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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Difficult Thoughts, and Staying Frum

I slept until 11am, which I probably needed.  Then I spent a while in bed, which was a mistake, as I fell asleep until 12.30pm, which I did not need and was not good.  I felt self-recriminatory after that, and about the over-excited post I wrote yesterday.  Sometimes I get stuck in fantasy that things are suddenly going to improve and then it’s painful coming back down to earth.

I also noticed that I’ve had a lot of difficult thoughts lately, not self-criticism so much as pure O OCD-type thoughts (e.g. thoughts about saying hurtful things to strangers).  Apparently everyone has these thoughts, or thoughts like them, all the time, but people with OCD can’t dismiss them as ‘just thoughts.’  I do wonder why people don’t discuss them more if this is true.  They do lead on to self-criticism, because I think, “How can I have thoughts like that in my head, even subconsciously?  I don’t want to say these things, so why is my brain suggesting that I should?”  I’m not obsessing over them and I don’t really think I’m a bad person, so it’s not reached OCD-level, but I just wish it would shut up.

To be honest, I would probably be a lot happier generally if my brain would just shut up sometimes.  I know someone who seems to wander around broadcasting their entire inner monologue constantly to avoid the silence.  If that really is what they’re doing, their inner monologue is a lot quieter and more banal than my inner monologue.  I do wish I could turn things down sometimes.

***

I felt down today, I’m not sure why.  The day has been a bit of a struggle.  I don’t have anything insightful to say about this.

I did phone the GP surgery this afternoon and managed to get an appointment with the doctor I spoke to last time.  This was regarding wanting to reduce my medication and being told by the psychiatrist not to do so.  The GP seemed a bit annoyed that I hadn’t been able to speak to the psychiatrist directly to explain my situation, but had to speak through a “link worker.”  This was the person I spoke to on the phone, who I thought was a psychiatrist, but apparently was not.  The GP is going to write again to request a direct phone call between me and the psychiatrist.

I spent a while psyching myself up to phone the United Synagogue about moving forward with E and my marriage application paperwork, but got the answer phone.

So many things at the moment can’t be done in one go.  A lot of this relates to going to the US and getting married, but also to other things like filling in my tax return (which I’ve never had to do before).  I just keep pushing things off or only managing to do the next step and I find it frustrating that nothing is ever finished.  Maybe that’s contributed to feeling down.

***

Sometimes I wonder how I’ve stayed frum (religious Jewish).  It’s hard to stay frum if you don’t feel connected to the community, or aren’t getting positive feelings from Jewish practice, or are just struggling to do all the stuff that being Jewish entails, and I’ve struggled with all three things at different times.  I guess I’m struggling with most or all of them now, if not necessarily to the same extent as in the past.  And autism/Asperger’s and mental health issues just makes everything even harder.  My main mental health issue at the moment is social anxiety, which isn’t as bad for me as depression and OCD were, but it’s particularly good at sabotaging anything I try to do related to being in a community, and a lot about Orthodox Judaism is ideally done in a community.  Alexithymia (difficulty sensing and understanding my feelings) probably also means that I miss some positive feelings from Judaism and community, strange though that may seem.

Does that make me a good Jew for persisting despite all this or a bad one for not being so enthusiastic, committed or involved?  I don’t know.  I feel like a good Jew wouldn’t be struggling with these things in the first place, but I also feel that I didn’t choose to be in this situation.   I once saw one rabbi write that “A good Jew is trying to be a better Jew,” but I worry that in the last few years, rather than improving, I’ve even cut back on things to try to consolidate what I’m still doing.

I am aware that people on the fringes of the Orthodox Jewish community, for whatever reason, tend to drop out.  I’ve known a number of people who became frum as a young adult, but dropped out of observance later due to mental health issues (sometimes becoming observant is a symptom of mental illness, although I don’t think that was the case with me).  So I know I should feel that I’m doing OK.  It would just be nice to have some certainty that I’m a good Jew and a good human being.  Although, as I realised a while back, but still haven’t internalised, there isn’t going to be a day when someone gives me a medal to officially recognise that I’m a good person or a good Jew, and I should really stop wanting it to happen.  At least E thinks I’m a good person and a good Jew; it probably is too much to hope for other people to say the same.

Tangentially-related to this, on one of the Orthodox Conundrum podcasts I listened to, Elisheva Rishon (fashion designer and Jew of colour) spoke about connecting with other Orthodox Jews online, but struggling to overcome stigma in real-world Orthodox settings.  I don’t think I experience stigma per se (although it’s easier for me to mask), but it nudges me towards going back on social media to try to find people I can connect with.  But then I remember how awful being on Facebook was, and I scare myself off it.

***

I am currently reading The Third Reich in Power by Richard J Evans; When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture by Elana Sztokman; and Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World by Yael Ziegler[1].  These are all good books, but very heavy-going [2].  I tried to read the Third Reich book this evening and struggled with it.  I think I have to throw a novel in there or something lighter.  It’s frustrating, as the Third Reich book is very long and I don’t want to be reading it for months on end.  I don’t want to take any of those books to New York in a few weeks (not least because they’re too heavy in a literal sense), so I’ll have to start something soon anyway.  I do want to finish the spring Jewish Review of Books first (the summer issue is out, but it takes ages to get to the UK).

[1] I am also occasionally reading The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who by David J. Howe and Steven James Walker, which is annoying in another way entirely, but that’s not a topic for now.

[2] When Rabbis Abuse is also in desperate need of a proof-reader, as I’m not sure I’ve seen a professionally-published book with so many typos and errors, but, again, that’s not a problem for now.

Novel Stuff and More

Yesterday was a wedding preparation day. I discussed some apprehensions with my rabbi mentor and felt better afterwards. I booked plane tickets to get to New York in late August for my civil wedding. I still need to book a hotel and get insurance. I had some difficulties booking, so that took a lot of time and meant I couldn’t do much else. I think that Torah study and exercise are going to go down the priority list for a while.

Today at work, J sent me out to get some keys cut (special keys that can’t be cut quickly). He said I should drop them off and he would collect them later, but when I got there, I was told they would be ready in forty-five minutes and so texted J to ask if he wanted me to wait. He said yes, so I went to a nearby park that was somewhat sheltered. Unfortunately, after forty-five minutes, the keys were not ready. I was told to come back in another fifteen minutes. I thought if I went back to the park, I would get there in time to come back, so I just hung around near the shop, which was a big mistake, as I had no hat and got a headache. I took solpadeine when I got back to the office, but the headache came and went all afternoon and then got worse on the way home (the Tube is hot, loud and jolts). I did eventually feel better (no headache) around dinner time, but I feel pretty exhausted.

Incidentally, when I went to get the keys cut, I saw Howard Jacobson. I was too shy to speak to him though. What do you say, anyway? “Aren’t you Booker Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson? I read two of your books. I quite liked them.” Eh.

In the evening, I submitted my novel to two more agents. I’m trying to do this faster, so I can reach more agents, as I only reached agent number twenty today, which is not very good (admittedly I’ve paused the agent quest a number of times for various reasons, most recently to see if I was going to be accepted onto the emerging writers’ programme). The problem is that every agent has different requirements (first chapter, first ten pages, first three chapters, first fifty pages, synopsis, no synopsis…) so it’s hard to do a standardised query letter and just fire it out rapidly. Plus with larger agencies you could have to read half a dozen or more agent profiles trying to work out which would be the best fit. The profiles are full of unhelpful statements like, “I would like to see a horror novel that breaks new ground” or “I would like to see the next Harry Potter” — it’s easier to say that than to do it, or even to work out what doing it would actually mean. They all want POC and LGBT, but say nothing about frum (religious Jewish) Jews (are we not “other” enough?). Anyway, I’m aiming to submit to two a week from now on until I finish going through the big directory of agencies that I’m using. I also sorted out a big folder of receipts and invoices going back to 2018, so I guess it was a fairly productive evening, considering I didn’t feel great.

***

I’m worried I’m going to end up going back on Facebook, despite drama, politics and comparing myself to others. There are a few reasons. E is encouraging me to start some kind of social and/or support group for adult Jews with autism when we get married, and that would probably start with some kind of FB page. Lately I’ve been listening to the Orthodox Conundrum podcast and am curious about the discussions on their FB page that they plug on the podcasts, which might be interesting and a way of making contact with more Modern Orthodox Jews, which might help me feel more integrated into the community and less self-conscious about all the reasons I think frum people might reject me. Then yesterday I realised that the vague plans I have for doing freelance proofreading to supplement my income might be enhanced if I also offered proofreading services specifically for Jewish-themed documents with relevant non-English words. But this would mean networking, which nowadays means FB. I am not hugely happy about this, although I do wonder if it will have a positive side. (Also, bad though networking on FB is, it beats networking in a room full of scary, real-life people.)

***

I spent £55 on books for research for my novel. It was probably somewhat extravagant, given that I’ve already started writing and so perhaps should be thought to have done my research. I was beginning to wonder if there were things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, if that makes sense, and when I was doing my MA dissertation, we were told to start writing while researching, because research informs writing, but writing informs research too. I guess the purchase is probably also motivated a bit by the desire to indulge my curiosity on certain matters that may be relevant, but will probably be interesting either way.

***

I’ve been reading On Repentance on the way to work. It’s a sort of transcription of various shiurim (religious lectures) on repentance given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I struggled with it today, though. A while back, I listened to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher’s account of how she was abused by Todros Grynhaus, a respected Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) rabbi and school teacher. Part of her account is that, after a police investigation into Grynhaus was started, he was still allowed to lead Rosh Hashanah services in an Orthodox shul (synagogue).

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the person leading the prayers is supposed to be representing the community before God in praying for forgiveness and life, so this was the ultimate hypocrisy. This image is somehow stuck in my head and I kept thinking about it while reading Rav Soloveitchik’s writing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and repentance. I’m not sure I can really put it into words, but I guess it (Grynhaus being allowed to lead the services) seems to encapsulate the discomfort I sometimes feel about the contemporary Orthodox world, that there are people who are accepted and there are people on the margins, often through no fault of their own, and somehow Rav Soloveitchik’s words about repentance and forgiveness won’t apply until we root out abuse and victimisation and integrate those on the margins.

Unfortunately, I don’t really know what I can do about it. Is it even my fight? I think it’s everyone’s fight… but also it’s not a fight I know from the inside. Part of me feels I should stick to autism and mental illness. The same part thinks that writing about abuse in both my unpublished novel and my work in progress is an act of appropriation[1], and my interest in abuse in the frum community generally is mere ghoulishness and sensation-seeking. I don’t know.

I can’t remember how I started becoming interested in abuse, but I suspect it was partly from my OCD, that I was worried I could become an abuser, so I engaged in OCD ‘checking’ behaviours, reading about the lives and characteristics of abusers to check that I was different. This was probably not the best way to approach the subject. Somewhere along the line, I felt that I was on the margins of Orthodox life because of my mental health and neurodiversity, and that that somehow made me responsible for others who might not be able to speak out. This may be arrogance.

(There is also the issue that as a self-proclaimed “Tory anarchist” (if that even means anything) who thinks identity politics has gone too far and whose response to political news these days is mostly quietism, I would make an unlikely Social Justice Warrior.)

Among the books I ordered for my work in progress yesterday (in fact, making up about half of the £55 price tag) was When Rabbis Abuse by Elana Maryles Sztokman. To be honest, I’m not sure how relevant it is to my novel. My work in progress was supposed to be about addiction, rather than abuse, but somehow the idea of abuse got into it, and has grown and grown, and now I’m not sure where to take it, if anywhere. I hope the book might help me decide what to do. But I do vaguely wonder if I know what I’m doing, and why.

[1] I have issues about the whole concept of appropriation, which would potentially limit authors to autobiography if taken to its logical solution, but this isn’t the time to go into them. Suffice to say here that I’m worried of using someone else’s pain to sell my books.

Turning Points

The last few days have been fairly busy. I surprised myself by not being very anxious on Shabbat (the Sabbath) even knowing I had the meeting with Rabbi L on Sunday. I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), though. I felt slightly ill (headache, light-headed) on Friday night and while it passed fairly quickly, by that stage I had missed a lot of the service. I had insomnia on Friday night and, when I woke up at 8am on Saturday morning, I went back to sleep instead of forcing myself to get up as I did on the first day of Shavuot. Minchah (Afternoon Service) is at an awkward time at the moment, either 6pm for the early service or 9pm for the late service, so I missed that too. I want to try to make more of an effort to get to shul next week. I did some Torah study, went for a walk and read a lot of Harry Potter. I felt vaguely under the weather on Saturday evening and my parents made me take a COVID test ahead of their brief holiday in Tunbridge Wells this week, but it was negative.

On Sunday I did some novel-writing, although not so much and with poor concentration, perhaps partly from anxiety about E and my Zoom meeting with Rabbi L about getting married. That meeting went very well, and I’m now a lot happier about feeling we don’t have any insurmountable halakhic (Jewish law) obstacles to our getting married, and am reasonably confident of getting married in early 2023. The Zoom call ended abruptly when the forty minutes free call finished. Rabbi L phoned me for a few minutes to finish the call and seemed genuinely pleased that I’m getting married and approving of E, more than he would be for someone he didn’t know. I guess he knows some of my story (I used to bombard him with some of my religious OCD (kashrut) questions when my OCD was bad), so he can see how far I’ve come.

Strangely, immediately after the call, I drifted into depression and OCD anxiety. There was also some anxiety (not OCD) when I woke up this morning, but it drifted away after breakfast. I’m not sure why my mood went down when things were going well. Some of it was probably the tension release. Some of it is probably that E and I have a lot to do in the next eight or nine months, starting this week. And some of it is probably the expected response to a looming major life-change. I also have some “I don’t deserve to be so happy” thoughts. I wonder why I get to get married when so many people I know are single, divorced, widowed, or in struggling marriages. I have to remind myself that I had decades of loneliness, singledom and rejection to get to this point.

I had a lot of racing thoughts last night. After a while, they weren’t anxious or depressed thoughts, but they would not stop and I struggled to sleep. I got about four hours in the end before I had to get up for work.

Work today was boring, but when I got home I had some energy so worked on my novel for forty-five minutes and wrote about 500 words before I started to feel burnt out and went downstairs to make dinner. I feel pretty exhausted now, but not sleepy. I’ll probably watch something light on TV to unwind; I don’t really feel up to reading, not even Harry Potter, but I need some proper relaxation time or I won’t sleep and I’ll be burnt out tomorrow.

***

I feel like I’ve had some paradigm shifts in how I view aspects of the world in the last few days:

  1. I find it easier to believe that God supports me and that good things have happened to me and been achieved by me. I don’t focus so much on the bad things that have happened to me or see enduring mental illness as my only real achievement. (That said, I wish I could have seen this article about enduring depression and anxiety being spiritual success and holy work when I was at my worst. Like the author’s husband, I’ve also put on tefillin moments before sunset. I never really thought of it as anything holy.)
  2. I’m trying to move from thinking, I don’t fit in whenever I’m in a group, I have so many differences to most of the people, because I’m not normal to I can connect with many people even if I don’t have a lot in common with them.
  3. In the past I’ve felt I owed people from my personal history an explanation: “I’m like this [weird, different] because I’m depressed/autistic, and I’m sorry if I hurt you as a result.” It’s actually been a major motivator for me to write, fiction, articles and blogging. But today I wonder if I do owe anyone an explanation. There are people I have hurt, undoubtedly, and it would be nice if I could explain that, but I didn’t deliberately hurt anyone. I had a major neurodevelopmental disorder that I didn’t know about, which resulted in my spending nearly forty years trying to push a very square peg in a succession of round holes. I even wonder a bit what I would hope to gain from explaining myself to people.

***

Lately I’ve been listening to a big Glam Rock compilation CD I bought. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, although you could probably have a long and pointless argument over genre demarcations and how much of it is really Glam (Glam vs. Bubblegum Pop vs. early Disco etc.).

I’ve never really worked out why I like Glam Rock. Words I associate with Glam are: loud, theatrical (even camp), quirky, gender-bending, attention-grabbing. I am not any of those things, except maybe quirky. I am not David Bowie with lightning on his face or Noddy Holder in a glittery tailcoat and mirrored top hat. Maybe that’s the appeal, that it’s really not me, in the way I like the James Bond novels because they’re really not me. Or maybe I just find the upbeat nature of the music fits with the way I use music, to cheer myself up and motivate. Certainly it’s often not particularly clever music in the way other music I like is (The Beatles, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Sting), except for Bowie again (who isn’t on the CD). Unless you can find deep meaning in Cum on Feel the Noize or Tiger Feet.

I think someone (JYP?) should write a Perfect Day parody: Pluperfect Day: “It was such a pluperfect day/I was glad I had spent it with you…”

***

On the way home today I saw someone wearing a Visit Rwanda shirt and couldn’t tell if it was dark satire or if they had actually been to Rwanda (for non-UK readers, the British government is going to be deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, beginning tomorrow, to widespread dismay and bewilderment).

Good, but Anxious

The three day Yom Tov (Shabbat/Sabbath plus two day festival Shavuot) was good, but also difficult. I had a lot of anxiety and missed being in contact with E a lot. I did manage to get to shul (synagogue) quite a bit, including for Shacharit (morning prayers) on Sunday morning. I woke up at 7.00am to go to the loo, and, even though I’d only had six hours sleep, I decided to try to stay up and awake until shul rather than going back to sleep as I normally would do. Over the three days, I did some Torah study, some recreational reading, went for one walk and slept too much.

I missed the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee street party in our road because I slept through it. Now I’ve missed the Gold, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees and the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. For someone who is religiously conservative, which you would think would lead into a respect for tradition and ritual, I’m not good at paying attention to civic celebrations. I think unless tradition or ritual speaks to me in a personal way, I like it to happen, but not to directly get involved, particularly if it involves other people.

On the plus side, my parents’ rabbi, who I will refer to as Rabbi L, came up to me after shul on Friday and said his email was not working, but he thought I sent him an email saying I was engaged, but he couldn’t read the rest of it. So I explained a bit about E and I and the immigration situation and that we would like him to marry us. I was a bit more definitive than I meant to be about that, as really I think we should just meet with him first before we finalise things. He was delighted that I got engaged and also that I asked him to marry us and we spoke about setting up a meeting to move things on.

There was some positive news after the festival too, when I looked at my phone and found a text from my GP who confirmed that he has referred me back to my psychiatrist to talk about reducing medication and also that he referred me for a sleep study.

That was all positive, but I think the conversation with Rabbi L triggered some strong anxiety about getting married which lasted over the three days. I ended up talking about my engagement to several people at shul over the three days, and with every person I tell, I feel like God is just setting me up to be hugely embarrassed if this doesn’t work out for some reason (which at this stage would be some unforeseen problem of Jewish or civil law). I worry that God is pushing me to an extreme test of faith, to see if I could still love Him without E. Yesterday I had to stop reading On Repentance (by Rabbi Pinchas Peli, based on lectures by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) because something written in it was just reinforcing this feeling that God was going to test me by taking away what I want the most. Alternatively, I worry that God is going to punish me for not being shomer negiah (not touching before marriage), even though realistically I could say that the salient fact is not that E and I touch, but that we’re not having sex, which is a much bigger thing (not having sex outside marriage is a biblical law, which “outranks” the rabbinic law against physical contact, which is primarily intended to protect against having sex). I suppose I have a lot of guilt about sex in general.

I also had some religious OCD, which I’ve been struggling with recently, since I started reading The Odyssey, but which seemed worse over Yom Tov. It seems whenever I read anything about other religions, particularly pagan ones, I set myself up for a lot of intrusive thoughts while davening (praying). It’s the classic “If you try not to think about a pink elephant (or pagan god), you immediately think of it.” The more I try not to think about paganism while davening, the more I think about it. I know stressing about this just makes it worse, so I try not to worry, but it’s hard. I think I should just steer clear of this sort of thing, either fiction or non-fiction, which is a shame, as I do have quite a bit of curiosity to learn more about ancient society and the wider context of the biblical/Talmudic eras. Strangely, it’s only reading things that’s an issue. I can spend hours looking at idols from different cultures in the British Museum without triggering anything. I’m hoping the OCD feelings will go away when I finish reading, but I don’t plan to try reading The Iliad soon, or reading this book which I really want to read, but I just think it’s not worth it[1].

I actually have enjoyed The Odyssey (I’ve got about twenty pages left) and I’ve learnt some things about ancient Greek society, some things that supported the stereotypes about paganism that are common in the frum (Jewish religious) world and some that undermine them. I could write more, but I don’t really have time.

As I said, I missed E a lot, and that feeling grew over the three days, either because of the length of time or because as my anxiety grew worse I just wanted to be with her. I suppose that probably reinforced the anxiety that something will stop us being together. I guess I don’t believe that I can be happy, and I certainly don’t believe I can do “adult” things like getting married, having sex or raising children. Especially having sex. I can imagine myself raising children more easily than I can imagine myself having sex even though the former generally involves the latter. It feels like one of those things that only happen to other people, like intense religious experiences. I suppose there were three or four points in my life before E when I could have had sex if I had not been frum, although to be honest to be sure if I was really being offered sex in any of the situations would require a greater ability to read other people and the nuances of social contact than my autistic brain really allows, so even if I hadn’t been frum I would probably have erred on the cautious side and not got involved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all of this, I did not sleep last night. I went to bed late as Yom Tov (festival) didn’t finish until 10.30pm; then I davened Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), emailed E about Rabbi L, got ready for work today and showered. I didn’t get much time for passive downtime, which sounds silly after three days of not working, but those days involved a lot of peopling (even meals with Mum and Dad rather than alone in front of a book or DVD) or mentally-draining activities like prayer, religious study or reading The Odyssey, which is interesting, but not light. I eventually got up to drink hot chocolate and watch The Simpsons, which helped me to unwind a bit.

Work today was OK, not really notable one way or the other. I decided not to go to Zoom shiur (religious class) tonight as I’m tired and wanted to Skype E. I will listen to the recording tomorrow. Otherwise, I’m tired. Speaking to E was good, but I should really be thinking about bed.

[1] I actually heard Amy-Jill Levene speak a while back at the LSJS (on Zoom, as it was during the pandemic), on the Jewish roots of the nativity story.

Just Checking In

The busiest day of the year was… busy. I got to shul (synagogue) in time in the morning for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) and the siyum (feast (although in this case mostly Pesachdik cake and crisps) on finishing a unit of Torah study) that allowed me to avoid having to fast today as a firstborn. This was the first time I’ve done communal eating in two years. It felt a little odd.

I managed to do my usual pre-Pesach chores OK, despite spilling Weetabix crumbs on the covered-for-Pesach worktop. I felt a bit on edge/alert all day for Pesach issues, but mostly kept my anxiety under control, only text my rabbi mentor to ask questions twice, only one of which was really justified (I knew I handled the spilt Weetabix correctly, but everyone else thinking it was a huge problem fed my anxiety made me second-guess myself). But it was pretty good. Overall, so I’ve asked my rabbi mentor a lot fewer questions than usual in the run-up to Pesach, and my general anxiety level has been much lower than usual.

I went for a lie-down around midday, as I’d had only six hours of sleep the night before, and only five the night before that. When I got up after half an hour or so, I had the beginnings of a headache, combined with light-headedness and nausea, that has come and gone all afternoon, notwithstanding medication. I’m probably going to skip shul tonight as a result and just try to be in a good mindset for the seder. I’m going to lie down and relax for a bit now beforehand. I am looking forward to having seder with E! It’s a shame my sister and brother-in-law couldn’t be here though.

Less Anxious

I went to bed earlyish (for me), but woke at 4.20am. It took me a while to work out that it was actually still night and I didn’t have to get up for work. Then I realised that I had a headache. I got up and took some tablets, tried to go back to bed, realised lying down was making the headache worse and got up to read. I had some Pesach OCD thoughts and inadvertently woke Mum up, which turned out to be good (she said), because she realised that the soup she had left cooking overnight in the slow cooker was evaporating. When the headache had gone an hour later, I tried to go to sleep, but it was almost time to get up.

Work was dull. There isn’t a lot more to say about it than that. The task I’m doing is tedious and I’m not sure how necessary. It would be OK if I was doing an hour or so on that as well as other tasks, but there wasn’t a lot else to do today.

Despite the slight OCD thoughts, my Pesach OCD/anxiety was mostly under control until I got home. To be fair, it wasn’t hugely out of control. I really needed some time to relax, and I did stop to snack for a bit, but I couldn’t really unwind as I was too conscious of everything I need to do this evening. Tonight heralds the start of what I think of as the busiest twenty-four hours of the Jewish year, starting with my least-favourite Pesach task, kashering the kitchen sink.

In the end, the kashering actually went OK. Kashering involves cleaning the sink, leaving it for twenty-four hours, then pouring boiling water over it, then cold water. The pouring has to be within a few seconds of the kettle boiling, and the sink has to get covered from an area within a radius of an inch or to of where the spout of water hits the metal. In the past, this was a huge trigger of OCD anxiety. I don’t have the time to look for past posts; trust me, it was awful. But I did it well this year, quite quickly, with relatively little spillage over countertops and floor, fairly confident that I was doing OK in terms of getting enough of the sink and within the time limits. I did worry a bit when I had finished if I had missed one side of the sink, but I decided not to give in to OCD anxiety by redoing, especially as Dad was pretty sure I’d done it and my rabbi mentor says that technically, you only need to hit 51% of the sink for it to be kashered. I’m not sure how much I was doing it better and how much was that, with less anxiety around, I was not seeing non-existent problems. Using only 1 litre of water in the kettle each time is definitely better than a full kettle (it can take 2 litres): it boils faster and is easier to manipulate.

In terms of relaxing, the novel I’m reading, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, while interesting, is uninvolving. A history of the human race over two billion years, it doesn’t really have a plot or characters, as I think I’ve mentioned before. It’s interesting, and I want to finish it, but once I’ve put it down, it’s hard to get in the mindset to pick it up again. I may read something more engaging alongside it.

On the plus side, my iPod has apparently survived its ordeal in the washing machine with nothing more than a slightly damaged screen, so things are definitely looking positive overall as we enter the final, and most hectic, stretch of Pesach preparations.

OCD-Fighting Day

Perhaps due to tiredness and/or stress, I took the wrong medication last night. I took my morning dose instead of my evening one (I had them ready in my medicine box, I just went to the wrong hole): clomipramine by itself, rather than clomipramine with olanzapine and lithium. When I realised the mistake this morning I took last nights’ tablets. I haven’t had any serious side-effects, but I have been tired today which may be from taking evening tablets in the morning.

E is here! She arrived this morning. We (Dad and me) collected her from the airport. We haven’t seen so much of each other, as she had a nap when she got here and then we were busy, her with work, me with Pesach (Passover) stuff. We did go for a walk in the park, until it started to rain. I hadn’t been to that park in ages. It looked pretty bleak, to be honest. Some of the trees around here are blooming (our magnolia has been flowering for ages and our pear tree is blooming), but the park still seemed pretty dead and wintry. There were some saplings that were at weird angles. I hope it was from the storm we had recently and not vandalism.

We did get to spend some other time together, mostly little breaks together with each other during the afternoon where we stopped what we were doing for a while. It’s going to be a slightly odd holiday, as E is here for three weeks, longer than we’ve ever spent together before, but we will both have to work as normal (she can work remotely), so won’t be going on so many days out, although we hope to have some. Still, we can spend time together over Pesach and in the evenings. I hope to introduce her to some of my friends.

I had a pretty good day re: OCD. I had some relationship OCD-type thoughts that I managed to push aside, silly things like “Oh, she hasn’t smiled at me for five minutes, maybe she doesn’t love me any more!!!!!!” I also kashered the hob, preparing it for Pesach by heating it (by boiling water on all the burners at once) and covering it with foil. I had some questions about whether I was doing the right thing during this that would normally have prompted “checking” texts to my rabbi mentor, but I just sat with the uncertainty this time and told myself that I thought that I had resolved things correctly and if not, it was a genuine mistake and not like deliberately eating (forbidden) leavened bread on Pesach. That sounds an obvious distinction, but when my religious OCD was at its worst, I really did think that having a slight doubt about whether something was done correctly was equivalent to deliberately not doing it correctly. So, a pretty good day overall.

Zzzzzzzzzz, OCD, and the Countdown to Pesach

I massively overslept again on Friday morning and woke up drained. I’m back to wondering counter-factuals like whether writing late at night after work costs too much the next day. I had some weird dreams that I’m not going to relate here, but shul (synagogue) stress and missing E figured. Also Purim anxiety — my unconscious tends to feed stuff into my dreams a couple of weeks after things have happened, for some reason.

I did my usual Shabbat chores and managed to carve out forty or fifty minutes to work on my novel, which was good, especially as it’s likely to be interrupted now for a few weeks because of Pesach (preparations then the festival) and E being here. In the evening, I went to my parents’ shul (synagogue) with Dad. Their usual chazzan (cantor) was leading the service. I’d forgotten just how much his style of davening (praying) does not fit with my tastes. Very loud and elongated, like opera; even the bits we’re supposed to read silently, he reads loud enough to be heard (and I was sitting near the back), which annoyed me immensely. But I guess we’re back to looking for perfect “unicorn shuls” again.

Dinner with my parents was pretty long, although mostly fun. I did some Torah study afterwards, but it meant I went to bed very late, without much time for recreational reading to relax after a busy day. Then I slept through the morning and napped again after lunch.

I think some of the oversleeping, or going back to bed, is an autistic sensory thing about feeling cozy and ‘held’ wrapped up in my duvet and now my weighted blanket. I’ve always slept wrapped up tight in my duvet, but when I became depressed in my teens and twenties, staying in bed became a way to avoid the world as well as feeling comfortable and held close (by the duvet/blanket). I do wonder if I can use this information somehow – get up and sit wrapped in my weighted blanket?

(It also occurs to me that E and I may need two duvets when we get married to stop me hogging it!)

When I napped this afternoon, I had a dream about my maternal grandparents that I found upsetting, although I’m not entirely sure why. To be honest, I can’t really remember it clearly any more, but I lay in bed for a while coming to terms with my feelings. Then it was time for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Seudah Shlishit (the Third Sabbath Meal) so I didn’t have time for Torah study or recreational reading. It feels like I spent most of the day eating and sleeping with some davening and not a lot else. I would have liked to have gone for a walk as I haven’t had even mild exercise since Thursday.

Today was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) of the month of Nisan. This is a hard time of year for me. Late winter is very hard, when I struggle from lack of sunlight, so passing the equinox and putting the clocks forward is somewhat helpful, albeit not so much of a difference at this stage. But then we go straight into Pesach preparations. Even if I can avoid religious OCD, it’s time-consuming and tiring, with little time for non-essential tasks like exercise, recreation or fiction writing. And this year E is coming, which makes me feel even more anxious. My brother-in-law found the way we do Pesach somewhat extreme the first time he came, so I worry what E will think. Still, as my Dad says, Pesach comes and goes. Every year it seems hard, but every year we manage it. We even managed it in 2020, when we were in lockdown and Mum was sick from chemotherapy.

***

I’m reading a book on OCD, not actually for my OCD issues, but there has been some useful stuff in there for me, reminding me that OCD thoughts never go away fully and their return at this time of year doesn’t mean I’m backsliding into OCD. What matters is how you deal with them, not whether you have them. Also, some useful stuff about grieving even during positive life events for “The Road Not Taken“. E and I are both very happy with each other, but I guess there’s stuff about us both that isn’t 100% what we would have chosen in an ideal world (which doesn’t exist!) that we need to grieve a bit. It reminds me of something in William Kolbrener’s Open-Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love where he talks about Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s idea that moods are simple and unipolar whereas emotions are complex and multidimensional. Judaism wants us to have emotions, not moods, hence our festivals contain sombre moments amidst the joy.

“Marry the freak”

I was looking today at websites for couples therapy for couples where one is autistic and one neurotypical. Some were fine, speaking about difficulties both partners might experience. Others were — I hesitate to throw around words like ‘ableist,’ and maybe this is partly my paranoia, but some definitely felt like, “Well, you could be in a relationship with an autistic person [or man, as female autism hasn’t really registered on most of these sites], but you should know that they won’t love you, care for you, or understand you and you’ll spend your entire life bending yourself out of shape to fit in with their crazy whims. And they probably won’t even want to have sex with you, at least not as often as you want or in the way you want. But, here are some resources if you do still want to marry the freak.” Obviously they didn’t literally say that, but it seemed to be the subtext.

E and I struggle with some things (particularly finances), but we’re both pretty good and communicating our needs and trying to meet each other’s needs (the couples therapy is to help with one very specific topic that we think we might need some objective support with). I know living together will be harder in some ways than living separately, but I’m not really worried about that. Of course, we’re wondering if E is on the spectrum too, which might make a difference.

***

I don’t think it was because of those therapy sites (although they didn’t help), but I’ve felt somewhat down all day. I’m still wondering if I should up my olanzapine dosage towards what it was previously. I was on 2.5mg twice a day; I’m now on 2.5mg every other evening, so one quarter of what I was on before. I should probably try to monitor that more rigorously and think about increasing to 2.5mg every day if necessary.

I realise that the last year and a bit have seen a number good things for me. I got my autism diagnosis, my family accepted my diagnosis and support me, I got engaged to E, my part-time job was made permanent. Still, I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of all the things I still want/need to do, in both the short and long term.

In the short-term, Pesach (Passover) is getting really close now and the tension is beginning to rise (I had a few Pesach OCD thoughts which I managed to keep under control so far). In the longer-term (in no particular order) I want to: organise a wedding; deal with my exhaustion/burnout/oversleeping/whatever it is so I can do more during the day; try to find a way to work more days in the week and earn more money; learn to drive; investigate whether E is neurodivergent; find a place in the Jewish community for E and me; and find the right balance of work/writing/religion/family/relaxation for me. And more.

There’s a lot of fear of the “will I ever get the life I want: wife, kids, some financial independence, friends, life balance?” Reading on the autism forum can be dispiriting, because, on the one hand, there are people who seem to have got their lives completely together, and I can’t seem to do that, but on the other hand there are parents with young children who are school-refusing or otherwise having extreme difficulty, and part of me thinks: “I could manage school. I was mostly fine at school (bar some bullying and loneliness), even though many people on the spectrum think that school is just Hell for autistics. I coped. So why can’t I cope now, when, in theory, I have more self-awareness and more control over my life?”

***

I did manage to submit my novel manuscript to two agencies and spent half an hour writing my next novel, so from a writing point of view it was quite good. I’m trying to use fewer Hebrew and Yiddish terms in my second novel than in my first one, as I worry that that has put agents off, but without them, dialogue for frum (religious Jewish) characters sounds ridiculously stilted and unrealistic. Imagine writing a teenage character, but not allowing yourself to use any contemporary slang in case people don’t understand; it’s a similar thing. It just sounds wrong.

I came across a literary agent today who is also a practising lawyer. Last week, I found an agent who is also a dentist (not sure if she’s practising though). Sometimes it feels like other people are living several lives, while I don’t even have one.

I used to feel that “good sense of humour” is a stupid thing to put on a dating profile, as it’s completely subjective and no one in the world thinks that they have a bad sense of humour, even if others disagree. I think “strong storytelling” is the literary agency equivalent. So many agents say they are looking for “strong storytelling.” Are there are lots of fiction writers thinking, “Well, I can’t tell a story at all, but I have beautiful prose”? Perhaps some, but many? I find it a profoundly unhelpful thing to ask for.

***

Other than that, I went for a walk and did some shopping, but didn’t accomplish much else other than some emails. I wanted to do more, but by the evening, I was drained and very low, bordering on depressed (by which I mean, if I felt like this consistently for two weeks, it would be diagnosed as depression). I thought of posting some of these thoughts on the autism forum to see what response it would get, but I’m scared to admit these complicated feelings about autistic people struggling more or less than I am. I’m also wary of talking about my religious practices and community there, because I don’t know what response I would get (I haven’t seen anyone else talk on there about religion, any religion). I’ve already asked about autistic burnout/exhaustion and no one really seems to have any solutions.

Less Anxious

I woke up late, but rather less anxious than the last few days, albeit somewhat anxious still. I guess this is unsurprising as I have a stressful week ahead of me. I’m glad to feel somewhat calmer than the last few days. I thought this was a good time to think about reducing medication and hopefully getting a grip on my sleep pattern before E and I get married, as that seemed to be some way off, but then the job interview came up, and the medication washout period stretched into Purim, and then Pesach came on the horizon, and suddenly everything seemed too much and I was catastrophising about the interview, E and me, and everything else, without any real reason.

I’m going to try to stick to 2.5mg of olanzapine every other day for now, but I’ll increase back to 2.5mg every day if I’m still anxious. I can even go back to what I was on before this started, 2.5mg twice a day, if I need to. I might try to speak to a GP tomorrow, but I’m sceptical (a) of my ability to get an appointment and (b) of their ability to help much with this. Once E and I are married and settled maybe I’ll try to find a private psychiatrist to do a proper medication review and see about possible reduction. I doubt I would be allowed to see one on the NHS at the moment.

***

I did some preparation for my interview on Wednesday. I feel OK with handling the day-to-day running of the collection; I basically did that in the past short-term when I was working at that library, when the then Head Librarian was on holiday or at conferences. The difficulty I feel is the administrative/bureaucratic, personnel management, fundraising and promotion aspects of the job, going to committee meetings, helping with the running of the wider institution and so on, which I have little or no experience of, and for which, the job description implies, I would have very little supervision and support, but for which I would be expected to do a lot. If I could handle it, it would be amazing for my career, but I worry I couldn’t handle it even without worries about my mental health and energy levels and how autism-friendly the environment would be.

E and I have reflected in the past that the skills needed to get a job are not necessarily those needed to be good at the job, and that’s doubly true on the spectrum. I feel like the skills needed for interviews are really not those that people on the autism spectrum tend to have. Interviews need an ability to predict what other people think, good and fast verbal processing, strong autobiographical memory and an ability to think on your feet. I have none of these skills. They are really not common for those of us on the spectrum. I can barely remember half the stuff it says I’ve done on my CV and answers to common interview questions.

For example, I’ve been told to use the acronym STAR when answering interview questions: mention Situation, Task, Achievement and Result when describing what you did. I find it hard to remember this under pressure, if I can even think of an instance that meets the interviewer’s question, a result of poor autobiographical memory and rigidity in interpreting questions.

Despite this, I did some interview preparation, although I struggled to concentrate and kept getting distracted, which was a sign of nerves. After that I went for a walk, which I haven’t done much recently. I tried to answer Ashley’s question about three things to tell someone just diagnosed with your condition. Maybe I’m still too close to my own diagnosis after a year, but I can’t think of anything useful. I know many autistics would say I should say that autism is a difference, not a disability, but it really doesn’t feel that way on days like today. I have above-average intelligence and good paper qualifications, but I’ve struggled the whole time with the world of work. Unless you’re good at numbers or computers, the outlook is not great. Likewise, I have not been good at romantic relationships, and, judging by the autism forum, I am not alone in this. Then there’s the fact that people on the spectrum are prone to many co-morbid issues like anxiety, OCD and depression.

***

On the plus side, I had a talk with my rabbi mentor, addressing some issues relating to Pesach (Passover). Since my Pesach OCD started, we’ve had a rule that I can only ask Pesach questions in the four weeks between Purim and Pesach. I usually have a long list of questions. I did have a few questions, but mostly I was thinking that they were OK and I just wanted to check my reasoning. It’s good that I feel more able to sit with these questions and to say that I think I’m right and they aren’t problematic. Ideally I wouldn’t need to double-check with my rabbi mentor, but it is helpful to see that I can reason these things through properly.

This year is a bit scarier than most because E will be here and I worry what she will think of the way we/I do things. I know my brother-in-law (also from a less frum background) was a bit overwhelmed when he first came to us for Pesach, and when he saw what my sister did in their home. I hope things are OK. I’m hopeful E will enjoy our sederim (ritual discussion of the exodus/meal, although the food is quite late in the day!). We run sederim that people of different religious backgrounds and knowledge levels seem to enjoy and get something out of. I admit I do quite a lot of the religious preparation for that, in terms of trying to find interesting ideas to go beyond the text of the hagaddah (seder prayer book).

I’m Going Slightly Mad

The short version: I’m really struggling and am putting myself back on olanzapine.

The long version: I went to shul (synagogue) last night. I wasn’t sure whether I felt up to it. It was probably a mistake, as I felt overwhelmed by the noise and banging. The rabbi “eulogised” (in inverted commas, as one is not supposed to eulogise on Shabbat, but that’s essentially what it was) Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Yeshivish Haredi world (part of the ultra-Orthodox world), who died on Friday. It did underline to me that I never really fitted into the world where constant Torah study is seen as the ideal, nor do I feel I could ever have fitted. When I came home, I wished I hadn’t gone, but if I had gone, I doubtless would have felt I could have gone and been OK. These counter-factuals build up when I consider the week ahead.

I felt very anxious after dinner, and lay in bed for half an hour. I did some Torah study, but not a huge amount. I tried to be gentle with myself, particularly regarding autistic sensory things that I usually try to struggle through regardless e.g. Mum made chicken for dinner. Normally I would eat it, even though I dislike the taste, smell, texture, everything. However, when Mum offered me something else, I took it. After dinner I started reading a P. G. Wodehouse book, which is amusing enough, although I didn’t read much of it. It cheered me up a little.

I slept badly. I slept for a long time, but I woke up several times in the night, too anxious to get up. Today I was even more anxious. I slept for two hours after lunch. I went to bed and wrapped myself in my duvet and weighted blanket. I knew I would probably fall asleep, but I just needed it to self-soothe. I won’t sleep easily tonight as a result. I tried to do some Torah study, but felt too anxious.

The anxiety is multi-pronged. Some is OCD-type anxiety about Pesach, about which I now feel I have to completely control or E will be upset and think she can’t cope with me. Some is anxiety about my job interview this week, anxiety that I will make a fool of myself again, but also anxiety that I will get the job and make the wrong decision about whether to take it. I don’t know what the right decision would be, to choose a better, and more career-orientated job, but one which will leave me unemployed in a year, potentially with a mortgage, assuming I don’t burn out working four days a week, and knowing I won’t be able to write; or do I stay in my lower-paying, but steady and manageable job where I have an understanding boss and I could have time to write (at least if I didn’t feel so exhausted and overwhelmed all the time)? E and my parents say to wait and see what happens, which is probably correct, but it’s hard when I feel so anxious. Those counter-factuals build up again.

I’m anxious about E too. That we’ll never manage to get married. That maybe I’ll scare her off when she comes for Pesach.

There are two reasons why I dated her despite our religious differences, a negative and a positive reason. The negative reason was that most of the frum (religious) women I dated didn’t view me as acceptable (I didn’t go to yeshiva, I was “too worldly,” I was too depressed, I had nothing in common with them, there was no chemistry). Sometimes I dated people who were religious, but still differences would become apparent. There isn’t a thriving frum Modern Orthodox community in the UK, and I was not integrated enough into the Haredi one to get set up on dates, the only way to meet the opposite sex in that community. I don’t think many people outside the Haredi community in the UK take Judaism as seriously as I do, even the relatively frum ones.

The two women I did date seriously had religious differences with me, but the big reasons it didn’t work out with them had little to do with religion. The reasons were that the former did not respect my boundaries about what physical touch I was comfortable with (she was also losing her religion — just being on a certain level doesn’t mean you’ll stay there — but that wasn’t why we broke up) and the other lied to me about her family history and only told me the truth to make a point. The lack of success dating people on my religious level suggested that I would struggle to find anyone who is both on my religious level and compatible.

The positive reason, which is much more important, is that E understands me me more than anyone else I know and she cares about me more than anyone except my parents. And I understand and care about her, and I think I know how to care about her the way she wants, which is not insignificant as I don’t think I would know how to care for many people. We connect so well. I trust her completely not to trample on my boundaries and not to lie to me. I feel safe with her in a way that I don’t with anyone else. She says I talk to her differently to how I talk to other people, even my parents, that I’m much more open and “myself” with her. I just love her and want to be with her and I’m not coping well with the uncertainty of not knowing when that might be. I still feel overwhelmed about everything happening in my life right now and probably couldn’t cope if more was happening, but I just want to feel like there’s an end point in view.

I guess what I really want more than anything else right now is (a) to marry E and (b) to find a way to spend some serious time writing and trying to get published, to at least have a real go at achieving that. It seems hard sometimes to see what the right way to do those things is, particularly as the writing dream seems like a silly fantasy that I’ll never achieve and shouldn’t waste my life on. (E supports my writing, which again is not something to take for granted.)

The Babylon 5 episode Za’Ha’Dum ended the third season of the programme with the following voice-over, which sums up how I feel right now:

It was the end of the Earth year 2260, and the war had paused, suddenly and unexpectedly. All around us, it was as if the universe were holding its breath, waiting.  All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation. This had the feeling of both.

G’Quan wrote: ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

***

I felt a little better this evening, especially after eating and taking olanzapine, although I’m sure it’s far too early to have any real effect. I spent half an hour working on my novel plan, wearing ear plugs that failed to appreciably blot out the incredibly loud music coming from some — unpleasant person down the road. I think it might be a party. Despite the noise, I think I have the plan more or less where I want it and I’m ready to start writing properly, albeit alongside some further research and with the knowledge that my story will doubtless evolve as I write it.

Purim and Accepting My Feelings

I had insomnia again last night. Then I woke up at 8am and couldn’t get back to sleep (I didn’t have to get up until 9am). I feel like I’m in one of those Twilight Zone episodes where people get what they wish for and it all goes horribly wrong. “You want to sleep less? How would you like it if you couldn’t sleep at all?” Can’t I sleep a normal amount, seven or eight hours a night? No more, no less?

I lay in bed for an hour this morning feeling anxious about my interview next week. I’m not sure if I’m more anxious about making a fool of myself; being offered the job and not knowing if I should take it; or taking it and being out of my depth. Can I work four days a week? Should I take a one year job, knowing I’ll be unemployed and probably with a mortgage at the end of it? It’s hard and I don’t really know how to solve these problems. My gut says I should stick with my current job, which will still be there in a year, but I worry my gut is just scared of pressure and change. My parents and E say to just get through the interview before I worry about whether I should accept the job, which is probably true.

I went to a daytime Megillah (Book of Esther) reading at my parents’ shul (synagogue) again. It was a late morning one and, as I expected, somewhat quieter than yesterday’s reading. I was annoyed by someone sometimes (but not always) singing along with the reader, not exactly under his breath. He wasn’t even close to me! (Other than my Dad, there was no one really close to me.) I think even allistic (non-autistic) people would find that annoying; to me it was really distracting.

I think I heard everything, even when I stumbled over one of the bits we do read aloud (the ten sons of Haman, who all have long, difficult Persian names) and the rabbi re-started leining (reading) aloud before I had quite finished. This was the rabbi who waved at me yesterday. I actually asked him afterwards if what I did was OK which may not be good from an OCD perspective, as I shouldn’t check stuff, but I realised I feel more comfortable asking him questions than my own shul rabbi, which I guess is good if I’m thinking of asking him to marry me and E. I think she’ll like him, but it’s hard to know. I might try to introduce her to him when she comes here for Pesach (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned before that she’s coming for Pesach).

I nearly cried twice today, once when the Jews were saved in the Megillah (why? It’s not like this was news to me) and once over my lunch/Purim seudah (feast), which was me eating beans on toast by myself. I guess it upsets me that I almost always eat Purim seudah on my own, as my parents usually work and I don’t have enough frum (religious) friends to get invited out much. I’m not sure why this upsets me so much, as I’ve eaten alone before on Shabbat (Sabbath) or even sometimes on Yom Tov (festival) when my parents have been invited to eat at their friends. Perhaps there’s something about Purim that means I want to celebrate it more gregariously. Hopefully I won’t be alone next year.

After that, I helped my Dad deliver mishloach manot (presents of food) to his friends. By the time we’d done that, I was pretty exhausted from the day. We live in a frum area, so outside all day had been kids in fancy dress (cute), cars blaring loud music (annoying) and, by 4pm, a couple of very drunk adult men. I was peopled out just being around so many people all day, even though I hadn’t had many actual interactions. The article someone posted here the other day about Purim on the spectrum was right; just the carnival wrongness of the day is draining if you’re on the spectrum, the not being sure of what will happen next or even who people are under the make up and fancy dress. Even though I’d eaten seudah already, I decided to have some Purim bread with my parents at their seudah, wearing my jester’s hat, which I hadn’t worn earlier as the cleaner was here.

I think some of the problem for me on Purim, and every Yom Tov really is the feeling that I need to internalise the message of the Yom Tov in a very tangible way and experience noticeable spiritual growth, not just doing the relevant mitzvot (commandments) and enjoying the day. I wonder how many Jews actually do this? Aside from super-tzadikim (saintly people)? I had a bit of a discussion along these lines with my rabbi mentor after last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement). I got the impression that he didn’t think that many people do achieve this. I don’t know how many even care about achieving this.

Sometimes it feels that contemporary Judaism is full of messages that I’m supposed to take with a pinch of salt (like very Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities where iphones are banned, but everyone has them, but won’t admit to it), but I struggle to do that, perhaps because of autistic literalness. I guess it’s harder than most festivals on Purim because the theme of the day is so out of my comfort zone. The same applies to Simchat Torah, but I’ve largely stopped going to shul for that, whereas on Purim I still want to hear the Megillah, which means engaging more than praying/studying at home.

So did I have a good Purim overall? It wasn’t how I expected. I had intended to spend time watching TV to chill out, which I didn’t really do, as I helped Dad with his mishloach manot and then ate a second seudah with my parents for the company. But I did enjoy that time with my parents, and I did do all the mitzvot, which matters to me a lot, and I did get something from the Megillah readings. In a weird way, I think I even enjoyed dropping off the mishloach manot, at least to my parents’ friends who I know reasonably well. So I guess it was good even if it didn’t exactly feel good. I just wish I could feel and accept my positive feelings more, but then I guess I need to learn to understand and accept all my feelings better (alexithymia). It’s hard to know where to start with something like that, although my therapist might have some ideas. I think I’ve got a bit better at it over the years, but there’s still a long way to go.

Sick Day, and Purim Evening

I slept badly again, insomnia and early waking. I did some internet searching at 6.00am; my symptoms could be olanzapine withdrawal, but they could also be one of 165 (according to Web MD) other things, from hay fever (?!) to multiple sclerosis. Withdrawal seems increasingly likely, though. I felt OK at 6.30am, so decided to get up and try to go to work. Unfortunately, as I had breakfast (today was a Jewish fast day, but I can’t fast minor fasts on lithium tablets), I started feeling like I was burning up and feeling light-headed, so decided to call in sick and go back to bed.

I tried to speak to the doctor. The doctor’s phone line opens at 8.30am and gets jammed immediately. This was the case before COVID and it’s worse now. I phoned at 8.29 and it was still shut; at 8.31 and I was in a long queue. I got through to a receptionist about forty minutes later and all the appointments for today had gone. She gave me the number for the out of hours service, which opens at 6.30pm. Unfortunately, by the time I got back from shul (see below) at 8pm, they were shut again. I’m not sure what the point of an after hours service is, if it’s only open for an hour and a half after hours.

I slept for about five hours and woke up feeling somewhat better. I got into an autistic black and white thinking state thinking that I wouldn’t be able to hear the Megillah (Book of Esther) reading in shul (synagogue). I talked things over with my parents and decided that, if I still felt OK, I would go to their shul (synagogue) for it rather than mine, so I wouldn’t have to walk and so I could have support if I felt ill, albeit mainly the moral support of sitting next to Dad as there’s not much practical that anyone can do during the reading, which is supposed to be uninterrupted (except for the noise when the wicked Haman is mentioned).

Written at 8pm:

I just got back from the Megillah reading. I’m not sure if it was a good idea. I feel bad, physically and emotionally, but I might have felt bad anyway. My parents’ shul was noisier than mine would have been, which was bad for all kinds of reasons (the law of needing to hear every word, my autism, religious OCD, and withdrawal symptoms) but it was significantly faster too, which was good given that I spent the second half of the reading feeling very ill and wanting to leave. Plus, going with my Dad, I did get a lift.

I repeated a few words that I was pretty sure that I didn’t hear, but I didn’t repeat any of the words that I was unsure about, as (a) there were a lot of them and (b) I was worried about fuelling the OCD. I feel like I won’t know until I die and go to Olam HaBa (The Next World) how many times I correctly heard the Megillah in my life, but I guess you could say that about a lot of things.

There’s a saying in the Talmud that “Sometimes the Torah is upheld by breaking it.” It’s open to abuse, but it basically means sometimes you have to break the letter of the law to save the spirit of the law, or to support a more important law. In religious OCD treatment, it can mean not taking any extra precautions or corrections beyond those absolutely mandated by Jewish law (if that), which is what I tried to do.

I also feel that I pushed myself as far as I could given I have autism/Asperger’s, and then a bit further given I’m undergoing bad withdrawal, and I really could not have done more.

There are four mitzvot (commandments) on Purim: to hear every word of the Megillah twice, evening and morning (I’ve never really understood why twice); to give gifts of food or money to the poor; to give gifts of food to friends; and to eat a festive meal on the afternoon of Purim (i.e. tomorrow). To be honest, I’m not sure I do that well at any of them, as my meal is usually alone (or at work) as my parents usually work on Purim and I tend not to get invited out.

Purim is supposed to be a day of serving God with pure joy. Unfortunately, different people have different definitions of joy. I would rather watch Doctor Who with E. But we have a halakhic definition, about celebrating in a particular way, just like we have a halakhic definition for telling the story of the exodus from Egypt on Pesach or mourning on Tisha B’Av.

Other things: my parents’ rabbi waved at me in the shul, which is good, as he’s high on the list of rabbis who might marry E and me (of all the United Synagogue rabbis I know, I think he’s the one she would connect with best, although it’s hard to tell). And my Mum has been unwell this evening too. She fasted badly on the Fast of Esther and has not recovered now it’s Purim. We do seem to be struggling this year.

***

Lately I’ve had various letters from HMRC (the taxman) and the Jobcentre saying that my benefits have been stopped now I’m working. The worrying thing is that it looks like they were stopped retroactively, so I may have to pay back more than a year of benefits! The letters are typically clear as mud. Why can’t government employees speak good English? My Mum thinks it’s just a typo, but I’m worried I’m going to get some kind of demand soon.

***

I got called for interview for the maternity cover role I applied for at the place where I had my first job. It’s next Wednesday, which is before they were planning on closing applications, so I guess that means they like me. I really don’t feel up to it right now, and I have zero confidence in my ability to do library work currently. I worry they’ve called me early because they think I’m a good candidate and I’m going to disappoint, the way I’ve disappointed so many potential, and actual, employers in the past. I also worry about having the energy to cope with working essentially four days a week. The former point is partly low self-esteem, but the latter is more objective. I feel like this is yet another thing I have to worry about right now.

I just seem to have so much on my To Do list, alongside work, relationship and all my religious and other obligations (e.g. exercise, which I have definitely been neglecting lately) and the novels I want to write, but can’t make the time and energy for. As an example, for years I used to like to keep my email Inbox clean of unread (i.e. unresponded to) mail each evening. Occasionally I would leave something marked unread that I would need to deal with in the next few days. But for weeks now I’ve had multiple unread emails — not literally unread, but not dealt with. Some of it is avoidance, but a lot of it is just not getting around to things. On the advice of my rabbi mentor, I’ve cut back on my religious obligations (which I am not entirely happy about) and I haven’t written a devar Torah (Torah thought) this week or last week, but I still feel like I’m struggling. A lot of it is about exhaustion and not having the energy to do much more than the two days of paid work I’m currently doing plus my household chores.

***

In a vague attempt at drawing all this together, I’m going to turn off my computer in a moment, leaving a lot of unanswered emails, and eat hamantashen (Purim pastry — I’ve already had two slices of Purim challah – sweet Purim bread) and watch Doctor Who, sadly without E, but to try to feel physically and emotionally better so that I can go to a morning Megillah reading. I’ve given up on the idea of going for Shacharit (Morning Prayer) at 7.30am and will go to my parents’ shul again for 11am, where hopefully it will be less rowdy than today (there will be fewer people and the children will be in school — the Jewish schools open on Purim, as it’s not a day when work is forbidden, but have celebrations instead of lessons).

I guess I feel that I would like to be able to celebrate the Jewish festivals better, the way they are supposed to be celebrated, uniting joy and physical celebration with understanding and internalising deep spiritual meaning on an intellectual and especially an emotional level. I guess, given that I have trouble understanding my own emotions, it’s not surprising I struggle with this, even before factoring in the stuff about socialising, noise, OCD and so on.

Exciting News and Energy Accounting

I got up before 10am (just)! I told myself I could have a doughnut if I got up by 10am twenty times in January. I guess the lure of a doughnut at the end of the month (despite my diet) is strong enough to break my usual desire to sleep in. (That’s not the exciting news, by the way.)

***

I booked tickets to New York to see E later this month! (That is the exciting news.) Because of the need to do pre-flight COVID tests; my inability to do said tests on Saturday (because of Shabbat) or Sunday (because the pharmacy I want to use is shut); my unwillingness to spend less than a week with E after travelling over 5,000km to see her; and the need to isolate on coming home until after another COVID test, my trip is going to require my taking two weeks off work, even though I’ll only be out of the country for nine and a bit days. This is rather a lot at our busy time of year. Fortunately, J is OK with it.

I did some research on COVID travel rules and restrictions. I feel more confident about them as they’ve become more familiar, although I still worry about going to get turned away at the airport for doing the wrong tests or having the wrong papers, or that I’ll get COVID and be stranded in New York for an extra fortnight. Getting COVID on the return flight doesn’t bother me so much, I’m less scared of COVID (I’m triple vaxxed) than I am of disruption to my plans and all that would entail, although it would be annoying to miss work just as my new contract starts.

***

I spoke to my rabbi mentor. He was happy that my life is going well (engagement to E, job made permanent, depression hasn’t come back despite it being winter, etc.). I did mention that I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time and that I’m struggling to get back in the shul (synagogue) habit post-COVID and that I am struggling to spend an hour a day in religious study as I was a few months ago. He felt that doing one hour of Torah study a day at my age was more than most people would manage (which made me feel vaguely bad that this was largely because I am unmarried, childless and only working part-time) and that doing less would be fine. He asked if there’s anything in my life that I could/would like to just drop and, aside from procrastinating, I said there wasn’t anything, which made me realise that most of the stuff in my life (work, prayer, Torah study, writing fiction, blogging, exercise) is important to me; I just have to work out how to balance it rather than cut anything out entirely.

On a related note, at the suggestion of someone from the National Autism Association forum, I watched a YouTube video on energy accounting by ‘Purple Ella’ (autistic content creator). To be honest, I’m still somewhat sceptical at my ability to get energy accounting to work, but she suggested just recording your activity and energy levels for a fortnight to work out what’s working well and what isn’t. This sounded like a good place to start.

Purple Ella also suggested energy accounting on a weekly basis as well as a daily one, in other words, not just making sure you balance your energy budget (intake vs. expenditure) over the course of a day, but also over the course of a week, taking extra relaxation time before or after a busy day. I do this a bit already, in terms of leaving recovery days after draining experiences, but it’s probably better to think in a weekly mindset as well as a daily one.

***

My revised article on religious OCD is up on the Jewish site. Which is good, but I need to figure out a way to get them to pay me for writing. It’s strange, I never really thought of myself as a confessional writer, but it’s definitely the way my writing has gone over the last decade. Confessional writing is different to novel writing, but I guess they both tap into the same level of emotions, or the novels I want to write do.

***

I’m watching The Twilight Zone episode The Incredible World of Horace Ford, about a man obsessed with his childhood. I could probably write a list of weirdo Twilight Zone characters who are probably on the autism spectrum. Just off the top of my head, there’s Ford, Mr Beavis (from the episode of the same name), the guy from the episode Miniature and probably several more if I thought about it properly. I’m not sure if it’s reassuring or not that they seem to avoid social conformity at the cost of living a ‘normal’ life.

Horace Ford clearly had a happier childhood than I did, as I’m not in much of a hurry to return to it. He has somehow managed to get himself married, which is strange as his wife is intelligent and attractive, yet appears to want to spend her life with a man who has a mental age of ten. His mother lives with them too, for added infantilisation. You can tell The Twilight Zone is pre-feminism, because apparently woman are falling over themselves to play housewife and mother to man-children. Although the guy from Miniature married an Edwardian doll, which probably is even less feminist.

Rumination and Peopling

I tried to relax a bit before going to bed last night. I watched some Doctor Who and broke my diet to eat a couple of Quality Street chocolates. Even so, I struggled to sleep. I just feel too stressed at the moment. I’m not sure what time I finally fell asleep, but I did somehow manage to get up for work in the morning.

Work was dull today, and left too much time for rumination. I still feel like a dry drunk, full of uncured neuroses and poor coping strategies, just waiting to plunge into another episode of depression. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced. I’m not sure how I move on from this. I mean, some people do move on from worse issues than mine. But lots don’t. As I’ve said, psychodynamic-type therapy definitely helps me to understand myself (and write novels about thinly-veiled Mary Sues) and often brings about short-term clarity, but I have not had any catharsis. My problems did not magically solve themselves by my transferring them onto my therapist and working through them in therapy. As for CBT, I’ve said before that it doesn’t really work on people on the spectrum. For every reason I can give why I’m not worthless and a failure, I can give another ten reasons why I am exactly those things. It’s scary thinking that I’m coming into a marriage with all this hanging in the background.

Maybe I can cope better than I think I can. Maybe I have dealt with some of my issues in therapy. It just feels like I haven’t and I don’t know what to do.

I was wondering if E and I hadn’t broken up in 2018, and I had kept my job in further education (my last job that felt like part of a career, not a time-filler), maybe my life would have been better. But E and I needed the separate growth time, that job wasn’t right for me, and Mum and Dad needed my help when Mum had cancer in the first lockdown. You can go mad thinking like that. It seems that God has a plan, difficult though it is for us to comprehend it.

***

I had dinner with my sister and brother-in-law. It was a mistake on several levels. I was exhausted from work and not able to ‘people’ well. We had takeaway from a kosher restaurant (actually two, due to an order mix up), but a regular delivery company and it wasn’t double-sealed as it should be to stop contamination if they are carrying non-kosher food too. Then we brought some back for my parents because we had too much raising issues about our crockery and microwave. Having conferred with my rabbi mentor, I think it’s OK, but I hate the struggle between my “wise mind” and my OCD mind, with my halakhic (Jewish law) mind caught in-between trying to figure it all out correctly. To be fair to me, a couple of years ago I’d have gone into a terrible, non-functional, anxious state, and this time I did not do that and kept some proportion. I thought that it would probably be OK, and it was. But I did still get somewhat anxious and concerned.

On the other hand, I feel like a terrible goody-goody caring about this (the delivery packaging) and talking about it here. I know lots of people think God doesn’t care about the details, only the bigger picture. I could write a whole essay on why the details are the big picture, but I doubt it would change anyone’s mind, so I’ll just say that I wouldn’t want my brain surgeon or airline pilot to do roughly the right thing, not worrying about the details, and I don’t see why God’s Law is less important or fine-tuned than brain surgery or flying a 747.

On the plus side, my sister and BIL gave me a lot of help regarding booking travel and COVID tests (they’re also going to the US in January) and my sister lent me a stack of driving instruction books, although that just reminds me that that’s another terrifying thing I have to confront at some point, probably sooner rather than later. It was good to see them, but in future I will try to schedule some relaxation time between work and socialising.

I’m pretty exhausted now. I will watch some Doctor Who and go to bed, I think.

Trying to Engage With the World

I wrote the following paragraph in a private blog post yesterday:

I realised that my desire not to tell friends about E and my engagement is perhaps partly to try to make a sudden change (‘not engaged’ to ‘engaged’) more manageable by slowing it down, but mostly I’m just avoiding difficult conversations, particularly with my shul rabbi. I think I need to grasp the nettle and tell him we don’t want him to marry us. And that if people in my shul think it’s weird that we’re taking longer than three months to organise a wedding — well, it’s really not my problem either (easier said than done though).

E and I spoke a bit about this today. I hope to start telling some friends, J at work, and my community, about my engagement next week. I intend to do it slowly, not all of them in one go. Telling people is scary, but I need to do it, otherwise I’ll just turn up one day with a wife they weren’t expecting.

***

Now I’m engaged, I feel I should try to earn more money to contribute to the family income. E doesn’t care that she will be the main breadwinner, but I want to do more than I currently am doing, even though at times I feel extended to my maximum. This is frustrating, as I’m not always sure why I’m so exhausted all the time. I need to send my novel manuscript to more agents, but it’s hard to get the time or the relationship between fatigue, autism and residual depression.

I get job search emails, but can’t find anything suitable, especially as I have lost confidence in my identity as a librarian. I do want to brainstorm article ideas for the Jewish site I wrote for (about Asperger’s in the frum (religious Jewish) community) and to look at old divrei Torah and see if any can be repurposed.

I did get permission for the site to republish an article I wrote for Den of Geek on religious OCD, but, aside from needing to wait for some paperwork, I’m unsure whether to go through with it. It’s from the past, for one thing. My religious OCD is mostly under control, and I don’t want to dwell on it or make people think that it’s still a major issue. Beyond that, I think the Jewish site would want to publish under my real name and they would have to credit Den of Geek too, which means that, theoretically, someone with good Google skills could find the Den of Geek article, which uses my Luftmentsch pseudonym and match it up with my real name. Then again, maybe I don’t have much to hide; after all the article about being autistic in the frum community was published under my real name and got positive feedback. I worry about putting off potential employers if I associate myself with too much mental health and autism material online, but maybe I should be more concerned with building up a portfolio of powerful articles under my real name. However, I’m not sure whether I’d want people (especially from the Jewish site) to find the Hevria articles I wrote with the Luftmentsch pseudonym, especially the one about being scared of sex. I don’t actually remember much of what I said in that article, but I suspect it wasn’t entirely frum world-friendly.

I still feel as if I’ve been struggling to get on top of things since the autumn festivals a couple of months ago. Maybe the struggle is more perceived than real, I’m not sure. I think I am catching up on the chores I was behind, but I haven’t sent out my manuscript to many agents, nor have I made much progress with research for my next novel, let alone with writing. I’m not sure whether to dive in with writing while researching. I feel like research might influence my writing in a big way, which indicates waiting until more research is done, but I worry about my writing skills atrophying. If I could get up earlier on my non-work days, it would be a big help, just in terms of helping me to do more things in a day. At the moment I feel like I’m constantly focusing on the most urgent things and not necessarily the most important.

***

Face masks are mandatory in lots of places again, including shul (synagogue). I think there’s going to be a winter lockdown. I’m just feeling pessimistic about ever getting out of COVID (which in my case also includes being able to hug see my fiancée again and ultimately be able to get married). I had a whole long thing here about when do we decide to live with COVID, like flu and pneumonia, but I cut it because it seems callous. I’m not callous, or a COVID-denier, I just want to know what the exit strategy is. It’s hard to think that there is one sometimes. It was supposed to be vaccines, but here we are, with antivaxxers in the West and much of the developing world unvaccinated (because of lack of vaccines) and generating new variants.

***

I’m still reading Gaudy Night. I said previously that it’s a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, but I’m over halfway through and he’s barely appeared. I’m not complaining, as Harriet Vane is an interesting substitute.

It’s set in Oxford. I’ve been away for so long that I can only half-remember the geography. There was a bit I read today with with an overworking student who doesn’t take any time off and ends up attempting suicide. This was horribly like how I was in my time there, although unlike the student in the book, I wasn’t being sent anonymous letters telling me I was useless and should kill myself. I did that all by myself. Even so, the scene seemed only familiar in a vague sense. I think the negative associations I once had with Oxford have subsided somewhat. It all seems a very long time ago now, almost another life.

Useful Phrases and Toxic Positivity (and Doctor Who)

Work today was mostly OK, except for a bit when I was on the phone to someone I often struggle to understand and then J started talking to me. I could not listen to both people and once and I heard nothing. At the time, I thought this was an autistic sensory or processing thing, but it’s probably something lots of people would struggle with it.

***

I’ve been thinking today about a couple of useful phrases for mental wellbeing. One was something I heard on an NHS group therapy thing I went to a few years ago. “I’m not responsible for the first thought, I am responsible for the second.” I can’t remember the exact context where I first heard this. I think it was mostly directed at self-esteem, as in I’m not responsible if a self-critical thought comes into my head, but I don’t have to follow it up with more. It’s good for dealing with those kinds of thoughts, but I use it with a lot of other difficult thoughts, particularly the type which, if dwelt upon, can push me towards pure O OCD (idolatrous thoughts, violent thoughts, sexual thoughts). I can just say that I’m not responsible for random thoughts that come into my head, so no guilt and catastrophising about being a terrible person for having such a thought, but also that I have the power not to dwell on them so I can move on, which is empowering.

The other phrase was something I learnt on a confidence and self-esteem course I did many years ago. I think some of the course veered towards toxic positivity, but one thing that was useful was the mantra, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.” That’s actually quite powerful and I focused on it today after the telephone awkwardness. I do tend to think that a lot of people have negative thoughts about me (people who don’t know my issues/struggles, but who witness my social awkwardness), but I can at least try not to care about it.

***

Speaking of toxic positivity, I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast on the subject yesterday. It was good, but I felt that they didn’t really get into the issue of toxic positivity in a Jewish religious setting. They spoke a bit about the sociological side of things, like mourning rituals creating time and space for sadness, but they didn’t really get into the theology. A lot of people would argue that Jews are supposed to be grateful and joyous all the time. This is an idea that is identified most strongly with Hasidism (particularly Breslov Hasidism), but can be found in other places too. This can be hard to accept or follow.

Part of the problem is that most of the sources dealing with joy and sadness date from before the development of modern psychology, so they don’t really distinguish sadness from clinical depression. Even accepting that, I think it is OK to say that sometimes the emphasis on joy and happiness isn’t always healthy or achievable, and that there is a place for sadness (they said this on the podcast, just not with religious sources). I used to know a Yeshivish rabbi who used to say that he was very glad that he isn’t a Breslov Hasid as he couldn’t be happy all the time. (It is also worth noting that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was also far from being joyous all the time and quite possibly had bipolar disorder, so we shouldn’t feel bad about not living up to a standard even he didn’t reach.)

Beyond that, I think there is a sense that joy is not the same as happiness or positivity. Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl wrote an essay on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in his Sukkot machzor (Tabernacles prayerbook). It’s a while since I read it, but I think he says that Kohelet is a book permeated with death and the sense of the shortness and futility of life, but it also has the word ‘joy’ more than any other book in Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible). The paradox is resolved because joy is not about always being happy and more about living in the moment and being grateful for what you do have, something that is compatible with feeling sadness from time to time.

***

Doctor Who thoughts, feel free to skip: I watched The Fires of Pompeii with E (long-distance). It’s a strange story, full of postmodern comedy, then it ends with the city being destroyed and loads of people dying. Doctor Who has done this before (the original series story The Myth Makers, about the fall of Troy, is very similar, tonally, although it’s hard to compare them directly as the older story no longer survives), but it seems weirdly awkward.

It seems like when Doctor Who, original or modern, does a historical story set within living memory, the writers and designers bust a gut to get every detail right and it’s all taken very seriously. No one is going to suggest the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Rosa) or the partition of India (Demons of the Punjab) were anything other than serious, tragic episodes, and while there is humour (e.g. the Doctor claiming to be Banksy in Rosa), it’s low-key and it doesn’t send up the period. Nothing like the Cockney Roman stallholder in The Fires of Pompeii.

If it’s set beyond living memory, however, suddenly the most outrageous errors (beyond artistic licence), anachronisms and silliness are permissible, even if it ends badly. The Witchfinders in particular sticks in my craw, for many reasons. Hence The Fires of Pompeii, an episode that mostly feels like Asterix… right up until the city gets destroyed. Weird.

There is a sense that, if no one in the audience can remember it, it’s ripe for comedy, which is a bit shocking for a programme that was originally supposed to teach children about history and to present the past on its own terms, as being as valid as the perspective of the present. Admittedly it wandered from this attitude very quickly, also in a story set in the ancient Roman Empire ending in catastrophe (the Fire of Rome in The Romans, a story very much in the same vein as The Fires of Pompeii). The Fires of Pompeii is far from being unique here, but the tragic nature of the climax, combined with the broadness of the comedy beforehand, make it particularly noticeable. I would like it if we could go back to really well-researched historical stories, but I suspect I’m in a minority here.

(Actually, I’ve just remembered Let’s Kill Hitler, a story that isn’t actually about killing Hitler, but does not exactly get to grips with the brutal reality of the Third Reich. It’s more about River Song trying to kill the Doctor, but I guess if I were inclined I could see it as more evidence of Jews not being considered a real oppressed minority in the eyes of the woke/BBC, although 2011 is a bit early for true wokeness. Anyway, as a general rule, my point still stands: recent tragedy: serious; further back: mockery.)

(Trivia point I noticed a while back: The War Games (1969) is closer in time to World War One (1914-1918) than Rosa (2018) is to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), yet it doesn’t feel that way.)

Twice Exceptional

Yesterday was fairly ordinary. I submitted my manuscript to another agent, went for a run and Skyped E. I got an exercise headache again. I didn’t blog because there didn’t seem much need for it.

Today was more difficult. I had some OCD-type anxiety in the morning and again this evening. I had vague anxiety and intermittent vaguely low mood across the day. It’s hard for me to understand my feelings sometimes (often), but I felt some gloom and lethargy, albeit that that’s probably usual for me when I’m at work. Work was OK, though, not too many mistakes.

I came home determined to work on my novel(s). I did manage about half an hour of work on them, doing some research for my second novel and also trying to track down the publisher and agent of someone who has written an award-winning Young Adult novel that is Jewish-themed (frum), but aimed at a general audience. I am tempted to submit my first novel to the agency, and maybe the publisher, although I’ve been warned to be wary of approaching publishers directly even when they permit it.

I would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really possible for reasons I can’t go into here. I did some Torah study too and ate dinner with my parents (we try to eat together on Mondays) so it was pretty productive. I’m too tired to read now, so will probably vegetate in front of the TV. I guess there is always a price (although I did read quite a bit on my commute and during my lunch break).

***

There was Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) in the shul (synagogue) where my workplace is housed this afternoon and I went, my first weekday prayer service in quite a while. The rabbi asked if I wanted to lead Minchah and I turned him down pretty much instinctively from social anxiety. I wish I had had the confidence to lead the service, as I’d like to find that talent again. Also, the people who did lead the service were too fast. I like Goldilocks davening (praying): not too fast and not too slow. Unfortunately, davening at this shul is, as J says, “Nusach Einstein: davening at the speed of light.”

***

I’m in the middle of a Norman Frum Women podcast episode where they are talking to a psychiatrist about parenting neurodivergent children. I’m finding it interesting, not least from hearing the parents’ perspective, although my neurodivergence was undiagnosed when I was a child, so my parents didn’t deal with it in the same way. (I was walking while listening to this and so could not take detailed notes, so any mistakes are mine not theirs.)

There was an interesting functional definition of neurodivergence as being about having a brain that accumulates excess stress in everyday situations. There was a stress on the idea of neurodivergent disability being environmental (I think ‘situational’ might be a slightly better word), in that it manifests in a particular set of circumstances, but not others. I can cope with noise and people being in my space sometimes, but then throw in a day of work stress or my HALT triggers (being Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and suddenly I’m not coping (that’s my example, not theirs, again in case of errors).

I was particularly interested to hear about “twice exceptional” children: children who are exceptional in being neurodivergent, but also exceptional in terms of being clever and often also well-behaved (which sounded like it could be a bad thing if they’re avoiding testing boundaries for the wrong reasons). These twice exceptional children can find it hard to get support in school, because everyone assumes they’re doing well. This definitely resonated with my school experiences, although realistically I’m not sure what help was actually available for me twenty-plus years ago when high-functioning autism was even less well-understood than it is now.

There was a positive note about adult neurodivergents often finding a “better fit” for their lives once they no longer have the artificial and stressful environment of school. I think there is some survivorship bias here, as the psychiatrist seemed to be judging based on some of her academic mentors/supervisors who she thinks are on the spectrum. I would suggest there are a lot more people on the spectrum who aren’t in high-powered academic jobs. Certainly I feel that the kind of life that would work for me is not one that is really on the table at the moment, if ever. I’m really only functioning with any kind of independence because a lot of people (my parents, E, J) are not making the demands of me at home or in the workplace that would perhaps normally be expected of a thirty-something with two degrees. I would like to build some kind of career of a writer, either full-time or with a small amount of part-time office work, but I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do so; my steps so far have been extremely faltering and rarely successful. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just my viewpoint.

I would be interested in a follow-up episode on adult neurodivergence in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Although maybe Normal Frum Women isn’t the best place for that, as there is a lot to say about men. The frum community makes considerable demands on both men and women. Men are more forced to do particular things at particular times (especially communal prayer) and are forced into noisy, crowded communal spaces like shuls and batei midrash (study halls). Women are encouraged/expected to support large and often noisy and messy families, so I can see there would be problems for neurodivergent women too. It would be interesting to hear how other autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, male or female, manage it. I’ve struggled to find a place for myself communally, in shul and “learning” (adult education) and lately I feel as if I’m detaching myself from my current community. If anything, COVID has only accelerated this trend, by adding health anxiety to already existent social anxiety and showing me that I can survive well enough without communal prayer or Torah study. I’m not sure if our shul has got louder in recent since we got a more Hasidish rabbi about a year before COVID, but I am definitely struggling with the noise more since lockdown. By noise I mean clapping and thumping tables during Kabbalat Shabbat, rather than talking (there is very little of that at least). There is also occasional dancing, which I can’t cope with at all.

***

Yesterday saw the start of the new series of Doctor Who, structured as one big, six episode story. It was vaguely diverting, but I think twenty-first century Doctor Who isn’t really for me. I used to think it was due to things like pop cultural references, sexualising the Doctor/companion relationship, and hyper-sexual characters like Captain Jack and River Song, but even without all these things, I struggled to get involved. I just find it fast, loud, melodramatic, self-important and portentous in a way the twentieth century version was not (OK, the twentieth century version was melodramatic, I’ll give you that). I think it’s a charge you can level at a lot of popular culture e.g. superhero films, the Daniel Craig Bond films and so on.

I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. But I watch, perhaps out of loyalty or nostalgia, and I’ll probably give it a second viewing at some point, because re-watching when I know where the bad bits are helps me to find more good bits. Possibly I’m the epitome of the obsessive self-hating (or insane) fan. Even so, I’m glad the second-hand back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine from 1996 that I ordered arrived today. The issue is a tribute to third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, tying in with the fact that I’m about to introduce E to him via one of his most memorable stories, The Green Death.

The Difficulty of Finding Joy in Connection to God

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Stress, and Political Narratives

I haven’t posted for a couple of days as not much happened. I’m trying to reduce my blogging. I started this blog as a mental health blog, and it became an autism blog. I feel that, as my mental health has improved (although it’s not perfect) and I’m getting more used to my autism diagnosis and what autistic life means for me, there is less to say, albeit with the caveat that whenever I’ve spoken about blogging less in the past, something has happened to push me back towards it.

Certainly today was a bit of a mental health-straining day. I woke up just before 7.00am. I lay in bed wondering whether I should get up, as I’m trying to force myself to get up if I wake up early (not with much success so far). Then I started thinking about E’s trip to the UK and got into a complete panic about whether we had booked the right COVID tests for her. It took me half an hour of searching online to confirm that we had booked the right tests. By that stage, I thought I should stay up. I had breakfast, but went back to bed afterwards, probably because I was still overwhelmed with anxiety that I had not discharged. Inevitably, I fell asleep again and woke up late. Then when I was davening (praying), I had intrusive OCD-type thoughts, albeit not with OCD levels of anxiety, but still some anxiety. I hope I’ll feel better once E is actually here safely.

At lunch time one of the circuit breakers went and kept switching off whenever we reset it, but we couldn’t see why. Then, a few hours later, we found a leak in the garage, which has probably got into the electrics somewhere. As a result, we’re going to have a plumber and an electrician here later in the week, which is not ideal consider E is staying with us, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Other than that, things were pretty good. I gave my bedroom a thorough dust before E comes to stay, I did some Torah study and went for a run. I got an exercise headache again, but I did have the best pace I’d measured since May.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt argues that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” He quotes the psychologist Dan McAdams that people create “life narratives” to understand their lives. The narratives may not be objectively true, or at least not entirely, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to shape an understanding of the self and the world. Haidt brings this to explain why people who are predisposed to one sort of political worldview by genes or upbringing (yes, our political views are partly genetic, he argues) can end up with a very different worldview in the end, influenced by the narrative they create to explain their world.

This made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand the way my political views have evolved over time, particularly the way I started somewhat left-of-centre (probably in part because of my family and friends), but increasingly felt that “people like me” were not welcome on the left and drifted rightwards, even though I don’t strongly identify with all conservative ideas and especially conservative attitudes and parties, including on Haidt’s multi-polar six ‘flavour’ model of morality.

On a non-political level, it underlined to me that my improved mood in the last eight months or so is at least partly from having my autism diagnosis, which enabled me to create a new narrative about myself, one where I no longer perceive myself as a person repeatedly failing at simple tasks for no obvious reason, but as an autistic person doing my best with tasks that are not always suited for me. I think that more than anything has stopped me drifting back into depression (well, that and E).

That said, I think Haidt perhaps focuses a little too much on politics as ideology or values rather than pragmatic factors. I feel strongly about caring for other people (which Haidt sees as something liberals feel more than conservatives, although he says conservatives do feel it), it’s just that my experience of the NHS and the benefits system led me to believe that the state is often inefficient and even counter-productive when it tries to help people.

***

Ashley was asking how people chose their blog names and I thought some people here might like to see what I responded (slightly amended from what I posted there):

“Vision of the Night” is a quote from Job. I wanted to write a Jewish mental health blog (having blogged about mental health in a not very Jewish way previously) and was looking for something biblical and somewhat depressed-sounding, but not taken by other people. This was what I ended up with.

I find thinking of titles generally hard and titles for blogs more so (I mean the title of the blog, not the particular post). My most obscure blog title was one of my Doctor Who blogs, which was called “From Lime Grove to Beyond the Sun” which is a very obscure Doctor Who reference, Lime Grove Studios being where the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were filmed, and Beyond the Sun being an abandoned title for the story fans refer to as The Daleks. I think it sounds quite good as a title.

In case that wasn’t crazy enough, it had a subtitle for a while, “The blog for fans of Cliff, Lola, Biddy and the older man with a character twist” (the idea was I would change the subtitle periodically to something funny). Doctor Who doesn’t feature anyone called Cliff, Lola or Biddy. They were suggestions for characters in the early proposals and story guides from before the series was filmed; by the time of transmission, they had become Ian, Barbara, Susan as well as the Doctor (older man with character twist). I think I was trying to reach out to the cognoscenti, but it didn’t really work. I see it as very much part of my mindset of trying to write stuff that could have been in Doctor Who Magazine in the late nineties rather than what was actually going on in fandom at the time when the series had been revived and had suddenly become popular with people who were only vaguely aware that it had a history before 2005, let alone shown the obsessive background knowledge developed by fans who were around for the wilderness years when it wasn’t on TV.

Choosing Other Challenges

The Talmud says that all beginnings are difficult. I’m feeling that today: beginnings of days, beginnings of the Jewish year, beginnings of my novel.

I went to bed early last night (before midnight) as I was shattered, unsurprisingly, as I had only had about four hours of sleep the night before due to insomnia. This morning I kept waking up, having terrible thoughts that overwhelmed me and stopped me getting up, and then falling asleep again. The thoughts were about the Sarah Everard murder case, which has been in the news yesterday and today. For non-UK residents, Sarah Everard was a young woman who was abducted by an off-duty police officer who staged a fake arrest, then raped and murdered her. The police officer was sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday. I was thinking about this on and off all evening yesterday and I’m not sure why; when there are murder stories in the news, I have to struggle to stop the “Could I murder someone?” fears get out of control and turn into moral scrupulosity OCD. I kept thinking about this case whenever I woke up and I had a nightmare about police officers who were actually murderous drug dealers.

Because of this, I was not in the best place when the phone rang. Unbelievably, it was someone from the Very Scary Task from last week. This was supposed to be done and dusted by now. I think he just found an old voicemail from me from last week and wanted to check it wasn’t new, but then he was asking me about something else and I said he should phone next week when I was in the office and it was only after I rang off that I realised that he didn’t know that I wasn’t in the office and that I only work part-time. So I hope he doesn’t think I was being rude, but I couldn’t really claim to have only just woken up at 11.30am even though it was true.

Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish year, is always crazy too. It’s Yom Tov, Yom Tov, Yom Tov, Yom Tov (Jewish festivals), then suddenly it’s nearly Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and the end of the month and one-twelfth of the year is gone (actually one-thirteenth this year, as it’s a leap year and Jewish leap years get a whole extra month). The Yom Tov cycle is over, but it’s nearly Shabbat (the Sabbath), which feels the same, no work when I desperately need some time that is not paid work, but also not religious sacred time so that I can catch up on various chores and on my writing, as well as making plans for E’s visit later this month (later this secular month rather than religious month this time).

There were little things as well: the milk was off and my Mum told me what I already knew deep down, that I need a load more formal shirts and polo shirts as the ones I have are wearing out. I dislike clothes shopping and the thought of restocking half my wardrobe does not fill me with joy. It’s not much in itself, but combined with all the other things I’m worried about at the moment (finding an agent for my novel, starting work on my next novel, planning for E coming, work and other routine things), I just feel overwhelmed again. ‘Overwhelmed’ seems to be my default setting at the moment, which is better than when it was ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious,’ but still not great to live with. I need to take a deep breath, break things down and make some plans, but with Shabbat starting in a few hours, I won’t get a chance to do that until Saturday night or Sunday.

Not only was I feeling overwhelmed, but it got to nearly the end of the time for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) and I hadn’t davened (prayed) yet, even though really I should have done so hours ago. I felt that people in the frum (religious Jewish) community would look down on me for just not coping with life.

Then I had a weird thought. There’s a Jewish folk belief (as far as I know not something in a written source text) that, if God let us choose our challenges, we would end up just picking the ones we already have. I’ve always been sceptical of this idea. While there is some truth to the idea that we get used to our challenges and develop coping strategies, I think there are people who would choose different ones. There are some challenges that no one realistically wants. But this time I flipped it around and thought, “No one else would choose my challenges. Therefore they can’t lecture me on how well or badly I’m coping with them.” I think that helped a bit.

After lunch I had to get on with my usual pre-Shabbat chores, plus I had to do some ironing. I watched the Doctor Who episode 42 while ironing. I used to hate it (the episode, not the ironing), but this time it seemed OK. It had many of the things I dislike about that era of Doctor Who: it’s too interested in the companion’s family and not particularly interested in the science fiction aspect of the story; it’s illogical; it has overly-loud and dramatic incidental music; and David Tennant does his SHOUTY EMOTING!!!! But it was diverting enough once I silenced my inner critic and it was directed well by Graeme Harper (the only director to have directed episodes of both the original and new series). It also raises the curtain on perhaps the best run of episodes in Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, which I’m looking forward to watching with E (Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords).

I did a little tinkering with the plot for my second novel, but I think for now I need to wait until I’ve done some proper research for it. The new novel is probably going to have to take second or third place behind spending time with E and finding an agent for my first novel for the next month or two. I want to write, but it’s just not the main priority right now.

Work Anxiety and Reading

Sukkot (the Jewish festival that started on Monday night and goes on until — well, that’s actually hard to say, but basically until next Wednesday evening (nine days)) is supposed to be the most joyous of festivals. So far my Sukkot has not been bad as such, but it has been stressful, and doesn’t look set to let up for a while yet.

On Monday morning I woke feeling depressed and self-critical. Reading JYP’s anti-self-deprecation post just made me feel worse, as I couldn’t think of five things I am good at. Perhaps fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to post about it, as J texted to me to get me to do the Very Scary Task for work. As it was technically a work day for me, I didn’t think I could get out of it. It did at least distract me from my incipient depression with some anxiety instead.

I spent the day doing what I could on the VST (it will have to be continued tomorrow and maybe on Friday). It involved a lot of phone calls and texts back and forward, as it usually does. We (my father and I) also had to dash out to replace the willows in our arbah minim (branches waved during prayer on Sukkot) as they had sold us dead willows, and inevitably someone I was trying to get hold of decided to phone me back when I was about to go into the shop. The day was a rush to get everything done in time for Yom Tov (the festival). I did not go into Yom Tov in a very positive state of mind. I won’t say I spent the whole of Yom Tov worrying, but I did worry a bit.

I went to shul (synagogue) and afterwards we (my parents and I) ate in the sukkah (temporary home in the garden) as we are supposed to and I felt a bit better. I stayed up late reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood to try to relax, as I didn’t expect to make it to shul in the morning anyway.

Day one of Sukkot (Tuesday) was mostly spent reading. In terms of religious books, I read bits of Divrei HaYamim/The Book of Chronicles in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen and Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rav Shagar. In terms of secular reading, I finished The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I didn’t really connect with it and stayed up late to finish it as I wanted to get it over with. Rena Rossner, who wrote it, was the literary agent who turned down my novel, so I can see why we don’t connect. I think her writing is ethereal and mythic whereas mine is somehow concrete and grounded. Or maybe that’s just over-rationalising it.

I went to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers). There was a shiur (religious class) in between. It was about halakhah (Jewish law). I didn’t understand much of it and what I did understand made me worry about whether our sukkah was kosher. It probably is, as this is not the first time a Sukkot shiur has made me worry about such things, but I worry about triggering my OCD. I think some speakers can be irresponsible in the way they present topics, or maybe I’m just vulnerable to self-doubt.

Today I got up very late as my parents went out for lunch. I ate my own lunch by myself in the sukkah and started reading the James Bond novel Goldfinger. I hadn’t planned to read it yet, but I wanted to read something that was as unlike The Sisters of the Winter Wood as possible and I couldn’t think of anything further from it. I did a load of religious reading as well, as I knew I wouldn’t go to shul for the shiur in case it did trigger my OCD. I made a last-minute decision to at least go to shul for Minchah, as I feared I was giving in to social anxiety and laziness in skipping shul, especially as I know I won’t be going much next week, as Simchat Torah is a nightmare with autism and social anxiety and I have no intention of putting myself through that whole experience any more (unless E and I are able to have children, I guess).

I need to be up early tomorrow, as I could start getting calls about the VST at 9.00am – hopefully not earlier, although J has been known to text earlier (I think he assumes I get up at 6.00am for Shacharit). As well as work, I would like to write a devar Torah as I didn’t write one last week, but I’m not sure I will have the time or energy. I’d like to work on my short story too, but the same applies. Just in case things weren’t difficult enough, my father’s best friend (a man I have always found hugely intimidating even before he got sent to prison for four years for smuggling drugs) is coming for lunch and my parents have some other friends coming in the evening. This is all in order to eat in the sukkah and do festival socialising. Unfortunately, as I will need to eat in the sukkah too, I will more or less have to see them, make small talk with them and be prevented from sticking my head in a book or watching TV as I would normally do at mealtimes, particularly if stressed from VSTing. The only alternative is to eat at weird times, which wouldn’t really work for practical reasons.

I don’t feel particularly tired (I haven’t done much for the last two days), but I should be trying to unwind and sleep before VSTing tomorrow. I feel the urge to avoid going to bed, as if that will avoid finishing the VST. I’m nervous about tomorrow, so many social anxiety-triggering things. I should watch TV or something and try not to think about things.

Fred Karno’s Army

We are Fred Karno’s Army, the ragtime infantry./We can not fight, we can not shoot;/No bleedin’ use are we./And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:/Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott! What a bloody awful lot/Are the British infantryBritish World War I trench song

***

Today felt pretty bad. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t. I only got about four hours of sleep, which was partly my fault and partly not, but it probably didn’t set me up for a good day. I experienced some anxiety on waking. There’s an idea I came across a few years ago about the acronym HALT: don’t do anything you might regret if you’re Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired. When my religious OCD was bad around that time, I found that the times when my OCD anxiety felt worst were also the times when I was HALTed. So, I guess that lies underneath everything that happened today.

On the way to work, I decided it was probably a mistake to catalogue my every work mistake here, as it makes me focus on the negatives too much. I resolved not to do it today. But then at work I thought I’d made a couple of big mistakes. In the event, they probably weren’t such a big mistakes, and I possibly over-compensated. Still, I feel frustrated that I keep making mistakes, including repeating some mistakes multiple times, which indicates I’m not learning properly. My Dad is worried about this although my Mum thinks I’m just overwhelmed. I guess the problem is I find the work environment inherently overwhelming at the moment. I try to make lists of what to do when doing different tasks, but then I don’t consult them as I think it looks unprofessional. In any case, when I’m dealing with many cells in multiple spreadsheets at once, it can be easy to miss something.

I was pretty exhausted when I got home. I haven’t done much other than write this, watch TV, daven (pray) and eat dinner (with my parents, so I guess I get points for peopling while exhausted). I wanted to do more Torah study, but my brain is just switched off. After I’ve posted this I’ll probably give up for the evening and watch TV until bedtime. I don’t feel able to do anything else.

***

At lunch I started reading a memoir about autism in the workplace that I thought might give me some ideas for ways I can function better in my own workplace. I rapidly switched from reading to scanning, as it’s not very well-written. This surprised me a bit. It is self-published, but I read the author’s blog and she can write well-enough there. Maybe she struggled to move from focused blog posts to carrying narrative over a long period. Or maybe she wrote the memoir before she started blogging in earnest. The book is also lacking in explicit advice or suggestions about coping in the workplace, which is what I really wanted, although so far it’s mostly been dealing with the author’s university experience.

The other thing that annoyed me is that repeatedly the author thinks she’s going to be thrown off her college or university course due to some requirement for group work or group presentation that she doesn’t think she can cope with because of her autism and anxiety. Then the situation resolves because she gets adjustments from staff that allow her to stay on the course and she is relieved, but she never seems particularly grateful. She could have been grateful and just not recorded it in the memoir, but it rankled with me. Yes, disabled people are entitled to reasonable adjustments by law, but I feel that if someone goes out of their way to help you, you should be grateful, even if they were obliged to do it by law or institutional policy.

I skim-read it on the way home and I’m about a third of the way through now. I probably will stick with it, at least skimming it, just in case it’s helpful. It’s not terribly long or heavy-going, I just hoped it could help me more.

***

The other thing that annoyed me today was mask compliance. On the Tube, where mask wearing is compulsory, a majority wore masks, but a substantial minority, perhaps a third of passengers, did not. For comparison, in the shopping centre I went into on the way home, mask compliance was almost as good even though it was entirely voluntary there. When I got on the train this morning, one man was berating the woman opposite him for not wearing a mask (“This is my choice,” she insisted, although technically it wasn’t), but there were so many maskless people in the carriage, it seemed pointless to protest.

I wish that COVID would just go away or at least drop to an ‘acceptable’ level, like flu, but it won’t, and I take it too seriously to disregard precautions. Already the government is talking about possible future restrictions in case of a (likely) winter surge. Based on my experience today, I think if there’s another lockdown, people just won’t obey, American-style.

It can’t go on forever, can it? The Black Death, the Great Plague, Spanish Flu, all ended eventually, right? Right?

***

I’m thinking about purpose again, and writing, and whether my purpose is writing… I’m feeling vaguely more positive about my novel (my first one, the one I’m currently trying to find an agent for). I think it could benefit from a few changes and additions, but not another full redraft. It probably won’t take long, but only once I get down to it, which will probably not be until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals).

I came across this video clip today. I think I’ve seen it before. Certainly I’d heard Rabbi Sacks z”tl say similar things previously and had been thinking about them recently. It makes me hopeful that I can find a place in the world with my writing, but I still worry that it’s illusory and that I have nothing to offer the world and I won’t ever find my place in it (combined with worries about what type of Jewish community E and I could end up in, which is a whole other type of place to worry about finding).