Minor Trials and Tribulations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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


[1] Rashi Commentary to Shemot 6.26

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

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

***

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

***

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

Time Travel

I feel somewhat better today. I don’t know if I was distracted from depression and anxiety by being at work. I had autistic executive function issues with tasks where I had to fill in multiple spreadsheets at the same time and I kept losing the place or forgetting which spreadsheets I was supposed to use. This was made worse by having to deal with people phoning to make credit card payments where I had to drop everything and sort out the credit card payment and then afterwards try to remember what I was doing before the phone rang. I am slowly learning what all the spreadsheets do, which makes it easier to work out what goes where, but I still forget things sometimes. I made a couple of mistakes that I caught; I hope there weren’t any that I didn’t catch.

I was at least proud of myself for answering the phone. I hate doing that (anxiety), so it was a big thing.

I went to the bank too. The nearest branch, about fifteen or twenty minutes away, is closed because of COVID. The second-nearest was just a little bit up the road from the nearest one, but had a long queue, so I was out of the office for about an hour. I didn’t get lost this time.

That was it, really. I’m not feeling particularly depressed or anxious, just tired. When I was getting dressed this morning, I had an image in my head from Twin Peaks: The Return, where one character removes her face off to reveal a murky darkness broken by a bright grin. I’m not quite sure why this image was in my head. Did I feel like that this morning? It’s possible. Certainly there have been times in my life where I would have felt like that, but I don’t feel like that right now. It’s possible that being at work helped me today, in which case we’ll have to see what happens tomorrow when I’m at home (cooking dinner and hopefully working on my novel).

I do feel confused about my relationship, but I’m not sure what to do that. I think we were probably moving too fast. Our relationship faces a number of unusual challenges, and the pandemic is one of then. We can’t really move things on at the moment. I think we need to slow down for a bit, but also to spend time together, which we can’t really do right now because of the lockdown.

Other than work, I went to a shiur (religious class) in the evening. It was a bit late and I struggled to concentrate. It was more a mussar (ethical self-development) shiur than anything else, about keeping going if you fail in an area of personal growth. Discussions like this always make me feel weird, as I tend to put other people on a pedestal and assume everyone is doing amazingly and only I am struggling with all my middot (character traits). I still suspect that I have worse traits than everyone really, even if they struggle in the same area. Someone asked a question at the end about how to get non-religious Jews engaged religiously when there is so much they could enjoy in Judaism. The rabbi didn’t want to answer the question in the shiur, as it was a bit off-topic, but I did wonder a bit about whether there’s a way that I could enjoy Judaism more. I can enjoy and find meaning in mitzvot (commandments), Torah study and prayer on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but it seems hard to get that during the week.

I’m not sure what to do now. I’m tired, but not sleepy. I feel I should do something to unwind to help me sleep, but I don’t know what. I’m tired enough that I just sent my sister a text meant for PIMOJ, fortunately just asking how her evening was going.

***

I realised recently that I would rather have a time machine than a spaceship. (I appreciate that this decision is unlikely to have many practical ramifications.) I have felt for a long time that I don’t belong in this time. It’s partly having “old-fashioned” interests in terms of books and TV, partly feeling my politics are not a great fit for any party currently around (although I revise my political views fairly frequently – I get the impression that most people don’t), partly feeling my general worldview (religious, cultural) is different. Not necessarily out-dated, just different. I’ve never got on well with contemporary slang and trends.

I used to feel that studying history (my BA is in history) gave me access to information about the past that allowed me to understand the present better than most people. Now I’m not sure that that’s true. In fact, I suspect it’s not true. I don’t think I really understand the world particularly well. If I have an advantage, it’s only knowing that I don’t understand it, and maybe being aware that the world is more complicated than most people suppose.

Still, I feel adrift in time, looking for a society that works for me, people that I can communicate with. I want to write about a Jewish time traveller, hopefully when I’ve finished my current novel.

Thinking/Worrying

Another day that got away from me…

I think my negative self-talk is back. I think it went away, or more likely reduced without entirely going away, over the last few weeks as I felt more stable, but it seems to be back again now. Some “I’m useless, I hate myself” thoughts, and guilt feelings that are objectively probably out of proportion to anything I might have done, but it’s hard to be sure.

In Morality, Rabbi Lord Sacks says that Maslow and Rogers, the psychologists who did more than anyone to put self-esteem at the centre of healthy psychology, actually both went off the idea late in life. Maslow did research that suggested that people with high self-esteem were more likely to take advantage of other people in various ways, while Rogers switched from self-esteem to self-discipline as a key character trait of psychologists he wanted to employ at his institute. Although I think there is probably room for me to have more self-esteem without ending up taking advantage of other people.

***

I went to bed very late last night, feeling a bit agitated. I slept through the morning again and struggled to get going, despite knowing that I had a lot I wanted to do today. I just feel that my life is a mess and don’t know how to change it. I feel like I try to do the right thing, but God constantly puts me in situations where I can’t. I know that sounds like excuses, but I don’t know how else to describe what happens to me. I know when I choose to do something that is perhaps against Jewish law or Jewish ethics and I know when I feel pushed into something by events or feeling overwhelmed.

I went back to bed after breakfast. This was after 1pm because I got up so late. I just couldn’t face the day. It took ages to get dressed. I had too many negative thoughts about myself and my future. I wonder if I will ever get my life in order, whatever that might mean (career, family, feeling at peace with myself on some level etc.). Just paralysed thinking/worrying.

I guess this is olanzapine withdrawal. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to get haloperidol (the replacement mood stabiliser); hopefully by the end of the week, but I’m at the mercy of the NHS bureaucracy.

***

I made myself work on my novel for an hour as leaving it alone was just worrying me. I actually wrote nearly 1,000 words, without much procrastination, which I guess shows I can write fluently if I know what I’m doing and it’s not too emotionally draining for me (this bit wasn’t autobiographical or dark). Then I went for a walk. I replied to some emails too and filled in a form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits (which I think are about to be stopped now I’m in work, even though it’s only part-time work). I guess I did quite a bit (I fitted in a brief call with PIMOJ and a little bit of Torah study too), but not as much as I would have liked.

***

I had fluctuating depression and anxiety during the day. I know it’s partly triggered by coming off the olanzapine, but I feel I have real things to worry about too. At the moment I’m mainly worried about my relationship with PIMOJ for various reasons I can’t really discuss here. It’s hard to know what to think about it sometimes, there are so many different thoughts and feelings, so much that could go wrong. I want to live in the present with it, but that’s hard when COVID is restricting what we can do in the present so much.

PIMOJ wants me to live in the present too (she very much does this) and to accept that God loves me and thinks I’m good enough, but I have a lot of psychological resistance to these ideas. She suggested I should try to see the spiritual beyond the physical. I don’t know if it’s depression or autism or low self-esteem or just me, but I find that hard. Almost impossible, really. It’s the type of thing that makes me wonder if I’m really cut out to be frum (religious Jewish). Or if PIMOJ is right for me. I try to tell myself I thought we were good for each other last week and it’s just olanzapine withdrawal that is making me doubt it now, but it’s hard to believe sometimes. She is very different to me in outlook, very positive and spiritual. I don’t think she understands my depressions and anxieties at all, they’re completely alien to her. Do I need her to understand? I’m not sure. I wonder what it would be like if we were living together and I had a few days like the last few days. I’m in full-blown, “I’m going to be lonely and miserable forever” mode today, even though I know that in the worst case scenario I can go back on olanzapine and be tired all the time and over-weight, but less miserable. I’m telling myself not to make any major decisions until I’m stable, but it’s easy to catastrophise.

***

I have a list of birthdays and anniversaries for family and friends and I copy the dates into my diary each year, alongside reminders of when to buy cards where relevant (yes, I prefer dead tree format despite the effort). Looking at the list today, I see so many friends I am no longer friends with, mostly because they got angry with me, often for reasons I did not understand. Sometimes there were complicated romantic feelings going on in one or other direction. It makes me sceptical of my ability to manage friendships, let alone relationships.

***

I can see that my unhelpful coping strategies are back. At the very least, I’m unable to reduce my junk food intake soon or eating cereal late at night. Not that I eat so much junk in absolute terms, but my medication means whatever I eat goes straight to my waist, and it’s hard to keep up with exercise (a) while working, (b) in the winter and (c) in lockdown.

***

I’m struggling with relaxation at the moment. America During the Cold War is interesting (especially to see how much of our contemporary political crisis parallels that of the 1970s), but is proving a slow read as I’m not really in the mood for non-fiction at the moment. I am trying to decide whether to switch to fiction. Similarly, The Sandbaggers on DVD is excellent, but dark and even nihilistic, so I’ve been watching Doctor Who instead recently. I re-watched The God Complex today – an under-rated story, in my opinion, with a positive presentation of religion that is rare for TV nowadays, let alone Doctor Who.

More Anxiety

Wow, I feared that when the American Empire started to go, it wouldn’t go peacefully, but I didn’t expect a mob bearing the Confederate Flag storming Capitol Hill just yet. Crazy. Mind you, I was reading about the protests of the 1960s on my lunch break (civil rights, anti-war) and I think the scale and perhaps also the intensity of unrest greater then than now. It’s just that Twitter and 24 hour news coverage make it more visible now. Compare Capitol Hill with rioters storming the Pentagon in 1967. On the other hand, civil rights and Vietnam bubbled away for years, so who knows how things will look in 2030? The culture of the sixties was definitely better though.

Back here in London…

I had a lot of anxiety again today. I am going through an anxious time, but it occurred to me that I’m coming off olanzapine, which is probably making the anxiety worse. This morning on the Tube in to work, I was too anxious to do much Torah study as I usually do. I tried to practise mindful acceptance of my anxiety and guilt feelings. It helped a bit. The anxiety went away a bit during the morning as I was busy at work, but came back in the afternoon as there wasn’t much for me to do. Sometimes it felt like borderline religious OCD (anxiety that I’ve done/will do something religiously wrong). This leads to a feeling that everything I do to try and move my life on (careers, relationships) just provokes guilt for not being perfect. I try to tell myself it’s irrational guilt, but the slightest mishap (and mishaps are inevitable) just sets me to thinking that I’m being punished by God and that worse is in store for me. I am not sure how to cure myself of this dynamic.

I think I tend to see life very much in black and white terms (which is a classic autistic perspective), but specifically in black and white moral terms. It’s a kind of scrupulosity (religious OCD) whereby I want to be morally perfect and see any moral imperfection as heinous. This leads to things like me applying for jobs that are not right for me because I feel “ought” to do so. My moral integrity and honesty is a big part of my self-esteem (insofar as I have much self-esteem), so it’s hard to challenge it.

Similarly, in terms of dating, I’ve partly internalised a frum (religious Jewish) model of dating which sees the dating process in extremely moralised and black and white terms (e.g. avoiding platonic friendships with the opposite sex; no dating before being ready to marry, in terms of having a settled career and mental health; pre-screening dates to only date people with shared values; avoiding long-term relationships before marriage). I do this even though this model has not worked for me. This leads me to feel that everything I do in dating is wrong and that my dating difficulties are a punishment from God. However, I am not sufficiently integrated into the frum community to really be able to date that way even if I wanted to do so.

Both PIMOJ and my therapist struggled to understand yesterday how I can feel that I’ve never fitted into or been accepted by the Orthodox world and yet still want to be a part of it. I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question myself. I believe in Orthodox Judaism, even if I’m not really able to live the right sort of life, practically, that would enable me to function in the community. That’s the best answer I have. I know that many people would, if not consciously then at least unconsciously, change their beliefs for ones that fitted better with a possible or desirable lifestyle. That has just never happened with me, for whatever reason.

***

As a side-note on black and white morality, I’ve encountered quite a number of rabbis over the years who claimed to be very badly behaved in their youth. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Are they exaggerating to try to connect with young people? Does a disobedient, questioning, cast of mind lend itself well to Talmudic study? Probably. Can the uncontrollable energy of the boisterous child be focused into the superhuman amounts of emotional energy needed by the congregational rabbi? Possibly. Sometimes I feel weirdly that if only I had been worse-behaved at school, I might be in a much better situation today. It will be weird if I go to Heaven and they tell me that I was too well-behaved to earn much reward.

***

Speaking of which, PIMOJ and I streamed (separately) Soul, the latest Pixar film, about a musician who dies, but wants to come back to Earth, and is set to mentor a soul that is resisting being born. It was amusing enough, but I found it hard to concentrate on and triggered a lot of uncomfortable thoughts about my not enjoying life or having a clear purpose (I want to be a writer, but worry I won’t make it). I couldn’t really explain to PIMOJ that I want to enjoy the small moments of life, but all too often I can’t, and I can’t will that enjoyment into being, particularly not if it’s still an element of depression.

Rebel Rebel

I’m not sure where I am today, emotionally. I had two big things going on, the pandemic and the autism assessment. Now there’s a third, potentially even bigger, and I am not coping well. I don’t want to talk about it here yet. Or rather I do want to talk about it, but I’m not sure that I should, so I won’t for now. Suffice to say that I went to bed late last night because I was dealing with a lot of anxious and self-critical thoughts. Then I couldn’t sleep, probably because I was over-tired and hadn’t done anything to relax. Then I overslept this morning and didn’t want to get up because of the anxiety. I eventually got up because my phone was ringing, but I didn’t get there in time and whoever they were, they didn’t leave a message and I didn’t recognise the number. Hopefully it was just a cold caller, but I worry it might have been something about the autism assessment, although I know it’s unlikely that they would contact me within twenty-four hours of the last assessment.

I’ve felt lately that I was getting ahold of my life, that I was making progress with work and writing and my relationship, that I was moving towards some kind of definitive autism diagnosis, and that I was feeling like depression and mental illness, while not “cured” (I don’t know that I will ever be “cured”), are less prominent in my life. I was even wondering if I should carry on blogging here, or blogging so regularly. What is the point of a mental health blog if my mental health is reasonable?

And then, WHAM! To be honest, I knew this would happen for some time, it just happened faster than I thought it would, and it hit me harder than I expected. I still can’t talk about what is actually happening except in the vaguest of terms, but I’ve been in a state of anxiety since the weekend, and I’m not sure if it’s going to change any time soon. I guess I’m just psychologically vulnerable to mental illness at times of stress, the way some people have reduced immunity and vulnerability to physical illness.

I was able to talk about it a lot in therapy today. We ended up speaking a lot about ideas of community, individuality, conformity and so on and particularly how these apply in the Orthodox Jewish community.

I spoke about feeling a burden at the moment, a bag full of guilt and critical voices from the community and who knows what else. I want to put the bag down, if only to breathe, but I can’t, I have to keep carrying it up the hill. How much of this is actually real (real guilt, real people criticising me) and how much is just in my head is hard to tell. I do feel, on some level, like I’m responsible for the world and that I’m judged to the minutest level of detail, in a way that no one (or no one other than a total tzaddik (saint)) is judged.

My therapist suggested there was anger there too, which is correct, but I’ve never known what to do with anger other than repress it, which is not good in the long-run and arguably leads to depression. I think in the summer, when our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbours were having lockdown-breaching prayer services in their garden three times a day, I wrote a letter, with no intention of sending it, saying how angry they made me. I think that helped somewhat, but my current anger seems too nebulous and undirected at the moment for that to be a viable strategy.

More surprisingly, I found myself suggesting that maybe on some level I like or need the friction with my community. I’m not entirely sure why I said this, but I suspect that I noted that I’ve spent two decades or more trying to be an Orthodox Jew and to “fit in” to the Orthodox community, but I’ve also spent two decades or more complaining (quietly) about the conformism, narrow-mindedness and bourgeois mentality that often operates in the Orthodox community, trying to not to be socialised out of my geekiness, my non-Jewish friends, the books I read. I guess I have a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” attitude to the Orthodox world.

I can see it with my novel. Sometimes I’m terrified about the backlash I might face for suggesting that domestic abuse exists in the Orthodox community and that the autistic and mentally ill are not well-catered for there, but other times I will admit to myself that I hope there is some controversy, that it “shakes things up a bit.”

It’s hard to come to terms with this, as I was a well-behaved child and I was the absolute most well-behaved, non-rebellious teenager imaginable. But here I am, worrying that I’m going to bring the Temple crashing down around me, Shimshon (Samson) style, without really wanting to do it, just feeling driven to it by loneliness and desperation, the longing for a place where I can be accepted by people who aren’t like me. I feel I should (“should” again) be able not to care what people think about me, but somehow I can’t.

I told PIMOJ I was anxious and she called. It was a difficult conversation, not least because it was late and I didn’t really want to speak, but I felt I should as she was concerned about me. It really did become apparent that there is a psychological difference between us, that she doesn’t care who does or doesn’t like her, whereas I want to be liked and accepted, something that I don’t think she really understood. I don’t think she understood why it matters to me if other Orthodox Jews reject me. I don’t think I really understand why it matters to me, to be honest. My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t care who liked me, but I find myself unable to find the switch to turn it off.

***

There was no volunteering today, but I was supposed to be doing some work from home and I got up later than I intended for that. I got the work done (stuffing envelopes and stamping them) as well as having therapy, but I didn’t get out for a walk. Add in the call from PIMOJ and I ran out of time for more than five minutes of Torah study, although I did write my devar Torah for the week and liked it more than I expected. It’s going to be another late night. I don’t know if I’ll have time to relax before I go to bed again so sleeplessness is likely.

***

When I started this job, the Department of Work and Pensions said I was OK working part-time and still receiving some benefits. Now they’ve written to ask for more details about the work. I accept that I probably earn too much to justify the benefits, I just wish they would make their minds up. I do wonder whether other government departments and bodies (e.g. the Treasury, the Foreign Office) are as useless and bureaucratic as the DWP and the NHS. It’s easy to look at the lockdown mess and think that they are.

Very Anxious Day

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

“The future lies this way”

I got up early again (9.20am, on a Sunday, is early for me), despite setting my alarm wrongly, so things are looking good on that score. I had dreamt about a kid who bullied me at school bullying me as an adult (or quasi-adult… in the dream, I mean). It made me wonder if a lot of my feelings of inadequacy around work and my life in general are about feeling I have to “show” the kids who bullied me at school that I’m competent, or fitting in with my childhood/adolescent feelings that one day I would succeed in some nebulous, undefined way and that that would be some kind of revenge or self-justification. It would be better to focus on what I want to be doing right now, for myself.

It was a busy day. I had a nice date with PIMOJ. We had to cut it short because we both had things to do afterwards, but it was still two and a half hours. We had a really good time though. It’s strange how two people who are, on the surface, opposites (quiet, reserved and pessimistic vs. ebullient and upbeat) are so alike in many other ways. I came home and had a difficult, but positive conversation with my parents, arranged an important and scary conversation with a rabbi I haven’t seen in fifteen years and always found a little intimidating (I’m cutting a lot of relevant information here that maybe one day I’ll be able to reveal in full), started getting stuff ready for the next stage of my autism assessment on Tuesday… and promptly threw up. Perhaps it was anxiety about all the things happening this week, especially the important and scary conversation with the rabbi. I’m kind of hoping it was, because I don’t want to have a bug.

I’ve spent the last couple of hours watching Doctor Who and slowly eating toast and sipping water, while intermittently dealing with texts from PIMOJ (who is worried about me) and the slightly intimidating rabbi (who I’ll call Rabbi B to distinguish him from all the other rabbis on this blog), setting up a Zoom meeting with me and PIMOJ for Tuesday (no, we’re not about to get married). I don’t feel sick any more, but I do feel a bit faint, despite all the toast and water, and I might be coming down with a temperature; at any rate, I keep feeling hot and then cold (my parents think this is just a side effect of being sick). I texted J to say I won’t come to work tomorrow. Even if I’m not infectious, I don’t want to go on the Tube with a lowered immune system, particularly not as I’m paid on a day to day basis anyway rather than having a contract.

***

When watching Doctor Who, I watched some of The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, Tom Baker’s final two stories in the title role. Every couple of years I forget enough about these stories to think that they’re intelligent and brooding and I watch them again, alongside with Castrovalva, the next story in sequence, which forms a loose trilogy with them. And they are intelligent and brooding, in places, with a few good lines (including the title of this post). They’re also portentous, jargon-filled and incomprehensible in other places. Tom Baker is good, but has clearly had his wings clipped by the production team. But after a while I forget all that, and then I remember them as I feel they should be and watch them again… and then I remember.

I really liked Logopolis as a child, at least from the novelisation. I think I want to experience that version of the story, the version that appealed to a quiet and intelligent eight year child, rather than the version that makes the thirty-seven year old wannabe writer redraft the whole thing.

Chores, Christmas and Punching Octopuses

Yesterday I was so tired that I went to sleep at 10.45pm. I slept until about 7am, then woke, but still felt tired and slept for another couple of hours. That may have been a mistake. I think maybe I should try to get up when I wake up, even if I feel tired or haven’t slept that long. (Realistically, I’m unlikely to wake before 6.00am unless a bomb goes off outside.) I had dreams that were slightly disturbing, but not interesting or insightful enough to be worth recording here.

Today was mostly another chores day. I went for a walk, did shopping and ironing, tidied my desk drawer and finished and sent my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week. I’m not entirely pleased with my devar Torah this week. I know I say that a lot, but I’m really worried about bending my facts to fit my big picture interpretation this week. I would have liked to discuss it with my rabbi mentor, but I haven’t been able to get hold of him. PIMOJ liked it though.

I didn’t get to work on my novel. “Working on my novel” currently is reading a book on domestic abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community by Hasidic rabbi and practising psychiatrist Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski. I haven’t learnt much from it, which is good inasmuch as it means my previous research, and the way I (tried to) use it in my previous drafts, are accurate. I suspected that this might be the case, but I thought that I couldn’t write a novel about domestic abuse set in the Orthodox community without reading one of the few non-fiction works about domestic abuse in the Orthodox community.

I finished reading Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs/Song of Solomon) in Hebrew with Rabbi Sack’s commentary, making three complete (and difficult) books of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) that I’ve read in Hebrew this year, alongside much of Tehillim (Psalms). And I still have a week to try to squeeze in the very short book of Ruth! I haven’t read much commentary on them, though (the book I read on Iyov/Job was as much psychology as theology). I am hoping to get hold of this book, although probably not until the new year now. The other books I’ve read in that series have ranged been very good.

***

The rather self-pitying (or so I feared) comment about my experience of autism not meeting the “autistic superpower” narrative that I left on a mainstream news site has garnered twenty-eight upvotes in two days. I’m not sure what to make of this.

***

Tomorrow is 25 December. This is usually the day on which strange religious stuff is done, and for once it’s not me doing it. There are some amusing spoofs out there on what Christmas would be like if it was a Jewish festival e.g. the tree must be a minimum of three handbreadths tall and no more than twenty cubits tall; however a public tree may be any height because it is to publicise the miracle and no one fulfils their individual Christmas tree obligation through it. Rabbi Yehudah says the tree should be erected on 1 December, but the sages say it should be erected straight after Thanksgiving (this is all American) to go from one mitzvah to another. And so on.

However, this year 25 December coincides with the Fast of Tevet. I will not be fasting, because it’s not safe for me to do so on lithium (I only fast on Yom Kippur); still, it will be a bit more sombre than usual, although in the rush to get ready for Shabbat (which starts at 3.41pm) there won’t be much time for anything before shul (synagogue) in the evening and dinner after nightfall.

What I did do for Christmas was go to a Zoom class at the London School of Jewish Studies about the Jewish roots of the nativity story, given by Amy-Jill Levine, who is an Orthodox Jewish New Testament scholar. It was very interesting. There was an interesting suggestion that Jews are more open to multiple meanings of religious texts because Judaism is an ethnic identity rather than a religious one. Whatever interpretation a Jew makes of the Torah, they remain Jewish, whereas Christianity is a religion with a clearly-defined dogma, straying from which might conceivably carry a person out of the religion, so Christians see it as more important to find the correct interpretation of the Bible. I’m not sure that this is the only possible explanation, but it’s interesting.

***

We have a Brexit deal. I’m more confused than ever about what I think of this. Sometimes it’s tempting to wonder what it’s like to have the certainty of the single-minded on both sides. In any debate (not just Brexit), I tend to see points on both sides. My university essays were masterpieces of fence-sitting.

But the news story that I heard today that I keep thinking about is that scientists have discovered that octopuses sometimes “punch” fish out of “spite”. See here for video footage. Remind me never to upset a spiteful octopus. (They are actually really clever animals.)

Date and Memorial Service

I got up early to go for a walk with PIMOJ in Golders Green. Although PIMOJ is adventurous and likes doing new things, she seems quite comfortable doing things repeatedly too, which is useful as autism doesn’t like novelty much, and because there isn’t much to do in the winter with COVID shutting everything down. We had a good time and opened up to each other a bit, I think. It definitely seems that there’s some “opposites attract” with us, admiring the other’s traits that we don’t have.

After walking for a while, I began to feel a bit faint and short of breath and had to sit down for a few minutes. I was perhaps dressed a little over-warmly for the weather. Later, walking up the stairs at the Tube station with my mask on, I felt short of breath again. I have been slightly short of breath at volunteering lately, again with a mask, although I wasn’t wearing a mask when I had to sit down. It is hard to breath with a mask, but I guess it’s also something to mention to the GP.

In the afternoon I worked on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for well over an hour, which was more than I expected, especially as it is still not finished. It is uses more sources than usual, and is also more creative, making me rather nervous about presenting it, worried that I have got carried away with my essential idea, that Rambam’s (Maimonides’) moral categories of “balanced” sage and “pious” saint are two complementary models of religious leadership, the former for times of stability and the later for times of crisis; and that Yehudah (Judah) and Yosef (Joseph) are, if not models of the two, then at least incline towards them. I wish I had more time or ability to bounce this idea off people and see what they think before sending it out into the world.

I then spent half an hour reading a book on domestic abuse in the Jewish community as research for my novel. Then in the evening I had a Zoom shiur (religious class) at the London School of Jewish Studies. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a class. It was supposed to be the launch of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ latest book, except he passed away a few weeks ago, so it was part book launch, part memorial service. They had thirteen Jewish educators who were, in different ways, Rabbi Sacks’ students, speaking about him and his ideas.

I found it quite moving and at times difficult to watch. There were a lot of mixed feelings, some of which I have noted before. There was the feeling of loss about Rabbi Sacks’ death, and the feeling that I will never get to speak to him, and that maybe I could have spoken to him if I had tried hard enough, but what would I have said?

There was also the feeling of inadequacy I have at LSJS events, that I should get on with these people, that they are on my wavelength and must have a similar worldview, but I’m always too shy to speak up at classes, whether to ask or answer questions or volunteer ideas, so no one there really knows me. Also that many of these educators are not that much older than me, but I have not done anything with my life the way they have (PhDs, rabbinic ordination, written books etc.). I wonder how I can rectify this, and I don’t really know.

One teaching today impressed me so much as relevant here that I wrote it down so I could quote it correctly. Tanya White was speaking about suffering. Rabbi Sacks, inspired by Viktor Frankl, and said that suffering is inevitable, but that “Healing comes when we refuse the self-definition of victimhood,” that we can choose our response to suffering. It strikes me that this is hard today in a time of competitive victimhood; we have to consciously choose not to define ourselves as victims, but to find a more positive and proactive way of understanding ourselves.

Celibacy

Despite my worries, I managed to get up early for volunteering and got there on time. It was fine. A couple of people asked if I was OK as I haven’t been for a fortnight, which was nice. I’m always amazed when people notice I’m absent. Someone donated fresh jam donuts for the volunteers and I had one. Possibly my waistband says I shouldn’t have. I still feel that I make mistakes and do stupid things there, although it’s more that what seems logical to me doesn’t always seem logical to other people and vice versa for various (autistic?) reasons. Sometimes it’s probably poor executive function or me not processing spoken instructions properly, but other times it can be me applying rules over-rigidly. Then again, maybe I’m being perfectionist and looking to autism to excuse behaviours that don’t really require excusing (again).

I was pretty exhausted in the afternoon and didn’t do very much other than a few minor chores. I intended to listen a shiur (religious class) that I missed, but it wasn’t up online. I did some other Torah study, but it was just bits and pieces, little audio vorts (short religious ideas) and articles in a religious magazine. I couldn’t face anything heavier. I did a little bit of ironing and thought about trying to force myself to do more chores, but I was worried about being burnt out tomorrow when I have work. I wish I knew why I still get so tired so easily even with the mood aspect of depression being rather easier than in the past. I just read and watched DVDs. I had been eating dinner in front of the Chanukah candles this week, but at dinner today I was drained and couldn’t face eating dinner alone with noise from my parents’ TV and ended up eating in my room, which was also alone and with TV, but at least it was my TV.

Reading this back, I see I actually did quite a lot, but I still feel guilty about not doing “enough” and not having “enough” energy considering I’m not depressed “any more”. There probably are imaginary standards of “normality” and “mentally ill” here that aren’t helpful to me.

***

I saw the next two paragraphs a few days ago on Elisheva Liss’ Jewish mental health blog. The bit I’m about to quote actually isn’t the main point of the post, but is the part that is pertinent to me and set me thinking.

As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved…

What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.

This isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish world). I’m conscious of not wanting to reveal my entire life history online, but also of wanting to talk about this for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. (I’ve tried speaking about it in therapy, but I feel that writing this has made me realise there’s a lot more to say there.) My background is that I was brought up traditional, but not fully Torah observant and gradually became more observant in my teens. At the same time, I went to a co-educational (Modern Orthodox Jewish) school and eventually became interested in girls when I was about sixteen (I was a late developer, which I definitely think was a blessing). I also had sex education, at home and at school, but it was pretty functional. It was not the Haredi minimal or no sex education, but it focused on the biological “How do we make babies?” side of things. It was a long time before anyone ever really spoken to me about the emotional side of things, and probably most of the conversations I have had about dating and sex have been in therapy.

The problem with this is, being (probably) on the autism spectrum, I do not always pick things up easily if they aren’t explicitly spelt out to me, particularly regarding social interactions. No one ever said anything about masturbation, but somehow I intuited that it was wrong, and that sexual fantasy was likely to lead to it. Pornography was a lot harder to access when I was a teenager than it is these days, but there was already a lot of quasi-pornographic imagery in society; I think the infamous Wonderbra “Hello Boys” billboard advert (the one that supposedly caused numerous car crashes from men looking at the model’s cleavage and not at the road) came out shortly before I hit puberty, and there was a lot of similar adverts around and, anyway, you shouldn’t underestimate what sexually-frustrated teenage boys can find arousing (illustrations of Dark Elf warrior women in the Warhammer rule book…).

Being autistic, depressed and socially anxious did not make it easy to find girlfriends, or to work out how to find girlfriends (to this day, my few relationships have been either via dating websites or from the other person making the first move). During my time at school, I hardly spoke to girls, except a bit to my best friend’s girlfriend. In retrospect I wish I had, as looking back I see that there were intelligent, gentle girls in my year and even in my social group, and maybe my life would have gone differently if I’d just tried to talk to them, not necessarily to date, but just to get practise socialising with women, but I was too shy to really speak to them. I had a huge crush on one girl throughout my time in the sixth form (equivalent of high school, broadly), but was rarely able to speak to her and when I did, I think she was bored and embarrassed by me.

I did manage to build female platonic friendships at university, but that backfired when I asked one out. I was twenty, and it was the first time I had ever done that. She wasn’t interested and it ended badly.

I didn’t actually go on a date until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty-seven and still a virgin and unmarried. I don’t have any particular animus about the Jewish “no sex before marriage” rule, as I know that, emotionally, I couldn’t cope with casual sex anyway. I’m sure some people can, and chafe at the rule, but I know I can’t. I have just slowly begun another relationship, but there are reasons, that I won’t go into here, that mean that it will be years before we can get married, should we decide to do so, so I’m stuck with celibacy for now.

I can’t really put into words the huge amount of frustration, fascination, confusion, envy, guilt and even anger I feel around sex and celibacy. There is also fear, but I wrote about that on Hevria a number of years ago. (That’s aside from the worry that I have so much anxiety around sex that I’ll never be able to have a genuine healthy sexual relationship, even if I get married.) As a frum Jew, I’m not supposed to talk about it; as someone somewhat internet-savvy, I’m worried about being branded a misogynist “Incel” just for raising the topic. I’ve spoken about it in therapy quite a lot, and in more detail than I will go into here, but somehow I feel that I’ve never got to the bottom of it. I’ve barely spoken about it with my current therapist, even though I’ve been seeing her for over seven months. I don’t have the words. I’m not sure if that’s because of my upbringing or my issues.

From adolescence onwards, I’ve had a huge amount of guilt and shame around my sexual thoughts and feelings. For many years I tried to repress them and mostly failed. I’m not sure if it is really feasible to repress sexual thoughts and feelings long-term; it’s certainly not possible if one is at all engaged in hyper-sexualised Western society. Sometimes I can see why Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews try to avoid Western society entirely, but I know that’s not my path.

One of the reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) between school and university as many people expected to was because of feelings of guilt around sex and the belief (which I now realise was completely mistaken) that I was the only frum or would-be frum teenage boy struggling with it. Admittedly there were half a dozen other reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva, but that decision had massive repercussions for the rest of my life, down to today, including why I feel so unmarriable in the frum community. I already had low self-esteem and a tendency to over-intellectualise things, and that and the added sexual guilt probably triggered an emotional downward spiral that fed in to my depression. It may not be coincidental (although it has only occurred to me writing this) that my first episode of depression followed about six months after the start of my first “real” crush (by which I mean the first one where I actively thought and fantasised about her all the time when she wasn’t around, rather than simply feeling vaguely anxious and attracted when I saw her).

Sometimes I feel that it’s eating away my insides. I feel that, at thirty-seven, I should not be desperate to have sex, and certainly I know it’s a bad idea to get married just to have sex. I wonder if I will ever be “ready,” emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling that middle aged sex (which is all that’s left for me) is dull and perfunctory and that if I was going to ever enjoy sex, it would have happened before now. I know this isn’t true, but it’s another lie the media perpetuates, and I can’t shake free of it.

Another thing I’ve never really got to the bottom of is whether I really want sex, or just (“just”?) intimacy. To be honest, I probably want both, and that’s probably healthy; I don’t think secular society, which says you can have healthy sex without intimacy, is particularly well-adjusted in that way. But if I absolutely had to choose, I think I would choose emotional intimacy over sex. I think that’s my absolute desire in many areas: marriage, yes, but also I want a few close friends (rather than many distant ones) and my conception of Heaven is an intimate closeness with God and perhaps with loved ones. But a successful, intimate marriage is the one I want most of all. Although I don’t feel myself particularly successful at achieving intimacy in those other areas either. I think I’m a very lonely person, and have been since my teens. Again, I can blame autism, depression and social anxiety, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I’m not sure what I want in writing this. I think a lot of it is about recognition. That I think I’m carrying some kind of burden by following Jewish law in this area, and especially doing it while more open to the sexualised Western culture than some parts of the community. I think it’s the best – or least worst – option for me right now, for a host of halakhic (Jewish legal), emotional and moral reasons, but it’s still a burden and one I hope I will put down one day, but fear that I will be carrying it for a long time. And somehow I want that acknowledged, which it isn’t, not by hyper-sexualised Western society or by the frum world, where most people are married by twenty-five. In some ways I don’t mind that many non-religious would not understand why I’m doing this, but I feel that I would like people in the frum community to understand the strain of long-term celibacy for “older singles,” beyond issues like loneliness, not fitting into the community etc. (not that those are particularly well-appreciated).

Actually, I’m not sure how much is recognition from society and how much is recognition by myself. That I really want to hear (ideally from God, but at least from someone frum who knows me well and who I respect) that I’m a good person, that I’ve done well in staying a virgin all these years, despite my failure to be 100% Torah observant in other areas of sexuality.

***

Today’s donuts: jam (very fresh) at volunteering.

Date and Zoom Chanukah

I know I get fixated on my sleep here, I guess because it’s the most tangible area where I still struggle, so I’ll just note that, thanks to insomnia and early waking, I only got about five hours of sleep last night before my date with PIMOJ today, admittedly after a day in which I had slept far too much.

The date itself went very well. We spent several hours walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It was raining much of the time, but we had a good time, even though a miscommunication meant PIMOJ was expecting me to bring food for both of us, whereas I thought we were each bringing just for ourselves, so we both ended up sharing one bagel and some vegetables. PIMOJ put her arm through mine a lot, which was nice, but felt a bit weird. I have never really done that with anyone before. Physical contact still prompts elements of guilt for me, for both religious and COVID reasons, and even without that, new physical sensations can be difficult on the autism spectrum.

We exchanged Chanukah gifts. I was glad I got PIMOJ a book I think she will really like, as she gave me chocolates and two books, which took me aback a bit. PIMOJ said she wants to see me in person more often, and that, and one or two other things, made me think that she’s serious about me. She said communicating via text is not always easy for us, especially as English isn’t her first language, which is true. Also, I find that I can’t always tell when she’s joking. I know that’s a typical autistic trait, but 90% of the time it’s not a problem for me, but with PIMOJ it frequently is an issue (hence the food mix-up). So trying to meet more regularly, despite COVID and the weather, seems to be the way forward. She also said that she doesn’t want me to compromise on anything, so I’m not sure where I got that idea from.

I came home exhausted, unsurprisingly. I was surprised to find donuts and chocolates left for me by my shul (synagogue) and a refund of money from a communal institution who I had paid twice, the result of a direct debit or standing order that was paid despite not showing up on my list of regular payments in my bank account. The latter will require further investigation to find out why it’s not showing.

My parents and I did a Zoom Chanukah candle lighting with my uncle and aunt in Israel, along with cousins 3 and 5. Singing in tune over a Zoom connection was not easy. We sat around talking afterwards. I didn’t really say anything. I don’t say much when I’m with my extended family in person and I never feel comfortable and able to talk at these kinds of Zoom meetings, and I was already quite drained, so I was a bit relieved when the battery on Mum’s laptop ran out after nearly an hour and brought the meeting to an end.

Tonight’s donut ended up being a chocolate-filled one again, although I honestly don’t only eat chocolate donuts! They didn’t have the iced type I wanted. The chocolate-filled one was nice though.

What Happened?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overwhelmed and Teenaged Socialising

I stayed up (ridiculously) late again last night, even later than usual (2.00am). It was the usual thing of getting up late, feeling burnt out for much of the day and then trying to cram too much into the evening when I felt better. At least I don’t have so much to do today. The upshot was that I woke up later than usual and just as exhausted and struggled to get going. Perhaps fortunately, this week I’m working on Tuesday and Thursday instead of Monday and Thursday. I’m glad I am speaking to my psychiatrist on Thursday and will try to talk about chronic oversleeping and burnout. Although I’m not sure how the conversation is going to work, as it will be on video, but on my phone, at work – I’m going to have to ask to take some of my lunch break later when the call is scheduled.

After lunch I went out for quite a while doing shopping and errands in the local area and also a lot of fighting through crowds of children as school was just finishing. I like children, but lately part of me sees them as asymptomatic plague carriers.

I feel like I’m only just catching back up to where I was before the autumn Jewish holidays started, over two months ago. The festivals themselves, followed by the second lockdown and my new job have all made it hard to tackle the To Do List and left me drained. I’ve been feeling a bit down lately, but I don’t think that I would meet the clinical definition of depression. I certainly seem to be doing better than I usually am at this time of year, when the seasonal aspect of my depression would kick in.

***

I’m having a break from my novel for a bit. I haven’t decided for how long, but possibly until PIMOJ has read it. She wanted very much to read it. I tried to tell her that it’s still very unfinished, but she insisted. I am now wondering if it is too personal to show to her, which also makes me wonder if it is too personal for anyone to read.

I’m wondering a bit of lockdown hasn’t made our relationship a bit topsy-turvy. That we have engaged a lot more in text (email, text, instant messenger) than in person. In previous relationships, that would not have bothered me, but I feel my connection with PIMOJ is much better in person than in text.

***

A comment I left on a blog post about autism and group dynamics:

Very interesting. I think I would have eaten alone the whole time! I actually went on a week-long residential programme when I was about seventeen. It was intended for teenagers from state schools who were planning on applying to Oxford or Cambridge University.

On the first day, the attendees went into Cambridge. I stayed behind, as I’d gone with my school a few weeks previously. I now realise I missed a key bonding stage, but it’s taken me years to realise that. Instead, I remember phoning my Mum in a panic and saying I was not able to talk to anyone and that I wanted to come home. I did eat with the other students (the way the dining hall was arranged, I had to), but initially I went back to my room in the breaks between sessions. After a while someone must have told me that really I should be with the other students in the recreation room, as I went down there and joined in with the games of table tennis, but I found it hard to talk to people. I did what I usually do in these situations, which is to find a couple of people I feel reasonably “safe” with and stick around them, probably excessively.

To be fair, I did feel a bit more bonded with the group by the end of the week, but then all the students and teachers went down to the pub on the last night and I completely panicked. (I don’t know if it was the concept of going to a pub, which I’d never done before.) I stayed behind, unable to adequately explain even to myself why I couldn’t go with them. Twice people came back for me and tried to get me to join them and twice I said no. I hated myself for it, but I just could not do it. I guess this is the grey area where autistic social issues blend into social anxiety.

In retrospect, I handled the week badly, but compared with how I was functioning at school, I probably handled it well…

I would also add that I’ve found that the Jewish dietary laws significantly impede socialisation in situations like this (which is probably the point, at least in part). If everyone is eating together, then the fact that I’m eating somewhere else, or eating with them, but eating different food, marks me out as “different” even before I say anything. It also stops me tagging along when people are going to eat and just focusing on eating rather than speaking until I feel more comfortable in the group, which is a strategy I have used in Jewish environments.

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Luftmentsch”

I was very tired on waking today and struggled to get out of bed; then I had to rush to leave on time for work. This week I have essentially been working for three consecutive days: actual paid work on Tuesday and Thursday, plus volunteering on Wednesday morning alongside a stack of chores and therapy on Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps it is not surprising that it was a struggle to get up today. Next week J wants me to work on Tuesday rather than the Monday again as well as Thursday, plus there will be volunteering on Wednesday. I hope it won’t be so much of a struggle if I keep Wednesday afternoon free (at the moment therapy is alternate weeks).

I pulled some muscles in my arms and leg at volunteering yesterday, which didn’t make things any easier. My arms are OK, but I can’t walk up and down stairs without limping and experiencing some pain. Minor train delays made my journey into work more difficult and I was mostly too tired and depressed to do much Torah study on the train in to work, which I use as my main Torah study time, something that made more sense when my journey was longer.

As a result of all of this, my mood was lower today too, although it did improve once I got to work and especially after lunch. My work is not terribly interesting, but the pay is good given my hours and the environment seems fairly comfortable for me, in terms of autism and social anxiety, at least at the moment with hardly anyone in the building. So far working for a friend is going well, although I am still nervous about messing something up. I have made some small mistakes, but nothing unexpected considering it is a new environment. On the whole it seems positive, especially as working part-time means that I can spend more time working on my novel.

I spoke about spoons yesterday without thinking that I’ve picked up a lot of readers since I last explained “spoon theory.” Spoon theory was formulated by Christine Miserandino to explain what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Essentially, you start the day with a number of units of energy, represented by spoons (because she was in a restaurant while trying to explain to her friend and there were spoons handy). Over the course of the day, you expend energy (spoons) doing tasks. Once you’ve run out of spoons, that’s it, you can’t do anything else until you recharge, which will probably require a night’s sleep (and you may not recharge even then).

What she wrote about chronic physical pain applies in many ways to mental illness, and also to the way “difficult” environments are extra draining for someone on the autism spectrum (noisy, too many people, etc.). I think this week has cost me a lot of spoons and I’m looking forward to Shabbat to recharge.

***

I wrote this in my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week:

[Rav Steinsaltz] takes this a step further to an even purer form of love, which is love of God.  Here, a person may not (in this world) receive any overt signal or sign of God’s receptivity to the love.  The person may struggle through life, trying to be a good person and a good Jew, without receiving any direct indication that he or she is succeeding.  Perhaps we can see this as a call from HaShem to perhaps the greatest form of human love.

It only occurred to me afterwards that I was really talking about myself, about wanting some kind of sign that I am succeeding to be a good person and a good Jew.

PIMOJ asked me about this passage. She felt that God does speak to us and send us signs. I felt, although I did not say, that she is a mystic for whom God is constantly immanent, whereas I’m a Jewish religious existentialist (as far as I understand the term) for whom God is usually, if not always, transcendent and hidden. We had a WhatsApp text conversation about it, which was a big thing in itself, as I usually avoid contradicting people and discussing things with them for fear of rejection.

PIMOJ feels that we can see ourselves and our religious progress when we pray and study Torah. I do not feel this. She feels that we can intuit God’s feelings about us the way we can intuit the feelings of our parents, but I don’t feel I can do that either. (At this point I started to wonder if all my religious and political beliefs as well as my social intuitions are rooted in my experience of autism, social communication impairment and bullying… It’s entirely possible.) I feel that I can’t do “enough” because of autism and depression. So my parents and friends tell me to lower my expectations because I can’t expect to do so much. So then I wonder, am I doing enough of what I can be expected to do… It’s hard to tell and I don’t think I really made myself clear to PIMOJ. It could be an autistic thing again, that I want God to tell me “I want you to do X, Y and Z. You are doing X well, Y is OK, but you need to work on Z.” Real life doesn’t work like that.

To be honest, I found the discussion a little worrying, as I always worry that I’ll be rejected by people for having a different opinion, but PIMOJ said she found it enjoyable to speak to me about a deep topic, so I guess that’s good. She said I’m a good communicator too, which is good (good that she thinks I communicate well, as I worry that I don’t).

***

Other than that, I’ve been feeling vaguely listless all evening. I usually watch TV when I have dinner, but I couldn’t decide what to watch. I told myself I would only watch Doctor Who episodes from the new series for a bit (Doctor Who was on TV from 1963 to 1989, then, bar a TV movie in 1996, it was cancelled until 2005), but after a couple of days I’ve run out of enthusiasm already. I like much of new Who, but it doesn’t satisfy me the way the original series does. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that’s the case, and there isn’t really an easy answer. Some is nostalgia and familiarity, but a lot of it is due to stylistic changes in Doctor Who as well as in TV and in general culture.

I read over dinner instead of watching TV. I had been enjoying the novel (The Naked Runner – I hasten to add that the title’s a metaphor; it’s a spy novel, not one about someone who literally runs in the nude), but I failed to summon any enthusiasm for it. I did some ironing and watched the first two episodes of Daleks!, an animated Doctor Who spin-off made by the BBC, but available for free (legitimately) on YouTube. It didn’t really interest me much though and I didn’t watch episode three, although I probably will at some point. I guess I should be thinking about bed, but I feel I need to relax somehow. Maybe original series Doctor Who, or have another go at The Naked Runner. I just feel that I’m going to go to bed stressed and I know that if I do that, I struggle to sleep or to be refreshed, but I don’t know what I can do that (a) I will enjoy and (b) I can do at midnight when I feel tired.

Épater Le Bourgeois

Work was fine. I finished the data checking and did a load of filing. My Dad said I looked happy when I came home, which partly may be the result of a truncated working day (six hours plus a forty-five minute lunch) and J giving me a lift home instead of commuting on the Tube, but is probably also from feeling that I achieved something practical and from being in a non-hostile, reasonably autism-friendly environment. I did come home feeling OK and not exhausted, which hasn’t really happened in a work environment for many years.

I got home reasonably early and for a while was hoping to work on my novel for a bit, but I started answering emails and responding to blog comments and suddenly it was an hour later. I did finish and send my devar Torah; did a little bit of Torah study, as I had done some on the Tube in to work, but not much; and did some ironing, so it wasn’t a wasted evening, but I felt that I didn’t get 100% out of it. This is possibly me being too self-critical.

***

I mentioned that last night I went to a virtual shiur (religious class). The rabbi said that given how hair-splittingly legalistic Judaism is (not his words, but not that far off), we would expect great Jewish leaders to be “bland and boring” (those were his words), yet they have vivid personalities. I thought about this. I can think of great Jewish religious leaders who did have vivid personalities. However, I also sometimes feel that contemporary Orthodox society can feel monolithic. That anyone who doesn’t fit the mould leaves, or gets thrown out. (I also don’t know if contemporary Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders fit the “vivid personalities” model, but I’m prepared to admit there that I don’t know them well enough to pass judgement.)

I’ve been thinking about this today. I don’t have any great answers. Orthodox society probably is monolithic. This is partly from overt religious conformism, but more because it’s mostly middle class. Orthodox families are talking about the same things non-religious middle class families talk about. Maybe not TV and popular culture (at least not at the Haredi end of the spectrum), but politics and house prices and which are the best schools to send their kids to and where they’re going on holiday and so on. Middle class people in general are not always noted for being daringly original and avant-garde. It’s why “bourgeois” is a term of abuse, particularly in artistic circles (for all that many artists are also middle class, much of their work is about épater les bourgeois). After a while it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people start to feel that they have to leave if they think differently almost without pausing to see what is actually available. The creatives assume religion is conformist and meaningless; the religious establishment assumes that art and individuality are dangerous (which is true) and unnecessary (which is not true).

For me, part of the attraction of figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (late eighteenth/early nineteenth century) and the Kotzker Rebbe (nineteenth century) is their willingness to shock the conventional religious and social pieties of their day while remaining fully Torah observant. As for today… I don’t know. I’ve met some unconventional Orthodox figures. I would like to meet more, although it’s hard to know how. For a while, Hevria.com was a place to “meet” creative frum (religious Jewish) people, but the conversations moved from the website to Facebook, and I won’t use Facebook, and I think they started focusing on in-person events instead of online content which is fine if you live in New York or Israel, but I don’t. Someone there really upset me too, on a very personal level, and that tainted it for me.

Of course, it has also occurred to me lately that maybe the reason I never fit in wherever I go is not because the sub-cultures I try to identify with are flawed, but because I have some kind of self-sabotaging fear of fitting in and conforming and start looking for reasons to feel like an outsider as well as an anxious fear of rejection that pre-empts future rejection by not getting connected in the first place.

***

According to my friend, who knows these things, this special Doctor Who magazine has sold out twice from the publisher’s website and once from a general magazine site. Science fiction shop Forbidden Planet seems to have sold out too. All this in the space of a week. Actually, as I’ve been looking since before it was published, I suspect it sold out largely from pre-orders. Certainly the publisher’s website seemed to sell out more or less immediately. I’m probably going to have to resign myself to not getting hold of it.

***

I’ve got four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return left. It picked up around the halfway point, with the various plot strands coming together, which in turn helped me to figure out who on Earth all the new characters were, how they related to each other and what they were doing. I will probably have to watch it at least once more to really understand it. I have discovered that I’m not as squeamish for screen gore as I thought, coping with some on-screen nastiness, although I prefer the original series were the gore (and sex and swearing) was mostly implicit. I feel vaguely bourgeois for saying that (see above). I do believe gore (and sex and swearing) can be dramatically justified, but not everything here seemed to pass that test, although some did. It’s hard, something I have struggled with in my writing, not gore per se, but violence, sex and swearing. It’s hard to tell when less is more sometimes. Just this week I cut something from my novel (sexual rather than violent) because I felt it was a distraction, but the novel features sexual violence that I think is necessary to be true to the subject (domestic abuse).

Lockdown Working, and Going Slooooowly

The first day of my new job went quite well. The train was relatively empty at 9.00am. There were still a lot of people on it, but we could sit with at least one empty seat between us and everyone wore masks. Also, I’m pleased that London Underground has put up signs reminding people that some disabilities are invisible, but I found their “Be Kind” signs a bit patronising.

Once arrived at work, I was in an office with my friend/line manager (who I will refer to as J for convenience). It was a small office and although we were socially distanced most of the time, at times we were not. The work he had me doing today was mostly checking data, comparing hardcopy records with the database and noting discrepancies. I got through about three-quarters of the data today, which was faster than he expected. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ve been sloppy. I was trying to be careful, and the office was mostly quiet, which hopefully means my concentration will be better than the previous data-entry jobs where I struggled with noise and interactions with others. I also hope that it doesn’t mean that the job won’t last long. J said he would look for other work for me when I finish this. He said there is work to be done migrating data from an existing database to Access, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that, although I was trained in using Access many years ago.

I felt awkward at lunch, as J just ate at his desk and seemed to keep working except when he went off to pray. I stopped for lunch, but felt too awkward too read my novel in the office as I would normally do to recharge during lunch. I ended up not taking a full hour because I was just sitting there messing around on my phone. My Dad says I should query this, or say that I need a full hour, which is already making me feel anxious. Part of me feels I shouldn’t ask for a full lunch as I’m already coming in to work an hour late (to avoid the Tube in rush hour with COVID) and probably leaving half an hour early most days (as J offered me a lift home and implied he always would, and he likes to leave around 4.30pm to beat the rush hour traffic). I can’t leave the office later, as we were the last ones out and I don’t want the responsibility of locking up. On the other hand, if J seems to be OK with this, maybe I shouldn’t argue. He seems to have an attitude of working towards the job rather than the clock.

As I said, J gave me a lift home as he lives near me. I sat in the back to socially distance, but I felt a bit uncomfortable, although I’m sure it’s safer than the Tube would have been at rush hour.

I was pleased that J did not talk much in the office, so I wasn’t distracted or too socially anxious. He did put the radio on in the car on the way home and then talked over it, so that I couldn’t hear and concentrate on either him or the radio. I probably should have said something, but I thought it would be rude. As he seemed to be making neurotypical small talk, I just made “Yes, right”-type noises and tried not to worry too much if I couldn’t hear everything.

On the whole I think it went well. It’s not a terribly interesting job and it’s not where my career should be going, but it keeps me occupied, plugs a gap on my CV and earns me some money at a time when the whole world is struggling, not just me.

***

I went to a Hasidut chaburah on Zoom via my shul (synagogue). I’m not sure how to translate chaburah. I guess it’s more informal than a shiur (religious class). The word is etymologically related to the idea of fellowship, of people getting together to work on their personality traits together, in this case via Hasidut, specifically the teachings of the Hasidic Rebbe of Piaseczno. To be honest, I was probably too tired to get much from it, and talks about character traits just tend to make me feel useless and bad, full of bad traits, but I was interested to hear the rabbi say that we are not our character traits, because I tend to identify overly with my character traits, especially the negative ones. I tend to struggle to identify myself away from my thoughts and traits.

***

I’m mostly feeling OK now, just very tired. But I do feel a bit daunted. Things are going reasonably well for me at the moment, but I’m daunted by how long it will be before anything can come to fruition. The job I just started is not going to be a career. It probably won’t last more than two or three months. I don’t know where I go with my career after that. My novel is progressing, but I blow hot and cold as to whether it is any good. I think it will be a year or so before I feel able to share any of it with anyone else (OK, strictly speaking E saw some early chapters, but I’m not in contact with her any more and I think she was biased as we were dating at the time).

Above all, things are going well with PIMOJ, but we can’t even see each other properly because of lockdown. I think things are good, but it’s hard to be sure when we get to spend such little time together. She’s not like me at all in terms of personality, but we have a lot of core values in common. I do feel that I can’t always communicate with her so well via text and I’m not completely sure why, given that I usually find text easier although, as I’ve said in the past, if we do communicate better in person, that’s better for our long-term relationship prospects (I’ve also said that the fact that English isn’t her first language probably complicates things). For various reasons this is not going to be a typical ultra-Orthodox-style whirlwind romance (in the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox world, people will typically go on six or eight dates at most before deciding to marry someone). Even conservatively, if not much goes wrong, it’s going to be several years before we could think about getting married (and we’re both religious, so my thirty-seven years of celibacy are set to continue indefinitely).

***

I know I’ve vacillated back and forth here about posting something about my politics, wanting to write something from a social anxiety point of view as anything else i.e. about feeling isolated in certain gatherings rather than advocating X, Y and Z. I actually wrote a long post which has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while now. I want to add a bit to it, but perhaps I’ll post it later this week, assuming I don’t lose my nerve.

I often seem to be in situations where most people don’t share my beliefs, whether political or religious (religiously, I’ve shared Rabbi Lord Sacks’ z”tl notion that Modern Orthodox Jews are a minority or a minority of a minority). This is often uncomfortable, but it does mean that I can’t take anything for granted, I have to articulate what I believe and why constantly, at least to myself if not to other people. That’s probably a worthwhile exercise to undertake regardless of what you believe.

***

Sleeping, Walking, Writing

I went to bed early (for me, anyway), slept for twelve hours and woke up feeling burnt out again. By the time I got up the cleaner was here, but I was too tired to get dressed before going down for breakfast, so she saw that I was in pyjamas and dressing gown at midday. I suppose this could make me feel decadent, but mostly makes me feel lazy and useless. Then I ended up going back to bed for a bit, although I didn’t sleep. I just felt completely drained.

I can see that staying in bed so long might make me more tired, but I don’t usually wake up naturally after eight or nine hours. Even if I set an alarm, I don’t really wake up properly before I’ve turned it off in my sleep. An alarm on the other side of the room I just sleep through. Perhaps irrationally, it annoys me that I can’t work out if this is depressive burnout or autistic burnout. If depressive, why is it persisting when most of my other symptoms have gone? It’s it’s autistic, then why was I not like this as a child? I went to school every day without a problem until I was sixteen, when the depression started. Did I just have more energy or resilience then? It does make me worry about starting work next week; I hope I don’t have to cancel volunteering because it’s too much to do volunteering and therapy one day, then work the next.

I went for a walk even though it was a bit of a struggle because of exhaustion. It wasn’t terribly long, but I went slowly, because of exhaustion and because PIMOJ asked me to take some photos so she could see where I was going. That was quite a nice thing to do “together”, but stopping and starting probably neutralised the exercise aspect. I’m also not terribly good (or, to be fair, experienced) at taking photos with my phone. Still, it was a nice thing to do. I think PIMOJ would be good at getting me to do little things like that to bond or to decrease my depression (the whole photo thing came about because I said I was feeling depressed today and she said to go on a walk and then added to take photos so she could see where I’m going). I guess my fear is that sometimes I want to withdraw to my Fortress of Solitude and work things through or just sit with my emotions rather than being cheered up. Sometimes that’s the right decision for me; other times I do actually need to be cheered up (like today). I think it may take us a while to work out how to tell which is which.

I don’t know whether it was the walk or the fact that my mood usually peaks in the afternoon/early evening, but I managed to do an hour of work on my novel (admittedly with procrastination) and finished my devar Torah for the week.With the devar Torah, after saying yesterday I wasn’t satisfied with it, I actually feel happier with it now, feeling I’ve got a reasonable balance between primary sources, secondary sources and my own interpretations. Strangely, with the novel I currently feel happier with the plot thread I’ve invented from scratch than with the part that is rooted in my own experiences (and which was the original idea for the novel). The truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is better structured and probably more interesting. Also, I don’t really like the character based on me very much, which speaks volumes about my self-esteem.

This cartoon sums up a problem I’d already noticed in my novel. When I started writing a little over a year ago, I wrote an internal timeline of events (it’s a coming of age story that takes place over several years and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t accidentally have one character living through more time than the others by writing “a few months passed” too often), but I didn’t explicitly tie it to specific dates so that the book could be read as “roughly in the present” for a number of years. Then suddenly a massive, dramatic change to how we live occurred and I wonder if I should explicitly date it to be before COVID, otherwise the chronology doesn’t work. But then I worry it will feel almost like a period piece when (if?) we get to the other side of COVID.

***

I got an invitation, or a virtual invitation, to a wedding. It’s the daughter of one of my shul friends who is getting married. She is significantly younger than me as my friend is quite a bit older than me (a number of my friends are significantly older than me. I’m not sure if it speaks to my maturity or autism or something else). I’m glad I’m getting better at dealing with “older single in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community” element of my life. It’s still a bit difficult to get my head around it. I sit with my friend at shul (synagogue) and have been invited for Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and festival) meals on a number of occasions, so I do know him and his family quite well. It just feels strange to be going to a wedding for someone so much younger than me, and a Zoom wedding at that. I’m not quite sure what the protocol is regarding presents. I would struggle to go if it was an in-person wedding with noise and strangers (autism and social anxiety), but the fact that it’s over Zoom and just the ceremony makes that easier at least although I’m not sure how it will fit with my new job.

***

From a pamphlet of quotations from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov that PIMOJ gave me: “Whatever one is enduring, one must muster the inner strength, as the verse says, “If I ascend to the heavens, there You are, and if I make my bed in hell, here You are,” because even in the depths of hell one can become close to God, for He is there also.” (originally from Lekutey Moharan)

Stalemate

I struggled to get up again this morning. I felt like my sleep was not at all refreshing, which is not unusual for me, but this time seemed particularly bad. I had weird dreams, which I can’t really remember, but I think shul (synagogue) was part of it, so I probably feel guilty for leaving the online AGM early or am just feeling again that I don’t fit in and that everyone else is doing “better” than me in life, whatever that means. To be honest, I probably would have stayed in bed longer, but I knew I had a dentist’s appointment at 2pm and wanted to get up and have lunch first.

I felt rather depressed for much of the day. I’m catastrophising a bit, worried that things won’t work with PIMOJ or in my new job, and that I’ll let my friend down in the latter. The slow pace things are going with PIMOJ is probably good overall, as I don’t think either of us has much relationship experience, but it is frustrating.

I was also worried about the dentist, partly because I’ve been nervous about it since having my first filling a year or so ago, partly because it’s a dentist I haven’t been to before and there’s a lot of autistic “new situation” anxiety there. In the end, I was fine. I have receding gums because I brush too hard, but otherwise fine. I’m not sure how to stop brushing so hard; this is not the first time I’ve been warned about it. There was some slight tremor, but not much.

I went for a walk for about an hour. I have usually been walking for half an hour most days when I don’t run, but I think I should try to increase it a bit as it’s going to become harder to run now the days are shorter, the weather wetter and I’ll be working two days a week. That said, in retrospect, I wonder if walking too long exhausted me and brought my mood down as my mood seemed even worse in the afternoon, the opposite of what usually happens.

I spent an hour or so on my novel. I procrastinated quite a bit. I’m struggling with redrafting. I feel like I’ve lost all ability to judge the quality of my writing, so I have no idea what to change as it seems equally good/bad. Actually, what it seems like most of the time is just indifferent. Also, actually fixing stuff is a lot harder than realising that just spotting that something needs fixing!

While redrafting, I kept getting distracted by tinkering with a draft blog post I’ve got saved about politics that I may never get the courage to post. Eventually I gave up working on either novel or post as I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere and I wanted to be in a reasonable state of mind for Zoom depression group in the evening.

I only managed about fifteen minutes of Torah study, which upsets me a little, but there you go. Realistically, I probably did too much yesterday, especially that overlong AGM, and am suffering burnout today.

At depression group I had the courage to go first (no one ever wants to go first). I spoke about my anxieties about my new job and COVID Tube travel as well as my autism assessment. I didn’t speak about PIMOJ again. I don’t know why. I think I struggle to share with the group the way other people can, particularly on Zoom; I think when we met in person pre-COVID I shared more. I suppose it’s harder to feel a rapport and sense any kind of empathy over Zoom. I certainly find it harder just to speak and listen on Zoom. There’s a function to turn off your camera; I wish there was a function to turn off everyone else’s cameras when I speak as I find the movement (and, on speaker view, the cutting between cameras if someone hasn’t muted themselves) distracting.

I’m trying to focus on the present, otherwise I slip back into depression and self-criticism. I find myself missing PIMOJ and wondering how much of that is genuine and how much is just loneliness. I hope it’s genuine, but it’s probably too early to say. We’ve only been in contact for two months.

I also find myself feeling “touch hunger,” the need to be held. I feel this a lot lately. Hugging my parents helps a bit, but not completely and lately I’ve found it hard to hug my parents, I don’t know why. I guess I just feel withdrawn. As someone on the autistic spectrum, and as an Orthodox Jewish man who tries to keep the laws about not having affectionate physical contact with unrelated women, touch is doubly difficult for me even without COVID. PIMOJ and I hugged on our last date and I don’t really regret it, even though both Jewish law and COVID regulations forbade it. It is hard to know what to do sometimes. I feel like I did what I had to do, even though it’s probably objectively wrong from a variety of viewpoints. Just don’t tell my rabbi or the police (although the idea of being fined for hugging my date is amusing). I know this probably sounds strange from a secular perspective, where sexual contact is assumed to be the norm even in the under age, but for me just hugging is a big, guilt-inducing thing.

I guess today, and other recent days, feels like stalemate, with nothing moving. I’m aware that things are going to change from next week when I start work again. I just hope things change for the better.

***

I’m watching Twin Peaks: The Return, the sequel series to Twin Peaks. I’m in the middle of episode four of eighteen. I don’t think it’s as good as the initial series, or at least the initial series was until they solved the murder of Laura Palmer (halfway through the second season). The original series had a strong hook (the murder), interesting characters and an intense sense of place (Twin Peaks and the surrounding forest). With this background, the style was allowed to flow naturally into a strange and wonderful mash-up of police procedural, soap opera, paranormal horror story and surreal comedy. The Return feels all over the place: no focus of plot or place, no interesting characters. It feels like the only character we’ve really seen at length is Agent Cooper, and he’s done nothing except wander around in a daze, repeating words other people say.

In the original series the weirdness felt like it had an underlying logic that we could not understand. In The Return, it feels like weird things happen because this is Twin Peaks. Rather than juggling different genres expertly, it’s hard to find any genre for it. I can see why they wanted to avoid simply rehashing the original series and do something new, but I think they over-compensated. I’m sufficiently invested in the series to watch more, primarily in the hope that Agent Cooper’s consciousness returns and rejoins his body, but I doubt I would be interested if I hadn’t seen the original series.

Rabbi Sacks, and Comparing Myself to Friends

I know, there’s been an election in America. That’s not what I want to write about. Shortly after Shabbat (the Sabbath) finished, the Anglo-Jewish community heard that Rabbi Lord Sacks, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, had died. I still feel shocked and am struggling to process things. I never met him personally (although I’ve been in the same room as him a couple of times), but I own ten of his books, and that’s excluding his prayer books (siddur, five machzorim and hagaddah). I’ve read far too many of his divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) to count over the years as a long-term subscriber to his email essays and updates. Just this year, I’ve seen him speak live online several times on video during lockdown. I quote him a lot in my own divrei Torah. I knew he had cancer, but I had no idea that it was this far advanced.

Rabbi Sacks was a major influence on my thought. He was really the first rabbi who showed me that it’s possible to belong to both Orthodox Jewish society and wider Western culture, not just as a bidieved (exceptional, after-the-event circumstance), but as a deliberate choice. The Jewish community in the UK is very small, about 400,000 people, I believe the smallest mainstream religious community in the UK, but we have a much bigger societal presence than that. It’s not by any means entirely due to Rabbi Sacks, but his eloquence and media presence ensured that he was an ambassador for the community on the wider stage. I suspect the community under-rated him in his lifetime, partly due to a few controversies he was in, and also because his ability to explain difficult ideas from Judaism and Western philosophy in an accessible way made him sound less intelligent and original than he was; he was never a ‘difficult’ read in the way that e.g. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was.

To lose Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz within a few months of each other is a massive loss to global the Jewish community in general and the Centrist or Modern Orthodox community in particular. Barukh dayan ha’emet.

***

My second, and hopefully final, autism assessment appointment has been delayed until 2 December. I’m not quite sure why. It’s a little frustrating, but I feel OK about it. At least the NHS warned me in advance this time.

***

As for how I’ve been, I got up earlier than usual on Friday and managed to get in more than an hour of work on my novel before Shabbat. It was slow going, re-reading and editing, and my heart wasn’t really in it, but I slogged on.

I think my parents thought I was fairly grumpy on Friday night. To be honest, they were right. I didn’t mean to sound grumpy, but everything I said came out wrong, when I was able to do more than grunt and shrug. I’m not always good at understanding or even spotting my emotions, so if they hadn’t told me, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. They asked if I was anxious about anything and I initially said no, but after a while I realised that I have a new job, where I’m worried about letting a friend down and about travelling on public transport during lockdown and catching COVID, and even beyond that I’m worried about juggling work, Torah study, writing my weekly devar Torah and working on my novel as well as looking for further work for when this finishes, so it’s not surprising that I am a bit anxious.

***

I finished reading the anthology of writings by Rav Kook that I’ve been reading for some weeks now (The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters and Poems). This post has already been dominated by Jewish stuff/rabbis, so I will not say much, just that, although I had read some of Rav Kook’s writings before, I had not realised his enormous relevance to the contemporary world. In a world where we are encouraged to think in terms of binary opposites (religion OR science; the individual OR the community; tradition OR modernity; nationalism OR universalism), Rav Kook says, “No, God is bigger than that, God is big enough for both, and more.” Essential reading.

***

After Shabbat I had a Zoom call with a bunch of friends from my Oxford days. We tend to meet up every six months or so and are now doing it on Zoom because of COVID. I enjoy seeing them, even virtually, but I sometimes end up feeling a bit negative about myself as I’m the only one without a good job (university lecturer/writer and two lawyers, although one is a law teacher at the moment) and one had his baby daughter with him on the call for a while. I thought I was over this kind of looking over my shoulder and comparing myself to others, but obviously not.

I mentioned about my novel to them the last time we spoke, really to have something to say and not to sound pathetic for being long-term unemployed, but I feel really uncomfortable talking about it and I’m not sure why. It’s partly that I never like talking about myself, but I think also that I’ve told people that the novel is semi-autobiographical, which it is, but now I’m trying to walk that back because (a) a lot of it is NOT autobiographical and (b) I don’t want people assuming that certain bits are autobiographical when they are not (or, in some instances, when they are, but I don’t want to make that public. In particular, I’m vaguely worried about someone I used to know realising one of the characters was originally based on her, even though I’ve now developed her beyond that).

I wanted to do some work on my novel tonight, but after the Zoom call and dinner, it was too late, plus I’ve been thinking about Rabbi Sacks and wanting to write this post.

Autism Assessment (1)

I slept badly last night. It probably wasn’t surprising that I had an anxious dream the night before my autism assessment, but the details were a bit odd. I dreamt about someone who was around (in the real world) at the worst time of my life who I hurt, and by whom I got hurt by in the process. I still feel I haven’t had closure on that and probably never will. It’s not that surprising I dreamt about her, as I still think about that situation a lot and am drawing on it for my novel, so it’s been at the forefront of my mind lately. The same dream also involved being in the library of a university I worked at for a while, where a (real life) Jewish lecturer was talking about the library having sixty-four windows representing sixty-four types of knowledge (philosophy, history, physics etc.) none of which included Torah study, which I think was about feeling sometimes that there is no place for religious Jews in secular Western society, and perhaps more broadly that there is no place for me in the world.

I woke feeling anxious and drained, which was not a good start, and I still didn’t know when my appointment was actually going to bed. I got ready for my appointment at 9.30am as per the email I received yesterday, only to be phoned a few minutes beforehand to be told the appointment was at 10.30am after all, as I was told on the phone. NHS, etc. At least they did get in touch.

The appointment itself went well. It lasted over an hour, with me talking for most of the time. We went over childhood experiences, recent history, general medical history and so on. I did use my prepared notes a bit. At the end, the psychiatrist said that I’m probably on the spectrum. However, before she finalises the diagnosis, she wants to look at the notes from my previous assessment ten years or more ago (which were not on file for some reason). I’m going to scan a copy of that over the weekend and email it along with my notes about why I think I’m on the spectrum so she can see the rest of that. Then we’ll have a shorter meeting in a few weeks to discuss diagnosis and recommendations. But it sounded like it was very likely that I’m going to be diagnosed as on the spectrum, or at least close enough that I won’t feel stupid for thinking that I’m there.

I think it’s all positive. It’s a relief just to hear that I’m probably on the spectrum. It explains a lot, and hopefully will stop me beating myself up so much about things when I can’t cope well with them.

I’m glad I have Shabbat to pause and process what happened today. Shabbat is good for processing. I am going to shul (synagogue) this evening. I did think about skipping a week as I’m tired, but I think it’s good to stay in the habit of going regularly and if I stay at home I’ll probably be just as tired. I might not do so much Torah study as usual though. I will probably be exhausted tomorrow, but that’s not a problem.

I might post more about this after Shabbat, if I have any more thoughts to add. I’ve got to dash now as Shabbat starts in an hour and a half now the clocks have gone back.

Living the Life, and Intermittent Depression

I got up at 6.30am to go to volunteering. I got there on time. Unfortunately, the fresh fruit and vegetables we were supposed to be packing (for the needy) did not. We packed the dry and tinned food, toilet paper and so on, but when I left at 11.00am the fruit and veg had still not arrived, even though most of the food parcels had been sent on their way to their recipients. The delivery company blamed traffic. It must be disappointing to the recipients. Doing this has really made me appreciate how close some people live to the breadline, a fact I knew intellectually, but not emotionally before now.

I had some awkward autistic moments at volunteering, one big, embarrassing executive function malfunction and some minor communication difficulties, but I think I was mostly OK, even making a bit of small talk.

When I got home I was too tired to do very much. It’s strange how much two and a half hours of volunteering plus an early start takes out of me. I did a little Torah study (I had done some on the bus to volunteering, but wasn’t sure if it technically counted as “Torah” – the letters of Rav Kook and a psychological analysis of Iyov (Job)). I procrastinated a bit, and then it was time for therapy.

Therapy was good. I was awake, thanks to the power of coffee. This therapy is more about practical coping strategies than delving into my past, which is what I need right now. The therapist suggested spending time checking in with my thoughts to see if I am drifting into anxiety or depression, which for me is often about losing present-focus. I said that I’m already kind of doing that with my blog – when I read it through before posting I can sometimes see that I’m beating myself up unnecessarily or worrying or whatever. (I’m even doing that now as I proof-read, because I’m aware that I’ve got some more depressed thoughts coming up in a minute.) We (it’s not always obvious at the end of a session who suggested what) also had some practical ideas for interview practise and to see if there are exercises online to improve executive function. I did look for these, but they seem to mostly be things I’m already doing.

We had a family Zoom meeting in the evening, me, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, uncle, aunt and five cousins (at different times). It was good, but I feel I don’t talk much when I’m around my extended family. Actually, that’s not quite true; I talk more when we’re present in person, but not on Zoom. We spoke a bit about different COVID regulations in Britain and Israel; when you compare different countries, a lot of it begins to seem arbitrary (not in the sense that it’s unnecessary, but that no one government seems to really know what to do).

I feel I’m not as close to my extended family as I would like. I guess it’s not surprising, as my uncle, aunt and eldest two cousins moved to Israel decades ago; the younger three cousins were born there. Mum and Dad go out there a lot, but I haven’t always gone with them. And I always feel that as the eldest of the seven cousins (I’m nine years older than my eldest cousin), I’m in this strange position of not quite being one of the adults, but not being one of the children either (this could be my epitaph). And life in Israel is very different to life in the UK. But I guess it is partly that I can’t always connect with other people, and why would my family be different? I count myself lucky that I have a good relationship with my parents and my sister. It would be easy to drift into autistic solitary seclusion. The fact that I live at home is obviously a help there, and I think COVID and Mum’s cancer has brought me closer to my parents.

***

While I was at volunteering, I got a phone call from the hospital that will be doing my autism assessment. I asked them to phone back when I was at home. They didn’t. I’m probably going to have to chase this.

***

I wrote a bit yesterday about not feeling able to live the sort of life I’m “supposed” to lead according to mainstream twenty-first century Western or frum (Jewish religious) standards. I’m trying to feel that my worth isn’t related to those standards, the standards of being rich and successful (mainstream) or studying a lot of Torah and being very involved in the community (frum) or being married and having children (mainstream and frum), but it’s hard. I suppose I don’t have some other standard of worth on which to measure myself in a positive way. I try to judge myself based on what I can do, but it’s hard to tell what that is sometimes. I try to be a good son, a good brother, a good friend, but it’s hard to tell if I am objectively those things. Likewise I try to be a good Jew, keep halakhah (Jewish law) and connect with God as much as I can, but, again, it often feels like I could do more and I don’t know how realistic that feeling is. Sometimes (often) I wish I could see myself objectively, as God or other people see me.

***

I’ve been feeling depressed on and off today and I don’t know why. I can see external triggers, like seeing a clip (on Twitter, inevitably) of Orthodox Jews showing support for Black Lives Matter at a BLM march being threatened by BLM supporters, and the comments this got on Twitter. But that’s superficial. I’m not sure why I feel down persistently over the last few days. It feels like a few weeks ago I felt better. Now… I don’t feel constantly bad, as I did from 2003 until a few years ago (I’m not sure when exactly), but there are down times, particularly today. Some is probably tiredness and hunger, and – if not boredom, then frustration and wanting escapism (see below for more on this). Some is frustration with dating in lockdown and wanting to be able to spend more time with PIMOJ, in different settings than just cold walks in parks. Some is the days getting shorter, which always sets me back. I guess I’m also having some doubts about my novel, about why I’m even trying to write a mainstream literary novel (because I want to tell my story and my story doesn’t involve time machines or monsters), whether I will ever get it in good enough shape that I want to share it with anyone else, let alone look for a publisher. I wonder if I will ever have a job again and what that would mean for me. Intermittently at least I feel dysfunctional (like when messing up at volunteering today). I guess I don’t know where my life is going. In some ways the surprising thing is that I’m still on a reasonably even keel. I can see that I have a lot of non-present-focused fears and recrimination here, it’s just hard to know how to bring back present-focus. Perhaps by going to bed?!

***

I was warned that Twin Peaks goes rapidly downhill in the second half of its second season, but I was not prepared for just how far down it goes and how quickly. Pretty much as soon as Laura Palmer’s murder is solved (the initial “hook” of the plot), the whole thing falls apart. The suspense, sense of danger and emotional depth is gone and without that the horror effects, soap operatic sub-plots and moments of surrealism just seem silly, camp and pointless. I’m invested enough in the series and the characters to keep watching, especially as I’ve heard it does pick up again at the very end of the season, but I don’t think I’ll be binge-watching three episodes in a day again. (Well, or so I thought. I was planning to watch a film this evening, but then I couldn’t decide which one and the family Zoom call went on longer than I expected so I ended up watching more Twin Peaks instead, and the episode was a little better than the one I watched earlier.)

Grade D

I’m feeling less burnt out today, which is good. I haven’t really given myself credit for not worrying too much about the job interview result. I’m actually more concerned about what happens if they give me the job, but want me to work full-time than if they reject me completely. I don’t think I’m ready to work full-time. To be honest, I have not been worrying much about it at all, although I’m not sure how much credit I can take for that, as it hasn’t been a conscious thing.

Well, literally seconds after writing this, I checked my emails and found I’ve been rejected from the job. Oh well. Back to the job hunt, and, on the plus side, the novel writing. Working full-time would have made that a lot harder. I haven’t worked on the novel for a couple of weeks because of Yom Tov (Jewish festivals) and focusing on job applications, so I’m excited to get back to it next week.

Edit again: I got interview feedback, and I did really badly. A mix of Cs and Ds, with a D overall. I used to be good at things. I was more or less a straight A student at school (I wasn’t so good at art and design and was awful and games/PE, but I was good at everything else). At Oxford I was average, but at least that was average out of a pool of high achievers. However, since leaving university, I’ve just been awful, and I don’t even interview well any more. I feel I can’t even judge myself accurately any more, if I thought I’d done well in that interview when I had done so poorly. I know I struggle to “think on my feet” and process and respond to spoken questions in real time, as well as struggling to speak confidently at interview and to deliver appropriate answers. I know I struggle to apply the STAR technique for interview responses (mention Situation Task Action and Result). I know all this is because of autism and social anxiety. And yet. And yet. I still feel useless.

I feel that writing is the only thing I can do well, but so far I have literally made only a few pounds from writing (£25 for writing an article on OCD for a geeky website and a few pounds from selling my self-published Doctor Who book to a couple of friends and family members). I’d like to say that “I know that I’m a good writer,” but I don’t. I hope that I’m a good writer, and I’ve had some positive feedback, but I’ve also struggled to market myself as a writer and monetise writing for myself. I also don’t know if my fiction writing is any good, as I’ve mostly written non-fiction stuff until now.

***

If I’m upset about one thing, it can “spill over” to something else. I subscribe to various library blogs in case they will with CPD (Continuing Professional Development). When Unorthodox (Netflix series about a woman from an ultra-Orthodox community who becomes secular) The New York Public Library blog had a list of books and DVDs about Jews who gave up traditional Judaism to become secular. The list didn’t include any books about people who try to combine traditional religion with modernity or anything positive about traditional Judaism at all. Now the library has a list of books on Native Americans… and they all look positive. No books about how stupid, backwards, superstitious, misogynistic (etc.) Native American culture is the way those books treated Orthodox Judaism. Why is Orthodox Judaism the only minority community/religion it’s OK to hate? People get away with it because there’s no shortage of Jews who feel that way, so they can play the “I’m not antisemitic, he’s Jewish and he said it” card.

***

Trying to focus on god things today: I ate in the sukkah. It was raining slightly and started raining more heavily just as I finished. It was nice to get out there one more time as I think it might be too wet tonight and tomorrow, and eating in the sukkah on Shmini Atzeret is not a straightforward mitzvah in any case.

PIMOJ was also really supportive about the job rejection and I’m beginning to feel that maybe she would support me even if she knew more about my “issues.”

I do feel a bit better. I’m trying to focus on Shabbat and Yom Tov. I’m apprehensive about going to shul (synagogue) later, but at least it will get me out of the house and out of this mindset.

“For the rain it raineth every day”

The first two days of Sukkot (the festival of Tabernacles, which is probably as meaningless to most people in English as in Hebrew) was a bit of a wash out. It rained heavily and almost constantly for two days. There were small lulls in the rain on Saturday afternoon, which meant we ate in the sukkah (the temporary hut in the garden where we are supposed to live during this festival) for Shabbat (Sabbath) lunch and I had seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) there and a small meal out there just now, but otherwise we couldn’t go out there. The first two nights we said the minimum amount of prayers out there and ate a little bread to fulfil the mitzvah (commandment) of eating bread out there the first two nights, but it was far too wet to eat properly, which was a shame. I’m not sure how much we’re going to get out there during Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of the festival, which start tonight and run until Friday evening. Hopefully it won’t rain all week. I guess it’s a reminder that, as comfortable as our lives are, we are still in exile; in Israel rain during Sukkot is a rare event.

The other main news is that I went to shul (synagogue) on Saturday afternoon for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers). I was very anxious about being back in a social setting, and that I didn’t know exactly what I was going into (the classic autistic fear). Everything was very different to the pre-COVID normal, with masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser, few people and all kinds of new regulations to reduce contact between people (e.g. everyone has to bring their own prayerbook and the furniture inside the shul has been reorientated from east-facing (facing Jerusalem) to south-facing to allow better social distancing). I had an aliyah (call to read from the Torah), which was also done in a new, very different way to avoid contact again. I accidentally touched something I should not have touched, whoops. It was OK, but I felt very anxious the whole time and I am not sure how much that is due to unfamiliarity and autism, how much to social anxiety, both of which may reduce with practise, and how much to health anxiety and fear of COVID. I felt very uncomfortable praying with a mask. I will try to go again once or twice a week, but I don’t think I will be a frequent attendee until after COVID, it’s just too uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking for me at the moment. Otherwise Yom Tov was the usual mix of meals with my parents, prayer, Torah study, reading and sleeping. It was too wet to go for walks.

Chol HaMoed is a strange time, neither fully Yom Tov (festival) or weekday. We can do work that would be forbidden on Yom Tov, but should only really do so if necessary for the enjoyment of the festival or if we would incur a significant loss if it was not done. What this means is that I can have my job interview on Tuesday and prepare for it tomorrow, but I feel uncomfortable about it, even without about the worrying busyness of Tuesday (job interview, followed by first ‘proper’ (in person) date with PIMOJ followed by dinner with my parents, sister and brother-in-law). I still think the job interview I had the other week, at the Very Important Institution, is more likely to lead to a job, or at least to one within my capabilities and meeting at least some of my mental health and autistic needs.

Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Job Interviews and Autism

I’m feeling burnt out again. My brain has the “stuffed with cotton wool” feeling that I haven’t had for a while. I guess at this time of year, for religious Jews, things get rather fraught anyway, with so many Yom Tovim (festivals) in rapid succession. We had Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) last week; on Sunday night and Monday is Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) and then at the end of the week is the start of the mammoth nine day festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and its semi-detached conclusion of Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Assembly) and Simchat Torah (the Rejoicing of the Torah). I’m not getting up at 5.30am for selichot (penitential prayers) at the moment as I “should” be doing; I can only imagine what state I would be in if I were. At least after Monday the festivals will be less psychologically intense, with a focus on joy rather than on repentance, even if there is still a lot to do practically, although I have the “threat” of going back to shul (synagogue) in COVID times hanging over me, which I still do not feel comfortable about.

Because of Shabbat and Yom Kippur, I only have one full day to prepare for my job interview, and maybe an hour or so squeezed in amidst preparation on Sunday. To be honest, today I don’t have much energy/will power for preparation. The interview schedule I was sent seems to indicate that they’re only going to ask questions about my presentation, but that seemed unlikely, unless there’s a second, more general, interview somewhere down the line, so I want to prepare for general questions. I feel that I’m not good at interviews any more. I had a lot of practise for them when I was at school, preparing for university applications, but I have gone rusty. With autism, it’s hard to respond to questions in speech and without pause to consider, as would be permitted with a written test, and sometimes I just stop for several seconds (or longer) as my brain tries to get in gear. Sometimes the question doesn’t even register properly first time around and I have to ask the interviewer to repeat it, another autistic trait. Other times I stumble over my words and don’t sound too coherent, plus there’s sometimes some thinking of good things to say after the interview is over. I don’t know why it’s thought that testing someone’s ability to think and speak on their feet is a good test for how they will behave in a job that is largely written. To be fair, when I’ve had tests of my cataloguing ability lately I’ve done badly with them too, which does my self-esteem no good either.

I just feel negative about stuff today: interview, work, dating… I’m trying not to think about anything important, as it all just seems impossible. Not thinking about things seems safer than being relentlessly negative.

Oversleeping and Social Anxiety

I am feeling somewhat self-critical today. As often happens, I woke up about 8.00am to go to the toilet and wanted to stay up, but ended up going back to bed again and sleeping for another couple of hours. I feel really bad when I do this, and it happens quite a lot, as if I had minimal self-control and will-power, which I know is not the case. It’s just that I get overwhelmed with exhaustion and maybe some mild depression (and, probably, habit too, I admit) and just feel that I have to get back to bed ASAP. PIMOJ has taken to sending me Skype messages on her way to work, around 8.00am, and sometimes I wake up enough to hear the phone ping, and I want to message her back, but I’m just too tired and end up replying at 11.00am or later and feeling embarrassed. This has been a problem for years and years, through different medications and therapies and occupational therapy. Sometimes I have made progress on it during periods of remission from depression (there was a period six years ago or so when I was getting to early morning services in shul (synagogue) three or four times a week), but whenever the depression comes back, it knocks me right back to square one and it’s a struggle to get my sleep pattern sorted out all over again even if, as at the moment, depression isn’t a huge problem in any other aspect of my life. The only thing that works is scheduling stuff to do in the morning, but it has to be an external thing like work or a psychiatrist appointment; if it’s something I just want to do like getting an early start on the day, it won’t happen.

As a side-light on this, I forgot to take my evening dose of anti-depressants until nearly midnight last night and I suddenly had a lot of energy in the evening. My meds definitely do make me tired and slow me down, but I don’t think I can be so sure of being over the depression to ask to come off them completely, given that in the past that has always made my symptoms get much worse very quickly, and given that autumn is traditionally the time of year where my mood dips as the days shorten and the weather worsens.

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I find not only do I hate wearing a mask, I realised that I hate that other people are wearing them too. Partly it’s that there’s a part of my brain that says, “Mask in a hospital = doctor or nurse; mask in the high street = bank robber,” but beyond that it’s a feeling that I find it hard enough to understand body language and facial expressions as it is (being autistic) without having the lower half of the face completely covered and voice muffled.

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Ugh, I don’t want to finish the Jewish year on a bad note!

Good things #1: someone came to the door today while I was davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers). My parents were at the hospital again. I got to the end of the Amidah (the most important prayer) and hurriedly removed my tefillin and tallit (the prayer boxes and prayer shawl worn by men for weekday morning prayers) and rushed downstairs. It was someone from my shul (synagogue) bringing a small gift to those of us who are shielding and won’t make it to shul over Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, starting tonight). I was grateful, but also feeling hugely embarrassed that I had kept him waiting; I also didn’t want to admit I was davening as it was long past the ideal time for morning prayers. I think he thought I had been in the toilet. I also realised I was wearing a bright red polo shirt, which I tend not to wear when I think I might meet people from shul, as some Orthodox Jews avoid wearing red (more women than men, admittedly). So I felt hugely embarrassed and socially awkward, but it was nice to be thought of. Then I got further flustered and wished him the greeting that is really for Yom Kippur in two weeks’ time rather than for Rosh Hashanah. Because of all this I had a big rush of social anxiety, it took me a while to feel comfortable again, but I suppose there was no harm done and it was nice to be thought of.

Good thing #2: I finished Rav Kook’s The Lights of Penitence yesterday. It was very difficult to understand in parts, very mystical, and as with all mysticism, I wonder where it comes from and how much is authentic, but it was also a very moving and inspiring book and helped me perhaps to conceptualise my life differently, to think of teshuva (penitence) as something ongoing and lifelong rather than a hurdle that I should have overcome by now, and also to see teshuva as something leading to growth and joy rather than being fixated on my negative traits and deeds. Definitely something to re-read before Rosh Hashanah in future years, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being times to focus on teshuva and growth.

Good thing #3: I emailed a bunch of friends to wish them shana tova (good new year) and my oldest friend, who I haven’t seen in person for years, emailed back to say we should have a virtual coffee soon. I was pleased, as I had thought the same thing, but hadn’t really dared to suggest it, as he’s a communal rabbi and I know they’re busy pretty much 24/7. So hopefully we’ll be able to do that in a few weeks.

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So ends the Jewish year 5780. It was pretty bad in parts, but my family made it through OK in the end. I’m hoping for a better 5781 though. Shanah tovah – have a good new year!

In Praise of Idleness

Today I felt tired with poor concentration. It is not surprising; I went to over six hours’ worth of shiurim (religious classes) on Zoom yesterday, so it’s only to be expected that I feel burnt out today. Still, I feel bad for struggling to do things. Beating myself up a bit, although trying not to. I really wanted to work on my novel, or at least read some more of the book I’m reading on characterisation, as well as do some Torah study, but I struggled to do anything. In the end I read a little of the characterisation book (it mostly made me feel like a bad writer), did about fifteen minutes of Torah study, quickly cooked some plain pasta for dinner and went for a walk. That was about all I could manage today. Mum and Dad spent the afternoon at the hospital, so I was lucky to have the house to myself. I felt too burnt out, and Zoomed out, to go to Zoom depression group this evening, so I plan to watch Star Trek Voyager until bedtime; I don’t really feel up to doing anything else.

I wish I could just do more with my life, that intermittent bouts of depression and autistic burnout didn’t regularly derail me, and impede my functioning even on better days. As Ashley said on her post today, “high functioning” is an unhelpful term, as functionality can vary over time or in different environments or with different tasks, not to mention the fact that “high functioning” is essentially an arbitrary term that means different things to different people. I certainly feel that my “high functioning” autism is not always very functional, and the same probably goes for when my depression was more severe, but I was still working. I was present at work, but my work was sub-par and getting through each day was an ordeal.

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Perhaps because I feel burnt out, I’ve been thinking about idleness this afternoon. Orthodox Judaism is very intense and demanding, not just with work and family, but Torah study, mitzvot (commandments) and chessed (kindness, which covers a multitude of concepts: visiting the sick and cooking for them, visiting mourners and cooking for them; hospitality to guests, including strangers; giving to charity and volunteering; and more). Relaxation is allowed primarily as a way of recharging, or when it coincides with another religious activity (e.g. recharging by spending time with friends is praiseworthy if those friends are invited as guests for a Shabbat meal). It’s not just Jews who feel like this (I just went downstairs for something and an advert came on the TV saying, “Do you wish you felt less tired so that you could do more of the things you love?”) and one could talk about capitalism and the Protestant work ethic and so on, but I feel there are perhaps even more demands on our time in the frum (religious Jewish) community, combined with an ethic that stresses that we’re here on Earth to do things with our lives, to study Torah, help people and connect with God, not to relax.

Yet I feel much more comfortable just pottering. I don’t think I’m lazy, although I’ve called myself lazy often enough in the past. I think with autism and depression I just get overloaded really easily. It’s much more comfortable to do one thing at a time, slowly, with breaks than to try to fit everything in. Doing too much triggers burnout and, if it goes on too long, depression. I need lots of downtime to recuperate from things.

Part of it is being creative. I know I’ve noted here before that when I started writing my novel, I got frustrated by the amount of online procrastination I would do when trying to write; it took me a while to realise that my brain needs this. If I get stuck on something I’m writing, browsing aimlessly online lets my unconscious work on the problem. This is often better than trying to resolve it consciously. But I do genuinely feel I need to live my life at a much slower speed than most people, even though that makes me worry (a) how I will ever earn enough money to support myself and (b) how I will ever find anyone willing to be in a long-term relationship with me. Plus, I suppose, how to justify myself religiously, beyond saying that any other work-life balance seems simply impossible right now.

I drifted into mild depression in the early evening, perhaps because of the thoughts about earning a living and finding a partner. There were other anxieties or somewhat obsessive thoughts during the day which I’m too tired to write about now.

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I said I would write some more about some of the shiurim I went to yesterday. Rabbi Rafi Zarum spoke about the idea that Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about judging how existence is going and about our own potential and whether we’ve fallen short of our potential. To be honest, that talk didn’t say so much that I didn’t already know, but Rabbi Zarum is a very engaging speaker and always good to listen to. I didn’t take any notes on Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ brief message; he was talking about the idea of God’s House being a portable tent that we can take to our homes in COVID times.

The final shiur I went to was Rabbi Alex Israel talking about the paradox of Rosh Hashanah, that we stress that God is the powerful King, but also that he will pardon us for our sins if we repent. He quoted a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) where Avraham (Abraham), defending the people of Sodom, tells God that if He wants pure justice, He will have to destroy the world (because people are inherently imperfect and sinful); if He wants a world, He will have to suspend justice; He can’t “take the rope by both ends” and have strict justice and a world. A similar Midrash said that God had to allow the creation of the wicked because otherwise it would be impossible to create the righteous too. I thought that was similar to what Gila Fine said in the morning, which I blogged about yesterday, about God wanting our love and suppressing His justice to get it (there was some overlap with Rabbi Zarum too). Rabbi Israel stressed the idea that Rosh Hashanah is a day of love and mercy as well as justice and that God knows we are flawed. I thought this was important for me to hear, given that I get fixated on my flaws, as shown by the “lazy” worries today.

Mostly Jewish Stuff

I went (on Zoom) to a day long pre-High Holy Days education event at the London School of Jewish Studies. I’m not going to relate in detail all the talks, because it would take too long, but here a few highlights.

The first, given my Gila Fine, was about a story in the Talmud about God asking the High Priest, Rabbi Yishmael, to bless him. Rabbi Yishmael blessed God that His mercy should overcome His anger and God indicates His approval for this blessing. This led into a discussion about God in Judaism not being an unmoving (in all senses of the word) omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being of Greek philosophy, but as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love (I would say, presenting Himself as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love – I can’t completely lose the Greek omni belief, I’m too much of a Maimonidean). This was related to the idea that the image of God in the Talmud is softer and gentler than in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), which I’ve noticed before myself and wondered about. Fine didn’t say why this is the case. I may email her later, as she gave us her email to ask further questions. I feel the softer presentation of God in the Talmud (Oral Law) may be connected to the mystical idea of the Oral Law showing God’s aspect of love and the Written Law (Hebrew Bible) showing His aspect of justice. Or possibly there’s a historical explanation about the Talmud being largely exilic and the Torah being largely pre-exilic (she did speak about Rabbi Yishmael potentially being the last High Priest before the destruction of the Temple, in which case the story has added pathos). Anyway, this was helpful to me in trying to find a healthier understanding of God.

Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke about the approaching festivals in lockdown as opposed to being in synagogue with a large community, singing together. The standout quote to me was, “The most important thing is not to be afraid to be silent in the presence of God.”

Rabbi Joe Wolfson spoke of using Kayin (Cain) and Yishmael (Ishmael) as unlikely models for teshuva (repentance), unlikely because they are not normally seen as positive role models and also because their repentance was not complete. Kayin represents teshuva as beginning a conversation with God (when he asks if his sin is too great to bear) and Yishmael represents teshuva as being about where we are now, not past or future selves (based on the Midrash where the angels tell God to let the lost and dehydrated Yishmael die because he will be wicked and his descendants will oppress the Jews, but God lets him live because he is righteous at the moment). The former makes me feel better about repentance being a process rather than an event, and something that starts just with speaking to God.

There were more shiurim, but I’m too tired even to summarise all of them; I may share some more ideas tomorrow.

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My sister and brother-in-law came over at lunchtime, mainly to see my Mum. I saw them for a few minutes between talks. They had bought another copy of my Doctor Who book, to give to their nephew (brother-in-law’s brother’s son), who is an avid Doctor Who fan, and they wanted me to sign it, which I did. I worry it’s a bit too analytical for him (I forget how old he is, I think he’s about ten). Maybe he’ll read it when he gets older, if he’s still a fan.

I managed to squeeze a walk in between talks too, so it was a long and busy day, but good, interesting and thought-provoking.

My mood was mainly good, but with a bit of a dip in the early evening. There was a reason for this, but I’m too tired to go into it now; maybe later in the week.

Mostly About Mum

This is just a quick “I am alive, don’t worry” post as I don’t really have much to say. I know people here worry if I go silent, and I really appreciate that, so thank you.

Mum heard last week that her MRI showed no cancer. This was before the operation, but the doctors wanted to do the operation anyway, I think to make sure there was nothing that didn’t show up and to get cells for biopsy. We knew this last week, but Mum didn’t want to tell most people until now, so I didn’t mention it here. We’re not sure if the doctors still want her to have some radiotherapy, just to make sure there are no lingering cancer cells, although there will be another recuperation break before that either way.

Tomorrow I’m going (virtually) to a Zoom day of learning at the London School of Jewish Studies in advance of the autumn Jewish festival season which starts at the end of the week. There are a lot of speakers and the breaks are quite short, so I’m not sure how many talks I’ll make it through, as I find Zoom calls tiring. But hopefully I will learn some things. I don’t know if I’ll feel much like posting afterwards; I’m guessing I’ll have things to say, but maybe not energy to say them. So don’t worry if I don’t post properly tomorrow either.