“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.

Overloaded

I struggled to get up today, more than usual on a work day. I’m not sure why. I felt that I was falling asleep on the Tube too and did a lot less Torah study than I would normally manage (which I’m recording to show how tired I was more than how little Torah study I was doing). Work was mostly OK, but J was talking to me about the new task I’m going to be doing and it left me a bit panicked. Firstly, he gave over all the information verbally (although I was taking notes this time), which is not ideal for someone with autism (people on the spectrum tend to have problems processing verbal instructions). However, I have not told him about my issues and at the moment don’t feel comfortable in doing so, and in a tiny organisation realistically there isn’t really a better way to transmit the information. Secondly, the importance of the task and the relatively distressed people I will be coming into contact with is in itself anxiety-provoking, especially as they will be telephone conversations (my least favourite kind). I would like to say more, but can’t without revealing too much about the job. Also, realistically I know that in a new job or with a new task one learns from one’s mistakes, but I worry about making mistakes with distressed people.

I seemed to be quite anxious by the late afternoon. I’m not sure how much was thinking about this task and how much was anxiety about the final part of my autism assessment tomorrow morning. I was also anxious that PIMOJ asked me to message someone on her behalf. I was anxious about what to say and what his response would be. This is an ongoing thing that I’d like to talk about here, but don’t really feel able to do so yet and which provokes nuclear-level anxiety, as well as coexisting with general anxiety about whether I’m too much of an autistic loner to be able to maintain a relationship (my first relationship was probably somewhat immature, although I was in my late twenties; my second was long-distance (and on-off); and this is my third).

I came home feeling awful, terribly drained and overstimulated. I don’t think I’ve felt this overloaded since I was volunteering at the asylum seekers’ drop-in centre, where I would spent three or four hours in a very loud and busy environment, “peopling” and looking after small children and I would come home unable to do anything for hours. I did send the message and one or two other things, but I wasn’t able to do more Torah study or anything productive.

I did watch the first episode of This Is Us, the TV programme PIMOJ wanted to share with me. It was OK. I’m going to hold off from passing a verdict on it until I’ve seen more in a better state of mind, but at the moment I’m not hugely excited at the prospect of watching more episodes.

Trying Not to Get Annoyed

I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

***

Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

***

Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)

Pre-Shabbat Fragment

PIMOJ texted me before I went to bed last night and we texted back and forth for a few minutes. We texted again today. I feel better than I did after our call yesterday. Certainly I’m not worried that she’s about to break up with me.

I feel burnt out and overwhelmed again today. I didn’t really mention this to the psychiatrist yesterday, except in a general sense about lacking energy, because I assumed that, inasmuch as it has any medical origin, it’s because I’m autistic and perhaps still mildly depressed sometimes and therefore easily tired, especially by emotional stress and social contact. However, that does not make it easier to deal with. Maybe I should have mentioned it, although I’m not sure what I would have said.

The feelings of being overwhelmed are probably further rooted in the stresses and changes of a new job, as well as the COVID situation, rather than anything I can change right now. I am trying to focus on the present, and the good, and PIMOJ is good at bringing my attention back to these things.

My main concern today is trying to support someone who I fear needs different support to anything I can offer. I want to help, but I’m worried I’m just going to make a bad situation worse if I try. I guess knowing my limitations is also good, but it doesn’t feel good.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, and my inability to really change anything for the better, my inability often to even know what “better” would look like for many other people. I try to hold onto the belief that helping anyone is worthwhile, even if you can’t help everyone, and that sometimes just listening to people is all you can do to help them. Still, the urge to be Superman and fix the world for everyone is strong, despite my increasing convictions that dramatic plans to fix the world are often a way of making it a lot worse for lots of people.

This afternoon I have booked to go to shul (synagogue) for Shabbat (Sabbath) services for the first time since the second lockdown started. I’m vaguely nervous after having been away for a month again, although I’m more used to wearing a mask for long periods now. Friday nights in the winter can be hard; walking to and from shul in the dark can be cold and uncomfortable and make it hard to look forward to services, even without the usual Friday end of week exhaustion, let alone the feelings of being overwhelmed that I currently have..