Suffering and Psychiatry

There is a price to a busy day like yesterday. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling really anxious, suddenly concerned that I would forget to tell the Department of Work and Pensions that I’m working (if I get the job) and shouldn’t be receiving benefits any more (the situation is actually more complicated than that, because my doctor’s note for the benefits states that I can work part-time, but not full-time, so a lot would depend on the nature of my contract). This led to catastrophising about going to jail for benefit fraud, but I didn’t want to write a note out of a superstitious fear that would “jinx” the job interview. I did write a note in the end, deciding piece of mind from the anxiety outweighed superstition.

***

I slept late, but when I awoke had to hurry as I had a video call with my psychiatrist. Annoyingly, the NHS expect you to log on ten minutes early (OK), but then play you awful lift muzak! Hands up who has no understanding of neurodiversity… There was also a recorded message that kept telling me to read the messages on the screen, even though there weren’t any.

The psychiatrist call itself was pretty good. She was pleased that I’ve been feeling better lately and said I looked a lot better. I told her about the job interview, but not about PIMOJ. The psychiatrist said that the brand of lithium I take is being discontinued, so I’ll have to switch to another brand, which is frustrating. Hopefully it will work just as well. She said I can try cutting back on my olanzapine and seeing if that makes a difference to my energy levels. If my mood gets worse, I can just resume the old dosage. I probably will do that, but not necessarily just yet, as in the past trying to come of olanzapine has led to significant mood changes and I think I would rather see if I’m going to be starting a new job and get started on it before doing anything. We both felt that the clomipramine should stay as it is, as it seems to be the most effective medication I’m on.

***

I helped Dad some more with setting up the sukkah, the portable shelter Jews eat in during the Sukkot festival (starting tomorrow night). I went shopping, initially going with my Dad to get the arbah minim (too complicated to explain, see here) then going to a Jewish bookshop and a charity shop to browse because I like browsing bookshops, but haven’t done it much lately because of COVID, as well as buying more vitamin D supplements from Boots. I still feel uncomfortable being around people in shops and did wonder if the browsing was a good idea. Mask compliance was very good, but social distancing and use of one way systems was not so good. I’m partially to blame here myself, but it’s not always easy to distance in a shop with narrow aisles or while queuing to pay.

I spent the rest of the afternoon/early evening sorting through emails and papers on my desk. It’s amazing how “Stuff” just builds up even without my apparently doing very much to generate it. I was too tired to do much and would have liked to unwind, but could not really relax feeling my desk and my inbox were disappearing under things.

***

I managed about forty-five minutes of Torah study; as usual, I wish I could have done more, but ran out of time and energy. Maybe it’s good that I always want to do more Torah study, even if sometimes I simply wish I could have got to a full hour. However, sometimes, like today, I wish I could spend more time exploring ancient and modern texts. The Talmud (I’m too tired to search for the reference, sorry) states that no one dies with even half his desires fulfilled. I realised that this applies to the righteous as well as ordinary people; the difference is that the righteous’ unfulfilled desires are spiritual rather than material. At least my desires here are spiritual.

In my ongoing (if sometimes intermittent) re-reading of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), I recently started Iyov (Job), to me one of the most challenging books of Tanakh. Alongside the biblical text, I started reading Job’s Illness: Loss, Grief and Integration: A Psychological Interpretation by a psychiatrist called Jack Kahn. It’s a study of the book that assumes that Job’s sufferings, while triggered by external events (the loss of his family and wealth) take on a psychological aspect based around depression, obsession and paranoia as seen in his speeches; his skin affliction is seen as psychosomatic. Job’s dialogues with his friends, with Elihu and finally with God enable him to reintegrate his personality and develop his psyche beyond his situation before his troubles started. “The vehicle by which his maturation is accomplished is, in fact, the very suffering which he undergoes.”

I’ve only read the introduction so far, so I’m not sure what the book will be like, but I’m intrigued by the premise and looking forward to reading it. I’m not sure if the author is Jewish (although Kahn is a Jewish name), but I’ve come across other Jewish quasi-psychological readings of Iyov that see the book as charting his growth from a religiosity based on fear of God and distance from other people to one based on love for both God and other people. I’m not sure if the book is still in print or easily available; I rescued my copy from the “duplicates/for sale” pile when I worked in a Jewish library. My copy also features some of William Blake’s illustrations to the biblical text.

***

Surprisingly, I got another job interview, this time for a school librarian position I applied for. I didn’t really expect to get this, as I have no experience of primary school librarianship. Unfortunately, the interview is next Tuesday and I have a date booked with PIMOJ and she has taken time off work, so I can’t cancel. I have emailed the school to ask if an alternative date is possible.

***

Speaking of the date, I’m worried and trying not to catastrophise. Try to stay in the present…

***

This short video from the National Autistic Society nicely illustrates the problems of dealing with a lot of questions/statements if you have autistic sensory overload and slower processing speed. This is how I feel in job interviews, or even just noisy kiddush halls.

Love of God; Loss and Gain of Friends

Shabbat was good. I slept too much though: about ten hours at night and another two and a half after lunch. It meant I didn’t have time for much Torah study or recreational reading.

***

I had a thought about being loved by God. I used to say that I couldn’t believe that God loves me, then that I could accept God loves me intellectually, but not emotionally. I thought this was all tied up with suffering, mine and that of the world in general. I realised yesterday that that’s not the issue, or not the main issue. While I’m not sure how much I accept that God loves me, my real worry is that I won’t be able to cope with the future suffering he makes me go through, whether it’s physical pain or even greater loneliness (when my parents aren’t here). I worry that I won’t cope and (a) will be in extreme pain (physical or emotional) and (b) will stop being religious out of anger or despair. I’m not sure where to go with these thoughts right now.

***

I realised I’ve changed a lot of my social contacts in the last six months or so. I’ve lost touch with shul (synagogue) friends and acquaintances because of lockdown. I have not been in touch with E. properly since we broke up (although she tried to get back together with me, or at least to get back in contact, I did not think it was a good idea). I think there has been a high turnover of people reading my blog in the last six months to a year, with some people vanishing and others starting to read. I guess I find all the change a bit disconcerting (blame autism if you want). I’m still blaming myself for friends that I lost a couple of years ago (real life and online), which was at least partially my fault.

***

I was trying not to think about my novel over Shabbat, but a possible solution, or part solution, to the problem of the climax came into my head suddenly. It will take a lot of restructuring, but I’m open to that at this stage.

***

More Rav Kook: “Every person who feels within himself the depth of penitential remorse and the anxiety to mend his flaws — both those whose redress is within his reach and those he hopes to redress in time by the mercy of God — should include himself in the category of the righteous.” from The Lights of Penitence in Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems p.65

***

I don’t like to use the word “hate,” but can I just say how much I hate the new WordPress editor? I thought I would get used to it over time, but the more I use it, the worse it seems. I can’t work out how to get back to the classic editor (properly, not just for a particular block). I can only assume the new editor was developed by a mole for rival blog platform, trying to bring the company down from within; I can’t believe someone actually thought it was a good idea.

Like a Lion

I’ve been struggling to get to sleep this week, not hugely, but persistently.  I woke up early (for me) this morning and rose “like a lion,” like I’m supposed to (per Jewish texts).  I managed to get going quite quickly and say the Shema prayer and the Shacharit Amidah (the main Morning Prayer) on time, which I almost never manage these days because of depression, even though I skipped most of the other morning prayers.

My mood was quite good today, except while I was davening (praying) I suddenly had self-critical thoughts about myself, thinking that I must be a disappointment to my parents compared with my sister.  Still, I’m trying not to get sucked into depression and negativity.  I try to tell myself I’m on my own path.  Try to focus on the present.

***

Today is 10 Av, according to the Jewish calendar, and my Hebrew birthday.  The morning is still a sad period from Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks of mourning, but from the afternoon, the mourning restrictions are lifted and one can listen to music, go on holiday, shave, trim nails etc.  I’ve done or am looking forward to doing all those things, except no holidays this year because of COVID and Mum’s cancer.  I’m not a great traveller anyway.  Maybe it’s good that my Hebrew birthday always starts sad and gets better (except when 9 Av falls on Saturday, then the fast is postponed to 10 Av and the whole day is miserable).

***

I tried to apply for a librarian job at a charity, but the online application system said I have already applied there.  I have actually applied for three different roles there, most recently in February.  I assume they never recruited because of COVID and are looking again.  I emailed them to check that my previous application will still be considered.  I did get called for interview for one of the three jobs, so I think it’s worth applying again.  I’m unsure about applying to a different institution where I also had an interview, but I felt that I wasn’t a good match for the institution’s culture.  I also applied for a job I don’t think I’m qualified for, because it was an easy LinkedIn application that only takes two minutes.  I’m not sure how sensible that was.  My thinking was that if I’m really not qualified, they won’t even call me to interview and that the risk was worth it considering how little time it took to apply.

I’m still concerned that most jobs in my sector are full-time and I don’t think I can cope with more than three days a week (at most) at the moment.  My parents say, “Apply and worry about that when you get the job.”  I’m not sure.  I think I need to think about other jobs in other sectors.  I did go to a careers advisor before COVID, but I felt he didn’t know the library sector and skill set so well.  He suggested being a private tutor, but I feel I need training in how to teach someone (including how to mark work, not something I’ve had to do before) and was not sure how to get it.

***

Achievements: aside from the job stuff and the usual pre-Shabbat chores, I went for a walk and worked on my novel.

***

I’m feeling pensive at the moment because today I’ve been reminded of a number of my friends and friends of my parents who are struggling with major health issues for themselves or their families right now.  It makes saddened and empathetic, and also puts one’s own problems in perspective.  The only way I can really believe in God, given the amount of suffering in the world, is to assume that this world is a “vale of soul-making” as Keats put it or the “ante-chamber” to the “banquet hall” as the Mishnah says and that we are here purely to grow, not to be happy.  Not that there is anything wrong with accepting happiness where we find it, but happiness is the natural state of the Next World; in This World our natural state is to struggle so that we can make our souls (Keats) and prepare ourselves (the Mishnah), which are really two ways of saying the same thing.

I didn’t really want to end on a down note, but I need to go as we’re heading towards Shabbat now, so Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath).

Depressed, Lonely and Shielding

Chaconia mentioned that I have a habit of quantifying my depression into minutes or hours of activity, numbers of negative thoughts and so on.  I had noticed this, at least to some extent, but it doesn’t seem unhelpful so I’ve never challenged it.  If anything, it shows me most days that I do more than I would otherwise subjectively believe.  Nevertheless, I wonder if it’s connected to the fears of losing control that I wrote about last week.  That if I stopped monitoring myself, I would become out of control somehow, probably through inactivity.

***

I felt very so depressed and exhausted again today.  I’m not sure why I’ve been feeling worse the last few days.  It could be the break up, but I thought I was over that.  Maybe I’m not.  It wouldn’t be surprising if I wasn’t, as while it only lasted a few months (a) we had been together before and (b) it very intense both emotionally and in the amount of time we spent Skyping.  I also feel that lockdown is getting to me a bit, but I’m also very worried about what the end of lockdown means for me, in terms of applying for jobs again, but also in terms of other activities such as shul (synagogue).

***

My shul sent out an email the other day regarding services coming out of lockdown, but I didn’t get it.  I chased it and got it today.  They are limiting services to thirty people, outside when weather permits, with masks and bringing your own siddur (prayer book), tallit (prayer shawl) etc.  I have very mixed feelings about it.  Part of me would like to get back to the routine of shul, not least to challenge my social anxiety, which has probably got worse over the last four months without me pushing against my urge to run away from people and events.  There is also the fact that the social element of shul may help my mood (or worsen it).

On the other hand, I feel I don’t get much out of shul, certainly not at the moment, and maybe I should leave it to other people who get more out of it.  I would be sorry to miss Talmud shiur, which is resuming on Shabbat (Saturday), especially as that can be hard to catch up on subsequently, so if I miss a few weeks now I may never catch up (I would like to finish even one masechta (volume) of Talmud once as whenever I go to a shiur, we never complete one).  My big reservation is whether it would be dangerous for Mum if Dad and I to go back to shul.  We are still supposed to shield her until 31 July and even after then her immune system will be weak.  The government guidelines are that shielded people should not go to places of worship, but they don’t say anything about other members of the household.  My Mum has a meeting with the oncologist tomorrow and has promised to raise the question.

***

I found writing really difficult today.  My difficulty writing is not helped by the fact that I’m writing a novel with two different viewpoints, and whose characters do not intersect directly in the middle of the novel.  This has proved unexpectedly difficult to write.  Every time I alternate viewpoints, which happens with most new chapters, I struggle to get back into the head and situation of the main character of that chapter.

I went for a walk to try to jump start my brain.  I wrote for a short while when I returned, but still struggled.  Then I had to have dinner and get ready for shiur (religious class) on Zoom.

While out walking I had a lot of rapid images going through my head.  Autistic people often think in images rather than words.  I usually think in a mixture of the two, but when I’m feeling agitated the images become faster and more vivid, some times distressingly so.  Today’s images were not distressing, but they were rapid and agitated.

***

My therapist suggested getting in contact with friends to ease my loneliness.  The problem (aside from lockdown) is a lack of friends to contact, at least away from the blogosphere.  I emailed two friends, one of whom has already replied.  I’m not convinced email contact alone will do much to alleviate loneliness, and even without lockdown, it’s hard to see people, as so many of my friends are long-distance.  It is good to hear from other people though, and to get outside my own head for a bit.

I wish I had some way of contacting other religious Jews who are struggling religiously.  Ideally on a message board or mailing list or similar, probably not in person as I’m not good at that and we would probably all want to be anonymous.  I feel like I’m still struggling with being a good Jew, even though breaking up with E. reduced some of the cognitive dissonance I think I was under.

These thoughts were triggered by looking at the Beyond BT website again, which I shouldn’t do as it makes me feel inadequate, as no one there seems to have the same struggles I do.  When the Jewish blogosphere was more active years ago, there used to be “OTD” blogs (OTD = off the derekh (road) = people becoming non-religious) blogs, but they are not what I want.  Those were mainly for people with issues with Torah and science or Bible criticism.  I just struggle to have positive feelings about my religious life because of depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and because I struggle to find meaning in my pain, which leads me to feel God must hate me to make me suffer so much pain with no obvious meaning.  I don’t really have much of a spiritual life at all, as distinct from a religious one.  I don’t think I’m a very spiritual person at the best of times, even without depression and anhedonia.  Maybe I’m being unfair to myself.

***

Zoom shiur was OK this week.  I participated rather more than usual, although the flipside was making more mistakes.  That was the last in that run of shiurim (on Rashi), although I have one more week of my Monday shiur (on meaning).

***

You may remember my Dad’s car’s catalytic converter was stolen a while back, right at the start of lockdown.  Now someone has stolen the replacement!  It’s unlikely to be the same thief, as the first time it was taken from the hospital car park and this time it was taken from our front drive.  It’s quite expensive to replace and needs to be fitted by a mechanic, so this is a huge expense and hassle.  Apparently they’re very easy to steal and very valuable, so there’s a lot of incentive for thieves.  They’ve damaged the car too.  This is very frustrating and we’re all angry about it.

Quick, Let’s Drink a Million Cups of Tea While We Procrastinate

That title…  I think I’m clever and funny when really, I’m not.

I just feel inadequate today.

I was pretty exhausted last night after Skype therapy and Zoom shiur (religious class) and I went to bed early (for me at any rate – midnight) hoping I would get up earlier today, but I still slept very late.  I just feel so depressed and exhausted on waking.  Maybe it’s not surprising given that I had a very draining day yesterday.  I think a lot of the problem about waking tired is to do with low blood sugar, which has always affected me badly, although I don’t plan on getting up in the middle of the night to eat.

Even after breakfast and getting dressed, I still felt really depressed and exhausted.  Struggling to do anything.

***

I feel like I’ve sunk into some kind of religious crisis (again) without really realising how.  Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav says that religious crises are inevitable and unending in this world; as soon as you achieve some kind of certainty about something, it brings with it a whole load of new unknowns for you to worry about (it’s not clear if the unknowns are completely new, or old ones on a deeper or more intense level).  I believe in God, but I find it harder and harder to connect to Him and to Torah and mitzvot (commandments).  I know a lot stems from not fitting in to a religious community for moral and practical support and also feeling like I’ve transgressed the community’s standards in ways that I’m not always sure about (as in, I’m not sure if I’ve transgressed them or not).  I’ve always felt alone, even in my religious practice, even when I was a more regular attendee at shul (synagogue).  I’ve always felt that in the final analysis, it came down to just me and God without other people really being involved.  That’s probably a horrible thing to say, but it ties in with my lack of friends, my difficulties communicating with my parents, the fact that I was single for most of my adult life and my fascination with solipsism and solipsistic fiction.

I guess now I feel that I have to “sell” Orthodox Judaism to E. or she won’t join me in it and I don’t know how to sell something I feel so increasingly equivocal about.  Depressive anhedonia is a big part of the problem too, more so than anything theological.  It’s hard to enjoy Judaism when I can’t enjoy anything, even things that are easier to enjoy.

Ashley Leia asked me on the last post if I felt that God causes my suffering.  I said yes.  Conceptually that doesn’t bother me so much. I came to the conclusion a while back that we aren’t here on Earth to be happy, but to grow, and growth often requires suffering as a stimulus, therefore suffering is to be accepted as part of the human condition in this world.  Nevertheless, I feel exhausted and not sure how to carry on sometimes. It just feels so overwhelming and unending. There is definitely a difference between accepting suffering intellectually and feeling emotionally accepting of it.  I can accept it intellectually (I know other people have it much worse than I do), but it’s hard to accept emotionally.  Hard to accept that I might always feel like this, that I’ve lost the life I thought I would have at this stage of life (career, wife, kids, community, self-love).  It’s hard to see so many other people apparently living that life with no idea if I will ever achieve it.

***

It doesn’t help that I’m feeling quite blocked with my writing at the moment.  I sit in front of the computer, drink a lot of tea, idly surf online and blog, but it’s a struggle to write anything for the novel.  I wonder if the story I’m trying to tell is too complicated for me, or if I’m cut out to be a writer at all.  Maybe it was absurd to think I could write about domestic abuse, a subject which I have not experienced directly.  All my writing about  it seems crass and ill-formed.

***

Religious crisis, low mood and writer’s block are probably connected with isolation.  I haven’t been on the depression group Zoom call for weeks as I get too tired after therapy now, which is on the same day.  E. and I haven’t spoken much for the last few days because of Shabbat and my shiur yesterday and E.’s workload, although we did speak today.  Some people who used to comment here haven’t done so for a while and nor have some bloggers I follow/am friends with posted on their blogs lately and I’m worried if everyone is OK, or if they’re angry with me and are avoiding me/have taken me off their friends’ list.  I guess I feel isolated.  I didn’t have much in the way of social contact even before lockdown, but I feel like I’m losing more of it.  My shul (synagogue) is doing another Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat service (beginning of the Friday evening service), but I found the last one awkward and uncomfortable, so I probably won’t do it again.  My parents are hoping to have my sister and brother-in-law over either socially distanced in the garden or via Zoom on Sunday to celebrate my Mum’s birthday, so hopefully that will help, although I’m nervous about even socially distanced meeting.

***

The Kotzker Rebbe spoke about the evil inclination stealing “the delicate chord of truth from your heart”.  After that, it no longer worries if you work or pray or study, because without the chord of truth, whatever you do is of no interest to him (i.e. it’s meaningless).  I feel like I lost the chord of truth a long time ago.

***

I’m just feeling today that I failed at everything.  I failed at being a good Jew.  I failed at being a good writer.  I failed at being a good blogger.  I worry that I’ve failed at being a good friend and boyfriend, and probably also at being a good son and brother.

I feel that other people I meet online have a reason to be mentally ill (often abuse or trauma of some kind), but I haven’t experienced anything bad, I’m just too useless to function properly.  I should get over myself.  Alternatively, they produce something with their pain, some art or something to help others, something that somehow justifies and explains what they endured.  I haven’t managed that either.

Part of me says that this is just my inner critical voice speaking, but it seems kind of reassuring to say that.  Much harder to confront the reality of having failed at everything I tried.

The sudden upswing of depression might also be because Mum has asked me to go with her to her oncologist appointment tomorrow.  Mum likes to have someone with her, as she gets overwhelmed sometimes and misses information.  Dad went to the first few meetings, then COVID-19 happened and non-patients were not allowed in the hospital.  Now one non-patient is allowed in “At their own risk” (which is a bit scary in itself).  Mum wants it to be me rather than Dad because he may not be able to park the car there (I’m not sure why) so will have to drop us off, go home, and come back to collect us later.

There is also some genuine fear about me and E., in that we know that we both have real anxieties about the relationship over things that we can’t do anything about at the moment and we have to just sit with those feelings and see what happens in the long term.

***

Achievements today: I cooked dinner (spicy rice and lentils), and spent forty minutes or so researching and writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  It’s easier to write a devar Torah sometimes (like today) than it is to study Torah for some reason, perhaps to do with concentration and motivation.  I was also anxious that I would not find enough material for this weeks’ sedra (Bamidbar, focusing on the census of the Israelites in the wilderness – not easy to talk about) so was I trying out ideas and looking for sources when I found something.

I went for a run, which I hoped would help my mood, but I struggled to run, walking lots of the time, partly because of depression, but also because of the heat and, in the second half, an exercise migraine.  I had a lot of negative thoughts buzzing around my brain: that I’ve disappointed my parents and never given them any naches (reflected glory from children or grandchildren); that E. will realise sooner or later what a useless, pathetic, needy, screwed up boyfriend I am and leave me (she’s told me I’m catastrophising about this, but it was still what I was thinking); that I’ll probably die lonely, impoverished and unloved, maybe even homeless and living on the streets…  just a negative thought spiral.

I came back too exhausted and migrainey to think negative thoughts; post-migraine I tend to feel physically fragile, but emotionally OK (a rather extreme and counter-productive way of shifting a low mood).  However, the negative thoughts are already creeping back.  I need to daven Ma’ariv (say Evening Prayers) and I want to do a little Torah study if I can today, even if it’s only a few minutes.  I want to chill out in front of the TV for a bit, but it’s getting late and I’m not sure if that will just keep me awake later.

***

The rabbi from my shul WhatsApped me to check how I am, which was nice.  I do feel a bit more a part of the community when he does that.  I’m not quite sure what to say at the moment, though.

***

There aren’t many jobs being advertised at the moment, unsurprisingly, but I just got an advert for a “Cybrarian” which sounds (a) horribly like something out of Doctor Who*, (b) horribly like something from dot-com boom of the nineties and (c) like a overly-modern company where I would not fit into the corporate culture, particularly as they put “The ability to laugh at yourself” on the job description.  How do they interview for that?  I worry they make fun of you and then say, “What’s the matter?  Can’t you laugh at yourself?”  Mind you, they put “a profound love and passion for Technology [sic]” on the list too, which sounds even more disturbing, particularly as “Technology” was capitalised throughout the advert and job description.

* Which has given us Cyberman, Cybergun, Cybercontroller, Cybermat, Cyberplanner, Cyber-megatron bomb, Cyberleader, Cyberwar, Cyberbomb (“The most explosive devices in the universe!”), Cyberlieutenant, Cybermite, Cyberiad, Cyberium and Cyberdrone.

Anxiety and Martyrdom Complexes

I saw a psychiatrist today for review.  It was a new psychiatrist; I think the last one is off sick.  Whatever the reason, turnover on the NHS is high and I’ve seen loads of psychiatrists.  I did have one who I saw for several years, but she was the exception.  I mentioned to her that my depression has worsened in the last few weeks.  Neither of us felt that changing medication is an appropriate response at the moment as I’m almost on the highest dose of clomipramine (my main antidepressant) and cutting anything (I’m on three different psychiatric medications) just makes things worse.  We spoke a bit about the effect of unemployment on my mental state and she said she could potentially refer me to somewhere that could help, but we’re not doing that for the moment as it seems that there isn’t much they can offer that isn’t being offered by the two organisations I’m already in touch with.  I also spoke a little bit about being on the waiting list for autism diagnosis, but there isn’t much that can be done about that.

To be honest, I have these reviews every quarter or so and the main reason I go is so that if my mood suddenly gets worse (even worse than currently), I’m on the system and can see someone easily, rather than having to be referred again by my GP, which is a lot of hassle and also slow.  I feel somewhat guilty about wasting NHS resources, especially as one of the bloggers I follow was complaining about lack of NHS resources today, but, as I mentioned the other day, I feel that this is the system I’m in and it’s acceptable to make the most of it.  I do believe in public healthcare, but I think the centralised model of the NHS dates from an era of confidence in central planning that is now long past.  If you were building a public health infrastructure from scratch today, you would not build something like the NHS (as is often stated, the NHS is respected worldwide, but almost never imitated).

Plus, I do believe that with the best will in the world, the NHS will always be overstretched.  If something is free, the demand, economically speaking, is potentially infinite.  If someone was giving out free bars of chocolate, you would potentially take as much as you could, limited mainly by the room you have to store it and the expiry date.  People aren’t going to request chemotherapy without needing it, but potentially many treatments could be over-prescribed to people who want help, but don’t urgently need it (similar to the over-prescription issue with antibiotics).  If they had to pay for it directly, they probably would not get it, being deterred by even a nominal price, but they will take any help that is free.  In an egalitarian, free-at-point-of-use system, it is hard (legally as well as practically) to discriminate between people who urgently need help and those who could benefit from some help, but are not in urgent need.  There is some prioritising of the very needy on the NHS (I think at the discretion of the GP referring the patient, which makes it open to abuse or at least inconsistency), but if you do not need help very urgently you just go on the waiting list with a bunch of people who need help significantly, moderately and perhaps only slightly.

Beyond this,  psychiatry and psychotherapy are incredibly labour intensive (one patient per therapist per hour for therapy; three or four patients per psychiatrist per hour) and requires highly-trained (and therefore expensive) psychiatrists therapists.  Mental illness is common and even people with mild mental health issues could potentially benefit from therapy (to be honest, even some people without a diagnosable condition could benefit from therapy, if money was no object) .  The result is that mental healthcare is always going to be overstretched, until we find a way either to significantly improve human psychological resilience or overcome our limited resources.  It is, however, not politically correct to say this.  Everyone (I mean politicians and commentators of all stripes) buys into the idea that, if only there was more money and less wastage, the NHS would be fine.

The appointment was not particularly long, but I finished exhausted, which was perhaps not the best setup for what happened next…

***

I started to fill in the application form for the school teaching assistant position.  The form is ten pages long, and they still want a cover letter on top of that (to be fair, I don’t think the form has any sections not in standard job application forms; I’m just used to filling them in online where the length isn’t immediately obvious).  I got completely overwhelmed by anxiety and despair.  I feel both overqualified and under-qualified.  Overqualified, because they’re really not expecting someone with an MA to apply for this type of job (to be fair, if I did get the job, I would consider using it as a step towards becoming a qualified teacher).  Under-qualified because I have minimal experience with children and am considering this role primarily because other people think I’m good with children, which is not necessarily the best way to be going about things.  I don’t feel that I’m particularly good with children, although when I do have positive interactions with young children I do find that restoring rather than draining.  But I don’t have those types of interactions (or any interactions, really) all that often.  Plus, I’m not at all sure I could cope with a noisy classroom, autism-wise.  From that point of view special needs teaching, which is often one-on-one, might be better, but I don’t know how to get qualified for that or how to tell if I’m at all suited.

I really feel that this is a bad idea, but I don’t know what else to do about it, especially as everyone around me is saying that it is a brilliant idea.  The frustrating thing is that this job is literally around the corner from where I live.  My commute would be a walk of under ten minutes!  And it’s a Jewish school too.  I don’t know what to do.  I’m thinking of writing to the school I’m applying to and asking if I could volunteer as a teaching assistant for a couple of weeks and see how it goes.  My Mum has also suggested speaking to a friend of hers who is a primary school teacher (and who has apparently been saying for years that I would be a good Jewish primary school kodesh (Jewish studies) teacher).

***

Other stuff is going by the wayside to try and work on this application, and a couple of librarian applications.  “Other stuff” being applying for unemployment benefits and working on my novel.  This time of year is always crazy for religious Jews, with so many festivals in such a short space of time leading to cramming too much stuff (work and other essential activities and chores) into the other days, but I had hoped to make some progress with the novel.

***

I’m not sure whether to write this, as it concerns someone else as well as me, but it’s mainly to criticise myself.  I got annoyed with my Dad for something.  When I decided to contact the school to see if I can volunteer as a teaching assistant, he said I should phone them rather than email and I got annoyed with him.  Like many autistic people, I hate using the phone.  It makes me anxious and I get confused about what to say, when to say it and when and how to end the conversation.  My Dad knows I hate phoning, yet he continually tells me to phone people when I say I intend to email them.  I don’t know why he does this.  I know he says you get an immediate response on the phone, which is true, and that some people don’t answer emails, but email leaves you with a paper trail, which is also useful and the bottom line is that phoning panics me enough that I will procrastinate to extremes, whereas writing an email is (somewhat) less procrastination-inducing.

I just feel bad about getting annoyed with Dad and shouting at him as one of my three Jewish new year’s resolutions was to try to shout at my Dad less and get angry with him less often.  I used to get on well with him, but in the last few years, we clash more and more often. I think his personality has changed quite a bit in recent years and I don’t know why.  I have some ideas, but I can’t go into them here.  I also feel more assertive about saying I have issues from autism now that I have done a lot of reading on it and realise that some of my quirks/difficulties are well-known symptoms of autism, whether it is failing to follow implicit instructions or to take initiative, forgetting verbal instructions and being somewhat pedantic and literal (all points of conflict with Dad).

I know he isn’t going to change and that if I want to improve things, I need to change things myself, but I don’t know how, especially as autistic facial expressions and tone of voice have historically been responsible for me getting into arguments with all my family quite unintentionally i.e. people assume I’m angry when I’m not.  My resolution was to pause before responding to him, but it’s hard to remember that in the heat of the moment and obviously I completely failed to do it here.

***

One last thought: at shiur (religious class) today, the shiur rabbi was saying that, at this time of year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur/Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) we should not ask for health, prosperity etc., which we might not use correctly, but rather to be able to serve God in a way without suffering/with health, prosperity etc., but with the emphasis on serving God, not the suffering-free life.  I have a horrid feeling that the reason I can’t deal with my issues is that, on some unconscious level, I don’t want to serve God without suffering, either from self-loathing or a martyrdom complex.

Meaning from Suffering

A random selection of stuff that went through my head today with even less thematic unity than normal…

Ashley Leia commented on the previous post regarding the high level of socialisation required in the Orthodox community.  I guess that’s what a lot of my blog is about, really, and certainly what I would want a book on mental health and autism in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community to be about: that Orthodoxy does require a lot of socialisation and it isn’t always possible for people to fit in.

This dovetailed with a thought I had last night after I posted.  When frum people talk about what they like about Judaism and when non-Jews say what they admire about Judaism, some things often come up: strong family life, close-knit communities and many festivals with their unique rituals.  The problem is that because of my mental health issues and autism, things I struggle with in Judaism include family life, close-knit communities and many festivals with their unique rituals.  It feels sometimes like I have the usual difficulties of Judaism and more without the positives, or without many of the positives.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m frum, but I just “happen” to believe and am not hypocritical enough to believe and not do, or at least not try to do.

***

I’m having silly crush thoughts about someone I knew from a previous shul who I haven’t seen for about four years and who I have never (as far as I can remember) spoken to, not even to say hello.  When she saw my parents at a party last year, she apparently asked them how I was, by name.  I didn’t think that she knew me, let alone knew my name.  Somehow I can’t see that going anywhere, but I’ve been thinking of her for the last few days for no very obvious (or good) reason.  Even if I thought it was a good idea for me to be dating (which I don’t) and that she might be interested in me (which she almost certainly isn’t) I wouldn’t really know how to get in contact with her, nor would I have the confidence to do so.  But, still, I keep thinking about her.  My Dad once claimed that he’d had a dream where I was married to her.  (My Dad thinks his dreams are precognitive, which is why he isn’t worried about me not getting married and having children, because he’s seen my wife and kids in dreams.  I’m rather sceptical of things like that.)

I’m a very lonely person.  I’ve never had many friends and, even now, when I do have a small circle of friends, most of them live far away and I communicate with them by blogging, emailing, texting and/or What’sApping.  I long for real intimacy.  I mean the feeling when one really opens up to a close friend or especially a partner and is understood, and they open up and are understood in return.  This has been a rare and short-lived phenomenon in my life.  I suppose it’s related to what I said last week about existentialist Judaism and finding holiness in the interpersonal.

***

I went out to do some shopping for ingredients for dinner.  I was out walking for an hour and came back with nothing.  I couldn’t find lentils in the two small supermarkets and I’d forgotten that the big Sainsbury’s shuts early on Sunday and they were closed when I arrived.  I became so focused on finding the lentils that I forgot we needed apples too.  By the time I got home I was feeling too depressed and exhausted to cook much anyway.

***

I felt very depressed and despairing when I was out, not about myself, but about society as a whole.  Sometimes it’s easy to convince myself that society is just corrupt, and that Jewish society has been corrupted too, and that (as per the Rambam) I should go off somewhere and be a hermit.  I don’t think society has passed the point of no return, and as a student of history, I’m not really convinced that society is worse than ever before, overall, but one only needs to look in a newspaper to see that there’s a lot wrong with the world.

Nevertheless, I felt very agitated when trapped with my thoughts, despite taking advantage of the heter (permission) to allow depressed people to listen to music in the omer.  I don’t know why I experience this agitation sometimes, what triggers it or ends it, nor do I understand the anger and grandiosity that can accompany it.  I don’t know where it comes from or why or how to calm down without just waiting until I’m burnt out and exhausted, not to mention still depressed, just too tired to think.  I’ve been told it isn’t mania, as I once thought.  It seems to be associated with loneliness and comes particularly on days when I am alone.  It started while my parents were out today and continued while I was out shopping, but when I got home and saw my parents it subsided (maybe I do need to get married ASAP).  The immediate triggers are usually seeing political stuff online or in the newspapers, particularly stuff about antisemitism or other political events that trouble me.  But I’m not sure if they are really the triggers; it feels like they are just the proximate causes and there’s a deeper psychological cause somewhere that I haven’t identified.

Sometimes, particularly when I’m very agitated, I feel, on some level, that I want to die for everyone’s sins, although that’s not a very Jewish thing to say (in theory we don’t believe in vicarious punishment.  It does appear in some sources, but we downplay it).  When I was at university I had a couple of borderline-psychotic episodes for for a second or two I was convinced that I was Mashiach (the Messiah).

I just want my suffering to be meaningful beyond myself.  It’s hard just thinking that, at best, I might be atoning for some of my sins and saving myself from different suffering in Gehennom (Purgatory).  It’s much better for my ego and sense of purpose to feel that every day I suffer somehow pushes the world towards redemption, that every tear I shed spares a child from a terrorist’s rocket.  It’s hard to find real meaning in my suffering, so it’s easy to slip into fantasy.  I suppose that’s why I want to write a book about my experiences, to try to rescue them (the experiences, I mean), to let other people find meaning in them.  There is very little written about mental health from a frum Jewish perspective and, as far as I can tell, virtually nothing at all about high functioning autism.

***

In the end I did manage to do a few useful things today: I went shopping/walking for an hour, did ten minutes of Torah study (all I could face, really) and spent an hour and a half redrafting another chapter of my Doctor Who book as well as watching and taking notes The Ghost Monument episode for the chapter I still have to write.  I also cooked a packet of couscous.  I feel I should have done more, though.  I wanted to do ‘real’ cooking, not convenience food and I feel frustrated that I can spend an hour and a half or more on my book (not to mention blogging) and only ten minutes on Torah study, but the latter is draining while the former is restoring.  Still, it feels like a wasted day.  I can sort of see that maybe (maybe!) it shouldn’t feel like a wasted day and maybe I shouldn’t be beating myself up for not doing enough Torah study, especially as at one point I didn’t think I would manage any, but it’s hard to think like that.

Indifferent Honest

In which I try to use religious ideas to support myself, but end up self-loathing again.

Today I am alternating between feeling wicked and incompetent.

I woke up early, at least for a Sunday and considering I went to bed so late last night.  For some reason when I woke up this morning I started thinking about a Midrash (ancient rabbinic expansion of the biblical story to interpret or explain it).  It runs like this (translation pasted with slight amendments from here; I don’t have the original):

“HaShem [God] tests tzaddikim [the righteous] whereas His soul despises those who are wicked and who love corruption.”  (Tehillim/Psalms 11:5)

“1) Rabbi Yonatan explains: a potter checking his pots (by tapping on their surface) doesn’t check faulty pots that would shatter after one tap, rather he checks strong pots that can survive even a number of knocks without shattering. So Hashem doesn’t test resha’im (wicked people) but tzaddikim (righteous people).

2) Rabbi Yosi ben Channina explains: When a flax dealer knows that his flax is superior, the more he beats it the more it thickens, whereas if his flax is inferior one beating causes it to split.

3) Rabbi Elazar explains: This is like a farmer who has two cows, one strong and one weak. To which does he attach the yoke, surely to the stronger one?”

– Bereishit Rabbah 32:3 and repeated with variations in 55:2

Three rabbis bring three different parables to explain why good people suffer in this world rather than wicked people.  In none of the parables does God benefit from the test, as He is perfect.  In the first case, the potter hits  his pots to show their strength to potential buyers, so he only hits the ones he knows won’t break.  This sees suffering as a way of demonstrating the strength of the person suffering to the world: God afflicts the righteous so other observers will see their strength of character in adversity.

In the second case, the flax dealer beats his good quality flax to improve it, but he doesn’t beat the inferior flat because it will have the opposite effect and make it worse quality.  From this point of view, suffering is to improve the person suffering.  God afflicts the righteous so that they will grow spiritual through their suffering and become better people as a result.

In the third parable, the farmer has a job that needs doing.  The suffering – the cow pulling the yoke – doesn’t actually benefit the person suffering either directly (parable two) or indirectly (parable one, where suffering made the virtues of the righteous obvious to the world whereas previously they were hidden and known only to HaShem).  It’s just something that needs doing.  From this point of view, God needs some suffering in this world as part of His plan for it; the reasons why aren’t dealt with in this parable.  It doesn’t directly benefit the righteous; God just knows that the wicked won’t be able to cope with it, but the righteous will, so of necessity He tests the righteous, not the wicked (and presumably rewards the righteous later although that isn’t stated here – see the discussion of “the sufferings of love” in Talmud Brachot which arguably deals with this issue).

I tried to apply some of this to me, but nothing seems to stick.  I don’t feel that depression and loneliness is making me stronger.  The opposite, really.  Maybe for a while it was making me stronger, but now I think it’s really holding me back.  Certainly most of my worst sins happen because of the depression, not despite it.  I don’t think it’s demonstrating my worth to others, because I hide my suffering and depression from most people and, anyway, I don’t know that there’s much to demonstrate.  And I don’t feel that I’m doing useful work ‘ploughing’ for God.  I don’t know.

I shouldn’t even say any of this.  I’m so wicked and evil, it isn’t surprising that I suffer.  Really everyone should hate me, but I hide my wickedness and trick people into liking me.

I wanted to write about why I hate myself so much and think I’m such a bad person, but I can’t bring myself to write about the thing I hate most about myself, the negative behaviour and acting out.  I wrote a bit yesterday, but then went back and deleted because I was too ashamed.  I don’t think I deserve to have friends and readers, but having got them, I’m scared of losing them.

What I will say is that I feel guilty that I have strong likes and dislikes about people.  Some people I just don’t like.  I don’t think I show that, but I feel bad about even feeling it.  Sometimes I feel like I’m judging people and although I try hard to see the best in people and find excuses for their bad behaviour, I feel bad that I have to do that consciously and not automatically.  Also, I don’t speak lashon hara (gossip, broadly speaking, although it’s a somewhat wider term than that) much, but I feel I shouldn’t speak it at all and I can feel guilty about that even for years afterwards.  I’m too short-tempered and sarcastic with my parents and sometimes in my head I say terrible things about people who annoy me.  I don’t meet my religious obligations as an Orthodox Jew: I don’t daven (pray) when I should or with a community or with concentration, I don’t do enough Torah study and there’s the fact I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary)…  I’ve been going to Talmud shiur (class) at my shul (synagogue) for six months now, but I don’t understand it.  I would drop out, except that I’d be embarrassed to be the only one to do so.

And then there’s the one big, terrible, inexcusable thing that I can’t get around and which makes me feel everyone would be better off without me, that I’m such a liar and a hypocrite for doing this and trying to make people think I’m a good person and I don’t deserve to have friends and a community.  But I do want those things, so I’m keeping it quiet.

***

From wickedness to incompetence: I’ve been recording my budget/expenditure a particular way since I started university (eighteen years) and it’s worked fine, but in the last few months I’ve had a big discrepancy between what is actually in my bank account according to my statement and what my own records show and I can’t trace the discrepancy, no matter how hard I try.  The discrepancy was a surplus, but today turned into a deficit i.e. the surplus was being eroded and it seems to be self-correcting, as I suspected it would at some point.  I haven’t lost money and I’ve probably just missed something somewhere, but this does not help my feelings of being an idiot or at least not an adult.  I probably ought to run my bank accounts another way, but I’m not sure what would be easiest.  I used to be good at maths at school, but since leaving I’ve struggled with it and get vaguely panicked and confused by complicated calculations and big numbers, which is a self-confidence issue as much as anything: I can do mental arithmetic, but I don’t trust myself to do it correctly and double check myself.  It doesn’t help that my Dad is always getting me to open new savings accounts with different interest rates, which just confuses me (the current problem started when I opened one such account and I’m sure they’re related).

I shook at the barber again.  He noticed and asked if I was OK.  This also adds to the incompetent feeling, even though I know it’s just social anxiety and Not My Fault.  It also turns out I don’t just cry at work or when doing hitbodedut meditation, as I started crying at home while davening (praying).  I try not to beat myself up about that, as I think crying is healthy (even if crying in an open plan office probably isn’t), but it’s just another sign of the bad state I’m in.  My sister phoned to see how I am doing and asked if I’d found a new job yet for when my current contract ends in six weeks; I couldn’t tell her I’m just terrified and think I’m not actually capable of holding down a ‘proper’ job.  I honestly don’t know what to do about work, as I really don’t feel capable of working, but I know I will get even worse if I drop out of the labour market again and I know I won’t qualify for benefits.

Pain, Suffering and Being There

In Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to Good People, Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt distinguishes between pain and suffering.  “When pain matters to us more than anything else, we suffer.  When it does not, we do not.  The more we have in life that matters to us over and above the pain, the more that pain recedes into the background.  When nothing matters more than the pain we are going through, it comes into intense focus and overwhelms us.  That overwhelmingness, we refer to as suffering.”

I don’t know what I can do any more to move on from my pain.  My job just makes me feel worse.  I want to help people, but I don’t know how.  In any case, my friends and family rarely turn to me when in need (possibly they think I’m too selfish, autistic or incompetent to be of any use).  I desperately want to have a wife and children to love and give to and (I’ll admit it) to love me, but it looks like it’s never going to happen.  I don’t really have any other ambitions, except perhaps to write, which I also struggle with.  I can’t seem to move on in my life at all.

Rabbi Rosenblatt says that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this world only relate to God.  Something that brings us closer to God is good, even if it’s painful; something that moves us away from God is bad, even if it’s pleasurable.  I feel my depression driving me away from God.  It stops me praying with kavannah (mindfulness), with a minyan (quorum) or, sometimes, from praying at all.  It stops me studying Torah, the primary ongoing religious obligation on Jewish men.  It stops me building a family.  It stops me doing mitzvot (commandments) and acts of kindness.  It makes me angry and distrustful of God.  And I don’t know how to move on from this.

I think Rabbi Rosenblatt gets on to trust in HaShem (God) later in the book.  I haven’t got to that bit yet, but I skimmed ahead a bit.  I know that, because of some things that happened in my childhood, I can’t trust God and I don’t know how to get around that.  I understand what happened to me as a child and I can see how the events that made me distrust God do not logically prove that God is not worthy of being trusted, but I can’t undergo the emotional catharsis to move on.  For years I’ve been thanking God for five or more things every day (something else Rabbi Rosenblatt suggests, although I was already doing it), but I still find it hard to trust that He loves me or wants good things for me or that He won’t overwhelm me with suffering.  I feel that, like Charlie Brown and Lucy, every time I come to kick the ball, HaShem moves the ball away at the last moment and I fall on my back again, usually in the form of another episode of depression (although sometimes He throws other things at me, instead of or as well as the depression, to keep me on my toes e.g. my OCD).

I feel that I want to give, but I can’t.  My social anxiety holds me back from reaching out to people who need help.  My friends and family, as I’ve said, rarely come to me with their problems.  Unfortunately I do know people with similar problems to my own, but as I said, I’m generally not the person they call when they’re down, although I do try to text or email when they’re down or I haven’t heard from them for a while.  I guess many of them have other friends, siblings or spouses who look after them better than I could.  And it looks like there isn’t anyone out there who wants me to be her husband, even though I want so much to be there for someone (this is actually a somewhat dangerous thought, as it means I get attracted to people who I think need ‘rescuing’, which isn’t particularly healthy, doubly so as I feel that only someone with serious issues would accept dating someone with as many issues as I have).

I’m trying to entertain the idea that things might turn out well, even if they will probably turn out very differently to how I would currently like.  It’s hard though.  I strongly suspect that I won’t get any of the things that I think would make me happy; I just hope I can find something that makes me genuinely happy instead.  Otherwise life seems an endless cycle of disappointment.  The problem is that I can’t attain even the things that I think would make me genuinely happy (religious growth, real love) let alone more transient things that make life bearable for people.

Reframing

The last few days have seen some improvement.  I seem to be OK, in terms of Pesach (Passover) anxiety, until I stop doing things, but then it really hits me.  Despite that, I was OK over Shabbat (the Sabbath), although I did spend most of it asleep.  The last few days have seen a lot of people helping me in reframing my thoughts, which has been helpful.

My therapist helped me to reframe my thoughts about my appraisal.  She said that although my boss agreed with my assessments of my weaknesses, she is still renewing my contract until August and seems to want to employ me for the 2018-19 academic year if she can get the funding.  My family also said this, but my therapist added the idea of being ‘good enough’ – I am not amazing at my job, which is frustrating for me, but I am good enough.  I don’t know how to apply this to Pesach, though, which seems more of an all-or-nothing proposition: it is either kasher lePesach or it’s not.

Shiur (Torah class) last week was also helpful.  The central concept was that all suffering Jews experience is rooted in the Egyptian slavery, and that suffering – and by extension all later suffering – was only so that we could move to a higher spiritual level, not just to leave us where we were before the suffering started.  That made me feel that maybe I would end up better off, spiritually, from my suffering, not just Pesach anxiety, but loneliness and mental health issues generally.

I spoke to the rabbi from my shul (synagogue) yesterday evening too (not my rabbi mentor, who lives in Israel).  He was also sympathetic and helpful, telling me that I don’t need to worry about unexpected Pesach problems arising.  He says that’s his job, I belong to a shul and pay my membership fees to pay his salary precisely so that he can use his halakhic (Jewish law) expertise to solve such problems.  He gave a couple of practical suggestions too.  I feel lucky to have such good rabbis (the shul rabbi, the assistant rabbi and my rabbi mentor), especially that they understand that depression and OCD anxiety are real things and not just stuff in my head that I can switch off with prayer or positive thinking.

Also, the two other people at shul who I opened up to a bit about my mental health have been thoughtful and understanding.  Perhaps I have more friends there than I thought I did.

Unfortunately, some of my other friends have been struggling.  I guess the risk of making friends largely through depression support group and mental health blogs is that at any given time, many of my friends are struggling.  I don’t always know what to do, I just try to do what I like people to do for me, to listen and validate, make suggestions if I have any, but without giving “Advice” and be supportive (and pray for them, if they want me too).  I don’t always feel that I do this well; whether I am actually autistic or not, interpersonal relationships don’t come easily to me, but I guess my friends keep coming back to me, so I must be doing something right.  It occurred to me that maybe I’m not married precisely so that I have the time and emotional energy to help my friends.  That’s a more positive way of looking at it than assuming I’m being punished.

This coming week is going to be crazy, both at work (even if the strike on the Docklands Light Railway, which I take to work, doesn’t go ahead on Wednesday and Thursday; if it does, it will add an hour or more to my working day at a time when I need to be at home to help with Pesach preparations) and especially at home, with Pesach preparations, and then Saturday and Sunday are the start of Pesach itself so I probably won’t blog much/at all before next Sunday evening, so don’t worry about me if I go quiet!  Hopefully I will be back here next Sunday evening or Monday with news of how the rest of the preparations and the beginning of Pesach went.

Torah from the Depths: Vayeira: Becoming Laughter

Continuing my weekly posts of mental health-inspired reflections on the weekly Torah reading.

Strangely, in a sedra that is so much about death and near death, the resonance I found with my depression was not death and destruction at all, but birth and life.

“And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me, all who hear will laugh (yitzchak) for me.” – Bereshit/Genesis 21.6

I have mentioned in the past the importance of firsts in traditional Jewish textual exegesis.  As far as I can tell, the idea of laughter is first recorded in the Torah in relation to the birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), first when God tells the elderly Avraham (Abraham) and Sarah (who is infertile as well as elderly) that they will have a son and then when he is born.  Importantly, Yitzchak means, “He will laugh” and this play on words appears in the verse I quoted above.

What resonated with me is the idea of such laughter so intense that everyone shares it, that even takes over the entirety of a person’s being (I am not enough of a dikduknik (grammarian) to be sure, but I think “tzechok asa li” “has made laughter for me” can also be translatated as “has made me into laughter”, a laughter so strong that one completely becomes it with one’s whole being).  I think this is the laughter that comes as a release after a long period of suffering, when sadness is converted to joy, as with the Avraham and Sarah miraculously having a child in old age after decades of infertility.  Happy are those who are granted such laughter.

Signals from Fred

(Signals from Fred explained.)

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said that the Persians would consider every great decision twice, once while sober, so they would not be lacking wisdom and once while drunk, so they would not be lacking courage.  I don’t know whether this is really true or not, but it reminded me a bit of my CBT therapist trying to get me to favour my “wise mind” over my “OCD mind.”  I thought I would try to write this post twice, once with my depressed mind (in black) and once with my wise mind, trying to think more positively (in red).  It turned into autoanalysis.

I felt a bit better on waking than I had done for the past few days, albeit achey (I probably didn’t warm up properly before exercising yesterday), but again procrastinated, eating breakfast slowly, reading online (about social anxiety and about antisemitism, probably not the best thing to be reading) and avoiding getting dressed and davening (praying), although I did at least shave (eventually).  I finally said a tiny bit of Shacharit (morning prayers) mere seconds before it was too late to do so and while I was davening I started crying, I’m not sure why.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be a release, although this didn’t feel much like one.  I had zero kavannah (concentration in prayer).  The rabbi in my shul (synagogue) spoke recently of praying rapidly without kavannah being like asking for a favour in a hurried and inattentive way, insulting to the person you are talking to, but I am incapable of doing otherwise at the moment.  True, but at least I was davening.  Someone once told me that a rabbi had told her that davening at all when depressed is a great thing.  I don’t know how true that is.

I just heard that a friend of mine from Oxford got engaged.  I’m trying to feel happy for him, but it’s hard.  What I mostly feel is a sense of loneliness and isolation, as well as social anxiety about having more parties to go to and to feel awkard, bored and out of place at, as well as wondering when he got engaged and if this is another announcement I missed through not being on Facebook (his telling me was in response to my emailing him out of the blue to ask if he wanted to meet, as we haven’t seen each other for some months, maybe more than a year).  I did wonder how he met his fiancée and I suppose I could have asked him, but it’s doubtful the answer would have been any help to me anyway.

Even before this, I was thinking that if I had to sum myself up in two words, they would be “lonely” and “tormented.”  I meant that as a general comment, not one limited to how I feel today.  I’ve felt for some time that I am fundamentally a lonely person and today I added in the tormented part.  I’m not sure how to move on from them.  There is probably a lot of negative self-definition here.  Like I want to have problems.  I wonder what my therapist would make of this.  She used to talk of the “mantra” I had, telling her how bad my week had been.  Most of my peers from school and university (I’m thinking mainly of Oxford, for various reasons) have long since dropped off my radar, but the Jewish community is small and I do hear from time to time what people are doing, and it’s usually very positive: high-powered careers (going to Oxford means I know a lot of over-achievers;  also know quite a few who became rabbis as well as a couple of academics), marriage, children etc.  I think there may have been one or two divorces, I don’t know.  I just googled a few names which was very stupid of me and saw that someone who used to bully me at secondary school now has a business, a pretty wife, a baby and a dodgy beard.  I don’t wish him ill, but I wonder where I went wrong.  Interesting I said “where I went wrong”, not “where my life went wrong”, like I did something stupid, incorrect or immoral.  Like this is all  my fault.

I sometimes wish that my suffering could be some kind of kapparah (atonement) for other people, but Judaism doesn’t believe in vicarious punishment (actually, the historical reality is more complex than that, but certainly contemporary Judaism downplays it almost to non-existence and with good reason).  I used to want to be a lamed-vavnik, one of the thirty-six supremely righteous people on whose existence the world depends, but I have given up on the chances of achieving that particular ambition.  Ego, much? I was just thinking I’d rather be Mashiach ben Yosef than Mashiach ben David, because Mashiach ben Yosef gets killed before the messianic era begins.  That’s even worse!  I should probably add here I add a couple of borderline psychotic episodes at Oxford where I thought I was Mashiach, albeit only for a second or so.  When I told my therapist, years later, she pretty much freaked out about it.

I have long had an intuition that I have no share in Olam HaBa, the World to Come (essentially the Hebrew idiom for Heaven).  I can’t prove this to anyone, obviously.  Then why do I believe it?  Usually I’m reluctant to believe things without proof, purely on the basis of intuition.  Why is this different to ghosts, reincarnation, near death experiences and other things I’m sceptical of?  I’ve done some pretty bad things, but I don’t know that they will cost me my share in Olam HaBa.  Right.  But conversely,  no one can reassure me that I do have a share.  At school I was taught that almost everyone has a share in the next world and there is a famous teaching that all Jews have a share in the world to come, yet the Talmud lists a load of biblical characters who don’t have a share in Olam HaBa and with one exception they are all Jews.  At any rate, sometimes I feel I have done the three cardinal sins of murder, sexual immorality and idolatry.  ?!  Obviously I haven’t literally done those things.  I haven’t literally killed anyone or slept with a married woman.  But I feel I’ve done things equivalent to that e.g. the rabbis say that gossip and embarrassing someone in public are equivalent to murder and I’ve done those.  But regardless of what the rabbis say, there isn’t a literal equivalence.  You are supposed to die rather than murder, but you aren’t supposed to die rather than gossip.  I suspect I’ve also experienced baseless hatred, which is considered as bad as the three cardinal sins put together.  I said “suspect” because I can’t actually think of an instance of really hating someone, even someone who hurt me.  Dislike, yes, but not hate.  I can’t really think of very much positive that I’ve done.  I can think of two good things I did, which is not much, but more than nothing.  I don’t always keep Shabbat properly and I worry I don’t keep kashrut and Pesach properly.  Translation: sometimes I have accidentally broken Shabbat and my OCD tells me that I don’t keep kosher or Pesach properly, not my rational mind.  I don’t daven with kavannah, I skip a lot of Shacharit and I don’t do enough Torah study.  True, but as I said above, doing any Torah study or davening while depressed is impressive.  I did a lot of bad stuff before I became frum.  No, I did some fairly tame stuff that happens to be against halakhah before becoming frum, like eating vegetarian food in treif restaurants and watching TV on Shabbat.  I was a tinok shenishba and can’t be held responsible for it.  True, but it took me a long time to become frum and I made some mistakes.  I also had serious personal reasons for not becoming frummer sooner.  But there are still big things I still do that are against halakhah that I can’t mention here.  I have no reply to this, except that my mental health pushes me to do things I would rather not do e.g. being irritable and sarcastic to my parents.

Other people seem to have managed to do a lot more good than I have.  I just feel too paralyzed by my mental health, which isn’t really an excuse, as I know people who also have mental health issues who have triumphed over them, whether individuals I know (at least online) like Elad and Rivka Nehorai and Matthe Roth of Hevria or famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill (and possibly various eighteenth and nineteenth century Hasidic rebbes, although it’s hard to diagnose people in retrospect).  Sometimes I daydream about being murdered by terrorists to have some kind of redemptive death al kiddush HaShem.  The irritating thing is, you would think if I have no Olam HaBa, I would at least have some Olam HaZeh (this world).  I suppose I have food, water and shelter, so maybe that’s all I deserve.  And at least I’m doing a job that feels socially useful.

I guess the last few paragraphs are a fairly transparent attempt at getting people to disagree with me and say I’m a good person.  I doubt it will work, but I shouldn’t even be manipulating people (my friends!) like this.

Oh well, I did at least manage to finish my painting of the bathroom woodwork today, to go for a walk and do some shopping as well as managing forty minutes of Torah study (which is all good!), again mostly Horeb which I have to say I am anxious to finish as I’m not getting much from it (I have about eighty pages left), which is probably not the right attitude (but at least I’m reading it and I’m doing it so I can move on to other things).  On the downside, I got involved in writing this post and making myself depressed googling people I knew and forgot to sort through my work papers, which was supposed to be one of my tasks for today.  I did manage to do a few things, though.  It wasn’t a totally wasted day and I did this experiment of trying to argue with my negative thoughts here.