“It’s a pity/That I’m like me”

(Another one of my written-piecemeal-during-the-day update posts.  And a super-mammoth one at that.  Possibly I should just go on Twitter or Facebook, except that neither is good for my mental health.)

12.10pm  I don’t know what time I went to bed last night.  I know it was very late, probably around 3.00am, but earlier than two nights ago (about 4.30am).  I got really hungry late at night and stayed up late eating matzah and jam and junk food.  Not good on any level, really.  I have been eating more junk food over the last few days, which I tell myself is OK because of being happy on Yom Tov (Jewish festival), but is more comfort eating than anything else, and the cravings I’ve had since I was put on clomipramine.  Anyway, I woke up today about 11.30am after a strange Doctor Who dream.  I feel completely drained.  My Dad just asked if I was OK because I was huffing and puffing as I went up the stairs.  I just want to go back to bed.

1.50pm  Still in pyjamas, having got no further towards getting dressed than putting on socks.  Idly browsing the web was a mistake, because it led to politics which led to antisemitism.  Depressing.  I should avoid this stuff, but I care too much.  I wrote a long paragraph about antisemitism here, but cut it because this is a mental health blog, not a political one and I don’t have the stamina to get arguments.  I will say that I believe the way forward is empathy and dialogue, but I don’t know how you enter into dialogue with people who have already judged that you have nothing to say to them.

2.40pm  Dressed.  Davened Musaf and Hallel (said the additional Pesach prayers and Psalms), but left Minchah (the afternoon service) and tefillin (my custom is to wear them on Chol HaMoed with a silent bracha) until after lunch because I’m still too exhausted.  I suddenly had intense religious OCD while davening.  I asked my rabbi mentor something about Pesach two years ago that he said was fine, but I’m worried (this is where the OCD comes in) that I didn’t explain it well enough, so I asked him again the other day, but he hasn’t got back to me.  (I’m guessing that he’s not checking email over Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival, where some work is allowed) or is busy with his children off school.)  Deep down I know that if there is an issue, it’s not my fault, as he said it was OK, but I worry that I didn’t ask the question properly and that it is my fault.

3.30pm  I watched Are You Autistic? (recorded last week) over lunch.  It just confused me.  It made me wonder if I’m not autistic after all, which, of course, was what I was told when I was assessed.  It’s hard to process the fact that I have lots of autistic traits, but am also missing lots of traits that should be present for diagnosis.  Perhaps my difficulties really do stem from strong introversion and social anxiety (which I was also told I don’t technically have); reduced concentration from depression could account for the poor executive function.  I don’t know how many of my non-autistic traits can be attributed to social masking and other coping mechanisms (see this post I wrote recently).  I feel that if I was diagnosed with autism, I would be able to understand myself and seek support, not least at work, but just being a bit weird leaves me confused and unable to ask for help.

I had more OCD over lunch too.  I sort of kept it under control, but I have a nagging feeling of having done something wrong (religiously) and that I should ask a rabbi about what happened, even though I know that would also be wrong (psychotherapeutically).

4.00pm  There’s more feelings of inadequacy around my writing.  The feeling that I should have been a regular writer for Hevria, but I got turned down for reasons I never really understood and feel guilty about mentioning so often.  What should have been a boost to my confidence (that they’ve published me several times) turns into another reason to beat myself up (that they didn’t want me to write regularly and pay me.  The payment is more symbolic than mercenary – it would show that someone values my writing.  I’ve only been paid once for a piece of writing, two if you count the professionally-published piece where the writers’ fees were donated to charity).  I wouldn’t have been able to cope with writing regularly anyway.  I have several pieces for Hevria on my computer that I’ve never submitted, I’m not sure why.  I don’t know if it’s fear of rejection or, worse, fear of acceptance.  There’s the worry that I’ll never sell my Doctor Who book(s),  that I don’t write well enough, that I don’t write originally enough, that I’m too out of sync with standard fan criticism (which these days is just identity politics and sarcasm)…

I feel too exhausted to do any creative writing today.  It would just be painful.

Edited 10.30pm  I think when I wrote this, the previous two paragraphs were not connected in my mind.  Reading them back, they clearly are connected.  It’s easier not to even try to do something than to try and fail, or be rejected.  I guess I will have to try harder to write tomorrow.  This is why I’m not cutting the previous paragraphs, even though I do not come out well from them; in fact, I come across as petty and bitter.  I hope that’s the depression talking.

5.00pm  I finally managed to daven Mincha.  It felt like an endurance test with depression and exhaustion, with OCD thoughts in the background.

5.35pm  Fighting the urge to go back to bed and start the day over again.  Or just to go back to bed.

6.10pm  Back from a twenty minute walk.  I didn’t realise how cold it was and went out without a coat.  Thoughts about antisemitism mutated into general despair about politics and the Western world.  I could hardly hear the music I was listening to, my thoughts were so loud.  (Does that even make sense?  It happens to me a lot.  I get sucked into a maelstrom of thought and lose contact with everything around me.  Sometimes at work I’m trying to work, but my depressive thoughts start and become so vivid that I don’t even notice my physical surroundings any more.  When I’m with my parents, they see me staring into space sometimes and ask if I’m OK when I’m just thinking, which of course breaks the concentration, for good or for ill.)

6.50pm   Feeling lonely and unlovable.  I don’t have the energy/motivation to actually talk to anyone, but I wish there was someone to (literally and metaphorically) hold my hand and watch TV with me.  I feel more unmarriable than ever, particularly as I’ve more or less decided that I shouldn’t date until I’ve made progress with my social anxiety, which seems unlikely to happen any time soon, and that the depression is constantly going to hold me back from forming a serious relationship, which also doesn’t seem like changing any time soon.  I found myself thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have broken up with my ex (five years ago this month!), which is a scary thing to think when she herself admitted that she wasn’t really there for me and our religious paths had diverged.

It seems unfair that other people get to have fun and I don’t (not that marriage is just for fun by any means, but I’m talking generally).  I tell myself that this life is for growth, not for pleasure, but that just seems like “the opiate of the masses.”  Anyway, Judaism is not opposed to the sensual pleasures of this world, it merely seeks to harness them for a holy purpose.  Which reminds me that my shul (synagogue) rabbi said I won’t feel simcha shel mitzvah (the joy of performing the commandments) until I’m over the depression (which makes me despair) and that my rabbi mentor disagreed and said I should feel a bit (which just makes me feel guilty for not feeling it at all).  I am nearly halfway through Pesach and while I am not as OCD anxious as I feared I would be, I have not really had any simcha shel mitzvah (unless you count playing with my friends’ children) and am not sure how to get it in the next four days.

8.00pm  Just watched the first two episodes of the DVD of 1960s science fiction thriller A for Andromeda.  I knew that all bar one of the episodes were missing and reconstructed from photos, surviving clips and captions, but for some reason I thought there was audio too (as per missing Doctor Who episodes), but in fact this is not the case and watching the episodes was harder work than I expected, probably harder than I really needed.  I do feel calmer for having watched it, although this partly because OCD anxiety and depression have been replaced by feeling too exhausted to care about anything.  Still, it was involving enough, if showing its age in places.  I really like old British TV science fiction and feel they don’t really make anything like it any more.  I look forward to reaching the surviving sixth episode and then the sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, which survives in its entirety.  Apparently there was a remake of A for Andromeda a while back which I will probably check out at some point.  Another book I could write at some point: something about the Quatermass and Andromeda serials and their various spin-offs and remakes.  Although I don’t know who would buy it…

9.00pm  Over dinner I thought that I want to feel reciprocated love, even (I’ll say it) to feel lust that is reciprocated for once.  I’m fed up of having my most powerful emotions being invalidated by others by their one-sided nature.  I suppose no one can actually invalidate my emotions, but I’ve been told a couple of times over the years by women I’ve liked, “You don’t love me,” which was probably true, I probably didn’t literally love them, but in my naivety I thought I did love them and being told that I didn’t hurt.  It’s hard to have a good understanding of love and related emotions when (a) you have an alexithymic incomprehension of all your emotions and (b) every time you feel something romantic or sexual you end up rejected and burdened with guilt.

10.40pm  Another day over with very little done.  I did manage fifteen minutes of Torah study, which was fifteen minutes more than I thought I would manage, but other than a short walk and this post I haven’t achieved much.  I haven’t even hoovered the bedroom carpet, which is filthy and which I haven’t got around to doing since last week.  Tomorrow, I suppose, is another day, one on which I have a routine blood test, so I will at least have to be up earlyish.

Thoughts I’ve had this Evening

Someone as messed up as me doesn’t deserve to be happy…

…so it’s just as well that I can’t ever be happy.

I just want someone to tell me I’m a good person…

…and let myself believe them, which is harder.

I feel so lonely…

…I wish there was someone here with me…

…which I can now understand as wanting someone I feel comfortable talking to or just being with, but also someone I feel comfortable touching and letting her touch me, gently and affectionately more than just sexually…

…One of my (female) friends once said that I tend to fall for “alpha women” who aren’t interested in me.  I’m not sure if that’s completely true (about them being alpha women, they certainly aren’t interested in me), but I guess some of them would qualify…

…but saying I’m looking for someone gentle, caring, quiet and family-focused is hard, because I feel like I’m saying that I’m looking for some stereotyped pre-feminist Victorian Stepford Wife, when really all I’m saying is that I want to marry someone like myself (I’m not sure if I’m caring, but I’m gentle, quiet and family-focused)…

…for the record, I cook, clean, grocery shop and can launder, iron and sew (the latter very badly).  I’m not looking for a domestic servant or living doll.  I have no problem with my wife going to work leaving me as a house-husband if it makes economic sense for us.  I just want to meet someone like me, someone I would feel able to trust: thoughtful, intelligent, gentle, caring, quiet, family-focused and with a sense of integrity both in terms of being honest and in terms of being true to herself and her unique character…

…Maybe if I show that last paragraph to the shadchanit she might know someone suitable?

On a different note, I spent much of the evening downloading photos from my sister’s wedding.  I didn’t even take that many, and some came out blurred because of problems with my camera’s flash, or off-centre because I had to stay out of the way of the official photographer.  Oh well.  I don’t know if anyone’s interested in seeing them.  I can’t put them up here because of my anonymity and because there are photos of young children that I wouldn’t put up without their parents’ permission, but if anyone I know in real life (or have known online for a long time) wants the Snapfish link, please email me.  I didn’t take many photos (even fewer once I weeded out the really bad ones).  Maybe I was too busy experiencing the event or maybe I just felt too nervous too much of the time.  I’m not sure.  Certainly I spent a lot of the evening elsewhere, during the dancing.

Torah from the Depths: Vayeira: Becoming Laughter

Continuing my weekly posts of mental health-inspired reflections on the weekly Torah reading.

Strangely, in a sedra that is so much about death and near death, the resonance I found with my depression was not death and destruction at all, but birth and life.

“And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me, all who hear will laugh (yitzchak) for me.” – Bereshit/Genesis 21.6

I have mentioned in the past the importance of firsts in traditional Jewish textual exegesis.  As far as I can tell, the idea of laughter is first recorded in the Torah in relation to the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), first when God tells the elderly Avraham (Abraham) and Sarah (who is infertile as well as elderly) that they will have a son and then when he is born.  Importantly, Yitzchak means, “He will laugh” and this play on words appears in the verse I quoted above.

What resonated with me is the idea of such laughter so intense that everyone shares it, that even takes over the entirety of a person’s being (I am not enough of a dikduknik (grammarian) to be sure, but I think “tzechok asa li” “has made laughter for me” can also be translatated as “has made me into laughter”, a laughter so strong that one completely becomes it with one’s whole being).  I think this is the laughter that comes as a release after a long period of suffering, when sadness is converted to joy, as with the Avraham and Sarah miraculously having a child in old age after decades of infertility.  Happy are those who are granted such laughter.

The Four Horsemen of the Self-Destructive Apocalypse

Tiring day.  I had some bad news this morning (my sister’s future grandmother-in-law died), but it was fairly distant from me (I never met her) and I wasn’t desolated.  I also had some good news, being invited out for dinner on second night Sukkot (this Thursday), going to the people I was supposed to go to on Rosh Hashanah, before I got ill.

But the day was just tiring.  I struggled at work, cataloguing some difficult books and while I managed to offset the difficult ones with some easy ones to get through a reasonable amount, I gave up some of my lunch break because I thought I had been wasting time.  I need to have some familiarity with our stock to help students find books and to know which new ones to buy.  I also need to skim over books to catalogue them.  However, being an avid reader with a wide range of interests, it’s easy to get caught up in a book (fiction or non-fiction) and I tell myself off if I think I’m reading for too long.  As “too long” is entirely subjective, this is another opportunity for self-loathing, blame, shame and guilt, who I suppose are the Four Horsemen of the Self-Destructive Apocalypse (not that that’s a Jewish belief).

On the Tube home I sat opposite a beautiful, heavily pregnant woman (who looked a bit like Freema Agyeman from Doctor Who) and her husband.  I sat there, trying not to stare at them, feeling envious.  This is what I want: spouse, children, love.  Of course, the Four Horsemen ride in immediately.  I said this year would be different.  This year, I would stop envying others their lives.  This year I would accept HaShem’s (God’s) plan for me.  If He says jump, I say, “How high?”  If He says, “You will be lonely forever,” I say, “You know best.”  But I can’t do it.  I just can’t do it.  I want to be happy too much, I want to be loved too much.

Envy

I don’t think of myself as an envious person, but over the last few years I have been increasingly visited by envy.  It probably started a few years ago, when Hevria was launched and I felt strongly that I wanted to write for it, but wasn’t asked.  After about six months I volunteered, only to be turned down; I’m still not entirely sure why.  I got very upset and my writing never really recovered.  I’ve written odd bits and pieces since then, including a couple of guest posts for Hevria and one piece for Den of Geek that I got paid for, but almost no poetry and it took a long time before I turned back to writing regularly when I started this blog and started editing various Doctor Who blog posts into a book.  (In the end I was sort of offered the chance to write regularly for Hevria, but I no longer have the time and I still feel blocked from that kind of writing, although I’m not sure how serious the offer was anyway.  But it felt good to be offered anyway.)

Then last year I managed, somehow, to go out for a Shabbat tisch (community Sabbath party thing) hosted by someone from the shul I’m trying to move to.  He is my age or even younger and as I walked into his house and saw his lovely home and cute children and beautiful wife (I didn’t actually see his wife.  I once saw him talking to a woman who I assumed was his wife, given that he’s very frum and probably doesn’t talk to other women if he can avoid it, but I could be wrong) and felt that he had all the things that I wanted.  I had to force myself not to feel envy and it was hard.  I felt a similar thing when I went to my ex-date for lunch this last Shabbat: her flat is so much larger and more comfortable and attractive than my tiny converted garage.  I told myself more space means more housework, but I’m not sure how convinced I was.

I envy a lot of my peers their lives, their friendships, their relationships and their children, all the things I want and lack, but I also envy their Torah learning and mitzvot (commandments).  I want to be a better Jew and I assume my peers are all doing better at that than I am.  I know we are told that what matters is the effort, not the achievement, and I have to put in a lot of effort just to stay in the same place, let alone to grow and I have no idea how much effort they put in.  But it is hard not to feel inadequate, to feel that I could be better if I was more like them.  I feel I lack the joy and passion others can find in religion; I feel as if I’m doing things out of obligation and saying prayers by rote rather than really connecting with God and Torah.  I still believe, I just don’t feel, I suspect my depression stops me feeling.  It is difficult.

I suppose what it all boils down to is a feeling that life has passed me by, that I will never have the joy or pleasure or love or simple satisfaction in my achievements that other people get to experience.  Funnily enough, it has been suggested to me that other children were envious of me at school and that this was why they bullied me.  I find this hard to believe, but also vaguely unfair, given that I think my academic achievement was the product of hard work rather than natural cleverness; I was intelligent at school, but I had to work hard for my grades.

I try to feel gratitude as the antidote to envy.  I try to thank God for at least five things every day (even if it’s “Thank you that I didn’t hurt myself when I felt so depressed”).  I get on better with my family than I used to do, certainly better than a lot of other people do.  I have a job (two-thirds of a full-time job now), which is worth something in this economy and also given that a few years ago it seemed completely impossible that I would ever be working.  I live by myself without trouble and I have some friends, even if they do largely live inside my computer.  But I feel I need something more.  I have no joy, no romantic/sexual love, no passion, no purpose and it is hard not to envy those who do have these things.

I suspect I need something else in my life.  Sherlock Holmes turned to drugs to stimulate his brain when work dried up; I suspect I too need something to fill my non-work hours, but hopefully something healthier and more socially acceptable.  My work on my book precludes other hobbies, but it offers one possible outlet, but it is going slowly thanks to my having to watch so many old episodes of Doctor Who for research.  I’m not sure my religion can offer me anything more than more frustration at the moment.  I can’t stand any party enough to get involved in politics.  That leaves dating and volunteering.  The former is tempting, but maybe the latter is more sensible (in the sense that I don’t know if I’m ready for dating, but also that I doubt anyone would want me anyway and maybe it’s just easier not to bother looking).  But I haven’t the time or energy for either at the moment; I’ll just have to hope things get easier if and when I have settled into a new work routine.

Heaven Sent, Hell Bent; Or, Doctor Who is my Spirit Guide (Maybe)

(No wise mind today, this is too weird and it’s too late at night after Shabbat.)

I had a weird Shabbat.  At shul (synagogue) this morning, someone asked me to lunch.  I panicked and said I had to go home because my parents were expecting me, which was true, but it was early enough that I could have gone home, told Mum I was going out to lunch and gone back out again.  Really, I panicked.  It happened so fast that I’m not even sure why I panicked.  I think I was worried about not having anything to say or saying something stupid, but it might even have been more fundamental than that, just worrying that someone wants to see me socially worrying me in itself, feeling I will disappoint in someway or that some ill-defined bad thing will happen.  I felt guilty for not going, particularly as this person was going to be eating alone because I wasn’t going but also relieved.  I don’t know what I’ll do if I get asked again, by this person or someone else.  I say I want to have friends, but when I’m presented with the possibility, usually I panic and run away.

On a more positive note, I did speak a little at seudah shlishit (the third meal) at shul.  I made some suggestions about interpreting some Torah passages we were discussing and made a (very slight) attempt at humour.  So that was something positive.  It’s taken nearly eighteen months to get to this stage…

I slept a lot over Shabbat again.  I nearly dozed off during the leining (Torah reading) in shul, which was very bad.  I had a weird dream this afternoon.  I don’t normally relate my dreams, partly because I usually can’t remember them (either coherently or at all), partly because other people’s dreams are usually not terribly interesting, but I thought this one says something about me, although what it says is open to interpretation.

At the start of the dream my parents were annoyed with me.  They thought I was being short-tempered when I wasn’t intending to seem like that.  This happens to me a lot and has happened since childhood.  I think it might be one of my borderline Asperger’s symptoms, that I’m not always as expressive as I would like to be in my tone of voice and facial expressions and so I seem angry when I’m not.

My memory of the next bit is fairly incoherent (something about superheroes loosely based on the graphic novel Superman: Red Son?!).  The next bit I can sort of remember is being with characters from Doctor Who (second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, I think).  I think there was some sort of void between universes (as in The Mind Robber) and then we were in another universe, which I somehow knew was Heaven.  I think.  This is the clearest bit of the dream for me, but I still don’t remember it coherently.  I think I felt intense pleasure in this other universe/Heaven, like nothing I had experienced before.  It made all my suffering worthwhile.  And then I was fighting against myself: part of me wanted to stay there, part of me was trying to wake up.  I felt I had to wake myself up (I have had this experience before when finishing a dream).  Eventually I woke up and it was much later than I intended and I only had a little bit of time to study Torah before going back to shul.

On waking, I wondered if this was a prophetic dream and I had really been shown that I do have a share in the next world (see my comments about feeling I don’t have a share in the next world here) and that it is worth suffering in this world to get it.  Even if I never get any joy or pleasure in this world, it would still be worth it to have the next world.  The void between universes would be Gehennom.  The longer I’ve been awake, though, the more I doubt it.  In Judaism dreams can have prophetic meaning (e.g. Yosef’s/Joseph’s dreams) but even prophetic dreams have a nonsensical element (again, even Yosef’s dreams had this) and some dreams are completely nonsensical.  Why would I be shown that I have a share in the next world?  (My only possible explanation is because I was thinking about death and suicide recently, especially after what happened regarding lunch.)  Especially when I was not even in a state of ritual purity?  And if I was shown the next world, how could I even understand it?  It makes much more sense to see this as a fantasy dream – I wrote during the week about thinking I have no share in the next world, and now my unconscious produces a wish-fulfillment dream about it.  But I can’t shake the feeling that maybe I have been shown something important, if I could just put aside my scepticism.  (Interesting article on dreams in Judaism here.)

The final distressing thing that happened to me was looking through a booklet of Torah thoughts in shul this evening.  There was an essay on prayer.  I brought the booklet home after Shabbat so I can quote it:

Being real about tefilla [prayer] means we realize we are praying to our Father in Heaven Who wants only our good and has the power to do anything.  Therefore, we should anticipate that Hashem [God] wants to help us…

If we do not expect that Hashem will answer our tefilla, Hashem will not invade our space and shock us with success.  He wants us to earn the realization that He is our Father in Heaven and that we can always count on Him.

This worries me greatly.  I suppose it could explain why I don’t get the “miracles” that other frum Jews claim to have received (you can read a million of these stories on Hevria.com, Aish.com, Chabad.org etc.).  I admit I get a few things (I’ve been fortunate with my career), but I have spent all my adult life, if not more, struggling with mental illness, loneliness and misery.  I just don’t expect things to change.  I think God wants me to be this miserable, for some reason.

I feel I have just experienced so much misery in my life, so much bullying, emotional neglect and occasionally behaviour bordering on abuse, that it is hard to believe that God only wants good things for me.  I believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent… to everyone else.  My experience is simply that he doesn’t want me to have a happy life, for whatever reason, because I have not experienced that kind of positive experience in life generally.

And even if I can get past my own experiences, I am haunted by the Holocaust, especially by the one million babies and children who were murdered by the Nazis.  When I try and pray for good things, for myself and others, I often see the Holocaust victims, particularly the children, and I think, if God didn’t help them, what guarantee do I have that He will help me?  I can’t adopt the simplistic attitude that so many religious people seem to have that God will always step in at the last minute to stop anything terrible from happening.  I even wrote a poem about seeing the Holocaust children years ago, although I don’t really remember what I wrote and don’t intend to dig it out now.

I suppose this ties in with everything else I have written about tonight, about being asked to lunch and panicking and turning it down (running away from a potentially good thing) and then having a dream that might have a positive interpretation and insisting on giving it a negative one, even though in Judaism one can ‘force’ a dream to have a good interpretation by believing in that good interpretation.  I just can’t open myself up to the possibility of goodness, if only because of the depression and despair in which I am mired.  This seems really unfair, as it seems to guarantee that narcissists and other unpleasant people will have a good time while good people who have been made self-critical by suffering and abuse will not receive anything good.

Shame

I watched an interesting TED talk by one of the great influences on my thought, Rabbi Lord Sacks.   Most of the talk is not relevant to this blog (although it’s definitely worth watching), but two things stood out to me.  One was where he mentions the best decision of  his life, meeting and eventually marrying a woman who was nothing like him: someone joyous and friendly when he was a self-obsessed young philosophy student.  My thought here was, “Why can’t something like that happen to me?”  I know I’d love to meet a frum woman who is joyous, friendly, gentle and kind who, for some strange reason, likes me.  I can’t imagine it happening.  I try to work on myself, to be more confident, friendly, outgoing and happy, but it doesn’t seem to help, as shown by my recent date dumping me apparently in part because I lack self-confidence.  I hope today to start work proper on the social anxiety CBT book I dug out a while back, but I’m not confident of it helping.

The other point, less wistful, is where he talks about the culture of the self and suggests replacing the self with the other, literally doing a “find and replace” in our minds and changing phrases like ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-esteem’ to ‘other-worth’ and ‘other-esteem’.  This is something I think about, because in recent years I’ve got into Jewish religious existentialist thinkers a bit and there the emphasis is on the redemption of solitude through helping the other.  The problem is that I’m very bad at this.  I try to be a good friend to my friends who are going through depression and other tough times, but there is a limit to how much I can do given that I am not a trained counsellor or therapist.  I just try to remember to email sometimes and to respond to their emails.  I’m too shy to really get involved in voluntary work or anything like that.  I wanted to get more involved in my depression support group, but because of pressure of work in my new job, I don’t have the time or energy to go very often any more and that pressure is only going to increase next term when I work four days a week.  I’d like to think I am reaching out to people and helping them with my blog, but deep down I know I do it only because I need release from all the words in my head, and maybe for the likes.

In any case, I’m not sure how sensible it is for me to replace ‘self-esteem’ with ‘other-esteem’.  I think my problem is I perhaps esteem others too much and certainly esteem myself too little.  I don’t trust my judgment on anything, but I find it hard to disagree with others, even if deep down I know they’re wrong.  I find it hard to stand out from the crowd.  As I said, I just got dumped apparently in part because my date thought I was “frightened” of her, frightened of disagreeing with her more than some abstract fear.  And she was probably right.

More than that, I feel actually ashamed of myself much of the time, at least when I’m in company.  Ashamed of my political views and perhaps occasionally of my religious views (where I am more ‘modern’ than my shul).  Ashamed of my hobbies and interests, which seem childish and a waste of time that would be better spent in prayer, Torah study and good deeds (from a religious point of view) or more cultured pursuits (from a secular one).  Ashamed of wasting what little creativity I have and also ashamed of wasting my time on it when I do devote some time to it.  That is why it’s safer to be in solitude, despite the loneliness this entails.  This is why I didn’t hang out with my peers in adolescence or at university.  This is why I can’t open up to people and make friends or find a partner.

“It is a Great Mitzvah to be Happy Always”

I’m running very late today, but I wanted to quickly write down a few thoughts that have been running through my head over the last couple of days.  Warning: if you aren’t religious, this may come across as insufferably pious.

A while back I made the mistake of googling my ex-girlfriend and found her blog.  I won’t go into details as my identity here is not entirely private and I don’t want to hurt her, but it turns out that from the way that her life has gone, we could not have stayed together.  To be honest, this is not a surprise, as most of what she wrote on her blog was known to me when we were still together, I just naively thought our relationship was strong enough for us to work through it together.

I have mixed feelings though: I can sort of see God’s hand in ensuring that the relationship ended when it did before we were married with children (a few months earlier, before the troubles really started, I was assuming we would be engaged fairly soon), but also worried that I could easily make the same mistakes again, especially as my big mistakes consisted of not recognising early danger signs and thinking that almost any relationship could be saved if both participants were willing to work on it enough, which I’ve always been taught was the correct way to view relationships.  To be honest, there probably were other warning signs that I missed or dismissed in my excitement at finally having a girlfriend for the first time in my life (I was nearly twenty-seven when we started going out) and I worry that it could easily happen again.  But I can’t see what the alternative is to going out there and trying to find someone more compatible, more stable in her lifestyle choices and worldview and hope that this time I can spot any warning signs in advance from my experience.  I guess being in my mid-thirties finally works to my advantage, as someone my own age is likely to be more settled in her life and views than my ex was (she was quite a bit younger than me, in her early twenties when we started going out, a time of personality formation and sometimes radical new lifestyle choices).

There’s a parable by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov that I’ve been thinking of yesterday and today.  It’s only a page and a bit long, but it’s quite complicated and as I don’t have my copy with me, I’ll have to summarize.  Basically, a peasant finds a precious stone and goes on a trip to have it valued and to sell it.  En route the jewel is lost, but because the peasant stayed happy despite this, he is able to make another business deal involving selling a large quantity of wheat that suddenly came into his possession that nets him much more money than selling the jewel would have done.  The moral, as it usually is with Rebbe Nachman, is that one should always be happy; the jewel was not really the peasant’s so he lost it, but the wheat really was his, so he kept it, but only because he stayed happy.  So my ex was not my bashert (soulmate) so I lost her, but perhaps, if I stay happy and trust in God, I will meet someone else who will be my bashert and we will stay together.  Or if God has decreed that I shouldn’t ever get married, as I often fear… well, being happy and trusting that He has His reasons seems a lot better than the alternatives of being depressed, angry and bitter.  Believe me, I’ve been depressed, angry and bitter, and happiness and trust are a lot more fun and somehow a lot more adult than adolescent despair and rage (I don’t by the militant atheist view that nihilistic doubt is more adult than faith, but that’s a whole other post).

This is a viewpoint that does not come easily to me and I was resistant to it for a long time, but I do think it leads to a happier, more well-adjusted life if one can manage it.  (Note that Rebbe Nachman himself, despite his exortations to his Hasidim, seems to have spent his whole life wrestling with his own doubt and despair and what may have been bipolar disorder – see Arthur Green’s excellent biography, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman [sic] of Bratslav, which I had to read to really be able to accept Rebbe Nachman’s thought as more than just simplistic positive thinking; according to Rabbi Green it’s a proto-existentialist wrestling with one’s inner demons and rescuing faith and joy from the jaws of doubt and despair).

Adventures in Searching for a Soul Mate

It’s been a busy twenty-four hours, leaving me with mixed emotions.

First the good news: my sister got engaged over Shabbat!  I’m very happy for her.  Her fiancé is a really nice guy and I get on well with him (fortunately).  I think they will be very happy together.  I’m also happy for my parents, who have watched from the sidelines as most of their friends’ children have married and had children.  At least my parents have a chance of being grandparents now.

The not-so-good news: I have been on two dates with someone over the last week, the second being a walk in the park on Shabbat (as she lives locally).  I thought it was going well even though my mental health issues came up.  But at the end she said she wants some time to think about whether she wants to go out with me again, which I took as an indication that she probably isn’t that interested, although maybe that’s reading too much into it.  Maybe she just wanted time to think about my mental health.  I don’t know.

It was quite difficult that both these things happened within a few hours of each over.  I have some really conflicted emotions right now.  Fortunately my mood overall is still OK, although because of it I did go to bed really late (after 3am) because I was watching Doctor Who and emailing a friend, trying to process everything that had happened and to relax.  Then I slept through the whole morning and got up at noon.  I am trying to be more forgiving of myself when I do things like this now as I know I need to do it sometimes for my mental health, even though I missed most of Shacharit and lost the morning.

Right now I have two verses going through my head.  One is, “Is not Aharon (Aaron) the Levite your brother?… and also behold he is coming to meet you and when he sees you he will rejoice in his heart.” (Shemot 4.14 concerning Aharon rejoicing over Moshe (Moses) becoming the leader of the Israelites, even though he was displacing his elder brother Aharon who, unlike Moshe, had been with the Israelites in their suffering in Egypt).  The other is “This is not done in our place, to give the younger in marriage before the elder.” (Bereshit 29.26, concerning Yaakov (Jacob) being tricked into marrying Leah before her younger sister Rachel).  I feel happy for my sister, but also frustrated that my little sister is getting married and I might not even have another date.  When we have two conflicting verses we search for a third to reconcile them, but I haven’t found it yet.

I did think on Friday, before all this started, that if I have to be single my whole life, I can accept it.  I’m lonely, I want to love and be loved, to have companionship and children and being a virgin in my mid-thirties is increasingly difficult, but I can cope with those things.  I have lived by myself for nearly a year now and I have survived (admittedly mostly going home for Shabbat and Yom Tov).  I see no reason why I can’t survive indefinitely like this.   But I don’t want to just survive, I want to be happy and loved.  I wonder if that will ever happen.

Identity

I have not written much lately.  This is not for want of things to write about.  So much has happened or is happening, but I simply have not had the time or energy to write.  Pesach (Passover) was better than it has been for a couple of years; there was some OCD and some family tensions, but better than the last few years.  I have started a new job, which is going well.  The team are friendly and the work is challenging, but not impossible.  In the background I have various writing projects and am trying to get to shul (synagogue) more often and to do more religious study as well as keeping up with the household chores.

I am trying to find the balance in my life, to make positive changes (the new job, trying to daven (pray) more with a minyan (prayer quorum), trying to study more Torah) without getting overwhelmed by the changes.  It is hard sometimes as, although I am not depressed as I once was, it can still be hard to enjoy things.  In particular, I have been thinking lately about not having simcha shel mitzvah (joy in performing the commandments).  I heard from a rabbi a while back that I won’t experience this until after I have recovered from the depression, but it makes it hard to get motivated to do things if I can’t experience joy in them, especially as I am thinking more these days of managing my mental health than of being “cured.”  It is hard to know what to do sometimes.

I have also been struggling with questions of identity, about trying to find a place in the Jewish community and in the wider world with my niche interests.  I have been thinking about politics quite a bit, unsurprisingly given the news, and thinking that my political views probably come across as complicated if not confused.  I don’t really feel comfortable with any party, but, given that I do force myself to vote for someone, I suspect I will be voting for a party that a number of my friends do not approve of.  There is so much anger in the world at the moment, especially regarding politics and identity that I feel under attack a lot of the time, especially given my fragile ego, whether it’s Doctor Who fans insisting that you have to be progressive to enjoy the programme or people at seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal) in shul being scornful of giving tzedaka (charity) to non-Jews or the horror stories I hear from American friends of Orthodox Jews bullied at the Shabbat table for not voting for Donald Trump or the ongoing antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party…

Even as my own world is improving, the wider world feels increasingly like a frightening and tribal place where a slightly unusual and (I hope) thoughtful person like myself is forced to squeeze himself into uncomfortable boxes or lose his friends.  I am trying to go slowly, to focus on my recovery and to take things one step at a time, but sometimes it seems as if events in the wider world are pushing on faster than I would like.

Reasons to Be Cheerful (About Being Jewish)

Despite the fact that I am very religious, it can be easy for me to get despondent about Judaism.  My OCD focuses on my religious practices and my depression has introduced doubts about whether God loves me, whether I am worthy of His love and my whole experience of mental illness has made me question God’s existence and benevolence at times.  I spend a lot of time thinking that I’m a bad Jew.  So I thought I would note down the reasons why I rejoice in being Jewish!

I was going to explain the more obscure ones, but I don’t have time.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments!

So, in no particular order:

  1. Jews are encouraged to ask question and are even allowed to argue with God.
  2. The feeling of continuity with my ancestors over a period of 3,000 years.
  3. Judaism’s concern with the dignity of all human beings.
  4. Judaism was perhaps the first civilization to encourage people to speak truth to power.
  5. The structure Judaism gives to my days, weeks and year.
  6. Halakhah (Jewish law) takes abstract concepts about ethics and theology and turns them into concrete actions.
  7. The focus on personal growth and the practical strategies for achieving it.
  8. Shabbat (the Sabbath).  Everything about it, from the tunes to challah bread, to the rest from work and from electronic devices to time with family to the feeling of peace and “having a second soul” that descends eighteen minutes before sunset on Friday.
  9. Enjoyable marital sex is a mitzvah (commandment).  In particular, a man has an obligation in the ketubah (marriage agreement) to satisfy his wife and it’s grounds for divorce if he doesn’t.  This has been the case for thousands of years!
  10. Judaism teaches that everyone has access to God without an intermediary.
  11. Teshuva (repentance): no matter what you’ve done, there is always a way back.
  12. My religious heroes: Yitzchak (Isaac), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), Iyov (Job), Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Kotzker Rebbe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Kook… the list goes on!
  13. The thoughtfulness and complexity of Jewish thought and especially halakhic thought and the way they refuse to accept easy answers, instead following thoughts to their conclusion.
  14. The Jewish sense of humour, present even in religious texts.
  15. Finding God in the mundane.
  16. The fact that Judaism has helped the Jews survive millenia of persecution.
  17. The emphasis on relationships, joy and love.
  18. The fact that embarrassing others and spreading gossip, even if true, are seen as some of the most serious sins (unlike wider Western culture, where gossip and embarrassment are used to sell newspapers and win ratings wars).
  19. The down-to-earth practicality of Judaism.
  20. Chessed (kindness) and the striving for what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein termed “social beatitude.”
  21. The bond between all Jews, left and right, religious and secular, Orthodox and Progressive: if one suffers, we all feel it.
  22. The lack of dogma and acceptance of multiple opinions.
  23. The concept of argument for the sake of Heaven.
  24. The multiple ways of looking at the world: halakhic and aggadic, rationalist, mystical and existentialist.
  25. The depth, complexity and beauty of our holy texts from Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) through Midrash and Talmud to Hasidic tales and philosophical tracts – even law codes are examined stylistically.
  26. This is a list about religion, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of the Jewish influence on science, the humanities and the arts, from Kafka to Chagall to Wiesel to Simon and Garfunkel to Freud to Einstein to Disraeli to Marx (I mean Groucho) to all those Nobel Prize winners who are Children of Israel… not to mention the co-creators of Superman, Batman and Doctor Who.  And William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (that one’s for you, Alex!).
  27. I’m going to say it… Pesach is stressful and sets off my OCD like crazy, but deep down, I think it’s still my favourite Yom Tov (festival): the weirdness of covering the house in tin foil and plastic, the novelty of crockery used for only eight days a year, the special foods (ritual and cultural), the seder service where we spend an evening eating symbolic foods and discussing religious texts and thinking about what it really means to be free… underneath the stress and the OCD, I think I still love it!

Despatches from the Front Line 4 (Purim Day)

Continued from the last post.

I could not sleep last night.  I got to bed late anyway, after 1am, but my mind was full of thoughts about yesterday evening and anxieties about today and my date next week.  Eventually I realized I was not going to sleep and got up and Doctor Who-ed to calm my mind down, finally falling asleep some time around 2.20am.

I could not sleep in this morning, though, as I wanted to get to an early Shacharit (morning  service) and Megillah (Book of Esther) reading.  I managed to do this, getting up at 6.50am (on a Sunday!).  It mostly went well, but I had a bit of an OCD panic.  One is supposed to hear every single word of the Megillah and while I had heard every word, my mind drifted at one point and one word didn’t register properly – I heard it, but I didn’t register what it was until my reading caught up a second later.  I initially thought this was OK, but by the time I got home afterwards I was caught in the spiral of OCD doubt and was ready to find a later reading to hear it all again.  Fortunately, I decided to phone my rabbi first to check if this repetition was necessary and he assured me that everyone’s mind drifts during the reading and it is enough to have been there and heard every word.  Even so, part of me felt, “Maybe I didn’t ask the question properly.  Maybe I should go to another reading to be sure”, but I have been playing the OCD game long enough to know that there is no escape that way.  If I went to another reading, I would surely find another problem to make me think that I had not fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment).  This is the tricky thing about OCD, the way it tells you that you are doing the right thing, that you can never be too careful.  Give in just once and you are laying yourself open to an endless cycle of doubt and checking.  I have been trying very hard lately not to ask a rabbi a question unless I am quite sure that there is a legitimate doubt about what I should do and certainly only to ask the question once, not repeating the question because I think I have not explained myself properly or that I have not been understood.  I tell myself that asking a rabbi creates a halakhic (legal) reality; my job is to follow the ruling I have been given, not to second-guess the rabbi who gave it.  This is hard, but it is the only way to beat the OCD cycle.

There was then a sombre interval, when we found out that my great-aunt had died.  I did not know her particularly well, but my Dad was close to her and especially to my great-uncle (who died about a year ago).  This cast a shadow over the day.

I then managed to go to a Purim seudah (meal/party) with my sister, her boyfriend, her flatmate and various other people.  I had been at Oxford with a couple of people there and as I have mentioned in previous posts, I was worried that they would remember me negatively as aloof and standoffish (although I was actually desperately shy and depressed).  At any rate, they either did not remember me or did not think negatively of me.  I surprised myself by joining in the conversation a lot, even cracking a couple of well-received jokes and my jester’s hat proved a great hit (fancy dress being a Purim tradition dating from the Middle Ages).  It was an extremely positive experience, setting me up well for my blind date next week by making me feel that I can talk to strangers.

Now I’m slowly coming down, hoping that I won’t crash, either tonight or tomorrow morning, which is possible (what I call a mental hangover, when socializing or other activity one day leads to a worsening of the depression and lethargy the next).  Hopefully this is a sign of improvements in my mental health and ability to socialize that I will be able to build on in the future.