The Tunnel at the End of the Light

My main activity today was a workshop on autism and employment and higher education.  This included a lot of helpful information about whether to disclose autism (and by implication mental health issues I might also want to disclose) and employers’ legal obligations towards the disabled.  I was hoping for some information on coping strategies and adjustments for various problems one might experience, but I guess people with autism are too varied for a ‘one size fits all’ approach or perhaps there will be a workshop on that topic at another time.

In fact, the workshop really did bring home to me how autism affects different people very differently.  I knew this in an abstract way, but it was interesting to see it in action.  For instance, some people get affected by bright lights or loud noise and needed warning about a video that included these; I am usually fine with those, although sudden loud noises make me jump (I guess that’s the same for a lot of neurotypicals, though), but put me in a room with a lot of talking, even quiet talking, and pretty soon I will start spacing out as my brain tries to work out what everyone is saying (not consciously; I’m not eavesdropping ) and gets overloaded.  Similarly, even bright or flashing lights during the day are fine for me, but when I’m trying to sleep, even dim light or a little light under the crack in the door, will keep me awake.  Similarly, with communication, I did not feel confident saying much at all, and some other people looked similarly socially anxious and reluctant to join in, whereas other people were chatty or even a little disruptive by not know when to stop talking.

Part of my brain was trying to work out how I fitted in with this diverse group of people: was I ‘more’ or ‘less’ affected?  It’s not really a helpful perspective.  My therapist said that I tend to see mental illness as a competitive sport and part of me wants to be the ‘most depressed’ person or the person with the most diagnoses.  This, I would guess, stems partly from self-pity and partly to try to explain (to myself as much as to others) how badly my life has seemed to have gone wrong over the last fifteen years and to make excuses for myself or at least to provide mitigating circumstances.  But it was impossible really to create such a hierarchy at the autism workshop; even on the very superficial level at which one can get to know people in a two hour workshop, we all seemed incommensurable, each too different to compare to anyone else.

Related to this, I have been finding it hard over the last few days to work out how to conceptualise myself.  I think one problem of our society (by which I mean Western society rather than Jewish society for once) is a tendency to think in terms of oppressor/victim binary pairs (the Leninist “Who?  Whom?” – who is oppressing whom?), whereas in reality (a) things are not usually so clear cut and (b) even if one is a victim, it is not particularly helpful to think of oneself as a victim.  It leads to learned helplessness and low self-esteem.  Take it from someone who has ended up there.  But how to think of myself in a more positive light is hard.  Judaism as a culture/religion is less focused on victimhood, despite the fact that for many centuries Jews were (are) victimised.  Unfortunately, Jewish religious identity would focus on fulfilling the Torah,or at least fulfilling one’s potential, and being loved by God, which is problematic for me as I feel that I do not meet my religious obligations or even my potential and that consequently God does not love me.  I hope that CBT will help me frame things in a more helpful way.

It’s hard to do this with so few role models.  I don’t really expect there to be loads of books or TV programmes about autistic-depressive-socially-anxious-Orthodox-Jews, but there isn’t really much I’ve come across remotely like me.  I’m currently reading the novel Turtles All the Way Down, which is a reasonable portrayal of OCD.  However, in terms of portrayal of autism, The Imitation Game made me feel lonely and useless and that was a reasonably positive portrayal; I absolutely hated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which I felt failed to engage with people with autism at all sympathetically.

As for Jews… well, there are lots of Jews out there in fiction, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred they’re ultra-assimilated, there to provide a dash of ‘diversity’ without the author actually having to do any research.  In terms of detailed, positive portrayals of religious Jews, there’s Chaim Potok and that’s about it.  I haven’t read/seen Disobedience because the story wasn’t my type of thing and I worried it was going to be critical of Orthodox Judaism.  Don’t even mention The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which started promisingly, but ended up by supporting every crazy antisemitic conspiracy theory going (author Michael Chabon has since distinguished himself as a rabid critic of Jews, Judaism, the Jewish State, and pretty much everything Jews do other than assimilating themselves out of existence).

So I’m left to turn back to nineteenth century Yiddish literature which is (a) hard to get hold of in translation and (b) often targeting Orthodoxy satirically as much as positively and even when it’s not, I find it hard to see myself as peasant or even a rabbi back in the shtetl (Jewish towns of Eastern Europe).  I did watch a bit of webcast comedy series Soon By You but the relationship-driven plots just made me feel more alone and upset that I don’t live in the USA where I would have a statistically greater chance of meeting someone like myself.  I haven’t seen Israeli drama Srugim, but I imagine that would inspire similar feelings, only replacing the USA with Israel.

Most of my heroes growing up were outsiders in other ways (aliens, robots and time-travellers) and were role models only via metaphorical interpretation.  More recently, watching Sherlock again I expected to empathise with Sherlock Holmes, but while the nineteenth century original was possibly autistic and probably bipolar, the modern-day TV version is, by his own admission, a “high-functioning sociopath” and almost sadistically rude.  I find myself more drawn to the minor character of Molly Hooper, a pathologist with apparently low self-esteem and an unrequited crush on Sherlock.  To be honest, if she was real, I’d want to date her (if she was Jewish), but I fear I wouldn’t measure up to Sherlock, even if he does manipulate her and generally treat her appallingly.

The sad truth is that, here in the real world, 99% of the time people with autism, depression, anxiety or OCD don’t actually have compensatory superpowers.

(As an aside, there’s an amusing poem by Philip Larkin called A Study of Reading Habits in which he reviews the literary heroes and anti-heroes of his childhood and adolescence, notes that these days he identifies more with the cowards and failures than the heroes and finally advises the reader to “Get stewed:/Books are a load of crap.”  Thus spake the Librarian of Hull University.)

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Israeli statesman Shimon Peres was asked if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he replied, “There is a light, the problem is there’s no tunnel” which I took to mean that the outlines of a peace deal are obvious to most people (other than fanatics on both sides); the problem is working out how to get there.

Similarly, I know what my ideal life would look like: mental health issues under control (I’ve given up on comprehensively escaping them and want just to manage them); a job I can do, which pays the bills and which stimulates me intellectually; the time/energy/mental health to meet my religious obligations (prayer, Torah study etc.); a wife and children; a certain amount of free time; a few friends; and a community I feel comfortable in.  This seems a lot (although most people seem to manage with most of these things) and I have absolutely no idea how to achieve these goals.  I don’t think I have a realistic image in my head of what they could look like in the real world.  I’m not even sure that I have a clear fantasy image of my dream job, let alone a realistic one and while I do have a fantasy image of being loved by someone, I’m not sure I really have the experience to know what a real relationship is like.  I don’t know how it is that some people can plan out their lives and then systematically achieve their goals; it seems quite beyond me.

The frum (pious) thing to say is that I trust that HaShem (God) will provide for me, but I don’t.  I fear that He hates me because of all my sins; worse, I worry that His plan for me involves only suffering, which is worse than punishment, because punishment can be mitigated by repentance, whereas if He simply plans for me to suffer for some reason that is beyond my comprehension, then there simply isn’t anything I can do about it.  I don’t know what to do about this or even how to raise the issue with other frum people e.g. my rabbi mentor.

Pre-Holiday Nerves

Shul (synagogue) this afternoon was depressing.  I missed shul this morning again because of social anxiety and perhaps a bit of depression.  I forced myself to go this afternoon.  A few things were triggering.  During the Talmud shiur (class) before Mincha (the afternoon service), the assistant rabbi mentioned someone he knew who was a child prodigy at Talmud study, then became very non-religious in his teens (the assistant rabbi would not say how much, just very bad; apparently he owned a casino, which is bad, but I think I do worse things) and then, because so many people prayed for him, in his twenties or thirties he became religious again and got married (because it’s impossible for Orthodox Jews to imagine a good life without being married…).  So that just made me think how wicked I must be and how much God must hate me to leave me unmarried unlike this guy, and how lucky this guy was to have so many people praying for him (although I’m sometimes privately sceptical about praying for other people in that way).

Then in the shuir during seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal) the assistant rabbi spoke about the complex series of events that happened for him (the assistant rabbi) to get meet his wife and get married, which just made me feel that God must really hate me not to arrange something like that for me.  The shiur was about all kinds of stuff that seemed relevant to me, about marriage and suffering and death and how God rewards us for what we suffer.  Except that because I was depressed my concentration slipped and I missed the bit where it was all brought together and explained, so I don’t really understand anything of what I heard and don’t feel any better.

In under twelve hours, I should be in the air on my way to New York.  I think everyone else is more excited about my holiday than I am. I just want to get through it and home again in one piece.  I wanted to go on this trip to date E. and to meet some Hevria people.  I’m seeing E., but only as a friend and it’s still questionable whether I will actually get to meet any Hevria people.  I feel if I had taken £2,000 out of the bank and just burnt it, it would have been easier.  I feel I’m going to be in a constant state of anxiety for the next ten days.

I feel I’ve let my parents take over too much with my holiday.  I feel that I’m not an adult because I don’t know how to travel by myself.  I already described how my Mum ended up doing more of my packing than I wanted.  She talked me into taking more reading material than I think I need (two novels (admittedly one half-read), one light non-fiction book, a couple of magazines and some religious reading).  She thinks I’m going to read a whole novel on the plane.  I find this unlikely.  It’s a long flight, but I find it hard to read on planes and, in any case, my concentration and motivation to read at the moment is poor because of the depression.  In recent months, when I go on the Tube, time which I used to spend constantly reading, often I listen to music or just stare into space feeling depressed because I don’t have the energy or motivation to read.  I guess it doesn’t really matter.

The holiday has brought up tensions with my parents, tensions that exist all the time, but are worse now I have to prepare for something.  I feel like my parents treat me like a child at times.  Things like my Dad reminding me to do stuff as if I was a young child or Mum and Dad contradicting my suggestions of what to take with and do.  I feel that I’m mostly going to sites that other people have told me I should go to rather than choosing anything for myself, although as I don’t really want to go to New York in the first place, maybe that isn’t surprising.  Sometimes I feel that if I say something, everyone around me feels the need to say the opposite, just to be different.  No wonder I feel like everything I say is wrong.  Of course, if I say that everything I say is wrong, they contradict that too.

Sometimes it feels that everything I try to do on my own initiative is undermined, then when I exist in a state of learned helplessness I get told that I’m a child (which was one reason E. broke up with me, I think).  I’ve felt like this on and off for years, really since my teens.  Every time I’m either in a position of doing something new and ‘adult’ or being with my family for a long time (and holidays are often both of those things), these issues come to a head and I bicker with my parents, but then afterwards I come home and retreat to my room and avoid them and the issue dies away and doesn’t get properly resolved.  It’s probably going to be worse now I’m moving back in with my parents.  I can’t really see how I can learn to be independent of my parents without doing scary stuff totally by myself.  I guess that’s one reason I want to get married so much, to be independent of my parents, but not totally alone.  I don’t have friends I can travel with or do stuff with, so marriage feels like my only option.

I suppose on the subject of childishness, I put some Doctor Who posters up in my bedroom.  I had (different) posters up in the flat, because after a year living there the stark white walls were driving me crazy and making me think of a padded cell.  At my parents’ house I have a couple of pictures up and a map of Israel and, of course, a thousand books and several hundred DVDs, but I just felt I wanted something to make it a bit more ‘me’ and to make the black wardrobe doors a bit brighter, but now I wonder if it’s too childish to have big posters up, doubly so Doctor Who ones.  I suppose I can always take them down later.

Of I go into holiday mode now.  I still feel that this is going to be the worst holiday ever, but I guess if I come home on schedule and in one piece, it will feel like a victory of sorts, albeit an expensive one.