The last two days of Pesach (Passover) went quite well. No real religious OCD-type anxiety, which was good. I went to shul (synagogue) every evening. Today I decided not to wear a coat, as it was still quite warm in the afternoon, only to discover that we were praying in the outside area so we didn’t have to wear masks. I like not wearing a mask, but when we finished Minchah (Afternoon Service) and had a shiur (religious class) before Ma’ariv (Evening Service) it got cold quickly, especially once the sun went down.
I left soon after shul finished, not really staying to help tidy up as I normally would do, partly because I’m not sure where things go in our new socially distanced layout, partly because I wanted to get home and help Mum and Dad clear up the Pesach things (which normally takes several hours). I was pretty tired, though, and felt I didn’t do much to help and spent more time eating than tidying, although Mum and Dad said I did help significantly. 🤷♂️
Communicating in emoji rather than words indicates how burnt out I feel. I wish I knew what tires me out so much. I struggled to sleep last night, but slept through most of the morning and napped in the afternoon after a walk. I just seem to be tired a lot of the time and can’t function in mornings at all. Is it really autistic burnout? 🤷♂️again.
I enjoyed most of Pesach, but I again have the feeling that my chag (festival) lacked meaning and spirituality. Did I really meditate on the meaning of freedom? Did I really come closer to God? I feel like I didn’t. Do some people really manage this? I don’t know again, and I’m scared to ask anyone. This is when I feel like I struggle from not having many frum (religious) friends to talk to. Sometimes I wish I was an FFB (frum from birth i.e. raised as a religious person) who could take the basics of the festival for granted and concentrate on the deeper meaning. Or a BT (ba’al teshuvah, ethnic Jew who became religious later on in life) who had a major inspirational experience at some point to reflect on when feeling distant from God, to re-energise. I just became religious because I felt guilty for not being religious, which is probably exactly the sort of thing I would do, engage in a major life-change from guilt and obligation rather than inspiration and then try to keep it going. But I feel like I’m immune to inspiration. Even now I’m apparently over the depression (for now), I don’t seem to have much of an inspirable soul, at least not with the things that are supposed to inspire Orthodox Jews.
Possibly I assume everyone else is doing a lot better than me when that is not the case.
I have a date with PIMOJ tomorrow and should go to bed, but I want to watch TV for a bit to unwind or I doubt I will sleep easily. I’m going to try not to catch up with my missed blog posts from the weekend, part of an attempt to be online less. I skimmed down my friends list to see I wasn’t missing anything important, and I admit I read one or two posts, but I’m going to try not to read the rest. Sorry if I missed your opus, it’s nothing personal!
I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.
Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.
It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.
Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.
Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.
I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.
I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.
I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.
I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.
I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.
In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.
Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.
All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.
Given the disruption to my sleep pattern lately, perhaps it’s unsurprising I struggled to fall asleep last night. As I don’t like drinking milk, normally I would eat porridge to make myself drowsy, but porridge is not kosher for Pesach (approved for Passover). I tried eating Pesach cereal with boiled water added to warm the milk, but it didn’t taste great. In the end I sat up watching Babylon 5 to relax, which may have been the problem in the first place – a lack of passive recreation can keep me awake.
I was a bit burnt out on waking. I actually managed to get up earlier than I expected, given that I fell asleep around 4am, getting up at 10ish, but I went back to bed after breakfast and got dressed slowly after that.
I spent much of the day enjoying not doing very much after the busy weeks before Pesach. I did a bit over half an hour of Torah study and spent forty minutes or so writing a devar Torah (Torah thought) that I’m not too happy with. I’ve used some of the ideas before, plus it’s mostly my own chiddush (original insight) which always makes me worry that (a) I might be completely wrong or (b) people might demand something more rigorously rooted in the traditional sources.
I went for a run too. It wasn’t a good one; after nine minutes I came back home to change from tracksuit bottoms to shorts because it was a lot hotter than I expected for late March. Then I got a headache when I restarted, but insisted on forcing myself to continue to 5K as usual. I was worried for a while that I was going to be sick, but a combination of painkillers, cooling strip and a load of water (in case of dehydration) and crisps (in case of loss of salt) seemed to help get rid of hit fairly quickly in comparison with some previous exercise migraines, but it came back later, although not as bad.
I wonder if I have a lot of undischarged anxiety at the moment, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way Pesach ramps up my anxiety levels. It was one of my reasons for going for a run. There may be some unconscious guilt too. Related to this, lately I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for me to think positively about myself, why I see it as morally wrong. I think I feel that I’m not good enough to deserve to think positively about myself; that even if I have good points, they are far outnumbered and outweighed by the bad ones; that thinking positively about myself just makes me look down on other people; and that thinking positively about myself stops my personal growth. I’m not sure what to do about this. There does seem to be a part of myself that thinks I’m one bad decision away from becoming a serial killer and that I have to beat myself up the whole time to (somehow) prevent this.
I’m still wondering what to do about my novel, currently sitting in its third draft and waiting for a friend to read it and give feedback. (Despite the title of this post, I’m not currently writing it.) I think my mistake was thinking I could write mainstream literary fiction. I’m beginning to feel I’m more likely to find my voice as a writer of middlebrow pulp fiction, which is what I read (and watch) a lot. Or maybe I’m just not a good writer.
I want to write Jewish fantasy/science fiction/mild horror, which is not a very crowded genre to work in, although I don’t know how many publishers would be interested if there aren’t many readers. My audience would be non-religious Jews and non-Jews interested in Judaism, or at least interested in fantasy and not averse to a Jewish setting and details (like Faye Kellerman’s detective novels set in the Jewish community). I don’t want to preach or go down the Narnia route exactly, but I’d like to deal with some of the questions that face contemporary Jews (or face me) in an exciting setting.
Another day that got away from me…
I think my negative self-talk is back. I think it went away, or more likely reduced without entirely going away, over the last few weeks as I felt more stable, but it seems to be back again now. Some “I’m useless, I hate myself” thoughts, and guilt feelings that are objectively probably out of proportion to anything I might have done, but it’s hard to be sure.
In Morality, Rabbi Lord Sacks says that Maslow and Rogers, the psychologists who did more than anyone to put self-esteem at the centre of healthy psychology, actually both went off the idea late in life. Maslow did research that suggested that people with high self-esteem were more likely to take advantage of other people in various ways, while Rogers switched from self-esteem to self-discipline as a key character trait of psychologists he wanted to employ at his institute. Although I think there is probably room for me to have more self-esteem without ending up taking advantage of other people.
I went to bed very late last night, feeling a bit agitated. I slept through the morning again and struggled to get going, despite knowing that I had a lot I wanted to do today. I just feel that my life is a mess and don’t know how to change it. I feel like I try to do the right thing, but God constantly puts me in situations where I can’t. I know that sounds like excuses, but I don’t know how else to describe what happens to me. I know when I choose to do something that is perhaps against Jewish law or Jewish ethics and I know when I feel pushed into something by events or feeling overwhelmed.
I went back to bed after breakfast. This was after 1pm because I got up so late. I just couldn’t face the day. It took ages to get dressed. I had too many negative thoughts about myself and my future. I wonder if I will ever get my life in order, whatever that might mean (career, family, feeling at peace with myself on some level etc.). Just paralysed thinking/worrying.
I guess this is olanzapine withdrawal. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to get haloperidol (the replacement mood stabiliser); hopefully by the end of the week, but I’m at the mercy of the NHS bureaucracy.
I made myself work on my novel for an hour as leaving it alone was just worrying me. I actually wrote nearly 1,000 words, without much procrastination, which I guess shows I can write fluently if I know what I’m doing and it’s not too emotionally draining for me (this bit wasn’t autobiographical or dark). Then I went for a walk. I replied to some emails too and filled in a form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits (which I think are about to be stopped now I’m in work, even though it’s only part-time work). I guess I did quite a bit (I fitted in a brief call with PIMOJ and a little bit of Torah study too), but not as much as I would have liked.
I had fluctuating depression and anxiety during the day. I know it’s partly triggered by coming off the olanzapine, but I feel I have real things to worry about too. At the moment I’m mainly worried about my relationship with PIMOJ for various reasons I can’t really discuss here. It’s hard to know what to think about it sometimes, there are so many different thoughts and feelings, so much that could go wrong. I want to live in the present with it, but that’s hard when COVID is restricting what we can do in the present so much.
PIMOJ wants me to live in the present too (she very much does this) and to accept that God loves me and thinks I’m good enough, but I have a lot of psychological resistance to these ideas. She suggested I should try to see the spiritual beyond the physical. I don’t know if it’s depression or autism or low self-esteem or just me, but I find that hard. Almost impossible, really. It’s the type of thing that makes me wonder if I’m really cut out to be frum (religious Jewish). Or if PIMOJ is right for me. I try to tell myself I thought we were good for each other last week and it’s just olanzapine withdrawal that is making me doubt it now, but it’s hard to believe sometimes. She is very different to me in outlook, very positive and spiritual. I don’t think she understands my depressions and anxieties at all, they’re completely alien to her. Do I need her to understand? I’m not sure. I wonder what it would be like if we were living together and I had a few days like the last few days. I’m in full-blown, “I’m going to be lonely and miserable forever” mode today, even though I know that in the worst case scenario I can go back on olanzapine and be tired all the time and over-weight, but less miserable. I’m telling myself not to make any major decisions until I’m stable, but it’s easy to catastrophise.
I have a list of birthdays and anniversaries for family and friends and I copy the dates into my diary each year, alongside reminders of when to buy cards where relevant (yes, I prefer dead tree format despite the effort). Looking at the list today, I see so many friends I am no longer friends with, mostly because they got angry with me, often for reasons I did not understand. Sometimes there were complicated romantic feelings going on in one or other direction. It makes me sceptical of my ability to manage friendships, let alone relationships.
I can see that my unhelpful coping strategies are back. At the very least, I’m unable to reduce my junk food intake soon or eating cereal late at night. Not that I eat so much junk in absolute terms, but my medication means whatever I eat goes straight to my waist, and it’s hard to keep up with exercise (a) while working, (b) in the winter and (c) in lockdown.
I’m struggling with relaxation at the moment. America During the Cold War is interesting (especially to see how much of our contemporary political crisis parallels that of the 1970s), but is proving a slow read as I’m not really in the mood for non-fiction at the moment. I am trying to decide whether to switch to fiction. Similarly, The Sandbaggers on DVD is excellent, but dark and even nihilistic, so I’ve been watching Doctor Who instead recently. I re-watched The God Complex today – an under-rated story, in my opinion, with a positive presentation of religion that is rare for TV nowadays, let alone Doctor Who.
Wow, I feared that when the American Empire started to go, it wouldn’t go peacefully, but I didn’t expect a mob bearing the Confederate Flag storming Capitol Hill just yet. Crazy. Mind you, I was reading about the protests of the 1960s on my lunch break (civil rights, anti-war) and I think the scale and perhaps also the intensity of unrest greater then than now. It’s just that Twitter and 24 hour news coverage make it more visible now. Compare Capitol Hill with rioters storming the Pentagon in 1967. On the other hand, civil rights and Vietnam bubbled away for years, so who knows how things will look in 2030? The culture of the sixties was definitely better though.
Back here in London…
I had a lot of anxiety again today. I am going through an anxious time, but it occurred to me that I’m coming off olanzapine, which is probably making the anxiety worse. This morning on the Tube in to work, I was too anxious to do much Torah study as I usually do. I tried to practise mindful acceptance of my anxiety and guilt feelings. It helped a bit. The anxiety went away a bit during the morning as I was busy at work, but came back in the afternoon as there wasn’t much for me to do. Sometimes it felt like borderline religious OCD (anxiety that I’ve done/will do something religiously wrong). This leads to a feeling that everything I do to try and move my life on (careers, relationships) just provokes guilt for not being perfect. I try to tell myself it’s irrational guilt, but the slightest mishap (and mishaps are inevitable) just sets me to thinking that I’m being punished by God and that worse is in store for me. I am not sure how to cure myself of this dynamic.
I think I tend to see life very much in black and white terms (which is a classic autistic perspective), but specifically in black and white moral terms. It’s a kind of scrupulosity (religious OCD) whereby I want to be morally perfect and see any moral imperfection as heinous. This leads to things like me applying for jobs that are not right for me because I feel “ought” to do so. My moral integrity and honesty is a big part of my self-esteem (insofar as I have much self-esteem), so it’s hard to challenge it.
Similarly, in terms of dating, I’ve partly internalised a frum (religious Jewish) model of dating which sees the dating process in extremely moralised and black and white terms (e.g. avoiding platonic friendships with the opposite sex; no dating before being ready to marry, in terms of having a settled career and mental health; pre-screening dates to only date people with shared values; avoiding long-term relationships before marriage). I do this even though this model has not worked for me. This leads me to feel that everything I do in dating is wrong and that my dating difficulties are a punishment from God. However, I am not sufficiently integrated into the frum community to really be able to date that way even if I wanted to do so.
Both PIMOJ and my therapist struggled to understand yesterday how I can feel that I’ve never fitted into or been accepted by the Orthodox world and yet still want to be a part of it. I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question myself. I believe in Orthodox Judaism, even if I’m not really able to live the right sort of life, practically, that would enable me to function in the community. That’s the best answer I have. I know that many people would, if not consciously then at least unconsciously, change their beliefs for ones that fitted better with a possible or desirable lifestyle. That has just never happened with me, for whatever reason.
As a side-note on black and white morality, I’ve encountered quite a number of rabbis over the years who claimed to be very badly behaved in their youth. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Are they exaggerating to try to connect with young people? Does a disobedient, questioning, cast of mind lend itself well to Talmudic study? Probably. Can the uncontrollable energy of the boisterous child be focused into the superhuman amounts of emotional energy needed by the congregational rabbi? Possibly. Sometimes I feel weirdly that if only I had been worse-behaved at school, I might be in a much better situation today. It will be weird if I go to Heaven and they tell me that I was too well-behaved to earn much reward.
Speaking of which, PIMOJ and I streamed (separately) Soul, the latest Pixar film, about a musician who dies, but wants to come back to Earth, and is set to mentor a soul that is resisting being born. It was amusing enough, but I found it hard to concentrate on and triggered a lot of uncomfortable thoughts about my not enjoying life or having a clear purpose (I want to be a writer, but worry I won’t make it). I couldn’t really explain to PIMOJ that I want to enjoy the small moments of life, but all too often I can’t, and I can’t will that enjoyment into being, particularly not if it’s still an element of depression.
I’m not sure where I am today, emotionally. I had two big things going on, the pandemic and the autism assessment. Now there’s a third, potentially even bigger, and I am not coping well. I don’t want to talk about it here yet. Or rather I do want to talk about it, but I’m not sure that I should, so I won’t for now. Suffice to say that I went to bed late last night because I was dealing with a lot of anxious and self-critical thoughts. Then I couldn’t sleep, probably because I was over-tired and hadn’t done anything to relax. Then I overslept this morning and didn’t want to get up because of the anxiety. I eventually got up because my phone was ringing, but I didn’t get there in time and whoever they were, they didn’t leave a message and I didn’t recognise the number. Hopefully it was just a cold caller, but I worry it might have been something about the autism assessment, although I know it’s unlikely that they would contact me within twenty-four hours of the last assessment.
I’ve felt lately that I was getting ahold of my life, that I was making progress with work and writing and my relationship, that I was moving towards some kind of definitive autism diagnosis, and that I was feeling like depression and mental illness, while not “cured” (I don’t know that I will ever be “cured”), are less prominent in my life. I was even wondering if I should carry on blogging here, or blogging so regularly. What is the point of a mental health blog if my mental health is reasonable?
And then, WHAM! To be honest, I knew this would happen for some time, it just happened faster than I thought it would, and it hit me harder than I expected. I still can’t talk about what is actually happening except in the vaguest of terms, but I’ve been in a state of anxiety since the weekend, and I’m not sure if it’s going to change any time soon. I guess I’m just psychologically vulnerable to mental illness at times of stress, the way some people have reduced immunity and vulnerability to physical illness.
I was able to talk about it a lot in therapy today. We ended up speaking a lot about ideas of community, individuality, conformity and so on and particularly how these apply in the Orthodox Jewish community.
I spoke about feeling a burden at the moment, a bag full of guilt and critical voices from the community and who knows what else. I want to put the bag down, if only to breathe, but I can’t, I have to keep carrying it up the hill. How much of this is actually real (real guilt, real people criticising me) and how much is just in my head is hard to tell. I do feel, on some level, like I’m responsible for the world and that I’m judged to the minutest level of detail, in a way that no one (or no one other than a total tzaddik (saint)) is judged.
My therapist suggested there was anger there too, which is correct, but I’ve never known what to do with anger other than repress it, which is not good in the long-run and arguably leads to depression. I think in the summer, when our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbours were having lockdown-breaching prayer services in their garden three times a day, I wrote a letter, with no intention of sending it, saying how angry they made me. I think that helped somewhat, but my current anger seems too nebulous and undirected at the moment for that to be a viable strategy.
More surprisingly, I found myself suggesting that maybe on some level I like or need the friction with my community. I’m not entirely sure why I said this, but I suspect that I noted that I’ve spent two decades or more trying to be an Orthodox Jew and to “fit in” to the Orthodox community, but I’ve also spent two decades or more complaining (quietly) about the conformism, narrow-mindedness and bourgeois mentality that often operates in the Orthodox community, trying to not to be socialised out of my geekiness, my non-Jewish friends, the books I read. I guess I have a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” attitude to the Orthodox world.
I can see it with my novel. Sometimes I’m terrified about the backlash I might face for suggesting that domestic abuse exists in the Orthodox community and that the autistic and mentally ill are not well-catered for there, but other times I will admit to myself that I hope there is some controversy, that it “shakes things up a bit.”
It’s hard to come to terms with this, as I was a well-behaved child and I was the absolute most well-behaved, non-rebellious teenager imaginable. But here I am, worrying that I’m going to bring the Temple crashing down around me, Shimshon (Samson) style, without really wanting to do it, just feeling driven to it by loneliness and desperation, the longing for a place where I can be accepted by people who aren’t like me. I feel I should (“should” again) be able not to care what people think about me, but somehow I can’t.
I told PIMOJ I was anxious and she called. It was a difficult conversation, not least because it was late and I didn’t really want to speak, but I felt I should as she was concerned about me. It really did become apparent that there is a psychological difference between us, that she doesn’t care who does or doesn’t like her, whereas I want to be liked and accepted, something that I don’t think she really understood. I don’t think she understood why it matters to me if other Orthodox Jews reject me. I don’t think I really understand why it matters to me, to be honest. My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t care who liked me, but I find myself unable to find the switch to turn it off.
There was no volunteering today, but I was supposed to be doing some work from home and I got up later than I intended for that. I got the work done (stuffing envelopes and stamping them) as well as having therapy, but I didn’t get out for a walk. Add in the call from PIMOJ and I ran out of time for more than five minutes of Torah study, although I did write my devar Torah for the week and liked it more than I expected. It’s going to be another late night. I don’t know if I’ll have time to relax before I go to bed again so sleeplessness is likely.
When I started this job, the Department of Work and Pensions said I was OK working part-time and still receiving some benefits. Now they’ve written to ask for more details about the work. I accept that I probably earn too much to justify the benefits, I just wish they would make their minds up. I do wonder whether other government departments and bodies (e.g. the Treasury, the Foreign Office) are as useless and bureaucratic as the DWP and the NHS. It’s easy to look at the lockdown mess and think that they are.
I’d like to be able to start a post without talking about my sleep pattern, but it seems to be a big part of my life at the moment, so here goes. I went to bed about 12.00pm. I wasn’t sure if I would sleep or not. Being sick can make you sleepy, but I had done nothing all evening since being sick except watch TV, so I didn’t feel particularly tired. I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if it was a lack of tiredness or the constant agitated thoughts about the Zoom meeting on Tuesday evening Rabbi B. Eventually I got up and watched some more Doctor Who to calm myself down. I did actually enjoy the second half of Logopolis more than the first, although that may be because it was 1.00am and my standards were not as high. I did eventually fall asleep around 2.00am, but slept through the morning again, which I was hoping to stop doing. I guess it was not entirely unexpected, given the evening I had (being sick, but also having a difficult conversation with my parents and arranging the call with Rabbi B). What did upset me a little was waking up with some religious OCD thoughts, which had not really bothered me for some time. I was a little surprised to experience them, although I know there’s always a risk of the religious OCD coming back at times of stress and exhaustion. They did at least go after I’d eaten breakfast – low blood sugar also exacerbates OCD for me.
After breakfast I felt better, but also a bit down and lethargic. It was hard to do very much. I guess it’s not surprising, given that I had been very sick less than twenty-four hours previously. At lunch I opened the box of vegetables that I was eating with PIMOJ yesterday and saw that the leftover cucumber had gone off. It was completely mouldy and furry. So I suspect I was sick from food poisoning from eating gone off cucumber. I knew it was a little past its best, but it still looked edible yesterday. Obviously not.
I was pleased to get thoughtful messages from PIMOJ, but also a message from J asking how I was, which was nice. He said I could do some work from home one day this week, putting 300 invoices in envelopes, stamping and posting them. I think I can do that on Wednesday, hopefully working around my therapy in the afternoon. I had already decided I was going to skip volunteering this week as I have too many stressful things even without being sick. I’m a bit upset at letting them down, but I need to look after my mental health. I skipped depression group tonight too, as I didn’t feel I had enough stamina to spend a long time on Zoom, as well as not feeling able to speak about the things that most concern me. I feel a bit bad about missing it again, but I feel that I need to focus on the autism assessment, meeting with the rabbi and paid work this week.
I spent an hour or so in the early evening working on my novel. Once I got into it, it flowed quite well for a while and I wrote 500 words, but around seven o’clock I suddenly became very anxious. It was a feeling of nausea and apprehension rather than specific voiced fears, but I suspect the meeting with Rabbi B tomorrow evening is at the root of it, and maybe also the autism assessment tomorrow afternoon.
I guess the Rabbi B fear is wondering what he will think of me, feeling that I’ve done something in good faith and on the advice of my rabbi mentor, but which on the face of it appears bad to someone from an Orthodox Jewish background. Although my rabbi mentor got in touch with Rabbi B before I made contact with him, I’m not sure how much of my story he told him. I guess below that is guilt, which probably isn’t justified. Beyond this, when I knew Rabbi B when I was at university, I felt that I was constantly embarrassing myself in front of him and looking like a freak or an idiot (for reasons I would now identify as being down to autism or social anxiety) and wondered what he thought about me…
Other than that, I didn’t achieve much. I didn’t go for a walk (I actually only just realised that I didn’t go out all day). I did some Torah study and preparation for my devar Torah, but wasn’t satisfied that I’d done enough, nor was I satisfied with my preparation. I may have to start from scratch, but it’s much too late to do that now.
I got distracted this evening reading stuff online that only left me upset, frustrated, guilty and uncertain of things, but I don’t really want to go into it here. Now it’s nearly midnight and I should go to bed as I have a busy day tomorrow (autism assessment, Rabbi B), but I feel very tense and unsleepy. And I haven’t even mentioned my thoughts about Lockdown 3: The Mutant Strain.
I was voicing my anxieties to PIMOJ and she was trying to calm me down. Then I watched the first episode of the Doctor Who story Castrovalva and saw the same scenario play out as the composed Nyssa tried to calm down the panicking Tegan, saying that panicking doesn’t achieve anything and so on. To be honest, there’s an element of geeky Adric about me too, and I’ve long suspected that I don’t appreciate Peter Davison’s Doctor as much as I should because he’s the Doctor who’s most like me (polite, but given to moments of panic and ultimately not that good at being the Doctor, with fatal consequences). Suddenly my future life seems like Season Nineteen of Doctor Who… I guess there are worse things it could be, although I hope it’s more Kinda than Earthshock.
I commented on someone else’s blog today to say that I’ve only been paid for one piece of writing, although I have done some professional or at least semi-professional writing for free. This, it occurred to me afterwards, is not true any more, as I have sold a couple of copies of my non-fiction Doctor Who book, and while so far only friends and family have bought copies, at least two people have read and enjoyed it (my oldest friend and my sister’s nephew). It’s a bit frightening how my mind can keep positive memories and thoughts away from me when I need it.
I had another date with PIMOJ. We’ve had a lot of “walk and picnic in a park” dates of necessity, because of COVID, but we have been enjoying each other’s company enough for them to stay interesting. Today I asked if PIMOJ was ready for us to call ourselves boyfriend and girlfriend and she was really pleased and said yes. We had a good time, we make each other laugh a lot. We have very different personalities, but I think we share a lot of core values, and we find the personality differences stimulating.
We were together for about four hours, with maybe an hour and a half more travel time to and from the park, so I felt pretty exhausted when I got home. I was too tired to do much after that. I spent an hour or so finishing reading a book on domestic abuse in the Jewish community as research for my novel. I was pleased to see that it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, indicating that my research has been thorough. I just hope that comes across in the novel. Tomorrow I hope to start the third draft. I did about an hour of Torah study too, somewhat to my surprise.
My mood dipped a lot in the evening, to a level that would probably be mild depression if sustained over time. Sometimes when something good happens, my mood dips afterwards, perhaps as I realise that my life is going to change, even if in a positive way (autism doesn’t like change, even for the better). I also have a lot of guilt flying about at the moment, perhaps needlessly, connected in different ways to dating PIMOJ, whether it’s the guilt about my sexuality that I’ve been carrying for years or the fact that I know that E cared about me and that, even though we were not right for each other, and even though I did not rush from E to a relationship with PIMOJ, I still feel that E would be hurt if she knew that I have moved on and am serious about someone else.
I did feel a bit short of breath at times when PIMOJ and I were walking today, not bad enough that I had to stop, but I did slow down a little once or twice. I can’t tell if this is real or if it’s psychosomatic and I’m overthinking it. This is worrying me as it’s new.
It may be connected with being overweight, which is problematic as my weight gain has been from my medication and has not responded well to exercise. I haven’t really made significant dietary changes, although I did reduce my cheese and egg consumption a while back when I was told my cholesterol was a bit high (it’s crept up a bit again since then). I think I have put on more weight, although it’s hard to tell as I don’t weigh myself regularly. I do eat some junk food, but I feel not much, except on Shabbat when admittedly I do eat quite a lot, eating chocolate nuts mindlessly while reading or studying Torah.
I may have to try harder to control my weight with diet, but I’m not entirely sure how. I don’t want to quit eating junk food completely, but I may have to. In the past I’ve never managed to quit junk food entirely as, when I was depressed, I wanted to have some small treat to reward myself for getting through the day. I say I’m not depressed now, so maybe I can go without any junk at all, as if I was diabetic, but the thought of it does not fill me with enthusiasm.
I probably eat too many carbohydrates, but I don’t know how to cut them out without being hungry all the time. For reasons that would take a long time to explain, I think work has made my diet a little worse, in terms of eating more white bread and less wholemeal and more eggs again. I also often get hungry at bedtime and eat cereal and I don’t know whether that’s medication-induced or a bad habit or what. I already eat a lot of fruit and vegetables during the day, but I still get hungry, so it’s hard to switch more fruit and veg in instead of junk or carbs. I will try to go for a run tomorrow and see what happens in terms of shortness of breath.
Anyway, I’m not happy that I’m thinking about my weight in this negative way and having negative body image as even when my depression was at its worst, I didn’t have particularly bad body image. I didn’t have particularly good body image either, I just didn’t think about how I looked much and was too busy beating myself up for my thoughts and actions. But I have always wanted to be broadly healthy and I don’t think I am any more.
I deleted my Twitter account. I’d been thinking about it for a while, but the final straw was this post. Possibly I was a little impulsive, but I’ve felt that I’ve been on there too much lately, getting caught up in performative outrage. I don’t even post, just read, so I’m not even building online relationships, just watching other people get angry.
I worry sometimes about being in an echo chamber where I don’t hear opposing views. Then again, I constantly modify my political views, and I must get those new ideas from somewhere. I try to be open-minded, and to listen to people even if I don’t always go looking for ideas I disagree with, not least because I feel those views often attack me as a person. I probably do have a kind of Overton Window in my head that shifts back and forth.
This decision was confirmed by my starting to read Morality, Rabbi Lord Sacks’ z”tl book about the shift in the moral culture of the West from a communal focus to individualism with a resulting polarisation and inflaming of the public sphere.
I watched some Doctor Who (I didn’t feel in the right mood for the relative realism and cynicism of The Sandbaggers). Lately I’ve been watching season eighteen of the original run of Doctor Who, broadcast from 1980 to 1981, Tom Baker’s seventh and last in the lead role. I’m about halfway through, although I’ve seen the stories in it many times before. I’m not sure why I decided to watch the whole thing. I think DVDs have changed the way I watch TV from individual stories to whole seasons, even though the original run of Doctor Who didn’t have much continuity from one story to the next (although this season did, perhaps why I’m watching it as a whole).
It’s an odd season, based more around real science than most Doctor Who, and lacking in humour, but rich in world-building and atmosphere, albeit that I think the atmosphere comes from the direction, electronic incidental music and even costume design as much as the writing; certainly Logopolis, the season finale (in modern terms), lacks a lot of coherence in the writing and works more from imagery and the sobriety of Baker’s valedictory performance.
It’s a polarising season too; from broadcast onwards there was been a fan discourse that saw it as “adult” and “serious” and an improvement on earlier stories that were seen as “childish” and “silly,” but then revisionists switched those views around. The advantage of coming to original Doctor Who after it finished is not needing to take sides in debates like this; I can appreciate both sides.
This should probably have been on my Doctor Who blog, but it’s hard to feel bothered to write there when no one reads it, and when I feel I should post coherent essays, not little reflections.
Despite my worries, I managed to get up early for volunteering and got there on time. It was fine. A couple of people asked if I was OK as I haven’t been for a fortnight, which was nice. I’m always amazed when people notice I’m absent. Someone donated fresh jam donuts for the volunteers and I had one. Possibly my waistband says I shouldn’t have. I still feel that I make mistakes and do stupid things there, although it’s more that what seems logical to me doesn’t always seem logical to other people and vice versa for various (autistic?) reasons. Sometimes it’s probably poor executive function or me not processing spoken instructions properly, but other times it can be me applying rules over-rigidly. Then again, maybe I’m being perfectionist and looking to autism to excuse behaviours that don’t really require excusing (again).
I was pretty exhausted in the afternoon and didn’t do very much other than a few minor chores. I intended to listen a shiur (religious class) that I missed, but it wasn’t up online. I did some other Torah study, but it was just bits and pieces, little audio vorts (short religious ideas) and articles in a religious magazine. I couldn’t face anything heavier. I did a little bit of ironing and thought about trying to force myself to do more chores, but I was worried about being burnt out tomorrow when I have work. I wish I knew why I still get so tired so easily even with the mood aspect of depression being rather easier than in the past. I just read and watched DVDs. I had been eating dinner in front of the Chanukah candles this week, but at dinner today I was drained and couldn’t face eating dinner alone with noise from my parents’ TV and ended up eating in my room, which was also alone and with TV, but at least it was my TV.
Reading this back, I see I actually did quite a lot, but I still feel guilty about not doing “enough” and not having “enough” energy considering I’m not depressed “any more”. There probably are imaginary standards of “normality” and “mentally ill” here that aren’t helpful to me.
I saw the next two paragraphs a few days ago on Elisheva Liss’ Jewish mental health blog. The bit I’m about to quote actually isn’t the main point of the post, but is the part that is pertinent to me and set me thinking.
As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved…
What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.
This isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish world). I’m conscious of not wanting to reveal my entire life history online, but also of wanting to talk about this for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. (I’ve tried speaking about it in therapy, but I feel that writing this has made me realise there’s a lot more to say there.) My background is that I was brought up traditional, but not fully Torah observant and gradually became more observant in my teens. At the same time, I went to a co-educational (Modern Orthodox Jewish) school and eventually became interested in girls when I was about sixteen (I was a late developer, which I definitely think was a blessing). I also had sex education, at home and at school, but it was pretty functional. It was not the Haredi minimal or no sex education, but it focused on the biological “How do we make babies?” side of things. It was a long time before anyone ever really spoken to me about the emotional side of things, and probably most of the conversations I have had about dating and sex have been in therapy.
The problem with this is, being (probably) on the autism spectrum, I do not always pick things up easily if they aren’t explicitly spelt out to me, particularly regarding social interactions. No one ever said anything about masturbation, but somehow I intuited that it was wrong, and that sexual fantasy was likely to lead to it. Pornography was a lot harder to access when I was a teenager than it is these days, but there was already a lot of quasi-pornographic imagery in society; I think the infamous Wonderbra “Hello Boys” billboard advert (the one that supposedly caused numerous car crashes from men looking at the model’s cleavage and not at the road) came out shortly before I hit puberty, and there was a lot of similar adverts around and, anyway, you shouldn’t underestimate what sexually-frustrated teenage boys can find arousing (illustrations of Dark Elf warrior women in the Warhammer rule book…).
Being autistic, depressed and socially anxious did not make it easy to find girlfriends, or to work out how to find girlfriends (to this day, my few relationships have been either via dating websites or from the other person making the first move). During my time at school, I hardly spoke to girls, except a bit to my best friend’s girlfriend. In retrospect I wish I had, as looking back I see that there were intelligent, gentle girls in my year and even in my social group, and maybe my life would have gone differently if I’d just tried to talk to them, not necessarily to date, but just to get practise socialising with women, but I was too shy to really speak to them. I had a huge crush on one girl throughout my time in the sixth form (equivalent of high school, broadly), but was rarely able to speak to her and when I did, I think she was bored and embarrassed by me.
I did manage to build female platonic friendships at university, but that backfired when I asked one out. I was twenty, and it was the first time I had ever done that. She wasn’t interested and it ended badly.
I didn’t actually go on a date until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty-seven and still a virgin and unmarried. I don’t have any particular animus about the Jewish “no sex before marriage” rule, as I know that, emotionally, I couldn’t cope with casual sex anyway. I’m sure some people can, and chafe at the rule, but I know I can’t. I have just slowly begun another relationship, but there are reasons, that I won’t go into here, that mean that it will be years before we can get married, should we decide to do so, so I’m stuck with celibacy for now.
I can’t really put into words the huge amount of frustration, fascination, confusion, envy, guilt and even anger I feel around sex and celibacy. There is also fear, but I wrote about that on Hevria a number of years ago. (That’s aside from the worry that I have so much anxiety around sex that I’ll never be able to have a genuine healthy sexual relationship, even if I get married.) As a frum Jew, I’m not supposed to talk about it; as someone somewhat internet-savvy, I’m worried about being branded a misogynist “Incel” just for raising the topic. I’ve spoken about it in therapy quite a lot, and in more detail than I will go into here, but somehow I feel that I’ve never got to the bottom of it. I’ve barely spoken about it with my current therapist, even though I’ve been seeing her for over seven months. I don’t have the words. I’m not sure if that’s because of my upbringing or my issues.
From adolescence onwards, I’ve had a huge amount of guilt and shame around my sexual thoughts and feelings. For many years I tried to repress them and mostly failed. I’m not sure if it is really feasible to repress sexual thoughts and feelings long-term; it’s certainly not possible if one is at all engaged in hyper-sexualised Western society. Sometimes I can see why Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews try to avoid Western society entirely, but I know that’s not my path.
One of the reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) between school and university as many people expected to was because of feelings of guilt around sex and the belief (which I now realise was completely mistaken) that I was the only frum or would-be frum teenage boy struggling with it. Admittedly there were half a dozen other reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva, but that decision had massive repercussions for the rest of my life, down to today, including why I feel so unmarriable in the frum community. I already had low self-esteem and a tendency to over-intellectualise things, and that and the added sexual guilt probably triggered an emotional downward spiral that fed in to my depression. It may not be coincidental (although it has only occurred to me writing this) that my first episode of depression followed about six months after the start of my first “real” crush (by which I mean the first one where I actively thought and fantasised about her all the time when she wasn’t around, rather than simply feeling vaguely anxious and attracted when I saw her).
Sometimes I feel that it’s eating away my insides. I feel that, at thirty-seven, I should not be desperate to have sex, and certainly I know it’s a bad idea to get married just to have sex. I wonder if I will ever be “ready,” emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling that middle aged sex (which is all that’s left for me) is dull and perfunctory and that if I was going to ever enjoy sex, it would have happened before now. I know this isn’t true, but it’s another lie the media perpetuates, and I can’t shake free of it.
Another thing I’ve never really got to the bottom of is whether I really want sex, or just (“just”?) intimacy. To be honest, I probably want both, and that’s probably healthy; I don’t think secular society, which says you can have healthy sex without intimacy, is particularly well-adjusted in that way. But if I absolutely had to choose, I think I would choose emotional intimacy over sex. I think that’s my absolute desire in many areas: marriage, yes, but also I want a few close friends (rather than many distant ones) and my conception of Heaven is an intimate closeness with God and perhaps with loved ones. But a successful, intimate marriage is the one I want most of all. Although I don’t feel myself particularly successful at achieving intimacy in those other areas either. I think I’m a very lonely person, and have been since my teens. Again, I can blame autism, depression and social anxiety, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.
I’m not sure what I want in writing this. I think a lot of it is about recognition. That I think I’m carrying some kind of burden by following Jewish law in this area, and especially doing it while more open to the sexualised Western culture than some parts of the community. I think it’s the best – or least worst – option for me right now, for a host of halakhic (Jewish legal), emotional and moral reasons, but it’s still a burden and one I hope I will put down one day, but fear that I will be carrying it for a long time. And somehow I want that acknowledged, which it isn’t, not by hyper-sexualised Western society or by the frum world, where most people are married by twenty-five. In some ways I don’t mind that many non-religious would not understand why I’m doing this, but I feel that I would like people in the frum community to understand the strain of long-term celibacy for “older singles,” beyond issues like loneliness, not fitting into the community etc. (not that those are particularly well-appreciated).
Actually, I’m not sure how much is recognition from society and how much is recognition by myself. That I really want to hear (ideally from God, but at least from someone frum who knows me well and who I respect) that I’m a good person, that I’ve done well in staying a virgin all these years, despite my failure to be 100% Torah observant in other areas of sexuality.
Today’s donuts: jam (very fresh) at volunteering.
I know I get fixated on my sleep here, I guess because it’s the most tangible area where I still struggle, so I’ll just note that, thanks to insomnia and early waking, I only got about five hours of sleep last night before my date with PIMOJ today, admittedly after a day in which I had slept far too much.
The date itself went very well. We spent several hours walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It was raining much of the time, but we had a good time, even though a miscommunication meant PIMOJ was expecting me to bring food for both of us, whereas I thought we were each bringing just for ourselves, so we both ended up sharing one bagel and some vegetables. PIMOJ put her arm through mine a lot, which was nice, but felt a bit weird. I have never really done that with anyone before. Physical contact still prompts elements of guilt for me, for both religious and COVID reasons, and even without that, new physical sensations can be difficult on the autism spectrum.
We exchanged Chanukah gifts. I was glad I got PIMOJ a book I think she will really like, as she gave me chocolates and two books, which took me aback a bit. PIMOJ said she wants to see me in person more often, and that, and one or two other things, made me think that she’s serious about me. She said communicating via text is not always easy for us, especially as English isn’t her first language, which is true. Also, I find that I can’t always tell when she’s joking. I know that’s a typical autistic trait, but 90% of the time it’s not a problem for me, but with PIMOJ it frequently is an issue (hence the food mix-up). So trying to meet more regularly, despite COVID and the weather, seems to be the way forward. She also said that she doesn’t want me to compromise on anything, so I’m not sure where I got that idea from.
I came home exhausted, unsurprisingly. I was surprised to find donuts and chocolates left for me by my shul (synagogue) and a refund of money from a communal institution who I had paid twice, the result of a direct debit or standing order that was paid despite not showing up on my list of regular payments in my bank account. The latter will require further investigation to find out why it’s not showing.
My parents and I did a Zoom Chanukah candle lighting with my uncle and aunt in Israel, along with cousins 3 and 5. Singing in tune over a Zoom connection was not easy. We sat around talking afterwards. I didn’t really say anything. I don’t say much when I’m with my extended family in person and I never feel comfortable and able to talk at these kinds of Zoom meetings, and I was already quite drained, so I was a bit relieved when the battery on Mum’s laptop ran out after nearly an hour and brought the meeting to an end.
Tonight’s donut ended up being a chocolate-filled one again, although I honestly don’t only eat chocolate donuts! They didn’t have the iced type I wanted. The chocolate-filled one was nice though.
I woke up in the middle of the night last night and struggled to get back to sleep. I think I’m still feeling overwhelmed, with some anxiety and depression that may be heading back to clinical levels with the winter and the persistence of COVID. I’m not settled into my new job, and I’m worried about my relationship with PIMOJ, and one or two other things, and there’s still COVID… Still, my devar Torah (Torah thought) this week was on God not letting us retire from life and have it easy when there is work to be done here in this world.
I didn’t do much at work. J took me with him when he went out in the morning; I’d love to say where we went, as it would strike you as unusual and perhaps a little Gothic, but I probably shouldn’t, for reasons of anonymity. The afternoon was largely spent trying to work out why Dropbox wasn’t working for either of us (on Monday it was just me who had a problem). I felt vaguely guilty about this, as my Dropbox stopped working first, despite knowing that I have no rational reason to feel guilty. Then J said we should leave early, I guess because there was little that we could do without Dropbox. I did at least speak to the helpdesk on the phone. Like many autistic and/or social anxious people, I hate the telephone and find it harder than any other form of interaction, so it was good that I made myself do that even if I didn’t get an answer.
Other than that, today I managed about half an hour of Torah study, which was a little disappointing, and finished off my devar Torah for the week. I find that during Chanukah (which started tonight) a large part of my evening is preparing and spent lighting “candles” (I use oil lights, although Mum uses candles, but we still call them candles for some reason), sitting around the candles with family and eating dinner near them (which is not obligatory, but is nice), so it eats into Torah time and relaxation time. Despite that, it is an oasis of calm when winter is beginning to bite. Tonight’s donut: jam.
It occurred to me that I’ve spent years trying to find my “tribe,” the way you see people write about finding their “tribe” (usually counter-cultural in some way, from LGBTQ to fandom to the Liberal Democrats). I’ve never found it. Over time I’ve tried and hoped that Orthodox Jews, Doctor Who fans, Oxonians, autistics or depressives might be my tribe, but none of them really are. I realised today I was hoping to find a group that was uniformly thoughtful, introspective and intelligent; probably also cultured and witty. None of them are that, obviously. It’s too much to ask one group to be all that. Maybe the point is to stop trying to find people who are like me, and to concentrate on finding people who can accept me. I’m not sure where to start, though.
My shul (synagogue) fees are going up. I’ve been paying full price even though I’ve been out of work for most of the last two years, and have only been working two days a week when I have been working. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t ask to have my fees reduced; maybe shame at admitting my employment situation. Now the fees have gone up and I feel I need to ask for a reduction, but I worry they’ll say, “But if you paid when you were unemployed, why can’t you pay when you’re working?” Also, the contact details if you want to talk about a reduction is phone number only. As I said, like many autistic people, I hate the telephone and find it harder than any other form of interaction and it’s making an awkward and difficult interaction much worse.
There ought to be a term for an argument that you feel is logically sound, but which you reject because of the pompous, sanctimonious way it’s put forward. I experienced this twice today. While on our work excursion, J had the radio on in the car and A Well-Known Talk Radio Host was
talking ranting about Brexit. I am agnostic, if not downright confused, about Brexit these days. I think the economic and geopolitical arguments favour Remain, while the domestic political arguments (sovereignty) favours Leave, as well as the democratic need to see the referendum result through. So I am at least open to the idea that Brexit will cause major economic problems in three weeks’ time. But the Host seemed so self-righteous and gloating in his delivery that he really annoyed me, especially as I felt he was putting up so many straw men, he could open a scarecrow factory.
Then in the afternoon, I confess I was bored enough to look at Twitter on the way home, and George Takei (Mr Sulu from the original Star Trek) had tweeted that vaccine refusal is “not living up to the ideals of Star Trek.” I am completely in favour of vaccination. However, it seems a little ridiculous for an actor to use a TV show he used to be in as an argument in favour of what is an entirely medical decision. I’ve seen similar things in online Doctor Who fandom too, people with the wrong opinions being told that they are “against the ideals of the Doctor” or whatever. I’ve seen some debate online as to whether these people really derive their personal values and ethics from a TV show or if the programme just resonates with already-held beliefs. I hope it’s the latter, but I worry.
It feels like today was a day that got away from me.
First, I missed volunteering. I overslept by about forty-five minutes (having dreamt that I couldn’t go to volunteer because I had a temperature and suspected COVID). I hurried to get ready and could still have got there at a reasonable time, but then I waited twenty-five minutes for a bus which did not arrive (it was supposed to be every eight minutes). At this point I went home to see if one of my parents could give me a lift, but I could see there was heavy rush hour traffic everywhere and it would take at least forty-five minutes to get to volunteering even if my parents were ready to take me straightaway. At that point I felt it wasn’t worth going, as I wouldn’t really be there very long, so I texted to apologise.
I feel bad for letting them down, especially as I texted about 8.15am to say I was late, but on my way, and then texted again nearly an hour later say I couldn’t make it at all. I do wonder if working and volunteering for three consecutive days is too much for me and that if I have to work on Tuesdays in the future, I should not volunteer on Wednesdays because I need it as a recuperation day after work.
In the afternoon I did some shopping, mostly for essentials, but I bought a book as a Chanukah present for PIMOJ. I felt a bit bad that I spent more than I’ve spent on my parents’ presents (and my sister hasn’t even told me what she wants yet). It was not easy to work out what to buy, as I feel I’m still learning who PIMOJ is, so I ended up buying a book I’m 99% sure she’ll like, but which was rather expensive. I thought that getting something she wanted was more important than staying within budget, but now my inner critical voice is saying that I need to spend more on my parents. At least I’m earning money again at the moment.
And then, in late afternoon, I read something online and I just exploded. The article wasn’t particularly surprising to someone who reads the Jewish press and Jewish websites and is aware of the way the world is going, but it set something off in me. When I wrote my political post a few weeks ago, Ashley said she was surprised it wasn’t a rant from the way I had spoken about it. Well, brace yourselves, because this is a rant. Feelings I’ve been suppressing for a long time can’t be suppressed any more…
Rabbi Lord Sacks used to say that antisemitism is a virus that mutates; whenever a strain becomes discredited in society (equivalent to immunisation), it mutates into a new form that is still considered acceptable. So when religion lost influence to science in the Enlightenment, the religious antisemitism of the Middle Ages was replaced with the pseudoscience of racial antisemitism. Now racial pseudoscience is discredited, antisemitism has become based on the idea of Jews collectively being major human rights abusers.
I would add: when antisemitism mutates, it mutates in such a way that the Jews are seen as the embodiment of whatever that society hates the most. So in an era of human rights sensitivity, Jews will be seen as the worst possible human rights abusers. Hence the constant analogies between Jews/Israelis and Nazis.
Antisemitism is not just a prejudice, it’s an entire worldview that sees the Jews as responsible for the woes of the world. Hence the fact that it is often propagated as conspiracy theories about covert Jewish power. It’s as hard to argue rationally against this approach as it was to convince Torquemada that Jews weren’t really Christ-killers or to convince Hitler that Jews weren’t really racially impure. How do you “rationally” prove that you’re not a baby-killer? Even to entertain the question opens the possibility that you are, in fact, a baby-killer, just not guilty of killing this particular baby.
The scariest trend I’ve noticed in antisemitism recently, which I haven’t seen anyone else write about yet, is the idea that Jews are not “real” Jews, but white people pretending to be Jews. Who the “real” Jews are isn’t always spelt out, but it’s usually implied to be black people or Muslims. Louis Farrakhan (Nation of Islam) has been peddling this for years, but it’s suddenly gone mainstream (e.g. here for the assertion that Black people are the “TRUE Children of Israel” and that therefore Jews are “LYING antisemites”). Although perhaps directly rooted in Arthur Koestler’s disproven theory that most Jews are actually Khazars (a people from Medieval Crimea), this is basically an outgrowth of supersessionism or replacement theology, the idea in classical Christianity and Islam that the Jews were once chosen, but have now been replaced, with the church/the ummah having taken over. However, the modern version gives this a twist for the identity politics era: the Jews were once persecuted (chosen, effectively, in a system that correlates virtue to suffering), but have now been replaced. Because, again, if human rights abusers are the worst possible people, and if white people are the worst possible human rights abusers, then Jews will be white, or even the whites of the whites (the people who exploit the exploiters), regardless of how they were seen in the past; they can’t be seen as good people. Therefore stripping Jews of their “appropriated” Jewish identities (something even Hitler didn’t do) will become virtuous. This terrifies me, terrifies me enough to write about it here despite my usual fears of starting an argument.
The feelings of anger and perhaps some fear that triggered the rant persisted for a while. I did some ironing while listening to a shiur (religious class). I’m not sure it was a good thing for me to listen to. It was a mussar-type (ethics/personal development) shiur about being breaking lethargy. It boiled down to being more efficient. I’m not terribly efficient, which is possibly in part an autistic executive function issue. I think it’s easy for me to get caught up in self-blame and low self-esteem when I focus too hard on efficiency, although the shiur presented beating yourself up for falling short as a good strategy to succeed (I don’t think it is, certainly not for me). I also think I need some creative mind-wandering times for my writing, even for divrei Torah (Torah thoughts).
The shiur was based on the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe. His idea of what a minimal amount of daily private Torah study for someone working (not in full-time yeshiva study) should be was two hours. I do not manage this. On the other hand, the rabbi giving the shiur went to the other extreme and said we should scale down to two minutes, which made me feel that most people are not studying privately if it can be reduced this much, but in pairs (chevruta) or in shiurim. I struggle with paired and group study. Either way, this just seemed to be provoking guilt. Similarly, the idea of celebrating when you achieve your aim sounded good, but I’m not sure I should be blaming myself if I do not succeed as was also suggested.
He also suggested writing a daily plan, which I do, but I fail to stick to very well, which is again probably autism. Also to set difficult goals and push yourself beyond your boundary. I feel I probably ought to be able to find a way to manage this, but I can’t.
I have drifted into total defeatism here, which may in part be hunger and tiredness, but either way, I didn’t get much out of the shiur.
It’s a shame, as the Piaseczno Rebbe‘s teachings have resonated with me in the past, but this just seem unsuited for me, given my autism and tendencies to low self-esteem and self-criticism. I feel there’s a focus on efficiency in the Orthodox world that is hard to live up to (Jewish Young Professional wrote about this here). Compared with some people on the spectrum, I’m pretty organised and efficient, but this type of thing just makes me feel inadequate.
I finished reading the novel The Naked Runner by Francis Clifford. It was pretty diverting, but I don’t really buy the premise that intelligence agencies would trick civilians into working for them in the way the book requires – not from scruples, but from practical reasons about training and ability.
I’m going to call time on this not very good (although not exactly awful) day. I’m going to post this, turn off my computer, and watch Doctor Who, if I can decide what to watch (the tyranny of choice… actually The Tyranny of Choice does actually sound like the title of a Doctor Who story!). Then go to bed and hope that tomorrow goes better. At any rate, I am spending part of the work day outside the office and have a call with my psychiatrist (hopefully… trying to set that up today was another problem which I haven’t got sorted), so at least tomorrow will be different even if it isn’t good.
Last night, around ten o’clock, my burnout suddenly lifted and I knew I could raise my mood if I started work on my novel – not reading about how to write better, but actually working on writing. Perhaps inevitably, I didn’t do much late at night. I went over my notes about what to work on in redrafting, printed them off for easy reference and opened a document for the next draft, this time including an epigraph that may or may not stay there as drafting progresses. It was probably too late to really do much. I drifted to Tablet Magazine and skimmed some articles and this time it really was procrastination and not letting my unconscious mind work on things as I said yesterday. Then I started feeling tired and stopped for the night. But I made a start on the next draft, and I made clear to myself that, for my mental health, I need to be writing/redrafting, even if I’m reading about writing technique at the same time.
I feel like nothing happened today, but I did quite a bit. I Skyped my rabbi mentor. We had a good talk and he was lenient about something I thought he wouldn’t be lenient about. Even so, I found myself filled with anxiety in the afternoon, and I wonder if I feel guilty about this. I will talk to my therapist about it tomorrow. I need to tell myself that things are going well, and to stop worrying.
I’m having conflicted political thoughts again. I find that I don’t fit easily into any party these days. When I see political blog posts, I often find myself partly in agreement, partly not and then I wonder what to say, if anything. Usually I find that whatever issue it is is not a hill I particularly want to die on and I let factual inaccuracies, let alone differences of interpretation, go. Sometimes I wonder if I should say something, but I find few people are open to having their minds changed, particularly not by counter-argument (as opposed to coming across something, often a personal narrative, unexpectedly, which sometimes works).
Worse, if someone is arguing, “X, Y and Z are true” and I want to say, “X and Y are true, but Z is not,” there is a fear that people will read that as me saying that “X, Y and Z are all false.” We do not live in a subtle or careful age. Usually I don’t want to be seen as an opponent of X and Y, so I let the falseness of Z go. Still, as a librarian, and as a Jew, I’m supposed to be bound to truth, but it’s hard in this “post-truth” era of “alternative facts,” not to mention divisive politics and conspiracy theories. It does make one long a bit for the era of “The Third Way” and managerial politics, when there were no major ideological divisions between left and right, although there were still plenty of arguments.
Mind you, I just saw something on the BBC News (about the Israel-Emirates peace treaty) that made me want to throw things at the screen, but I’ll suppress my anger here…
I’m not sure that this will mean much to most people here, but my family and I think it’s hilarious that the British government just issued guidelines on how to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and how (not) to have sukkah crawls on Sukkot (Tabernacles). Who knew that Matt Hancock had smikhah (rabbinic ordination)?
Achievements: spoke to my rabbi mentor, spent an hour or so redrafting the first chapter of my novel, cooked dinner, went for a walk. Drafted my devar Torah (Torah thought) for Rosh Hashanah, although I’m not happy with the final paragraph and may change it. Did a little bit of Torah study too, although, as usual not as much as I would like. So I guess it was a busy day.
Shabbat was OK. There was all the usual stuff: praying, eating, sleeping, Torah study and recreational reading (mostly The Islamist and the latest Doctor Who Magazine, my subscription to which I am contemplating cancelling. I have contemplated cancelling it every couple of years since about 2003, but this time I’m really not sure what’s stopping me).
The afternoon was hard. I was reading The Lights of Penitence by Rav Kook (in the volume Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems) and came across a passage that talks about someone who feels pervaded by sin, immoral, uneducated, distant from God, and “stirred by dark and sinister passions that revolt him.” I thought, “This is me.” Unfortunately, the passage goes on to say that penitence will cure this and all healing and acceptance. Nothing about what happens if a person does teshuva (repentance) and feels just as wicked as before.
If I recall correctly, Rav Soloveitchik says something similar about repentance curing self-criticism in Halakhic Man, so that’s the two greatest “Modern Orthodox” rabbis, of very different outlook and temperament, agreeing that teshuva should remove self-hatred and needless guilt. I don’t know how to feel that. No wonder that in recent years Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, the holidays of judgment and repentance) have been hard for me and I struggle to get to shul (synagogue). Of course, this year I have decided not to go for Rosh Hashanah at least because I’m so worried about COVID and passing it on to Mum (who has surgery a week before Rosh Hashanah). I haven’t had to decide what I’m doing about Yom Kippur yet.
The guilt is pervasive and multifaceted. Some of it is feeling disconnected from God, which I’ve felt for a long time. Feeling that I don’t pray well enough, don’t study Torah enough, don’t connect enough. Feeling that I don’t have enough spirituality or meaning in my life. I don’t have much of either. But I also have guilt around my sexuality. Feeling that it’s pretty much impossible to get to the age thirty-seven as an unmarried virgin without having infringed on some at least some of the Jewish sexual laws, but as no one talks about it, I feel that maybe it is just me. Maybe I could do better. Maybe other people do manage to do better.
So, I spent the afternoon somewhat depressed because of this. I was initially upset to have napped for an hour and a half after lunch, but when I started to feel depressed, I was glad to have escaped being trapped in my head for a while. Despite Shabbat finishing nearly two hours earlier than at the height of summer, it’s still hard to get through when depressed.
I worry what PIMOJ (as sarnhyman has suggested I dub the Person I’m Messaging On JDate) would make of this. I’ve told her about my depression, but presented it in the past tense. Well, I thought I was mostly over it and now it was just reactive to things in my life, not an ongoing presence. I should have remembered that whenever I declare my depression over, it returns. PIMOJ works in mental health and I don’t know how that would shape her reaction to me. I want to open up to her about some things, but I’m scared. I want to get to know her better and get to a stage where we can both be more open, but I don’t know how to do that or how to judge when we’ve got there.
It’s not just the persistence of depression, but also the fact that she comes across in her messages as an ebullient person and one with a deep and sincere ahavat Shamayim (love of God). I had hoped some of that would rub off on me, but now I feel it’s more likely that I’ll scare her off. That she wouldn’t want to be with someone so quiet and downbeat, and intermittently (at least) depressed.
I just found this quote from Rav Kook, from The Lights of Holiness further on in the same volume:
The greater the person, the more he must seek to discover himself. The deep levels of his soul remain concealed from him so that he needs to be alone frequently, to elevate his imagination, to deepen his thought, to liberate his mind. Finally his soul will reveal itself to him by radiating some of its light upon him.
Today my mood has been OK when I’m busy doing things, but it drops pretty quickly when I’m not. I especially low at the moment (see final section).
I feel sexually frustrated again, not the in obvious way, but just wishing that I was with someone I loved and could give to that way. Also, to have that type of intimacy. I think I’m generally a sensible, play it safe, type of person. I don’t take risks. I don’t drink or smoke and illegal drugs scare me. Yet, for most of my adult life, I’ve found myself constantly wishing that I was in a relationship, even though I know that would not have been a sensible thing for me to do most of the time, given how much I’ve been struggling with mental illness since I was sixteen (at least). I guess it’s loneliness and feeling that I’ve never been completely accepted and understood. I felt that acceptance with E., until suddenly it wasn’t there, which was frightening.
I’m trying not to think like that (about wanting to be in a relationship), but it’s hard. I guess it’s better to accept those feelings, and to sort of make space for them in my head, but to acknowledge that I shouldn’t be focusing on them right now. It’s hard not to focus on them. Lately my mood has been OK when I’m doing something, but then I stop and suddenly the depression and loneliness rush in.
We’re in the introspective time of year. The Three Weeks of Mourning are introspective, thinking about what we’ve done wrong to contribute to the exile of the Jewish people and the destruction (or non-rebuilding) of the Temple in Jerusalem, then we go into Elul which is the month of introspection before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and then we have the Ten Days of Repentance bookended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Even though this introspection is only really starting, I already feel that I know what to focus on this year. I need to learn to be in the present and not worry about the future and to stop trying to predict it, because it’s impossible to predict accurately.
The Medieval Torah commentator Rashi says (on Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18.13): “‘You shall be wholehearted with HaShem Your God’: walk before him whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion.” (translation via Sefaria, slightly modernised)
I think Rashi is quoting or paraphrasing the halakhic Midrash (I haven’t checked which). It’s talking primarily about not engaging in soothsaying, divination and the like (that’s the context of the verse), but Rashi makes a wider homiletic point about having faith in the future and accepting whatever happens.
I’d like to have the mindful/present-centred mindset of not worrying about the future or feeling excessive guilt and shame about the past, but it’s hard. I worry a lot, and when I think about my past, it almost always seems to lead to guilt or self-blame. It would be so nice to think of myself married to someone who I love and who loved me, just as it would be nice to think of myself as making a career writing Jewish novels, but both seem so distant that they seem like I’m taunting myself rather than setting realistic goals.
I guess I feel scared because it seems like I’ve passed the point in my life where I could have the things I want in life. I could still get married any time until I’m ancient, but if I want children (and I do) I have to either find a wife in the next few years or marry someone significantly younger than me. I know people who have happy marriages who do have a big age gap, but I feel it’s not so likely for me. Likewise with careers, it’s really hard to be building a career from nothing in my late thirties, especially as I am struggling with librarianship, but not confident enough in my writing ability and struggling to get started with that too. If I built some kind of career and if I got married, then I think I could have some happiness even if I couldn’t have children, but I struggle to feel positive about being unemployed, single and living with my parents in the long-term. And of course in the frum community almost everyone my age is married, just as most of my Oxford peers (that I still know of) have important jobs in law, politics, academia, the rabbinate or the like. This is why I left Facebook, to try to stop myself from comparing myself to others. I have to accept that my life is going to be very different to other people’s (including my sister’s), but it’s hard to do that when I don’t have a clear idea of what type of life I could realistically build.
I woke up early, about 7.15am. Despite only having had four or five hours sleep (I went to bed late and then struggled to sleep, probably from sleeping too much in the day), I didn’t feel too tired, but I didn’t feel inclined to get up and just stayed wrapped up in my duvet. It wasn’t a particularly sensible thing to do, as I eventually fell asleep again, for several hours and ended up getting up no earlier than usual.
Achievements: an hour and twenty minutes spent on the novel (admittedly with some procrastination). I finished another chapter. I’m up to 66,000 words, with two chapters left to go, so hopefully the word count will be OK. There’s a lot to do in redrafting, though. I see this taking at least four drafts, maybe more.
I also did forty-five minutes of Torah study, reading this coming Shabbat’s Torah portion (Va’etchanan, my bar mitzvah portion).
I got changed to have a run, put insoles in my trainers to see if that makes them more cushioned and stops hurting my feet, and warmed up, but once I started running, I could feel my ankle hurting again. Not badly, but I didn’t want to risk making it worse, so I decided not to run for a few days. I went for a walk instead, which isn’t as good at sublimating negative feelings, but is better than nothing.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do or think. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about China persecuting the Uighurs, and also the Tibetans, Chinese Christians and adherents of Falun Gong, who are also being persecuted, but aren’t in the news. I want to do something, but I don’t know what. I feel very small and insignificant. It’s hard even to talk about it without sounding like I’m making a point about some other issue. The Jewish newspapers have been drawing parallels between the treatment of the Uighurs and the Holocaust, but it is hard to know what can be done. There aren’t large numbers of refugees here that I could help in some practical way (I used to volunteer at a refugee drop-in centre, although it’s been shut from COVID), nor is escalated confrontation with China a promising option, when it could easily become a nuclear standoff that would destroy the planet.
The Doctor Who bit; also the antisemitism bit (skip if not interested):
Asking for the Doctor Who Series Twelve box set for my birthday looks more and more like it was a mistake. I watched episode three, Orphan 55, which I hated first time around, in the hope that I would find something to like now I know what the bad bits are. I didn’t. In a word, awful. In two words, really awful.
Unlike first viewing, I’m not completely sure that there’s an antisemitic bit. There’s a montage of images of natural disasters and riots that includes a shot of fighter planes flying over Jerusalem, the only identifiable place in the sequence. I feel it shows that BBC-types see “Israel” as a shorthand for “evil” in a way they wouldn’t with other countries. At least, I hope it’s “Israel”; it’s possibly “Jews,” a thought not dispelled by the BBC’s low-key coverage of the weekend’s Twitter antisemitism storm compared with the coverage of other forms of prejudice.
I told myself I wouldn’t write negative reviews any more, for various reasons, so I’m going to let it go rather than reviewing it on my Doctor Who blog, but I hope I get more out of the rest of the series or this will be a waste of time and money. I think the series did get somewhat better as it went on.
The sad truth is that I’m enough of a completist that I still want to have every TV episode and that I will watch episodes at least twice because I know a first viewing sometimes obscures good points. Experimental episodes in particular can improve on second viewing once you can see what they are trying to do, although very little of this series was experimental. You can call that autistic obsession on my part if you want, and certainly the BBC makes a lot of money out of people like me. Still, there are more expensive hobbies out there. I’m just glad I don’t have the need to own every Doctor Who novel, audio drama, comic strip, computer game, etc. which would be an enormous drain of time as well as money.
I’m dealing with difficult feelings today. I felt overwhelmed when I got up, although I feel calmer now. Some of it was sitting waiting for the doctor to phone (see below), which is always anxiety-inducing – social anxiety as much as medical anxiety, plus now autistic “new situation” anxiety about socially isolated phone appointments (I’ve only had phone appointments before for follow up calls about mental health which didn’t need to be in person).
Dad phoned the doctor for me at 8.30am and got me a telephone appointment. The line was quite bad, so I was struggling with the phone call even more than usual. I was supposed to get a text beforehand allowing me to send a photo of the mole, but somehow I didn’t get it, although I got my Dad to take a photo. The surgery is not really good at admin things like that. The doctor said he couldn’t do much without a photo, but said that I could send one on the surgery website – I didn’t know that there is an online consultation feature now for minor illnesses, which is good. I hope that stays after COVID, as it would be a useful way of getting around the problems booking an appointment.
The online consultation was difficult too. There was a list of options, but there wasn’t an option for moles and the like. I did eventually find a “My problem is not listed” option. There are loads and loads of pages of questions to go through, but I did eventually get to an option to upload photos.
On the plus side, they answered within a couple of hours. The doctor wants to send it to a dermatologist to be sure, but is pretty confident that it’s benign, which is definitely good.
I still feel confused some of the time about whether I made the right decision to break up with E. I don’t want to explain why I broke up here, because that’s not fair on her, but my parents, who I did tell, thought it was the right decision, but still I worry. Did I mess up my last chance at happiness? I hope not. I don’t think so, but sometimes it’s hard to be sure, particularly late at night, as happened last night. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that I continually make bad decisions (in general, not just regarding dating), which is not true, but it does feel that way sometimes.
I’m trying not to wallow in guilt right now. We’re in the time of the Jewish calendar called The Three Weeks. It’s a time of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jewish people and many other tragedies of our history. The last nine days are even more intense, leading up to Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, next Thursday. In the Three Weeks, we don’t hold weddings or celebrations, shave or cut hair or listen to music.
One is not supposed to wear clean clothes in the last nine days, but it is permitted to “pre-wear” them for ten minutes or so before the nine days start. I usually do this, but forgot this year, so I’ve been wearing clean shirts. I feel bad about this. Everything has just been so crazy this year. I feel like I’m hardly observing the Three Weeks as I can’t fast the rabbinic fasts that bookend it on my medication and I have listened to music when feeling depressed, although not when feeling OK. I’m trying not to beat myself up about this and other things and to accept that I’m fallible, but it doesn’t seem entirely right somehow. I know my therapist said to focus on values rather than “shoulds.” I am still trying to live in accordance with my values generally, even if I can’t keep these laws properly this year. It doesn’t feel right, though. I’m glad that I’m not shaving for the Three Weeks, even though my beard itches like crazy. I’ll be glad to shave it off next Friday.
I managed some writing today, getting close to finishing another chapter. There’s one important passage that I don’t think I’ve got right, but I’m not sure how to change it. It’s hard to write something of a religious experience when I haven’t exactly had one myself.
I watched the Star Trek Voyager episode Someone to Watch Over Me. I vaguely remembered watching this one on original UK transmission, but I didn’t remember much of the plot. It’s basically a Pygmalion rip-off as the Doctor and Tom Paris bet whether the Doctor can educate Seven of Nine enough to get, and keep, a date in a few days, with the Doctor inadvertently falling in love with her while educating her in human interactions. Seven is a human who was converted to a cyborg and then back to a human. She is pretty emotionless and remorselessly logical and efficiency-focused. She comes across as somewhat autistic in some ways, particularly in her inability to make small talk, to build friendships or to intuit the emotional needs of others. I find her the most interesting character in the programme because of that (and not because of Jeri Ryan’s figure-hugging costume…).
At the start of this episode she’s unable to understand why B’Ellana Torres is angry at her for using her relationship with Tom as a case study on sexual relationships. Captain Janeway and the Doctor take this curiosity as a sign that Seven unconsciously wants to be in a relationship. Around the time this was broadcast, I was in my late teens and similarly curious about relationships, but uncertain what to do about them (I didn’t go on a date until I was twenty-seven), so I used to linger when my Mum or my sister were watching soap operas and rom coms, while pretending not to be watching them. In retrospect, soap operas and rom coms probably were not the best role models, although I don’t think I ever “learnt” all that much from them. I didn’t know how else to find out about relationships.
The episode was pretty cringey overall, in terms of Seven’s lack of social graces and the Doctor’s inability to express his feelings for her. I’ve been there regarding both of those things. It does make me wonder if I’m ever going to be socially graceful and build the friendships and romantic relationship I want. I’m not sure if I (or anyone else) can really learn small talk and interpersonal interactions from a book or lecture. I’m also not sure I can really learn them in my late thirties. It does feel that I should have learnt these things in childhood or adolescence, when my brain was more plastic.
Well, unlike Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, I wasn’t shot, but I did find myself in 1983 when I came into this world thirty-seven years ago.
My birthday got off to a bad start today. Mum had a bad turn soon after I got up and we were worried about her for a while, although she’s fine now.
Then I tried to book my blood test, but failed because of COVID restrictions on where it can be done at the moment. There’s a whole long story here that I won’t go into, but the short version is that I don’t know where I can have it done and am struggling to get hold of my psychiatrist to find out. Typical NHS bureaucracy. I know this sounds a trivial problem, and it is, but it leaves me feeling very flustered with social anxiety about asking people things and autistic confusion about new situations that I’m not prepared for, and being put through to receptionists who are short with me just leaves me feeling worse.
Also, on weighing myself, it looked like I hadn’t lost weight after all.
However, I was cheered up by getting a LOT of birthday messages here! Thank you so much! Also some messages from family during the day. My ankle seems a lot better today too, although I need to work out what’s causing the pain to find a long-term solution. Dad suggested insoles to cushion my feet more which might be a good first step. That said, I did avoid going for a walk today to help it heal.
I did a bit of work on my novel, but between my problems phoning about my blood test, therapy, and decompressing from therapy afterwards, and then having family over for my birthday, I didn’t get much time today. On the downside, I realised that when I sent Doctor Who Magazine a review copy of my Doctor Who book last week, I forgot to put my email address and phone number on the covering letter, although I did put my physical address. I tell myself, I had never sent such a letter before, but it still annoys me that I make sloppy mistakes like that, even though I know it’s the kind of practical/interpersonal thing that you might expect someone on the autism spectrum to get wrong.
I guess it’s frustrating as I never had the organisational issues at school or university that might have flagged up autism. I had a friend at school who was very intelligent, but also not at all organised and (to be honest) rather lazy. He never did his homework or had the right books with him and only engaged with his studies inasmuch as they interested him. He didn’t go to university when the rest of us did, but didn’t really do much in the way of career-building; I don’t even remember if he even had a job when I last saw him, back when I was still doing my BA. My sister knows his sister and ran into him a few years back. He had a girlfriend who was pregnant; I got the impression he still didn’t have much of career, maybe not even a job. His parents always seemed super-permissive and content to just let him coast through life. They were a wealthy family, so maybe he didn’t need to do any more than that to survive.
My point is that in many ways he fitted the autism stereotype a lot more than I do, the stereotype of intense interest in some topics, but complete uninterest in others and total disorganisation and lack of social savvy. I never forgot my books, but perhaps that was only because I was super-careful to follow my routine of packing every evening before bed, checking against the timetable and my diary notes so that I didn’t forget anything and even checking my bag multiple times on the way in to school to see if I had forgotten anything (autism loves routines). The further I get from the organised routine of school and, to a lesser extent, university, the more I make sloppy mistakes and end up blaming myself. My parents help me with some stuff (I’ve mentioned my Dad helping me with money), but they don’t know anything about writing and publishing. I just feel so useless and incompetent at times. I try to tell myself it’s not my fault, but I worry that it is my fault and that when I have my assessment, I’m going to get told I’m not autistic, just useless.
Therapy was good. We spoke about loneliness a lot. I also went back and forth with guilt and anxiety about breaking up with E., which I guess is looking for validation on some level. I spoke about not always being aware of when my inner critic is talking when I’m depressed and not being able to think of practical strategies to beat loneliness when I feel lonely. The therapist suggested making some charts (I guess I could do flow charts) e.g. “If I feel depressed –> ask if it’s my inner critic talking” or “If I feel lonely –> email a friend /or –> phone Samaritans” rather than sit ruminating. I will try to do that this week.
I spoke a bit about dating too. The therapist did say that someone who could cope with my issues is probably going to be a very “special” and kind person, which is something I’ve thought about myself, even down to describing her as “special.” How do I even find such a person? According to stereotype, every frum guy is looking for a kind (and pretty) wife; it’s hard to see how I can stand out from the crowd, especially as, also according to stereotype, every frum woman (outside of the yeshiva world of full-time “learning”) is looking for guy who can support a family while taking prayer and Talmud study seriously, which is not exactly me right now. It would probably also have to be someone who had some kind of issues of her own or the relationship would be unbalanced. I don’t know how I could deliberately find such a relationship with someone with issues, other than wait and hope God will intervene. I don’t think dating is going to happen again for me for a very long time… That may be just as well, as I think I still have a lot of difficult feelings to work through regarding E.
As today was my birthday, my sister and brother-in-law came over and we had takeaway pizza in the garden, socially distanced, followed by chocolate cake and ice cream. It was good, but I always end up feeling vaguely guilty that I get “peopled out” before anyone else gets tired. I always seem to get fidgety a good hour before anyone else seems to.
Presents: Doctor Who: The Complete Twelfth Series DVD from my parents. This was the 2020 series. I know, I was lukewarm about the series when it was broadcast earlier this year, so why did I ask for it as a present? (We don’t really do surprise presents in my family, we just tell each other what we would like.) I admit I did have second thoughts about that. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t sure what could be ordered because of COVID hitting my favourite online bookshop with supply issues. I decided I would rather have something on the day than wait for months. I also know I do often dislike new episodes of Doctor Who on first viewing and then like them a lot more on repeated viewing. I think it’s something about the area where fannishness meets autism that means I need time to adjust to new ideas in my favourite programme. I used to think the 2008 series was absolutely the worst series of Doctor Who ever; now I think that its second half in particular is a really exemplary run of episodes. I didn’t think most of these episodes (the 2020 series) were bad, just so-so (except Orphan 55, which was pants and antisemitic). As Peter Davison (the fifth Doctor) said, if a Doctor Who fan thinks an episode is “bad,” that means he “only” watches it thirty times. If nothing else, reviewing the episodes for my Doctor Who blog ought to be fun; I deliberately didn’t review them on first viewing because I was worried I would be overly negative. And there is still £10 or so in the budget to get one or two books when the supply chain restarts.
From my sister and brother-in-law, I got Minority Report, which is volume four of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, one of my favourite authors. (I have volumes one to three of the short stories already.) Also, Muck by Dror Burstein, which is a sui generis modern re-telling of the biblical book of Jeremiah, a “comedy with apocalyptic stakes” that looks fun and also worth checking out if I want to write Jewish-themed fantasy and science fiction. I guess it’s appropriate Three Weeks reading too.
Mum and Dad also gave me a MoonPig birthday card with my picture on it. It’s not such a bad picture, which I saying something as I usually hate looking at pictures of myself.
I’m pretty tired and “peopled out” now. I did some late night Torah study just now (about half an hour, not bad considering how late it is) and I ought to go to bed, but I feel I need to decompress a bit with TV or something to unwind from therapy and peopling.
There’s been a weird, intermittent humming sound from somewhere nearby today, which makes my bedroom sound eerily like the TARDIS. I really would like to be able to take my room anywhere in time and space. But probably not to 1983.
This is quite long and I know some people find other people’s dreams boring, so I put them in a separate post. You can skip it if you want. I’ll try to post my usual update later.
I had two dreams last night. In the first dream, I had been part of some kind of big armed robbery (!) before the dream started, masterminded by a boss from a former real world job (I won’t say which one, just in case). I had had a minor role as some kind of look out or something similar. The mastermind was trying to get us together to do an even bigger robbery, one in which it was more likely someone would get killed. I didn’t want to do this, nor did several of the other people who were involved in the first one, but the mastermind was blackmailing us, saying if we didn’t cooperate, she would tell the police about our involvement in the first robbery. I decided I couldn’t cope with the guilt and was going to tell my parents and my rabbi mentor what I had done, even if I ended up going to jail. I was less worried about jail and more feeling guilty that I had let my parents and rabbi mentor down by doing such a bad thing.
I woke up feeling upset and guilty. It took me a moment to realise it was a dream and I hadn’t really done such a bad thing against my values. This was probably triggered by revisiting the job where I had that boss for my novel, where I felt I had been incompetent at times (incompetent, not criminal!) but I don’t know why I exaggerated it to that extent. I suppose it shows how awkward I’ve found the workplace over the last couple of years (when I’ve actually had a job to go to).
In the second dream I was in some kind of residential scheme for people with “issues.” I think I was still a teenager. Some of the other teenagers there were people I was at school with, but others weren’t. I was leaving a day early for some reason. I wanted to stay in touch, but wasn’t sure how to leave my email address. I wanted to give it to one of the people running the programme (who were all nuns, for some reason) to pass on, but first I couldn’t find any blank paper as all the pads had scrawls on them, and then my pen wouldn’t write — the ink just sat in a blob, like mercury. Then the nun wasn’t sure about giving my email to women, in case they misunderstood, but then some of the women came in and wanted my email address. Then I woke up.
I think the second dream was about a residential scheme I did for a week when I was sixteen, for students from state schools who wanted to apply to Oxbridge. We did a one week course with other people thinking of studying the same subject to get an idea of what studying at Oxbridge is like. I struggled with it initially. I nearly came home after the first night because I felt so homesick and lonely. I did eventually connect a bit with the other students, but on the last night they went to the pub with the teachers and I stayed in the building. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t go. They even came back to get me, but I couldn’t face it. I was so angry with myself for not going, but I just couldn’t manage it. I guess it was social anxiety and not being used to being accepted in a group. Maybe some autistic stuff about feeling I can’t understand other people properly. I don’t know what they thought about me. I think they tried to stay in contact together as a group for a bit afterwards, but I didn’t manage that either. I feel quite bad writing this, as they were friendly and I couldn’t cope with that. I feel like I let them down. So I think my dream was about what if this had gone better. What if I could connect with people better.
One of the students there in the dream was someone I was at school with, but struggled to understand. I was a bit wary of him, for reasons I did not really understand. He was clever, but not geeky. He was very left-wing, much further than I was then, let alone now, and rather anti-Zionistic at a Jewish school where everyone was Zionist; I’m not sure if I knew that at the time though. I suppose I couldn’t find common ground to connect with him; it didn’t help that I didn’t really know him or have classes with him, he was just a friend of some of my friends, and I found those situations hard. In the dream I knew of all this, but I still got on with him regardless.
I woke up feeling happy and rested, even though I had slept for less then I usually do and I decided to get up.
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.
There are things I think about talking about here, drop hints about, but back away from talking about openly. I’m not sure why I do this. I know why I’m too nervous to talk about them (a whole bunch of different reasons for different topics), but I’m not sure why I keep wanting to bring them up. Maybe because they seem important to me, or simply because I often go into confessional mode on my blog and want to offload everything. Or maybe I’m just trying to provoke people into stopping reading.
One topic I’ve been thinking about for the last few days is crushes. I’ve had some kind of crush most of the time since I was sixteen when I haven’t been in a relationship, which is most of the time. As soon as one crush drops out of my life or marries someone else, I find someone else to fixate on. It’s very adolescent. I suppose it’s a product of wanting love, but being too afraid to be open and vulnerable with someone, so I just obsess about people from a distance. It’s worth noting that of my two “proper” relationships, one was not originally a crush at all (she messaged me on JDate), the other was a mild crush at best (we were emailing, originally just as friends, and I felt a bit of attraction, but only acted on it when she said she felt the same way). So that may be significant, that crushes almost never turn out well.
I can feel the Crush Wraith (I was going to say Crush Monster, but really a crush is ghostly and insubstantial) coming back even though it’s not long since I broke up with E., and even though the circumstances of our break up arguably ought to make me think twice about ever being in a relationship again, or at least not until a whole bunch of other criteria are met (now I’m talking about my love life like an economist…).
It’s not just that. Part of me wants to get back in touch with E., not to date again, I tell myself, but just to be friends. She was a good friend, and I don’t have many friends, ergo I should get back in contact, or so the logic goes. Then comes the guilt: E. doesn’t have many friends either. Maybe she’s in a worse state than I am. Maybe it’s an matter of kindness to get back in contact with her. I’m worried if I do that, we’ll end up with a permanently unresolved on/off relationship that will get in the way of other relationships. I think the attraction is too strong for us to be friends; not close friends, at any rate.
The sermon from Shabbat Shoftim 30 August 1941 in Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, the sermons of the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, resonated with me over Shabbat.
He starts with a verse from the sedra, which the translator (J. Hershy Worsch) translates as, “Be guileless with God your Lord.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 18.13) I don’t like that translation very much. I would prefer something like “Have integrity in your relationship with God your Lord” or “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God” (which is Sefaria.org’s translation). Tamim has connotations of integrity and wholeheartedness.
He then quotes the Medieval commentator Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak). I’m going to give a mash-up of Worsch’s translation of Rashi and the translation on Sefaria as I don’t like either of them completely and I’m too tired to translate from scratch (it’s gone midnight here): “Walk before Him wholeheartedly; put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future. Simply accept whatever happens to you, and then you will be with God — to be His portion.” This is my favourite Rashi comment, but I’m bad at living up to it, so it got my attention.
In sermonic style, Rabbi Shapira discuss some other things, moving to the situation of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in Europe in the Holocaust in general, saying a Jew would be unable to respond to hope or good news because he has been so “beaten and tortured that he that he is utterly broken and effaced by pain and poverty… there is no longer a person capable of rejoicing.” This is common in Sacred Fire, the acknowledgement that faith and joy depend on physical and psychological wholeness (another meaning of tamim), which I think is crucially missing from a lot of other attempts to deal with suffering religiously.
He says that if the Jews knew that they would be saved tomorrow, they would find courage. “The problem is that they cannot see any end to the darkness.” Then he returns to Rashi’s comment: “Even if you are broken and oppressed, nevertheless be artless and whole. Take strength in God your Lord because you know that God your Lord is with you in your suffering. Do not attempt to project into the future, saying, “I cannot see an end to the darkness,” but simply accept whatever happens to you, and then you will be with God — to be His portion.” (Emphasis added.)
That seemed very meaningful to me, the idea of being mindfully in the present and not trying to see the future, and to see that was seen as having what I would translate as integrity (being “artless and whole”), which is important to me. Whether I can do that is another question. It’s hard when I’m feeling lonely and unlovable and unemployable.
Today I slept a lot. When I was awake, I felt mildly depressed. I did some Torah study and read more of The Siege. I played a game of Rummikub with my parents after seudah (dinner), but didn’t want to play a second game and went off to read.
I’m trying to feel grateful for things like being able to spend time with my parents (and getting on well with them) and not being in lockdown by myself, but it can be hard. I had difficult feelings today, things that were probably vague feelings of anxiety, as well as feelings of sexual frustration that can be triggered by strong negative emotions like anxiety, depression or anger. It is very hard to know what to do with those feelings.
Work (positive): my Mum came into my room excited today just when she was about to go to chemo. I was still in bed and had barely woken up. “There’s a perfect job for you on [Jewish mailing list]!” Dad said the same thing later on. When I eventually got up and looked… it is potentially a very good job for me. I don’t know about “perfect” (I’m not sure that anything’s perfect), but it would hopefully be a long-term job, within my skill set and maybe within my experience too. It’s part-time and maybe would even give some writing time, although I’m not sure about that (I would probably have to crack getting up early if I wanted writing time – I don’t want to give up on writing fiction, so I might have to think laterally to find some time, as I do need a day job). It would also be completely OK with Jewish holidays and early leaving on winter Fridays because it’s at a Jewish institution. I don’t want to say too much about it, though, because it’s early days and because there aren’t so many institutions like this around and I don’t want to give too much away online. I also think the job was advertised before, and I didn’t even get to interview stage, so I’m not getting my hopes up at this stage.
There are some scary aspects – I think all work is scary for me, on some level, because of social anxiety and low self-esteem (I don’t think I can do anything right) and because a job is something new and autism, even high functioning autism, does not like new things – but hopefully it would be manageable. I have failed to get similar jobs in this sector (or sub-sector of the library sector) before though; I’m not hugely experienced in this area. So, I’m not as excited as my parents were, but it is potentially interesting.
I psyched myself up to phone and ask for an application form as I thought I need to challenge my social anxiety more, especially as I have hardly done anything social for months, but there was no answer when I phoned. I emailed for an application form instead.
Work (negative): I got feedback on my cataloguing test from the other week. It wasn’t great. Some of it was my confusion over how they wanted it done, but some of it is that I have got rusty over the years when I haven’t been consistently cataloguing. Even when I have been cataloguing, the library standards I’ve been using have perhaps been less stringent than would be necessary for a pure cataloguing job. I feel guilty about that. This dented my confidence a bit for the other job application, even though that would probably not involve so much cataloguing and especially not up to the standards required for the cataloguing test job. It doesn’t take much to reinforce my feelings about being an inadequate librarian, and an inadequate everything else. If I hadn’t been depressed, and had finished my MA in a year and gone straight to a cataloguing job… but there’s really no point in playing those games.
It’s upsetting though. Sometimes it feels like my low self-esteem is eminently justified: I can’t hold down a job permanently, or work full-time, or maintain a relationship properly, or make friends easily, or do other things like drive a car. I know I need to focus on the positives, the things I can do, but sometimes there just seem so many negatives.
I still feel lonely. I find myself endlessly checking emails, blog comments, and my blog reader, hoping for some spark of communication. Anything to feel less alone. The problem is that true I-Thou moments of connection are rare and, as I learnt at my religion/philosophy shiur (class) on Monday, impossible to manufacture. You must be open to them (which often I am not) and, I suppose, lucky (which I also am not). Perhaps also skilled at communication (again, I’m not – you may be noticing a pattern here). It probably doesn’t help that I keep so many of my opinions to myself, on religion, politics, culture and life in general, because I’m so scared of rejection.
Achievements today: I tried to phone about the job and emailed instead when no one answered the phone. That took longer than I would have expected. I also brought in the weekly food delivery and put it all away; I do that most weeks, but I only realised today it takes about fifteen minutes, rather more than I would have thought, enough to qualify as a proper weekly chore, at least from the point of view of doing it with lowered depressive energy levels. It would certainly take time and energy away from other things.
I spent an hour and forty minutes writing my novel, managing about 800 words, which is OK, but not great. I also did some planning for the next bit, which was easier than I expected. One of the minor characters is trying to force herself into the story more. I want her to be in it more, as she’s more fun than all my other characters (Doctor Who fans: think Amelia Ducat or Professor Rumford), but I’m not sure I can justify it from a narrative point of view.
I spent about fifteen minutes working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which I am not entirely happy with, but I am running out of time to work on it. I also had my other shiur (religious class) for an hour and a half, which I’m still struggling with. On the one hand, I know a lot already and am not being stretched so much. On the other hand, I’m too socially anxious to really participate, especially as being on Zoom is even harder than being in a class in person. Not only am I reluctant to answer questions, I won’t even read out (in English, let alone Hebrew), which is pure social anxiety.
It is hard to function when it is so hot. I’ve had my fan going all afternoon with my windows shut all day (except for the small air vents) to see if it helps shutting out the hot air, but I’m not sure it has done much except make it stuffy. I went for a walk after shiur, when it was late and cool, which was refreshing, but I came back to my room which is so hot.
Stuff I’ve been beating myself up about today: thoughts and feelings connected with loneliness that are probably normal and not to be ashamed of, but I feel ashamed of them anyway. Other thoughts that are probably also normal, but I feel ashamed of them too, as if they were nasty and offensive. I try to remember, as someone said in a therapy group I was in, “I’m not responsible for my first thought, but I am responsible for my second one” which I take to mean that sometimes “bad” (hateful, angry, aggressive, rude, lustful, spiteful, etc.) thoughts come into my head, but that’s not my fault if I don’t pursue them.
I also wrote a blog comment late last night that probably came out wrong. I was trying to say that I find God as written literally in Tanakh to be often strict and difficult to see as moral, whereas Jews read Tanakh in the light of Talmud and Midrash which give the impression of a kinder, forgiving God, which is then read back into Tanakh based on clues in the text that point towards the kinder God (I think there is an idea that the Written Torah (Tanakh) comes from God’s attribute of justice while the Oral Torah (everything else, but especially Talmud) comes from His attribute of kindness, hence the difference). I don’t think I expressed that well. I communicate better in writing than in any other medium, but sometimes I feel that I just can’t communicate well at all.
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.
I switched my previous post to private. The antisemitism stuff is true, but this was probably the wrong time to share those thoughts. I tried to explain the way my mind works, but I don’t think I did so successfully. I got too caught up in my anger and fear for myself and other Jews. The “touch hunger” stuff is true, and I will probably pick up on it again at some point, but not now.
There’s still an impending Bad Thing that I don’t seem to be able to get away from. To be honest, it’s pretty much happened already, but there’s a small chance it can change. I’m not hopeful though. The whole situation makes me feel lonely and inadequate. It is hard to be positive about the future when so much of the past was so negative. Why should anything change? I know my rabbi mentor said I have “privilege” and in some senses I do, but I have had, and continue to have, real hardships too. The fact that I’m lucky to have loving family and a degree of financial support doesn’t make depression, high functioning autism, loneliness and unemployment easier.
Somehow I don’t seem to know how to change things so that bad stuff does not happen, or (more realistically) so that I can cope with it better when it happens. I hope that a firm autism diagnosis might lead on to help with getting back into the workplace, but somehow I doubt it, as I’ve had quite a bit of help already, to no avail (or limited avail). In any case, because of COVID, I have no idea when my assessment will be. From what little information I have, eighteen months from whenever lockdown is officially over seems to be the minimum time, so probably about two years from now.
I’m feeling guilty and lonely again about having lost so many people from my life generally and especially recently (the last year or two). I’ve lost far too many friends, but I’m not sure how much I could realistically have done differently, and some of those friendships were probably doomed from the start.
More tangible guilt feelings came from mulling over something from a Zoom shiur (religious class) last week. The rabbi said that we should elevate our non-religious interests and tastes by using them for religious purposes, relaxing so we can reconnect with God, eating good food on Shabbat (the Sabbath) to celebrate etc. Otherwise our interests are distractions from God, which is not a good thing.
My Doctor Who fandom (and other classic British telefantasy fandom, but let’s stick with Doctor Who for brevity) is something that I have invested a lot of time, money and energy in over the years, not least with writing my non-fiction book about the programme. As an autistic special interest, it’s really important to my well-being, helping me to shelter from the difficulties of the world as well as to recharge. It even helps me understand a confusing world a bit easier. A lot of my general knowledge comes via Doctor Who, one way or another; even my first encounter with postmodernism was in the Doctor Who Magazine of the late nineties (I miss the crazy, silly, sarky, pseudo-intellectual fandom of the nineties and early noughties). I suspect that I use the more emotional newer episodes to understand emotion better (if the tenth Doctor was the ADHD Doctor, the twelfth Doctor was the autistic Doctor). But does it bring me closer to God? I doubt it, especially with the series being generally sceptical, if not atheist, in outlook.
As Alex Drake asked in the episode of Ashes to Ashes that I just watched (season three, episode one), what do you do when the stories in your head are more real than the real world? My answer: try to make telling those stories your role in the real world, or so I hope, but it’s a lot to stake my future on when I don’t know if I can write that well or get published.
So, I feel bad about investing so much time and energy in something that gives me pleasure and support, but doesn’t help me religiously. Just when I was beginning to feel I was connecting to God again too.
My sister and brother-in-law came over for a socially distanced tea and cake. I was mostly mentally present and engaged, despite some initial difficulty. It does feel that every time I see them, they’ve done some additional “adult” thing that I’ve never done, despite their being younger than me. This time it was buying a trellis for the garden. I can’t imagine ever buying a trellis. I wrote in my sister’s copy of my Doctor Who book, which I guess is an adult thing I’ve done that they haven’t done, even if it doesn’t feel “real” as it is self-published.
Other achievements of the day: forty minutes of Torah study (I would have liked to have done more, but I ran out of energy), a thirty-five minute run (and resultant exercise migraine – I knew it was likely given how hot it was out) and an indeterminate amount of time writing my novel – I was distracted at times, but wrote 900 words.
Sometimes I feel I’m a terrible person, and sometimes I want to tell people everything about me so that they’ll realise how terrible I am and stop being my friends, because I don’t deserve friends, and at least if I had no friends, it would stop me getting my hopes up about ever being happy. I don’t think I will ever be happy, but every so often I hope that I will and it’s painful when those hopes are dashed again.
The BBC news site wins the prize for stating the obvious with their headline, “Coronavirus: People living alone at risk of loneliness”. A deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and it only took them a couple of months to work it out. As someone who has lived alone, I can say that people living alone are at risk of loneliness even without coronavirus and lockdown. I am glad I moved back in with my parents in 2018 as it has meant I haven’t been alone in lockdown.
(The title quote is from Doctor Who, inevitably: Kinda by Christopher Bailey. I was going to say it’s the pseud-fan’s favourite Who, but that’s really a three-way tie between Kinda, Warriors’ Gate and Ghost Light.)
There are some things going on in my life at the moment which I can’t blog about. I just feel bad about a lot of things. Defining “bad” is harder: probably sad, despairing, anxious, frustrated and guilty. I just feel a lot of difficult feelings and it is hard to tease out what each one is.
I’m also still getting upset by the news, different thoughts and feelings, back and forth. Worried that I’m not thinking the ‘right’ thing, that people would be angry with me if they knew what I thought. Feeling that I can want to end racism and police brutality without particularly wanting to “end capitalism” (whatever that would even mean). Wondering why, if Sir Keir Starmer is so opposed to prejudice that he will “take a knee” to oppose racism, that he spent three and a half years on the Labour front bench as the party became a safe haven for antisemites and Holocaust deniers without uttering a word of protest. Then feeling guilty for “making everything Jewish.” There’s more, but I don’t want to go there.
I try to tell myself that “It doesn’t matter what other people think. That’s just their opinion. I’m allowed to have my own opinions,” but still I feel the need to justify everything, argue everything back and forth in my head.
Achievements today: I blogged on my Doctor Who blog for the first time in ages, excluding an advert post for my book. I spent an hour and a half working on my novel, or trying to, amidst difficult thoughts. I went for a half-hour walk and cooked dinner. I guess that’s quite a bit, although it is hard to see it as an achievement.
I went to a half-hour Zoom shiur given by the rabbi of my parents’ shul (synagogue). It was on love of God and how to love God when things are difficult. I’m not sure how helpful it was. The idea was that if we are aware of God’s greatness and His wisdom, that should lead on naturally to love of Him. I struggle with doing that. It should also lead on to thinking that anything bad that happens must really be for the good. I can understand that intellectually, but it’s really hard to internalise when so many things in my life seem so bad, or just so painful. It’s not so much that I can’t accept that bad things might be good or necessary or that a benevolent God wouldn’t put me through them, it’s more that I feel I have nothing left to give any more. I’ve used up all my energy coping with the last thirty-seven (nearly) years. Everything just hurts too much for me to carry on.
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.
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.
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.
I’m breaking with my usual post-Yom Tov (festival) habit of trying to catch up on blogs and stuff in the hope of getting to bed before 2am. For the same reason, this is going to be more of a summary of the last three days than a blow-by-blow account.
The shortest version is that the first two days (Yom Tov proper) where an emotional rollercoaster, but I was broadly coping, but Shabbat (the Sabbath) was just too much and I was not good. To be honest, three day Yom Tovs, or “Three Day Events” as my parents call them, are pretty draining for everyone even without COVID-19 disruption and without depression and OCD.
As for the more detailed version… well, the first two days I was up and down. At times I was worried or depressed about some things, but mostly I was able to calm myself by reminding myself that my rabbi mentor told me not to worry about chametz (leaven food, forbidden on Pesach) smaller than an olive (although I know he is being lenient with me here, so it doesn’t always help) and by reminding myself that I’m not responsible for what my parents choose to do. I think there was probably in the background the usual current worries: worries about my Mum, her cancer, and her risk of COVID-19 infection; worries about COVID-19 in general; worries about E.; worries about my relationship with E. (which is going well, I hasten to add, but is at a crossroads, which is exciting but also scary, or was at a crossroads until COVID-19 put our plans on a back burner). And so on.
The sederim went quite well, considering there were just three of us, although it felt a bit weird. Usually we would have about ten or so people in total one night; the other would be me, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law. This year it was just three of us both nights (“Why is this night so different?”). We did have some more discussion than usual, which gives me an idea of how to do things differently in the future. I had a migraine on the afternoon of the first day, but it had subsided by the second seder, which was good. I still struggled to learn anything new at the seder, and to connect emotionally with the ideas of the night. I still end up over-thinking things and not feeling them. I wish I could get more out of seder, and out of Judaism in general. The only real feeling of connection I had was via guilt and anxiety when I did something wrong (see below).
One interesting thing while I was eating the matzah (unleavened bread) was a strong feeling that freedom is being able to “just go,” which obviously connects with the story of the matzah in the Torah, that the Israelites did not have time to bake bread before leaving slavery in Egypt, but is interesting in terms of my usual procrastination and my awareness that my relationship with E. is going to require quite a bit of risk-taking and adventurous departures if it’s going to work.
I made some mistakes, in terms of forgetting to do a few things. Most of them were rectifiable, but in opening some celery I had forgotten to open before Yom Tov I tore some writing on the packaging, a big no-no on Shabbat and Yom Tov (it’s considered erasing). I felt very upset about this, and then managed to do it again the next day on something else (that was less obviously my fault though). As I say, I felt upset, but I did manage to move on.
And then we got to Shabbat… It was going well, and then there was an Issue. There was an oversight in the kitchen (I won’t go into the details which are fairly complex) and potentially we had messed up the Pesach kosher-ness of some food. I was 80% sure it was OK, but still couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I didn’t argue with my parents, but they did eat it, and put it on our plates, which meant that the plates were now potentially problematic. I tried to stay calm, but it was hard to do that with all the worries I mentioned above in my head plus the minor Pesach worries and now plus this. I tried not to eat anything potentially ‘contaminated’ for the rest of the day, but it was hard to keep track of what cutlery had gone where and by lunchtime on Saturday I was de facto relying on my opinion that the food was OK (which at least had now grown to 90% certainty).
After Shabbat we emailed my parents’ rabbi and he said what I had thought: it was OK, we had just infringed a protective measure intended as an extra level of safety. But it’s hard to spend Pesach every year wrestling with feelings that God is going to deny me any reward in the afterlife because of confused and panicked decisions I take at Pesach, especially as those are motivated more by a desire to avoid arguing with my parents than some selfish desire to eat chametz on Pesach. I thought I was past this stage, but apparently not, or at least, not in this crazy year.
It’s hard to treat OCD at a time of the year when we are supposed to be worried about what we eat. I suppose the analogy would be to someone who had germ contamination OCD and was trying to treat it with exposure therapy, but now has to deal with COVID-19 and suddenly being told to wash her hands all the time.
I also ate a load of junk over the three days and little fruit and veg, again because of a complicated religious/not-arguing-with-parents reason (I usually eat a lot of fruit and veg). On the plus side, my biscuits tasted good, despite the cinnamon balls turning into macaroon shape and the almond macaroons ending up as a solid block that my Mum had to hack into smaller chunks.
Other than that it was the usual Yom Tov mix of over-eating, oversleeping, praying and reading. My parents more or less forced me to go for a half-hour walk each day, which I needed. I worked through a couple more Tehillim/Psalms in Hebrew and read more of Ani Maamin as well as more than half of a murder mystery set in a Haredi community, the first in a long sequence. I’m enjoying it enough to stick with it to see how it ends, but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any more. It’s not really as interesting as I thought it would be, maybe because the Haredi community doesn’t seem so exotic; if anything, it seems less strict than my own community, which probably wasn’t the intention.
I should really go to bed. I’m already violating my “No screens after 11pm” rule just to write this, but I’ve been struggling for the last few days with trying to keep going without being able to off-load. I feel like I need to watch some TV to unwind. I know it might keep me awake, but not relaxing will also keep me awake and I don’t really feel like reading any more.
I did quite a lot today, although it was mostly Pesach (Passover) preparation, so not terribly interesting to record here. I went shopping and extended my walk home a bit for exercise, although not for as long as I would have liked if I hadn’t had so many other things on today or been nervous about staying out with COVID-19. I kashered the hob for Pesach, which basically involves boiling pots of water on each burner until it all gets really hot, then, when it’s cooled, covering the tops of the grates in aluminium foil. I cooked some biscuits, almond macaroons, which spread too much and turned into two giant biscuits. I think Mum cut them back into biscuit shape; from a baking point of view they were fine. I cleaned the kitchen sink thoroughly to kasher it tomorrow and printed a load of signs so we can see where the Pesach and non-Pesach stuff is in the rearranged kitchen (then discovered we had some from last year).
I’ve been trying hard to fight the Pesach OCD that worries about the special dietary laws of the festival and the necessity of cooking not just different food, but in different utensils and with purged work surfaces, sinks, ovens and the like. I’ve been trying hard not to give in if I want to physically check something multiple times; or email my rabbi mentor to check I’ve done something correctly; or to look up a detail that I know about, but want to double-check; or to ask my parents if they’ve washed their hands before touching Pesach food stuff… It’s hard to do exposure therapy for Pesach OCD because unlike my ordinary kashrut OCD, where I was able to gradually expose myself to my irrational fears until the anxiety subsided, I’m not able to expose myself to Pesach OCD over a prolonged period of time. I just have to sit with the anxiety and push through things despite it. Dialing back the handwashing is harder, though, as Pesach and COVID-19 team up against me there and it usually feels like at least one of them mandates washing my hands in any given situation. My hands are cracked, itchy and sometimes painful, but, to be honest, I’ve had worse Pesachs from a chapped hands point of view.
The other thing I had today was another depression group online meeting. I found myself feeling very anxious during this meeting. Some of it may have been residual anxiety from Pesach preparations, but I think a lot of it was social anxiety. I can find the in-person depression groups challenging sometimes, but I find the online meetings so far much harder. I’m fine Skyping E. one-to-one, and I’ve had one-to-one Skype therapy and meetings with my rabbi mentor, but a group meeting (and this was a slightly larger group than last time) seems to be exponentially harder. I think I feel self-conscious with my picture on the screen, I don’t always talk loudly enough for the microphone to pick my voice up and the problems I have in sessions in terms of judging when I can speak and what to say somehow seems even more difficult to deal with online. I still struggle with what I feel comfortable talking about and feel self-conscious of not expressing myself as clearly and as confidently as I would like. I would like to continue going to these meetings as the lockdown continues, but I need to think about the best way of dealing with them.
It also occurred to me in the meeting that I’ve been completely focused on getting Pesach done despite COVID-19 and Mum’s cancer. Soon, Pesach will be over, but the two Cs (as Mum calls them) will still be here and I will probably need to think of a new coping strategy or at least something else to occupy my time.
This post on trans-generational trauma was interesting. I was interested because the case study is of a Holocaust survivor and his family. My family had surprisingly little Holocaust connection, thankfully, although I’m sure every Jewish family suffered from institutionalised or persistent violence and persecution at some point. I don’t think anything was passed down my family in that way, but perhaps because I take my Jewish identity very seriously I feel a sort of inchoate responsibility for the world in general and the Jewish people in particular and a desire to change things for the better without really knowing how, beyond a vague hope/fear that my suffering will somehow achieve some kind of vicarious atonement.
I feel a bit bad, as I just did give in to the OCD on a relatively minor thing, but I could see it spiralling out into something bigger (with OCD once you give in to one doubt or anxiety, it often snowballs into something much larger) and drew a line in the sand. But it does indicate that I am too tired to function. I will do a few minutes of Torah study as I haven’t done any today and don’t want to go a whole day without even five minutes, break my “No screens after 11pm” rule even further to relax a little for twenty minutes, and go to bed.