I’m still haunted by the Very Scary Task. Although my work on it was already completed, the actual event I was organising happened today. My Dad woke me up early (not very early, but early for me), thinking I still had work to do on it. Then I got a call less than an hour before the VST was due to start which scared me into thinking something had gone wrong until I saw it was Mum. She couldn’t get to work because of traffic caused by people panic-buying petrol at all the petrol stations. (Panic-buying seems to be a persistent issue of recent years and I’m not sure how to stop it. Ministers going on TV saying, “Stop panic-buying” does very little and might even make it worse.) Anyway, that Very Scary Task must be over by now and no one phoned me up to complain, so hopefully it went OK.
The good Sukkot weather we’ve been having came to an end with heavy rain this morning, although the skies are clearer now. At least I got out there for lunch and dinner every day. Tomorrow we start praying for rain, which always feels like the ‘official’ start of autumn.
I think I’ve coped OK with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I coped with ‘peopling’ and general religious stress better than I expected, if anything, although I got to shul (synagogue) less than I would have liked. I plan to go to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) tonight and maybe for Minchah tomorrow, but not at all over Simchat Torah. I’ll just pray at home. It saddens me to have to just completely give up on a Jewish festival, but the alternative is to end up thoroughly overloaded and miserable.
Simchat Torah is just too stressful for me as someone with social anxiety and autism, with the raucous singing and dancing, not to mention the auctioning of honours in return for commitment to Talmud study, which just drives home to me how little Talmud study I do in comparison to some people, and my unwillingness to commit to much for fear that a mental health relapse will stop me meeting that commitment. The shul community tries to study the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest stratum of the Talmud, every year, with different people committing to study different chapters in return for different honours in the shul over Simchat Torah. The biggest honours are reserved for people who will study hundreds of pages of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemarah) over the coming year. While I prefer this system to those shuls that auction Simchat Torah honours in return for donations to the shul or to charity, it still makes me feel uncomfortable on multiple levels. It seems prideful and lacking in humility, as well as creating (or maintaining) a de facto hierarchy based on intelligence and study skills. Actually, the three very biggest honours are awarded to three people who have done things for the community, which I find preferable, although usually one of them is someone my age and I realise I will never get an honour like this, as I don’t have the ability or headspace to do community work. Although I think I would freak out if I was the centre of attention like that.
There was one year I did really get into Simchat Torah, and I’m not sure how I did it. I think my depression was in remission at the time and I was in a community where I felt more comfortable, the one I had grown up in, and there probably weren’t that many people there, as it was a declining community.
I finally got through to the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out where I am with autism-adjusted CBT. Apparently my GP should have referred me and applied for funding, instead of handing it back to the psychiatrist who assessed me, so I’ve just lost a couple of months and am still not on the waiting list. I don’t blame the GP, as NHS bureaucracy seems so convoluted that it doesn’t surprise me that even NHS doctors don’t know how to navigate it. I am so past surprised that this has happened. But now I have another reason to try to see my GP next week, if the NHS gatekeepers will deign to allow me an appointment (none were available online today).
I feel like I need a holiday. I’ve found the Yom Tovim draining and I didn’t get a real break over Chol HaMoed because of the VST. I haven’t had a proper holiday since the end of 2019, and, while I often find holidays stressful, at least on some level, COVID and a job that sometimes stresses me out more than I would like have left me longing for some kind of break, especially after such a disruptive month. I’ve got to get through the next month before E comes over. That’s probably the best kind of break for me, in that I don’t have to go anywhere, pack, travel, and do all the things that stress me as an autistic person going on holiday. Also the best kind of break in that it’s with E!
I’ve only got a short time to write, but I wanted to write something and try to process my feelings about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
The background to Rosh Hashanah was a mini-heatwave that hit us unexpectedly. I was expecting it to be pleasant, but it was uncomfortably hot, which had an impact on my mood throughout. The other background is that I had asked to sit in the covered area outdoors, by the window of the shul (synagogue), intended for people who were unwilling or unable to sit indoors because of COVID anxiety or reduced immunity. The acoustics at the window were bad and I spent a lot of my time at shul round the corner by the door, where I could hear and see what was going on rather better.
I don’t really remember much special about the first night in shul. I think I did feel pretty positive, despite the poor acoustics. At home we ate the simanim, special symbolic foods eaten to symbolise a good new year. We have only been doing this for a couple of years and it still has novelty value. Even though it was late, I did some Torah study after dinner, as I hadn’t done much during the day and felt that I wanted to connect to God. I struggled to sleep that night, whether from the heat or the mixed feelings I had being at shul, feeling I was missing out by being outside, but also feeling that I would have a lot of COVID anxiety inside.
I woke up early the next morning, but struggled to get up, I think because of social anxiety rather than burnout, although maybe a bit of both. I find it hard to accept social anxiety as a legitimate excuse for missing shul, even though it happens a lot. I got to shul in time for the sermon and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. Even though I was very late, I still stayed for another three hours until the end of the service; Rosh Hashanah services are very long. I slipped into the shul standing just inside the doorway to hear the shofar, otherwise staying outside except when I was asked to open the Ark for Alenu. I felt I couldn’t really turn it down as I had come in for the shofar, and I think it was an hour to be asked for that particular prayer (where we bow on the floor, something we only do here and on Yom Kippur).
I napped after lunch, then went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and then on to the brook for Tashlich, then came home. I was getting a headache, which I managed to stop turning into a massive migraine with early intervention, but I felt drained and justified in my decision not to go back for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).
I didn’t sleep well again and I struggled to get up in the morning. I had the “flat battery” feeling where I just don’t have the energy to sit up, let alone get dressed and go to shul. I eventually managed to get up around lunchtime. I was upset to have missed shul, but not surprised to be so burnt out. I was too burnt out to catch up on prayers and I didn’t want to delay my parents’ lunch.
After lunch I was still tired, so I napped again before saying the Mussaf prayers. I read the Jewish Review of Books for a bit, then went to shul for Minchah. I somehow found the confidence to tell the rabbi I had missed the morning prayers and the shofar blowing and he arranged for someone to blow it for me before Minchah started. I was pleased, and surprised that I found the confidence to do it, but I felt so socially anxious about drawing attention to myself asking for this that I struggled to focus on the shofar, and later on the prayers for Minchah. I decided I did not have the energy left for the shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv, so I went home.
J left the same time as I did and said he didn’t see me in the morning and asked if I was OK. I said I’d been unwell, but was OK now; I didn’t want to go into a big thing about autistic burnout in the street. He said if I’m unwell tomorrow not to force myself to come into work, which was nice.
On the whole Rosh Hashanah must be a success, as I got to shul quite a bit and heard the shofar both days. However, I feel kind of hollow and down now and I don’t know why. Some of it is lack of passive relaxation time or alone time. I’ve spent most of my waking hours the last two days with other people, at shul or at home. Beyond this, I suppose I just wonder if I’ll ever get back to being the person who can go to every single service and shiur during the festival.
I suppose I also always focus on the next goal rather than the one just completed. There’s a story about a Hasidic rabbi (I think the Maggid of Mezeritch; I don’t have time to check) who was asked by a Hasid why, whenever he tried to move closer to God, God seemed as far away as ever. The Maggid said that it’s like a father with a toddler. The father calls the child to him, who takes a few faltering steps towards him, but as he gets near, the father moves a few steps away and calls him again, and so on. This is frustrating for the child, but is how he learns to walk. Similarly, God moves further and further away to call us towards Him, but I don’t know how to deal with the lack of self-esteem that results from feeling I have not reached God and am as far away as ever.
I actually spent a lot of time over Rosh Hashanah thinking about what it would mean to accept that God loves me. I’m not sure I came to any great conclusions. I find it easier to see God as punitive than loving, at least towards me, and I’m not sure why or how to change that. I don’t see God as punitive in an abstract, theological sense, or towards other people, but I find it hard to believe He could love me unconditionally.
The other thing I thought about a bit over Yom Tov was abuse (child abuse, get withholding etc.) in the Jewish community. It’s been in the news again lately. I wonder how God can forgive us while it goes on. There isn’t really anything I can do about it, except write about it, which makes me want to get my novel published. On which note, a book I’d ordered, a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents, arrived today, which may help me to plan my next step.
OK, I’m off to get ready for tomorrow, and to see if I can have something to eat and fit in Midweek Twin Peaks before bed.
I couldn’t sleep last night, possibly the result of eating ice cream late at night (it can give me a sugar rush, I think). It was a bad decision, but I felt that, after several difficult days, with several more to come, I needed a treat. About 3.00am, I decided to get up and do some work in the hope it would bore me to sleep. At the very least, I would wake up to less work in the morning. I did just under an hour of work at night and another hour today. All the bits I’ve done since Friday work out at roughly a full day for me, and I’ve also conveniently finished all the work I had to do at home, which I guess is a good way to finish the Jewish year.
I filled in the form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. I didn’t have the payslips they wanted as I’m freelance and invoice J every month. I hadn’t kept all the invoices either, which I should have done, because the taxman may want them. I found the last two. I wish I wasn’t so vague and clumsy about practical and financial things. I don’t know what I’d do without my Dad here, really. There are courses in personal finance and the like for people on the spectrum. I’ve always resisted going on them, because I felt I’m too high-functional, but maybe I’m not really.
In a few hours it will be the start of a new Jewish year, 5782. I like that Jewish year numbers are so big, even though the count was only started (retroactively) in the Middle Ages and I don’t believe that Adam and Chava (Eve) were created literally 5782 years ago tomorrow. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about crowning God as our King. This entails accepting that He knows what He’s doing with everything He does. To this end, I’m going to try not to worry about stuff over the next two days and accept everything He has planned for me for the next year, regardless of whether it’s what I want or expect. This includes trying not to worry about getting to shul, hearing the shofar, about talking to people or about walking in hours after the service has started and the like.
Shana tova – happy new year! May we all be signed and sealed for life, and a good life at that!
It’s the last day of August, which seems unbelievable. The year has dragged with regard to COVID, but in other ways it has sped past. It is also Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) next week, which also seem unbelievable. Rosh Hashanah is very rarely this early in the solar year (the Jewish lunar calendar moves about with regard to the solar calendar).
The Jewish year has been good for me on the whole. I feel a bit bad about that, when COVID has made it so terrible for so many people. But it’s good that I’m back together with E, that I’m working, albeit part-time (all I can cope with), and that I finished my novel. I just feel a lot of gratitude at where my life is, albeit coupled with a desire for help in moving it on to the next level (which would be marrying E and monetising my writing at least by getting my novel published).
Despite this, my mood today has been up and down, largely because of more boring data entry work and nervousness about speaking to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s (yes, that’s happening). I have tried to hold on to the good things, like Skyping E.
I listened to the Jewish educator Erica Brown speak about her book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. She spoke about the difficulty of translating ‘teshuva,’ which means ‘penitence,’ which sounds rather heavy. It can also mean ‘returning’ and that’s a common translation in frum (religious) circles, but she prefers ‘recovery,’ having worked with addicts.
It occurred to me when listening to this that teshuva also means ‘answer’ in Hebrew. Perhaps our teshuva is an answer to God. What is the question? Perhaps the primordial question that God asked Adam and Chava (Eve) in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3.9) The Midrash sees this as a question designed to tease out a repenting/returning/recovering/answering response from Adam and Chava, but instead they blamed other people and refused to take responsibility for their actions. At this time of year we can ‘answer’ God realistically about our lives.
Erica Brown talked about the importance of not focusing solely on the negatives in our lives, but also on the positives, asking ourselves what we are doing right morally and religiously. I think I have grown and improved in some ways over the year, although I won’t go into that here. I have also come to feel confident that my life should be with E, and that I should also be trying to write fiction professionally, tough though it will probably be to get published. This was reinforced by listening to the latest Intimate Judaism podcast, where they were talking about the way sex is spoken about at yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) and whether there is a rape culture, a hookup culture or a generally unhealthy sexual culture in these places, and how the frum (religious) community should be encouraging young adults to view their burgeoning sexuality.
The podcast made me desperate to write my idea for a novel about a pornography-addicted rabbi. This is probably not what Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn intended as a response to their podcast, nor what Erica Brown intended as a positive to focus for the coming year, but that’s where I am at the moment. I need to get some books on pornography addiction as background reading before I can go any further with planning (I know Joshua Shea sometimes reads this so – yes, your books are on the top of my list!) which I probably won’t do until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I have a short story to work on until then, but I hope I can find the time to write between work, therapy, Yom Tov and general religious practice (Torah study, prayer). It’s a busy time of the year for religious Jews.
At any rate, I feel that writing is my current ‘answer’ to God, that I want to move on with my relationship and my writing, but that I need a lot of divine help.
I set an early alarm because I had a vague magical thinking fear that J would call me to do the Very Scary Task again early today. In the event he did not, thankfully, and I fell asleep again after turning my alarm off. It’s interesting how much magical thinking I’ve had around the VST this week. I don’t usually think of myself as a superstitious or magical thinking person, but I can’t deny the evidence of my own thoughts.
It’s been a fairly tough couple of weeks covering for J and working from home and I’m aware that it’s going to continue to be tough for a while, albeit for varying reasons. Next week I hope to ‘come out’ as autistic to my shul (synagogue) rabbi. I’ve prepared notes of what to say, but I really have no idea how it will go or even what I really expect or hope from the meeting. Then, for unrelated reasons, I’ve been invited to his house for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner next Friday. I accepted, but only afterwards did I wonder how safe it would be, COVIDly. I mean, the government COVID regulations permit it, but I wonder if I’m being reckless. It’s hard to tell. But the real thing worrying me about it is the usual social anxiety stuff.
E was surprised that I don’t get extra-socially anxious with rabbis than I do with other frum (religious) people. To be honest, I think I’m nervous enough with ‘ordinary’ frum people that there isn’t anywhere else for the anxiety to go, plus I feel I’ve had exposure therapy with rabbis over the years. I have eleven Orthodox rabbis’ phone numbers on my phone (a minyan and a spare), so I do have experience with talking to them. They don’t intimidate me the way they do to some people.
If I get through that, then we’re into the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), but I’m trying not to worry about that now, albeit that I’m starting religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
This week in shul we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (I admit I’m not that likely to get there for this in person). This contains the curses that will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with God. The Talmud says we always read this a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah so we can say, “Let the old year with its curses end, and the let the new year with its blessings begin.” I think we’re all looking forward to new blessings after eighteen months of COVID curses, although COVID doesn’t look to be vanishing any time soon.
E and I have both taken COVID very seriously, mostly followed regulations and are both double vaxxed; still, we’re both sick of it and want to get back to normal life, life without masks, travel restrictions and noisy social media arguments about masks and vaccines. We wondered last night how long it can carry on for like this and whether governments are secretly aiming for zero COVID deaths, which seems as unachievable and flawed a target as zero flu deaths. I don’t think the UK or US governments are aiming for this, although the New Zealand government seems to be doing so; I think it’s only possible in a small, sparsely-populated and out of the way country. However, I’ve heard people (experts and callers) on the radio who seem to really want zero COVID deaths. One expert even seemed to want zero COVID infections, on the grounds that infection, even in the young and vaccinated, can lead to long COVID and long COVID is debilitating, therefore the government should aim at eradicating it, presumably like smallpox and bubonic plague. This seems as crazy as vaccine refusal, albeit in the opposite direction.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ever getting back to normal. It just goes on and on. I still feel nervous at shul, one of only three or four people still wearing masks now they are no longer mandatory. At the moment E is worried about being able to come and visit me, in terms of fear that the USA might be put on the UK’s red list and Americans banned from entry, and at the moment I couldn’t visit her, because direct travel from the UK is banned, and also because I’ve had the AZ vaccine, which the USA still hasn’t recognised (all of which strikes me as a bit rich, considering how poor vaccine uptake has been in the US; please get your own house in order before criticising others). We just want to spend some time together this calendar year! Is it too much to ask? Sigh. At least we have Skype.
My shul is still bringing Shabbat in early, at 6.25pm today, so I didn’t have much time to do things, considering I slept late and struggled to get going. I did my usual pre-Shabbat chores and spent some time on my cheshbon nafesh, my self-reflection on the previous Jewish year. I didn’t get time to work on the short story I planned yesterday or to do much in the way of Torah study. The latter doesn’t bother me much, as I can catch up while I wait for my father to daven (pray) tonight, as his shul isn’t starting until 7.35pm.
I just wrote this comment on Ashley’s blog: “My self-esteem has been pretty low since adolescence, maybe earlier. Getting my autism diagnosis earlier this year has really helped, though, inasmuch as I can now see myself as an autistic person who is trying hard with some success rather than a neurotypical person who is frequently failing for no obvious reason.” I don’t think there’s really anything to add to that.
I read a Philip K. Dick short story last night that was extraordinarily misogynistic and generally misanthropic (Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked). It rather made me regret my decision to read rather than just watching TV. Dick had issues with women, to put it mildly (he was married five times). His last completed novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has a female narrator who is a likeable and interesting character, but most of his other female characters are not, to put it mildly. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how negative the short story would be.
I feel vaguely anxious and stressed. I’m not really sure why or maybe there’s over-causation. I’m worried about another week when J is away, when I’ll be struggling to get up early and do the only, boring, task I can do from home, and when I might have to do the Very Scary Task again. I’m worried about speaking to my rabbi soon about my autism/Asperger’s, and extra worried as I don’t actually know when would be a good time to speak to him. I’m just focused on getting through this coming week. I’m worried about the upcoming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), with all they entail in terms of disruption to my routine, working longer or harder to catch up afterwards and time in shul (with a mask, but around people who won’t be masked) as well as the introspection these festivals entail. I haven’t yet done a cheshbon nafesh, an assessment of how my spiritual progress over the last year. I was supposed to do it today, but ran out of time. And at the back of my mind are vague worries about E’s trip to the UK and other obstacles to our getting together, although those worries are pretty swamped by more imminent ones, which I guess is good, in a weird way. Also at the back of my mind is an awareness that I haven’t done any creative writing lately, except for jotting down book ideas haphazardly as they occur to me. I don’t think I’m going to have much time or energy for that soon either.
I have a feeling of stuckness with a lot of things: COVID, getting to move my relationship with E on, my novel(s), work… Just contemplating my cheshbon nafesh I can see things have moved on since this time last year (I’m working a bit, I’ve finished my novel and I’m in a serious relationship with someone who is more suited to me than my previous relationship), but it’s hard to remember that sometimes.
Things done today: Torah study for just under an hour; went to collect my new suit; was going to go for a run, switched to starting my cheshbon nafesh when it started raining, then went for a run when the rain stopped. It wasn’t a great run. I had poor stamina and had to walk a lot, and for the first few minutes I felt so unbearably awful that I thought I was going to have to give up, but I managed forty minutes and just under 5K and I did run a bit better after a while. My mood was better afterwards, even if I spent a lot of the run worrying about the state of the world and about my family.
I have other anxieties. When I’m worried about something that I can’t do much about, I sometimes fixate on other things, often books I want to read or DVDs I want to watch or re-watch. Lately I’ve been wanting to re-watch Twin Peaks, even though I only watched it less than a year ago and know that a lot of it is not that good, but it’s structured in a way that makes it hard to focus on just the good bits. The soap opera-style plotlines make it hard to skip whole episodes without it losing coherence. I’m also aware that I’m watching Doctor Who with E and that I’ve also recently bought The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series (I’m partway through season two) and The Simpsons season three. I feel I should finish these first, without really having a good reason why. After all, they won’t go off, and I have no qualms about reading or re-reading novels with more recent (or less recent) purchases waiting. Perhaps more pertinently I feel I shouldn’t watch so much TV (not that I watch much more than an hour or an hour and a quarter a day) and that I should read more (even though I often watch TV when too tired to read or when in a bad state mental health-wise).
The “reading not watching” question is interesting. I enjoy reading, and, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn how to write as well as for enjoyment. My favourite writers, as I’ve mentioned, are Franz Kafka (who I hardly ever re-read, as a counsellor once told me not to read him when depressed and I find it hard not to do what authority figures say – I don’t consciously do this, but I do unconsciously), Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick (who probably shouldn’t be read by the mentally ill for a whole other reason). These writers have entered my mind in way that few others have, but I’ve been affected in a similar way by television series such as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and Sapphire and Steel. The writing is important in all of these, sometimes compensating for low budget, sometimes providing or supporting a sense of menace or surrealism that would be incoherent or silly with visual cues alone.
I’ve never really understood the criticism that TV encourages passivity. While many viewers are passive, I don’t think serious fans of a TV programme watch passively, however they respond to it: analysis (what tends to be dubbed ‘meta’ these days), fanfic (writing their own fiction with the characters and setting), cosplay (dressing up as characters) and so on. Fans respond in different, personal, ways, but they are not passive. Maybe it’s because I encountered Doctor Who largely through novelisations at first, and then original novels, so it’s always been on the boundary between TV and prose for me. At any rate, I watch attentively, looking at structure and characterisation, and as much as I would like to write like Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka, I would like to write like Robert Holmes, P. J. Hammond or Steven Moffat (not with all Moffat’s “battle of the sexes” stuff though).
I feel very drained today, physically and emotionally. I woke up late, but then realised that my parents’ friend, who fixes their computers, was here doing something on my Dad’s computer. I didn’t want to be seen in pyjamas, but I didn’t have the energy to get dressed without breakfast and coffee, so I went back to bed. After a while he went, so I rushed to eat breakfast, get dressed and daven.
I’m worried about a few upcoming things. I’m working from home for the next fortnight as J is on holiday. The downside is that I may have to do the super-difficult and super-stressful job I occasionally have to do, as I can do it as easily from home as from the office, and J isn’t around to handle it. Whereas I would usually do it if it was necessary during office hours on Monday or Thursday, I’ve agreed with J that he can pass it on to me any day while he’s away except Shabbat (when the office is shut) or Wednesday (volunteering and therapy day). I am quite nervous about this.
My more immediate worry is the changes to the shul schedule from this week. Instead of davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers) at 6.15pm followed by Talmud shiur (religious class), we are now davening Minchah some time before sunset followed by seudah shlishit (the Third Sabbath meal) including shiur and then Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers). The problem is that I won’t eat at the seudah at the moment because I’m still too scared of COVID, but I want to hear the shiur. This week I’m going to try to have my own seudah at home before Minchah, bring a book with to read while everyone else is having seudah, then sit with the seudah without eating during the shiur and stay on for Ma’ariv, but it will be awkward to sit (in a mask) and not eat. I’m also not sure I have the stamina to stay in shul for that long, although I guess it will be good practice for the coming Jewish festivals. I’m not going to push myself to go to shul for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) tomorrow, as one big, scary shul thing in a day is enough. To be honest, I feel so drained and down at the moment that it’s going to be an effort to go tonight, and the Friday night service is my favourite and definitely the least scary.
Speaking of the festivals, there’s the worry I get at this time of year with the Jewish autumn festival season around the corner, practical worries about coping with going to shul (synagogue) so much and so early, or oversleeping and missing services which makes me look to other shul-goers like I’m not very committed. There are also more spiritual worries about finding time and headspace for appropriate introspection and deciding where I can improve in the coming Jewish year, let alone how I manage that change. Then there’s the stress of the abbreviated work weeks in the festival time. I currently work at an Orthodox Jewish organisation, so I don’t have to worry about taking time off, but the other days in those weeks will be manic, trying to cram everything in.
I have other vague worries too, about my cousin coming over from Israel next week and how I fit in spending time with her, and whether E will be able to visit later in the year. It probably isn’t all too much if I break it down, but it seems like tidal wave of stuff is around the corner and just waiting to hit me (if a tidal wave can go around a corner). To be honest, lately I seem to get anxious about all kinds of things, even if there’s nothing specifically going on in my life. Yesterday, for example, I got hugely worried about the Arab-Israeli conflict with no obvious trigger and certainly nothing I can do to change that particular situation.
I tried to phone the secretary of the psychiatrist who assessed me for Asperger’s Syndrome to see if she has tried to refer me for autism-adapted CBT yet. There’s a whole procedure whereby the NHS has to assess whether I should get treatment or not. Realistically, I should get it now I have a diagnosis, but the psychiatrist and GP were arguing over who should actually write the letter to start the whole thing and I’m not sure if anything has happened yet, five months after my diagnosis. Unfortunately, the call went straight to voicemail both times I tried and I’m wondering if the secretary doesn’t work on Fridays.
My parents convinced me to withdraw from the job with the difficult commute. I think I was pushing myself to go through with it because I didn’t want to feel I was “chickening out” for the wrong reasons, because I didn’t think I could give the presentation they required. I am quite relieved to avoid the presentation though, not to mention the commute.
The good news: Mum saw the oncologist today and he said that the cancer is completely gone, which is obviously very good. She will still have to have radiotherapy, and to continue to have regular injections of antibodies for a while, but the cancer itself is completely gone.
On to the less good…
I feel that I’m like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and falling on his back every time. Every few years, my depression seems to shift for a bit, and I talk about being recovered, and then after a period of weeks or months, I fall back into depression again, usually in autumn. At least this time I didn’t say I was “recovered,” just that my depression was now mostly reactive to events going on around me rather than being rooted in my childhood experiences, which is probably true, but nevertheless, I still feel very depressed today.
I’m also feeling burnt out again. I struggled on with preparing my interview presentation, but it was hard work. I just wanted to curl up in bed. In terms of the stresses the depression is reacting to, I guess I’m worried about the interview next week, and what happens if I get the job, whether I can do it and whether I can cope with a masked commute every workday.
I also had problems setting up an account with Microsoft Teams, which I need for my interview on Wednesday. I set up an account and tried to log in, only to be told I couldn’t log in because I didn’t have an account. But when I tried to set up a new account, I was told I couldn’t because I already had an account. I was supposed to have an email that would let me use Teams, but I didn’t receive it for a while, and there wasn’t a helpdesk to complain to. I could somehow get through using the link the Very Important Institution sent me (they have already set the meeting up so I can get into the virtual waiting room), but I couldn’t open Teams from scratch. I was supposed to have a practice call with my sister, but it wouldn’t let me add her to my address book. Pressing the “accept” button on the notification email from her just opened another window with the same email notification, it didn’t actually add her to my address book. I did eventually get everything up and running, just about, but I’m pretty nervous about it working properly on Wednesday. The Doctor Who line about computers being very “sophisticated idiots” never seemed more true. Teams seems like it has a load of fancy features that get in the way and stop it from doing things that can more easily be done on Skype or Zoom. I did eventually manage a practice call with my sister, so I feel a bit more confident about it. It think that Microsoft really are the pits, though. The hollow thumping sound you can hear is the sound of me repeatedly hitting my head on my desk.
I’m also vaguely worried about my relationship with PIMOJ; it’s hard to tell what the relationship is like when we still haven’t met in person or even spoken long on Skype (Love in the Time of COVID), and when there are occasional communication problems from the fact that English isn’t her first language, and I’m not sure of her level of knowledge of English as well as of Hebrew and Yiddish. I don’t want to sound patronising to her by using simple language or explaining things, but I don’t want her to feel I’m showing off my knowledge or intimidating her with terms she doesn’t understand.
It also feels weird for me to be the less spiritual and perhaps also the less serious-minded person in a relationship and I’m not quite sure what to make of that, or about the fact that I don’t feel completely comfortable owning my negative feelings when I’m talking to her, as she’s so positive and I’m scared about how she would respond to me on a day like today when I just feel depressed. Again, it doesn’t help that we haven’t met in person; on instant messenger it’s hard to judge someone’s mood or level of empathy, even beyond my usual autistic struggles with that sort of perspective taking, especially given the language problem and the fact that there are often typos that just confuse the whole thing even further.
I don’t want to sound too negative, as I think PIMOJ meets a lot of my needs in terms of being intelligent, kind and religious and I also find her funny. I think there is chemistry there, even if instant messenger isn’t necessarily the best way of expressing it. I just wonder what will happen. I’m trying to stay in the present, but it isn’t always easy.
I don’t really want to talk about the relationship in detail here, but I don’t have anywhere else to talk about it, other than therapy for an hour a week. I also don’t know how much these worries are real or stem from feeling depressed today.
So, these are the thoughts that have been going through my head today. I guess I’m feeling rather overwhelmed, and I haven’t even mentioned that it’s going to be the most important day in the Jewish calendar on Sunday night and Monday (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), and I don’t feel able to go to shul (synagogue) for it because of fear of infection, discomfort with masks and general autistic uncertainty about what exactly happens at shul with COVID and the new normal.
I listened to an audio shiur (religious class) by Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, who is a therapist as well as a rabbi, on building a mature relationship with God. In some ways it crystalised things I’ve been thinking recently, but which I had not been able to put into words. Ideas that God is not judging us on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur like a parent or teacher judges a young child and awarding reward and punishment, but that He is being curious and inviting us to enter into a dialogue with Him about why we’ve done the things we’ve done, good and bad, and How we relate to Him through those actions and how we can change and grow and become more authentic towards our inner selves.
I hope to think about this and bring it into my life. I struggle a lot to believe in a God who loves me (as opposed to a loving God – I believe God loves, but I don’t believe I’m worthy of His love). I want to build a relationship with Him, but it’s hard to know what to say, especially when I feel so tired so much of the time, and when I’ve spent so much of my adult life feeling anxious and depressed. I am trying to get away from the “angry old man in the sky” image of God which is poisonous, but sometimes I think I move too far in the direction of abstraction (Ein Sof, the kabbalistic term for the Infinite) and feel too distant from Him.
Achievements: some time spent on interview preparation, no idea how long. Downloaded Microsoft Teams and had a practice call with my sister. Went for a half-hour walk. Finished reading a book on writing character and viewpoint; I think I knew a lot of it instinctively from reading a lot, but I do vaguely feel like I’m a bad writer. I had a bit of a headache in the evening, which may have been stress or just because the heating came on for the first time, which often makes me a bit ill. I listened to a shiur and finished and sent my devar Torah for the week. I finished scanning the autism forms. So, I did quite a bit despite the burnout and low mood, but somehow it never feels “enough” which I guess is something to talk to God about.
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) was good. I felt bad about sleeping through most of the mornings and missing the right time for most of the morning prayers. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly my meds doing that, but it’s hard to be sure, plus I wonder if that’s really an excuse. I can get up when I need to, for work, so why am I in such a deep sleep when I need to get up to pray? When I was thinking about going to shul (synagogue), social anxiety was playing a part in keeping me away, but shul hasn’t been an option for six months or more. I don’t really understand it.
Otherwise it was good. I enjoyed time with my parents and we heard the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet blown on Rosh Hashanah to acclaim God as King) at a socially-distanced outdoor blowing in my parents’ shul‘s car park. I was glad as I didn’t want to miss it; I missed it too many years because I was too depressed and socially anxious to go to shul. I did quite a bit of Torah study (Rav Kook, Mishnah, Iyov (Job)), although not much recreational reading. I don’t mind that – Rosh Hashanah is always a religious-focused time rather than a relaxing one.
I think I had reasonable kavannah (usually translated as ‘concentration,’ but I prefer to translate as ‘mindfulness’) when davening (praying). I did go into a bit of a downward spiral about that last night, thinking that my kavannah and my religious experience in general was not good enough. In retrospect, I don’t think we can expect peak experiences every time we do something religious. It takes time to build up to a peak experience, and you can kill it by overthinking it, as my guilt was trying to do. Plus, I think there still is a residue of depression that stops me from truly having wonderful experiences. At least with Judaism you’re never far from another opportunity for a religious experience, particularly this month, with so many festivals.
We didn’t do tashlich (special prayers by a body of water on Rosh Hashanah talking about God throwing our sins into the sea) because we were worried about crowds again. It’s permitted to do tashlich for another three weeks, so it’s not a huge problem, and in the final analysis it’s a minhag (custom) not a mitzvah (commandment), so I wasn’t worried about postponing it until later in the week.
And that was it, really. I’m going to get something to eat, as if I hadn’t eaten enough already.
I am feeling somewhat self-critical today. As often happens, I woke up about 8.00am to go to the toilet and wanted to stay up, but ended up going back to bed again and sleeping for another couple of hours. I feel really bad when I do this, and it happens quite a lot, as if I had minimal self-control and will-power, which I know is not the case. It’s just that I get overwhelmed with exhaustion and maybe some mild depression (and, probably, habit too, I admit) and just feel that I have to get back to bed ASAP. PIMOJ has taken to sending me Skype messages on her way to work, around 8.00am, and sometimes I wake up enough to hear the phone ping, and I want to message her back, but I’m just too tired and end up replying at 11.00am or later and feeling embarrassed. This has been a problem for years and years, through different medications and therapies and occupational therapy. Sometimes I have made progress on it during periods of remission from depression (there was a period six years ago or so when I was getting to early morning services in shul (synagogue) three or four times a week), but whenever the depression comes back, it knocks me right back to square one and it’s a struggle to get my sleep pattern sorted out all over again even if, as at the moment, depression isn’t a huge problem in any other aspect of my life. The only thing that works is scheduling stuff to do in the morning, but it has to be an external thing like work or a psychiatrist appointment; if it’s something I just want to do like getting an early start on the day, it won’t happen.
As a side-light on this, I forgot to take my evening dose of anti-depressants until nearly midnight last night and I suddenly had a lot of energy in the evening. My meds definitely do make me tired and slow me down, but I don’t think I can be so sure of being over the depression to ask to come off them completely, given that in the past that has always made my symptoms get much worse very quickly, and given that autumn is traditionally the time of year where my mood dips as the days shorten and the weather worsens.
I find not only do I hate wearing a mask, I realised that I hate that other people are wearing them too. Partly it’s that there’s a part of my brain that says, “Mask in a hospital = doctor or nurse; mask in the high street = bank robber,” but beyond that it’s a feeling that I find it hard enough to understand body language and facial expressions as it is (being autistic) without having the lower half of the face completely covered and voice muffled.
Ugh, I don’t want to finish the Jewish year on a bad note!
Good things #1: someone came to the door today while I was davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers). My parents were at the hospital again. I got to the end of the Amidah (the most important prayer) and hurriedly removed my tefillin and tallit (the prayer boxes and prayer shawl worn by men for weekday morning prayers) and rushed downstairs. It was someone from my shul (synagogue) bringing a small gift to those of us who are shielding and won’t make it to shul over Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, starting tonight). I was grateful, but also feeling hugely embarrassed that I had kept him waiting; I also didn’t want to admit I was davening as it was long past the ideal time for morning prayers. I think he thought I had been in the toilet. I also realised I was wearing a bright red polo shirt, which I tend not to wear when I think I might meet people from shul, as some Orthodox Jews avoid wearing red (more women than men, admittedly). So I felt hugely embarrassed and socially awkward, but it was nice to be thought of. Then I got further flustered and wished him the greeting that is really for Yom Kippur in two weeks’ time rather than for Rosh Hashanah. Because of all this I had a big rush of social anxiety, it took me a while to feel comfortable again, but I suppose there was no harm done and it was nice to be thought of.
Good thing #2: I finished Rav Kook’s The Lights of Penitence yesterday. It was very difficult to understand in parts, very mystical, and as with all mysticism, I wonder where it comes from and how much is authentic, but it was also a very moving and inspiring book and helped me perhaps to conceptualise my life differently, to think of teshuva (penitence) as something ongoing and lifelong rather than a hurdle that I should have overcome by now, and also to see teshuva as something leading to growth and joy rather than being fixated on my negative traits and deeds. Definitely something to re-read before Rosh Hashanah in future years, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being times to focus on teshuva and growth.
Good thing #3: I emailed a bunch of friends to wish them shana tova (good new year) and my oldest friend, who I haven’t seen in person for years, emailed back to say we should have a virtual coffee soon. I was pleased, as I had thought the same thing, but hadn’t really dared to suggest it, as he’s a communal rabbi and I know they’re busy pretty much 24/7. So hopefully we’ll be able to do that in a few weeks.
So ends the Jewish year 5780. It was pretty bad in parts, but my family made it through OK in the end. I’m hoping for a better 5781 though. Shanah tovah – have a good new year!
Things are going well, but I still feel a little anxious, although less so today. I spoke a lot about this in therapy today. Things with PIMOJ are going better than I expected, but I worry they won’t work out. PIMOJ is a lot more positive than me, and a lot more active in her life, and I worry she’ll find me negative and lazy (among other things). I’m trying just to sit with the anxiety rather than give in to it and worry, but it’s not always easy. Anxiety can sneak up on you when you’re looking the wrong way.
It could be several years before we overcome the obstacles in the way of the relationship (including, but not exclusively, my lack of income). I guess the difference between me and PIMOJ is that she thinks it might take just a few years whereas I think it could take quite a few years. I guess it’s a difference of presentation rather than substance, and I’m trying to look at it her way, but it’s hard sometimes. I guess I worry how I will get through things sometimes, and the psychological barrier of realising that I’ll probably be over forty before I can marry (PIMOJ is younger than me and potentially would be in her thirties still). Mind you, regardless of what happens romantically, I feel like I’ll probably be over forty before I really feel myself started in a career, whether writing or librarianship. I feel a bit like God is telling me I can have everything I want BUT I have to trust that He will deliver in His own time. Still, it’s good to have found someone who seems so caring and religious when I thought I was going to have to compromise on those things, and if PIMOJ can’t get me to trust God then no one can.
When does discomfort become exemption? I hate wearing a mask. I find it hugely uncomfortable. I have a friend, also on the autism spectrum, who has an exemption card because she literally can not wear a mask. It’s just impossibly uncomfortable for her. Do I find it difficult because I’m autistic or because everyone finds it uncomfortable? How long can I wear one for? I’m OK wearing it for half and a hour or so, but I’m dreading going to shul (synagogue) with one or commuting into London. It is hard to know what to do. At the moment I’m trying to comply, out of courtesy to others and to avoid attracting negative attention. Still, I wonder how long I’ll be able to bear it, as the new normal becomes as busy and demanding as pre-COVID, but with masks and other difficulties. But I don’t think I could bear to get a exemption card, particularly before being formally diagnosed, so I would just avoid situations that require masks (which I’m basically already doing).
I missed a phone call, and then found I had an email from someone from shul (synagogue) asking me to call him back. I struggled with social anxiety, but I called him back and found out that he wanted to check that we’re still shielding Mum on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, this weekend) as the shul is sending a small gift (I’m guessing some kind of food, probably sweet) to people who are shielding and unable to attend services.
I thought this was really nice. I know I don’t always feel 100% comfortable in my shul, but they are friendly and welcoming and the community is small enough that I get noticed even if I don’t really say anything. The thing I was really pleased about was phoning him back with minimal procrastination, which was hard given that my social anxiety has worsened lately.
I also went to Tesco today to challenge the anxiety around shopping at the moment. It was OK, but it was a small Tesco and I couldn’t find reasons to stay there for more than a few minutes. I’m hoping to spend as long or longer in a shop or shops tomorrow.
I went (on Zoom) to a day long pre-High Holy Days education event at the London School of Jewish Studies. I’m not going to relate in detail all the talks, because it would take too long, but here a few highlights.
The first, given my Gila Fine, was about a story in the Talmud about God asking the High Priest, Rabbi Yishmael, to bless him. Rabbi Yishmael blessed God that His mercy should overcome His anger and God indicates His approval for this blessing. This led into a discussion about God in Judaism not being an unmoving (in all senses of the word) omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being of Greek philosophy, but as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love (I would say, presenting Himself as emotional, vulnerable and wanting our love – I can’t completely lose the Greek omni belief, I’m too much of a Maimonidean). This was related to the idea that the image of God in the Talmud is softer and gentler than in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), which I’ve noticed before myself and wondered about. Fine didn’t say why this is the case. I may email her later, as she gave us her email to ask further questions. I feel the softer presentation of God in the Talmud (Oral Law) may be connected to the mystical idea of the Oral Law showing God’s aspect of love and the Written Law (Hebrew Bible) showing His aspect of justice. Or possibly there’s a historical explanation about the Talmud being largely exilic and the Torah being largely pre-exilic (she did speak about Rabbi Yishmael potentially being the last High Priest before the destruction of the Temple, in which case the story has added pathos). Anyway, this was helpful to me in trying to find a healthier understanding of God.
Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke about the approaching festivals in lockdown as opposed to being in synagogue with a large community, singing together. The standout quote to me was, “The most important thing is not to be afraid to be silent in the presence of God.”
Rabbi Joe Wolfson spoke of using Kayin (Cain) and Yishmael (Ishmael) as unlikely models for teshuva (repentance), unlikely because they are not normally seen as positive role models and also because their repentance was not complete. Kayin represents teshuva as beginning a conversation with God (when he asks if his sin is too great to bear) and Yishmael represents teshuva as being about where we are now, not past or future selves (based on the Midrash where the angels tell God to let the lost and dehydrated Yishmael die because he will be wicked and his descendants will oppress the Jews, but God lets him live because he is righteous at the moment). The former makes me feel better about repentance being a process rather than an event, and something that starts just with speaking to God.
There were more shiurim, but I’m too tired even to summarise all of them; I may share some more ideas tomorrow.
My sister and brother-in-law came over at lunchtime, mainly to see my Mum. I saw them for a few minutes between talks. They had bought another copy of my Doctor Who book, to give to their nephew (brother-in-law’s brother’s son), who is an avid Doctor Who fan, and they wanted me to sign it, which I did. I worry it’s a bit too analytical for him (I forget how old he is, I think he’s about ten). Maybe he’ll read it when he gets older, if he’s still a fan.
I managed to squeeze a walk in between talks too, so it was a long and busy day, but good, interesting and thought-provoking.
My mood was mainly good, but with a bit of a dip in the early evening. There was a reason for this, but I’m too tired to go into it now; maybe later in the week.
I felt drained again on waking and didn’t really feel alert all day; rather hungover and burnt out. It’s possible that I did a lot yesterday and have burnout today, although I didn’t feel like I did much. It was hard to get going.
I’m worried about the plot of my novel, and making sure it isn’t inadvertently sexist in its handling of the abuse theme. It’s harder than it looks, because novel structure, the need to unite plot strands and provide closure, is forcing the plot one way, when I think that anti-sexism should push it another. The real problem is that the abuse plot is a sub-plot when it probably should have been the main plot, but that would be a very different novel, and one I probably couldn’t write. The other problem, of course, is that we like fiction to be neat and polished, whereas life is rambling and messy.
One possible solution, albeit a drastic one, is significant rewriting. At the moment the main character narrates his story in the first person, and these chapters alternate with the secondary character’s story in the third person. If I rewrote the first person chapters into the third person, I’d lose immediacy and the idea of narrating a story from the point of view of someone with high functioning autism (which was the starting point of the whole thing), but might restore balance to the narrative overall. It’s something to think about, anyway.
I would have liked to have gone for a walk, but we’re closely shielding Mum at the moment, as her surgery is tomorrow, and so we’re not going out at all at the moment. I was psyching myself up to go to shul (synagogue) on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, which is in a little over a week), but I don’t think I’m going to make it. I think this will be easier for me, psychologically, than for other people, as my issues have often kept me at home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in the past, so I’m used to the idea of davening (praying) alone rather than with a community and missing out on singing and a lot of the prayers that are only said with a community.
I spoke about this with my therapist today and she suggested building up to going to shul, doing some things that I find a bit easier first, like going on a shopping trip indoors and around other people. I’ve hardly been shopping in the last six months, so that would be a good idea.
Other than that there’s not a lot to report, just the usual (Torah study, devar Torah, therapy, ironing, reading a book on writing).
I got up just after 9.00am which was good and partially made up for sleeping through so much of Saturday.
Getting dressed, I started wondering why I can’t thrive in the world again. This probably came about from thinking how lucky I am that my parents don’t force me to take any job I can find, even if it’s not suitable. I ended up worrying what will happen when I finally have my autism assessment if they say I’m not really autistic (again)? Worrying that this makes me like, Jessica Krug, the white academic in the news who pretended to be black, just pretending to be autistic for my own reasons (and, incidentally, who else was not at all surprised that the person running away from her real identity is Jewish? There’s definitely a trend for some Jews to defend every minority identity except their own). I tell myself I did pass the preliminary screening, which would indicate that I am on the spectrum, but still I worry, just as I worry that, autism or not, I’m never going to find my niche in life.
OK, catastrophising over! I’m going to try to be positive for the rest of the post!
I had a Skype date with PIMOJ. It went well. The internet connection held (I was worried we would get cut off) and we seemed to connect well personally as well, even despite the fact that chemistry can be hard to see on Skype. She wants to Skype again, so it was positive in that respect. I don’t think either of us turned out to be dramatically different from the image we had presented online (physically or in terms of personality), which is always the big worry with dating websites. I was able to speak quite a bit despite nervousness. It was a short date, as she had other arrangements (the date was arranged at short notice), but she emailed afterwards and said she enjoyed it.
PIMOJ is really positive and upbeat. I worry that I will put her off with my negativity. Granted, I probably appear more negative on this blog than in real life, because I share my worries and fears here that I don’t always share in person. To some extent, I use the blog to vent my negativity. Even so, I would like to be more positive. Maybe this will help me. I think whereas E. had a similar personality to me, but some different values (although we had some similar values too), PIMOJ has more similar values, but a very different personality. I think values are more important than personality, as long as personalities don’t completely clash. I hope that PIMOJ and I will complement each other. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
There is more I’d like to say, but I’m wary of saying too much, too early, which I think has been a problem with previous dates, so I’m going to move on for now.
My sister and brother-in-law came over in the late afternoon and had a socially distanced chat in the garden. They wanted to see Mum before her operation, which has been brought forward from this coming Friday to Thursday. It was nice, although I was not expecting it and had made other plans. I was OK about the change in plans though, not always easy for someone on the spectrum.
Achievements: a Skype date and socially distanced family meeting made for an intense day in terms of peopling. Mum cut my hair too, which I also tend to feel uncomfortable about (an autistic thing about uncomfortable close contact). An hour and a half or so working on my novel (I’m getting there with the climax, but it still needs work). A half hour walk and an hour of Torah study, partly reading over the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) prayers, as Rosh Hashanah is not far away now. I’d forgotten how beautiful some of the prayers are.
Shabbat was OK. There was all the usual stuff: praying, eating, sleeping, Torah study and recreational reading (mostly The Islamist and the latest Doctor Who Magazine, my subscription to which I am contemplating cancelling. I have contemplated cancelling it every couple of years since about 2003, but this time I’m really not sure what’s stopping me).
The afternoon was hard. I was reading The Lights of Penitence by Rav Kook (in the volume Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems) and came across a passage that talks about someone who feels pervaded by sin, immoral, uneducated, distant from God, and “stirred by dark and sinister passions that revolt him.” I thought, “This is me.” Unfortunately, the passage goes on to say that penitence will cure this and all healing and acceptance. Nothing about what happens if a person does teshuva (repentance) and feels just as wicked as before.
If I recall correctly, Rav Soloveitchik says something similar about repentance curing self-criticism in Halakhic Man, so that’s the two greatest “Modern Orthodox” rabbis, of very different outlook and temperament, agreeing that teshuva should remove self-hatred and needless guilt. I don’t know how to feel that. No wonder that in recent years Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, the holidays of judgment and repentance) have been hard for me and I struggle to get to shul (synagogue). Of course, this year I have decided not to go for Rosh Hashanah at least because I’m so worried about COVID and passing it on to Mum (who has surgery a week before Rosh Hashanah). I haven’t had to decide what I’m doing about Yom Kippur yet.
The guilt is pervasive and multifaceted. Some of it is feeling disconnected from God, which I’ve felt for a long time. Feeling that I don’t pray well enough, don’t study Torah enough, don’t connect enough. Feeling that I don’t have enough spirituality or meaning in my life. I don’t have much of either. But I also have guilt around my sexuality. Feeling that it’s pretty much impossible to get to the age thirty-seven as an unmarried virgin without having infringed on some at least some of the Jewish sexual laws, but as no one talks about it, I feel that maybe it is just me. Maybe I could do better. Maybe other people do manage to do better.
So, I spent the afternoon somewhat depressed because of this. I was initially upset to have napped for an hour and a half after lunch, but when I started to feel depressed, I was glad to have escaped being trapped in my head for a while. Despite Shabbat finishing nearly two hours earlier than at the height of summer, it’s still hard to get through when depressed.
I worry what PIMOJ (as sarnhyman has suggested I dub the Person I’m Messaging On JDate) would make of this. I’ve told her about my depression, but presented it in the past tense. Well, I thought I was mostly over it and now it was just reactive to things in my life, not an ongoing presence. I should have remembered that whenever I declare my depression over, it returns. PIMOJ works in mental health and I don’t know how that would shape her reaction to me. I want to open up to her about some things, but I’m scared. I want to get to know her better and get to a stage where we can both be more open, but I don’t know how to do that or how to judge when we’ve got there.
It’s not just the persistence of depression, but also the fact that she comes across in her messages as an ebullient person and one with a deep and sincere ahavat Shamayim (love of God). I had hoped some of that would rub off on me, but now I feel it’s more likely that I’ll scare her off. That she wouldn’t want to be with someone so quiet and downbeat, and intermittently (at least) depressed.
I just found this quote from Rav Kook, from The Lights of Holiness further on in the same volume:
The greater the person, the more he must seek to discover himself. The deep levels of his soul remain concealed from him so that he needs to be alone frequently, to elevate his imagination, to deepen his thought, to liberate his mind. Finally his soul will reveal itself to him by radiating some of its light upon him.
I slept too late again, and woke up slightly disturbed from having nightmares about Brexit, a gunman on the London Underground, and being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’m not sure what was the most scary. I don’t think it was Brexit, so at least now if/when Brexit ever happens, I can say, “Well, at least this is better than being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex.” I still feel somewhat ill from my cold and have a very sore throat and a nasty cough. I also feel rather depressed. It’s probably no surprise that I didn’t get much done again today.
I struggled to start packing today. A lot of stuff will have to be packed tomorrow or Thursday morning because I still need it (razor, book I’m reading etc.), but I wanted to get my clothes packed today. I’m so depressed and tired that what happened was I would procrastinate, eventually look at my list of things to pack, get out all the shirts I need and put them on the bed, stop, procrastinate, look at my list again, get out all the socks I need and put them on the bed, stop and procrastinate again… and so on. My Mum helped quite a bit. I tell myself that she’s better at folding clothes neatly and with the spatial reasoning needed to pack efficiently, but this is really learned helplessness on my part and I should challenge it. It’s just hard to have to challenge myself on so many fronts for such a prolonged period.
I tried to write a devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week’s parasha (Torah reading), but the idea I had didn’t work out and I don’t have the time or energy to work on it or look for other ideas. I’m sad about this (it’s only the second week of my renewed attempts to write a weekly devar Torah!), but given my physical and mental health and the fact I’m going away, it’s the only realistic option at the moment. I do have an idea for next week, assuming that doesn’t collapse on inspection, but it will be a bit late.
I’m still worried about the family bar mitzvah over the weekend, but there isn’t much that I’m worried about that I can share in public. I guess I just have to try my best to get through the next five or six days. After that things will hopefully be a bit easier, although I imagine I won’t be completely comfortable until back home at the end of next week.
This evening marks the start of the Jewish month of Marcheshvan, famous for being the only Jewish month with no special religious days or obligations (more or less true, if you say we have to do teshuva in Elul). It’s supposed to be the time when we ‘bed in’ the resolutions and behaviours we promised to start on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) a few weeks ago and meet the challenges of living a religiously meaningful life without special days away from ordinary life. It usually comes to me as a welcome break of normality after all the autumn Yom Tovim (festivals), but of course this year I have my cousin’s bar mitzvah, so normality is further postponed, by which time we will be far into autumn and the depression-feeding dark, wet and cold.
Today I’m wondering how much I really want or need real-life friends. Meg said on my last post that I have blog friends, which is true. I guess I’m just reluctant to call blog friends “friends” because I’m scared that you (collective you) wouldn’t feel the same way about me or that online friendships won’t last as long or satisfy. My experience is that, while most friendships are limited to a period of time when two people have certain things in common, which can easily change, that’s even more true of blog friendships. I don’t want to feel that I’ve lost a friend every time someone unfollows me or stops blogging. And with online friends, conversations can happen so slowly, because of time differences and being away from computers and the slow way that people reveal things about themselves on blogs. Plus some people are chattier in blog comments than others; some I like having long conversation threads, but lots of people seem to prefer not to continue conversations past one or two comments.
However, I do seem to cope with online friends a lot better than real-life ones. I have a couple of friends at shul (although I’m only really beginning to acknowledge that, yes, they do like me and are real friends and I can open up to them a bit) and a couple of university friends who I see once every six months or so and one really long-term friend from primary school who I haven’t seen in years, but we email occasionally. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of online friends over the last twelve years or so and I tend to be better at communicating via email or WhatsApp than in person, but it’s easy to fall out of touch when they stop blogging or migrate to a different platform. There is also the risk of argument when a discussion gets out of hand, which happens more online than in person because of the greater scope for misunderstanding when people are writing fast, but that can happen anywhere, really.
Then there’s E., who I’m in constant touch with via WhatsApp, although I guess we both admit that’s a slightly strange relationship in terms of being clearly more than “just” friends, but not explicitly romantic at the moment because we both know that it couldn’t work where we both are emotionally/financially/geographically right now.
Lately I’d been thinking of watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Hollow Pursuits (yes, this does get back to friends in a minute). It’s about Reg Barclay, a shy, bumbling, crewman on the Enterprise who lacks both confidence and ability and who the regular characters don’t like, but need to work with. He tends to withdraw into the virtual reality environment of the holodeck, where he lives out his fantasies of answering back his male superiors and romancing the female ones. He says that “people that I create in there [the holodeck] are more real to me than anyone I meet out here [in reality]”.
I knew from previous viewings that watching this episode would be difficult and uncomfortable because the shy, incompetent and mocked Barclay is closer to what I would be if I lived in the Star Trek universe than any of the other characters, who all seem to have been top in their class at Star Fleet Academy as well as being a sports champion or brilliant musician in their spare time as well as being boundlessly self-confident. But I figured that if I want to watch it, maybe my unconscious is trying to tell me something, plus I’m somewhat wary of the modern idea that we should always run from anything likely to trigger us, so I watched the episode again today.
As I expected, I was uncomfortable at times. Barclay is a lot like me. I think he’s shy and lacking in self-esteem rather than autistic, but watching him bumbling through work meetings unsure what to say and not speaking particularly coherently is like watching myself at work, or at least how I fear I have come across in at least some of my jobs. Then there is his fantasy life on the holodeck, the life that is more real to him than his real life. I have mentioned before that my books and DVDs are like friends to me, which is one reason I will read or watch stuff repeatedly even when I know it off by heart. Like many autistic people, there are fictional worlds I can immerse myself in and know intimately and fictional characters who are like friends to me, while I struggle to understand the real world or to make friends with real people.
Internet/long-distance friends are somewhere between the two categories of real and fictional friends – not that they aren’t real, but that I don’t have to respond to them in real time, which gives me time to stop and think about what to say rather than having to respond on the spot which I find so hard, plus those friendships are usually primarily via text of some kind (blog comments, emails, WhatsApp messages) which allows me to redraft and edit before sending and sometimes even afterwards. This is much easier for me than communicating with people in person, so it’s probably not surprising that most of my friends are online even if that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
I mentioned yesterday having asked my rabbi a question that I thought was probably religious OCD talking, but wasn’t sure. Today, early on, when I was waiting for an answer, I thought it was probably OK, as I had felt yesterday after sending the question. Then when he responded and said it was OK, I seized on one aspect of the answer and started to question that and doubt all over again.
This is how the OCD troll works: if you feed it, it comes back stronger. If I say “If X happened, is Y OK?” and the rabbi says, “Yes,” then I don’t accept that the situation is OK, I start to worry that X didn’t really happen after all. I’m going to be strong and not ask the question again, or ask follow-up questions to try to resolve the doubts; I’m going to accept the situation is probably OK with a good enough degree of probability for me to feel that I am meeting my religious obligations. But it’s a scary reminder of the way that, for me at least, mental illness is, at best, managed, but not cured; it can come back when I’m weak and vulnerable. It doesn’t take much to push me down the rabbit hole again.
The end of Yom Tov (festivals) went OK overall. On Shimini Atzeret evening (Sunday night) I was feeling quite exhilarated about the thought of trying to write a weekly devar Torah (short Torah essay) again. From feeling zero connection to what I have been “learning” (much as I dislike the Yeshivish word, “studying” doesn’t seem right in this context), suddenly I was finding, if not answers, then at least kashas (questions, textual difficulties) to pursue. On Shimini Atzeret day I crashed a bit, perhaps unsurprisingly. I had gone to bed really late because I was a bit agitated in a positive way (the kind of feeling that once had me wondering if I had bipolar disorder instead of unipolar depression, but apparently it’s not mania), but, as often happens, I crashed afterwards. I struggled to get up again on Monday morning.
I went to shul (synagogue) in the evening, but was very anxious that I wouldn’t be able to slip away before the Simchat Torah festivities started. I find Simchat Torah very hard. We celebrate finishing and restarting the annual Torah reading by dancing with the Torah scrolls. This is circle dancing, holding hands and going round and round. I’ve never worked out why it makes me so uncomfortable, whether it’s depression (the party atmosphere), social anxiety (being visible to everyone), lack of confidence (not feeling able to dance) or autism (the noise and close proximity to people I don’t know well). This is aside from my shul auctioning Simchat Torah honours in return for committing to study Torah in the coming year, which makes me feel bad for not being able to commit to anything, let alone the immense amount some people commit to. Whatever reason, I find the day hard. There were one or two years where I did manage to enter into the spirit of things and dance, but that was in a shul where I felt quite comfortable for reasons that are not likely to replicate themselves any time soon. Usually I slip away before the dancing starts, but I feel bad about not even trying to dance. On my way out, someone asked if I was going and I said yes and felt bad, but I don’t know how else to cope. I’d like to enjoy Simchat Torah one day, but I don’t know how.
I came home to find my parents home. I had expected Dad and maybe Mum to be at their own shul and I did a typical autistic thing of being completely put out by a minor change of plan and ended up arguing over my Dad about some petty thing. Really we weren’t arguing about that, I was expressing my anger and frustration with myself for not being able to stay in shul and he was expressing his frustration that he can’t solve my problems.
I did manage to have dinner with my parents, slept for twelve hours or more and woke up feeling better than expected. I missed shul during the day, but went back for Ma’ariv (the Evening Service). We were waiting for a minyan (prayer quorum) and, as it was the closing minutes of Simchat Torah and the Tishrei holiday period, the rabbi started singing and dancing (this is what happens if you have a somewhat Hasidishe rabbi) and I allowed myself to get dragged into that even though it felt a little uncomfortable, so I did just about dance a bit on Simchat Torah. I then helped take down the shul sukkahs and to take two of the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) back to our weekday premises. So I felt I did my bit to help, but I also felt a bit as if I was tidying up from a really great party that I had mostly missed, which seems a bit like the story of my life.
I helped my Dad begin to take down our sukkah too. At least I felt that I had enjoyed using that one more.
On balance, I would have to say that it was a good Sukkot, and a good Tishrei generally. I got to shul in the morning several times as well as the evenings. I heard the shofar both days on Rosh Hashanah, I wasn’t too ill on Yom Kippur (although I did spend much of the day too drained to get out of bed) and, despite it being mid-October and expected to be wet, we had almost every lunch and dinner in the sukkah over Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. I just wish I could finish things more positively on Simchat Torah, and that I didn’t feel like I was so unfocused in my religious life, like I could/should be doing more in terms of davening (praying) with a minyan and with kavannah (mindfulness) as well as doing more, and deeper, Torah study. It can be hard to see where I am growing, which is the point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as to see where my joy in being Jewish comes from, which is the point of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
I noticed on the way home that someone down the road has their Christmas lights up already. It somehow seems wrong that the Christians are putting up their Christmas lights before the Jews have finished taking their sukkot down. There’s still two months before Christmas! That’s like putting up your sukkah soon after Tisha B’Av!
A side-light on this (not Christmas decorations, I mean on religious focus): looking in Leaping Souls: Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Spirit of Kotzk by Chaim Feinberg there is a story of a Hasid who came to the Kotzker Rebbe and complained that since coming to Kotzk, he has become fearful that his prayers and Torah study are blemished by secret self-interest and imperfections. He is told by the Rebbe that maybe God doesn’t want his prayers or Torah study, but his heartfelt inner anguish and dissatisfaction with himself, his desire to be a better person (God wants the heart, according to the Talmud although that’s not quoted here). I’ve heard similar stories with a number of Hasidic Rebbes. I’m not sure if they’re reassuring or not. It’s reassuring to think there might be a positive reason for feeling like this, but not reassuring to think I might feel like this for the rest of my life.
It’s not, I suppose, an attitude that would attract many modern people, who seem to like to be told that the religious life, done right, is easy and comfortable and that God can be your best friend who will help you out of any trouble if you just Believe. I can’t imagine Aish or the JLE or any other kiruv organisation trying to win non-religious Jews to the religious life by telling them that God wants their inner anguish as they struggle to do the right thing, or even just to work out what the right thing is. It speaks to me, though. It speaks to the part of me that thinks that life is hard and if there is an all-powerful, benevolent God, then for some reason He doesn’t want us to be happy here, in which case this world is a vale of soul-making (as the thoroughly atheist John Keats put it), not one of happiness. I can cope with soul-making. It’s when people tell me that if only I was frum (religious) I would be happy that I get angry, because either I’m not doing religion properly or this is just untrue. But a world of soul-making, where my inner anguish builds my soul into something beautiful… I can cope with that philosophically. It is hard to live it every day, though.
After my Jewish existentialism post E. asked if I could recommend any books. I did, but I hadn’t looked at the books for years and now I’m wondering how relevant they are. This happens a lot when people ask me for advice, I end up panicking and second-guessing myself. I’m not sure what exactly I’m catastrophising about there. I’m not sure what the worst case scenario is that I’m worried about.
Speaking of books, I find myself doing an impression of Buridan’s Ass again, only with books instead of straw. Buridan’s Ass is a thought experiment about a hungry donkey placed equidistantly between two identical piles of hay; unable to determine which haystack is “better,” he stands procrastinating between the two until he starves to death. I find this unlikely, but I can’t choose what book to read out of my many unread novels, unread non-fiction books, novels to re-read, non-fiction books to re-read, and Doctor Who novels to re-read (which seem to be in a separate category, although I’m not quite sure why). I could look on my Goodreads page to find the numbers to go with each category, but I’m a bit scared of how large they would be. I have a lot of unread books; well, I have a lot of books period, and a proportion are going to be unread and, given that I’m a re-reader, lots of read books can revert to being quasi-unread (un-re-read) given time.
It doesn’t help that I can’t work out whether I could really get a lot out of re-reading heavy stuff Dickens or Dostoevsky or reading serious non-fiction at the moment, mental health-wise. I don’t feel like reading much other than Agatha Christie, John le Carré and Doctor Who, but I’m not sure that that proves a lot. I have an unread Philip K. Dick short story collection that I got for my birthday some months ago, one of my favourite authors, but somehow I can’t feel enthusiastic for a short story collection right now, the thought of keep having to start again rather than immersing myself in a world for a while… I was in shul for the reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Shabbat, which concludes that “of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of flesh” which is probably a lesson to me, although I’m not quite sure what. Probably that I should stop writing and go to bed.
I’m struggling today, depressed and exhausted. This is one of the days when everything seems too much. I would take time out, but I need to get ready for Shabbat (the Sabbath) and I feel I should at least try to do some career stuff. I’m worrying about working as a teaching assistant, with legitimate fears and OCD anxieties. I’m feeling I just can’t work, I can’t date, I won’t get married and have a family, I can’t sort out the situation with E. I read something today, on one of the few Doctor Who fan blogs I read, by someone who used her involvement with fandom to become a full-time writer and artist. Why have I never been able to use my interests to further my writing career that way? Am I just not talented enough?
Today’s Den of Geek Geeks Against Loneliness post has brought up recent feelings about having invisible illnesses and conditions (depression, social anxiety, autism). Sometimes I wish people in shul who see me coming in late or not at all knew more about my struggles. Likewise for the peers, or, now, people younger than me, who have moved on in life with careers and families and can see that I’ve essentially been stuck in my early twenties for ten or fifteen years.
I don’t know how I’m going to sort my life out. I feel like I need help with revitalising my career, but I don’t trust what anyone is telling me, mostly because they’re telling me either to get jobs that I’ve already been looking for and not succeeded in finding or winning (writing, editing, researching) or because they tell me I could be a teacher. I’m terrified to try that out without experience (and I’m terrified of getting experience). I don’t know why so many people believe I’m good with children when I don’t believe it, and don’t really know how to test the hypothesis. Even asking to do work experience/volunteering at a school is scary. I really want to be a writer, but that’s not going so well either…
Likewise, I feel I can’t sort my dating situation without finding a job. I still feel there are pros and cons about being with E., but I can’t see anyone else (a) caring for me as much as she does or (b) tolerating me being so close to E. while in a relationship with someone else. But I don’t want to break off my friendship with E. And that’s beyond the problem of my not being set up with frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) women the way most frum people meet their spouse.
Not sure if I’m going to try to go to shul (synagogue) tomorrow morning. Maybe I should try to save my energy for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) next week. On the other hand, maybe it would be useful to keep up the momentum of shul-going. They’re having a seudah shlishit (third Sabbath meal) in memory of a not-very-old unmarried man from the community who died suddenly a month ago (the one everyone was studying Mishnah for and I wasn’t sure whether to join in). This brought up a lot of feelings about what would happen if I die without wife and children, would anyone in the community notice or care?
I didn’t do any Talmud study this week, for the second week running. I don’t want to get out of the habit. There isn’t a Talmud shiur (class) this week, which means I stay ahead of the congregation, but that I can’t even use that as a bit of Talmud study this week.
I just feel such a failure today. That I’ve let everyone down. Even the positive blog comments and quotes from friends that I put on my door lately make me feel guilty, that everyone has confidence in me and an inflated idea of what I can achieve and I just repeatedly let them down. I feel that I can’t sort my mental health out, can’t sort my career out, can’t sort my relationships with my family out, can’t sort my relationship with E. and with dating in general out, that I’ve messed up my religious life again… Every year I go through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and hope I get forgiven by God and then immediately afterwards I slip back again… No wonder I dislike myself so much.
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) went well in the end. Of the ten prayer services over Yom Tov and the period immediately before and after, I attended eight in full. I missed most of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) both days, just hurriedly saying a little bit of them by myself. I actually managed to wake up fairly early, around 8.00am both days, but I struggled to get up, particularly this morning when I was exhausted from yesterday. I got to shul (synagogue) at 9.45am yesterday and around 10.45 or 11.00am today. For reference, Rosh Hashanah Shacharit and Musaf (Morning and Additional Prayers) are REALLY long – my shul started at 7.45am both days and went on until 1.30pm today and 2.00pm yesterday. I did manage to hear the shofar (blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet) in full both days.
Mood-wise, I was mostly OK, except for Sunday evening, when I was very depressed and despairing. Yesterday and today I was OK, but a bit tired and overwhelmed at times, especially this evening when the shul was flooded. There were enough dry bits of the room for us to be able to hold the service, but it probably added to my stress levels. There was also an alarm ringing in the building much of today and yesterday. Orthodox Jews won’t use electricity on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Sabbath or festivals) so we couldn’t turn it off. That’s the kind of thing that is certain to set off autistic annoyance in me. I think it was quiet enough that everyone else tuned it out.
After struggling on Sunday evening, I’ve been feeling a little more confident about having a good year and that God might have good things in store for me. I’ve been feeling that writing is somehow my main mission in life, at least at the moment, and that writing fiction about “fringe Jews” (to use a phrase from a now-defunct blog, meaning Jews on the fringe of the community, in a variety of different ways) might be a useful and meaningful thing to do. However, I don’t know what to do about many other issues in my life: how to earn money while writing before I can support myself (my parents and E. want me to consider teaching or being a teaching assistant; in some ways it’s tempting, but in other ways it’s scary) and my relationship with E. (emotionally/in terms of personality we seem a really good fit, but financially/practically there are issues and religiously we don’t fit well at all). I also need to make a decision fairly soon about whether I will volunteer in a museum or as a teaching assistant; the former seems a better fit on the surface, but the latter is more likely to lead to a job. On a job note: I had a call the other day from someone about job support. I missed his call and it went to voicemail and I couldn’t really hear him. He called several times over Yom Tov when obviously I could not answer. I think he is from a mental health charity offering support into the workplace for people with mental health issues.
Shul took up most of the last two days. There isn’t much downtime on Rosh Hashanah. When not davening (praying) or eating I was mostly sleeping. I read quite a lot of Batman to unwind as I didn’t have a head for The Elegant Universe (the popular physics book I’m reading). I’m reading the Batman: Knightfall saga, a big epic storyline that ran over multiple comics in 1993 where Bruce Wayne is crippled and is replaced as Batman by Jean-Paul Valley/Azrael who turns out to be brainwashed, unstable and uber-violent, so Bruce Wayne (after being magically healed because this is comics) has to reclaim the title of Batman from him. I’ve only read parts of it, as I don’t buy individual comics, only graphic novel collections and much of the saga was not collected into graphic novel form until a year ago. The bits missed so far have not been so essential, but I do have an essential bit coming up soon that I’m looking forward to reading (the storyline where Bruce Wayne gets magically healed) .
I’m off to have a belated dinner now alongside an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m thinking A Matter of Time (the episode where the Enterprise crew meet a time-travelling historian who claims to know their future, but is actually a criminal whose hints about future events are just bluff and guess work). I fancy a trivial episode rather than something epic. I’m too tired for epic this evening.
I feel awful. The month of Tishrei (the month chock-full of festivals, each with their own unique stress for me and my issues) doesn’t even begin for another hour and a half, but I already feel exhausted. I don’t know how I managed to get up this morning. I just wanted to stay in bed. I still want to go back to bed. I somehow dragged myself out of bed, ate breakfast and davened (prayed) a tiny bit of Shacharit (morning prayers) at the very last minute. (I almost never have the time and energy to say much of Shacharit, which is quite a long service even on weekdays without the extra Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and festival) prayers, and I usually daven it at the last minute. Mornings are my worst time for depression.)
I’m back to how I was feeling last year, more or less hoping that I don’t get written for another year of life because I just can’t cope with this world and feel I’m not contributing anything to it. The chance of God inscribing me for a good life seems so remote as to be impossible; death really does seem the only way out. I’m not suicidal though. I just want not to be here. I don’t think I’m going to manage to finish my novel; anything else (career, family, community) seems even more impossible. I’m not suicidal, but I really feel that I don’t want to be here any more, for all that I know my family and E. would be upset by that. I do feel guilty (for my family and E., not for the religious reasons God wants me to stay alive), but also worn down to nothingness by my life.
The weather (wet and miserable) isn’t helping my mood at all. I feel like I don’t care whether I make it to shul (synagogue) over Yom Tov (festival), not even for the shofar, the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet, the primary commandment of the day. People blow the shofar outside of shul for people who are sick and can’t get to shul (in my previous community the rabbi used to walk to the local hospital to blow for Jews there), but I haven’t got the courage to tell anyone that I might not hear it and arrange to hear it privately or with other sick people because feel guilty that I’ll miss shul because I’m depressed and asleep. It doesn’t feel like a valid reason to ask for special treatment. I don’t know if I care or not about missing the shofar. It’s hard to tell. Right now I feel like I might not not even make it to shul in the evenings, even though I usually find those services less stressful. I just want to withdraw. I just want curl up and sleep. I don’t trust myself to pray spontaneously to HaShem (God) because I’m worried what I might say to Him, that I might ask to die or something. I’m safer with the set prayers, but I’m not sure how much energy I have to read the very different and longer prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
I just feel barely functional today. I didn’t manage anything other than Yom Tov chores – no working on my novel or studying Torah. I don’t know how I’m going to get through shul tonight at all, and it’s not even a long service (about forty minutes). With our previous rabbi, people used to stay behind after first night Rosh Hashanah to get a personalised blessing from the rabbi. I’m not sure if the new rabbi will do that. I’m not sure how I feel about that generally (asking for blessings from people is something that I feel uncomfortable with, at least with the way it’s done in Haredi circles) and I’m nervous as to what he might say. The previous rabbi knew about my issues last year and wished me a year of equanimity, which was nice even if it didn’t really happen; the then assistant rabbi blessed me that I should get married, which was meant well, but I think ultimately fed my feeling that I need to be married to be accepted in the community. I’m worried the new rabbi will do the same as he doesn’t know about my issues, just that I’m single, and in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world being single is about the worse thing that can ever happen to you.
So, no computer, phone or internet for me for two days. Shana tova tichtavu ve tichtamu/may you be written and sealed for a good new year.
The last Shabbat (Sabbath) of the Jewish year 5779 turned out to be as difficult as many of the previous ones.
To be fair, Friday night was quite good. I coped with shul (synagogue) and even joined in the circle dancing after Lecha Dodi, albeit rather half-heartedly and more because I didn’t want to stand out than because I wanted to join in. Then I went for dinner. I was invited by one of the men I usually sit with in shul. He had also invited the other person I sit with as well as the latter’s wife. These are the people I feel most comfortable with in the shul, I guess I could call them friends, so it was a good evening. Part of the conversation was about where on the spectrum between “Modern Orthodox” and “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) the shul is and where we see ourselves. I probably had more I could have said than I felt confident saying, particularly when talking about placing figures like Rav Kook and Rabbi Lord Sacks on the frum (religious) spectrum, but I did join in and it was interesting to see that not everyone in the shul considers themselves Haredi. So it’s not just me. As an aside, I very much think it is a spectrum, not a binary distinction and someone can be Haredi in some ways and Modern in others and, in theory at least, there isn’t a huge need to pinpoint yourself at some precise spot on the spectrum.
I got home late, though. I spent some time with my parents and then read for a while as I needed my “introvert time” to unwind from five or six hours of “peopling.” I got to bed at 1.30am, which was very late, but then I could not sleep again. I don’t really understand why I have this highly specific insomnia on Friday nights. I think I eventually fell asleep around 4.00am, so unsurprisingly when I woke up at 8.00am for shul I didn’t have the energy to get up and go to shul, even though I wanted to. I kept thinking, “I’ll just lie here another minute and then I’ll get up” but of course eventually I fell asleep again and missed shul. I dozed for an hour after lunch too. I decided to read downstairs rather than on my bed as I usually do to avoid falling asleep, but I just fell asleep on the sofa.
It was at shul in the afternoon that things took a turn for the worse. Sitting in Gemarah shiur (Talmud class) I felt I didn’t really connect with the topic. I had this vision of the hierarchy of status in the frum world. At the top comes the great Torah (read: Talmud) scholars. My brain doesn’t work like that and my depression stops me concentrating or being able to study, so I’m never going to be one of those. Then come the people who organise the community. I don’t have the necessary organisational and people skills because of autism and my depression prevents me from giving up that amount of time (my Dad used to do it in our old shul, I know how long it takes), so I’m never going to be one of those. Then come people who regularly make up the minyan (prayer quorum); I used to do that in my old shul, but I can’t do it now because of social anxiety. Then comes the people who spend ages davening with great kavannah (praying with great concentration); again, nixed by depression. I’m not quite sure where I can find room to exist. Even if I manage to write “Jewish” novels, the type of novels I want to write will almost make me hope that no one in my community reads them or goodness knows what will happen. I want to write about people on the fringes of the community, survivors of domestic abuse, people who struggle to mix modernity and tradition (e.g. re: Creationism and evolution), false messiahs. Not Artscroll stuff.
Then came seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal), which today was a siyuum for Shas Mishnayot (celebration for finishing religious study, in this case the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud). My shul has a thing where on Simchat Torah (Jewish festival at the end of the autumn new year festivals) people sign up to study a certain amount of Mishnah over the coming year, culminating in this siyuum before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). I never participate in this, for various reasons, the biggest being that I feel I can’t commit to studying that much Torah while I’m this depressed. So I felt out of place from the start and I forced myself to stay partly to be part of the community, partly to support my friend, who sponsored the siyuum in honour of his late mother. A guest rabbi spoke about the importance of Torah study. I suppose I should feel positive when he spoke about the reward for Torah study being for the effort rather than the amount “learnt” or level of comprehension, but I just felt inferior for not studying enough. Could I study more? I really don’t know, nor do I know how to find out. I also always feel uncomfortable with the Hadran (prayer at the end of studying a section of Torah), where it says “We give thanks before You, HaShem our God and God of our fathers, for you gave us a share among those who sit in the study hall, and not among those who sit on street corners. For we arise early, and they arise early; we arise for words of Torah, and they arise for words of emptiness. We work, and they work; we work and receive a reward, and they work and do not receive a reward. We run, and they run; we run towards eternal life, and they run to a pit of desolation.” I find the whole thing offensive to people who can’t study as well as to non-Jews, plus I imagine that I’m one of the ones running to the pit of desolation. This was reinforced when, after the seudah, while we were waiting for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), I read a dvar Torah which basically said that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (one of the most prominent Haredi rabbis of the twentieth century) said that someone who keeps Torah and mitzvot (commandments), but finds them hard is a “root that bears gall and wormwood” as he might become lax in his observance or his children will stop being religious because he won’t have passed true dedication on to them. One has to find find Torah and mitzvot a source of happiness. So obviously I’m a bad person.
The guest rabbi also spoke about the importance of being a teacher (he meant a Jewish studies teacher in a Jewish school). I did wonder if I was meant to hear this, as my parents and E. have been encouraging me to think about teaching primary school children or at least being a teaching assistant. I really don’t think I could do it, though, and wonder why so many people think otherwise. Still, it would be a job and potentially I could be in a Jewish school and not have to worry about taking off Jewish holidays.
After Ma’ariv I helped tidy up a bit. There was lots to do to get the ready for Rosh Hashanah, but I just couldn’t face it and fled, which was also bad. The whole way home I was having difficult thoughts, not about suicide per se, but feeling that I would be better off dead, even if I end up in Gehennom (the nearest thing to Hell in Judaism) as at least Gehennom only lasts a year and you can’t actually do anything else wrong while you’re there, while here I’m constantly doing the wrong thing and incurring more punishment. I thought about Rosh Hashanah being tomorrow and that I’m going to be written for a bad year again, I just know it, because I’ve had bad years almost every year I’ve been an adult, loneliness and depression, to the extent that I can’t imagine anything going right for me. I can’t imagine getting a career I enjoy and am successful at (as a writer or anything else), I can’t imagine getting married (perhaps only one person has ever really cared for me romantically and that seems unlikely to ever work out for a whole host of reasons), I can’t imagine ever fully fitting in to a community (it wouldn’t be so hard if everyone was like the people I spent Friday night with, though). I can’t ever see my life, or my religious life/Torah study and mitzvah performance being enjoyable or meaningful. It just all seems so hopeless.
I came home in such a state that my parents said I looked awful and excused me from helping to tidy up as I didn’t look capable. I suppose I should have something to eat. It has taken me over an hour to write this, as I keep getting distracted, which may be depressive poor concentration, but I suspect is more procrastination to avoid facing up to what I’m writing here. “Facing up” in two senses: the literal sense I’ve written here, that, rightly or wrongly, I feel that I’m in a no-win situation and I can’t fit in to the culture I want to be accepted in, nor can I live according to the values I want to live by; but also face up to the fact that deep down I know, or at least I suspect, that it’s not as obvious as I write, that I am trying to be a good Jew and that has to count for something with someone, but I can’t see how I can really be a good Jew when I seem to try so little and when I seem to get so little joy from it, when so many people say that having joy in it is the main thing. I mean, I could have tried harder to get up and go to shul this morning, I could have tried harder to study Torah instead of sleep and read other things this afternoon, I could have tried harder to understand the Talmud shiur, I could have tried harder to help getting the shul ready this evening. I feel somehow there is a trick that I could do to have joy at shul or studying Torah or at a religious social event like the siyuum, but I don’t know how to do it, so I will get punished.
OK, time out, time to eat a cheese bagel and watch The IT Crowd.
I’m struggling again today. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) might not start until sunset on Sunday, but it hit me that the Jewish autumn holidays really start today because of Shabbat (the Sabbath) being so close to Rosh Hashanah. Sunday will really just be getting ready for Yom Tov (festival). I just feel totally unprepared. I had plans for how I wanted my new year to be, how I was going to improve and be a better person and a better Jew and hopefully receive divine mercy and have a good year, but right now I just feel a mess. I don’t know how to change, I can’t see myself finding a new job or building a new career as a writer; I can’t see things working out with E. (or anyone else, for that matter); I can’t see myself fitting in to my religious community… Everything just seems a mess. I’m thirty-six, but I still feel like a messed up teenager.
I got up very late again and struggled to get going because I was feeling so depressed and exhausted, which makes me feel that I’m not going to make it to shul on Rosh Hashanah morning on time or at all. That bothers me less for the religious aspect of missing davening (prayers) and missing the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) and more for what everyone else will think. Last year people were concerned rather than judgemental, but I still worry about being judged.
Ashley Leia said on my last post that I’m dedicating a lot of my limited resources towards religious observance. This is true, but I still feel that so much goes to other things. I can justify job hunting and I can just about justify trying to write a novel, but I waste so much time on depressed procrastination. It’s hard to tell realistically how much I could devote to Torah and davening and other mitzvot (commandments) and how much more I could or should be doing. There isn’t, so far as I’m aware, an easy way of calculating this, not least because there isn’t an easy way of calculating, or predicting, my energy levels from day to day, or even from hour to hour.
Plus, a lot of my fear is not so much about what God thinks of me, but what other people in my community think of me. It’s easy to say that I don’t care, but I do. It’s the problem of invisible illness that no one knows is there. I want to be accepted and liked by at least some people in my community. My shul (synagogue) may not be ideal for me, but it’s the best option at the moment and I have to work with it. Working with it includes at least trying to meet the standards of the community, in terms of communal prayer and Torah study.
As for other things, I feel I’m frittering my life away on procrastination. I’ve done a bit of Torah study this week, but not much and no Talmud study for the first week in quite a while because I was feeling too depressed to concentrate on something so difficult. I didn’t make it to shul this week. I didn’t go jogging either. I’ve hardly worked on my novel this week; having written a whole chapter which I then decided to bin, I’ve restructured my plan, but have only written a little bit more. I managed to write about 350 words in under an hour today, which is OK. I also discovered that fourteen years on, my memories of Oxford are fading; I had to google to check some student slang.
And that’s it, really. I need to go now as Shabbat starts soon. I want to do more, to write more, but I’m out of time. Story of my life, really.
I recently joined a WhatsApp group for high-functioning people on the autism spectrum. The conversation today turned towards autism vs. neurotypicality (the condition of not having autism or any other neurological issues), with several people describing autism as a “superpower” and one person asserting that autistic people are superior to neurotypical people in terms of both cognitive abilities and morality (the example of The X-Men was used as an analogy). I found the latter view rather insulting to neurotypicals. As for autistic superpowers… well, good for you if that’s how you perceive your traits, but in my life they have only manifested as disabilities (still not being diagnosed officially doesn’t help).
I posted a comment saying I would rather be neurotypical as most of my problems (employment, socialising, dating, not fitting into religious community) seem to be rooted in my autism. Someone responded with a whole series of long comments saying that I need to be more positive and if I try hard enough with socialising, dating (etc.) eventually my hard work should pay off. It was also asserted that I should see other autistic people as “my tribe” and not worry any more about having to find people who understand me.
I don’t want to play the easily offended snowflake, but I found this whole conversation massively insulting and off-putting, from the suggestion that all neurotypicals are back-stabbing, greedy liars (some of my best friends are neurotypical…) to the idea that if I just tried harder in life, I would succeed. I’ve been struggling for over thirty years (since I started school) with social interactions, for twenty years or so with depression. This person does not know me at all, yet she assumes I can easily fix things by changing my attitude. It’s actually my attitude that is the product of years of unsuccessful struggling to fit in to societies and cultures/sub-cultures that are not good fits for me. I try so hard to persevere, and I don’t get anywhere. (This could be an example of where what autistic people perceive as “radical honesty” is actually just tactlessness.)
And just because other people see the autistic community as their “tribe” doesn’t mean I automatically will. I have other attributes, particularly religion, that mark me off from many people on the spectrum. I don’t think I will ever fit easily in any one group. I think I will always be flitting between different groups and the best I can hope for is limited acceptance in each one.
I know people say I should be more open with people in my religious community about the way my depression and social anxiety get in the way of things like shul (synagogue) attendance and Torah study, but this type of interaction is the kind of thing that scares me off being more open. If people who share some of my issues don’t get it, what chance people who don’t have any of them?
I’ve just been a mess of depression, anxiety and repressed anger all day. I’m not sure where the anger came from. I think it was set off by the WhatsApp exchange above, but mutated into general feelings that I can never fit in, which I guess is still connected to the feelings above, as well as to thoughts of not fitting in politically and culturally, feeling that I will never be accepted in secular Western culture. I’m not sure how I got onto that train of thought, but it’s where I was all afternoon. (I’m not sure if reading things like this is a cause or an effect of this.) Then when I was out shopping I saw a bunch of frum (religious Jewish) mothers with children and the mothers all looked a lot younger than me. I also got an email about an educational event over the festival of Sukkot in a few weeks that made me feel that my religious values don’t completely correspond with my community’s. So I feel I don’t fit in to secular Western culture, but I don’t fit in to the frum counter-culture either (saying “frum counter-culture“ seems weird, but it is essentially a counter-culture even if it is conservative).
I just feel emotionally overwhelmed today, which is probably unsurprising when you consider that I’ve been up for eight hours and have spent most of them feeling depressed, anxious, agitated, angry and attacked. I don’t know how much is me being over-sensitive and how much is genuinely worth being upset about (if anything is “worth” being upset about). I hate that things like this happen to me when my depression is bad, that I have this vulnerability to… I’m not even sure what I’m vulnerable to. Criticism, other people’s anger, feeling abandoned?
I just wrote the following comment on the Mental Health at Home blog and it seems relevant here:
<i>”The author explores the idea of needing someone who is “strong enough” to love her, and touches on concerns about having kids with a serious illness and medications that would need to be stopped. She also writes about how difficult it is when fellow Christians equate her illness with a lack of faith”</I>
I can share all these concerns. The latter is part of the reason I don’t really talk about my issues with anyone in my community. In the Jewish community it would be phrased differently, as abstract faith is less a part of Judaism than Christianity. In Judaism it would be, “You should <i>daven</i> [pray] harder” or “If you feel depressed, go and learn <i>Torah</i>” but it’s a similar thing.
The funny thing is, I’m not sure if anyone ever said anything like that to me in real life. Maybe once or twice, but not often, because I haven’t told many people. I think I’ve heard about stigma other people have experienced online and in books and articles and was so scared that I don’t ever dare to stick my neck out.
It’s Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) in four days and I feel completely unprepared. I’m not as unprepared as last year (when I seriously considered praying for God not to give me another year of life, in a reversal of the usual Rosh Hashanah prayers), but I still feel somewhat unready. I suspect that my lapse into depression this week is a result of the coming month of Jewish festivals and my feeling of unpreparedness. Paradoxically, I think the depression as per usual is setting me up to fail, making me too depressed and anxious to get to shul (synagogue) on time or at all, so that others notice my absence and judge me (or I feel that they’re judging me) or so I miss mitzvot (commandments) like hearing the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet blasts). Then that will feed more depression and social anxiety for the later Yom Tovim (festivals) particularly Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah), the latter of which I will almost certainly skip because it’s just too difficult for me to cope with.
I just feel I’ve lost another day to my out of control emotions. Another day out of so many months and years, even decades, lost to my emotions and mental illnesses. Then the fact that I’ve lost so much time feeds the depression even more.
Deep breath. I’m going to post this now rather than later in the evening as per usual. I’m going to forget about the emails I was supposed to write today and the charity appeals I wanted to donate to as well as the job adverts E. suggested I look at (sorry E. Maybe later this week). Tell myself I did make some scary phone calls and sent some emails (including one about volunteering at a museum). Daven Ma’ariv (say the Evening Prayers – sorry, no midweek shul attendance this week), eat dinner, watch TV for a bit, try to feel a bit better and work on my novel for a while and do a little bit of Torah study before bed.
Thanks for reading.
Last night my parents were out for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. I could have gone with, but didn’t really know the hosts and so stayed at home. That was OK, but my parents didn’t get home until after midnight, after I’d gone to bed, and in the house on my own, my thoughts started going to dark places, as often happens when I spend Shabbat alone. I was thinking that it’s nearly Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Tradition states that everyone’s income is determined by God on Rosh Hashanah and I can’t help but realise that there has been at most one year in my whole life (thirty-six years and counting) when I’ve been decreed enough money to survive without massive subsidy by my parents. OK, I don’t really feel bad about needing support when I was a child or even a university student, but it upsets me that depression (and perhaps also undiagnosed high functioning autism) has kept me out of the labour market for so long, to the extent that I have never had a full-time job and only for one year earned enough to be anywhere close to self-sufficient (I don’t think I quite got there even then).
Similarly, Rosh Hashanah is when various barren women in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) were “remembered” by God i.e. they miraculously conceived (Sarah, Rachel and Chana (Hannah)) whereas I not only have no children, but I have no spouse and therefore no chance of having children any time soon. It feels like there is no chance of either of these things (finances/family) changing in the new year and I feel pessimistic about improvements in other areas e.g. acceptance in the community/making friends. I do have to admit that my mental health is better than it was a year ago and a lot better than just a few years ago, although it is still very far from perfect, but I face the coming Jewish New Year with a great degree of trepidation.
The good news: I made it to shul (synagogue) this morning! I was less than fifteen minutes late. In a lot of shuls, there would be hardly anyone there at that time, but I was one of the last people to get there. That’s one thing I do admire about my shul and why I like it, but it does feel that I have a lot to live up to sometimes. I got an aliyah (called to the Torah) too.
The downside was, when I went back to shul this evening, there were as many as three different things that I didn’t agree with in the rabbi’s shiur (religious class) over seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal). That made me feel an intellectual outsider once again. I wish I could find a shul that was 100% right for me, or even 75%. I wish there was more of a vibrant Modern Orthodox Judaism in the UK.
The other thing I struggled with was the rabbi’s sermon in the morning, where he appealed for help. A man from the community (probably not much older than me) died last week, very suddenly. He was unmarried and had no children, so you can see why I was suddenly paying attention.
Now, to understand the next bit, you have to realise that most Orthodox Jews believe that there are various things the living can do to help the dead have a better portion in Heaven (e.g. say Kaddish, give tzedaka (charity), study Torah). These things are usually done by immediate family, preferably children. As this man had no children, the community are “learning” Torah (the men) and reciting Tehillim (Psalms) (the women) in his memory to help him have a better portion in Olam HaBa (the Next World). However, the rabbi was disappointed by how few people had signed up and made a big appeal for more people. The aim is to study a significant amount of Mishnah (at a minimum, the whole of Seder Moed) and to recite the whole of Tehillim at least once by the end of the shloshim (first month after death).
However I follow the minority rationalist school of thought within Orthodox Judaism (after the Rambam (Maimonides)) that says that once you die, you are rewarded as per your merits. Little, if anything, anyone living does can affect you after your death (possibly direct descendants can, but that’s not relevant here). Anything else that happens down here, however well-intentioned, is not going to help you (see this longish essay by Rabbi Natan Slifkin for more details on the history and authenticity of different customs). I feel really uncomfortable about the whole notion of doing anything to help the dead, to the extent that it’s practically a standing joke in my family that I disapprove of things like saying Kaddish for non-family or visiting graveyards excessively (I have support here from my hero, the Kotzker Rebbe).
So, on the one hand, I feel that I should join in with the Torah study. I did vaguely know the man and he was friendly towards me and I’m looking for ways to be more involved with the kehillah (congregation). But at the same time, I feel like I would be a total hypocrite and using this man’s tragic death to virtue signal to the whole community. Plus, with my mental health, my Torah study is still subject to interruption and days when I study very little. I don’t want to interrupt it further by taking on studying umpteen more perakim (chapters) of Mishnah (and different Mishnah to my current Mishnah study routine), especially as doing it properly (trying to understand the Mishnah rather than just read it) would necessitate buying new books with commentaries, something I can not easily afford in my unemployed status. Yes, I know I just bought a load of stuff for myself yesterday, but I’m about to give the shul £10 to “pay” for my aliyah and I’d like to give some money to tzedaka for the Rosh Hashanah appeals, even though really I shouldn’t because I’ve earnt almost nothing in the last six months, so that giving tzedaka would be coming out of my savings rather than my income (I haven’t been in work since March, unless you count my Dad paying me for painting the garden shed).
It is difficult to know what to do.
A more positive way of getting involved in the community might be writing a dvar Torah (thought on the weekly Torah reading). I did this a lot in my old shul, but have never done it in this one. There are several reasons for this. My old community was not terribly frum (religious). A few people were, but most weren’t, so one did not have to say anything too intellectual or to search in obscure books for a new thought. I could also get away with quoting authors who were more modern in outlook (I even once quoted the secular Bible critic Robert Alter, which in retrospect strikes me as chutzpadik. I think I assumed that anyone who objected wouldn’t want to make clear that they knew who he was by complaining!). More prosaically, the length wanted was much shorter and more manageable (300-500 words instead of 1,000-1,500).
I don’t know who I could safely quote here. The person who edits the dvar Torah each week (and usually writes them, as no one else appears to be interested) has quoted Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, so I know they are not considered too modern (although he also made some positive comments about the State of Israel that I suspect the previous rabbi and assistant rabbi did not agree with). Rabbi Lord Sacks probably is too modern (although a guest rabbi gave him a positive reference in a shiur recently). But I don’t know if Nehama Leibowitz and Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, both of whom wrote books on the parasha (Torah reading) that could be useful resources for writing a long dvar Torah, are considered too modern, or even banned for being women. (As an aside, I’m hoping to see Avivah Gottleib Zornberg speak at the London School of Jewish Studies this week, don’t tell anyone in my shul.) It’s a tough question and, again, I don’t really have anyone to ask without revealing my hand as a “modern” thinker.
On the plus side, if I could manage to do it, it would be a way of signalling to the community that I do have some Jewish knowledge and things to say, and that I do want to find a way to get more involved with the community, as far as is possible with my “issues.” Considering I barely have the confidence to talk to anyone at shul, any kind of communication would be a benefit.
I filled in another application for a job I feel unqualified to do, let alone likely to get. I feel that my MA left me unprepared for life ‘in the field’ as a librarian. I am not entirely sure why this is the case. Did I not do enough work? Was the teaching sub-standard (those of you who have been following me on different platforms for many years may remember that all of us taking the course were concerned about this at the time)? Or were my work experience and first job too specialised, at a small library that was not involved in many of the types of activities that I am expected to manage at larger libraries? Or am I just not good enough? I certainly didn’t expect so many jobs to require Saturday working, although that’s probably part of a shift in recent years towards longer opening hours in academic libraries, in some places moving towards 24/7 opening.
Something I was thinking of last night, and which came up again by “coincidence” (many religious Jews believe there is no such thing as coincidence) again today here (final paragraph): there is a concept in Judaism that if you regret your good deeds, they can get wiped out and you don’t get rewarded for them. This makes me uneasy, because while I don’t exactly regret being Jewish, sometimes when I have been struggling with religious OCD or now when I’m still struggling with the way depression, autism and social anxiety affect my religious involvement, I do sometimes sort of wish I had never become frum (religious). It would make my life so much easier, particularly in terms of career, relationships and managing social anxiety/fitting in/dealing with potential social disapproval.
I usually feel guilty and regret my regret (so to speak) almost immediately. Nevertheless, it is easy to feel that I’m struggling in this world and, despite what reward I might be earning in the next world, the idea of going off the derekh (stopping being religious) seems possible. I would be punished for that and I wonder if in that case it would have been better not to have been religious in the first place, as would arguably be the case. In Jewish law, in that situation I would arguably be considered a tinok she’nishboh (Jewish child kidnapped and raised by non-Jews, widely applied by rabbinic authorities to children raised secular). Although I was raised traditional, keeping some aspects of Judaism, I was not exposed to the fullness of Jewish life until later. It is doubtful that I would be held as culpable for breaking halakhah (Jewish law) to the same extent as I would be now if I went off the derekh.
I’ve seen other ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later in life) who are struggling with Jewish observance be advised to tap in to the positive feelings that they had about Judaism when they first became religious, but that doesn’t work for me. I was raised traditional and knew about Jewish law from a young age. I didn’t exactly “discover” it the way some Jews do. Nor did I fall in love with it. I started to become frum from a feeling of duty, obligation and responsibility (aged twelve!). I didn’t have a honeymoon period of falling in love with the religion. I don’t think I’ve ever had those strong, positive feelings about Judaism, only abstract, intellectual agreement. By the time I started keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath), for example, it wasn’t an amazing thing to add on to my life, so much as a way of assuaging years of guilt for not keeping it (and a source of conflict with other family members). I don’t know what feelings of love and joy I have to tap into.
I have mentioned before that one rabbi said I won’t experience any simcha shel mitzvah (joy in performing the commandments) until I am cured of my mental health issues, which seems unlikely to ever happen. My rabbi mentor said I should be able to find some simcha shel mitzvah nonetheless, which just makes me feel guilty for not doing so.
I went on a pre-Yom Tov (festival) spending spree. I bought a religious book that I’m hoping will help with finding meaning in the very long Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) prayers. Alongside this, I bought a couple of Batman graphic novels, as the Yom Tovim will probably provide many opportunities when I need a quick break, but don’t have time/energy/concentration to read prose. I also bought The IT Crowd complete DVD set (slightly surreal British sitcom), as, while I don’t watch DVDs on Shabbat and Yom Tov, when Yom Tov is finished, I’m left with evenings when I can watch TV, but don’t necessarily have time to watch anything long and these episodes are only twenty-five minutes long, which might be useful. The problem is that I don’t currently have any income at all and while I have savings I can dip into occasionally, I don’t want to use them up. However, I do need to buy new things sometimes, even luxuries like books and DVDs.
(I’m experimenting with a timed post here. I’m writing it on Sunday night, but it should post while I’m at work on Monday morning, so I’ve written it as if it were written on Monday. So “yesterday” is Sunday not Saturday.)
I submitted a job application for a cataloguing yesterday. I feel pessimistic about it, but I keep changing how I feel pessimistic. Sometimes I feel my application will be rejected; other times I feel I’ll get the job, but won’t be able to do it. I have completely lost whatever confidence in my professional abilities that I might once have had.
I spoke to my rabbi mentor yesterday. I think I sounded more upbeat than I feel. He said a lot of frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) people feel far from God, struggle get in the right mood for Yom Tov (sombre for Yom Kippur, joyous for Simchat Torah) and that lots of people feel they don’t fit in to the community. But I feel a bit as if I hadn’t expressed myself well or helped him engage with what I was trying to say. I know it’s hard for everyone to engage with Yom Tov (a while back I posted here a quote from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the greatest rabbinic thinkers and Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, where he said that even he sometimes feels “cold” on Rosh Hashanah morning and has to get himself in the right frame of mind), but I feel that it’s harder for me, although I can’t quantify that or prove it. I feel that I don’t fit in to the community at all, as shown by my difficulties making friends and talking to people. I feel that I am having a kind of crisis of faith, as although I believe in God strongly and although I can accept intellectually that one day I might find meaning and purpose in my life/struggles (the two seem largely the same to me and have for decades), I can’t feel that at all emotionally. What I feel emotionally oscillates between a cool disengagement and lack of desire to daven (pray) or study Torah, and a raging anger at God for letting my life be like this (depressed, anxious, lonely) for so long. Then I feel guilty that I feel like this, not because it’s sacrilegious, but because other people have it so much worse and I should feel angry for them.
Speaking of not fitting in to communities, yesterday evening I was feeling fine, packing for work, when suddenly I got hit by intense despair and perhaps some anxiety. This time at least I could work out the chain of thoughts that led to it. It went: looking at Doctor Who stuff online –> thinking I should try again to be more involved in fandom as it would be fun and good to do something social that isn’t shul- or mental health/autism-related –> a lot of Doctor Who fans are very left-wing and into identity politics –> they’ll hate me because currently left-wing people in the UK are insisting that Jews make up antisemitism for political reasons –> vertiginous despair and loneliness, maybe some anxiety. I’m not sure how I can cope when even positive thoughts (Doctor Who was really good tonight) can be so triggering.
In attempting to get an appointment with a psychiatrist on the NHS, I was told I could also apply to IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) for help. I’m not quite sure what they can offer me, but I feel I might as well try. I summarised my condition on the online application form:
I suffer from treatment-resistant depression. I have consistently low mood and despair as well as occasional suicidal thoughts. Very occasionally I self-harm. This has continued despite medication and talking therapies for fifteen to twenty years. Although I am able to work four days a week, I find work exhausting and struggle to get through the days. I often spontaneously start crying at work for no obvious reason and I struggle to work through intense depression, despair and anxiety. I lack energy and motivation most of the time and on days when I don’t work, I sleep up to twelve hours a day.
I also have social anxiety which may stem from high functioning autism and/or complex trauma. I find it difficult to know how to initiate and continue conversations and to read unspoken social cues. I struggle to make friends and to cope with social situations and avoid social situations as much as possible.
I also have extremely low self-esteem and struggle with negative, critical thoughts about myself as well as intense guilt and shame.
It seems somehow bland and clinical to see it written down like that. Do I think it sounds whiny and pathetic or is that just the critical inner voice again? I probably should have put more about my history with medication and therapy (that was supposed to go in a different box, but the drop-down menu wasn’t working properly), although my experience with these questionnaires is that no one reads them, least of all the person who actually assesses you for the service. And summarising fifteen or twenty years of personal history in 2000 characters is not easy, nor is opening up about your deepest thoughts to anonymous strangers (so not at all like blogging…). I shall have to wait and see what comes of it.
In the end I did a half-hearted chesbon nafesh (assessment of my spiritual standing last year) in the closing hours of year while I was doing other stuff. I didn’t write it down, unlike the previous twelve years or so that I have filed on my laptop. I’m not sure I can remember what I found, but did feel I had done slightly more than I expected, but not much more.
I had a surprise short-notice invitation to the rabbi of my shul (synagogue) for dinner. I must have slipped out at the end of Ma’ariv on first night Rosh Hashanah (New Year) last year because I didn’t know that the rabbi gives everyone (well, every man, but there weren’t many women there) a personal bracha (blessing). He wished me a year of equanimity, which was nice. The assistant rabbi blessed me that I should find someone to marry “at right time”. I’m glad that he said “at the right time” because I really don’t think I am marryable right now. See also the person from shiur (religious class) who said a fine person like me deserves beautiful wife… there are several questionable assumptions right there, but I’ll leave that for now. It’s all meant well, but I feel realistically I would be better off with a blessing to accept that I’m always going to be single. I can’t tell the rabbi or assistant rabbi about E, but I don’t think either would approve (my rabbi mentor does, but he is probably more broadminded). But the Talmud says that a man without a wife is without blessing, life, joy, help, good and peace so opting to stay single doesn’t really come in to it. Plus, one has to be socialised into the norms of the community (more on this later).
I enjoyed dinner, but I didn’t say much. I really take with me two things from the evening: the person sitting next to me played a little practical joke on me, telling me something obviously untrue that I completely fell for and one of the other women at the dinner looked familiar, but I couldn’t work out why; only later did I realise I think tried to talk to her on a Jewish dating site years ago (she wasn’t interested – she thought I was too “wordly” and would find her boring).
On the morning of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I was too depressed and socially anxious to get up, so I missed shul and the blowing of the shofar yet again. I feel bad about this, but it has happened so many times that I don’t feel that bad about it any more and not in a good way. It was harder to explain my absence to the people I was sitting with (the seating has been rearranged for chaggim (festivals)) when I saw them in the afternoon. I said that I have health issues without say what.
Based on a dvar Torah sheet I read on first night, I tried to focus on accepting my feelings when davening (praying), even thought that meant most of my davening was full of very sad feelings. It wasn’t always possible, though, and sometimes I was on autopilot or just too socially anxious to concentrate.
On the second night I went to dinner with one of the people I usually sit with in shul, the closest friend I really have there, and his family and the other person who sits with us. This was a less anxiety-provoking meal and I enjoyed it, but on the way home I suddenly developed a migraine. It’s like I’m not allowed to enjoy myself without something going wrong.
I was supposed to be on security duty at 12.30pm on the second day. I was feeling depressed, but forced myself out about 12.15pm (shul had started at 7.45am, I think) only to discover there was some kind of mix up about the security rota and I didn’t need to be there. I took the opportunity to daven and to hear some of the shofar blasts, although I’m not convinced I heard enough to fulfil the mitzvah because I was so late. I was overwhelmed by the noise and the close proximity other people (far more people come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than for ordinary services, so we are packed in to the small school hall where we daven).
There was a shiur in the evening between Mincha and Ma’ariv which made me quite depressed. It was given by a rabbi who does kiruv (outreach) work with teenagers. He was talking about the lack of self-esteem in teenagers, which made me feel depressed, similar to the way the rabbi, at dinner the first night, said that one should find one’s tachlit (purpose) by the end of one’s teens; I’m thirty-five and I have absolutely no idea what my tachlit is or how to find out. On the way home I reflected on my own teen years and felt very lonely and depressed. I feel there was a way I could have succeeded in my life, particularly my religious life, but probably my mental health too, if I had made certain decisions when I was thirteen or fourteen, even when I was eighteen. But social anxiety and a feeling of non-conformity, a feeling that other people (peers, but also kiruv rabbis) were trying to bully and twist me out of shape kept me from doing that. Now I don’t fit into a frum (religious) community; I can’t get married (I’m in a weird non-relationship with a non-frum woman); I have few frum friends, but not many; I have no role in my community, nowhere where I fit in. I made some bad choices, but I was also pushed into bad choices by family dynamics, social interactions, bullying, loneliness and a fear of a one-size-fits-all approach to kiruv and acceptance in the frum community that allows the secular world to enter in some ways, but not others (yes to football and politics, no to geekyness). I don’t know where I go from here.
I couldn’t sleep last night, probably due to sleeping too much over Yom Tov (so much for the minhag of sleeping less over Rosh Hashanah). I eventually got four or five hours sleep and spent much of the day struggling at work, feeling exhausted and not knowing what to do and thinking that I can’t actually do the fairly simple task I’ve been set. On the way home I saw the frum woman I dated briefly last year only for her to drop me instantly when my mental health issues came out. And then I managed to run into her again. I can accept that life is miserable, but why does it have to be so hard?
Work seems to be going OK and my mood has been better this week. I don’t seem to be making as many mistakes as earlier in the week and so far my boss hasn’t complained about my speed, although I’m going slower than I would like. I’m shaking again, though, when I talk to my boss. Shaking is something that hasn’t been a huge problem for a while. I shake when I get nervous, probably connected with medication side-effects, but I go long periods of not being troubled by it at all and then it can suddenly come out of nowhere. My gut instinct is that I was so worried that my boss at this job would be like my boss at my previous job (critical and temperamental) that it led to anxiety and shaking. Then, once it’s started, I begin to worry about shaking when I go into a social situation and my anxiety about shaking triggers the shaking itself and I become trapped by my own nervous system (nervous in both senses of the word).
The main thing I want to blog about today is something I read. I’ve been reading Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik (as he is known) is a major figure in twentieth century Orthodox Judaism, a major communal figure and a major thinker. The book is a selection of previously unpublished essays and lectures on Jewish ethics. The final chapter, titled Religious Styles, deals with the need to develop a unique personal religious style. Rav Soloveitchik says that there is the halakhah, Jewish law, which is binding on all Jews in the same way and can be formally taught. But there is also religious style, the way a person fulfils the commandments, which a person has to develop for himself, based on observing his or her parents and teachers. One can keep all the mitzvot (commandments) punctiliously and still be a bad person if one has a bad style, for instance if one is short-tempered, rude, gluttonous and so on.
This was interesting to me, because I struggle to find my own religious style and to work out where I fit in the frum (religious) community, and it chimes with my understanding of the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe a century earlier, which stress individuality. But then the Rav says,
“Sometimes we walk into shul [synagogue] on Rosh ha-Shanah [Jewish New Year] and we are as cold as if we had just come out of a deep freeze. We want to ignite a fire, to warm up our personality. It happens to everybody; it happens to me too. I do not think then about the philosophy of Rosh ha-Shanah and the concepts of malkhuyot, zikhronot, and shofarot [kingship, remembrance and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet, the three core concepts of the day’s prayers]. No matter how wonderful and beautiful they are, how fascinating intellectually they may be, they will not light a fire. One cannot arouse a person by philosophizing.
All I have to do is recollect the tune my grandfather R. Hayyim used while reciting U-Vekhen Ten Pahdekha [part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers] – that’s all! Suddenly a fire is ignited, my heart begins to warm up and I begin to feel the sanctity of the day.” (pp. 198-199)
I find this interesting, as this is the problem I have been wrestling with in the run up to Rosh Hashanah (starting Sunday night), so it seemed strange to reach this chapter just now when I’ve been reading this book on and off for months. I also feel cold about the coming Yom Tovim, but I don’t know how to warm myself. To be honest, I have probably needed warming up for some years. Unlike the Rav, I do not come from a famous rabbinic dynasty to have examples of ‘warm’ Jews from my ancestors. To make matters worse, I have a lot of anger and resentment against HaShem (God) to work through and I don’t know how to do it. Nor do I know what my unique religious style would be. But I’m glad to know that it’s not just me who struggles.
In a somewhat related way, the assistant rabbi was talking in shiur (religious class) tonight about the need to connect with HaShem and other people in an authentic way, not just out of ego (so we can feel good that we condescend to help others) or to get rewarded. He said we should find one middah (character trait) that is naturally well-developed in us, something that comes easily to us, and use that to help others altruistically at this time of year so that we will connect with the world in a genuinely altruistic, God-centred way and deserve a good new year.
I don’t know that I have even one good middah. I can’t think of any good deed or mitzvah (commandment) that comes easily to me. In the latest of his weekly parasha essays, Rabbi Lord Sacks says “The world is waiting for you” but I don’t know what I am expected to do. The only thing I can think of where I connect to people in a genuinely altruistic way, doing it for other people rather than to get something for myself, is when I interact with people online, on my blog and other people’s blogs, where I genuinely like to connect and help with advice or support about mental illness. But if that’s my mission in life, it rather implies that I will always be depressed.
I wish I could tell if I am a good person and a good Jew. E. told me recently that she thinks that in secular terms, I would be a good person. Which I guess is good, but I’m not sure if it’s good enough. I mean, part of the reason I’m frum is that I find the secular Western ethic lacking in many ways and the Jewish ethic to be more meaningful and more fully thought through and in a way actually more humanistic, more attuned to human nature, more aware of its pitfalls and more able to avoid them, but also in some ways more accepting of it. Somehow it feels that the active good I do is very little, and my goodness, such as it is, is mostly avoiding the bad. Which is good, at least up to a point. “Turn from evil and do good” says Tehillim (Psalms) (34.15). Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have spent twenty-one years improving himself by following this dictum: seven years removing evil from himself; another seven years finding the good; and a third set of seven years inculcating the good into himself. Still, I feel that if I started becoming frum when I was twelve, I’ve had well over my twenty-one years by now and I’m far from good.
The world might be waiting for me, but I don’t know what it is waiting for me to do.
I have a somewhat strange relationship with anxiety. On the one hand, I have had a number of psychological assessments over the years and I often surprised the psychologists at how little anxiety I registered on their questionnaires, considering how strongly depression registered (the two usually go hand-in-hand). On the other hand, I am no stranger to the gnawing feeling of dread about the future. When I was at school and university, I used to feel particularly nauseous on Sunday evenings, dreading the coming week, and first thing in the mornings. It was the latter that brought my mental health problems to light for the first time. I went to the doctor complaining of disrupted sleep and inexplicable nausea during the day, especially on the way to school. It turned out, after a number of physical tests had drawn a blank, to probably be my first major depressive episode with anxiety explaining the nausea, although this was not diagnosed at the time.
One therapist suggested that the depression was so strong that it ‘drowned out’ the anxiety except at certain points when the anxiety was very strong. That may be true, although I think it may also be the case that the anxiety had been present for so long that I stopped noticing it, at least the morning/Sunday evening type of anxiety, and/or that as far as possible I dealt with the anxiety by avoidance, particularly in the years 2005-2008 or so, when I simply stopped functioning and spent all my time in my bedroom, reading and blogging online and watching Doctor Who, only going out for meetings with psychiatrists or therapists, being too depressed to work.
Sometimes the anxiety shades into pure O OCD, where I go from worrying that I’ll be fired to obsessing that I’m going to do something that would get me fired even though I know it to be wrong and have no conscious intention of doing it. OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder (although apparently this has recently changed in DSM-V, but not ICD 10), so I guess that isn’t surprising. At other times the anxiety would catastrophise into despair, where I would stop worrying that something bad would happen and just assume it would happen and feel depressed as if it already had happened, particularly regarding careers, dating and recovery.
I was a drama queen on someone’s blog again yesterday. I wish I didn’t do this. It was about the coming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) and setting targets for growth over them and in the Jewish new year. I just feel that I can’t cope with any of that right now, that I’ve got a lot of anger and resentment issues with God and I can’t cope with the idea of making him my King (which is what Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is all about) or asking for forgiveness (Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)). I feel, if anything, that He should be asking me to forgive Him for everything that He’s done to me over the last twenty years, but then I feel bad for feeling that. I’m hopefully speaking to my rabbi mentor on Sunday, but I’m not sure how much of this I will be able to bring up.
I just feel tired a lot of the time. Physically tired and tired of life. I’ve felt like this on and off for many years. I just feel that my life is not good, that I don’t enjoy it or have meaning or purpose, or feel that I’m doing anything useful with it. I feel I have no reason to want to stay alive.
I feel confused too. I don’t know where my life is going. I have ideas for what I could do, but I don’t know how feasible they are or whether I would actually enjoy them. The world frightens me, both on a personal level and, increasingly, on a social/political level. This doesn’t feel like my world, but I don’t think it ever was. I don’t know what’s going to happen with me and E. and I’m not sure I really know what I want to happen or what would be sensible. To be honest, I don’t know what I feel about HaShem (God) either. It’s easy to say that I hate Him and am angry with Him, but I’m not sure that that’s an accurate picture of what I feel, at least not all the time. I don’t know if this is alexithymia (difficulty feeling and understanding emotions) again. It’s hard to know what I feel about HaShem. I feel strongly that He exists and is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent. I’m not doubting in that sense (and I have had times of doubt in the past, so I know what I’m talking about). But I find it hard to believe that He cares about me and even think that He hates me, which I guess means that I think that I deserve to be hated.
I just wish I could sort out my life somehow, but I’m not sure what a ‘sorted out’ life would look like.
Just further to what I wrote here over the last few days, I did a tiny bit of reading on complex PTSD. I did seem to have quite a few of the symptoms and certainly there was an ongoing situation in my childhood that seems to my unprofessional mind to be potentially traumatic, but in my mind I would not feel confident at all to say I’m a sufferer. I suppose I feel that I have so many issues that have not been ‘officially’ diagnosed (autism being the big one, as I have had repeated and conflicting diagnoses, but also I was never officially diagnosed with OCD or social anxiety, even though both seem very likely) that I am wary of adding any others, especially as my therapist feels I have a tendency to want to be The Most Mentally Ill Person in the World. So, I’ll probably shelve that for now, but it is at the back of my mind.
I just got back from shopping. This led to several bad things: the realisation that even walking briskly for five or ten minutes exhausts me; the discovery that there is a supply problem with my antidepressants again, leading me to suspect that they are no longer being produced; and suicidal thoughts. In just over a week, Jews all over the world are going to be literally praying for their lives, hoping for a good new year, a year of life, and part of me just wants to die. I do not want to be here any more. I feel that I’m a disappointment to everyone and that it would be no different if I was never born. I’m just holding on because a few people care about me, which I don’t understand, but I don’t want to upset them, and because I’m a coward and scared of making a failed suicide attempt and ending up physically damaged, but still alive and depressed. I don’t feel I have any real hope for the future. I’ve been depressed for so long now, it’s impossible to believe things can get better. In fact, I think things will probably get worse. I just screw everything up.
People tell me I have to stop comparing myself to other people and to learn self-love, but no one tells me how to achieve these things. I don’t feel I deserve to love myself, I don’t understand how other people could love me, I don’t believe that HaShem loves me and I don’t know how to love myself without becoming even more wicked than I already am, because I’ll just end up ignoring or justifying all the bad things I do. I don’t know what the way forward from this is.
(I’m not sure how much of the last two paragraphs is true. It feels true, but it also feels true that there’s part of me that doesn’t want to die, although it’s pretty confused about why, as it’s not much more hopeful for the future.)