Reasons to be Cheerful

My main focus today was therapy. I didn’t have a lot to say, as things seem to be going well. The last week or so I have been fairly focused on the present rather than worrying about the future. I also seem to have coping strategies that help me to deal with things better than in the past, and my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis has made it easier for me to forgive myself for mistakes and quirks that would have upset me in the past. The two (coping mechanisms and forgiveness) go together, as a key coping mechanism is to know my limits and not force myself to go beyond them, even if part of me says I “should” be able to do so.

I mentioned in therapy that I have been reflecting recently that my life seems to be suddenly going a lot better. I’ve finally got my Asperger’s diagnosis (which seems to be the key turning point); I have a job I can manage which leaves me time to write; I have a core of online friends who read my blog and leave helpful comments (I’ve written blogs with no readers before, and writing does serve a purpose for me even without readers, but writing without an audience can be lonely); I am beginning to wonder if I am more accepted at shul (synagogue) than I thought previously; I have greater kavannah (concentration or mindfulness) in davening (prayer) than previously; I’m somewhat happier with the amount and content of Torah study I’m doing (an average of fifty to sixty minutes daily, with some Talmud study); and I’ve restarted volunteering. Best of all, E and I have got back together and think that this time we might be able to make the relationship work permanently.

The latter point is the thing I’ve been hinting at for the last week or so without explicitly stating, as I was curious to see what my therapist said before saying anything here. At the moment I haven’t told my parents or my sister, which I feel a little bad about, but I want to give the relationship a few weeks so that I can say it’s working before I tell them. This is because my Mum in particular was worried about E and I getting into an endless on/off relationship. To be fair, I worried about that too, but I think this time both of us have undergone significant changes and growth that make me feel a lot more positive about our future together now. There is much more to say about this (it’s quite a story), but I’m too drained from therapy tonight to write it, so you’ll just have to wait a little longer.

I’m always scared to say that things are going well, as it seems almost inevitable that they go wrong afterwards, but as my therapist and I discussed, the difference this time is that it’s as much about coping strategies and being able to stay in the present as about external things boosting my mood, which will hopefully enable me to stay well even when things go wrong, as something will eventually.

***

My boss, J, texted me to say that by chance, he had come across my article online. He liked it. I felt a little awkward, but it’s probably good that he saw it, although I’m glad I told him about my autism a couple of weeks ago so he wasn’t learning about it entirely from the article. The big question I’m wondering is whether anyone else from my shul has seen it and whether they will say anything when they see me on Shabbat. The site it was on is very well-known and read by a lot of people, so it’s entirely possible that some other people I know have seen it.

Fitting In at Shul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunslinger Librarian

I have noted before that, like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I’m not always good at understanding or even noticing my own moods, known technically as alexithymia. My mood all day yesterday was different. After the big thing that I’m not going to speak about directly yet happened, I felt what I thought was anxiety all day. It was only when I was getting ready for bed that I realised that it wasn’t anxiety. I’m not 100% sure what it was. I think excitement is the most likely, but maybe happiness as well or instead. It’s good either way. I don’t usually experience either of those things.

I went to bed early last night as I knew I had to be up early today for volunteering, but I struggled to sleep. I’m not sure if that’s related to the excitement; I don’t think so, but who knows? Despite that, I woke up early today (a little earlier than I needed). I was still a few minutes late leaving, and there was bad traffic so I was twenty minutes late for volunteering. No one seemed worried. I guess if you’re a volunteer, they’re just grateful for the help.

This volunteering is at the Jewish food bank where I was volunteering last year, until they tightened their COVID precautions in the third lockdown and only allowed people to volunteer in their “bubbles.” They’ve lifted that regulation now, so I went back today. We now have high vis jackets to wear, which I guess makes sense as we’re working in the car park and garage of the organisation, and there are some cars going in and out.

I was mostly putting frozen meals into crates, and sticking labels onto boxes of food. It was repetitive work, but I can do that kind of repetitive task mechanically while thinking about other things without feeling bored. I was working primarily with only one other person and we were in the garage and round the corner from the other volunteers, so I hardly saw the other staff and volunteers. I’m OK with that too. A few people seemed pleased to see me again, which was nice. I always think it’s strange when people are pleased to see me, or remember me at all. It was rather cold, though — underground, unheated, with a concrete floor that seems to suck the heat out of my feet. I was glad I had wore my anorak.

I was there for over two hours, excluding travel time. Also excluding worry about not being able to socially distance on the bus for fifteen minutes or so when a bunch of schoolchildren got on for a number of stops. This happens every time, so I guess I just have to live with it. I didn’t see if they were wearing masks today, but often some don’t. It’s sad that COVID has made sitting next to someone on the bus feel as dangerous as sharing a syringe.

I was pretty tired after I got home and had lunch. I did some more work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week. I’m happier with it now. I didn’t do much else. I wrote an email about some potential jobs (see below) and planned what I want to say when I speak to my rabbi mentor tomorrow morning. I procrastinated over this, because I’m nervous of how it will go and what might follow from it. I don’t want to go into more details for now, sorry.

***

I was contacted by a job agency with two potential jobs for me. Both were for more hours a week than I think myself capable of at the moment and both require specialist knowledge or experience that I don’t have (of art and health librarianship). I asked the recruiter to put my name forward for both, on the grounds I don’t have to fill in an application and that it’s good to show willing to the agency. I doubt I’ll be called for interview for either. The job specs are daunting, though. One admittedly was for a more senior position than I’ve had before, although perhaps where my career would/”should” have been, had my issues not intervened.

I’ve really lost confidence in my ability to do the type of job I was trained for. If I was in a Western, I would be the gunslinger who has lost his nerve and can not sling his guns any more. Only I’m a librarian gunslinger (whatever that is).

There’s a Dilbert cartoon where Wally (the lazy one) is saying to the Pointy Haired Boss, “I’m pleased to report that I had no problems this week. I only had issues, opportunities, challenges and valuable learning experiences.” Then when the Pointy Haired Boss asks if he actually did any work, he replies that, “It didn’t seem necessary.” I feel like this has been my life for years, but since COVID, it’s been everyone’s life.

***

I don’t often post links, but given that I tend to feel insecure about rabbis being “better” than me, I was intrigued to read an Orthodox rabbi write about his own experiences of social media-driven insecurity.

Gimme Some Truth

Warning: this is rather more rambling and pity partyish than usual. Please don’t feel obliged to read.

Nietzsche wrote about mental illness being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” I think they’ve been barking a lot more in the last few days and I don’t know why. I was practically in tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) again today, and again at lunch, and a third time in the afternoon when doing Torah study, and I still don’t know why. I don’t know why specifically Shacharit and not the other prayers either; Shacharit is the least logical service for me to cry in, as I’m invariably late and rushing through just a few prayers before the final deadline. It would make more sense if I was in tears in the other services where I say the whole thing and at least try to have some kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).

I was actually doing OK early today at trying to stay in the present and not worry and obsess about the future, but over the day I drifted into one of my “I’m Fouled Up Beyond All Hope” moods.

***

Early today I felt that I should just rip up my novel and my Asperger’s article and start over, because neither of them have truth in them. Perhaps truth is the main thing distinguishing a good writer from a hack. George Orwell wrote about this, I think. Not some transcendent religious or philosophical truth, but simply the truth of someone’s experiences. I think my blog sometimes has truth, but not my other writing.

I thought of a particular saying from the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic leader) “The Evil Urge has found a new method, in which it succeeds; no longer must it do battle day and night. It toils only to take from you the delicate chord of truth in your heart, and afterwards it lets you do as you will: to work, to study, to pray… for without the point of truth, whatever you do is no longer important to the Evil Urge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [sic] edited by Simcha Raz, ellipsis in original) I think it’s a long time since I’ve had the “point of truth” in my writing, my study or my prayer.

I don’t think I’m that truthful in friendships and relationships either. By truthful I don’t mean ‘not lying’ (I’m not dishonest), but being fully open and ‘myself.’ I’m quite truthful with my parents, but I generally only talk about the dark stuff when it gets unbearable. I’m not always truthful with my sister. I can joke around with her, and my parents, but not always talk about the dark stuff. With most of my friends, I’m not really myself and not open at all. I would want to be truthful and to be myself in a relationship, but I don’t know if I could. I think I did with E. There were things that didn’t work in that relationship, but that aspect did work. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision in breaking up, although it was already an on/off relationship, so clearly something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to be truthful with PIMOJ at all, which is why the relationship failed, although to be fair she expected me to be truthful without being the same herself. I was truthful with my first girlfriend, but, again, she wasn’t with me, and again, it contributed to the failure of the relationship.

I was going to say I’m truthful with my therapist and my rabbi mentor, but even then I’m not entirely. I’m fairly truthful with my rabbi mentor, probably more than with other people. I try to be truthful with God. I don’t know how much I succeed. I can’t hide anything from God, although a lot of things seem too trivial to mention to him, even though they upset me a lot. I don’t joke with Him much, but it hardly seems important to do so with Him.

***

On a more positive note, when I went to look up that quote from the Kotzker, I found a bookmark pointing to the page that had this quote that I had forgotten about: “We have not found in any place in the Torah that a person is commanded to be a scholar and erudite in all the chambers of the Torah. For the purpose of study is not to be a scholar, but to be a good man, to do what is good and to act beneficently towards your fellow.” This is pretty much entirely against the prevailing worldview of the Haredi world, or at least the Yeshivish part of it, which sees becoming a great scholar as the only purpose of Judaism, at least for men. It reminds me of the man who boasted to the Kotzker Rebbe that he had been through the whole Talmud three times. “Yes, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?” the Rebbe responded.

Of course, it’s entirely open to question whether I’m a good man who does what is good and acts beneficently towards my fellow, but it’s a more viable target for me than going through the Talmud three times.

***

I did eventually sit down to work on my article. I read some published articles about Asperger’s and learning disabilities on Aish as research and I think my article isn’t hugely wide of the mark, although there are still many reasons it might be rejected. I spent about an hour reading and re-writing. I think tomorrow I will actually write the pitch and see what happens. I tend to be less successful at pitching things than writing them, I think.

I went for a walk after that. It was very windy, the wind blowing clouds of blossom around so that it felt like walking through snow or confetti.

I spent half an hour researching my devar Torah (Torah thought), using the English translations on Sefaria more than I would like (Sefaria translations are often crowdsourced and sometimes inaccurate). I have an idea of what topic to write about, but not really what to say, which probably means it’s going to be another week where I feel like I’m bluffing my way through it. I think writing a devar Torah each week is a good exercise for multiple reasons, but some weeks I do feel a bit of a fraud (truth again). I doubt I could do it if I worked full-time.

***

It gets REALLY pity partyish from here. Honestly, I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

I wish I knew how to cope with being celibate. The internet is monumentally unhelpful about this. After more than twenty years of celibacy since I hit adolescence, I feel at my wits’ end. I emailed Intimate Judaism about this, but the sex therapist there didn’t respond to that aspect of the email, only saying she would try to set me up with a shadchan (matchmaker) who works with people with special needs in the UK. She said she has asked her colleagues and is waiting for an answer. I am doubtful, as I have made similar inquires in the past. Even if she finds one, there is also the realistic likelihood of me being too modern for such a shadchan and her clientele. And I still need help to cope with celibacy in the interim, especially as I’m not sure if I should go to a shadchan while only working two days a week and financially insecure, not to mention being emotionally fragile.

(I should probably add in terms of the special needs shadchan that when I tried looking for one a few years ago, my father asked the wife of the then-assistant rabbi at his shul (synagogue) if she knew anyone who could help someone with depression get married — at that stage, depression seemed to be the main issue as I wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum. She said “Rebbetzin D” who I never got around to phoning. There always seemed to be good reasons (it was nearly Pesach; I found a relationship independently; I went to a different shadchan that seemed more promising and so on), but I suppose unconsciously I was socially anxious and unsure whether she could help or even how I would start the conversation as Rebbetzin D isn’t a shadchan and I was wary of what “help” she might be able to provide and how she would respond to being phoned out of the blue by a stranger. I suppose I could try to contact her now, although it’s three or four years down the line, and, as I said, I don’t know if I should be looking to get married in my current financial situation.)

I need touch sometimes. I live with my parents, so I can still get hugs, although physical contact with my parents can still be awkward for autistic reasons and reasons based on my past. I do long to be with someone I really connect with again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a partner, but could be a close friend; nevertheless, since adolescence, I’ve only had such close friendships with women, which makes them awkward when they are platonic, because usually I want them to be more, but the other person doesn’t, or because the other person isn’t Jewish or isn’t religious enough for me, which is also awkward. I have dated women less religious than me, at my rabbi mentor’s encouragement, but I don’t know how viable such a relationship would be in the long-term. Certainly it put strains on those relationships which contributed to their ending.

Above all, I want to learn how to deal with sexual and romantic desire when single from a halakhic (Jewish law) point of view. I don’t think I have a particularly high sex drive, but I do have a greater desire for love and sex when depressed and lonely — in other words, when marriage seems most distant from me. This is rather cruel. I can’t say that I live my life entirely halakhically regarding sex. I just try to do the best I can, but I don’t know whether I could do better if someone guided me, or if I had more willpower or more control over my thoughts and emotions (autistic emotional regulation is not always the best). And I don’t know what God thinks about me, whether He thinks I’m at least trying to keep halakhah or if He thinks that frankly I could do better and wants to punish me. Or is punishing me. To be honest, while my low self-esteem is rooted in negative childhood experiences like bullying (among other things) the constant level of sexual guilt since I was thirteen and hit puberty probably hasn’t helped much. The Orthodox world’s only answer to this is early marriage, which doesn’t really work when you’re thirty-seven.

(And I should say that although I feel hugely guilty about my sexuality, I’ve still never had anything approaching actual intercourse, which somehow makes the whole thing seem even more pathetic.)

It feels like the most realistic option for me is to learn to be happy alone and celibate, but everyone just says, “No, you can get married,” without doing anything practical to advance that outcome. It’s weird, because I’m used to people saying that you should be “happy with your lot” rather than endlessly daydream about some eventuality that might never come to pass. Yet everyone encourages me to stay positive about finding a mate even after so many years and so many rejections. It’s like everyone was suggesting I should solve my financial problems by trying to win the lottery when I want to find a job.

I feel that what I want more than anything is for God to tell me that He thinks I’m a good person (God, not human beings who don’t know me and might lie to make me feel better). But He won’t, not in this world.

Dating to the Right and Left

I should say that “right” and “left” here refer to more or less traditionalist Jewish rather than politically right and left.

Yesterday my therapist encouraged me to stay in the present, to think about being able to succeed in my current job rather than worrying about my future career and to try to build a connection with someone rather than worrying about marriage. This is easier said than done. She suggested I “check in” with myself every few hours (I decided on every four hours) to see if I am staying in the present. I am not doing very well. Worries about marriage kept surfacing.

Early this morning I was thinking about a Jewish idea — possibly a popular spirituality idea rather than something in major primary sources; certainly I don’t think I’ve seen it there, but I’ve seen it on popular sites like Aish.com — that you have everything you need for your mission on earth. This is problematic when you think about people who lack the basics of life (historically, many important rabbis lived in extreme poverty at one point in their lives e.g. Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and others). Fortunately, my parents are supporting me financially, but, if I have everything I need, why do I feel such a need to give and receive love? It is a basic human need and I can’t pretend I don’t feel it. Maybe I need the need, but still, I don’t know what to do with it.

On the way to work, I was overtaken by hordes of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) primary school-aged girls on scooters, going to school. I see them every time I go to work. I found myself wondering where they would be in ten years time, how many would still be in the Haredi community and how many would be married. Statistically speaking, the answer to both questions is “Most of them.” The retention rate is much higher in the Haredi world than the Modern Orthodox one, and early marriage is the norm.

Thinking about the Haredi community and its higher retention rate, I found myself wondering if I should be looking for a moderate Haredi spouse. After all, I go to a moderate Haredi shul (synagogue) and have some friends there. I can, apparently, “pass” on a basic level, even if I’m not a complete match for the ideology, and even if I worry a lot about being caught out. I feel a bit like I may not get the choice, as there are not many frum (religious) young people in the Modern Orthodox (United Synagogue) community in the UK, while the Haredi community is booming, and is younger (thanks to a high birth rate and high retention rate). There is also a tendency in my family for the men to marry “up” religiously and the women to marry “down” i.e. more religious women marrying less religious men. My previous girlfriends have mostly been less religious. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong?

That would involve being set up on dates with Haredi women. The sex therapist from Intimate Judaism who responded to my email the other day offered to try to find a shadchan (matchmaker) specialising in people with “issues” for me. I’m not sure that she’s going to be able to do so, as I tried to find one myself some years ago, without success. But if she does manage it, I would imagine they would be more to the Haredi end of the spectrum, as shidduch dating (arranged dating) is more common there. So, again, that might push me in that direction.

Nevertheless, there is an issue here, which is my reliance on Doctor Who and other British TV science fiction as a coping mechanism as an autistic special interest and a coping mechanism for life stress. This is a bit weird even in the Modern Orthodox world (my Modern Orthodox rabbi mentor doesn’t even have a TV) and in the Haredi world TV is viewed with suspicion and even people who have one tend to keep it hidden. Being so into a TV programme (bear in mind I have even written and self-published a book on Doctor Who, for love rather than money) — well, it’s weird and geeky even in the secular world, let alone the Haredi world. I fear it would be a deal-breaker for many Haredi women and maybe even some Modern Orthodox ones.

I thought about the other obstacle I have to frum marriage, the fact I haven’t been to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Realistically, not going was probably the right decision for me, although if I hadn’t been in the depths of despair, a gap year after university instead of before might have worked. I worry about not being attractive to frum women by not being able to study Talmud, and potentially teach it to my children.

My parents think that I’m a good person and should therefore find a good wife, sooner or later. I’m not strongly convinced that I’m a good person (I think it’s more that lots of other people are subpar, and society is OK with that), but I worry that the type of woman I’m looking for will be looking for a good Jew rather than a good person, and that I’m not a good Jew because of my problems studying Talmud. I don’t think a frum woman would be faced with a choice between me and a bad person, but between me and an equally good person who can also study Talmud. This pushes me to date more non-frum women who wouldn’t care about Talmud studying ability, despite the problems I’ve had there. Then again, I could also say that a woman (frum or otherwise) would be faced with a choice between me and an equally good person who doesn’t have a shedload of other “issues.”

Which brings me back to the “special needs” shadchan. I haven’t tried this, but I worry that I would not be set up with the right sort of women. My one brief attempt at dating with a shadchan ended badly when, possibly because I had mentioned my depression and autism, she set me up with someone with learning disabilities who simply was not on my intellectual level. Admittedly, it didn’t help that there was zero chemistry between us, but I do wonder what would happen if I go down this route. Asperger’s is frustrating as it can involve being extremely intelligent and functional in academic areas, but absolutely not functional in basic social skills, which doesn’t make finding a compatible partner any easier.

So, for a day when I was supposed to be in the present and not worrying about my future, I was worrying a lot about my future. It didn’t help that work was quite slow. The morning was OK, but the afternoon was largely spent on fairly mindless work that left my brain free to worry about things. Being at work probably didn’t help, as I couldn’t really write things down to get them out of my brain until I got home. I’m going to post now, rather than before I get ready for bed as I usually do, to see if that helps me get rid of the thoughts and lets me sit in the present more this evening.

Also, the Talmud thing is a big issue for me (you may have noticed…), not just with dating, but with self-esteem and social conformity generally, and I don’t know what to do about it. Actually studying Talmud (the obvious solution) doesn’t work as I struggle so much with it. I’ve tried all kinds of different ways: different types of classes, chevruta (one-to-one) study, private study, all without success (actually, I did have some success with the LSJS class, but that was years ago and it hasn’t run since). I’ve been told it’s not an issue and I shouldn’t worry about it, but it seems like a big thing to me. I don’t know how to fit in comfortably to the frum community, whether looking for friends, community or a wife, without it. But my brain seems not to have been designed for Talmud study and now lacks the plasticity to learn.

Beating Myself Up

Today seems to have been a day for beating myself up. Most of the things below happened independently of each other, but all seem to have provoked me to beat myself up. I kind of take my low self-esteem for granted and don’t write about it much, but it is there a lot of the time, closely linked with social anxiety and autistic communication difficulties.

***

I was tired when I woke up this morning, but my mood was initially OK. I did spend too long online before getting dressed though. I don’t know why mornings are so hard. I went out to get my lithium blood test form and do some shopping and my mood dropped. I was somewhat self-critical and negative about the future. When I’m at home, I can feel OKish about where I am in my life: part-time work, single, living with my parents. But when I go out, I see other people and start to compare. Even if I’m not consciously comparing, I think I’m doing it unconsciously. I live in an area with a lot of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) families, so I invariably see people ten years or more younger than me with children, which just makes me feel like I totally missed the boat regarding marriage and family.

I used to rate my mood each day out of ten, to track my progress. It occurs to me that maybe I should do that again to see how it fluctuates from day to day and even across the day. Today I felt bad compared to the last few days, but, trying to rate it objectively, I doubt my mood was less than 5/10, which is obviously much better than when it never rose above 3/10 even on a “better” day.

***

Someone at depression group last night spoke about people on the autism spectrum being good at noticing things and spotting patterns and discrepancies. This is an idea I struggle with. I have heard it often; I know the psychologist Simon Baron Cohen has published a book recently about autistic people being “pattern seekers” and therefore able to contribute to society in that way. I know some finance firms deliberately recruit people on the spectrum on the grounds that they can see patterns in the money markets better than neurotypical people.

I feel uncomfortable with that because I don’t know if I “pattern seek” at all; if I do, it’s not in a socially useful way. I do notice some things other people don’t. I stop suddenly in the street to look at an interesting insect and it’s hard for me to walk past writing without reading it, whether on a billboard, on a scrap of paper or leaflet on the street or on the newspaper of someone opposite me on the Tube. That might count as noticing things and seeking patterns, although it might just be that my interests are weird (which would also be typical for someone on the spectrum).

I can find patterns within the things I like. For instance, it excites me that David Bowie had a cameo appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me because it’s two things I like (David Bowie and Twin Peaks) meeting unexpectedly. However, I don’t feel I can do anything useful with this ability, if it even is an “ability.” I can’t do anything that other people can’t do and I don’t think I am particularly good at finding patterns in the abstract or noticing things. In fact, in many ways I’m very bad at noticing things. I notice immediately if anyone moves anything in my bedroom, because I jealously guard my own territory, but I don’t necessarily notice if my parents rearrange the furniture downstairs, because “their” territory doesn’t really interest me or register on my consciousness.

I guess I would like to find an area where my autism/Asperger’s gives me some kind of advantage, if only to feel better about myself, but it’s hard to think of one.

***

A related issue is that of analytical ability. People on the spectrum are often very analytical. I’m not and I’m not sure if I ever was, or if it was eroded by depression. I did well at school, including in science, so I must have had some analytical ability as a child and teenager. Somewhere along the line I lost it though. In particular, I’ve never been good at studying Talmud, whether Mishnah or Gemarah (Mishnah, the earlier part of the Talmud, is somewhat clearer and easier than Gemarah, the later part of the Talmud which analyzes the Mishnah), back from when I first encountered it in voluntary lunchtime lessons at school. This was one reason among several why I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Why would I spend a year of my life in a foreign country studying texts I can’t understand and don’t enjoy?

The problem, as I was reminded today listening to a shiur (religious class) online while I cooked dinner, is that Talmudic study is considered the paramount religious activity in the frum (religious Jewish) world, at least for men. Tanakh study (biblical study), which is probably my favourite Torah activity, along with the study of Midrash (the rabbinic expansions of the biblical text, which function as both creative commentaries and non-literal ways of exploring theological and ethical topics). It is more intuitive and creative that Talmud study, which tends to be strongly based on logic, but is largely ignored for men, except in parts of the Religious Zionist world.

The shiur I listened to was poorly recorded and had lots of untranslated Hebrew, neither of which endeared it to me (to be fair, the fact that I was cooking at the same time probably didn’t help matters), but it was mostly about the importance of studying Torah for its own sake, which mostly means Talmud. Even when I study Tanakh, I’m not sure how much I’m studying to “know the mind of God” and how much just because I’m frum and it’s what I’m supposed to do, just as I don’t enjoy fasting on Yom Kippur, but I do it anyway.

It’s strange that I have a strong connection to a form of Judaism that I’m unable to really practice or enjoy. If you look at the major aspects of frum life, I can’t study Talmud and halakhah; I find it hard to connect to God with prayer, whether set prayers or spontaneous prayers (years ago I could connect this way, but I haven’t been able to for a long time, at least not consistently); I’m too socially anxious to really engage in communal activity or chessed (acts of kindness); I have failed to get married and start a family… I can’t do these things well or at all, no matter how hard I try, and I do not enjoy most of them (which admittedly is not a brilliant measure of anything, as I’m pretty anhedonic even when not actually depressed and struggle to enjoy anything, but certainly the idea of enjoying studying Torah and enjoying doing mitzvot are key ideas in Judaism). Yet I continue to try to be frum, and to beat myself up for not succeeding. I’m not sure what spiritual or psychological drive is pushing that. It’s like I want to set myself a target I can’t attain. I suppose that no other religion or philosophy of life seems to offer a better alternative to me, and I believe in God and the Torah, and want to connect to the Jewish people, my contemporaries and my ancestors. But it’s very hard to actually do it.

***

I also heard back from the Intimate Judaism sex therapist. I just cringed when the email came in, the way I always do when I reach out to people and they respond positively — yes, I mean positively; positive responses can be as shame-inducing as negative ones, with less reason. I guess I feel that I am not worth it, or that there will now be another stage of possible failure e.g. the sex therapist says that she can suggest shadchanim (matchmakers) who might be willing to work with me to find a spouse, which raises all the fears around dating and rejection there. Actually, even beyond a further stage of failure, I’m so used to being ignored that when people are nice to me, I panic and don’t know what to do, and don’t feel like I deserve it. I think across my life the times when I wanted the ground to swallow me up were as much for compliments and positive attention as for shame and negative attention.

Now I need to find the confidence to respond…

***

Where has WordPress moved the tags box to? Why do they keep changing things? EDIT: it’s back now. Maybe the page wasn’t loading properly.

(I Don’t Believe In) Modern Love

I thought I would be very burnt out today after such a busy day yesterday and I was more or less right. I think I’ve been somewhat more optimistic since my autism diagnosis (which was less than two months ago, so quite fresh, even if I’d thought I was on the spectrum for years), but today I feel in “No one could ever love me, or if she could, I wouldn’t know how to meet her” mode. I’m not that hopeful about my novel either after the freelance editor I sent the first chapter to sent me feedback. She was reasonably positive, although she felt the type of editing I need was too far outside her experience for her to accept the work, which is fair enough. She did mention something E said on the early chapters she saw, though, about feeling too distant from the action, as if it was autobiography, telling rather than showing as E put it. There is an autobiographical element to the novel, but I didn’t want it to feel like that. So that’s one thing to think about for the next redraft, which will have to be quite drastic. I do feel that the parts that seemed to flow best and felt most engaging when I was writing them (if that proves anything about how things read) were the small bits of action, which is part of what is pushing me to genre fiction next time (“next time”!). I’m not sure what to do now though. The thought of going through the manuscript and doing a total, line-by-line rewrite is quite daunting, even if I had confidence in my ability to “show, don’t tell” the story, which at this stage, I don’t have. Maybe this is why Kafka hardly finished anything.

I actually had a dream related to writing anxiety last night. In the dream I was putting stuff online about what happened with the first woman I asked out (I asked her out; she said no; I stupidly didn’t stop off-loading my depressive thoughts on her; she panicked when I got suicidal and cut off all contact with me) and she understandably got annoyed. I’m not surprised I dreamt this, as I’ve been wondering whether it was a good idea to use that experience in the novel. I don’t know if she would recognise what happened between us in the novel (it was a long time ago and I have tried to fictionalise it somewhat) if she ever read it, but I do feel nervous about that sometimes. I know they (they = people who speak about writing) say to write what you know and I know some authors draw more heavily from their own experience than others, but I worry about crossing a line, although the reality is that even if I get published, she probably won’t read it. Last I heard, she doesn’t even live in this country any more.

***

After my post yesterday, I found myself wondering why I think about sex so much. Someone (I haven’t been able to source the quotation) said that “Sex is like water: if you have it, you don’t think about it; if you haven’t got it, you can’t think about anyone else.” To be honest, with me it’s probably a shorthand for love, intimacy, closeness and the absence of loneliness rather than just sex. Possibly it’s a shorthand for those things because the idea of touch is very difficult for me, on the spectrum: it can be very good, but often is very uncomfortable, even with people I love, like my parents. So the thought of someone I feel completely comfortable with touching me is very powerful and also very elusive and tied to ideas about trust and intimacy (especially as my first girlfriend rather trampled on my boundaries about touch).

In a low, burnt out mood this morning, I found myself wondering if I made a mistake in breaking up with PIMOJ and even if I made a mistake in breaking up with E last year (she tried to get back with me a while back, which I don’t think is a good idea rationally, but has a certain amount of emotional appeal). It’s hard to avoid feeling that I didn’t make a mistake in one of those breakups. It’s also easy to start thinking that I’ll be alone forever. I suppose the trick is just not to think about love and relationships and focus my attention elsewhere (where?).

***

Inasmuch as I did anything today, it was a chore day, as usual for a Friday. I did my usual Shabbat (Sabbath) chores; sorted out my desk drawer, which gets into a mess as I just shove stuff in it to keep my desk clear; phoned the GP’s surgery to request the form for my next lithium blood test (more NHS bureaucracy and I spent ages on hold); and went for a walk. During the walk, my mood, which had been OKish, mostly just tired, dropped quite a bit into “My life is never going to come together” mode, which makes me a bit nervous about my mood going through Shabbat.

My shul (synagogue) is bringing in Shabbat early during summer, so I won’t get time to look at this week’s Talmud page before Shabbat. I’ll try to look at it tonight, but I suspect I’ll be too tired to make much of it. I feel bad that the shiur (class) has only been going one week and I’m already slipping in my desire to look over it once before the shiur and revise it once afterwards.

Someone is WRONG on the Internet!

I was worried my burnout would continue to today, as sometimes happens, but I had one of those days after a very burnt out day where it’s as if the storm has exhausted itself and I feel fine.

The hospital phoned me back early in the morning about the issues I had with my autism diagnosis report. Hopefully, they will sort things soon. I do have to go back to my GP if I want to be referred for autism-adapted CBT. I’m a bit nervous about doing that, as my experience with CBT has not been great, but hopefully it will be better if I have autism-adapted CBT.

I sat down to finish the job application I was filling out yesterday, only to discover that I have none of the desirable, but not essential, criteria. Not one! As that was the main thing left to do, it was easy. I made a coffee for no reason! (Hot drinks help me think.) I don’t think I’ll get called to interview, but if I do, I asked to have the questions in advance because of my autism processing issues with spoken conversations. In my experience, potential employers refuse to do this, saying it is not fair on the other candidates. I can sort of see their point, but it does make things hard for me, because of difficulty processing verbal information, in addition to the problems I mentioned yesterday about autistic people struggling with open questions. I sit there trying to think of something to say. Sometimes I realise the question didn’t actually register in my brain and I have no idea what they just asked me. I have to ask them to repeat it or just bluff my way through. The only potential employer that let me see the questions in advance was, tellingly, an institute for the study of child psychology. One could get involved in a lengthy legal argument about what constitutes a “reasonable” disability adjustment here.

***

It’s funny how I different I am when I’m doing something I enjoy compared to when I’m doing something I don’t enjoy. I spent over two hours working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) with no breaks more than two or three minutes. I didn’t even notice the time going. I wasn’t happy with my initial idea for the devar Torah, so I thought I would look at Ramban’s (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, thirteenth century biblical commentator) first comment on parashat Kedoshim, which was the starting point for my original idea. The comment turned out to be much longer and wider-ranging than I realised, taking me to a Midrash which led to a better idea for the devar Torah, but one that took a while to get on paper, picking up some stray comments from Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, eleventh century biblical commentator) along the way. I didn’t even feel tired by the time I finished. It was one of the longest divrei Torah that I’ve written too. I don’t like to count my devar Torah as the entirety of my Torah study for a day, but I did here, because of how long I spent on it and because a lot of it was new to me.

Afterwards I postponed the chores I was supposed to do (I had thought the devar Torah would only take an hour, which it probably would have done if I stuck to my original idea) and went for a run, which was pretty good once I got going. No exercise migraine afterwards either, thankfully.

***

I have always been conflict-averse, but I find myself less willing than ever to contradict people or get into arguments online. Any arguments, even about trivial things, but certainly not about politics and religion. I would rather let them think that there are no counter-arguments to their views than to get into a debate with them. It doesn’t help that I can’t really distinguish between disagreement and personal dislike. I tend to assume that anyone who disagrees with me, dislikes me, although I know the reverse (which would be that I dislike people I disagree with) is untrue.

It doesn’t help that I no longer think that most people make up their minds on major topics based purely or perhaps even largely on data and logic. I think emotions, tribalism, peer pressure and habit are a big part of that (that’s not even necessarily a bad thing in and off itself, although I think in the current political climate, it’s been carried to a dangerous extreme). I don’t think I rate particularly highly as a polemicist either.

I suppose it’s rooted in my childhood, as things usually are. Being bullied for being different, but also certain childhood experiences that made me feel that disagreement would lead to people storming out of my life forever. Autistic issues distinguishing criticism from anger are probably also relevant. Paradoxically, it all may be related to my belief that it’s my fault if people don’t like me — I don’t want it to be my fault that someone doesn’t like me, so I minimise the likely points of contention (and also avoid people, because they can’t hate me if they can’t see me).

In a way it’s wrong of me, because someone might want to hear what I have to say and benefit from it, unlikely though that seems to me. And I suppose one would traditionally add something here about the need to fight for justice and progress and truth, and that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, and so on, but these days I feel pretty disenchanted about party politics generally.

I was thinking about what might happen if I do autism-adjusted CBT and look at my social anxiety (I did ordinary CBT for it two years ago, but it was not a great success for me). I could potentially have to push myself into situations where I contradicted people deliberately to see what happened. Maybe deliberately express my opinions online even if that seems likely to lead to arguments. It seems a terrifying idea, to be honest. I’d much rather not say anything and let others believe things that I think are factually wrong.

(The title of the post comes from this famous cartoon. It’s not how I feel at all. I just brood on things for days.)

Powerless To Be Born

I’ve had a fragment of poetry in my head lately. Searching online, it’s from Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse by Matthew Arnold, a poem I don’t remember ever having read, although I have read Arnold’s Dover Beach, which is where I initially thought the line was from. It goes, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born”. It sums up how I feel lately, in terms of my autism diagnosis, relationship breakdown and job situation.

I do think things can change. Ten years ago, I was twenty-seven. I had never had a paid job because of severe depression, was struggling with my Master’s degree again because of depression, had never been in a relationship or even gone on a date (actually, my first ever date was pretty much exactly ten years ago). I had largely put aside ideas of being on the spectrum after being assessed and told that I was not on the spectrum. I lived in a much smaller Jewish community and went to a shul (synagogue) that wasn’t an ideal match for me. I had occasional minor religious OCD, which would get a lot worse before I would get over it.

I still seem to struggle with low mood, even though I’m not sure I meet the diagnostic criteria for depression any more. And I’m still single and not in full-time work (or anywhere near), but I am in work and I have had enough relationships to think I’m not inherently unworthy of being in a relationship at least some of the time. And I’m diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism, which has been a relief to finally have confirmed, despite all the difficulties that I have to deal with because of it. And I live in a much larger Jewish community and go to a shul that fits me better, even if it isn’t perfect. So things can change, just geologically slowly. Or that’s how it feels.

It’s strange that things seem so finely balanced between the good and the bad at the moment. I don’t really know what to think. I still hope to have some kind of career, in a meaningful sense, and not just isolated jobs. I’d like to be a professional writer, but that seems an unlikely thing to aim for, especially given my lack of success pitching articles to people. I hope to become financially self-sufficient at some point, unlikely though that sometimes seems. I really, really hope I have a relationship that works out at some point (where “working out” ideally means successful marriage and children, although I’m getting to the stage where I wouldn’t rule out getting married in my fifties or older, if that’s how long it takes for me to get my life together and meet the right person).

The thing is, there’s very little I can do at the moment to advance any of these things at the moment. I have to wait and hope it all works itself out somehow, which is scary. I should trust in God (PIMOJ would have said to trust in God), but, as I’ve mentioned before, although I believe in God and consider myself to live a frum (religious) life, I have a mental block around bitachon (trust in God). I believe that He does what He feels is best for me, but I fear that “what He feels is best for me,” will involve a lot of emotional pain and suffering, as it apparently did ten years ago.

***

I went to bed late last night and woke up late this morning. I think my sleep was disturbed, judging by the state of the sheets when I woke, but I don’t remember particularly disturbing dreams or anything like that. I had a lot to do today and didn’t really want to do any of it. I needed to phone the autism hospital about the mistakes they made in my diagnostic report; cook dinner; continue with my job application and start my devar Torah (Torah thought). Usually when I read the week’s Torah reading on Sunday, I get an idea of what I want to write about, but this week I had no idea. The double sedra (portion) had lots of mitzvot (commandments), but none really grabbed me as something I wanted to write about, except for one bit that was too similar to something I wrote about a couple of months ago.

However, I just felt depressed and burnt out. At 2.45pm, I was still in my pyjamas and hadn’t done anything since eating breakfast. I would get up, fiddle around on the computer for a bit, and go back to bed to feel lonely and depressed. I played the “I’m depressed and burnt out enough to listen to music in the omer” card, as my rabbi mentor said I could, but quietly, because I still don’t feel comfortable explaining that to my parents. I don’t know why I don’t feel comfortable explaining it.

I did eventually get dressed, somehow put on tallit and tefillin and davened Minchah (said the Afternoon Prayers) as I had missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers). I had lunch (watching The Simpsons to try to raise my mood a bit) and tried to Do Things. It was 4.30pm by this stage. I phoned the number my Mum has for the autism hospital (not the main switchboard, one of the secretaries’ work mobile number that she somehow got hold of and has been using as it’s more direct). There was no answer, but I left a message.

Dinner seemed the next priority, on the grounds that I could apply for the job tomorrow, but if I didn’t cook dinner, we’d all go hungry, especially as Mum was tired from treatment today. I listened to a twenty minute online shiur (religious class) while cooking, but it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. I’ve been unlucky picking shiurim that way lately. The idea was to listen to the shiur while cooking so that I could do some Torah study even if I was too burnt out and depressed to read anything afterwards.

I went for a walk after cooking dinner. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings that are hard to categorise, beyond noting they are negative. I’ve noticed that my thoughts become more visual when I feel depressed and agitated, snatches of images, and also negative feelings without thoughts (I’ve never agreed with the CBT idea that negative feelings are always caused by negative thoughts). I’m not sure I can put anything I was feeling into words, just feelings of being useless, of my novel being bad, of not contributing anything online, of wanting to withdraw from people, but also, I suppose, hoping they will follow me if I do. Wondering how many of my thoughts (about politics, religion, culture) are my own and how much are other people’s. Not in a psychotic “I think the government is beaming ideas into my head” sense, but just that we pick up stuff without really thinking from friends and family, colleagues, broadcast media, social media… I find it’s hard to really think about things and reach meaningful conclusions that are completely my own, or at least rigorously interrogated by me until I am sure they are true. Is that just me?

When I got home, I tried to force myself to work on the job application, even though the format — separate boxes to write in for every essential and desirable criterion — made it quite clear that I don’t have all the skills and experience they want. I persevered, but mostly because I felt my parents wanted me to. They say to apply for jobs I don’t meet the criteria for in the hope that I will (somehow) still be the best candidate (see what I mean about not coming to my own conclusions). I worry for the academic library sector if I’m the best candidate for this job. I don’t even know what terms like “synchronous and asynchronous library inductions” and “bibliometrics” mean, although I can guess. I am certainly not up-to-date with developments in higher education and copyright law, let alone in pedagogy. And I don’t think I have the “Ability to think innovatively and creatively to solve problems and improve services”.

Some of the jobs I see require so many skills that I feel daunted to compare the skills and experiences of those who I imagine are applying with my own. And these aren’t even particularly high-flying jobs! I just feel like I somehow picked up a library MA and library work experience by muddling through somehow and have been floundering ever since.

Not for the first time, I feel like the man in Kafka’s Parable of the Law (originally from The Trial, but also published as a separate story) who tries everything to get to the Law, but never makes it, even though the door he was at was only made for him, eventually dying on the threshold. I feel like I keep trying to get a job, get published, get married, make friends, and fit in to my community, but I can never quite do it. But I keep trying. I’m not sure if that’s perseverance or stupidity.

I feel that, as an autistic/Aspie, I struggle with applications and interviews. They tend to ask open questions, and autistic people do not fare well with open questions. We don’t know what to say. I know when I get a statement like write about “Experience of providing excellent support in an academic or research library” I should try to find concrete examples of things I’ve done in different jobs, but it’s hard to even think of examples, let alone relate them. I’m sure I have provided excellent support (OK, “more than just adequate support”), but I find it hard to work out what exactly they mean and think of examples where I’ve done it.

I spent about fifty minutes on the application, although technically a big chunk of that time was spent writing part of this blog post to vent my irritation. I went back and did another ten or fifteen minutes after dinner too, so it’s nearly completed.

I was just sitting down to dinner (and Babylon 5) when my phone rang. It was one of my shul (synagogue) friends phoning to ask about the fundraising for the new building. We had arranged it, but I forgot to put it in my diary, and if it’s not in my diary, I forget about it. I was probably somewhat incoherent, from being taken by surprise and from the subject matter, but I did not agree to make a bigger donation than I can afford, and I did not agree to set up a “team page” for my family (i.e. me) on the shul‘s forthcoming fundraising page. It was awkward doing this with my friend, but I think if it was anyone else, I would not have had the confidence to say no.

After dinner I worked on the job application a while longer, as I mentioned, and did another fifteen minutes of Torah study, but then I started to get tired and decided to call it a night.

For a day where part of me would have stayed in pyjamas, feeling lonely, depressed and burnt out, I did manage to do quite a few things. It’s easy to focus on the negative (I didn’t write my devar Torah, or do as much Torah study as I wanted; I didn’t finish the job application), but I managed quite a bit despite low mood and energy. I just wish life on the spectrum for me wasn’t just damage limitation, constantly running to get things done without any sense of purpose or direction (there’s a line from Babylon 5: Signs and Portents where Londo says “I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment…afraid to look back, or to look forward.” He’s talking politically, about the decline of the Centauri Republic but that’s how I feel in my whole life). And I wish I didn’t still have such deep lows (whether I’m clinically depressed or not). And I wish I wasn’t lonely (although I’m probably less lonely than I was now I have an online support network to supplement my other support).

Anyway, this is a super-long post (really two posts in one), so thanks if you read to the end!

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

I felt short periods of sadness about breaking up with PIMOJ over Shabbat (the Sabbath), with some doubt about whether I did the right thing, but mostly I was OK.

I went to shul (synagogue) last night and again this afternoon, for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and the restarted Talmud shiur (religious class). As we were inside last night, I assumed we would be today and so brought a mask, but no coat and no glasses (as wearing a mask makes them steam up); I also wasn’t sure if the Talmud shiur would be restarting where we left off when COVID started last year or if we would be somewhere else, so I didn’t bring my copy of relevant volume. I was wrong on all counts, but was OK, aside from being a little cold towards the end of the shiur. At least I know for next week. I still can’t understand much of the Talmud shiur and feel a bit bad about not being able to do so when so many other people seem to be able to follow, although I don’t know how many can really follow and how many just seem to be doing so. I do want to go back to doing some preparation for the shiur each week as part of my Torah study, which may help. I try to remind myself that until about one hundred and fifty years ago, the proportion of Jews expected to understand Talmud was very small.

I’ve actually been timing the amount of time I spend on Torah study each day for the last five weeks, and finding the weekly average. It’s actually better than I expected. The first week was distorted by going to a six hour plus study day at the LSJS on Zoom, but the other weeks were never low than an average of forty-seven minutes a day and mostly over fifty minutes a day, which was much higher than I expected. This is counting my time writing my devar Torah as Torah study, though; I’m never sure if that’s legitimate.

The other thing that happened at shul was someone telling me that they are trying to get every family in the community to set up a “team page” to raise funds for the new building. Apparently I count as a family. I am not entirely sure what a “team page” is (some kind of fundraising page, I assume) and I feel uncomfortable asking people for money at the best of times, and raising for the shul is harder. I have very few friends. Of these a couple go to the shul and will be doing their own fundraising. The others are not frum (religious) or not Jewish and I don’t feel comfortable asking them for money for the shul. Most of my friends I only see once or twice a year anyway, so asking them for money does not seem polite. I feel this is something that I can’t really do as an autistic introvert with social anxiety.

I was actually wondering on the way to shul if it would be worth “coming out” as autistic to my community, or to select members (e.g. the rabbi), but as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really know what kind of response or understanding I would want from them, besides understanding of my intermittent shul attendance and avoidance of things like circle dancing in Kabbalat Shabbat or Simchat Torah, as well as, I suppose, of not being married and not finding it easy to talk to people at kiddush or social events.

Perhaps because of the novel I’m reading (Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron — basically World War I with vampire flying aces) I had an idea of another metaphor for autism and social interactions, where neurotypical people are flying modern 747s, with all kinds of instruments (GPS etc.) and autopilots, only needing conscious thought from the pilot occasionally, whereas autistic people are flying World War I planes with fragile wings, limited instrumentation and no autopilot, requiring constant attention despite the distraction of being open to the freezing air. I have to navigate conversations consciously, not really knowing what to say or what the other person means, while also having to consciously make sure that I don’t interrupt them or, conversely, pause too long and try to find signs that indicate whether my interlocuter wants to continue the conversation, change the subject, or finish it. All this and also often having to ignore background noisy from a noisy kiddish hall or whatever. It’s no wonder that neurotypicals can manage conversations with several people at once or several conversations consecutively, and can do so without breaking a sweat while I find a two or three minute conversation in kiddish to be terrifying and confusing. Unfortunately, I don’t have a parachute.

Reaching Out

Aside from over-thinking some things I’m worried about, today was a normal Sunday (and arguably even the over-thinking was normal for me). I spoke to my sister on the phone. I went for a run in the cold and rain; even aside from the weather, it was not a great run. Pesach has left me even more out of shape than before. I did about fifty-five minutes of Torah study, but it felt a lot longer; the combined sedrot (Torah readings) of Tazria and Metzora (Vayikra (Leviticus) 12-16) are probably the hardest to get anything out of from a contemporary perspective (admittedly a lot of Vayikra is in that category), and Tazria in particular is full of weird Hebrew terms that don’t appear elsewhere just to make understanding it even harder. I have to write a devar Torah about this soon…

My mood went down after my run. I’m not sure why. Eating dinner helped, but not hugely. I got stuck in a lot of negative thoughts and feelings. I did some activities my therapist suggested, to try to clarify for myself what I’m worried about and get my thoughts in order so that I can hopefully do something about these anxieties. That helped a bit, but not hugely.

***

It occurs to me that while I have come across a few Jewish/frum mental illness blogs over the years (albeit not many), I don’t think I’ve come across any Jewish high functioning autism blogs. I’m not quite sure what to make of this or what to do about it.

Searching online, it looks like there’s a Jewish Autism Trust, but that it’s run by and for parents of children or teenagers with autism, not high functioning adults with autism. I want to reach out somehow, but I’m not sure what exactly I would want. Maybe some kind of discussion forum for high functioning Jewish adults on the spectrum? I suspect there may be Facebook groups, which I think are what people use these days instead of forums and chatrooms. Or do I want to speak to neurotypicals in the community about the needs of people on the spectrum? Or both?

I just searched and found a couple of (non-Jewish) autism discussion forums. I’m wondering if these will be useful to me, helping me to reach out to other people in the same situation, or if they will be a huge drain on my time and resources if I get involved with them (or both).

Sir Galahad

I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.

Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.

It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.

Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.

Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.

I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.

I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.

***

I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.

I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.

I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.

***

In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.

***

Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.

***

All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.

Frum and Autistic

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Running, Writing, Thinking

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

Busy Busy Busy

I woke up at 9.30am, but didn’t feel well enough to get up until nearly 11.00am. I don’t know if autistic burnout is my least favourite part of autism, but it’s up there. The hardest thing is not really having a clear conception of it (I haven’t seen much written about it) and blaming myself for laziness even though I know, on some level, it goes deeper than that.

I planned a busy afternoon and early evening of Pesach preparation, but forgot and in some cases did not know, that other stuff would be happening and had to delay while people got out of my way or I got roped in to helping them. We had our burglar alarm serviced today, which was not a good idea (not mine).

I actually did quite a bit: kashered the hob (put pots on it and heated it up to purge it for Pesach, then covered the grates with aluminium foil), thoroughly cleaned the kitchen sink so I can kasher it tomorrow, put away the non-kosher for Pesach over-the-counter medicines (most medicine is kosher for Pesach, but soluble tablets or stuff with taste like throat sweets and cough mixture is problematic) and went for a half-hour walk. I spent some time writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week too, which is good, as I didn’t think I would get it written this week. My other Torah study was listening to a recorded shiur (religious class) while I ate dinner. I was too tired to read any more of my new haggadah.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like I did so much, considering how close it is to Pesach, but I got roped into a few other chores too and some of these things had preparation time, so by the time it got to 6.30pm I was ready to drop, even if I hadn’t made the charoset (the thick dip eaten at the Pesach seder) which I had hoped to do today.

There were a few things I did for Pesach that were not necessarily done the ideal way. This makes me worry a bit, in terms of religious OCD worries about things being done perfectly, but I’ve been trying to just push through my OCD fears. It is draining, though, and probably does contribute to my exhaustion. It’s just another thing for me to be juggling. I also feel sorry for my rabbi mentor who still has to put up with nervous WhatsApp messages from me checking that I’ve done things correctly.

***

I haven’t seen PIMOJ for a while. I’m actually not sure how long, which is bad of me. We couldn’t see each other for ages because of lockdown and mutual Pesach stress, plus she’s having to do a lot of overtime at work lately. We were going to meet next Wednesday, but it turned out I was double-booked with my sister and brother-in-law. I thought we were seeing them on Tuesday, but it turns out to be Wednesday. PIMOJ was very good about changing the date. I’m seeing PIMOJ on Monday 5 April (bank holiday). At least we’ll be able to stay out all afternoon with Pesach stress over (I will be naughty and leave some of the post-Pesach tidying to my parents).

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Pesach

I got up a little earlier today, arguably not as early as I needed to, and need to do for the rest of the week, but a bit earlier. My main achievement of the day was cooking almond macaroons for Pesach. It took quite a while, although the recipe is easy, because I didn’t know where all the stuff was in the garage (which functions as our Pesach kitchen, or part of it – it has sinks, fridge-freezer and cupboards, but no oven or hob) and because I was the first person in our house to do Pesach cooking this year, so everything was still boxed up after last year.

The biscuits turned out OK, although I’m worried they will fall apart when we take them off the baking paper. However, I had a big shock when I opened the oven to put the biscuits in: a blob of brown goo like cake mixture on the door of the oven and matching splash mark on the floor of the oven where it impacted. I went into panic mode thinking we had somehow let chametz (leavened) food into our oven after it was cleaned and/or kashered, rendering it unusable for Pesach. I sent some panicked texts to my rabbi mentor. After I calmed down, I looked at it again with my Dad and we both felt it was extremely unlikely that the professional oven cleaner missed this or that chametz somehow got into the oven after it had been cleaned. The most likely explanation is that a dollop of oven cleaning chemical stuck to the door of the oven when the oven cleaner cleaned it, and when the door was shut it dripped down the door and splashed at the bottom. I decided to act as if it was all OK and baked the biscuits. My rabbi mentor later said I did the right thing. I guess the good thing is that I didn’t freak out with religious OCD about it, at least, not for more than a couple of minutes.

I was pretty exhausted after that. I walked to the shops with my Dad, which I didn’t really want to do, as I was tired, but I said I would help him carry the milk home. My Torah study for the day was listening to an online shiur. I started writing my devar Torah for the week while cooking dinner (it was vegetarian kedgeree, which doesn’t require much active work once the rice and eggs are cooking, so I can sit nearby and type). I feel it’s a bit lightweight, but writing one this week is hard with so much Pesach stuff going on. I thought of finishing writing it after dinner, but decided I was too tired and left it for tomorrow. I would have liked to have baked more biscuits (cinnamon balls), but ran out of time and energy. Oh well. Perhaps from misplaced guilt, I polished more of the silver while watching This is Us, but I ran out of energy long before the end.

I want to do more than I was able to do (again). I feel bad, because I wouldn’t be able to make Pesach without my parents doing a lot, but then, I wouldn’t get through an ordinary week without my parents, at least not easily. Despite supposedly being recovered from depression, I couldn’t survive without their help, even without the financial question of how I could support myself on two days of work a week. I feel that, aged thirty-seven, I ought to be more self-sufficient, but I’m not and maybe I never will be, and that’s something I somehow need to come to terms with.

The Talmud states that no one dies with even half their desires fulfilled. It’s tempting to read this as no average person dies with half their desires fulfilled, but I think it applies to righteous people too. It’s just that their desires are nobler. I don’t know if I’m righteous, but I feel this a lot, that I don’t manage the Torah study and prayer and chesed (kindness, in this case helping around the house) that I would like, and maybe I never will.

The Long Twilight Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

Short Post, Much Angst

Today I feel less burnt out than yesterday, but still subdued and struggling to do things, like I feel after a migraine. I would be tempted to take things easy, but it’s a week and a half until Pesach and I can’t really afford to do that.

I went out and did some shopping and spent well over an hour writing my devar Torah (I wasn’t sure I would have the time or energy this week) as well as doing a few small, but time-consuming, Pesach chores. However, my Dad cleaned the sinks in the garage that we use for Pesach, which was supposed to be my job yesterday; I was too tired yesterday and did not have enough time today. I vaguely feel I should do more things around the house.

The other important thing today was therapy. We spent a while talking about my autism diagnosis and what it means for me and my sense of self. We spoke about coming to terms with it being like grieving in a way and about whether I can use it as an opportunity to work on self-regard, which I feel very nervous about as I tend to assume that any positive self thoughts will lead to narcissism. In my head, someone gave Donald Trump (for example) too much praise as a child and now he has an ego the size of a planet, and I worry about that happening to me.

After therapy I found myself getting sucked into low mood and anxious thoughts again, some about my relationship and whether it can survive several more months of COVID, let alone other stresses. Then it segued into general feelings of gloom and impending doom. I found myself thinking about bad things I’d done in the past and being sucked back into bad experiences from childhood.

I really want to crash, but, again, there are things I have to do e.g. I told Mum I would do ironing and polish the silver over the next two days. I will do the ironing and watch The Simpsons, which I haven’t seen for years. Twice in the last twenty-four hours or so I thought about the episode The Mysterious Voyager of Homer, so I figured that, as I currently have access to it on Disney+, I might as well watch it. And then maybe another Babylon 5 episode before bed; I don’t really feel up to reading.

***

Today the oven cleaner (that’s a person who cleans ovens, not a spray) came to clean our ovens before Pesach. From here on in, things become increasingly Pesach-related and stressful for the next week and a bit. It feels increasingly “real” as we get past more pre-Pesach milestones (clean fridges, buy Pesach food, clean ovens, kasher ovens etc.). My rabbi mentor said that everyone’s entitled to one pre-Pesach meltdown, and I wonder how I can cope with that (my parents’ as much as my own).

Getting Inside Other People’s Heads

Today was a difficult day. Perhaps the stress of the season is beginning to hit me, or perhaps I just did too much Zooming yesterday. I experienced intrusive thoughts of different kinds in the morning and felt overwhelmed and anxious at work. The anxiety was fairly unfocused, touching work, Pesach (Passover) preparations and my relationship (not the relationship itself but the obstacles to moving it forward). I felt an inner tension. At work, I was continuing with the inventory of relatively expensive objects and when I stood on a chair to reach those on the top shelf, I felt a bit of vertigo and anxiety about falling off the chair or dropping the objects and breaking them. I had to get J to help me get one of them down because I was worried I would shake and drop it, although I made out that I just couldn’t reach it (J is taller than me).

After that, J and I practised the new task he wants me to do and I found it difficult. There’s a lot to memorise and it requires quick thinking to follow different permutations of responses based on what the other person says. I’m unwilling to play the autism card yet, but I need to see how I can cope with it in real life rather than role play. He suggested that we role play it some more. I agreed, and also said that the next time the situation arises in real life, he should let me take the call with him in the room so he can prompt me if necessary, rather than waiting until he’s out of the office and I have to do it alone.

On the way home, J reiterated that he’d like to give me a permanent part-time job. I had thought this was dependent on finances, but it sounds like it’s more dependent on institutional politics. I couldn’t follow all of what he was saying as he had the radio on and I find it hard to tune background noise out and was too socially anxious to ask him to turn it off, but it sounds like there’s someone in the organisation who would potentially block making my job permanent, but he retires in June, so if I can stay for another four months, I’m likely to get a permanent job. This would be very good.

Otherwise the journey home was a bit stressful with more depressing news on the radio, more on misogyny and murder, as well as the withdrawal of the AstraZeneca vaccine in much of Europe. This was the vaccine I had, so I’m vaguely nervous, although I think there’s a lot of politics at work here and the number of deaths supposedly related to the vaccine seems tiny. I came home to news of another alleged abuse story, this time in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Abuse seems depressingly prevalent in all societies.

***

I could have gone to depression group tonight, but was too exhausted for more Zooming. Also, last time I spoke about my then-upcoming autism assessment, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my diagnosis yet. I can’t really explain why, I just don’t feel ready. I haven’t spoken to my therapist about it yet (my first therapy session since the diagnosis is on Wednesday) and there’s an aspect of the diagnosis that I have not told anyone else about yet that I really want to speak to my therapist about and maybe that has something to do with it.

***

I managed about twenty-five minutes of Torah study on the Tube into work and spent half an hour typing up some of my notes of things I learnt yesterday that I want to share at the seder. I’m trying to look at the average amount of time I study Torah each week rather than the amount each day; doing five or six hours yesterday should stand me in good stead for a bit.

***

I’m still watching Babylon 5. It’s very well-written, particularly the character arcs for G’Kar and Londo. How the writers (mostly J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about 85% of the series) turn G’Kar from a violent hothead into a man of peace, and turn Londo from a washed up joke into a ruthless politician and war criminal and then give him a hint of redemption without any of this progress seeming forced or unnatural. How G’Kar and Londo go from being bitter enemies to firm friends. How neither character is unlikeable or two-dimensional even when doing terrible things. Most of this is ahead of me (I’m only halfway through season two of five), but it already makes my own writing feel inferior, reminding me how I failed to make the abuser in my novel into a rounded character and how I’m not sure how to change that.

I guess thinking myself into the head of an abuser is on my mind today because of the murder and misogyny in the news. Some of the intrusive thoughts have been around this. I’ve wondered for many years about how people can hurt other people. I find it hard to get into their heads. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about murder, how people can do it, how they can live with it. I can’t even imagine living with myself if I killed someone in self-defence or in a just war, let alone in cold blood. I guess this is the writer (and reader) in me, the part of me that wants to explore other lives, although I’m not so good at thinking it through beyond the initial revulsion, let alone writing about it.

There’s a short story by perhaps my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges, called Deutsches Requiem, where he writes from the perspective of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal on the eve of his execution. It’s a chilling piece of writing that somehow makes you see the world through the eyes of a thoroughly evil person and feel some kind of empathy for him. I have a long way to go to get to that level of writing.

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Joy and Living in the Moment

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Anxious, Slightly Surprisingly

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

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

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

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

Neurotypicalism

I went to my autism support group on Zoom this morning. I was wary of it, as I find it a lot less helpful than depression group, but it was about relationships and I wanted to see if I would learn anything. The main thing I learnt is that the person who runs the meetings seems to have issues with neurotypicals and needs to work them through somewhere else rather than just ranting about them in the meeting. I left early because it was just too much. There wasn’t really much helpful advice, just some stuff about being authentic and making room for yourself in the relationship and feeling free to have non-standard relationships if that works for you. Someone there had been married for nearly fifty years, which is reassuring, although other people were speaking about not wanting to live with anyone at all. It makes me feel vaguely weird for wanting a “neurotypical standard” relationship involving marriage and living in the same house. I felt there wasn’t really enough talk about how to make compromises for a relationship rather than expecting your neurotypical partner to make compromises for you. The final straw was when the presenter said that, for autistic people, no means no, but neurotypical people are “play games” and often say no when they mean yes, which struck me as a misleading and dangerous thing to say.

I was also a bit worried by the number of people in the group who are quite happy living by themselves. Not worried for them, if they’re happy, but I’ve had mixed feelings about that. I have lived by myself at times and I coped and enjoyed parts of it, but I also found it very lonely and isolating at times. Realistically, there isn’t any easy way I can have people around me when I want them, but not when I don’t, so either living alone or with someone involves trade-offs. I also think that some of the people in the “want to live alone forever” group were OK with having casual sex, and I’m not, for various reasons, so that certainly does alter the cost/benefit analysis.

I spent an hour or so working on my devar Torah for the week, partially abandoning my original plan when I was unable to locate some quotes in the primary sources. I prefer to use primary sources than secondary ones, but I don’t always know where to find the primary sources for concepts and sayings I’ve picked up over the years, plus I’m often reliant on online sources and my imperfect Hebrew translation skills. I know I’m not alone in struggling to remember where I heard things as the internet is full of Jews either misattributing quotes and concepts or saying vaguely that, “It’s a Jewish idea that…” or “The rabbis say that…” Someone should make an index of well-known Talmudic and Midrashic stories and quotes. Famously, a lot of Jews, including some very frum (religious) ones, misremember the story about Avraham (Abraham) smashing up his father’s idol workshop as an actual passage in the Torah (it isn’t, it’s a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical narrative)).

After that, I did a mixture of Torah study and cooking and went for a 5K run, but I did feel a bit lost without either paid work or my novel to work on. I’m resting the novel for a few weeks until my writer/editor friend can look at it. I feel pretty negative about it at the moment, to be honest, and keep wondering what possessed me to try to a mainstream novel of character. Part of me wants to start on a new novel, but I know I have to stick with this one until it’s either ready for publication or definitely unpublishable.

I spoke to PIMOJ in the evening. To be honest, during and after my run I was having negative thoughts (personal worries, worries about antisemitism… the usual), but I did feel better after speaking to PIMOJ. We didn’t even talk about my issues, we just talked. It was good.

Lately I’ve had some minor religious OCD, not the Purim Megillah issue I wrote about, but “idolatrous” thoughts when I was trying to pray. I’ve had this a lot over the years. The easiest way to get rid of them is exposure therapy. Trying not to think about something tends to make you think about it, so the anxiety about not thinking X immediately prompts thoughts of X. The solution is to deliberately think about X a lot, so I spent time this evening repeating the phrase where I usually have the trouble while thinking the things I usually try not to think in the hope that I will get to a point where I’m so desensitised to thinking about them that I don’t try not to think about them (if that makes sense). I may have to do this for a number of days until it works, but I’ve responded well to this in the past.

Vulnerable and Fragile

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Shabbat and “Organised Religion”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying Not to Get Annoyed

I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

***

Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

***

Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)

The Luftmentsch of Zur-En-Arrh

I feel really burnt out today. I was supposed to be going on a Zoom call from my autism support group about dealing with romantic relationships, but I slept through most of it and was too exhausted to think of hurrying to catch the end. I don’t think more Zoom would have been a good idea to be honest, especially as I had a Zoom shiur (religious class) in the evening which I didn’t want to miss because (a) I paid for it, (b) it’s with PIMOJ and (c) it’s a good teacher.

As well as missing the group, I decided I was too exhausted to write my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week today as I had intended. I jotted down some ideas on Sunday, but I’m not sure that I’ve planned anything long enough or coherent. I just have to hope I can sort it all out tomorrow, along with having therapy. I wanted to work on my novel today or tomorrow too, making some changes I thought of, but I don’t feel able to do so today and may not have time tomorrow, depending on how long my devar Torah takes (and what time I get up).

My blood test results seem to be fine, except my cholesterol is still a bit high. I had more NHS trouble, though. My Mum tried to phone about my autism assessment, but the person she usually speaks to wasn’t there. I tried to get my repeat prescription, but there was no olanzapine. This time they seem to have the new dose on my records, but no one thought to prescribe for the gap between when the mistakenly low dose ran out and the next repeat prescription.

In the evening I had shiur (religious class). It was OK, although I knew a lot of the material and I didn’t really participate in the group learning activity. Afterwards I tried to write to the Bet Din to tell them about the improperly delivered (from a Jewish law point of view) food from yesterday, but I’m not happy with the email and may not send it.

I would have liked to have had a mental health day today, but I had to collect my prescription, sort out the olanzapine issue and go to shiur. I was just doing all of this on autopilot because I felt so drained and burnt out. I’m re-reading Grant Morrison’s run as chief writer for Batman and just finished Batman RIP, in which a criminal gang known as The Black Glove drug and brainwash Batman, hoping to manipulate him, not realising he already prepared for this opportunity by preparing a kind of unconscious back-up personality, called The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh to take over his consciousness. That’s how I feel today, out of spoons and being controlled by The Luftmentsch of Zur-En-Arrh because I’m too burnt out to do anything myself, not in the sense of an alter as in a different personality, but just an auto-pilot that somehow gets through mundane tasks when mood-wise I’m not good for anything other than lying in bed.

PIMOJ was really supportive today. We had a Skype conversation after shiur, but I think I was too tired to say much. She said I’m “brave” for facing my fear and trying to keep going with my life. I don’t feel brave. I don’t feel like I had much choice.

Short Update

My novel is on pause again as I want to get some new perspectives on it, ideally from having other people read it (but who can I ask?), but at the very least by going on a break and coming to it fresh in a while, maybe after Pesach (nearly two months’ time). Strangely, as soon as I stop writing the novel, I had an idea for a longer, more analytical blog post than I’ve written for a while (on Judaism and social responsibility). It will probably take a bit of time to write it though. I spent a bit of time on it this evening.

As for today, I was reasonably busy. I drafted my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week and actually feel quite pleased with it. I went for a walk and requested a repeat prescription. I emailed a few friends and my Dad showed me how to use filters on MS Excel, which might come in useful at work. And I dusted my room, which is harder than it should be because of all the bric-a-brac I have out. I think I’ve written about that before. I’m not sure how much of it “sparks joy” (© Marie Kondo), but as of yet I haven’t been able to bring myself to put it away, much less throw it away. It’s probably that I don’t want to think about it – thinking about it would entail thinking about holidays I only vaguely remember (apparently due to autistic autobiographical memory issues), an unconsciously unhappy adolescence, the deterioration of my miniature painting skills due to medication-based tremor, and friends who fell out with me.

I Skyped my rabbi mentor too, which was helpful in dealing with some of the issues that I don’t feel I can write about here, although some of his advice was scary in terms of having to do scary social things.

Misfits

I’m back in “I hate the NHS” mode. I realised that the reason the doctor only prescribed half the only olanzapine I need is because he (or she – prescriptions can be done by anyone in the practice) misread the letter from the psychiatrist and thought I was on one tablet a day, not two. I know, there’s a global pandemic, doctors are super-busy and stressed. Even so, it’s annoying, and makes me wonder how many other, more serious, mistakes have been made by over-stretched medical staff during the pandemic – there must be a number of indirect COVID casualties as well as those actually killed by the virus.

***

I got my new glasses (and walked back in the cold and snow after getting them). I tried them on in Specsavers, including tilting my head to see if they slipped, and they seemed to be OK, but they seem to be slipping now, so I may have to go back at some point and get them adjusted. I’m just glad to have them for now.

I spent a bit over an hour on my novel and finished the third draft. It ended up at 79,766 words, slightly under the 80,000 I was aiming for. Now I need to find some people willing to read it and give me feedback. I’m not quite sure how to do this; I don’t have other writer friends where we can exchange work, and I don’t want to go to a writers’ group at the moment. I’m also terrified of negative feedback.

Given the snow this morning, I thought my walk back home from Specsavers would be my exercise for the day, but mid-afternoon I started feeling anxious and depressed for no obvious reason and, as it wasn’t snowing, and the earlier snow hadn’t settled, I went for a run, despite the fact that it was fast getting dark. I did 5K again and I had a better pace than I’ve had for a while too. I don’t mind running in the cold (it can be bracing) although I worry about pulling muscles despite doing a longer warm up and cool down than usual.

I did some Torah study too, although not quite up to the hour I was aiming for as I ran out of time and energy.

***

I came across an interview today, a religious Jew interviewing someone raised in the Orthodox world, but now outside it. The non-religious Jew says he warns religious Jews thinking of leaving because they don’t fit into the frum (religious) community that they may not fit into the secular world either; they may, in fact, be misfits who won’t fit in anywhere.

I have long suspected that this would be true of me. For all my struggles to fit in to the frum world, I can’t really see myself fitting in to the wider Western world easily either. I guess I’m a bit of a misfit, or even that not fitting in is a part of my psyche; I’ve begun to suspect that when I fit in somewhere, I self-sabotage to find a way to feel like a misfit.

***

On a related note, a while back I wrote about feeling myself to be a “Tory anarchist.” Lately the anarchist part is stronger. I have limited patience for big business or big government and just want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s easy to want to pull society to pieces and start again. I feel a lot of anger and resentment at the ruling class and I’m not sure where it’s coming from, from politics or from my inner self as it’s the class so many of my peers from Oxford now belong to, people in politics, academia, law, and other places I might have been had depression and autism not intervened. I feel like a class traitor sometimes.

Unwritten Rules

I had dreams last night that reminded me of my insecurities. I know I’m insecure; I don’t need dreams to remind me!

***

I had NHS problems again, making lots of phone calls (which I hate doing), trying to get my psychiatrist to get the right information about my medication (coming off haloperidol and back onto olanzapine) in time to get a repeat prescription when I run out at the weekend. I won’t go into all the details, as it’s a long story, but a few things were messed up and by the end of the day, it wasn’t resolved, so my Mum and Dad are going to have to try to resolve it tomorrow when I’m at work. I am a bit worried whether I will get enough medication to get me through the weekend and the beginning of next week.

Therapy was good, although I don’t have much to write here about it. My therapist said I have good self-awareness and self-reflections, but I need to learn how to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings rather than judging them. We spoke a bit about writing down thoughts and fears to get them out of my system, which I do to some extent already.

Other than that I went for a walk, worked on my novel for an hour and did half an hour of Torah study. I would have liked to have done more writing and Torah study, but the phone calls to try to sort out my medication took far too long, really.

***

I’m still reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy by Yael Ziegler on the biblical book of Rut (Ruth). Rut is one of the shortest books of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the shortest if you count the twelve minor prophets as one volume, so I’m not sure how this book about it ends up as one of the longest so far in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series. It is good though, and very thorough, which I guess is why it is so long.

I saw this sentence referring to Rut the Moabite convert: “The social mores of Judaism tend to be more difficult to apprehend than the unambiguous halakhic [legal] guidelines.” (p. 263) This seems very true, for myself on the autism spectrum as much as for the Moabite Rut. I sometimes wish all the unwritten rules were written down, so I could learn them properly. In particular, the rules about fraternisation between the genders; I can’t work out why my shul (synagogue) absolutely prohibits this in some events, but allows it in others and in others still makes only a token gesture towards it.