Listless

Today I just feel exhausted and depressed, a bit anxious.  I would like to be vegetating in front of the TV.  What I don’t want to do is be preparing for another bout of DVD-free Shabbat, but that’s where I am today.  I could really have done with a few more days before Shabbat.  I’ve done some TV watching anyway.  I don’t really feel up to writing or Torah study today, not even writing here.  I just want to crash.

***

I increasingly feel like I really need to see a therapist again.  I just feel a bit of a mess.  Some of that is post-Pesach mental hangover, but I feel I also need some help to process some emotions to do with Mum’s cancer, and to do with my relationship with E, which is good, but hard to process because taking me into completely new territory on multiple levels.  I think I want to stay in lockdown, on some level, because it stops me needing to engage with my life.

Struggling

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Cargo Cult

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Defensive and Anxious

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Re-framing and Brokenness

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Post-Yom Tov Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

200 Hours (Approximately)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach Fail/OCD Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety Mostly Contained

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

The Banality of Lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

Feedback Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Exponentially-Expanding ‘To Read/Watch’ List

Today’s Pesach (Passover) task was cleaning the ovens in preparation for kashering them (cleaning and heating them for Passover use).  It was easier than I expected, but still took me about two hours.  I felt exhausted afterwards for the rest of the day.  I listened to another livestreamed online shiur (religious class) by Rabbi Lord Sacks (he seems to be doing them weekly at 5.30pm during the coronavirus crisis) and I did one or two small tasks, but that was all I really managed today.  I didn’t even get out for a walk.

This has been a time of forcing me to confront things.  I’ve taken on more of Pesach preparation in recent years anyway, but now I’m doing even more.  So far I have been OK with the religious OCD.  I have asked some questions of my rabbi mentor, but generally not panicked, and I’ve been OK with stuff that would have made me anxious even last year.  That said, I was worried about some things earlier today.  I can sort of see that they’re probably OK, but also I worry that they’re really not OK.  This is better than in the past when I would be a mess; also, part of my anxiety this time was from tiredness and hunger, which I know make the OCD anxiety worse.  At least I managed to deal with some things that would have induced ordinary kashrut (dietary law) OCD anxiety in the past without really giving in to it.

The hunger went after eating dinner and the OCD anxiety subsided a little, but I still feel tired and listless, but not sleepy (anyway, if I go to bed early, I know I’ll just sleep even longer than usual).  I wanted to do more Torah study or to write this week’s devar Torah (Torah thought), but I just don’t have the energy.  Ditto for working on that short story I started at the weekend and haven’t touched since.

It doesn’t help that I’ve got vaguely bored of the books I’m reading.  I’m reading a non-fiction book on the Russian Revolution, one of those small study aid-type books aimed at A-Level students and undergraduates.  I started reading it because I was trying to alternate between fiction and non-fiction and thought it would be a quick read, but I don’t really feel like reading non-fiction or heavy fiction in the lockdown.  I’m just struggling too much emotionally for anything heavy.  The other book is a Doctor Who spin-off novel that I’m re-reading, The Scales of Injustice, an attempt to mix the down-to-earth style of the 1970 series of Doctor Who with The X-Files conspiracy-type stories that were the rage when the book was published in 1996.  I was enjoying at first, but now, perhaps because of feeling overwhelmed with depression and anxiety, or perhaps because of unclear writing, I’m struggling to work out who the characters are in relation to each other, or what exactly is going on.  I am sufficiently involved to want to finish it, but I’m not sure how much of the remaining eighty pages I will actually understand and may need to look the book up on TARDIS Data Core (online Doctor Who encyclopaedia).

I actually feel like I’m swimming in Too Much Stuff rather than too little.  Aside from the DVDs I panic-bought when the lockdown started… and apart from the huge stack of unread fiction and non-fiction on my bookshelves… and apart from the blogs that are still posting despite the lockdown…  so many individuals and organisations are sending out things to read or watch.  Are most people just reading or watching stuff all day on lockdown?  The experience of me and my family is struggling with housework, minimal shopping, Pesach preparations and (for my parents) working from home, without much time/headspace for other things.  Admittedly a huge chunk of my day is taken up with sleeping because of depression, and my parents have to fit in regular hospital appointments, but I do still wonder how much free time other people have.

I’ve got four different emails from The Jewish Review of Books to read, some with more than one article in them.  I’ve got a whole free stand-up comedy show to watch from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian Ashley Blaker, who last week sent out a 100+ page joke book, which I’ve now read (admittedly most pages had just a couple of jokes on them).  I’ve got a couple of articles by Rabbi Lord Sacks to read, in addition to the livestreamed shiur I watched earlier. UnHerd.com is still updating with multiple articles every weekday, although I’m increasingly trying to avoid it, or be more careful about what I read, as a lot of the articles are scary coronavirus speculation that I can’t do anything about and might turn out not to be true tomorrow.  The same goes for the BBC news site, which I only really glance at anyway as the BBC’s idea of what constitutes a story and mine are not the same, even aside from political differences.

It’s hard for me to just skip or delete stuff.  Most of what I’ve mentioned above is likely to be interesting or amusing (E. won’t want me to link to a long piece of writing by her that I just read, but it was very good – I know you’re reading!).  I feel bad about missing things.  E. thinks this is something I should work on.  She has been urging me for a while to give up on a book partway through, something I almost never do.  I suppose there is fear of missing something.  With fiction, it’s wanting to know how the story ends, even if I’m not enjoying it.  Also complex feelings of obligation.

I feel a little better now, but I was naughty and ate ice cream to cheer myself up.  I’m also going to watch Life on Mars in a minute even though it will go way past my 11pm screens deadline, as if I don’t do some passive relaxation, I won’t sleep.

Thinking Versus Feeling

Possibly I did too much yesterday, as I felt very depressed on waking again today and struggled to get up and get dressed.  I felt a bit lonely today, despite my parents being around, and I miss E.  We don’t know when we’ll get to see each other in person again, which in some ways is no different to before coronavirus, except that previously E. was supposed to be coming to the UK for work reasons and now that’s been postponed indefinitely.  I didn’t really feel like doing anything, but my parents were depending on me for dinner, especially as Mum was feeling quite ill today with chemo side-effects.

Even once I had worked through the initial depression, or some of it, I had quite a lot of anxiety.  Some of that was Pesach (Passover) related.  Some was listening to another Intimate Judaism podcast and worrying about my relationship with E., although there isn’t any rational reason to do so.  Worrying that our religious differences would be too big to bridge despite all the other similarities.  Wondering if we will ever get to move our relationship forward, and how.  Wondering when we will be on the same continent!

On the plus side, I dropped the parev (neither dairy nor meat, according to the kosher food laws) measuring spoon into the milchig (milk) sink and calmly rinsed it off and moved on rather than going into a religious OCD panic and emailing my rabbi mentor as would have happened a few years ago.

***

In terms of achievements, I cooked dinner (while listening to the podcast) and helped look after Mum who, as I say, was quite ill today.  I also went for a jog.  I jogged for longer than usual both in terms of time (another five minutes or more) and distance (over half a mile more) and my pace was reasonably good; I think it actually improved in the added bit as I got my second wind.  I did end up with an exercise migraine, though, and I hurt my foot somehow, although both feel better now.  I Skyped E. and did about twenty-five or thirty minutes of Torah study; I don’t seem to be able to do much more at the moment except on Shabbat (the Sabbath).

***

I feel a bit like I should be volunteering at the moment.  In a way I am, because I’m helping with housework and especially cooking now Mum is ill and we don’t have a cleaner.  Still, I feel I should do more for the wider community, but the sad truth is that I’m barely coping with everything I have to do as it is (in fact, I’m not doing stuff I would want to do, like write fiction) and the Pesach stress is only just starting; next week will be much harder.  It’s hard just to keep going at the moment with depression and anxiety.  The clinching argument, of course, is that volunteering would probably expose me to coronavirus and other contagious illnesses that we’re trying to keep away from Mum at the moment.

***

I watched a(nother) silly Star Trek Voyager episode where the ship was attacked by a virus that has grown to macroscopic size and is now a foot long and flies through the air attacking people with its stinger (?!).  Maybe coronavirus isn’t so bad.

***

Two religious thoughts I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Although a lot of Judaism is intellectual and text-focused, much of it is emotional and experiential, especially the festivals, none more so than Pesach with the symbolic foods we eat and the foods we deliberately don’t eat.  Given the problems I’ve historically had accessing and accepting my emotions, it is perhaps not surprising that I struggle with this.  On seder night, the first two nights of Pesach, when we tell the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and eat the symbolic foods of matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) and drink the four cups of wine (grape juice in my case, because of medication interactions), I seem to end up thinking hard about the symbolism rather than emotionally connecting to it.  Possibly if I could stop thinking about things (things in general) and just experience them, my life, and especially my Jewish life, would be much better.  I need to focus less on thinking and more on feeling.

(An aside: the Kotzker Rebbe was once confronted by a Chabad Hasid who waxed lyrical on the Chabad mode of prayer, all emanations and unifications.  But where, said the Kotzker, is the pupik (literally the belly button), where are the emotional guts of the matter?)

2) I have historically struggled with bitachon, trust in God.  In particular, the idea that good can come of my long mental health history is something that I struggled to engage with emotionally, even if I could vaguely see it intellectually (that thinking-feeling dichotomy again).

Lately, as E. and I have tried to make our long-distance relationship work, I can sort of see how some negative or difficult things brought me to where I am now, where I’m in a relationship with her.  If I hadn’t been depressed, I would never have set up this blog and I would never have met E.  If I had been better integrated into the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community, I probably would not have contemplated being with E.  If I hadn’t struggled growing up with being more religious, or at least wanting to be more religious, than my parents were, I wouldn’t have learnt how to handle such conflicts in my relationship with E.  And so on.

Still, even though I can see that maybe there was a reason for all those things, I’m still terrified that things won’t work out for E. and me, that this is setting me up for another disappointment, the worst one yet.  I’m trying to trust, but it’s hard.

***

It’s also late.  My “No screens after 11pm” rule has been broken flagrantly this evening, but I am up late partly because I was being a good boyfriend and a good son, talking to E. and looking after my Mum, so I don’t feel too bad.  I am tired though, and hungry.  So hitting ‘Publish’ now.

Busy But Anxious

I wrote this yesterday, but for some reason it didn’t publish properly and went to my saved drafts instead.  I’m posting it here with one addition at the end.

I fear these posts are becoming repetitive, or even more repetitive than usual.  Each day is much the same as the one before at the moment, except for different Pesach (Passover) preparations.  That said, I’m struggling with a lot of anxiety today, more than usual, which isn’t so surprising as a lot of anxiety-triggering things happened.  On the plus side, that meant that I was doing a lot despite being anxious.

I discussed with Mum and Dad whether the oven cleaner should still come later in the week to clean it for Pesach.  We generally get him to come to clean the oven before we kasher it (clean and heat it up, basically) for Pesach use.  I was surprised he was still working and felt it was a bad idea for him to come while Mum is vulnerable from chemo, which was a kind of health anxiety, but anxiety for Mum’s health rather than mine.  My parents initially wanted him to come, but I managed to talk them around, probably because I think none of us really wanted him to come, we just thought that everyone else wanted it and were going along with it.  We won’t get the oven as clean as he would, but I think the risk of Mum getting coronavirus or even something else like the flu is too high to be worth it.  Nevertheless, my anxiety level shot up when my parents said that he should come and didn’t subside when we decided he wouldn’t.

Then I cleaned the sinks in the garage today, the ones we use for Pesach (Passover).  This involved confronting a lot of religious OCD fears about “contamination” (to use a non-Jewish, OCD word) of Pesach surfaces and utensils with crumbs of leaven food, forbidden on Pesach.  The fear wasn’t totally imaginary, as we do occasionally put non-Pesach food down out there during the year, but the reality wasn’t as bad as I feared.  This type of religious OCD anxiety is going to be present for the next week and a half at least, until Pesach starts.

I went to the pharmacist to try to request a repeat prescription under the new system, whereby repeat prescriptions are requested via the pharmacist, not the surgery.  I’m not sure if this is because of coronavirus as they were planning to change the system around now anyway.  I was going to a different chemist to the one I usually use.  This chemist has opened recently, some time before the coronavirus hit (which is either exceptionally good timing or exceptionally bad timing).  This brought up autistic anxieties about doing new things and not knowing what to expect, as well as social anxiety about talking to new people.  There was some confusion about whether I was registered correctly (I think the doctor’s surgery hadn’t set it up properly), but I got it sorted in the end.  I walked straight home as I thought it was about to rain, but it didn’t, so I could have gone for a longer walk for exercise.

I dusted and hoovered my bedroom for Pesach (no food in there now until after Pesach!) as well as hoovering the upstairs hall and spare bedroom.  This took a couple of hours to do thoroughly, especially as I moved my bed and bedside table to hoover underneath them, as I’ve found crumbs there before.  I decided against moving my desk, although I’ve done it in the past.  I didn’t have enough time or energy, and it’s unlikely that any crumbs of significant size could get underneath it.

I joined an online session of my depression group via Zoom.  I’d used Zoom before, but usually for one-to-one conversations and I found the way the main picture shifted from person to person as different people spoke somewhat distracting.  Also, I found it strange to go straight from home life to the meeting without an intervening journey.  Since I began exploring whether I’m on the autistic spectrum I’ve noticed certain autistic traits I have that I hadn’t noticed before, and this idea of difficulty with transitions is a well-known autistic trait that I hadn’t noticed so much in myself before now.  I did find it just as draining as a regular meeting and as hard to concentrate by the second half.  I somehow found it harder to speak than usual, but I’m not sure why.  That may have been less due to the technology and more because I’m coping better with isolation than some other people (partly, of course, because I live with two other people, not on my own, and because I’ve been busy with chores and Pesach preparation) and I vaguely felt that I shouldn’t complain.

I’m also reluctant to speak about my relationship with E. in meetings and I’m not sure why; I know a couple of people from the group read my blog, and I’m fine with that, so I don’t know why I don’t feel comfortable talking about the relationship with others.  Maybe it’s not wanting to go into the whole story of how we ended up together, which is quite complicated or maybe it’s magical thinking and the fear that if I talk about the relationship something will go wrong with it.

I also managed five minutes of seder preparation today and ten minutes of Torah study.  I’d like to do more Torah study before bed, but I’m flagging and don’t know if I will get the time.  It was a busy day and I mostly was OK from a depression point of view.  Anxiety was a lot higher, but I mostly pushed through and did what I had to do.  I do need some downtime now, though, even if it means breaking my “No screens after 11pm” rule a bit.  EDIT: in the end I decided it was too late to watch TV and read for a bit, but ended up struggling to sleep anyway because I felt too tense.

“Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”

Today was another day where I struggled to get going because of depression.  I spoke to my rabbi mentor just before lunch; afterwards I went shopping and took a long route home to get some exercise.  I had hoped to walk for half an hour, but it ended up being fifteen or twenty minutes because it was so cold and I didn’t have coat and gloves.

I did some Pesach cleaning and cooked dinner (bean burgers, which stuck together a bit better this time as I used an egg to bind them on my Mum’s suggestion).  Shopping plus walk plus cleaning the freezer plus cooking in rapid succession left me completely exhausted by dinner time.  I wanted to eat quickly and then work on the short story I’m writing and/or do some Torah study and preparation of divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) to say at the Pesach seder, but I felt too exhausted to do anything other than vegetate in front of the TV and try to get in a state where I felt well enough to Skype E. as arranged at 10pm.  I did about half an hour of Torah study, mostly after talking to E.  I wanted to do more, and to do seder preparation, but I was too exhausted and ran out of time (as it is I’m posting this long after my “No screens after 11pm” deadline).

***

I was watching Life on Mars, where Sam, Gene and Annie are being held hostage and discuss the moments of their lives that they want to relive if they die.  I realise I can’t really think of happy moments of my life, because I coloured all of them with guilt, embarrassment, shame, self-criticism or inadequacy of one kind or another.  When I passed my BA I was furious as I felt that I should have got a first; it took me a long time to accept that I was so depressed that passing at all was an achievement, let alone getting a 2.1.  When I passed my MA I was primarily relieved that my ordeal was over, although I think I felt a bit of happiness.  I graduated in absentia both times.  The BA would have been difficult, as Oxford graduations are generally on Saturdays, but I missed the MA graduation from social anxiety, autism and general annoyance at my university; probably from low self-esteem and desire to punish myself too.  In retrospect I regret that a bit.  I doubt I’ll ever graduate ‘properly’ from anything now.

***

This time of year is always a bit strange, the month between Purim and Pesach.  It’s spring at last, the world is waking up again and the days are getting longer and I get more energy and less of the seasonal aspect of my depression, but that extra time and energy gets spent on Pesach preparation rather than anything else, there is anxiety about Pesach (even without coronavirus and Mum’s cancer) and I have less time to spend on writing and exercise.  I don’t know if I’ll have time to go for a run this week or next week, even though I think I really need it.  Ditto for writing and for finding some divrei Torah for this week’s sedra (Torah reading) and for seder.

***

Stuff is feeding my religious OCD.  I saw something on the website of the umbrella organisation my shul (synagogue) is part of saying ideally I should not kasher my oven for Pesach, but have a dedicated Pesach oven in the garage (or wherever) for use at this time of year.  That would be nice, but it isn’t practical (for health and safety reasons).  The reality is that people in the shtetl (the Jewish towns and villages of Central and Eastern Europe in the pre-Holocaust era) didn’t have two ovens.  They kashered a lot more utensils used during the year for chametz (leaven) than we do nowadays.  Go back far enough and people didn’t have an oven in their house at all; the whole village went to the baker each day to bake their bread, or to bake their matzah at Pesach.

On the other hand, my rabbi mentor has given me some extremely lenient instructions about Pesach to prevent my OCD getting out of control, and I’m struggling to accept them.  I just feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Here Comes Nisan/Do Do Do Do/Here Comes Nisan/And I Say/It’s Alright

I feel really depressed today.  On the verge of tears.  Mum had her second chemo session today.  Is that related?  Or is it coronavirus anxiety, or just bog standard depression?  Who knows.  And to think, just a few weeks ago, “going viral” was considered a good thing.

Today is Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) of the month of Nisan, which means it’s two weeks until Pesach (Passover).  To be honest, by this stage I just want to get on with it.  With the arrival of Nisan, we stop saying Tachanun (penitential prayers) because this is the month of redemption.  It’s supposed to be a happy month.  I always struggle with that with depression, but it’s weird that everyone is struggling this year.  It doesn’t feel like a time of redemption for anyone.

I feel bad that coronavirus has hardly altered my routine.  There aren’t many jobs to apply for.  Other than that I’m still trying to help my parents around the house, care for my Mum (inasmuch as she needs it at the moment) and work on my novel.  Write a devar Torah every week, do my usual daily routine of prayer and Torah study.  Try to exercise most days.  If anything, I’m probably exercising more than I was, although that’s more due to the weather and the lack of jobs to apply for than government injunctions to exercise daily despite the virus.

I tried to work on my novel, but kept getting distracted, first by procrastination, then by external events, like Mum coming home from chemo and the Tesco delivery man arriving (he stood very far back as I unpacked the food into the house.  No toilet paper available either).  I eventually forced myself to do an hour or so of work on it, and despite procrastination, I managed a little over my daily five hundred word target.  I’m still struggling to write convincing dating dialogue and activities.  I don’t have much experience here.

Other than that, I Skyped E. and went for a half-hour walk; I would have liked to have gone for a run, but I was too tired and depressed.  I watched a very rubbishy episode of Star Trek Voyager (Warlord) while finishing polishing the silverware.

I did join in the eight o’clock doorway/window NHS applause, but I went stopped after a minute or so, partly because I was cold standing in the doorway, but partly because my feelings about the NHS are so mixed based on the treatment I’ve had in the NHS mental health system.  I wrote a big paragraph here and cut it, because I didn’t want to sound so negative at this time.  Suffice to say I did applaud and I do appreciate the efforts of NHS personnel to defeat COVID-19, as well as my Mum’s cancer care.  I just wish it was more universal.

***

Aside from watching the rubbish Voyager episode, I watched more of Life on Mars.  It was the silliest episode so far (Sam, Gene and Annie go undercover running a pub), but is still giving me Writer’s Envy.  Life on Mars is really the type of thing I want to write, but can’t manage to write, and, anyway, someone else already wrote it.  Over a decade ago.  Sigh.  I would like to put more surreal/absurdist/solipsistic stuff into my novel, but I’m not sure that I know how, or that anyone will read it if I do.  E. told me to “Go big or go home,” but I don’t feel that I can quite do either.

It’s frustrating, what I want to write is stuff that exists on the borderline between realism and surrealism, where the boundary becomes permeable, but not totally crossed into Alice in Wonderland nonsense, but that’s not a popular place to go.  The Philip K. Dick/The Prisoner Twilight Zone, where the real and the surreal flick back and forth.  Plus, while I do have ideas, for this novel and for possible future ones, they are relatively straightforward.

***

I am not sure how to kill the time before bed.  I don’t feel tired enough for a very early night.  I don’t want to spend the evening being depressed online, so I’m going to turn my computer off in a minute.  I have hardly done any Torah study today, but I don’t feel up to doing any more, except listening to a short devar Torah Rabbi Lord Sacks posted to WhatsApp today.  Nor do I feel like can read even the light Doctor Who novel I’m reading currently.  I will probably watch another DVD, maybe The New Avengers.  I just feel rubbish, in all senses of the word – ill/depressed, but also a failure.  I try to tell myself I’m not, that my parents care about me, that E. cares about me, but I worry I don’t care about them enough back, that I let everyone down in the end…  “My thoughts are not always my friends.”  Indeed.

***

I got a WhatsApp message from my shul, apparently written by a bunch of frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) doctors, saying that the frum community has been disproportionately hit by coronavirus because people are holding private minyans (prayer gatherings) and other gatherings.  I don’t know if there’s been anything here like there has been in New York and parts of Israel, where I think people got arrested for attending large weddings, or issued instructions to wedding guests not to take photos lest they be prosecuted.  Whether this will stop the private minyan next door I do not know.  They haven’t held a minyan since Sunday, but it’s possible they can’t get one during the week because people are still working, although where they are working is another question.  I guess I’ll find out tomorrow evening.

Panic Buying

I got a text from my shul (synagogue) chairman this morning, checking I was OK and offering to help if I needed anything.  I thought that was really nice and made me feel that I’m more accepted at shul than I thought.

I used to wonder how people would cope – how I would cope – with a war or other disaster.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our society has become too selfish and narcissistic to make sacrifices and would fall into anarchy or just lethargy at the first sign of trouble.  I guess so far that’s mostly been proved wrong.  There are exceptions (someone set fire to a car parked outside the house of an aunt of a friend of mine and this story is disturbing), but mostly people seem to have done a lot to help others, albeit that there is still some laxity about social isolation.

***

I turned off all my screens by about 11.30pm last night (bar wishing E. good night right before I went to bed) and was in bed by 12.40am, which, sad to say, is early for me.  I still struggled with exhaustion to get up in the morning, but I got up around 11am.  I also got dressed and davened (prayed) before turning on my computer.  I did, however, go back to bed for fifteen minutes after breakfast.  It was still hard to find the stamina to face the day.

After that, today was a mostly good day.  My rabbi mentor has reassured me about some stuff, including about not needing taking apart the oven fan when doing Pesach (Passover) cleaning/kashuring.  I went for my blood test, walking there and back (thirty-five minutes each way), which made me feel awkward.  Where I live there was hardly anyone around, but there were still quite a few people on the high street and I couldn’t always keep two metres distant.  That’s made me vaguely anxious.  Then three nights in a row now, I’ve been feeling really uncomfortably hot around dinner time and worried I’m getting a fever… then realised my parents have the central heating up too high again.  My desire to have the house cooler than my Mum wants is an ongoing issue, but it’s never been as anxiety-provoking.

I cooked dinner and listened to some online shiurim on my walk and while cooking, then I polished more of the silver after dinner, so I did quite a bit plus I Skyped E. for an hour.  I feel tired now though.  I tried to push through the tiredness and work on my novel, but I ended up procrastinating.  Then I was suddenly overwhelmed by sadness, which I think is just an emotional response to the stresses of the last few days.  So, I decided to push my novel off again.  To be honest, I think it’s unlikely that I will make much progress before Pesach, which is now only two weeks away.

***

The other thing I did today was give in to panic buying in the geekiest possible way.  The DVD of Life on Mars season two arrived today, prompting fears that if online retailers are closed down like real-world ones, I could be stuck in isolation for weeks wanting to watch the concluding series Ashes to Ashes, but unable to purchase it.  So, I panic bought all three seasons on DVD for rather more than I would have usually spent.  It worked out at £2 an episode, which is a few pence more than watching via Amazon Video (I don’t use any video on demand services; if there’s something I want to see, I usually buy the DVD cheap second-hand).

***

Albert Uderzo, co-creator of Asterix, died.  His death was not coronavirus-related.  I used to read Asterix a lot as a child, although unlike some childhood reading habits, I never got back into it as an adult.  I may try re-reading when I’ve finished The Complete Peanuts.  I still remember a lot of the silly names in the English translation (Getafix the druid, Unhygienix the fishmonger, Romans with names like Crismus Bonus and Gluteus Maximus).  The sky may fall on our heads tomorrow, but fortunately tomorrow never comes.

Lockdown

It looks like Mum’s cancer isn’t one of the ones requiring twelve week isolation, which is good.

I went for a half-hour walk and posted my medical certificate for benefits, which arrived from the doctor today.  I’m not sure when I should hear if I still qualify for ESA.  I’m going to try to take exercise most days, either walking or jogging.  While walking, I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast on sexual abuse and halakhah (Jewish law) that turned out to be somewhat relevant to my novel, although that was not my original reason for listening.

Afterwards, I spent thirty-five minutes working on things to say at the sederim over Pesach (Passover), editing some essays by Rabbi Lord Sacks down to get the relevant points and writing a mini-devar Torah (Torah thought) about having sederim at the time of coronavirus.

The approach to Pesach is one of the times of the year when Jewish charities send out appeals.  It’s horrible to look at where I am this year and see that I have little to give and so many people in need, particularly with the damage coronavirus is inflicting on the economy, particularly for people on low income jobs.  I have to think hard about where money would be best spent, which is horrible.  I hate not being able to give more.

***

The above was written before the lockdown announcement.  I walked in while that was on the news.  I found it quite frightening.  I had a whole bunch of thoughts go through my head, perhaps not all rational: should I still go to my blood test tomorrow?  Will we get all the Pesach food we still need (particularly romaine lettuce for maror, the bitter herbs for the sederim)?  Will we be OK cleaning and kashering our ovens without disassembling the fan?  How will I cope going months on end without a haircut?  I have very thick frizzy hair, I could be a ball of fuzz by the time the barbers open again.  I had some vague worries about exercise even though one period of outdoor exercise a day is still permitted.  Some of my worries were more “out there”  – worrying if I would get arrested while walking to and from my blood test tomorrow, which isn’t that likely, but autistic fear of change + social anxiety = crazy fears.  I do wonder how my parents feel about indefinite separation from my sister.

The announcement completely threw me, even though it’s not unexpected and it took me a while to come back to normal.  My stomach cramps have come back, looking more psychosomatic than ever.  Autism doesn’t like change and uncertainty, and change and uncertainty is what we will have for the next few months/year.  It’s hard to know what to do.  In a strange way, Pesach might be a bit easier than in a non-lockdown state.  It is a principal of Jewish law that “ones Rachmana patrei” “The Merciful One exempts the coerced from punishment” i.e. if we try to do the right thing and are prevented by external events, it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps I will feel less psychological pressure even as we feel greater physical difficulty?  On this note, the London Beit Din (rabbinical court) sent out a list of food items that would normally require special Pesach supervision, but which this year they are permitting without supervision.  I think milk was the main one that might affect us, although Mum thinks we live in an area with enough Jewish shops that we should get some, even if we have to buy it just one or two pints each day.

I’m still telling myself stupid jokes to keep going.  On hearing that weddings and baptisms are to be stopped, but funerals permitted, I said, “That’s good, I was afraid I would be late for my own funeral!”  I guess it’s gallows humour.  My parents laughed.  I keep feeling really hot and worrying that I’m coming down with a fever, then realising that my parents have the central heating up high again.

The thought that occurred to me is that we’re going to end up like E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, all living underground in isolation.  We will all go separately when we go, as Tom Lehrer might have sung.

***

I didn’t get time to do much after the lockdown announcement.  I polished some of the silverware while watching Star Trek Voyager.  It’s another day when I’ve prioritised health, Pesach and helping around the home over writing.  I did actually try to do half an hour of writing, but I ran out of concentration after fifteen minutes and decided it was better to get off the computer as close as possible to 11pm than to carry on trying to write.

COVID-19 Anxieties

It feels like every couple of days some new terrifying aspect of our New Normal Coronavirus/COVID-19 Life hits me.  I left this comment on a friends’ blog earlier today:

Two week stockpiling is difficult. We keep a lot of food in the freezers generally, but probably not a balanced diet for two weeks. Unfortunately, with Passover coming up and its special dietary laws, we should be running down stocks of ordinary food and laying in stocks of Passover food. We’ve mostly done the latter, but should really be running things down more rather than stocking up for the meantime. Meanwhile, it looks like Mum might have to self-isolate for twelve weeks because she has cancer. We aren’t sure what the rest of us will have to do in that time. Obviously, we can’t stock three months’ worth of food (even Mum’s Jewish Mother Syndrome would admit defeat there) and would have to rely on outside help if we’re all expected to self-isolate for that long.

It is scary.  I don’t have a clue if we have the right stocks for this kind of thing and I’m pretty sure we don’t have enough of them.  Bread, for example, only lasts about a week in our house and has to be repurchased weekly (and that’s not even challot for Shabbat, the sweet, fluffy loaves eaten on the Sabbath that are generally sold only on Thursday or Friday).  Milk doesn’t last long either.  We do sometimes freeze bread and milk (although I think defrosted milk is horribly watery), but we’re clearing spaces in our freezer for Pesach (Passover) food.  I don’t know what to do.  We do have quite a bit of toilet paper at least as Dad generally insists on having a lot in the house even without COVID-19 and panic buying.

As I mentioned before, my parents do at least have lots of local friends in their shul (synagogue) community, and I have a few, so we could probably find help if we need it, plus we could always ask the rabbis to help organise something for us.  This is, some would say, exactly the type of situation that close-knit religious communities are supposed to help with.  I just feel bad about asking for help when we can’t reciprocate.  I feel that because of my “issues” I’m always taking and never giving, even without coronavirus, and that doesn’t feel good.

I’m worried if I should even be hugging my Mum right now.  I don’t think she could cope with three months of total isolation while she’s going through so much difficult emotional and physical stuff.  I did speak to Mum about this.  She thinks it’s only people with specific cancers or advanced cancers who are going to be told to self-isolate for twelve weeks and she’s hopeful that she wouldn’t be in that group, as breast cancer is regarded as highly treatable and her specific cancer is not so far advanced.  I hope she is right.  It is a difficult situation for anyone in it.

***

I’m just feeling overwhelmed with coronavirus and Pesach and I have been struggling to find time for things like exercise and working on my novel.  My rabbi said to use the time we are isolated wisely.  He even suggested writing a book (although I imagine he meant a book of Torah thoughts rather than a novel as in my case), but I don’t know how people find the time/energy.  Admittedly most people are probably not struggling with depression and a mother with cancer.

My hands are getting chapped from washing so much.  I tend to get chapped hands in the winter anyway, even while moisturising, but I think they will get worse before they get better.  My hands aren’t as badly chapped as has happened in the past (thank you Aveeno Skin Relief), but they hurt a bit and that’s going to get worse as we get closer to Pesach and I start washing my hands all the time as I go from chametz (normal food) to Pesach food and preparations (although at least it will be hygienic).  Maybe there’s an element of stress there too – Mum is prone to stress-related eczema.  I don’t get that so much, but I remember before my BA finals I came out in skin problems on my feet.  (It’s ironic that just a few weeks ago I thought I was washing my hands too much from fear of ritual food contamination/religious OCD and wondered if I should be consciously trying to wash my hands less frequently as exposure therapy.)

***
People were davening (praying) en masse in the garden next door again today.  I’m really not sure what to do about it.  E. thinks I should say something, but the consensus among commenters here was against it.  I’m just terrified one of them will have COVID-19 and spread it somehow to Mum.  Actually, forget COVID-19, if any of them had any kind of airborne virus, even the common cold, and infected Mum that could be really bad.  But I’m not sure if that’s something one can say.

***

Stuff done today: half hour jog, an hour of Torah study, Skype E. for an hour, sorted out some kind of timetable for the next three weeks until Pesach.  Not very much, to be honest, but today was a bit of a lost day for all of us here, particularly for me after getting so exhausted shopping late last night.  I didn’t make my “No screens after 11pm” rule again, but I hope to have them all off soon after 11.30pm, which would be my best night so far (excluding Shabbat).

Disequilibrium

I thought that I wouldn’t have anything to say today, as usually post-Shabbat (post-Sabbath) posts are about shul (synagogue) and social anxiety, and shul has been shut down by coronavirus.  However…

I had to daven (pray) at home over Shabbat as all the United Synagogue and Federation shuls have been closed by coronavirus (the United Synagogue is the main Modern Orthodox organisation in the country and the Federation is a large moderate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) organisation.  My parents’ shul is United Synagogue and mine is Federation).  The US and Fed said to close the shuls and NOT to form private minyanim (prayer groups) in houses.

While I was davening last night, I could hear people intoning outside.  I looked out my window and our next door neighbours have got a minyan in their garden, spaced out so no one is less than two metres from anyone else.  I got quite worried and angry about that.  I felt it would be easy for one of these people to pass something to my neighbours’ children (my neighbours have a big Hasidic family with several young children) who could pass it in the street to us.  I can’t work out how realistic that fear is, whether I should tell them that Mum has cancer and that I worry they are putting her life at risk.

I don’t want to wheel out all the negative stereotypes about Haredim and especially Hasidim (that they are meticulous about ritual law, but don’t care about secular law, or good manners to people outside the community etc.), but I do feel upset and worried about it and unsure what to do.  It seems wrong to ask them not to daven, and I’m not even sure what the infection risk realistically is, but it worries me, especially if they do this every Shabbat or even every day.

***

On a related note, it was just said on the news that cancer patients could be told to self-isolate for twelve weeks.  This is scary.  A whole load of questions came into my head: will it just be Mum or will Dad and I have to stay indoors full-time too?  Could I go for a run?  Can I apply for jobs?  (If there are any.)  Would the cleaner be allowed to come?  Will the man who cleans our oven each year before Pesach (Passover) be allowed to come?

The latter is a major worry for me.  It’s hard to explain.  Basically, for the special Pesach dietary laws, the oven has to be cleaned thoroughly (preferably with chemical cleaners that will render any leftover food crumbs inedible) and then heated for an hour at the maximum temperature.  We could do this without the oven man, although he uses extra-strong chemicals, which feel extra-reassuring for my religious OCD, but he also removes, cleans and replaces the oven’s fan, which we could not do.  Now, a few years ago, it looked like he wouldn’t be able to come one year and we asked my parents’ rabbi what to do.  He said he has asked a dayan (religious court judge i.e. a super-senior rabbi) what to do and that cleaning the fan is not strictly necessary, but I know I would find it stressful and triggering not to do it and would feel that I’m eating non-kosher for Pesach food.

I feel like it’s taken me years to get to stage where I’m comfortable with what we do for Pesach and my parents are comfortable with what I’m doing, and suddenly this equilibrium we’ve all struggled to build is going to be disrupted.  And even beyond the religious OCD, the autism does not do well with sudden massive changes to routine if we are housebound for three months (let’s not even ask the question of how many extra months coronavirus is going to add to the waiting list for my autism assessment).

***

Other than that it was an ordinary Shabbat: insomnia on Friday night, late sleeping on Saturday morning and an accidental two hour doze in the afternoon meaning I’m not tired at 1.00am.  I’m trying not to beat myself up about my sleep pattern at the moment and just accept it.  I read quite a bit: a chunk of the Doctor Who novel I’m reading, a couple of chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) in Hebrew and a bit of one of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books about God, the soul and the afterlife, If You Were God.  Jews strangely don’t talk about these subjects much, so it’s useful to check in and see that what I believe is broadly what I’m supposed to believe.

After Shabbat Dad and I went to a big kosher supermarket in Golders Green to get some of the things we couldn’t get last week at our small local kosher supermarket.  The roads were empty.  There was a queue outside the shop, but this was just to limit the number of people in the store at any time, not to contain panic buying.  A few things had sold out, but we got most of what we wanted.  There were free plastic gloves.  My Dad took a pair, but from what I heard they don’t do very much, so I didn’t, but then I regretted it a bit (what if Mum gets something? etc.).  I did use a wipe to wipe the trolley grip.  The number of people inside wasn’t too overwhelming, but I found the muzak really annoying.

I was naughty in that I got irritated with my Dad and was sarcastic.  I’m trying not to do this so much, but it’s hard, because we don’t communicate very well at the moment.  We don’t shout or whatever, but our communication styles are different.  His long-winded, detailed and repetitive way of talking confuses me (autism brain is not always good at dealing with irrelevant details), while he doesn’t like me interrupting him to ask him to get to the point.  There can also be issues where we disagree both see things in a different, but very black-and-white way (again, autism) and argue until something breaks the deadlock.  Anyway, when I get annoyed with my parents I tend to get sarcastic (which I generally don’t do with other people), which isn’t good.  I’m trying to work on it, but it’s hard.  Then Dad hit me in the face when we were emptying the trolley.  This was an accident, but I probably deserved it.  It didn’t really hurt, but I was a bit stunned.

Then I came home exhausted and have monumentally failed at my “No screens after 11pm” rule, given that it is nearly 1.00am and I am still on the computer plus I intend to finish watching the episode of Star Trek Voyager I started watching earlier before I go to bed.  Given my messed up sleep in the last twenty-four hours and the psychological stress I’m under and the need for relaxation, I’m not sure I could do much better, realistically.

Mental Health Under Stress

I had weird dreams last night that I can’t really put into words here, both because they were too personal and also too incoherent and stream-of-consciousness for me to really put them in words at all.  I did my usual thing of drifting in and out of consciousness in the morning, waking up enough to feel I should get up, but feeling too tired and depressed to do so.  I eventually got up when the phone rang, although whoever it was rang off before I could answer.  I somehow managed to stay up after that.

***

Shabbat (the Sabbath) is going to be weird without shul (synagogue).  Orthodox Jewish law is that the ideal for men is to pray three times a day with a community (the Afternoon and Evening Services are usually recited consecutively in the summer so you only need to go out once).  There have been times in my life when I’ve been going to shul two or three times a day, but there have been other times when depression or social anxiety has intervened and I’ve gone far less often.  There were periods when I wasn’t going at all.  Now, everyone is in that situation of not going.  Strangely, I find that I’m missing shul, even though my weekday attendance in recent years has been patchy.  It’s always harder to get back into going after a period of being away because avoidance stokes social anxiety and I worry a bit about what this will do to me when we get to the other side.  I’m glad I’m with my parents for Shabbat as Shabbat alone can get lonely, and I’m sorry for people who will have to experience that this week.  That’s another thing I’ve experienced from depression and social anxiety that the world is experiencing because of COVID-19.

Speaking of Shabbat, I spoke yesterday of not having an emotional connection to it.  On reflection, that’s probably not true.  I definitely feel something on Shabbat, something positive.  Shabbat has a different feel to the rest of the week.  I can’t put it explain it to you if you’ve never experienced it, but it is something I feel at some point each Shabbat and it’s a good feeling.  I just can’t exactly put a name to it, which is perhaps not surprising, given that I have alexithymia, difficulty understanding and processing my own emotions.

***

I remembered one of my rules for OCD, which is that if I’m embarrassed to ask a question, it’s probably OCD and not something real.  I was reminded of this by wanting to ask my rabbi mentor something last night and thinking that I would have to explain that I can see it’s a silly question… so I eventually realised, if it’s a silly question, why am I asking it?

Social anxiety hasn’t been such an issue lately, given that I’ve only really been around my parents because of COVID-19, but I did have some when phoning my GP’s surgery to ask about my medical certificate (the copy they sent me via text wouldn’t download or print properly).  I got vaguely worried that I would be told not to bother with such a trivial thing at a time of medical crisis, but they didn’t say that.

I still have quite a bit of general anxiety, the same worries as before, about my parents getting sick, especially my Mum, and how the situation will impact on our Pesach preparations even if we all stay healthy.  I’m trying not to worry, difficult though that is.  To remember to tell myself it’s OK to be worried, scared, stressed or depressed and that this is an unprecedented event for everyone.

The Great Matzah Panic of 2020

I got up marginally earlier today!  I know that’s not such an exciting thing to report for most people, but given how much I’ve been struggling with sleep recently it seems important to me.

Mum actually came in at something like 9.30am to tell me that my sister had phoned to report doing Pesach (Passover) shopping and the kosher supermarket was packed with people panic buying for Pesach.  (I’m not quite sure why she felt this was worth waking me up for.)  I then slept intermittently, dreaming about Pesach and, for some reason, the allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 (perhaps not as weird as it sounds, as there is a family story about that which makes it prominent in my mind, although not particularly at the moment) before waking up again around 11.15am and getting up soon thereafter.  I did actually feel a bit better than I usually do on getting up and even just managed to do some of my morning prayers while it was still morning, whereas lately I’ve been too depressed and exhausted to pray before the afternoon.

I was pretty worried about the Pesach food shopping.  We managed to dissuade Mum from doing it.  Dad and I should really have gone ASAP, but Dad had to take Mum to a scan and another meeting with the oncologist and then I had a skype meeting set up with my rabbi mentor, so we couldn’t get out until mid-afternoon.  Normally lack of food wouldn’t be such a problem, but for Pesach the Jewish dietary rules are stricter and everything has to be produced under special conditions so we can’t just pull food from the freezers (yes, we have five freezers.  Yes, I feel that is excessive.  Yes, Mum feels she doesn’t have enough freezer space and could really do with another one.  Yes, Jewish mothers do show their love for their family through cooking a lot.  Plus at the moment we have a freezer that is almost entirely full of apple desserts because we had a bumper crop from our apple tree last year and Mum was baking faster than we could eat).

Dad and I spent an exhausting two hours out shopping, much of it in the smallish kosher supermarket.  Not everything had arrived yet, but some things had already sold out.  There weren’t many matzahs left, with no Rakusen’s or Aviv brand matzahs at all, which was a bit shocking.  We managed to find substitutes, although we later found loads of Rakusen’s matzahs in Sainsbury’s and bought some there, so we now have a ton of matzahs.  I feel vaguely bad about this in case other people can’t find any.  I am slightly concerned about the food we still need to find, although most of it is not essential and/or has to be bought nearer the time because it spoils.  When we popped into Sainsbury’s afterwards, was almost totally empty of fruit and vegetables, just a few cucumbers and cooking apples, and, bizarrely, a crate of pomegranates.

I did have some slight religious OCD in that the kosher supermarket was set out part for Pesach, part for ordinary food and the demarcation was not always obvious.  I think I checked for “Kosher for Pesach” seals on everything we bought in the shop, but I got worried that I missed something and I went to the garage, where all the Pesach food currently is, and checked again.  I knew that this was giving in to the religious OCD on some level, but it was hard to resist.  At least I stopped myself from checking the meat Dad bought without me and I just relied on the fact that he asked in the butcher what was Pesachdik.  It is easy to slip back into OCD modes of thought at this time of year and I have to try to be vigilant against it, while not beating myself up when I give in.  Certainly the OCD flare up happened at a time when I had several of the HALT (Hungry, Anxious, Lonely, Tired) indicators.

***

I wouldn’t be so worried about the coronavirus situation if it wasn’t for (1) Mum being at high risk of complications and (2) worry about how we will manage Pesach if we are ill or in self-isolation.  My big worries at the moment are (i) if Mum gets coronavirus; (ii) if our oven cleaner has to cancel our pre-Pesach clean due to illness or anything else, which would make kashering it for Pesach much harder; (iii) the stores run out of horseradish and romaine lettuce for marror, the bitter herb eaten at the Pesach seder.   I can see that (iii) is potentially a situation where we do our best and have to trust that God understands; (ii) is more problematic, but probably not insoluble; but (i) is obviously much more scary and frightening as well as largely out of our control.

Once Pesach is out the way I hope I will feel a bit less anxious, although Mum will obviously still be a high risk for many months.  Listening to Rabbi Lord Sacks interviewed online and reading Mary Harrington’s article on UnHerd today makes me think that I’m lucky to already live in a close-knit local community rather than to need to build one from scratch as per Harrington’s article.  Even though I don’t feel fully integrated into the Jewish community, I can think of a couple of people locally who I could call on if my parents and I were housebound, and certainly my parents have lots of local friends who would help us.  Not being allowed to drive on Shabbat (the Sabbath) is one of those Jewish laws that has positive unexpected consequences, in that Orthodox Jews all live in walking distance of a synagogue and hence of other community members, which isn’t necessarily the case in non-Orthodox synagogues or other places of worship.

***

I went to an online shiur (religious class) on Zoom that my rabbi was giving about what to do when self-isolating from a religious perspective.  To be honest, I didn’t learn that much; years of depression meant I’m quite familiar with which parts of the prayer services can be said privately and which can only be said with a community.

I feel I should have some kind of religious response to coronavirus, but I don’t.  I feel the same emotional disconnection I feel on Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Yom Tov (festivals), where if I try, I can engage somewhat intellectually with the meaning of the day, but not emotionally.  I’ve heard different people suggest different possible religious reasons for this crisis, from lack of community to a lack of personal connection to God to climate change, and nothing really resonates that much with me.  Plus, while I do believe everything happens for a reason, I’m sceptical about how much of that reason we can intuit and understand in this world, especially in the short term.  It’s easy to project one’s own personal gripes about the world or the community and say that that is the reason for this.  Rabbis are suggesting pray more intensely, say Tehillim (Psalms), study Torah and give tzedaka (charity), but that’s kind of the rabbinical equivalent of the doctor saying eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, avoid sugar, and take regular exercise, something that is applicable to everyone at every time and a useful fallback for emergencies rather than something unique to this crisis.

If anything, I feel gratitude to God: gratitude that we live in a time when we have the medical and communications technology to make our lives continue in some way, gratitude for living in a part of the world where central government can stay in charge despite this crisis without falling into anarchy, gratitude that I’m not likely to starve any time in the near future, gratitude that I have my parents still and that we should manage to have some kind of Pesach, even if it’s a weird and subdued one (the oncologist said that my sister and brother-in-law should not stay with us for Pesach, although they are allowed to visit for a couple of hours one day in chol hamoed).

I should probably add that all the rabbinical responses I’ve seen to coronavirus have stressed the importance of staying healthy and obeying government medical guidelines and said that halakhah (Jewish law) mandates staying safe and healthy and that doing so overrules most mitzvot (commandments).  I was pleased that most of these responses have also stressed our responsibility to pray for non-Jews to be healed and protected too.

***

The Further Education library where I used to work is advertising for a senior librarian.  I’m not sure if this means my ex-boss has left or if she was higher than senior librarian in the restructuring and they’re looking for someone below her.  Part of me wants to apply, part of me thinks I would be crazy to do so, considering it was not a good environment for me, and this is a more skilled/responsible job.  As someone on the autistic spectrum and with social anxiety, it was hard for me to deal with noisy teenagers, people with poor English language skills and being expected to change tasks quickly and deal with problems as they arose, and I can only imagine this being worse in a senior librarian position rather than an assistant librarian one, as I was before.

It feels weird to be worrying about work rather than Mum or coronavirus.

***

I was eating dinner and watching Life on Mars earlier when my Mum came into my room and shoved her phone under my nose.  I thought she was trying to show me a video; it took a minute to realise it was a video conference with most of my Israeli family.  I wasn’t really sure what to say or do and after waving I made an excuse and left.  This is the kind of situation where I feel that autism affects me as social communication disorder in that I struggle to know how to react in social situations and get overwhelmed, doubly so if, as in this case, it’s a situation I’m thrust into unexpectedly without preparation.  Social anxiety doesn’t help in here either.  I guess that hasn’t happened so much recently because self-isolation has removed some of those interactions from my life.

***

I’m going to violate my “no screens after 11pm” rule because I’m completely exhausted from today and need to relax after two hours of shopping and a long period of time on Skype and Zoom by finishing watching the Life on Mars episode I started before.  I also want to try to do a little Torah study before winding down the for the night, even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes.  I feel this post has turned into a general dumping ground for every anxiety I had today and I hope it wasn’t too negative or boring.  I should probably try to get some relaxation time before bed.

The Masque of COVID-19

It’s probably no surprise to every one that more and more stuff is shutting down: doctor’s surgery, shul (synagogue), depression group…  Shiur is potentially continuing, but online via video conference software.  It makes me realise that I wasn’t quite as socially isolated as I assumed I was.  I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t emailed one of my American email friends for a couple of months and wanted to check how her baby is getting on.  I’m struggling to stop touching my face, though, as that’s the main form of autistic ‘stimming’ that I do to keep calm.

It seems weirdly like the world is slowing down to my pace.  Now almost everyone is stuck at home all the time.  No schools, no religious services, no public recreation, shopping for essentials only.  No inessential medical care.  It’s just occurred to me that I have no idea if the blood test I’m supposed to have next week is still going ahead.  It’s not immediately essential, but if I delay and my lithium level has shifted, that’s potentially life-threatening.  I wish I’d thought to ask my doctor yesterday.  I will have to try to phone tomorrow.

It’s scary how things can collapse so quickly… although it’s also remembering that in Western countries at least, it’s unlikely that law and order, government etc. will collapse, which is a good thing.  A recession is pretty much certain, but hopefully the economy won’t completely collapse in a Venezualan way.  It’s still scary though, especially as The Spectator‘s daily politics email is suggesting some kind of compulsory lockdown looms for London.  I don’t know if we would be too far out in the suburbs for that to affect us.

I should probably stop reading the news (again), as it’s too scary and makes me anxious about getting through the next few weeks/months.  (Apparently Chinese newspapers are suggesting limiting coronavirus news to 40% of the information one receives, which still seems like a lot, although I’m not sure if reading old Doctor Who novels and Snoopy comics counts as “information” in this context.)

***

Back in what passes for the real world, I’m still struggling with mornings; today even managing to get up, eat and drink coffee didn’t fully lifted my mood or given me energy.  I’m trying not to beat myself up about all of this, as it doesn’t achieve anything, and if I had a physical illness that made it hard to get up and get going I wouldn’t beat myself up, but somehow even after so many years of this, I still think I ought to be able to force myself to get up earlier, or to get dressed faster, or just to be more efficient even when I feel lousy.  After that, I’m OK during most of the day, but I’ll get ambushed by sadness or worry at points.  Or guilt, for doing something dangerous, reckless and immoral like rubbing my nose.

***

In terms of achievements, I spent half an hour researching ideas to bring to the table for the seder at Pesach (the Pesach (Passover) seder is the meal where we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  There is a set text, but I like to add some new ideas each time).  I did think of doing more, but I felt it was better to mix seder preparation with ordinary Torah study over a couple of weeks.  I’ve earmarked some stuff as I came across it during the year anyway, so it’s mostly a case of writing summaries of longer ideas and perhaps finding a few ideas in a haggadah (seder book) at some point.  I also spent twenty minutes on general Torah study; I hope to take that up to half an hour before bedtime.

I also went for a run.  My stamina was not great, but it’s good to keep active.  I had a Skype chat with E., which was good, although we both feel frustrated that we won’t be in the same country for months.  I explained to E. about the Three Day Week in the seventies, which made me feel older than I actually am (I wasn’t around in the seventies!).

My Doctor Who book is now available for sale on Amazon UK and US!  There’s even a look inside preview.  I sent off an application to have my Goodreads page registered as a Goodreads author, which I can do now my Doctor Who book is up on Goodreads and Amazon.  I also ordered a copy of my book to send to Doctor Who Magazine as a review copy.  It’s unlikely much will come of that as, in a crowded marketplace, pretty much no non-official merchandise gets reviewed there any more, but I felt it was worth gambling about £10 on.

On a related note, apparently Amazon are not restocking books due to COVID-19.  I don’t know how that will affect me, as my book is essentially print on demand.  If anything, it might push people direct to the publisher at Lulu.com, where I get to keep a bigger profit as Lulu take a tiny slice compared with Amazon’s chunk.

***

I’ve complained about the reception staff at my doctor’s surgery before, but today they impressed me.  They phoned to ask if they should post me my medical certificate as I can’t pick it up (I hadn’t told them about the problem printing it, so either lots of people have problems or the doctor made a mistake in saying I wouldn’t need to come in to get it).  They also informed me of the new system for collecting prescriptions, whereby I have to go directly to the chemist, who will request the prescription from the surgery, who then send it back.  I nominated a new chemist that is much more local than Boots, who I was using previously.

***

In terms of distractions, I’m enjoying Life on Mars rather more than Star Trek Voyager and rationing the former in regard to the latter.  Life on Mars is really my type of thing: clever, funny, slightly scary, and weird.  I’m trying not to beat myself up for not watching it on first airing; at any rate, if I had watched it then, it wouldn’t cheer me up to discover it now.  There’s a moral there, somewhere.  Voyager is OK, but I remember almost none of the episodes, even though I must have seen most of them at least once in the past, which is telling – I’ve remembered much more of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine when revisiting them on DVD.

That said, I haven’t watched any TV today and do not intend to, due to my “no TV after 11pm” rule (which I’ve failed at again, as it’s 11.30pm already, but I’m trying to minimise late night TV).

I’m also re-reading The Also People, a Doctor Who spin-off novel from the 90s.  I used to read loads of these as a teenager and was never entirely happy with them.  I remembered this one as being fun and light, which it is in comparison with some of The New Adventures (the umbrella name for one of the ranges of Doctor Who novels), but I’d forgotten how confusing the books’ internal continuity could get if you weren’t reading all the novels, in order, and also how annoying I found their conception of the Doctor, presenting him as a ruthless, manipulative quasi-superbeing.  This was not without precedent in the television series, but at the time I did feel as if many of the novels were an exercise in missing the point of the programme, not unlike my feelings about this year’s Doctor Who TV episodes, albeit for slightly different reasons.  Of course, as with this year’s episodes, for a large chunk of the audience, this was not a mistake at all, but genuine quality.  Fandom sometimes feels like a conglomeration of people who all like the same TV series, but for wildly different and sometimes contradictory reasons.  At least this novel isn’t too depressing, and is well-written (I recently showed E. the latest chapter of my novel and she praised a few bits; it occurred to me afterwards that they were really in the style of the better New Adventures).  For some reason my copy is falling to pieces physically, which upsets me a bit, as I didn’t think I’d treated it badly.

Functioning

I had my usual struggle to wake up and get up from depression and exhaustion.  I felt a bit better after eating breakfast and drinking coffee, but then suddenly my mood went down again and I had to have lunch before davening (praying), which I rarely do.  I then fell asleep for an hour after lunch (and still before davening), which was absolutely not my intention and I had to rush to get a run in at sunset.  I would have liked to have got out earlier, in the daylight.  This is how I am most days.  Once I get going, my mood seems to be OK most of the time, but then suddenly it will drop for a bit.

I did manage to do a few more things.  I wrote a long email to my rabbi mentor with questions about Pesach.  I can see that most of them are probably religious OCD which makes me feel more confident about noticing which issues are ‘real’ and which are OCD, but at the same time I know that if I had the confidence not to ask at all and not feel that I was doing something risky, that would be even better, from the point of view of challening the OCD (and the point of view of not giving my rabbi mentor needless work).  I deliberately held back on one question which I thought I was OK with, but now think I need to talk through.  This time of year can be such a struggle.

I did spend over an hour working on my novel, a bit of time on proofreading the last bit I wrote, but nearly an hour on looking over the plan for the rest of the novel.  It’s more detailed than I remembered and I’m pleased with the general direction and more energised to be working on it than I have been recently, although that will have to wait until tomorrow now.  I also spent half an hour on Torah study (although I would have liked to have done more).  I spent half of that on Mishnah (the oldest stratum of the Talmud), finishing a masechta (volume) for the first time in ages (Masechet Shevi’it) and the other half on If You Were God, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book on suffering and miracles and why God allows the former and rarely the latter.

It’s frustrating that even when other things are equal, I’m just about functioning rather than thriving, only able to do a few hours of work (or job hunting, or writing) a week and then when something else happens, whether expected like Pesach (Passover) or unexpected like coronavirus, it becomes harder and harder to keep going.  Am I always going to be like this?  It’s frightening to think that I might be.  I feel such a burden on my parents and potentially on E.

I’m watching Life on Mars for the first time.  The programme is about a contemporary detective who is hit by a car and wakes up back in 1973, unable to tell if he has genuinely travelled in time, if he is in a coma and is dreaming everything that happens or if he’s dead and this is the afterlife.  I’m catching up with it fourteen years later because I rarely watch new TV in case I don’t like it, which is probably some kind of autistic issue.  I’m only an episode and a half in, but I’m empathising with Detective Sam Tyler.  Like him, I feel like I’m in a society that I sort of know, but where I miss all the nuances, the social mores, the slang, the unstated conventions.  I find it hard to enter into the mentality of those around me and feel that I don’t fit in.  I don’t talk to the Test Card girl, but I do talk to someone who I can only communicate with via electronic media of different kinds.  Although E. is a much better girlfriend than the Test Card girl would be.

Worries about coronavirus come and go.  I was thinking of going to see Rabbi Lord Sacks speak in a few weeks, but now I’m wary of going to large gatherings for fear of bringing infection back to Mum.  I suspect that the talk will be cancelled, by the organisation running it if not by the government, but I worry about going to shul (synagogue) and the like.  I keep making up stupid coronavirus jokes, which is probably some kind of anxious response e.g. I’ve got an illness that makes me continually sing like Frank Sinatra or Matt Monro.  I’ve got croonervirus.  (Sorry.)

I Self-Isolated Before It Was Cool

The main task for today was to help with cleaning a fridge and freezer for Pesach (Passover).  It felt good to actually start Pesach preparations rather than just worrying about them.  It was exhausting, and sitting on the floor to clean the freezer left me feeling light-headed, but I was glad to get it done.  Other than that, I did some Torah study and Skyped E.  That was more or less it, but it was all cumulatively quite tiring.

I got a text late last night from the rabbi asking if our meeting today could move from a physical meeting to a phone meeting and from the morning to the afternoon.  I agreed, but it meant that I got up late again.  I phoned him in the afternoon, but the call went straight to voicemail, which I used as an excuse to email rather than phone, which is probably bad of me, on some level, if only for giving in to social anxiety.  I wrote him an email, but before I could send he texted me to apologise and say he’s been ill in bed all day.

I feel like I’m oscillating between careless indifference to coronavirus and paranoia, albeit more for my parents than myself.  My Dad is happy that he’s not classified as elderly according to government guidelines, but Mum, while younger than Dad, is obviously vulnerable because of her chemotherapy and we’re trying to persuade her to self-isolate, although she’s worried about getting cabin fever being indoors for four months.  To be honest, I think we were probably all at risk of cabin fever even before coronavirus.  I’m unemployed, both my parents work only part-time, from home in Dad’s case.  We probably spend much too much time sitting around, getting on each others’ nerves.  It could be a sitcom.  The One Foot in the Grave similarities are not lost on us.  I should explain that One Foot in the Grave was a sitcom about an irascible old man with too much time on his hands and his wife.  It was very well written.  Unlike, say, Fawlty Towers, you could see why the main characters stayed together.  They didn’t just drive each other nuts.

I discovered that while my Doctor Who book is available from Amazon UK, it is not available from Amazon US, which I assume is why it didn’t appear on Goodreads until Ashley Leia kindly added it.  I’m not sure why this is the case or if it will appear on Amazon US at some point.  I found myself looking at all the official and unofficial Doctor Who non-fiction on Blackwell’s, the academic bookseller, and felt vaguely depressed.  If a committed fan like me hasn’t heard of half these books because there are so many, and all of them look rather more professionally published, then I’m not sure what chance I have at finding readers.  Still, as vanity projects go, it was fun and I like having a physical book that I wrote to flick through; so much more satisfying than blog posts.  And the experience has definitely been worthwhile; I know I have the stamina to write a book now, so my novel doesn’t seem so daunting.

***

The WordPress reader today suggested that I might want to read about “Astrology, Zombies, Robots” which does sound like the prompt for a writing competition, or the tagline for a summer blockbuster.

Sales

I sold my first two copies of my Doctor Who book today!  To fan friends.  Very exciting.  It’s weird to think people are willing to pay good money to read my ideas.  I’m planning to send a review copy to Doctor Who Magazine when the book is available through mainstream bookshops (at the moment it’s only available through Lulu.com) in the hope they will review it, although there’s so much official merchandise out there that I doubt they’ll promote unofficial stuff.  There is, of course, the fear that no one will like it…

I sent out an email to some family and friends promoting the book too.  I feel a bit awkward that my sister pointed out a typo that I’d missed on the back cover yesterday, but I don’t think it’s worth going to the expense of changing it now, particularly as it probably won’t sell in actual shops, only online.

I spoke to my rabbi mentor for twenty minutes or so.  We spoke a bit about my mood going up and down a lot at the moment and he said that would be normal with my Mum being ill even without the additional stresses I have from depression, unemployment, Jewish festivals etc.  I did say that if I was going to be unemployed, it’s good that it’s now, when I can at least use that time to help look after Mum, do cooking and prepare for Pesach (Passover).  We spoke a bit about coming to terms with my parents’ mortality.  On some level it seems wrong to say that, as Mum’s prognosis is good, but it is the first time either of my parents have had such a serious illness.  I do feel I’m grieving, in a strange way, because rather than ruminating obsessively about Mum’s illness (which is how I usually experience anxiety), I go about my usual business and then suddenly I remember that Mum is ill and that one day she won’t be here and feel depressed, which in my experience is more like grief, when I find I suddenly remember someone who died.  I’m not quite sure what I’m grieving, though.  I suppose it could be the childlike sense of feeling I could trust my parents to be there for me forever.

I went for a run for the first time in three weeks.  The delay was because of a combination of poor weather; family, and other, events; and low mood.  Hopefully now the days are getting longer it will be easier to go out in the daytime even on days when I need to do other things too.  My pace was not great, but I was glad to get out.  I did feel quite exhausted and somewhat shaky on returning and ended up eating fruit and then a kosher pot noodle (as it was too early for dinner), so probably put back on whatever weight I had lost.  Still, it felt good to get out and burn off some energy through exercise rather than in anxiety and rumination.

I had a exercise migraine in the evening, which made my late Skype call with E. difficult.  We ended up having a fairly serious conversation, which wasn’t ideal, but we did manage to navigate it well.  We do have good communication, which is probably essential when we are separated geographically and are coming from different places religiously (although our other values are similar).

I did manage over an hour of Torah study after my run, but before the migraine got bad.  I was slightly surprised at my stamina.

I still have a migraine, so this is going to be a truncated post.  I am probably going to watch TV (not sure what, probably The Avengers; something light) until I go to bed as I don’t feel well enough to do anything else, but don’t feel sleepy.  I suppose it will distract me from being anxious about Purim, which starts tomorrow evening and about which I am somewhat apprehensive, primarily for the social aspect, but also somewhat for fears that my religious OCD will get out of control.

Unglamorous Success

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a success, in an unglamorous sort of way.  I went to shul (synagogue) last night as usual and forced myself to shake hands with the rabbi afterwards as I think I chickened out of doing it last week.  I walked back with an elderly gentleman who lives further down our road.  I’ve walked home with him before, but neither of us is really into small talk, so the walk is rather quiet.  In the past that made me feel self-conscious and awkward, but last night I seemed to be OK with it, which seemed to be a social anxiety victory.

Dinner conversation was largely about my Mum’s illness and treatment.  I was OK, up until the point when I wasn’t and started feeling sad and anxious.  I’m not sure how much was worry about her per se and how much about how stressful the next few weeks, and the upcoming festivals of Purim and Pesach, are going to be and the fear that they will trigger depression and religious OCD.

I overslept in the morning again, but I’ve given up trying to go to shul in the mornings at the moment.  I was annoyed to doze for an hour after lunch, though, as it might stop me sleeping this evening.

I went to shul this afternoon for services and Talmud shiur (religious class) even though I felt a bit depressed and anxious.  I’ve felt a bit more comfortable and accepted at shul the last week or two, especially as I’m following Talmud shiur better (I prepare beforehand and revise afterwards) and as I’ve led services a couple of times.

I am wondering if I should speak to the new rabbi about some of my issues, at shul and in general.  My main reason is because Pesach might prompt religious OCD, in which case it would be good to have someone locally who can determine if a problem is real or in my head, as my rabbi mentor tends not to pick up his emails on Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and obviously will be out of contact on Yom Tov itself.  I don’t know if the new rabbi has much mental health experience, although it was something that people raised when the community was looking for a rabbi.  If I am going to speak to him, it would be good to do so in advance rather than in the rush immediately before Pesach.

I spent an hour and a quarter tonight working on my non-fiction Doctor Who book’s jacket.  I think I’ve got the hang of the cover designer on Lulu.com, although I still find it awkward in pages.  I’m not sure if that’s my ignorance or genuine design flaws.  I find my back cover blurb lacks punch and my biography seems perfunctory (I grew up reading The New Adventures series of Doctor Who spin-off novels where the authors often seemed in a competition to come up with most bizarre and comic biographies).  I’ve sent it to my sister (who works in marketing) and I might send it to E.  I feel slightly sick just using marketing hyperbole, like describing my book as “essential” when it’s clearly not literally essential in the way that water and food are essential.  I don’t have much of an eye for graphic design either and I’m limited by copyright law in terms of the images I could use (I decided not to use any).

I have a busy day tomorrow: a family get together at lunch time and a lecture by Rabbi Joshua Berman on historical accuracy in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) in the evening which I’m looking forward to.  So I should probably have something to eat and go to bed, given that it’s already 10.00pm.

Drifting Away

I had some religious OCD anxieties late last night, and then a night of confused dreams which also included some religious OCD imagery.  It’s probably just a sign of the emotional stress I’m under at the moment, although one dream focused strongly on the preparations for Pesach (Passover), which is now officially on the horizon, and which is always difficult enough even without Mum undergoing chemotherapy.

***

I seem to have lost the details of the boring, but part-time, admin job I was thinking of applying for, so I suppose that means I won’t apply for it, unless I see it advertised again.

***

I think I’ve worked out how the cover-maker works on Lulu.com, but I need some time to mess around with it before I finalise my design.  It doesn’t help that the cover-maker seems to be rather glitchy and hard to save and return to it later.  And I need to write a back cover blurb and author biography; having just tried, I realise they are going to take more time and energy than I expected.

***

My parents have been economising a bit.  A few weeks ago we went from two weekend newspapers to one (we stopped getting a daily paper years ago), and at the end of the month we will stop getting The Jewish Chronicle too.  To be honest, it just cements my drift away from politics lately.  The last few years have left me deeply disenchanted with politics in general and suspicious and critical of all the major parties.  I feel that I don’t have much of a voice and wouldn’t know what to say if I did, although I do still read a couple of news and political opinion sites, including the inevitable BBC News, for all its manifold faults.

As for The Jewish Chronicle, in recent years I really only paid attention to the religion and comment pages.  I will still be able to follow global, long-term trends in the Jewish community on Tablet.com and my beloved The Jewish Review of Books, although both tend to have a strongly American focus.  As for reading about antisemitism in our homegrown politicians and the ongoing Labour antisemitism issue… I suspect I’ll hear, one way or the other.  News like that has a habit of remorselessly tracking a person down.

I do feel that the print media are almost as bad as social media in trying to make me angry and upset about things that are often not worth getting angry and upset about and about which I can do little even if they are worth being upset about.  It is true that, without the Jewish community’s ongoing protests against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour party antisemitism, Labour might have done a lot better in the last election, so obviously you can have a voice if you can find enough like-minded people.  But I’m not good at finding like-minded people.

***

I’m still feeling bad about the friends I’ve lost in the last year or so.  It’s scary because often I could not see an obvious reason: the reasons given seemed like over-reactions, or paranoia.  In one case, I sensed a brittleness in an online blog friendship; comments sounded more aggressive than I intended, or were perceived as such and it seemed safer to drift away while still relatively friendly than to actually have a full-blown argument one day.  In other cases, I would have been happy to continue the friendship, but was told my actions crossed a line, even though the existence of that line was not always obvious to me, certainly not beforehand.

I feel bad because I’ve rarely lost friends in this way in the past, only through drifting away slowly and non-confrontationally.  To lose four in relatively rapid succession, in ways that felt outside my control, has shaken me a bit as I wonder if I could lose other friends suddenly and unexpectedly.  I try to be a good friend to other friends in need, but I don’t always know what to say or do.

***

Shabbat awaits…

SAD, References and Eminent Victorians

This is always the worst time of year for me.  February may get more daylight than December, but it’s four months or more since we had a reasonable amount of daylight and the cumulative effect of deprivation is getting to me, even with my SAD light box.  I also have chapped hands and lips, despite using moisturiser and lip balm, although they aren’t as badly affected as they have been in the past.  I want winter to end, even though I’m aware that the end of winter brings with it the Jewish festivals of Purim and Pesach, with all their attendant difficulties of religious OCD and social anxiety, as well as sometimes depression, not to mention the usual stress of Pesach preparation (seriously, Christmas has nothing on Pesach).  It’s going to be super-hard this year, as Mum will probably in the midst of cancer treatment.  Still, like it or not, Monday is Tu B’Shvat, a very minor Jewish holiday (not really a holiday at all) that nevertheless signals the start of spring, at least in Israel.  Purim and Pesach are coming…  and so is spring, if I can hold out long enough.

***

I had a Shabbat (Sabbath) struggling with Shoulds.  I struggled to get to shul (synagogue) on Friday and Saturday evenings.  I felt this was probably a good Should, as staying at home would be giving in to social anxiety and depression and make going again next week harder.  I didn’t push myself to go to shul on Saturday morning though and let myself eat a lot of junk food, which I regret a bit now.  I drank too much Diet Coke on Friday night too, which may have been why I didn’t sleep.   After lunch today I was tired and a bit depressed and did the autistic thing I sometimes do of going back to bed and wrapping the duvet around me because it feels reassuring (I think that’s why I do that.  It’s not always easy to tell).  Inevitably, I fell asleep, although it was not my intention, and when I woke I had to eat seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) in a hurry and was still late for shul.

More troublingly, I accidentally broke Shabbat twice, which was not good.  One was too complicated to explain here and maybe not such a problem, but the other problem was that the phone woke me up this morning and my brain thought it was Friday and I answered it before realising my mistake, thinking it might be about my benefits appointment on Monday.  It wasn’t even important, just cold-calling, ambulance-chasing lawyers, “Have you been in an accident that wasn’t your fault?”  I’m not generally in favour of banning lots of things, but I wish someone would ban them.  Anyway, I felt bad about breaking Shabbat even if it was accidental.

I was given the honour of gelilah at Minchah (wrapping up the Torah scroll and putting its decorations back on it after the Torah reading in the Afternoon Service), which made me feel a bit that I was receiving some kind Divine approbation after all the stuff in the previous paragraph, but I don’t believe that worldly honour is a sign of Divine approval; one can find honoured people who are not at all worthy.  Hmm.

***

After Shabbat, I spent twenty-five minutes finishing another chapter of my novel, which I was glad to do.  I’m still unsure how good it is, but E. has liked what she has read so far (not this chapter yet).  I also spent some time (not sure how long) working on the bibliography for my Doctor Who book.  While I was writing the book I had wavered as to whether I would produce a bibliography, with the result that my note-taking for one was fairly shoddy, I’m sad to say, as a librarian and a historian.  Some references are just a title or a description, because I know my Doctor Who books and magazines well enough that I expected my future self (which is now my current self…) to be able to locate them and create proper references later if necessary without much bother.  That plan now looks slightly stupid as I’m faced with digging through piles and piles of magazines to find particular articles.  I do know where most things are, at least roughly, it’s just a pain to dig them out, especially as I have to move my bedside cabinet just to get to them.  Later on I think I realised this was stupid and started constructing proper references that can just be cut and pasted in.

I started with a couple of these more finished references.  The first to be polished and included in the bibliography happened by a nice coincidence to be an article by a friend who sometimes comments here.  More problematic was trying to create references for some pages on the BBC website that turn out not to exist any more.  I did get worried, as these were references to actual archival documentation that the BBC had scanned and put up, I think to celebrate Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary in 2013 and really should be referenced.  Obviously they had been deemed obsolete and deleted from the BBC website some time in the last year or two (not for the first time in Doctor Who‘s history).  Fortunately, I managed to find preserved versions of all the pages via the Internet Archive.  I was pleased with this, not least because I had never managed to find anything on that site before.  So in the end I got five references done, which is the daily target I have set myself.

I’m not sure whether I could/should produce a reference for every single televised Doctor Who story (nearly 300, depending on how you define “story”), on whatever format I own it, not to mention other series where I’ve referenced them (e.g. the Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers in a discussion of Sara Kingdom).  I mean, I should, but I’m going to be here FOREVER if I do and, given that it’s aimed at the fan market rather than the academic market, maybe there’s no need.  Can something this obvious be taken as a given?  Hmm…  Suggestions on a postcard (or comment) please!

***

I’m re-reading The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli on the two titanic figures of mid-nineteenth century British politics.  I had been thinking about re-reading it for a while, as I couldn’t remember much about it, but Brexit and the prospect of major political realignment in this country and perhaps elsewhere pushed it up my reading list as I wanted to read about the previous realignment that happened after the repeal of the Corn Laws fractured the Tory Party with the Whigs, radicals and free trade Tories becoming the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party formed out of the protectionist Tory rump.  I’m not sure if “It reads like a novel” is always a compliment for a history book, but in this case it is.  A very interesting and readable account of Victorian politics.

So far I don’t find either Gladstone or Disraeli particularly likeable: Gladstone was a prig and bore and emotionally constipated even by Victorian standards; Disraeli on the other hand was a cynical opportunist.  I find Gladstone easier to empathise with, though, as many of his flaws are my own: he also tended to see everything as a question of principle (once resigning from the Cabinet on a point of principle so trivial that everyone thought he had just destroyed his career for no good reason, but then voting in support of the legislation he had just resigned to oppose apparently because he thought he shouldn’t vote against his party), struggled with human contact and beat himself up endlessly about fairly normal aspects of sexuality.  Again, hmm.

Doc Soc-ing Again

I’m not quite sure how coherent this is going to be, so bear with me.  Perhaps I will come back tomorrow and add more.  I’m feeling exhausted from a massively draining day; it would have been draining for anyone, but even more so with autism and depression.  But I need to set things down so that I can sleep; as usual, I’m writing for myself as much as anyone else.

I struggled to sleep last night after helping with post-Pesach (Passover) tidying.  I think I fell asleep around 4.00am.  After five hours of sleep, I was up again to go to Oxford for the thirtieth anniversary party for the Doctor Who Society.  When I was there it was the Oxford University Doctor Who Society, but I think it lost the university bit a few years ago when the proportion of students in the society dropped below the critical threshold.  A lot of what happened to me at Oxford was fairly miserable and a previous trip back to the city a number of years ago left me upset, but the Doc Soc (as we called it then) was one of the few places I felt comfortable and accepted, so I wanted to make the effort to go and show my support.  Plus I am a former president.  I know I only did a term, but I still count!

When I arrived in Oxford I spiralled down quite quickly into depression.  It doesn’t help that the bus station is right by my old college.  My college was not the site of good times.  I actually spent much of the day trying to avoid being anywhere I could see it and only consented to have it in my sight (from a distance) at the end of the day when I was feeling better.  Wandering around the town, killing time before the party, I was just feeling that I didn’t belong in Oxford, that I messed up my time there, that the city was full of undergraduates having fun and I was lonely and miserable the whole time I was a student.  I think I even wondered vaguely if should just turn around and go home.

I killed time for a bit until 2pm, when the party was due to start and eventually found the confidence to go in.  The room was packed with people and, again, I started to wonder if I had made the right decision, immediately feeling rather overwhelmed and anxious.

I won’t give a blow by blow account of what happened, mainly because I can’t.  Everything blurs together.  I know I must have stayed feeling awkward and depressed for a bit, but gradually I loosened up and was able to speak to some friends from my Oxford days.  After a while, I was able to get the confidence to speak to one or two people who I recognised from blogs I follow, which led on to being introduced to people who I knew from commenting on those blogs, even though I didn’t know that they were Oxford people too.  I’m not quite sure how I managed to do that, but somehow I did.  I actually managed to speak to quite a few people over the afternoon and mostly didn’t shake, although I was careful when pouring drinks.  It helped that I was aware that this was an environment where people who are neurodivergent, eccentric or just plain different were more likely to be present and accepted than in other environments that I find myself in (work, shul (synagogue), dates).  Someone said she saw me in the street on the way there and thought that I looked that I might be the type of person who would be going to the Doctor Who Society which amused me.  I obviously look geeky even when not wearing my Doctor Who scarf (I decided that the ‘smart casual’ clothing instructions precluded both cosplay and Doctor Who t-shirts, although few other people felt the same way).

There were various events during the afternoon, including a talk on the history of the society by my friend M., a quiz (which my team did reasonably well at although I was inexplicably stricken by social anxiety when the time came to call out results and stayed silent) and various visual presentations that I should probably not go into too much detail about here.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, but I was thoroughly exhausted by the end, especially as I stood for four hours as there weren’t enough chairs for the number of people.  I managed to get back to London where my Dad picked me up from the station, but I found the journey home painful, as he was making small talk, which I find challenging at the best of times, but I was too ‘peopled out’ to really deal with it.  I read the blog of a carer for a child with more severe autism than I have, and he (the child) apparently tries to stop people talking to him on the way home from school; I could see his point.  I don’t have extreme sensory sensitivities, but sometimes light or noise can be really irritating, and when I need to crash and have ‘alone time’ it is painful to be dragged into conversation, especially small talk.

Then, when I got home, there was some post-Pesach religious OCD anxiety.  I won’t go into details, but I still don’t know if I did the right thing about that.  I was caught (as I usually am with these things) between what I felt was right in the abstract and what I felt I should do to avoid upsetting my parents.  It does underline to me that even though my relationship with my parents is reasonably good at the moment (although it could/should be better and that it is at least partly my fault), there are just gulfs of understanding between us, usually neurotypical brain vs. autistic brain or mentally healthier brain vs. more mentally ill brain, but also sometimes religious gulfs.  My parents are fairly religious, but sometimes there are just gaps in understanding or attitude to Judaism and halakhah (Jewish law).  I don’t want to give examples and probably I shouldn’t really say any more.  I suppose most people are not clones of their parents, even if they have a lot in common.  It’s just hard to bridge the gaps sometimes.

So that was the most social day I’ve had in a very long time.  People are probably expecting me to say I came home and crashed in front of Doctor Who, but I actually watched Blake’s 7 (Blake’s 7, I should probably say for those who don’t know, was Doctor Who‘s unofficial sister show in the late 70s and early 80s.  There were no direct crossovers, but they shared a lot of actors, writers, directors, props, costumes etc.).

Tomorrow is my date with L. (arranged via the values-based dating agency), so I ought to go to bed and get some rest.