Alexithymia

It was another difficult Shabbat (Sabbath). I miss E. This seems to be worse on Shabbat, for various reasons. It’s hard being “half-married.” I felt too burnt out and exhausted to go to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, with physical symptoms (light-headedness as well as exhaustion). I’m worried how often this has been happening lately. Otherwise, it was the usual type of Shabbat I have now: eating with my parents, reading a bit (I finally finished The Third Reich in Power; I’m hoping to read lighter things now, or once I finish the latest Jewish Review of Books), Torah study. I did some Talmud study for the first time in some weeks, which was positive. I napped in the afternoon, which was not good, but I didn’t sleep for as long as I have been doing recently, and I did at least feel refreshed on waking.

***

Frum (religious Jewish) therapist Elisheva Liss wrote on her blog:

But the essential purpose of life according to many Torah philosophers is to achieve spiritual pleasure through a connection to G-d and the world and our own sense of purpose. Pleasure, joy, love, connection- not exclusively, but predominantly.

I guess I find it hard to read that, when I struggle with alexithymia (difficulty identifying and understanding my own emotions). I often don’t know what I’m feeling, or only vaguely. Big emotions are easier to be aware of than small ones, and negative emotions are easier to identify than positive ones, sadly.

I think I get so confused about my attitude to Judaism because so often I don’t know what I feel about it, or only vaguely. I know I enjoy Shabbat; that when I went to shul on Rosh Hashanah, I experienced something positive; that studying Torah is easier some times than others (not just for external reasons like tiredness), indicating I like it more sometimes. But it’s often hard to notice these emotions, to really feel and understand them. Sometimes these feelings are more abstract, more thoughts in my head than emotions I experience.

It is especially hard to feel that God loves me, or that I love Him. It is hard to know that I love anyone sometimes. I worry sometimes that I don’t love my parents, or not “enough.” I still wonder if I really loved my grandparents, if I really grieved for them or if I really miss them the way other people feel these emotions. I once told E that I didn’t think I loved her as much as she loved me and that this was a failure on my part. She said she wasn’t interested in comparisons like that because love can’t be measured and what mattered was that she felt loved by me. This helped our relationship a lot, although I haven’t told her this before.

I feel that I might have more to say about this deep down, but I can’t access it now, because it’s late and because I’m feeling some kind of big negative emotion that I can’t identify or really understand (coincidentally; it’s not why I started writing this post). I’m going to do something relaxing and go to bed, I think.

Quotidian Piety

I struggled today at work again. There was actually a reasonable amount of work for me to do; I didn’t have to do the paper-sorting (which isn’t make-work, but also isn’t a priority if there are other things going on). However, I felt like I was struggling and making mistakes again. I was going to go to the bank as it’s the end of the month. In the afternoon, J gave me a new task to do. I spent a while on it, then realised I needed to go to the bank if I wanted to be back by the end of the day. That in turn meant I needed to close off the banking. So I rushed through the new task and then didn’t finish it when I realised I was making mistakes, and I rushed to close off the banking. I had made a mistake on the banking spreadsheet too which took a while to find. I just hope I didn’t make a mistake paying in the cheques. I’ve done that before. I’ve put the wrong number on the paying-in slip and the bank queried it.

I found the bank trip difficult too. The crowds in London, the noise, the omnipresent video screens… it was just autistic overload for me. When I got back, J said I could finish for the day (not because of the overload, but because it was the end of the day), but I felt overwhelmed and sat in the Beit Midrash upstairs for a bit (it was quiet, and I turned off most of the lights, but the security guard turned them back on and told me to leave them on. I didn’t realise they were supposed to be on), then davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers) before coming home. The journey was stressful, with too many people and someone next to me invading my personal space. I would say ‘manspreading,’ but it was a teenage girl! Someone in the carriage had noisy music on their phone too. I felt pretty much physically attacked by all of it.

Then my sister and brother-in-law came over for dinner. It was fun, but I was feeling really burnt out and overloaded. Then I spoke to E (we Skype every day that isn’t Shabbat or Yom Tov), which at least didn’t exhaust me further. I should really go to bed, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts down.

Some autistic people see autism as a “super-power,” like the homo superior of the David Bowie song Oh! You Pretty Things. I don’t really experience it that way. On days like today, it feels like a real disability.

***

Someone on the autism forum said she was a failure because she hasn’t achieved anything except getting married and having children. Unthinkingly, I said that I didn’t think she was a failure, mostly because I would say that to anyone. I do think that getting married is an achievement for someone on the spectrum, and having children is an achievement for anyone (strictly speaking, it should be that raising children well is an achievement). I realised, of course, that I view myself as a failure despite being married (sort of) and having a part-time job. I feel that I do my job badly, and that it’s not full-time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have children or how I would cope with them. It made me think a bit about what I mean by ‘achievement.’

Everyone says that Western society prioritises wealth, fame, status, looks, power – lots of things I think are not worthwhile. Realistically, most people are probably the same. Apparently research shows that most people really care about more spiritual or caring goals, but that they think that no one else does. Even so, it’s true that the media promotes wealth, fame, status etc. But I’m not interested.

I should say that my religion provides meaningful achievements for me, but too often it turns into a list of things I don’t do, or don’t do “enough”: (communal)(meaningful) prayer, Torah (Talmud) study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, charity and so on. At work I sometimes come into contact (albeit usually through looking at old minutes and letters) with extremely rich people who are able to devote significant amounts of money and time to charity and community work. I can’t do this. I feel that my ‘issues’ (autism, social anxiety, disordered sleep etc.) interferes too much with my religious life.

Today I came across the term, ‘quotidian piety,’ coined by historian Elisheva Baumgarten to describe the daily religious practices of Medieval Jews and how they were intertwined to their lives. I wonder if I have ‘quotidian piety.’ I do religious things every day. I wonder if they are ‘achievements’ in this sphere. I wrote the other day about trying to move towards God instead of more concrete, but often unachievable, goals. I guess that is a similar idea in terms of seeing small steps as an achievement.

Lately I have been thinking less about wanting/needing to write and be published as an achievement. This is probably because I’ve been too busy with E’s visa application and Yom Tov to think about it, but I’d like to try to keep it up. I don’t think it’s sensible to think of writing as an achievement or peg to hang my self-esteem on at the moment.

Rosh Hashanah

I should really get to bed soon, but I wanted to quickly write a few things about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

I got to shul (synagogue) multiple times, including for the shofar both mornings, although I got to shul long after the start of the very long Rosh Hashanah morning service. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the large numbers in shul on the first evening, but was OK with the number of people, although I suspect to some extent I just focused on myself, my machzor (prayerbook) and the chazan (cantor) and tried not to think about the other people. I was mostly OK with the choir and the chazanut (cantorial singing), preferring to sit with Dad in the known quantity of the main shul despite these things (choir and chazan) rather than go by myself into unknown the parallel service, even though they finished a lot earlier without them. I mostly think I made the right decision, but I was annoyed by the amount of talking, which I’m not used to from my shul. Still, overall I felt comfortable at being back in the United Synagogue. I do wish people wouldn’t talk during the service, though.

I felt too tired to go back this evening for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Services), which means my machzor and, more importantly, my tallit (prayershawl) is still in shul, so I’ll have to borrow Dad’s tomorrow morning (Dad has two talletot, one in shul and one at home).

I didn’t do much Torah study, although I went to the shiur (religious class) between Minchah and Ma’ariv yesterday. I did finish the ‘Chofetz Chaim on the festivals’ book.

I remembered there’s one type of therapy system (I can’t remember which) that talks about moving towards or away from values instead of abstract goals. For some reason that I’m not entirely sure about, I feel vaguely uncomfortable with moving towards values, but wondered if it would work to feel I’m moving towards God. I’ll have to see how that goes.

The main difficulty over Yom Tov, aside from missing E, was that my lips and especially hands have got quite chapped. I’m not quite sure how this happened, as it feels like it was summer five minutes ago, but apparently it’s not any more. Anyway, that was/is a bit uncomfortable. My left hand in particular has quite a lot of little cuts on it, which are surprisingly painful.

EDIT: I finally set up my new Facebook account. I haven’t set up a profile or found friends (or “friends”) or anything yet, as I don’t have time, but I wanted to do something towards setting up the group for people on the margins of the frum community. I did try to set my relationship status to married to E, but couldn’t work out how (isn’t FB supposed to be intuitive?) and ran out of time as I have to be up early for work tomorrow.

“…an almost Proustian display of modern Existentialist football…”

(Title quote from one of the Monty Python sketches I think about periodically, which happened to be in the episode I watched earlier, about a pretentious football commentator interviewing a monosyllabic footballer. It’s not really relevant, I just think it’s funny.)

There’s a lot I want to say, but I am totally exhausted, and overwhelmed with things to do. However, as I’m too exhausted to do much now, I’ll try to blog at least some of the things on my mind.

I flippantly remarked on Angela’s blog the other day that I’ve been tired for decades. I felt somewhat bad about it afterwards, as that was a post about tiredness through serious physical illness, but I’m not sure that tiredness from depression, autistic exhaustion and a sleep disorder is really less “real” or worthy of note. At any rate, I struggled to sleep again last night, although not so badly as some nights, and then struggled to get going in the morning, only to discover that while I was asleep, E had asked me to send her a particular document needed for the visa again, as I had forgotten to sign it. To be honest, I hadn’t forgotten, so much as not realised I need to do it (yes, classic autistic, “If you don’t explicitly ask for it, he won’t realise he needs to do it”). This delayed me a little, but I cut my usual truncated Shacharit (Morning Prayers) even shorter and got to work on time.

Work was exceedingly dull and I found some mistakes I had made weeks ago that at least went unnoticed by my boss. I listened to podcasts while sorting through papers then felt guilty that I had decreased my efficiency, although I’m not at all sure that that was the case, as the task is dull, but also difficult, as most of the papers I’m dealing with at the moment are legal or financial, but also twenty years or more old. They should be ripe for throwing away, but I worry that my legal and financial ignorance will lead me to throw away something we need. At the moment, I’m just trying to produce a general list of what everything is.

***

I have a tendency to take the world’s troubles on my shoulders, at least sometimes. Lately I’ve been feeling concern for lonely people on the autism forum, abuse survivors and current victims in the Jewish community, as well as continuing sadness and perhaps anger at God for my parents’ friends’ late son. I do worry sometimes that abusers and gett refusers (men who refuse to give their wives the religious divorce they want) in the frum (religious Jewish) community will find a loophole to the Next World via their Torah study and communal involvement and somehow evade punishment. This is irrational, as I don’t believe God is as easily deceived, or has His values as warped, as the frum community sometimes is and, in any case, I believe spiritual punishment is inherent in the action in ways that are too complicated for me to explain now; you can’t avoid Divine punishment any more than you can avoid being in your own body. But I do think about it a lot.

***

I came across the idea a number of years ago that lots of frum people want to fast-forward through this time of year, the Jewish autumn festival season. For them it’s a time of painful self-examination and guilt. It is that for me too, with added autistic exhaustion and peopling, social anxiety, low self-esteem and disordered sleep issues, not to mention autistic issues with work routine changes and overload from working more intensively. I could also say that their guilt over sins is excessive and misplaced, whereas mine is logical and deserved, but I’m not going to go there (which is probably a good sign in and of itself). I feel like that now, with all the extra overwhelm of my life at the moment too, but today for the first time I felt frustrated that I haven’t worked on my novel for weeks because I’ve been focused on my wedding and E’s visa application. I’m glad, as I wondered if I had given up on writing. However, I still doubt I will have time to put pen to paper (or word processor) for another month.

One extra thing that is hard at this time of year is having alexithymia, difficulty noticing and understanding my own emotions. It’s hard to be sure I love and am in awe of God and that I love Torah, or that I have joy in the festivals and in being Jewish when I struggle to notice love for my family, let alone a being I can’t see and Who is the source of everything bad that ever happened to me as well as everything good. Mostly I try to “deduce” my emotions by my actions, which I guess must mean I feel something positive about God if I do all this religious stuff.

Related to this is my feelings about the frum community. On an Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened to today, they spoke about the importance of being part of a community for spiritual growth. I’ve never really had this, at least not in the way they meant. Someone on the autism forum the other day suggested that while I say I want to be part of a community, I also seem to have negative feelings about it (I said making friends in the community seemed “terrifying and impossible”). I don’t really have an answer this.

***

I suspect the answer to all of the above is to “Let go and let God,” as the 12 Step movement says, but I’ve never been very good at that. It’s hard to “Let go and let God” when you can’t work out how much you trust God.

***

Good things that happened today:

E sent the visa application off, despite consistent issues with the third-party website.

I was told I can keep paying reduced shul (synagogue) membership fees because I’m on a low salary. I feel vaguely guilty about this and don’t know why, although as I have been paying money to a shul I haven’t been attending, and as I will continue doing this for some months more, I feel the shul is still getting a good deal.

My birthday present from E, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus by Aviva Gottleib Zornberg finally arrived. The delay, I should say, was on the part of Foyles Bookshop, not E. Zornberg has written several deep books on Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), mixing traditional commentary with ideas from Western philosophy and literature and psychology. She’s very good, but no one expected her to write about the almost entirely legal and purity-focused Vayikra (Leviticus). So I am curious to read it, but will wait until it comes around on the annual Torah cycle next spring.

Also arriving today was the latest Jewish Review of Books (finally) and Doctor Who: The Dis-Continuity Guide. Actually, the latter came yesterday, but it seemed inappropriate to write about it on such a sad day. Then today I went into the charity shop and found a load of interesting-looking books. I already owned a couple of them, perhaps fortunately, but I did buy a copy of Yehudah HaLevi’s Medieval Jewish anti-philosophical philosophical work, The Kuzari for £2, which goes nicely with the Guide for the Perplexed I got for free a few months ago.

Yes, my plan to avoid getting new books until I work my way down the To Read pile is going well. Wait a minute…

Too Much

I’m feeling quite upset today. I woke from an distressing dream and was lying in bed digesting it when my Mum came into my room, visibly upset. I knew immediately that her friends’ son had died of cancer (the one who I mentioned a week or two ago as receiving palliative care). The funeral is today, but my parents couldn’t go, as Mum was having a medical procedure and Dad had to drive her home (she’s OK, it was all clear). I will probably go with them to the shiva (house of mourning) on Saturday night as they are close family friends I’ve known since childhood, even though I know it might be crowded, overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.

It made me think about the fear of God, which I’ve been thinking about lately anyway. This is not fear of punishment, which is seen in Judaism as a much lower and less effective and important motivator. People describe the fear, or better, the awe, of God as being like the awe a person experiences in seeing the ocean or the mountains, and I think that’s part of it, but lately I think it’s more about the realisation that God is so essentially, ontologically (in the nature of His Being) different to human beings, that His Mind operates on a scale and in a way that we can’t comprehend, that He can make decisions of who should live and who should die for reasons that we can’t begin to understand. If a human being tried to do this, he would be a terrible dictator, but God is essentially different to us such, that, as the prophet Yishayah (Isaiah) says, “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways, —declares the LORD. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.” (Yishayah 55.8-9, translation from Sefaria.org, capitalisation altered slightly). It is the awe of encountering an intelligence totally different from our own, with a different morality that comes from being different and beyond us. Admittedly I’ve seen no sources that confirm this, but it seems true to me.

Of course, we are supposed to go beyond this understanding to the love of God, which is even greater.

***

I struggled to get going in the afternoon. I think I was too upset about my parents’ friends’ son. I didn’t even know him that well, but I guess I feel I could have died (from suicide) at various points in my twenties and thirties and left my parents like his parents. I would never have met E or made the plans we’re making to try to turn my life around. It’s just so sad. Mum always thought I could be friends with him, but I didn’t speak to him much, mainly from social anxiety and autistic communication issues. I tend to get on better with people older than me than younger than me anyway.

I did a few things in the afternoon: a little Torah study, a quick walk to the shops, and I polished my thoughts about the death of the Queen from a Jewish perspective and submitted them to a Jewish website, although I suspect it’s probably too late for consideration now. I started dusting my room, but didn’t get very far.

I did feel there was a lot I didn’t do. My To Do list seems to grow much faster than I can actually do tasks and tick them off at the moment, particularly as so many tasks are multifaceted and require multiple actions. I also don’t think I’ll get to listen to all the LSJS shiurim (religious classes) from Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, as I have three left still.

E tried to submit our information and documents for the visa application, but the website was broken and not loading a necessary drop-down menu properly. I tried to do it on my computer, but had the same problem. There was no help button. She tried using the contact form, but it’s meant for feedback, not technical help. She sent them a message on Twitter. We’re waiting for a response. Suggestions welcome.

After my walk, I felt light-headed. I can never work out if this is due to lack of food, lack of salt or low blood pressure. I ate some crackers with butter to try to deal with food and salt, but it was extra calories close to dinnertime. My diet is stuck in an awkward place of restricting some food, but probably not enough, and weight loss and willingness not to eat junk have tailed off. When I say not to eat junk, I don’t even mean excessively. It only takes one bad day to get me thinking, “Oh, I had a bad day. I deserve one biscuit OR one piece of chocolate as a reward before bed,” and then it’s hard not to do it again the next night. Even if I resist, it’s started a “Bad day = chocolate” precedent. Today certainly feels like a junk food day. Knowing my weight gain is mostly caused by clomipramine doesn’t make things any easier.

Overall, I feel overwhelmed again, and anxious. Anxiety always feels worse on dark autumn/winter evenings, for some reason. There’s just so much to do (admittedly reading about Kristallnacht in The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939, was probably a bad move). I worry about falling depressed again at this time of year; most of my episodes started in the autumn or early winter. I feel unprepared for work tomorrow, but — bed!

Autism and Becoming Myself

I had the usual I’ve slept too much during the day sleep problems last night, plus when I finally did fall asleep, I woke up after an hour or two with a headache (migraine? It was localised intensely over one eye, but I’ve had more general headaches that have felt worse). Inevitably, I slept late this morning.

The main thing I did was go to two of the six online shiurim (religious classes) run today by the London School of Jewish Studies in advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) starting next year. One was Rabbi Sam Lebens talking about God changing history so that penitents never sinned. This is interesting, but I was familiar with his argument from his book The Principles of Judaism and I’m not convinced that it’s really a necessary or credible hypothesis, either from Jewish religious texts or from logic. I’m more convinced by the argument he rejected, that repentance changes the meaning and consequences of our misdeeds, but that we still did those misdeeds.

The other shiur was more helpful for me. This was Rabbi Joseph Dweck talking about teshuvah (repentance) as a process of self-discovery. This is the type of existential/personal growth-focused shiur I like.

He quoted Rav Kook on teshuvah (translated as response or return) being a return to the self, leading to the return to God. Rabbi Dweck spoke about God’s first word in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) being “Yehi” “Be” (a literal translation of what is usually rendered “Let there be [light]”). God in Tanakh does not mechanically create the world out of parts (he didn’t say this, but this is essentially what happens in a lot of pagan creation myths), He wills it into being as itself. God’s fundamental charge to us and to the universe is simply to be ourselves. Similarly, Avraham (Abraham) is commanded to “Go for yourself” i.e.  become an individual for yourself.

He said we should spend our life working on becoming our ideal self or fullest potential and that to call ourselves stupid, ugly, useless (etc.) is to blaspheme against God Who created us. Becoming ourselves is thus the first step to returning to God through the integration of our parts.

This was good to hear in terms of my continuing struggle to come to terms with my autism and how that impacts on my religious life, particularly regarding shul (synagogue) attendance (admittedly due to the intersection of autism with social anxiety and disordered sleep) and my general feelings of being a failure at work, Judaism and life in general. Quite how I will assimilate the ideas and what I will do with them remains to be seen. I’ve heard similar messages before without shifting my low self-esteem, even before autism diagnosis. I hope that one day I will hear a critical mass of such teachings and something will shift inside me. Beyond that, I think I really need some practical way of internalising this message. Any ideas would be welcome (affirmations tend not to work well for me).

Other than that, I went for a walk and finished scanning documents to go to the Home Office for E’s visa application. E put together a cute PowerPoint presentation of photos of us and screenshots of our emails and texts to prove the legitimacy of our relationship to the immigration bureaucrats.  I briefly checked out a couple more autism forums to see if there’s one that suits me more than the one I’m currently on, but I don’t think there is, although it doesn’t help that I can’t really articulate what I’m looking for, just that I haven’t seen it yet. I did come across a Jewish autistic Facebook group, which I will check out when I rejoin Facebook, although it looks like it only has twenty-nine members. It has a sibling group for people with “‘lived experience’ of autism”, which I guess means family of autistic people as well, which is somewhat larger with over two hundred members, but still fairly small. They were both created this year, so may grow over time.

Immigration Woes, Religious Growth on the Autism Spectrum and Performative Judaism

Most of today was spent scanning documents for E’s visa application and sending them to her. I didn’t have much time for anything else, although I cleaned the kitchen a bit as we haven’t got a cleaner coming this week.

I phoned the building society to try to get a printout of my savings account statement for the last year. I couldn’t get it to show as a pdf through online banking and a screen shot wasn’t good enough for the Home Office (for E’s visa). The woman I spoke to said that my account was for a book, not individual statements. This sent me into autistic/socially anxious panic, as I was pretty sure I didn’t have an account book, and I hung up.  I decided it would be easier to sort out in person, so I walked to the building society, wearing my invisible disability lanyard (just in case), which may have helped.  They said they would print my statement, but first one cashier and then the other had printer problems.  I thought I would have to come back another day or go to another branch (which would also have to be another day), but at the last moment they managed to print what I wanted.

I later discovered the printout only has the last four digits of my account number, which I suppose is for security reasons. I hope the Home Office still accept it. E and I are both terrified concerning every little detail that is not 100% the way they want or which we just had to work out on our own initiative. We are sure they will use this to refuse the visa application. E says what if the Home Office website is like Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and we need the Immigration Talmud to understand it properly because its literal meaning is deceptive? It’s a frightening thought. Likewise concerning the problems I had with the benefits I was mistakenly paid, which the Home Office will see from the bank statements they are making me submit. I wrote a whole piece for them explaining what happened and that it was not my fault, but we’re still terrified that the Home Office will think I’m some kind of benefits fraudster and assume that E is the same and refuse her visa. I hate bureaucracy.

Then I came home and tried to phone to confirm the psychiatrist appointment I’ve been sent. Once again, the call went to the answerphone even though the office was supposed to be open. I got annoyed about this, particularly as I wasn’t sure that it’s the right number to call, although the only other phone numbers on the letter were the crisis team and the “smoking cessation” line (?!), and it certainly isn’t either of those. I worried they would cancel my appointment because I haven’t confirmed on a number they haven’t given me. The answerphone gave another number, so I called that, only to be told that I should have phoned the first number! I said I left a message on the answerphone and the receptionist said that would be fine, but who knows with the NHS? I would say I need the NHS Talmud too, but I suspect it exists as an oral tradition only.

There was a Mussar (Jewish ethical development movement) yeshivah (rabbinical seminary) in the early twentieth century where students were sent to do stupid tasks, such as going into a hardware shop and asking for milk, so that people would get annoyed with them, in the process teaching them that self-esteem comes from within, not from other people.  I feel that, with autism and social anxiety, most of my social interactions that aren’t with a small, select group of people feel like that. It hasn’t done much for my self-esteem, though.

I feel I haven’t really adapted to post-depression/burnout life or to ‘normal’ life with autism, a suspected sleep disorder and social anxiety. In particular, I ignored my social anxiety in the past as it seemed insignificant compared to my depression and OCD, but now they’re under control, it feels like a real impediment. I did CBT for it on the NHS, but I only had ten sessions and didn’t push myself hard enough or sustain the effort afterwards. Then COVID came along and knocked back what progress I had made.

I wonder what I should be doing right now in terms of growth i.e. dealing with autism and social anxiety and also growing as a person and growing religiously (this being the time of year when we think about these things in the Jewish world). I just got married and usually someone who just got married would be told to focus on that relationship for the first year, but it looks like half or more of our first year will be spent on different continents. More generally, I don’t know enough autistic or socially anxious adults in the Orthodox community (with or without significant sleep and energy issues) to try to gauge what is typical or even possible behaviour from someone in my situation.

In particular, trying to assess my relationship with God, as one Jewish site suggested, is hard. Being on the spectrum, I find it hard to assess my relationships with people who are actually communicating with me, let alone those who aren’t. I know I have a good relationship with E, but that’s partly because I can judge interactions, like how we resolve disagreements, and partly because she explicitly tells me that she thinks we have a good relationship. I’m sorry, I’m autistic, I find it hard to read these things without being told. With God, I have to intuit how He feels about me with really no evidence at all, and it’s all too easy for that to be distorted by low self-esteem. I’m not really a person who has a “sense” of God’s presence in their life and I find it hard to really know what that would feel like, although I perhaps have felt it at very specific points in my life.

***

On a somewhat related note, I’ve read/listened to some things about Judaism and feminism in the last few days. I don’t want to get into that debate, but I find it interesting that they present Judaism as primarily performative, not contemplative. In other words, Judaism is something you do (study, lead religious services, lein), rather than something you think about or contemplate. Women’s exclusion from Orthodox Judaism is seen as stemming from exclusion from doing certain things and can be rectified by letting them do those things.

Judaism is primarily a performative/action-based religion rather than a contemplative/faith-based religion like Christianity or Buddhism. That has certain advantages (setting aside the issue of gender segregation for the moment), but it arguably does lead to the marginalisation of those in the community who, for whatever reason, can’t do Jewish things (whereas fundamentalist Christianity leads to the marginalisation of those who, for whatever reason, can’t believe Christian things, which is a whole other set of issues). When it comes to feminism, we frame the argument around what women are allowed to do and who is allowing, or not allowing, them to do it, but I’m interested in people who aren’t able to do for pragmatic rather than societal/halakhic reasons and what happens to them. Do they just leave? Or get excluded, or at least demoted to second-class status? I want to start my Facebook group to find out!

There is an idea of meditation in Judaism (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”tzl wrote three books on it, one of which I have), but it’s not very prominent except in the Breslov Hasidic community. (I’ve tried meditating, but struggle with it currently.)

The thing that I keep thinking about in this context is a story I haven’t seen in the original (I saw it paraphrased in Rabbi Dr Avraham Twerksi’s book Let Us Make Man). I think it comes originally from the Jerusalem Talmud. The story is that Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who was one of the leading sages of the Talmudic era, was severely ill and all his students came to visit him. They tried to cheer him up by saying what a great Torah teacher he was and he just got more depressed because he knew he was not going to recover enough to teach again. Then Rabbi Akiva said, “Suffering can be precious” (as a way of developing character and earning spiritual reward), which caught his attention because accepting suffering was something he could do in his passive state. I feel that kind of intellectual/contemplative, even passive, approach of “Suffering can be precious,” is generally not discussed in contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Rather, people in crisis are pushed to do more, even if that’s not really feasible for them.

Existential Spirituality

I wonder sometimes about my spiritual life. I feel I have more of a religious life than a spiritual one. I would like to have a more spiritual life, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially from inside a major religion — where do you go when you’re already where you’re supposed to be, and don’t want to leave, but aren’t fully fulfilled? I want more spirituality, not less Judaism. Further, I find ‘spirituality’ a vague and unhelpful term, and Hebrew words like ruchniut aren’t any better.

I used to read a lot of Jewish religious existentialists (not all Orthodox). I found Jewish existentialism an approach that resonated with me more than many approaches in the Orthodox world, so out of curiosity, I searched online for stuff on existentialist spirituality, despite knowing that secular existentialism is very different to religious existentialism.

I found an article on existential spirituality in psychotherapy the other day that says the following:

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

I do struggle with several of these areas. I’m able to experience nature well when I’m in a natural setting, but I struggle to find one in the suburbs. It might be good for me to walk more often in a little area of land left wild at the edge of the nearby park (although it only takes five or ten minutes to walk the length of it).

Skipping number two for the moment, I am a lot more OK at being with myself than before. I still have low self-esteem, something worsened by autism-induced mishaps, and some social anxiety and catastrophising, but I’m mostly comfortable being inside my head. I feel positive about my sense of integrity, which ties into my Jewish practice as I practise Judaism less to feel “positive” or “spiritual” in the moment and more because overall I have a feeling of integrity and rightness from acting in accordance with my religious beliefs and as part of a three thousand year old community.

The really hard areas are two and four. I think being with others is very important (this is perhaps the biggest thing I take from Jewish existentialism), and it does help me when I find a way I can interact with others well, but finding that way can be hard. I definitely missed volunteering the last couple of weeks when it was on a break and I felt depressed until it restarted yesterday. The downside is that I feel depressed and burnt out today, which may be cause and effect or may be coincidence.

The fact that I go to shul (synagogue) a lot less than I did seven or eight years ago is probably a negative here too, from a social point of view as much as anything. Communal prayer does create social bonds. In recent years I have gone to shul a lot less, as a result of sleep disruption, social anxiety, changing communities and then COVID. I’m now totally out of the habit of regular shul attendance and struggling to get back into it.

I think my marriage to E might be the biggest positive change I can make here. Following the Talmud, I see marriage as the primary model of a loving relationship (the Talmud sees “Love your neighbour as yourself” applying particularly to marriage) and I think the intimacy (emotional as well as physical) there will help me feel more spiritually-fulfilled. I think already our emotional intimacy has led me to feel better in this way. It is hard at the moment, though, when we are so far apart and know it will be so long until we get married. E said it feels like we should be married now and our current status is a weird aberration, and I agree with her. E also thinks that God wants us to marry so I can help her be more religious and so she can help me to have more fun, which may be true too.

Connecting with God directly is harder. I struggle to connect with God through Torah study, except on occasions when I suddenly gain some new insight. That doesn’t happen often, but maybe I have to do a lot of study to provide “scaffolding” for those moments of connection. But often it’s easy to forget God while studying Torah and just focus on the text as a text. Possibly I should try to get back to reading something inspirational or about personal growth every day.

I have improved my kavannah (mindfulness) in prayer lately, but even then it can be hard to concentrate on God. I can focus on God or on the words of the prayer, but it’s hard to focus on both at once.

I guess a lot of the problem is the subjectivity of what constitutes a spiritual experience or a connection with an invisible God. Maybe I’m trying to over-analyse.

***

I got a phone call from A, the person who seems to be a middleman between me and the psychiatrist. He turned out to be a psychiatric nurse. He said that before my medication was reviewed by the psychiatrist with a view to reducing it, could I tell him what happened about the autism assessment I was referred for in 2019, as they had no further information. I was pretty shocked he didn’t know about my diagnosis. In fact, I don’t think he even knew I was referred for an autism assessment, as he thought it might have been for ADHD (the hospital assesses for both). I offered to scan the report and send it to them, which was fortunate as he said he could write to the GP, but that would take weeks (!). You would think that an advantage of a single, national healthcare provider would be some kind of shared data base, at least within the locality. Honestly, this service is just so useless.

***

I was going to go for a pre-wedding haircut after this, but it started raining really heavily and I decided to go after work tomorrow instead. It’s still quite hot and I think the rain and heat/humidity combination along with the disruption to my plans brought my mood down. I am nervous of having my hair cut by a stranger again. I’ve always found haircuts intrusive, probably for autistic reasons about personal space and sensory stimuli, but for many years now I’ve had tremor in some social situations and haircuts are a major trigger, indeed, they were the first trigger when it started. I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow.

I forgot to go to shul (I want to go on Wednesday evenings), although I wouldn’t really have had much time to spare. Instead, I submitted my first novel to two more agents, both UK-based. I’m trying to focus on UK agents at the moment. One is Jewish, but is super-influential and well-connected, so I probably won’t be accepted by him. To be honest, I suspect all the agencies on the list I’m using are too big for me and that I need some small boutique agency. E disagrees with me here; I hope she’s right.

***

I got sent £3.34 from Lulu.com, which means someone bought my non-fiction Doctor Who book!

Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

“You’re so sheer you’re so chic/Teenage rebel of the week”

The most important news: E booked a civil wedding ceremony for us, on 29 August! It’s a big moment. Even though we won’t live together until we have the chuppah (Jewish wedding), it’s a moment of commitment in that we would be a couple in the eyes of US and UK law, as well as allowing us to start the process of getting E a spouse visa to live in the UK.

I do feel impatient for the chuppah (religious wedding). I just feel I’m ready to be married now and it’s frustrating that we’ll have to wait many more months (depending on Home Office bureaucracy).

***

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by life this morning. I had some post-Tisha B’Av thoughts about wanting to do something useful in the world and not being sure what. I do still think helping people who find themselves on the fringes of the frum (religious Jewish) community would be a good place to start, if I can work out what to do. As Rabbi Tarfon said in the Mishnah, “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2.16)

It’s funny that this blog started as a mental health blog, then became a “moving towards autism/Asperger’s diagnosis” blog, then an “adjusting to autism/Asperger’s diagnosis” blog. Now it seems to be becoming an “I’m on the fringes of the frum community and don’t know what to do” blog. I guess that’s where my thoughts are nowadays.

***

Somewhat related, I read this article on religious abuse (possibly of interest to some of my readers, but it’s possibly triggering and contains a lot of untranslated Hebrew). It’s weird that I essentially have the mindset of a survivor of religious abuse without actually having suffered religious abuse. I tend to see God as distant and punitive, waiting to punish me. Actually, I only think He is like this towards me. I think He’s loving and forgiving towards everyone else.

I know this comes from various difficult childhood experiences with authority which I then project onto God. I don’t know if any of them are clinically describable as “trauma.” I’ve had therapists refer to them as “traumatic,” but that might have been in a colloquial sense rather than a clinical one. (If this was in therapy, my therapist would probably be asking me why it matters whether it was a clinical term or not and why I rely on authority figures (e.g. parents, rabbi mentor, therapists, God) for validation more than on my understanding of my own feelings, the feelings that I actually feel and that no one else has direct access to. I guess I feel that nowadays “trauma” is a politically-loaded term and only certain people get to use it.) Unfortunately, knowing what the experiences were that left me with this mindset does not equate to being able to change the mindset.

At the root of this is religious perfectionism. I feel I have to get my religious life 100% right or it’s not worth anything. Moreover, there are no exemptions or mitigating circumstances based on my neurodiversity, mental illness, possible physical illness, distance from the community and so on. As I’ve said before, frum Jews who do not have access to the community and its social support structure tend not to stay frum very long. I’ve had limited access (although not none at all) to this social support structure for years, alongside all those extra difficulties, and I’m still, on some level, here. But I struggle to give myself credit for that.

I believe God judges everyone on their own level, based on their background, education, experiences, strengths, weaknesses and so on. Yet it is hard to see what level I’m on. I can find the major decision points of my life, but I find it impossible to judge whether I could have chosen differently or what the consequences would have been if I had chosen differently. It also seems a lot easier to judge how things might have been for a neurotypical, mentally healthy person who took that decision (there are plenty of examples to draw from), but it’s harder to work out how I would have fared in those circumstances.

I guess I want to believe in a loving God, but it seems somehow too good to be true. Or a way of aggrandising myself and excusing my deficiencies and failures. I feel uncomfortable with people who cut God to fit their own conceptions of divinity, religion or ethics.

***

I was listening to Rabbi Yakov Horowitz talk on the Orthodox Conundrum, and he said the skills that helped him as an adult, as an educator, Rosh Yeshivah, and child safeguarding advocate, i.e. boundless energy and a lot of chutzpah, did not stand him in good stead at school when he was required to sit and obey instructions. He likes to reassure parents and students that “eighth grade” (which I think is more year nine (thirteen to fourteen) in the UK — I get confused when Americans assume everyone in the world has the same grade system) does not last forever. I feel like I’m the reverse, that I was really good at school when my life consisted of memorising and regurgitating large amounts of information, but it turns out that real life is not like that and I don’t have a useful skillset for it. My parents want me to go on the quiz show The Chase, and I probably do have more skills for doing well in general knowledge quizzes than for holding down an actual useful job.

***

I submitted my first novel to two more agents. It’s slow work, first weeding out the agencies that are totally wrong, then finding the best agent to submit to out of a list of agents in an agency. They have some blurb about what books they like, but there’s an element of pot luck. One agent said she wanted characters that she would want to hang out with. Great, so it’s not enough that I don’t know how to get people to want to hang out with me, but now I need to get them to want to hang out with my characters too! Not that this is adolescent or anything…

More seriously, I’m working from a list of American agents, and I wonder if I should try to find a list of UK agents, on the grounds that some agents may not want someone from abroad. I did search online and found a couple of lists quite quickly, but I’d have to do some research to check they’re reliable and up-to-date. I think they are mostly big agencies too, and I have a gut feeling (that may be completely wrong) that I should be looking for a smaller agency. I’m in the middle of the ‘J’s in the American alphabetical list and my tendency to want to finish things makes me want to stick with it to ‘Z,’ but, realistically, it’s probably worth trying some British agencies first.

To be honest, I think the novel I’m working will be better than the first novel, if I can finish it, which makes it hard to try to ‘sell’ the first one when I’m more excited about the second. Although I feel I have a weird, stodgy, overly formal, almost nineteenth century, style of writing. I feel that this should be an autism thing, but I’m not sure that it actually is. I’ve also read a lot of nineteenth century novels and not nearly enough contemporary ones. I feel it applies to my blog posts too, you may or may not agree.

***

I think I should cut down my reading/listening to stuff about abuse. It was becoming somewhat obsessive lately, and I think it was triggering some OCD-type thoughts. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve noticed an increase in obsessive-type thoughts lately, not really frequent or intense enough to count as OCD, but still worrying. I suspect wedding anxiety is part of the problem, perhaps also Mum’s illness earlier in the year. I know the abuse research was partly for my novel, but I think I can put it aside for now.

Sleep Apnoea, Reframing, The Three Weeks, and Podcasts

The last few days have been fairly quiet, just the usual mix of work, Torah study, novel writing and novel submitting, as well as Shabbat (the Sabbath). I woke up in the middle of the night last night panting and short of breath. I was somehow sufficiently alert to realise I was lying on my chest (I go to sleep on my side), so that’s all more evidence in favour of my having sleep apnoea, which tends to be worst when lying either face down or face up. I must have moved in my sleep. No idea when I’ll get to see a specialist to investigate it. I’d like some kind of answer about what my sleep/getting up problems are all about so I could try to work on them. I do need longer days if I want to earn more money, and I would like to be able to go to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat mornings again, both for religious and social reasons. I slept for several hours this afternoon, but tried to tell myself it was understandable if my sleep last night was poor.

I went to my parents’ shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) today. Someone from my shul (which I haven’t been to since it moved out of its regular premises into cramped temporary premises) sat in front of me, which disrupted my concentration for the whole service, as I was worried he would speak to me about why I stopped going to my shul. In the end he left early without speaking to me at all, so that was wasted worrying.

I had a weird Viktor Frankl/Man’s Search for Meaning reframing moment. I’ve felt frustrated for years about losing more than twenty years of my life to mental illness and/or autistic burnout, and during the supposedly “best years of my life” of adolescence and early adulthood too. Perhaps because the Torah reading lately has been about the end of the Israelites’ forty year sojourn in the wilderness, I found myself thinking, “It was only twenty years I lost. It could have been worse. It could have been forty.” I find it weirdly comforting. I’m not sure if this is rational or not.

We’re two-thirds of the way through the Three Weeks, the Jewish national mourning period in the summer when we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem. I find it a difficult time. My beard (a sign of mourning) itches, it’s frustrating that I can’t listen to music unless exercising and the Fast of Av at the end is an intimidating day to get through. I have only felt autistically exhausted enough that I needed to listen to music once, though, which is good (there is a heter (permission) for people with depression to listen to music which my rabbi mentor said could apply to my autistic exhaustion).

Because I’m not listening to music, I have been binge listening (if that’s a thing) to the back catalogue of Orthodox Conundrum podcasts. Many of the podcasts have provoked thought, although I don’t always get the chance to record my thoughts, especially as I tend to listen when I’m walking to or from the station. Here are some thoughts on a couple of them.

Rabbi Lopes Cardozo was talking about his latest book (at the time of the podcast, a couple of years ago). He argued that mitzvot (commandments) are supposed to instil “radical amazement” (I recognised this a term from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). Since I listened to this podcast, I have been trying to feel that amazement when saying blessings on food and the like, which is one of the main religious actions I do during the day, certainly in terms of frequency and it has been quite positive so far.

He also said that he believes in God, but doesn’t know what “God” means. This reminded me of the negative theology of Medieval Rationalist thinkers like Rambam (Maimonides) and Rav Saadia Gaon. The idea is that God is beyond understanding and description, so we can’t say what God is, only what God is not (e.g. “God is not weak” rather than “God is powerful”). This approached has been debunked by various people (Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and Rabbi Samuel Lebens just from my bookshelf), but Rabbi Lebens argues that even if it’s not literally true, it’s a useful reminder of the limits of human knowledge.

Shira Lankin Sheps of The Layers Project Magazine was talking about how The Layers Project Magazine tells the stories of religious Jewish women who are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media (because it’s not interested in religious people) and the Orthodox Jewish media (which is not interested in women). She said that the Orthodox community is often governed by shame, where people think their negative experiences are unique and therefore shameful, but in fact they are often normal. The Layers Project Magazine aims to normalise those stories.

I think this is positive, but I felt that when she presented her own story, of struggling with an unknown chronic illness, it seemed very swift. She said she wrote one post about her illness and suddenly she was getting so many positive responses and support from other people. Then she wrote another post when her grandmother died and from that a doctor who read it identified her illness. It’s the kind of thing that makes me doubt myself, because, as I said above, it’s taken me twenty years to get to this point and I’m still not sure I’ll get exactly where I want to be. I never had that kind of miraculous quick fix. It reminded me of Hevria, where it seemed OK to have had an illness or trauma in the past, but not to be struggling with one on an ongoing basis. I haven’t really read the website, so I don’t know how those stories are framed.

(The only thing I could find on the site on high-functioning autism/Asperger’s was the beginning of this post covering several different women’s stories. It’s a shame, as autism in women is even less understood and accepted than autism in men.)

Planning Ahead

Today was a pretty good day.  I weighed myself when I got up and I was 71kg, which is quite comfortably in the healthy weight range for my height, albeit at the higher end.  I do still feel that I would like less of a visible tummy when I get married, so I’m not about to go and splurge on cake and ice cream.

I did some more novel-writing, had therapy, and went for a walk.  I also got to shul (synagogue) for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers).  I hadn’t gone to weekday prayers for a while, so I was pleased to go.  I would like to get back in the habit of going more often, although I’m not sure what sort of target to set at the moment.

Going to shul felt like a positive thing.  I have a lot of anxiety about going to shul, but often when I’m there I feel good.  It’s getting in the front door that’s hard, or talking to people afterwards, but the service itself helps me feel connected, perhaps to God, but certainly to the community.  It helps that it’s very scripted and much of Jewish prayer services is private prayer anyway rather than things read together.

***

My article about being high-functioning autistic in the Jewish community on a Jewish website seems to be trending again.  At any rate, it’s gone back to the the front page and then crawled up near the top, something usually reserved for new articles.  My sister suggested the site is promoting it again because I won an award for it, although I would expect some kind of banner on it if that was the reason.  Anyway, it raises my profile, which is good.

***

I realised this morning that I’m currently planning the time ahead of me in months if not years, rather than days and weeks.  This feels weird.  For most of the time from 2003 onwards, long-term goals went out the window as I focused on just getting through one day at a time because of my depression.  When I was able to work, I was mostly focused on getting through each day, not on career progression, and it was difficult enough to do that.  I think even when I dated, I wasn’t looking that far ahead, until recently.

It feels strange to be thinking in terms of months until my wedding, or years until we have children (hopefully).  Sometimes waiting until next spring to get married seems very far away and sometimes the fact that I’m actually planning it, rather than just hoping it will happen one day, makes it seem very close.

***

I was speaking about my place in the Orthodox Jewish community to my therapist in the context of not finding a suitable wife inside the community and marrying someone less religious than me.  She said I had an avant-garde, maverick status in the community.  I found that weirdly appealing.  It is true that I’m less willing to conform to certain non-halakhic (Jewish law) cultural standards and “unwritten rules” (which autistic people are famously bad at understanding).  I don’t always like not fitting in, but I wouldn’t want to be a conformist either.  I am trying to see my relationship with E as God calling me to learn to give and to live religiously in ways that I haven’t done before.

We also spoke a bit about mourning for the neurotypical life I will never have.  I feel I have a way to go with this still.  I thought I had processed and accepted my autistic/Asperger’s diagnosis, but I’m not sure that I have.  My therapist got me thinking about the Kubler-Ross model of grief.  I looked it up after therapy and I think I’m still in anger, at least some of the time, which is only the second stage out of five, although arguably I spent years in the past in depression (step four).  I think it is accepted nowadays that people don’t always go through the model sequentially, but can go back and forth between steps, so I don’t want to read too much into it.

Emotional Vampire

Sorry, WordPress has eaten this post again, and I don’t have time to fix the probable formatting problems of salvaging it. Yesterday I overslept, the beginning of a day marked with incipient signs of autistic exhaustion. I skipped even more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than I usually do and wondered when I would get to see someone about my sleep issues. Work was pretty dull. In the morning I was mostly locating and copying dividend statements for the auditors without really understanding the financial reports I was searching through. I hope I found everything I needed. The afternoon was spent sorting through old papers to see what could be thrown away. I found letters from the then Chief Rabbi and his successor, and two letters from fathers of schoolfriends of mine (both Reform rabbis). On way home I felt burnt out. I had the “brain being squashed” feeling again. Apparently volunteering + headache + work + peopling + work again + heatwave = autistic exhaustion very quickly. I was exhausted at home. I spent half an hour or so doing non-screen time reading, which helped a bit even if the subject matter was heavy (The Third Reich in Power). After dinner, I submitted my novel to two agents in the space of twenty or thirty minutes. I’m getting quicker as I’m getting more experienced, although that hasn’t led to more interest, just more rejections. I spoke to E afterwards, but eventually I crashed. I can’t remember when I went to bed exactly, but I must have slept for over twelve hours, despite setting alarms and Dad trying to get me up. I feel tired and numb now, but more functional, and my brain doesn’t feel like it’s being squeezed. It is hard to do anything, though. I went for a walk, even though that meant I couldn’t work on my novel today (and I probably won’t on Sunday either, as I’m busy). I wanted to be out in nature, which is impossible where I live, but there’s a little strip of wasteland and woodland at the edge of the local park, so I went walking there. I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and guilt, which did make me feel like I was, on some level, thinking about my novel, doing Torah study and getting out to look after my physical and emotional health, at least on some level. Aside from writing this post, the only other thing I’ve done today is my usual pre-Shabbat chores. I feel a need to move on with my life, particularly with marrying E and with my writing. Marrying E is moving on OK at the moment, even if it’s frustrating that bureaucracy is going to make it a prolonged process, but I want to move faster with my novel. It’s partly feeling I have something to say, and that my subject matter is going to be taken by other writers if I don’t write quickly. But some of it is feeling “I need to earn money as a writer to help support the family when E and I marry.” Days like today, when I just feel overwhelmed and unable to do much, are a reminder that I have a disability and that my life is not where I want it to be, will not be there for a while longer, and it may never be there, which is frustrating and scary. That said, I have kind of reached a point lately where, at least some of the time, I feel less resentful of having lost half my life to depression/autistic burnout/whatever it was. I don’t look positively at those times, but I feel I needed to go through something like that if I want to write about people on the margins of the frum (religious Jewish) world, and I feel I wasn’t ready to get married then, despite being painfully lonely and not having any real legitimate option in the frum world for dealing with loneliness and sexual frustration. I have a lot more maturity, understanding of myself, and ability to give in a relationship than I had even a couple of years ago. I feel less resentful of God for putting me through all this. Of course, if I believe in an omnipotent God, then I have to believe He could have achieved all this a less painful way, and I do struggle to consciously accept that this was the best way to achieve these goals, especially when so many other people reach this stage without similar levels of pain. Ultimately, I think everyone suffers, sooner or later (except perhaps some exceptionally wicked people who God lets enjoy this world so they won’t experience the next one), and it’s pointless to complain who suffers more or less. It’s hard sometimes, but the alternative is basically self-defeating. *** I had another couple of books arrive over the last two days. They were ostensibly bought for research for my novel, but I’m not sure how helpful they will actually be. Really, I was curious about them, but needed to justify reading them to myself. The books are The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know by Shira Tarrant and When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse by Elana Sztokman. For some time now I’ve been reading On Repentance, a collection of shiurim (religious lectures) given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Day of Atonement), and reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I’ve been struggling in places, not because of the text, but because it’s hard to know what to do with the optimistic view of a forgiving God when I’m aware that there are people, often very prominent people, in the frum community who are abusive and others who defend and protect them, and I don’t feel these people should be forgiven. I worry how the community as a whole will achieve forgiveness for allowing this situation to exist. I think about this sometimes when davening (praying), but it really crystallised around the idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, after listening to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher describe her abuse by Todros Grynhaus, a rabbi and schoolteacher, and how, at a time when she was trying to make the community aware of the danger he posed, she was marginalised while he was asked to lead the prayer services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a shul (synagogue) despite the allegations she had made against him. I do worry why I’ve got so interested in abuse, and writing about abuse. I was never abused (I was bullied a lot at school, but it was largely name-calling and not anything physical. I don’t know if it would be considered emotional abuse). I have known survivors, and abusers, but I think it’s more the experience of marginalisation that I empathise with, albeit for different reasons (autism and mental illness) and want to do something about. But I worry that I become a kind of emotional vampire, sucking up other people’s sorrow for benefit.

The Tribe of Dan and Not Being Left Behind

It’s the bit of summer when we get a heatwave in the UK and I feel too hot to go to bed, so I’m blogging, even though it’s nearly midnight (when I started. It’s nearly 1am now I’ve finished). It was a normal Shabbat (Sabbath) in terms of shul (synagogue) attendance, Torah study, walk and so on. I came back from Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) to find my parents in the garden with their friends. Their friends are very talkative and very loud, and the windows were all open because of the heat, so wherever I went in the house I had to listen to their conversation on health and the supposed inadequacies of the criminal justice system. (I wonder how expensive the penal system would be if we incarcerated every serious criminal literally for life as they seemed to want?) I tried to tune them out and read The Third Reich in Power, which isn’t the most cheerful read, but is interesting and engaging.

***

As well as reading about Nazis, I read a bit more of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy. I can’t read more than a few pages at a time, as it inspires a whole mixture of emotions: excitement at marrying E; frustration that immigration delays mean we probably won’t be under the chuppah until March; perhaps some sadness that I’m coming to my sexuality so much later than most people; and especially anxiety that this is going to be another thing I’m not good at (these days, I basically feel that I’m good at writing and nothing else, although E says I do have other skills). It sounds so complicated and scary! I am reliably informed that birds do it, bees do and even educated fleas do it. No information about uneducated fleas, but uneducated humans seem to manage OK, but I wonder how sometimes. I think the authors are trying to be realistic and even somewhat reassuring that “It’s not like movies and TV,” but it seems to make it worse for me.

***

I probably shouldn’t have written recently about “anxiety” as it’s mostly apprehension rather than real anxiety. I guess I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that I lost most of my life between the ages of about nineteen and thirty-seven to depression and/or autistic burnout, and that social anxiety has been an issue since a very young age. I still feel that if anything can go wrong in my life, it will, and that God wants to make me suffer as some kind of test of faith or behaviour. I have to remind myself of many things I have successfully achieved, even if some of them went wrong in the long run (nothing lasts forever), so that I feel that I will be able to achieve more things in the future. I have to try to tell myself that God wants more for me than simply enduring suffering. There’s no way to be sure that that’s true, of course, but if I tell myself I’m going to suffer forever, I probably will.

***

A thought I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks (which I’m not going to source properly as I normally would do, because it’s nearly half past midnight. Anyway, I’ve seen most of this in the secondary literature, not the primary sources): the Torah in Beha’alotechah (the third Torah reading from Bamidbar (Numbers)) states that the Israelites were divided into four camps in the wilderness, and moved through the desert in strict order. The fourth camp was led by the Tribe of Dan, who are described as the “me’asef” of all the camps. Modern translations render me’asef as something like ‘rear guard,’ but the literal meaning is more like ‘gatherer’. This led to the interpretation of Rashi that the Tribe of Dan gathered any property left behind after the other camps moved on and restored it to its owners (I assume Rashi is basing himself on a Midrash; he usually does. EDIT: I just checked Sefaria and it’s from a comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) Eruvin). The Bekhor Shor goes further and says that Dan gathered in the people who were late and missed travelling with their own tribal camps.

Elsewhere there’s an idea that Dan was the lowest of the twelve tribes of Israel and the most prone to idolatry, probably based on the fact that they were the only tribe that never conquered their allotted land in Israel (on the coastal plain) and a chunk of the tribe went off north towards what’s now Lebanon to find other land. On the way they ended up finding and essentially stealing an idolatrous sanctuary (Shoftim/Judges). There is also Shimshon (Samson), virtually the only significant Danite in Tanakh, who feels more like a Greek hero than a Jewish one.

Putting these two ideas together, maybe there’s a sense that, to reach the people on the margins, the people who are in danger of getting left behind (literally and metaphorically), you have to be halfway towards getting left behind yourself. I won’t deny that this is a further attempt to think myself into a more positive view of my life story, my religiosity and my place in the Jewish community, to try make something good out of years of depression/burnout and religious and community engagement that is perhaps a lot less than might have been expected from someone like me (maybe. Sometimes I think I do a lot more than someone dealt this hand could really be expected to do. It’s hard to tell what is right). I would like to reach Jews who are in danger of being ‘left behind’ with my writing, although I only have the vaguest ideas of how, or what would happen afterwards.

Materialism, Ego and Spirituality

I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum podcast about materialism today. I had mixed feelings about it. The guest, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, spoke about contemporary America being defined by four ‘isms’: narcissism, hedonism, consumerism and exhibitionism (the UK is probably not so bad, but still affected by all four). This is probably true, on some level, but I felt Rabbi Wieder and host Rabbi Scott Kahn struggled to define their terms, particularly as they felt this is an area where something may be within the letter of the law, but not the spirit. As they said, it’s very subjective; person X may say that person Y is being hedonistic and consumerist, but person Z may say the same about person X.

Historically, there have been people in the Jewish community who have been very wealthy and lived extravagantly, and they were often great philanthropists and ambassadors for the community to the non-Jewish world e.g. Sir Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds. In modern days, maybe someone like Lord Levy. If they hadn’t been blessed with great wealth, and used some of it not just for philanthropy, but to enter high society and provide a Jewish voice there, the Jewish community as a whole would have suffered. Maybe this is less obvious in the less aristocratic USA. I feel someone lucky enough to be rich and influential needs to do some serious soul-searching about what their role in life and the Jewish community is and why God wants them to have that wealth and what the best thing for them to do with it is (I have never had this problem myself!).

Incidentally, I worry a bit about being exhibitionist myself on my blog, but I think I tend to talk most about my failures and gloss over my successes (like the Kotzker Hasidim who were said to sin publicly and perform mitzvot (commandments) in secret to avoid pride in their behaviour).

The podcast did at least make me realise how E and I would have struggled to raise a frum (religious Jewish) family in the USA, given the astronomical price of private Jewish school fees (in the UK there are Jewish state schools), on top of needing to find me a job with health insurance.

By coincidence (or not), while having these thoughts about materialism, part of my work today involved inventorying someone’s flat. (It’s a long story how this was relevant to my job.) If you want to test how much envy you have, try inventorying someone’s furniture, complete with price tags! And they weren’t even paying for it as it was being provided by their employer. It did make me worry how E and I will survive on about the equivalent of one salary between us, even without kids. And we’re limited to staying in Jewish communities, which tend not to be the cheapest. People we try to befriend will probably be earning a lot more than us too. It’s kind of depressing.

Also depressing was discovering that I didn’t get on the emerging writers’ programme. I tried not to get my hopes up, but part of me was hoping that this would be the big turning point in my life, or at least in my writing career. But it was not to be. Maybe it’s for the best, as it allows me to pause writing my novel when I need to, to focus on my wedding. I can also go back to submitting my first novel to agents, something I stopped doing because I thought the project I submitted for the emerging writers’ programme was supposed to end up as my first novel.

It does all make me wonder what my role in life is, whether writing is a part of that, and whether E and I will ever be living above subsistence level (or, more realistically, living without parental support). In this context, Rabbis Kahn and Wieder spoke about focusing on spirituality rather than materialism, which is a word I’ve always struggled with. It seems very nebulous and ill-defined. As I’ve said before, I see the quest for God and for meaning as more a part of my life than finding God or and meaning. I suspect some people would see this as spirituality, while others would wonder why I can’t just find God and then I would be spiritual. Likewise, I try to focus on spiritual growth, rather than attainment, but I am very bad at maintaining this perspective without slipping into self-criticism.

I saw an article recently that said that spirituality is about trying to adopt God’s perspective on the world. I did not like this, at least not in the way it was presented. I feel God’s perspective is decentred and plural (God can see things from literally everyone’s point of view). Hence, the Talmud is a pluralistic text, with multiple answers to any question, and it’s more concerned with presenting all those answers in the internally strongest way than with seeing which answer is better than the others (part of the reason Talmud study is so difficult is that it’s often unclear which side actually ‘wins’ the argument). And scholars like Rav Kook z”tzl, Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl and Rabbi Steinsaltz z”tzl saw many religions as being legitimate paths to God.

Perhaps related to all this I had another, “Oh, there’s someone I used to know; they’re a lot more successful than me” moment today. The fact that this person was the one who left me with a life-long feeling that I am inferior in the frum community for never having gone to yeshivah did not help, particularly as I feel that, on some level, that is precisely why I’ve never really fitted in (well, that and being a socially anxious autistic).

To be honest, a lot depends on how you define ‘successful’ here, but I hope — hope! — that one day I will earn enough money to help support E and hopefully some children or at least a child. And I would like to think that people are interested in my ideas, at least by publishing and reading my books and maybe by sharing them in other ways (I’ve always had a weird desire for a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, I’m not entirely sure why). This is ego, I admit. After a childhood of receiving no attention, or only negative attention (bullying etc.), I would like to be taken seriously as a writer for the sake of my own ego, but as I intimated with regard to the super-rich community machers (people who are very involved in the community), sometimes spirituality is about trying to harness your gifts to help others, not supress them or give them away.

Yes, I’m aware there are a dozen or so people who take my writing here seriously enough to regularly read. I’m grateful, although I’m a bit bemused as to why anyone would read these rambles, mostly about my autistic struggles, as I don’t consider them anything like my ‘real’ writing.

Speaking of which, when I got home from work, I managed to work on my novel for quite a while. I sat at the computer for an hour and a half. Not all of that time was spent writing, but quite a lot was, so that at least was positive.

The Glittering Prizes

I spent an hour writing a whole long post yesterday evening and then WordPress ate it! The autosave somehow jammed mid-save and when I went to publish, I could not, because it was still trying to save. I tried to save manually, but that didn’t work either. In desperation, I refreshed the page. I’ve done this in the past when the autosave has jammed, and I’ve lost a minute or two of work, but this wiped the whole hour. I rewrote most of what I wrote yesterday, plus more on today, but I struggled with my energy and didn’t write in as much detail in places. So apologies for a somewhat abbreviated post.

***

Rabbi B phoned me at work yesterday. I got rather anxious waiting for him to phone, more because I was worried about being interrupted or missing the call than for what he would say, but I was a bit worried about that too. He said E and I should get in touch with a beit din (rabbinical court) in America about confirming E’s Jewish (and unmarried) status. E got upset about this, fearing extra bureaucracy and wait time. I felt we should get in touch with the Beth Din while also moving forward with our civil wedding in the US. I think E was surprised that I wanted to commit to the civil wedding without being 100% certain the religious one will happen as we want. But I am very committed to making this happen no matter what, and I think the chance of us not getting married at all religiously is pretty remote. We did eventually agree about this and wrote to the American beit din today. There is a $100 charge, though, which is annoying.

Otherwise work yesterday was dull, with a sudden burst of stuff near the end of the day. I did get to listen to some good podcasts while doing boring work copying and pasting or copy typing data and also walking home from the station.

One podcast was the Orthodox Conundrum interview with lesbian Orthodox Jewish comedian Leah Forster. It was interesting to hear her say she forgives the community that disowned her and that she still identifies with it, given my difficulties fitting into the frum world. I also found it interesting that she feels strongly that God loves her, something I struggle with a lot. I would have liked to have heard more about her beliefs here.

I also listened to a Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast on Jewish inspiration. I struggle with inspiration a lot. Listening to this made me wonder if this is due to alexithymia (difficulty identifying and understanding my own emotions) and poor autobiographical memory, both autistic traits. This would explain why I invest so much time and energy in Jewish activities (prayer, religious study, mitzvah performance) while struggling consciously to explain why Judaism matters so much to me. Beyond this, as I’ve mentioned recently, I see the religious life as being more about the quest for a God Who “hides His face” and the journey to Him (which is also an inner journey to the self and journey to connection with others) than about times of connection and inspiration. I also have a strong connection to other Jews, now and in the past, and to Judaism as a body of literature and thought.

This podcast and another Orthodox Conundrum interview with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein about “kiruv versus outreach” made me think about what kind of Jewish household E and I will build together. It is clear that it will have to be one that presents Judaism as interesting and fun and not just something that must be done. I (somehow) inspired my parents, my sister and E to increase their observance levels by example rather than by actively trying to argue with them. I am not at all sure how I did this, but apparently I did it. This relates to the difference Rabbi Bookstein described in the podcast between kiruv, which he sees as religious people essentially condescending to teach non-religious Jews about Judaism with the aim of making them become fully religious, and outreach, which he sees as about giving non-religious Jews meaningful Jewish experiences even if they go no further religiously and about seeing them as equals and people who can teach as well as learn. I greatly prefer the latter approach.

***

Today I found out that I had won a Jewish journalism award for the article I wrote for a Jewish website in 2021. I won the ‘honourable mention’ in my category, which is basically third place, but as first and second place went to professional journalists, this seemed impressive. Weirdly, the award also went to the editor of the site. He was very apologetic and didn’t know why they gave him the award too as he didn’t help me with it. There’s no money, but it’s a weird and somewhat annoying mistake. I wonder if they thought my autism prevented me from writing without help? Or if they thought I must have had help because I’m not a professional journalist?

I went to volunteering too and stayed for coffee afterwards this week, speaking to the woman in charge of the volunteers. We spoke a bit about my writing aspirations and I wanted to speak about the award, but found it hard to find the confidence and an opportunity and then hesitated and lost the chance.

In the afternoon, I phoned the hospital about the blank appointment letter I received. It turns out it is for the sleep clinic, but the appointment is just the doctors discussing the referral. Theoretically they could phone me then for more information if the GP left something out, but I probably won’t hear from them that day. Hopefully I would get an appointment call from the secretary the next day offering me an appointment.

More adventures in bureaucracy: I signed up to pay self-assessed income tax for the 2021-2022 tax year (when I was working in my current job, but not on a permanent contract). This was about as exciting as it sounds, but it took a non-trivial amount of time, energy and brainpower, so I’m mentioning it.

I did some novel writing after dinner, but after a while I ran out of energy, motivation, concentration or something and just ended up procrastinating, so I quit for the night. Shiur (religious class) was cancelled as the rabbi who takes it is ill, but he’d done the early afternoon class (the class takes place at 1pm and again at 8pm) and recorded it, so I watched that. I tried to sort my cluttered desk drawers at the same time, which didn’t work very well, so I had to pause it. The shiur went deeper than the previous shiurim in this series, which I appreciated, although it made multitasking harder than expected.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Luftmentsch

I didn’t really want to blog after the longest Shabbat of the year, but I had a pretty awful time and need to offload, so here goes. I had one of those days of autistic burnout that basically feel like depression, with no energy, low mood, and agitated and perhaps somewhat obsessive thoughts. I’ll go through what happened and then some of the thoughts.

I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) last night. I was just too physically drained to manage it. I had a lot of agitated thoughts all evening, including at dinner with my parents, which was uncomfortable and made it hard to concentrate. After dinner, I did Torah study for about forty minutes, reading two difficult chapters of Yehoshua (Joshua) listing Levitical cities, and the commentary on them in Rabbi Hattin’s commentary book. I am now through all the chapters that just the tribal boundaries in ancient Israel, which is a relief. Afterwards I was not sleepy and wanted to read something lighter than the book of contemporary Israeli writing that I’m sort of reading (where contemporary is circa 1973 as it’s an old, second-hand book), so decided on James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), which might not have been the best choice as the idea of dying as soon as you get married, or just before, ended up haunting my thoughts. I got to bed around 1.40am.

I woke up around 9.30am to go to the loo. I should have stayed up, but wanted the comfort of being wrapped in my weighted blanket and went back to bed, and to sleep. I got up at lunch time, which was bad. I went for a brisk walk for forty minutes after lunch, which was good (that I went), but struggled with agitated thoughts during it and afterwards. I tried to read some of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (more on that below), but it left me feeling anxious and depressed. I fell asleep for a while, despite drinking coffee. I’m not sure how long I slept for, as I was lying in bed thinking agitated thoughts for a while before I fell asleep.

On waking, I davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers). I had missed Minchah in shul and, anyway, I felt so low when I went for a walk that I didn’t really want to go out of my comfort zone (=house) again. In the summer, Jewish tradition is to read a chapter of Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud that deals with ethics) at Shabbat Minchah. Rather than just reading rapidly as I usually do, I spent twenty minutes studying somewhat more carefully, and a few things hit me that I had never really noticed before which helped my mood somewhat. It would take too long for me to explain them now (it was in chapter three). After that I did some other Talmud study for twenty minutes, then read James Bond again and got seudah (the third Shabbat meal) ready. I did struggle with that, as I didn’t really feel like ‘peopling’ with my parents, but I got through it, declined to play Scrabble afterwards and spent the remaining hour and a half of Shabbat reading Bond again and fighting some of my thoughts, finally feeling a bit better.

As for the anxious agitated thoughts themselves, a lot proceeded from something I read from therapist Elisheva Liss about narrative therapy, that we can rewrite the story of our life to change our mood and outlook and be less envious of other people’s skills and success. This appealed to me for several reasons. As a writer, this approach seemed more intuitive to me than other approaches such as CBT (for example). I had already noted that getting diagnosed with high functioning autism ended twenty years of depression by telling me that I am not an incompetent neurotypical who inexplicably can’t do basic things like use the phone and make small talk, but an autistic person who naturally struggles with these things.

Despite that change in outlook, recently I feel that I’ve been falling backwards, feeling myself useless especially in comparison to my (neurotypical) peers who have careers and families. I feel envious of people, envious of their happiness and their skills, not that I want to take anything from them, but to have things for myself, to have skills and a career, to marry E and for us to be OK financially, as well as to be able to have children with her and to have the energy and skills to raise them properly. Over Shabbat I felt negative about this, particularly worrying that some unforeseen obstacle will stop E and I marrying. This then bled into feelings that God hates me, that He sees me as sinful and wants to punish me, and that if things go well for me for a while, it’s just so it will hurt more when it all gets taken away from me again. I hadn’t had these thoughts for a long time, probably over a year, so it seemed like a backwards step.

Lately, I feel like I’m carrying a huge weight of the loneliness and depression that I struggled with for twenty or twenty-five years (maybe more), more than half my life. Just knowing, “Oh, I’m autistic, that’s why I struggle with work and relationships, that’s why I was bullied at school” doesn’t really feel enough any more. The suffering I endured brought me to E, but that feels like it can only be a part of the new narrative, not the entirety of it. I feel so overwhelmed by it still that I need to reshape my narrative (to use Liss’s terms) or (in more kabbalistic terms) to make a tikkun, to do something that will retroactively redeem my past and make it worthwhile, to convert the heavy weight I’m carrying into forward momentum. I hope my writing is at least a part of this, if I can help other people somehow (I’m not convinced I can help anyone, or that I will even get published, but that’s not my main concern right now).

I am thinking of buying Elisheva Liss’ book which apparently deals with narrative therapy at length. I am wary, though, as I wonder if I need to actually do something first before I can change the narrative, to create a new happy narrative. Also, I have a big stack of self-help books, most of which did not do much for me. Some were CBT books, and CBT does not work well for people on the spectrum (not that I knew that I was on the spectrum when I bought them). Beyond that, I suspect I need the accountability of a therapist to help me. I might raise some of the issues from this post with my own therapist on Wednesday and see where that takes me. (There are a couple of other self-help books I’m procrastinating about for the same reasons.)

I just feel so useless so much of the time, such a disappointment to other people, such a failure to achieve anything, and it feels like autism isn’t really enough of an excuse. I know E loves me, but I feel I should be a better husband to her, plus, as I said, when I feel down, it’s easy to get into a negative thought spiral about the United Synagogue not permitting our wedding or the Home Office rejecting her visa application.

The other train of negative thoughts[1] came from reading, or trying to read, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This is a sex manual designed for frum couples i.e. religious Jews who haven’t had sex before their wedding night. (The Hebrew title is Et Le’Ahov, which means Time to Love. That may be a better title even if it sounds like a cheap TV movie.) I bought this when E and I first dated, about four years ago. I started reading it to try to alleviate some of my anxieties about sex, but stopped reading when we broke up, as I was sceptical whether I would ever get to have sex. I didn’t dare to open it again when dating other women or even when dating E again until now. I guess I felt irrationally that it would somehow jinx things, or that God is waiting for me to get complacent enough to think that, one day, in middle age, I might actually be able to have sex, before He ruins everything for me again.

Now that, rationally, I know that E and I are probably going to get married some time in the next year, it seemed a good idea to read it, but I didn’t get far as it prompted a lot of anxious thoughts. Some of them were the “God will stop me getting married no matter what I do” type, but some were just the confusion and anxiety I get when thinking about sex generally. I guess celibacy and loneliness were a part of my life for so long that they became part of my identity. Not in a good way, but like being an orphan or having a disability.

I’m not sure where I go with this, except back to therapy. E and I did have a conversation a few days ago about sex and I do feel comfortable at the thought of having sex with her, it’s just that thinking about sex makes me feel that God will stop me, and that He wants to punish me for not being perfectly pure, and that somehow sex is just something not for me and there’s no way for me to change this.

Anyway, that’s how I’ve been for the last thirty hours or so. I actually feel OKish now. There’s some anxiety and low mood, but perhaps fewer agitated thoughts. I do mostly still feel that E and I will get married, although I’m still worried about being bowled more googlies[2] on the way. But I do want to go to bed soon, albeit after watching The Simpson to try to relax a bit, even though it’s 1.00am (this took well over an hour to write).

[1] I should probably say that the thoughts weren’t as neat and packaged as they seem here. I flipped back and forth between different thoughts throughout the day, and they did slowly develop to get to their form here.

[2] I am awful at all sports, but the one thing I can do is bowl a mean googly at cricket. Improbably, I learnt it from a book, because I’m me.

Job Interview and Changing the Past

I was very early for my job interview today and hung around at the bus stop for twenty minutes, killing time. As my therapist suggested, I tried to use positive affirmations to get in a good state of mind, although I’ve never had much success with this. Telling myself, “I will do the best I can today; I don’t need to worry about tomorrow” helped a bit.

I feel I had my usual autistic problems in the interview: long pauses while I tried to process things and sentences that started confidently, but then trailed off as I realised I didn’t know what to say, or didn’t have as much to say as I thought, sometimes awkwardly ending on “and…” I had prepared notes and had them open, but when the questions came, I got focused on them and didn’t look at the notes. I made bland assertions rather than using the STAR method I’ve frequently been told to apply in interviews, where you talk about a Situation you were in, the Task involved, the Action you took and the Result. I find it hard to think of the concrete examples needed by the STAR method. I was also distracted by my surroundings, not lights or noises, but the very noticeboard on the wall behind the interviewers, with colourful animal photos, and a large photograph of a gorilla perched on the windowsill. Once I noticed that, it was hard to un-notice it (the weird opposite of the famous psychology experiment where subjects failed to notice a gorilla). I should add that neither wildlife nor photography have anything to do with this organisation’s purpose.

I think I answered most of the questions OK, but I got a bit stuck on being asked about a time when I gave excellent customer service. I have had this question before and I don’t like it. I had prepared an answer, but at the last moment, I felt that it wasn’t appropriate, and instead said that I always give the same excellent level of customer service to everyone (complete attention, politeness, etc.). It was not a great answer.

So, I don’t think I embarrassed myself, but I don’t think I did brilliantly either. I have had some help with interviews in the past, but nothing seems to really help once I get into one and my autistic brain is left to fend for itself.

***

When I got home, I wrote the full (800 word) synopsis that one literary agency were asking for. Looking at my manuscript, much of it makes me cringe, both in terms of quality and in terms of the parts that were based on my own life — there is much I would like to have done differently if I lived my life again. I felt initially that not enough happens in the novel too, although I feel that not enough happens in literary novels generally (I’m probably not supposed to say that). However, on looking at the novel as a whole, I think things do happen, they just start slowly, held up by stuff that mattered to me emotionally, but which probably isn’t necessary for the plot, but I don’t know how to change it now.

The agency seemed a bit picky in what they wanted, and on their submission guidelines they said they wanted the first five pages of the manuscript, but on the submission form itself they said they wanted the first twenty pages. I don’t think the agency will be a great fit, but having written the synopsis, I felt I ought to submit it.

***

I noticed today that although Transport for London are encouraging passengers to wear masks, none of the staff seem to wear them any more. It’s very hard to feel engaged in doing it any more.

***

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about embarrassing events from my past, mostly from my childhood and teenage years. I was mostly well-behaved, but did misbehave occasionally. When I did, I was not usually caught, but somehow I feel I should have been. I’m not sure why I feel guilty for harmless actions from a quarter of a century ago, but I do. Then, as I wrote above, looking at my novel today made me think about the events that inspired it, which are bound up in regrets and self-recrimination from a bad time of my life. Curiously enough, Paula wrote today about regretting or not regretting past actions. As I said there, it’s hard to imagine changing the bad without changing the good, or at least the necessary, and the most significant things were often out of my hands anyway. I feel it’s counter-productive to have these thoughts, but it’s easy to get stuck in it.

Then today I was reading The Principles of Judaism were Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens argues that God can and will rewrite history so nothing bad ever happened. (Or “hyper-happened” as he would say, as something bad happened, but God “hyper-will” change it so it didn’t.) I didn’t really agree with this, although it was hard to find the logical flaw. It just seems wrong. The book had some surprising propositions, but this was one I really struggled to accept.

I think I preferred the theodicy Rabbi Lebens quoted from Gabriel Citron (who I knew slightly years ago) that, from the afterlife, our suffering in this world will seem as insubstantial as a nightmare. This is closer to my thinking. I’m surprised Rabbi Lebens rejects it, saying “I don’t see much religious value in the skeptical possibility that we’re not really awake right now,” as it doesn’t seem all that different to Lebens’ suggestion earlier in the book that we’re just ideas in God’s mind.

Work Keys, and Burning Out on Holiday

On the way into work, I got in a panic about not having completed a tax return, until my Mum pointed out that the return would be for the 2020-2021 financial year, where it’s unlikely I earnt enough (even including benefits) to pay tax, rather than the 2021-2022 financial year, where I probably will have to pay tax. However, I spent some time worrying about it before she pointed it out, and I do need to check the figures.

When I got into work, J told me I had made a mistake before going on holiday. Some people send in record books with their membership fees, which is supposed to be a way of recording how much they have paid. I am always worried that I will absent-mindedly send their cheques back with the books. It turns out that I did do that a few weeks ago. At least J wasn’t angry, but I feel embarrassed about these kind of executive function errors, even though I know they come with the autistic territory. We are not using the record books in the coming year, so I do at least have limited opportunities to make this mistake again.

J asked me to take a photo of some forms and send them to two contractors, which I did, but then realised I was charged by my phone company for sending media texts; I should have WhatsApped them (which I wasn’t sure I could do, but I now think I can).

Other than that there was a lot of basic admin work and a trip to the bank, which does break up the day. It was my last day as a contractor; tomorrow I become a permanent member of staff! Because of this, J gave me an electronic fob key for the front door, so I’ll be able to get in even if the security guard isn’t at his desk, although I need to get the key activated (or something technical) first.

I went to the shul (synagogue) in the building for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening services). No one wanted to lead the services. I sort of wanted to take the initiative, but held back because of social anxiety; fear that I would start shaking (which is a medication side-effect, but triggered by social anxiety and shortness of breath when masked); and fear that I would lead the prayers too slowly. I can not daven (pray) as fast as most people in this shul, and I would not daven that fast even if I could, as I think it’s insulting to God to speak to Him like that. I know most people at this minyan are taking time out from work and need to get back quickly, but I feel an extra two minutes would not hurt. But I worry what response I would get.

It is funny how some services seem to have ‘prestige’ and others don’t. People will fight for the right to lead some services (e.g. Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening), Mussaf (additional prayer service on Sabbaths and festivals), leining (Torah reading) and haftarah (reading from the prophets)), however those same people will fight not to have to lead weekday services, which seem to be seen as unimportant, probably because they are chanted rather than sung ‘properly’ and because relatively little skill is required to lead them compared with the more ‘prestigious’ services. You need to be able to read Hebrew reasonably well, but you don’t have to be able to sing, or memorise the vocalisation and musical notation of a passage.

***

Holiday: Thursday 20 January

E and I went to the Metropolitan Museum for a couple of hours, looking mainly at the Ancient Egyptian and Medieval Art galleries. It was fascinating and there was a lot to see, but we both got uncomfortable in our masks and I felt that I was tiring easily (which may have been due to masking, cold weather, autism and/or who knows what else). We ate lunch in Central Park (or I did; E doesn’t really eat lunch) and went for a bit of a walk around it, but it was uncomfortably cold and I was starting to get a headache (again), so we went back to E’s apartment so she could work and I read. It was nice just being in the same room, to be honest.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant, in a COVID ‘outdoor’ seating area, a hut with a raised roof to let the air circulate, essentially a secular sukkah. I got them to turn the music down as it was giving me painful sensory overload. Sometimes I surprise myself (in this case regarding my confidence and ability to speak up for myself).

When we went out on this day, E noticed that the lockbox I was supposed to store the keys in at the end of my holiday had disappeared. It was fortunate that she noticed this, as I was able to get the landlord to buy a new one in time, otherwise my plans for my last day could have gone dramatically wrong. Sometimes it does feel like God is looking out for me (see also: having a free seat next to me on both plane journeys).

Friday 21 January

I felt pretty exhausted on this day. It led me to feel that, because of my autism, I can only do one thing per day, at most. This disappoints me, particularly after the packed holidays that my parents used to take me on as a child. I know E finds my lack of stamina hard to deal with too, but I don’t know what I can do to boost it.

Because of lack of stamina and exhaustion, I didn’t do much on this day, mostly just shopping for Shabbat, although Shabbat started so early I wouldn’t have managed much else anyway. My mood slumped at lunchtime and I’m not sure why.

E came over to my apartment for Shabbat dinner, although we didn’t get what we really wanted (sushi) and ended up making bad decisions about alternatives due to feeling stressed and overloaded (sensory overload and social overload).

Saturday 22 January

This was a chill out day, with E in my apartment for much of it. I had been enjoying being in an Airbnb, but from this point on, I began to find it a little creepy, like there was a ghost haunting the flat, by which I mean the presence of the landlord, who usually lived there when not abroad. I had amused myself making Sherlock Holmes-type deductions about her from her books and the newspaper clippings on the fridge, but I began to feel an impostor, like she wouldn’t want me to be there if she knew me (this was partly political, feeling that she wouldn’t agree with me politically and would think me a bad person). Things were made worse when we dripped some wax on a chair when making havdalah (ritual at end of the Sabbath involving a multi-wicked candle). She was OK about it, but I felt she ought to be angrier, even though the ‘house manual’ provided did not say anything about not lighting candles (contrary to what she said).

More practically, the bed was uncomfortable for me: the mattress too soft, the pillows too thin and the cushion I used to try to raise my head was the wrong shape and too hard, as it was a beanbag cushion. Perhaps as a result of this, I had weird dreams all week.

A Hot Mess and a Dry Drunk

The expression “a hot mess” was one I learnt online. I don’t think it exists in British English. Our messes are apparently cold or lukewarm at best. But it’s pretty much how I feel right now.

I felt burnt out again today. It was a struggle to do anything. I managed to cook a very basic dinner (rice and lentils — the ‘cooking’ is mostly just letting it simmer away). I tried to phone Oxford University Press to find out whether an order I made online went through properly yesterday or not. It said it had initially, but then it said it hadn’t and I didn’t get a confirmation email. The order was nearly £60 after it had a discount on it, so I really don’t want to get it messed up. However, it seems they are shut for the holidays, which was not clear from the website.

I tried to book some airline tickets to see E. My Mum likes to go through every possible travel permutation to find the best deal. However, this type of process gives me autistic ‘too many options’ overload and I want to narrow the field to something I can cope with. This led to some tension, as I got stuck and needed her help, which meant doing it her way. There were some autistic communication issues too. Stress + autism = short temper, anxiety and rigid thinking. Mum did save me from making a huge mistake renting an Airbnb (accidentally booking a room rather than an apartment). I also have COVID travel bureaucracy anxiety (what if I forget to take a test?) and general travel anxiety (I have only travelled by myself once and, although I’ve travelled many times with my parents, I do not have a brilliant memory for what I have to do in an airport and they are generally overloading environments for someone on the spectrum). It’s weird to think that some people enjoy travelling and do it for fun, as their main hobby, even in COVID times. Weird.

I was all set to book flights, then I realised that, travelling on a Sunday (outward) and Monday (homeward) would make it hard or impossible to avoid taking COVID tests on Saturdays. So now I’m going to travel midweek, but I’ll need to find new flights. I just feel too stressed now to deal with this, and I don’t want to book anything while stressed in case I screw it up (not an unlikely scenario, sadly). I feel really stressed and just want to curl up and forget about the world (shutdown).

Other than that, I didn’t do much because I felt so burnt out. I didn’t write a devar Torah. I’m going to have to call this week a mental health week and not write one. I did ten minutes of Torah study, which I forced myself to do so that I had done some. I also did not get time to go for a walk. Aside from going to buy a mattress yesterday, I haven’t been out of the house since Sunday, which is not good for health, physical as well as psychological.

I felt dizzy while cooking again. I do need to try to see a doctor next week, if I can find a way to navigate the super long phone wait times, and then get an appointment that doesn’t clash with therapy or work.

I hope work tomorrow and having more structure to the day makes me feel better. I’m having dinner in the evening with my sister and brother-in-law, which should be good, but now is going to be stressful, as I’ll just want to come home and book flights. Possibly I should just wait until Saturday night or even Sunday, if it’s not more expensive to book for the same month of travel (I have no idea if this is the case).

I feel so overwhelmed with LIFE right now, living from day to day when I should be making longer-term plans, from travel next month to marriage and career and writing moves. Writing, finding an agent, applying for new jobs and learning to drive are probably going on the back burner for the next month (at least). And I don’t know how I’ll sleep tonight in this state.

I feel like I’m a dry drunk. I’m not currently clinically depressed, but it’s really easy to tip me over into anxiety and despair because I still have underlying issues and poor coping skills. And, for all that religion is such a big part of my life, I still struggle to really connect with God. If I didn’t have an understanding of God that transcended the purely experiential, I doubt I could stay religious, because I don’t feel God the way some people (apparently) do. And that saddens me, not least because I’m doing all the right things and have been for years, and it’s still not working.

In Pursuit of Equanimity

I tried to spend today catching up on things, starting with emails. The Jewish website is chasing me about the article they want to republish, which reminded me that I hadn’t replied to the original publishers to ask for the form they need to send me if we republish. They emailed late on Wednesday; Thursday evening I was wiped out from work; Friday was just a rush with Shabbat stuff; and last night I prioritised other chores, as I thought they wouldn’t get the email until Monday morning anyway (which may not be true nowadays). I feel that I’m just not good at cramming stuff into my days. And, of course, engagement stuff has been running underneath this, and will continue to do so.

Despite this, I think I did make some progress on catching up with chores yesterday evening. It’s just a shame I couldn’t do much today, beyond running and some headachey Torah study. I do want to revise that article to bring it up to date and send it to the Jewish site soon, preferably this week.

I went for a run, which resulted in another exercise headache. I went for the run about 3.30pm, while it was still light, but that meant I lost a chunk of my afternoon and evening to the headache. If I’d gone later, after doing some things, I would have been running in the dark. The street lighting here is reasonable, so it’s not hugely dangerous, but I do tend to feel vaguely nervous when running after dark, more of having some kind of accident than anything else. I prefer it in the summer when I can go for a run later, so I don’t risk losing so much time.

I emailed half a dozen friends to tell them about my engagement. I found the experience weirdly anxiety-provoking, like I’m worried that there has been some huge misunderstanding and I’ll have to tell people that I’m not really engaged. Also, people are asking how we met and that’s not really a simple story! But it was a good experience, lots of mazal tovs and people who are pleased for us. I’m glad that I do have some friends to share my news with. I have a few more friends to tell during the week, plus J at work tomorrow.

***

The comments on yesterday’s post reminded me of something I started writing last week, but changed my mind about posting. Ashley asked if trust in God is the same as certainty, and I don’t think it is, or needs to be. Maybe it is for some people, but not everyone.

Tehillim (Psalms) 23 is perhaps the most famous Jewish expression of trust in God, but it seems pretty certain of suffering not relief: the valley of the shadow of death and God’s rod and staff. Despite this, the main theme of the psalm is equanimity and trust; these don’t conflict with the acknowledgement of suffering.

In The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim Rabbi Michael Rosen sees the idea of equanimity being essential to the thought of the rebbes of Przysucha and Kotzk. This does not come from being certain of things in the wider world, but from a sense of self. As I understand it, it is a sense that, “I know who I am and I am at peace with God, and as no one outside of me can do anything to change these two facts, I need not worry about anything. The important things are taken care of.”

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits wrote, in the context of Holocaust theology, about the Talmud‘s account of the execution of Rabbi Akiva in the second century, that he was calm while being brutally and painfully executed (flayed alive), focused on saying the Shema prayer, to the astonishment of his students. That feels to me like the same sort of equanimity, the sense that, I know who I am and am secure in my relationship with God; pain is just transitory and irrelevant.

In more modern times, someone like Martin Luther King exhibited a sense of calm assurance and bravery. He must surely have known that he was a likely target for the assassin’s bullet, but he knew who he was, and who his God was, and the justness of his cause, and that apparently was enough for him.

So the question I come to is, is bitachon (trust in God) as much about self-knowledge than anything more abstract? About cultivating a sense of, “I know who I am, and that I’m on good terms with my God, and nothing else matters”? Or is this equanimity something separate to trust in God? I’m not sure.

Shabbat and the Meaning of Suffering

I went to shul (synagogue) last Friday as usual. Because it’s near the solstice, Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts really early in London, about 3.35pm. I got home from shul about 4.45pm, which is too early for dinner. Normally I would do some Torah study in the intervening time, but I just wanted to crash, so I read more of Gaudy Night and planned to do Torah study after dinner. Unfortunately, after dinner my bedroom was very cold. I crawled under the covers for what I intended would be a few minutes to warm up, but I fell asleep and woke up around 10pm with a headache. Fortunately, it was amenable to medication and I did get some time for Torah study and hitbodedut (meditation/spontaneous prayer).

I dreamt about Rabbi Lord Sacks again last night. I think I was working for him. I don’t really remember much about the dream. It’s strange that I keep dreaming about him, but I guess he is still a part of my life as I have been reading about him and re-reading some of his essays. It just seems strange as my Dad dreams about family a lot, living and especially dead (his parents, aunts and uncles) and is always excited to share these dreams with us because he sees it as a way of connecting with people he loves who are gone. I’m not sure if he believes he is, in some way, in contact with their souls, or if he just likes thinking about them. I think he would find it strange for me to react in a similar way to someone I never really met, but a Torah teacher can be a very important person in a religious Jew’s life, someone who really shapes their worldview.

Today I surprised myself by getting to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class). I did struggle to follow the class though. I think I go as much to join in with the community as too study, as I understand the Talmud text better when I prepare before class or revise afterwards (when I can take things at my own pace) than when I’m actually in the class (when I have to keep up and am also ‘peopling’ with people I don’t always feel comfortable with).

I tried to eat less junk over Shabbat. I cut down during the week too, but I don’t eat a lot of junk during the week. I want to lose some weight before I get married, although as my weight-gain was mainly medication-induced, and I’m definitely not coming off my meds, I’m not sure if this is a vain hope.

After Shabbat I caught up on some chores that I feel have been hanging over me for a while. I feel a bit less overwhelmed. Marriage and house-hunting still feel like big things, but hopefully we can break them down into manageable chunks once we get started on them. As for writing, I hope to get into a pattern of submitting my manuscript to a couple of agents each week. Although I’m about to get very busy, I’d like to start work on my new novel, as I feel not writing is doing bad things to me, emotionally as well as to my writing skills. I’m wary of starting writing without having done enough research, but I feel that, with a bit more research, I’ll feel able to at least start a first draft, while doing more research alongside it. At any rate, it’s a start.

***

I was thinking about my residual beliefs in a punitive God over Shabbat. I’ve always known that ‘officially’ I’m ‘supposed’ to see God as merciful, but I’ve always struggled to do so.

In one of the Jewish newspapers there was an article by a Reform rabbi who, as a hospital chaplain, had a conversation with a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) patient who asked what he had done for God to punish Him. The rabbi could not believe in a punishing God, while the patient could not believe in an understanding of suffering that wasn’t rooted in punishment.

I felt that both perspectives were flawed. I find it hard to believe in a religiously-grounded moral order without some kind of punishment. I don’t think Hitler and Stalin got off scot-free. However, I don’t think that all or even most suffering is punishment.

To some extent the problem is semantic. As something of a Maimonidean religious rationalist, I feel that God has made a world of consequences and then told us how to avoid (some of) the bad consequences. People who smoke tend to develop cancer. God doesn’t “punish” smokers with cancer, but he created a world of cause and effect and if you ingest carcinogens on a regular basis, you have an increased chance of getting cancer.

Similarly, the moral world has its consequences. If you are persistently unkind, unsympathetic, stingy, critical, unhelpful (etc.) you are likely to find yourself without friends. God is not “punishing” you for not performing acts of chessed (kindness), but He has set up a world where being kind and community-minded creates bonds of friendship while being misanthropic does not.

I feel there are several reasons why God might cause or allow suffering (probably not an exhaustive list, and I’m not going into the free will/predestination conflict if Person A inflicts harm on Person B and God does not intervene — the Medieval Jewish philosophers really went to town on that one):

  1. Suffering is the consequence of unhealthy actions (physical or moral) by an individual ;
  2. Suffering is a reminder of mortality and human finitude intended to prompt introspection and growth;
  3. Related to this, suffering is an external cause of growth (whereas 2 is an internal process of introspection and repentance, 3 is about practical growth to overcome an external obstacle);
  4. The suffering is an inherent part of fulfilling an individual’s or collective’s mission in life.

To be honest, 2 and 3 shade into each other to a significant extent and could probably be reduced to a single point if I tried hard enough and even 1 is not that far off.

When I was very depressed, I wondered if God wanted me to be miserable forever as part of my mission on Earth (4). This has turned out not to be the case, but I do still worry about being faced with an external challenge that I fail (3). My mind tends to anxiously posit scenarios where I am forced to choose between two unappealing outcomes, one religiously forbidden and one merely awful, but religiously permitted. I struggle to imagine myself having the strength of will to choose the awful, but permitted over the forbidden. I suppose it’s another way of saying that I’m afraid that God will take away the good things in my life, but rather than Him doing that suddenly, by an Act of God (so to speak), He puts me in a position where I have to choose to forgo them, which somehow seems worse, not least because I fear I will choose short-term pleasure instead.

At root of this is a lack of trust in God, a feeling that anything good I have might be taken away from me, and that my destiny is to spend my life in loneliness and misery. The events of the last year or so have challenged this outlook: I’ve been in regular (if part-time) work, I finally got my autism diagnosis (which hasn’t led to many practical benefits yet, but has been a game-changer in terms of self-esteem), I got back together with E, and got engaged, but there is still the fear that everything could be taken away from me, suddenly and without warning, like Iyov (Job).

It is hard to know what to do with this thought. It is not how a religious Jew is supposed to think about God — we are supposed to trust Him — but one good year struggles to be heard over nearly twenty fairly miserable and lonely years beforehand. In many ways, the hardest part is that I can see how adversity helped me grow as a person, so I can’t deny that future adversity might help me grow more, I just hope there’s a way I can grow without it, or at least without the challenge of losing the things I hold most dear.

Blood Test Manoeuvres in the Dark

I had a blood test today at 11.20am. I booked it for earlier than usual (I would normally go for the afternoon) to force myself to get up earlier and get more out of the day. I did struggle to get up on time, and went back to bed for a while after I got home.

The blood test was in a room where the lights were off and the blinds half-drawn. I’m guessing the phlebotamist had a headache rather than there being some problem with the lights, but this is the NHS, so who knows? I was a little nervous of someone sticking needles in me in poor light. At least I didn’t seem to shake much, or maybe the phlebotamist didn’t notice in the dark.

More NHS fun: I phoned the autism hospital in the afternoon to try to find out what my GP needs to do to refer me for autism-adapted CBT, but there was no answer. I left a message, but am not hopeful of getting a response.

Other than that, my main task for today was to fill in registration forms for a job agency. I’ve been with them for a number of years, but apparently it’s been so long that I need to register again. This probably reflects badly on my ability to find permanent work, although I suppose it reflects equally badly on their ability to find permanent work for me.

That was very boring and I got sidetracked into reading politics stuff online, which initially reinforced the curmudgeonly feelings I had woken up with, but eventually turned into guilt and self-disgust for bothering to read this stuff. Honestly, I’d rather avoid politics. Sometimes I feel like I’m overwhelmed by political opinions and unable to process them rationally in the time available, so I swing into sudden anger or impulsive policy decisions that I disagree with later. Structural changes in journalism due to technological and social change, including the advent of social media, seem to have had a negative affect on the mainstream media, making it less researched and more clickbaity, less focused on telling us what happened and more focused on telling us what to think (or rather, feel) about what happened. I’m aware that this is not an original perspective by any means, and that it might even be a product of the situation it describes, which is a scary thought.

Even so, the banality of politics continues to annoy me. The local Labour Party sent a flier through the door the other day promising a “Stronger Future Together”. I’m not sure how the future can be stronger (or weaker, for that matter). Not that the Conservatives are any better, somehow winning a landslide with the vapid “Build Back Better” slogan in the last general election. You can take alliteration too far. Still, someone must have liked it, as Joe Biden stole it for his presidential campaign the next year. (Not the first time Biden has borrowed from British politicians. He withdrew from the Democratic primary race in 1987 partly for having plagiarised a famous speech by then Labour leader Neil Kinnock.)

(Don’t take the above paragraph too seriously, I’m just feeling cynical today.)

My mood did pick up after a while, although I wish I had not wasted so much time today as there was more I wanted to do.

I did work on my devar Torah for the week, but I struggled to find the source I wanted. I have a book called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities. The name is somewhat misleading, as it mostly lists Midrashic (rabbinic) material on biblical characters rather than summarising the biblical narrative. It is a useful way of finding rabbinic perspectives on particular figures or locating specific Midrashim (rabbinic expansions of the biblical story), but I like to try and check the sources in full, as sometimes the passages are highly edited. However, I could not find the source even in Hebrew on online Jewish library Sefaria. This may be because the referencing in the book wasn’t accurate. I can use the source as quoted in the Encyclopedia, but I do feel vaguely guilty about doing so.

I think the devar Torah was OK though. This is a part of it:

There are a number of Hasidic tales that have a similar structure whereby a Hasid wants God to grant him wealth or health, not for its own sake, but so that he can study and pray more. However, the Rebbe tells him that God does not want his prayer, study or service, but rather He wants the struggle the Hasid has to endure, and the sighs that he makes, in his effort to serve God while still living as a human being with a need for sustenance and health.

I’ve written things along these lines, about God wanting effort rather than achievement, a number of times in my divrei Torah. I really hope I can start believing it!

The Difficulty of Finding Joy in Connection to God

E and I wandered around the West End today and went into St James’ Park. The park has a lot of wild birds: aside from the inevitable pigeons, also ducks, swans, geese, crows and pelicans, the latter of which were rather mysteriously pink (they have been white on previous visits). People were feeding them, in violation of the various signs that said not to feed them. E says that if people can’t follow a sign about not feeding wild birds which gives four different reasons why not to feed them, then it’s no wonder that they won’t wear masks for COVID. It made me wonder if I should write a zombie apocalypse story where people refuse to hide in their homes from a “government and media zombie hoax” (although zombie films are bound to be cancelled soon on the grounds that they appropriate Haitian culture).

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I’m re-reading The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen, a book on three Hasidic rebbes, primarily Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Przysucha (Peshiskha), but also his rebbe, the Yehudi (“the Jew,” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Peshiskha) and his disciple and successor, the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk). I’ve read it several times before; with its emphasis on authenticity, individuality, spiritual freedom, personal growth and the balancing of prayer and Torah study, I find the form of Judaism it describes engaging and meaningful, and wonder where I could find it in the present (the rabbis lived in the nineteenth century).

Every so often I explore Hasidism, and the problem (or one of them, but this is the main one with these thinkers) is the focus on continual joy. It’s not quite the same as toxic positivity, but it’s not always easy to distinguish it. Rabbi Rosen writes, “In the world of Przysucha, joy is not some sort of palliative or ‘feel-good factor.’ Real happiness comes from being connected to the Divine, believing that there is an umbilical cord between humanity and God that cannot be severed.”

I feel I would like to experience real joy in life itself (not in objects or achievements), but it is hard to struggle through the anhedonia and alexithymia that I still feel even though I am no longer depressed. Moreover, this religious joy is, as Rabbi Rosen writes, rooted in feeling an unbreakable connection to God. I worry that my connection is not unbreakable, and that I have broken it, or at least strained it. Rabbi Rosen implies the connection is unbreakable in everyone, but it is difficult to think that Hitler or Stalin had a connection to God. The traditional Jewish response would be to say that Jews at least have an unbreakable connection to God, but the Talmud challenges this too. If someone can lose their connection to God, then I will still worry about losing my connection.

I worry about this less often now I am not depressed and my religious OCD is more under control. Still, I wish I could feel real connection. I would like to talk to Rabbi Rosen about it, but he died soon after the book was published.

Ironically, reading this passage and having these reflections seems to have brought my mood down, although the fact that E is only here for one more full day probably also contributed.

The Hive Switch

I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.

Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders[1], improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades [2]. They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.

(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)

Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.

Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.

So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.

The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)[3]

I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.

Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.

[1] I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.

[2] Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.

[3] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.

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Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.

I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.