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.

“Boy, does that sound like a boring person’s idea of fun!”

I’m hearing Alice Otterloop’s dismissal from Cul de Sac applied to my life today (see the title comment).  It’s not so bad really.  Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner yesterday was fine, but late.  I then ended up spending an hour or more on Torah study, mostly trying to get back into Talmud Berachot to keep up with the resumed shiur (religious class) at shul (synagogue), even though I can’t go to it because we’re shielding Mum.  I didn’t understand much of it and 10pm is probably too late for Talmud.  I read a bit and went to sleep around 1.30am.

Today I went for walk after lunch, which I hoped would stop me napping in the afternoon, as it seemed to do last week, but it didn’t help and I still slept for a couple of hours (not sure how long exactly as I forgot to look at the clock when I went to bed).  Hence, it’s just gone midnight and I’m quite awake, although listless and vaguely bad tempered.  I’m not sure why I feel like this.  It may connect to bursts of depression that I had on and off during the day.  I only managed forty-five minutes of Torah study today, much of it going over that Talmud passage again.  I spent some more time reading a novel.  Then we had seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal) and played two games of Rummikub.  Dad won both.  He usually does as he has a mathematical brain and it’s a numbers game.  Despite being autistic, I don’t really have a numbers brain.  It’s things like this that make me worry that I’m not actually autistic, just rubbish at living life.  Huh.

I’ve nearly finished the novel I’m re-reading (Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Bad Therapy).  I don’t think I enjoyed the Doctor Who spin-off novels enough for me to enjoy re-reading them too often.  I find a book I don’t think I remember much about, but once I start reading, it comes back to me.  With Doctor Who TV episodes, I enjoy them so much I can watch them umpteen times even knowing the plot (and dialogue, cliff-hangers, and more interesting shot compositions).  Ditto for some of the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips, but apparently not for the novels.

I’m back in a depressed mood, and too awake to sleep…  Not sure what to do.  I might break my “No screens after 11pm” rule (honoured much more in the breach than the observance) and watch TV.  Maybe The Avengers or something.  Something silly, to try to unwind and switch off the depressed thoughts.

Negativity and Value

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was fairly low-key.  My Dad and I didn’t go to our reopened shuls (synagogues) because we were worried about shielding Mum, who has low immunity.  We were worried that even with social distancing, the risk of bringing home infection was high.  I was upset at missing my Talmud shiur (religious class) and tried to keep up with it at home by guessing how far they were likely to go.  This was the first time I had studied Gemarah (the later, more complex part of the Talmud) since the start of lockdown.  I went for a walk right after lunch, which meant that I didn’t fall into a deep sleep for hours as I’ve been doing recently after Shabbat lunches.  I did still end up in bed at times in the afternoon because I was feeling depressed and wanted to retreat a bit, but I don’t think I slept much, maybe dozed for ten or twenty minutes at most.  Hopefully my sleep won’t be so messed up tonight.

I beat my Dad at Scrabble (Mum didn’t feel well enough to play).  I thought I got a few good words; I was glad to get rid of both a difficult Z (zen) and a Q (quad).  I wasn’t sure if qi is allowed.  I think it is, but we don’t have an official Scrabble dictionary and then Dad used the square that I needed to do it – a shame, as it would have been on a triple word score.

The illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door disappeared, but returned tonight for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) just when I thought it was gone for good.

***

I want to be less negative, but it’s hard to work out how.  Just before Shabbat, I wrote a list of negative attitudes that I have.  I found six, corresponding fairly obviously to a few CBT unhelpful thinking styles.  The problem is working on them.  I have tried CBT a few times for depression and self-esteem and it has never worked very well, perhaps because it generally does not work for people autism spectrum (I think there’s an adapted CBT for autistic people).

I think I do find it easier to reframe things than I did in the past, but I still do find it hard, and it still takes me a while to realise I can reframe thoughts.  Plus, I do feel that I have had an objectively difficult life since adolescence, which does make it hard to think that things will improve.  And “shoulds” are particularly hard to get rid of.  Orthodox Judaism is not about possibilities and values, but obligations, precisely defined obligations at that.  (If I was Reform, it would be a different issue.)  That’s a hard barrier to get around.

***

Somewhat related: when I see people living (apparently) successful and happy lives, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that life should be joyous and feel inadequate for not having that type of life.  It’s only when I see other people who are suffering that I feel that life is a “vale of soul-making” (as Keats said) and feel that my life is meaningful for enduring mental illness and trying to support others with it.

***

I feel Western culture tends to put too much emphasis on individualism and not accepting help, and also on economic production as a indicator of worth.  It’s hard to feel that I’m worthwhile while unemployed “just” because I try to be kind, supportive and non-judgemental of others.  Even when I map out possible futures, the idea of earning money, as a librarian and/or writer comes up, as does marriage and children.  I want those things, but they may not be realisable for me.  But Western culture says without a job I’m not contributing much, just as Judaism says that without a family, I’m not “really” part of the community.

***

I have a nagging feeling that there were more thoughts that came up over Shabbat, when I couldn’t write them down, but I can’t remember them, and it’s late and I’m getting tired.  Hopefully I will remember them tomorrow, if they really existed.

“I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time”

I’ve been told in the past that I’m a very negative person, and I know it’s true.  I don’t think I complain as much as I used to, but I do feel very despairing about the future a lot of the time and that comes across when people try to help me or offer advice, particularly here.  I just feel like whenever someone suggests something to me that I could do to change my life, I’ve often done it before and it didn’t work.   I’ve been depressed for twenty years, I feel like I’ve tried most things.  Sometimes you have to keep trying something until it works, but it’s hard when it feels that nothing ever works.  Particularly when I sometimes feel like God is deliberately sabotaging everything I do for some mysterious purpose that I don’t even understand.

I told myself I would try to believe in myself more, but I don’t knowing how to do that.  How do you just start believing in yourself?  I don’t know how some people manage to reshape the world the way they want.

In terms of building a career as a writer, I’ve tried pitching article ideas to Jewish and geeky publications and sites in the past, but I haven’t found any interest so far.  I haven’t tried for some months, because I got disillusioned and then lockdown happened.  I don’t know if I’ve done it wrong or I just need to keep persevering or what.  I also need to send a copy of the book I self-published to Doctor Who Magazine to see if they will review it, or at least acknowledge it.

In terms of pitching articles, there aren’t that many Jewish sites or publications to try out for in the UK.  There are quite a lot of geeky ones, but my interest tends to be narrowly focused on Doctor Who and other classic British telefantasy; I don’t have much interest in gaming, superheroes or horror and even a lot of contemporary science fiction passes me by.  I know Doctor Who Magazine is being aimed at people half my age whose experience of the programme and fandom is very different to my own, so it doesn’t surprise me the editors don’t want me to write for it.  To be honest, I don’t look at much other fan stuff and I only glance at the Jewish papers.  I find them focused on cultural Jewishness more than religious Judaism and are at times hostile to Orthodox observance (we don’t get the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) papers); I also find the quality of journalism and commentary poor in some of them lacking sometimes.  I’m wary of pitching to the Haredi newspapers because I don’t know them or their world, and I feel deeply uncomfortable writing for newspapers that won’t print pictures of women, which is the policy of most Haredi papers now, I think.

***

Trying to be positive about things, I’m trying hard not to get upset when I feel that my peers have achieved things and I have not, not to be upset when they get married and have children and so on.  I think I’ve improved in that area a little.  I am also trying to acknowledge and accept the Piaseczno Rebbe‘s (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s) idea in Sacred Fire that suffering does legitimate reduce our ability to pray and have faith in God and religious joy and not to beat myself up about lacking these things.

***

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I made two sleep hygiene mistakes that I thought I could get away with, but obviously couldn’t get away with one or the other or both.  One was that, after shiur (religious class), I needed “chill out”/decompression time in front of the TV just being passive, but I was wary of watching TV after 11pm in case it stopped me sleep, so I read instead, which was probably too active, intellectually, plus I made a bad choice of reading more of The Siege, which was full of depressing stuff about the Lebanese Civil War and Israel’s involvement in it.  I tried to balance this by eating ice cream as a treat for getting through shiur, but I suspect eating ice cream late at night wakes me up.  Whatever the reason, I was still awake at 2am.  I got up and ate porridge, the only way I can consume warm milk, as that helps me sleep, and watched Star Trek: Voyager.  I think I fell asleep around 3am.

***

I felt so depressed and self-critical after lunch today that I actually went back to bed and curled up in my duvet.  I had music on, but I think I drifted in and out of sleep for an hour or so (not because of not sleeping last night, as once I fell asleep, I slept for nine hours).  I felt very self-critical on getting up again, feeling I shouldn’t have gone back to bed and that I won’t do enough today as result.

I did eventually get up and force myself to do something.  As my weekly devar Torah (thought/essay on the weekly reading from the Five Books of Moses) has a looming deadline (tomorrow afternoon, to get it sent before Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts in Israel), I focused on that.  I was also aware I’d been apprehensive about it this week because I knew it would largely be a chiddush I had that I want to share.  A chiddush is an innovative interpretation of Torah.  This would seem to be paradoxical, as Torah is about revealed truth, not reasoned truth, but the idea is that the Torah is infinite, therefore there are always new interpretations to find.  (Admittedly that some people, mainly in the Haredi community, have an idea that all interpretations, including chiddushim, were revealed by God to Moses.)

However, I have noticed that, sociologically, people are very suspicious of chiddushim, particularly on aggadic (non-legal) passages.  While someone might feel very confident to give on an interpretation of a halakhic (legal) passage of Talmud in a chevruta or a shiur (paired study or class) and not mind if it’s new as long as it is well-reasoned, people rarely try to interpret aggadic passages, perhaps because there isn’t a clear “right” interpretation, unlike halakhic arguments.  I suspect this is related to the idea I have suggested in the past, that Jewish education for men is very “left-brain”/logical and not at all “right-brain”/creative.  Analysing halakhah is logical, but analysing narrative requires creativity and imagination.  This sociological situation is problematic for me as I’m a creative/associative thinker, not a logical one.  But I decided to stick an idea out there and see what happens.  I might even flag it up as a chiddush in my accompanying email and see what feedback I get.

***

I went for a run.  Halfway around it started raining, but I carried on.  My iPod has been telling me recently that my runs have been burning a lot of calories.  I’m not sure if that means I’m running faster or more consistently (not dropping into walking so much) or what.  So far I haven’t had an exercise migraine.  I think my mood did improve afterwards.

I did work on my novel for a bit after dinner and made a little progress, but gave up after a while as it was late and it clearly wasn’t going any further tonight.

***

I also felt upset and angry today that antisemitism seems to be so deeply embedded in parts of the far-left that an upswing of anti-racism protest and awareness actually leads to an increase of antisemitism, and that it’s largely been ignored by the mainstream media as it doesn’t fit their narrative.  But I don’t want to be political here, so I’ll move swiftly on…

***

I’m still worried about E., but convinced I shouldn’t contact her at the moment.  I wish we had a mutual friend so I could check she is OK.

***

Mum spoke to her oncologist.  The oncologist was OK with me going to shul (synagogue) services that are outside, but not inside, while Mum’s immunity is low.  I’m still wary, though.  I think the risk of rain and a move indoors is too high at the moment, plus I’m not convinced that my shul has the space to have thirty people in the small outside area available and still have good social distancing.  I am upset at missing my Talmud shiur though and worried about keeping up with them without knowing how far they got each week.

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.

Re-framing and Brokenness

I realised I was so busy complaining yesterday that I forgot to mention two bits of good news.  One is that I will be getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – benefits, basically) for a year, assuming my employment position doesn’t change, which is something of a relief after all the hassle I went to in order to claim.

The second is a more positive thing that came out of the seder experience.  I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but I realised that I could re-frame the narrative of my life in a more positive way.  It possibly came from something by Rabbi Lord Sacks that I read out at seder about Moshe (Moses) using his speech immediately before the exodus (in Shemot/Exodus 12) to focus on the idea of how to tell the story to our children, which Rabbi Sacks used to talk about the idea of telling our own personal story in a way that supports us.

In the past I have cast the narrative of my life in a very negative way: school, Oxford, my MA, work, dating, religious growth, I have presented all of them in a very negative way, focusing on the difficult times I had and the lack of clear progression to where I wanted my life to be, in terms of marriage, career, community, a certain sort of religious life and so on.

I realise that there were some positives that came out of all of these things.  For example, I tend to present Oxford as the worst time of my life, but I did get my BA in end, with a decent mark, and I made a number of friends that I’m still in contact with fifteen years on.  And it was a worthwhile experience that I learnt from, even if it wasn’t often a happy one.  I won’t bore you by going through the whole list of life events, but I can sort of see that I can do this positive re-framing for most of my life if I try hard enough.

***

I read Giles Fraser’s latest essay on UnHerd (here, but don’t bother to read the comments which are tedious “God does/doesn’t exist” arguments by people who have missed the point of the article…  I already regret wishing that UnHerd had a comments section and they’ve only had it a few weeks).  I find Fraser’s articles interesting and provocative for me, as much of his Christian theology resonates with me, and yet much of it seems utterly alien, from a Jewish point of view.  Usually both at the same time.

The engagement with brokenness and vulnerability in Christianity as opposed to in secular liberalism is something Fraser has written about a lot.  It makes me wonder how much this acceptance is present in Judaism.  One would expect it to be present in Judaism, given how much of Jewish history has been written in tears of exile and persecution, but I’m not sure how much it does appear, at least not on a personal level.  There is Iyov/Job, as Fraser says; there is some of Tehillim/Psalms.  Perhaps you could count Eichah/Lamentations, but that’s really about national brokenness, not individual brokenness.  Which is kind of my point.  Judaism is a lot more about communal or national experiences than private and personal ones.  Unsurprisingly, because Christianity is pitched as an individual quest for personal salvation, whereas Judaism is at heart a national quest to build a social utopia (even if many religious Jews appear to have forgotten that).  That’s why (topically for this time of year) the key event of Christianity is Jesus dying on the cross, whereas the key event in Judaism is a nation of slaves leaving for freedom.

This can make Judaism a difficult source of support for someone dealing with private, personal pain as opposed to communal disaster.  While there are plenty of Christian conversion stories along the lines of, “I was at rock bottom, but I opened the Bible/heard a preacher/accepted Jesus into my life and suddenly felt loved and accepted,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a religious Jew offer a parallel story using Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) or the Talmud, nor have I ever come across kiruv organisation (outreach organisations attempting to make non-religious Jews more religious) using such tactics.  Kiruv organisations prefer a mixture of intellectual engagement with supposed proofs of the truth of Judaism, which are really a pretext to encourage people to experience celebrating Shabbat or going to Israel, particularly in a group.

(The reverse is true: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian parallel to the outpouring of concern and love that Jews of all stripes and religious levels share when there is war or terrorism in Israel or antisemitism in the diaspora; many Western Christians seem utterly unaware of the persecution of their coreligionists in much of the Middle East, let alone upset by it, something that is simply unthinkable for the global Jewish community.)

I’m not familiar enough with the rabbinic literature, the Talmud and the Midrash, to know if there are many more stories of individual brokenness there.  I can think of one or two.  This one comes to mind (Talmud Brachot 5b, translation from the Steinsaltz edition via Sefaria – the bold text is direct translation of the original, the non-bold text is explanation):

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar, another of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s students, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that Rabbi Elazar was crying, and said to him: Why are you crying? Thinking that his crying was over the suffering that he endured throughout his life, Rabbi Yoḥanan attempted to comfort him: If you are weeping because you did not study as much Torah as you would have liked, we learned: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart toward Heaven. If you are weeping because you lack sustenance and are unable to earn a livelihood, as Rabbi Elazar was, indeed, quite poor, not every person merits to eat off of two tables, one of wealth and one of Torah, so you need not bemoan the fact that you are not wealthy. If you are crying over children who have died, this is the bone of my tenth son, and suffering of that kind afflicts great people, and they are afflictions of love.

Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I am not crying over my misfortune, but rather, over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth, as Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty caused him to consider human mortality. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Still, these type of stories do seem to be the relatively rare in Judaism and I do feel like I struggle for inspiration and guidance on how to connect with God through my suffering and depression.  I think that’s why I’ve re-read Arthur Green’s biography of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav three times, because it deals extensively with his bouts of despair and self-criticism (possibly the result of bipolar disorder, undiagnosable and untreatable in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries).  Rebbe Nachman’s own stories are also important to me; they also deal a lot with longing and spiritual desire.  Still, I would be interested in finding more sources of Jewish inspiration and acceptance of brokenness.

***

As for my day today, I did half an hour of Torah study and went for a half-hour walk.  E. and I tried to do a virtual museum tour as an online date, but the picture resolution was poor, as was the navigation, and there wasn’t any text to explain what we were seeing.  We found the experience disappointing and switched to a straightforward video date after a while.  We spoke for over an hour and a half.

I found I was exhausted this evening, I think from the emotional stress of the last three days more than from my activity today.  I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or to have written my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week or to have worked on my short story, but I’m just too exhausted.  I’m also intermittently anxious (OCD anxiety mainly, although some general anxiety) and depressed; anxiety and depression tend to worsen when I’m tired, as at the moment.  I am going to turn off my computer and watch TV and read before bed, because I don’t feel I can do anything else, sadly.  I’m just trying to stay afloat and not end up too exhausted and depressed tomorrow.

***

A question that is bothering me, but which I’m reluctant to ask more widely for fear of being misunderstood: what is the additional number of COVID-19 deaths?  Because while over 100,000 people have died globally, a proportion of those, statistically speaking, would have died anyway from something.  The people most likely to die from COVID-19 are also largely the people most likely to die in general (elderly, seriously ill, having compromised immune systems etc.).  I would like to know what is the number of deaths so far over and above what we would expect for a normal first quarter of a year?  I am not trying to be callous or to say that it doesn’t matter that they died as they would have died anyway.  Obviously any death is a tragedy.  I’m just curious to know what the global scale of COVID-19 is likely to be.  Are we talking thousands more deaths, hundreds of thousands or (God forbid) millions?  How does that compare with normal mortality rates?

I heard that when the ebola virus was at its worst in Africa, there was a sudden increase in deaths from malaria, because resources that would have been used in the fight against malaria were diverted to fight ebola, because it’s a “scarier” (or perhaps just less common) illness.  I am wondering if anything like that could happen here.

I think they are legitimate questions, but I’m afraid they make me sound callous and uncaring.  The autistic part of me has learnt that some genuine questions are off-putting emotionally to many people, however intellectually justified, just as the politically aware part of me is aware that people with strong political opinions generally see the world through the lens of their opinions and don’t always like questions that probe that too deeply or challenge their core assumptions.

***

The annoying computer problem I used to have, where the mouse touchpad would default to tapping mode whenever I turned the computer on and it would last until I went to turn it off, whereupon it would switch off before I got to the screen where I should have been able to turn it off, is back.  I’m not sure what to do about that.  It’s another step in the protracted decline of my laptop, but I’m hoping to, um, protract it some more as I can’t really afford to buy a new computer right now.  If anyone knows how to deal with this, please let me know!

Feedback Loop

Yesterday finished badly.  I went to bed earlier than usual (although still late) because I felt tired and depressed.  I tried to do my hitbodedut meditation/prayer/talking to God, but got overwhelmed with guilt, anxiety and despair halfway through and had to stop.  At least I was feeling something, lately it’s been hard to feel anything while doing it.

Then today started badly.  It was a real struggle to get up.  I woke up around 10am, but fell asleep again.  I eventually got up around 12.30pm, after an indeterminate amount of time lying in bed feeling awful, just depressed and exhausted.  I’ve been having weird dreams recently too.  There was one that involved Hitler’s head (in a They Saved Hitler’s Brain sort of way, but I don’t remember the details), and last night I dreamt about people from shul (synagogue) coming round, but just sitting in the lounge silently studying Talmud.  In the dream, this seemed like a success, as they seemed to think I was on some level capable of Talmud study.  There was also a ten year old boy who I managed to speak to in Hebrew, at least to offer him a drink.  I’m not sure what any of this means.

Events today were mostly trivial, but also somewhat frustrating or upsetting.  I’ve put on weight, about 1kg since I last weighed myself.  It’s not surprising, as I’ve only had time/energy to exercise intermittently and have been eating more junk than usual since the coronavirus lockdown started.

Then the latest Doctor Who Magazine arrived.  They didn’t print the letter I had sent them, which isn’t a surprise as I admitted to not enjoying the most recent series.  They don’t print negative letters any more, even one like mine which basically argued that Doctor Who is large and diverse and if some fans don’t like the current version, they can just focus on what they like and not throw their toys out of the pram on Twitter.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like so much, but I felt very overwhelmed and really just wanted to go back to bed and start the day again.

I didn’t have much to do today, in terms of Pesach preparation or anything else, so I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which ended up being quite a bit shorter than usual, from lack of inspiration as much as depression.  This week’s sedra (Torah portion) has some long legal passages about the sacrificial laws and a description of the inauguration ceremony of the priests, which had been previewed a view weeks ago in Shemot (Exodus), so it can be hard to find something interesting and relevant to a contemporary audience.

I went for a run, but as I was too depressed and exhausted to run for more than a few metres at a time, it was mostly a walk.  I passed a bunch of six teenagers, split up on both sides of the road so I couldn’t safely pass while keeping two metres distant from both groups.  I think this is the first really flagrant lockdown breach I’ve seen.  My uncle says that the Israeli lockdown is stricter, with people limited to a 100m radius area around their residence and police and army enforcement.

I’m struggling with religious OCD, in some ways more so than yesterday, wanting to email my rabbi mentor to chase up the answers to yesterday’s questions.  I did email in the end, and although I turned it into a general venting email, it really was to seek reassurance, which I know is wrong with OCD.  It is hard to do exposure therapy for Pesach OCD when exposure therapy requires repeated exposures over time and Pesach is only one week a year, plus a week or two of preparation beforehand.

Despite being at home with my parents, I felt lonely today.  I don’t always find it easy to communicate with my parents when I feel very depressed (or even when I don’t feel depressed).  I felt alone.  In the evening I actually did some social (or virtual-social) stuff: a massive thirteen person extended family Zoom call (which was basically certain family members shouting a lot and others of us sitting quietly) and a Skype call with E.  I was glad to speak to E., but I just had a knot of anxiety in my stomach the whole time and worried I was going to alienate her somehow, even though I knew this was irrational and that E. cares about me a lot.  I think at times like this my anxiety just transfers from subject to subject depending on what I’m doing at the time so that I always feel anxious.  I did speak a bit to my parents about my anxieties in the end, which was good.  I’m lucky to have them, and to have E.  I don’t know where I would be without them.

***

There was an interesting discussion today over on Ashley Leia’s blog about whether the term “high functioning” is a useful descriptor for mental health.  I would say not, and most if not all commenters there agreed.  Certainly in my case functionality is not static and binary, but fluctuates with time, with different situations and with other factors like tiredness and hunger, as well as the interaction of different aspects of my issues (so today high anxiety/religious OCD anxiety and depression are feeding back into each other and making things worse).  The same goes for my high-functioning autism.

There can also be a judgmental element to functionality, where high functional people are not allowed to have bad days/episodes or are not given adequate support because it’s assumed they are coping and that high functionality equates to mental stability and consistently positive mental health.  I function well inasmuch as I get dressed every day, look after my health and hygiene needs, eat reasonably healthily, exercise, look for work and so on, but whenever I get a job, my stress levels rocket up and I’ve had trouble meeting all my work obligations; I think at least two previous managers thought I was incompetent and probably regretted hiring me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to work full-time.  So it’s hard to see myself as functional, even though I know that I am compared to some people, or even compared with myself as I was from circa 2003 to 2009 or so.

Pogo Stick

Today was another up and down day.  I coped with shul (synagogue) last night.  I enjoyed dinner with Mum and Dad.  I spent quite a bit of time on Torah study afterwards, including trying to prep for today’s Talmud shiur (class) after dinner at 10pm when my brain was just not working.  When I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up until 3am reading Doctor Who Magazine (some pretty good articles this month.  I just wish I had enjoyed the last series as much as the people writing in to the letters page appeared to do).

I woke up several times across the morning, but felt too depressed to get up and go to shul, or even just to get up.

I dozed after lunch again and when I woke up I again felt too depressed to want to go to shul Mincha (Afternoon Service), but forced myself to go anyway.  I probably got there late semi-deliberately to avoid being asked to lead the service.  I actually quite enjoyed Talmud shiur, although I was inwardly relieved when the rabbi admitted that even he had struggled with the sugya (discussion) in question.  It was so opaque and discursive that I’m not even going to try to summarise it here.  Talmud study is definitely better when I prep a day or so beforehand and review it a day or so afterwards, although that obviously makes a bigger time investment per page.

My sister and brother-in-law came over after Shabbat (Sabbath), mostly to see Mum post-chemo.  As my sister uses the Tube every weekday, she was wary of infecting Mum with something – not necessarily coronovirus, but some kind of virus that she might be incubating.  We had a good time, although I slipped away for a bit after a while.

Speaking of which, the coronavirus news coverage reminds me of the Tomato Flu episode of Broken News, particularly the bit where Pip Torrens warns of symptoms including “hot or cold sweats; hot or cold aches; sweaty acheyness; runny or sweaty or achey nose; tiredness; a sense of slight confusion; blinking; passing water; and, of course in extreme cases, death.”

I saw this comment in the Jewish Chronicle comparing the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu with the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion: While the Netanyahus have racked up huge bills at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer, Ben-Gurion’s greatest financial vice was his propensity to buy too many…books.”  I felt that I have something in common with him.  A few years ago I actually went to his apartment in Tel Aviv, which is a museum now, preserved as he had it, and there are books everywhere, on all kinds of topics: lots on Judaism and Jewish history, but also a lot on the sciences too, I think even on relatively obscure subjects like geology, and to my surprise a copy of The Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism (Ben-Gurion was an atheist and secularist, albeit like many early Zionists he was a keen amateur Bible scholar).

Reorganising

I went to bed late and got up late again last night today.  I don’t regret going to bed late, as I stayed up Skyping E. because she was depressed.  But I slept for a long time again and when I got up it was already afternoon.  Eventually I came to enough to get dressed and daven (pray) and go for a run, but I got an exercise migraine when I got back, which stopped me doing as much as I would have liked today.

I did manage to do forty-five minutes of Torah study.  I’m trying out a new way of dividing my time for Torah study.  The weekly Torah (in the narrow sense of the Five Books of Moses) reading is divided into seven aliyot and I used to like to read one a day, so that I studied something from the Torah itself every day, but now that seems a bit counterproductive, as it only takes five or ten minutes to read most aliyot, so the actual time spent getting the place and getting into gear (so to speak) is disproportionate to the time actually spent studying.  More importantly, now I write a lengthy devar Torah (Torah thought) from scratch every week it makes sense to read the whole sedra (reading) early in the week to give me time to think about it and research ideas.  So I read the whole sedra today and will study other things over the rest of the week, although I think the sheer amount I want to do is probably too ambitious.

The other thing I’m doing is giving up on reading the Artscroll-published Tehillim (Psalms).  When I got it (a birthday present, but one I requested, I think when I was eighteen), I did not understand the Orthodox world and did not understand that every commentary has its own viewpoint and worldview.  I did not understand the real differences between the Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox worldviews and did not know that I would eventually feel uncomfortable with Artscroll’s traditional approach, focusing on Medieval attempts at etymology and Midrashic readings, and that I would want a more conceptual approach, but one focused on the straightforward meaning of the text rather than homiletics, and that I would become sceptical of a lot of Medieval etymology.  I can still use the book for reference, and for the opening remarks giving an overview each psalm.  Hopefully moving away from the extensive commentary there means I can get back in the habit of reading significant amounts of NaKh (the post-Mosaic books of the Hebrew Bible) every week, as that is something that I enjoy more instead of getting bogged down in commentary that does not interest me.

I would also like to take some serious time working on the Talmud each week, revising what we studied in the previous Saturday’s shiur (class) and looking ahead to what we might study in the next one (although it’s hard to estimate how far we will get), trying to use the tabulating strategy I was taught to try to understand each sugya (section).  I’d like to get this book to help Talmudic language, although it’s proving hard to get hold of (I try not to use Amazon if I can avoid it, plus if they have such a long delivery date, it usually means there going to struggle to get it).  The Talmud uses language in a very precise way that can be hard to pick up without help.  It’s really supposed to be taught by a teacher rather than learnt from a book.  For example, the word used to introduce a counter-argument based on logical reasoning is different to the word used to introduce a counter-argument based on a superior proof-text.  The book I linked to describes what particular words and phrases denote beyond their literal senses.  To be fair, that’s the type of thing that the rabbi flags up to us in the shiur, but I know I will process that information better if I can see it written down.

I looked at some stuff online about self-publishing my non-fiction book about Doctor Who.  Some of the stuff I knew already as a librarian, but some I didn’t and in some places librarian practice differs significantly from bookseller practice (e.g. about capitalisation of titles).

I am not sure whether to go with IngramSpark or Lulu.  I went to a confidence course led by someone who used Lulu to print her books, which I guess is a recommendation, but on the downside Lulu’s costs are not clear because they vary according to the book’s length and requirements.  IngramSpark has clearer prices.  My gut instinct is to go with IngramSpark, but I’m not sure why I feel like that.

I also spent some time working on my novel, in two fifteen or twenty minute chunks.  I would have liked to have written for longer.  I’m slightly worried about writing in little sessions rather than longer ones, fearing it might make my writing disconnected, but with my headache and the other things I had to do today (listed above, plus cooking dinner, from a packet, as I had no time/energy for cooking from fresh ingredients) – it was not really possible to do anything more.  Despite the short amount of time, I wrote about 850 words which was extremely good.  I’m not sure if I’m writing more because I’m getting into the flow of the writing or because much of this section is autobiographical and does not require so much imagination, which is potentially a trap.

Talmudic Angst (and Brief Doctor Who Angst)

Yesterday and today I find myself wondering if it is possible to be a good Orthodox Jew without studying Talmud.  At Talmud shiur (class) yesterday, I found it hard to follow the argument and obviously looked puzzled (or completely out of it) as the rabbi came up to me afterwards and asked if I followed it.  I’m ashamed to say that I was too embarrassed to admit that I followed very little and lied and said I understood most of it.

Today I read Did ‘Daf Yomi’ Make Me a Better Jew? in which non-religious literary critic Adam Kirsch reflects on whether studying the whole Talmud one page a day has made him a better Jew.  Somehow he got something out of it, even though he regards much of it as backward and obsolete in both practical and moral terms, whereas to me it is the word of God (at least in some sense).

There’s a rabbinic teaching somewhere that if you stop studying Torah, you go down a path that leads to denying God (the path is: 1) not dedicating yourselves to learning Torah; 2) stopping performing commandments; 3) be shunned by others who are devoted to Torah; 4) hating the rabbis who teach the Torah; 5) preventing others from doing the commandments; 6) denying the divine origin of the commandments; 7) denying the existence of God; taken from here; I can’t find the original source).  It’s pretty stark.  I do study Torah, but not what lots of people say I should study and I don’t dedicate myself to it as much as I used to.

Realistically, and although many in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world would deny it, historically most Jews did not study Talmud.  Firstly, for 50% of the population (the women) Talmud was literally a closed book until the twentieth century, and in much of the Haredi community it still is where they are discouraged or explicitly forbidden to study it.  Then, in the past some Jews were illiterate.  I haven’t found literacy statistics for the Jewish community.  It was probably greater than the non-Jewish community, but I don’t know by how much; certainly not all adult male Jews were literate.  Even among adult Jewish men who did engage in regular Jewish study (and we have evidence of men quite low down the social hierarchy doing this), in many cases they would have studied Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or Mishnah, the oldest and most straightforward part of the Talmud rather than the Gemarah, the more complex part of the Talmud and what most people mean when they say “Talmud.”  Nevertheless, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz pointed out in The Essential Talmud, Jewish communities that stopped studying the Talmud (usually as a result of bans and book burnings by the Medieval Christian Church) soon disappeared.

Part of me hopes to really study Talmud one day, somehow, even to do Daf Yomi, studying a page (both sides) a day for seven and a half years.  Another part of me says I’m crazy for thinking that: I find the legal discussions incomprehensible and boring.  The only parts I like are the aggadic (non-legal) bits, which are often sidelined in the contemporary frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world.  (I would love to get a copy of an English translation of Ein Yaakov, which anthologises all the aggadic material in one volume, preferably alongside Ayin Ayah, Rav Kook’s commentary on it).

It doesn’t help that the traditional style of Talmud learning is not particularly suitable for me, either a paired discussion of the text or a class led by a teacher.  When discussing with another person my social anxiety and perhaps my autism leads me to clam up and not saying anything, while in a class situation I find it is hard to follow the thread of discussion trying to follow the text and the verbal discussion.  I follow written texts much more easily than spoken conversation, which could be autism again.  I did go to one class where we were taught to tabulate the different opinions under discussion and that was a helpful technique, but I am struggling to get back into doing that.  It is not always clear to me what the disagreement is about and therefore how to tabulate it.

Sometimes I’ve seen discussion that roots the legal discussion of the Talmud in philosophical disagreement and then I find it easier to engage with it, but not many people in the Orthodox world see it that way (this new book apparently does and I’d like to read it) and I don’t know how to study that way alone.

In fact, studying Talmud alone is very hard.  You really do need a teacher to teach you all the stuff that you need to know, but which is not explicit in the text, as the Talmud basically assumes that you have already studied the whole of the Talmud.  This is probably a deliberate way of stopping people studying outside the chain of teacher-student traditional transmission, keeping elements of the oral tradition that the Talmud was originally.

And yet other people in the shul (synagogue) Talmud shiur are able to engage with the text and to ask and even answer pertinent questions.  Some may have spent time studying in depth in yeshiva or elsewhere, but some I know have not.  I’m not stupid, yet somehow I can’t keep up.  It’s not like other shiurim where I know the answers or have good questions, but am too shy to speak up; here I genuinely don’t know what is going on a lot of the time.  Maybe some of it is the teaching.  When I was in the Talmud class where we tabulated the discussions, I participated a lot more.  But that class isn’t running any more.

Today I went over the passage we studied yesterday, trying to take notes and tabulate them, but I didn’t understand the text (even using the commentary) enough to produce coherent notes, let alone to tabulate them.  Actually, that’s a little unfair, as I think I did just about grasp the general argument being made, even if I couldn’t repeat and explain it to someone else (always a sign that something has not been truly learnt, in my experience).  But I did struggle with it.  I’m wondering if this book might help explain the structure of the Talmudic argument – the terminology the Talmud uses yields clues as to what it is saying, for example different language is used to introduce a challenge based on a contradictory older text compared with a challenge based on pure logic.

I definitely think there’s a “left-brain/right-brain” thing going on with Talmud study (for all one has to be careful about overly deterministic readings of brain hemispheres), that halakhah (Jewish law) is left-brain/logical while aggada (the non-legal parts of the Talmud, often narrative) is right-brain/creative.  I prefer studying the aggada and am much better at it then halakhah.  Unfortunately in the Talmud the halakhic passages far outnumber the aggadic and in frum society skill in understanding halakhah is far more prestigious than understanding aggada.  What puzzles me is why Orthodox Jewish culture is so overwhelmingly logical rather than creative – is it really just a matter of training your brain from a young age to study these texts in this way?  But then, how do many ba’alei teshuva (people raised secular who became religious late in life) manage to train themselves to think that way?  I suppose it would explain why so many Jews are lawyers or accountants.

Traditionally some men who couldn’t learn Talmud themselves supported Talmud scholars, either by making donations to yeshivas or to support yeshiva students or by sending their own sons to Jewish schools or yeshivas where they learn Talmud.  But I don’t have children and may never do so and I don’t have the money to donate to yeshivas.  What money I do have for charity, I prefer to give to those that support people in need directly rather than educational establishments and I’m very reluctant to sponsor the Haredi “learning not earning” yeshiva sector because it’s not an approach with which I agree.

***

I went for a run today, unfortunately not a particularly good one, but I was glad to get some exercise.  My mood does lift when I run, even though managing the transitions to and from running can take a lot of time, plus on some days, as today, I get an exercise headache.  I Skyped my rabbi mentor and, as I noted above, spent some time on Talmud study.  I tried to work on my novel, but struggled, although in an hour of writing-and-procrastinating I got close to my daily target of 500 words.  I’m not sure why I struggled.  I guess I had a mixture of headache, anxiety about work tomorrow, writing dredging up difficult memories of the past as well as trying to write dialogue and incidents that I’m not sure I can portray well.  The extent of the anxiety in the evening was a bit shocking and I’m not sure that it is all linked to work for reasons, although work is a big part of it.

I watched Doctor Who too which knocked my mood back even more.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to review it here, but I will say it was stupid, boring, incomprehensible and patronisingly “woke” without any redeeming features… and then they used an almost subliminal image of Jerusalem as a symbol of “war” in a montage supposed to show the end of the world, with no other identifiable locations that I could see.  War and eco-catastrophe are apparently Israel’s fault.  I seem to have heard that somewhere before.  After The Witchfinders “Jewish violence vs. Christian love” antisemitism (from the Doctor!) I begin to worry about Chris Chibnall.  In super-woke Chibnall Who, all minorities are good except Jews, who are not allowed to actually appear and have voice and agency and are just used as noises off to show us how bad people can be.  It wouldn’t be so bad if Chibnall could actually do his job and write and commission decent Doctor Who stories instead of clichéd, preachy drivel with no real characters or new ideas.  I mostly liked series eleven and defended it from people who said it was boring and politically correct, but the “new production team are just finding their feet” excuse is wearing a bit thin a third of the way through their second season.

Low-Level Griping

I went to bed very late last night.  I stayed up late writing blog comments to people who I thought needed support, which was good, but I should have stopped myself doing it for so long.  Then, when I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep.  I felt really tired, but my mind was racing.  I was totally exhausted and depressed this morning and it was a real effort to get up and eat something.

As I’ve mentioned, this time of year is hard for religious Jews because there are so many Jewish holidays (another nine days of holidays and semi-holidays coming up soon!) one after the other.  In ancient times this was the end of the agricultural year in Israel, so it made sense to have our big religious season at this time, but it’s hard fitting in to the modern economy with deadlines and working with non-Jewish colleagues, particularly if you are in the academic sector (as I was) where this is the start of the new year.  And this year I’m going away for my cousin’s bar mitzvah in Israel soon afterwards, for added disruption!  I feel run ragged at the moment and we’re only halfway through.  It’s hard to keep up with job application emails (not that I’m hopeful of finding anything good at the moment anyway) and I’ve got a thick form to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) that I haven’t even started, and when I’ve finished it I will have to have a meeting at the jobcentre to check it – that won’t happen until after I get back from Israel.  Then there’s the question of volunteering (and where: school or museum?).  And my poor novel is very neglected.  I’ve written about five pages since tearing up my first chapter (metaphorically) and re-starting.  I ordered some books on domestic abuse for research.  I hope my parents don’t notice and worry that something’s going on!

I’m making myself anxious just thinking about the stress of the next few weeks.

***

I’m feeling pretty down today.  I’m trying not to think about work or dating because when I do, I feel that I will not succeed in either.  I don’t seem to be able to make good decisions in either area.  I just found an amusing/depressing blog post about frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) dating, that women want to marry a great Torah scholar because they “unconsciously sublimate their desire for a sexually strong and virile man to a desire for a man who is intellectually strong and powerful… These men are not emaciated, unheroic weaklings, incapable of earning a living, dependent on their wives, in laws and parents for their daily bread. Not at all. Underneath their refined and modest exteriors are knights of Torah and princes of scholarship, engaged in the heroic undertaking of understanding the Talmud and its many commentaries.”  This is why I have zero chance of finding a wife in the frum world, because I can’t understand Talmud (I’m also unemployed, so no back-up plan of looking for someone who wants a breadwinner (“An earner not a learner” in the frum jargon)).

I did go to the barber, which I hate above most things, because I have tremor from my medication and it’s awkward if I shake while the barber wants me to hold still; beyond that, having a stranger invade my personal space and touch me is not something the autistic part of me likes at all.  I was OK there – I shook somewhat, but not noticeably – and bought a bunch of birthday cards for extended family (family birthdays and anniversaries tend to cluster around a couple of times in the year, so I buy a load of cards at once).

I helped my Dad with the sukkah, the thatched temporary hut in the garden that we eat our meals in during the festival of Sukkot (starts Sunday evening).  I always end up feeling slightly useless when helping with practical things.  I don’t know what I would do if my Dad didn’t do the bulk of the assembly.  OK, that’s not true, I could put up most of the sukkah, but there are some bits I would struggle with, particularly stuff that requires going up ladders, which I’m not always good at doing.  Plus, it started off some religious OCD-type worries about whether the sukkah is kosher (religiously acceptable).

I also filled in another application for a job at an Important Institution where I have applied for several previous jobs, all unsuccessfully.  It was a job in a library, but not strictly speaking requiring a librarianship qualification.  It sounds more like an admin-type job.  I applied anyway, although I hope it wouldn’t be a backwards step career-wise – if I even have a career any more, which is debatable.

I did about twenty-five minutes Torah study.  I would have liked to have done more, but I ran out of time and energy.  Likewise, no work on my novel today, which means it’s probably not going to be worked on until until after Simchat Torah as I don’t want to work on it during Chol HaMoed and tomorrow and Sunday are going to be busy with Shabbat/Yom Tov preparation (it would take to long to explain all the Jewish references here.  Just accept I can’t do non-essential work for a while because of festivals).

***

Mum saw me reading the latest Doctor Who Magazine and asked if they’re looking for writers.  I said, “Apparently not” rather more venomously than intended and she realised that I’d pitched to them and been rejected.  Oh dear.  I hate pitching, it’s hard to tell what editors are looking for, particularly if they don’t have style guidelines or give feedback.  I would have liked it if when I had said, “Would you like an article on X?” they had said, “No, but an article on Y would be good – can you write it?”  Or just some indication of what they were looking for.

I think with DWM, and other Doctor Who writing gigs, that the number of fan writers is very small and is interlinked on a “friends of friends” basis and the jobs just go to people who know the right people.  Why take a chance on a new writer, when you know half a dozen tried and tested writers who have been writing for the magazine for literally decades?  Fan writers all seem to have known each other for umpteen years.  When Doctor Who: The New Adventures novels were published in the nineties, that was notoriously incestuous, not deliberately, as Virgin Publishing (who published the books) had a laudable first-time author policy, but most of the writers seemed to know each other already through fanzines and conventions and encourage each other to submit (three of them worked in the same office!).  I’ve never really been part of organised fandom, although there have been times when I would have liked to have been.  I was always put off conventions by both the noise and people (because of my autism and social anxiety) and issues with kosher food and attending on Shabbat (Saturday).  There was a time when I was more involved in online fandom, but I drifted out of that when I went through a period of not liking the direction of the show on TV and when that changed I thought of coming back only to find online fandom had got really political and I didn’t feel comfortable or accepted any more.

***

This post is just low-level griping, even by my normal standards, but I’m too tired to edit or cut so PUBLISH and be damned.  I should go to bed, but I’m too tired to move.

A Root Bearing Gall and Wormwood

The last Shabbat (Sabbath) of the Jewish year 5779 turned out to be as difficult as many of the previous ones.

To be fair, Friday night was quite good.  I coped with shul (synagogue) and even joined in the circle dancing after Lecha Dodi, albeit rather half-heartedly and more because I didn’t want to stand out than because I wanted to join in.  Then I went for dinner.  I was invited by one of the men I usually sit with in shul.  He had also invited the other person I sit with as well as the latter’s wife.  These are the people I feel most comfortable with in the shul, I guess I could call them friends, so it was a good evening.  Part of the conversation was about where on the spectrum between “Modern Orthodox” and “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) the shul is and where we see ourselves.  I probably had more I could have said than I felt confident saying, particularly when talking about placing figures like Rav Kook and Rabbi Lord Sacks on the frum (religious) spectrum, but I did join in and it was interesting to see that not everyone in the shul considers themselves Haredi.  So it’s not just me.  As an aside, I very much think it is a spectrum, not a binary distinction and someone can be Haredi in some ways and Modern in others and, in theory at least, there isn’t a huge need to pinpoint yourself at some precise spot on the spectrum.

I got home late, though.  I spent some time with my parents and then read for a while as I needed my “introvert time” to unwind from five or six hours of “peopling.”  I got to bed at 1.30am, which was very late, but then I could not sleep again.  I don’t really understand why I have this highly specific insomnia on Friday nights.  I think I eventually fell asleep around 4.00am, so unsurprisingly when I woke up at 8.00am for shul I didn’t have the energy to get up and go to shul, even though I wanted to.  I kept thinking, “I’ll just lie here another minute and then I’ll get up” but of course eventually I fell asleep again and missed shul.  I dozed for an hour after lunch too.  I decided to read downstairs rather than on my bed as I usually do to avoid falling asleep, but I just fell asleep on the sofa.

It was at shul in the afternoon that things took a turn for the worse.  Sitting in Gemarah shiur (Talmud class) I felt I didn’t really connect with the topic.  I had this vision of the hierarchy of status in the frum world.  At the top comes the great Torah (read: Talmud) scholars.  My brain doesn’t work like that and my depression stops me concentrating or being able to study, so I’m never going to be one of those.  Then come the people who organise the community.  I don’t have the necessary organisational and people skills because of autism and my depression prevents me from giving up that amount of time (my Dad used to do it in our old shul, I know how long it takes), so I’m never going to be one of those.  Then come people who regularly make up the minyan (prayer quorum); I used to do that in my old shul, but I can’t do it now because of social anxiety.  Then comes the people who spend ages davening with great kavannah (praying with great concentration); again, nixed by depression.  I’m not quite sure where I can find room to exist.  Even if I manage to write “Jewish” novels, the type of novels I want to write will almost make me hope that no one in my community reads them or goodness knows what will happen.  I want to write about people on the fringes of the community, survivors of domestic abuse, people who struggle to mix modernity and tradition (e.g. re: Creationism and evolution), false messiahs.  Not Artscroll stuff.

Then came seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal), which today was a siyuum for Shas Mishnayot (celebration for finishing religious study, in this case the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud).  My shul has a thing where on Simchat Torah (Jewish festival at the end of the autumn new year festivals) people sign up to study a certain amount of Mishnah over the coming year, culminating in this siyuum before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).  I never participate in this, for various reasons, the biggest being that I feel I can’t commit to studying that much Torah while I’m this depressed.  So I felt out of place from the start and I forced myself to stay partly to be part of the community, partly to support my friend, who sponsored the siyuum in honour of his late mother.  A guest rabbi spoke about the importance of Torah study.  I suppose I should feel positive when he spoke about the reward for Torah study being for the effort rather than the amount “learnt” or level of comprehension, but I just felt inferior for not studying enough.  Could I study more?  I really don’t know, nor do I know how to find out.  I also always feel uncomfortable with the Hadran (prayer at the end of studying a section of Torah), where it says “We give thanks before You, HaShem our God and God of our fathers, for you gave us a share among those who sit in the study hall, and not among those who sit on street corners. For we arise early, and they arise early; we arise for words of Torah, and they arise for words of emptiness. We work, and they work; we work and receive a reward, and they work and do not receive a reward. We run, and they run; we run towards eternal life, and they run to a pit of desolation.”  I find the whole thing offensive to people who can’t study as well as to non-Jews, plus I imagine that I’m one of the ones running to the pit of desolation.  This was reinforced when, after the seudah, while we were waiting for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), I read a dvar Torah which basically said that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (one of the most prominent Haredi rabbis of the twentieth century) said that someone who keeps Torah and mitzvot (commandments), but finds them hard is a “root that bears gall and wormwood” as he might become lax in his observance or his children will stop being religious because he won’t have passed true dedication on to them.  One has to find find Torah and mitzvot a source of happiness.  So obviously I’m a bad person.

The guest rabbi also spoke about the importance of being a teacher (he meant a Jewish studies teacher in a Jewish school).  I did wonder if I was meant to hear this, as my parents and E. have been encouraging me to think about teaching primary school children or at least being a teaching assistant.  I really don’t think I could do it, though, and wonder why so many people think otherwise.  Still, it would be a job and potentially I could be in a Jewish school and not have to worry about taking off Jewish holidays.

After Ma’ariv I helped tidy up a bit.  There was lots to do to get the ready for Rosh Hashanah, but I just couldn’t face it and fled, which was also bad.  The whole way home I was having difficult thoughts, not about suicide per se, but feeling that I would be better off dead, even if I end up in Gehennom  (the nearest thing to Hell in Judaism) as at least Gehennom only lasts a year and you can’t actually do anything else wrong while you’re  there, while here I’m constantly doing the wrong thing and incurring more punishment.  I thought about Rosh Hashanah being tomorrow and that I’m going to be written for a bad year again, I just know it, because I’ve had bad years almost every year I’ve been an adult, loneliness and depression, to the extent that I can’t imagine anything going right for me.  I can’t imagine getting a career I enjoy and am successful at (as a writer or anything else), I can’t imagine getting married (perhaps only one person has ever really cared for me romantically and that seems unlikely to ever work out for a whole host of reasons), I can’t imagine ever fully fitting in to a community (it wouldn’t be so hard if everyone was like the people I spent Friday night with, though).  I can’t ever see my life, or my religious life/Torah study and mitzvah performance being enjoyable or meaningful.  It just all seems so hopeless.

I came home in such a state that my parents said I looked awful and excused me from helping to tidy up as I didn’t look capable.  I suppose I should have something to eat.  It has taken me over an hour to write this, as I keep getting distracted, which may be depressive poor concentration, but I suspect is more procrastination to avoid facing up to what I’m writing here.  “Facing up” in two senses: the literal sense I’ve written here, that, rightly or wrongly, I feel that I’m in a no-win situation and I can’t fit in to the culture I want to be accepted in, nor can I live according to the values I want to live by; but also face up to the fact that deep down I know, or at least I suspect, that it’s not as obvious as I write, that I am trying to be a good Jew and that has to count for something with someone, but I can’t see how I can really be a good Jew when I seem to try so little and when I seem to get so little joy from it, when so many people say that having joy in it is the main thing.  I mean, I could have tried harder to get up and go to shul this morning, I could have tried harder to study Torah instead of sleep and read other things this afternoon, I could have tried harder to understand the Talmud shiur, I could have tried harder to help getting the shul ready this evening.  I feel somehow there is a trick that I could do to have joy at shul or studying Torah or at a religious social event like the siyuum, but I don’t know how to do it, so I will get punished.

OK, time out, time to eat a cheese bagel and watch The IT Crowd.

Wanting to Curl Up and Escape the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

Standing on the Margins

I’ve been up and down again today.  I slept late again, after insomnia last night, which turned out to be because I’d forgotten to take my meds (I fell asleep around 3am, after taking them).  At times today I’ve been OK, but I tried doing some Torah study earlier and started crying.  I still feel very depressed.  There wasn’t an obvious trigger.

I did manage about half an hour of Torah study in the end.  It feels too little, particularly after what I wrote yesterday about “toiling” in Torah study in order to learn anything, but I just don’t feel able to do any more.  Am I being lazy?  Or beating myself up too much?  I don’t know.  My rational brain says I can force myself to do more, but the emotional side of me feels overloaded and unable to go on.  My self-esteem generally is low and I feel that I’m just not doing enough of anything at the moment: I didn’t job hunt today or do much Torah study or work on my books (except for watching Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab for research for my book; I did work out why I don’t really like it, but that’s not entirely relevant to either this post or the book, although it was oddly mirrored by Michael Weingrad’s article today on Game of Thrones for the Jewish Review of Books).  All I did, aside from that half-hour of Torah study was a few Shabbat chores and some dusting, plus I’m hoping to go to shul (synagogue) in an hour.

I feel jealous of people who love Torah study, particularly men who love, and are good at, Talmudic study.  It must make being frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) so much easier and more enjoyable, just as it seems easier to be extrovert, and especially neurotypical, in such a community-based religion.  The assistant rabbi was speaking last night of spending hours studying with his chevruta (study partner), tearing just a few lines of Talmudic text to pieces and putting back together again in myriad ways until the understand it, and how disgusted he feels afterwards with the simplified “for dummies” explanations in the Artscroll Talmud edition commentary.  I can’t even understand the Artscroll explanations and I certainly can’t function with a chevruta, which is supposed to be the ideal Jewish way to study.

It’s funny, I tend to assume that I have no share in Olam HaBa (the World to Come i.e. Heaven).  Partly it’s that I can’t imagine anything that good happening to me (everything in my life goes wrong sooner or later, usually sooner), but also our images of Heaven – the Heavenly yeshiva where everyone studies Torah with HaShem (God), the great banquet, the circle dance around HaShem – they are all communal images.  True they are only metaphors, there isn’t a literal yeshiva, feast or dance in Heaven, but whenever I try to imagine myself in the images, it’s just awful.  I can’t study yeshiva-style, I get overloaded by the noise and the people and am too shy to say anything even if I understand the subject matter.  I hate parties and avoid them; when I do I’m left standing by the fringes (which I read the other day is what happens if you earn a not-so-good place in Olam HaBa).  And, as I noted recently, I hate circle dancing (not that I like any other type either); again, I leave early on Simchat Torah to avoid it.  I feel that Olam HaBa, if by some miracle I find myself there, will probably turn out to be like a shul Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner: I’ll feel uninspired and lonely while everyone else is having a great time, connecting with HaShem and bonding with their friends and family.

I feel more than ever that I want a frum wife who could help me grow religiously, but there’s zero chance of anyone frum wanting to go out with me.  The last two women I dated were not frum.  I don’t even know how I would even meet someone frum, and I’m sure she would not be interested in me.  My parents just feed my fantasy that I could only marry someone whose previous relationships were severely dysfunctional or abusive by suggesting that I’ll meet someone who isn’t interested in a ‘typical’ frum guy because of a bad previous experience, but I can’t see why she would not want to meet someone frum and a nice person.  Unless she isn’t interested in being frum at all, in which case I still wouldn’t be suitable.  If I make up extreme examples of reasons why no one would marry me, my parents produce equally bizarre and unlikely examples of women who might be interested in me.  I’m not convinced by them.

I’ve been using dysfunctional coping strategies for dealing with difficult feelings.  Doubtless this will include eating too much junk over Shabbat (the Sabbath).  I feel sinful (not for eating, for other things), but feeling sinful just makes it worse because I’m even more likely to react in a dysfunctional way out of guilt, low self-esteem and self-loathing.

Busyness, Loneliness and Jewish Studiousness

I didn’t have work today, having gone in on Monday instead, so I got to sleep in.  I actually slept for something like eleven hours and finally woke feeling refreshed.  I don’t know why I need to sleep so long; I used to assume it was the depression making me exhausted, but it may also be the effort of masking depression and autism in social situations and at work.  I started sleeping longer at weekends when I was a teenager, which is probably fairly common, but that was also the time I first started showing symptoms of depression and when school perhaps started becoming harder from an autistic point of view, as the nature of friendship changed and became less about playing together and more about sharing emotions.

The downside of sleeping in is that doing everything I wanted to do today became harder, especially as I was feeling a bit down, or at least sluggish (it’s not always easy for me to tell the difference between the ‘low mood’ and ‘low energy’ aspects of depression, which I guess is alexithymia again).  I probably wanted to do too much anyway, but as I said yesterday, chores have a habit of breeding.  I needed to get a haircut and buy an anniversary card for my uncle and aunt, catch up on this week’s Talmud study, speak to Remploy about career’s advice and workplace support options for someone with depression and autism and a few smaller things.  I also wanted to get through some more Doctor Who episodes for research (not relaxation, as it’s become a chore at times to do it, although I enjoyed the much-maligned The Gunfighters). 

I managed everything except speaking to Remploy, which was good, especially as I can now put aside the second drafts of another two Doctor Who book chapters.  I shook quite a bit while having my hair cut, which wasn’t good.  I’m trying hard not to beat myself up about not getting everything done.  As I said, I probably wanted to do too much anyway.  The problem is I hate having my haircut and I was nervous about having to contact Remploy so the urge to procrastinate is there, along with the fear that I was procrastinating even if I wasn’t.  Of course, the reason I’m so sluggish today is probably at least in part because I did quite a bit yesterday, so to some extent there’s a trade off.  I will see if I can speak to Remploy before I go into Shabbat mode tomorrow afternoon.

***

I try to push myself sometimes to read things that are out of my usual comfort zone, so I’m reading 13 Minutes, a thriller about teenage girls and their cliques and bitchiness.  It’s been making me think of my school days, which were miserable, but I realise from the book that a lot of what was going on went over my head.  I just wasn’t aware of a lot of stuff in terms of interpersonal dynamics (friends, lovers, enemies).  I don’t know if that was autism or just being out of the loop, if the two aren’t really the same thing.  I certainly wasn’t really aware of my peers having sex like the characters in the book.

Now, of course, I think about it too much.  I feel that there’s a huge part of life I’m locked out of.  I don’t know why I fixate on that.  I’m not a great traveller, but I don’t feel that I’m missing out much there.  I don’t touch drugs or alcohol, but I don’t feel that I’m missing out on them.  Maybe because I long for intimacy more than sex per se and feel I’ve never or rarely experienced the kind of closeness I want with people.  Or because from a frum point of view, sex is bad until you get married, when it’s good, which makes it harder to write off.  My frum peers have lots of children by this point.  I hope I get rewarded for my abstemiousness at some point, but I worry that I won’t.  It’s not like I really had a choice; I couldn’t have sex even if I wanted, women have never exactly thrown themselves at me.  Tehillim/Psalms asks God to store our tears in a flask and record them as a sign that He is with us.  It can be hard to feel that my suffering is somehow preserved for a meaningful goal, though.

***

On a more positive note, I mentioned doing the weekly Talmud study above and while I still feel that I understand very little of the actual arguments of which the Talmud is mostly comprised, I think I am slowly learning key words and logical terms.  In the long run, that’s probably more important than actually understanding the arguments.

In the last few days I’ve felt more confident in my own Jewish knowledge in general, at least compared with other ba’alei teshuva (people ethnically Jewish but raised non-religious who became religious later on in life), which is a positive thing given that many of the people in my shul are ba’alei teshuva.  I feel that I probably do know a lot compared to the average ba’al teshuva, although most of the time I’m too scared to reveal my knowledge.  I also feel that I have more of a sense of an underlying philosophy of Judaism than many Jews have.  I feel like a ba’alat teshuva or geyoret (convert to Judaism) might accept me as a husband, although there is still a feeling that she would be ‘settling’ for me in the absence of someone better and that a frum (religious) from birth Jewish woman wouldn’t accept me.  I don’t know whether this is true.

***

Related to this, I do feel today that someone might want to marry me; the problem is finding a job to support a family/make myself more attractive and in working out how to actually meet women, given that I’m not integrated into the frum community enough to get set up on dates.  Plus, as I said, I do still have the nagging sense that if someone did marry me, she would be ‘settling’ for me, not marrying me because she really wants me in the first instance, although for a while today even that feeling disappeared.  But there’s no telling what I will think tomorrow.

“It will all be the same in a hundred years”

I spent an hour or more after Shabbat (the Sabbath) working on my presentation for my interview.  Actually, I spent an hour occasionally jotting down ideas, but mostly panicking and procrastinating on Twitter (which I should never have joined – I don’t use it effectively to promote my blog, which was the whole purpose of being on it, although it’s probably just as well my recent blog posts haven’t had much of an audience, so out of touch am I with accepted fan wisdom.  Although it was weird to see a former Doctor Who script writer retweet a (non-Who, political) Tweet by a friend of my sister… small world).  I have something of an idea of the structure of the presentation and a few ideas, but it’s going to need a lot of work before Wednesday.  If the interview goes badly, at least it will be useful evidence for when I have my interview at The Network on Thursday (for employment support with mental health issues) and Barnet Mencap on Friday (for autism screening).

Shabbat itself was more of a struggle.  Friday night was good: I spent time feeling actually frum (religious) for once: I went to shul (synagogue), spent time on Torah study, reading Tanakh in Hebrew and looking up commentaries and Midrashim and things, at least to some extent.  I spent too much time after shul, but before dinner, lying on my bed tired and then I struggled to sleep when I went to bed properly, but on the whole I felt OK and I started re-reading The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick’s last and in some ways most beautiful book (I’m not quite sure why The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction thought it was the work of a “finished writer”).

Today was a lot harder.  I slept through the morning again and didn’t go to shul.  This upsets me, but I don’t know how to change it.  Dealing with social anxiety there is just too far down on my list of priorities at the moment, below dealing with less scary social anxiety situations, dealing with low self-esteem and finding a job I can actually do.

Then when I got up, there was stuff going on at home which I can’t talk about here, but which really brought me down.  I know I sound really open and honest here, but what you see is not all of me.  You see a lot of me, but nowhere near all, both in terms of how I feel now and what affects that, and what started all this (my mental health issues) in the first place.  And it’s very frustrating not being able to talk about that, especially now I’m not currently in therapy.  And then after Shabbat we had some more bad news, which I also can’t share here for different reasons, so that was also worrying and upsetting.

I did get to shul for Talmud shiur (Talmud class) (a really weird sugya (argument) about whether the souls of the dead know what happens in our world; after giving arguments back and forth, the Gemarah basically concludes that we just don’t know, which is rather frustrating) and Ma’ariv (the evening service).  The assistant rabbi asked if I was OK as I missed shiur on Thursday and I wasn’t sure whether to say I was at depression group.  Maybe next time there’s a clash (which won’t be until late January now), I should just message the shiur What’sApp group and instead of saying vaguely that I’m not able to come to shiur, as I usually do when I go to depression group instead, I should openly say I’m going to my depression support group.  At least then it forces me to be more open, but who knows how people will react.  (The shiur What’sApp group is very small, about six or eight members, the people I am most friendly with at shul.)

Good news: I have received that money I was owed from my shul and I’ve been taken back of the security rota.

I have a scarily busy, or just scary, week ahead: on Monday I should find out if I’m getting CBT on the NHS; on Wednesday I have my job interview (presentation; interview; cataloguing test); on Thursday I have my meeting at The Network about employment support and on Friday I’ve got my autism screening.  I’ve asked both my parents to come along to this.  Strictly speaking, they only need one parent, but I have wondered since my last assessment whether my Mum unconsciously tries to present me in a ‘good’ i.e. neurotypical light.  I guess it can’t hurt to have Dad there too even if that’s not the case.  And of course, Chanukah is in the background all week, although it will only be tricky on Friday, which will be a rush to get ready and light Chanukah lights after my screening and before Shabbat, which will start around 3.40pm.

I’ve been thinking recently about what my maternal grandparents used to say to me a lot, “It will all be the same in a hundred years.”  I’ve come across a similar quote from former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, “Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.”  I’ve been thinking about this with regard to the centenary of the end of World War I and with regard to Brexit, but also with regard to my own life.  I think some things do matter on a global scale and some things don’t, but it’s hard to tell what’s what sometimes.  Realistically, World War I did matter, and matters now one hundred years on, but realistically a lot of what I do won’t matter, now or in a century.  (Don’t ask me where Brexit fits in!)  Of course, from a religious point of view, everything matters, but I am not sure that that is the healthiest way to think about things when I’m stuck deeply in anxiety and despair.  It’s like Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa saying:

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.  When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”  But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

(The former quote is from the Talmud, the latter Bereshit/Genesis 18.27.)

Maybe it’s good to think that things don’t matter if one is in danger of overthinking things and turning into an anxious mess.

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.

Sukkot 1 and 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Late for the Pebbles to Vote

“The avalanche has already started.  It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” – Babylon 5: Believers by David Gerrold

Today was my last day in my job, although technically I’m still under contract until mid-August and the next few weeks are paid holiday, although I’ll be using a lot of it to start job hunting.  I’ve already started getting in touch with contacts I have in the areas of writing and researching that I might be interested in to get an idea of what would be involved.

Today was a slightly odd day, as I’d done most of my work and there wasn’t much point starting anything new, so I just helped out with the library reorganisation a bit.  About 11.00am all the library suddenly trooped into the office and stood in front of my desk, rather to my surprise, and presented me with a leaving card and present (a mug decorated to look like the scrabble tile of the initial of my first name), which must have been bought quickly, given that I only turned the contract down yesterday.  I had a bit of an autistic/alexithymic moment, being overwhelmed by a rush of different emotions that were hard to identify: pleasure, embarrassment, happiness, regret and probably more.  But I was really glad that I seemed to have made such an impression in a relatively short period of time.  I just hope I communicated that, as the overwhelming emotional rush made it hard for me to know what to say or do.  A little later an ex-colleague, who got transferred to one of the other colleges in the super-college a few months ago, popped in to say goodbye.  She happened to be in the building and heard I was leaving, so she came up, which was really nice, as I was worried I wouldn’t get the chance to say goodbye to her.

There is a bit of regret and maybe even a little self-recrimination that maybe I should have tried out the new contract and seen how it goes and maybe I’m running away from social stuff a bit, but something happened today that I won’t go into here that made me think I was right to leave.  Plus, while I should push myself on the social anxiety front, I also need to play to my strengths and the new job description was just too much too quickly (in terms of required interpersonal interactions).

E. is really supportive of my decision too, which matters a lot to me, as I respect her opinion a lot.  My family, while I think initially leaning towards encouraging me to take the contract, are now more supportive of my decision, even though I’m going to have to move back in with my parents soon for financial reasons.  And my non-biological sisters have been really supportive while I’ve been trying to make up my mind too and they think I’m doing the right thing.

At shiur tonight someone asked how I am and I mentioned about my job, even though my instinct was to hide it.  Afterwards, while I was walking back, I stopped to respond to a text and someone from shiur and caught up with me and spoke to me.  After I got panicked enough about talking to him that I got my address wrong (!) he asked the question I dread most i.e. where do daven (pray) on Shabbat (Sabbath) mornings?  I am usually asleep, a combination of depressive exhaustion after the work week with a bit of socially anxious avoidance of crowds.  I mentioned that I have some health issues and don’t always make it to shul (synagogue) without going into details.  I always feel really awkward saying that, but I don’t know what else to say.  It’s better than lying and pretending I daven elsewhere, I guess.

On a somewhat related note, I wanted to respond to this post (about a podcast for frum (religious) women who struggle with balancing careers, family and religious lives) by saying that I feel the need for one for men too, but I was worried I might be deemed sexist (to be honest, I’m so scared of identity politics calling out that I’m scared to express an opinion on a lot of things).  But I would like someone to tell me what is normal and what is halakhically acceptable (acceptable according to Jewish law) for frum men (and if ‘normal’ is the same as ‘halakhically acceptable’ here).  I know that women have their own challenges which in many ways are harder, but as a frum guy I feel a pressure to: 1) earn money to support a family (a particularly sticky point for me at the moment, given that this was why E. and I broke up); 2) do my share of the chores to support said family as well as 3) spend quality time with said family, especially encouraging my children’s religious education and growth.  Furthermore I have to 4) daven three times a day 5) with kavannah (mindfulness) and 6) a minyan (prayer quorum) as well as 7) study Torah for a couple of hours daily 8) ideally at least some of the time with a chevruta (study partner) (not my preferred mode of study) and 9) ideally Talmud and halakhah (Jewish law) (which are not my favourite areas of study, either for interest or ability – this post just made me feel totally inadequate, as the author is so far ahead of my ability) and 10) working on developing my character attributes in line with Jewish teachings while still 11) staying sociable at shul social events like kiddush (refreshments after Shabbat morning services) and seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) and discussing work, politics and sport (boring!).  Most of these things I find hard because of my mental health and probable neurodivergence.  I guess I would like to know what is ‘normal’ here and what the basic level of ‘acceptable’ is.  I feel everyone from my shul does all of the above, at least to some extent (OK, they don’t all study Talmud, but they do all seem to study Jewish stuff) and I’d like to know how much (and how they fit it in), but it’s not really the done thing to ask, and asking would entail speaking about the way depression, social anxiety and probable autism hold me back.