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.

Repeat to Fade

It’s been business as usual: depressed, lonely, touch hungry.  Beating myself up about things that probably aren’t in my control, and neglecting things that are.  I’m pessimistic about the future, but trying not to think about it too much.  I feel that autism is at the root of my issues (depression, work issues, relationship issues, friendship issues, community issues, maybe even God issues — see below) and that’s not something I can ever “cure.”  The most I can do is get taught workarounds for it.  While even workarounds would be something, I feel that autism set me up to fail from the moment I was born.  Will I ever get a career (librarianship or writing)?  Will anyone ever really be able to love me romantically?  Will I ever be able to build the type of friendships and community life I want?  It all seems terribly unlikely.

I also worry about not being diagnosed a third time when I feel so sure I’m on the spectrum.  What future would that give me?  Would it mean that I’m not on the spectrum and my issues are just in my head i.e. I’m just useless?  Would it mean no career, no relationship, no life?  It would certainly mean no NHS help, although I’m not quite sure what they can offer anyway.

***

Yesterday was one month since I broke up with E.  It was the right thing to do, but I haven’t got back in touch with her from fear that if I do that, we’ll end up together again.  Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have broken up.  There’s a feeling of, “Even if it wasn’t perfect, I’m not likely to get any better offers.”  It is hard to know what to do with lonely feelings when there is no outlet.

***

I tried to work on my novel, but it was hard to get in the right mindset.  I needed to write something related to a big mistake I made at work once, and I procrastinated because I didn’t want to revisit it in my memory.  I made slow progress, but I did get through the difficult bit.  It seemed like it wasn’t such a big mistake in retrospect once I confronted it.  I am still worried about not having quite enough plot to last to the minimum word count.

***

Good things: my parents have bought a chocolate fudge cake as it’s my birthday next week.  There’s a huge chocolate swirl thing on the top.  This has cheered me up a little.  Even then there was a problem, in that Dad ordered a square cake and they gave a round, which is smaller because there are no corners (the price is the same, so the square is better value for money).  I wouldn’t have noticed if Dad hadn’t pointed it out to me.  But I’m trying not to let that bother me.

The post also bought half of an indulgent “birthday present” I bought for myself a few days ago: an animated Doctor Who story from years ago on DVD (The Infinite Quest).  It’s aimed more at children than most Doctor Who (it was an animated segment on the children’s spin off Totally Doctor Who), but I was curious to see it again and found a cheap copy on Music Magpie (one of the “anything other than Amazon” sites I’ve taken to using).  To be honest, it wasn’t not great, much more obviously aimed at children than the average Doctor Who story, but it was diverting.

***

I was not abused as a child, but there were some things that happened to me which therapists have said could be trauma, and which could have stopped me believing that adult authority figures really cared about me and/or would protect me.  I’ve also known that this is the probable cause of my difficulty in trusting God and accepting He loves me, God being another authority figure in essence.

The problem with knowing this is it hasn’t really taken me anywhere.  I guess in a book or TV programme, this would be big revelation to the main character and they would suddenly achieve catharsis and closure and move on with their lives.  In reality, it’s something I’ve known for years, even decades, but I still feel depressed and I still feel, at least some of the time, that God hates me and is out to punish me for real or imagined sins.

What I did find myself wondering today, and don’t really have time to explore further before Shabbat, is where my autism fits in.  I didn’t know about high functioning autism as a child (the diagnosis didn’t even exist back then), but I was conscious of being an outsider both at home and especially at school, that people found me weird and didn’t like me.  Do I assume that God is also going to find me weird and unlikeable?  Maybe.

The mystics (in Judaism and other religions) teach that God is in everyone and everything as well as being beyond everything (panentheism, as distinct from pantheism where God is everything without having a transcendent Being beyond everything).  Therefore it’s impossible for something to exist without God knowing and understanding it.  Therefore God can’t find me weird and unlikeable.  But I resist this, partly because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with mysticism and kabbalah, but partly — I don’t know what, just resistance to the idea that God loves me.  That I can’t be that good.  I don’t know.  (Of course, a rationalist like Rambam would find the idea of God being in everything heretical nonsense.  Maybe that’s why I struggle to accept it.)

***

I’ve noticed I’ve started using Oxford commas in my writing recently, despite being pretty set against them in the past.  I’m not sure why this is.

“Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost in the Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

I do not know what to do about this.

***

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

***

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

Depression, Divrei Torah and Shopping in Partial Lockdown

I had a weird dream about my maternal grandparents last night.  They were doing decorating or something and then my grandma dropped dead (after doing a flip while dressed as a dog, rather improbably).  I had to call for an ambulance and for my Mum and somehow ended up locked out of the house and unable to unlock the front door while Muppets (actual Muppets, from The Muppet Show) crowded me and put me off.  It was a pretty weird dream, but I think it’s an attempt to process feelings about my parents’ mortality after Mum being ill on Sunday and her cancer in general (it was her parents in the dream).

Perhaps because of this, I felt pretty depressed on waking.  Or maybe I just did too much yesterday.  Plus, it was a fast day today in Judaism, one of the sadder days of the year, which always brings me down, even though I’m not allowed to fast on most of them any more because I’m on lithium.  I usually at least don’t brush my teeth on fast days as a small gesture, but I forgot and did that.  It’s hard to stay in the fast day state of mind when not actually fasting.  Similarly, in previous years I would have drunk just water today, but I drank tea and coffee and I doubt I would have got through the day easily without them.  The longer my depression goes on, the harder I find it to get into the mindset of the “sad” days of the Jewish calendar.  I guess I just feel that I’m depressed all the time and I’m struggling to get to normality even on a sadder day.

I did have depressed feelings about the future on waking.  The usual thoughts that I won’t ever get married, or probably even be in a relationship again, rooted in fears that I will not find another job, which seems to be necessary to find a girlfriend, and that I will  not get over the depression, which would also be good to get rid of before dating.  My unemployment may be fixable.  I hope it is, at any rate.  My depression I suspect is here to stay, on some level at least.

I wrote a lot more about this, but deleted it, as I don’t want to wallow in depression again.  I know I have made progress with the depression over the years and I’m certainly not as bad as I was circa 2003 to 2008 or even later, but it’s still a struggle and I don’t know what my improvement is down to, which makes me worry that I will relapse somehow.  Medication is certainly part of the improvement.  Maybe a certain amount of occupational therapy in terms of keeping active.  Psychotherapy has helped me understand myself a lot better and to deal with some short term problems, but I’m not sure it’s really helped me resolve much in the long term.  It is certainly helpful to talk to a therapist on a week-by-week basis to vent, but I’m not sure how much it helps in the long term.

***

Achievements: despite feeling very depressed, I spent two hours or so working on my novel, fairly absorbed and “in flow.”  I finished another chapter and did some reorganising of the plan for the last few chapters.  Once I started work, the depression feelings did subside quite a bit.  I am concerned that I don’t quite have enough plot left to generate the 13,000 or so words I need to make this acceptable even as a short novel.

I had to do some shopping and wanted to go further afield than I’ve been for a while.  There are basically two places to shop around here: a small parade of shops less than ten minutes’ walk away, and a big high street and shopping centre about fifteen or twenty minutes away.  I hadn’t gone further than the “less than ten minutes away” shops since lockdown started and felt I should push myself to go further, plus the thing I needed was more likely to be in the shops on the high street.

So, I set out.  The weather was horrible, but I saw it as exposure therapy as much as anything, as I’ve been worried about how I will adapt to “normal” post-lockdown life.  I wore a mask when I arrived at the shops, and then wore it home.  I was OK, albeit annoyed that it was often not possible to distance myself from other people as I would have liked.  I went into the Judaica shop too, which was a bit of a reward for getting down there, but I didn’t buy anything.  I still find masks uncomfortable.  I think I will still avoid the shops unless absolutely necessary, at least while Mum is immunosuppressed.

I also wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  I realised I’ve never really written about these here in detail.  These thoughts are short essays, typically 800 to 1,000 words on the week’s Torah reading.  I started writing them at the start of the Torah reading cycle last autumn, initially just to read aloud to my parents at the Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner table, but I now send them to a few friends and family too.  I do feel the pressure of the weekly deadline sometimes, but it can be quite a rewarding experience to think about the text, look at commentaries, and set out some ideas about it.

I’m slightly curious to look back over the ten months or so and see what themes emerge.  Even without doing that, I know there are some writers I quote a lot.  It’s pretty much inevitable that anyone writing on the Torah portion in the mainstream Jewish tradition is going to quote Rashi and Ramban (the two greatest Medieval Torah commentators) a lot.  More personal is my looking to the Kotzker Rebbe and (lehavdil bein chaim lechaim) Rabbi Lord Sacks a lot for inspiration.

One theme that I know has come up a lot, including this week, is the concept of individuality in Judaism, the idea that we all have a unique outlook on life and that this is, or should be, a theme of Jewish life over and above the conformist nature of a community.  The idea that God sees our individuality and that therefore we should strive ourselves to see and accept individuality, and that leaders in particular should do this.  I’m sure on some level it’s from feeling that I am not always accepted as an individual that I feel the need to stress these ideas, but that does not make them less valid or true.

***

From Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe (emphasis added):

Moses was the most humble person ever to walk the earth.  He was constantly asking himself, “Who am I?  And how can I possibly… ?”  So God said to him, “It is not true that you are not fit, and it is not true that you have faults and blemishes, God forbid.  Your self-doubting is itself a form of worship, the type of worship that illuminates the world, coming as it does through a chain of causality from the name of God that is the future.”  It comes from the name of God, EHYE — “I will be.”  When a person feels that there is nothing worth looking at in his heart, but says, “I am nothing right now, but from now on I will try to be something,” his worship takes on the aspect of God’s Name, EHYE — I will be.  It draws out a reciprocal promise of EHYE — I will be.

Doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Negativity and Meaning

I felt quite depressed again today.  Dad took Mum to her appointment with the surgeon and then for a socially distanced visit to my sister’s house, so I had the house to myself for a bit, which I like.  It’s nice to have personal space, not that we get in each others’ way very much (I’m usually in my bedroom, my parents in the lounge or office).  I did feel very depressed and lonely, trying not to catastrophise my thoughts about the future into complete despair (about marriage, children, having my writing “cancelled,” etc.).

I tried to work on my novel before therapy, but really I just wanted to cry.  I did, eventually get down to it and wrote quite a bit.  It was a violent scene, and although that was hard on one level, because domestic violence is pretty draining to write, I did find the actual writing flowed more than recently.  I definitely think that mainstream literary fiction is not 100% right for me (although I intend to finish the book) and I should be writing science fiction/fantasy adventure or something similar in the future.  It’s bits like that that have been easiest to write.

Therapy was difficult and very draining.  We spoke a lot about family and childhood.  Also about Mum’s illness and being increasingly conscious of my parents’ mortality.  I mentioned what Ashley has said about my having lots of “shoulds” and we worked a bit on finding alternative thoughts.  I don’t like replacing “should” with “could” because I feel I could do just about anything so saying, “I could do X” doesn’t help me make decisions, especially as it makes it hard to see how urgent or important a task is.  So we’re trying with phrases like “I would like to do this because…” or “This is in line with my values because…”  I like the latter, because sometimes I do things I don’t enjoy because it’s in line with my values e.g. prayer (which is not always enjoyable or uplifting, although it can be) and housework.  I’m also writing some questions to identify when I’m being self-critical e.g. “Is this my critical voice?” and “Would I talk to someone else like this?”

I often go for a walk after therapy, but I felt too tired today, especially as I knew I had shiur (religious class) later.  The shiur was on meaning, the last of three shiurim on the topic.  The first was on what meaning is; the second was on whether a person has to be religious to have meaning; and this one was on how can we make our lives more meaningful.  The shiurim were given by Dr Tamra Wright and Rabbi Dr Michael Harris.

The shiur this week was not so much a religious shiur as a talk on philosophy and positive psychology, but it was interesting.  Some points I took from it:

  • The optimal level for a meaningful element in your life is not always the maximal one.  In other words, if praying is meaningful for me, that doesn’t mean that praying 24/7 would be the most meaningful level of prayer.
  • Meaningful events/things can be small, not major life-changing things.
  • Recognising meaning or value that is already present is important.  Even increasing this recognition a little is good even without recognising the good perfectly.  (All of the above points taken from a book by the Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau.)
  • Writing a gratitude journal of things that went well and why they happened helps make life meaningful.  I already list things that I’m grateful for, but I don’t write it down or write why they happened.  Maybe I should change that.  Writing why they happened is supposed to show your agency more clearly.
  • One can have a flourishing, meaningful  life even without a cheerful disposition via pro-social emotions (e.g. compassion), engagement, relationships, a sense of something greater than me and achievement.
  • Spirituality is independent of religion (I knew that) and is “a sense of a close personal relationship to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power) and a vital source of daily guidance. (From work by Lisa Miller)  This is associated with meaning.  I’m not sure how much I have this.  I struggle to feel a close personal relationship with God, although I believe in Him.  I suppose He is a source of daily guidance for me inasmuch as I try to live according to Jewish law and values, but I’m not sure that that was quite what was meant.
  • George Vaillant identified six tasks of adult development.  They’re too long to list here, but I’m not sure I’ve achieved any of them yet, maybe not even “identity” fully (separation from parents), which I should have managed by now.  The only one I might have achieved is “Becoming a keeper of the meaning – role of ‘wise judge’; impartial; conservation, preservation, passing on traditions.”  Because I’m more Jewishly observant and knowledgeable than my immediate family, they look to me for religious guidance.
  • Vaillant also says that self-worth is a dead end and meaning is found in thinking of ourselves less.  I find this hard.  I have noted my rather solipsistic self-absorption, which is perhaps partly from autism (after all, the name “autism” is about being self-contained), partly from social anxiety (not reaching out to others) and partly by temperament (tendency to ruminate).

Speaking of which, I did not really interact in the discussion because I was feeling too socially anxious.  Sigh.  I need to think about how to add some of those meaning-techniques to my life.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Autism and Depression in the Workplace and More on Meaning

I dreamt about doing my A-Levels (equivalent of High School) and struggling with self-organisation because of my high functioning autism.  In reality, I was OK academically/organisationally at A-Level.  It was socially where I was beginning to struggle, as I couldn’t cope with more complex forms of adolescent friendship compared with childhood friendship, or with the greater levels of freedom I was being given.  Drink, drugs and sex scared me a lot; maybe it’s appropriate that they did, but they didn’t seem to scare my peers.  In reality, it was only when I got to the world of work, much delayed by depression, that my autistic issues became really noticeable.  I woke up with 17 Again by Eurythmics in my head (I sincerely hope I am never seventeen again).  I wanted to go back to sleep, as I had only slept for seven hours (I generally sleep much more because of depression), but it was too hot, so I got up.

I sleep badly when it’s hot anyway, partly from the heat, partly perhaps because I usually wrap myself up in a duvet, one of my more autistic traits, and I can’t do that when it’s too hot.  I’ve wrapped myself up in my duvet like a cocoon since I was a child.  I suppose it makes me feel secure.  When I was a child, I had an idea that if burglars broke into the house and stabbed me, the duvet would protect me.  I’m not sure if I really believed this, nor do I know if I really thought I was living in a production of Richard III and was likely to be stabbed by housebreakers.  I do feel more secure wrapped in my duvet though.  They sell weighted duvets now for people on the spectrum.  I’ve thought about getting one.

***

I got a weird response from the place I applied for a job the other day.  They said they have had a lot of responses; also that the library is small, but that they will get back to me.  I think they were saying they don’t want a trained librarian, just someone who will do admin for books, but it seemed an odd way of saying it.  Am I hoping I get the job or not?  I don’t know.  It would be good to have some income and structure, and the esteem that comes from work, in other people’s eyes if not my own.  On the other hand, I like having time to write when I’m most productive (afternoon/early evening) and working five afternoons a week was not my preferred part-time structure.  I would prefer two or three full days a week, giving me time to recover from work days as well as time to write on non-work days.

***

I got a letter saying my benefits have gone up as they now don’t think I’m able to work at the moment (although I understand I’m still allowed to look for low-paying part-time work).  Previously the benefits were lower because I was expected to be looking for work.  I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure why they’ve suddenly made this change, which makes me worry it’s a mistake and I will have to pay the money back, so I’m scared to spend any of it.  It’s not like the Department of Work and Pensions don’t have form with that sort of thing.  I would be generally suspicious of any government body giving away free money, to be honest.

***

I watched Rabbi Rafi Zarum of the London School of Jewish Studies interview Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman who is a rabbi who became a psychotherapist.  They spoke about meaning and the danger of religion making people do things because they have to do it rather than because it’s an authentic expression of what they want to do.  Rabbi Engelman reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about framing doing religious things that I don’t really want to do as, “I’m doing it because I’m in a relationship with God” rather than “I’m doing it because God said so,” which is perhaps a subtle difference, but an important one.  It’s about prioritising the aspects of Judaism that I have chosen to be present in, on some level, (having a relationship with God) over the dry ritualistic aspects (doing as I’m told).  Even if the outcome is the same, the mindset is very different.  Just as I do things that I think are pointless or counterproductive sometimes because my parents want me to do them and I value keeping the relationship more than I value my freedom not to do that thing, so I do things that God wants me to do for the sake of my relationship with Him rather than because I worry that I will “get zapped” (as they would say in my shiur (religious class)).

***

A paragraph from my novel sums up how I felt struggling with depression and high functioning autism in the workplace:

I have always worked hard and achieved despite my troubles.  Now there is no correlation between effort and achievement; I do my best, but it is not good enough, I can not function as I am supposed to do, there are problems I can not solve without requesting help.

I still feel like this sometimes.  I am sure it would be worse if I was in work rather than job hunting.  It felt like that at times in all the jobs I have had, except perhaps the first one, but some were particularly bad.

Writing this chapter is probably what triggered the autism dream last night.

***

Achievements today: two hours on my novel, almost exactly 1,000 words.  I could have done a little more, but it’s so hot, and I’m tired from Shabbat chores and need a passive TV break before Shabbat.

Control and Meaning

I wonder if a lot of my fears are about control.  The fear about not being in employment again, the fear about dating and marriage and being alone forever… what worries me is not just the object of my fear, but not knowing.  Not being able to psychologically prepare myself for it somehow.  Keeping on trying in vain to sort my life out.  Even the fear about being alone forever, which is my biggest fear.  It would be sad never to experience love and sex, but I’ve been without them for nearly thirty-seven years now, so I should know I can survive them.  It’s true I’ve never been completely alone, but there have been times (particularly when I was at Oxford) when I was pretty cut off from family and friends and I survived, and I have better coping skills and social skills now than I did then.

No, the fear is control.  Not knowing what will happen.  Not being ready for it, for the choices I will have to make.

I think a lot of my anger with God comes down to this.  To not knowing.  I feel like I’m sitting a exam without being taught the subject first.  That I can’t prepare myself.  Feeling that I’ve been set up to fail.  That He wants me to fail.  That He wants me to be lonely in This World, essentially so that I will fail my test and lose the Next World too.  That if I knew what was going to happen to me, I could prepare, and pass the test, and be happy in This World and the Next World.  Perhaps some people do get to prepare themselves (hence, Torah and mitzvot), but not everyone.  For some of us, the whole of life is the test (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi says in a couple of places in the Talmud that “Some acquire their World over many years, and some acquire their world in a single moment.”).

I think we are defined by the choices we make.  So it’s probably not surprising that I take that seriously and want to ensure I make the best choices.  It’s probably not helped by low self-esteem that makes me fear I’m going to make much worse choices than I actually would make (no, I don’t realistically think I’m going to turn into a misogynist, incel or Viking, according to this depressing article, even if no woman ever consents to go on a date with me ever again).  There is the fear that if I was given a sudden choice, I would make the wrong decision.  That I need to think (over-think) everything first.  That’s also probably not true.

I also feel that my life will only have meaning if I do a “meaningful” job, or write meaningful books or get married and have children.  Maybe that’s not true either.  I feel life in the abstract has meaning.  I would not feel that anyone should commit suicide.  Yet I back away from assuming that my own life has absolute value.  I feel I have to justify it somehow.  It’s not helped by getting a lot of signals from society (general Western society as well as frum society) that everyone should have a job and a partner and children.

I’m not sure how I can find my inherent meaning.  Logotherapy is the school of psychology devoted to meaning, but I’ve never met a logotherapist.  I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning, which is the founding document of logotherapy, but I’m still unsure of what meaning means for me (so to speak).

I guess things like learning about history and the society around me, making ethical choices, being part of the Jewish people across time and space and appreciating literature give my life meaning.

In a strange way, I find meaning in watching Doctor Who.  Not just the stories that are objectively worthy of artistic response, but the not-so-good ones too, or even more so.  It’s easy to find merit in City of Death or Heaven Sent, but to find it in The Space Museum or Terminus is harder and finding something enjoyable in them feels like somehow rescuing something that the world, and even fandom, had written off.  Like finding hidden treasure.  Or showing gratitude to the writers, performers and producers: that they aren’t forgotten or despised.

***

It’s funny, I wrote the above, and then I felt overwhelmed with depression about probably being single forever.  So it’s not the whole of the reason for my depression.  I clearly don’t want to be alone forever even if I can prepare somehow.  I want to get married.  But I think control and meaning are parts of it.

***

Achievements: I sent off my CV for the job I mentioned yesterday.  I still feel inadequate for it, a thought only reinforced by drawing on memories of an earlier job and interview for my novel-writing today.  I felt quite anxious while writing because of this.

I spent nearly two hours working on my novel.  I tried to to do another ten or fifteen minutes to take it up to two hours.  I didn’t get far with that, but I did at least write over 1,500 words, which is I think the most I have written of the novel in one day and is especially good given that the writing revisited some difficult times for me.

I worked on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for fifty minutes, as well as managing about twenty-five minutes of Torah study.  I also went for a half-hour walk, plus did some ironing, so I guess it was a busy day.  I still wish I could do more though.  I still feel inadequate and not fully adult.

The Return of the Job Applications

Work (positive): my Mum came into my room excited today just when she was about to go to chemo.  I was still in bed and had barely woken up.  “There’s a perfect job for you on [Jewish mailing list]!”  Dad said the same thing later on.  When I eventually got up and looked… it is potentially a very good job for me.  I don’t know about “perfect” (I’m not sure that anything’s perfect), but it would hopefully be a long-term job, within my skill set and maybe within my experience too.  It’s part-time and maybe would even give some writing time, although I’m not sure about that (I would probably have to crack getting up early if I wanted writing time – I don’t want to give up on writing fiction, so I might have to think laterally to find some time, as I do need a day job).  It would also be completely OK with Jewish holidays and early leaving on winter Fridays because it’s at a Jewish institution.  I don’t want to say too much about it, though, because it’s early days and because there aren’t so many institutions like this around and I don’t want to give too much away online.  I also think the job was advertised before, and I didn’t even get to interview stage, so I’m not getting my hopes up at this stage.

There are some scary aspects – I think all work is scary for me, on some level, because of social anxiety and low self-esteem (I don’t think I can do anything right) and because a job is something new and autism, even high functioning autism, does not like new things – but hopefully it would be manageable.  I have failed to get similar jobs in this sector (or sub-sector of the library sector) before though; I’m not hugely experienced in this area.  So, I’m not as excited as my parents were, but it is potentially interesting.

I psyched myself up to phone and ask for an application form as I thought I need to challenge my social anxiety more, especially as I have hardly done anything social for months, but there was no answer when I phoned.  I emailed for an application form instead.

***

Work (negative): I got feedback on my cataloguing test from the other week.  It wasn’t great.  Some of it was my confusion over how they wanted it done, but some of it is that I have got rusty over the years when I haven’t been consistently cataloguing.  Even when I have been cataloguing, the library standards I’ve been using have perhaps been less stringent than would be necessary for a pure cataloguing job.  I feel guilty about that.  This dented my confidence a bit for the other job application, even though that would probably not involve so much cataloguing and especially not up to the standards required for the cataloguing test job.  It doesn’t take much to reinforce my feelings about being an inadequate librarian, and an inadequate everything else.  If I hadn’t been depressed, and had finished my MA in a year and gone straight to a cataloguing job… but there’s really no point in playing those games.

It’s upsetting though.  Sometimes it feels like my low self-esteem is eminently justified: I can’t hold down a job permanently, or work full-time, or maintain a relationship properly, or make friends easily, or do other things like drive a car.  I know I need to focus on the positives, the things I can do, but sometimes there just seem so many negatives.

***

I still feel lonely.  I find myself endlessly checking emails, blog comments, and my blog reader, hoping for some spark of communication.  Anything to feel less alone.  The problem is that true I-Thou moments of connection are rare and, as I learnt at my religion/philosophy shiur (class) on Monday, impossible to manufacture.  You must be open to them (which often I am not) and, I suppose, lucky (which I also am not).  Perhaps also skilled at communication (again, I’m not – you may be noticing a pattern here).  It probably doesn’t help that I keep so many of my opinions to myself, on religion, politics, culture and life in general, because I’m so scared of rejection.

***

Achievements today: I tried to phone about the job and emailed instead when no one answered the phone.  That took longer than I would have expected.  I also brought in the weekly food delivery and put it all away; I do that most weeks, but I only realised today it takes about fifteen minutes, rather more than I would have thought, enough to qualify as a proper weekly chore, at least from the point of view of doing it with lowered depressive energy levels.  It would certainly take time and energy away from other things.

I spent an hour and forty minutes writing my novel, managing about 800 words, which is OK, but not great.  I also did some planning for the next bit, which was easier than I expected.  One of the minor characters is trying to force herself into the story more.  I want her to be in it more, as she’s more fun than all my other characters (Doctor Who fans: think Amelia Ducat or Professor Rumford), but I’m not sure I can justify it from a narrative point of view.

I spent about fifteen minutes working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which I am not entirely happy with, but I am running out of time to work on it.  I also had my other shiur (religious class) for an hour and a half, which I’m still struggling with.  On the one hand, I know a lot already and am not being stretched so much.  On the other hand, I’m too socially anxious to really participate, especially as being on Zoom is even harder than being in a class in person.  Not only am I reluctant to answer questions, I won’t even read out (in English, let alone Hebrew), which is pure social anxiety.

***

It is hard to function when it is so hot.  I’ve had my fan going all afternoon with my windows shut all day (except for the small air vents) to see if it helps shutting out the hot air, but I’m not sure it has done much except make it stuffy.  I went for a walk after shiur, when it was late and cool, which was refreshing, but I came back to my room which is so hot.

***

Stuff I’ve been beating myself up about today: thoughts and feelings connected with loneliness that are probably normal and not to be ashamed of, but I feel ashamed of them anyway.  Other thoughts that are probably also normal, but I feel ashamed of them too, as if they were nasty and offensive.  I try to remember, as someone said in a therapy group I was in, “I’m not responsible for my first thought, but I am responsible for my second one” which I take to mean that sometimes “bad” (hateful, angry, aggressive, rude, lustful, spiteful, etc.) thoughts come into my head, but that’s not my fault if I don’t pursue them.

I also wrote a blog comment late last night that probably came out wrong.  I was trying to say that I find God as written literally in Tanakh to be often strict and difficult to see as moral, whereas Jews read Tanakh in the light of Talmud and Midrash which give the impression of a kinder, forgiving God, which is then read back into Tanakh based on clues in the text that point towards the kinder God (I think there is an idea that the Written Torah (Tanakh) comes from God’s attribute of justice while the Oral Torah (everything else, but especially Talmud) comes from His attribute of kindness, hence the difference).  I don’t think I expressed that well.  I communicate better in writing than in any other medium, but sometimes I feel that I just can’t communicate well at all.

Staying Jewish, But Staying Lonely

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

“You can’t mend people, can you? You can’t mend people!”

I switched my previous post to private.  The antisemitism stuff is true, but this was probably the wrong time to share those thoughts.  I tried to explain the way my mind works, but I don’t think I did so successfully.  I got too caught up in my anger and fear for myself and other Jews.  The “touch hunger” stuff is true, and I will probably pick up on it again at some point, but not now.

***

There’s still an impending Bad Thing that I don’t seem to be able to get away from.  To be honest, it’s pretty much happened already, but there’s a small chance it can change.  I’m not hopeful though.  The whole situation makes me feel lonely and inadequate.  It is hard to be positive about the future when so much of the past was so negative.  Why should anything change?  I know my rabbi mentor said I have “privilege” and in some senses I do, but I have had, and continue to have, real hardships too.  The fact that I’m lucky to have loving family and a degree of financial support doesn’t make depression, high functioning autism, loneliness and unemployment easier.

Somehow I don’t seem to know how to change things so that bad stuff does not happen, or (more realistically) so that I can cope with it better when it happens.  I hope that a firm autism diagnosis might lead on to help with getting back into the workplace, but somehow I doubt it, as I’ve had quite a bit of help already, to no avail (or limited avail).  In any case, because of COVID, I have no idea when my assessment will be.  From what little information I have, eighteen months from whenever lockdown is officially over seems to be the minimum time, so probably about two years from now.

***

I’m feeling guilty and lonely again about having lost so many people from my life generally and especially recently (the last year or two).  I’ve lost far too many friends, but I’m not sure how much I could realistically have done differently, and some of those friendships were probably doomed from the start.

More tangible guilt feelings came from mulling over something from a Zoom shiur (religious class) last week.  The rabbi said that we should elevate our non-religious interests and tastes by using them for religious purposes, relaxing so we can reconnect with God, eating good food on Shabbat (the Sabbath) to celebrate etc.  Otherwise our interests are distractions from God, which is not a good thing.

My Doctor Who fandom (and other classic British telefantasy fandom, but let’s stick with Doctor Who for brevity) is something that I have invested a lot of time, money and energy in over the years, not least with writing my non-fiction book about the programme.  As an autistic special interest, it’s really important to my well-being, helping me to shelter from the difficulties of the world as well as to recharge.  It even helps me understand a confusing world a bit easier.  A lot of my general knowledge comes via Doctor Who, one way or another; even my first encounter with postmodernism was in the Doctor Who Magazine of the late nineties (I miss the crazy, silly, sarky, pseudo-intellectual fandom of the nineties and early noughties).  I suspect that I use the more emotional newer episodes to understand emotion better (if the tenth Doctor was the ADHD Doctor, the twelfth Doctor was the autistic Doctor).  But does it bring me closer to God?  I doubt it, especially with the series being generally sceptical, if not atheist, in outlook.

As Alex Drake asked in the episode of Ashes to Ashes that I just watched (season three, episode one), what do you do when the stories in your head are more real than the real world?  My answer: try to make telling those stories your role in the real world, or so I hope, but it’s a lot to stake my future on when I don’t know if I can write that well or get published.

So, I feel bad about investing so much time and energy in something that gives me pleasure and support, but doesn’t help me religiously.  Just when I was beginning to feel I was connecting to God again too.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came over for a socially distanced tea and cake.  I was mostly mentally present and engaged, despite some initial difficulty.  It does feel that every time I see them, they’ve done some additional “adult” thing that I’ve never done, despite their being younger than me.  This time it was buying a trellis for the garden.  I can’t imagine ever buying a trellis.  I wrote in my sister’s copy of my Doctor Who book, which I guess is an adult thing I’ve done that they haven’t done, even if it doesn’t feel “real” as it is self-published.

Other achievements of the day: forty minutes of Torah study (I would have liked to have done more, but I ran out of energy), a thirty-five minute run (and resultant exercise migraine – I knew it was likely given how hot it was out) and an indeterminate amount of time writing my novel – I was distracted at times, but wrote 900 words.

***

Sometimes I feel I’m a terrible person, and sometimes I want to tell people everything about me so that they’ll realise how terrible I am and stop being my friends, because I don’t deserve friends, and at least if I had no friends, it would stop me getting my hopes up about ever being happy.  I don’t think I will ever be happy, but every so often I hope that I will and it’s painful when those hopes are dashed again.

***

The BBC news site wins the prize for stating the obvious with their headline, “Coronavirus: People living alone at risk of loneliness”.  A deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and it only took them a couple of months to work it out.  As someone who has lived alone, I can say that people living alone are at risk of loneliness even without coronavirus and lockdown.  I am glad I moved back in with my parents in 2018 as it has meant I haven’t been alone in lockdown.

***

(The title quote is from Doctor Who, inevitably: Kinda by Christopher Bailey.  I was going to say it’s the pseud-fan’s favourite Who, but that’s really a three-way tie between KindaWarriors’ Gate and Ghost Light.)

The Problem of Suffering

There are some things going on in my life at the moment which I can’t blog about.  I just feel bad about a lot of things.  Defining “bad” is harder: probably sad, despairing, anxious, frustrated and guilty.  I just feel a lot of difficult feelings and it is hard to tease out what each one is.

***

I’m also still getting upset by the news, different thoughts and feelings, back and forth.  Worried that I’m not thinking the ‘right’ thing, that people would be angry with me if they knew what I thought.  Feeling that I can want to end racism and police brutality without particularly wanting to “end capitalism” (whatever that would even mean).  Wondering why, if Sir Keir Starmer is so opposed to prejudice that he will “take a knee” to oppose racism, that he spent three and a half years on the Labour front bench as the party became a safe haven for antisemites and Holocaust deniers without uttering a word of protest.  Then feeling guilty for “making everything Jewish.”  There’s more, but I don’t want to go there.

I try to tell myself that “It doesn’t matter what other people think.  That’s just their opinion.  I’m allowed to have my own opinions,” but still I feel the need to justify everything, argue everything back and forth in my head.

***

Achievements today: I blogged on my Doctor Who blog for the first time in ages, excluding an advert post for my book.  I spent an hour and a half working on my novel, or trying to, amidst difficult thoughts.  I went for a half-hour walk and cooked dinner.  I guess that’s quite a bit, although it is hard to see it as an achievement.

I went to a half-hour Zoom shiur given by the rabbi of my parents’ shul (synagogue).  It was on love of God and how to love God when things are difficult.  I’m not sure how helpful it was.  The idea was that if we are aware of God’s greatness and His wisdom, that should lead on naturally to love of Him.  I struggle with doing that.  It should also lead on to thinking that anything bad that happens must really be for the good.  I can understand that intellectually, but it’s really hard to internalise when so many things in my life seem so bad, or just so painful.  It’s not so much that I can’t accept that bad things might be good or necessary or that a benevolent God wouldn’t put me through them, it’s more that I feel I have nothing left to give any more.  I’ve used up all my energy coping with the last thirty-seven (nearly) years.  Everything just hurts too much for me to carry on.