I Blog Therefore I am

I haven’t blogged for a few days. There’s nothing wrong. Quite the reverse, really. Nothing really happened. When I was very depressed and had a lot of emotional stuff to offload, it was easy to blog every day — hard not to blog, in fact, as I wanted to process and off-load a lot of thoughts and feelings. But at the moment not a lot is happening, and I didn’t feel like writing very trivial stuff. I’m wondering if I should blog less, or maybe blog differently. I toyed again with the idea of writing more analytical posts about Judaism or antisemitism, but I think I’d rather use extra writing time on my novel (sorry). But we’ll see; previous attempts to blog less haven’t really worked. And whenever I say my life is dull and good, something goes wrong, so we’ll see what happens.

As for what happened, Thursday was dull. There were some negative things, but nothing really bad or worth going into. The highlight was Skyping E from the garden (I wasn’t sure the wifi would work out there). On Friday I did some chores, worked on my novel and went to shul (synagogue). I missed shul on Saturday morning, probably because I was up late reading Tanakh (Daniel, which is really hard to understand!), having earlier spent quite a while studying Talmud to prepare for the class on Shabbat (the Sabbath) — there seems to be a trade-off between studying Torah on Fridays and getting up in time for shul.

On Shabbat, I did the usual Shabbat things: spent time with my parents, went for a walk, slept too much, went to Talmud shiur (class) and found I’d prepared much more material than we got through, as we spent ages on a long Tosafot (Medieval commentary on the Talmud written over about 200 years by a group of rabbis in what’s now Northern France and Germany, plus one or two in England) — I don’t prepare Tosafot as I don’t have a translation and my Hebrew isn’t good enough. Plus, I mostly don’t understand Tosafot anyway. I played Scrabble in the evening and came second despite getting (I thought) some good words, “nodules” probably being the best of them. Unfortunately, a good word is not necessarily a high-scoring word, which depends on which letters you use. By largely staying off-line after Shabbat, I went to bed early for a summer Saturday evening i.e. 1am (bear in mind that Shabbat didn’t finish until after 10.30pm!), but couldn’t sleep, whether because I slept too much during the day or because I took my meds late.

As for today, I got up quite late after falling asleep so late (after 3am) . I spent a bit over an hour working on my novel, writing five or six hundred words, which is probably the most I’ve written in one session for some time, although I’m a bit uncertain of where this current passage is headed and whether it justifies it’s existence as a late addition to the end of the novel. Is it deepening the resolution or just padding out the end? It is hard to tell at this stage. It’s said that writers divide into two groups, planners (who plan out their stories in detail) and pants-ers who don’t and instead write by the seat of their pants (I assume that’s the etymology). I haven’t fitted easily into either category on this novel, planning the general flow, but improvising a lot of the details, but this bit is very much pants-ing, if that’s a word, which it isn’t.

Other than that, I Skyped E and did some Torah study and thought a bit about my devar Torah for the week. I didn’t do any exercise (run or walk) as it was too hot and I didn’t want to get an exercise migraine, as I was going to a Zoom talk/shiur in the evening. This was Rabbi Dr Sam Lebens talking about his new book on Jewish philosophy from an analytical philosophical perspective of examining the fundamental principles and axioms of Judaism i.e. given Judaism exists, what things are necessary to make these practices meaningful (not proving that God exists or that Judaism is true). It was very interesting. I’m in two minds about buying the book though. It sounds fascinating, but I’m not sure if I will understand it (I have a mixed record with philosophy), and it costs £75. We (people on the Zoom call) were given a 33% discount code, but that’s still £50, which is a lot of money to spend on a book I might not understand.

A couple of things I picked up from the talk that tempt me to buy the book: (1) this is very much a book about believing in a personal God and not an abstract “God of the philosophers”/Deism — I think sometimes my understanding of God becomes too abstract; (2) he mentioned in passing an idea from Chief Rabbi Jakobovits z”tl that God tells a different story through each individual’s life and through each community/group of people and that multiple communities can be “chosen” — something I’ve thought, and seen suggested in Rabbi Sacks z”tl and Rav Kook z”tl, but would like to see spelt out in more detail (Rabbi Sacks got in very hot water over a milder version of this in The Dignity of Difference); (3) the idea that the universe exists in mind of God, which I had heard, but not really advanced in a very serious philosophical way — I guess it appeals to me as a solipsism/Philip K. Dick fan, and also because it suggests that negative parts of my life might not be ‘real,’ which is probably a strange thing to think, but strangely reassuring, and I guess it ties in with Rabbi Lebens’ view (which he admitted was “wacky”) that not only can God redeem the future, He can redeem the past by changing history and will do so at some point.

Obsessive Thoughts, and Finding Your Mission

I had volunteering this morning. For some reason we were preparing fewer bags of food this week. The number varies from week to week (I’m not entirely sure why), but not usually this dramatically. There were also some leftover bags of non-perishable food, which further reduced the number we needed to get ready. The result was that I was finished before 10.00am, rather than between 10.30am and 11.00am as usual. I think there were other tasks I might have been able to help with, but I was not unhappy to leave earlier, as days when I do both volunteering and therapy are tiring and I was glad of the extra time to recover and do other things.

In the afternoon I tried to create a revised version of my Doctor Who book on Lulu.com so I could sell it at a lower price, but the system is still misbehaving, telling me I need to select a book size even though I already have done so. I emailed the helpdesk again, although I did not find their previous response particularly helpful. They emailed back to say that I can’t publish a new version of my book without starting from scratch (which admittedly wouldn’t be a huge problem, but still isn’t right) because since I published the book, they’ve changed the site. This is a bug, apparently. Hmm.

I worked on my novel for a little under an hour. I procrastinated, I didn’t make much progress and I’m not happy with what I did write, but I wrote something, which I guess is the important thing, just to keep hammering away at it.

***

Therapy was good. I spoke about my obsessive pure O OCD-type thoughts, which have got a bit worse in the last few days. I sometimes get intrusive violent thoughts. This leads to obsessive worrying that I could become violent or a murderer. I tend to worry in particular when I read news stories about rapists and serial killers and see similarities with myself (usually that they are loners with few/no relationships and friendships). I know it isn’t likely that I would hurt someone (I’m terrified of hurting people even verbally and unintentionally, let alone physically and intentionally), but it’s easy to get sucked into “How can I know for sure that I wouldn’t do that?”-type of thoughts, or even to think that if I have intrusive violent thoughts for long enough, I’ll somehow act on them by default. The thing to do with these thoughts is just not to pay any attention to them, although it’s very hard not listening to a voice in your head saying that if you aren’t careful, you’ll turn into Jack the Ripper.

In therapy today I realised that these thoughts aren’t all that different from the “Am I a bad person?” thoughts I get. It’s a more extreme form of “bad,” but the thought itself is not that different in nature. And I realised that I haven’t really got very far trying to prove to myself that I’m not a bad person (or a serial killer), so maybe I should just try not to respond to these thoughts. I noticed that I got to shul (synagogue) last week without really thinking about it much, rather than spending ages thinking that I had to go and worrying that I wouldn’t make it, so maybe ignoring obsessive thoughts is the way to go.

***

As well as Lulu.com, I’m angry at victim-blaming antisemitism, but what can you do? There’s a lot more of them than there are of us.

***

Looking for a particular quote for my devar Torah, I was looking at Rabbi Lord Sacks’ z”tl book To Heal a Fractured World. It ends with a two page list of reflections on an ethical life. A lot of this resonated with thoughts I’ve been having recently about trying to work out what I’m here on Earth for, what I can actually do with my life. I’m not going to quote all of it, but here is some of it:

I make no claims to wisdom, but this I have learned:

  • that each of us is here for a purpose;
  • that discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered…
  • that where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be;
  • that even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life…
  • that those who spend at least part of their lives in service of others are the most fulfilled and happiest people I know…
  • that each situation in which we find ourselves did not happen by accident: we are here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will heal one of the fractures in the world…
  • that it is not the most wealthy or powerful or successful or self-important who make the greatest difference or engender the greatest love;
  • that pain and loneliness are forms of energy that can be transformed if we turn them outward, using them to recognize and redeem someone else’s pain or loneliness…
  • that we can make a difference, and it is only by making a difference that we redeem a life, lifting it from mere existence and endowing it with glory;
  • and that if we listen carefully enough — and listening is an art that requires long training and much humility — we will hear the voice of God in the human heart telling us that there is work to do and that he needs us.

***

E and I have been watching the 2005 season of Doctor Who, the first of the revived run. It’s strange to think that I was doing my undergraduate finals when these episodes were broadcast. I didn’t have a TV at Oxford, and the episodes were broadcast on Shabbat, so I couldn’t get myself invited to someone else’s room/house, so I only saw episodes one to three around the time of original transmission; the rest my parents taped for me and I binge-watched them after finals. It seems like yesterday. It also seems a lifetime ago.

It’s also strange that “new” Who has very nearly been around for more of my life than the original series. In fact, as I was eight when I discovered Doctor Who, for me the new Who era is longer than the era when I was a fan, but Doctor Who was not on TV regularly, even though that feels like the default for me.

***

I finished reading Moonraker (SPOILERS ahead!). I think prose James Bond is rather better than film Bond. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, as they are trying to do somewhat different things, although it takes a while to realise that. Prose Bond is not by any means realistic, but his actions have consequences; he’s not a superhero like film Bond. Here, Bond gets badly hurt and ends up in hospital. His detonation of an atomic bomb in the North Sea (to avoid it destroying London) leads to hundreds dead and missing and M worrying about the fall out, in all senses of the term. The “girl,” Gala Brand, is a capable undercover policewoman and she, rather than Bond, works out what the villain’s plan is and how to stop it. Most surprising of all, not only does Bond not have any real amorous encounters (one kiss is about it), Brand turns out to be engaged and chooses not to spend a month with Bond on the continent, but to get married to her fiance instead. I was impressed.

Gimme Some Truth

Warning: this is rather more rambling and pity partyish than usual. Please don’t feel obliged to read.

Nietzsche wrote about mental illness being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” I think they’ve been barking a lot more in the last few days and I don’t know why. I was practically in tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) again today, and again at lunch, and a third time in the afternoon when doing Torah study, and I still don’t know why. I don’t know why specifically Shacharit and not the other prayers either; Shacharit is the least logical service for me to cry in, as I’m invariably late and rushing through just a few prayers before the final deadline. It would make more sense if I was in tears in the other services where I say the whole thing and at least try to have some kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).

I was actually doing OK early today at trying to stay in the present and not worry and obsess about the future, but over the day I drifted into one of my “I’m Fouled Up Beyond All Hope” moods.

***

Early today I felt that I should just rip up my novel and my Asperger’s article and start over, because neither of them have truth in them. Perhaps truth is the main thing distinguishing a good writer from a hack. George Orwell wrote about this, I think. Not some transcendent religious or philosophical truth, but simply the truth of someone’s experiences. I think my blog sometimes has truth, but not my other writing.

I thought of a particular saying from the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic leader) “The Evil Urge has found a new method, in which it succeeds; no longer must it do battle day and night. It toils only to take from you the delicate chord of truth in your heart, and afterwards it lets you do as you will: to work, to study, to pray… for without the point of truth, whatever you do is no longer important to the Evil Urge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [sic] edited by Simcha Raz, ellipsis in original) I think it’s a long time since I’ve had the “point of truth” in my writing, my study or my prayer.

I don’t think I’m that truthful in friendships and relationships either. By truthful I don’t mean ‘not lying’ (I’m not dishonest), but being fully open and ‘myself.’ I’m quite truthful with my parents, but I generally only talk about the dark stuff when it gets unbearable. I’m not always truthful with my sister. I can joke around with her, and my parents, but not always talk about the dark stuff. With most of my friends, I’m not really myself and not open at all. I would want to be truthful and to be myself in a relationship, but I don’t know if I could. I think I did with E. There were things that didn’t work in that relationship, but that aspect did work. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision in breaking up, although it was already an on/off relationship, so clearly something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to be truthful with PIMOJ at all, which is why the relationship failed, although to be fair she expected me to be truthful without being the same herself. I was truthful with my first girlfriend, but, again, she wasn’t with me, and again, it contributed to the failure of the relationship.

I was going to say I’m truthful with my therapist and my rabbi mentor, but even then I’m not entirely. I’m fairly truthful with my rabbi mentor, probably more than with other people. I try to be truthful with God. I don’t know how much I succeed. I can’t hide anything from God, although a lot of things seem too trivial to mention to him, even though they upset me a lot. I don’t joke with Him much, but it hardly seems important to do so with Him.

***

On a more positive note, when I went to look up that quote from the Kotzker, I found a bookmark pointing to the page that had this quote that I had forgotten about: “We have not found in any place in the Torah that a person is commanded to be a scholar and erudite in all the chambers of the Torah. For the purpose of study is not to be a scholar, but to be a good man, to do what is good and to act beneficently towards your fellow.” This is pretty much entirely against the prevailing worldview of the Haredi world, or at least the Yeshivish part of it, which sees becoming a great scholar as the only purpose of Judaism, at least for men. It reminds me of the man who boasted to the Kotzker Rebbe that he had been through the whole Talmud three times. “Yes, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?” the Rebbe responded.

Of course, it’s entirely open to question whether I’m a good man who does what is good and acts beneficently towards my fellow, but it’s a more viable target for me than going through the Talmud three times.

***

I did eventually sit down to work on my article. I read some published articles about Asperger’s and learning disabilities on Aish as research and I think my article isn’t hugely wide of the mark, although there are still many reasons it might be rejected. I spent about an hour reading and re-writing. I think tomorrow I will actually write the pitch and see what happens. I tend to be less successful at pitching things than writing them, I think.

I went for a walk after that. It was very windy, the wind blowing clouds of blossom around so that it felt like walking through snow or confetti.

I spent half an hour researching my devar Torah (Torah thought), using the English translations on Sefaria more than I would like (Sefaria translations are often crowdsourced and sometimes inaccurate). I have an idea of what topic to write about, but not really what to say, which probably means it’s going to be another week where I feel like I’m bluffing my way through it. I think writing a devar Torah each week is a good exercise for multiple reasons, but some weeks I do feel a bit of a fraud (truth again). I doubt I could do it if I worked full-time.

***

It gets REALLY pity partyish from here. Honestly, I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

I wish I knew how to cope with being celibate. The internet is monumentally unhelpful about this. After more than twenty years of celibacy since I hit adolescence, I feel at my wits’ end. I emailed Intimate Judaism about this, but the sex therapist there didn’t respond to that aspect of the email, only saying she would try to set me up with a shadchan (matchmaker) who works with people with special needs in the UK. She said she has asked her colleagues and is waiting for an answer. I am doubtful, as I have made similar inquires in the past. Even if she finds one, there is also the realistic likelihood of me being too modern for such a shadchan and her clientele. And I still need help to cope with celibacy in the interim, especially as I’m not sure if I should go to a shadchan while only working two days a week and financially insecure, not to mention being emotionally fragile.

(I should probably add in terms of the special needs shadchan that when I tried looking for one a few years ago, my father asked the wife of the then-assistant rabbi at his shul (synagogue) if she knew anyone who could help someone with depression get married — at that stage, depression seemed to be the main issue as I wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum. She said “Rebbetzin D” who I never got around to phoning. There always seemed to be good reasons (it was nearly Pesach; I found a relationship independently; I went to a different shadchan that seemed more promising and so on), but I suppose unconsciously I was socially anxious and unsure whether she could help or even how I would start the conversation as Rebbetzin D isn’t a shadchan and I was wary of what “help” she might be able to provide and how she would respond to being phoned out of the blue by a stranger. I suppose I could try to contact her now, although it’s three or four years down the line, and, as I said, I don’t know if I should be looking to get married in my current financial situation.)

I need touch sometimes. I live with my parents, so I can still get hugs, although physical contact with my parents can still be awkward for autistic reasons and reasons based on my past. I do long to be with someone I really connect with again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a partner, but could be a close friend; nevertheless, since adolescence, I’ve only had such close friendships with women, which makes them awkward when they are platonic, because usually I want them to be more, but the other person doesn’t, or because the other person isn’t Jewish or isn’t religious enough for me, which is also awkward. I have dated women less religious than me, at my rabbi mentor’s encouragement, but I don’t know how viable such a relationship would be in the long-term. Certainly it put strains on those relationships which contributed to their ending.

Above all, I want to learn how to deal with sexual and romantic desire when single from a halakhic (Jewish law) point of view. I don’t think I have a particularly high sex drive, but I do have a greater desire for love and sex when depressed and lonely — in other words, when marriage seems most distant from me. This is rather cruel. I can’t say that I live my life entirely halakhically regarding sex. I just try to do the best I can, but I don’t know whether I could do better if someone guided me, or if I had more willpower or more control over my thoughts and emotions (autistic emotional regulation is not always the best). And I don’t know what God thinks about me, whether He thinks I’m at least trying to keep halakhah or if He thinks that frankly I could do better and wants to punish me. Or is punishing me. To be honest, while my low self-esteem is rooted in negative childhood experiences like bullying (among other things) the constant level of sexual guilt since I was thirteen and hit puberty probably hasn’t helped much. The Orthodox world’s only answer to this is early marriage, which doesn’t really work when you’re thirty-seven.

(And I should say that although I feel hugely guilty about my sexuality, I’ve still never had anything approaching actual intercourse, which somehow makes the whole thing seem even more pathetic.)

It feels like the most realistic option for me is to learn to be happy alone and celibate, but everyone just says, “No, you can get married,” without doing anything practical to advance that outcome. It’s weird, because I’m used to people saying that you should be “happy with your lot” rather than endlessly daydream about some eventuality that might never come to pass. Yet everyone encourages me to stay positive about finding a mate even after so many years and so many rejections. It’s like everyone was suggesting I should solve my financial problems by trying to win the lottery when I want to find a job.

I feel that what I want more than anything is for God to tell me that He thinks I’m a good person (God, not human beings who don’t know me and might lie to make me feel better). But He won’t, not in this world.

Weirdness Vibes

I woke up drained as usual. The news didn’t help; it’s full of bad news today. The news is always full of bad news, but today it hits a little closer to home: more than forty killed in a crush at the Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations in Israel, and a Doctor Who actor accused of sexual harassment and bullying. I did feel better once I got going and I’m glad it’s Lag B’Omer and I can listen to music when I want and not just when I’m struggling with depression, and that I’ve shaved. I used the hair clippers we bought for COVID haircuts rather than the beard-trimmer on my razor. It was not painful at all (usually it pulls at the hairs) and took less than ten minutes (it usually takes twenty or more). So some good has come out of lockdown.

***

I’m wondering if the Intimate Judaism sex therapist is going to be able to find a shachan (matchmaker) willing to work with me. I also wonder whether I will go to that shadchan if she finds one, at least in the near future. I feel I shouldn’t be dating so soon after PIMOJ (fair enough) and that I shouldn’t be dating until I build a career and “sort out” what my autism diagnosis means for me. But a career may (probably will) take years to build, and “sorting out” my diagnosis, whatever that means, is an ongoing process with no obvious end point. So I could end up postponing dating indefinitely, which looks a lot like procrastination and avoidance. I do need to work out if I can cope with a wife and children, being on the spectrum, but I have no idea how I test that out. It’s not like I can borrow some children for a few days. For what it’s worth, my rabbi mentor has mostly encouraged me to look for love despite work and mental health issues, even though this seems to go against the usual frum (religious Jewish) approach of sorting out your own issues before dating.

***

I went through a phase a few years ago of looking for stories of miracles people had experienced on websites like Hevria.com and Aish.com (setting aside for the moment the question of when a mere coincidence becomes a “miracle” — these were not things that subverted the laws of nature, but were just somewhat improbable coincidences). They are usually framed as, “I wasn’t religious, and I didn’t think I could become religious, but God did something amazing for me, so I became religious.” I think I used to read these things to get angry. (I think reading or watching things purely to get angry is more common than you might think, whether it’s conservative “clean up TV” campaigners or woke cancel culture.) I used to wonder why God wouldn’t help me. Was it because I became religious without miracles so He didn’t need to get my attention (which seemed unfair on me, like I should have held out for a better offer)? Was I particularly sinful? Did He hate me?

It comes to mind a bit when I read this article: ” I recently met a woman who went to a school with heavy amount of fear [of God] and guilt, and she confided in me that several years ago she and her friends would have so much fun mocking me and my positivity [about Judaism], but what she realized is that they were all actually jealous of my relationship to Hashem as it was so pure and sincere and not sullied with all the garbage theirs was.” I think this is partly why I used to get angry, not because I wanted miracles per se, but because I wanted a closer relationship with God, one that these people had achieved, even if it was jump started by a miracle/coincidence. Maybe this was why I didn’t connect with PIMOJ, because I couldn’t understand her close relationship with God and her constant positivity, to the extent that I didn’t feel able to share the more negative aspects of my life in our relationship, which resulted in it being a lie.

***

I find myself wondering if I’m trying to be miserable and negative at the moment, about my position in the frum world and about marriage. No one (parents, rabbi mentor) else seems to feel as negatively about my life as I do. I think I fret about the future to try to get other people to reassure me that it will be OK, but they never manage it. How could they? They can’t prove everything will turn out OK, and I’m still dealing with the ramifications of something going very wrong for my entire life up to this point (not being diagnosed as autistic), so my experience of life this far is that something fundamental will always be wrong that affects every aspect of my life negatively. Maybe I can try to feel positive that, now I’ve got my Asperger’s/autism diagnosis, I can (somehow) sort my life out. That said, I would want to have some kind of road map for “soring my life out” before I get my hopes up.

***

I did a few things today, Shabbat chores, Torah study, tried to begin to piece together a plan for my second/fall-back novel, went for a walk and picked up my prescription… just after I left the pharmacist, some kids on bikes passed me and shouted stuff at me. I didn’t really hear as I had music on my headphones, so I can’t be 100% sure they were shouting at me, but it wouldn’t be the first time if they were. It’s brought my mood down, whether they were shouting at me or not, because I do get shouted at even if it wasn’t happening this time. Sometimes it’s stuff because I’m Jewish, but sometimes people (usually kids) can intuit that I’m “different.” I give off weirdness vibes. It used to happen a lot at school. I went to Jewish schools, so there was no antisemitism (although I did get pushback from others kids as I became more religious, because most of the kids were not religious and probably felt threatened by my religiosity), but there was bullying for being clever and, I guess, for being different and vulnerable, because not all the clever kids were bullied, or not as much. And it wasn’t just kids in my class, even younger kids would sometimes shout stuff at me in the corridors.

It makes me feel negative about my ability to interact effectively meaningfully with people even now. They’re restarting the volunteering I was doing last year at the Jewish food bank. No one is rude to me there, but I worry I’m ineffectual and mess stuff up there and just generally seem weird and unapproachable. Ditto at shul (synagogue), although that’s less of an issue now the social side of it has been reduced. But random people shout stuff at me in the street periodically. It’s probably not coincidental that the three relationships I’ve had have been with people who ‘met’ me through writing (via a dating site or my blog) before we met in person. They had a chance to meet the competent Writing Me before the Weird In Person Me.

***

J is hosting a kiddush (refreshments after the service) at shul tomorrow for his daughter’s bat mitzvah. I’m not going, because of social anxiety. I haven’t told my parents, because I know they’ll say I should go. I feel bad, but I just don’t feel I can cope with it right now. This (social anxiety) is another reason not to date right now.

The Turkey Prince

I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know if it was from taking my tablets late, sleeping too much in the day, drinking tea late at night or something else. I got about four hours of sleep in the end, but I had to be up early to see PIMOJ. Yesterday it was so warm that I went for a walk in the afternoon without a coat or jumper. This morning, it snowed. I wrapped up warm, but it was difficult to tell what to wear, as it was warm when sunny, but cold in the shade.

***

I think PIMOJ had been having some of the thoughts I had been having about our lack of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, although she phrased it differently, saying we haven’t really got to know each other well yet. We had a long talk (in the park, not ideal – thank you COVID) and PIMOJ opened up to me about some things in her past and I tried to be a bit more open about my mood dips and persistent lack of energy. I think we’re OK, we just agreed to try to be more honest and open with each other in the future. Not that we were lying previously, but we were both hiding things, I guess from fear of rejection. I had some further thoughts after the date and texted PIMOJ to tell her that I’m often not good at talking things over spontaneously and need time to think about responses because of autism (hence texting her later because I didn’t think of this at the time!) and maybe it’s worth discussing things over a few days and/or letting me text some ideas later after I’ve thought it over. Unfortunately, neither of us likes video calling much, which is hard at the moment. She hasn’t got back to me about that.

The rest of the date was good, except that we were seen by two of my parents’ friends. I’m not sure if they recognised me, but it’s the type of thing that can start rumours in small communities. PIMOJ and I were together for over four hours and did a lot of walking. We got takeaway falafel. Still, I was left with some anxiety. I worry that my autistic brain simply isn’t wired for a relationship. “Autism” etymologically refers to morbid self-absorption (you may have noticed this here…). Meaning, being unable to relate to others. That although I pine away in loneliness while single, I’m not able to be in a relationship “properly.” Now I’m in a relationship with someone where I know there will be lots of extra obstacles beyond a regular relationship if we want to make this permanent. I want to do that, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself out trying or just won’t make it, and perhaps that fear is stopping me from fully committing to the relationship (unconsciously), along with guilt feelings that the relationship came about in a “wrong” way, religiously. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Autism is hard. Life + relationships + autism = very hard.

I keep thinking of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s parable of The Turkey Prince. The prince goes mad and believes that he is a turkey, sitting naked under the table and eating food off the floor. No one can cure him until a wise man takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, claiming to be a turkey too. Once the prince accepts him, the wise man puts on trousers, saying a turkey can wear trousers. When the prince wears trousers, the wise man puts on a shirt until the prince does the same, and so on until the prince is fully clothed and eating normally and is (we are told) fully cured.

Superficially, the story is about the need of the religious mentor to descend to the level of his followers to win their trust and to understand them and inspire them. However, as Arthur Green noted in his biography of Rebbe Nachman (Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), there is a uneasy air about the conclusion of the story. Is the prince really “cured” or has he just been tricked into acting in a more socially acceptable way? Does he really think he is a human again, or just a turkey who wears clothes and eats off a plate? (This is surely a big question in clinical psychology: how much are we “curing” people and how much socialising them into “normal” behaviour even when the “abnormal” behaviour is harmless?) Green suggests that the wise man, and even the other courtiers may be just as insane as the prince.

I feel I need someone to model behaviour for me, to show that an autistic person with a history of mental illness can: get a full-time job; make friends; write fiction; build a relationship and a family; and so on. But maybe this is not addressing the fundamental problem, which is my tendency to see myself as defective and to assume that everything I try to do will be affected by this defectiveness. Otherwise I’m in danger of being a Turkey Prince, acting in a socially acceptable way while still believing myself to be a turkey (“defective” autistic person).

***

Another thing that happened this afternoon has been on my mind. PIMOJ asked if my family were as religious as I was, and we got onto the subject of how religious I am. PIMOJ felt I am quite religious, but not exceedingly so, as I perform the mitzvot (commandments) as God commands, but have no interest in the spiritual reality behind them. I let this go at the time, but it’s annoyed me a bit since then and I don’t know whether to say anything (my natural conflict aversion versus our newly-stated desire to be honest with each other). I know kabbalists (Jewish mystics) say there are spiritual realities behind the mitzvot, and perhaps there are, but I have never managed to get my head around them. Rather than the mystics, I prefer the religious rationalists like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) who said that every mitzvah “serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.” Some mitzvot have an obvious logic (don’t murder, don’t steal etc.). Those that don’t have obvious social benefits are symbols that teach important historical/theological concepts (like eating matzah on Pesach to remember the exodus) or inculcate character traits (eating only kosher food might instil self-control). Thinkers like Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spent a lot of time and energy finding rational reasons for symbolic actions and it bothers me a bit to see that dismissed as not religious (see especially Rav Hirsch’s Horeb, which provides reasons for all the mitzvot observed today).

Maybe I ought to bring this up with PIMOJ tomorrow, although I feel that there are other things that might be more important to discuss. I guess it just makes me realise that we see the role of religious observance differently. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I can communicate the way I see it. It’s somewhat similar to the way she sees connection with God, and “hearing” His answers, as relatively easy things, whereas I see them as very hard, even a life’s work. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but they are very different.

***

There are actually other things that came up on the date that I’d like to discuss with someone, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to speak about here. I hope to speak to my rabbi mentor on Friday, and it would be good to raise some of this with my therapist too next week (I’m on fortnightly therapy at the moment). Still, it adds to the feeling of juggling a lot of balls and not knowing if I can keep them all in the air or what will happen if I drop one or two.

***

I was pretty exhausted when I got home after this, maybe not surprisingly. I took some time to write parts this post, which was hard as it meant focusing on the anxiety-provoking parts of the date as well as the more successful parts, and focusing on the work I will need to do in the relationship. I did a little Torah study, but I was too tired to do much. I watched some TV. My mood has been variable and I’m definitely dealing with some anxiety about the relationship, even though I think today went well.

The OK Day I Nearly Ruined; and Fear of Sin

I think today was an OK day that I nearly turned into a bad day by trying to fix it badly.

Work was OK, but dull, mostly going through old papers to see if I could throw them away. Looking at the paper trail left by office politics and arguments from a decade ago feels both voyeuristic and depressing – events that clearly angered people to the point that legal action was considered has now left no discernible trace, except for a few letters that have now gone in the bin. It really will all be the same in a hundred years.

I feel that my Pesach (Passover) religious OCD has really kicked in. I’m anxious about a couple of Pesach-related things. However, my parents don’t think I’m much more anxious than the last few years. To be fair, I’ve been a lot worse in the past, I just thought I was over this. I thought Pesach didn’t make me anxious any more, or not this anxious. Maybe it’s not something you are ever “over” just as getting over depression doesn’t mean you won’t have days when you feel depressed.

I got back from home fairly early and decided I would go for a run. This was where I wanted to fix the day. I thought exercise would help shift the OCD anxiety and boost my mood, but it went a bit wrong. I didn’t manage my usual 5K run because my foot hurt. I also got tired, probably because I’d already walked a lot today (to the station and then to the bank and back at work). I probably continued running longer than I should have done, given that my foot was hurting. So I came home feeling tired and down rather than tired and satisfied.

Possibly on an unconscious level, going for a run was influenced by having a bad body image day. I don’t have particularly great body image (does anyone?), but I don’t really think about it much either, except when I see myself in the mirror getting in and out of the shower. I’m on the fringes of being overweight, and have been since being put on clomipramine, but I’ve learned to accept it (sort-of) as the price I pay for a medication combination that keeps me reasonably well. But today I was just feeling fat. It’s not exactly an easy time of year from a healthy eating point of view, as we try to finish all the leftover chametz (leavened) food and then spend eight days eating matzah, which is pretty fattening, especially as you have to eat it with something (butter, cheese, jam, etc.) which makes it more fattening.

I did feel somewhat better after dinner, just very tired and apprehensive about the rest of the week. I’m not sure why this Pesach feels so hard. It’s a lockdown Pesach, but so was last Pesach, and last Pesach Mum was undergoing chemotherapy and while the prognosis was good, we had no way of knowing that it would ultimately be successful. The stakes should feel a lot lower this time. I guess there are a few factors that make this Pesach hard: it starts on Saturday night, which adds a whole load of hassle for reasons that would take a long time to explain (just trust me, it’s not good); I’m working for the first time around Pesach since 2018 (I’m glad that J basically told me not to come in on Thursday, which is a big help); and I have a girlfriend for the first time since I broke up with my first girlfriend on Pesach in 2013 (that was a bad Pesach), which is good, but adds a lot of stressful thoughts about how we can meet during lockdown and how the relationship is going and whether we will weather all the difficulties inherent in it. I think what I’m saying is that this is a Pesach where I’m juggling a lot of non-Pesach-related balls along with the usual Pesach ones, in a way that I haven’t had to do for a while (even last year when Mum had chemo it didn’t impact me so much personally, except that I did a bit more cooking).

I made a tactical decision not to do any more Torah study after dinner, even though I had only managed about thirty-five minutes today and worry I won’t finish the haggadah commentary I’m reading before Pesach. I thought that trying to study more would just deplete me and make me feel worse. I watched Babylon 5 and helped Mum and Dad by polishing some of the silver, although I was too tired to do much of that.

So it was an OK day in the end, but I nearly tipped it over to a bad one by trying to hard to turn it around. There is probably a message there.

***

It’s weird. I don’t think I have a particularly punitive view of God. With other people, if they do even very slightly good things (religiously speaking), I praise and encourage them. And I genuinely believe God will look favourably on them. I don’t know who exactly gets in to Heaven, but I know I don’t believe in a God who condemns billions to eternal suffering. And yet. It’s so hard to take the view of, “I do the best I can and leave the rest to God” as at least one rabbi encouraged me to do.

I think I’m a person who fears sin. This is a concept in the Talmud. It’s very different to a person who fears punishment. Fearing punishment is a low level, kind of the lowest level of doing the right thing, just doing it to avoid being punished. Fearing sin, on the other hand, is much higher, a sensitivity to the spiritual consequences of apparently trivial actions.

The way it seems to me is like I’m in a palace made of delicate crystal or even ice, representing the world as it exists on a spiritual level, not necessarily the spiritual universes described in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but a metaphor for the way the life prescribed by Judaism creates a way of life with tangible effects in the physical world. Moving without the correct attention, as laid out in the Torah, risks cracking or even breaking off the delicate ornamentation. Do enough wrong and the fabric of the building is at risk.

Switching metaphors, I also fear the consequences for my relationship with God of transgressing His word. Even if I do it unintentionally, I worry if I could have tried harder or found some other solution. I don’t want to risk cutting myself off from Him, which is cutting oneself off from life, as God is the source of life. The thought of doing that is horrifying. This is why Pesach is such an ordeal, because the punishment for eating chametz (leaven) on Pesach is karet, being “cut off” from God (probably referring to losing one’s share in the next world and possibly to premature death in this world too; it’s debated among the authorities). The fact that Pesach is once a year doesn’t really help. Shabbat is a major commandment with a serious punishment too (I actually wrote a devar Torah on this recently; the Talmud says keeping – or breaking- Shabbat is equivalent to keeping or breaking the entire Torah), but it comes around every seven days, so I get a lot of exposure therapy that means that most of the time I can enjoy Shabbat without thinking of the potential consequences of error. But Pesach is once a year, so I don’t get much exposure therapy. (Although the thought of doing Pesach once a week is pretty terrifying!)

***

OK, considering I didn’t think I had enough material for a post today, this has got too long. I don’t feel tired enough to sleep, but I think I’ve had enough screen time for today (or will have soon, as PIMOJ asked me to text her about my day).

Fears for the Future

Lately I have a lot on my mind that I don’t want to share here, or at least not yet. This is hard, as I like to work things through in writing. I may try writing private posts. I’ve done that in the past. I find it helpful to work things through a little in writing to get inchoate thoughts and feelings into a shape where I can take them to therapy or to my rabbi mentor.

***

Shabbat was OK. I struggled a lot with burnout again which made it hard to do much. I wish I knew what burns me out so much. I didn’t get up until 1pm, although I woke briefly several times across the morning, as I was just too tired. Other than that, it was the usual mix of eating, sleeping, Torah study, prayer and recreational reading.

I had some negative or difficult thoughts over Shabbat, but I can’t remember about what, exactly. I have quite a few areas giving me difficulty at the moment, so it could be one of a number of things. I’ve been thinking about trusting God lately. PIMOJ gave me a book about it, and it’s annoying me a lot even though I’m not yet a quarter of the way through the book. I can accept intellectually that if God is benevolent and all-powerful, everything that will happen to me is for the best. I can even accept that bad things that happened for me are for the best, especially as some bad things seem to have led to good results down the line, something I can see now I’m heading for forty that I couldn’t see when I was in my teens and twenties. What is hard to accept is that I can be happy and confident that everything will be fine, as so much of my life was painful to experience and there is no guarantee that everything good will be painless (in fact, it is extremely unlikely to be painless) or even bearable. So often things are painful, and that scares me. It scares me on a personal level and it scares me on a national and global level. Like many Jews, I worry about a second Holocaust (admittedly my generation worries about this less than my parents and grandparents). I worry something will happen to me that will hurt terribly, physically and/or emotionally (I can probably handle emotional pain better than physical, but that’s a whole other post). And I worry a lot about something happening to me that is so painful and difficult that I lose my Jewish belief and practice. I know that’s a strange thing to worry about, or at least I’ve rarely heard anyone with strong faith worry that they will lose it – usually people only worry when they start to lose it, or so it seems. But I do worry about it.

***

I watched the Star Wars film Rogue One with my parents. I had seen it in the cinema. They tried to watch it a while back, having recorded it off the TV, only to discover the end hadn’t recorded. It was OK, but I felt disengaged remembering the ending as the characters and dialogue were not enough to engage me by themselves.

***

I tested my Babylon 5 DVDs. The season one to four box sets each have at least one disc that won’t play, usually more. The season five discs seem OKish, in that they all play, but one or two start by making some horrible clunking noises which make me think the DVD players is going to reject them, but they do eventually play. I think the cost of replacing them with second-hand DVDs from eBay is similar to the cost of paying to stream them. I’m not sure whether to buy seasons one to four or to assume that season five will stop working at some point and buy that too. I’m also still clueless as to what has happened to stop them working.

***

Googling to find details about Babylon 5 downloads, I found out that Mira Furlan (Delenn) died last month. It’s weird, loads of Babylon 5 cast members have died quite young. Furlan joins Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Jerry Doyle (Mr Garibaldi), Richard Biggs (Dr Franklin), Jeff Conaway (Zack Allan) and Stephen Furst (Vir) (I didn’t know about Furst either until checking the details on the list). Compare with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was broadcast around the same time with a similar sized cast, but only one regular cast member has died to date. There were two married couples where both partners appeared in Babylon 5 too (Jerry Doyle and Andrea Thompson (Talia), and Bruce Boxleitner (Captain Sheridan) and Melissa Gilbert (Anna Sheridan)) and they both ended in divorce. I also just discovered that O’Hare left the programme after one season because of severe mental health issues. I don’t believe in curses, but it is vaguely eerie, although I imagine that statistically it’s not that odd, just one of those random clumpings of data that happen. It makes me feel a bit sad at any rate.

***

WordPress is showing this post to me in what looks like Times New Roman font, or some other font with serifs. I wonder if it’s going to post in Times New Roman. I used to like fonts with serifs, but I’ve gone off them since discovering that they decrease readability, particularly on screens.

Trust and Control

I slept badly again last night, waking up in the night and struggling to get back to sleep. I’ve taken a bigger pillow and wonder if that will help. As a result, I was very tired at work in the morning and had to drink coffee to stay awake. I don’t like it when I feel I’m drifting off at work. The work was a bit depressing too. Aside from dealing with subscription payments, I was processing death records for this year and came across one for someone ten years younger than me with bipolar disorder who had committed suicide. This really upset me and I’m not entirely sure why, just a feeling that I wish I could have done something to help her, not that I ever met her. Then PIMOJ texted to say she was upset because of a suicide in her workplace and it seemed like it was catching.

I went to the bank in the afternoon, which probably left me too much time to think and brood while I walked there and back and spent a long time queuing. I think I’ve been less anxious today, but a lot more depressed.

J gave me a lift home again and the conversation on the radio was all about the UK COVID death toll reaching 100,000, so it was a pretty bleak day all round.

I had a shiur (religious class) in the evening on Zoom, perhaps appropriately on Yishayahu (Isaiah), the chief prophet of hope. This was interesting. I knew some of it, but not all of it. I tried to psyche myself up for the bit where we broke into smaller groups to discuss a passage, but my microphone took that moment to break, although I suppose it was interesting to observe other people doing group work from a distance, as it were, and see I’m not necessarily as bad at it compared with other people as I thought.

***

I worry a bit whether I could do a full days’ work at the moment. At the moment, J is letting me come in forty-five minutes or so late so I can avoid the Tube at rush hour because of COVID, and we finish work around 4pm. I only take forty-five minutes for lunch, but even so, that makes for a day that’s not much more than five hours long. Which is nice, but I worry if I’ll ever have the stamina for full working days again.

***

I had a thought about bitachon, trust in God. I find this very hard. I believe in a benevolent God Who wants the best for His creation, but I also believe that sometimes the best option is still something very painful to undergo. But I realised today that a lot of my problem is about control, specifically about accepting that I don’t have very much control over my life, which is scary. I probably have rather less control over my life than many people, certainly people of my age, class and educational level, because of my autism and mental health issues and chequered work history.

It’s easy to tell myself that I can somehow control my career or my romantic life or my mental health by thinking about them (which mostly means being despairing or anxious about them), but really I can’t. I have no idea if I’ll ever get married, to PIMOJ or to anyone else; or whether I’ll build any kind of a career as a writer or a librarian; or how I will support myself when my parents aren’t here; or umpteen other things. That’s very scary, to give up that degree of control. I guess it could be liberating. People with a lot of bitachon (e.g. PIMOJ) seem to live very liberated, carefree lives. But I find it terrifying.

Minor Trials and Tribulations

Today seemed quite busy. I slept badly again, struggling to fall asleep and then struggling to get out of bed. Today was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) I managed to get up a little earlier to say some of the extra prayers, although I’m still saying a much-reduced Shacharit (Morning Service).

I spent the morning at work processing cheques people have sent in to pay fees. I think I had a few moments of autistic executive function block where my mind went blank and I didn’t know what I was doing and possibly I didn’t save data properly. I think/hope that I caught all of those. I intended to check all of them at the end, but checking forty-six payments seemed excessive (not to mention likely to send me back down the path of OCD compulsive checking), so I checked three or four random accounts and the data was always saved properly, so hopefully it was all OK. Later I processed a credit card payment over the phone and made a mistake, but the payment still went through when it probably shouldn’t have done. I put the wrong name on the card because I was confused by a woman paying on behalf of her mother. Hopefully that won’t be a mess that I need to sort out next week. Other than that, the main diversion was another trip to the bank to pay in the cheques. The cashier looked at the big pile of cheques and said I obviously hadn’t done any banking for a while. “Not since Monday” was my response. Almost everyone pays their annual fees in January, so we have to pay a lot of cheques in, although J says more people are paying by phone or online this year, which is easier for us.

J and I left work early today and despite going a different route home to avoid traffic, I had time this evening to finish and send my devar Torah (Torah thought) and work on my novel for twenty minutes or so.

I spoke to PIMOJ for an hour. She wanted to call on WhatsApp, which was fine, but I didn’t realise my phone hadn’t connected to the wifi properly when I came home, so I used 80% of my data for the next month (it just refreshed a few days ago). Not good. It’s not disastrous, as I don’t generally use much data, but it is frustrating.

PIMOJ bought me chocolate, which she sent in the post. I feel a bit apprehensive about the amount of gifts she gives me. They’re mostly small things, but I don’t really express affection that way and I wonder how she wants me to express affection to her. I wouldn’t know what presents to buy her and it wouldn’t really occur to me to do so without prompting. I’d say it’s an autistic thing, but it’s probably a male thing. Possibly PIMOJ and I need to talk about “love languages” (if you believe in love languages), but we already had one serious conversation today and it’s probably just as well we didn’t have another. At least we were on the same page about the serious conversation we did have.

I got given a confectionary package from my shul (synagogue) today too. Do they think I’m still shielding? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure who to ask/tell. It was probably a bit unfortunate that it came today as I sent off the email asking for a shul fee reduction given my employment/financial situation.

But certainly dieting with this much junk food around will be hard!

***

My glasses broke last night. I’m not sure how. The arm came off the little hinge. I suspect it’s either really easy to fix, or completely impossible and I need a new pair. Dad tried to take them in to Specsavers today. In ordinary times, it would be a simple thing, but because of COVID you have to get an appointment just to speak to someone about a broken pair of glasses and they forgot to phone him back. I wore my spare pair of glasses to work, but they have an old prescription. They were OK, but after a day wearing them, I think my eyes were getting strained, so I took them off. I generally only get new glasses when my prescription changes; then I take the older pair as an imperfect spare. I rarely need to use my spare glasses and even then usually for only a day or two, so it’s not usually a problem, but of course COVID makes everything a problem.

***

From my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week:

Finally, Rashi tells us that sometimes Moshe [Moses] is put before Aharon [Aaron] and sometimes Aharon is put before Moshe to teach us that they were equal.[1]  This is puzzling, as we know that Moshe was the greatest prophet, so how could Aharon be his equal?  According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Aharon was equal to Moshe in two senses.  First, that Moshe would not have succeeded without him, so his participation, like Moshe’s, was essential even if Moshe was greater.  Second, Aharon achieved the maximum of his potential, just like Moshe.  Although Moshe’s achievement in absolute terms was greater, both brothers achieved 100% of their potential and are equal in God’s eyes, as He judges success by the proportion of a person’s mission that is achieved and not the amount achieved in absolute terms.[2]


[1] Rashi Commentary to Shemot 6.26

[2] Quoted in Rabbi Nosson Scherman ed, The Stone Edition Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings

This idea, about achievement being relative to a person’s potential in God’s eyes rather than an absolute value, is not a new idea to me. So why it is so hard to accept?

***

The pharmacy I use is one of the six in the country that are providing COVID vaccinations. It’s just been on the TV news because the minister in charge of vaccine roll-out was there today. Selfishly, I am vaguely worried about whether this (the vaccinations, not the minister or the news) will have any impact on how fast and easily I can collect my monthly repeat prescriptions, particularly as I have one that needs collection on Monday.

***

None of what I have written here is serious, but it has all left me pretty exhausted. I’m going to do a bit more Torah study, then watch Doctor Who for a bit and go to bed.

Thinking/Worrying

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.

Very Anxious Day

I had the second part of my autism assessment this afternoon. It was a Zoom call with a psychiatric nurse (I think the one who interviewed my Mum a while back). I don’t know how I did. They said it would take an hour to an hour and a half, but it only lasted forty minutes or so. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. The psychiatric nurse asked me some questions about emotions: what makes angry, happy, sad, etc. and what those emotions feel like. I think I struggled to put those emotions into words and tended to speak more about what I do when I’m angry, happy, sad, etc. Which I guess would suggest autism. We also spoke about friends and having a partner and what that was like emotionally and practically. Also if I coped with living alone, cooking, cleaning, etc. and whether I can handle my own finances. I know I can live alone OK because I just set up routines so I know what I’m doing, but I find that I can’t handle my finances as well as I feel I should be able to do and need to ask my Dad for help sometimes. Again, this might suggest autism.

I also had to narrate a picture book, describe how to brush my teeth and tell a story using five random objects as props. The psychiatric nurse narrated a story with five objects first, to show me what to do. I noticed that while her story was very abstract (e.g. a pen representing a boy, a sellotape roll representing a cake), mine was more literal (e.g. a Lego man for a person, a leaf for a forest), which again would suggest autism to me, although I’m not sure what they are looking for there. I don’t really know if this went well or not, or what “well” really means in this situation. I was told I should hear about the next stage (the actual diagnosis appointment) within six weeks, probably less, but I’m not sure if the actual diagnosis appointment will be within six weeks or just if I should hear when it will be.

The story test makes me wonder if I will really be able to make a career as a novelist, although a quick internet search reveals there are other autistic writers out there. I guess with my current novel, one plot strand is about my experiences with depression and autism in the Jewish community and the other strand is based on a lot of research I did into real life domestic abuse. I suspect I would be the type of author who wears his influences visibly and sticks to existing generic tropes rather than the type of daring, avant garde literary author part of me would like to be. So more of a Terry Nation than a Steven Moffat. Fine, I think Terry Nation is under-rated and I should only make as much money as Terry Nation did… (Nation created a number of popular programmes for British and American television, but was most famous for creating the Daleks for Doctor Who and making a fortune out of them thanks to canny merchandising and rigorous copyright enforcement.)

***

Yesterday J gave me nearly 300 invoices to put in envelopes, stick on stamps and post (he is paying me for this, don’t worry!). Today I put over 100 invoices in envelopes and sealed them; tomorrow I hope to put the rest in and put stamps on them all. It would probably have been more efficient to put a stamp on each envelope after sealing it, but I knew that if I did that, then I would constantly be having OCD worries about whether or not I put one on each one and would be going back to check. Easier, I thought, to do the lot at once, check them, and be done with it.

There’s no volunteering tomorrow, as the paid staff are worried about COVID and are reviewing their procedures to check everything is safe. The packing will be done just by the paid staff this week. Hopefully I can use the morning for envelope stuffing before I have therapy in the afternoon.

***

In the evening I had a rather anxiety-provoking experience. I don’t feel that I can go into much detail. It’s going to be an ongoing thing for a while. I think it’s the right thing to happen, absolutely, but it’s important and scary.

The hardest part isn’t actually the difficult and scary bits. I’m very dependent on the opinion of others, particularly those in religious authority. I worry about appearing like something other than the person I want to be, even though I ended up where I am in good faith and on rabbinic advice. I guess if you have low self-esteem, it’s easy to think everyone thinks badly of you, just as it’s easy to think that every difficulty (or anxiety) is a punishment from God for trivial infractions.

***

Because of everything that happened today, I didn’t do much Torah study. I read Rabbi Sacks’ Morality book for a while, but that was about it. I don’t know if that counts. Is it Torah study if I read a book by a Chief Rabbi about morality, but mostly couched in terms of secular philosophy and psychology rather than Torah sources? I don’t know, but it’s a very good book. I’m pretty tired now, but I need to shower and probably to watch some TV to unwind before going to bed as I still feel very tense, although the anxiety is slowly dissipating. I ate dinner very late, because I was too anxious before, and then I ate a ton of ice cream for dessert. So much for being on a diet.

What Happened?

I blamed myself for a couple of things that went wrong at work, at least one of which was not my fault. I made some mistakes typing some invoices from a template, which was a bit of carelessness on my part. Also, Dropbox was not working on my computer properly, which meant that J couldn’t access the files I was working on and vice versa. J suggested deleting Dropbox and reinstalling. I deleted, but was having trouble reinstalling when J said we should go home and leave it for Thursday. I feel like we are leaving earlier and earlier (probably because the traffic is getting worse and worse), but I guess J is the boss and he gets to decide when we go. I am concerned about sorting the Dropbox problem, but ultimately it’s not my responsibility (yes, I do take responsibility for things that are outside my control).

I texted PIMOJ in the morning to see how she was as we always do. I didn’t hear from her all day until I got a thumbs up emoji from her just before I left work this afternoon. We exchanged one or two texts, but nothing like what we usually do. We “went” (on Zoom) to a shiur (religious class) just now and I texted her to see what she thought of it, but she hasn’t replied yet, or even looked at the text. I’m not sure what is going on there any more and I feel pessimistic about it. Maybe she’s just giving me space, as yesterday I think I came across as passive-aggressive and when she asked if I was OK I said I was in my “cave.” Maybe she thinks I’m still there, my texts notwithstanding.

I guess I feel a bit hurt by everything that happened in the last few days. I do wonder what she thinks of me, whether she thinks I’m some immoral or irreligious person. I think our religious outlooks are different. She sees God and signs of His goodness everywhere, particularly in nature and in positive things in her life; I find it harder to find God in a world of suffering and a life that has really not gone to plan, and inevitably that was reflected in my writing. That’s what the situation with my book boils down to, beyond the sex, that she sees God everywhere in the world, and I struggle to find Him anywhere.

I feel a bit responsible, but also like I got hit by something out of nowhere. I didn’t want to let PIMOJ read my novel at this stage (albeit as much because I didn’t think it was polished enough than because of the content), but I felt pushed into it, and now who knows what is happening between us. This may be me trying to take responsibility for things that are not in my control again.

***

Perhaps because I was feeling depressed, I bid on eBay yesterday for a back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine (#242), the issue before I started reading the magazine regularly. I’ve mentioned recently my nostalgia for the DWM of that period (my teenage years) and wanted to read a couple of articles and interviews in that issue that I missed out on at the time. I hope I don’t start regularly buying back issues though, as it could be expensive. I only bid for this because, with just a couple of hours left, there were no bidders and a starting bid of £1. In the end I got it for £1, plus £2 postage, which is cheaper than the cover price of the current issue. I’m not sure if that’s the first time I’ve won a bid on eBay.

Also, this Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition is in stock again, surprisingly, and I put in an order for it, so it looks like I’m having a good time on the DWM front if nothing else!

Argument

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was fine, same as usual. I went to shul (synagogue) for the first time since the second lockdown ended. It still feels very subdued there, and we were reminded not to sing. We did go outdoors for a few minutes so we could sing Lecha Dodi, which was good, but colder than when we were doing it a month ago.

I had a dream last night that I won’t describe, as I don’t remember enough of it, and what I do remember I don’t want to share, but it made me worry that my unconscious was thinking of my time being single (which is most of my life), but primarily the loneliness of being single, and the stress and guilt of not coping well with it and having dysfunctional coping strategies at the time.

I argued a bit with PIMOJ tonight after Shabbat, via text. We clashed over my novel. I think there were some communication difficulties too, some language difficulties and some outlook difficulties. I felt my novel was about as religious as a mainstream novel can be and am already worried it will be accused of being too pious or frum (religious) and too simplistic in showing that hurt people can find solace in God. PIMOJ feels that it needs to show more of God’s goodness. I can’t explain her position in detail, because I don’t understand it all (like I said, there are some communication difficulties here, perhaps some language issues) and I’m not going to re-read her email and texts at the moment. I felt the novel was reflecting my experience and the experience of people I’ve encountered online and in person, and it would be wrong to change that or to provide easy answers to difficult questions. I think it’s a book about resilience rather than simple piety.

We calmed down in the end, shelved the novel question for now and said that we both value our connection to each other more than what we feel about the novel. I guess I find arguments scary because in both my previous relationships, the arguments came as we were moving towards breaking up and were a sign of deep-seated issues, so it’s hard not to see it as an ominous sign, even though I know healthy couples can argue a lot (too many examples to mention from my family!).

I had planned to re-watch Blade Runner 2049 this evening, but after the argument, I felt it was too long and downbeat. I started to watch the Doctor Who story City of Death, which is the Doctor Who fan equivalent of eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream when depressed. It was written, pseudonymously, by Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, and has a reputation for being the funniest and most elegantly-structured of his three sets of scripts for Doctor Who. I’m not sure if I will watch all of it tonight. I’m currently halfway through, with another fifty minutes to go. It’s getting late, but I have a bit of a headache, which I think will stop me sleeping, and I don’t feel sleepy. I probably still feel energised from arguing, as well as from sleeping too much over Shabbat.

EDIT: I complained recently about someone reblogging a post of mine without asking permission or even telling me. I just had a look in my spam folder and found a comment in there saying that they were reblogging it, so apologies there, although I still don’t know why they particularly wanted to reblog that post.

The World War I Flying Ace

I didn’t post on Friday because I ran out of time before Shabbat (the Sabbath). That’s probably going to be the case for all Fridays until late spring. I didn’t have a lot to say anyway. Now I have the post-Shabbat in the winter “wanting to curl up and not do much” feeling. Not a lot happened in the last two days anyway.

On Friday I did manage to get my medication before Shabbat. I went to shul (synagogue). It wasn’t raining, so we had the first half of the service (Kabbalat Shabbat) outside so we could take off our masks and sing, which was good (the singing and the masklessness, although I took care to stand over two metres from anyone else regardless). I intended not to do so much Torah study after dinner so I didn’t burn out the next day, but I got involved and did over an hour, which I guess is good (that I was so involved). Then I read the Jewish Review of Books and went to bed late, but couldn’t sleep, so read more of the Jewish Review of Books. Today was much the same, eating, sleeping, praying and reading.

I had a settled feeling over Shabbat. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. A feeling that I’m looking for a stronger connection with God, but that I no longer feel victimised and attacked by Him, or that I can never find religious meaning. I guess PIMOJ has something to do with that, but it’s not entirely down to her. I feel like I know what I should be doing with my life, which is writing Jewish books. At the same time, I do still worry that I’m not a good enough writer, or that I won’t be able to handle the more practical aspects of writing (finding an agent and a publisher etc.). I also feel obliged to look for other work so I’m not entirely dependent on my parents and the state hence my intention to send off some more job applications this coming week, even though I increasingly feel that I’m not going to get work that way.

That was really it for the last two days. After Shabbat I did some stuff around the house for my parents, but nothing much.

***

After about two years, I finished reading all the daily and Sunday Peanuts (Snoopy) cartoons. That’s 17,897 comic strips. There is actually another volume in The Complete Peanuts series, containing various one-off strips and ephemera; I’m not sure if I’m enough of a completist to buy it. It’s pretty well-known that American culture celebrates heroes, not “losers.” Just look at the way Donald Trump shouts “Loser” at everyone he doesn’t like (which is a lot of people). Somehow Charles Schulz managed to take a comic strip about a loser and make it popular in the States, which is not easy. I mean “loser” in the nicest possible sense, from someone who considers himself a loser and thinks that losers are more interesting than winners. It’s a surprisingly deep and existential comic about failure and frustration, but also very funny and endearing, perhaps because it’s not actually pitched as a comic about failure, it just happens to go there a lot.

Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Brown

The good news: Mum saw the oncologist today and he said that the cancer is completely gone, which is obviously very good. She will still have to have radiotherapy, and to continue to have regular injections of antibodies for a while, but the cancer itself is completely gone.

On to the less good…

I feel that I’m like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and falling on his back every time. Every few years, my depression seems to shift for a bit, and I talk about being recovered, and then after a period of weeks or months, I fall back into depression again, usually in autumn. At least this time I didn’t say I was “recovered,” just that my depression was now mostly reactive to events going on around me rather than being rooted in my childhood experiences, which is probably true, but nevertheless, I still feel very depressed today.

I’m also feeling burnt out again. I struggled on with preparing my interview presentation, but it was hard work. I just wanted to curl up in bed. In terms of the stresses the depression is reacting to, I guess I’m worried about the interview next week, and what happens if I get the job, whether I can do it and whether I can cope with a masked commute every workday.

I also had problems setting up an account with Microsoft Teams, which I need for my interview on Wednesday. I set up an account and tried to log in, only to be told I couldn’t log in because I didn’t have an account. But when I tried to set up a new account, I was told I couldn’t because I already had an account. I was supposed to have an email that would let me use Teams, but I didn’t receive it for a while, and there wasn’t a helpdesk to complain to. I could somehow get through using the link the Very Important Institution sent me (they have already set the meeting up so I can get into the virtual waiting room), but I couldn’t open Teams from scratch. I was supposed to have a practice call with my sister, but it wouldn’t let me add her to my address book. Pressing the “accept” button on the notification email from her just opened another window with the same email notification, it didn’t actually add her to my address book. I did eventually get everything up and running, just about, but I’m pretty nervous about it working properly on Wednesday. The Doctor Who line about computers being very “sophisticated idiots” never seemed more true. Teams seems like it has a load of fancy features that get in the way and stop it from doing things that can more easily be done on Skype or Zoom. I did eventually manage a practice call with my sister, so I feel a bit more confident about it. It think that Microsoft really are the pits, though. The hollow thumping sound you can hear is the sound of me repeatedly hitting my head on my desk.

I’m also vaguely worried about my relationship with PIMOJ; it’s hard to tell what the relationship is like when we still haven’t met in person or even spoken long on Skype (Love in the Time of COVID), and when there are occasional communication problems from the fact that English isn’t her first language, and I’m not sure of her level of knowledge of English as well as of Hebrew and Yiddish. I don’t want to sound patronising to her by using simple language or explaining things, but I don’t want her to feel I’m showing off my knowledge or intimidating her with terms she doesn’t understand.

It also feels weird for me to be the less spiritual and perhaps also the less serious-minded person in a relationship and I’m not quite sure what to make of that, or about the fact that I don’t feel completely comfortable owning my negative feelings when I’m talking to her, as she’s so positive and I’m scared about how she would respond to me on a day like today when I just feel depressed. Again, it doesn’t help that we haven’t met in person; on instant messenger it’s hard to judge someone’s mood or level of empathy, even beyond my usual autistic struggles with that sort of perspective taking, especially given the language problem and the fact that there are often typos that just confuse the whole thing even further.

I don’t want to sound too negative, as I think PIMOJ meets a lot of my needs in terms of being intelligent, kind and religious and I also find her funny. I think there is chemistry there, even if instant messenger isn’t necessarily the best way of expressing it. I just wonder what will happen. I’m trying to stay in the present, but it isn’t always easy.

I don’t really want to talk about the relationship in detail here, but I don’t have anywhere else to talk about it, other than therapy for an hour a week. I also don’t know how much these worries are real or stem from feeling depressed today.

So, these are the thoughts that have been going through my head today. I guess I’m feeling rather overwhelmed, and I haven’t even mentioned that it’s going to be the most important day in the Jewish calendar on Sunday night and Monday (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), and I don’t feel able to go to shul (synagogue) for it because of fear of infection, discomfort with masks and general autistic uncertainty about what exactly happens at shul with COVID and the new normal.

***

I listened to an audio shiur (religious class) by Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, who is a therapist as well as a rabbi, on building a mature relationship with God. In some ways it crystalised things I’ve been thinking recently, but which I had not been able to put into words. Ideas that God is not judging us on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur like a parent or teacher judges a young child and awarding reward and punishment, but that He is being curious and inviting us to enter into a dialogue with Him about why we’ve done the things we’ve done, good and bad, and How we relate to Him through those actions and how we can change and grow and become more authentic towards our inner selves.

I hope to think about this and bring it into my life. I struggle a lot to believe in a God who loves me (as opposed to a loving God – I believe God loves, but I don’t believe I’m worthy of His love). I want to build a relationship with Him, but it’s hard to know what to say, especially when I feel so tired so much of the time, and when I’ve spent so much of my adult life feeling anxious and depressed. I am trying to get away from the “angry old man in the sky” image of God which is poisonous, but sometimes I think I move too far in the direction of abstraction (Ein Sof, the kabbalistic term for the Infinite) and feel too distant from Him.

***

Achievements: some time spent on interview preparation, no idea how long. Downloaded Microsoft Teams and had a practice call with my sister. Went for a half-hour walk. Finished reading a book on writing character and viewpoint; I think I knew a lot of it instinctively from reading a lot, but I do vaguely feel like I’m a bad writer. I had a bit of a headache in the evening, which may have been stress or just because the heating came on for the first time, which often makes me a bit ill. I listened to a shiur and finished and sent my devar Torah for the week. I finished scanning the autism forms. So, I did quite a bit despite the burnout and low mood, but somehow it never feels “enough” which I guess is something to talk to God about.

Anxiety, Romance and Masks

Things are going well, but I still feel a little anxious, although less so today. I spoke a lot about this in therapy today. Things with PIMOJ are going better than I expected, but I worry they won’t work out. PIMOJ is a lot more positive than me, and a lot more active in her life, and I worry she’ll find me negative and lazy (among other things). I’m trying just to sit with the anxiety rather than give in to it and worry, but it’s not always easy. Anxiety can sneak up on you when you’re looking the wrong way.

It could be several years before we overcome the obstacles in the way of the relationship (including, but not exclusively, my lack of income). I guess the difference between me and PIMOJ is that she thinks it might take just a few years whereas I think it could take quite a few years. I guess it’s a difference of presentation rather than substance, and I’m trying to look at it her way, but it’s hard sometimes. I guess I worry how I will get through things sometimes, and the psychological barrier of realising that I’ll probably be over forty before I can marry (PIMOJ is younger than me and potentially would be in her thirties still). Mind you, regardless of what happens romantically, I feel like I’ll probably be over forty before I really feel myself started in a career, whether writing or librarianship. I feel a bit like God is telling me I can have everything I want BUT I have to trust that He will deliver in His own time. Still, it’s good to have found someone who seems so caring and religious when I thought I was going to have to compromise on those things, and if PIMOJ can’t get me to trust God then no one can.

***

When does discomfort become exemption? I hate wearing a mask. I find it hugely uncomfortable. I have a friend, also on the autism spectrum, who has an exemption card because she literally can not wear a mask. It’s just impossibly uncomfortable for her. Do I find it difficult because I’m autistic or because everyone finds it uncomfortable? How long can I wear one for? I’m OK wearing it for half and a hour or so, but I’m dreading going to shul (synagogue) with one or commuting into London. It is hard to know what to do. At the moment I’m trying to comply, out of courtesy to others and to avoid attracting negative attention. Still, I wonder how long I’ll be able to bear it, as the new normal becomes as busy and demanding as pre-COVID, but with masks and other difficulties. But I don’t think I could bear to get a exemption card, particularly before being formally diagnosed, so I would just avoid situations that require masks (which I’m basically already doing).

***

I missed a phone call, and then found I had an email from someone from shul (synagogue) asking me to call him back. I struggled with social anxiety, but I called him back and found out that he wanted to check that we’re still shielding Mum on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, this weekend) as the shul is sending a small gift (I’m guessing some kind of food, probably sweet) to people who are shielding and unable to attend services.

I thought this was really nice. I know I don’t always feel 100% comfortable in my shul, but they are friendly and welcoming and the community is small enough that I get noticed even if I don’t really say anything. The thing I was really pleased about was phoning him back with minimal procrastination, which was hard given that my social anxiety has worsened lately.

I also went to Tesco today to challenge the anxiety around shopping at the moment. It was OK, but it was a small Tesco and I couldn’t find reasons to stay there for more than a few minutes. I’m hoping to spend as long or longer in a shop or shops tomorrow.

Love of God; Loss and Gain of Friends

Shabbat was good. I slept too much though: about ten hours at night and another two and a half after lunch. It meant I didn’t have time for much Torah study or recreational reading.

***

I had a thought about being loved by God. I used to say that I couldn’t believe that God loves me, then that I could accept God loves me intellectually, but not emotionally. I thought this was all tied up with suffering, mine and that of the world in general. I realised yesterday that that’s not the issue, or not the main issue. While I’m not sure how much I accept that God loves me, my real worry is that I won’t be able to cope with the future suffering he makes me go through, whether it’s physical pain or even greater loneliness (when my parents aren’t here). I worry that I won’t cope and (a) will be in extreme pain (physical or emotional) and (b) will stop being religious out of anger or despair. I’m not sure where to go with these thoughts right now.

***

I realised I’ve changed a lot of my social contacts in the last six months or so. I’ve lost touch with shul (synagogue) friends and acquaintances because of lockdown. I have not been in touch with E. properly since we broke up (although she tried to get back together with me, or at least to get back in contact, I did not think it was a good idea). I think there has been a high turnover of people reading my blog in the last six months to a year, with some people vanishing and others starting to read. I guess I find all the change a bit disconcerting (blame autism if you want). I’m still blaming myself for friends that I lost a couple of years ago (real life and online), which was at least partially my fault.

***

I was trying not to think about my novel over Shabbat, but a possible solution, or part solution, to the problem of the climax came into my head suddenly. It will take a lot of restructuring, but I’m open to that at this stage.

***

More Rav Kook: “Every person who feels within himself the depth of penitential remorse and the anxiety to mend his flaws — both those whose redress is within his reach and those he hopes to redress in time by the mercy of God — should include himself in the category of the righteous.” from The Lights of Penitence in Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems p.65

***

I don’t like to use the word “hate,” but can I just say how much I hate the new WordPress editor? I thought I would get used to it over time, but the more I use it, the worse it seems. I can’t work out how to get back to the classic editor (properly, not just for a particular block). I can only assume the new editor was developed by a mole for rival blog platform, trying to bring the company down from within; I can’t believe someone actually thought it was a good idea.

Odds and Ends

I got up a bit earlier today, at 10.00am. I’m trying to be pleased with myself for doing so, as I was still tired (although I had slept for nine hours) and really wanted to sleep more.

I did a couple of hours on the job application exam practise. I didn’t do very well. I made significant mistakes on every attempt. I don’t know why I’m struggling so much with it. I felt it was a task that should be autism-friendly. Rating websites according to certain criteria seemed the kind of repetitive, structured task people on the spectrum would succeed at. I think the problems are (a) I was not taught well how to apply the criteria; just reading and watching a webinar was not enough. I need more time on the practise data and clearer – ideally interactive – feedback; and (b) a lot of criteria are more subjective than I expected, although I can’t really go into details here. Both these factors mean that it all seems arbitrary to me and not logical. Or am I just making excuses for myself again? It’s hard to tell sometimes. If there was a simple “cheat sheet” or flow diagram for rating the websites it would be easier, but I’m expected to remember everything or to be able to find it easily from a seventy page set of guidelines.

***

I had another message from the Person I’m Messaging On JDate (PIMOJ). She still seems a really nice person, although I feel that I can’t quite get a full sense of who she is from her messages, even though they’re very long, perhaps because English is not her first language. But she passes my rabbi mentor’s dating test, that “everything you learn about her should make you want to learn more.” I’m wondering whether to suggest a Skype date soon or to stick with writing to each other for a while longer. My big worry at this stage is that, with her positivity, she’ll find me too negative, particularly given that my depression has been worse this last week. Or, I guess, I could find her positivity too much for me. I can see that we could balance each other… or we could drive each other crazy. Maybe both (I can think of at least one couple in my family who balance each other on one level and drive each other crazy on another).

Stuff PIMOJ and I have in common (values and goals): both very religious; both very focused on biblical study; both want to ideally build careers as writers (although she is further on with her non-writing career than I am); both want marriage and family and are close to our parents. That said, it’s very easy to think that my depression is going to ruin this. I’m trying not to think like that, but it’s hard.

She messaged me again in the evening, so I think she’s reasonably keen for now.

***

I read an article online about God and suffering. I found the article a little trite in its assumption that God does everything for a reason. I believe that, but the article felt a bit insensitive to genuine suffering. However, in the comments someone took issue with the entire premise of the article, essentially arguing for the viewpoint, “Children suffering can never be rationalised, therefore there is no God.” I was more annoyed with this viewpoint than the article itself, so I guess that shows I do really believe in a benevolent God and that suffering can have meaning, I just struggle to connect with Him emotionally. It is hard to know how to feel more emotional connection, though.

I do wish I knew how I can understand something intellectually and not feel it emotionally. I know my depression (which is still present even if it’s more short-lived and more obviously focused on particular events) steamrollers over positive emotions like love (of God) and spiritual fulfillment. I don’t know how I can move forward with this though.

***

I feel like my main problem areas and the things keeping me from resolving them are:

  • lack of understanding and especially acceptance (by me) of how autism affects me and what adjustments I can make. I am kept from resolving this by waiting to be assessed and hopefully supported afterwards. I’m not sure how much more support is available. I’ve had quite a bit, but still I feel I struggle with knowing and accepting myself and finding things I can realistically do. Further help is largely on hold until I get a proper diagnosis, which is still on hold due to COVID and waiting lists.
  • unemployment. This is held in place by my not feeling able to (or being able to afford to) commit to writing 100% and autistic, depressive and low self-esteem struggles in the workplace (I don’t believe I can work any more). There is also a lack of jobs available at the moment, particularly because of COVID.
  • lack of spirituality and meaning in my life. I struggle to solve this because depression stops me enjoying my religious life and social anxiety and autism (and COVID) making communal involvement difficult.

PIMOJ has a very deep and pure spirituality and love of God, and I hope that some of that might rub off on me (although I don’t know what I could offer her in return). I feel I should be doing something myself too, though.

***

I just watched the film Lincoln with my parents. It was a very good film, although when I watch historical drama, I wonder how much is true. The film is largely about how Abraham Lincoln got the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, through the House of Representatives, so that slavery would be declared unconstitutional. Otherwise he feared that after the Civil War was over, the courts would declare the wartime emancipation of slaves unconstitutional and re-institute slavery. I’ve been meaning to read up on Lincoln for a long time and still haven’t got around to it, so this was interesting to watch. It was a very well-made film, and feels in some ways more relevant now, given the ongoing racial unrest in the US, than it probably did when it was released in 2012, when there was a black president and race seemed less of an issue.

My parents asked me a lot of questions about US history and the Constitution and government, not all of which I could answer, although I think I answered most of them. My father tends to assume I know everything, particularly about history and Judaism. This is flattering but not true. My Dad was rather astounded that in the nineteenth century the Democrats were the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of abolition. I guess it does seem surprising, I’ve just known about it long enough that I’m used to it. (Liberals in Europe mostly supported the South at the time too.)

Guilt

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.

The King is in the Field

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety and Trust

I struggled to sleep last night.  Often, after experiencing a migraine, I feel tired, but not actually sleepy.  I don’t know what the migraine does to my brain chemistry to do that.  I didn’t fall asleep until long after 2.00am.  Despite that, I woke up at 9.15am, feeling very tired, but also upset by an unpleasant dream I had (no relation to my usual worries) and feeling rather anxious about dating.  I decided there was no point in lying in bed feeling anxious, so forced myself to get up and have breakfast, which was a good decision.  I did at least say some of the Morning Prayers on time.

I tried to focus on staying in the present, difficult though it feels at times.  I learnt a grounding technique recently that works for me, so I’m trying to stick with that (when I spiral into depressive or anxious thoughts, I try to notice five things I can see, four things I can hear, three I can touch, two I can smell and I you can taste.  The last two are not always easy.  I think some people carry sweets or smelling salts, but I haven’t gone that far).  Despite this, I did have quite a bit of anxiety over the day.

***

I applied for another job.  It was a simple application on LinkedIn, just sending them my CV and profile page link.  Much easier than yesterday’s one.  There was an unexpected question at the end about how many years of experience I have with a particular software that I’ve never heard of before.  I don’t know why that wasn’t on the job specification.  It’s not a library job, but would use some information management skills.  The hours sound a lot though – forty hours a week.  I think that would be too much for me, if that’s all they will accept.  About fifteen minutes after I sent the application, I got phoned by the agency who was recruiting for the position.  They talked me through some questions.  I felt I did badly, because I was unprepared and on the phone and couldn’t always understand the person I was talking to well (I hate the phone), but they said that they would forward my application to the company.

I also emailed a recruitment agency who got me two jobs in the last two years to say that I’m still looking for work.

***

I spent some time working on my novel, reading about plot structure.  I can see what I was already intuiting: that my novel is under-plotted, particularly in the middle.  What is harder is to see how to change it.  I may have to ditch some of what I have written completely and re-plot some of it.  That’s somewhat dispiriting.  On the other hand, I feel the structure the “how to write” book suggests is overly schematic and forcing myself to follow it slavishly will disrupt the flow of the novel.  I need to work out what will work and what won’t, which may involve trial and error.  It’s also possible that my novel, or the autobiographical plot-line, is based too much on my own life.  I changed chunks to make it flow better, but even so, I think some things don’t “fit” properly.  Real life doesn’t always flow the way fiction should.

I ran into these issues right before dinner.  I couldn’t come back to it after dinner because I was going to a Zoom depression group meeting , so I finished work today on a downer, worrying if my novel was workable.  This led to some catastrophising about the novel, my career, my dating prospects, everything really.  It was partly anxiety and partly low blood sugar – this was late afternoon and I had not eaten much.  After dinner I had better perspective, especially as I got an email from a writer friend saying not to feel bad if my novel seems bad when I re-read the first few times.

***

I attended depression group on Zoom.  I was glad I went, as it’s good to talk to people, but the meeting was emotionally draining and I felt exhausted afterwards even though it wasn’t yet 10.00pm.

I signed up for an autism group peer support meeting on friendships and relationships next week too (not the informal autism group I used to go to, a more formal one).

***

Overall, I felt very anxious today with dating (waiting for responses to my messages or getting one line answers that imply that the person doesn’t really want to engage any more), job applications and working out what I need to do to my novel.  Part of me thinks, “Why am I doing all this if it’s going to make me so anxious?”  But I guess the anxiety is itself the reason why I have to push through this, if I’m going to make any progress with my life.  I’ve been feeling “stuck” lately, with lockdown and loneliness and depression.  Maybe that was why I unconsciously felt the sudden need to move on with things, so suddenly signed up for dating services and applied for jobs and support group things.  It is all scary, but I have to go through with it.

I’m trying to be gentle with myself.  I’m going outside my comfort zone suddenly and that’s going to be difficult even without the ongoing COVID situation.

***

I’m about two thirds of the way through Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible).  It’s more interesting than I remembered, although there seems to be a lot of repetition of similar ideas (ancient societies had greater appreciation for repetition than we do, perhaps because it made memorisation easier in mostly oral cultures).  The terse, context-free, stand-alone proverbs can be very hard to translate, often just seven or eight words.  A couple of verses stand out strongly.  “The heart alone knows its bitterness,/And no outsider can share its joy.” (14.10).  I’ve felt that a lot over the years.  Also, “A man’s spirit can sustain him through illness;/But low spirits — who can bear them?” (18.14) is something I’ve often thought.  People say things like “I had cancer, but I kept going because I was happy,” but what do you do if a symptom of your illness is the inability to be happy?  (Translations from The JPS Bible).

***

I’ve been a bit sceptical of Divine Providence stories in the past, but I find myself finding them in my own life suddenly.  At Purim this year, I was upset not to be invited to friends for the seudah (meal), especially as Mum and Dad were at a medical appointment so I had to eat alone.  But the friend who I was hoping would invite me came down with COVID soon afterwards and perhaps I would have contracted it from him if I had gone (it has been suggested that Purim parties and seudahs partially explain the disproportionately high fatality rate in the Jewish community.  Purim this year was just as COVID hit, but before most people were taking it seriously and many parties and events went ahead as planned with large numbers of people together, some of whom may have been carrying the virus).

Similarly, if I had still been living away from home, I would either have been in lockdown alone (including doing Pesach alone) or would have had to pay rent on an empty flat while I locked down with my parents.  If I hadn’t been here (because I had my own flat or because I was married), my parents would have had much more of a struggle dealing with lockdown and shielding with Mum’s cancer, both in terms of practical things like the fact I’ve been cooking a lot and also emotionally from being separated from both their children for months on end.

I tell myself things like this to try to “prove” to myself that I shouldn’t assume that God only wants to do negative things to me and that He won’t let my life get any better.  It is difficult to believe that sometimes, but I’m trying.

Someone To Love

I slept badly, waking up exhausted and covered in sweat.  I really need summer pyjamas, although I’m not sure it’s worth it for the few weeks I would actually need them each year.  It’s hard to believe it was so much cooler at night just a couple of weeks ago.  The hoped-for thunderstorm never materialised yesterday.  Today we could hear distant thunder all afternoon and also saw lightning after a while, but the rain has not reached us, and the sky remains blue.  The thunder has stopped, but there is more of a breeze, which helps a bit.  In late afternoon it was cool enough to go for a walk, which was good, although I came back with a headache.

All I could think of today was how hot and uncomfortable I am, which I guess means I am not feeling anxious about anything else, but also means I am not doing anything productive.  I wish we had air conditioning.

Mum had her last chemotherapy session today, so there’s progress there at least.  Now she has a break for recuperation before surgery in a month’s time.

Achievements: the walk, half an hour of Torah study, an hour or so working on my devar Torah (which still isn’t finished, even though I’m taking most of it from just one book, Rabbi Joshua Berman’s The Temple: It’s Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now).  I did a bit of reading of a book on writing.  That’s about it.

***

At some point I stopped praying every day to get married.  I’m not sure when.  I suppose it was some months ago, when my hitbodedut (spontaneous prayer) became shorter and sporadic, sometimes abandoned completely.  It was around the time I broke up with E.  Hitbodedut was when I used to ask to get married.  I think I stopped asking for much at all, other than the set prayers, and prayers for people I know who are sick in my Amidah (I have also been saying special prayers for the whole world since COVID hit).  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I say when I do my hitbodedut at the moment.  I probably do ask for things, but not consistently, and mainly small things like meeting my goals for the next day.  I probably do still pray to get married, just intermittently and not every day.

I suppose it was hard to believe that the big things I asked for would ever be granted.  It felt like God had no interest in giving me what I was asking, so why bother ask?  Like, I suspect, many things I think or feel, this is theologically problematic.  For one thing, we’re supposed to ask for what we want.  For another, there are plenty of Jewish approaches to prayer that see it as a lot more than “Ask, Get.”  I once gave a fifteen minute shiur (religious class) on three approaches to prayer; one did not even deal directly with asking for things at all and the other two saw the asking as subsidiary to other processes.

But still, I struggle to ask.  Some of it is feeling hopeless about ever meeting the right person (or coping with meeting a lot of wrong people first), but a lot of it is what I wrote the other day about not feeling ready to get married, but wanting to be in a serious, committed relationship, even if it’s non-physical.  That doesn’t really exist in Orthodox Jewish culture and it’s hard to ask God for something that is ostensibly wrong.  Sinful, even.  (Admittedly the Talmud says that the burglar prays to God that he won’t get caught before he burgles a house, but this is hardly intended as an example to follow.)  But praying to get married seems silly when I may never get to that stage.

I think I do still sometimes pray to get a job, get married and have children, but not every night, consistently.  Just sometimes.  Praying to get a job AND get married AND have children sounds a lot and something that couldn’t happen for ages, if at all.  I suppose I should be praying to feel a bit less depressed and exhausted, and to sell some writing or something.  Small steps.

***

One of the things I struggle with because of autism is reading people (in the sense of understanding them) and knowing if they’re interested in me, interested either in being my friend or, in some cases, having a relationship with me.  I have probably lost potential friends who I misread or who panicked me and I didn’t know how to talk to them, even though I thought they were nice and would have liked to be friends with them (this is social anxiety).  Similarly, I probably bored and upset a lot of women who I wanted to date, but was too shy to ask, so I just hung around them, hoping something would happen and we would magically be dating.

A third category, which I was thinking about a bit today, is people who drifted into my life and then drifted out again, leaving me puzzled and confused.  This happened mostly online; I think the nature of the internet and blogs is that people drift in and out very quickly.

I came across an email today from 2014.  This was from someone I “met” online, where we were both commenting on a Jewish website.  She was really complimentary and asked for my email address and we emailed back and forth for a bit, but most of her emails were short emails saying she was slowly writing a long email that would tell me more about her.  I never got the long email; after a while the short emails stopped too.  I don’t know if she was interested in me romantically and then lost her nerve or something else.  She was about to start an Orthodox Jewish conversion (her father was Jewish, but not her mother), and the bet din (rabbinical conversion court) would not have been happy to know she was in a deep personal conversation with a Jewish man before conversion (it might make them see the conversion as not motivated by sincere belief, but in order to have a Jewish marriage), so it would be understandable if she wanted to stop emailing.  She was also starting a programme of study abroad, although I forget what, so that might have explained her lack of time to write too, but ghosting me just left me wondering what happened.  That’s an extreme example, but similar things have happened to me and they always leave me feeling puzzled and confused, wondering if I did something wrong or if I misread the whole situation from the start (although in that situation I was fairly confused about what she wanted even from the start).

***

I’m sitting in the garden, because it’s cooler than the house and my room is so hot that my headache gets worse if I sit there.  I just finished reading Muck, Dror Burstein’s quasi-modern reimagining of the biblical Yirmiyah/Jeremiah.  I feel too tired to do anything, but not tired enough to sleep, plus my room, as I say, is uncomfortably hot.  I might watch Star Trek Voyager on my laptop in the garden, with headphones in, as Mum and Dad are out here talking and they will probably go inside and put the TV on loudly soon (the TV is right by the French windows into the garden, which are open).

A Matter of Trust

I had a headache when I went to bed last night which got worse when I was lying down, as often happens to me, so I ended up getting up and watching Star Trek: Voyager at two in the morning and then sleeping even later than normal, which was not good.  At least it was a comedic episode, rather than some heavy emotional drama or political parable.  Then I feel asleep in the afternoon today from the heat.

I think the combination of heat, continued lockdown and shielding Mum, and finishing the first draft of my novel have left a bit of a “now what?” feeling.  I’m not depressed exactly, just exhausted, but it’s hard to get motivated to do anything.  I do think having a short break from writing is a good idea, but I think deep down I really want to get back to it.  This is not a bad thing in itself, but I think more of a break would be helpful.  I’m still reading books about writing and wondering if they are helpful of counter-productive.  It’s hard to tell.

***

I’m struggling with Torah study from lack of engagement.  I’m not studying anything that really excites me at the moment.  My Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) study currently is Mishlei (Proverbs), which I’m struggling with.  I think it’s the “wisdom literature” outlook that good is always rewarded and evil always punished in this world, which I find simplistic.  “Wisdom literature” was a genre in many countries in the Ancient Near East, not just Israel and Judea, associated with the scribes at royal court.  It aimed to set out advice for living a good life, based on following the dictates of wisdom rather than other impulses.  It tends towards pithy aphorisms which makes Mishlei one of the more quotable books of Tanakh, but also feels like it’s making sweeping statements.  I think Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is something of a critique of this outlook.  Kohelet is in many ways structured like wisdom literature, but is very conscious that the righteous are often not rewarded in this world.  (I have a whole theory of why some books of the Bible assume that reward and punishment occurs in a very obvious and simplistic sense and others take a different, more complex, view that I can share if anyone’s interested.)

To be honest, I find studying Tanakh challenging at times in general, although I do at times find it very rewarding too.  There’s such a weight of expectation on “The Bible” to be life-changing and inspirational that it can be hard to engage with it.  I don’t really understand how Protestants in particular seem to be able to “converse” with the Bible in a very personal way, although I used to be able to do that more than I can now.  I find the Koren Maggid Tanakh series of books really helpful at explaining the historical background and literary style of the books of Tanakh, but it’s an ongoing series and they haven’t published volumes on all the books of Tanakh yet – plus the Koren books focus on the straightforward contextual meaning of the text, which isn’t always the inspirational side – the sense of “Why did someone find this meaningful enough to canonise it?”

The weight of history on Tanakh can be off-putting too, like watching a classic film like Citizen Kane for the first time and not knowing if you like it or merely think you should like it.  Citizen Kane is a good example, as nowadays it doesn’t look so impressive because so many of its startling innovations have become cinematic standards.  Similarly, a lot of what Western civilisation took from biblical ethics is so ingrained that we assume that all societies believe the same thing and don’t realise how revolutionary Tanakh was and only notice where the biblical ethic does not match modern standards.

(Sorry, that was a big tangent.  I guess that was autistic special interest mode.)

Likewise the Mishnah I’m studying, Seder Zeraim, Masechet Terumot, agricultural laws, is rather dry and separate from my life.

Because of this feeling of disconnection I just ordered Emmanuel Levinas’ Nine Talmudic Readings, both because I want to read more Levinas (observant Jewish Existentialist philosopher) and because I want to study some Talmud without moving on from my weekly Talmud class, which is on hold during lockdown.  I also ordered Rav Kook’s Lights of Penitence because I also want to read more Rav Kook and it’s appropriate as we move towards Elul and Tishrei, the time of the year focused on introspection and repentance.  Hopefully that will give me more variety in my Torah study and something more inspirational and meaningful to my everyday life.  Still, I am conscious that I just spent nearly £50 on books.  Buying too many books (more than I can read, at any rate) is not the worst vice, but I do tend to assume that all my problems can be solved by buying more books, which is not necessarily the case here (or elsewhere).

***

Achievements: I posted on my Doctor Who blog for the first time in a while, which was good (posting something I mostly wrote a few days ago, but hadn’t posted).  Also, despite what I wrote above about Torah study, I did manage about fifty minutes of Torah study again today.  I also cooked dinner (Hungarian pepper ragout with rice, which I had only cooked once before; this time I topped it with a fried egg, which is not healthy, but tasted good).

I’m not sure what the opposite of “achievements” is, but in terms of negative things, I got a rejection from a job I applied for some time ago and I think I messed up a social interaction online with someone I particularly didn’t want to upset (not that there are people I do want to upset, but you know what I mean).  I also wanted to go for a walk at dusk as I did yesterday, but it started raining.  By the time I realised it had stopped, I was too tired and it was too late.  It looks like thunderstorms are predicted for the rest of the week, which will limit my ability to go out.

***

When my therapist suggested limiting my internet time, she said not to see it as another “Should,” but just an experiment.  She was worried that if I couldn’t stick to it, I would beat myself up.  I haven’t completely stuck to it, but I haven’t beaten myself up either.  I am pleased to be online less and seem to be happier, although I do worry a bit about not being well-informed of the news.  I am procrastinating less, although I’m not sure where the gained time is going.  Certainly the whole experiment has made me more mindful of when I go online or check my emails; I don’t do that casually any more, without thinking, but do it consciously and deliberately even if I’m doing it outside the approved times.

***

A thought I had last night: I need to learn to trust myself and to trust God.

I want to feel that I’ve achieved something with my life, that I’ve fulfilled my mission, or at least that I am on course to fulfil it.  I don’t think a person’s mission is necessarily tied up completely with his or her career or family responsibilities, but I do feel that I have achieved very little that is worthwhile in my life.  This is why I find it so hard to trust myself or love myself, because I feel unworthy because I am not doing what I was put here to do.

On the other hand, I find it hard to trust God because I want to know that I will have a successful, loving marriage at some point, or at least to know that I can cope with being alone (without my parents, which will happen one day).  I find it hard to trust that God will arrange for me to get married, or that He will give me the tools I need to cope with being single forever.  Or perhaps I feel that He will give me the tools, but I won’t use them, in which case it’s about trusting myself again.

I’m not sure how I find this trust.  I certainly don’t know how to learn to accept being single forever.  Sometimes I feel I could explode from loneliness and sexual frustration.

***

I posted this comment on Ashley’s blog post about self-stigma today and thought I would share here:

I think I have a lot of self-stigma, partly about my depression and social anxiety, but also about autism, paradoxically, often combined with “Maybe I’m not really on the autism spectrum and I’m just a freak” thoughts.

I suppose that, like a lot of people on the spectrum, well-meaning adults socialised me to think that I shouldn’t do the things I wanted to do or think the things I wanted to think. That I shouldn’t stim and I should force myself to talk to people because “it will get easier if I try” among other things. Maybe they were right about some of these things, but I guess the cumulative effect is to make me doubt myself and to feel that there is a “normal type of person” and that my behaviour as a depressed autistic person is abnormal and that this is wrong in itself and responsible for many of my issues, such as unemployment, singledom and loneliness. If only I could stop being a “freak” (one of my favourite terms for myself, you may have noticed) and become “normal,” all my problems would be solved.

Of course, none of the authority figures in my life had any knowledge of high functioning autism when I was a child; the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (as it was called) didn’t even get into the DSM [psychiatric diagnostic manual] until I was eleven and wasn’t well-known for many years after that.

Even now I make more eye contact than many people on the spectrum even though my natural preference, like many autistic people, is to avoid eye contact. This is because I was told to make eye contact as a child and I internalised that message (not knowing about autism at that age) so I very consciously force myself to make eye contact, and usually quietly freak out in my head about making too much eye contact, or too little, or the wrong type; if I feel I’m not making enough eye contact, or too much, I blame myself rather than accept it.

Heat and Light

Shabbat (Sabbath) was OK, but a bit of a struggle.  It’s just too hot.  I know that in some places it gets hotter and more humid, but bear in mind houses in the UK are built for cold.  They are insulated and sometimes poorly ventilated.  So it’s pretty sweltering.  I couldn’t sleep at all last night.  I stayed up reading.  I eventually fell asleep around 5.00am.

Once I slept a lot again over Shabbat, despite the insomnia.  I slept late once I got to sleep and I napped in the afternoon, so I’m super-awake now, which is not good.

***

Today we ate in the garden, both lunch and seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).  I was apprehensive about this, because I had a vague sense it ought to be religiously prohibited, but I couldn’t think of a reason why, or at least, not a reason I couldn’t argue against.  That said, if I hadn’t seen our super-Hasidic next-door neighbours do it last week, I don’t think I would have done it.  Still, I guess it’s progress in being less religious OCD-defined, and more open to things generally.  There’s probably a good deal of autistic “I don’t want to do anything new” in the “It’s halakhically forbidden (forbidden by Jewish law),” as much as OCD and over-caution.

***

My mood was variable.  I had the weird thought that in terms of dates, I’m doing about as well by just posting stuff on my blog and occasionally meeting people romantically that way (meeting online or in person) than I am being proactive in the real world or even hoping non-internet women would want to date me.  Obviously my online presence is more confident, more charming, more I-don’t-know-what than my in-person presence (unsurprising, as in-person presence is socially crippled by social anxiety and autism).  Who knows whether I’ll meet someone else that way?  Still, I do feel the odds are against my finding anyone soon, or even really being able to manage a relationship soon.  It’s just counter-productive to dwell on those thoughts.

(It’s strange, but despite my shyness and social anxiety, I do quite like meeting people in person who I have “spoken” to online.  I’ve done it quite a lot.)

I realised that somewhere along the line I stopped praying to find my spouse.  I’m not sure why.  I know in the last year or so I’ve cut down a lot of voluntary/spontaneous prayer because of feeling depressed and tired and overwhelmed and far from God.  That was probably a bad idea, making me more distant from God, but it’s hard to know how to get back to it.

I never know what to pray for about dating anyway.  I don’t exactly feel like I could get married at the moment, certainly financially and maybe emotionally.  Maybe I should pray to find some other activity or social network that would take away the loneliness?  But it feels unJewish to be in my late thirties and unmarried and not doing the one proactive thing I can really do about it (prayer).

Plus, how would I pray to feel less sexually frustrated, from a Jewish point of view, without praying to get married?  There isn’t another option.  It’s pretty clear from the Talmud that praying to reduce your libido doesn’t work (“There are no half blessings from Heaven”); marriage is the only option.  But what if, financially and emotionally, that isn’t possible right now, maybe never?  What should I pray for?

***

Those thoughts about finding a spouse by just waiting until she finds my blog (maybe) cheered me up a bit, but others brought me down.  I started crying while I was davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers), I’m not sure why.  I had been thinking about a chiddush (novel Torah thought) I had and I’m not sure if it was connected.

In Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 6, God tells Noach (Noah) to build the ark and that it should have a “tzohar.”  It is not clear what a “tzohar” is.  The Medieval commentator Rashi (based on the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah) gives us two options: “Some say this is a window and some say this is a precious stone that gave light to them.”

However, contrary to the way a lot of people read it, Midrash isn’t just about finding quirky facts about the Torah.  It is about finding deeper meanings.  What is this teaching us?

In his book Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet notes that the description of the flood undoes the Creation narrative from chapter 1 of Genesis, with the world being uncreated stage by stage in reverse order as everything is destroyed, back to the point where the waters above and the waters below were divided on day two, leaving only the light created on day one.  The only thing not mentioned are the luminaries, created on day four.  We can assume they were covered by clouds, from the point of view of the ark, but this is not explicitly stated.

We might then argue that the “window” opinion assumes that the luminaries were still visible and all that was needed was a window to let the light of the sun and moon in, whereas the “luminescent stone” opinion assumes that the luminaries were invisible, and some artificial (quasi-supernatural) light source was necessary for the ark’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the deeper symbolism is this.  The “window” option assumes that even at a time of strict justice, when God withdraws his mercy and lets destruction reign on the world, even then there is hope as a natural part of the world.  There are intrinsically positive aspects of creation still around, still shedding their light from a distance.  God’s Presence can always be felt.

The “luminescent stone” approach is darker, in all senses.  It says that sometimes the world is so dark that you can find no natural source of light altogether.  The world outside is absolutely awful with no exceptions.  At a time like this, we have to rely on God to cast light for us directly and miraculously because the outside world is just too dark and horrible for us.  (I feel that this is a post-Holocaust type of perspective.)

I thought about the above, then I immediately went to daven Minchah, as I said, and I suddenly started crying and I didn’t know why.  I strongly suspect it is connected to what I was thinking, but I don’t know if I felt overwhelmed that God was providing light for me after all, or upset and alone that I feel He is not providing light for me.

***

My parents and I didn’t play a game on Shabbat this week, partly as Shabbat is finishing earlier now and partly because our neighbours came to the door for a socially distanced conversation with my parents towards the end of Shabbat, when we’d been playing (we all nap in the afternoon).  I’m trying to persuade my parents to play a longer, more involved game on a Sunday afternoon, as we’re all in at the moment, maybe Trivial Pursuit or Risk (my family don’t like to play Trivial Pursuit with me because I win.  I think at one stage they would only play if I answered the Genius Edition questions and they answered questions from a similar, but easier, quiz game).  I don’t remember the rules to Risk, but I’ve been thinking lately that I want to play it again.

***

I’m trying to listen to a long playlist on Spotify, but someone keeps editing it, so every time I open Spotify to listen to it, the track order has been changed and it’s hard to keep track of what I’ve heard to and what I haven’t.  Very annoying.  It’s one of the Spotify-produced (as opposed to user-produced) playlists too.

Catastrophising and Fatalism

The Doctor: Where’s your optimism?

Romana: It opted out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Dear frum community,

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

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

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

Yours sincerely…

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

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

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

***

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

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

Bonus Post: Why I’m Religious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a Lion

I’ve been struggling to get to sleep this week, not hugely, but persistently.  I woke up early (for me) this morning and rose “like a lion,” like I’m supposed to (per Jewish texts).  I managed to get going quite quickly and say the Shema prayer and the Shacharit Amidah (the main Morning Prayer) on time, which I almost never manage these days because of depression, even though I skipped most of the other morning prayers.

My mood was quite good today, except while I was davening (praying) I suddenly had self-critical thoughts about myself, thinking that I must be a disappointment to my parents compared with my sister.  Still, I’m trying not to get sucked into depression and negativity.  I try to tell myself I’m on my own path.  Try to focus on the present.

***

Today is 10 Av, according to the Jewish calendar, and my Hebrew birthday.  The morning is still a sad period from Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks of mourning, but from the afternoon, the mourning restrictions are lifted and one can listen to music, go on holiday, shave, trim nails etc.  I’ve done or am looking forward to doing all those things, except no holidays this year because of COVID and Mum’s cancer.  I’m not a great traveller anyway.  Maybe it’s good that my Hebrew birthday always starts sad and gets better (except when 9 Av falls on Saturday, then the fast is postponed to 10 Av and the whole day is miserable).

***

I tried to apply for a librarian job at a charity, but the online application system said I have already applied there.  I have actually applied for three different roles there, most recently in February.  I assume they never recruited because of COVID and are looking again.  I emailed them to check that my previous application will still be considered.  I did get called for interview for one of the three jobs, so I think it’s worth applying again.  I’m unsure about applying to a different institution where I also had an interview, but I felt that I wasn’t a good match for the institution’s culture.  I also applied for a job I don’t think I’m qualified for, because it was an easy LinkedIn application that only takes two minutes.  I’m not sure how sensible that was.  My thinking was that if I’m really not qualified, they won’t even call me to interview and that the risk was worth it considering how little time it took to apply.

I’m still concerned that most jobs in my sector are full-time and I don’t think I can cope with more than three days a week (at most) at the moment.  My parents say, “Apply and worry about that when you get the job.”  I’m not sure.  I think I need to think about other jobs in other sectors.  I did go to a careers advisor before COVID, but I felt he didn’t know the library sector and skill set so well.  He suggested being a private tutor, but I feel I need training in how to teach someone (including how to mark work, not something I’ve had to do before) and was not sure how to get it.

***

Achievements: aside from the job stuff and the usual pre-Shabbat chores, I went for a walk and worked on my novel.

***

I’m feeling pensive at the moment because today I’ve been reminded of a number of my friends and friends of my parents who are struggling with major health issues for themselves or their families right now.  It makes saddened and empathetic, and also puts one’s own problems in perspective.  The only way I can really believe in God, given the amount of suffering in the world, is to assume that this world is a “vale of soul-making” as Keats put it or the “ante-chamber” to the “banquet hall” as the Mishnah says and that we are here purely to grow, not to be happy.  Not that there is anything wrong with accepting happiness where we find it, but happiness is the natural state of the Next World; in This World our natural state is to struggle so that we can make our souls (Keats) and prepare ourselves (the Mishnah), which are really two ways of saying the same thing.

I didn’t really want to end on a down note, but I need to go as we’re heading towards Shabbat now, so Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath).

Trying to Be Present in the Present

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’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.

Because God is Infinite His Pain is Infinite

I made a crucial typo in yesterday’s post.  It should have read, “Therefore it’s impossible for something to exist without God knowing and understanding it.  Therefore God can’t find me weird and unlikeable.”  I put “with” instead of “without.”  Whoops.  Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has a whole long list of historical editions of the Bible that, thanks to typos, enjoined readers to “sin on more” instead of “sin no more” or commanded them that “Thou shalt commit adultery” missing the “not” or suggested that “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God” (instead of “no god”).  Ahem.  At least my mistake won’t cost me anything; the missing “no” in the last quote cost the printers £3000 (a huge sum of money in the seventeenth century) and the edition was suppressed, so they couldn’t make anything back from it.

Anyway, Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK.  I was mostly bouncing back and forth between depression and sort-of OKness.  I worried a bit that I made a mistake in breaking up with E., or that I didn’t make a mistake, but I will still be single forever.  I think I had some other depressive thoughts, but I don’t remember what they were now.  I know I had a few morbid thoughts about my parents dying.  I slept a lot again, hence feeling really awake now (midnight) and not sure what to do.

The one really good thing that happened was something I came across in the holy book Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 by the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, translated by J. Hershy Worch.  It’s from a sermon delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto on Shabbat Shekalim (Mishpatim), 14 February 1942, in the middle of the Holocaust.  I’m going to quote it at length:

For behold!  A Jew, tortured in his suffering, may think he is the only one in pain, as though his individual, personal pain, and the pain of all other Jews, has no affect Above, God forbid.  But, as the verse (Isaiah 63:9) says, “In all their pain is His pain,” and as we learn in the Talmud (Hagigah 15b) in the name of R. Meir, “When a person suffers, to what expression does the Shechinah (Divine) give utterance? ‘O woe!  My head, O woe!  My arms.’”  In sacred literature we learn that God, as it were, suffers the pain of a Jew much more than that person himself feels it.

Possibly because God is infinite – and hence unknowable in the world – His pain at the suffering of Jewish people is also infinite.  Perhaps it is just impossible for any human to feel such immense pain, it is impossible even to apprehend the level of God’s pain, to know that He bears it.

Hagigah is actually one of the few masechtot (volumes) of Talmud I actually own a hard copy of, so I looked up the reference.  In the Steinsaltz (Koren Noé) Edition Talmud, the translation explains that this pain (‘O woe!  My head, O woe!  My arms.’) is referring to someone who is in pain because he has been sentenced to lashes or to death by the court (in ancient times, when Jewish courts permitted corporal and capital punishment).  The Talmud goes on to say, if God feels so much pain when a wicked person is punished, how much more so when a righteous person is in pain.  In fact, the quotation comes in a whole long narrative about Elisha ben Avuyah the Talmudic rabbi who became a heretic, and how some of the rabbis tried to get him into Heaven (so to speak) after his death even though he was very wicked.

So this would indicate that God does feel my pain and care about me on an individual level, not just because I’m human/Jewish (I know it is a very particularist Jewish text, like a lot of Jewish texts, particularly mystical ones).  This is the question that has been bothering me for a couple of years now.  I’m not sure what I feel now I have an answer.  I think I do feel closer to God.  I’m not sure what else I feel.  My mood has been going up and down, as I said.

That’s all I have to say tonight.