Notes from a Quiet Yom Tov (Short Post)

Yom Tov (festival) was quiet. It feels odd not to have another Yom Tov on the horizon after a month of one after another. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday evening. It was OK, but I still feel very anxious there and it’s hard to distinguish social anxiety from autistic “new situation” anxiety (mid-COVID). Wearing a mask for so long is uncomfortable too.

That was it, really. I stayed at home. We davened (prayed) and ate and slept. I did some Torah study. I had a migraine last night and threw up a little. I tried not to think about the job rejection; occasionally I had negative thoughts about my future and my apparent inability to get or hold down a job like a “normal” person. I dreamt about the boss from a previous job, one who I didn’t like and who said she was disappointed in me and my failure to learn the job as well or as fast as she expected. I dreamt about her being my teacher at school. I don’t remember much else of the dream, except that there were giant speaking dogs, for some reason.

I slept for two hours in the afternoon today, which I didn’t really want to do. Because of that, I’m probably too awake, or was until just now. Since Yom Tov ended, I’ve been going through emails and blog posts (so many build up in just two days), eating dinner and then polishing silver for my parents, trying to tire myself out. I’m watching the last episode of Star Trek Voyager. Voyager is not the greatest Star Trek series by any means, but somehow it’s been ideal pandemic viewing, unchallenging and reassuring with a strong family feel among the crew who seem to be able forgive each other for any misbehaviour.

More Burn Out, and Fitting In

I still feel very drained today, perhaps more than yesterday in some ways, which may not be surprising given that I had to “people” a bit yesterday evening as well as making myself draft my devar Torah (Torah thought). Getting up was hard, getting dressed was hard, davening (praying) was hard, shaving was hard… everything today has been hard, really.

It does make me wonder about what I should do if I get the job I was interviewed for last week, but they want me to work full-time (it was a full-time position, but the online application form said that they were possibly open to flexible working, but at the interview they were unsure of that).

I forced myself to go for a half-hour walk and to finish off my devar Torah, but it was hard. I just want to shut down. The weather out was cold and I wore my anorak for the first time this autumn. On Saturday, Jews worldwide will start praying for rain, and summer will well and truly feel over (although it’s still warm and dry in some places with large Jewish populations e.g. Israel and parts of the USA).

I listened to an audio shiur (religious class) because I didn’t feel up to reading any Torah, but wanted to do some Torah study regardless. It made me feel a bit bad as it was on Simchat Torah (The Rejoicing of the Torah), the final festival of the Jewish autumn holiday cycle, which is this Sunday. It’s always a challenging day for me, as it’s celebrated by ecstatic (and often alcohol-fuelled) dancing with the Torah scrolls in shul (synagogue). Obviously that won’t be happening this year due to COVID, but usually I find it very hard: too much joy that I can’t connect with from depression, too much noise that I can’t cope with from autism, too much emphasis on being visible in front of others that I can’t cope with from social anxiety. Often I don’t go to shul for this at all, or I leave early (I have a whole semi-autobiographical scene about this day in the novel I’m writing). In the past I’ve judged myself negatively for not being able to fit in with this festival and I guess I still am doing that, on some level, as the shiur made me feel bad. One year or maybe two I did actually manage to really get into it, really dance and feel happy and connect, I don’t know how, but I’ve never been able to get back there since then.

***

I’ve been thinking recently a lot about fitting in. I guess even the Simchat Torah feeling is about fitting in, as I hate being in shul and seeing other people let go and dance and feel happy and not be able to do that. I wrote and then deleted some paragraphs here about religion and politics and not fitting in. The religious stuff I’ve mostly said before and if I cut it, it’s to avoid repeating myself (although I’ve picked up some new readers since then, so maybe there would be a point in repeating it). But as for the politics… I’ve been edging around the topic for months now, wanting to write something, drafting things, deleting them or cutting and pasting them out and saving them elsewhere. I know roughly what I want to write, but I’m scared of the consequences. It occurs to me that as the Very Important Institution where I was interviewed the other week might not want me writing political stuff, so maybe that’s another reason not to write, even anonymously here. I don’t know.

The essence of the matter is that I want to fit in, but am always scared of upsetting people by holding an opinion on religion or politics or anything that really matters, so I sit quietly and don’t say anything. I don’t know if I seem boring, but I do sometimes wish I could say more. But I’m scared of rejection and of conflict, so being quiet seems the easier option.

I know it’s a problem with dating PIMOJ. She’s so positive in outlook that I feel bad for feeling so negative all the time, but I’m scared to open up too much about my depression and autism. I’ve mentioned both to her, but downplayed the autism and really put the depression in the past tense, whereas it’s probably not over permanently. She asked me on our date why I became depressed, which was difficult to answer adequately in a way I felt comfortable with. I worry that she’s too positive for me and that her intense religiosity and constant mystical sense of God’s immanent presence is incompatible with my religious existentialist unending search for God and meaning in a universe of darkness and doubt. I want to open up and see how she reacts, and so far when I have opened up a bit, her reaction has been positive, but I’m just too scared. Maybe I need to force myself out to her by degrees.

***

That’s all I’ve got for today really. Brain is just not working properly. Off to watch Star Trek Voyager as I’m too depressed and drained to read the huge brick of a novel I tried to start yesterday and didn’t get far with (Dominion by C. J. Sansom, another “What if the Nazis won World War II?” alternative history novel).

Dancers at the End of Yom Tov

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.

Good/Bad

I’m thinking of a joining a political party just so I can resign angrily from it.  It looks a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

***

Friday night was good, Saturday less so.  There was circle dancing in shul during Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night prayers) again and I didn’t feel able to join in again.  I was practically the only person not joining in (the only other person was the assistant gabbai who looked like he was doing stuff for the running of the service).  I don’t know why I just freeze up when this happens.  I know I find it uncomfortable, but it’s hard to work out why I find it uncomfortable (social anxiety, autism or depression?) or why sometimes I can join in and once or twice I’ve even enjoyed it (I had one Simchat Torah when I enjoyed the dancing…).  I just can’t do it.

(I tried to find video or even pictures of Jewish dancing because I don’t think I describe it very well.  There’s surprisingly little out there.  I did find one YouTube video, but it was at a wedding or bar mitzvah and rather more lively than the type of thing we have in shul, plus all the comments were rabidly antisemitic (“They’re dancing because they found a shekel…  No, they’re dancing because they tricked the USA into invading another country for them…”).  Even Wikipedia only has a few lines of text and a photo of Israeli, rather than frum, folk dancing.)

I got invited out at short notice to Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner by the person who sits next to me at shul (synagogue).  There were two other people there.  I was a bit apprehensive, but it went well.  I forced myself to participate in the conversation and try to initiate conversations when I was tempted to stay quiet.  I did the same thing at seudah (the third Sabbath meal in the synagogue) today.  That was all good.

At dinner someone said that he studies Torah all day on Friday and Shabbat and tries to do an hour of Torah study on other days (he’s semi-retired).  This surprised me a bit, as he’s teased at shul and shiur for spending hours and hours “learning” so I was surprised that his minimum for most days is something that’s not totally out of reach for me.  I used to do an hour or more of Torah study a day, before my depression got bad again (that’s going back several years).  I do occasionally manage it even now, but it’s usually more like half an hour or so, less when the depression is very bad.  Of course, most of what I “learn” isn’t Talmud, so it has less cachet in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world.  I try not to care, but it’s difficult not to feel like a second-class citizen sometimes (twice in two days someone I don’t know well has decided to tell me just how much Talmud he’s studied lately).  I do make sure I do some Talmud study each week, though.

I couldn’t sleep again yesterday evening despite trying to take some time to relax when I got home.  After a while, I got up and started reading The Elegant Universe, a book on physics that I was given as a school prize, so you can guess how long it’s been on my shelves; long enough to go out of date, according to some of the reviews on Goodreads.  I’m trying to read more non-fiction at the moment.  I used to be fascinated by history, economics, physics, politics and so on, but then when I went to university I focused purely on my degree (history) and when I finished the depression made it hard to read non-fiction.  I want to try to get back into reading non-fiction, not least because of the big pile of unread books that have accumulated over the years (mostly bought cheap from charity shops and library sales).  At the moment I’m trying to alternate fiction and non-fiction books.

This morning I got up at 8am.  I wanted to stay up and go to shul, but then I remembered that I would probably be called to the Torah if I did that and I panicked and went back to bed.  I don’t know why I panicked; I’ve been called up enough times before.  I think some of it is that I have low blood sugar when I wake up, which always makes depressive and anxious thoughts much, much worse.  If I can figure out a way to get myself to get up and eat something straight away before deciding whether to go to shul, that might do the trick.  Maybe.  I don’t really know any more.  I felt guilty for not going to shul, and for going back to sleep until 2pm (my parents were out for lunch so didn’t get me up).  I did at least avoid falling asleep after lunch.  I try to tell myself I have issues and can’t compare myself to other people, but it’s hard when I’m conscious that everyone goes to shul on Shabbat mornings.

I did some Torah study in the afternoon and went to shul for Talmud shiur, Mincha (Afternoon Prayers) seudah and Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).  As I said, I tried to talk a bit more to people at seudah.  I still felt a bit disconnected at shul although why I feel like that is harder to work out.  I have the feeling of not being good enough or not frum enough for these people and I can’t work out why I feel like that.  No one has said anything to me that should make me feel like that.  I do wish sometimes that I knew what other people think of me.  Perhaps it’s better than I fear.  Then again, perhaps it’s worse…

Triggers and Case Histories

(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.

The Final Hours

I think my particularly bad day, depression-wise, on Friday was a result of forgetting to take my lithium on Thursday evening (so it does do something).  The last couple of days have been better, but somewhat listless.  I’m trying to gather my resources for the final Yom Tov (festival) of the Jewish autumn holiday season.

Friday evening was difficult.  My sister, her husband and his sister were here, but the atmosphere was subdued.  I don’t want to go into details, as I don’t know if they would want it online, but my sister’s in-laws are going through a serious health crisis, so there was a heavy cloud over the evening as we were all worried, particularly my brother-in-law and his sister.

I was up late yesterday evening, which was not my intention.  I wanted to catch up on some emails after Shabbat (the Sabbath), which have been neglected lately because of Yom Tov and inter-Yom Tov busyness at work.  In particular, I wanted to respond to an acquaintance who wrote to say that she thinks that she is on the autistic spectrum and wonders if I might be too.  That was a difficult email to write, as I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to reveal.  I opened up a bit about my autism non-diagnosis and mental health issues, but I refrained from mentioning the blog (at this stage).  But I obviously found it hard to write, as I kept letting myself get distracted with aimless internet surfing.  The result was a very late night (I think I got to bed around 3.00am) and a late start today.  I feel depressed and drained.  Just getting dressed was a tremendous effort.

I’ve neglected my non-depression writing of late, partly due to the job change and Yom Tovim.  I wanted to write a Doctor Who blog post today and even wrote the first paragraph, but I just feel too drained.  I hope it wasn’t a mistake paying for a professional (advert-free) blog to use to promote my Doctor Who writing, because I have hardly posted anything on it so far.

I am trying to get back into the habit of regularly studying Nakh, the post-Mosaic books of the Hebrew Bible.  It is hard, as I tend to do much of my Torah study on the train, and taking a big Tanakh (Bible) along with the smaller JPS English-only Bible (because the translation is sometimes more accurate, particularly with obscure words) is impossible, even without the heavy Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical Hebrew dictionary.  I do sometimes find it somewhat restoring, rather than draining (as Talmud is), although I do not know how much is down to being inspired by the subject matter or how much due to the literary qualities of the poetry and prose and how much just from the challenge of translating and understanding an ancient language.

We are headed for the last forty-eight hours of the month long Jewish holiday season.  I can cope with Shmini Atzeret as there aren’t really any special mitzvot or practices, but Simchat Torah is very hard for me.  I suspect it’s a nightmare for anyone with introversion, depression, social anxiety or autism, let alone all of them.  It’s mostly celebrated through ecstatic (alcohol-fuelled) dancing with the Torah scrolls in shul (synagogue) to celebrate completing the annual cycle of reading the Torah.  Once or twice, when the depression has been in remission, I have given myself over to it and those experiences were liberating, but mostly I just feel overwhelmed by noise and embarrassment and not wanting to be there, feeling a Bad Jew and a failure as a human being for not joining in, even for not feeling able to join in.  Standing on the sidelines watching everyone else dancing reminds me of how many things there are that other people enjoy that I can’t experience because of my depression, anhedonia and social anxiety: simple everyday things like happiness, love, friendship, community, family (people dance with their children or grandchildren), simcha shel mitzvah (joy of performing the commandments),religious meaning, love of Torah, even just whisky…

Even worse, at my current shul they auction off honours at the start of the service.  I had heard of honours being auctioned on Simchat Torah in return for gifts to tzedaka (charity) or to the shul, but until last year I had not seen them auctioned off for ‘learning’ (Torah study).  The idea is to get the whole community to study the whole of the Mishnah each year, so Simchat Torah honours are auctioned off for a number of chapters of the Mishnah and sometimes for pages of Talmud.

I don’t like this for a couple of reasons.  At the moment I can’t commit to much in the way of Torah study because of my depression.  Last year the bidding started at thirty chapters of Mishnah; I’m not sure that I managed that number over the last year (I think I managed about twenty-nine).  Plus I’m working my way through the Mishnah in order, whereas people seemed to be assigned Mishnayot based on the number of chapters they bid for, so I would probably get some other section to what I am currently studying.  Plus, as I’ve said before, I’m really sensitive about how much Torah study I do and the fact that I never went to yeshiva and can’t really study Talmud independently, so this is very anxiety- and inferiority-provoking for me (from that point of view, bidding in terms of study is more equitable than bidding in monetary donations, but still creates a hierarchy of high-achievers and under-achievers, and I’m very much in the second category).  In any case, I object to advertising how much Torah study I do and I don’t even want the honours on offer (mostly reading stuff out or carrying the Torah scrolls in the dancing).

So, I had decided to skip Simchat Torah this year, although I’m undecided about how much to skip: leave before the dancing starts or miss Ma’ariv (the evening service) too?  Or don’t even go for Mincha on Shmini Atzeret?  I’m not sure, and it will partly depend how depressed I feel and when they do the auctioning.  The problem is that the three biggest honours (chatan Torahchattan Bereshit and the person called to the Torah with all the community’s children), which are not auctioned, but given to three people who have done a lot for the community, are going to friends of mine.  I feel I ought to go to support them, but I just can’t face it.  My Dad said to email them to apologise, but I can’t face admitting to all my issues (one knows a bit about my issues, one knows that I have some health problems, but not that they are mental health problems and one doesn’t know why I’m mysteriously absent from shul for long periods at all).  So, this will be a more difficult Simchat Torah than most.  I hope I can just quietly slip away after Shmini Atzeret Mincha, but I have a feeling that it won’t be that easy.

Sukkot 1 and 2

I shouldn’t really be writing this when I need to go to bed to be up so early tomorrow, but I need to stop the racing thoughts in my head.  I’m not translating all the Hebrew words because I’m in a hurry.  Google is your friend.

Sukkot is Zman Simchatenu, the Time of our Joy, but I’ve been up and down the last few days.  Sometimes I’ve been OK, but at other times I’ve slipped back into depression and occasionally into OCD (about the sukkah).  The depression hit me particularly badly in the shiur between Mincha and Ma’ariv tonight.  It was a highly technical halakhic shiur about arbah minim and I could not follow it at all, but judging by the apparently relevant and incisive questions, some at least of the other men in shul could follow it.  I felt such an idiot.  I don’t know why I’ve never been able to ‘get’ Talmudic/halakhic analysis when so many men who, to be frank, as not my intellectual equals generally do get it.  I’ve decided to try to make time to study Nakh (the post-Mosaic books of the Hebrew Bible) again (in Hebrew), but it’s hard to make time for it or to get in the right headspace when I’m depressed.  But Tanakh appeals to me a lot more than Talmud and halakhah, even if I suspect I’m just reading it for literary reasons and the challenge of understanding the Hebrew as much as for religious reasons.

I know/know of a lot of Jews who have stopped being religious because of mental illness.  Likewise a number of Jews who left because they couldn’t get married or fit into the community (this is particularly true of ba’alei teshuva (people who became religious late in life) and converts).  I feel that logically I should stop being religious, but by some strange fluke I happen to believe and so feel stuck in a religion that I believe is true, but which doesn’t actually bring me any joy or peace and with a God who I still find it hard to believe actually loves me, given all I’ve done, and given the way He treats me.  This feeling is only going to increase as we head towards Simchat Torah next week, which is unbearable for anyone with depression or social anxiety, particularly if they don’t have young children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren, kayn eiyn hara).

I’m trying not to go on about the fact that I’m never going to get married, as I realised (from the C-PTSD book) that it’s just another form of self-criticism, but trying not to mention it doesn’t actually mean that I don’t believe it.  I really can’t see how I could even meet someone in the frum world where men and women only meet if they are set up on dates together and I don’t have a critical mass of acquaintances who know me well enough to set me up with women.  Plus I hide my true self (mentally ill, geeky, open to non-Orthodox ideas) from everyone to avoid rejection, so they wouldn’t set me up with the right women anyway.  It doesn’t help that I currently exist in a grey area between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi/Yeshivish worlds.  I wish there was more of a vibrant Modern Orthodoxy in this country, but there isn’t.  That being the case, I don’t know how to meet someone.  I’d like to go to a course at the London School of Jewish Studies next month, which is about the most vibrant Modern Orthodox institution in the UK (not to meet someone, just because the course looked interesting and possibly helpful to my mental health), but I’m not sure if I can manage staying out late with getting up early for work.

(Did you notice that I managed to make the paragraph about not complaining about never getting married into a complaint about never getting married?)

It’s very clear to me now that I’m avoiding shul in the mornings because of social anxiety.  What is less clear is why I can get to shul on Shabbat and Yom Tov afternoons when I can’t make it in the mornings.  Is just because I’m already awake and up rather than having to go from sleep to dressing to being in shul in half an hour?  I’m not sure.  Why can I get up for work, but not shul, even though shul is hours later?  And what is at the root of the anxiety?  Is it just fear of rejection and not belonging in my community?  Again, I’m not sure.

In non-Jewish news, I’ve had a backache for about a week, which may be my depressive/low self-esteem slumping bad posture catching up with me as my Dad always said it would.  Plus I can’t hear properly and yesterday I felt really dizzy in the evening, which may be the sign of an ear infection.  There’s been a huge problem with my antidepressants too and I’m worried about whether I’m going to be able to get a repeat prescription tomorrow (long story).  So, I’m generally feeling not at my best at the moment and uncertain of how to move forward.