More Anxiety

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

Back here in London…

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Very Anxious Day

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

Feeling Anxious

I’d like to be able to start a post without talking about my sleep pattern, but it seems to be a big part of my life at the moment, so here goes. I went to bed about 12.00pm. I wasn’t sure if I would sleep or not. Being sick can make you sleepy, but I had done nothing all evening since being sick except watch TV, so I didn’t feel particularly tired. I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if it was a lack of tiredness or the constant agitated thoughts about the Zoom meeting on Tuesday evening Rabbi B. Eventually I got up and watched some more Doctor Who to calm myself down. I did actually enjoy the second half of Logopolis more than the first, although that may be because it was 1.00am and my standards were not as high. I did eventually fall asleep around 2.00am, but slept through the morning again, which I was hoping to stop doing. I guess it was not entirely unexpected, given the evening I had (being sick, but also having a difficult conversation with my parents and arranging the call with Rabbi B). What did upset me a little was waking up with some religious OCD thoughts, which had not really bothered me for some time. I was a little surprised to experience them, although I know there’s always a risk of the religious OCD coming back at times of stress and exhaustion. They did at least go after I’d eaten breakfast – low blood sugar also exacerbates OCD for me.

After breakfast I felt better, but also a bit down and lethargic. It was hard to do very much. I guess it’s not surprising, given that I had been very sick less than twenty-four hours previously. At lunch I opened the box of vegetables that I was eating with PIMOJ yesterday and saw that the leftover cucumber had gone off. It was completely mouldy and furry. So I suspect I was sick from food poisoning from eating gone off cucumber. I knew it was a little past its best, but it still looked edible yesterday. Obviously not.

I was pleased to get thoughtful messages from PIMOJ, but also a message from J asking how I was, which was nice. He said I could do some work from home one day this week, putting 300 invoices in envelopes, stamping and posting them. I think I can do that on Wednesday, hopefully working around my therapy in the afternoon. I had already decided I was going to skip volunteering this week as I have too many stressful things even without being sick. I’m a bit upset at letting them down, but I need to look after my mental health. I skipped depression group tonight too, as I didn’t feel I had enough stamina to spend a long time on Zoom, as well as not feeling able to speak about the things that most concern me. I feel a bit bad about missing it again, but I feel that I need to focus on the autism assessment, meeting with the rabbi and paid work this week.

I spent an hour or so in the early evening working on my novel. Once I got into it, it flowed quite well for a while and I wrote 500 words, but around seven o’clock I suddenly became very anxious. It was a feeling of nausea and apprehension rather than specific voiced fears, but I suspect the meeting with Rabbi B tomorrow evening is at the root of it, and maybe also the autism assessment tomorrow afternoon.

I guess the Rabbi B fear is wondering what he will think of me, feeling that I’ve done something in good faith and on the advice of my rabbi mentor, but which on the face of it appears bad to someone from an Orthodox Jewish background. Although my rabbi mentor got in touch with Rabbi B before I made contact with him, I’m not sure how much of my story he told him. I guess below that is guilt, which probably isn’t justified. Beyond this, when I knew Rabbi B when I was at university, I felt that I was constantly embarrassing myself in front of him and looking like a freak or an idiot (for reasons I would now identify as being down to autism or social anxiety) and wondered what he thought about me…

Other than that, I didn’t achieve much. I didn’t go for a walk (I actually only just realised that I didn’t go out all day). I did some Torah study and preparation for my devar Torah, but wasn’t satisfied that I’d done enough, nor was I satisfied with my preparation. I may have to start from scratch, but it’s much too late to do that now.

I got distracted this evening reading stuff online that only left me upset, frustrated, guilty and uncertain of things, but I don’t really want to go into it here. Now it’s nearly midnight and I should go to bed as I have a busy day tomorrow (autism assessment, Rabbi B), but I feel very tense and unsleepy. And I haven’t even mentioned my thoughts about Lockdown 3: The Mutant Strain.

***

I was voicing my anxieties to PIMOJ and she was trying to calm me down. Then I watched the first episode of the Doctor Who story Castrovalva and saw the same scenario play out as the composed Nyssa tried to calm down the panicking Tegan, saying that panicking doesn’t achieve anything and so on. To be honest, there’s an element of geeky Adric about me too, and I’ve long suspected that I don’t appreciate Peter Davison’s Doctor as much as I should because he’s the Doctor who’s most like me (polite, but given to moments of panic and ultimately not that good at being the Doctor, with fatal consequences). Suddenly my future life seems like Season Nineteen of Doctor Who… I guess there are worse things it could be, although I hope it’s more Kinda than Earthshock.

***

I commented on someone else’s blog today to say that I’ve only been paid for one piece of writing, although I have done some professional or at least semi-professional writing for free. This, it occurred to me afterwards, is not true any more, as I have sold a couple of copies of my non-fiction Doctor Who book, and while so far only friends and family have bought copies, at least two people have read and enjoyed it (my oldest friend and my sister’s nephew). It’s a bit frightening how my mind can keep positive memories and thoughts away from me when I need it.

“I’m not gonna talk about Judy!”

I did manage to work on my novel today, although I could not quite manage to get to two hours before I felt burnt out and unable to continue. I would have liked to have got to the round number. The burnout was as much from stopping in the middle of working on the novel to go for a 5K run before it got dark, which left me exhausted. I was really lucky to get through anything in the second hour of work. I am nearly finished with the second draft of the novel, although the penultimate chapter is proving hard work and I don’t know when I will finish it. I feel like I’m missing a few links in the chain of the plot. I know what needs to happen emotionally, but I can’t quite find a plausible rationale for it to happen yet.

I still have mixed feelings about the novel and whether it “works,” or will work once I’ve finished redrafting it, but I just have to keep going for now.

I thought I had escaped an exercise migraine after running today, but I had a slight headache that was coming and going and eventually I took solpadeine when it looked like it was going to get worse.

We had takeaway for dinner. I had a vegan cheeseburger: pseudo- (non-meat) meat and pseudo- (non-dairy) cheese. I’ve never had real cheeseburger as it’s not kosher and I don’t think I had ever had pseudo-cheeseburger before. It was OK, but I don’t think I’m missing out on much, even allowing for the fact that non-dairy cheese doesn’t taste much like real cheese in my experience.

Something that happened around dinner set off my kashrut OCD thoughts for a few minutes. I did get it under control, but it frustrates me a bit that OCD thoughts are always lurking in the background and have to be kept under control. This is true for everyone. Even people without clinical OCD have OCD-type thoughts, they just control them almost without thinking. It is people who have OCD who have to consciously dismiss the thoughts. OCD never entirely goes away, you just (hopefully) get better at dismissing the thoughts.

After dinner, I spoke to PIMOJ, which was good. I started speaking to her right after I had watched the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, which turned out to be a mistake, as my head was still full of the ambiguous and scary ending. Maybe it wasn’t such a mistake, though, as I opened up about this, which led to a conversation about what we’re scared of which was interesting.

I had a second wind in the evening after talking to PIMOJ and did an hour of Torah study. Vayetze (Genesis 28.10-32.3) is a sedra (weekly Torah portion) I’ve always struggled with on multiple levels (language, meaning, morality), but I have at least a couple of initial thoughts to investigate for my devar Torah for this week.

I guess it was a busy day overall, looking back over this post, but I am apprehensive about tomorrow. This is a late night (nearly 1am) and I feel wide awake, as I forgot to take my meds and have only just taken them. They usually knock me out, but I think my natural state without them is insomnia. I have a lot to do tomorrow and I may not be able to fit in more work on the novel. Still, I was glad to work on it for so long today. Although I don’t like the penultimate chapter and it needs a lot of work, at least I have some idea of where I’m going with it.

***

I need to unwind for a few minutes before bed, so here are some thoughts on completing Twin Peaks.

Looking at my DVD shelves, I own a few series that varied widely over their run, either in terms of style (Doctor Who, The Avengers) or quality (Blakes’ 7, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Even so, the variety of styles and quality across just forty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks (counting the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as an “episode”) is astounding, to the extent that I think of them as sub-units, almost separate series.

  1. Twin Peaks: the pilot episode, season one and season two episodes 1-10 (the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer): absolutely astounding. By turns scary, funny, moving and weird. If this was all there was of Twin Peaks, it would be one of my all-time favourite TV series.
  2. Twin Peaks: season two episodes 11-22: the first few episodes after the solving of the murder are not very good. Although there is a slow return to quality by the end of the season, only the last episode or two are anywhere near the quality of the first batch of episodes. Some of the rest almost seem like self-parody.
  3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: this prequel film seems to be hated by fans and critics alike, but I rather liked it. The early section (the Chester Desmond/Teresa Banks investigation) is the bit of later Twin Peaks that is most like section 1. The second part (the last week in the life of Laura Palmer) is different stylistically to section 1, but I think it works as an examination of the mental collapse of someone suffering serious abuse, with the paranormal parts working as both horror and metaphor for psychological trauma. I have to say, when I saw the end, where the dead Laura arrives in the Black Lodge (a kind of afterlife) and bursts into tears of joy at being released from the hell of her life on Earth, I did think of the darkest days of my own depression and OCD where the thought of death seemed like a release.
  4. Twin Peaks: The Return episodes 1-16: I kept going back and forth about this in my mind while I was watching it. Around episode four or five I wanted to give up, but it did improve. Or maybe it just took me time to get to know the unwieldy and poorly-introduced number of new characters and to understand their relationships? Actually, I still have no idea what was going on with some bits of it. Apparently a mini-series pitched at nine episodes was expanded by the network to eighteen and it shows, with a slow pace, plot threads that seem to go nowhere and characters that are bloodily killed off when they’ve served their purpose (this reminded me of the worst excesses of mid-1980s Doctor Who, only gorier). I coped with the gore (exploding heads etc.), but could have done without it. All that said, I’m prepared to concede that it might make more sense on a second viewing if I can find the stamina, especially now the internet has primed me to look for some details I missed first time around.
  5. Twin Peaks: The Return episodes 17-18: I’m really not sure about this. Episode 17 seemed pretty good. Episode 18 was slow and confusing again, but building up to a disturbing final five minutes or so (the bit that freaked me out before Skyping PIMOJ), a deliberately ambiguous and psychologically-scary ending that makes you question the rest of mini-series, if not the original series too. A second viewing might elevate it up as high as section 1.

I could easily watch sections 1, 3 and maybe 5 again right away, so haunting are they and so much do I want to revel in their weirdness, their eeriness and also their humour and, in the case of section 1, the strong sense of place and theme (loss). I don’t want to watch section 2 and I don’t know if I have the stamina for section 4 again. I will probably watch again in a few months or a year, hopefully remembering enough to understand section 4.

I guess in the past, with confusing things, like The Prisoner or The Waste Land I would try logically to tease out meaning from symbolism. I think I approach things with less logic now and try to feel the experience on an emotional level. Certainly Twin Peaks seems to be something you feel more than understand. That said, while I haven’t found much Doctor Who presence on WordPress (or maybe it’s hard to find posts when searches get filled up with posts about “a doctor who did…”), there seems to be a Twin Peaks presence that I might investigate in the coming days…

Stories like Twin Peaks live on in my head in a way that I find hard to explain. I begin to see the world through the filter of their worldview. I would put Doctor Who and The Prisoner in the same category, maybe also Sapphire and Steel. In prose, parts of Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick and (in a different way) John le Carré. Although it’s not a story, I would add The Waste Land too.

Blogging for Myself

When I started blogging, on some level at least I wanted to become internet famous. I’m not sure why exactly, as I’m fairly sure that fame would make me thoroughly miserable. Some of it was about wanting my voice to be heard, which on some level I still want, or I wouldn’t be trying to build a career as a writer. But I think a lot of it was to do with having mixed feelings about people I had been at university with. I started blogging less than a year after I came down from Oxford and I had a lot of confusing (to me) feelings of anger, frustration, loneliness, friendship and maybe love towards various people which I had failed to make known to anyone in person. I think I hoped in some way that I would become known through my writing (at the time I was too depressed to become known in any other way) and people would find out. I’m not really sure what I thought/hoped they would feel or do.

A small part of me still feels like this, but it’s mostly transferred itself to my novel-writing ambitions. I think I keep those feelings reasonably in perspective these days, although there probably is a part of me that at least sometimes wants people I know to intuit my life story and battles with depression and autism from my writing, which is a dangerous thing to hope. Still, this does mean that my blog writing is more for myself nowadays.

When I wanted to be internet famous, I never had many followers (or friends, as they were called on Livejournal). Paradoxically, in the last year or two, as I’ve decided I write primarily for myself, to record my activity, thoughts and feelings each day, I have gained more readers. I’m now approaching 500, which is a milestone I didn’t expect to reach. I know many of these followers are spammy and others don’t actually read anything, but quite a number ‘like’ and comment on posts. I now have what I wanted years ago, when I was in the pits of depression, which is a place where I can post how I feel honestly and people will be supportive. I don’t mean that to sound mercenary or manipulative. I’m not trying to provoke positive comments, I’m just aware that people usually leave them and grateful for that.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I know my posts have become more repetitive and less interesting as my mental health has stabilised somewhat, and that today’s post is probably tedious and certainly short (or it was, until I appended this introduction), so I’m sorry for that.

***

I spent the morning volunteering, packing food parcels, which was fine, but we ran out of vegetables, which was sad, as those people aren’t going to get as much as they should, although I think we made sure that everyone got something.

I tried to work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) after lunch. After thinking the last two weeks’ divrei Torah were too reliant on my own untested ideas, I think this one is based too much on other peoples’ thoughts. I can’t really win. In any case, I was very tired and struggled to think coherently and will need to finish it off tomorrow. If I get this tired after spending a morning volunteering, I worry how I will cope when I’m working two days a week as well. I successfully avoided Twitter during the afternoon, but ended up reading an old article from The Atlantic on the QAnon conspiracy theory, until I realised it was just making me fret about American society without being able to do anything, so I stopped reading. I do worry about a country that combines so many conspiracy theorists with so many guns – it’s not a good combination.

***

A couple of things about volunteering today: I was putting tea lights in little bags that would then be put in bigger bags to be distributed with food (the tea lights were to be used as Shabbat candles). It was a repetitive job and there were several of us doing it. A couple of the other volunteers started chatting while they were doing it. It was clear from their conversation that they I had never met before, and I marvelled at how easily the spoke to each other and made small talk. I feel like whenever I try to do that, people can notice that I’m reading from a mental “script” and that after two or three minutes, I run out of things to say or start repeating myself.

The person who runs the volunteering side of the organisation wanted me to do a particular task which I hadn’t done before. Then before I could do anything, she said I “looked lost” and gave me a different, easier, job to do instead. I think she probably made the right decision, but I am not sure what to think about the fact that my thoughts and emotions are very easy to read on my face, even though I was wearing a mask, whereas I can’t read other people’s emotions at all. I know it’s autism that stops me reading other people, but I feel that the fact that I’m so easy to read gives other people an unfair advantage!

I had some thoughts that could easily have slipped towards OCD, thoughts about taking responsibility for things that are not my responsibility and about COVID contamination, but I recognised these thoughts for what they were and kept them under control, which was good. Nietzsche described mental illness as being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” Lately the dogs have been fairly quiet for me, but today they were barking again. Not too loudly, but enough to remind me that they’re still there.

***

This year is the first since I was a very young child where I haven’t worn a poppy for the British Legion. Some years I had lost it by the time armistice day came around, but I always wore one at some point. I did give them a donation online this year, but because of lockdown I haven’t been out much and haven’t seen anyone collecting in the street or collection tins in shops. Beyond the actual donation, I like to wear it to show empathy with those killed or wounded in action or bereaved by war. I guess it’s something else that 2020 has forced on us.

Practise, Practise, Practise

I got a short “thinking of you”-type message from the person I thought I scared off on JDate with my moment of anxiety/OCD, saying she plans to write at length soon, so I guess I didn’t scare her off. That’s good, although I am, of course, nervous about where this might go and how she will react if my mental health gets worse again.

***

I watched the webinar for my job training. It made more sense to me than reading the guidelines, probably because I could see the system I would be using. I started on the practise data. I’m struggling with it. Part of it is the sheer amount of stuff I’m expected to remember or find easily in the guidelines. I haven’t had to memorise and process this much information in a short period in a long time. The other problem is the format of the practise data. After I send in my ratings, I get an automated response, but I find it hard to tell what I should have done differently and why. I would like to have a human being to talk me through some example data, but it’s all automated.

When I worked on it, I soon started to feel overwhelmed and depressed again, which is not good. This is partly from fear that I will come into contact with political content that I will find upsetting (the second item I was assessing was a political piece that I found somewhat upsetting). I’m trying to avoid politics lately as too upsetting. But I think I could cope with that. A bigger problem is that when my OCD was bad, I had OCD fears that I would come into contact with illegal material online without noticing it and that I would then get arrested. I’ve already been told that I could theoretically come into contact with illegal material doing this job and how to report it, which has made me very anxious about the whole situation even though I’ve been told it’s unlikely that I actually would come into contact with such material and they just have to tell me what to do as a precaution.

My parents think I should let this job go, but I’m still persisting, I suppose partly because I don’t want to admit defeat (AKA I’m stubborn) and also because I feel that, on paper, this should be the ideal job for me, a job that uses information skills, can be done from home, for a couple of days a week, with the rest of the time free for writing. Plus, I suppose, I want to have some kind of a job to sound like I’m working on my issues to the person I’m messaging on JDate (who I really need to give a better pseudonym than “the person I’m messaging on JDate”). It’s also depressing that it’s another job that I can’t do and this one doesn’t even have a clear reason why.

ANXIOUS!!! Scrupulous?

In the last few days I’ve been feeling confident in some ways, not in others.  I feel curiously confident about my ability to write – I don’t think I’m a great author and I’ve definitely got a lot to learn, but I feel I could write.  However, I don’t feel confident about my ability to get published, in terms of producing what publishers want as well as persevering through rejection and learning the technical procedures for laying out submissions and so on.

I’ve found a job to apply for that might be good for me.  It’s slightly unusual.  The job description was not detailed, but it involves working to improve search engines by rating keywords and search terms.  From the company site, I think it is really about training AI algorithms, although I won’t be doing the technical stuff, just collecting data.  The attraction is (a) although not intended for a librarian/information manager, my information management skills may be useful, (b) I can work from home, (c) I have flexible hours, maximum 20 hours a week.  So this would be in a non-stressful environment (home), allowing me to work, say, 10am-6pm each day, three days a week with two days for writing!  It is a freelance, contract position, so no job security, but you can say that about most jobs nowadays (even before COVID).  I spent nearly two hours applying (one of those annoying cases where they want a CV plus an online application form that just paraphrases your CV).

***

Eliza recommended Shabbat.com as a dating site, which I had not heard of (I’d possibly heard of it as a site to find a Shabbat host, but not as a dating site).  I signed up and created a profile.  Unlike JDate, it’s free.  There were a lot of Anglo-Jewish women on there (including the daughter of friends of my parents who lives down the road and who my Dad has been trying to set me up with for years, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign that she’s interested in me), but I just got overwhelmed and shut it down.  Sigh.  Maybe I don’t have the stamina for online dating, to contact so many people to try to find The One.  It’s an effort for me to open up to anyone.  I suppose it does reassure me that there are women out there, if only I could work out how to meet them.  Someone has to like me, right?  (No, they don’t, says my inner critic.)

I couldn’t cancel my JDate subscription (the three day grace period turned out to be only in parts of America) so am committed for three months and might as well use them.  Losing £90 is a pain, but it’s only money, and money isn’t a huge problem for me right now (I have no job, but I also have no life beyond buying occasional books and DVDs, mostly second-hand and cheap; my parents aren’t charging me rent).  I’m trying to focus on trusting God that everything is for the best, even if nothing works out and it all just turns out to be expensive social anxiety exposure therapy.

That was my thought in the early afternoon, when I realised I couldn’t cancel.  Since then, four people sent me a “flirt” on JDate, which as far as I can tell is a way of signifying interest in someone’s photo and profile without saying anything substantive in case they don’t reciprocate.  You just get a message saying “Person X sent you a flirt” and you can decide whether to respond with a more substantial message or not.  Two of the flirters didn’t have information or photos on their profiles beyond living in the US, so I put them to one side for now.  Both looked slightly suspicious (beyond the lack of data) in apparently being willing to date anyone from 35 to 75, which seemed an suspiciously large age range.

As for the women who looked more legitimate, one is Modern Orthodox, but living in the States – which is not impossible given my experience with E.  The other is from someone whose profile says she’s “culturally Jewish,” but when I responded to her flirt with a short message introducing myself, she sent me a longer message which seems very religious.  It is true that some people really don’t like labels and particularly “Orthodox” (which admittedly is kind of a dour and unattractive thing to call yourself: “Right-thinking”).  I’m going to respond to her before going to bed, and to the American woman tomorrow – I don’t think I have the stamina to reply to both now (see below for why).

I guess it’s nice to be thought attractive, given that these women “flirted” me based on a photo and a short profile.  Still, the thought of actually messaging them, or anyone else on either site, makes me feel anxious.  When I’m single and lonely, I just feel how nice it would be to be in a relationship with someone I like and trust.  I forget that to build a relationship of love and trust, I have to start by talking to a lot of women I don’t know and am scared of, and face a lot of rejection.  At the moment, I want to cower under the table until my bashert (soul-mate) finds me.   Sadly, life doesn’t work like that.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased at getting a reaction, though, nor that both these women, but particularly the UK-based one, seem like the type of person I would be looking to meet.

***

I’ve been feeling very anxious today about both applying for the job and internet dating and I wonder if the latter at least is not more than just social anxiety.  ‘Pure O’ OCD (obsessions without compulsions) can sometimes be called “scrupulosity,” because sufferers are often obsessed with being morally perfect.  In the past I have had this with Jewish dietary laws (on the plus side: yesterday someone did something at home that would have sent me into a huge panic and sending emails to rabbis just a couple of years ago and I was fine with it, so I’ve made progress there at least).

While I’m not sure I have scrupulosity regarding dating in a strictly clinical sense sense, I do have a lot of worries about not wanting to mislead women, not wanting to waste their time dating them if I think it won’t work out and so on.  It adds to general social anxiety about dating and makes it hard to cope.  I can have it a bit (to a much lesser extent) with job applications, trying to be honest in my application about my skills and experience.  Whether because of autistic black-and-white thinking or scrupulosity (autistic people are disproportionately likely to suffer from OCD), I have always struggled with the idea that it’s OK to bend the truth a little on job applications, or that it’s OK to chat on dating sites with women up to a point without being sure that you want to go out with them.

Because of the tendency in frum circles to only date if ready to marry, I kind of feel I shouldn’t date without a firm career and good mental health, but if I pursue a career as a writer, I may never have real job security (if anyone does these days) and I don’t think my mental health is ever going to be perfect.

After I’d done all of this, I remembered an email from my rabbi mentor some time ago where he said I should just try to meet a lot of women to see what I want/need from a relationship.  That sounds weirdly unrabbinic advice, but I’m pretty sure it’s what he said (although I can’t find the email).

I did find the email where he said it’s OK to email two or more women at once, as long as I don’t do that once I move one relationship to the point where we’re actually dating.

***

Achievements: aside from job application, setting up a dating profile and messaging on JDate… thirty-five minutes of Torah study (I might try to do a little more) and a run.  So a pretty busy day.  The run led to another exercise migraine, sadly.  I only realised after the run, and after the headache had set in, that I hadn’t davened Minchah (said afternoon Prayers), so it was a struggle to do that by the deadline.  I pushed myself to start, then I stopped and had to go to the toilet because I was retching, came back and restarted, stopped and actually threw up… even then I wanted to finish the service until I realised how silly it seemed.  I suppose it shows how much I push myself to do what I feel I “should” do religiously without taking into account my health.

Happiness is a Warm DVD

I sat outside last night watching a DVD on my laptop.  The weather was a little cooler.  I couldn’t get my Star Trek Voyager DVD to play (my laptop DVD player is temperamental), so I watched Doctor Who instead.  I started a re-watch of my favourite season, the 1978-1979 season, in my opinion the apogee of Doctor Who as science fantasy children’s series (thus, hated by fans who think Doctor Who is Serious Adult Drama… the fault line between fans who think Doctor Who is a children’s programme and those who think it is a Serious Adult Drama is one of the biggest in fandom).  I felt quite happy watching it, despite the fact that I could hear my parents talking despite my earphones, that the security light kept coming on and shining in my eyes, and that the picture quality was not great (my screen needs cleaning and I kept seeing my reflection in it because of the ambient light).  Normally when I watch TV, I try to immerse myself in it, but I was able to enjoy it without doing that 100%.  I suppose it does show that I can be happy, and with quite small things.  My Mum noticed I was smiling.

I had another unrestful night’s sleep.  It’s a little cooler, but still too hot for me.  There is a breeze, and around four o’clock the heavy rain we were forecast finally arrived, but only lasted a few minutes.  It started raining heavily again just before seven, with thunder, to the extent I had to shut the windows, but, again, it didn’t last long.  It’s still quite hot, with a bit of a cooling breeze, but very humid and I still feel quite uncomfortable.  I can concentrate a little better than the last few days, but not brilliantly.

***

Last night I had the thought of logging on to JDate and seeing if there were many women my age and frumkeit (religiosity) level on there, but I couldn’t log on.  I thought I still had a profile on there, but apparently not.  I assume they delete profiles if they’re inactive for a long period of time as I don’t remember deleting it.  I don’t think I could have used JDate since I met my first girlfriend on there in 2012.  My experience at the time made me feel there weren’t enough frum (religious) enough women on the site for me, but maybe I would be willing to be more flexible on “frum enough” now.  I think I probably have to be.  It’s hard to tell what “frum enough” looks like, though, as I worry that I compromised too much when I was dating E. and that it would not have worked in the long-term.

JDate is probably better for me right now than its competitor, JWed.  JWed, as its name implies, is a dating-for-marriage site, not a dating-for-dating site.  It also asks users to categorise themselves religiously, offering them seven different types of Orthodox Jewish identities and several more non-Orthodox ones.  Jews like pigeon-holing other Jews, you might have noticed.  It also asks you to say how often you pray and study Torah, whether you wear tzitzit (ritual fringed garment) if you are a man and if you would cover your hair after marriage if you are a woman, all questions designed to further pigeon-hole religiously.  These are supposed to be proxies to gauge religious devotion, but aren’t always in reality, but the problem of using them as such stretches far beyond the dating world, or even the frum world.  JDate doesn’t quite offer such craziness, although if I recall correctly, it does still offer several different flavours of Orthodoxy (I doubt there are many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews on JDate though even if there is an option for them).

My main concerns with JDate are that I can’t afford to pay the monthly subscription; and that there are more men than women on dating sites, so women tend not to respond to men on dating sites unless they appear amazing.  I do still have some concerns about not “dating for marriage.”  However, my biggest concern is how to talk about my employment situation or about trying to be a writer in my profile without having sold much, and while worrying that I’m not going to be able to make much of a success of writing.

I feel that E., like my first girlfriend, thought that I was a good boyfriend, but also that my emotional neediness and unemployed status was a lot to cope with, and eventually was too much to cope with.  I find it hard to believe anyone else could see past that permanently, not just for a few months until the novelty of having an attentive and listening boyfriend wore off.

There is also the practical problem, of course, of dating in the time of COVID and social distancing.  This may be less of a problem now, as I think we can stop shielding Mum soon as her chemo is finished.  We have to shield around the time of her surgery, but I think not when she has radiotherapy after that.

I wrote to my rabbi mentor about this today and I look forward to reading his response.  Writing it down did make me think that some of my concerns were due to anxiety or even a kind of ‘pure O’ OCD, in terms of taking the morality an action very seriously, paying more attention to it than it needs, in moral terms.  I think dating at this time is probably not against my values, although I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a product of those values at this time.  Whether it’s sensible is another question.

***

Speaking of being a writer, I’m feeling pessimistic today.  I finished If You Want to Write, the writing book I was currently reading.  It was kind of hippie-ish (although written in the 1930s), all about doing what you want and finding your own truth, which is true, but the opposite is probably true too.  I wasn’t surprised by this, as the book was recommended to me by a hippie-ish friend who I fell out with, someone who described himself as being all about empathy and compassion and then treated me quite badly.    I don’t think I can internalise the “rules” of writing from the books I’m reading, not even this one, which just says to be honest (and is against genre fiction).  I feel a great writer wouldn’t need to internalise rules, but a merely competent one probably does need to do so.  I certainly feel my book could do with more structure and more vivid characters.  But, as I’ve said before, I oscillate between thinking that there are no rules for literature and that there are rules for it, like any other skill, if only I could learn them.

I did half an hour of research for the novel, reading a rape survivor’s statement, which was understandably depressing.  I struggle to see why some men find the concept of “consent” so difficult to grasp.

I also spent twenty minutes or so working on my list of things that I want to add or change in the next draft of my novel, so overall this was a reasonably productive day for the novel.

***

Other achievements: I spent an hour on my devar Torah (Torah thought), getting it mostly sorted to my satisfaction, although I had a vague sense of not having explained it clearly enough to myself, let alone anyone else.  The sense that I sort of understand what I’m saying, but not quite perfectly.  I spent another hour on Torah study, so it was quite a productive day from a religious point of view too.

It’s funny how my feelings writing my devar Torah every week mirror my feelings writing my Oxford tutorial essays: the initial blank incomprehension with nothing to write, the slow research and analysis, the gradual revelation of what I’m going to write, then the actual writing, followed by relief, but a feeling of not having really nailed it.

I also finished re-reading Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World.  I didn’t get much from this except to recall that I didn’t like it much the first time I read it.  I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t like it.  I think maybe its use of biblical and historical models for healing from despair was too simplistic.

Incidentally, I have finished three books in two days, although as I was reading them concurrently and not consecutively, it’s not such a notable achievement.

***

Sometimes I just stand, staring into space, completely lost in thought.  My parents invariably then ask if something’s wrong or what I’m doing.  This completely breaks the chain of thought.  (This happened today.)  I’ve never been sure if this is “normal” behaviour or “autistic” behaviour or just a personal quirk.  I do find it frustrating that I can’t just stand and think without someone thinking I’m ill.  I guess if I get married, I’ll have to tell my wife to ignore me when I do this.

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.

OCD Slightly Resurgent, Otherwise Quiet

I woke up and got up early again (at least by my standards), which was good.  Less good was that I woke up from a very disturbing dream, in which I had tried to do something to promote unity between different groups of Jews and instead inadvertently created a situation which led to more division, and the burning of some religious papers by someone else out of spite (religious papers in Judaism should be buried respectfully, not burned).  The dream ended with me crying uncontrollably as a rabbi said I had done the right thing, but had been let down by other people.

I think the dream was primarily about my feelings of discomfort with the frum (religious Jewish) community.  I feel some (not all) people in it can be divisive and even spiteful, like the people in my dream.  However, I also feel that my feelings of discomfort are a product of my own prejudices as much as reality, so I could be the spiteful people in the dream too.  It is hard to be objective.  I woke up feeling sombre and upset, but I somehow managed to get up rather than just go back to sleep as part of me wanted.

The dream did at least get me up early again today, so I could say the most important morning prayers at the right time, and say more of the morning prayer service than I usually manage.

***

I spent two and a half hours working on my novel.  My main character/narrator just got assessed and diagnosed with high functioning autism.  It brought to mind my worries about whether I am on the spectrum and (different question) whether I will be diagnosed as being on the spectrum, bearing in mind I’ve been assessed twice and told that I’m not on the spectrum, but am challenging that diagnosis given that I have now done more research and have observed myself in new work and social environments (my previous assessments were before I had worked or even volunteered).

I started to worry that I’m not on the spectrum.  I made myself worried enough that I did an online screening (similar to the one I had in person eighteen months ago) which showed that I probably am on the spectrum, but I wish I didn’t have this kind of obsessive worrying about it.  As someone in my novel says, getting a diagnosis won’t change who I am or what I experience, even if it explains it.  However, it would change my perception of myself, so it is no wonder that it seems important and anxiety-provoking.

***

Other than that, today was mostly the usual stuff: cooked dinner (vegetarian kedgeree, because it’s one of my easy recipes), a walk, nearly an hour of Torah study.  I lost a lot of the time I had gained by getting up early.  I’m not sure where it went.

I did write a letter to E., not to send to her, just to express my feelings to myself.  Reading it back, I sounded a lot angrier than I thought I was.  Maybe I’ve been carrying a lot of anger around for the last couple of months since we broke up, or even before then.  I worry about how E. is doing, but I still haven’t got back in contact with her.  I noticed she’s posting stuff on Goodreads (I didn’t unfriend her, I’m not sure why, maybe because I don’t use Goodreads as a social media, only as an online catalogue of my books), so I know she’s still alive and functioning, but I am still reluctant to communicate directly.

***

My religious OCD has been dormant for a while, but it never goes away fully.  Everyone has “crazy” thoughts sometimes; what turns them into OCD is when they won’t go away and you end up obsessing about them (‘pure O’ OCD) or performing compulsions to get rid of them (more stereotypical OCD).  I have in the past had ‘pure O’ OCD about the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), among other things.

Lately there have been a few kashrut issues where I thought on balance they were OK, but I wasn’t 100% sure.  When my OCD was at it’s height, I would have asked a question of a rabbi or the London Bet Din (yes, I emailed their food technologist a lot when my OCD was raging a few years ago.  I still blush to think of it).  I was trying hard not to ask the question, because asking just provokes more questions – the way OCD grows is that you can never be 100% sure of anything, so every answer provokes more questions, as well as accustoming you to asking questions rather than relying on your own judgement.  I was fairly sure things were OK and was intent on just leaving it like that.

Unfortunately, today I gave in to ask a question, and then it snowballed.  I think I’ve got it under control now, and even for the hour or so that it happened, my anxiety levels were nothing compared with a few years ago.  Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of how fragile my mental health can be and how easily things can unravel.

***

I haven’t got much else to say today.  I feel a lot calmer and present-focused now I’ve cut a lot of internet use.  I haven’t strictly kept to only using the internet and email twice a day as my therapist suggested, but I’m not doing a lot more than that, except for novel research.  I’m also not looking at news and opinion sites much and not at Twitter at all (I haven’t been on other social media sites for years).  I feel a lot happier and peaceful, but I worry that I’m becoming ignorant of the world.  I guess I feel I can’t change the world much anyway, and the areas where I could change it, I still keep up with.  Still, we’re constantly being bombarded with messages about the importance of making a stand, demanding change, “silence is violence” (which I think is a glib and misleading phrase, although it has an element of truth) and so on that not being super-aware of what’s going on seems vaguely immoral.

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.

Socially Anxious Duckling

I dreamt about a duckling last night and woke up wondering feeling like the ugly duckling and wondering when I will turn into a swan…

My Dad tried to wake me up at 8.00am so I could phone the GP’s surgery, but I didn’t get up.  I think it was partly tiredness, but mostly social anxiety.  I don’t like it when my social anxiety is that extreme.  I definitely think I’ve gone backwards since lockdown started in terms of social anxiety.  At 10.00am my Mum gave up and phoned the doctor, but all the non-emergency appointments had gone by then.  Because of COVID, they’re only releasing appointments on a day to day basis, so we’ll have to phone again tomorrow.  I asked Dad to phone, as I don’t think I will manage to get up again.

My social anxiety has historically been a lot less of a problem than my depression (or my OCD, when it was at its height), but it has always been there.  It has tended to ebb and flow.  There was a time when I was able to lead services in shul (synagogue) and give drashot (religious talks).  I did lead services a couple of times this winter just gone, but I felt very anxious and only partly did it because I wanted to.  Part of me did it because I didn’t like to say no when I was asked, which is partly a social anxiety problem in itself.  I did some CBT last year, but in retrospect, I probably didn’t push myself hard enough with the exercises, plus on the NHS I only got ten sessions, which probably wasn’t enough.

Lockdown has made everything worse, because I’ve got used to just seeing my parents, and occasionally my sister and brother-in-law.  The thought of seeing other people, or talking on the phone, is suddenly more scary than in the past.  Plus, because of COVID, most places have new rules about masks and distancing, so almost everything has autistic “new situation” anxiety as well as social anxiety.  I need to do something about this, but it is hard to see what I can do while I still need to shield Mum and when my depression is the bigger impediment.  I might try to attend Zoom depression group meetings again.  I stopped because it was the same day as therapy and I was too tired for both, but my therapist is away soon.  Alternatively, my therapist says she is happy to change days if I want to go to depression group, and that might be sensible.

***

Home was noisy and busy today.  A few days after my Dad’s catalytic converter was stolen from his car for a second time, we got a note through the door from the police saying there was a burglary in a house in our road.  My parents became super-security conscious and we had various security devices fitted today.  I can see the point, but was worried about some electricity on Shabbat (the Sabbath) issues.  We did ask my parents’ rabbi about it some weeks ago and he said it was OK in certain circumstances.  It seems to be OK in our case, but this is the type of thing that can trigger my religious OCD to say, “But what if I’m not 100% certain it’s OK?”  I’m trying to sit with that doubt and not give in to it, just as I’ve been sitting with another, unrelated, issue where I wanted to ask a question of my rabbi mentor, but decided that deep down I know the answer and it would just be fuelling the OCD to ask.  It’s hard, though, because in the frum community one is expected to ask in the case of doubt, but treating OCD involves living with (some) doubt.

The gardener was here this morning too, so there was a lot of noise and a lot of people, albeit mostly outside (necessarily, because Mum is shielding).  I do vaguely wonder if we should have waited until after COVID, but I guess the criminals are still working.

***

Achievements: I split my writing time in two today.  It was hard to start the second session, but overall I was more productive than ever, writing about 1,700 words in two hours with relatively little idleness (some idleness is probably necessary for creativity, at least for me).

I watched a series of four short videos by Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik about Jewish survival as an argument for God.  I learnt a few things, but I already knew the gist of what he was saying.  It was more a history lecture than a religious one.  It was similar to a post I started writing, but am not sure whether to finish, about why I’m religious even though I find Judaism very difficult much of the time because of my autism, depression and social anxiety.   I wasn’t sure whether anyone would be interested in that, or whether it would offend anyone who isn’t Jewish.  Or if I really wanted to hold my beliefs up for comment, to be honest.

I went for a walk.  My mood dropped somewhat.  I seem to be OK if I’m doing something that engages my brain, but my mood gets worse when I’m not.  I saw someone who went to my school and who is now married with children and is a rabbi.  I’m not sure if I was because of that, but I ended up thinking about people I was at university with and wondering what they’re doing.  In particular, someone who I fell out with while I was there, which has gone into my novel.  It was originally a key event in the novel, although as the novel has grown organically, it’s not so important now, which is probably for the best.  I ended up feeling quite downbeat.  I listened to some music (using the heter (permission) for depressed people to listen to the music during the mourning period of the Three Weeks, which we are currently in), but it was not terribly cheerful music (Donnie and Losing My Religion) and probably made things worse.  I spent the first fifteen minutes or so trying not to listen to music, but in the end I decided I was feeling too depressed and it wasn’t worth it.

In the evening, I did a little bit of ironing and some more Torah study; I would have liked to have done more, but I was too tired, as ever.  I spent twenty minutes or so writing a review of a Doctor Who story from my birthday present box set, but I don’t think I can engage with Chris Chibnall’s view of the series enough to write particularly positive reviews.  If my review of Spyfall, which I did, on some level, enjoy, seems overly negative, I shudder to think what a review of Orphan 55 might look like.

***

I got sent an email advertising a job as a “lecturer in conservation of easel paintings.”  I have no idea why I got sent that.  If only I knew something about conserving easel paintings.  All I can think of is Thomas the Tank Engine: “Coughs and sneezels spread diseasels.”

Barbecue and Torah Study as a Process

My parents and I went to a barbecue at my sister and brother-in-law’s house.  I was slightly apprehensive that either my religious OCD would come into play regarding the kosher standard of the food, or that I would feel left out of the conversation and be bored.  In the event, I had a good time.  There was lots of food, and there was vegetarian for me (I only eat meat and fish on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and festivals)).  I was mostly engaged in the conversation, which is good, because sometimes I feel a complete outsider.  I’m not sure if that’s autistic communication issues or just that the conversation is often career and house stuff that I can’t relate to, sadly.  I did start feeling “peopled out” after a few hours and struggled through the last hour we were there, then started suggesting maybe we should leave as it was getting late.  I guess I always get anxious when I don’t have a clear exit strategy.  It was good, but I came away feeling pretty exhausted and glad that I hadn’t really planned to do much today other than barbecue, Torah study and run.

I mostly did not get the usual “My younger sister is married and owns a house, when am I going to get married and buy a house?” thoughts, but I did briefly have some “What woman would be messed up enough to date me?” thoughts on the way home.

I also managed an hour of Torah study and a run.  The run started badly and I got out of breath easily, plus at one point I developed a pain in my knee and thought I was going to have to stop, but the second half was a lot better.  I doubt the run burnt off all the calories from the salt and pepper kettle chips I ate at the barbecue…  Still, I haven’t got an exercise migraine (although they can start hours later), which is good.

***

I had two positive emails in response to my devar Torah (Torah thought) this week, which was good.

***

I had a thought today that I’m still mulling over; it hasn’t led to a change in attitude yet.  Maybe I should think of Torah study as process rather than an action.  The emphasis is supposed to be on studying (“learning” in Yeshivish, the argot of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world) rather than on content studied.  In other words, the goal is to spend as much time as possible studying, not to master so many volumes of Talmud, albeit that more recently the idea of Daf Yomi (studying one folio a day to complete the Talmud in seven and a half years) has gained traction.  Still, that’s not how it is taught in yeshivot (seminaries), where they focus on only two of the six orders of the Talmud (the Talmud is divided topically into six divisions, known as “orders” and subdivided into volumes) and not by any means the most relevant.  They focus on marriage law and tort law, because these are considered the most difficult volumes, which sharpen the intellect most.  A great Torah scholar is known as a talmid chacham which means literally a “wise student” emphasising that the idea is to study, not to know.

Of course, this may not help, as I don’t study Torah that much as a percentage of my day, even if it is a mainstay of my life.

***

That was it, really.  I didn’t do very much today.  It’s actually hard to say that, because I felt I should have done more, particularly as yesterday was Shabbat (the Sabbath) so I didn’t do anything and I didn’t do much on Friday either.  Mood was quite good most of the time, although there was some stuff lurking underneath the surface.  I guess it was a good day, although it’s strangely hard to say that too.

“It’s so bittersweet now/When you know what you lost”

Title quote: Donnie by Ace of Base

This morning I started thinking about my birthday, which is in a month, which led on to thinking about the last five years.  Whether things have changed a lot or a little, for better or for worse, to try and work out the odds of the next five years changing substantially for the better.  We moved to this house, and this community, almost exactly five years ago, in the summer of 2015, so it’s a useful cut-off point.  At the time I was in the midst of deep depression and also religious OCD (itself at least partly caused by the house move) and I didn’t really want to move, but I was vaguely hopeful of making a new start in a frummer (more religious) community.  I had vague hopes of making friends and finding a spouse.

My depression was not initially affected by moving.  It probably has been better since going on clomipramine in late 2017, although it’s still present, mostly just in mornings now, but occasionally during the day or on mental health days.  My social anxiety is almost as bad as it used to be, despite having CBT last year.  My religious OCD is a lot better though, thanks to exposure therapy a few years ago, which is good – probably the biggest positive psychological change since moving.  I have gone to various support groups since moving, which has also helped a bit, plus I’ve been in and out of various therapies with various degrees of success.  I’ve been screened for autism and found out that I’m probably on the spectrum, but I’m still waiting for a formal diagnosis, and every new month in lockdown only pushes that further away.

I was working part-time when we moved.  Since then I’ve had four more jobs.  Only one was really a potential long-term career-type job, rather than a short contract.  I felt I messed up that job and left when they wanted to change the job description to something that I felt would give me more social anxiety, especially as I felt my boss had made clear that she didn’t have confidence in my ability to do the job properly.  That was probably a big mistake, though, as I’ve struggled to find permanent work since then.  I’ve largely lost faith in my ability to do a librarian-type job, as well as discovering that my autism stops me doing regular office work, so I feel useless and unemployable.

I wrote my non-fiction Doctor Who book (partly based on material going back to 2012 or so, but with a lot of new research done in the last five years) and self-published it after failing to interest any publishers in it.  I’m also working on a novel.

When we moved to this area, I initially went to a Modern Orthodox shul (synagogue) with my parents, but I felt swamped by the large numbers of people, I didn’t like the chazan (cantor) and choir, and I felt no one spoke to me other than my parents’ friends, so I switched to another shul, more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), but smaller and friendlier.  I did feel like an outsider at times because I am more Modern and not so Haredi.  I was slowly beginning to feel a part of that shul when lockdown happened.

Before lockdown I was still struggling to get to shul, especially considering I was going to two or three services a day before we moved.  I feel that my current shul is too Haredi in outlook and I have to hide aspects of myself, but I don’t have an alternative.  I used to lead services and give drashas (religious talks) in my old shul, but haven’t had the confidence to do that much in the new one.  I feel like the least religious person in the shul.

I do write my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought) now which I sort of enjoy.  I send it to various people, although only two from my shul.  I don’t feel I’ve grown religiously in the last five years and in some ways am probably less religious than I used to be.

I did for a while move out of my parents’ home when I was in a nearer-to-full-time job and had more money.  That was good for my independence, but lonely at times.  I used to go home for Shabbat (the Sabbath) anyway.  I’m glad I moved back in with my parents long before lockdown started.

My social life has been as insignificant as ever.  I’ve made some friends over the last few years, mostly online, but I’ve lost a lot too, which is partly my fault.  I feel bad about that, although some were probably disasters waiting to happen.  People with mental health issues probably understand me more than most people, but putting lots of people with mental health issues together is probably a recipe for Drama with a capital ‘D’.

I’ve dated five (I think) women in the last five years, plus someone tried to set me up on a further shidduch date (arranged blind date) which didn’t happen because the woman went super-Haredi and started doing lots of background checks on me and perhaps found something she didn’t like; at any rate, she did not communicate and eventually I gave up.  The three shidduch dates I really did go own were not great, usually due to lack of shared interests and values, and one had a problem with my mental health issues.  (One of the dates was with a “real” matchmaking agency, two were set up by friends or friends-of-friends.)

I had another go at online dating, but didn’t get much of a response, except for one person who I ruled out because I felt she was dishonest (no, I’m not going into details).  Maybe that was a mistake too.

I had one nearly-girlfriend (a friend of my sister’s who I asked out).  We only went on four dates, but we texted between them a lot as she was out of the country.  That seemed to be going well, but we weren’t really that similar and she didn’t like my indecision and social anxiety.

Then I dated E., who seemed almost ideal for a while, but then wasn’t right for me.  I think I’ve posted enough about that recently to avoid the need for further elaboration.

Given that my experience with shidduch dates was so awful, not to mention limited (three in five years), I’m not hopeful for finding someone in the frum community in the future, given that shidduch dating is the normal way of dating there (I haven’t seen solid evidence, but anecdotal and semi-scientific evidence suggests most frum people meet their spouses through informally-arranged dates via friends and family, not professional matchmakers/agencies).  I wouldn’t ask out any more of my sister’s friends, partly as the others aren’t frum enough, partly as most of them are married now, partly as I don’t think my sister approved.  I do vaguely feel I should try online dating again, but it was a massive drain on my income for minimal response, so it’s hard to justify it.  I did find myself looking on one site briefly today though.

E. just dropped out of the sky and found me, which is unlikely to happen again, but is sadly the most likely way I could meet someone.

Overall there are some positives in the last five years: I’ve held down some jobs, sometimes, working four days a week even when very depressed, as part of a team and using my librarian skills as well as some (admittedly limited) ability to deal with problems and queries on the spot.  I dealt with my OCD and my depression is somewhat better.  I wrote my Doctor Who non-fiction book.  I’ve found shul that is a slightly better fit than the previous one and felt like I was beginning to fit in.  I write my devar Torah.  I lived alone for a while successfully.  I made a few friends and successfully dated E. for a while which at least exercised my relationship muscles and showed me that I can still be kind and compassionate and to listen.

On the downside, my depression and social anxiety are still present.  I don’t feel I’ve grown religiously and feel in some ways like I’ve gone backwards.  I’ve done badly in a couple of my jobs.  I couldn’t find a publisher for my book.  My shul is far from being a perfect fit.  I lost about as many friends as I gained, partly through my own fault.  Most of my dating experiences were negative and none worked out in the long-term.  I felt like I did prove that I could still be “present” and emotionally supportive in a relationship, but I also proved that I lack what lots of women seem to look for (stability, confidence, the ability to support a family, having “normal” interests and hobbies).

I spoke about some of this unemployment angst and dating angst in therapy.  The therapist said to reframe my experiences to try to focus on positives from them and things I can be curious about rather than negatives and self-criticism.  This is hard.  While there are some positives, as I noted above, there are lots of negatives too and little about this analysis really makes me feel optimistic for the future, except being able to cope practically and psychologically with living alone and also the improvement in my mood since being on clomipramine.

***

Filling in a job application reminds me of how long I’ve been out of work, how hard I’m finding it to find a suitable job, how badly I’ve fared in so many of my jobs, how out of place and incompetent I feel in the “real world” so much of the time…  It’s not a good feeling.  I just feel so useless.  I don’t have a lot of the skills and experience they want.  This often happens to me.  I haven’t managed my career and CPD well enough.  I just feel like a useless librarian (also a useless person, son, brother, friend, etc.).

Also, they wanted job references.  OK, that’s normal.  But they want character references to cover periods of unemployment.  Because I might be normal when in work, but turn into a psychopath when unemployed, presumably.  Do they think I’m Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

***

Today’s achievements: an hour and a half or so working on the job application, plus therapy and shiur (religious class, although it was more of a philosophy class, or at least philosophy of religion – are God and religion needed for meaning?).  I felt a bit ill after therapy and I knew I wanted to feel better for shiur, so I didn’t go for a walk after therapy as I usually do.  Because shiur was philosophy as much as Torah, I wanted to do some additional Torah study, but after five minutes reading Sacred Fire decided I was too tired.  No time to work on the novel today because of job application, therapy and shiur.

Whatever “Normal” Is

It’s been suggested to me a couple of times that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person.  I’ve been resistant to this, partly because it seems unscientific (as far as I’m aware, it’s not in DSM5 or any other diagnostic manual), partly because I generally score less highly for autistic sensory sensitivity than for other autistic traits, and partly perhaps because I felt the term is open to abuse (it doesn’t help that the people who introduced me to the term eventually got angry with me in a way that I felt was a massive over-reaction on their part).

However, the term keeps coming up, so I looked today at some sites about Highly Sensitive People.  I do seem to have a lot of symptoms, even though those symptoms seem to vary from site to site, and often seem like possible symptoms of other underlying issues.  It does still seem like an untested idea.  Plus, I’m wary of adding another diagnosis to my list.  But maybe it’s true.

I just want to be “normal,” whatever that is.  Orthodox Judaism I suppose has a clearer definition of “normal” to the wider world, although I’m not sure that that was really an attraction to me.  The reverse, if anything; I was afraid of losing my individuality.  However, it turned out that I couldn’t cope with it anyway, at least not in the moderate Haredi world.  Either my depression, autism and social anxiety got in the way or I would have to give up too much stuff that was important to me, in terms of non-frum or non-Jewish friends, books and DVDs.  I still hope that one day I’ll find a Modern Orthodox shul that fits.

Talking of Jewish things, the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost, but nothing to do with the Christian Pentecost) starts tonight.  This has become a sort of favourite festival by default to me, as there are no special mitzvot (at least while the Temple remains un-re-built), so nothing triggers religious OCD, social anxiety or depression unlike almost all other Jewish festivals.

The custom is to stay up all night in shul (synagogue) studying Torah.  This can be fun, if interesting topics are chosen.  My shul seems to have a habit of alternating interesting and boring topics in different years (one year it was about the laws of separating mixtures on Shabbat (the Sabbath), which was about as interesting at 2.00 am as it sounds), and social anxiety can creep in at shul both in the study sessions, if I’m supposed to ask or answer questions, and especially in the refreshment breaks, where I don’t know who to talk to and generally stand around avoiding people.

Anyway, it’s irrelevant this year.  It’s just a custom, not a mitzvah (commandment) and a kabbalistic one at that (I’m not so into kabbalah) so I won’t be doing it at home alone, although plenty of people will.  I might stay up a bit after dinner studying, but not all night.  I feel a bit guilty about that, but I feel I don’t have the stamina to study all night by myself, without others to study with or to share interesting topics.  My shul did send an online booklet to be printed off before Yom Tov, but it was geared to children studying with parents and was also too Haredi for me (e.g. the potted biography of Medieval scholar Rabbeinu Asher said he was very opposed to secular study, especially philosophy, but the biography of Rambam (died a few decades before Rabbeinu Asher was born) didn’t say that he was very much in favour of secular study, including philosophy, which in his day included a lot of what we would call science).

My shul is doing a pre-Shavuot thing on Zoom before Yom Tov (the festival) starts, but I doubt I’ll go as it looks like it’s mainly for children and I don’t like group Zoom events.

***

Today I woke exhausted and depressed again, and also achy.  I think I didn’t do a good enough warm up for my workout yesterday, or maybe it’s a long time since I used those muscles.  I feel really fuzzy-headed too, as if I still haven’t recovered from Monday, even though it’s now Thursday.  I went for a half-hour walk and worked for about an hour on my novel, writing over 600 words.  I’d like to write more, but am not sure I have the time or the head for it.

I’m going to post now instead of right before Yom Tov, just in case I can get the dopamine hit of a comment or two before Shavuot starts.  I haven’t got much planned for later anyway, just my usual pre-Yom Tov chores (Shavuot requires little extra preparation) and plugging away at my novel for as long as I feel able or have time for, whichever is the shorter.

Religious Overtones

I felt a bit better today, at least once I managed to get up and get going.  I did give in to OCD compulsions before I ate breakfast.  Once I ate, I felt calmer though.  I feel better than I did yesterday at any rate.  It’s hard to tell when my thoughts are wonky, because what can I measure them with except other thoughts?  Philip K. Dick (one of my favourite authors) said at one point in his quest to discover if he was psychotic or religiously-inspired (or possibly having messages beamed into his head by aliens, or the CIA – all these were possibilities for him) “Either I’ve invented a whole new logic or, ahem, I’m not playing with a full deck.”  I feel like that sometimes.

I had early therapy today and then a shiur (religious class) over Zoom in the evening.  The timing pretty much made writing out of the question, even if I had felt less depressed.  I woke up early, but was depressed and fell asleep again.  By the time I managed to get up, get dressed, daven (pray) a bit and have lunch, there was less than an hour until therapy.

***

I went for a walk after therapy and got freaked out again at the number of people around.  I know this is an “You aren’t in traffic, you are traffic” situation and I’m just as much a part of the problem as anyone else.  Still, given Mum’s compromised immune system, I’m very afraid of bringing coronavirus in and I wonder if I should start taking my exercise indoors.  I know E. hasn’t left her apartment block for two months now.  I do think there’s a mental health benefit to going outdoors and I’m reluctant to lose it.

***

I’m still thinking about religious stuff.  Community stuff first:

This is a comment I left on a previous post that I thought worth adding here, as I don’t think I’ve said it in a post before:

I’m still hopeful about finding a Modern Orthodox shul [synagogue] in America if I marry E.  Unfortunately, in the UK, most people who go to MO [Modern Orthodox] shuls are not frum [religious] at all. They are just traditional [keep elements of Judaism, but not the entirety of Jewish law], and I find it hard to connect with them.  My parents’ shul is MO and is fairly frum as MO shuls go. I used to go there (and do go there sometimes in the week), but it’s a bad fit for so many reasons: too big, too much talking in services, a chazan [cantor] and a choir I can’t stand and, because it’s my parents’ shul, I have no identity of my own there, I’m just my parents’ son.

I didn’t add that that’s the only really local Modern Orthodox shul.  There is apparently one the other side of the town, but it would take me ages to walk there and one can’t go by car or public transport on Shabbat (the Sabbath), so everywhere has to be walking distance.

***

I’ve also been thinking more theological stuff.

I think my understanding of God is quite abstract.  To be honest, once you really get involved in Jewish theology or mysticism, God becomes pretty abstract.  Richard Dawkins’ “jealous angry God of the Old Testament,” as well as being an ancient antisemitic polemic, isn’t anything that educated Jews ever believed.  I’m wary of simplistic statements like, “God is love,” “God is life,” “God is existence,” “God is the Infinite,” “God is the Other,” but any of those would be nearer to what I believe in than The Angry Old Man in the Sky.

At the same time, we’re supposed to believe we can have a personal relationship with God, on some level, and that’s hard when I believe in something so abstract and impersonal even though I don’t think there’s any theological reason preventing it.  I just struggle to see it in my life.  I also struggle to connect with Someone who has made me suffer so much.  Even if I believe it’s for my ultimate good, it’s hard to connect when I’m just afraid that things will get worse “for my own good.”  It’s not that I don’t believe good can come of suffering, because I do, I just feel I can’t cope with any more of it.

***

I also wonder what will happen to the people I care about after death.  I don’t really care what happens to me, particularly as Judaism doesn’t believe in eternal damnation and non-existence doesn’t bother me conceptually.  Still, I wonder what will happen to my friends and family who aren’t frum or who even are atheists.

Judaism is pretty vague about the afterlife.  I won’t go through the theology, from the almost total lack of mention in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), to its importance in the Pharisee-Sadducee split, the six (actually seven) questions asked of souls in the afterlife in the Talmud,  “All Israel have a share in The World to Come,” “The righteous of the nations have a share in The World to Come,” the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and so on.  It’s just that people don’t discuss it much, certainly not compared with Christianity (and possibly also Islam).

Growing up, I got the impression that most people (or most Jews?  This was vague) has a share in the Next Work (“go to Heaven” in Christian-speak).  The previous rabbi at my shul seemed to think that almost no one has a share in the Next World.  Rabbi Lord Sacks got in trouble years ago for saying all religions are sources of valid truth for non-Jews.  I worry about friends and family who aren’t so religious, or religious at all.  It is hard to know what to believe about something that is so rarely explicitly addressed.  Jews don’t really do theology overtly, only disguised in mysticism or Midrash (narrative).  We just assume God will sort everything out in the end.  Maybe that’s the best approach.

***

Part of the shiur this evening was about Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus) being about how to have a personal relationship with God, but I felt that this was not developed so much.  It’s something for me to think about though – tzarich iyun (this requires investigation).

***

I spoke about some of these worries in therapy today.  I also spoke about the fact that Judaism teaches that everyone has their own mission and their own expectations of what they can do, but that it can be hard to do that when the community has a “one size fits all” approach and there is a fear of stigma, both from depression and autism and from not fitting in completely with Jewish law.  The therapist did say that regarding my relationship with, even if E. and I didn’t have differences about religion and a need to compromise there, there would be other things we needed to compromise about.

***

Just because I can’t avoid religion at the moment, the next Star Trek: Voyager episode I watched to relax after therapy involved one of the characters having a near-death experience and then deciding that the afterlife is a lie as he didn’t experience it.  This might have been more affecting if he had mentioned his religious beliefs at all over the last three and a half years.  Star Trek generally assumes that religion is something clever people and cultures grow out of sooner or later.

Hypotheticals and Counter-Factuals

I was up late last night.  I mean, I’m up late every night, partly because depression makes me nocturnal and partly because having a girlfriend in a timezone five hours behind me makes for a lot of late night Skype calls, but I was up particularly late, partly writing my blog post (which shouldn’t have taken that long) and partly dealing with difficult emotions.  Watching an episode of Ashes to Ashes had triggered a lot of thoughts and feelings about could I have become a really bad person, like the villain in that episode (a sexually frustrated and religiously-motivated rapist and murderer), if my life had gone just a little bit differently.  Really there’s no end to counter-factual questions like that, because there’s no way to test which of our characteristics are innate and which are acquired, or even how much of each.  But depression (and, I guess, pure O OCD) love those kind of “Am I really a bad person?” questions, particularly if they can lead to me beating myself up for things I’ve never done and would never too.

I probably do ask myself these type of hypothetical questions too much.  I know I was asking here the other day about whether I would continue any Orthodox Jewish practice if I lost my belief, and I do often wonder if I was an atheist what my source of moral inspiration would be and so on.  Up to a point those questions are interesting, but once you go down the “How close am I to being a murderer?” route it’s more a sign of mental illness.

Then I realised (this is still late last night) that an invitation I had to a Zoom anniversary get-together for a shul (synagogue) friend’s thirtieth wedding anniversary (yes, my shul friends are mostly a lot older than me) was yesterday and not next Tuesday.  I was a bit upset to have missed it.  I wasn’t entirely looking forward to it, as I find Zoom events hard, but if I didn’t go I would have wanted to send a message beforehand to explain why I find them hard, rather than just not show up.  I sent an apologetic text today, but I still feel a bit upset.  I guess it is easy to lose track of time in lockdown.

I got woken up early in the morning, unfortunately by Mum being sick from chemo side effects.  I got her some water and she said she thought she was OK, so I went back to bed and then fell into a deep sleep for hours, waking up after midday, which was disappointing when I’ve been trying so hard lately to move my wake up time a bit earlier in the day.  It was almost the end of time for Shacharit (morning prayers), so I somehow managed to get dressed quickly and pray a little bit before breakfast, which I usually find impossible because I’m too drained and depressed until after eating cereal and drinking coffee.

I didn’t do as much as I would have liked today, partly because of that late start.  I spent a bit over half an hour working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which might not have been the best use of time.  I’ve been trying to give my divrei Torah more definite conclusions.  The typical way most people would do this is either ending on a takeaway practical moral or personal development point or a quasi-prayer that the world should be redeemed soon.  I don’t really feel comfortable with either of those, but I feel like I should try them.  The topic for this week pretty much forced me down the “prayer for redemption” route this week, but I think generally I’d be happier with the “moral point” version.

I worked on my novel for a little while, but I didn’t do much.  That was partly due to starting late and finishing early (as I had a Zoom shiur (religious class) this evening), partly due to feeling a bit stuck.  I’m starting to write a new chapter, and that can be hard, and this time it’s 100% events from my research and imagination, not drawing from my personal experience except in the most general sense.  It doesn’t help that my confidence in this project is a bit reduced.  I don’t think it’s going to be amazing.  I am trying to stay confident that it might get published and speak to people, but I think there’s a limit to how good could be, and that’s difficult for a perfectionist like me.  In the end I wrote about three hundred words in an hour so, which I guess illustrates how productive I have been recently, that this now seems very substandard.

I also went for a walk for half an hour or so.  It has turned cold again.

In the late afternoon, my mood dipped.  I tried to accept the difficult feelings without fighting or giving in to them, but it was hard.  I was thinking that my life is so much better than it was a number of years ago, when my depression was a constant and unbearable thing, but I also reflected that I’m still struggling with my mood and especially with my engagement with the world (which is a combined depression/social anxiety/high functioning autism thing).  I no longer have the confidence in my ability to work as a librarian or cataloguer.  At the same time, I don’t yet have confidence in my ability to write professionally, and especially not in my ability to sell my writing to publishers, which stems from a mixture of low self-esteem and social anxiety, perhaps also some autistic social ineptitude.

***

As I mentioned, I had an online shiur (religious class) for an hour and a half on Zoom this evening.  The class was on Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), the most important biblical commentator.  I struggled with it.  I find Zoom classes very difficult.  Even in speaker view, where you see primarily just the person talking (as opposed to gallery view, where everyone on the call is visible at once) the picture changes too much for me and there is often too much extraneous noise.  I think a lot of people struggle with this even without autistic sensory overload issues.  I feel self-conscious moving even slightly knowing that I’m on everyone’s screens and my usual lack of confidence in answering questions was magnified.  I didn’t really say anything at all, even when we were in smaller groups.

It didn’t help that I think I seemed to be more familiar with the texts in question than most people there, so I knew a lot of the answers in advance, but not because I worked them out, just because I had encountered them previously, so I was reluctant to say anything.  I struggle to find the confidence to speak out in classes and shiurim in general, even though by this stage I know that I am often right, and that at the London School of Jewish Studies I’m usually one of the more knowledgeable people in the class, and my confidence could use the boost of being told I’m right sometimes (which is probably a horribly arrogant thing to say).

So, I’m slightly apprehensive about the other five classes in this course.  I’m also somewhat apprehensive about another Zoom shiur I’m booked for next Monday, but I think that will be a more traditional “one person talks and everyone listens” format; likewise a three session course I’m thinking of going to in a few weeks on meaning (I feel desperately in need of more meaning in my life).  Monday’s course might help me decide what to do about the meaning course, although my current thinking is that I should have skipped the Rashi course and done the other two shiurim/courses.  However, I have paid for the Rashi course, so I will try to get the most out of it.

Eat Pray Read Sleep Fret

It was another ordinary COVID-19 Shabbat of eating, praying, reading and sleeping.  However, there was also quite a lot of agitated thoughts about religion.  I was thinking a lot about a few things, most notably Rambam’s (Moses Maimonides’) thirteen principles of faith and his understanding of reward and punishment.  These thoughts came from a number of things I’ve been reading recently, most notably Rabbi Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith and debates on the Rationalist Judaism blog about whether God can be meaningfully said to have “caused” COVID-19, which led me to re-read the appendix on Rambam’s view of reward and punishment at the back of Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?

Rabbi Berman’s book has left me wondering whether I really believe in Rambam’s thirteen principles in a way he (Rambam), and other Orthodox rabbis, would accept as truly Orthodox, mostly because lately I find myself drawn to some Medieval rabbis who believed that certain apparently anachronistic phrases and short passages in the Torah (e.g. the long list of Edomite kings which seems to cover more people than can easily fit in the gap from Esav’s (Esau’s) birth to the giving of the Torah) can be explained by saying that they were inserted by a later prophet or by Ezra the Scribe as an explanatory gloss, similar to a modern editorial footnote.  This seems logical, and more traditional than the answers proposed by modern biblical criticism, which see whole chunks of text as later insertions by otherwise unknown “redactors” (as this version is limited to just a few verses and still assumes some kind of prophetic source).  However, Rambam said Jews have to believe in the unchangeability of the Torah‘s text for reasons that Rabbi Berman ascribes to the influence Islamic polemics (basically, Muslims said that Jews had edited the Torah to remove references to Mohammed being the greatest prophet, so defending the integrity of the text became of paramount importance).

On the other hand, the more I think about Rambam’s view of reward and punishment, at least as explained by Kellner, the harder it is for me to see it as (a) authentically Jewish, (b) coherent in a world that no longer accepts Aristotlean metaphysics and (c) morally and emotionally viable, especially post-Holocaust.  As I understand it, Rambam’s view of the afterlife is based on Aristotle’s idea of the “acquired intellect”.  According to Rambam, the more we learn about God in this world (partly through Talmud study, but mostly through studying Greek philosophy, which he believed contained universal truths lost from Judaism in the exile), the more we perfect our intellects and join them to God’s intellect in the next world, which is the only true happiness or reward.  There is no get out clause for people who can’t do this for some external reason such as mental impairment or dying in infancy.  There is no mechanism whereby God can miraculously extend them reward.  So Rambam would say that there is no reward for the million children murdered by the Nazis.  He doesn’t believe in next-worldly punishment either, so at least they don’t go to Gehennom/Hell… but then neither does Hitler, whose only punishment was to live long enough to see his Thousand Year Reich destroyed by the Allies, which does not really seem enough.  It’s a hugely austere and elitist approach to life that in some ways I admire for its bravery and unwillingness to offer cheap comfort, but really it does nothing for me either religiously or emotionally.

As for why this upset me, well, there are two slightly different reasons, or rather the same reason in two slightly different ways.  I’m rejecting a belief, which of course leads to the fear that I may be making a mistake and rejecting true dogma and condemning myself to eternal non-existence, but I’m also rejecting communities.  Although both sets of opinions I’m rejecting were proposed by the same Jewish thinker, I’m actually rejecting two very different communities.

The first one is the mainstream Orthodox community, where Rambam’s thirteen principles are seen as the definitive Orthodox dogma.  In the Modern Orthodox community there is some debate about how they became accepted and what to do with the opinions of those rabbis who disagreed with them (and a lot did disagree – see Rabbi Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology (I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him lecture on when people stopped believing it was OK to say that God has a body (corporealism)).  Likewise, there is some acknowledgement in the Modern Orthodox world that there is no one perfect Torah text; there are minor variants out there and a history of rabbinic debate about how to preserve the text from corruption and deal with mistakes in copying.  But in the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world there is no legitimate academic historical interpretation in the sense that Rabbis Berman and Shapiro are engaged in, attempting to ask how beliefs became accepted and to what extent they were seen as binding at different times as well as placing them in their historical contest.

The second community is the one at the Rationalist Judaism blog.  There was a time when I felt very much a rationalist Orthodox Jew as opposed to a mystic, but over time I’ve moved on.  I’ve learnt that there are ways of understanding mysticism and myth that don’t involve anti-scientific beliefs about the world (as I explained a bit in this essay I wrote for Hevria) and I’ve moved towards a much more “religious existentialist” understanding of the world that has room for doubt, uncertainty and feelings of distance from God.

Still, it does feel a bit like I’m burning bridges in a way, because the idea of rationalism, at least in the rather simplified version discourse on the blog where it’s a shorthand for accepting evolution and an old universe and being opposed to the Haredi kollel system, was important to me once.  And Rambam is such a huge, towering figure in Jewish thought and Jewish history, sometimes seen as the most significant post-Biblical figure: jurist and legal scholar, philosopher, theologian, prolific author…  There’s even a saying that “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides] there was no one like Moses” – it’s just a huge thing to say that I disagree with his principles, even in a very small and non-committal way, given that I was brought up to see them as the essence of Orthodoxy (and despite Rabbi Berman’s arguing at length that Rambam himself walked back most of his principles in his later work, especially the one I’m most concerned about, the unchangeability of the Torah).

I haven’t felt like a member of the Rationalist Judaism blog community for a long time.  I was never a prolific commenter there and I have walked away from it at times from boredom, as it turned primarily into a prolonged attack on the Haredi world rather than a real examination of rationalist Judaism.  Still, I feel like I’m walking away on my own, trying to find where I fit.

Beyond that, there is, of course, a fear of what will happen to me after death, but I can’t pretend to believe something I don’t believe, even if I don’t at this stage accept the “prophets adding to the Torah” hypothesis either, I just find it hard to fully dismiss.  It just fits in with other worries I’ve had over time, wondering what will happen to less religious/outright atheist friends and family after death.  I believe that God is loving and just and I don’t believe that good people lose out on reward.  I also don’t believe that belief is everything.  I hope that that means some kind of eternal reward in the next world, given that good people often seem not to be rewarded in this world.

The reality is, of course, that whether or not there is an afterlife, and who gets to go to it, is nothing to do with me.  Still, reading these writers and other Jewish thinkers and historians makes me realises how small a place faith (in the Christian doctrinal sense) really has in Judaism, how much more focused on good deeds it is, and how present-focused it is.  There is almost no discussion of the afterlife in the Torah, while the Talmud contains three stories (Avodah Zarah 17a and 18a; I can’t find the third story, I think it may be in the Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit) about people who have led reprehensible lives managing to attain Olam HaBa (The Next World) with a single good deed or moment of repentance, leading Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the editor of the Mishnah, the oldest layer of the Talmud) that some people can acquire Olam HaBa only after many years of toil, while others can acquire it in an instant (I think I’m in the many years of toil category).  Belief seems to play very little role in these stories, which are focused on kindness and repentance.  I view them through a religious existentialist lens, seeing them as being about repentance, encounters with other people and perhaps with God (which is not the same as straightforward faith) and personal authenticity (an extended analysis of one of these stories can be found here and here).

***

I thought about these thoughts a lot over Shabbat, sometimes in a rather agitated way.  Still, I don’t know if it qualifies as religious OCD.  I felt that it just wasn’t as powerful and obsessive as my religious OCD thoughts usually are.

Still, I feel exhausted now.  I meant to write this blog entry quickly and go and read, but I got involved, said a lot more than I intended and it has taken nearly two hours.  These thoughts have been brewing inside me for weeks, though, so perhaps it is just as well that I got them out of my system.

Victories

I had a number of  victories today: I got up before 11am (just).  I got a text this morning from one of my shul (synagogue) friends, checking that my parents and I are OK (he knows about Mum), which was nice, although it was only later in the day that I discovered that I hadn’t sent my devar Torah (Torah thought) properly on Friday, which was probably why he was concerned.

I did an hour or more of Torah study, a very difficult double sedra (weekly Torah reading), Tazria and Metzora (Leviticus 12-15), difficult in terms of length; repetitive and technical language; comprehension (in terms of simple understanding as well as deeper spiritual understanding); and lack of immediate relevance, concerning complex rules of ritual purity and impurity that have largely not been a practical part of Judaism for nearly 2,000 years.  At the back of my mind I was also trying to think of things I can say about this for my devar Torah later this week.

I spent over an hour (quite a bit over an hour) working on my short story.  I wrote 1,300 words, finishing the first draft.  I’m quite pleased with it, although I can see a lot of flaws, most of all the ending, which is the hardest thing in stories like this.  I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, as I might post the story in a locked post in the near future.  I also went for a fairly decent run and had a long Skype chat with E.

Overall it was definitely a good day.  I didn’t want to add a “but,” but… I do feel there’s a tension inside me that could easily explode into despair, anxiety, self-loathing, guilt and all the rest.  I already feel some anxiety and obsessive thinking creeping in.  Going for a run helped a bit, but I’m not sure for how long.  Hence my task for tomorrow is to take steps towards finding a reputable qualified therapist in the UK who sees people over Skype, is currently taking on clients and (the really tricky bit) is within my limited price range (my previous therapist used to charge some clients on low income below the market rate).  On the other hand, I don’t anticipate this being open-ended therapy (although I know how easily it can turn into that), so I potentially could afford more than with my previous therapist.

***

More adventures in malfunctioning technology.  The laptop touchpad issue seems to have provisionally sorted itself since the latest Microsoft updates downloaded last night, but my second-hand Life on Mars DVDs are not playing properly, with pictures freezing and pixelating at times.  At first I suspected damage to the discs, but damage to three discs in two separate box sets seemed unlikely, and one seems to play on my laptop fine (I neglected to note where the others stuck).  My video/DVD player is ancient (not least in having a video player), so it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s on the way out, but I can watch on my laptop for now.  Star Trek Voyager appears to play fine.

Struggling

I found the last two days of Pesach (Passover) a struggle.  I was still dealing with some religious OCD from earlier in the week.  Added to this was depression, anxiety and pure O OCD (obsessively worrying I’m a bad person who could do illegal things).  The latter has not been seen for a long time and I was upset by its return, although in many ways it’s easier to deal with than the other OCD.

I did the usual Yom Tov (festival) stuff: pray, eat too much, sleep too much, go for one government-sanctioned exercise walk each day, study Torah and read.  I didn’t do so much Torah study or recreational reading as last week, as I was feeling too depressed and anxious.  I finished The Ritual Bath, a mystery novel set in the Haredi community, and decided that I don’t like police procedural mystery novels as much as Golden Age mystery novels.  I think I prefer impossible crimes, locked rooms, bizarre clues and eccentric detectives to sordid crimes, gangs, detectives with dysfunctional lives and mundane police work.  I started re-reading Decalog, a Doctor Who short story collection that I know I have read, but about which I can remember very little.

After Yom Tov ended, I helped with the big tidying up, even though I felt very tired and depressed and drank Coke Zero (I prefer Diet Coke) and ate chocolate to try to get energy, without much success.  I accidentally broke a dish that previously belonged to my grandmother and that was older than I am (from the seventies).  I put it in a cardboard box that I thought was sealed at the bottom, but the sellotape had rotted or been pulled away and the dish fell through.

Eventually I became exhausted and had to stop helping, although I would have liked to have continued.

***

I have a feeling today that I’m not coping so well.  I had various coping strategies and some of them were very maladaptive, but I stuck with them for lack of alternatives.  Now I can’t use them and I wonder how I will cope.  Maybe I’m catastrophising.  I hope so.  I wish I was in therapy still.  I feel being able to talk to someone objective would help.

***

I had a weird dream where I stood for election as chairman of my shul (synagogue).  I only stood to see if I could get any votes, as I thought someone else would win, but there was a split vote between the two leading candidates and I won.  I panicked, thinking I couldn’t cope with this, especially not with my mental health situation and Mum’s illness, but before I could resign, I was removed by the community, who felt I wasn’t involved enough in the shul and that I didn’t rebuke people enough for break Jewish law.  Then the dream shifted into upsetting stuff about antisemitism.

***

There probably is more to say, but I feel exhausted.  I’m thinking of watching TV even though it’s really late, as I don’t think I’ll sleep, despite exhaustion, as I slept too much today, as well as drinking caffeinated Coke Zero.

Cargo Cult

I was thinking about something for my novel, and it turned into a wider thought which is this: there is a danger, probably in any religion, but certainly in Judaism, that it could turn into a Cargo Cult.  This refers to islanders in the Pacific who saw the US armed forces build bases and airstrips in World War II and, magically (it seemed to them), after they built them, big planes would land with boxes of food and supplies.  So after the war, the tribes-people cleared airstrips and built imitation military bases, thinking planes would come and bring them food, but, of course, they didn’t.

So there’s a danger of thinking that “I keep Shabbat, I keep kosher, I pray, I learn Torah therefore I’m a good Jew.”  Whereas Shabbat, kashrut, davening, Torah etc. are preconditions for being a good Jew, they hopefully help send us on the direction to being a good Jew, but they are not the same as being a good Jew.  One needs to have a whole bunch of other emotions and intuitions towards God and towards other human beings: love, awe, compassion, enthusiasm, self-denial, generosity… the things that frum (religious) Jews label as good middot (character traits).  One needs in particular to have the emotional connection with God.

I struggle with this, partly because of alexithymia and not understanding my own emotions very well, partly because perhaps I don’t have such a road map or checklist of things to do, which is not good for my autistic mind.  Autistic mind copes fine with Shabbat, for example.  Shabbat is thirty-nine forbidden (primary) actions not to do and a couple of positive commanded actions to do.  Oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, is another matter because that’s an emotion.  It comes from keeping the forbidden and commanded actions, but it’s possible to keep all those commands without experiencing it.  As it happens, I usually do experience Oneg Shabbat these days, but there have been times in my life when I didn’t, even though I kept all the Shabbat laws, because Oneg Shabbat is an emotion, and I was not in a good place emotionally, so I had no Oneg Shabbat and Shabbat seemed more of a chore.

There are categories within the halakhah (Jewish law) that delineate these ideas, concepts like naval bereshut haTorah, a vulgar person with the permission of the Torah, meaning someone who acts over-indulgently, but within permitted bounds e.g. gluttonously eating kosher food; or the hassid shoteh, the pious fool, who focuses on the wrong issues in a clash of values, the classic hassid shoteh being a man who won’t save a drowning woman because he doesn’t want to see her in disarranged dress.

It’s something to think about anyway.  I do want to have that kind of emotional connection with God, but I’m not sure how to go about it or if it’s even possible to consciously move towards it.

***

Otherwise it’s been a slightly stressful day with religious OCD.  I’m just trying to tell myself that I’m not responsible for the behaviour of other people; that it’s unlikely that any of the things I’ve seen are a serious breach of religious laws; and that I’m trying to do the right thing and even if I’m making a mistake, it’s a genuine mistake and not a deliberate attempt to break the Pesach laws.  It’s hard though.

Off for another two days of Yom Tov (festival) now…

Defensive and Anxious

I felt really defensive on waking today.  I think it was because I dreamt about one of my secondary school Jewish Studies teachers last night.  He was telling me off because I had come to class without shoes, as I had left them in the P.E. changing room locker.  In reality, this was the teacher who really introduced me to Torah study at a more advanced level, the level of Mishnah and Gemarah (Talmud).  I guess he also made it seem possible to be frum (religious) while still being a ‘normal’ person with a sense of humour.  He was an important person in my journey to becoming frum.

I know I disappointed him and some of the other Jewish Studies teachers by not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) after school, although it wasn’t really where I was on my journey of religious growth or personal development when I was eighteen.  I think the dream came about because I assume he would not approve of my relationship with E. either, that he would want me to marry someone more conventionally religious.  Like I said, this left me defensive today.  I could not articulate my reasons for not going to yeshiva when I was eighteen, but I don’t think I would have been ready, realistically, at that age, particularly given what I know now about how I function, or don’t function, in high stress academic environments, social environments, and especially noisy social environments (yeshiva is really noisy, because everyone studies out loud, in pairs, arguing loudly to be heard above everyone else arguing loudly).  I also think that E. is right for me, and that frum people who haven’t had issues with mental illness, high functioning autism and difficulty fitting in socially in the sometimes narrow and conformist frum world shouldn’t judge our relationship.  Ashley Leia asked the other day if the idea of bashert (destiny, especially a destined soul-mate) affects my thinking about E., and really it doesn’t, but inasmuch as I believe in bashert at all, I strongly suspect that E. is my bashert and people who haven’t been through everything I’ve been through in the last twenty years don’t really have a right to judge me for thinking that (cf. Pirkei Avot 2.4: “do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place.”).  Plus, as E. said when I told her about this dream, it’s not fair for people not to support me in the community then turn on me for dating someone from outside it.

Reading the last paragraph back, it seems very defensive.  I guess I feel defensive today, maybe because I feel anxious and depressed.   I’ve never been one to follow fashions and I’ve always been myself privately, but it’s hard to openly break with one’s community.  I do find it hard to be frum socially a lot of the time, even though I am objectively very religious.  I guess being in frum society brings up a lot of fears about where I stand religiously, where I should stand, am I good enough and so on, as well as fears about my relationship with E., what the stresses would be with that and so on.  E. was saying that she’s enjoying a Jewish book I recommended for her, but that its description of how Jewish communities should work does not match her experience of how they do work in reality and she has a point.  I guess I’ve always just tried to get on with my own stuff and not worry about fitting in so much, except that I get lonely and now I feel that I do need to put down roots somewhere where I fit in.

***

As for activity, today I worked on my short story for an hour or so, writing nearly 900 words, which was very good.  I spent half an hour writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  I stopped when I felt I had run out of energy.  Soon afterwards I started feeling very depressed.  I went for a run (thirty-five minutes, mostly running with little walking), but while I was out I started feeling really anxious.  I wish I was in therapy at the moment; there are so many things that are making me anxious and I can’t tell which ones are legitimate and which aren’t.  I suppose all anxieties are “legitimate” in that it isn’t “wrong” to have an anxiety, but I feel some would worry anyone and others are more pathological and unique to me.  I would like to be able to talk things through with someone objective.  I speak to my rabbi mentor sometimes, and he is a trained counsellor, but I feel like I impose too much on him and it isn’t always easy to find time to talk, plus it’s hard to do it long-distance.

My sister and brother-in-law came around to drop some stuff off and have a socially distanced, two metres away conversation on the doorstep, which was nice, particularly for my parents.

I decided I needed a break from the weekly COVID-19 depression group Zoom meeting.  I just didn’t have the energy and mindset to relate my feelings and listen for long periods to other people’s experiences.  I feel that I’m still recovering from Yom Tov, plus my worries at the moment are mostly religious OCD/Pesach-based rather than COVID-19/lockdown-based.  Perhaps I’ll participate again next week.

It was a reasonable day for Pesach OCD worries.  I feel bad that this year has not gone as well as last year, but that was probably unfeasible, given everything happening to my family and in the wider world.  I’m still better than all the years where I ended up a quivering wreck of anxiety at some point before or during the festival.

Re-framing and Brokenness

I realised I was so busy complaining yesterday that I forgot to mention two bits of good news.  One is that I will be getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – benefits, basically) for a year, assuming my employment position doesn’t change, which is something of a relief after all the hassle I went to in order to claim.

The second is a more positive thing that came out of the seder experience.  I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but I realised that I could re-frame the narrative of my life in a more positive way.  It possibly came from something by Rabbi Lord Sacks that I read out at seder about Moshe (Moses) using his speech immediately before the exodus (in Shemot/Exodus 12) to focus on the idea of how to tell the story to our children, which Rabbi Sacks used to talk about the idea of telling our own personal story in a way that supports us.

In the past I have cast the narrative of my life in a very negative way: school, Oxford, my MA, work, dating, religious growth, I have presented all of them in a very negative way, focusing on the difficult times I had and the lack of clear progression to where I wanted my life to be, in terms of marriage, career, community, a certain sort of religious life and so on.

I realise that there were some positives that came out of all of these things.  For example, I tend to present Oxford as the worst time of my life, but I did get my BA in end, with a decent mark, and I made a number of friends that I’m still in contact with fifteen years on.  And it was a worthwhile experience that I learnt from, even if it wasn’t often a happy one.  I won’t bore you by going through the whole list of life events, but I can sort of see that I can do this positive re-framing for most of my life if I try hard enough.

***

I read Giles Fraser’s latest essay on UnHerd (here, but don’t bother to read the comments which are tedious “God does/doesn’t exist” arguments by people who have missed the point of the article…  I already regret wishing that UnHerd had a comments section and they’ve only had it a few weeks).  I find Fraser’s articles interesting and provocative for me, as much of his Christian theology resonates with me, and yet much of it seems utterly alien, from a Jewish point of view.  Usually both at the same time.

The engagement with brokenness and vulnerability in Christianity as opposed to in secular liberalism is something Fraser has written about a lot.  It makes me wonder how much this acceptance is present in Judaism.  One would expect it to be present in Judaism, given how much of Jewish history has been written in tears of exile and persecution, but I’m not sure how much it does appear, at least not on a personal level.  There is Iyov/Job, as Fraser says; there is some of Tehillim/Psalms.  Perhaps you could count Eichah/Lamentations, but that’s really about national brokenness, not individual brokenness.  Which is kind of my point.  Judaism is a lot more about communal or national experiences than private and personal ones.  Unsurprisingly, because Christianity is pitched as an individual quest for personal salvation, whereas Judaism is at heart a national quest to build a social utopia (even if many religious Jews appear to have forgotten that).  That’s why (topically for this time of year) the key event of Christianity is Jesus dying on the cross, whereas the key event in Judaism is a nation of slaves leaving for freedom.

This can make Judaism a difficult source of support for someone dealing with private, personal pain as opposed to communal disaster.  While there are plenty of Christian conversion stories along the lines of, “I was at rock bottom, but I opened the Bible/heard a preacher/accepted Jesus into my life and suddenly felt loved and accepted,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a religious Jew offer a parallel story using Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) or the Talmud, nor have I ever come across kiruv organisation (outreach organisations attempting to make non-religious Jews more religious) using such tactics.  Kiruv organisations prefer a mixture of intellectual engagement with supposed proofs of the truth of Judaism, which are really a pretext to encourage people to experience celebrating Shabbat or going to Israel, particularly in a group.

(The reverse is true: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian parallel to the outpouring of concern and love that Jews of all stripes and religious levels share when there is war or terrorism in Israel or antisemitism in the diaspora; many Western Christians seem utterly unaware of the persecution of their coreligionists in much of the Middle East, let alone upset by it, something that is simply unthinkable for the global Jewish community.)

I’m not familiar enough with the rabbinic literature, the Talmud and the Midrash, to know if there are many more stories of individual brokenness there.  I can think of one or two.  This one comes to mind (Talmud Brachot 5b, translation from the Steinsaltz edition via Sefaria – the bold text is direct translation of the original, the non-bold text is explanation):

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar, another of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s students, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that Rabbi Elazar was crying, and said to him: Why are you crying? Thinking that his crying was over the suffering that he endured throughout his life, Rabbi Yoḥanan attempted to comfort him: If you are weeping because you did not study as much Torah as you would have liked, we learned: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart toward Heaven. If you are weeping because you lack sustenance and are unable to earn a livelihood, as Rabbi Elazar was, indeed, quite poor, not every person merits to eat off of two tables, one of wealth and one of Torah, so you need not bemoan the fact that you are not wealthy. If you are crying over children who have died, this is the bone of my tenth son, and suffering of that kind afflicts great people, and they are afflictions of love.

Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I am not crying over my misfortune, but rather, over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth, as Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty caused him to consider human mortality. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Still, these type of stories do seem to be the relatively rare in Judaism and I do feel like I struggle for inspiration and guidance on how to connect with God through my suffering and depression.  I think that’s why I’ve re-read Arthur Green’s biography of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav three times, because it deals extensively with his bouts of despair and self-criticism (possibly the result of bipolar disorder, undiagnosable and untreatable in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries).  Rebbe Nachman’s own stories are also important to me; they also deal a lot with longing and spiritual desire.  Still, I would be interested in finding more sources of Jewish inspiration and acceptance of brokenness.

***

As for my day today, I did half an hour of Torah study and went for a half-hour walk.  E. and I tried to do a virtual museum tour as an online date, but the picture resolution was poor, as was the navigation, and there wasn’t any text to explain what we were seeing.  We found the experience disappointing and switched to a straightforward video date after a while.  We spoke for over an hour and a half.

I found I was exhausted this evening, I think from the emotional stress of the last three days more than from my activity today.  I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or to have written my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week or to have worked on my short story, but I’m just too exhausted.  I’m also intermittently anxious (OCD anxiety mainly, although some general anxiety) and depressed; anxiety and depression tend to worsen when I’m tired, as at the moment.  I am going to turn off my computer and watch TV and read before bed, because I don’t feel I can do anything else, sadly.  I’m just trying to stay afloat and not end up too exhausted and depressed tomorrow.

***

A question that is bothering me, but which I’m reluctant to ask more widely for fear of being misunderstood: what is the additional number of COVID-19 deaths?  Because while over 100,000 people have died globally, a proportion of those, statistically speaking, would have died anyway from something.  The people most likely to die from COVID-19 are also largely the people most likely to die in general (elderly, seriously ill, having compromised immune systems etc.).  I would like to know what is the number of deaths so far over and above what we would expect for a normal first quarter of a year?  I am not trying to be callous or to say that it doesn’t matter that they died as they would have died anyway.  Obviously any death is a tragedy.  I’m just curious to know what the global scale of COVID-19 is likely to be.  Are we talking thousands more deaths, hundreds of thousands or (God forbid) millions?  How does that compare with normal mortality rates?

I heard that when the ebola virus was at its worst in Africa, there was a sudden increase in deaths from malaria, because resources that would have been used in the fight against malaria were diverted to fight ebola, because it’s a “scarier” (or perhaps just less common) illness.  I am wondering if anything like that could happen here.

I think they are legitimate questions, but I’m afraid they make me sound callous and uncaring.  The autistic part of me has learnt that some genuine questions are off-putting emotionally to many people, however intellectually justified, just as the politically aware part of me is aware that people with strong political opinions generally see the world through the lens of their opinions and don’t always like questions that probe that too deeply or challenge their core assumptions.

***

The annoying computer problem I used to have, where the mouse touchpad would default to tapping mode whenever I turned the computer on and it would last until I went to turn it off, whereupon it would switch off before I got to the screen where I should have been able to turn it off, is back.  I’m not sure what to do about that.  It’s another step in the protracted decline of my laptop, but I’m hoping to, um, protract it some more as I can’t really afford to buy a new computer right now.  If anyone knows how to deal with this, please let me know!

Post-Yom Tov Post

I’m breaking with my usual post-Yom Tov (festival) habit of trying to catch up on blogs and stuff in the hope of getting to bed before 2am.  For the same reason, this is going to be more of a summary of the last three days than a blow-by-blow account.

The shortest version is that the first two days (Yom Tov proper) where an emotional rollercoaster, but I was broadly coping, but Shabbat (the Sabbath) was just too much and I was not good.  To be honest, three day Yom Tovs, or “Three Day Events” as my parents call them, are pretty draining for everyone even without COVID-19 disruption and without depression and OCD.

As for the more detailed version… well, the first two days I was up and down.  At times I was worried or depressed about some things, but mostly I was able to calm myself by reminding myself that my rabbi mentor told me not to worry about chametz (leaven food, forbidden on Pesach) smaller than an olive (although I know he is being lenient with me here, so it doesn’t always help) and by reminding myself that I’m not responsible for what my parents choose to do.  I think there was probably in the background the usual current worries: worries about my Mum, her cancer, and her risk of COVID-19 infection; worries about COVID-19 in general; worries about E.; worries about my relationship with E. (which is going well, I hasten to add, but is at a crossroads, which is exciting but also scary, or was at a crossroads until COVID-19 put our plans on a back burner).  And so on.

The sederim went quite well, considering there were just three of us, although it felt a bit weird.  Usually we would have about ten or so people in total one night; the other would be me, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law.  This year it was just three of us both nights (“Why is this night so different?”).  We did have some more discussion than usual, which gives me an idea of how to do things differently in the future.  I had a migraine on the afternoon of the first day, but it had subsided by the second seder, which was good.  I still struggled to learn anything new at the seder, and to connect emotionally with the ideas of the night.  I still end up over-thinking things and not feeling them.  I wish I could get more out of seder, and out of Judaism in general.  The only real feeling of connection I had was via guilt and anxiety when I did something wrong (see below).

One interesting thing while I was eating the matzah (unleavened bread) was a strong feeling that freedom is being able to “just go,” which obviously connects with the story of the matzah in the Torah, that the Israelites did not have time to bake bread before leaving slavery in Egypt, but is interesting in terms of my usual procrastination and my awareness that my relationship with E. is going to require quite a bit of risk-taking and adventurous departures if it’s going to work.

I made some mistakes, in terms of forgetting to do a few things.  Most of them were rectifiable, but in opening some celery I had forgotten to open before Yom Tov I tore some writing on the packaging, a big no-no on Shabbat and Yom Tov (it’s considered erasing).  I felt very upset about this, and then managed to do it again the next day on something else (that was less obviously my fault though).  As I say, I felt upset, but I did manage to move on.

And then we got to Shabbat…  It was going well, and then there was an Issue.  There was an oversight in the kitchen (I won’t go into the details which are fairly complex) and potentially we had messed up the Pesach kosher-ness of some food.  I was 80% sure it was OK, but still couldn’t bring myself to eat it.  I didn’t argue with my parents, but they did eat it, and put it on our plates, which meant that the plates were now potentially problematic.  I tried to stay calm, but it was hard to do that with all the worries I mentioned above in my head plus the minor Pesach worries and now plus this.  I tried not to eat anything potentially ‘contaminated’ for the rest of the day, but it was hard to keep track of what cutlery had gone where and by lunchtime on Saturday I was de facto relying on my opinion that the food was OK (which at least had now grown to 90% certainty).

After Shabbat we emailed my parents’ rabbi and he said what I had thought: it was OK, we had just infringed a protective measure intended as an extra level of safety.  But it’s hard to spend Pesach every year wrestling with feelings that God is going to deny me any reward in the afterlife because of confused and panicked decisions I take at Pesach, especially as those are motivated more by a desire to avoid arguing with my parents than some selfish desire to eat chametz on Pesach.  I thought I was past this stage, but apparently not, or at least, not in this crazy year.

It’s hard to treat OCD at a time of the year when we are supposed to be worried about what we eat.  I suppose the analogy would be to someone who had germ contamination OCD and was trying to treat it with exposure therapy, but now has to deal with COVID-19 and suddenly being told to wash her hands all the time.

I also ate a load of junk over the three days and little fruit and veg, again because of a complicated religious/not-arguing-with-parents reason (I usually eat a lot of fruit and veg).  On the plus side, my biscuits tasted good, despite the cinnamon balls turning into macaroon shape and the almond macaroons ending up as a solid block that my Mum had to hack into smaller chunks.

Other than that it was the usual Yom Tov mix of over-eating, oversleeping, praying and reading.  My parents more or less forced me to go for a half-hour walk each day, which I needed.  I worked through a couple more Tehillim/Psalms in Hebrew and read more of Ani Maamin as well as more than half of a murder mystery set in a Haredi community, the first in a long sequence.  I’m enjoying it enough to stick with it to see how it ends, but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any more.  It’s not really as interesting as I thought it would be, maybe because the Haredi community doesn’t seem so exotic; if anything, it seems less strict than my own community, which probably wasn’t the intention.

***

I should really go to bed.  I’m already violating my “No screens after 11pm” rule just to write this, but I’ve been struggling for the last few days with trying to keep going without being able to off-load.  I feel like I need to watch some TV to unwind.  I know it might keep me awake, but not relaxing will also keep me awake and I don’t really feel like reading any more.

200 Hours (Approximately)

… being the approximate length of time from the start of the Pesach food restrictions to the end of the holiday (in the diaspora).

Firstborns are supposed to fast the day before Pesach, but it’s generally accepted that they can go to a siyum (party for finishing studying some Torah) to avoid it.  I woke up at 7.00am as intended, got up a little later than I wanted, but “went” to an online siyum.  I had trouble logging in and missed the first half, although this is all kind of stringent this year anyway as no one should really be fasting in a health crisis even if they didn’t get to a siyum.

I fell into OCD anxiety while eating breakfast.  I mostly got it under control by the time Mum got up, but then she was sick, which set up a whole load more anxiety – worry about her, worry about getting everything ready on time for Pesach.  Once I start worrying, I can worry about everything, so I started worrying about me and E., feeling that the history of my life shows that good things rarely happen for me and never last and worrying that something will stop us being together, even though I don’t know what.  E. is basically the best thing that ever happened to me, so I’m terrified she’s going to be taken from me somehow.

We did get the house changed over to Pesach mode on time.  Having done the negative side of the festival (removing forbidden food), we are now busily doing the positive (cooking and preparing Pesach food).  I am struggling intermittently with OCD and anxiety.  I am washing my hands far too often, even for COVID-19.  I have to keep telling myself that I’m doing my best and that that’s all that God can expect of me, and also that I’m not responsible for what other people choose to do or not do.  I tell myself that God is probably more like my rabbi mentor (empathetic, understanding, patient, forgiving) and less like [insert name of any fire and brimstone clergyman].

We’ve got about an hour and a half until Pesach now.  My parents have excused me from further food preparation, as I’ve been helping all day, and I only got about five and a half hours sleep last night.  I’m going to shower and get into my Yom Tov clothes and probably chill in front of the TV for a bit so that I’m in a reasonable state of mind for the seder service this evening, the centrepiece of Pesach celebrations.  It’s tempting to try to continue helping now, or do more Torah study or something, but then I’ll be a mess by this evening, so I’m going to take my time off knowing that I will be doing a lot to help the smooth running of the seder later.

I will be out of contact for three days now, until Saturday evening, as we engage in what Ze’ev Maghen refers to as Judaism’s annual Existential War on Leaven Bread.  Chag kasher vesameach to those celebrating.  Stay well to everyone else.

Pesach Fail/OCD Success?

I got up about the same time as yesterday, which was good.  I felt very anxious and struggled with some OCD thoughts, but avoided asking my rabbi mentor about most of them.  I told myself that I was 90% sure what I was doing was OK, and if I was wrong, it was a genuine mistake, and that not asking unnecessary questions is a positive thing for me, otherwise the OCD gets out of control.  Nevertheless, I felt intermittently overwhelmed and struggled to get going.  I tried to focus on gratitude for my family and friends and especially for E.  I guess I do still worry that I’ll scare E. off sooner or later, either with my issues or my religiosity, but she cares about me more than anyone except my parents.

The one thing I really struggled with was kashering the kitchen sink.  This involves purging the sink of any trace of food by pouring boiling water over it.  There are quite strict rules about this.  The water has to be boiling, not boiled, so you only get a few seconds to do it before the kettle is considered too cold.  Also, only water within a couple of inches of where the spout of water hits the sink or drainer counts as close enough to still be boiling.  And you have to hit 51% of the sink and drainer in this way.  And, of course, it’s impossible to tell just by looking what was hit in this way and what was not because the water just flows everywhere.

The truth is, I didn’t feel like I managed it this year, but I was also worried about getting stuck in a OCD spiral of doing it again and again and again, trying to get it “perfect”.  So I tried to make sure I got each part of the sink once (which still took several goes) and then I left it.  I just sent my rabbi mentor an email asking if he thinks that was the right approach, especially as we don’t actually put anything directly in our sink on Pesach, which mitigates the need for this somewhat.  As I said to my rabbi mentor, my intuition is that this is the best possible option available, and I also note that, while writing that email to him and writing this blog post and accepting what I’ve done, I can feel my confidence level about the sink rising a little bit.

Did I do the right thing?  God knows (literally).  I tried my best, and probably did as good as most people would, but they wouldn’t agonise over it.  I think we have a good enough solution for now, with the caveat that we may need to ask a rabbi a question if anything drops into the sink over Pesach.  At the moment, looking for “good enough” solutions is all I can do.

There then followed a slightly frantic hour or so as I tried to make dinner for all of us in a kitchen that is half unusable (because in Pesach mode, not in everyday mode, where we still are).  I could feel anxiety rising in me from the sink, but also about Pesach in general, what time I will go to bed tonight, if I will sleep, if I will get up on early tomorrow morning as I want and really need to do…  I’ve had stomach pains again this evening, which seems to be an anxiety thing and which hasn’t been present for the last few weeks.

I’m currently waiting for my parents to be ready to do the nocturnal search for chametz (leavened food), done the night before Pesach.  I hope not to get to bed too late, although that’s somewhat up in the air at the moment.  I did a bit of Torah study today, but not much, but I think I was doing important things for the family.  I didn’t go for a walk in the end though which I would have liked to have done.  I want to get up early in the morning (although it would take to long to explain why… another complicated religious thing), so would like to get to bed reasonably early.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to blog tomorrow.  It’s the busiest day of the year.  If not, I won’t get the chance to blog again until Saturday evening, so Pesach kasher vesameach to those celebrating, and stay healthy to everyone.

Anxiety Mostly Contained

I did quite a lot today, although it was mostly Pesach (Passover) preparation, so not terribly interesting to record here.  I went shopping and extended my walk home a bit for exercise, although not for as long as I would have liked if I hadn’t had so many other things on today or been nervous about staying out with COVID-19.  I kashered the hob for Pesach, which basically involves boiling pots of water on each burner until it all gets really hot, then, when it’s cooled, covering the tops of the grates in aluminium foil.  I cooked some biscuits, almond macaroons, which spread too much and turned into two giant biscuits.  I think Mum cut them back into biscuit shape; from a baking point of view they were fine.  I cleaned the kitchen sink thoroughly to kasher it tomorrow and printed a load of signs so we can see where the Pesach and non-Pesach stuff is in the rearranged kitchen (then discovered we had some from last year).

I’ve been trying hard to fight the Pesach OCD that worries about the special dietary laws of the festival and the necessity of cooking not just different food, but in different utensils and with purged work surfaces, sinks, ovens and the like.  I’ve been trying hard not to give in if I want to physically check something multiple times; or email my rabbi mentor to check I’ve done something correctly; or to look up a detail that I know about, but want to double-check; or to ask my parents if they’ve washed their hands before touching Pesach food stuff…  It’s hard to do exposure therapy for Pesach OCD because unlike my ordinary kashrut OCD, where I was able to gradually expose myself to my irrational fears until the anxiety subsided, I’m not able to expose myself to Pesach OCD over a prolonged period of time.  I just have to sit with the anxiety and push through things despite it.  Dialing back the handwashing is harder, though, as Pesach and COVID-19 team up against me there and it usually feels like at least one of them mandates washing my hands in any given situation.  My hands are cracked, itchy and sometimes painful, but, to be honest, I’ve had worse Pesachs from a chapped hands point of view.

The other thing I had today was another depression group online meeting.  I found myself feeling very anxious during this meeting.  Some of it may have been residual anxiety from Pesach preparations, but I think a lot of it was social anxiety.  I can find the in-person depression groups challenging sometimes, but I find the online meetings so far much harder.  I’m fine Skyping E. one-to-one, and I’ve had one-to-one Skype therapy and meetings with my rabbi mentor, but a group meeting (and this was a slightly larger group than last time) seems to be exponentially harder.  I think I feel self-conscious with my picture on the screen, I don’t always talk loudly enough for the microphone to pick my voice up and the problems I have in sessions in terms of judging when I can speak and what to say somehow seems even more difficult to deal with online.  I still struggle with what I feel comfortable talking about and feel self-conscious of not expressing myself as clearly and as confidently as I would like.  I would like to continue going to these meetings as the lockdown continues, but I need to think about the best way of dealing with them.

It also occurred to me in the meeting that I’ve been completely focused on getting Pesach done despite COVID-19 and Mum’s cancer.  Soon, Pesach will be over, but the two Cs (as Mum calls them) will still be here and I will probably need to think of a new coping strategy or at least something else to occupy my time.

***

This post on trans-generational trauma was interesting.  I was interested because the case study is of a Holocaust survivor and his family.  My family had surprisingly little Holocaust connection, thankfully, although I’m sure every Jewish family suffered from institutionalised or persistent violence and persecution at some point.  I don’t think anything was passed down my family in that way, but perhaps because I take my Jewish identity very seriously I feel a sort of inchoate responsibility for the world in general and the Jewish people in particular and a desire to change things for the better without really knowing how, beyond a vague hope/fear that my suffering will somehow achieve some kind of vicarious atonement.

***

I feel a bit bad, as I just did give in to the OCD on a relatively minor thing, but I could see it spiralling out into something bigger (with OCD once you give in to one doubt or anxiety, it often snowballs into something much larger) and drew a line in the sand.  But it does indicate that I am too tired to function.  I will do a few minutes of Torah study as I haven’t done any today and don’t want to go a whole day without even five minutes, break my “No screens after 11pm” rule even further to relax a little for twenty minutes, and go to bed.

Golden Ages

I’ve mentioned before my feeling that the “J-blogosphere” (the Jewish blogosphere) that I used to be a part of has declined in recent years.  Yesterday I came across this list of the “Top 50 Jewish Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2020”.  I was surprised that a lot of them are institutional rather than personal blogs, and many of the private blogs are defunct.  I don’t want to read too much into this, as I don’t know how the list was compiled and I think it’s just another online list, but it does reinforce my feeling that the thriving J-blogosphere that I was a part of (or at least, slightly more than a spectator to) ten or fifteen years ago has gone somewhere else, but I’m not sure where exactly.  Probably Facebook and Twitter.  It’s strange that I mourn it now, as I never really felt that I fitted in to it, but I miss particular blogs and feel a sort of wistful regret that I could express my Jewish identity online, and to talk with people whose Jewish identity, however defined (Orthodox, Reform, secular, Israeli, diaspora etc.) was more instinctive and natural than my own.  I don’t think I really appreciated that when it was available.

It occurs to me that I tend to get nostalgic for communities that I was never really a part of.  I participated in the J-blogosphere, but while I commented on some blogs and read others, few (no?) Jewish bloggers read my blog, so far as I could tell.  Similarly, I can get hugely nostalgic for the Doctor Who fandom of the “wilderness years” when the programme was not on air (1990-2004) and when fandom was a kind of club for people who found Mensa insufficiently geeky and obscure, mixing quasi-academic analysis with juvenile humour, yet my active involvement in fandom was limited both in scope and in time.

I don’t really know why this is the case.  Perhaps it’s easy, when looking at my current struggles with socialising, to look back to a “golden age,” but I don’t think there ever was one for me.  There were social groupings that I wanted to join, but I never really managed to infiltrate them (not really the right word, but in many ways exactly the right word).  But, as the Doctor said (Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs), there never was a golden age; it’s all an illusion.  Perhaps I should take that as my starting point when trying to make friends.  I am at least slowly making friends and getting known in my shul (synagogue), or was before coronavirus hit, albeit possibly just in time to move somewhere else with E.

Perhaps it’s related to my tendency to avoid categorising my religious, political and cultural opinions, to always opt for the “Yes/And” rather than the “Either/Or.”  To see myself as someone who doesn’t fit into convenient boxes, but rather who unites opposed points of view.  It’s a sense that I’m too big for anyone else’s categories, which is probably self-aggrandising, on some level, as well as providing an overly-convenient explanation for my failure to make friends (“They don’t understand my complexity!”).

***

Good news for the day: my oldest friend got in touch to say he’s read my non-fiction Doctor Who book and really enjoyed it.  He even paid me the biggest compliment you can pay a writer: he stayed up later than intended because he couldn’t put it down!  I feel really pleased about this.  I may ask him to write a review on Amazon or Lulu although he must be incredibly busy at the moment (he’s a rabbi).  Of course, my negative thoughts are already trying to discount his praise…

(This also means that I’ve sold at least one copy more than I thought, and than Lulu.com’s tally suggests.  Possibly Amazon sales take time to register?)

***

I actually got up early today.  Well, earlyish, for a Sunday, when I hadn’t slept well.  I got up just after 10am.  Considering I’ve been getting up around midday for weeks, this is an improvement.  I hadn’t even slept well.  I shouldn’t have watched Life on Mars late last night, as the blue light stopped me sleeping.  I just felt I needed to relax, but I should have read, or rather should have just read, as I read too.  I did eventually fall asleep, but woke just before 10am from a nightmare where my “Dad” (in inverted commas, as it wasn’t my real Dad, but some violent thug) was fighting with me.  I didn’t want to go back to sleep after that.  Maybe I need to have a nightmare every day.

Unfortunately it did take me a while to get going.  I felt tired and got distracted online.  Once I got going, the day was mostly taken up with Pesach (Passover) preparation: cleaning fridges and freezers and cleaning the hob.  I got very tired by the late afternoon.  It’s a continual source of frustration to me that I can only do much less work in a day than most people, because of lack of energy and depressive procrastination.  I would have liked to have done a whole day’s work today rather than just an afternoon’s.  Still, I did manage to go for a decent run in the twilight for about half an hour and had a Skype call with E. that was very enjoyable.  I think I laughed more with E. than I have since the coronavirus hit.

I felt less anxious about Pesach preparations today and more able to keep things in perspective and resist the religious OCD.  What the logic of the Jewish dietary laws, and the special Pesach dietary laws, might be is a subject of debate and from the outside I imagine that they don’t seem to have much logic at all.  Nevertheless, there is an internal logic to how it all works, an understanding of how food or its taste might be passed on that holds true across all the Jewish dietary laws.  As I understand this better, it becomes less a vague and fear-inspiring superstition (“I think that’s wrong, but I don’t know why”) and more something I can assess and analyse for myself and decide if it’s a problem without asking a rabbi.  I still have a long way to go, but I am getting better at this.

One thing I’ve learnt to look out for with OCD (I think it probably applies to any OCD with compulsions) is doing things multiple times.  The mindset of, “I think I’ve done this, but I’ll do it again to be sure” or simply “I must do this X number of times” with no clear explanation.  I fell into that a little bit today while cleaning, cleaning things multiple times, but I have become wary of it.  Similarly, I need to avoid checking things: asking questions of a rabbi when I know the answer or looking through old emails where I’ve asked questions to check the existing answer.  It’s very hard though.  Really the difficulty of OCD is resisting this desire to check things, whether it’s locking doors and windows, or washing hands repeatedly or checking about ritual performance.

The Banality of Lockdown

I’m mostly doing OK today, but I’ll be going along, doing what I need to do, and then suddenly feel sad or anxious for no obvious reason.  Fortunately it seems to shift after a while.  Credit that to Shabbat (Sabbath) and sunshine.  I’m not sure what will happen next week when Pesach (Passover) preparation goes to the next level and rain is forecast.

I went out to do some shopping earlier, to pick up my prescription and some fruit and veg.  The didn’t have my lithium tablets in 400mg dose tablets, only 200mg.  I accepted those (although I didn’t think the pharmacist was supposed to change dosage like that, although maybe these are special times), but it means taking four lithium tablets an evening instead of two, alongside two clomipramine, one olanzapine and some vitamin supplements, plus of course my three morning tablets.  It’s frustrating, but I’m glad to have got the tablets at all, as I don’t know if I would be allowed to go to a different pharmacy at the moment, at least not without difficulty.

I had to wait outside the greengrocer’s for a long time as they were only allowing two people in at a time.  By the time I had finished there, I was feeling extremely anxious.  I’m not sure how much was health anxiety, how much social anxiety (I had to ask the shop assistant some things) and how much is just me beating myself up for stuff that isn’t my fault, in a borderline pure-O OCD way (not Pesach OCD for once).  I could have got home in about five minutes, but I took a detour for fifteen minutes to get some kind of walk as exercise and to fight off the anxiety, but it wasn’t particularly effective.  I would have liked to have gone for a longer walk, but I didn’t as I wanted to do some Pesach preparation alongside my Shabbat preparation.  Now the clocks have gone forward, Shabbat starts later, so as well as Shabbat chores and shopping I’ve done some Pesach preparation, which hopefully will “buy” me some time to bake or exercise next week.

Mum it seems is on the high risk COVID-19 list after all, although this is not completely clear to me.  However, we’re struggling to have the government website to recognise her as such, which we would need to get priority for shopping delivery slots.  The automated phone line flatly refused to recognise her NHS number.

This post seems banal even by my usual standards and I’m not sure that anyone will be interested.  Coronavirus seems to have given us a lots of time to talk, but nothing to talk about.  Aside from Pesach preparation, I’m not really being upset (I’m trying not to use the word ‘triggered’) by anything.  I just feel surprisingly lonely, and worried about E. and frustrated at being so far from her at this time.

Feedback Loop

Yesterday finished badly.  I went to bed earlier than usual (although still late) because I felt tired and depressed.  I tried to do my hitbodedut meditation/prayer/talking to God, but got overwhelmed with guilt, anxiety and despair halfway through and had to stop.  At least I was feeling something, lately it’s been hard to feel anything while doing it.

Then today started badly.  It was a real struggle to get up.  I woke up around 10am, but fell asleep again.  I eventually got up around 12.30pm, after an indeterminate amount of time lying in bed feeling awful, just depressed and exhausted.  I’ve been having weird dreams recently too.  There was one that involved Hitler’s head (in a They Saved Hitler’s Brain sort of way, but I don’t remember the details), and last night I dreamt about people from shul (synagogue) coming round, but just sitting in the lounge silently studying Talmud.  In the dream, this seemed like a success, as they seemed to think I was on some level capable of Talmud study.  There was also a ten year old boy who I managed to speak to in Hebrew, at least to offer him a drink.  I’m not sure what any of this means.

Events today were mostly trivial, but also somewhat frustrating or upsetting.  I’ve put on weight, about 1kg since I last weighed myself.  It’s not surprising, as I’ve only had time/energy to exercise intermittently and have been eating more junk than usual since the coronavirus lockdown started.

Then the latest Doctor Who Magazine arrived.  They didn’t print the letter I had sent them, which isn’t a surprise as I admitted to not enjoying the most recent series.  They don’t print negative letters any more, even one like mine which basically argued that Doctor Who is large and diverse and if some fans don’t like the current version, they can just focus on what they like and not throw their toys out of the pram on Twitter.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like so much, but I felt very overwhelmed and really just wanted to go back to bed and start the day again.

I didn’t have much to do today, in terms of Pesach preparation or anything else, so I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which ended up being quite a bit shorter than usual, from lack of inspiration as much as depression.  This week’s sedra (Torah portion) has some long legal passages about the sacrificial laws and a description of the inauguration ceremony of the priests, which had been previewed a view weeks ago in Shemot (Exodus), so it can be hard to find something interesting and relevant to a contemporary audience.

I went for a run, but as I was too depressed and exhausted to run for more than a few metres at a time, it was mostly a walk.  I passed a bunch of six teenagers, split up on both sides of the road so I couldn’t safely pass while keeping two metres distant from both groups.  I think this is the first really flagrant lockdown breach I’ve seen.  My uncle says that the Israeli lockdown is stricter, with people limited to a 100m radius area around their residence and police and army enforcement.

I’m struggling with religious OCD, in some ways more so than yesterday, wanting to email my rabbi mentor to chase up the answers to yesterday’s questions.  I did email in the end, and although I turned it into a general venting email, it really was to seek reassurance, which I know is wrong with OCD.  It is hard to do exposure therapy for Pesach OCD when exposure therapy requires repeated exposures over time and Pesach is only one week a year, plus a week or two of preparation beforehand.

Despite being at home with my parents, I felt lonely today.  I don’t always find it easy to communicate with my parents when I feel very depressed (or even when I don’t feel depressed).  I felt alone.  In the evening I actually did some social (or virtual-social) stuff: a massive thirteen person extended family Zoom call (which was basically certain family members shouting a lot and others of us sitting quietly) and a Skype call with E.  I was glad to speak to E., but I just had a knot of anxiety in my stomach the whole time and worried I was going to alienate her somehow, even though I knew this was irrational and that E. cares about me a lot.  I think at times like this my anxiety just transfers from subject to subject depending on what I’m doing at the time so that I always feel anxious.  I did speak a bit to my parents about my anxieties in the end, which was good.  I’m lucky to have them, and to have E.  I don’t know where I would be without them.

***

There was an interesting discussion today over on Ashley Leia’s blog about whether the term “high functioning” is a useful descriptor for mental health.  I would say not, and most if not all commenters there agreed.  Certainly in my case functionality is not static and binary, but fluctuates with time, with different situations and with other factors like tiredness and hunger, as well as the interaction of different aspects of my issues (so today high anxiety/religious OCD anxiety and depression are feeding back into each other and making things worse).  The same goes for my high-functioning autism.

There can also be a judgmental element to functionality, where high functional people are not allowed to have bad days/episodes or are not given adequate support because it’s assumed they are coping and that high functionality equates to mental stability and consistently positive mental health.  I function well inasmuch as I get dressed every day, look after my health and hygiene needs, eat reasonably healthily, exercise, look for work and so on, but whenever I get a job, my stress levels rocket up and I’ve had trouble meeting all my work obligations; I think at least two previous managers thought I was incompetent and probably regretted hiring me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to work full-time.  So it’s hard to see myself as functional, even though I know that I am compared to some people, or even compared with myself as I was from circa 2003 to 2009 or so.