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).

Muddling Through

I overslept dramatically again, as I basically do every day when I don’t go out to work. Sigh. Anyway, I managed to put in two hours of very dull work from home work (data entry and sorting my predecessor’s emails – I think he never deleted an email, even spam, and had something like 2,500 emails from a five or so year period when I started). It was boring, but hopefully will take some pressure off tomorrow.

I’m still pretty stressed. As well as the two hours of work, I did a couple of small chores and I went to a virtual shiur (religious class), but I still need to do an hour and a half or two hours work tomorrow and I have a load of paperwork about benefits and bank accounts that have suddenly been thrown at me at this busy time of year. It’s like everyone decided, “Hey, Luftmentsch is stressed! Let’s throw him some pointless busywork too!” Then I had to change some plans at the last minute and I’m not sure how I avoided a meltdown. I went for a walk and tried to be mindful which helped a bit and then I had a Skype call with E and felt a lot better after that.

Even so, I feel pretty overstretched, which is not the best way to go into the busiest month of the year, especially when I want to get to shul (synagogue) so much, but am aware that shul attendance is the first thing to become impossible (because of burnout and social anxiety) when I’m stressed. I guess remembering what I discussed with the rabbi last week about being strategic in my shul attendance is important here, and my general attempts not to beat myself up about everything. To remember that God loves me and knows my struggles.

On the plus side, I feel this year that for the first time, as well as goals for the coming year, I can set long-term goals for the next five years, which is exciting and scary. The long-term goals are more life stages to try to move to, while the short-term goals are more to improve aspects of my character.

***

The virtual shiur was interesting. It was about teshuvah (repentance/returning to God/returning to ourselves) being as much an inner psychological process for mental health as an external one. Rabbi Dweck was wary of the approach to teshuvah that says, “Take on another mitzvah (commandment)” instead of looking inside at our inner drives. This is a realisation I’ve come to myself over the years, at least for my (not always mentally healthy) self, but it was good to have external validation. I felt the shiur could have been a bit deeper, maybe with more practical suggestions. Rabbi Dweck did suggest journaling and just being aware of oneself during day to day life, which is part of why I write here, to process and understand myself.

The shiur reinforced the feeling I’ve had for a while that the novel I want to write about a frum pornography addict isn’t actually primarily a story about sex or addiction, but one about teshuvah, although I can see that many people will not be able to look past the surface to that. There is a quote I came across from Rav Kook recently about teshuvah being a subject for poets and artists, which is similar to what I want my novel to be.

***

I did a COVID test for the first time. My shul (synagogue) wants everyone to do one before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish festivals. The first time I tried, I spilt some of the liquid, so I had to redo it. Then I’m not sure I got my tonsils properly with the swab. I just stuck the swab in until I wanted to gag, then repeated on the other side. I don’t like the way COVID is triggering OCD-type thoughts in me, less contamination thoughts than scrupulosity: “Am I doing it right?”-type thoughts. I still have guilt about hugging my ex-girlfriend (just hugging!) although it won’t stop me hugging E when she comes to visit. One site I found said that if you’re infected, swapping the uvula and perhaps even the cheeks will show up enough virus for a positive result, so hopefully I’m OK. I feel like this could turn into the COVID equivalent of kashering my sink for Pesach if I’m not careful, something I repeat and obsess about endlessly.

Normalising Religious Struggle

Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.

I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair[1] was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).

Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.

Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.

My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).

I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.

My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.

Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).

The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.

A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.

Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.

I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.

[1] Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.

***

As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!

I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.

Arguments from Design

I’m in two minds about blogging today. I feel the need to offload a bit, but I am aware that I can’t actually say that much here about my job, plus I feel tired and want to get away from computer screens (although I was barely on the computer at all at work today).

Suffice to say I had to go somewhere by myself this morning for work without preparation, somewhere vaguely eerie to be by yourself if you haven’t been there much. I dealt with it OK, I think. To be honest, I was more worried about missing my bus stop than anything once I actually got there.

In the afternoon J and I went over the valuables I inventoried some time ago. Unfortunately, it was some months since I worked on this and I had forgotten some of what I had done. J was also critical of the way things had been assigned reference numbers in the past. I had not done this, I had just used the reference numbers provided, but I worried irrationally that he was annoyed with me too.

I didn’t feel autistically burnt out today, but I was exhausted by the time I got home. I read a novel for a while as I didn’t want to sit at my computer, but reading was a bit of a struggle. I really just wanted to vegetate, but I didn’t want to watch TV until later in the evening when I was really tired.

***

Lately I feel as if I’ve had OCD-type thoughts and catastrophising thoughts lurking at the fringes of my consciousness. I try not to give in to them, but the more I think about not thinking about them, the more I think about them. I’ve also noticed that over the years I’ve had varying level of discomfort about some things, like wearing shoes and watches, something I now associate with autistic sensory issues. It’s got worse recently, to the point where I regularly take my watch off while at work and put it in my pocket (possibly rendering wearing it redundant, although it’s easier to look at it quickly on my journey to work than getting my phone out of my pocket). I don’t take my shoes off at work, although sometimes I wish I could, but I do take them off at home. I’m not sure why this would suddenly get more difficult and intense, but I wonder if it’s part of a general feeling of being overloaded recently.

Speaking of which, I’m not going to volunteering this week. I do get a lot out of it, but I feel exhausted and can’t really face the early morning. I feel like I need to take some recuperation time. I feel a little bad, as I know they probably have fewer volunteers this week, but I feel that I need to look after myself to avoid more burnout.

***

I’m still watching The Blue Planet wildlife documentary. The undersea photography is as awe-inspiring as the sundry whales, sharks and other marine life. Watching nature reminds me of something my rabbi mentor once said to me, that two people can look at the night sky and say diametrically opposite things. One can say, “How can you look at that and not believe there is a God?” and the other can say, “How can you look at that and believe there is a God?” I guess you can say the same about the wonders of the plant and animal kingdoms, that some people see in them God’s handiwork and others just see nature. And it’s not even a creationism/evolution issue. I can accept evolution as a proof of God’s prowess. There’s a quote I think from Rav Hirsch in the nineteenth century that evolution proves God’s creative power more than separate individual creations, as all He did was create one single-celled creature and the principle of evolution and from that millions of species evolved. I think the point is that nature can point to God, but you have to be leaning that way in the first place. It doesn’t necessarily point there of itself.

For myself, I have always tended to find God more in the apparent vicissitudes of history, particularly Jewish history as well as my own personal history, and also in the depth of the Jewish tradition, as well as in human dignity and moral fortitude, but I’m aware that these don’t necessarily point to God of themselves either.

“Am I a good person?” ‘Pure O’ OCD

I’m slightly wary of writing this in case it exacerbates a delicately-balanced situation, but here goes: lately I’ve been having thoughts that verge on ‘pure O’ OCD (obsessive thoughts without compulsions). These never completely went away before, but had been quiescent for a while. Lately, they’ve sprung up again. I’m not sure why, perhaps, perversely, a response to various things in my life going better (job, getting back together with E, progress on my novel, feelings of religious progress).

Pure O OCD can take many forms. It often manifests in ways centred on moral worth, one way or another, hence its other name of ‘scrupulosity.’ It can appear as doubt about moral or religious worth: “Am I a good person?” or “Do I really believe in God?” It can also manifest in other ways, particularly where a concern about moral worth shades into fear of performing immoral actions: “Am I a racist? Do I want to hurt people? Do I want to abuse children?”

I’ve been having thoughts like this recently. Actually, I’ve had them for years, but they might be more frequent and disturbing lately. I don’t think they meet the requirements for diagnosis with OCD, certainly in terms of distress. I do not feel hugely distressed the way my OCD distressed me in the past. I know this is my brain, not me. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the “Am I a bad person?” thoughts completely, especially when they are pushing on an open door inasmuch as I wonder about my moral life a lot anyway.

The other, related, thing I’ve been doing lately is ruminating on certain things I’ve done in the past that were less than morally perfect. I’m aware that, objectively, the misdeeds were minor. If we have a scale of bad deeds from 1 to 10 where 1 is a minor breach of traffic law, for example, and 10 is genocide, then these are a 3 at most, probably lower (small breaches of lockdown laws included). And they were a long time ago, some going back to adolescence. There also isn’t really anything that I can do to change what happened or rectify things. But I keep thinking about them.

Part of me wishes there was some kind of ritual I could do to atone, or in Jewish terms, to make a tikkun (rectification), to draw a line under the past. But then, wanting to do a ritual to remove obsessions is OCD, so it’s probably not a good idea.

Like I said, I don’t think this is pathological OCD, so I don’t want to go to a doctor or psychiatrist. I might talk to my therapist, as I’m seeing her anyway. I’m not hugely distressed by the thoughts, I just worry where they might lead. I would be tempted to do some exposure therapy, but I find exposure therapy for thoughts without compulsions tricky and would probably need a CBT therapist to help, which, as I said I don’t want to do, particularly as I don’t think I’m actually diagnosable. If anything, I would worry that focusing on my thoughts for exposure therapy would make things worse. But the situation is there, and it’s upsetting and worrying me a little.

Obsessive Thoughts, and Finding Your Mission

I had volunteering this morning. For some reason we were preparing fewer bags of food this week. The number varies from week to week (I’m not entirely sure why), but not usually this dramatically. There were also some leftover bags of non-perishable food, which further reduced the number we needed to get ready. The result was that I was finished before 10.00am, rather than between 10.30am and 11.00am as usual. I think there were other tasks I might have been able to help with, but I was not unhappy to leave earlier, as days when I do both volunteering and therapy are tiring and I was glad of the extra time to recover and do other things.

In the afternoon I tried to create a revised version of my Doctor Who book on Lulu.com so I could sell it at a lower price, but the system is still misbehaving, telling me I need to select a book size even though I already have done so. I emailed the helpdesk again, although I did not find their previous response particularly helpful. They emailed back to say that I can’t publish a new version of my book without starting from scratch (which admittedly wouldn’t be a huge problem, but still isn’t right) because since I published the book, they’ve changed the site. This is a bug, apparently. Hmm.

I worked on my novel for a little under an hour. I procrastinated, I didn’t make much progress and I’m not happy with what I did write, but I wrote something, which I guess is the important thing, just to keep hammering away at it.

***

Therapy was good. I spoke about my obsessive pure O OCD-type thoughts, which have got a bit worse in the last few days. I sometimes get intrusive violent thoughts. This leads to obsessive worrying that I could become violent or a murderer. I tend to worry in particular when I read news stories about rapists and serial killers and see similarities with myself (usually that they are loners with few/no relationships and friendships). I know it isn’t likely that I would hurt someone (I’m terrified of hurting people even verbally and unintentionally, let alone physically and intentionally), but it’s easy to get sucked into “How can I know for sure that I wouldn’t do that?”-type of thoughts, or even to think that if I have intrusive violent thoughts for long enough, I’ll somehow act on them by default. The thing to do with these thoughts is just not to pay any attention to them, although it’s very hard not listening to a voice in your head saying that if you aren’t careful, you’ll turn into Jack the Ripper.

In therapy today I realised that these thoughts aren’t all that different from the “Am I a bad person?” thoughts I get. It’s a more extreme form of “bad,” but the thought itself is not that different in nature. And I realised that I haven’t really got very far trying to prove to myself that I’m not a bad person (or a serial killer), so maybe I should just try not to respond to these thoughts. I noticed that I got to shul (synagogue) last week without really thinking about it much, rather than spending ages thinking that I had to go and worrying that I wouldn’t make it, so maybe ignoring obsessive thoughts is the way to go.

***

As well as Lulu.com, I’m angry at victim-blaming antisemitism, but what can you do? There’s a lot more of them than there are of us.

***

Looking for a particular quote for my devar Torah, I was looking at Rabbi Lord Sacks’ z”tl book To Heal a Fractured World. It ends with a two page list of reflections on an ethical life. A lot of this resonated with thoughts I’ve been having recently about trying to work out what I’m here on Earth for, what I can actually do with my life. I’m not going to quote all of it, but here is some of it:

I make no claims to wisdom, but this I have learned:

  • that each of us is here for a purpose;
  • that discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered…
  • that where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be;
  • that even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life…
  • that those who spend at least part of their lives in service of others are the most fulfilled and happiest people I know…
  • that each situation in which we find ourselves did not happen by accident: we are here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will heal one of the fractures in the world…
  • that it is not the most wealthy or powerful or successful or self-important who make the greatest difference or engender the greatest love;
  • that pain and loneliness are forms of energy that can be transformed if we turn them outward, using them to recognize and redeem someone else’s pain or loneliness…
  • that we can make a difference, and it is only by making a difference that we redeem a life, lifting it from mere existence and endowing it with glory;
  • and that if we listen carefully enough — and listening is an art that requires long training and much humility — we will hear the voice of God in the human heart telling us that there is work to do and that he needs us.

***

E and I have been watching the 2005 season of Doctor Who, the first of the revived run. It’s strange to think that I was doing my undergraduate finals when these episodes were broadcast. I didn’t have a TV at Oxford, and the episodes were broadcast on Shabbat, so I couldn’t get myself invited to someone else’s room/house, so I only saw episodes one to three around the time of original transmission; the rest my parents taped for me and I binge-watched them after finals. It seems like yesterday. It also seems a lifetime ago.

It’s also strange that “new” Who has very nearly been around for more of my life than the original series. In fact, as I was eight when I discovered Doctor Who, for me the new Who era is longer than the era when I was a fan, but Doctor Who was not on TV regularly, even though that feels like the default for me.

***

I finished reading Moonraker (SPOILERS ahead!). I think prose James Bond is rather better than film Bond. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, as they are trying to do somewhat different things, although it takes a while to realise that. Prose Bond is not by any means realistic, but his actions have consequences; he’s not a superhero like film Bond. Here, Bond gets badly hurt and ends up in hospital. His detonation of an atomic bomb in the North Sea (to avoid it destroying London) leads to hundreds dead and missing and M worrying about the fall out, in all senses of the term. The “girl,” Gala Brand, is a capable undercover policewoman and she, rather than Bond, works out what the villain’s plan is and how to stop it. Most surprising of all, not only does Bond not have any real amorous encounters (one kiss is about it), Brand turns out to be engaged and chooses not to spend a month with Bond on the continent, but to get married to her fiance instead. I was impressed.

Pre-Yom Tov Burnout

I woke up still feeling burnt out and exhausted, but my mood was better on waking. It’s gone downhill as we get towards Yom Tov, I don’t know why. I don’t think Shabbat and Yom Tov are good for curing burnout, even though they are supposed to be relaxing. I spend too much time “peopling,” whether at shul (synagogue) or family meals and much of what time I do have alone (and not sleeping!) is spent on Torah study or prayer, which are not usually restoring for me, regardless of what other merits they may have.

I did sleep very late today, although that was probably inevitable given how late I went to bed, due to a late shiur (religious class) after Shabbat and a headache that wouldn’t shift. I’m resigned to not doing well on the interview and blaming it on burnout and Yom Tov (festival) even if the interviewers will probably think I’m useless.

I looked over some old interview notes with suggestions of how to answer frequently-asked questions, but I’m not sure how much it will help. I think the only way to practise at the moment is to do a practise interview, but this interview was at such short-notice that I haven’t had time for that.

I did half an hour or so of Torah study, so that I didn’t have to leave reading all of this week’s sedra (Torah) reading until later in the week, that being the one thing I absolutely always keep up with (even though I do it once rather than twice a week as required). I still have to do the end of the sedra, which is one of the most repetitive parts of the Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 7).

I intended to stay for the shiur between Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Ma’ariv (Evening Service), because it’s silly to go and come back again almost straight away, but I’m not going for the cheesecake (yuk) and alcoholic drinks and shiur before Minchah because I’m pushing myself up to and probably beyond the limit of “peopling” this Yom Tov as it is, even without going straight into a job interview the day afterwards. Indeed, I’m going in to Yom Tov already peopled out from Shabbat, and the closer I get to time for shul, the less I feel able to actually go.

My shul has relaxed the laws around mask wearing and food on the premises in accordance with the government’s new guidelines. This means that the things keeping me away from Tikkun Leil (all night Torah study on the first night of Shavuot) don’t actually apply any more. However, I feel disinclined to see if there are any spaces left. I guess I don’t feel up to that long and intensive a shul session, particularly for Tikkun Leil, which is a relatively recent custom and not a law (Tikkun Leil was introduced by kabbalists (mystics) in the sixteenth century and seems to correlate with the arrival of coffee in the land of Israel i.e. only after the introduction of coffee did anyone manage to stay up all night studying).

I do wonder how much other people get out of all the Torah study sessions scheduled over Shavuot (even excluding Tikkun Leil). As I mentioned yesterday, my shul seems to have scheduled an hour and a half to two hours of shiurim (religious classes) around afternoon and evening prayer services over the coming festival. These are often strongly halakhic, which isn’t my favourite type of study (although arguably I neglect it too much), but even the format of one speaker speaking for an hour or so isn’t going to be right for everyone, whether those who prefer something more interactive or those, like me, who prefer to study from books with time to re-read or pause and digest.

I watched some Babylon 5 to kill time before Minchah, which may not have been the best choice, as season four is pretty grim. I feel I should be helping my parents, but I genuinely do not have the energy. It’s going to be a struggle even to go to shul, particularly in the torrential rain. Plus, there have already been warnings of an increase in antisemitic incidents over the last few days so my shul is getting everyone to do security duty and that’s just another ball for me to juggle. Actually, I feel less like I’m juggling balls at the moment and more like flaming clubs, and like I’ve been juggling them for a week with no break.

Just in case things were getting too easy, I’ve felt for the last day or so that I’ve been just about keeping the lid on some pure O OCD thoughts and that it wouldn’t take much for them to suddenly become more anxiety-provoking.

I’m genuinely not sure if I’m going to make it to shul tonight, or at all over Yom Tov.

Sir Galahad

I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.

Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.

It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.

Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.

Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.

I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.

I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.

***

I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.

I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.

I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.

***

In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.

***

Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.

***

All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.

Time Warp Pesach

Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the first two days of Pesach (Passover) were, on the whole, good. I wanted to do a blow-by-blow account, but it’s too late and I don’t have the time, so I’ll do bullet points. (I’m also not catching up on blog posts I’ve missed tonight; hopefully tomorrow, but even then maybe not all of them.)

  1. I saw a beautiful rainbow on the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. This got Yom Tov off to a good start.
  2. Shabbat was weird. (I’m not even going to try to explain how or why Shabbat the day before Pesach is so weird. Sorry, it’s just too complicated. If you don’t know, you might just want to skip to the next bullet point.) We had egg matzah for hamotzi. This is not entirely in the spirit of not eating matzah on Erev Pesach, but I felt the alternative was to eat pita bread and freak out about chametz (leaven) crumbs all through Pesach. I managed to get up around 8.00am to daven (pray) a bit and make hamotzi before the cut off time.
  3. Having Shabbat the day before Yom Tov gave the whole experience a weird Groundhog Day time warp effect where none of us were sure what day it was, something only compounded by the clocks going forward on Saturday night, when religious Jews can’t change them (because of Yom Tov) — except that some modern clocks adjust themselves, so on Sunday and Monday we kept having to check what time it was on different clocks to work out what time it really was.
  4. The sederim went pretty well. Even though there were only three of us (me, Mum and Dad), we had some back and forth of questions and suggested answers. I learnt some things, which was good. We had a good pace, not too fast or too slow. I do feel I’m too old to look for the afikoman, especially alone. I didn’t mind saying the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions, traditionally said by the youngest person present), and sang it, something my sister generally refuses to do. I do feel sorry for people doing solo sedarim though.
  5. My OCD anxious thoughts were mostly under control, more so as time went on. I am still struggling with a few thoughts intermittently. My rabbi mentor is usually uncontactable during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and won’t talk about Pesach after the event, but I have some questions to ask him for next year.
  6. I went to shul a few times. This occasioned some social anxiety, although I pushed through it, as well as discomfort (feeling suffocated) from wearing a mask too long.
  7. I read a bit: more of Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah by Erica Brown, the Haggadah I used at the seder this year (it has eight essays, one for each day of Pesach); a bit of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc; and Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman’s follow-up to Anno Dracula, itself a spin-off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, positing a world in which Dracula was not defeated and became Prince Consort of the British Empire. In the sequel, expelled from Britain, Dracula becomes Commander-in-Chief of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in World War I. One hundred pages in, not a lot has actually happened, but the “vampires in spiked helmets” imagery is strong and there are lots of cameos from real and fictional figures from the early twentieth century.
  8. I think I feel more comfortable in my head at the moment. I’m OK sitting with myself without reading, watching TV or listening to music. On Friday and today I got exhausted and took time out just to lie on the bed silently. I think I need to decompress from sensory overload more than I realised in the past, or maybe I actually need to do it more often as I get older. I’m wondering if I should set a “No screens for the first half-hour after I get home from work” rule so I can decompress properly. I’ve been feeling lately that I want to be on my computer less, but unsure how to do it when my main social interactions are through the internet: my blog and other people’s.
  9. I went for a walk today without a coat or jumper. Spring is finally here.
  10. It occurred to me today that so many of my thoughts about not fitting into my community because I don’t feel I’m appropriately religious (Haredi) might actually be about not fitting in because I’m autistic. I realised that while I have a few possibly mentally ill Jewish hero figures (with the usual caveats about trying to diagnose people who have been dead for centuries), I don’t have any high functioning autistic Jewish heroes and its hard to find my place in the community without them. I know there are not many female role voices and models in Orthodox Judaism but there isn’t a single autistic one.

Pre-Pesach Update

I’m pretty burnt out, which is why I’m writing with two hours until Shabbat (the Sabbath). Fortunately I’ve done all my chores, but I wanted to help my parents more. We haven’t laid the seder table yet.

I woke up feeling burnt out after everything I did yesterday and only managed to get up when PIMOJ phoned me at 10.00am. I managed to get going and do various Erev Pesach (day before Passover) chores that have to be done today because actual Erev Pesach is Shabbat. I did a lot, but by 3.00pm I was struggling. I’m just totally out of energy (or spoons, if you want to go that route). I booked to go to shul (synagogue) tonight, but I’m not sure I’m going to manage it. I just want to sleep. Actually, I just want to vegetate in front of the TV, but that’s not an option for the next seventy-five hours or so. I’ve also cut myself on the edge of the thick aluminium foil we covered the edge of the kitchen sink with.

In terms of OCD, I’ve been worried about a lot of stuff. However, I’ve mostly got the worries under control quite quickly. I resisted the temptation to message my rabbi about a worry too. So I’m probably not drifting into actual OCD, I’m just getting spikes of anxiety that I can slowly bring under control, always with a residual sense of “I hope I’m doing the right thing and don’t really need to ask a shayla (religious question)…”

I’m going to eat something, read for a bit, and try to get the energy to shower and go to shul.

Chag kasher ve’sameach to those celebrating!

The Hardest Task of the Year

On the day before Pesach (Passover), it’s customary for first-born Jewish males to fast, in memory of the plague of the first-born in the exodus story. The custom has also arisen to get out of this fast (unlike other fasts) by attending a siyum a religious celebration, usually for finishing some religious study. When Pesach starts on a Sunday, this all gets pushed back to the Thursday beforehand. This is why I got up early this morning to attend a siyum on Zoom. I decided it wasn’t realistic for me to go to shul (synagogue) for this. I couldn’t sleep last night, but even before that, I thought I was too tired to manage it. I don’t know what I would have done in a “normal” year, but this year there is still COVID, so I attended virtually. I didn’t manage to get up early enough to pray beforehand (the siyum is usually immediately after the morning service) or even to get dressed; I just got up and switched on my phone, leaving the camera switched off as I sat there in my pyjamas.

After I managed to eat breakfast, get dressed and pray, I hoovered my room and went for a walk. My mood dropped quite a lot while out. I was feeling negative (depressed and anxious) about Pesach, but also about my writing. Coming home and eating lunch helped quite a lot. Tiredness and low blood sugar can push my mood very far down, very quickly.

In the afternoon I made the charoset and baked cinnamon balls (biscuits). I was pretty exhausted after that, and after my anxiety got pushed up by something that happened, so I had to take time out to watch Babylon 5 to try to regain my composure.

Then came the worst task of the year: kashering the kitchen sink i.e. getting it ready for Pesach by pouring boiling water over it to remove any trace of food. The difficulty is that it has to be boiling water not boiled water, i.e. poured within just a few seconds of the kettle turning off. And it has to reach the surface of the sink (bottom, walls, drainer, taps) from an area of a couple of inches of where the spout hits the sink, or it will have cooled off too much. And ideally you should do it in one go.

I don’t know why I find it so hard. My rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi have both said it’s easy. Mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) do it all the time. But something – perhaps some autistic body coordination problem, the reason I’m awful at ball games? – stops me doing it. Of course, OCD kicks in too: after two or three seconds I stop, convinced I’ve spent too long pouring when I probably still have a second or two to keep pouring.

Whatever the reason, I can’t do it in one go. I take seven or eight, maybe more, doing the drainer and taps, than the base of the sink, then the walls one by one, sometimes repeating bits I’m not happy with. This time I got to the end and couldn’t remember if I’d done the side nearest me. I was 80% sure I had, but not 100%. I decided 80% would have to be good enough; do it again, and I’ll be there all night doubting myself, redoing bits, fuelling the OCD. My rabbi mentor says I only have to get 51% of the sink for it to be considered done. I have no idea if I managed that. We put a plastic bowl in on Pesach anyway, which is a useful belts and braces approach.

It didn’t help that Mum and Dad were in and out of the kitchen the whole time while I was doing this, which just made me feel more awkward. I felt pretty rotten afterwards, not sure if I’d done the right thing and feeling undischarged anxiety pent up inside me. I hate this job, but I worry my parents wouldn’t do it the way I would like, so I have to do it myself.

I appreciate that this is probably very far from what most people would see as the place of religion. For what it’s worth, I feel that if I do this every year, despite hating it, purely because it is what God wants, according to the rabbis, then that is a kind of sacrifice.

Even this was not the end of the day. After dark, we did the traditional search of the house by candlelight for chametz. We were all pretty exhausted and not in the best temper. Usually this would be done on the night before Pesach, but that’s Shabbat (the Sabbath) this year, so we do it earlier.

With all of this, it’s probably no surprise I barely managed ten minutes of Torah study. Hopefully I can catch up over Pesach.

***

I feel that maybe I shouldn’t talk about OCD thoughts and anxiety here. Or at least, it’s hard to know what to say about them. They aren’t anywhere near the intensity of when my OCD was at its height a few years ago. Although I would like to hear from my rabbi mentor about one or two things, I’m mostly feeling OK, although something happened today that (frankly) freaked me out for five or ten minutes into stronger anxiety. Everyone has OCD-type “weird” thoughts all the time. The difference is that most people dismiss them easily, but people with OCD fixate on them and worry about them and their implications. I’m not at the OCD end of obsessing about things endlessly, but I’m not at the point of just brushing things off either.

The problem is that checking is bad for OCD, as it just fuels it. You can never be 100% certain, so checking just encourages double and triple checking. In Orthodox Jewish culture, it feels normal to check questions with a rabbi, particularly at Pesach, when the dietary rules are so different from the rest of the year, but that’s counter-productive with OCD. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I’m just trying to focus on trying my best and hoping that’s enough, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it would be.

***

Ashley pointed me in the direction of this article on autistic burnout. I found it interesting that it sees burnout as being long-term, over a period of weeks or months. I have probably had burnout like that (possibly some of my depressive episodes were actually major burnout), but I experience extreme fatigue and desire to withdraw also on a regular basis for short periods (days or even hours). I certainly agree that burnout can cause loss of skills. I am fairly sure I lose skills in the short-term when burnt out, and I suspect I have lost skills long-term too, particularly my librarian skills. I also seem to make more mistakes in writing than I used to (wrong words, apostrophes), and find it harder to spot them. I used to be a good proof-reader; I’m not sure that I still am.

***

I’m not sure if I’ll get the time to write tomorrow. It’s not technically Erev Pesach (the day before Pesach), but as Erev Pesach is Shabbat, most of the usual Erev Pesach tasks get done tomorrow. It’s the busiest day of the year and I don’t know if I’ll get time to write. And then I’ll be incommunicado until Monday evening! I’ll be glad to actually get to Pesach after such a stressful build up.

Busy Busy Busy

I woke up at 9.30am, but didn’t feel well enough to get up until nearly 11.00am. I don’t know if autistic burnout is my least favourite part of autism, but it’s up there. The hardest thing is not really having a clear conception of it (I haven’t seen much written about it) and blaming myself for laziness even though I know, on some level, it goes deeper than that.

I planned a busy afternoon and early evening of Pesach preparation, but forgot and in some cases did not know, that other stuff would be happening and had to delay while people got out of my way or I got roped in to helping them. We had our burglar alarm serviced today, which was not a good idea (not mine).

I actually did quite a bit: kashered the hob (put pots on it and heated it up to purge it for Pesach, then covered the grates with aluminium foil), thoroughly cleaned the kitchen sink so I can kasher it tomorrow, put away the non-kosher for Pesach over-the-counter medicines (most medicine is kosher for Pesach, but soluble tablets or stuff with taste like throat sweets and cough mixture is problematic) and went for a half-hour walk. I spent some time writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week too, which is good, as I didn’t think I would get it written this week. My other Torah study was listening to a recorded shiur (religious class) while I ate dinner. I was too tired to read any more of my new haggadah.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like I did so much, considering how close it is to Pesach, but I got roped into a few other chores too and some of these things had preparation time, so by the time it got to 6.30pm I was ready to drop, even if I hadn’t made the charoset (the thick dip eaten at the Pesach seder) which I had hoped to do today.

There were a few things I did for Pesach that were not necessarily done the ideal way. This makes me worry a bit, in terms of religious OCD worries about things being done perfectly, but I’ve been trying to just push through my OCD fears. It is draining, though, and probably does contribute to my exhaustion. It’s just another thing for me to be juggling. I also feel sorry for my rabbi mentor who still has to put up with nervous WhatsApp messages from me checking that I’ve done things correctly.

***

I haven’t seen PIMOJ for a while. I’m actually not sure how long, which is bad of me. We couldn’t see each other for ages because of lockdown and mutual Pesach stress, plus she’s having to do a lot of overtime at work lately. We were going to meet next Wednesday, but it turned out I was double-booked with my sister and brother-in-law. I thought we were seeing them on Tuesday, but it turns out to be Wednesday. PIMOJ was very good about changing the date. I’m seeing PIMOJ on Monday 5 April (bank holiday). At least we’ll be able to stay out all afternoon with Pesach stress over (I will be naughty and leave some of the post-Pesach tidying to my parents).

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Pesach

I got up a little earlier today, arguably not as early as I needed to, and need to do for the rest of the week, but a bit earlier. My main achievement of the day was cooking almond macaroons for Pesach. It took quite a while, although the recipe is easy, because I didn’t know where all the stuff was in the garage (which functions as our Pesach kitchen, or part of it – it has sinks, fridge-freezer and cupboards, but no oven or hob) and because I was the first person in our house to do Pesach cooking this year, so everything was still boxed up after last year.

The biscuits turned out OK, although I’m worried they will fall apart when we take them off the baking paper. However, I had a big shock when I opened the oven to put the biscuits in: a blob of brown goo like cake mixture on the door of the oven and matching splash mark on the floor of the oven where it impacted. I went into panic mode thinking we had somehow let chametz (leavened) food into our oven after it was cleaned and/or kashered, rendering it unusable for Pesach. I sent some panicked texts to my rabbi mentor. After I calmed down, I looked at it again with my Dad and we both felt it was extremely unlikely that the professional oven cleaner missed this or that chametz somehow got into the oven after it had been cleaned. The most likely explanation is that a dollop of oven cleaning chemical stuck to the door of the oven when the oven cleaner cleaned it, and when the door was shut it dripped down the door and splashed at the bottom. I decided to act as if it was all OK and baked the biscuits. My rabbi mentor later said I did the right thing. I guess the good thing is that I didn’t freak out with religious OCD about it, at least, not for more than a couple of minutes.

I was pretty exhausted after that. I walked to the shops with my Dad, which I didn’t really want to do, as I was tired, but I said I would help him carry the milk home. My Torah study for the day was listening to an online shiur. I started writing my devar Torah for the week while cooking dinner (it was vegetarian kedgeree, which doesn’t require much active work once the rice and eggs are cooking, so I can sit nearby and type). I feel it’s a bit lightweight, but writing one this week is hard with so much Pesach stuff going on. I thought of finishing writing it after dinner, but decided I was too tired and left it for tomorrow. I would have liked to have baked more biscuits (cinnamon balls), but ran out of time and energy. Oh well. Perhaps from misplaced guilt, I polished more of the silver while watching This is Us, but I ran out of energy long before the end.

I want to do more than I was able to do (again). I feel bad, because I wouldn’t be able to make Pesach without my parents doing a lot, but then, I wouldn’t get through an ordinary week without my parents, at least not easily. Despite supposedly being recovered from depression, I couldn’t survive without their help, even without the financial question of how I could support myself on two days of work a week. I feel that, aged thirty-seven, I ought to be more self-sufficient, but I’m not and maybe I never will be, and that’s something I somehow need to come to terms with.

The Talmud states that no one dies with even half their desires fulfilled. It’s tempting to read this as no average person dies with half their desires fulfilled, but I think it applies to righteous people too. It’s just that their desires are nobler. I don’t know if I’m righteous, but I feel this a lot, that I don’t manage the Torah study and prayer and chesed (kindness, in this case helping around the house) that I would like, and maybe I never will.

The OK Day I Nearly Ruined; and Fear of Sin

I think today was an OK day that I nearly turned into a bad day by trying to fix it badly.

Work was OK, but dull, mostly going through old papers to see if I could throw them away. Looking at the paper trail left by office politics and arguments from a decade ago feels both voyeuristic and depressing – events that clearly angered people to the point that legal action was considered has now left no discernible trace, except for a few letters that have now gone in the bin. It really will all be the same in a hundred years.

I feel that my Pesach (Passover) religious OCD has really kicked in. I’m anxious about a couple of Pesach-related things. However, my parents don’t think I’m much more anxious than the last few years. To be fair, I’ve been a lot worse in the past, I just thought I was over this. I thought Pesach didn’t make me anxious any more, or not this anxious. Maybe it’s not something you are ever “over” just as getting over depression doesn’t mean you won’t have days when you feel depressed.

I got back from home fairly early and decided I would go for a run. This was where I wanted to fix the day. I thought exercise would help shift the OCD anxiety and boost my mood, but it went a bit wrong. I didn’t manage my usual 5K run because my foot hurt. I also got tired, probably because I’d already walked a lot today (to the station and then to the bank and back at work). I probably continued running longer than I should have done, given that my foot was hurting. So I came home feeling tired and down rather than tired and satisfied.

Possibly on an unconscious level, going for a run was influenced by having a bad body image day. I don’t have particularly great body image (does anyone?), but I don’t really think about it much either, except when I see myself in the mirror getting in and out of the shower. I’m on the fringes of being overweight, and have been since being put on clomipramine, but I’ve learned to accept it (sort-of) as the price I pay for a medication combination that keeps me reasonably well. But today I was just feeling fat. It’s not exactly an easy time of year from a healthy eating point of view, as we try to finish all the leftover chametz (leavened) food and then spend eight days eating matzah, which is pretty fattening, especially as you have to eat it with something (butter, cheese, jam, etc.) which makes it more fattening.

I did feel somewhat better after dinner, just very tired and apprehensive about the rest of the week. I’m not sure why this Pesach feels so hard. It’s a lockdown Pesach, but so was last Pesach, and last Pesach Mum was undergoing chemotherapy and while the prognosis was good, we had no way of knowing that it would ultimately be successful. The stakes should feel a lot lower this time. I guess there are a few factors that make this Pesach hard: it starts on Saturday night, which adds a whole load of hassle for reasons that would take a long time to explain (just trust me, it’s not good); I’m working for the first time around Pesach since 2018 (I’m glad that J basically told me not to come in on Thursday, which is a big help); and I have a girlfriend for the first time since I broke up with my first girlfriend on Pesach in 2013 (that was a bad Pesach), which is good, but adds a lot of stressful thoughts about how we can meet during lockdown and how the relationship is going and whether we will weather all the difficulties inherent in it. I think what I’m saying is that this is a Pesach where I’m juggling a lot of non-Pesach-related balls along with the usual Pesach ones, in a way that I haven’t had to do for a while (even last year when Mum had chemo it didn’t impact me so much personally, except that I did a bit more cooking).

I made a tactical decision not to do any more Torah study after dinner, even though I had only managed about thirty-five minutes today and worry I won’t finish the haggadah commentary I’m reading before Pesach. I thought that trying to study more would just deplete me and make me feel worse. I watched Babylon 5 and helped Mum and Dad by polishing some of the silver, although I was too tired to do much of that.

So it was an OK day in the end, but I nearly tipped it over to a bad one by trying to hard to turn it around. There is probably a message there.

***

It’s weird. I don’t think I have a particularly punitive view of God. With other people, if they do even very slightly good things (religiously speaking), I praise and encourage them. And I genuinely believe God will look favourably on them. I don’t know who exactly gets in to Heaven, but I know I don’t believe in a God who condemns billions to eternal suffering. And yet. It’s so hard to take the view of, “I do the best I can and leave the rest to God” as at least one rabbi encouraged me to do.

I think I’m a person who fears sin. This is a concept in the Talmud. It’s very different to a person who fears punishment. Fearing punishment is a low level, kind of the lowest level of doing the right thing, just doing it to avoid being punished. Fearing sin, on the other hand, is much higher, a sensitivity to the spiritual consequences of apparently trivial actions.

The way it seems to me is like I’m in a palace made of delicate crystal or even ice, representing the world as it exists on a spiritual level, not necessarily the spiritual universes described in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), but a metaphor for the way the life prescribed by Judaism creates a way of life with tangible effects in the physical world. Moving without the correct attention, as laid out in the Torah, risks cracking or even breaking off the delicate ornamentation. Do enough wrong and the fabric of the building is at risk.

Switching metaphors, I also fear the consequences for my relationship with God of transgressing His word. Even if I do it unintentionally, I worry if I could have tried harder or found some other solution. I don’t want to risk cutting myself off from Him, which is cutting oneself off from life, as God is the source of life. The thought of doing that is horrifying. This is why Pesach is such an ordeal, because the punishment for eating chametz (leaven) on Pesach is karet, being “cut off” from God (probably referring to losing one’s share in the next world and possibly to premature death in this world too; it’s debated among the authorities). The fact that Pesach is once a year doesn’t really help. Shabbat is a major commandment with a serious punishment too (I actually wrote a devar Torah on this recently; the Talmud says keeping – or breaking- Shabbat is equivalent to keeping or breaking the entire Torah), but it comes around every seven days, so I get a lot of exposure therapy that means that most of the time I can enjoy Shabbat without thinking of the potential consequences of error. But Pesach is once a year, so I don’t get much exposure therapy. (Although the thought of doing Pesach once a week is pretty terrifying!)

***

OK, considering I didn’t think I had enough material for a post today, this has got too long. I don’t feel tired enough to sleep, but I think I’ve had enough screen time for today (or will have soon, as PIMOJ asked me to text her about my day).

I Want To Break Free

I couldn’t sleep last night. I had slept during the day, I often struggle to sleep after a migraine, and the migraine itself meant that I didn’t take my antidepressants until after midnight, and I usually rely on them to knock me out, so it wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was frustrating not to fall asleep until 4am. I did get up about 10am today, which was good, as there was a lot of Pesach cleaning to do.

The cleaners we booked to come in addition to our usual cleaner to do a lot of basic cleaning downstairs before Pesach have cancelled two weeks running now, so we’re having to do more. I appreciate that “Our cleaners – and not regular cleaner, just our Pesach back-up cleaners – have cancelled” is probably the epitome of middle class first world problems. There’s a global pandemic, the worst recession in centuries, genocide in China, a coup in Myanmar etc. Cleaners cancelling is not a big deal, even a week before Pesach. To be honest, I’m a bit glad: if this is the worst of our Pesach trouble, we should be OK.

I’m not sure how long I cleaned for, probably about two hours. I also managed a walk and some Torah study, and Mum cut my hair, but I would have liked to have done more cleaning. I ran out of time and energy. I wish I knew why my energy depletes so quickly. Possibly I’m just getting older, although I don’t hit forty for a couple more years. I did speak to PIMOJ for over an hour, which was good, although would have liked to speak more had I not been conscious that it was getting late and I have work tomorrow.

As the day went on and my stress levels increased and I got tired and hungry, I became more prone to religious OCD-type thoughts again. They are essentially contamination fears about our food, only with the fear being about religious contamination (non-kosher contamination into kosher food; chametz (leaven) into Pesach food) rather than germs. It’s frustrating and I worry what state I will be in by the end of the week, but I did mostly cope OK even if I want to check some things with my rabbi mentor. One book I have on “pure O” OCD (obsessive thoughts without compulsions including religious OCD) is called The Imp of the Mind and it does feel a bit like this external monster stirring up my thoughts when I’m stressed and hungry.

It’s tempting to want to carry on cleaning or doing Torah study and/or seder preparation late at night, but deep down I know I need to unwind a bit or I’ll be a mess tomorrow, emotionally and possibly physically too. It’s hard to see watching TV as necessary and justified even though it probably is. This is the first year I’m juggling Pesach and paid work and a relationship, so maybe it’s not a surprise that I’m a bit more stressed than usual even without lockdown complicating things further.

While cleaning I Want to Break Free by Queen came on my ipod on shuffle. That would seem appropriate anthem for this Pesach on so many levels: the usual Pesach level of the story of the exodus, the usual Pesach cleaning, lockdown, trying to stay free of OCD…

***

I finished reading Contact last night. I’m glad I stuck with it, as it did get better, and the end was more open to religion than I expected, but I do wish non-religious writers wouldn’t assume that all religious people think like Bible Belt Evangelicals. Also, I now have a serious space issues on my bookshelves. I could buy another bookcase, but I couldn’t fit it in my bedroom easily, and I already have most of my Jewish books downstairs in the dining room on one of my parents’ bookcases.

***

After my headache subsided last night, I said the prayers I had skipped when I was feeling sick. The Ma’ariv for Motzei Shabbat (Evening prayers for the evening after the Sabbath) contain a long anthology of verses of blessing for the new week and finish with a Talmud passage to start the new week with Torah study. It says (Megillah 31a, translation from the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur):

Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the LORD your GOD is GOD of gods and LORD of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring GOD, who shows no favouritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” It is repeated in the Prophets, as it says: “So says the High and Exalted One, who lives for ever and whose name is Holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” It is stated a third time in the Writings: “Sing to GOD, make music for His name — and exult before Him.” Immediately afterwards it is written: “Father of the fatherless and Judge of widows is GOD in His holy habitation.”

What struck me yesterday is that the verses about humility have very little to do with what in English we would think of as humility. Rather than being about putting yourself down or avoiding praise, they focus on hesed (love, kindness) and tzedakah (charity, justice, social justice). This would seem to indicate that humility is more about openness and care for others than anything about the self; if anything, it is putting aside thinking about the self (either in either a positive or negative way) and focusing your attention on the other.

Rabbi Twerski z”tl also said that humility is focusing on others, while pride is focusing on the self. Also that pride is past-focused (“I did X”) and humility is future-focused (“I will do X”).

“To be more like people better than you”

(Title quote from Amateur Hour by Sparks)

Today was not good, although I suppose it could have been worse. But I felt overwhelmed (my new keyword) most of the day. I overslept this morning. Actually, I didn’t oversleep; I was awake, I was just too tired to get up and then suddenly it was half an hour later and I had to rush. On the way in to work I felt overwhelmed and anxious: about Pesach (Passover), about autism, my relationship, my life, and the guy opposite me on the Tube not wearing his mask so he could drink beer 9am. (I’m open to the idea of beer-drinking at 9am being OK for some people, but I don’t consider it sufficient reason to remove one’s mask.)

At work I made mistakes, and also discovered mistakes made earlier e.g. the stationery order I placed on Monday arrived and I discovered that I had ordered one ream of printer paper instead of one box as J, my line manager, had requested. There were other mistakes, and J noticed some of them. He didn’t say much about it, which is good, but also makes it hard for me to judge how satisfied he is with my work. I think there tends to be a programme running in my head all the time wondering about that.

At lunch J asked what book I was reading, the first time he’s shown any interest in my lunchtime reading. Perhaps because my interests were the focus of much childhood bullying, I tend to get really nervous about talking about my interests with anyone outside of narrow “boxes” – so I only feel comfortable talking about Doctor Who with people I know from fandom, only talk about Judaism with other frum (religious) Jews and so on. (Somehow the internet is OK to share and overshare all kinds of stuff, don’t ask me why.)

In the afternoon, J got me to start going through old papers from the office, the start of a long clear out. I tend to be a hoarder with my own papers and property, but if I’m not responsible for the articles in question, I end up wanting to throw everything away. I asked J about a lot of the papers and he told me to keep a lot of it, so I’m not sure how much autonomy I’ll actually have over this task. To be honest, I’m not terribly keen on having autonomy over other people’s things. I did throw away a load of invoices from before 2010 that were unlikely to be used again, but I do feel vaguely apprehensive thinking about it. Unfortunately, it was a dull task that did not use much of my brain and I got stuck in negative thoughts and feelings again and wondered if I am becoming depressed again.

My Mum said that I should tell J about the autism diagnosis. I’m reluctant to do so, partly I admit because J is a friend from before when he gave me the job. I mentioned above about compartmentalising things, and I’ve been reluctant to tell people from shul (synagogue) even about my depression history, let alone something like autism that is understood and accepted even less well than depression. If I do that, I would want to prepare what I would say about autism (if people ask me suddenly I tend to blank and struggle to articulate the symptoms, let alone how it affects me personally) as well as what adjustments, if any, I would want.

That was not the end of the day. The journey home was stressful, with a lot of traffic. I don’t know why sitting in traffic is stressful. A half-hour journey with heavy traffic seems more stressful than a forty-five minute with no traffic. So I came back pretty frazzled, only to be thrown into dealing with Pesach OCD stuff. I’m OK, I know things are OK and I’m not falling back into serious religious OCD, I’m just trying to stay calm and cope with things. My OCD is always worst when I’m hungry and tired and I was both of those things when I got home from work. It’s OK now.

PIMOJ haven’t been able to meet much recently, not that we can really go anywhere at the moment anyway because of lockdown. She is doing a full-time job with significant compulsory overtime two nights a week, plus she’s doing a degree and getting ready for Pesach. At least once the clocks go forward we can buy coffee or takeaway dinner after work and eat in a park, but at the moment it still gets dark too early. I know she’s not avoiding me, but I miss her and I still worry about the stress it puts on our relationship.

So, now I write, write, write, because it helps to get things out of my head and process them. I’m only writing on my blog, as I’ve put my novel on hold until I can show it to someone, which won’t be until after Pesach. To be honest, I’ve lost faith in it. I’d be tempted to start working on a different novel that I’ve been thinking about (is that writing bigamy? Or cheating?), but it requires significant research, both factual (details for the setting) and literary (reading other books in the genre) and I don’t have the time or headspace for that at the moment.

I feel too exhausted to do any Pesach preparation or further Torah study tonight. Yesterday, I said on my blog that I was going to watch more TV, but then felt too tired to actually do so, so I’m not going to do anything as reckless as say I’ll watch TV now. I feel tired, but I want to unwind more before I go to bed. I guess it’s a race to see if I can stay awake long enough to read or watch Babylon 5.

Getting Inside Other People’s Heads

Today was a difficult day. Perhaps the stress of the season is beginning to hit me, or perhaps I just did too much Zooming yesterday. I experienced intrusive thoughts of different kinds in the morning and felt overwhelmed and anxious at work. The anxiety was fairly unfocused, touching work, Pesach (Passover) preparations and my relationship (not the relationship itself but the obstacles to moving it forward). I felt an inner tension. At work, I was continuing with the inventory of relatively expensive objects and when I stood on a chair to reach those on the top shelf, I felt a bit of vertigo and anxiety about falling off the chair or dropping the objects and breaking them. I had to get J to help me get one of them down because I was worried I would shake and drop it, although I made out that I just couldn’t reach it (J is taller than me).

After that, J and I practised the new task he wants me to do and I found it difficult. There’s a lot to memorise and it requires quick thinking to follow different permutations of responses based on what the other person says. I’m unwilling to play the autism card yet, but I need to see how I can cope with it in real life rather than role play. He suggested that we role play it some more. I agreed, and also said that the next time the situation arises in real life, he should let me take the call with him in the room so he can prompt me if necessary, rather than waiting until he’s out of the office and I have to do it alone.

On the way home, J reiterated that he’d like to give me a permanent part-time job. I had thought this was dependent on finances, but it sounds like it’s more dependent on institutional politics. I couldn’t follow all of what he was saying as he had the radio on and I find it hard to tune background noise out and was too socially anxious to ask him to turn it off, but it sounds like there’s someone in the organisation who would potentially block making my job permanent, but he retires in June, so if I can stay for another four months, I’m likely to get a permanent job. This would be very good.

Otherwise the journey home was a bit stressful with more depressing news on the radio, more on misogyny and murder, as well as the withdrawal of the AstraZeneca vaccine in much of Europe. This was the vaccine I had, so I’m vaguely nervous, although I think there’s a lot of politics at work here and the number of deaths supposedly related to the vaccine seems tiny. I came home to news of another alleged abuse story, this time in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Abuse seems depressingly prevalent in all societies.

***

I could have gone to depression group tonight, but was too exhausted for more Zooming. Also, last time I spoke about my then-upcoming autism assessment, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my diagnosis yet. I can’t really explain why, I just don’t feel ready. I haven’t spoken to my therapist about it yet (my first therapy session since the diagnosis is on Wednesday) and there’s an aspect of the diagnosis that I have not told anyone else about yet that I really want to speak to my therapist about and maybe that has something to do with it.

***

I managed about twenty-five minutes of Torah study on the Tube into work and spent half an hour typing up some of my notes of things I learnt yesterday that I want to share at the seder. I’m trying to look at the average amount of time I study Torah each week rather than the amount each day; doing five or six hours yesterday should stand me in good stead for a bit.

***

I’m still watching Babylon 5. It’s very well-written, particularly the character arcs for G’Kar and Londo. How the writers (mostly J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about 85% of the series) turn G’Kar from a violent hothead into a man of peace, and turn Londo from a washed up joke into a ruthless politician and war criminal and then give him a hint of redemption without any of this progress seeming forced or unnatural. How G’Kar and Londo go from being bitter enemies to firm friends. How neither character is unlikeable or two-dimensional even when doing terrible things. Most of this is ahead of me (I’m only halfway through season two of five), but it already makes my own writing feel inferior, reminding me how I failed to make the abuser in my novel into a rounded character and how I’m not sure how to change that.

I guess thinking myself into the head of an abuser is on my mind today because of the murder and misogyny in the news. Some of the intrusive thoughts have been around this. I’ve wondered for many years about how people can hurt other people. I find it hard to get into their heads. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about murder, how people can do it, how they can live with it. I can’t even imagine living with myself if I killed someone in self-defence or in a just war, let alone in cold blood. I guess this is the writer (and reader) in me, the part of me that wants to explore other lives, although I’m not so good at thinking it through beyond the initial revulsion, let alone writing about it.

There’s a short story by perhaps my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges, called Deutsches Requiem, where he writes from the perspective of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal on the eve of his execution. It’s a chilling piece of writing that somehow makes you see the world through the eyes of a thoroughly evil person and feel some kind of empathy for him. I have a long way to go to get to that level of writing.

Feeling Withdrawn

I didn’t write yesterday. I didn’t have much to say and just felt too tired in the evening after work, housework and doing some Pesach (Passover) stuff. I guess I’m also still processing things in the light of my autism diagnosis. I still don’t know what it means for me in terms of career, telling friends, telling my community and so on. Maybe I won’t know for some time, until after Pesach when I have more time to think.

I don’t have much to say today either. I don’t feel that I have much to say at the moment except for relatively mild Pesach anxiety, but the blog is my main social outlet, so I feel the need to post most days even if I don’t have much to say.

I had an OCD moment today when I worried that I had missed part of the freezer when I cleaning it for Pesach on Sunday and was about to clean it again before deciding that it was OCD and I shouldn’t give in to it. It’s good that I stopped myself.

I’m going to go to shul (synagogue) later today. Aside from Purim, this is the first time I’ve been in months, not considering the risk of COVID worth running for an normal Shabbat (Sabbath). I just feel drained right now and I don’t know why. I guess I’ve had a busy and emotional week, although it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

***

J gave me a lift home from work yesterday and had the radio on in the car. He listens to talk radio and they were talking about violence against women in the light of the Sarah Everard murder case (an ongoing murder investigation that has pushed COVID and the royal family off the front pages for the last few days).

In the light of this conversation, I’ve been trying to work out if it’s good or bad that my novel deals with domestic violence in the Jewish community (I know I’ve wondered about this here before; it does still worry me). I worry about being accused of appropriation. I don’t find appropriation a particularly helpful concept, but that isn’t really the point: I can be judged whether I agree with it or not. My thinking is that the number of Orthodox Jewish women willing and able to write about abuse is very small — able in terms of both skills and time, and willing in a community where saying anything provocative tends to be seen as risking jeopardising marriage chances (yours, your children’s, your grandchildren’s…), not least given the tiny size of the Orthodox community as a whole. My feeling from reading the anonymous website neshamas.com is that abuse and violence against women is a very real problem in the community, but also that almost no one is willing to talk about it publicly. I feel like I can’t be pushed much further out on the fringe than I already am and I feel that if I’m not willing to talk about it, maybe no one else will. But I worry about being patronising, or being whatever the feminist equivalent of a white saviour is.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ devar Torah email this week states, “Here, there is a call for us always to speak out; to try our utmost to neutralise the forces of persecution and never to be silent when we witness the suffering of others.” So I guess that means I’m doing the right thing.

Pesach OCD, and Mood Dips

My vaccine side-effects seem to have gone now, except for a soreness on my arm where I was injected.

***

We started Pesach (Passover) cleaning today. Pesach demands the complete removal of leavened bread, leavened bread products, utensils used for them and food cooked with those utensils. Moreover, while the usual Jewish dietary laws don’t worry about tiny crumbs, the Pesach laws do. Historically, this has been a target for my Pesach OCD, which manifests as much as a contamination OCD as a religious OCD (religious OCD more often manifests as obsessive doubt, about one’s own righteousness or the existence of God or worry about impure thoughts).

Cleaning the fridges and freezers, as we started doing today, is OKish, as we don’t worry too much about cold surfaces (we worry more about heated areas where food might get baked in) and it’s quite easy to drench everything with cif or other cleaners to ensure any crumbs are inedible (chemical-drenched crumbs are inedible and therefore no longer considered “food”; the dietary laws only apply to food, not inedible items). I have been worrying a bit that I didn’t do it well enough, though, which may be because I think I forgot to take my clomipramine this morning (anti-depressant that also helps with OCD).

I saw a greetings card in a Jewish shop a while back that annoyed me. It showed a Jewish OCD support group where the members were saying that they loved Pesach cleaning. There’s a lot wrong with this. First, people with OCD don’t enjoy their compulsions. If they do, then it’s not OCD; anxiety about the compulsion is part of the diagnostic criteria. Second, OCD doesn’t equal cleanliness. It can manifest in all kinds of ways, and even hygiene OCD, which is what the cartoonist was probably thinking about, doesn’t necessarily go with neatness and cleanliness. You can be obsessive about sterilising door handles and still leave your clothes strewn across the floor every evening. Third, as I mentioned above, OCD can manifest as contamination OCD at Pesach, fear of leavened food contaminating Pesach food, which can lead on to fear of inadequate cleaning or kashering (heating a surface or item to remove traces of leavened food).

***

After Pesach cleaning for an hour and a bit, I did some food shopping and went for a walk. My mood dipped significantly after that. I thought it might be low blood sugar and it did get better after eating a cereal bar, but it dipped again a while after that. I did half an hour of Torah study and spent ten minutes planning my devar Torah for the week. I would have liked to have spent more time on either of these, but I just got too depressed for it to be viable. As I noted above, I’m wondering if I forgot to take my meds this morning. It’s possible and it would explain the way my mood suddenly got worse this evening in a way that hasn’t happened for a long time.

***

When my mood dipped today, I’ve been having negative thoughts, or just negative feelings (I don’t accept the CBT idea that negative feelings are always caused by negative thoughts). Some of these have been about my relationship, that I can’t cope with being in a relationship, making sacrifices for someone else, even doing things with someone else rather than by myself and needing lots of time alone. But the thoughts were more about my writing ability. I guess people who try to work with their creativity are liable to worry that their talent and inspiration will just dry up, or weren’t even good enough to start with. Doubly so as I haven’t really sold anything yet, just one or two odd pieces of non-fiction writing (which isn’t where I’m trying to work now). I keep thinking that my mainstream novel of character is a mistake because I don’t read a huge amount of mainstream fiction any more and I’m not great at understanding people. So then I think about my plans for a series of Jewish fantasy/horror time-travel novels, but then I think about not having read enough of those genres. I don’t feel I could write a science fiction novel, even though it’s the genre I read the most.

I feel I don’t read the way I should to be a writer. I tend to read a lot of specific authors rather than reading lots of authors within a genre, or lots of genres to get an idea of what’s been done in that genre and what the tropes and cliches are. I still haven’t really found my voice and when I think about writing I admire that I’d like to take as an inspirational starting point, I think of TV as much as novels (Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel, Twin Peaks).

***

Medication issues aside, I guess I’m just stressed, like every other Jew who takes Pesach seriously is at this time of year. I guess stressed is OK. Hopefully I’ll be better tomorrow, once my meds are back in my system.

***

A friend emailed to say he really enjoyed my non-fiction Doctor Who book (the one I self-published) and has reviewed it for a fanzine/fan website. I’m pleased, although I wish I had the time and energy to set about making a second edition with a lower price and better cover. However, a second edition would really need a revised text too, to cover the last season of episodes and I don’t have the time. More importantly, my creative energies are directed to fiction now.

Neurotypicalism

I went to my autism support group on Zoom this morning. I was wary of it, as I find it a lot less helpful than depression group, but it was about relationships and I wanted to see if I would learn anything. The main thing I learnt is that the person who runs the meetings seems to have issues with neurotypicals and needs to work them through somewhere else rather than just ranting about them in the meeting. I left early because it was just too much. There wasn’t really much helpful advice, just some stuff about being authentic and making room for yourself in the relationship and feeling free to have non-standard relationships if that works for you. Someone there had been married for nearly fifty years, which is reassuring, although other people were speaking about not wanting to live with anyone at all. It makes me feel vaguely weird for wanting a “neurotypical standard” relationship involving marriage and living in the same house. I felt there wasn’t really enough talk about how to make compromises for a relationship rather than expecting your neurotypical partner to make compromises for you. The final straw was when the presenter said that, for autistic people, no means no, but neurotypical people are “play games” and often say no when they mean yes, which struck me as a misleading and dangerous thing to say.

I was also a bit worried by the number of people in the group who are quite happy living by themselves. Not worried for them, if they’re happy, but I’ve had mixed feelings about that. I have lived by myself at times and I coped and enjoyed parts of it, but I also found it very lonely and isolating at times. Realistically, there isn’t any easy way I can have people around me when I want them, but not when I don’t, so either living alone or with someone involves trade-offs. I also think that some of the people in the “want to live alone forever” group were OK with having casual sex, and I’m not, for various reasons, so that certainly does alter the cost/benefit analysis.

I spent an hour or so working on my devar Torah for the week, partially abandoning my original plan when I was unable to locate some quotes in the primary sources. I prefer to use primary sources than secondary ones, but I don’t always know where to find the primary sources for concepts and sayings I’ve picked up over the years, plus I’m often reliant on online sources and my imperfect Hebrew translation skills. I know I’m not alone in struggling to remember where I heard things as the internet is full of Jews either misattributing quotes and concepts or saying vaguely that, “It’s a Jewish idea that…” or “The rabbis say that…” Someone should make an index of well-known Talmudic and Midrashic stories and quotes. Famously, a lot of Jews, including some very frum (religious) ones, misremember the story about Avraham (Abraham) smashing up his father’s idol workshop as an actual passage in the Torah (it isn’t, it’s a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical narrative)).

After that, I did a mixture of Torah study and cooking and went for a 5K run, but I did feel a bit lost without either paid work or my novel to work on. I’m resting the novel for a few weeks until my writer/editor friend can look at it. I feel pretty negative about it at the moment, to be honest, and keep wondering what possessed me to try to a mainstream novel of character. Part of me wants to start on a new novel, but I know I have to stick with this one until it’s either ready for publication or definitely unpublishable.

I spoke to PIMOJ in the evening. To be honest, during and after my run I was having negative thoughts (personal worries, worries about antisemitism… the usual), but I did feel better after speaking to PIMOJ. We didn’t even talk about my issues, we just talked. It was good.

Lately I’ve had some minor religious OCD, not the Purim Megillah issue I wrote about, but “idolatrous” thoughts when I was trying to pray. I’ve had this a lot over the years. The easiest way to get rid of them is exposure therapy. Trying not to think about something tends to make you think about it, so the anxiety about not thinking X immediately prompts thoughts of X. The solution is to deliberately think about X a lot, so I spent time this evening repeating the phrase where I usually have the trouble while thinking the things I usually try not to think in the hope that I will get to a point where I’m so desensitised to thinking about them that I don’t try not to think about them (if that makes sense). I may have to do this for a number of days until it works, but I’ve responded well to this in the past.