Defensive and Anxious

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Wanting to Curl Up and Escape the World

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a bit of a curate’s egg (I wish I could think of a less clichéd metaphor for something good and bad).

Dinner at the rabbi’s house mostly went OK.  I spoke a bit and had a good time, albeit that I was very nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing.  There were quite a lot of people there, other congregants and their children and the rabbi’s youngest children.  I was the only person there over the age of eighteen who was unmarried.  Someone started talking about getting married young and saying that it is better for everyone to marry as young as possible.  The rabbi, possibly being sensitive to me, said that it’s not always in our hands.  People can be tactless sometimes.  It was good to get to know the new rabbi a bit better and to be known by him.  I would feel more confident approaching him with a question in the future, especially a mental health-related one.  I do worry the rabbi thinks I’m deaf, though.  Every time he speaks to me, my brain does the autistic/socially anxious thing of thinking “OH NO SOMEONE IS SPEAKING TO ME!!!!!” so loudly (so to speak) that I can’t concentrate on what he’s actually saying and have to ask him to repeat himself.  It turns out that the rabbi knows one of the rabbis who taught me at school, who was as responsible as anyone for my becoming frum (religious), which was a nice coincidence.

I got home about a quarter to midnight, which was rather late.  I spoke to my parents for a while, then read for a bit and went to bed at 1.00am.  Unfortunately, I had super-insomnia.  I lay in bed for a bit, read (popular physics) for a bit, lay in bed again, got a migraine, got up again because the migraine hurt too much lying down…  I think I eventually fell asleep around 5.30am.  I decided not to go to shul (synagogue) on two and a half hours of sleep and slept in despite my determination to get to shul on Shabbat mornings again.

This afternoon I read a whole bunch of things, the physics book again (The Elegant Universe), The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook and Batman.  I feel a bit like I read anything provided it’s geeky on some level (I feel Rav Kook is geeky, but I’m not sure I could explain why.  Maybe he’s not so much geeky as individualistic; there aren’t many Hasidic rabbis who accept evolution and write about the need for Jewish creativity).

Shul this afternoon was OK until the second shiur (religious class).  There was a guest speaker, a Rosh Yeshiva (head of a rabbinical seminary).  He spoke about a verse from this week’s parasha (Torah reading).  Talking about the many terrible things that would happen to the Israelites if they didn’t follow the Torah, it says, “Because you did not serve HaShem your God with happiness and gladness of heart when you had an abundance of everything.” (Devarim/Deut. 28.47)  The Kotzker Rebbe (who probably suffered from bipolar depression) interprets this as “You were happy and glad not to serve HaShem your God when you had an abundance of everything”, but the Rosh Yeshiva translated the way most commentators do, which is the straightforward way of understanding the verse: “God gave you an abundance of everything, and you served Him, but not with happiness and gladness of heart.”  Given that I don’t get much joy out of mitzvot and Torah study because of depression and not fitting into the community, this is bad news for me.  I do mitzvot, but I don’t have happiness and gladness of heart when I do them, so it looks like I might as well not bother for all the good it’s doing anyone.

My heart lifted a bit when the Rosh Yeshiva asked, what is the button we can use to turn on our happiness and gladness of heart when performing mitzvot?  Sadly, his answer was to focus on the reward we will get in Olam HaBa (the Next World).  I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think I’m going to get any reward in the next world.  Aside from feeling that I haven’t done anything worth rewarding, I’m so used to everything going wrong for me, that somehow I feel that even there, it won’t go well for me.  Somehow there will be a loophole and I won’t get anything.  I know that this is illogical and heretical and theologically stupid, but I can’t imagine things ever going that well for me.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, the traditional metaphors for Olam HaBa mayke it sound like a big party for the righteous or a big yeshiva.  I know it’s not literally either of these things, but that is how it is always described.  Neither of these suits me, as I’m equally scared and uncomfortable with parties and yeshiva-style study.  Too many people, too much noise in both cases, and not enough that interests me or speaks to my unique interests and personality.  I can’t cope.  I guess in Olam HaBa I wouldn’t have autism or social anxiety, but then it’s hard to imagine being me without them.  Anyway, what would I say to my ancestors or the great tzadikim (saintly figures)?  I can’t imagine anyone being particularly proud of me, either my immediate ancestors or the tzadikim of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  What would Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) say to me?  Plus, one is supposed to be with the other half of one’s soul, one’s spouse, which wouldn’t work out for me either, if I die unmarried, as seems likely.

Speaking of yeshivas reminds me that in the first shiur today, the weekly Talmud shiur, I knew a number of answers to the questions and had an (I thought) perceptive question/comment to make, but I was too shy to say any of these things aloud.  There is someone there who always has to answer every question and make some comment; I wish I was a little bit more like him and he was a little bit more like me.  CBT has taught me that I should be more confident speaking out, but it is still as hard as ever to actually do so.

***

My parents are talking to me about a career change.  I’ve been thinking on these lines anyway.  I can’t support myself writing (yet?  Or ever?) so I need part-time work in some other field.  Don’t have a clue what I could do though.  I may need some more careers advice.

There’s an article in a frum magazine that I was looking at today that interviews frum people with non-typical jobs (a disproportionate number of frum men work as lawyers, doctors and accountants; the women are generally teachers, or therapists of some description I think (psychotherapist, physiotherapists or occupational therapists).  They interviewed someone I was at school with who is now a data scientist.  That fits the type of person she was at school.  I really feel I missed the bus somewhere on my way from school, that all the other clever, well-behaved children became important professionals with interesting, well-paid jobs and families and I got stuck in limbo somewhere with nothing at all.

***

Now I need to eat something.  I feel I should watch TV to distract myself from wallowing in misery, but I don’t really have the desire to watch anything in particular.  I just want to curl up somewhere and ignore the world.  I joined an autism WhatsApp group last week and just belatedly entered a conversation on employment (belatedly as I didn’t use my phone during Shabbat, so I missed the conversation earlier) and now I’m suddenly regretting opening up to strangers about being unemployed.

Working on Myself, and On My Novel

As I’ve mentioned, we’re now into the Hebrew month of Elul, which is the introspection month before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a few weeks’ time.  I’m signed up for a couple of daily ideas videos/talks for Elul and one idea that keeps coming up this year is the idea of mitzvot (commandments) that govern your relationship with yourself.

When I was growing up, I was always taught that there are two categories of mitzvot: those between me and God and those between me and other people.  An example of the former is eating only kosher food.  An example of the latter is not gossiping.  When I got older this idea of mitzvot between me and myself appeared, but I’ve rarely heard it dealt with until recently.  To be honest, this time last year I sat through a whole shiur (religious class) on this topic and still left wondering what an example of a mitzvah between me and myself is and how I can work on this area.

I know I do need to work on this area.  I know I have self-esteem issues, needless guilt issues and unnecessary shame.  I know that if I could accept myself more, I would feel more comfortable in my community and find it easier to make friends and to go to shul (synagogue) more often, so there would be wins in the categories of mitzvot between me and other people and between me and God too.  So it would be a win-win, but it’s hard to even begin to unravel what I should do, especially as I haven’t seen many people deal with it at length.  One article I found online suggested it’s about developing good character traits, but that’s still somewhat vague in terms of what the actual mitzvot concerned are.

***

I had my penultimate CBT session today.  My therapist suggested a couple of YouTube videos to watch about self-esteem and CBT.  I do wonder whether I will be able to continue using the techniques I was taught.  I feel as if I haven’t finished learning them all yet.  Still, I had some anxiety today and managed it better than I would have done in the past using techniques of grounding, postponing worry and putting things in perspective.  The therapist was enthusiastic about my volunteering in the museum, as it would give me an opportunity to practise talking to people in an environment where I am knowledgeable, so I guess I should try to pursue that, although it’s very scary.

One of the videos my therapist suggested I watch was a talk from Lizzie Velasquez, who is a woman with a rare genetic disorder (so rare only three people in the world are known to have it) that means she can’t put on weight (not “excessive weight” but any weight at all), which has obviously  affected her body shape and she was bullied a lot at school because of her appearance.  A video of her was put online by someone from her school claiming she was “The ugliest woman in the world” and was watched by nine million people, attracting all kinds of hateful comments, including people saying she should kill herself.  She was talking about how to take the negativity she has experienced and how she channelled it to push herself forward to achieve her goals in life.

I don’t always find “inspirational” stories that inspirational, but I found this quite inspiring.  I suppose I feel that if she isn’t letting herself be defined by her bullies, I don’t have to be defined by mine.  I do feel glad I was at school before social media, so I didn’t experience this kind of super-public online bullying.  The worst I had was when the school yearbook for GCSE (exams taken aged fifteen or sixteen) year, was banned by the teachers, which apparently was because the kids who wrote/edited it put in a lot of nasty stuff about myself and my friends, although I never found out what they said.

***

I read an article today by Howard Jacobson (having coincidentally just finished one of his novels yesterday) about finding his voice as a Jewish writer rather than trying to channel his literary heroes.  I feel that something similar has happened to me.  The books I read are mostly science fiction, murder mystery or nineteenth/early twentieth century classics.  I don’t have the type of logical, analytical mind to write a world-building science fiction novel or to plot a murder mystery story and, as Jacobson writes, trying to channel Dickens or Dostoyevsky isn’t really a sensible strategy these days.  I don’t read much contemporary literary fiction.  I did for a couple of years, when I was attending a book club, but I often struggled to engage with the books.  I thought it was me being an SF geek and not liking anything without a space ship, or at least a murder, but lately I’ve come to suspect that I often didn’t engage with the characters because there was no one like me, someone with mental health issues or from a religious Jewish background (I tended to connect more with stories set in religious cultures in other countries e.g. the devout Muslims in Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s novels).  The breakthrough I’ve had just in the last few months is realising I can write stories about people like me, people with depression or high functioning autism, people caught on the fault-line between traditional Judaism and (post)modernity, people not sure where they fit in Western culture or outside it.  It’s quite exciting.

I spent about an hour working on my novel this evening – really too late in the day to achieve much, but I want to keep the momentum going.  I wrote a thousand words, which was good for (a) one hour and (b) 9.00pm.  I’m pleased with my progress so far, although it’s very early days still.

“I Told You I Was Ill”

Ugh, I don’t know if I can write today.  I feel totally drained.  At work I usually get through about 130 records; on a good day, I think I’ve done up to 150.  Today I managed 89.  I’m not sure how much of that was because I felt terrible (depressed and sensory overload – I really wanted to strangle some noisy people.  I’m not usually an angry person, but I was feeling very angry towards them) and how much was that it was just a difficult batch of data.  Unfortunately, the next few lots look just as bad.  If my boss was here and if my contract didn’t end in less than a month, I would probably be having the “I need to talk about my mental health” talk.  The one I hate having, but keep having to have at different universities and workplaces.  Asking for “reasonable adjustments” (ugh again).  Then my Dad gave me a lift home from the station and I bickered with him.  It’s my fault, but I guess his autism-unfriendly style of talking was not something I could cope with when feeling drained and overwhelmed after a difficult day at work and a difficult journey on the Tube.  Then I argued with my Mum, which was less my fault, but not entirely.

I feel so tense today, like elastic stretched to breaking point.  I worry what will tip me over the edge and what will happen if I go there.  The fear I’ve had for years that if I get stretched too far, I’ll become unpleasant or even violent.  Or that I’ll become psychotic or spiral downwards into worse mental illness.  I feel like I have so many rules.  My rules, family rules, friends’ rules, society’s rules, Jewish rules, playground rules…   Honour your parents.  Love HaShem your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.  Love your neighbour (and not his wife).  Stand up straight.  Always be punctual.  Pray and study and do good deeds.  Read improving books and a newspaper you don’t agree with.  Eat your fruit and veg and not processed sugar.  Never be cruel or cowardly, never give up or give in.  Don’t let them see you cry.  Keep silent or make small talk, but don’t talk about what matters.  Don’t lose your temper.  Don’t be stupid, but don’t be too clever.  Don’t show off, but don’t shirk duty.  Don’t conform, but don’t stand out.

Don’t think that, don’t think that.  Don’t even feel it.  Not ever.

I just wish everything wasn’t so difficult for me.  I don’t know how I was so functional at school and am so dysfunctional now.  I guess that’s one reason I would like an autism diagnosis, so I wouldn’t feel completely rude and incompetent the whole time.  To show myself and others that I have a reason to be screwed up.  Hence my fantasies of not just getting an autism diagnosis, but sharing it with people: the first woman I asked out, my first girlfriend, my former boss… everyone who I think saw me at my worst and probably thought badly of me as a result.  I don’t know if that’s an apology on my part (“I’m sorry for being screwed up and for screwing up our interactions”), a desire for understanding or a somewhat defiant explanation.  I don’t think it’s revenge.  But it also makes me question whether I really am autistic.  If I’m this sensitive to things (fluorescent lights, noise, stress, people, multitasking), shouldn’t it have been more obvious when I was growing up?  I was just shy, perhaps socially anxious and almost certainly alexithymic, but I didn’t react the way I do now.  I don’t know the answer (as usual).

The Great Clomipramine Shortage of 2018

The Great Clomipramine Shortage of 2018 is continuing.  To cut a very long and boring story short, I should be able to get a repeat prescription tomorrow, but not the 50mg tablets I want and had been prescribed initially or the 10mg tablets the doctor prescribed as a ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ fallback, but 25mg tablets.  The pharmacy are at least saving them for me while the surgery comes up with the requisite paperwork.  But I think when I see the psychiatrist on 8 November (if the NHS ever deigns to tell me when my appointment is…) I need to talk seriously about changing meds, because these aren’t available and aren’t doing much when they are available.  No idea where we go from here though.  MAOIs?  ECT?

The other thing I need to talk to the psychiatrist about is alternative diagnoses.  I’m still going back and forth in my mind about autism and social communication disorder.  Tony Attwood writes in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome that diagnosis is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  When it is 80% complete (enough diagnostic criteria are met), the jigsaw is considered completed, BUT only if the corners and edges are in place too (certain criteria have to be met, regardless of how many other criteria are met).  I have the 80% complete, but I don’t have all the corners and edges, there are some symptoms I just don’t have, or not at a high enough level, to count as autistic.  I can see the autism picture, but because I haven’t got the right pieces, no one will give me any help with it.  So maybe social communication disorder is a better bet, or going to a CBT therapist and trying to work directly with self-esteem and social anxiety.

The other thing I get from reading the book at the moment is gratitude.  I thought my childhood was not great, but it could have been so much worse.  The bullying could have been even more intense and violent, I could have been unable to defend myself in any way except violence (which would have got me in bigger trouble) and, most of all, I could have been without my “mentor friend” who guided and protected me (literally protected me – he was tall and strong and even though he was a geek, he wasn’t bullied as much as I was).  No wonder I used to get upset and maybe even anxious if he missed a day of school.  My Mum wanted to split us up, because she thought he was holding back my social development and I would make more friends in another class or school, but I suspect I would just have been even more alone if that had happened.

Speaking of mentor figures, Attwood says of romantic partners sought by people with autism, “The partner they seek is someone who understands them and provides emotional support and guidance in the social world – someone to be a ‘mother figure’ and mentor.”  I’ve realised this before about myself.  It makes me pessimistic.  I’m a weird enough person to be trying to matched up as it is, without putting pressure on women to mentor me and even mother me (even without getting into the complexity of my far-from-straightforward relationship with my actual mother).  This seems like asking too much.  I can’t imagine anyone ever consenting to marry me on those terms.  But I worry about what will happen when my parents are gone.  Complex though my current relationship with them is, they are still doing a lot of mentoring and guiding, e.g. today, when Mum came to resolve the clomipramine prescription confusion at the doctor’s surgery, when my social anxiety/autism/social communication disorder/shyness/whatever was just making me shutdown and run away.

I just got back from shiur (religious class).  It’s become quite difficult.  I really enjoy the content, but the number of people going has gone up and I feel uncomfortable with the number of people in the room, especially as some are noisy and constantly interrupting with questions and interjections (Jews don’t really do quiet listening).  I don’t really cope very well with people who like to talk for the sake of talking, or because they like the sound of their voices, doubly so if I’m trying to concentrate on someone else talking.  Plus just being around so many people is anxiety-provoking for me – Attwood says that for autistic people the difficulty of being around people, in terms of energy needed in alertness, anxiety and reasoning out the correct social interactions on the spot, increases exponentially (rather than linearly) with the number of people.  At shiur, as well as normal fears of a social faux pas, I’m worried about a religious faux pas too.  Just to make things worse, I’m juggling more balls because some people at the shiur know a bit about my mental health issues and some don’t and some have been acquaintances since childhood and some have not, so there is a lot to think about.

I’ve been thinking again about pets.  Attwood recommends them as affectionate and understandable companions for autistic children (unlike neurotypical children, who are difficult to understand).  I’ve see them recommended for people with depression too.  As a child I had a couple of goldfish, but that was it.  My family aren’t really pet people.  But now I wonder if it would help me to have a pet.  It would also let me see if I can cope with responsibility, given that I want to have children one day (although, as I say, that seems unlikely to happen).  Small mammals seem the best bet, guinea pigs or rabbits (both are social animals and should ideally be kept with at least two – I’ve done some reading on this already).  But I haven’t got the confidence to mention this to my parents (who in any case think the pet will die and leave me even more depressed), not least because I worry whether I am non-depressed enough to look after a pet, especially when I come home from work exhausted.  And then there’s the financial cost.

In other news, my contract isn’t being renewed at work, if I happen not to have finished the work by the end of my current contract (23 November).  I was told it was because of internal problems and bureaucracy, but I worry that it was secretly because I was a disappointment and they aren’t happy with my work and the mistakes I make.  It’s rather academic, as I strongly suspect I will be more or less finished by 23 November anyway.  To be honest, I think I might be self-sabotaging my job hunting.  I don’t really feel capable of working, at least not until I have dealt with my self-esteem and social anxiety issues and the autism/social communication disorder/whatever issues, plus I’m just plain exhausted from two months (with another to come) of constant alertness and anxiety to deal with social interactions and noise at work.  I need to stop for a bit and calm down and get my bearings.  I know that sounds lazy and entitled, but I feel like I’m at breaking point and I need time out – more than the three day weekends I have (which tend to be spent on chores and job applications and sometimes volunteering).  Although I was tempted by the job I saw advertised for Information and Records Manager for MI5 and MI6.  I want to be licensed to kill people who talk in the library or bring back books late.

Planet NHS, Planet Autism

On Planet NHS:

Me: 

Hi,

I was referred to the psychiatrist by my doctor some weeks ago.   In early October, I spoke on the phone to Mr …. who referred me through the … Team.  However, I have not been sent an appointment letter yet.

My mother phoned last Tuesday and was told I have an appointment for 8 November, but the person she spoke to would not tell her the time of the appointment, saying it would be written in the letter.  However, I have still not received any letter.

Please could you let me know as soon as possible when my psychiatrist appointment is, as I need to arrange time off with my employer.

Thank you and regards,

Luftmentsch

Him:

8th November with Dr …

Me:

Hi …

Thank you, but please could you let me know the time of my appointment on 8 November with Dr …

Regards,

Luftmentsch

Him:

A letter will be sent to you with all the details once booked on the system.

Me: 

Please could you let me know when this is likely to be as I need to clear the time off with my employer.

Regards,

Luftmentsch

Him:

8th November will be the day.

Me:

[Stunned silence.]

This is why I get so annoyed at the idolatry of the NHS that goes on.  If, as someone said, the NHS is the religion of the British people, then I’m definitely agnostic.

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

Work was OK today, or at least not unbearably awful.  It was hard, but I felt a bit more together and I got by without any coffee at work (although I had one at home at breakfast and a couple of cups of tea) and without crying.  I did shake slightly when talking to my boss, and when drinking tea (both of which were completely due to psyching myself out by realising how bad it would be to start shaking).  My boss goes on honeymoon on Tuesday and will be away until after my contract is due to finish and her boss finished working there today, so my boss from next week will be someone I know slightly, but not well.  Change makes me anxious (another autistic trait).

A previous psychiatrist, the one who felt I was somewhere on the autistic spectrum (but didn’t give me a proper assessment or diagnosis) once told me that “You can’t understand people, so stop trying.”  It’s possible that my whole life has been trying to understand people, like the robot Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  At any rate it explains why I ended up on the humanities/social sciences side, unlike many autistic people, despite being good at science at school.

Other autism-related thoughts today: I mentioned yesterday having a few geeky but non-autistic friends at school.  One very much fitted Tony Attwood’s idea of a non-autistic mentor friend who helps with socialisation.  We were friends from age five and are still occasionally in touch, although we haven’t seen each other in person in some years.  We were best friends until we were about fourteen, when we drifted apart a bit.  I remember being upset when we were told to write a passage about our best friend in Hebrew class and he read his out and it was about someone other than me.  It would be an exaggeration to say that that was a key moment in my life, but it probably was another step down a very long road.  As Attwood suggests, once the mentor friend is gone (in my case this really happened when I went to university and he, although going to the same university, went on a gap year first), social integration becomes much harder, particularly as in my case it coincided with living away from home for the first time.

I realised today that I had such limited social interactions in my first job, that it was no wonder that I found it so much easier than my current and immediately previous one.  I rarely had to deal with more than one or two people at a time, my boss was understanding, I rarely saw other staff members, library users were mature adults and the library was quiet (perhaps too quiet as I could get lonely sitting in the basement all afternoon).  Plus I did three days a week of three hours each, very different to my hours in my other jobs which are much closer to full-time.  Even so, I sometimes went off to cry in the toilet or didn’t get to work because I had a panic attack on the way.  This, I think, disguised my autistic socialisation problems and made me think I had workarounds until I got to my previous job, especially as university was also a somewhat protected environment.  It was only in my previous job, when my socialisation problems became more apparent, when I started thinking seriously about being misdiagnosed when told that I was not autistic, and thinking that the misdiagnosis could matter rather than being an abstract problem.  In particular, it became obvious that I have problems with certain types or levels of noise and with interpersonal interactions beyond simple shyness and that I’m not great with vague or implicit instructions or dealing with grey areas.

I also think my sensory sensitivity has been greater than I realised previously.  As a child, I found wool uncomfortable.  I often find wearing my watch uncomfortable (sometimes at work I take it off and put it in my pocket) and I’ve gone through periods of thinking that way about shoes.  I think mostly I’ve just soldiered on until I get inured to these feelings, although I still avoid wearing wool against my skin.

I Coulda Been a Contender

Today was a day of mild incompetence (not always my own), punctuated by occasional moments of sheer despair.  In one of my despairing moments at work, I thought that I have everything in life except the things that make it worth living: love, joy, companionship.  But then I thought, actually, I don’t even have that.  I don’t have financial security (my parents still help me out and if my contract is not renewed I will probably have to move back in with them); I don’t have a job I enjoy, let alone a career that I’m progressing with; I have a couple of friends, but mostly long-distance, which is hard; and while I have my physical health up to a point, I’m not sure how easy it is to separate physical and mental/emotional health.  Depression leads to a general sense of being worn out and under the weather much of the time, as well as a greater likelihood of infection.  I do have the love of my parents and sister, difficult though we find it sometimes to understand each other (mentally ill autistic vs. healthier allistic) and a couple of long-distance friends, which is something, but I want more.  Is that selfish of me?   Maybe it is, but I don’t think so.  I could accept my friendships being long-distance (in some ways communicating by text and email is better for me), but I want to love and be loved.

I also reflected that in another life I might have stayed at Oxford (or gone on to Cambridge, I suppose, although my sister would have killed me if I was there when she was) and fitted in a bit better around academics.  At least there are a lot of Aspies there, diagnosed and otherwise.  But on getting to Oxford as an undergraduate, I rapidly felt out of my depth and although I did pretty well in my first year exams (missing a first by two marks), a few months later the depression set in (or became more obvious and intrusive) and my grades in my finals were acceptable at best.  I never felt like a really first class intellect and I don’t think I could really have been a professional historian.  Plus, Oxford and Cambridge are not good places to be Jewishly.  The Jewish communities are small, there are no kosher shops, let alone restaurants, and the Oxford Jewish community is pluralistic rather than Orthodox.  No mikvah or Jewish schools either, so not good for families.  I suppose if I wasn’t frum and had been more academically confident and less depressed, I might have stayed at Oxford as a post-graduate student and met some similarly shy and gauche female post-grad (perhaps in the sciences rather than the humanities so we wouldn’t feel in competition with each other) and been happy.  But I don’t think my life is built for happiness.

To be honest, I’m not sure if anyone other than my two exes was ever remotely interested in me romantically (although I know one other woman who says I’m cute), although I find it sufficiently difficult to read body language to be sure.  I know a woman recently was really invading my personal space and I couldn’t work out what was going on there.  At Oxford I thought someone was attracted to me and made a fool of myself confronting her about it.  She now lives two or three doors down the road.  I don’t think she remembers me, but maybe she’s just being polite and pretending not to know/see me.

I do remember a weird evening at Oxford.  There was a quiz between the Doctor Who Society and the Star Trek Society (this was in my penultimate term, when I was Doctor Who Society president).  After the quiz the Doc Soc (as we called ourselves then) went to the pub; we invited Trek Soc, but only their (female) president came.  I thought she was looking at me strangely all evening, but thought I was being silly (probably reflecting on my previous embarrassment).  When I started walking home afterwards she was suddenly beside me.  It turned out we were going in the same direction.  When we got to the house she lived in, there was an awkward scene on the doorstep where I wondered if she expected me to kiss her or ask for her phone number or something.  Of course, it would have been an unlikely intermarriage: a Whovian and a Trekker.  She was almost certainly not Jewish either!  Even if I hadn’t been frum (religious), it would probably have been very silly to start anything at that stage, as was approaching exams with my mental health in a terrible state (I was only managing about an hour of work a day).  But I do sometimes wonder what on Earth happened/could have happened/was supposed to have happened there.

I find myself thinking sometimes about girls/women I knew in my teens and twenties who I could have asked out but didn’t and how my life might have gone differently if I had, particularly with girls I knew at school, before the depression was really affecting me.  I suppose one shouldn’t really think like that, but sometimes I wonder if I had a chance for happiness and lost it already and that my misery is my fault and, more than that, I will get punished (here or in Olam HaBa (the Next World)) for messing up.  I sometimes think God should make situations a bit easier to read, at least for the autistic among us.

See-Saw

I sometimes wonder what happened to the people I was at school and university with, the people who were indifferent to me, the people who might have been my friends if I had had more confidence and social skills and the people who bullied me.  (I don’t know why they bullied me.  Because I was clever?   Because I was awkward and Aspie?  Because I was a Doctor Who fan?  Because it was easy?  All of the above?  I don’t know.)  I think sometimes about the girls I could have asked out who might have said yes, but who probably would have said no.  I can’t remember all the names or even all the faces, just a sense of not fitting in, of not being accepted.

I assume they are all happy, successful and loved, no matter how unpleasant and socially maladjusted they seemed twenty years occur.  It occurs to me that this might not be true.  Yet it seems pretty impossible for them to be miserable if I am miserable.  Like Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau), Jerusalem and Rome, if one goes up the other must surely see-saw down.  If I’m miserable, they must be happy.

Sometimes I tell myself that my suffering is a kapparah (atonement) for the world.  This is a lie, but it helps me to get through the nights.

Hated By God

Today was pretty awful.  It started OK, but things went wrong across the morning, until by the afternoon I just wanted to go home.  I didn’t, but I fear that I was neither productive nor careful enough in my work.  I just tried to do the best I could, given the circumstances, but I’m not sure that that was good enough.

In a way that fits with this post, which I actually wrote last week (bar a few edits), but sat on for a few days while I checked with my rabbi mentor that I hadn’t breached the rules of lashon hara (forbidden malicious speech).

I had a moment of insight the other week doing my hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation.  I was actually feeling very depressed, despite being rather better during the day.  The feeling of being alone with God is very over-powering and triggers a lot of self-hating thoughts and despair, to the extent that I recently stopped doing hitbodedut for a couple of days or cut it short.  (I usually only do ten minutes, but even that is hard; on Shabbat it tends to become more intense for some reason and I let it run on for half an hour or even an hour, mostly just sobbing, which I shouldn’t really do on Shabbat, but it feels like the only really authentic religious experience I have all week, so I am loath to stop it.)  It wasn’t a new insight.  Rather, something that I have known cognitively for a long time hit me with added emotional force.

I had a difficult childhood in some ways, although I feel guilty for saying that, as nothing serious, nothing illegal happened to me.  There was the bullying at school, which I’ve mentioned before.  But not all bullied children have mental health issues in adulthood and in any case, bullies pick targets who are likely to react as victims.  There were some issues when I was primary school aged, maybe also a bit older.  I don’t want to go into details.  It was, as I said, nothing illegal or immoral.  My parents were not aware of the effects that events were having on me, I’m sure, or they would have done things differently.  But for a long time, several years, when I was impressionable I was in a situation where I was being sent signals that I was not valued and no one really noticed, because I was not the epicentre of the difficulties, just a bystander.  No one was aware of it at the time, but my self-esteem was being eroded.  The lesson I was learning was that even though I was well-behaved and hard working, things could go disastrously wrong and I could be left alone in the world to fend for myself and that no one really cared what I thought or wanted.  That I was not lovable or worthwhile or valued.

Adults can cope with cognitive dissonance, but children can not.  A child can not think, “Bad things are happening to me, but that doesn’t make me a bad person” and certainly can not think, “I am being treated unfairly, but it isn’t anyone else’s fault, it’s just life.”  A child feels, “I am being treated like I am worthless, therefore I am worthless.”  I didn’t consciously think that I was worthless.  I can’t remember much of what I consciously thought and felt at that time, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t anything like what I feel about myself now.  But I internalised the messages that I was worthless and unlovable and that whatever I did, however good I was, it would never be good enough, I would always be rejected, I would always meet with disaster and isolation.  I could never express these feelings, perhaps because I didn’t understand them (I’m not sure if the alexithymia (inability to feel or distinguish emotions) is a cause or an effect of this) and partly because I thought I couldn’t influence events, perhaps also because I had built my self-image into that of a ‘good’ boy.  So the feelings were repressed and probably worsened by my experiences at school, where I was further bullied and devalued by my peers.

Nowadays I have a good relationship with my parents.  It’s taken some work on my part and it’s taken a long time, but I can talk about a lot of my issues to them.  They’re never going to fully understand my mental health issues or my borderline Asperger’s traits and there probably will be some things we will always disagree on (as in any relationship), but we get on well, especially now I live away from them and only go home for Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and Jewish festivals).  But the feelings don’t go away.  So I think I project them onto my cosmic parent, God.  I feel that He hates me and that everything I do is wrong.  I can marshal some evidence in favour of these assertions, but, rationally, it probably isn’t much.  It’s very emotional.  For a long time it was focused on, or perhaps through, my religious OCD, but in the last ten months or so that has been a lot better, so it has become more free-floating, just a general all-pervasive sense of sinfulness and uselessness, combined with some more concrete anxieties (getting time off work for Yom Tov, Pesach cleaning etc.).  Obviously my anxieties over marriage come into play here, as it feels like something that God is withholding from me deliberately and also because I feel that no woman frum (religious) enough for me to want to marry would consider someone as sinful as I feel I am.

Unfortunately, this intuitive, rather than reasoned, nature of my feelings means that it is hard to address them.  I have known more or less all of what I have written here for a long time, it has just been hard to feel it, and lately the emotional part of my brain has been running over the cognitive part.  Still, maybe it means something positive that I felt this for a bit recently even though it’s been a struggle to remember it sometimes.

My Day

2.20am  I finally got to bed, having been up late eating porridge and watching Doctor Who (but not as much as I wanted) and texting my non-biological twin about stuff that makes me depressed and anxious.

ca12.30pm  Woke up.  Laid in bed for a bit, feeling anxious about work (see below) and basically wishing I was dead.  Got up after a bit.

1.55pm  After eating two bowls of cereal, I finally feel a bit awake, although still somewhat tired and rather depressed and also somewhat faint and low blood sugar level-ish.  I don’t want to eat lunch in my pyjamas (it just feels wrong), which means gathering my energy to get dressed when I just want to go back to bed and avoid the world.  I’m anxious about work stuff and especially about Purim, the upcoming minor Jewish festival, which means I can go to work, but there are extended services in the evening and morning to read Megillat Esther/The Book of Esther so I would like to ask to leave work early/arrive late those days so I can go, but asking makes me nervous. Plus Purim, being basically the nearest thing to Carnival in Judaism, is tough when you’re depressed (I wrote about it last year here, although it turned out to be not as bad as I feared it would).

3.00pm  Read some depressing stuff about Donald Trump.  Read some stuff about depression that probably should have made me more forgiving of myself, but for some reason rubbed me up the wrong way.  I suppose I don’t feel that non-mentally ill, non-autistic people don’t deserve to have their misunderstandings reflected back at them angrily.  I don’t think anger really helps anything very much, although I do feel it.  Back to bed briefly a couple of times.  I feel like a post-regenerative Time Lord in urgent need of a Zero Room.

3.50pm Dressed, at last.  But also tearful and still somewhat low blood sugar level-ish.  I put on tallit and tefillin and davened Mincha (said afternoon prayers), but it was very difficult, not just impossible to concentrate, but almost impossible even to get the energy to speak.

4.20pm  Finally had lunch, while watching the first half of Resurrection of the Daleks.  Not the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, but easy enough to watch.

5.20pm  Aimless internet browsing.  Unfortunately, this ended up getting political and depressing because I end up looking at the sites of political friends in the hope that they post something else.  A lot about abuse, which upsets me.  Also some stuff that just seemed a bit self-obsessed and unthinking.  But I’m just too depressed to get up and do anything else, though.

6.10pm  Feel depressed that the day is virtually over and I have done none of the things I intended.  No haircut (when am I going to do that?  I’m drifting towards the Einstein/Jewfro stage), no shopping done (too late now, so no oranges today), no bank accounts not sorted (another thing being delayed until half-term, two weeks off).  I don’t feel able to email my rabbi about talking about dating.  It seems pointless anyway, as I don’t feel able to date in this state.  I thought about going for a walk, but it is cold and dark out and getting late and I have work tomorrow.  I wish it was summer.

6.35pm  Skimmed (too depressed to read properly) an article on dating after divorce on Aish.  I’m not divorced, but according to this article, I’ve pretty much never been able to date and probably never will be:

Some aspects of healing you can look for include: feeling optimistic more often than feeling depressed; not grieving for what you no longer have [I never had it in the first place!]; being able to let go of your more intense feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness; and not being preoccupied with thoughts about what was or what could have been. Above all, it’s vital for you… to feel that you’ve developed a new equilibrium and are relatively comfortable in the routine you’ve established…  If you want to be in a healthy relationship, one that’s built on a foundation of mutual caring and respect, you have to be able to feel that you are a valuable and deserving person… Do I have a vision for my future?

I fail almost every question!  I am seriously messed up and unlovable.  I wish God had made me asexual, it would have made things so much easier.  Although, if I wasn’t so lonely, I might have been more lovable.

6.50pm   Shave.  It’s a bit ridiculous shaving at this time of day, but it does make me feel a bit better and this way  if I’m too depressed/tired/late to shave tomorrow morning I won’t go into work with three day’s worth of beard, looking a shlokh (mess).

6.55pm   Daven Ma’ariv (say the evening prayers) with zero kavannah (concentration, attention) and study Torah for less than five minutes.

19.15pm  Cook dinner (vegetarian kedgeree, or rice with curry powder, eggs and sweetcorn.  If I had been up to going shopping, I would have bought veggie sausages to replace the tinned tuna in the actual recipe).  This is pretty much the easiest recipe I know and has carbohydrates, protein and vegetables and also keeps so I can have it tomorrow too (I usually cook for two days, it’s not much more effort and saves worrying about what to eat the next day).

19.40  Dinner and more Doctor Who.

20.50 Blog on my non-anonymous Doctor Who blog, which was naughty of me when I have done so little and it is getting late.

21.10  Make lunch for tomorrow, pack.

21.30  Mindfulness meditation which went OK, not great) and hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, which went very bad, hardly spoke, my mind was racing thinking about all the major Bad Things that happened to me in my childhood and adolescence and then when I had a girlfriend, how hurt I’ve been, bullied, emotionally neglected, boundaries ignored, the decades of loneliness and emotional pain that I’m carrying…  but then also feeling that I’ve never been the victim of actual abuse or criminal neglect and I have nothing to feel depressed about.  Also feeling angry with God, wondering why He does this to me, what have I done wrong?  I have done some bad things, but no more so than most people.  In any case, my depression started before I was twenty (possibly long before) and there’s an idea in Judaism that you get a period of grace in your teens when you are legally responsible for your actions, but not punished.  If you repent before twenty, then your misdeeds are wiped out.  I was depressed before I was twenty, so it can’t be a punishment, or not only a punishment.  I don’t believe in reincarnation, but some Jews do, so I wondered if I was a reincarnation of someone awful.  This did not cheer me up.  I drifted deeper into depression and couldn’t speak at all, except odd words and phrases.  I punched the wall once, but other than that didn’t even have the energy to self-harm and ended my session a minute or two early because I was just sitting watching the clock and feeling awful.

All in all a pretty awful day, with occasional moments of OKness.  I wish I had at least got out of the flat for a bit (other than throwing stuff in the bin).

22.00  Read this back and realised it’s garbage, but too tired to do anything other than hit “Publish!”

Resonances

It has been a stressful day.  A couple of things happened at work that I can’t write about here, but the upshot was that I realised (or had confirmed, as I already suspected it) that work is triggering because common experiences I have at work resonate strongly with memories with bad childhood experiences of school and family life.  I am not sure how to deal with this.  One thing I can write a little bit about here is a couple of students who are acting very friendly to me, despite the fact that they are not the quietest and I have had to ask them to keep the noise down a few times.  I am more than slightly suspicious of their motives and wonder if they think that befriending me will mean I am lenient with them or if there is some kind of joke going on at my expense that I don’t know about.  This feels very much how I felt much of the time at school, confused and anxious that everyone was laughing at me.

Similarly illuminating are two comments on British Prime Minister Edward Heath seen in The Prime Ministers: The Office and its Holders since 1945 by Peter Hennessy.  According to Lord Carrington, Heath was, “a somewhat lonely man… [who]… needed friendship yet found it hard to unbutton himself to others.”  Whereas Hennessy describes him as having “the combination of shyness and defensiveness that can, in Roy Jenkins’ marvellous phrase, produce the Heath ‘affronted penguin’ impression.”  I think the first quote describes me; I fear the second one does too, more than I would like anyway.

Uniting my first two paragraphs, to the Calvin Coolidge method of dealing with students, I can now add the Clement Attlee method: “A period of silence on your part would be most welcome.”

 

I think I just drama queened again on Hevria.  I can’t actually tell any more.  Mea culpa.

“I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing”

I had a difficult Shabbat (Sabbath).  I struggled to get to shul (synagogue) on Friday evening.  I just felt too depressed and socially anxious.  I got into a whole load of social anxiety about my kippah (skullcap).  To understand this, you have to understand that in the Orthodox world, one’s style of kippah is often a signal of religious and even political identity, but I just wear things I like without worrying too much about what others think (or trying not to).  I was wearing the kippah my aunt and uncle bought me a few weeks ago, a very large, white crocheted one, which is the style associated with the Religious Zionist movement (with which I do not entirely identify).  I was worried that by wearing this, the rabbis of the shul, who I suspect are non- or anti-Zionist, would think negatively of me.  In the end, I didn’t go up to them after the service to shake hands and wish them a “Gut Shabbes.”  I haven’t done this for about two months, because of social anxiety, so the kippah was not the sole issue here, but it was a contributory factor.  It’s difficult to be frum sometimes when frum people seem determined to make it much harder to fit in that it should be.  Being frum is definitely a lot more than just “Read these books and keep these laws.”  There’s a lot of social etiquette that isn’t written down anywhere and newcomers are expected to learn as they go along, which is probably difficult even if you aren’t borderline autistic and have problems reading and learning social cues.

I spent most of Shabbat wrestling with upsetting thoughts.  I put on a brave face during meals, but before and afterwards I spent a lot of time in bed, feeling overwhelmed.  (It didn’t help that my room was so dark with just the dim Shabbos lamp for company.)  I spent a lot of time thinking about the people on Hevria.com who insist that if you promise to serve HaShem (God), all kinds of miracles will immediately come your way, and thinking as this doesn’t happen to me, HaShem must hate me.  I spent a lot of time thinking about dictators and serial killers and trying to work out if I was better than they were.  Probably, but it’s hard to be sure.  I couldn’t sleep at night, so I had lots of time to lie awake thinking about this.  The insomnia was probably because I forgot to take my medication, which doesn’t do very much except knock me out at night.  To be fair, as I’ve said in the past, it probably does turn ‘unbearable suicidal depression with zero functionality’ into ‘slightly more bearable non-suicidal depression with enough functionality to do boring things like go to work, but not actually enjoy myself or get a life.’  Which I guess is something.  But not much when it’s 2.30am and I’m lying in bed trying to work out who is worse: Jack the Ripper, Hitler or me?  OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, as by 2.30am I’d given up on trying to sleep and was reading about Harold Macmillan and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which probably wasn’t the best thing to make me fall asleep, but was at least more interesting than proving to myself that God really hates me and I won’t have any share in Olam HaBa (the next world i.e. Heaven) for the umpteenth time.  There is a part of me that thinks that this is probably exaggeration and I can’t really be that bad, but whenever I try to look at things calmly and assess how good I am more objectively, the answer always seems to come out that I’m the most evil person ever (or one of them, at any rate) and I can’t find the mistake in my workings.

The other thing I was thinking about was whether I’m the last person from my school year to lose his/her virginity.  Why this seemed so important to me is beyond me, but I do feel inadequate even though I don’t know for sure it’s true (although it’s very likely to be true).  I do feel that I’m not an adult for being perennially single, not fitting in to a frum community and only working part-time in a fairly lowly job (even when I’m not worried about being fired because of some depression-, social anxiety- or Asperger’s-related incident).  I do think I’m going to be the last one from my school year to die, but that’s mostly because I have a feeling I’m going to end up like the Wandering Jew, Flying Dutchman or Ancient Mariner and just end up going on in loneliness and misery long after everyone I know has shuffled off this mortal coil.  This is as irrational as the whole ‘I’m worse than Hitler’ thing, but it feels emotionally true nonetheless.  I do feel so much older than everyone else, even though a lot of my friends are chronologically older than me.  I feel like I’ve been here for centuries.  The world does not improve with age.

I did a little bit of Torah study on Friday night and I got to shul for Ma’ariv (the evening service), but not Mincha (the afternoon service), but I missed shul today.  In fact, I missed Shacharit and Musaf (the morning and additional services) entirely and did truncated versions of Mincha and Ma’ariv at home because I didn’t have the energy to do the whole thing.  I didn’t even have the energy to feel particularly guilty about this.  I do wonder if I should be thinking about dating in this state, though, partly as I’m sure anyone frum enough for me to want to date would want someone more committed to davening and Torah illnesses notwithstanding and partly because I don’t really feel in a good enough state to worry about it.  I haven’t sent my shidduch profile off yet, so I suppose I can always back out.

I had a list of chores to do after Shabbat finished this evening, but most of them had to wait as I had to help with preparations for my room at my parents’ house being redecorated this week.  I’m a bit grumpy about this, as I don’t really want it decorated and resent the work I’m having to put in to get it ready, and the much bigger hassle of putting the books (nearly 1,000, excluding the 150 or so downstairs and another 50 or so in the flat) and DVDs (a couple of hundred) back in the right order in a few weeks’ time.  I’m sufficiently autistic that the upheaval itself depresses me and I only live there one day a week now, as does the thought of books going back in the wrong order and me not noticing.  I suppose in a few weeks time it will look better when I’m there, which will be nice, but I’m not sure that the cost/benefit trade off is really in my favour; as with my sister’s wedding and as with work, it’s another stressful, mental health-triggering thing that I have to do more than I want to do and I have to just get through it as best as I can.

Growing Up Neurodivergent

I’ve been reminded a couple of times today of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.  And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”  It feels like that at the moment, with my struggles, that I’m running just to stand still or even to go back just a little bit rather than a lot, while others are moving ahead just by casually walking.

Work today was hard.  I don’t have any great anecdotes, nothing notably bad or annoying happened, it was just a boring day doing boring work for people I can’t communicate with (I mean that literally, not in terms of Asperger’s or social anxiety – I was in our secondary campus where most of the students are either immigrants with very poor English or people with very serious learning disabilities) in a library that is dark and gloomy and generally depressing-looking.  (It also smells, which doesn’t help, especially as my boss said I can’t use air-freshener because of allergies.)  Thankfully, I only have to go to this campus once a week.  I don’t think I could stand any more.  To make matters worse, for much of the afternoon teacher was working with an adult student in the library, who was practising his reading and comprehension by reading aloud a newspaper article on Islamic fundamentalism and female genital mutilation, really not what I wanted to listen to when feeling depressed and trying to get on with my own work.

My boss has agreed to speak to me tomorrow about my mental health and I hope to mention my sister’s wedding.  I need to plan what I want to say.  I’m hoping that it goes well.

I just deleted a load of stuff because it was just whinging about an unprofessionally-run shiur (religious class) and an equally problematic GP’s surgery.  A more interesting thought occurred to me while davening Ma’ariv (saying the evening prayers).  Growing up, I was religiously traditional, but not shomer mitzvot, which means that my family kept elements of Jewish law, but not all of it.  Shabbat (the Sabbath) was special and I didn’t do homework on it, but I watched TV and my Dad went to football.  We kept a reasonably kosher home, but not entirely and we ate vegetarian food in non-kosher restaurants and so on.  Still, as I got to my teens, I began to become more interested in Judaism and Jewish study and to think about taking on more aspects of Jewish law.

I think a number of people wanted me to get more involved in Jewish life, particularly in terms of study events, shul (synagogue) youth services, religious youth movements, kiruv organisations (organisations that try to make non-religious Jews more religious, essentially a sort of internal proselytisation) and the like, culminating ultimately in my school teachers wanting me to go and study in yeshiva (rabbinical seminary.  One can study there for a year or two without obligation to become a rabbi).  I think various rabbis wanted me to go so I would become more religious; my Mum was just looking for a social outlet for me that was more introvert-friendly than sport or scouts.

At the time, I shied away from all this stuff without really being able to articulate why.  In later years I would say that these groups were too Charedi (ultra-Orthodox), which was not always true.  Later, I was able to get past that and thought that being in large crowds of people my own age brought up too many memories of being bullied at school, often by the very people attending these groups (I still find it a bit weird that some of the kids who used to mess around in school and bullied me are now super-religious and married with lots of kids.  I really can’t reconcile who they were (not like me) with who they are now (like me, or at least how I want to be).  I don’t know if that says more about me or them).

But I think there is more to it than that.  It strikes me that all this stuff is really bad for someone with social anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome.  I certainly had the former and may have had the latter.  These things are all about crowds of people getting together and while some of them focus on study, all of them have a socialising component built in that can be overwhelming and any youth movement is going to have an element of deindividuation in a group which I find so frightening.  I correctly identified that some of that sense of being overwhelmed came from being bullied at school and fearing that the patterns would repeat in youth movements or kiruv organisations, but even without that, just being in a loud room full of strangers is always going to freak me out, no matter what the context.  Add to that the fear (justified or not, I don’t know) that some at least of the rabbis wanted to change me into something I wasn’t comfortable with being (deindividuation again) and it’s no wonder I ran a mile.  Similarly, when I got to university all my friends were on the Jewish Society committee and tried to get me to join, but I resisted.  I said it was because the society was essentially a social group, not a religious one (which was basically true) and I had nothing to offer in that context, but I was very afraid of deindividuation and being in social groups, even in an environment where I was realistically safe from overt bullying (although someone did have a real go at me for not joining in).

It’s a bit reassuring realising this after all these years.  I don’t feel I need to worry so much about what might have been if I had gone to these things, as I would probably have just panicked and stood in painful silence rather than making life-long friends or meeting my wife.  It is less helpful knowing how to apply that information to events that I could potentially go to now.  I am still trying to see how much I can push myself to fight the social anxiety.  The way to beat social anxiety, like any anxiety, is to expose yourself to what you fear, but if I am autistic, then I’m just not going to be comfortable in certain situations no matter how hard I push myself.  It is hard to know what to do, particularly given my weird non-diagnosis regarding Asperger’s.

My rabbi mentor just told me not to be so hard on myself.  He wasn’t thinking about this, but I guess it applies here too.  I just wish I knew how not to be hard on myself…

I’m Too Depressed to Think of a Witty or Appropriate Title

It’s probably a mistake to post two long posts in one day, but I feel depressed and need to vent, so here goes.

I went to bed late last night.  I’m not sure exactly when as, unusually, I didn’t look at the time, but it was around 1.15am.  I intended to sleep in this morning, but, perhaps because I slept so much yesterday when I was burnt out (at night and in the afternoon), I woke up about 7.15am and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Eventually I got up, lethargic and a bit depressed, too down to daven (pray).  I ate some cereal (mezonot so I didn’t need to go in the sukkah in my pyjamas) and watched some Doctor Who.

I did eventually get dressed and start the day properly.  I managed to sort out my desk drawer, which was the big achievement of the day.  I’m usually tidy, but since moving out of my parents’ house I had been shoving post in there to be dealt with later (my post still comes to my parents’ house because my flat doesn’t  have a postal address, being a converted garage, and I don’t want it to go to my landlords’ house), so I finally dealt with that.  Some of the papers had been sitting there for eighteen months or two years!

Other than that, and writing my blog post about Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve been fairly lethargic and a bit depressed.  I’ve taken today as a mental health day.  I think I accidentally messed up eating in the sukkah yet again.  I won’t go into how, because I would have to go into a lot of technical detail about halakhah (Jewish law) and you wouldn’t thank me for it.  I wonder how I keep messing things up, though.  Some of it comes from living (even if only temporarily, for Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals)) in my parents’ house.  When I’m in my flat, I can do things my way, use various safeguards, maybe accept some chumrot (protective stringencies).  But here sometimes I have to do the bare minimum required by halakhah, or do ‘risky’ things and try to remember to watch out.  Inevitably, sometimes I slip up.  I haven’t freaked out about it and gone into an OCD spiral the way I did last year, which is good, but it is contributing to my air of depression today.

I went out shopping, briefly.  I hoped to see the cat I saw on Friday night and be brave enough to pet it, but I didn’t see it.  I continued trying to catch up on the classes I missed from my Talmud shiur when I was too tired and depressed to go, but I couldn’t really understand any of it, even the stuff I was actually in the class for.  It’s at times like this I regret not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) or having the skills to study Talmud independently, like the people I was with at the oneg on Friday night.  To be honest, I struggle sometimes with my daily Mishnah study and Mishnah is the beginner’s slopes compared to Gemarah (to explain: the Oral Law that discusses, clarifies and analyses the Written Law (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, but especially the Torah, in this case the Five Books of Moses) stems from the Talmud and contains two parts.  The Mishnah is a series of legal statements and arguments in deceptively simple form from late antiquity.  The Gemarah, redacted a couple of centuries later, discusses the Mishnah at great and complex length and goes off at tangents covering anything from elaborations of the biblical text (narratives and legal texts) and stories about famous rabbis to folk sayings and recipes.  While technically Talmud is Mishnah plus Gemarah, the term is usually treated as synonymous with Gemarah alone because the Mishnah only takes up a small proportion of the total length of the Talmud).

Let’s face it, in Jewish terms I’m an am ha’aretz, idiot and an ignoramus.  I find this hard to accept, just as it was hard to go to Oxford and realise that I’m not particularly clever, although even at school I was aware that I was far from being the cleverest person in the year.  It’s horrible to realise that, actually, the kids who bullied me at school were right, and I am nothing special.  All those years I told myself they were wrong to bully me and one day I would… not have my revenge (I’m not a vengeful person), but be vindicated in some sense, that I would do something that would show that the world, or someone in the world, in some way benefits from my existence.  But it seems like it’s not to be.  No wonder I retreat into solipsistic fantasies (my own and other people’s; I was  hoping to to re-watch Blade Runner in preparation for seeing the new sequel when I’m on half-term later in the month, but I think I’m out of time, which sums up the day pretty well).

Social Anxiety Victories

Some good news regarding social anxiety: I did most of an induction today for about twenty English as a second language students (I would have done the whole thing but I had to leave as I was due at the other campus).  I hadn’t done one by myself before.  Not only did I do it, without any of my colleagues around to help if I got stuck, I even turned down an offer to switch lunch breaks to get out of it.  I did ask my colleague what I should say, but I don’t consider that cheating as the difficulty for me is presenting, not working out what to say.  Not only that, but I didn’t shake either, despite being worried that I might, which can trigger it in itself.  I don’t know how much of the induction the students understood (although some of them seemed to have reasonable English), but it’s always pot luck on that score anyway.  To some extent it’s just a formality so that when we give them overdue fines, they can’t say they weren’t warned (although they say that anyway).  The important thing for me was actually presenting to a group fluently (well, reasonably fluently) for the first time in a very long time.

Even more good news: I asked some rowdy students in the library to be quiet and get on with some work.  They even listened to me (for a bit).  I always get scared of doing this, not just because of social anxiety, but because I’m worried they’ll get argumentative or even violent.  I’m not sure if this fear is rooted in tabloid journalism or memories of being bullied at school, although no one was actually violent towards me at school.

Today I did feel like I’m a bit more confident at the library issue desk and able to deal with more problems, although I still have difficulty thinking of solutions while someone is standing over me with a problem.  Let me go off for five minutes and I can usually find some kind of solution, even if it’s not ideal, but with someone standing over me the social anxiety makes me panic and my mind goes blank and all I can think is that I want to get out of there (probably the adrenaline rush).  And generalizing from knowing specific solutions to specific problems to finding general solutions for whole classes of problems and then narrowing that back down to specific solutions for different specific problems is difficult.  This may be a borderline Asperger’s thing.

University, Losing Myself, Finding Myself

I wrote this as a comment on this post.  Given Hevria is having mammoth posts, it seemed appropriate to leave a mammoth comment, but no one will read it there and I thought it deserved a wider audience.

I hadn’t “rocked” at school. I was the weird geeky kid that even most of the other geeky kids (the subversively cool ones) didn’t want to know. But that didn’t prepare me for university. I didn’t really have fun. I was in Oxford for three and a bit years and I didn’t really have fun. I had a few good times at the Jewish Society and the Doctor Who Society, but mainly I was desperately lonely and miserable. I spent most of my time there clinically depressed, sometimes suicidally so. Few friends, no girlfriend (I wouldn’t find someone who would actually agree to go out on a date with me until I was twenty-seven. I swear I don’t have a personal hygiene problem…).

No one ever told me I was supposed to have the time of my life at Oxford, to have joy and pleasure (good, because I would hate to think my life couldn’t get better than those three and a bit years), but clearly other people were enjoying themselves and some of them were even doing it in halakhically-acceptable ways, but I wasn’t. My work life wasn’t unstructured, I made it OVER-structured. The thing about Oxford is, everyone works hard and plays hard. I managed the working hard OK (too well, actually, I was a workaholic), but I couldn’t play at all. I would have dinner and Shabbat meals at the Jewish Society and if I was lucky I would get to a Doctor Who Society meeting, but that was all my socializing for the week. I didn’t really have friends. By my last year I was so severely depressed that I was taking books to JSoc dinners to avoid talking to people.

On the other hand, religion didn’t really help either. I became frum, but I never went to yeshiva, for various reasons. I’ve never been in Israel for more than a fortnight at a time. I avoided Chabad at Oxford as much as possible (never been a Chabad person, probably never will be). Nowadays I have found a shul that is 75% right for me, but the missing 25% is hard sometimes. (And even in a 100% right shul, my social anxieties would be an issue.) I have never found “my people”. As I’ve said before, I don’t experience epiphanies or miracles. I just slog away, trying to be a good Jew, trying to connect to God and Torah and other Jews and other people and usually failing, but trying to fail well (and probably failing to fail well too).

So, I was severely depressed about a decade and a half. I won’t go into that again, as I’ve been into it so many times already. But I’m trying to put the pieces of my mind back together. I’m not “rooted”, I haven’t found “my core”. I don’t have inner peace. At the age of thirty-four (next month), I feel I only vaguely know who I am (I may be wrong, I may know myself better than I feel). I’m doing all the learning about myself that most people were doing in their teens and early twenties, only without the intense friendships, alcohol, lazing around and sex-and-drugs/yeshiva-and-kiruv-trips (delete according to taste) that my peers had to make it more fun. I survive. No, more than that, I’m doing well at the moment (albeit worried about when my next crash will be), I just wish I could enjoy life more. I don’t believe life is made to be enjoyed, but I believe in seizing joy where you can, but I’m monumentally bad at doing so. I wish I knew for sure that one day I would have the right community, maybe a couple of really close friends. I wish I knew for sure that one day I would have that special someone to share my life with, to have children with. It seems doubtful, even in these better times. But I continue, mostly because I don’t believe that happiness is the point of life and I can try to be a good Jew even if I’m lonely and unhappy.