Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

…which is what I have been trying to do, not terribly successfully, for the last three days.

I slept through most of the weekend. I slept through Saturday morning and missed shul (synagogue). I think I woke up for a few seconds around when I was supposed to get up, but not for long enough to actually get up. Then I woke around and 10.30am and went to the loo, but was too tired to stay up, especially as there was no chance of getting to shul before it would be over. Then I fell asleep again in the afternoon, for more than two hours. I did make it to shul on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and to Talmud shiur (religious class), which was an effort. I didn’t manage much in the way of other Torah study. Unlike the last few weeks, I didn’t play a game with my parents after seudah (the third Sabbath meal) as I wanted to read, although really I think I would happily have fallen asleep again; it was an effort to stay awake. I went to bed late (as inevitably happens in the summer when Shabbat finishes after 10pm) and took about an hour to fall asleep. To be honest, I slept so much that I thought I would be awake much later.

The weather is pretty grim, which doesn’t help. From an uncomfortable heatwave the week or two, we have suddenly plunged into autumn: cold and wet with no sunlight.

***

I tried to work on my novel today, but my brain wasn’t really working. I looked over some of what I wrote last week and tried to read through the first chapter and rewrite where necessary, but I didn’t get terribly far. My brain just was not functioning and I procrastinated too much. I also think I’m reaching the point of diminishing returns with redrafting. I’m struggling to imagine it being ‘different’ to how it is now. Maybe that’s the brain fog, or maybe not. It’s hard to get excited about a fourth draft.

I managed a little Torah study, reading over this coming week’s sedra (Torah portion), but struggled to think of anything to write my devar Torah about. I did some ironing too, not terribly well, but I got it done as I think my parents wanted it done.

E and I had a Skype call. Our calls are going well, but it’s really frustrating that we can’t just “hang out” together when I’m having bad days like these. Not that I’ve ever been good at just “hanging out,” by myself, let alone with anyone else (hence all this activity today even though I felt bad).

I have a busy few days ahead of me: work tomorrow and Wednesday (rather than Thursday) because J moved his work day and I had to follow. That has led to therapy moving to Tuesday, the same day E and I start a Zoom class at the London School of Jewish Studies. Then my sister and brother-in-law are coming here for dinner with me and my parents on Wednesday. I hope I’m a bit less burnt out and can get through everything OK.

***

My father’s day card arrived on time, fortunately. Not much else to say about that, though. My sister and I didn’t have any ideas for presents. Dad asked for some aftershave, so I’ll have to see if I can go to Boots sometime this week. I’ve only been inside the shop a couple of times in the last year and a bit.

***

I’m letting the paid for domain name on my Doctor Who blog lapse when it comes up for renewal in a month. It was one of my attempts to manoeuvre myself into paid writing work and it didn’t work out, sadly. The Doctor Who writing world seems a bit of a closed shop. But it does make me think how badly I’ve done at getting paid writing work, and how risky it is to try to build a career as a writer. I’m lucky that I have my part-time admin job, and that my parents are supporting me, and that E isn’t pushing me to work more. It’s hard to see how I could do much more work at all, counting what writing I already do as work. I’m just tired so much of the time.

I Blog Therefore I am

I haven’t blogged for a few days. There’s nothing wrong. Quite the reverse, really. Nothing really happened. When I was very depressed and had a lot of emotional stuff to offload, it was easy to blog every day — hard not to blog, in fact, as I wanted to process and off-load a lot of thoughts and feelings. But at the moment not a lot is happening, and I didn’t feel like writing very trivial stuff. I’m wondering if I should blog less, or maybe blog differently. I toyed again with the idea of writing more analytical posts about Judaism or antisemitism, but I think I’d rather use extra writing time on my novel (sorry). But we’ll see; previous attempts to blog less haven’t really worked. And whenever I say my life is dull and good, something goes wrong, so we’ll see what happens.

As for what happened, Thursday was dull. There were some negative things, but nothing really bad or worth going into. The highlight was Skyping E from the garden (I wasn’t sure the wifi would work out there). On Friday I did some chores, worked on my novel and went to shul (synagogue). I missed shul on Saturday morning, probably because I was up late reading Tanakh (Daniel, which is really hard to understand!), having earlier spent quite a while studying Talmud to prepare for the class on Shabbat (the Sabbath) — there seems to be a trade-off between studying Torah on Fridays and getting up in time for shul.

On Shabbat, I did the usual Shabbat things: spent time with my parents, went for a walk, slept too much, went to Talmud shiur (class) and found I’d prepared much more material than we got through, as we spent ages on a long Tosafot (Medieval commentary on the Talmud written over about 200 years by a group of rabbis in what’s now Northern France and Germany, plus one or two in England) — I don’t prepare Tosafot as I don’t have a translation and my Hebrew isn’t good enough. Plus, I mostly don’t understand Tosafot anyway. I played Scrabble in the evening and came second despite getting (I thought) some good words, “nodules” probably being the best of them. Unfortunately, a good word is not necessarily a high-scoring word, which depends on which letters you use. By largely staying off-line after Shabbat, I went to bed early for a summer Saturday evening i.e. 1am (bear in mind that Shabbat didn’t finish until after 10.30pm!), but couldn’t sleep, whether because I slept too much during the day or because I took my meds late.

As for today, I got up quite late after falling asleep so late (after 3am) . I spent a bit over an hour working on my novel, writing five or six hundred words, which is probably the most I’ve written in one session for some time, although I’m a bit uncertain of where this current passage is headed and whether it justifies it’s existence as a late addition to the end of the novel. Is it deepening the resolution or just padding out the end? It is hard to tell at this stage. It’s said that writers divide into two groups, planners (who plan out their stories in detail) and pants-ers who don’t and instead write by the seat of their pants (I assume that’s the etymology). I haven’t fitted easily into either category on this novel, planning the general flow, but improvising a lot of the details, but this bit is very much pants-ing, if that’s a word, which it isn’t.

Other than that, I Skyped E and did some Torah study and thought a bit about my devar Torah for the week. I didn’t do any exercise (run or walk) as it was too hot and I didn’t want to get an exercise migraine, as I was going to a Zoom talk/shiur in the evening. This was Rabbi Dr Sam Lebens talking about his new book on Jewish philosophy from an analytical philosophical perspective of examining the fundamental principles and axioms of Judaism i.e. given Judaism exists, what things are necessary to make these practices meaningful (not proving that God exists or that Judaism is true). It was very interesting. I’m in two minds about buying the book though. It sounds fascinating, but I’m not sure if I will understand it (I have a mixed record with philosophy), and it costs £75. We (people on the Zoom call) were given a 33% discount code, but that’s still £50, which is a lot of money to spend on a book I might not understand.

A couple of things I picked up from the talk that tempt me to buy the book: (1) this is very much a book about believing in a personal God and not an abstract “God of the philosophers”/Deism — I think sometimes my understanding of God becomes too abstract; (2) he mentioned in passing an idea from Chief Rabbi Jakobovits z”tl that God tells a different story through each individual’s life and through each community/group of people and that multiple communities can be “chosen” — something I’ve thought, and seen suggested in Rabbi Sacks z”tl and Rav Kook z”tl, but would like to see spelt out in more detail (Rabbi Sacks got in very hot water over a milder version of this in The Dignity of Difference); (3) the idea that the universe exists in mind of God, which I had heard, but not really advanced in a very serious philosophical way — I guess it appeals to me as a solipsism/Philip K. Dick fan, and also because it suggests that negative parts of my life might not be ‘real,’ which is probably a strange thing to think, but strangely reassuring, and I guess it ties in with Rabbi Lebens’ view (which he admitted was “wacky”) that not only can God redeem the future, He can redeem the past by changing history and will do so at some point.

Unplugged

I had a crazy start to the day. I woke up at 5.30am and thought it was time to get up. It was with some difficulty that I realised that I could sleep for another hour and a half. Then I fell asleep and overslept, having some crazy dystopian dream. Then, after I got up, when I was davening (praying), a magpie sat on my window sill and looked like he (or she) was trying to come in. Fortunately, the window was shut, but I could not shoo him away, he just sat there staring at me. It was a bit disquieting.

The doctor phoned me at work (as arranged). I asked him to refer me for autism-adapted CBT, but he says the psychiatrist at the hospital where I was assessed is supposed to write to the CCG (funding body) to start the process. He said he will write to her to say she can do that. I worry about this bouncing around the NHS bureaucracy indefinitely.

I spent much of the day at work poring over spreadsheets, trying to track down payments that were listed as outstanding to see if they really were outstanding or if they had been paid and not been recorded properly. If they hadn’t been paid, I needed to write them off or phone to see if the debtor would pay. Fortunately I only had to phone once, as that was quite an awkward call.

I was pretty exhausted by the end, and my eyes felt strained from staring at spreadsheets. There wasn’t much traffic on the way home, but the conversation on the radio annoyed me. I don’t like to ask J to change it as he’s doing me a favour by giving me a lift. When I got home I sat and read in the garden for half an hour, which was wonderful. I really should try to be online less. It makes me much happier. I’m not really on social media much and don’t follow many political blogs, but even regular news sites are full of silly stories about “X is AWFUL and you should be REALLY ANGRY about it.”

I didn’t make it to Zoom depression group, as dinner was late and I was exhausted. I ate dinner outside with my parents. Afterwards, I went for a walk. I was still tired, but it was good to go out in the cool evening air and listen to the birds. It’s probably too late now for a really early night (I was watching Doctor Who followed by The Simpsons), but I hope to get to bed earlyish, as I’m pretty tired, albeit aware that a shower is likely to wake me up, but I won’t be able to sleep if I feel sweaty.

Strings Attached

I went to bed late and got up early for volunteering at the Jewish food bank, yet somehow seemed to function better this morning than on many later ones. Do I need a reason to get up, as volunteering provided today? Then again, I had a reason to get up early last Saturday (shul/synagogue) and I overslept. I feel I need to think carefully about my sleep pattern and maybe my sleep hygiene. I know I often turn my clock radio alarm off in my sleep; I wonder if I should put it across the room, although it’s not a tactic that has worked well for me in the past. I also have a problem on Shabbat, as I won’t use the clock radio alarm (a) in case I turn it off and (b) because if I don’t turn it off, as per Shabbat, it will sound all day and drive us all insane. I use my phone’s timer, but the alarm sound is pretty puny and easy to sleep through.

I got to volunteering a bit early, so I hung around outside and tried to make an appointment to see the doctor, as I am supposed to do regarding my Asperger’s diagnosis. I phoned at 8.28am and was told the surgery was not open for appointments. I tried again at 8.30am and was told I was behind more than thirty people in the phone queue. I appreciate there is a pandemic, but it does seem more difficult than it should be. Dad suggested to try again on my way to work tomorrow. It is possible to set the system to let you hang up and it will phone you back when you get near the front of the queue. I didn’t do that today as I knew the garage at volunteering has poor reception and I doubted I would be able to hear the call, but I could try doing it tomorrow, assuming I’m not underground on the way to work when they call.

Volunteering was good, but pretty exhausting. I do still feel that I end up looking stupid or annoying the organisers with too many “What should I do now? We’ve run out of crackers, what should I do?”-type questions that the other volunteers don’t ask. But I guess I’m doing it for free, so they can’t expect too much of me.

Afterwards I took my tallit to be repaired, but they wanted to charge me £13 for the new tzitzit strings and £20 for having them tied, which is about half the price of a new tallit in total. I bought the strings and had another go at tying them myself, hoping the new, and hence non-twisted, strings would be better than the reused ones. It seemed to go OK, although it took two attempts and I always worry with something like this that I’m doing something wrong. (Incidentally, there’s a video on how to tie tzitzit here.)

While I was in the Judaica bookshop, I used the £15 I had from having a completed loyalty card (literally a physical piece of cardboard with stamps on it, very Old School) to buy Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rabbi Shagar. I have heard good things about Rav Shagar seriously addressing postmodern thought and applying it to Orthodox Judaism. I just hope I can understand it. Philosophy doesn’t always come easy to me. Rabbi Shagar (actually an acronym for his name, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) was supposed to be one of few Orthodox Jewish thinkers addressing postmodern thought until his death in 2007.

I spent some time in the afternoon working on my novel and was pleased to make progress, even if it only amounted to a few hundred words. Just getting back in the habit of writing it is good. I did some Torah study too, not so much in terms of time, but difficult Mishnah and Gemarah. I spoke to E too, so it was quite a busy day overall.

***

I’ve seen a part-time assistant school librarian job advertised. I don’t really want to apply for it, but I vaguely feel that I should. I think I need to speak to my parents about what type of jobs they are expecting me to apply for at the moment, if any (given that I am working).

***

I’ve been thinking about antisemitism all day again. When Rabbi Lord Sacks died last year, one of his daughters reflected that he would throw weighty questions at her while waiting for the kettle to boil and the example she gave was about how to end antisemitism. Part of me seems to think that I can succeed where Rabbi Sacks did not, even if I have to boil the kettle a few times. I think endlessly about antisemitism and have done for years, as if I can somehow succeed where generations of Jews have failed and end antisemitism, and bring peace to the Middle East as an encore.

I don’t really have the bravery to write about my thoughts. I doubt that they are particularly profound anyway. Judging by Tablet Magazine and The Times of Israel blogs, if they are in any way representative, lots of Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, are feeling “unsafe” right now and have been feeling that for quite a while, from before the latest round of Middle East violence. I don’t know how we change anything though. As Rabbi Sacks said elsewhere, Jews can’t end antisemitism. Only non-Jews can do that. But it feels like we can’t even communicate our fears without being mocked and attacked.

Books and Thoughts

I couldn’t sleep last night and ended up only getting about five hours of sleep. I think I was excited from speaking to E! I somehow managed to get up more or less on time for work. Work was pretty dull. I spent a lot of time this morning searching through old records (computerised and ledgers) looking for information and then in the afternoon looking through old papers to see which could be thrown away. Not terribly interesting, but it pays, and lets me feel less guilty about spending time writing, not that I’ve worked on either novel much lately.

I decided not to go to virtual depression group tonight, partly as I was tired and didn’t have the energy — Zoom calls are draining, as is trying to be a good listener to others in distress. Not going was supposed to let me catch up on some chores after I ran out of time for them yesterday, and take some of the pressure off the next few days, which are busy, although the reality was that the chores took longer than expected and I was very tired, so I didn’t achieve much.

I received a letter from my GP’s surgery saying I should phone to discuss the results of my autism assessment. I hope this will be a chance to talk about being referred for autism-adapted CBT. However, I have to navigate the awful phone switchboard, which involves phoning at 8.30am for an appointment and spending ages waiting to get through. I don’t usually get up for 8.30am on non-work days! I can’t face doing it tomorrow; maybe Friday or next Tuesday. I also hope I can speak to my usual GP. Technically, the surgery doesn’t let you have your ‘own’ GP, you have to take the first appointment available. But, if I can find the confidence, I will try to say that I have one GP I’ve seen a lot about my autism and mental health issues and I really would like to speak to him. The worst that can happen is they say no.

I wanted to go for a walk and do some more Torah study after dinner, but I felt exhausted and it was raining heavily so I was not inclined to force myself to walk. I guess I feel lately that I can achieve some of the things I want in my life (relationship, work, writing, exercise, religious study, prayer), but not all of them, and that’s without going down the route of marriage and children (yet — E and I are both clear that we want these if we can cope with them). I guess I worry that I’ll never be able to balance all these things or that I’ll have to completely write some things out of my life if I want to be successful at others. Maybe no one can balance everything, and other people are just better bluffers than I am.

I somehow managed to do some more Torah study despite being rather tired. That done, I needed to fill the hours until bed. I’m about to start the fifth and final season of Babylon 5 in my re-watch. I don’t think season five is quite as bad as “everyone” says, but it is the weakest season by far, and the first half is definitely worse than the second. So I wasn’t in a hurry to watch it. The book I started reading at lunch is a serious introductory book on Islam and I didn’t feel up to returning to it. Fortunately, the second-hand James Bond omnibus book I ordered arrived today. (Although I feel that a “James Bond omnibus” is technically the double-decker Roger Moore drove in a car chase in Live and Let Die.) The omnibus book is slightly frustrating, as it contains the first two books of the loose “Blofeld” trilogy, but not the third, which is a slightly weird decision, plus the books are not printed in order of internal chronology, even though there is some continuity across the books. Still, I got five books I haven’t read (plus a sixth I’ve read, but didn’t own) for £5, so I can’t really complain. Very good condition too. I read for a while, until I felt too tired to carry on.

***

Lately I’ve been feeling a desire to post something deeper here than my usual daily updates. When things were not good for me, I felt I was expressing deep emotions and self-analysis, but now things are (thankfully) a lot better, I feel I don’t have much to say. Part of me would like to write about the things I think about, about antisemitism or Israel or Jewish theology, not in the abstract (I don’t want this to be a politics blog or a theology blog), but how my understanding of them affects my inner thoughts, feelings and worldview (if that isn’t terribly millennial and self-obsessed). However, I never seem to get around to it. I’m scared of writing anything about antisemitism or Israel, however bland and inoffensive, because just sticking those words in a post brings out the haters. Jewish theology has other problems. Partly it’s that I’m not sure that anyone would be interested, partly that there would be so much to explain just to make it intelligible to the lay reader that I’d write hundreds of words before even getting to what I want to say, plus I’m conscious that I have no formal training in theology, in either its rational philosophical or mystical kabbalistic forms, and I’m hardly an expert on Jewish thought. I would fear that I would be talking rubbish. So I stay quiet and bottle a lot of thoughts and feelings up inside of me out of fear and, I suppose, laziness.

Today (Fragment)

Not much to say about today. I went to bed late last night and slept for eleven hours, which didn’t surprise me after “peopling” so much yesterday. I got up late and didn’t do much except an hour of Torah study and a run (my longest ever, as I added a little bit on as I discovered the route I was running was just under 5K rather than just over it as I thought, although I think a lot depends on how often I have to cross the road back and forth to avoid pedestrians and dogs).

That was about it for today, aside from a video call with E. I had a long list of little chores to do that I barely touched, and I suspect much of this week will be spent trying to catch up with them, as well as work, a family dinner and a routine dentist visit. I feel I’m neglecting my writing, but it’s hard to make the time. I know I have done a lot of other things recently, so I’m trying not to get too upset about it, but I guess it is frustrating.

Positive Shabbat

I have been trying not to turn on my laptop after Shabbat (the Sabbath), as it finishes so late at the moment (it finished after 10pm today, then there’s a longer Ma’ariv (Evening Service) afterwards and tidying up). However, I had a good day and didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to share.

I actually managed to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Service) today, something I hadn’t managed for months if not years because of a mixture of autistic burnout, depression, social anxiety and fear of wearing a mask for three hours straight. I managed this despite a not very good night’s sleep, where I think I woke up every time I turned onto my left side, which is where I was vaccinated yesterday. I didn’t have any side-effects other than that, fortunately.

I was only about fifteen minutes late (it started at 9.00am), which would be early in some shuls, but most people arrive on time in mine. I was so busy worrying about other things that I forgot until I got there that I might get an aliyah (called to make the blessing over reading the Torah). I did in fact get one, but was OK with it, including navigating the revised COVID restrictions on what we can and can’t touch while there. I feel relieved that that’s out the way for a while and I can try to get back to regular Shabbat morning shul-going.

My kavannah (concentration/mindfulness) in prayer was pretty good and I found the whole experience much more meaningful than shul or davening (prayer) have been for quite a while.

The reason I went to shul was because I had been invited to lunch with friends, now that COVID restrictions have been lifted somewhat. Technically only six people are allowed; my host informed me that there would be seven and gave me the option to leave if I was uncomfortable. I was a bit uncomfortable, but felt that it was too late to leave, so I went. I wonder a bit that even someone as law-abiding as me has bent or even broken the COVID rules in minor ways a few times, so I guess it’s no surprise that less scrupulous people have totally disregarded them.

Lunch was good. This my first real social event since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but I think I felt a bit more open speaking to people, also helped by the fact that there was only one person there that I didn’t really know. Interestingly, I owned up to feeling challenged by halakhic (legal) passages in Talmud and to preferring aggadah (narrative) only for other people to agree with me, which surprised and reassured me a little.

I came home tired and read a novel for a bit before going back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class), the latter of which I followed a bit better this week. I also noticed that the number of people who speak up a lot to ask or answer questions in the shiur is very small, maybe four or five people out of a dozen or more attendees, so maybe I’m not the only one who struggles to follow the thread without actively participating. I do wonder a bit how much Talmudic ability is innate or acquired. I suppose you would expect lawyers and other people with very analytical jobs to do well, but the person who speaks up the most is a shopkeeper. His two teenaged sons also have sharp Talmudic minds, so maybe there is a genetic element (I think he also has two other children who have left home, one who is not religious, so there are obviously a lot of factors at play).

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and had a headache, which perhaps was not surprising. I read a little, but felt too headachey. I had seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) with my parents and that was it really. I would have liked to have gone back for Ma’ariv (Evening Service) and got a full house of Shabbat prayer services, so to speak, as I used to do, but I was too tired and headachey. Maybe next week. The headache did eventually go, and that has to be considered a successful day overall, part of a general upward trend over the last few months since my Asperger’s diagnosis, the occasional setback (like last week’s job interview) notwithstanding. I hope to continue my Shacharit shul attendance next Shabbat. Definitely the thing to do is keep up the momentum, as I know from experience that skipping a few weeks lets the social anxiety creep back in.

Fear of Success

Just a quick post, as it’s late and my head hurts. Shabbat (the Sabbath) wasn’t really great. Friday night was fine, but today I slept too much again and woke feeling depressed and burnt out again. Lunch was difficult for reasons I won’t go into here. I nearly didn’t make it back to shul (synagogue) this afternoon for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class) as I felt too drained and depressed. However, I made it and actually followed the shiur better than usual.

After Shabbat I went to a late night Zoom shiur. I think it was a pseudo-Tikkun Leil. Tikkun Leil is staying up all night in shul on the eve of Shavuot (festival that starts tomorrow night) studying Torah. Because of COVID, not everyone can do that, so the LSJS was sort of filling that gap in advance. It was an interesting shiur, but over-ran massively. I also had a headache throughout despite taking medicine beforehand.

I worry I’m getting depressed again. I have a history of getting depressed after doing well and achieving things. I think I worry that I have to keep succeeding to meet people’s expectations of me. Hence, I feel depressed that my article was so well-received, perhaps. Or perhaps I’m just nervous about my job interview. Or apprehensive about Shavuot — my shul is running a LOT of shiurim and I don’t know how many I’ll make it to. Nor do I really know how many I want to go to, which is a different question. I will try to take it somewhat easy and not to overload myself.

I should probably go to bed, but my head hurts too much to sleep, so I will probably watch TV for a bit.

Fitting In at Shul

I didn’t write yesterday because I didn’t want to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath), because I know that once I do that, I’ll be on the computer for hours, and it was already late (Shabbat didn’t finish until nearly 10.00pm). I’ll be trying to do that each week over the summer, assuming my willpower holds.

Shabbat was good, although I overslept as usual. I was hoping to get up earlier. I slept in the afternoon too which I also did not want to do and which probably had consequences later.

As an experiment, I wore a black suede kippah (skullcap) instead of my usual white crochet one, black suede kippot being considered less ‘modern’ that white crochet ones (there is a kind of etiquette about these things). No one at shul (synagogue) said anything or seemed to notice, which I guess is good. My Mum noticed. I’m not sure which kippah I will wear in the future. To be honest, the white one is probably too big and not a good fit for me anyway (although the fashion with white crochet kippot is to wear very big ones), so I might stick with the black one from that point of view.

At shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayer) I was given an aliyah (called to do something in the service) again, this time actually called to make the blessings over the Torah reading. I was nervous and self-conscious, as I always am these when given an aliyah, but I think I did OK, aside from dropping my siddur (prayer book).

The last few weeks I’ve been wondering if I’m more accepted at shul than I thought I was. People do say Good Shabbos” to me and seem pleased to see me. I find it hard to read these situations, but it seems more positive than I previously thought.

The Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards was taken by a guest rabbi, as it was last week. I’m not sure why, as our rabbi was around. I’m kind of hoping this new rabbi will take the class permanently, as I seem to follow him better. I’m not sure why. I think he goes somewhat slower and recaps more. Also, he seems to keep the shiur more focused. In a shiur, people often ask questions that take us from the point. In particular, practical halakhah (Jewish law) is often unclear in the Talmudic discussion and, in practice, sometimes what we do is not what the Talmud says we should do. This sometimes prompts questions that take us far from the topic at hand, and this rabbi seems to answer those quickly and stick with the discussion in the Talmud where other rabbis get diverted. This helps me focus a lot.

As I mentioned, I didn’t switch my laptop on after Shabbat. I did look on my phone to see how many emails and blogs I had to read, but I didn’t start reading them all. I went to bed before 1.00am, which for a late spring/summer Shabbat was good going. I woke up at 5.00am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I davened the whole of Shacharit (prayed the whole of the Morning Service), which I hadn’t done for ages, and went through my emails and blog posts. Then I got tired and lay down for a bit, and fell asleep for three hours. So in the end I had a normal amount of sleep, just interrupted. I lost my early start, but I did daven Shacharit at the right time for once.

I didn’t do a lot else today. I went for a run, despite having a stomach ache. It was OK, but at one point I felt flushed and had to stop for a few seconds until it passed. It felt like the headrush of standing up too fast, so I wonder if it’s a blood pressure thing (my blood pressure tends to be a bit low). The thing is, this has happened a couple of times recently, never for more than a few seconds, but usually when I’m not exerting myself particularly strongly e.g. going for a walk. I’m not too worried about it, but might mention it to a doctor at some point.

Other than that, the main thing today was promoting my article on Asperger’s/high functioning autism in the Orthodox Jewish community which is now up (I’m not linking to it from here as it has my real name on it). So far the feedback I’ve had from friends and family has been positive, although I haven’t dared to look at the comments on the article yet.

Actually, there was one other thing, but I don’t want to talk about it just yet… hopefully in a few days (trying not to be a tease, but also not to neglect something pretty important).

Planning

Surprisingly, I woke up about 7.00am today. I felt refreshed and alert, which is very rare for me, so I got up soon after. I think things seem to have been going well for me the last few days, which gave me the boost. I davened Shacharit before checking my emails and blogs too, which is also rare for a non-work, non-Shabbat (Sabbath) day.

I spent an hour or so preparing for tomorrow’s Talmud shiur (religious class). While I struggle to follow the legal arguments of the Talmud, I admit I do find it interesting as a social history document. The Talmud, and Judaism generally, sees religion/Torah as something that reaches into every aspect of human life, not just the conventionally “religious.” As a result, the Talmud goes into civil and criminal law, recipes, medicine, folk sayings and the work and family habits of Jews in Judea and Babylon in late antiquity, which I find interesting. Today’s passage spoke about kutakh, a Babylonian dish made of sour milk, mouldy bread and salt. I have to say that I’m not desperate to try that recipe out…

I spent some time working on a plan for a potential second novel. It’s slow going, and I procrastinated quite a bit, but some bits are slowly coming together. At the moment I’m just plotting out the main incidents for each chapter, then I hope to write a longer synopsis. It’s hard to create a plot from nothing (the nucleus of my first novel is my own experience, although the sub-plot was created from scratch, with help from research), but the problem-solving aspect is interesting. Doctor Who fans tend to be very writer-focused and fan discourse often looks at plotting, where it works and where it goes wrong. I tend to view a lot of books and TV in this way these days, looking at how the writing solves problems. It’s a struggle, but also an interesting quest to go from “I want to do a Jewish fantasy story” to a fully worked out plot with characters with realistic motivations and moments of drama that are properly integrated and not just random incident.

I have a long way to go with it still though (with the plan, let alone researching and writing the novel). It’s a bit disheartening how far I have to go with it and how crude it seems, but, again, as a Doctor Who fan, I know that many polished stories began as vague ideas and thin storylines (Doctor Who is genuinely the most researched TV programme in the world, thanks to a fandom obsessed with production as much as narrative).

I had another job rejection, although I hadn’t really expected to get anything from it. Then they sent the rejection twice more, just to drive the point home (I guess an email blip).

One of my parents’ friends has apparently bought my self-published Doctor Who book for her son, who is a fan. It makes me wish I had known how to promote it better, but it also makes me think again about making a second edition, at least with a better cover, if not a revised final chapter to cover the most recent series. I’m not sure what to do about that. I actually thought about it a while back, because for some reason Lulu.com (the self-publishing site) wouldn’t let me alter the cover price without fiddling with the design work, and I wanted to drop the price, but then life got in the way and I never did anything about it.

“Such a lonely little boy. Lonely then and lonelier now. How can you bear it?”

(Title quote from Doctor Who: The Girl in the Fireplace by Steven Moffat)

I went to bed late last night, nearly 2.00am, but it took me three quarters of an hour or more to fall asleep. I had a blog post I read echoing in my head; there were things I wanted to say in response, but it was too late, and I wasn’t sure if I would dare to post the comment anyway. I was tired, but it got too late for me to watch TV or otherwise relax before bed, which always makes it hard for me to sleep. Possibly I’d been online too late as well, with the laptop light waking me up. I was in the difficult state of being very tired, but not sleepy, or not falling asleep.

Somehow, I still managed to get up at 9.00am today. I’m not sure how I managed that, but I felt lonely and a bit on edge. I was on the verge of tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) and again while doing Torah study in the afternoon. I don’t know why. I just feel lonely. I am at least trying to do what my therapist suggested and “stay in the present” with my loneliness and just experience it for what it is, rather than slide down into anxiety (“Will I ever meet the right person?”), shame (“Who else is a virgin at thirty-seven?!”) and self-loathing despair (“No one would ever marry someone as messed up as me! I’m going to die alone and unloved!”).

I tried to write the article on Asperger’s Syndrome in the frum (religious Jewish) community that I want to pitch to Aish. It’s been a struggle. I keep thinking that it’s too factual, too boring. Not enough personal anecdotes. Too dry. Too many details, zero inspiration, for a site that aspires to be spiritually inspiring. Why would anyone who doesn’t know me want to read about why I struggle with the workplace, shul (synagogue) or dating? But, I go on. I try to write short, active sentences rather than over-long, passive ones (bad habits I have). I spent a couple of hours on the article and wrote a first draft (just under 1,500 words). It will need more work before I try to pitch it.

I wonder if I’m doomed to be a compulsive writer, but a writer only of things that other people don’t want to read. Now I’m back to David Bowie’s comment that, “The worst thing that God can do to you is to make you an artist, but a mediocre artist.” I worry that my style is dreary Victorian, like Dickens without the irony and humour.

***

I did try to stay in the present with my loneliness, and I did succeed, at least a bit. I tried to tell myself that loneliness is just an emotion. That it doesn’t mean anything. That if I can cope with migraine pain, I can cope with loneliness pain. But while out running, I began to wonder:

“I wouldn’t mind if I have to be lonely forever, if I could just know why I have to be lonely forever!”

But you know why you’re lonely.

“Why?”

Because you have a neurological disorder that impairs your communication and a mental illness that makes you avoid social situations, so it’s pretty much impossible for you to meet anyone or successfully talk to her. Duh.

“I meant more like the metaphysical reason for my loneliness. Why me, why now, why this?”

But there are no answers to those questions in this world. Honestly, you’re really not the worst example of the problem of suffering out there! Get over yourself! You’re like the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch where Rowan Atkinson keeps taking the question of why God allows suffering to why he cut his finger when opening a tin of food for the neighbour’s cat!

“Can’t I just have a hint? Something to keep me going for the next thirty lonely years? Or won’t I be lonely forever? I mean, out of seven billion people in the world, one of them’s got to be right for me?”

Yes, except that once you narrow it down to those who are (a) female, (b) Jewish, (c) the right age, (d) single, (e) have a vaguely compatible hashkafah (religious outlook), and (f) have a life situation that makes it vaguely possible for you to meet her, you’re down to a few thousand people even before you talk about chemistry, personality and values. Or whether she would ever like you in a million years.

“A lot of help you are.”

Look, if you’ve been miserable and lonely for this long, maybe you just couldn’t cope with love and happiness. Maybe it’s just not for people like you.

“‘People like me’?”

Weirdo freaks.

“Some help you are. Whose unconscious are you anyway?”

***

After I went for a run, my mood dropped quite a bit. I hoped eating dinner would help, but it didn’t really. I watched some TV. I’m in the middle of three different things right now. My Babylon 5 re-watch reached season four, which is good, but really dark and I need something to break up the gloom. I bought the first season of The Simpsons, I’m not entirely sure why, but I’d forgotten it’s not as funny as later seasons. And I also just started re-watching the first thirteen episodes of Doctor Who, from 1963-64. I’m rationing myself to just one twenty-five minute episode a night. I hadn’t watched much Doctor Who lately and I’m sufficiently addicted not to be able to go too long without it. I find the original run of Doctor Who (1963-1989) to be calming and involving whatever my mood, the way most autistic special interests are for people on the spectrum.

I feel I ought to read more. I actually read quite a bit, but it’s hard when my mood is low. I tend to prioritise Torah study over recreational reading, even though, as an aspiring writer, I need to read fiction. I used to read novels on the way home from work, but I can’t at the moment as J is giving me a lift. I do Torah study on the way in and don’t want to stop that. I read when I have lunch and sometimes before bed, depending on how depressed I feel. Lately it’s hard to care about what I read or to really get involved in a book. I did get a bit involved in Vampire Romance. Homage to Catalonia is interesting when talking about the realities of life on the front-line in The Spanish Civil War, less so when talking about the politics. I can’t think of much else I’ve got involved in lately. It’s just hard to get energy to read for fun when I use up my energy on work, exercise, Torah study, writing…

I think that’s probably a lot of ‘shoulds’ for something that’s supposed to be fun. Should should should. I think I run my life around shoulds.

***

Overall it was a busy day (a significant chunk of writing, Torah study, a 5K run and cooking some plain pasta for dinner), and I think I was less obsessed with loneliness/anxiety than recently but my mood did definitely get lower as the day went on, and it wasn’t that great to start with.

Sometimes I wonder whether I would be happier with a partner. Maybe I’ve been alone in my thoughts for so long that no one else can reach me. Maybe. I don’t know. I think I’d like someone to try. But I’m conscious that I ended two relationships in the lockdown year-and-a-bit, and while I think both were the right decision, I wonder if I’ve become scared of what a relationship would be like. It’s hard to tell, as mine have mostly been atypical in different ways.

I (Don’t) Want To Hold Your Hand

Surprisingly, after going to bed after 1am last night, I woke up at 7.30am this morning and, after failing to get back to sleep, eventually got up before 8.00am, which is pretty much unprecedented on a non-work day!

I didn’t do much: a bit more Torah study than usual, a tiny bit of miniature painting (tidying things up) and a run (I felt heavy and lumpish at first, but my pace did improve as I went on). I’m also going to watch the film The Favourite (about Queen Anne) with my parents later. It was actually a relaxing day, which is not usually the case for me, as I tend to have things I want to do, usually more than I have time and energy to get done.

These are the fantasy wargaming miniatures I was painting (lizard men). I’m not entirely happy with them, but I’ve run out of patience to work on them more. They are quite small and fiddly, which isn’t so obvious in the picture.

***

I think I need to “come out” as autistic/Aspie. I hope to speak to J tomorrow about being on the spectrum and how it affects my work, specifically regarding difficulty using multiple spreadsheets and data bases at once (I get confused about which ones I’ve entered data in) and difficulty taking in a lot of spoken instructions in one go (I need to take notes). I might also say that I’m not always good with unstructured conversations, especially on the phone, which might impact on my work, particularly the new task I’m doing, which is on the phone, although it is actually a fairly structured conversation.

I’m thinking of talking to my community rabbi (not my rabbi mentor, who I’ve already told) about it too, but I’m not sure when. I’d rather do it in person than on Zoom or the phone, but lockdown doesn’t fully lift until June and that’s quite a long way off. I’m also not sure what I want to tell him, not least because I don’t have a clear sense of how autism affects me at shul, just that I often feel uncomfortable there. I’m not sure if I want to ask not to be given aliyot for a while; it would make me less socially anxious, but is running away from my fears instead of confronting them.

I am nervous about this, as I worry how people will react. I will probably self-describe as having “Asperger’s Syndrome” rather than “high-functioning autism” as I think the latter tends to make people assume lower capability than the former. This, despite my discomfort with mentioning Dr Asperger because of his Nazi/euthanasia links. I think there is a misconception that autism is a learning disability rather than a difficulty with communication and various other things such as executive function and multitasking. I need to find a way to explain this. This is especially important regarding dating. I think my one experience with a formal shadchan (matchmaker) went badly because of this, although I can’t prove it.

***

I found a study of Orthodox Jewish families in Manchester with children with autistic spectrum disorder or ADHD. It talked about hiding diagnoses to avoid stigma and of the child’s “difference” leading the family not feeling “belongingness” [sic] in the community. It does not correspond exactly to my experience, as these are much younger children, and less functional than I was at that age, but I do feel the sense of “difference” and not belonging, particularly with regard to marriage and family, as well as my impaired ability to participate confidently in activities where the social and the religious overlap e.g. kiddush (refreshments after shul) or seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal, held in shul). I feel this difference even if other people don’t explicitly notice it or draw attention to it e.g. if I manage to function well and “pass,” but feel it’s taking me a lot of effort and energy to do so and possibly end up very burnt out afterwards.

Possibly there is a need for someone to be a more visible high functioning autistic/Aspie in the Orthodox community to raise awareness, although, perhaps inevitably, I would only want to be that person if I could be visible in a quiet, unsocial way.

***

I think my lack of socialisation into the frum (religious Jewish) world despite decades of observance and my lack of romantic success go together, although both are obviously connected with my autism/Asperger’s and my poor mental health history. It goes both ways: my lack of socialisation has resulted in not being set up on dates, as per the usual method of Orthodox finding a spouse, but on the other hand, if I’d managed to marry someone frum, that would probably have brought me more into the flow of frum social life, because presumably she would have frum friends and a community that I would suddenly be a part of. Instead, I’ve tended to date women who are also on the fringes of the frum community, or outside it completely. My rabbi mentor has encouraged me to do this (date less frum women) and I admit I wonder if he would so encourage someone who didn’t have the social issues that I have. Is he being meikel (lenient) because he suspects I won’t get married otherwise? I’ve never had the courage to ask him.

Related to this is a feeling that I should be go back to being shomer negiah (not touching people of the opposite sex) when dating. I was shomer negiah when I dated my first girlfriend (the only one from inside the frum community), but she put a lot of pressure on me to change, which I did, not entirely unwillingly. We hugged a bit and she tried to kiss me once, which I didn’t like, and I’ve never been able to work out if that was because I wasn’t expecting it or if it’s another autistic touch thing that will be a problem down the line. We broke up when she started pressuring me to sleep with her, or seemed to be doing that; I’m honestly not sure if she knew what she wanted. I think she stopped being frum soon afterwards and left the Orthodox community.

My second relationship was long-distance and we were not around in person when we were actually dating, but E said she would wait to get married for sex, but not for hugging and I agreed to that in principle, again not entirely unwillingly. But we were not in the same country when we were dating. With PIMOJ recently, we held hands and hugged, but I felt increasingly uncomfortable with it, partly from fear we would meet someone I knew from shul, partly because I was conscious of breaking COVID protocol, but also I suppose because of the problems we were having with intimacy and opening up to each other in the relationship. When we broke up, she said she sensed I was feeling uncomfortable hugging, but put it down to relationship issues; I’m not sure how aware she was about shomer negiah (or COVID, which she was a lot less scrupulous about than I was), although I had half-heartedly tried to talk to her about it.

I wonder vaguely if this is covering for an autistic desire not to be touched. I don’t think so, although I have less “touch hunger” lately, but I think it is defending myself against touch I’m not ready for, as well as trying to cement my position in the frum community, a position that I don’t think I hold strongly enough to be able to cope with becoming shomer negiah again.

(And, now this is turning into a ‘frum autism sex/celibacy blog,’ if you can imagine such a thing.)

The Turkey Prince

I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know if it was from taking my tablets late, sleeping too much in the day, drinking tea late at night or something else. I got about four hours of sleep in the end, but I had to be up early to see PIMOJ. Yesterday it was so warm that I went for a walk in the afternoon without a coat or jumper. This morning, it snowed. I wrapped up warm, but it was difficult to tell what to wear, as it was warm when sunny, but cold in the shade.

***

I think PIMOJ had been having some of the thoughts I had been having about our lack of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, although she phrased it differently, saying we haven’t really got to know each other well yet. We had a long talk (in the park, not ideal – thank you COVID) and PIMOJ opened up to me about some things in her past and I tried to be a bit more open about my mood dips and persistent lack of energy. I think we’re OK, we just agreed to try to be more honest and open with each other in the future. Not that we were lying previously, but we were both hiding things, I guess from fear of rejection. I had some further thoughts after the date and texted PIMOJ to tell her that I’m often not good at talking things over spontaneously and need time to think about responses because of autism (hence texting her later because I didn’t think of this at the time!) and maybe it’s worth discussing things over a few days and/or letting me text some ideas later after I’ve thought it over. Unfortunately, neither of us likes video calling much, which is hard at the moment. She hasn’t got back to me about that.

The rest of the date was good, except that we were seen by two of my parents’ friends. I’m not sure if they recognised me, but it’s the type of thing that can start rumours in small communities. PIMOJ and I were together for over four hours and did a lot of walking. We got takeaway falafel. Still, I was left with some anxiety. I worry that my autistic brain simply isn’t wired for a relationship. “Autism” etymologically refers to morbid self-absorption (you may have noticed this here…). Meaning, being unable to relate to others. That although I pine away in loneliness while single, I’m not able to be in a relationship “properly.” Now I’m in a relationship with someone where I know there will be lots of extra obstacles beyond a regular relationship if we want to make this permanent. I want to do that, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself out trying or just won’t make it, and perhaps that fear is stopping me from fully committing to the relationship (unconsciously), along with guilt feelings that the relationship came about in a “wrong” way, religiously. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Autism is hard. Life + relationships + autism = very hard.

I keep thinking of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s parable of The Turkey Prince. The prince goes mad and believes that he is a turkey, sitting naked under the table and eating food off the floor. No one can cure him until a wise man takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, claiming to be a turkey too. Once the prince accepts him, the wise man puts on trousers, saying a turkey can wear trousers. When the prince wears trousers, the wise man puts on a shirt until the prince does the same, and so on until the prince is fully clothed and eating normally and is (we are told) fully cured.

Superficially, the story is about the need of the religious mentor to descend to the level of his followers to win their trust and to understand them and inspire them. However, as Arthur Green noted in his biography of Rebbe Nachman (Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), there is a uneasy air about the conclusion of the story. Is the prince really “cured” or has he just been tricked into acting in a more socially acceptable way? Does he really think he is a human again, or just a turkey who wears clothes and eats off a plate? (This is surely a big question in clinical psychology: how much are we “curing” people and how much socialising them into “normal” behaviour even when the “abnormal” behaviour is harmless?) Green suggests that the wise man, and even the other courtiers may be just as insane as the prince.

I feel I need someone to model behaviour for me, to show that an autistic person with a history of mental illness can: get a full-time job; make friends; write fiction; build a relationship and a family; and so on. But maybe this is not addressing the fundamental problem, which is my tendency to see myself as defective and to assume that everything I try to do will be affected by this defectiveness. Otherwise I’m in danger of being a Turkey Prince, acting in a socially acceptable way while still believing myself to be a turkey (“defective” autistic person).

***

Another thing that happened this afternoon has been on my mind. PIMOJ asked if my family were as religious as I was, and we got onto the subject of how religious I am. PIMOJ felt I am quite religious, but not exceedingly so, as I perform the mitzvot (commandments) as God commands, but have no interest in the spiritual reality behind them. I let this go at the time, but it’s annoyed me a bit since then and I don’t know whether to say anything (my natural conflict aversion versus our newly-stated desire to be honest with each other). I know kabbalists (Jewish mystics) say there are spiritual realities behind the mitzvot, and perhaps there are, but I have never managed to get my head around them. Rather than the mystics, I prefer the religious rationalists like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) who said that every mitzvah “serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.” Some mitzvot have an obvious logic (don’t murder, don’t steal etc.). Those that don’t have obvious social benefits are symbols that teach important historical/theological concepts (like eating matzah on Pesach to remember the exodus) or inculcate character traits (eating only kosher food might instil self-control). Thinkers like Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spent a lot of time and energy finding rational reasons for symbolic actions and it bothers me a bit to see that dismissed as not religious (see especially Rav Hirsch’s Horeb, which provides reasons for all the mitzvot observed today).

Maybe I ought to bring this up with PIMOJ tomorrow, although I feel that there are other things that might be more important to discuss. I guess it just makes me realise that we see the role of religious observance differently. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I can communicate the way I see it. It’s somewhat similar to the way she sees connection with God, and “hearing” His answers, as relatively easy things, whereas I see them as very hard, even a life’s work. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but they are very different.

***

There are actually other things that came up on the date that I’d like to discuss with someone, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to speak about here. I hope to speak to my rabbi mentor on Friday, and it would be good to raise some of this with my therapist too next week (I’m on fortnightly therapy at the moment). Still, it adds to the feeling of juggling a lot of balls and not knowing if I can keep them all in the air or what will happen if I drop one or two.

***

I was pretty exhausted when I got home after this, maybe not surprisingly. I took some time to write parts this post, which was hard as it meant focusing on the anxiety-provoking parts of the date as well as the more successful parts, and focusing on the work I will need to do in the relationship. I did a little Torah study, but I was too tired to do much. I watched some TV. My mood has been variable and I’m definitely dealing with some anxiety about the relationship, even though I think today went well.

Shrugs Shoulders

The last two days of Pesach (Passover) went quite well. No real religious OCD-type anxiety, which was good. I went to shul (synagogue) every evening. Today I decided not to wear a coat, as it was still quite warm in the afternoon, only to discover that we were praying in the outside area so we didn’t have to wear masks. I like not wearing a mask, but when we finished Minchah (Afternoon Service) and had a shiur (religious class) before Ma’ariv (Evening Service) it got cold quickly, especially once the sun went down.

I left soon after shul finished, not really staying to help tidy up as I normally would do, partly because I’m not sure where things go in our new socially distanced layout, partly because I wanted to get home and help Mum and Dad clear up the Pesach things (which normally takes several hours). I was pretty tired, though, and felt I didn’t do much to help and spent more time eating than tidying, although Mum and Dad said I did help significantly. 🤷‍♂️

Communicating in emoji rather than words indicates how burnt out I feel. I wish I knew what tires me out so much. I struggled to sleep last night, but slept through most of the morning and napped in the afternoon after a walk. I just seem to be tired a lot of the time and can’t function in mornings at all. Is it really autistic burnout? 🤷‍♂️again.

I enjoyed most of Pesach, but I again have the feeling that my chag (festival) lacked meaning and spirituality. Did I really meditate on the meaning of freedom? Did I really come closer to God? I feel like I didn’t. Do some people really manage this? I don’t know again, and I’m scared to ask anyone. This is when I feel like I struggle from not having many frum (religious) friends to talk to. Sometimes I wish I was an FFB (frum from birth i.e. raised as a religious person) who could take the basics of the festival for granted and concentrate on the deeper meaning. Or a BT (ba’al teshuvah, ethnic Jew who became religious later on in life) who had a major inspirational experience at some point to reflect on when feeling distant from God, to re-energise. I just became religious because I felt guilty for not being religious, which is probably exactly the sort of thing I would do, engage in a major life-change from guilt and obligation rather than inspiration and then try to keep it going. But I feel like I’m immune to inspiration. Even now I’m apparently over the depression (for now), I don’t seem to have much of an inspirable soul, at least not with the things that are supposed to inspire Orthodox Jews.

Possibly I assume everyone else is doing a lot better than me when that is not the case.

I have a date with PIMOJ tomorrow and should go to bed, but I want to watch TV for a bit to unwind or I doubt I will sleep easily. I’m going to try not to catch up with my missed blog posts from the weekend, part of an attempt to be online less. I skimmed down my friends list to see I wasn’t missing anything important, and I admit I read one or two posts, but I’m going to try not to read the rest. Sorry if I missed your opus, it’s nothing personal!

Frum and Autistic

I didn’t have insomnia last night, but I woke late again and felt burnt out and even sugary Pesach (Passover) cereal and coffee didn’t help. Lately I wonder how much of my depression was actually autistic burnout. Some of it was definitely clinical depression, no question, but all of it? I suppose there’s no real way of knowing from this distance.

I had a quiet day again today. I did about half an hour of Torah study, went for a walk and collected my repeat prescription and had therapy on Zoom. We (my parents and I) also went to my sister and brother-in-law’s garden for tea and biscuits after dark now the ban on seeing people outdoors has been lifted. It was pretty warm even before they turned their outdoor heater on. It was good to see them again. I found I was clock watching a bit though. I often do this when I’m with people or at social events. I think not knowing when something will end leads to some kind of anxiety. I suspect this is an autistic thing about wanting control rather than coming from social anxiety or disinterest in socialising because I don’t just do it when “peopling.” Even watching TV I have one eye on the clock to see how much time is left and if I’m streaming something online I will bring up the time left counter even though it’s a distraction from the image on screen.

***

Therapy was good. We spoke more about my autism diagnosis and fitting into the frum (religious Jewish) community, that maybe I can open up to some people about my autism and why it makes communal involvement difficult for me. Potentially I could speak to the rabbi about it, although, as Ashley suggested regarding “coming out” as autistic in the workplace, it probably would be helpful to come with some suggestions of what practical adjustments I would like (if any) rather than just dumping all my difficulties on him. I do have a lot of fear about autism stigma and ignorance in the community and I’m not sure how many of the adjustments I would like are “reasonable.” In British disability discrimination law, employers have to make “reasonable adjustments,” but not adjustments that are considered unreasonable. I would like people not to bang on the tables to accompany Kabbalat Shabbat (part of Friday night prayer services), for example, but given that it’s an accepted part of the service, particularly in the current COVID climate where loud singing is forbidden, I’m not sure it would be reasonable of me to try to change it.

I did talk about the frum community being generally conformist and not necessarily an ideal place for people who are quite individualistic even without autism or mental illness. I have encountered other individualistic frum Jews online, particularly on Hevria.com, but that site seems fairly dead these days as are many of the Orthodox blogs I used to follow; I think discussion has moved to Twitter and Facebook, where I don’t feel comfortable.

My therapist felt that speaking to the rabbi as a first step might also have the benefit that he will know other rabbis and can see if they have dealt with autistic congregants. My therapist felt that there must be other autistic people in the community. I’m sure this is true, but I suspect a disproportionate number of those diagnosed are young, given the trends in autism diagnosis generally. There may not be so many diagnosed autistic adults out there.

***

I had an awkward moment at my sister’s where I misunderstood something in the conversation and said the wrong thing, perhaps as a result of losing the thread of the conversation because of autism. My parents have two friends’ with the same name and I got confused about which one we were talking about and said something that would be completely innocuous regarding the one I thought they were talking about, but hugely tasteless about the other one. Naturally it was the other one they were really talking about. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone heard me.

I feel unheard a lot in social situations and wonder if I mumble. I was often told that I did as a child, although I never sounded quiet to myself. On this occasion it was probably for the best, although it is possible that everyone just politely pretended I hadn’t said anything because it was so tasteless.

Running, Writing, Thinking

Given the disruption to my sleep pattern lately, perhaps it’s unsurprising I struggled to fall asleep last night. As I don’t like drinking milk, normally I would eat porridge to make myself drowsy, but porridge is not kosher for Pesach (approved for Passover). I tried eating Pesach cereal with boiled water added to warm the milk, but it didn’t taste great. In the end I sat up watching Babylon 5 to relax, which may have been the problem in the first place – a lack of passive recreation can keep me awake.

I was a bit burnt out on waking. I actually managed to get up earlier than I expected, given that I fell asleep around 4am, getting up at 10ish, but I went back to bed after breakfast and got dressed slowly after that.

I spent much of the day enjoying not doing very much after the busy weeks before Pesach. I did a bit over half an hour of Torah study and spent forty minutes or so writing a devar Torah (Torah thought) that I’m not too happy with. I’ve used some of the ideas before, plus it’s mostly my own chiddush (original insight) which always makes me worry that (a) I might be completely wrong or (b) people might demand something more rigorously rooted in the traditional sources.

I went for a run too. It wasn’t a good one; after nine minutes I came back home to change from tracksuit bottoms to shorts because it was a lot hotter than I expected for late March. Then I got a headache when I restarted, but insisted on forcing myself to continue to 5K as usual. I was worried for a while that I was going to be sick, but a combination of painkillers, cooling strip and a load of water (in case of dehydration) and crisps (in case of loss of salt) seemed to help get rid of hit fairly quickly in comparison with some previous exercise migraines, but it came back later, although not as bad.

***

I wonder if I have a lot of undischarged anxiety at the moment, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way Pesach ramps up my anxiety levels. It was one of my reasons for going for a run. There may be some unconscious guilt too. Related to this, lately I’ve been thinking about why it’s so hard for me to think positively about myself, why I see it as morally wrong. I think I feel that I’m not good enough to deserve to think positively about myself; that even if I have good points, they are far outnumbered and outweighed by the bad ones; that thinking positively about myself just makes me look down on other people; and that thinking positively about myself stops my personal growth. I’m not sure what to do about this. There does seem to be a part of myself that thinks I’m one bad decision away from becoming a serial killer and that I have to beat myself up the whole time to (somehow) prevent this.

***

I’m still wondering what to do about my novel, currently sitting in its third draft and waiting for a friend to read it and give feedback. (Despite the title of this post, I’m not currently writing it.) I think my mistake was thinking I could write mainstream literary fiction. I’m beginning to feel I’m more likely to find my voice as a writer of middlebrow pulp fiction, which is what I read (and watch) a lot. Or maybe I’m just not a good writer.

I want to write Jewish fantasy/science fiction/mild horror, which is not a very crowded genre to work in, although I don’t know how many publishers would be interested if there aren’t many readers. My audience would be non-religious Jews and non-Jews interested in Judaism, or at least interested in fantasy and not averse to a Jewish setting and details (like Faye Kellerman’s detective novels set in the Jewish community). I don’t want to preach or go down the Narnia route exactly, but I’d like to deal with some of the questions that face contemporary Jews (or face me) in an exciting setting.

I Want To Break Free

I couldn’t sleep last night. I had slept during the day, I often struggle to sleep after a migraine, and the migraine itself meant that I didn’t take my antidepressants until after midnight, and I usually rely on them to knock me out, so it wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was frustrating not to fall asleep until 4am. I did get up about 10am today, which was good, as there was a lot of Pesach cleaning to do.

The cleaners we booked to come in addition to our usual cleaner to do a lot of basic cleaning downstairs before Pesach have cancelled two weeks running now, so we’re having to do more. I appreciate that “Our cleaners – and not regular cleaner, just our Pesach back-up cleaners – have cancelled” is probably the epitome of middle class first world problems. There’s a global pandemic, the worst recession in centuries, genocide in China, a coup in Myanmar etc. Cleaners cancelling is not a big deal, even a week before Pesach. To be honest, I’m a bit glad: if this is the worst of our Pesach trouble, we should be OK.

I’m not sure how long I cleaned for, probably about two hours. I also managed a walk and some Torah study, and Mum cut my hair, but I would have liked to have done more cleaning. I ran out of time and energy. I wish I knew why my energy depletes so quickly. Possibly I’m just getting older, although I don’t hit forty for a couple more years. I did speak to PIMOJ for over an hour, which was good, although would have liked to speak more had I not been conscious that it was getting late and I have work tomorrow.

As the day went on and my stress levels increased and I got tired and hungry, I became more prone to religious OCD-type thoughts again. They are essentially contamination fears about our food, only with the fear being about religious contamination (non-kosher contamination into kosher food; chametz (leaven) into Pesach food) rather than germs. It’s frustrating and I worry what state I will be in by the end of the week, but I did mostly cope OK even if I want to check some things with my rabbi mentor. One book I have on “pure O” OCD (obsessive thoughts without compulsions including religious OCD) is called The Imp of the Mind and it does feel a bit like this external monster stirring up my thoughts when I’m stressed and hungry.

It’s tempting to want to carry on cleaning or doing Torah study and/or seder preparation late at night, but deep down I know I need to unwind a bit or I’ll be a mess tomorrow, emotionally and possibly physically too. It’s hard to see watching TV as necessary and justified even though it probably is. This is the first year I’m juggling Pesach and paid work and a relationship, so maybe it’s not a surprise that I’m a bit more stressed than usual even without lockdown complicating things further.

While cleaning I Want to Break Free by Queen came on my ipod on shuffle. That would seem appropriate anthem for this Pesach on so many levels: the usual Pesach level of the story of the exodus, the usual Pesach cleaning, lockdown, trying to stay free of OCD…

***

I finished reading Contact last night. I’m glad I stuck with it, as it did get better, and the end was more open to religion than I expected, but I do wish non-religious writers wouldn’t assume that all religious people think like Bible Belt Evangelicals. Also, I now have a serious space issues on my bookshelves. I could buy another bookcase, but I couldn’t fit it in my bedroom easily, and I already have most of my Jewish books downstairs in the dining room on one of my parents’ bookcases.

***

After my headache subsided last night, I said the prayers I had skipped when I was feeling sick. The Ma’ariv for Motzei Shabbat (Evening prayers for the evening after the Sabbath) contain a long anthology of verses of blessing for the new week and finish with a Talmud passage to start the new week with Torah study. It says (Megillah 31a, translation from the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur):

Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the LORD your GOD is GOD of gods and LORD of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring GOD, who shows no favouritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” It is repeated in the Prophets, as it says: “So says the High and Exalted One, who lives for ever and whose name is Holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” It is stated a third time in the Writings: “Sing to GOD, make music for His name — and exult before Him.” Immediately afterwards it is written: “Father of the fatherless and Judge of widows is GOD in His holy habitation.”

What struck me yesterday is that the verses about humility have very little to do with what in English we would think of as humility. Rather than being about putting yourself down or avoiding praise, they focus on hesed (love, kindness) and tzedakah (charity, justice, social justice). This would seem to indicate that humility is more about openness and care for others than anything about the self; if anything, it is putting aside thinking about the self (either in either a positive or negative way) and focusing your attention on the other.

Rabbi Twerski z”tl also said that humility is focusing on others, while pride is focusing on the self. Also that pride is past-focused (“I did X”) and humility is future-focused (“I will do X”).

The Long Twilight Struggle

I struggled with burnout again on Friday, but forced myself to do my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, as well as thoroughly hoovering and dusting my room for Pesach, including moving my bed and bedside table to hoover under them (not my desk though – too heavy, and food is unlikely to get under it as the three exposed sides are flush with the floor). At least that’s out the way for now; I won’t eat food (other than water) in there now until after Pesach.

I embarrassed myself phoning the hospital about the report from my autism assessment. I had misunderstood when it would be available, which turns out not to be for another two or three weeks. I was very apologetic to the secretary for wasting her time, but I felt bad.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) went well. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. We davened Kabbalat Shabbat (said some of the Evening Prayers) outside so that we could sing. It was good to sing, but very cold, even if Saturday was the first day of spring.

I got up earlier than usual on Saturday morning, although I went back to bed after breakfast and dozed for a bit. I napped in the afternoon too, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t do much Torah study, partly because of napping, partly because when Shabbat went out I got an awful migraine that took hours to shift. I didn’t even feel up to saying all of the Ma’ariv (Evening) prayers; usually I somehow soldier on, but I skipped the after Shabbat verses of blessing because just reading made me feel like I was going to throw up. This is an improvement, as in the past I would carry on. The last time I had a bad headache when davening (praying) was on Simchat Torah, when bowing at the end of the Amidah prayer actually made me throw up. Perhaps I’m willing to make more excuses for myself now.

I spent much of the evening wrapped in my weighted blanket, watching Babylon 5 (hence the title of this post from one of the episodes, used in a rather humorously melodramatic way). The painkillers I took finally kicked in, along with the cool and soothe strip. I feel a bit tired now, but not particularly sleepy. I’m going to have something to eat (I need to take my antidepressants with food) and maybe go to bed. My room is freezing cold; I opened the windows wide before as I prefer to be cold if I have a migraine, but I wonder how I will fall asleep now.

***

I’ve been missing PIMOJ a lot lately. I realised that I experience this not as pining after her the way I pined after various crushes in my earlier life, but in worrying that she will lose interest in me, that I’m not good enough for her and so on. I’m not sure what to do about this. Hopefully we can meet after Pesach or maybe even during it. We had a text conversation tonight, a bit more in-depth than either of us has had the time or energy for this week, and we’re hoping to speak tomorrow.

***

It’s strange thinking that not only do I now have autism, but I have had autism all my life, even when I was a child doing well at school. It still seems a little strange how well I did at school compared with how badly I’ve done since then, but school was a strange micro-environment, plus “doing well” is relative, as I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety when I was in the sixth form and maybe earlier, and I struggled a lot socially, with bullying and (not) making friends. I would do a lot differently if I knew what I know now, but it’s too late. Still, the thought of being autistic and still doing well academically seems slightly jarring, even though many people on the spectrum are the same. I wish I could identify how I succeeded then and work out how to apply it now, but the answer seems to be to seek out opportunities for rote memorisation of lists and tasks, focus 100% on work with no social or romantic life, and concentrate very hard on doing what I’m told, which does not necessarily make for a healthy adult life.

I was looking over Shabbat at a new haggadah (Passover prayer book) commentary I just bought. It has open questions to stimulate discussion at the seder service. Many of them ask the participants to think about major life events. I keep coming back to my autism diagnosis for so many of these questions. I definitely haven’t worked it through yet.

***

I search for the truth, in what I suppose is a very old-fashioned way. I took a decision at some point, initially unconsciously, lately very consciously, not to cut out of my life people I disagreed with purely on matters of religion or politics. I feel that this is unusual. I try not to read material that is just supporting my views, although it’s hard to find the time to read things from “my” side let alone other opinions in depth, and naturally I prioritise material I think is going to be more accurate which correlates with material I agree with. But I do tend to try to work out what the other side thinks, more or less automatically, probably a hold-over from my university days, where my essays tended to sit on the fence and examine both sides of the issue without really being drawn to one over the other. Anyway, I feel that this behaviour is unusual and most people do not do this. I’m not sure what to think about this.

“To be more like people better than you”

(Title quote from Amateur Hour by Sparks)

Today was not good, although I suppose it could have been worse. But I felt overwhelmed (my new keyword) most of the day. I overslept this morning. Actually, I didn’t oversleep; I was awake, I was just too tired to get up and then suddenly it was half an hour later and I had to rush. On the way in to work I felt overwhelmed and anxious: about Pesach (Passover), about autism, my relationship, my life, and the guy opposite me on the Tube not wearing his mask so he could drink beer 9am. (I’m open to the idea of beer-drinking at 9am being OK for some people, but I don’t consider it sufficient reason to remove one’s mask.)

At work I made mistakes, and also discovered mistakes made earlier e.g. the stationery order I placed on Monday arrived and I discovered that I had ordered one ream of printer paper instead of one box as J, my line manager, had requested. There were other mistakes, and J noticed some of them. He didn’t say much about it, which is good, but also makes it hard for me to judge how satisfied he is with my work. I think there tends to be a programme running in my head all the time wondering about that.

At lunch J asked what book I was reading, the first time he’s shown any interest in my lunchtime reading. Perhaps because my interests were the focus of much childhood bullying, I tend to get really nervous about talking about my interests with anyone outside of narrow “boxes” – so I only feel comfortable talking about Doctor Who with people I know from fandom, only talk about Judaism with other frum (religious) Jews and so on. (Somehow the internet is OK to share and overshare all kinds of stuff, don’t ask me why.)

In the afternoon, J got me to start going through old papers from the office, the start of a long clear out. I tend to be a hoarder with my own papers and property, but if I’m not responsible for the articles in question, I end up wanting to throw everything away. I asked J about a lot of the papers and he told me to keep a lot of it, so I’m not sure how much autonomy I’ll actually have over this task. To be honest, I’m not terribly keen on having autonomy over other people’s things. I did throw away a load of invoices from before 2010 that were unlikely to be used again, but I do feel vaguely apprehensive thinking about it. Unfortunately, it was a dull task that did not use much of my brain and I got stuck in negative thoughts and feelings again and wondered if I am becoming depressed again.

My Mum said that I should tell J about the autism diagnosis. I’m reluctant to do so, partly I admit because J is a friend from before when he gave me the job. I mentioned above about compartmentalising things, and I’ve been reluctant to tell people from shul (synagogue) even about my depression history, let alone something like autism that is understood and accepted even less well than depression. If I do that, I would want to prepare what I would say about autism (if people ask me suddenly I tend to blank and struggle to articulate the symptoms, let alone how it affects me personally) as well as what adjustments, if any, I would want.

That was not the end of the day. The journey home was stressful, with a lot of traffic. I don’t know why sitting in traffic is stressful. A half-hour journey with heavy traffic seems more stressful than a forty-five minute with no traffic. So I came back pretty frazzled, only to be thrown into dealing with Pesach OCD stuff. I’m OK, I know things are OK and I’m not falling back into serious religious OCD, I’m just trying to stay calm and cope with things. My OCD is always worst when I’m hungry and tired and I was both of those things when I got home from work. It’s OK now.

PIMOJ haven’t been able to meet much recently, not that we can really go anywhere at the moment anyway because of lockdown. She is doing a full-time job with significant compulsory overtime two nights a week, plus she’s doing a degree and getting ready for Pesach. At least once the clocks go forward we can buy coffee or takeaway dinner after work and eat in a park, but at the moment it still gets dark too early. I know she’s not avoiding me, but I miss her and I still worry about the stress it puts on our relationship.

So, now I write, write, write, because it helps to get things out of my head and process them. I’m only writing on my blog, as I’ve put my novel on hold until I can show it to someone, which won’t be until after Pesach. To be honest, I’ve lost faith in it. I’d be tempted to start working on a different novel that I’ve been thinking about (is that writing bigamy? Or cheating?), but it requires significant research, both factual (details for the setting) and literary (reading other books in the genre) and I don’t have the time or headspace for that at the moment.

I feel too exhausted to do any Pesach preparation or further Torah study tonight. Yesterday, I said on my blog that I was going to watch more TV, but then felt too tired to actually do so, so I’m not going to do anything as reckless as say I’ll watch TV now. I feel tired, but I want to unwind more before I go to bed. I guess it’s a race to see if I can stay awake long enough to read or watch Babylon 5.

Overloaded

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

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

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

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

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Joy and Living in the Moment

Last night wasn’t much fun. Around 6.00pm, I started getting aches in my joints. Within a couple of hours, I was shaking and shivering and felt alternately hot and cold. It seemed like I was having side effects from the COVID vaccine, as my body started an immune response. It got worse across the evening. I started crying uncontrollably at times, triggered by all kinds of thoughts: happy or sad, religious or secular or even just trivial. I tried to go to bed around midnight, but was shaking too much to sleep and just lay in bed for two hours. There didn’t seem much point in getting up, as I wasn’t well enough to read and, being Shabbat, I wasn’t able to watch a DVD.

I think I must have dozed off around 2.00am, but I woke up again after an hour or so. I was very thirsty, but so tired that it took me well over an hour to get the energy to get up to get a drink. By this stage the shaking had temperature changes had stopped, but I was getting a headache, one of the type I get where lying down makes it worse, so I sat up for a while. I took some solpadeine and tried to read, but reading just made the headache worse and made me feel that I was going to throw up, so I just sat in the dark for an hour. Eventually the headache lessened and I went back to bed. It was no surprise that I slept through the morning this time or that I slept for two and a half hours in the afternoon (nearly missing Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Seudah Shlishit (the third Sabbath meal)). By lunch time I was a lot better, although I still have a bit of achiness in my joints.

I was actually OK at spending all this time alone in my head with no books, music or TV to distract myself. I think I’m mostly OK about being in my own head these days without falling in to loneliness, self-loathing or despair. I thought a lot about religious/Torah topics; my thoughts tend to naturally drift this way on Shabbat (the Sabbath). I tried to stay reasonably upbeat, and I know that it just means that the vaccine is doing its work and its nothing to worry about.

***

There’s a lot on my mind tonight, but most of it will have to wait, as it’s late and I should try to get to bed soon, although my sleep is even more disordered than usual now. However, there’s something I’ve been thinking about all week, and was thinking about when sick last night, and I thought I would share it.

For the last week I’ve been reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) with a brief commentary from Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl in his Sukkot Machzor (Prayerbook for the Tabernacles festival) as well as an essay on the book published in the same Machzor. Kohelet is often seen as a deeply downbeat book, its first significant verse (after an introductory one) being translated by The King James Bible as “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” This is a bad translation. It doesn’t help that “vanity” in a sixteenth century context means something worthless rather than something self-focused, but either way “vanity” is a very poor translation for a word that in Hebrew means “breath.” Rabbi Sacks translates as “Shallowest breath, said Kohelet; the shallowest breath, it is all but breath.” It is a book about the fragility of life; the living are just one breath away from the dead and everything is as insubstantial as breath.

The narrator of the book relates at length the inability of wisdom, wealth, or sex to provide any lasting meaning or joy. Ultimately, everything, even wisdom, passes on the day of death. Moreover, the world is a deeply unjust place, where the wicked thrive and the righteous suffer. So the book has a reputation for being downbeat and not obviously “religious.”

Interspersed between these passages, however, are statements that one should try to experience joy and live a God-fearing life. These are so unlike the bulk of the book that it has been suggested that the author wanted to tone down his negative tirade and appear superficially religious to avoid being suppressed, or that they were the work of a later pious or worried editor. However, Rabbi Sacks notes that there are seven of these interpolations; it is an established principle of Jewish hermeneutics that seven-fold repetitions in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are always significant.

Rabbi Sacks suggests that the interpolations are the key to the book. While life is largely negative, one can still experience moments of joy by living in the moment and enjoying the “simple pleasures of life” that come our way, whether monogamous love and honest work or simply food and drink. Rabbi Sacks says that happiness depends on external factors and may be impossible, but joy “lives in the moment” and is essentially shared with others.

In Rabbi Sacks’ view Kohelet is about living in the moment in a deeply imperfect and unhappy world. This intrigued me and I’ve been thinking about it all week. While I don’t think it would have helped me when I was clinically depressed, I’ve been trying lately (before this) to be a bit more mindful and present-focused and this has just increased my desire to do that.

Is Kohelet’s joy of living in the moment the Jewish equivalent of mindfulness? I don’t know. I see it as being very different to “toxic positivity” though. Toxic positivity denies the reality of suffering and evil, whereas Kohelet spends a long time talking about its reality, whether the fact that we will die and all our wisdom will vanish with us or the fact that the world is full of injustice and oppression and clearly not a utopia. Joy for Kohelet is about living despite suffering rather than denying it, and still finding reasons to keep going.

Not Anxious, Slightly Surprisingly

I got up at 10.00am today, which was good, but I was still very tired and went back to bed briefly after breakfast. Sometimes it’s hard just to keep going and I struggle to understand why I still feel like that when I’m not really depressed any more and don’t have obvious sources of autistic burnout. Even at the best of times, I tend to go slowly with things, which is why my current job is good for me, both because the work is not so high-pressure and because J tends not to stress or work flat out either. PIMOJ is very energetic and leads a busy life and sometimes I wonder if she thinks I’m too slow.

I had an emotional and draining therapy session. Other than that it was the usual: working on my devar Torah, Torah study, a short walk in the rain. I got a weird text that purported to be from the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. It looked like a scam, but I realised it came from a number that I’ve had genuine DWP communications from before and what details were given seemed to be accurate. Also, in my experience, poor writing does not stop a communication being from the DWP. I didn’t click on the link in the text, because it looked too dodgy, but I’m vaguely worried about the consequences. If they want me for something important, they should write to me properly, not send texts HALF WRITTEN IN CAPITALS FOR NO REASON with no clear contact details.

I spent an hour (!) discussing Pesach (Passover) cleaning, kashering and other Pesach preparations with my parents. Things are extra difficult this year as Pesach starts as Shabbat (the Sabbath) finishes. I don’t really have time or energy to explain this if you don’t know what it involves or why Pesach after Shabbat is so tricky (it’s all quite complicated). Suffice to say, I now have some idea of what I need to do and when, but am a bit freaked out about how much I have to do in the next three weeks, alongside my paid job. I’m glad my writing was already on hold and I don’t know how much exercise I’m going to get in the next few weeks. I hope to still have some time to see PIMOJ when the lockdown ends. I also want to find some time to prepare some extra ideas to share at the seder although I don’t know when, or how I can fit that in with my weekly devar Torah. PIMOJ and I are going (online) to a Pesach seminar day at the London School of Jewish Studies, so I’m hoping to pick up some ideas there that will be suitable to share at the seder. A frantic month starts here. I just hope my religious OCD, which is worse about Pesach than anything else, doesn’t come back.

On the plus side, if it’s nearly Pesach, then it’s nearly spring! Although before I really get into Pesach mode, I’ve got my vaccination on Friday (there’s some “new situation” anxiety although the whole thing is likely to be over in a few minutes) and my autism diagnosis on Tuesday, so there’s potentially a lot of anxiety around in the next few days. I feel OK at the moment though.

Intelligent Life

I didn’t blog yesterday. I had a busy day, but there wasn’t much to put on a mental health blog, except for one thing that wasn’t time-related and was too long for the time available to write. The only other thing worth mentioning is discussing with my rabbi mentor my OCD anxiety about missing words of the Megillah (Book of Esther) on Purim. He said that it’s not my responsibility to check it is read correctly and that there should be other people in the room to do that (usually the rabbi, although he wasn’t in my reading this year because of the socially distanced parallel readings). He said he was once in a Megillah reading where someone in the congregation kept calling the ba’al koreh (reader) out on real or imagined mistakes. It was embarrassing for everyone and eventually the rabbi had to intervene to stop him.

As for today, I woke up early (6.50am) today to try to pray more before going to work, but I stayed in bed too long, actually getting up later than when I usually try to get up, so it was not a success.

At work J started training me for a task which is scary, because it’s client-facing and very serious and potentially dealing with people in emotional distress, so I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s definitely social anxiety provoking. However, I think it’s positive because it means J is at least still hoping to have a permanent job for me. It could also be exposure therapy for social anxiety. I’d like to explain more, but I don’t think I could do so without making where I’m working too obvious. I didn’t take notes when J was explaining it and although I wrote some notes once he had finished, I’m not sure I got it all down. He did say we would role play some situations on Thursday so I can practise it.

I went to depression group on Zoom this evening. We split into smaller groups this time with breakout rooms, which seemed to work well. I do feel lately that I’m not sure how much to share, how much I have the time (or the energy) to share of my history, particularly now the depression part (the reason for being there) is no longer really present for me on a day-to-day basis. I spoke mostly about my worries about my autism assessment next week. I experienced a lot of social anxiety and mostly looked at the keyboard rather than the screen or the camera. I am definitely struggling to keep going to the group now it’s Zoom only, and the fact that I’m not feeling so depressed means I feel I have less of a reason to go, although I do want to hear how other people are getting on. (Some people do keep going to the group after recovery for that reason and to support others.)

I also struggled to concentrate on the group because I was feeling agitated about something I didn’t want to bring to the group. Just before the group started, I was reading Contact. I thought it was going to be a fairly realistic science fiction book about what a near future first contact with aliens would look like, but it’s turning into a religion vs. science story. Or a Christianity vs. science story, as Carl Sagan’s arguments are more anti-Christian than anti-religious. The idea that Tanakh would be more believable if it contained a testable scientific law seemed to be a spectacular exercise in missing the point, like saying King Lear would be a more meaningful expression of the meaning of love and power if the Fool related Newton’s Law of Motion. Christianity is about belief and in a sense so is atheism; Judaism is about deeds. The test of Tanakh from a Jewish point of view is living Jewish practices and values and seeing how it changes you. Tanakh isn’t meant to be a science book. When I get annoyed by something like this, it runs over and over in my head

It reminded me that years ago I started writing a short story with a similar premise to Contact (radio telescope picks up signs of alien life, with a realistic tone, although I knew a lot less of the science than Sagan, obviously) except mine saw the presence of alien life in the cosmos as perhaps affirming of the existence of God, although I can’t remember how I reached that conclusion. Anyway, I didn’t finish it and now I can’t find the draft I started.

I don’t want to abandon the book, because I’m interested in its realistic presentation of a near-future first contact scenario and because I believe in encountering alternative viewpoints. I may end up skimming bits (maybe. I’m pretty bad at skimming things). I looked at the review on Goodreads and people were suggesting it’s positive about religion, but I think it’s positive about awe in nature, which isn’t the same thing. I find nature beautiful, but I find God in the miraculous survival of the Jewish people and perhaps in good deeds and “I-Thou” interactions (I’m actually not sure what I find God in).

***

Goodreads might need to refine their algorithm. It just suggested that “Because you read The Complete Peanuts 1987-1988: Volume 19 [you might like to read] 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep“. Aside from the fact that I automatically switch off whenever anyone says “late capitalism” (capitalism has been “late” for about 150 years now), I struggle to see the link between Snoopy and Marxist economics. Maybe Snoopy wrote “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly the end of capitalism rang out!”

COVID Purim (1)

I struggled to sleep last night and had weird dreams again, but I got up earlier today. Not early early, not even as early as I do on work days (which are not so early given I currently leave at 8.30am to avoid rush hour), but 10.00am, earlier than midday (or later) as I’ve been getting up on non-work days for the last week or two. I actually woke up about 9.30am, before Dad came in about 9.50am to tell me to check my phone in case I’d been offered another vaccination appointment (no, not yet) and before PIMOJ rang me at 10.00am as we’d agreed to help me get up.

I wasn’t working today, as J and I both wanted to make sure we could get to shul (synagogue) in time in the evening for Purim and the Megillah (Book of Esther) reading. J can work from home today, but I can’t, but part of me at least is glad to give up a day’s wages so that I could at least try to approach this strangest Purim with a degree of calm. I actually did feel quite calm when I woke up, despite all the worry I’ve had for the last few days (weeks), like I’m finally facing the fear. However, I did feel at a bit of a loose end and anxiety grew as I got a bit bored. I don’t usually get bored as there are always things I want to do, but here I just wanted to get to shul and get Purim under way. As well as OCD-type anxiety that makes me worry about not hearing a word of the Megillah reading (we are supposed to hear every word of the Megillah, both morning and evening), this year, because of COVID, there is autistic new situation anxiety about having to go to a different room in the building to the one where we normally daven (pray) and social anxiety about possibly having to ask someone for directions to said room.

I did about half an hour of Torah study, but I wanted to save myself for the Megillah reading later rather than exhaust myself with heavy concepts in advance. I tried to make some changes to my novel, but aside for one or two slight edits, I feel stuck with it. I need to hear from someone outside my head about whether it’s any good. I have got a friend who will do that, but not until after Pesach which is not for another month.

It was a strange Purim. Purim with masks, but not fancy dress masks as usual, but COVID masks. I wore my jester’s hat, but almost no one else seemed to have been in fancy dress. I don’t know if I really saw a representative sample (I didn’t see many people), but perhaps people must only dress up for parties or for their children (children under eight were banned from shul to keep the numbers down). Someone handed out sheets of paper, which I thought were Purim shpiels (satirical writing), but turned out to be solemn warnings not to congregate in groups or go to parties.

My shul ran three parallel Megillah readings in different rooms, and a fourth one later, so that people could socially distance instead of having seventy or eighty people in one room at a go. It was permitted to make noise when the villainous Haman’s name was read as per usual, but only stamping or using rattles, no vocal noise. The person who read the Megillah was a boy of about fourteen or fifteen, but very good.

From an OCD worrying about missing words perspective, it was pretty good. There were few enough people in the room that no noise was really a problem, and the reader was good at waiting for quiet, and he repeated words he thought might have been lost. I worried that at one point I thought I heard a wrong word, but wasn’t sure. This seems to happen to me every year since the really bad religious OCD year. This time I reflected that there were some very frum (religious) and Jewishly knowledgeable people in that room, and they had corrected one or two minor mistakes, so they were unlikely to all let a major mistake such as I thought I heard go. This has mostly caused the fear to subside without turning into OCD anxiety.

Howard Jacobson said in an article somewhere that Pesach is the best Jewish festival because it has the best story, but I think the Purim story is even better. In recent years, I find myself reading along with the Megillah in fear and anticipation. That’s partly OCD-type anxiety that I might miss a word, but it’s also becoming involved in the story. Not only was the fate facing the Jewish people worse at the time of the Purim story than at the exodus from Egypt, the salvation was more unexpected. God had promised Avraham (Abraham) that He would rescue his descendants from slavery and once the ten plagues started, the outcome was not in question, but Purim is a festival with no prophecies, no miracles and, on the face of it, no hope, which is why it’s a festival about finding hope, about finding Providence in random chance (the word ‘Purim’ means ‘lottery’). I’m trying to hold on to that at the moment, with the confusion in both my personal life and the world.

Tomorrow I need to be up even earlier than today (6.15am or at least 6.30) to get to the morning Megillah reading (we have to hear it night and day). Given that attendance has to be booked this year because of COVID, I don’t have the option of going to a later reading if I miss it. I feel very tired now as the tension of the day dissipates. I’m not too worried about tomorrow; even in a normal year, morning Megillah readings are quicker, quieter, more straight-forward affairs. I will turn off my computer after this. I want to watch TV, but I watched TV all afternoon. OK, it was about an hour and a half of TV, but I don’t usually watch TV in the afternoon at all. But my brain is just not in gear to read and I need to do something to unwind or I won’t sleep from all the tension I’m still storing inside my body.

Burnout and Worry

I didn’t sleep well again. My weighted blanket became bunched up in one side of the duvet cover I put it in to keep it clean and I kept waking up feeling I wasn’t covered up as I wanted, but I was too tired and burnt out to get up and even out the duvet. I had crazy dreams (something about going to see Hermann Goering about something, possibly stopping the Nazis coming to power, or making sure they did come to power to preserve history… I think this was based on the science fiction novel The Simulacra that I read recently). I think I woke up intermittently across the morning, partly woken by building noise from next-door (or was that yesterday? The mornings blur together), but I didn’t feel able to stay awake and get up until very late and I was very burnt out again.

Burnout feels like more than ordinary “tired,” more like jetlag, or the type of tired you get if you’ve been up for thirty-six hours straight, just totally drained of energy and really impossible to do anything or think straight. It gets a bit better after breakfast, but generally not a lot better until after lunch, which implies to me there might be a blood sugar element (low blood sugar has always affected my mood negatively, since childhood). I’m not sure what the solution is, if there is one. For the moment I’m waiting anxiously for 9 March and the final part of my autism assessment before I make firm plans about my mental health.

I got a text this morning offering me a COVID vaccination at my GP, but I was asleep when it came through and by the time I phoned through to make the appointment, they were all taken. I’m actually glad, as the appointment would have been on a Saturday. Some rabbis are permitting getting vaccinated on Shabbat, but as I’m not a priority (I think I’m only being offered it at this stage because my Mum is still listed as vulnerable), I don’t mind waiting until the next appointment, which I’ve been told is Friday 5 March. I just hope I am awake when I get the next message and can respond in time.

I had a fairly busy day: I wrote my devar Torah for the week (although I have a bit to add that I thought of later) and was glad to link the sedra (weekly Torah reading) to Purim. I did a little Torah study too and went for a run. When I got home, I ate some crackers with salty butter out of curiosity to see if the salt would stop me getting a headache, wondering if lack of salt rather than dehydration is what causes my exercise migraines (dehydration seems unlikely, as I drink a lot). I didn’t get a headache immediately, but one seems to have set in now, over four hours later, although that may be because my parents turn the heating up so high.

***

There’s a joke about a great sage who wanted to know the meaning of life. He spent years studying texts: Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah… Eventually he looked up from his books and said, “Life is good!” Then he paused for a moment, thought a bit longer and said, “But if life is so good… how come it’s so bad?”

I feel a bit like this. My life is objectively better than it’s been for at least two or three years. And yet, somehow I feel stressed a lot of the time. There is uncertainty. I don’t know if my job will continue long-term or if my novel will be published. I obviously don’t know what will happen with me and PIMOJ. I guess uncertainty about one’s career and relationship is going to lead to unsettled feelings, even if things are OK at the moment.

At the moment, PIMOJ and I still can’t see each other for another nearly two weeks because of the lockdown, which is proving very difficult and I certainly feel it’s putting a bit of strain on the relationship. I think my relationship with PIMOJ is different to my previous two relationships, in that PIMOJ and I are very different in personality and we have to consciously work harder on the relationship and to communicate effectively. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it means I have to engage in the relationship a lot more deliberately than I had to with previous relationships (not that I’ve been in many previous relationships), and that’s not easy when we can’t see each other.

Beyond this, I guess there are things I think about and worry about that I need to process, but which I don’t want to write here because they relate to other people who might not want me to write about them even anonymously. I need to find another way of processing them. I can talk in therapy, but that’s one hour a fortnight. I could try to switch back to once a week, but I’m not sure I will always have enough to say once a week; the amount of worry comes and goes. I speak to my rabbi mentor sometimes. I could try writing privately, as I occasionally do. I do feel that it’s better if I can write with an audience though. Aside from getting helpful comments, knowing I have an audience stops me drifting into catastrophising or self-pity. Just knowing that something will be read makes me careful to avoid that in a way that I fear is not the case in private writing.

Still, just as my intermittent low mood is not capital-D Depression, so my worries are not capital-A Anxiety, which is good.

OK, bed now, as my head hurts.

Vulnerable and Fragile

The good news for today is that I have an appointment for the final part of my autism assessment booked in for 9 March, two weeks’ time. This is really all down to my Mum, who has been phoning to chase it up. Sadly on the NHS, or parts of it, there’s a benefit in having someone willing and able to make a certain amount of noise on your behalf when waiting for an appointment, in case you drop off the system, as I suspect I had done.

***

I was burnt out again this morning, sleeping for about twelve hours, although I intended to “only” sleep for ten. The problem is partly that I turn off my clock radio alarms in my sleep, or at least don’t wake up for long enough to really wake up and stay awake. I put my phone on the other side of the room, so I have to get up to turn the alarm off, but its alarm is too quiet to really wake me and I sleep through it. Even if I do wake up, I fall asleep again before I can summon the energy to get up. I’m sure this must be boring and repetitive to readers, but it’s how my life is at the moment, with this major obstacle (burnout and oversleeping) that I just can’t make progress on and don’t really understand, even though I’ve made a lot of progress with the rest of my life.

I went for a walk and to the post office. That was crowded. The post office is inside the pharmacy and the pharmacy is doing COVID vaccinations, so there were a lot of people trying to socially distance inside and outside the shop. My mood slumped again while I was out walking, which might be a late afternoon blood sugar thing, or maybe because I was listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and Orthodox Judaism and it made me think how slow and uncertain it will be to move my relationship with PIMOJ on to a point where we can marry. My mood dropped a bit again while I was cooking dinner (vegetable curry), although it improved as I focused on cooking, which suggests that not having a focus is a trigger for negative thoughts.

I went to a shiur (religious class), the last of this set of shiurim, this time on Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther). It was more in depth than the previous ones, presumably because Esther is one of the better-known books of the Hebrew Bible among Jews, as we read it every year (twice, morning and evening) on Purim, which is this Thursday night and Friday. There were some interesting points about liminal spaces and identity in Esther. It made me feel more positive about the upcoming Purim, a festival that traditionally inspires very mixed feelings in me.

Then I saw that my shul (synagogue) had sent out an email about social distancing over Purim. So the whole community can all hear the Megillah, morning and evening safely, they are running four different readings at night and another four in the morning in different rooms of the building. I’m not entirely sure where my room is, so I need to go early to make sure I get there on time. They said there will be stewards to guide us, but I’m slightly apprehensive about it and plan to get there ten or fifteen minutes early to be safe.

***

I’ve noticed that I’ve had to struggle against religious OCD thoughts more lately. So far I haven’t sent any panicked emails to my rabbi asking if things were OK, which means it’s mostly under control and no actual OCD, just thoughts. (Actually, there was one email, but it was realistically a necessary email, and I didn’t send follow-up emails even though I was still worried.) Even so, I’m a bit concerned about things spiralling out of control as we approach Pesach. I’m trying to remember my coping strategies and exposure therapy techniques. I’m also trying to tell myself “I can cope” as my therapist suggested.

I guess my life is far from perfect right now, but realistically, no one’s life is ever perfect, and my current life is manageable, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m going with that for now. I do feel kind of fragile and vulnerable though, as if I’m aware I don’t have great resilience at the moment and am worried how I might cope if things start to go wrong.

Equanimity, and Reading

I struggled to fall asleep last night, probably as a result of having slept too much over the weekend. That’s probably the context in which the rest of this post falls, that I was a bit sleep deprived and not at my best. I think I was worrying when I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t think I was being kept awake by worry, just that with not much to think about, I worried. Again, that’s probably relevant later.

At work I spent five minutes looking for a cheque before I remembered that the person had paid twice by mistake and we posted their second cheque back to them. I had just forgotten to delete the second cheque from the incoming payments spreadsheet. Until I realised what was going on, I worried I had done something really stupid, like throw the cheque in the bin or post it back to the sender instead of their receipt, something I have nearly done on several occasions. I hope I didn’t seem too stupid to J.

In the afternoon, I worked on the inventory again. I struggled a bit emotionally. My therapist says it’s not so helpful to talk of “depression” now, given that my mood is mostly stable, and I think that’s true, but my mood did dip, perhaps because of my lack of sleep. The inventory is not a completely straightforward task, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of concentration either, which is a recipe for my mind to wander, apparently to worries and negative thoughts about myself, somewhat like last night when I couldn’t sleep. I did get through it, but I fear that my work was not particularly fast or efficient, and I’m still only about halfway through the inventory (or really through stage one of the inventory).

***

I worry a lot about not having peace of mind, including today while feeling like this, so it was interesting to see in the Jewish book I just started re-reading (The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) that peace of mind is a negative thing in Judaism. We should feel inner conflict: “there are [spiritual] goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.” (p.5) Elsewhere (The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 132) Rabbi Steinsaltz states that “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.” This is rather different from what a lot of self-help books say. Alan Morinis writes that the Jewish idea of equanimity is like a surfer on a wave, staying balanced, but aware of what is around him. This approach intrigues me. It seems more feasible than complete calm and lack of emotional upsets.

***

I feel that I’m reading less. I should qualify that and say I’m reading less recreationally. I read a lot of religious material, in Hebrew and English. But I think I’m reading less for fun. Certainly I haven’t found a novel that really grabbed me, that I became immersed in, for quite a while. And I’m not sure if my idea of mixing more non-fiction into my reading schedule is so good. I like to learn about history, economics and politics, so setting aside time to read about them is good, but then I want to be a professional author, so I should read a lot of fiction. It can also be harder to get motivated to read non-fiction than fiction. Then again, I want to write Jewish historical fantasy, so a solid grounding in Jewish and world history and mythology is also important…

I also find that it’s easier to read blogs and news articles online than books or even longform online journalism. The Jewish Review of Books periodically posts long articles that they don’t include in the print magazine and I save them, but it’s hard to get around to reading them. Sometimes I print things like that off and read it on Shabbat as it’s easier to set aside the time to read then. Despite this, I still spend hours idly surfing blogs, BBC News and other news sites.

I guess the bottom line is that I haven’t found reading so much fun lately, so I’ve been prioritising television, particularly when tired (which is a lot of the time). I’m not sure what to do about this, or if this is even something I should do anything about. Reading has been my love since I was a toddler, it will probably reassert itself at some point, maybe when I’m sufficiently at peace with my own novel to be able to read other people’s work without taking it to pieces to see how it works and what I should (or shouldn’t) learn from it, which I’ve been doing lately (mind you, I do that with TV too).

***

I don’t normally post links, but as I was complaining about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) lockdown non-compliance recently, I want to link to this interesting post that says that the data suggests Haredi compliance was greater than the community has been given credited for, at least in the first lockdown. And while I find many aspects of Haredi life personally uncomfortable, not to mention antithetical to my understanding of Judaism, I agree that demonising “Them” isn’t helpful. It opens the door to all kinds of nasty social engineering projects once you decide that some life choices are inherently wrong and need policing (or “helping”) by other groups (with obvious caveats for where those life choices affect those unable to choose, whether children or people vulnerable to COVID).

The Understudy

I didn’t have a very good night’s sleep. I used my new weighted blanket and it was good, but I wonder if it was warm enough as I kept waking up in the night. If I continue to have interrupted sleep, I may put a summer weight duvet over it and see how that is. I slept badly anyway through going to bed late and having slept too much in the afternoon, so it took me a long time to fall asleep. I had weird dreams, although none interesting enough to be worth sharing, and woke up late and burnt out so that I lay in bed a long time trying to get the strength to get up. I felt a bit better after breakfast, but I don’t usually feel 100% until after lunch, even on work days when I do manage to get up early.

I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above the water at the moment. Some of it is the time of year, as I’ve mentioned, when the days are still short and cold and wet, but the anxiety about the spring Jewish festivals is growing. In addition, my sleep is still disrupted, I’m still worried about doing the wrong thing at work, I feel negative about my novel (vaguely wondering if I should give up on it and start a new one, although I don’t realistically feel that would be a good idea at this stage) and I miss PIMOJ in the lockdown. And, like pretty much everyone in the world, I’m sick of COVID and lockdowns in general, I just want life to be normal again (for all that I struggle with “normal”). PIMOJ is stressed about things in her life too, which only magnifies the problem.

I know other frum (religious) Jews don’t get so anxious about Jewish observance. They perform the mitzvot (commandments) to the best of their ability and that’s that. I don’t know how they get to that point. Some of it is probably being brought up frum from a young age (which I wasn’t) and some is feeling a strong level of community integration and support (which I don’t have).

I was feeling today that I’m an understudy in my own life, thrust onto the stage unprepared. Or, I’m a new actor playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, trying to play it my way, while keeping faith with my predecessors (i.e. other Jews, especially my ancestors).

I went for a run and while running I started thinking about the two questions Babylon 5 is built around, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” I want to be a good Jew and a good writer. I’m not sure if that answers the “Who?” or “What?” question and I’m not sure how to achieve either of them. I feel like I should have better answers and more of a plan for achieving them now I’m in my late thirties.

After my run, though, I started thinking about gratitude, how grateful I am for supportive parents and a supportive sister, for a brother-in-law I get on with even though we’re quite different, for friends online and in person, for the fact that I’m in work with a tolerant boss, for the fact that I’m reasonably psychologically stable at the moment, and for the fact that I have a supportive girlfriend. I know not everyone has these things, and I’m grateful for them.

Last Wednesday, my therapist encouraged me to focus on “I can cope” as an affirmation. I’ve not found affirmations hugely useful in my recovery from mental illness, but this seemed fairly pithy and realistic. I know I can cope. I’ve coped with my mental health for years and I’ve had several reasonably good Purims and Pesachs, at least from a mental health point of view, since the ones that were my nadir (around 2015 and 2016). So I can cope – I just have to learn to believe it.

***

Other than that, it wasn’t much of a day. I did some Torah study (less than I wanted) and, as I said, I went for a run, but that was about it. I didn’t get to work on my novel. There are some changes I want to make to the current draft before I send it out for feedback and I don’t know when I will have time to make them. I guess I feel I wasted time, although given how I felt on waking, I probably shouldn’t blame myself too much, not that that has ever stopped me.

***

I feel I’ve put myself “out here” a bit more in my blog over the last few months, occasionally posting more potentially controversial political and religious things. I guess that means I have a certain degree of trust in the people who read and comment. I don’t want to post a huge amount of this type of stuff, I still see this as primarily a daily journal-type blog about surviving with autism and residual mental illness on a day-to-day level, but it’s interesting because it suggests I can put these feelings out here in some circumstances, bearing in mind that I tend to hide my thoughts about politics and religion in Real Life. I do still get the, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, what will people think of me?/what will they say?” feeling though, the desire to go back and edit or delete what I’ve written.

Shabbat and “Organised Religion”

Shabbat was mostly good. I finished reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy. It was very detailed (it’s much longer than the other books I have in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series even though Ruth is a very short book), perhaps a little too detailed, but it was very thorough and gave me a new appreciation for the literary and theological depth of a book that I had perhaps dismissed in the past as merely a pleasant story and a bit of an “origin story” for the Davidic monarchy.

I couldn’t sleep at night and read a lot of the graphic novel Final Crisis. I found it fairly incomprehensible. I knew that was likely to happen, as it’s a “crisis” story where Detective Comics put all their superheroes together against a massive foe. As Batman, to a much lesser extent, Superman, are the only superheroes I know well, I was expecting to be faced with many characters I didn’t know well or even at all. However, no characters seemed to stick around for more than a page or two to get to know them, except for a long interlude of Superman with parallel universe Supermen in a weird limbo universe. I didn’t really understand what was going on or why an equation can drive the entire population of Earth to despair and servitude of a super-powerful alien being (Darkseid). I’m reading it as it’s part of Grant Morrison’s wider Batman story arc, but it doesn’t seem to be as good as the other, Batman-only, stories in the arc. Or maybe I’m still too much of a Detective Comics novice to appreciate it. I think Morrison isn’t such a great plot author and tends to rely on spectacle and innovation and reimagining existing characters to pull the reader along.

I told PIMOJ I would get up at 10am today. I’m trying to see if I can get up earlier if I make myself responsible to her. I didn’t manage it, but I did get up at 10.37 instead, which was reasonably good. Unfortunately I napped for two hours after lunch; not good, I won’t sleep tonight (hence it’s gone 12.30am and I’m still writing).

I had a headache after Shabbat. I hope I’m not getting back in the habit of getting a headache every week.

My parents and I watched a Zoom talk this evening. Someone from my shul (synagogue) was speaking about his life story, from birth into a non-Jewish Austrian family in the 1920s to conscription into the Hitler Youth and later the SS, to being captured by the Americans and being a prisoner of war in England and eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism quite late in life. It was interesting and he really had enough material to speak for two evenings.

After that I spoke to PIMOJ for a while and then did some Torah study that I hadn’t managed earlier because of my headache.

***

I had some thoughts about organised religion, based on the comments to my previous post. A number of people spoke about believing in God, or at least being open to God, but getting turned off by organised religion. I guess that’s something I can’t always understand emotionally, although I can see why some religious institutions would annoy people. Maybe it’s partially because Judaism doesn’t have the kind of structure that the Catholic and Anglican Churches have, the sense of a vast institution with wealth and power and a religious hierarchy.

When people say “organised religion” to me in a Jewish context I think of stuff like having a community with some kind of funding to own or lease a building for regular prayers, to ensure the lights and the heating there stay on, and having some kind of administrative set-up to ensure that the money is overseen safely, with no fraud, and that poorer people in the community can be supported from communal tzedaka (charity) funds and so on. Maybe also paying a rabbi to provide pastoral support. That’s not really anything that upsets or annoys me, or turns me off in other ways.

On the other hand, I do get annoyed by, and feel rebellious when confronted with various things. I don’t particularly care about being told what to eat or when to pray or who I can marry; I take that as coming with the territory of being an Orthodox Jew. However, I do react strongly if I feel people are telling me what I can read or are dismissing my beliefs, even if I know they’re minority views in the Orthodox community and more ‘modern’ than Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Also if I feel people are saying I can’t watch Doctor Who, which is an obsessive autistic special interest for me and looms larger in my life than it probably should; I feel I couldn’t cope without it.

I don’t really associate this with “organised religion” though. To me it seems more of a sociological thing, maybe because it’s enforced by peer pressure rather than by overt means. I mean, when I joined my shul (synagogue), no one asked if I take the Genesis Creation story literally or whether I think non-Jewish religions are religiously valid for their adherents. But then I hear people (including) rabbis taking a different line on these things to me and I feel out of place and worried of being “found out.” I doubt they would (or could) throw me out of the shul if they did find out, but it would probably change how some people interacted with me.

I feel a lot of it comes from the nature of my community, with some very Haredi congregants and certainly Haredi rabbis, but other congregants who are more ‘modern’ like me. I used to go to my parents’ shul, which is definitely more modern, but I felt that people at my current shul took prayer and Torah study more seriously. Plus my current shul is much smaller; I felt overwhelmed by the number of people at my parents’ shul even on ordinary Shabbats, let alone festivals. I have an identity in my own right in my shul too, rather than just being an adjunct of my parents. So I stick with my current shul even though doctrinally it’s not a perfect fit.

This may sound strange to Christians in particular, but doctrine or dogma isn’t such a big thing in Judaism. Jews tend to focus more on what you do than what you believe. If you dress in an acceptable way, don’t publicly violate Shabbat or Yom Tov (festivals), are polite to people, and attend prayer services and shiurim (religious classes) regularly, people will probably accept you, at least on a basic level, without asking what you actually believe.

More Burnout and Coping

I woke up feeling really burnt out again. I didn’t get up until nearly 1pm, which was very late. I feel worried about how easily I get burnt out. I want to have children one day and I know PIMOJ does too, but at the moment if we had children she would virtually be a single mother in terms of childcare. OK, not quite that bad, but it certainly wouldn’t be a 50:50 split. I’ve mentioned that we won’t be able to get married for a couple of years, even if we decide to do so, so I’m hoping that my life will magically turn around in that time and perhaps it could, if I get a firm autism diagnosis, get my novel published and maybe if my job with J becomes more permanent, but it seems a lot to hang on a lot of ifs.

I booked in for Megillah readings at shul (synagogue). The Megillah is the Book of Esther which is read twice on the festival of Purim (next week). There’s an obligation to hear it evening and morning in full – literally every word. There’s also a custom of making noise whenever the name of Haman (the villain, who tried to wipe out the Jews) is mentioned, which makes the idea of hearing every word rather harder. In the past this has provoked religious OCD in me and I’m still nervous of what might happen. Plus Purim has a carnival atmosphere with dressing up in fancy dress and partying (admittedly not so much this year because of COVID) which can be intimidating from a depression and autism point of view. I have had a some good Purims over the years, but also some difficult ones, and I think my first episode of depression started (or became obvious) on Purim many years ago. This year, COVID adds a whole other layer of uncertainty and anxiety.

My parents got my olanzapine, which saved me some time. I was glad it was there and I didn’t have to phone the GP again as I feared I might have to do. Speaking of olanzapine, my psychiatrist phoned just to check on how I’m doing being back on it. I said I’m doing well, aside from the continued tiredness and difficulty working out whether it was residual depression, medication side-effects or autistic burn out. I’m leaning towards the latter and she said autistic burnout is very real and might be the issue. We spoke a bit about what help might be available, but unfortunately I need a diagnosis first and am still waiting to hear when my final assessment will be.

I had a good therapy session too. We spoke about trying to remind myself daily that I can cope with things (work, COVID, unexpected events that faze me and so on). That’s particularly pertinent at this time of year as we approach the Jewish festivals of Purim (next week) and Pesach (a month later) which have historically been very difficult and triggering festivals for me for different reasons and which still provoke anxiety in me in advance, even knowing that for the last couple of years I’ve been coping with them much better (doubtless more on this in the coming weeks).

I just ordered a weighted blanket. I’m hoping this might improve my sleep and make it easier to wake up and get up in the mornings. To be honest, I don’t have much hope, but at this stage I’ll try almost anything. Perhaps more pragmatically, I’ve said I should set a time to get up on non-work days and make myself accountable to PIMOJ to get up then. Hopefully between them, those strategies will help.