudiced me against the gist of his writing.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says somewhere something I would never dare to say, that the experience of many ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later on) is like someone who married a wonderful person i.e. God, but who came along with a terrible family i.e. other Jews (Rav Steinsaltz is himself a ba’al teshuva).  I don’t think all frum Jews are bad people, far from it, but lately I feel stifled by the frum community and its attitudes and I don’t know what to do about it.  I wish I could move to a more Modern Orthodox community, but even then I know that some attitudes would probably remain.  Coming at a time when I also feel disconnected from HaShem (God) makes it difficult to stay frum sometimes and I think on some level I’m frum from habit at the moment, at least in part.  That’s not necessarily a huge problem; I think you can have a spiritual bank account and you can make some big withdrawals, maybe even have a managed overdraft for a while, if you already made some big deposits.  I think I did make those deposits in the past that can cover my current spending, I just can’t work out how to find the spiritual currency to get back into credit.

***

The good news today is that I wrote nearly 700 words of my novel in an hour, which was very good considering I was feeling very depressed.  I couldn’t write more because I had therapy and I always feel to tired to write after that.

In therapy we spoke about trying to accept the process of my critical thoughts rather than proving, disproving or fighting them (related to what I said above about trying to do this lately).  It’s hard.  We also spoke about the importance of acknowledging thoughts rather than repressing them.

The session ended awkwardly, though, as the screen froze and I wasn’t sure if the therapist was ending the session or not.  I texted to ask and waited a minute, but there was no reply, so I thought we were done and started something else, but then the therapist called back to say goodbye.  That sounds like a trivial interaction, but it disrupted the ‘back to reality’ feeling of the end of the therapy session.

“Rescue me before I fall into despair”

“More loneliness than any man could bear/Rescue me before I fall into despair.” – Message in a Bottle by The Police

A new issue of The Tides of Time, the fanzine of the Oxford University Doctor Who Society is out online.  It looks interesting, but I’m not sure how much I’ll read, as it has already provoked mixed feelings.  Partly this is from feeling that my time in the society has long gone.  The new issue, although containing many articles from people who have left or were never even there has little from people who were there when I was there.  Even the nickname of the society has changed from the Doc Soc (my generation) to Who Soc.  I’m very much out of the fandom loop, which is why (I assume) I missed the call for articles on Twitter.  Fandom today, as far as I can tell, largely takes place on Twitter and big, multi-fandom super-conventions like Comic-Con, neither of which are good environments for me, for different reasons.  Plus, modern fandom is so political, and these days I keep my politics to myself to keep myself safe, but it’s often different from (stereotypical) fan politics.  Add in that I didn’t much like the last series of Doctor Who, unlike the reviewers in the fanzine, and it’s hard to find common ground, and when I fail to find common ground with people, I read that, perhaps wrongly, as implicit criticism of my positions, and run off before people can attack me.  I feel like if I could have stayed in the loop, I could have promoted my book more (not in the fanzine, but online or in person), or would have had more friends to promote it to, but it’s rather pointless to go down that route now.  But there is a feeling of loneliness from having lost (or never had) these kinds of friendship networks.

Speaking of which, after I posted on Thursday, before Yom Tov, I realised what the nagging sense of melancholy was that I was experiencing: loneliness.  I feel that today, the feeling that I can’t connect with people.  That the attempt to live two lives, one religious (Orthodox Judaism) and one secular (Doctor Who fandom, and secular life in general) has failed, and that neither appreciates or respects the other.  E. has remarked that Orthodox society is often uncultured, which I can’t deny is true, to some extent at least.  It can be rather bourgeois.  I try to put up with it, but I worry that she won’t be able to.  I worry that I will just drive myself crazy trying to find people I can connect with, then running away from them when I find them because I think they must hate me really.  Hiding parts of my personality all the time.  This is basically what I have done for the last twenty years or so, since I went to university.  Kafka writes somewhere about someone chained with one chain to Heaven and with another to earth, so that he can’t move in either direction.  I feel a bit like that.

All that said, I have opted to renew the subscription on my Doctor Who blog for another year.  Just in case.  Now I need to find something to write on it, and the time to write it.

I am feeling lonely today though, ill at ease with myself and the world(s) around me, the one world I see on the news and in the papers and the other world I see on Jewish blogs.  I also feel depressed, which I suppose ties in with the loneliness and also with the world I see around me.  It’s scary to think that I could potentially be living in the USA in a few years time, looking at the stuff on the news.

***
I’m trying to practice “radical acceptance” of my parents’ quirks and foibles, accepting things that I can’t change.  It’s difficult.  It’s even harder to apply it to my neighbours’ behaviour.  The latter is very hard, because, as well as lockdown-breaching minyanim (prayer meetings), they had a noisy garden party with I think more than six guests (possibly six adult guests, but a load of children too), and not at all socially distanced.  From the conversation that drifted up, it sounded like one of the guests was trying to convince our neighbour to keep his minyan going after lockdown.  If they did that, I think I would alert the council to an unauthorised change of house use.  This has happened before with shtiebels (tiny synagogues in houses or above shops) that have been started without the necessary permissions.

***

I applied for a job a while back that was rather rashly advertised in lockdown.  They have now cancelled or possibly just postponed the interview stage, but have sent me a cataloguing exercise to complete.  I’ve glanced at it and gone into panic mode.  I have rather lost confidence in my cataloguing abilities, although they used to be good.  I feel like the gunslinger who has lost his nerve and with it his ability to sling guns quicker than other gunslingers, or at all.  I suppose failing at this at least avoids the face-to-face nature of the interview fail.

***

Other than that, it was a fairly ordinary locked-down day.  I spent about two hours working on my novel, writing just over 1,000 words and struggling against the noise from next door.  I went for a half hour walk and had my Skype Torah study session with E.

Mum cut my hair.  Most of it, anyway; I trimmed the sideburns.  I don’t think it had been cut since February (February 6, according to my private journal posts).  Mum did a good job, but I had to trim my sideburns, which I’d left long when I shaved off my omer beard, as they looked silly with shorter hair.  This is a shame, as I like having longish sideburns.

***

Towards evening, depression set in, and guilt.  I felt bad that I ate dinner separately to my parents so that I could watch TV.  I felt bad over something I had done repeatedly in the past, something forbidden by Judaism and sometimes seen negatively more widely.  Although maybe this guilt is a good thing, as I’ve been going back and forth in my mind about including this in my novel.  It probably is an issue worth bringing up (in the secular world, even more so the religious one), but I’m scared of how people will respond, whether they will judge me, boycott my book or ignore the other messages in it, about autism, mental health and abuse.

The Long Dark Night of the Soul

I was hit by a thought today that surprised me.  Since blogging on WordPress, I have come across a lot of Christian mental health blogs.  Sometimes there’s a kind of conversion narrative of a fall from the world into a pit of suffering and despair (this is particularly the case when substance abuse features in the narrative), followed by the turn to religion and the feeling of grace and salvation, which leads to renewed success (if that’s the right word) in the battle with mental illness or addiction.

The surprising thing is that this kind of writing does not really exist in post-Biblical Judaism at all.  I mean very deeply personal introspection of the long, dark night of the soul and the religious journey from suffering to redemption.  Judaism is a non-missionary religion and the vast majority of Jews were born Jewish even if they did not have a religious upbringing, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so few literal conversion narrative, but there could be narratives of suffering and despair leading to faith and joy, but by and large there are not.

There are Tehillim and Iyov (Psalms and Job) in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  In post-biblical literature there are some of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings that deal (directly or indirectly with his suffering).  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik deals a little with this in The Lonely Man of Faith and parts of Halakhic Man .  There are bits in the Sacred Fire of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe where he approaches this, but his focus is not so much the personal journey as the communal experience of Nazi persecution.

I am not familiar enough with the Holocaust literature to see how that fits in.  I think you might find something there, but not quite the same as the Christian type, not least because of the presence of clear villain figures in the Nazis, not to mention the fact that many Jews lost their faith in the Holocaust rather than finding it.  I’m not sure that I would class the writings of Elie Wiesel, for example, in this category.  I don’t think it is really that personal, inner type of despair, rather the despair from being dehumanised by an outside force.

I don’t know the Medieval poetry of the paytanim (liturgical poets) to know whether they dealt with these feelings.  Possibly they did (they did right rather erotic love poetry, something airbrushed out of the biographies of some major figures).

I have a few Judaism and depression books which include personal narratives.  The Road to Resilience by Sherri Mendell is a fairly practical book about overcoming loss.  I remember very little of Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz, although it probably is the closest to what I’m looking for, in that it deals with the author’s despair in detail (but by a Reform rabbi, not an Orthodox one, tellingly).  It might be worth me re-reading that soon.  Some of the personal stories in the anthology book Calling Out to You edited by Tehilla Edelman fit in this category at least partially, but as I recall the focus is more on the practical story of mental illness and recovery than the spiritual crisis.  Some are definitely what I have in mind e.g. “I had to unravel all of my preconceived notions about Hashem.  I used to think that G-d only loved me if I behaved.  The idea that Hashem loves me like a father didn’t work for me, because with a father like mine [abusive] it didn’t mean much.  I also didn’t understand how Hashem could let abuse happen to children, and I didn’t know if I could ever trust Him…  After much soul-searching, I came to believe that Hashem does care about me and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t call Him Father.” (From My Journey to Hashem through Depression and Addiction: Miriam’s Story in Calling Out to You.)

That’s about all I can think of, in a three thousand year tradition.

It’s worth comparing with the narratives I’ve seen written by people who became Orthodox Jews in adulthood, either non-Jews who converted to Judaism or ba’alei teshuva, non-religious Jews who became Orthodox.  These seem to be largely calm and peaceful narratives that start by laying out the writer’s initial antipathy to and/or ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, the story of how they encountered it close up for the first time, their experience of the beauty of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) and how they overcame a few sticking points (e.g. Torah/science conflict or gender and sexuality issues) to become devout Orthodox Jews.  There is occasionally tension with friends or family members who do not like the religious change, but there is no sense of suffering or trauma here, the dark night of the soul to which religion is the solution.  The truth is that if I was writing my own ba’al teshuva narrative, it would also be largely separate from my mental health journey, which did not really start in earnest until I was some way along my religious journey.

It’s just interesting that we don’t really have the vocabulary to express this kind of narrative.  I am experiencing that first-hand, in the difficulty I have expressing my inner religious life here and, fictionalised, in my novel.  I do not have a model to use.  It’s doubtful how much anyone could model themselves on Tehillim (Psalms) nowadays without falling into self-parody, let alone the difficult, complex poetry of Iyov (Job).  But there are few more recent models to look to.

I wonder if this is another reason why “leaving Orthodoxy” narratives, fictional and non-fictional, are so much more common than “joining Orthodoxy” narratives, as I have discussed here before.  It’s not really a genre that we promote (not that Orthodox Judaism encourages the writing of fiction or memoirs, or creative writing generally).

Doubtless part of the reason is that Christianity is a religion based on the personal salvation of the individual through the personal sacrifice of Jesus and mediated through the introspective writings of Paul in the New Testament.  Whereas Judaism is a communal/national religion based, at the very least, on creating communities based on love and mutual aid, building together to a nation state built, ideally, on love and compassion and eventually an example for a new world order built on love and compassion through monotheism.  There isn’t much room in that narrative for the individual’s long dark night of the soul.  It’s just not relevant.  It took some fairly unique circumstances to produce figures like Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav or Rav Soloveitchik who can let us peek a little at what a kind of Jewish dark night of the soul literature might look like.

***

As for Yom Tov (the festival), it was OK, but I struggled to connect with the religious ideals of the festival (hence, in part, this post).  I prayed a lot, studied Torah a lot, ate a lot, slept a lot.  I had a lot of aches and pains from my workout on Wednesday.  I think I’ve pulled a lot of muscles in my arms, legs and torso.  I did still go for a couple of walks despite the pain.  I also woke up in the middle night with a migraine yesterday.  My mood was mostly OK, but dipped a bit this afternoon.  That’s about all there is to report, though, aside from continued irritation at the illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door.  I think I’m getting a better idea of why that annoys me so much (aside from all the obvious reasons), but it’s too late to deal with that now and this is a long enough post already.

Whatever “Normal” Is

It’s been suggested to me a couple of times that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person.  I’ve been resistant to this, partly because it seems unscientific (as far as I’m aware, it’s not in DSM5 or any other diagnostic manual), partly because I generally score less highly for autistic sensory sensitivity than for other autistic traits, and partly perhaps because I felt the term is open to abuse (it doesn’t help that the people who introduced me to the term eventually got angry with me in a way that I felt was a massive over-reaction on their part).

However, the term keeps coming up, so I looked today at some sites about Highly Sensitive People.  I do seem to have a lot of symptoms, even though those symptoms seem to vary from site to site, and often seem like possible symptoms of other underlying issues.  It does still seem like an untested idea.  Plus, I’m wary of adding another diagnosis to my list.  But maybe it’s true.

I just want to be “normal,” whatever that is.  Orthodox Judaism I suppose has a clearer definition of “normal” to the wider world, although I’m not sure that that was really an attraction to me.  The reverse, if anything; I was afraid of losing my individuality.  However, it turned out that I couldn’t cope with it anyway, at least not in the moderate Haredi world.  Either my depression, autism and social anxiety got in the way or I would have to give up too much stuff that was important to me, in terms of non-frum or non-Jewish friends, books and DVDs.  I still hope that one day I’ll find a Modern Orthodox shul that fits.

Talking of Jewish things, the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost, but nothing to do with the Christian Pentecost) starts tonight.  This has become a sort of favourite festival by default to me, as there are no special mitzvot (at least while the Temple remains un-re-built), so nothing triggers religious OCD, social anxiety or depression unlike almost all other Jewish festivals.

The custom is to stay up all night in shul (synagogue) studying Torah.  This can be fun, if interesting topics are chosen.  My shul seems to have a habit of alternating interesting and boring topics in different years (one year it was about the laws of separating mixtures on Shabbat (the Sabbath), which was about as interesting at 2.00 am as it sounds), and social anxiety can creep in at shul both in the study sessions, if I’m supposed to ask or answer questions, and especially in the refreshment breaks, where I don’t know who to talk to and generally stand around avoiding people.

Anyway, it’s irrelevant this year.  It’s just a custom, not a mitzvah (commandment) and a kabbalistic one at that (I’m not so into kabbalah) so I won’t be doing it at home alone, although plenty of people will.  I might stay up a bit after dinner studying, but not all night.  I feel a bit guilty about that, but I feel I don’t have the stamina to study all night by myself, without others to study with or to share interesting topics.  My shul did send an online booklet to be printed off before Yom Tov, but it was geared to children studying with parents and was also too Haredi for me (e.g. the potted biography of Medieval scholar Rabbeinu Asher said he was very opposed to secular study, especially philosophy, but the biography of Rambam (died a few decades before Rabbeinu Asher was born) didn’t say that he was very much in favour of secular study, including philosophy, which in his day included a lot of what we would call science).

My shul is doing a pre-Shavuot thing on Zoom before Yom Tov (the festival) starts, but I doubt I’ll go as it looks like it’s mainly for children and I don’t like group Zoom events.

***

Today I woke exhausted and depressed again, and also achy.  I think I didn’t do a good enough warm up for my workout yesterday, or maybe it’s a long time since I used those muscles.  I feel really fuzzy-headed too, as if I still haven’t recovered from Monday, even though it’s now Thursday.  I went for a half-hour walk and worked for about an hour on my novel, writing over 600 words.  I’d like to write more, but am not sure I have the time or the head for it.

I’m going to post now instead of right before Yom Tov, just in case I can get the dopamine hit of a comment or two before Shavuot starts.  I haven’t got much planned for later anyway, just my usual pre-Yom Tov chores (Shavuot requires little extra preparation) and plugging away at my novel for as long as I feel able or have time for, whichever is the shorter.