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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

Peopling

I got up just after 9.00am which was good and partially made up for sleeping through so much of Saturday.

Getting dressed, I started wondering why I can’t thrive in the world again. This probably came about from thinking how lucky I am that my parents don’t force me to take any job I can find, even if it’s not suitable. I ended up worrying what will happen when I finally have my autism assessment if they say I’m not really autistic (again)? Worrying that this makes me like, Jessica Krug, the white academic in the news who pretended to be black, just pretending to be autistic for my own reasons (and, incidentally, who else was not at all surprised that the person running away from her real identity is Jewish? There’s definitely a trend for some Jews to defend every minority identity except their own). I tell myself I did pass the preliminary screening, which would indicate that I am on the spectrum, but still I worry, just as I worry that, autism or not, I’m never going to find my niche in life.

OK, catastrophising over! I’m going to try to be positive for the rest of the post!

I had a Skype date with PIMOJ. It went well. The internet connection held (I was worried we would get cut off) and we seemed to connect well personally as well, even despite the fact that chemistry can be hard to see on Skype. She wants to Skype again, so it was positive in that respect. I don’t think either of us turned out to be dramatically different from the image we had presented online (physically or in terms of personality), which is always the big worry with dating websites. I was able to speak quite a bit despite nervousness. It was a short date, as she had other arrangements (the date was arranged at short notice), but she emailed afterwards and said she enjoyed it.

PIMOJ is really positive and upbeat. I worry that I will put her off with my negativity. Granted, I probably appear more negative on this blog than in real life, because I share my worries and fears here that I don’t always share in person. To some extent, I use the blog to vent my negativity. Even so, I would like to be more positive. Maybe this will help me. I think whereas E. had a similar personality to me, but some different values (although we had some similar values too), PIMOJ has more similar values, but a very different personality. I think values are more important than personality, as long as personalities don’t completely clash. I hope that PIMOJ and I will complement each other. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

There is more I’d like to say, but I’m wary of saying too much, too early, which I think has been a problem with previous dates, so I’m going to move on for now.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came over in the late afternoon and had a socially distanced chat in the garden. They wanted to see Mum before her operation, which has been brought forward from this coming Friday to Thursday. It was nice, although I was not expecting it and had made other plans. I was OK about the change in plans though, not always easy for someone on the spectrum.

***

Achievements: a Skype date and socially distanced family meeting made for an intense day in terms of peopling. Mum cut my hair too, which I also tend to feel uncomfortable about (an autistic thing about uncomfortable close contact). An hour and a half or so working on my novel (I’m getting there with the climax, but it still needs work). A half hour walk and an hour of Torah study, partly reading over the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) prayers, as Rosh Hashanah is not far away now. I’d forgotten how beautiful some of the prayers are.

Love of God; Loss and Gain of Friends

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

God is in the Details

I got up earlier again today, but not as early as I would have liked (10.20am rather than 9.00am or 9.30am), especially considering that I went to bed very early last night. I suppose it’s a sign of improvement that I’ve got up around then consistently this week, but it feels like I’m only part of the way there. I don’t know why getting up early has consistently been a problem for me for so many years, even when I’m feeling OK in terms of mood (and I’m not feeling consistently OK in terms of mood at the moment, but rather mostly OK with periods of anxiety or depression). Even before I was diagnosed depressed, I struggled to get up at a reasonable time on weekends and holidays when I was a teen, but it seemed normal then (I was a teenager and had to get up very early in the week to travel to school). It’s only in retrospect, when I look back and see other signs of mental illness, or at least strain, that it seems significant.

I did avoid looking at blogs before getting dressed, although I did check my emails. So I guess that is progress of a kind.

I spent about two hours filling in a job application that involved cutting and pasting a lot of stuff line by line from my CV into different boxes on a Word document. I hate this type of application above all others. Filling in the boxes on previous jobs and salary, I struggled to remember all my previous salaries, even the relatively recent ones and remembered that this kind of vagueness about practical, financial and “real” matters was the reason E. broke up with me first time around. I wish I was more able to focus on such things, like my Dad and my sister.

It’s not a problem with detail per se as I can remember detail from things that interest me (like Doctor Who and trivia). It’s more about interest and what seems important to me. I worry that it would put off people other than E. (e.g. PIMOJ) and that I won’t cope if I’m by myself one day. I also worry about my struggles with detail at work in recent years, which may represent a collapse of my confidence in my ability to work and interest in my career. My autism support group is going to talk about detail, and autistic fondness for it, in the next session. Maybe I’ll be confident enough to raise this issue there, my absorption in details in “irrelevant” things, and lack of interest in interest in things that seem unimportant to me, even if they are very important to other people.

I did not originally intend to spend two hours on this today, but in the end I decided I wanted to just get it out of the way, even if it left me without time to work on my novel today (which is what happened).

I was pretty exhausted afterwards. I went for a walk listening to classical music on my iPod, which helped restore me a bit. I realised I say I walk for half an hour most days when I don’t run, but it’s only really just sunk in that those walks are more than two kilometres, which is not insignificant. I guess I should give myself more credit. The walk was not entirely restoring as I had agitated thoughts about antisemitism (triggered by this article) and wondering if I’ll have to flee to Israel one day. That Israel seems to be a safer place for Jews than the UK or the USA is a big shift to how things felt when I was growing up.

The other achievement today was cheshbon nafesh (religious self-assessment for the last year). I felt I’ve had a reasonably positive year, but primarily because it was disrupted by COVID, which saved me from a lot of stress at work (or looking for work) and in shul (synagogue). My goals for the coming Jewish year seemed small, but I’ve been advised to aim low.

Actually, there were other achievements too today: I did some ironing and spent some time working on my devar Torah and doing other Torah study, although as usual I wished I could do more. But I didn’t have time or energy to work on my novel, which was the big disappointment.

Odds and Ends

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Guilt

Shabbat was OK. There was all the usual stuff: praying, eating, sleeping, Torah study and recreational reading (mostly The Islamist and the latest Doctor Who Magazine, my subscription to which I am contemplating cancelling. I have contemplated cancelling it every couple of years since about 2003, but this time I’m really not sure what’s stopping me).

The afternoon was hard. I was reading The Lights of Penitence by Rav Kook (in the volume Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems) and came across a passage that talks about someone who feels pervaded by sin, immoral, uneducated, distant from God, and “stirred by dark and sinister passions that revolt him.” I thought, “This is me.” Unfortunately, the passage goes on to say that penitence will cure this and all healing and acceptance. Nothing about what happens if a person does teshuva (repentance) and feels just as wicked as before.

If I recall correctly, Rav Soloveitchik says something similar about repentance curing self-criticism in Halakhic Man, so that’s the two greatest “Modern Orthodox” rabbis, of very different outlook and temperament, agreeing that teshuva should remove self-hatred and needless guilt. I don’t know how to feel that. No wonder that in recent years Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, the holidays of judgment and repentance) have been hard for me and I struggle to get to shul (synagogue). Of course, this year I have decided not to go for Rosh Hashanah at least because I’m so worried about COVID and passing it on to Mum (who has surgery a week before Rosh Hashanah). I haven’t had to decide what I’m doing about Yom Kippur yet.

The guilt is pervasive and multifaceted. Some of it is feeling disconnected from God, which I’ve felt for a long time. Feeling that I don’t pray well enough, don’t study Torah enough, don’t connect enough. Feeling that I don’t have enough spirituality or meaning in my life. I don’t have much of either. But I also have guilt around my sexuality. Feeling that it’s pretty much impossible to get to the age thirty-seven as an unmarried virgin without having infringed on some at least some of the Jewish sexual laws, but as no one talks about it, I feel that maybe it is just me. Maybe I could do better. Maybe other people do manage to do better.

So, I spent the afternoon somewhat depressed because of this. I was initially upset to have napped for an hour and a half after lunch, but when I started to feel depressed, I was glad to have escaped being trapped in my head for a while. Despite Shabbat finishing nearly two hours earlier than at the height of summer, it’s still hard to get through when depressed.

I worry what PIMOJ (as sarnhyman has suggested I dub the Person I’m Messaging On JDate) would make of this. I’ve told her about my depression, but presented it in the past tense. Well, I thought I was mostly over it and now it was just reactive to things in my life, not an ongoing presence. I should have remembered that whenever I declare my depression over, it returns. PIMOJ works in mental health and I don’t know how that would shape her reaction to me. I want to open up to her about some things, but I’m scared. I want to get to know her better and get to a stage where we can both be more open, but I don’t know how to do that or how to judge when we’ve got there.

It’s not just the persistence of depression, but also the fact that she comes across in her messages as an ebullient person and one with a deep and sincere ahavat Shamayim (love of God). I had hoped some of that would rub off on me, but now I feel it’s more likely that I’ll scare her off. That she wouldn’t want to be with someone so quiet and downbeat, and intermittently (at least) depressed.

***

I just found this quote from Rav Kook, from The Lights of Holiness further on in the same volume:

The greater the person, the more he must seek to discover himself. The deep levels of his soul remain concealed from him so that he needs to be alone frequently, to elevate his imagination, to deepen his thought, to liberate his mind. Finally his soul will reveal itself to him by radiating some of its light upon him.

Quiet Shabbat

Someone is playing loud music outside at 10.30pm…

Shabbat was pretty good. No insomnia this week. I woke up at 9ish and said the Shema (the most important morning prayer, which at the moment should be said by 9.30ish). I wanted to stay awake, but was tempted to wrap myself in my duvet to self-comfort and fell asleep BUT I woke up in time for the later deadline for saying the Shacharit Amidah (second most important morning prayer), so I’m counting this morning as a win as usually I don’t manage those at all. I didn’t doze this afternoon either (read, studied Torah and went for a walk), so I might go to sleep at a reasonable time tonight (if the music stops).

I mentioned to my parents my theory that my depression is now mostly autistic burnout after doing too much and they agreed. They said they’d thought that for a while, but hadn’t known how I would react if they said anything. I definitely still have odd days when I hit clinically depressed-type lows when burnt out, but I don’t think they stick around long enough to be classified as clinical depression (which should last two weeks). I look forward to hearing what my therapist says about this on Tuesday. (For what it’s worth, I think I still do have things to bring to therapy at the moment.) I do still struggle with mornings, although as my Dad said, none of us in the family are morning people (actually my sister is now, but only since she married a morning person).

That was it, really, aside from some dating anxiety. I seem to be able to keep a lid on it during the day, but it explodes in the evening for some reason. I’m excited to be messaging the person I’m messaging and so far things seem good, we seem to be connecting well, but I’m just terrified some unsolvable problem will open up somewhere down the line. I know, it’s been LESS THAN ONE WEEK that we’ve been messaging each other, I really shouldn’t be worrying that far ahead. But I do jump ahead when thinking about dating. I get so terrified of rejection, or of losing someone who I have come to care about, that I worry about it from the off, which is not good on multiple levels.

***

Speaking of JDate, I got an amusing message from someone who does not think we are a match but who recognised me from primary school! I have to say I don’t recognise her, but I suspect her hair in her profile picture is not her natural colour or style. In any case, I don’t really remember most of the girls from primary school, I didn’t really speak to them much at that age. I mean, I didn’t speak to most of the boys, let alone the girls.

***

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Mishlei (Proverbs in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and that I’ve struggled in the past with its rather rigid theology that good is always rewarded and evil punished in this world, which is not what I see. It’s fair to say that many of the proverbs do read like that, but some don’t. I found one I liked over Shabbat: “The way of a man may be torturous and strange/Though his actions are blameless and proper.” (21.8, The JPS Bible translation). I like that. I don’t know if my life is bad, but it does feel torturous and strange at times, so it’s good that I don’t have to blame myself for that. Also, the Hebrew word translated as ‘torturous’ is ‘hafakhpakh,’ which is a good word to say aloud (the ‘kh’ is a guttural like in the Scottish ‘loch’).

The King is in the Field

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

A Step Closer to Employment?

I slept a lot last night, perhaps unsurprisingly given how little I slept the night before and how much I did during the day.  I woke up feeling drained, depressed and anxious and thought it would be a written off “mental hangover” day (which I guess I should call a “burnout” day, but I prefer my term), but I was pleasantly surprised that after breakfast I managed to stop catastrophising and focus on the present and feel a lot calmer.  That didn’t last the whole day as there was still some anxiety (job hunt and dating) and tiredness, but not so bad.  The anxiety came and went during the day in response to things that happened.

The big thing that happened was that I got an email saying I was through to the next round on a job application.  I had to read some terms and conditions information, fill in a questionnaire to show I’d done that and then put myself forward for a test.  If I pass the test, I will be doing some crowd-testing work on software.  I don’t think I can really go into more details because of nondisclosure of trade secrets.  The pay is low and it’s not a good career-progression job (because only tangentially related to librarianship and not at all to writing), but it would be a job at a time of high unemployment.  It would also be working from home (no exhausting commute or autistically-difficult office environment) and only working 20 hours a week with flexible timing, so I would have time to work on my novel and could potentially work 10am-6pm, which would suit me a lot better than 9am-5pm.

I do feel nervous about work though.  My experiences in the workplace in the last few years has led to a loss of confidence in my ability to work, a loss not repaired by doing good work in my last couple of jobs.  The fact that I know that my difficulties are caused by depression and autism rather than inherent incompetence doesn’t really make me feel that much better.  I know the problem is my issues, not me, but it still means that I am stuck with them for a while at least.  I hope doing relatively easy work in a safe, quiet environment (home) will boost my self-esteem.

There was a lot to read through, so it took most of the afternoon.  I had done a little work on my novel before the job details came through, but will probably have to do that again tomorrow because of the interruption.

It was a busy day and I was exhausted by the early evening and that brought my mood down a bit.  I kept thinking that people on the autism spectrum often end up in jobs they’re over-qualified for (like the one I’m applying for) and that people on the spectrum often struggle to build friendships and relationships.  I know there are some very successful autistic people out there, and some in successful relationships, but statistically the odds are not great for me.  These are thoughts I’ve had many times, and rehearsed here many times, and I’m trying to stay present-focused and not to worry about them (and also to remember that aspiring writers often take low-status jobs to give some income while writing).  Still, it’s difficult.

***

In the evening, I went on a virtual tour (via Zoom, as is everything these days) of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, via the London School of Jewish Studies.  I’ve wanted to visit it in person for a while, but that looks unlikely to happen any time soon, so this was an alternative.  The Director of the Museum, Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin has written some interesting (and controversial, in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world) books on Judaism and science, although the Museum, unlike his books and blog, deliberately avoids controversial issues like creationism or the factual accuracy of statements about the natural world in the Talmud so that Haredi schools and families can visit.  It was very interesting, although the picture and sound quality were not always great.

***

I didn’t have much time or energy for Torah study today, only about ten minutes, although some of the Museum tour could be considered Torah study I suppose.

***

I also signed up for an online site from a Jewish mental health charity.  To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly it offers.  I think there’s some articles on the site and also a forum with other people with mental health issues and a chat function with mental health professionals.  I’m not sure how much I will use it, but it might be useful in the future, particularly if more people sign up for it.

***

Writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) yesterday led me to re-read a transcript of a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the leading Modern Orthodox thinkers until his death a few years ago.  The lecture was on trust in God.  Rabbi Lichtenstein suggested there are two types of trust, “faithful trust”, thinking that God will always make the best option happen, and “loving trust,” thinking that even if the worst happens, I will stay loyal to God and assume that everything has happened for a good reason, even if I don’t understand what that is.  He says both are valid, but laments a focus on the first at the expense of the second in the Orthodox community and educational system.  I find “loving trust” easier, difficult though it sometimes is.  I find it hard to assume that what I think is best will happen, because usually it does not.  I might post the whole devar Torah here later in the week, as I think it might be of interest.

Someone To Love

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

A Matter of Trust

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Heat and Light

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Post-Success Depression and Negative Self-Talk

I still feel very depressed.  I don’t know if this is about finishing the first draft of my novel or something else, something I don’t want to talk about here.  If it is about my novel, I had something similar when I was doing my MA: I would struggle against depression to finish an assignment, but when I handed it in, instead of feeling positive, I would feel more depressed and often be unable to start the next assignment for weeks.  It took me nearly three and a half years to finish a course that should have taken one academic year.

***

I was thinking of buying some more music and graphic novels and maybe some war gaming miniatures to paint (I don’t play war games any more, but sometimes I paint the models).  Then I started thinking that this was retail therapy, and I felt more guilty about it, and just started procrastinating, which is a worse problem than retail therapy, at least with the relatively small sums of money I’m thinking of spending.  In the end I bought two graphic novels, but am undecided as to whether to buy the miniatures.  It would be good to do something that doesn’t involve thinking (I guess there’s running), but I feel depressed when comparing miniatures painted by me recently with the much better ones painted in my teens, before I had medication-related tremor, and perhaps when my concentration and will power were better.

***

I finished fiddling around with my iTunes playlists, which was good.  I’ve been meaning to sort them out for a while now.  That was my main achievement for the day, alongside my usual pre-Shabbat chores.  I did a little Torah study, and I’ll probably do a bit more later, but it’s hard to do anything today.  It’s partly depression and exhaustion, but also the heat and humidity, which are both high today and make me uncomfortable.

***

I had another weird dream about conflict with my religious community, where a bunch of thugs mobbed the car I was in when it pulled over (which for some reason was being driven by Hugo Drax, the villain of the James Bond film Moonraker) and then I realised they were frum men, with suits and fedoras, and then I recognised some of them from shul.  That might be part of the reason why I woke up depressed and exhausted again.

I’m not sure why that conflict is on my mind when I haven’t had any real contact with the community for five months or so and am not likely to have any for another couple of months at least.  Maybe that’s it, though.  Maybe I’ve forgotten the good parts and the people I like and am only thinking about the negative.  Certainly there’s a lot of social anxiety over going to shul (synagogue) again, wondering if I can remember what to do and how to behave (I mean behave socially more than religiously, although that too, I guess), as well as autistic anxiety about wearing masks and the changed layout of the shul being different and confusing.  Shul has been reopened for a few weeks now, but I haven’t gone as we’re still shielding Mum as she’s immuno-suppressed and the risk is just too great.

Related to that, I don’t know when going to a shop is going to feel safe again.  I’ve hardly been in any for months.  The only one I really go to is the pharmacist, to collect my anti-depressants, but that’s awkward as not only is it often busy, but the post office is in the same shop, separated by a partition wall and that’s also often busy and people have to queue from the post office section into the pharmacist section.  I’d like to go to the nearby charity shop to browse second-hand books and DVDs as I know that’s something that de-stresses me a bit, but I just don’t dare to.

***

I wrote in yesterday’s post about blaming my teenage/early twenties self for not being more social.  After I turned off my computer, I remembered something I once said in therapy, that if I think of my very young self, say five or six years old or younger, I feel a great deal of love and compassion towards him, but I think of my somewhat older self (eight or ten years old and up) suddenly a whole load of negative feelings and internalised anger/aggression comes out about him (me) being too clever, aloof, irritating, an unintentional show-off, a Doctor Who obsessive to the exclusion of all else (even more than I am now…) and so on.  I’m guessing this is because the difficulties of my childhood started when I was somewhat older and that’s the time that I internalised negative thoughts and feelings about myself.  It is hard to know what to do with these thoughts.

***

I just heard that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz died today (barukh dayan ha’emet).  He was a great man.  Among his many achievements was translating the Talmud into Modern Hebrew (most of the Talmud is written in Aramaic) and writing explanatory commentary, and then overseeing its translation into English and, I think, Russian.  It’s not the only current English translation, but it is very accessible and while the Artscroll Talmud (its main competitor in English translation) is focused on the detail of halakhic (legal) debate and only uses traditional sources, the Steinsaltz one is more focused on basic comprehensibility and uses modern sources and photos (of plants, ancient artifacts, etc.) to illustrate the social and material context of the Talmud.

He wrote many other books too, including a few I own.  I’m very fond of his book Simple Words and his translation of some of the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, again with commentary.

He was an important figure for me, not just because of the books that I have read, but also his attitude, being in some ways very traditional and Hasidic and in other ways very modern (he was originally a scientist before becoming a rabbi).  I believe his yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) taught Jewish philosophy and creative writing alongside the traditional yeshiva Talmud curriculum.  He once said, “An intellectual is not necessarily a university professor: he can also be a shoemaker.  An intellectual is a person of boundless curiosity, who has the desire and the ability to discuss everything, and the spark that can make something new out of anything.”  We can apply this to Rabbi Steinsaltz himself.

Catastrophising and Fatalism

The Doctor: Where’s your optimism?

Romana: It opted out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Dear frum community,

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

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

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

Yours sincerely…

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

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

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

***

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

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

Exciting News

I woke up later this morning than the last few days, feeling really drained and quite depressed, even after breakfast and coffee, which usually helps somewhat.  I hope I haven’t been pushing myself too hard the last few days.  As I’ve said before, it’s frustrating that “pushing myself too hard” for me is not really pushing myself all that hard compared with other people.  I try not to compare myself to others, but I worry what it means for the possibility of having a “normal” life, with a career, marriage, children, friends and community – all those things are very draining!  Whereas the last few days I’ve been quite enthusiastic about greeting the day, today I just wanted to go back to bed and wrap myself in my duvet.  I did eventually get going, but felt sluggish and depressed in the morning and early afternoon.

I made myself work on my novel for half an hour when I didn’t feel much like it.  I proof-read the chapter I was working on yesterday and was reasonably happy with it, which means (drumroll)… I finished the first draft of the novel!  It weighed in at just under 75,000 words, which I think is reasonable, certainly for a first draft.

There’s still a lot to do, a lot I want to change.  I have three pages-worth of things I want to change, including some incidents I want to add in and characters I want to develop or change as well as more general things like adding more humour.  I might pause for a few weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes.  I want to read some books about writing in the meantime to see if they might help with some things.

That cheered me up a little and I managed to work on my devar Torah for an hour and do some additional Torah study as well as a few chores around the house.

I did another 5K run.  It took about forty minutes.  I saw two Jewish wedding parties in houses that I passed.  I’m guessing they were weddings, but lots of frum people going to particular houses in good clothes.  I’ll assume they were all legal and above board.  The reason is that today is Tu B’Av, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Valentine’s Day (although there isn’t much of a resemblance), which was once a happy day when women would dance and try to attract husbands.  It hasn’t really been a festival for about two thousand years, but it has a vestigial presence, part of which is that it’s considered an auspicious day to get married (spoiler alert: it’s not in itself a guarantee of a happy, lasting marriage).  I was mostly OK about it this year, but seeing the wedding parties did make me think of being single forever again.  Fortunately, the thoughts did not last long; ditto for thoughts I had earlier in the run I had been thinking about not fitting in to different social groups I am or have been part of.

I came back with a headache, but fortunately it went very quickly once I took solpadeine.

***

I phoned a hospital about my regular lithium level blood test.  I didn’t phone the one I usually go to, but one my Mum goes to sometimes, because I thought my usual hospital was only dealing with urgent tests at the moment.  I wanted to check I could have my regular lithium monitoring blood test there despite COVID.  My social anxiety makes things like that hard at the best of times and it’s harder than ever now lockdown has atrophied my social skills.

Once I got off the call, I discovered that my local hospital has apparently reopened, so I’m going to try to get the blood test done there as it will be more convenient.  But I did at least push myself a bit with the social anxiety.

***

I finished re-watching this year’s series of Doctor Who last night.  Despite my intentions, I only reviewed the first story on my Doctor Who blog.  I just didn’t have anything interesting to say about it.  I’m not upset that I got the DVD for my birthday, as I enjoyed most of the episodes, on some level.  Some actually improved now I knew where they were going (Fugitive of the Judoon and especially The Haunting of Villa Diodata, which went from nowhere to probably my favourite episode of the year), although one or two went down in my estimation (Praxeus) and I still have no idea what writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall thought he was doing with The Timeless Children (not just the “retcon,” the whole episode).

It does make me feel, not for the first time, that modern Doctor Who isn’t really for me in the way the original series (1963-1989) is, which is why I’m not reviewing the stories on my Doctor Who blog.   I want that blog to be mostly positive, in the hope I can use it as a springboard for professional writing work (it hasn’t worked so far).  I don’t engage with the new series in the same way as the old, even when I enjoy it.  I’m not sure why that is.  I did write some paragraphs probing the reasons for that, as they are somewhat tangentially related to autism and mental health, but I think probably does depart from the focus of this blog, so I got rid of them.

Whatever the reason, at the moment I’m looking forward to the animations of missing episodes from the sixties a lot more than to new episodes – my copy of The Faceless Ones arrived today , and Fury from the Deep is out in a few weeks!

***

Why does Spotify keep playing me adverts for joining the army reserves?  What is their algorithm telling them about me and my interests?

Another Busy Day

I woke up early today, at least by my usual standards.  I usually wake up in the early morning, but then I feel tired and usually fall asleep again until much later.  I decided the other day that I would try to force myself to stay up, which I managed today.  I was pretty tired (even though I had about seven hours of sleep), but I managed it.  I was OK once I drank coffee and I was glad to get an earlier start on the day and say the morning Shema and Amidah on time.

I did doze for half an hour in the afternoon though.

Achievements (although the above are really achievements too): I spent two hours on my novel and finished another chapter.  Only one more chapter to go!  I’m up to 72,000 words too, which is novel length, just about.  Hopefully the manuscript will grow a bit in redrafting.  The time taken to write each chapter seems to be becoming shorter too, even though they chapters are mostly the same length.  I have mixed feelings about the quality though.  Some of that is probably low self-esteem and it is just a first draft.  My English teacher used to say that a first draft is 99% of the work, and for non-fiction I would tend to agree, but I think writing fiction is more organic and individual and I need to redraft more, particularly as I’ve never written something this long before.

I did an hour of Torah study, much of it difficult Mishnah, which was good.

I also went for a half hour walk.  My ankle felt a bit strange when I woke up.  I’m not sure how to describe it – kind of weak and fragile.  It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t want to put too much weight on it.  I think something is wrong when I run, but I’m not sure if it’s my trainers or if I’m running incorrectly (it can happen).  I don’t really want to go shopping for new trainers at the moment because I’m avoiding shops except for essential items to shield Mum.  I could mail order, but my parents have put me off that by saying that returning them would be hard if they’re a bad fit.

I attended depression group online via Zoom.  I hadn’t attended for a while because I’ve been having therapy on Mondays and was too tired after that to go, but I’ve moved therapy to Wednesdays so that I can go again, plus my therapist is away this week anyway.  I mentioned my novel and people were really supportive, which was nice.

My mood was mostly good today, although it was drifting downwards when I dozed off in the afternoon, so maybe it was just as well that I fell asleep at that point.  My mood did dip slightly into self-recrimination and worry while walking, but mostly I was able to focus on the present.

Someone at depression group asked if I find it easier or harder online.  I find it harder, but I’m not sure why.  I think some of it is feeling that I’m being stared at by the camera the whole time, whereas in person I can see people are focusing on the person speaking, not me.  I also think there’s blurred boundaries when Zooming in from home (am I at home or in the group?) and less of a transition from home to group and back again and transitions are really important for people on the autism spectrum.  I find it hard to give people my full attention on Zoom, harder than in person, and I was getting fidgety by the end, which I know is autistic stimming and my way of trying to focus (rather than boredom), but I was glad that people couldn’t see that I was tapping my fingers because it might have looked rude.

I didn’t stick exactly to my limits on internet usage/email checking that I agreed with my therapist, but I did mostly stick to them and that does seem to help stay present-focused, not to compare myself with others so much and to avoid negative thoughts.  Actually, depression group can provoke comparing thoughts, a kind of procrustean bed where if they’re doing well, I feel I should be doing as well as they are, but if they aren’t doing well, I feel that I should be doing more things as I’m not so depressed.  I try not to think like that, but it’s not always easy.

I didn’t feel like I’d done much today, but writing it down I see that I have done quite a bit.

***

I made a mistake online.  Not a major one (it was less something I didn’t know and more something I phrased badly), but normally I would beat myself up about it, but I’m trying not to, which I guess is good.  With CBT for social anxiety, one technique is to make deliberate mistakes to become inured to them (one nineteenth/early twentieth century yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) used to get the students to do something similar, and there is an XKCD cartoon with a similar point…).  I did not do that when I did CBT for my social anxiety; as I think I’ve said, I don’t think I tried hard enough with CBT for social anxiety, although what I did seemed quite difficult at the time.

***

This passage in Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World (by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Erica Shapiro Taylor) resonated with me: “A sensitive child, burdened by his natural physical desires and the emotional and intellectual demands he inherited… Rebbe Nachman entered into depressed periods throughout his life.”  My emotional and intellectual demands were not inherited, but came partly from social expectation and partly from my own inner drive for excellence, but otherwise it was very similar to my childhood and adolescence.

Bonus Post: Why I’m Religious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a Lion

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

Tisha B’Av in Auschwitz

Today I felt depressed and subdued, but it kind of goes with the territory, as it was Tisha B’Av the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day we’re supposed to be sad to mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.  (It might sound surprising, but we’re not supposed to be sad most of the time.)  I read some more of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.  I’ve been reading this book for about five or six years, only on Tisha B’Av.  I can’t bear to read it on any other day, it’s too upsetting.  I hope to finish it in a couple of years.  Some of the stories did move me to tears, I admit, although I’m probably more sceptical about the supernatural than some of the people who related the stories.  I also went to some online shiurim (religious classes) via my shul (synagogue).

In the afternoon I went on a virtual tour of Auschwitz organised by a Jewish educational group.  (Thanks to Eliza for pointing me in their direction!)   I’ve never been there in person.  I feel vaguely uncomfortable about going to Holocaust sites, although I can see why it’s important for some people.  I discovered there’s not actually much there at Auschwitz any more, which I think I knew, but it had never really registered.  The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and the crematoria to hide the evidence of the Holocaust.  I was surprised how big the site it was.

It was quite moving, but sometimes with Holocaust things I feel I’m not feeling what I “should” feel, maybe because most of my family did not directly experience it.  Perhaps it’s also hard in a way for me, being frum (religious).  With some secular Jews, their entire Jewish identity is built around the Holocaust and/or Israel; whereas I have so much more to my Jewish identity than that.  There is definitely a danger of being overly-obsessed with how Jews died rather than how they lived (to paraphrase Rabbi Lord Sacks*), but Tisha B’Av is a day to confront these memories.

I still would like to feel that I’m moving on somewhere as well as just focusing on the past.  It’s easier to focus on the Holocaust rather than the destruction of the Temple, because the former is more relatable.  There hasn’t been Judaism based around the Temple ritual for nearly 2,000 years, so it’s difficult to understand what it was like.  But the Holocaust isn’t much easier to focus on, although it has the human dimension, because it’s just unlike anything else.

(As an aside, it’s depressing doing a virtual Auschwitz tour and then after the fast was over going online to see the latest iterations of the “Jews are all rich, powerful, privileged and racist” stuff that’s been coming out in the last few weeks.)

In this respect the rabbi leading the virtual tour said something similar to what my shul (synagogue) rabbi said yesterday, about trying to find areas to grow.  I’ve already said here that I want to focus more on being present in the present and not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.  That doesn’t sound a very Jewish or religious thing, but I think it is.  It’s connected with ideas like bitachon (trust in God) and kavannah (mindfulness, particularly in prayer).  But to do that, I need to be able to trust that God has my best interests at heart, even if painful things happen to me.  That’s hard on a day like today, when I confront the many tragedies of Jewish history, including the Holocaust.

It’s just an effort to focus on NOW with gratitude and mindfulness, not what I fear/hope will happen in the future.  I will try it for six or seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and see what happens.

***

I already mentioned I believe less in the supernatural than some Orthodox Jews, so I’m taking this with an Everest-sized mountain of salt, but at one of the shiurim today, the guest rabbi presenting told a story about a frum (religious) Jew who was in a coma four days with COVID and had a near-death experience.  He says that his soul was tried in Heaven and he discovered that although keeping all the mitzvot (commandments) are important, the afterlife primarily depends on loving other people and being kind.

As I say, I am sceptical about how true that story is, but it did make me think that while I agree that love and kindness are of the utmost importance (regardless of the afterlife), I struggle to show them the way I should.  I get irritable with my family.  I get annoyed by other people and although I don’t usually show it, I find it hard to love people sometimes (as Linus said in Peanuts, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”).  I have a some inchoate anger and resentment towards the frum (Orthodox Jewish) community sometimes because of how I feel I’ve been treated, which I need to work through in a healthier way.  I want to be kind, but so often social anxiety stops me from acting on my kind impulses, or autism means that I can see someone is in need, but don’t know how to respond correctly.  My parents say I’m kind (usually when I say I have no assets to attract a potential spouse), but I guess they would.

I know this is turning into yet another “should” and another “beat myself up” session, so I don’t want to pursue it too far, but it has been on my mind this evening, thinking about how I could be more kind and loving in the future.

 

* What he actually said was that an educationalist complained to him that at Jewish schools, students “Learn about the Greeks and how they lived, and they learn about the Romans and how they lived, and they learn about the Jews and how they died.”  Both Rabbi Sacks and the educationalist felt that with a curriculum like this, it was no wonder so many Jews are just looking to escape from their Jewish identity through assimilation.

Shutdown

I feel quite depressed today, plus I’ve had some anxiety too.  I had a bit yesterday evening, and today it’s worse.  I’m not sure what triggered it exactly.  I’m pretty sure it’s stuff I’ve seen online as it restarted after being online this morning, but I’m not sure what triggered it exactly.  Tablet magazine ran three stories yesterday on antisemitism in left-wing/anti-racist/cancel culture circles, which was a lot even by their standards, so that contributed to it, but it started before then and I don’t know why it restarted this morning.  There’s the usual despair about being alone and unemployed forever too.  I’m not sure whether I should worry about dying alone and unloved or being killed by antisemites.  I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive.

I feel I have some creeping ‘pure O’ OCD thoughts again lately.  Not the religious OCD so much as scrupulosity “am I a good person?  Maybe I’m secretly sexist/racist/whatever?” thoughts.  Sometimes my thoughts just seem horrible and polluted and I wonder where they even come from.

I want to be more positive, here and in general, but it’s hard.  While my worst fears haven’t fully come true, it would be untrue to say that none of my fears have ever materialised.  The best I can say is that worrying about being lonely in the future is just contributing to loneliness now, not that I think it realistic that I won’t be lonely in the future.  I wonder if I should try to write less here, to be less negative, but I feel I need to be able to vent somewhere and it’s easier in writing.

I tried to write my novel and just started crying without knowing why.  I went back to bed and wrapped myself in my duvet for autistic comfort for a bit, trying not to think about shoulds (“I should get a weighted blanket”) and then went into a bit of a shutdown (I’m not really sure if I experience autistic shutdowns as such, but I don’t know how else to describe what can happen to me when I’m exhausted and depressed).  Eventually I fell asleep, I’m not sure how long for.

I cooked dinner, because I had promised to, as Mum had chemo today so is too tired to cook.  I also worked on my devar Torah (Torah thought), because I really needed to get that more or less finished today.  I’m a bit happier with than yesterday, but not hugely so.  However, overall, this day has largely been a mental health day.  I haven’t been well enough to do much.  I could do some more work on the novel now I feel a bit better, but I’m wary of doing it, because this evening and tomorrow is Tisha B’Av, the Fast of 9th of Av, the saddest day in the Jewish year, when we lament the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel and the many tragedies of Jewish history.  Pretty much anything enjoyable is prohibited, including (among other things) eating and drinking and Torah study.  I feel I need to relax a bit beforehand or I won’t get through it.  I won’t watch TV tomorrow and unlike Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and festivals), I won’t read fiction or graphic novels or anything fun.  So I feel that I should relax beforehand.  I’m a bit torn.

It can be hard to fill the day on Tisha B’Av; unlike Yom Kippur, there is a long afternoon to fill with no shul (synagogue) services.  I will be “attending” Zoom services tonight from my shul and hopefully some shiurim (religious classes) tomorrow, depending how I feel.  I have to eat, because I’m on lithium, but I will try to fast until halakhic midday tomorrow (the evening and morning are considered sadder than the afternoon, so it’s better to wait for then until breaking my fast).  I seem to get psychosomatic headaches on fast days as if I was dehydrated.  I don’t know why that happens.  I haven’t decided whether I will work on my novel.  Work is permitted, but “the righteous” are discouraged from doing it.  In the past, I’ve avoided work, but I can get sucked into a huge pit of dangerous despair that is going beyond what is required of the day.  Sometimes it feels like it’s getting harder each year; that each year of Tisha B’Av with clinical depression feels somehow cumulatively harder, like they carry over from one year to the next.  I don’t know what is causing that feeling.

Online Friends, Doctor Who and Anti-Psychiatry

I woke up late (there’s a story there, but too complicated and trivial to be worth relating) and rather depressed.  I felt a bit better after breakfast, but not great.  I felt depressed enough to listen to music while getting dressed, and intermittently during the day which I have been avoiding recently because of The Three Weeks of Jewish national mourning.  But I listened really quietly, because I’m still avoiding explaining to my parents that my rabbi mentor said it was OK to listen to music when I’m depressed.  I’m not sure why I feel self-conscious like that, because it’s hardly the most problematic thing I do when depressed.  Sleeping through the whole morning is worse, both Jewishly and pragmatically, as is becoming irritable and sniping at my parents.

Incidentally, I came across this post yesterday that shows it’s not just me who struggles at this time of the Jewish year.

***

I tried to work on my novel, but it was hard.  Aside from being upset by more antisemitism reported by The Jewish Chronicle (I probably shouldn’t read it), it was hard to engage with writing.  A new chapter is always hard, I think because I’ve been switching perspective in alternate chapters, so I need to change how I think each time, but this chapter needs to be handled sensitively (a woman fleeing her abusive rapist husband with her baby) and I was so caught up in my own negative feelings that I found it hard to enter into someone else’s and I didn’t want to write something inappropriate, so it was easiest not to write.  All this, plus a strong background level of depression and exhaustion.  Plus, I had therapy in the afternoon, which is normally when I do most of my writing.

Eventually I gave up and did a bit of Torah study for twenty minutes to fill the gap until therapy.  I don’t think I would have been able to do much more even without therapy, as I was feeling so depressed.  My main other achievement, after therapy, was to go for a walk.  It was raining lightly when I left, but I decided I needed the exercise.  Unfortunately it then rained heavily, but by the time I got home, it was easing up.

***

Therapy was good.  I shared that I’m trying not to worry about my parents’ mortality and instead to focus on gratitude that I have a good relationship with them and am able to spend so much time with them.

I also spoke about feeling dependent on online interactions.  A lot of my friends are online, certainly the ones I communicate with most regularly.  I like having online friendships, especially with people who also have struggles, and I think it’s good to have mutual support there, but I was worrying that I’ve become someone who is constantly checking his emails or blog reader for the “hit” of having a comment on my blog or a new post to read on someone else’s blog.  I’m going to try to limit myself to internet use only twice a day, when I get up and in the early evening.  My therapist is away for a few weeks now, so I’m going to be able to have a few weeks to practise that and get back to her about it.

I’m too tired after therapy to do much, so I mostly watched TV, aside from walking and eating dinner with my parents.

***

The Doctor Who bit with some general mental health bits:

I didn’t feel like watching more current Doctor Who after therapy, so watched some of my birthday present to myself, The Macra Terror.  This is a Doctor Who story from 1967 that, like nearly 100 episodes, is missing from the archives.  It was broadcast before commercial video recorders existed, but some fans taped the soundtrack of these episodes (basically put an old reel-to-reel tape recorder by the TV speaker while it was being broadcast) and that’s been used as the basis for an animated version.  There’s some discussion among fans as to whether animation is the best way of experiencing missing episodes, and certainly the animation is not Pixar standard, but at least it gives an idea of what the story was like.  I find watching the animations easier to follow than listening to the narrated soundtrack on CD.

The story has some interesting aspects from a mental health point of view (which is why I’m writing here rather than on my Doctor Who blog).  The toxic positivity and conformity of the futurist Colony came across well, with conformity enforced by peer pressure, brainwashing and hospitalisation for euphemistic “correction” with dissent being conflated with psychosis by the authorities, an effective depiction of the co-option of psychiatry by oppressive regimes.  One could interpret the story as being somewhat anti-psychiatry (in the R. D. Laing sense), in that the dissidents are treated as psychotic, but in fact are genuinely seeing something in society that everyone else has been brainwashed to deny, although given that this is Doctor Who, what they can see are giant crabs, rather than abstract oppression or power structures.

I don’t really agree with the anti-psychiatry movement in general.  I think medication and therapy are often helpful.  I think they may be right that one can suffer mental illness as a result of being aware of negative things in society, although I think there probably is a personal trigger too.  I also think the anti-psychiatry movement was too narrow and ideological in outlook (mostly Marxist, although Thomas Szazz was liberatarian).  I don’t share such a dogmatic outlook.  I’m sure my experience of antisemitism, which I do feel affects the ups and downs of my depression on a day to day basis (see above), even if it’s not a cause as such, would not be accepted as a legitimate society cause of my mental illness by the Marxists in the movement, given that an increasing amount of antisemitism is coming from the hard-left, who are in denial of it (see the latest Twitter incident).

Someone to Watch Over Me

I’m dealing with difficult feelings today.  I felt overwhelmed when I got up, although I feel calmer now.  Some of it was sitting waiting for the doctor to phone (see below), which is always anxiety-inducing – social anxiety as much as medical anxiety, plus now autistic “new situation” anxiety about socially isolated phone appointments (I’ve only had phone appointments before for follow up calls about mental health which didn’t need to be in person).

Dad phoned the doctor for me at 8.30am and got me a telephone appointment.  The line was quite bad, so I was struggling with the phone call even more than usual.  I was supposed to get a text beforehand allowing me to send a photo of the mole, but somehow I didn’t get it, although I got my Dad to take a photo.  The surgery is not really good at admin things like that.  The doctor said he couldn’t do much without a photo, but said that I could send one on the surgery website – I didn’t know that there is an online consultation feature now for minor illnesses, which is good.  I hope that stays after COVID, as it would be a useful way of getting around the problems booking an appointment.

The online consultation was difficult too.  There was a list of options, but there wasn’t an option for moles and the like.  I did eventually find a “My problem is not listed” option.  There are loads and loads of pages of questions to go through, but I did eventually get to an option to upload photos.

On the plus side, they answered within a couple of hours.  The doctor wants to send it to a dermatologist to be sure, but is pretty confident that it’s benign, which is definitely good.

***

I still feel confused some of the time about whether I made the right decision to break up with E.  I don’t want to explain why I broke up here, because that’s not fair on her, but my parents, who I did tell, thought it was the right decision, but still I worry.  Did I mess up my last chance at happiness?  I hope not.  I don’t think so, but sometimes it’s hard to be sure, particularly late at night, as happened last night.  It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that I continually make bad decisions (in general, not just regarding dating), which is not true, but it does feel that way sometimes.

***

I’m trying not to wallow in guilt right now.  We’re in the time of the Jewish calendar called The Three Weeks.  It’s a time of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jewish people and many other tragedies of our history.  The last nine days are even more intense, leading up to Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, next Thursday.  In the Three Weeks, we don’t hold weddings or celebrations, shave or cut hair or listen to music.

One is not supposed to wear clean clothes in the last nine days, but it is permitted to “pre-wear” them for ten minutes or so before the nine days start.  I usually do this, but forgot this year, so I’ve been wearing clean shirts.  I feel bad about this.  Everything has just been so crazy this year.  I feel like I’m hardly observing the Three Weeks as I can’t fast the rabbinic fasts that bookend it on my medication and I have listened to music when feeling depressed, although not when feeling OK.  I’m trying not to beat myself up about this and other things and to accept that I’m fallible, but it doesn’t seem entirely right somehow.  I know my therapist said to focus on values rather than “shoulds.”  I am still trying to live in accordance with my values generally, even if I can’t keep these laws properly this year.  It doesn’t feel right, though.  I’m glad that I’m not shaving for the Three Weeks, even though my beard itches like crazy.  I’ll be glad to shave it off next Friday.

***

I managed some writing today, getting close to finishing another chapter.  There’s one important passage that I don’t think I’ve got right, but I’m not sure how to change it.  It’s hard to write something of a religious experience when I haven’t exactly had one myself.

***

I watched the Star Trek Voyager episode Someone to Watch Over Me.  I vaguely remembered watching this one on original UK transmission, but I didn’t remember much of the plot.  It’s basically a Pygmalion rip-off as the Doctor and Tom Paris bet whether the Doctor can educate Seven of Nine enough to get, and keep, a date in a few days, with the Doctor inadvertently falling in love with her while educating her in human interactions.  Seven is a human who was converted to a cyborg and then back to a human.  She is pretty emotionless and remorselessly logical and efficiency-focused.  She comes across as somewhat autistic in some ways, particularly in her inability to make small talk, to build friendships or to intuit the emotional needs of others.  I find her the most interesting character in the programme because of that (and not because of Jeri Ryan’s figure-hugging costume…).

At the start of this episode she’s unable to understand why B’Ellana Torres is angry at her for using her relationship with Tom as a case study on sexual relationships.  Captain Janeway and the Doctor take this curiosity as a sign that Seven unconsciously wants to be in a relationship.  Around the time this was broadcast, I was in my late teens and similarly curious about relationships, but uncertain what to do about them (I didn’t go on a date until I was twenty-seven), so I used to linger when my Mum or my sister were watching soap operas and rom coms, while pretending not to be watching them.  In retrospect, soap operas and rom coms probably were not the best role models, although I don’t think I ever “learnt” all that much from them.  I didn’t know how else to find out about relationships.

The episode was pretty cringey overall, in terms of Seven’s lack of social graces and the Doctor’s inability to express his feelings for her.  I’ve been there regarding both of those things.  It does make me wonder if I’m ever going to be socially graceful and build the friendships and romantic relationship I want.  I’m not sure if I (or anyone else) can really learn small talk and interpersonal interactions from a book or lecture.  I’m also not sure I can really learn them in my late thirties.  It does feel that I should have learnt these things in childhood or adolescence, when my brain was more plastic.

Telephone Anxiety

I had to make a couple of phone calls, both medical-related.  One to my psychiatrist try to resolve the question of where I can have my blood test at the moment because most hospitals are either not doing blood tests at all or are only doing urgent ones; the alternative is to travel to a hospital quite some way away.  The other call to the GP because I have a suspicious mole on my back that I’ve just noticed – itchy and I think new, although it’s hard to tell, as I have a lot of skin blemishes.  I’ve had two moles removed in the past and they were fine, but it’s more anxiety-provoking now with Mum being treated for cancer and with COVID disrupting everything, leading to autistic “new thing” anxiety.

I was experiencing very strong social anxiety before phoning.  I generally would experience that before phoning anyway, but it seemed worse than usual.  I really think lockdown has set me back regarding social anxiety.

I spoke to the psychiatrist’s secretary.  She went to speak to the psychiatrist and phoned me back to say I could have the blood test done in September, which was what the GP originally wanted.  Hopefully things will have changed a bit by then.

As for the GP, I was on hold for a long time and then was told that non-emergency appointments are only dealt with at 8.30am.  I suppose I could have known that, as that was sort-of the pre-COVID system (new appointments were only released at 8.30am and 6.30pm, which is a really awful system on so many levels, particularly when dealing with people who may not be keeping straightforward hours), but it wasn’t clear from the surgery website.

It feels like almost every interaction I have with GP reception staff ends with me feeling stupid.  That’s an exaggeration, but does it happen a lot.  I think a lot of the receptionists at the practice are just bad-tempered and I internalise their mood and turn it against myself.  I do dread contacting the surgery now, which is not good.  It took a huge effort to phone today; I can’t imagine how it will feel tomorrow.  The doctors are really nice there, so I don’t want to change practice, but getting past the “gatekeepers” can be a challenge.  They mess up prescriptions and the like a lot too.  Coincidentally, a friend posted on his blog to say that even pre-COVID, a lot of doctors’ receptionists seemed to be trying to stop anyone from seeing a doctor, which is sadly my experience too.

***

Aside from the hour or more that I spent doing that, it was a good day.  (It didn’t take me an hour to phone, but it took a long time to psyche myself up to doing it and to calm myself down afterwards.)

I worked on my novel for about an hour and three quarters.  The writing flowed easily for the first hour, but the second part was harder, and I ended up procrastinating online.  I think I should try to split my writing time into two chunks with a break in-between in the future.  I did write well over 1,000 words, which was good.  I did another fifteen minutes or so after dinner too, to get up to two full hours, which was also good.

I went for a walk after that.  I found I was ruminating on being single and the fact that my therapist said that I should widen my dating pool to include less religious women as otherwise I was likely to struggle to find someone kind and understanding enough to cope with all my issues.  This may be true, but I have noticed that, since breaking up with E., who was a lot less religious than me, some (not all) of my religious anxieties have reduced.  I feel a lot less of a sense of inner conflict about how religious I am/should be.  So I’m a bit wary of dating someone else less religious.   That said, frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) women seem not to like me at all, so maybe I’ll have to date non-frum women.

I found I was sinking into despair about this and quite consciously tried to change my thoughts to think about my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  I wrote that when I got home, or at least I wrote a draft.  As is usually the case, I’m not brilliantly happy with it.  In particular, there was one Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical text) that I think I interpreted correctly, but superficially; I felt there were depths to it that I could not reach.  Then I quoted the Medieval commentator Rashi, but couldn’t find his source; the references given didn’t seem to be correct.  It’s frustrating, but at 500 – 1000 words a week, my divrei Torah are never going to be exhaustive, so I shouldn’t feel too bad.

My partial regret for the day is only managing twenty minutes of Torah study, but that is in addition to spending an hour or so researching and writing my devar Torah, so that’s really not bad for one day.