COVID Purim (2)

There is an idea I heard the other day that Purim is the celebration of the end of the Jewish year. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is in the autumn, but Pesach (Passover) in a month’s time is also the new year (we have about four different new years for different things…). So this is the celebration that we got through another year. It feels more like New Year’s Eve than the introspection and hours in shul (synagogue) of Rosh Hashanah.

This year, Purim also marks a year of COVID. During Purim last year, COVID was around, but no one was taking it seriously and a lot of people got sick. Some died. Now we’ve gone a complete circuit through the Jewish calendar with COVID. The thought of doing a second Pesach in lockdown in four weeks’ time is making me feel a bit queasy, but that’s where we are.

Despite struggling to fall asleep and waking several times in the night, I managed to get up at 6.30am for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) at shul (synagogue). We were divided into small groups in different parts of the building again for social distancing purposes. The Megillah reading was good and I didn’t have any worries about missing words.

After breakfast, Dad and I drove around the area giving friends (his and Mum’s as well as mine) mishloach manot (gifts of food). Then we had a rather hurried seudah (festive meal). By this stage I just wanted to crash. Between six hours interrupted sleep and autistic social burnout, I was pretty exhausted and just wanted to crash, even though this year’s Purim was very low key. I watched Babylon 5 for a bit, the season one finale Chrysalis. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator, executive producer and chief writer on Babylon 5 spoke about “Wham” episodes, the ones with major irreversible plot twists and the like. Chrysalis is the first Wham episode, chronologically, and feels like the first episode to be clearly part of a much bigger story even if you didn’t know about the projected five year narrative (which I didn’t on original transmission). Re-watching the series in order, it feels like the start of what I wanted to re-watch rather than just the introduction to the characters and set-up. Not that season one didn’t have some good episodes, because it did, but that they feel a bit disconnected from the plot that runs through series two to four (season five also feels a bit disconnected, but that’s another story). So that refreshed me a bit.

Now I’m trying to move into Shabbat mode, and trying to avoid the slightly hollow, “Did I really grow from this festival?” feeling that I get sometimes at the end of festivals. I don’t feel that I did grow, but then again I’m not sure if it would be noticeable if I had grown, least of all to me. I suspect that real personal growth, like real happiness, is something that happens when you aren’t staring at it, trying to will it into existence.

Days Like Crazy Paving

Unsurprisingly, I woke up late after yesterday.  I wasn’t particularly depressed, but I was exhausted and spent a long time reading online trying to find energy and then struggling to get dressed and daven (pray).  I actually had to eat not just breakfast, but also lunch, before I had enough energy to daven.

My main achievement for the day was going for an after dark run.  I was worried about how this would go, as I was feeling tired just from my warm up, but it was OK.  I do worry a bit about running after dark.  I’m not the most aware person and even when walking I can step into the road without looking or cross a driveway without noticing the car reversing out, and when jogging I have music and the distraction of feeling exhausted.  I do worry I’m going to be in an accident one day, running or even walking, and it will be my fault (I’ve had a couple of close calls already).  Plus there are trip hazards running after dark.  Still, I survived.  And the post-run positive brain chemicals flowed for a bit.

I tried to work on my novel a bit, making the plan more detailed, but I didn’t get far because I was depressed as well as exhausted from running.  I have mentioned that I’m more of an intuitive writer than I expected.  To be honest, I feel I’m more of an intuitive writer than I really feel comfortable with.  I have an idea of the main events in every chapter and some chapters are plotted in quite a bit of detail, but so much seems to be being left for the writing.  I’m not sure why.  Some of it is not wanting to set things in stone, but let the novel grow organically, but I think some of it is a genuine inability to plot properly or perhaps even laziness.  It worries me.  I think of myself as a meticulous planner, although I’ve come to realise in recent months that I’m a very bad planner or at least very bad at sticking to plans, but I feel worried that I will suddenly run out of petrol mid-story, so to speak.

I’ll try to return to the story plan in the coming days.  I also have to start the proofreading job I said I would do for a friend and start planning for my new job.  Plus the usual things: pray, study Torah, exercise…  (more on this below).  All I did today was the run, and a little bit of work on the novel.  I didn’t even get up to ten minutes of Torah study.

I had dinner with my parents, which was not ideal, because I was stressed.  I was somewhat worried about my book, I was exhausted and hungry and a bit bad-tempered because of that, plus I didn’t really feel like eating as a family; I really just wanted to vegetate in front of the TV.  My Dad was making small talk and my autistic brain struggles with that at the best of times.  The autistic brain goes, “Why are you asking me about my run in such detail?  What can it mean to you?  And even assuming that you genuinely want to know the answer, I can’t remember what happened when I was running.  That was a few tasks ago.  I can only focus on one task at a time!”  So that didn’t go too well, although we didn’t have a blazing row or anything, just a general feeling of tension.  I got soup down my polo shirt too.

And that was it for the day, really.  I felt too exhausted and depressed to do anything else.  I watched half a Bond film (Licence to Kill), but it was too uninteresting for me to watch the whole thing in one go.  I think that James Bond, like Doctor Who, is better fun, even if slightly silly.  I think a lot of fans of both would disagree, but there you go.

***

Ashley Leia asked on my previous post, “if the frum ideal is for adult men to devote almost all day to Torah study and davening, how does anyone avoid feeling inadequate?”  I think it’s worth answering this here.

It’s only in a subset of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, the most extreme part, that people believe that literally all day should be devoted to Torah study (with no paid employment).  This mostly happens in Israel for reasons that have more to do with politics than religion (it’s connected with avoiding the draft for the Israeli army out of a fear that the army is a secularising influence).  In my type of community there’s a more nebulous idea that all available free time should be used for Torah study.  This allows paid work, but it also allows a degree of relaxation time, provided it’s taken with the intent of returning to Torah study refreshed (rather than because I want to watch TV or I’m too lazy to study).

I suspect that there are some people at my shul (synagogue) who don’t do much religious study, although I haven’t asked them and it could be I’m making assumptions based on my own preconceptions of the type of people they are or misunderstandings of things they’ve said.  On the other hand, there are definitely people in my shul who get up at 5.00am to get in an hour of Gemarah chevruta (paired study of Talmud) before Shacharit (Morning Prayers) and paid work.  And in between are people who study Mishnah for an hour on the train into work or the like.  I’m assuming most of these people are able to live with their consciences and don’t feel seriously inadequate i.e. they all think they are doing “enough,” for their own values of “enough” – which may not be exactly the same as other people’s value of “enough.”

I guess the problem for me is that this is fairly nebulous, and I’m not good at nebulous, probably for reasons that have as much to do with autistic black and white thinking as low self-esteem or depression.  In some ways, living in the ultra-Haredi “no work” environment would be easier, because at least I would have a clear ideal to work towards, even if I would find it impossible.  I don’t know how much study (or prayer, although the boundaries there are clearer) is “enough” particularly when I’m not able to do a consistent amount from day to day.  Some days I can manage an hour, which is probably what a lot of people in my shul are doing every day, but other days, because of depression or simply lack of time (which is in part also due to depression, to be honest), I only manage ten minutes and it’s hard to feel that something that was not enough one day can be enough the other day.

***

I came across an interesting thing today that is somewhat relevant to this.  Giles Fraser is a Church of England clergyman and one of my favourite writers on UnHerd.com.  He tends to write a lot about theology and philosophy.  He writes here:

The word they use in theological college about the process of “becoming who you are” is formation. In this context, formation is achieved by acclimatising oneself to a tradition that stands over and against one’s individual choices. Indeed, it is only by recognising that one is situated within a given set of values that precede who we are that we are enabled to make the very choices that have come to define adult responsibility.

I feel very much that I need the Orthodox Jewish tradition as a set of values that precede my choices, even if my choices are not always the ones that the tradition would dictate.  There probably would be less of a disconnect if I was in a Modern Orthodox community rather than a moderate Haredi one, but that’s not really an available option at the moment.  I suppose I feel at least I’m in dialogue with tradition, even if I can’t fully follow it.  I want to choose with a tradition rather than against it, to find my place within a tradition rather than to create myself ex nihilo.

Is this rationalisation after the event?  Possibly.  I thought that a commenter on my previous post suggested I give up religion; she was actually suggesting I give up my volunteering opportunity, but I misunderstood and it got me thinking about what religion adds to my life.  I can’t really imagine what my life would be like without Judaism.  I would lose the things that give me structure on non-work days, as well as my only regular in-person social contact.  I don’t know if I could cope with the guilt, or the feeling that I’ve lost something.  I would lack meaning and purpose, inasmuch as I even have them now.  I would feel cut off from my ancestors, which would be a big thing for me.  Would I be happier if I wasn’t frum?  I don’t know.  Quite possibly, but I don’t think happiness is everything, to be honest, nor something I can really aspire to for long periods with my poor mental health.  If I’m staying religious, it would be better if I had a stronger feeling that God loves me or if I had more support and acceptance from my community, but that’s not really an option right now.

Lately I’ve been reading Genesis: Creation to Covenant by Rabbi Tzvi Grumet, which is a literary critical analysis of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), based on close reading.  One of the main things I’ve taken from this is Rabbi Grumet’s idea that the biblical characters grow.  I knew that already on some level (it’s most obvious for Yosef (Joseph) and David both of whom change a lot), but he really shows at great length that Avraham (Abraham) doesn’t always understand God, that Yaakov (Jacob) has to learn how to be devious, but also how not to be too devious and so on.  I don’t agree with all of his arguments, particularly his presentation of God making mistakes, but I think it’s true that Bereshit presents us with a God who seems to make mistakes, even if it’s with a big kavyachol (“If it were possible” – Talmudic language for saying something about God that isn’t theologically the case, but is how something seems to us).  It’s reassured me a bit that growth is allowed and I don’t have to get everything right first time, which is very much something I struggle with.

***

I forgot to mention my Chanukah presents yesterday: the complete DVD box set of Star Trek: Voyager and some dark chocolate coins from my parents and the DVD of Darkest Hour (which I missed when it was in the cinema, to my annoyance) from my sister and brother-in-law.  I had been agonising for ages over whether to buy the Voyager box set.  I watched it on TV when it was first broadcast in the UK and while it wasn’t as good as the earlier Star Treks, or the more recent Discovery, it was entertaining enough.  Then the price of the DVD suddenly dropped and it was within budget for Chanukah (we don’t do surprise presents in my family, rather we ask for things or even buy them and get other family members to pay us back).  At any rate, it should be good escapism, particularly as I’m getting a bit tired of James Bond and could do with slowing down my viewing of those films.

 

Thoughts from Rebbe Nachman

The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy: Timeless Wisdom from a Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, aside from having the type of title that gives a cataloguer like me a headache, is a collection of short thoughts from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), who is very important to me.  I’m slightly suspicious of the book, as most of the thoughts seem to be sentences taken from much longer teachings and I wonder what the full context was, but I’ve read the book twice and flicked through it many times.  I’m currently reading two pages a day.  Each page has one or maybe two thoughts on it, so reading them take mere seconds, but I was hoping I might connect with Torah here when I seem unable to do it in other books.  To be honest, nothing much has clicked, until today.  These were today’s quotes:

Go carefully: Spiritual growth must proceed slowly and steadily.  Too often we want to improve ourselves and our relationships so quickly that we make ourselves frustrated and confused.

Never insist that everything go exactly your way, even in matters spiritual.

Believe that none of the effort that you put into coming closer to God is ever wasted – even if in the end you don’t achieve what you are striving for.

These spoke to me.  I have a tendency to push myself too fast, although at the moment I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere at all.  And I do want things to go my way spiritually, even if not in other ways (although I really want them to go my way there too I suppose).  But I think it’s the last one that resonates most.  I wonder sometimes if the effort I have put into trying to be frum (religious) was worth it – not that I really want to be non-religious, but that I feel I haven’t achieved any kind of spiritual growth at all.  I hope it is not wasted.  Certainly in this world I don’t feel that it has led directly to good results, except inasmuch as it might have prevented me from adopting elements of secular Western millennial society that I might have adopted and been the worse for, but even then I’m not sure what the practical outcome would have been, whether I would have done those things if I had had the option.  I just hope the effort I put in was justified, given how much of my life I’ve dedicated to it.  It’s not about reward so much as feeling that I haven’t wasted my life on an impossible dream.  That I’ve managed to do something with my life, because at the moment most of the time it doesn’t seem that way.

Mostly Bad News

I had a therapy session today to discuss whether to continue therapy.  My therapist says that she was recommending ending therapy less because I made ‘wrong’ decision, more because she felt therapy was not helping me and I was moving backwards into a child state that she thought I had moved away from.  I agreed that I’m not sure if therapy is really helping, although with psychodynamic psychotherapy it’s notoriously difficult to measure any kind of improvement.  I had been wondering whether to try a new therapist with a different approach (although I don’t know what) or a frum (religious) Jewish therapist who might be better placed to help me navigate the Orthodox Jewish community.

Contrary to what my therapist said, I do feel that I am still trying to push outwards, albeit that it is often two steps forwards and one back because, as I’ve said before, the harder I push at the world, the harder the world pushes back at me.  My therapist did at least feel that I’m a lot better than I was when I started seeing her six years ago, which is true.

We decided to leave things for a bit.  We were breaking for a month or so anyway because of my holiday and then her holiday, so we decided to meet again after the break either to discuss how to continue or to do a proper end of therapy meeting.

That was fairly positive.  More problematic was what happened when I tried to get a repeat prescription of my medication.  My antidepressant, clomipramine, was not available in the dosage I take at four different pharmacists, due to undisclosed supply problems (the supplier says there is a problem, but not what it is).  I take 75mg  in the morning and the same in the evening, as a 25mg tablet with a 50mg one.  Neither 25mg or 50mg tablets are currently available.  10mg tablets are available, but you can’t take 75mg with 10mg tablets.  In theory I could split it 70 : 80, if the doctor prescribed it, but that would involve taking fifteen tablets a day even before my other tablets (four psychiatric medications, one hay fever tablet and four vitamin supplements).  I don’t really want to have to take twenty-four tablets a day and I certainly don’t want to have to take all of those to America.

Whatever happens, I have to get a new prescription from the doctor.  My GP’s practice seem to arrange their appointment system to prevent people from seeing the doctor (seriously, I think they told one of my parents that they deliberately make it almost impossible for you to get a quick appointment so that you will have to book one in two or three weeks, by which time you may not need it any more and cancel), but I have a note on my record to say I can book an emergency appointment within twenty-four hours if I need to (in case I’m suicidal).  I thought it was legitimate to use that here, as I need to sort this ASAP as I’m running out of meds and am away from Sunday, but it turns out the note is not on my file any more.  I guess it gets taken off automatically after a while.  Which is problematic as I was getting suicidal last week and nearly needed to use it.  Anyway, the receptionist booked me an appointment for tomorrow morning, but I did feel a bit like a liar, or that I was stuck in an Orwellian world where I was suddenly an unperson.

I suspect the clomipramine may be out of production, as I believe it’s rarely prescribed these days (it’s an old generation of drug), which is a problem for me, as it’s about the only antidepressant that has ever done much for me.  Plus now I may have to go cold turkey over my holiday, which will not be fun.  Maybe it’s just as well that it looks like most of the people I wanted to see while I’m in New York aren’t able to see me.

My OCD is still a bit worse, although not as bad as it was eighteen months ago.  I think I’ve got it under control, but it’s frightening that it can come out of nowhere, both the kosher food OCD and the pure O (obsession) OCD.  I’m trying to remember the CBT coping strategies that I learnt for dealing with the OCD.  I think can control it reasonably well these days (better than the depression or the social anxiety, anyway), but it is worrying whenever it returns, especially as some pure O thoughts never really go away completely.  It just makes me feel that I’ll be messed up forever.

I know the OCD comes partly from stress and upheaval, but partly from anxiety and guilt about my sexuality.  That I feel I have to completely suppress my sexual feelings, which is not easy and probably not healthy.  I guess that probably feels into the depression too.  Unlike some religions, Judaism is strongly opposed to celibacy, but has no answers for what to do about sexuality outside of marriage other than “Get married young (or remarry quickly if you find yourself divorced or widowed).”  It has no answers for someone like me, who is a weirdo freak who no one will marry and who in any case (as I said yesterday) has no contacts in the frum (religious) community to set me up on dates and no confidence for online dating or singles events and certainly not for meeting women casually and asking them out.  I’m just an communal outlier no one really cares about.

I’ve been feeling more lonely.  I feel that things are never going to work out romantically with E., but I can’t see them working with anyone else either.  I find it hard to believe anyone could be as understanding and gentle with me as E. was and even if someone was, I can’t imagine she would be more forgiving of my quirks, flaws and mental health issues (and consequent financial straits) than E.  This post I saw today spoke about the power of love to heal mental health issues, but it’s not really something I have experienced much of, or feel likely to in the future.  E. was supportive, but ultimately couldn’t cope with my issues (for legitimate reasons); my only other relationship ended partly because my girlfriend expected me to deal with her (undiagnosed) issues, but ignored me when my depression was bad.

It’s hard to know what I want from a relationship.  I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be in a stable, loving long-term relationship with someone or to live with someone other than my immediate family, as neither of my relationships reached that point (one lasted eight months or nine months, but was interrupted a couple of times by my girlfriend saying she wasn’t sure she really liked me and could I leave her life for a few weeks while she decided what she felt; my relationship with E. only lasted two months, long-distance the whole time).  Being a virgin, I can’t really imagine what a physical relationship would be like either, though it is perhaps a little easier to try to imagine, though what I imagine may bear no relation to what it would be like.  I suppose what I can imagine is little things, gentle touch, support, shared jokes, feeling comfortable together.  It’s hard to imagine that happening again though and certainly not long-term, as both times it began to happen in the past, the relationship broke down because my partner either got scared or took advantage of the situation.

I feel I’m not coping with living with my parents again either.  It’s partly that their behaviour can trigger the OCD, but also just their habits and interactions can be difficult for me to deal with, partly from depression or autism, but partly from just different personalities.  It’s mostly trivial things that I shouldn’t really complain about (I guess a lot of people develop annoying quirks as they get older), but (a) it’s hard to live with people who have annoying habits when I didn’t choose to live with them and (b) it makes me feel a bad son/person/Jew who would never be able to live with a wife and kids.  Though sometimes I wonder if I am justified in getting annoyed about some of these things.  It is hard to know, or to know what I can actually do about them.  I know I can’t change them, but at the moment, I’m pushing myself to my maximum and I don’t feel I can change myself to be more patient either.

I guess that struggle to imagine things getting better is how I feel about a lot of things right now.  I try to put a brave face on things and for a while I can even genuinely be positive, as I was with my therapist earlier.  But sooner or later, the pessimistic voices start again.  “Do you know how few people with treatment-resistant depression achieve sustained recovery?” (fewer than half, apparently).  “Do you really think you can fit in to any workplace with all your issues?”  “How could anyone ever care for a freak like you – and if she did, how would you actually meet her and talk to her in the first place?”  As I’ve said before, CBT didn’t work for me because it tries to get the depressed person to find evidence against their negative perceptions of themselves and the world, but the evidence seems to indicate that my perceptions of the world are all actually true (my self-perceptions perhaps less so).

Last Temptation

I’ve been thinking about a couple of quotes or images from things today and how they reflect my current mood.  I vaguely remember a quote from somewhere to the extent that sex is like water; if you have it, you don’t think about it, but if you don’t have it, you can’t think of anything else.  You can take it from this thirty-five (nearly) year old virgin that the second part of this at least is very true.  I suspect the same applies to love as to sex, but here things get nebulous for me… I have strong feelings for E. and I know she has them for me but we’re struggling to work out how to deal with our differences.  It’s the geographical differences as much as the religious ones that are the problem, and the fact that neither of us is ever likely to be a high earner (isn’t money one of the biggest sources of relationship discontent?).  As we were both clear that we were dating seriously, with an eye to marriage in the relatively short-term, not just for ‘fun,’ we’ve decided to back off a bit for a while and try to work out how a long-term relationship could work, although we’re still in contact multiple times a day (which is a lot for an extreme introvert like me), just not so flirtatiously.  It’s hard, though, and worrying to think things might not work out, as I really like E., and I think she likes me, and in many ways I think we are well-matched, if we can find a way to get around the one or two big problems.  (She’s OK with me saying all this, by the way.)

 

The other quotes are inevitably Doctor Who-based, but really spiral out from here.  It doesn’t help that I’m doing a lot of extremely tedious work at the moment in my job which leaves me lots of spare brain capacity for thinking about E. and about my life in general.

“Being without becoming – an ontological absurdity!” is probably not the most pretentious line ever in an episode of Doctor Who, but it comes close.  I feel the reverse at the moment, that I am always becoming and never arriving or just being, whether it’s my romantic life, my job or my religious development.  My love life has only twice reached the stage of an actual relationship and never got any further than that, while I’m probably better at my job than I was a year ago, but still nowhere near as good as I should be.  As for my religious development, I still feel stagnant, but as I have related recently, it’s hard at the moment to want to grow, when so much of my religious life just seems to be painful and where I know I will never be a good Jew or a holy person.  It’s hard knowing that I could remove some of my problems with E. (not all, but some) by becoming less frum (religious) and not wanting to do that, but at the same time, finding fewer and fewer reasons not to do that.  I’ve already told myself I might or even would compromise on some things that a few months ago I would have thought were non-negotiable.  Some of this is just the reality of being in a real relationship as opposed to a thought-experiment (which is what most of my previous relationships were), seeing the sacrifices E. has made for me and wanting to reciprocate, but some of it is probably disillusion.  I do increasingly feel a fraud in shul (synagogue) and shiur (Bible class).  But I’m scared that if I become less frum now, five years down the line, when the infatuation has worn off, I might want to become more frum again, with worse results that staying frum now.

Which I suppose leads to the third image, “The Last Temptation of Doctor Who” scene from the story Human Nature/The Family of Blood*, whereby the Doctor, having wiped his own memory and hidden on Earth disguised as a human schoolteacher, John Smith, is suddenly confronted by the need to abandon his human life, and his girlfriend, and resume his life as a Time Lord for the greater good and sees images of the life he could lead, being married, having children and grandchildren and generally being happy, tempting him away from doing the right thing.  I suppose in the past I’ve consciously or unconsciously purloined those images for myself, telling myself that I’m giving up my happiness (not that I have a choice) out of a nebulous feeling that God wants me to be miserable, to convince myself there is some reason behind my depression, that some good will come out of it, but never has that happiness felt both nearer and further than right now.

* Probably the best story of David Tennant’s Doctorate.  That or Midnight.