Not a Number

Today was mostly OK, but I struggled with some autistic stuff. I hadn’t had much time so far this week for Torah study, and much of what I had done was preparation for the Pesach seders, so I read this week’s sedra (Torah portion) on the Tube, not something I like to do as (a) you are supposed to say the words audibly (even in a whisper) and (b) even with my slim volume of Vayikra (Leviticus) only in Hebrew (as opposed to all five books of the Pentateuch in Hebrew and English) and my pocket JPS English Bible, it’s awkward reading it on a Tube train. I really need a table. I haven’t been wearing a mask on the Tube lately, but I wore one today so people wouldn’t see my lips moving as I whispered the words. (Someone once told me that his brother did this without a mask, pre-COVID; halfway through the journey he could see out of the corner of his eye the man next to him texting “Some nutter is reading to himself next to me” on his phone.)

Work was slow and I made some mistakes and felt like an idiot (again). I spent much of the afternoon comparing a spreadsheet with a database to try to work out which entries have apparently vanished from the latter and why. I have more to do on this next week. It was very dull and I became bored and somewhat depressed, but at least I realised partway through that it was mindless enough that I could listen to music on my headphones, which cheered me up a bit.

J wanted me to drop a file off at the auditors on my way home and let me leave early to do so. On the way, I went shopping in Primark on Oxford Street. This would not have been an ideal choice even pre-COVID as it was hugely busy. I had been in busy shops since COVID, but usually ones I was familiar with. I’m not sure if this was literally my first new, busy shopping experience in two years (the airports were quite busy when I went to New York), but it was harder than I remembered and more draining. I just bought what I had come for and left as soon as possible.

There is the added element with Primark of guilt knowing that their clothes are not very ethically-sourced, but as I can’t afford to shop in more upmarket shops all the time, I’m not sure what else to do. Walking around naked isn’t very healthy.

I found the auditors alright, despite nearly losing both my kippah (skullcap) and glasses to the extremely strong wind, but hesitated outside. It was a converted house with two entry buzzers and I wasn’t sure which was the right one. I hesitated, wondering if I should text J, when the door opened and someone came out and I slipped inside. The sign for reception pointed to a shut door and I wondered if I should knock or open it or try to find out if this was reception for both offices when someone came up from behind me, saw our organisation’s logo on the folder and said, “Is that for X?” He seemed to be on the same team and told me to give it to the receptionist and told her to leave it on his chair. I hope that was the right thing to do. Only afterwards did I worry whether he was who he said he was, but he had got inside the office which he should only be able to do if he worked there (except that I managed it).

There was both social anxiety here and autistic ‘new environment’ anxiety, as in Primark. By the time I got on the Tube home, I realised my heart was racing and my adrenaline rushing. I’m pretty sure this was an abnormally strong reaction to this for me. I guess COVID and lockdown have left their mark.

I came home and responded to blog comments, but I rapidly felt burnt out and went to bed, not because I wanted to sleep, but just for the comfort of wrapping myself in duvet and weighted blanket. E wonders if I should deliberately do stuff in bed. I mean like read, write, blog and so on. She things I might find it easier to get up if I was going back shortly. She may be right. Churchill spent a lot of the war in bed in his room in the Cabinet War Rooms bunker, with advisors and Cabinet ministers coming to see him.

The other excitement today was that Mum kashered the ovens for Pesach (Passover). They were cleaned by the oven cleaner the other day and now heated to remove any trace of leaven food or ‘taste’. (The Jewish dietary laws assume that taste can be absorbed and emitted by porous materials. A lot of the dietary laws, both regular and Pesach, stem from this idea. I struggled with this in the past. It’s not totally crazy, as seasoning cast iron pans and aging whiskey in sherry casks both work on the same principle, but I do sometimes wonder if the rabbis had very sensitive palates to note such subtle tastes. Still, it’s the model we have and I think there’s value in sticking with established law regardless of personal opinion.)

***

I have been thinking a lot about The Prisoner lately. The Prisoner, for those who don’t know, was a “spy-fi” (espionage/science fiction hybrid) TV series from the late sixties. They only made seventeen episodes (there was a noughties remake/re-imagining that is not without merit, but is not as compulsive). It’s about a secret agent who resigns from his job, gets knocked out, and wakes up in a weird mini-society called The Village where people have numbers instead of names. He is Number 6, although, as he declares in the title sequence, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” He wants to find out who runs The Village (the unseen Number 1; day-to-day running is invested in the ever-changing Number 2s) and escape; the Village authorities want to find out why he resigned.

It starts as a thriller with slight fantastical and weird elements (e.g. the Rover weather balloons that smoother anyone trying to escape), but by the end becomes a surreal sixties ‘happening,’ complete with Beatles soundtrack. The surrealism and the deliberate obscurity of many of the episodes, particularly the final one, Fall Out, meant that interpretations of the series are legion (political, religious, psychological, postmodern, etc.). It was one of the first TV shows that cultural and media studies academics homed in on, unsurprisingly.

Former Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts wrote an essay about The Village seeming more like Britain in the 2020s than the 1960s. That’s partly why I’ve been thinking about it. Certainly I thought today that the public announcements on the Tube, particularly the ones about mask-wearing, are very Village: officious, sanctimonious and pedantic, with an ostensible nod towards diversity while asking for conformity. But that’s only part of why I’ve been thinking about it.

Doctor Who has been my favourite TV programme since I discovered it aged eight, but when I was at Oxford and saw it for the first time, The Prisoner rapidly became the series that I identified most with. It’s a mirror for anyone who feels counter-cultural and under pressure to conform. At the time, I thought I was friendless and lonely, and stressed and eventually made depressed and suicidal by over-work. I now see I was mid-autistic burnout, struggling to fit in to an environment that I just did not understand with people who I wanted to connect with, but somehow could not.

I think autistic people would find a lot they recognise in The Prisoner. The whole idea of making people conform, that society runs better if everyone thinks and does the same thing, and the individualists who instinctively rebel against this mindset is really the source of the drama in The Prisoner, as well as in the lives of many autistics, particularly those diagnosed late and/or forced to act the way other people want instead of how they want, or how they need.

In the penultimate episode, Once Upon a Time, there’s a sequence where a hypnotised Prisoner is made to relive his schooldays. His “headmaster” (actually Number 2) has a speech that goes, “Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilisation. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must conform! It is my sworn duty to make you conform!” before beating him for disobedience. I quoted the speech here from memory; it made such an impression on me that I learnt it by heart.

One episode, Living in Harmony, is, bizarrely, a Western, with The Prisoner as a sheriff who chooses to get beaten up rather than violate his moral objections to carrying a gun. This idea of personal morals being more important than society’s rules, even at extreme personal cost, is another thing that probably resonates with many people on the spectrum (and off it, of course). Other things that might be familiar to autistics might include: the uncertainty that runs through the entire series about who you can trust and who is working for the authorities, analogous to navigating the school playground (and later the workplace) not being able to read body language, intonation, subtext and so on to tell if people are being friendly or bullying; the authorities’ hostility to questions, particularly those directed to the foundations of their society (“Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself” — another quote I learnt by heart); The Prisoner’s sense of alienation from the constant Village celebrations particularly in my favourite episode Dance of the Dead, where a fancy dress ball turns into an angry mob trying to tear him limb from limb; the sequence in A Change of Mind where The Prisoner is effectively ‘cancelled’ as the villagers shun him as an “unmutual” and refuse to engage with him for the sin of using his own gym equipment and then mocking the Village disciplinary procedures; and the general pervasive sense of paranoia, of one person against The System, of being seen as essentially, even ontologically wrong and made to be something you are not.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that “The series’ thesis may be that freedom is impossible, as is opting out.” This is something I feel strongly, and not just for autistic reasons.

I did not mean to write all of this! I went into autistic hyper-focus, and an hour had gone. I guess it shows how much it means to me. I should have a re-watch. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it (a lot; the low number of episodes facilitates that). I don’t know if E would like it, though.

One day I’ll to go Portmeirion, the strange, real-life village/holiday resort in Wales where it was filmed (also the Doctor Who story The Masque of Mandragora, which E and I watched recently) and run along the beach shouting, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

My shul (synagogue) is meeting in an cramped classroom (apparently — I haven’t actually seen it) some way away from my parents’ house for the next six months. As a result, I decided I would rather go to my parents’ shul this week. It was a bit surprising. There were more people there than attended my shul even pre-COVID, but the room is large and it didn’t feel over-crowded. There was more background noise than in my shul, the noise of a large crowd of people, but also some talking, which we don’t get at my shul, but there was no real clapping or thumping tables and I felt less overwhelmed than I have done in my shul for a while. This is possibly an indication that the United Synagogue has more to offer me than I thought, although the issues around the chazzan (cantor) and choir would emerge if I went more often (I dislike chazzanut (cantorial singing) as well as choral singing, and the chazzan at my parents’ shul is controversial even among people who do like chazzanut as he tends to drag things out with his singing). My ideal shul is probably some non-existent unicorn shul (a shul that exists no more than unicorns do, not a shul for unicorns to go to).

I did some Torah study over Shabbat, but slept too much. After lunch, I felt so tired that I had to lie down. I knew I should drink coffee and try to stay awake, but bed was too inviting. I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight, and I will lose an hour as the clocks go forward.

***

We turned on the news after Shabbat to see President Biden giving a speech that would have been denounced by the Left as “Fascist” and “warmongering” if delivered by George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. I say this not to take sides, but just to point out another example of how topsy-turvy politics in the West in general and the USA in particular have become over the last ten years or so.

I sought refuge from The World in Pigs Have Wings, the P. G. Wodehouse novel I’m currently reading. It is about as far from the real world as you can get. It’s so light, it threatens to float towards the ceiling if you let go of it.

I was imagining it taking place in the inter-war era, but, checking the copyright page, I found it was first published in 1952. I always imagine Wodehouse as inter-war, but he started writing over a decade before World War I and continued into the 1970s. I think most people would associate him and his books with the high society of the twenties and thirties, regardless of when they actually appeared. It’s similar with Agatha Christie, who did indeed start writing in the twenties, but was also writing well into the seventies, but somehow carries the atmosphere and outlook of the the twenties and thirties into her later works so that they seem earlier.

***

I was sufficiently awake tonight from sleeping in the afternoon that I did half an hour of late-night novel writing. It wasn’t terribly productive, but it was something. My parents were actually asking me questions about my novels on Friday night. They asked about my finished novel and I struggled to explain what it is about. I think one failing of that novel is that I can’t really summarise it in one sentence. What editors and publishers refer to as a “logline pitch” (for reasons I do not understand). I said something about it being about an autistic young man in the frum community, trying to downplay the autobiographical aspects, which I’m now a bit worried about. I’m bad about talking about (a) myself, (b) things I’ve done and (c) things that matter to me at the best of times (except to E, strangely), so it is hard to cope with these questions.

Then my parents asked about the novel I just started writing: what was that one about? “You don’t want to know,” was all I could say. I couldn’t face discussing pornography-addicted rabbis with my parents at the Shabbat dinner table, not without advanced warning. I do think that, if I want to become a writer, and if I carry on writing in this vein, I’m going to need to do some careful thinking about talking to people about my writing. I don’t mean agents, editors and reviewers, but family, friends and other shul-goers. What I’ve written and planned so far is… not what people might expect me to write about.

***

I feel that I’m torn between part of me that feels the urge to Do Things and to be busy and productive all the time (as some commenters here have noticed), and another part that likes time to do nothing and think and contemplate and be mindful of the world. It is good to have time for that on Shabbat at least, without work, TV or internet.

In his book Yeshiva Days, anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin tries to present yeshiva (rabbinic seminary) study as anti-capitalist, because it’s done for no material reward. I think, like a lot of critics of capitalism, Boyarin misses the point that capitalism isn’t about money, but about utility, defined in economic terms as “the ability to satisfy want.” Yeshiva study seeks to maximise utility in the Next World (afterlife) by building up the biggest possible Heavenly reward through the most valuable action (in Yeshivish theology), studying Torah. It simply replaces earning money in this world with earning spiritual reward in the next. That is sort-of anti-capitalist, but not exactly.

I feel like I could present a theory of why I increasingly like wasting time, not doing much, and thinking about things that would explain it in capitalist or religious terms. I could say that it gives me time to think about topics I would like to write about, and get paid to write about (please God, one day…). Also, that taking time to let my thoughts percolate is when I have interesting insights in Jewish topics, so that it can be seen as Torah study. I’m not sure how much either of these theories are true, however. I think I just find the pace of the modern world overwhelming and seek escape (although it often involves escape into thoughts about the world that I am trying to escape). In this I am like many autistic people, and probably many non-autistic people. I just like to retreat into myself rather than external distractions (although I do that too). I do often feel guilty though, that I should be earning money and/or doing religiously-valuable tasks, or at least writing, and trying to sell, novels.

The Joys of Spring

Well, I woke up earlier than usual today, but still struggled to get up until the doorbell rang and I realised I was the only person around to take the parcel in. Then I had to go back to bed for a few minutes, as I’d got up too fast and had a ‘blood rushing to the head’ moment and felt really dizzy. I think it’s a kind of progress, though, as I wasn’t in a deep sleep all morning or feeling too anxious to move.

I submitted my novel to another agency! Some agents seem to want things that are so specific, I wonder how they ever publish anything at all. Others want vague things like “strong characters” and “plots that stay with you.” One confessed a fondness for “the enemies to lovers trope” (“My alternative history romance begins in 1944, when Winston Churchill flies to a secret tete-a-tete in Berlin with Adolf Hitler…”). They all seem to have lifestyles and attitudes that are rather alien to mine, although maybe I’m reading too much into the tiny biographies. At any rate, I find it hard to connect, so I’m not surprised my writing doesn’t connect.

I wanted to submit to a second agency, but they wanted a full one-to-two page synopsis, including spoilers and the conclusion. I don’t think that’s a bad idea (I think my novel necessarily takes a while to get going and a full synopsis might sell it better than the first chapter or ten pages), but it will take me a while to write one, so I thought it was a good task for after my job interview on Wednesday, when I’ll probably be too tired for more creative writing.

I started to write down some ideas of things to share at the Pesach seder in a month. It took a lot longer than I’d hoped. It took about half an hour or more to write just one idea (I think it’s a good one, though). I think I will have to chose between seder preparation and devar Torah writing for the next few weeks, which isn’t much of a choice, as the sedra (weekly Torah reading) at the moment is in Vaykira (Leviticus) and it’s very hard to connect with it. Although this week is the death of Aharon’s (Aaron’s) eldest sons, which is a story I connect with; it’s about going too far in the pursuit of spirituality and crossing boundaries that should not be crossed.

I spent a bit of time on novel-writing too, although I didn’t get far. I deleted a couple of paragraphs I’d already written, started something else and didn’t like it (it sounded like the opening narration of a Twilight Zone episode, to the extent that I could hear Rod Serling reading it). I want an opening paragraph that is arresting, but not melodramatic. I think I slip into melodrama easily. E suggested just jump into the narrative and add a proper beginning later, which might be a good idea. I mainly focused on giving names to the main characters, something I hadn’t done during the planning stage. Names are hard, particularly when you have to worry there might be legal repercussions — it might be OK if you say “John Smith is a maths teacher,” but saying “Rabbi Cohen is a kodesh (Jewish studies) teacher and pornography addict” moves into more dangerous territory. If there’s a real Rabbi Cohen out there who teaches kodesh in a Jewish school, and there might well be, then he might sue.

E helped me prepare for my interview on Wednesday, asking practice questions. It does feel like it would be harder to think of a task less-suitable for someone on the autism spectrum than the job interview: a new environment with new people, where you have to process verbal information quickly and under pressure and communicate succinctly and effectively, telling the truth, but not always telling the whole truth. And it often has very little relationship to the day-to-day function of the job. E found me this article on how to talk about leadership experience if you don’t have any, but it just seems to underline that I’m really not a leader.

I went for a walk and had therapy too, where we discussed some coping strategies. I hope they are helpful in the future.

I did quite a lot overall, even though I didn’t get up that early. It’s certainly easier to do more stuff on a spring day like today, when it’s mild and sunny, and the daylight hours are about as long as the night than in the middle of winter when it’s cold and wet and dark.

Racing Thoughts

This is really just a brief note. Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, but I think coming off olanzapine has given me racing thoughts, poor concentration and insomnia (all inter-related). It’s not surprising as olanzapine is an anti-psychotic. I was prescribed it because it can help antidepressants work more effectively (for reasons that I think are poorly-understood medically), but also because I was having racing negative thoughts. My racing thoughts now aren’t negative (mostly about Judaism or E), but are stopping me getting on with my life and messing up my sleep even more than previously. I’ll give it another day or two to see if things settle down, but if they don’t, I’ll go back on, albeit probably on the lower dose (2.5mg once a day) I took for the last few weeks without problems rather than the slightly higher (although still low) dose I was on before I started coming off it (2.5mg twice a day).

Other than that, Shabbat was fine. I slept a little less than usual. I did quite a bit of Torah study, staying up quite late last night (this was probably a mistake, but also due to racing thoughts). I think I’m finding Talmud study a bit easier; maybe Rav Steinsaltz z”tzl was right that studying a large quantity of Talmud helps to build up the quality of study over time, even if you don’t initially understand much. However, I do worry that I’ve just hit an atypically easy few pages of Talmud and sooner or later it will get hard again. I was trying to read one side of a page a week, studying it once slowly with the full English commentary and then two more, faster, readings to revise, only reading the commentary if I can’t remember it. I’ve been going a bit slower for the last couple of weeks, though, as I’ve cut down my overall Torah study time as I try to readjust the balance of things in my life. I don’t read the unpunctuated and unvocalised traditional (Vilna Shas) page, but the vocalised, punctuated and broken into phrases version interspersed with the English translation in the Artscroll edition. I do try to have a good go at reading the Aramaic, though. My Aramaic is definitely improving, although it is still poor.

(I didn’t mean to write all of that. You see what I mean about racing thoughts.)

I didn’t want to read The Coming of the Third Reich over Shabbat, as it didn’t seem appropriate to read something so depressing, so I read The Twilight Zone Companion, which I got unexpectedly when I ordered a second-hand DVD of The Twilight Zone season one. It’s interesting enough, but could do with more detail in both production accounts and reviews. It does make me realise how much The Twilight Zone was fighting against the ultra-conservative social and institutional cultural forces in American society in the late fifties and early sixties, with strict limits not just on political commentary and satire, but on any kind of experimental or non-realistic drama. British TV of the time was much more free to experiment in comparison. I’m often critical of the current state of the BBC, but its mandate to challenge and provoke as well as to entertain meant that British TV was way ahead of the cultural curve in the fifties, sixties and seventies in comparison with American TV, and had a positive effect on commercial television too, which had to compete.

When I wrote about Purim and autism here the other day, someone pasted an article on the subject by a frum (religious Jewish) psychotherapist. I’m hoping to forward it to the family and friends on my devar Torah distribution list. Most of them know about me, but one or two don’t, so it’s a bit of a “coming out” as autistic. I hope it goes OK. I think it’s important to start these conversations about neurodivergence and mental illness (also treated in the article) in the frum community. I had the familiar quandary about defining myself as having “Asperger’s Syndrome” or “high-functioning autism.” I wish I didn’t have a syndrome that was discovered by a Nazi sympathiser.

I should probably go, because in the state of mind I’ve been in over the last couple of days, I could just sit here all night writing stuff that just comes into my head. So much for a “brief note.”

Authenticity

I had an introspective Shabbat (Sabbath). On the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday afternoon, I was thinking about something Rabbi Lord Sacks said, about cultures of sight versus cultures of sound. He said that the West is a culture of sight. In English, all our ‘thought’ words are based on sight. We talk of hindsight, insight, foresight. When we understand, we say, “I see.” Judaism is a culture of sound. “Shema” (hear/listen) is a key word in Devarim (Deuteronomy) in particular. The Talmud introduces an argument by saying, “Come and hear.” If a rabbi rejects an argument, the Talmud says, “He couldn’t hear it.” Rabbi Sacks sees sight cultures as focused on exteriors and sound cultures as focused on interiors.

It occurred to me that the West is even more sight-focused than when Rabbi Sacks said that (I’m not sure when exactly but probably about fifteen years ago). We talk a lot about how people ‘present’, particularly regarding race and gender. If someone feels a book resonated with her experience, she says, “I felt seen.” If not, she says, “It erased me.” Even the idea that the best moral value is to “be the best you that you can be” seems somehow superficial in the absence of detailed introspection about who you actually are and especially whether there is an objective standard of morality, which it seems to more or less assume doesn’t exist.

This led to thoughts about feeling that the (Western popular) culture around me is very superficial and it’s no wonder I don’t connect with it, leading to wondering whether frum (religious) Jewish culture is any better, because it’s possible to pray, study Torah, perform mitzvot (commandments) and acts of kindness and so on and still be superficial. The Kotzker Rebbe said, “Someone who studies Torah and isn’t moved by it, who sins and forgives himself, who prays today because he prayed yesterday – a completely wicked person is better than him!” It is, however, hard to tell if people are being superficial without knowing them in detail. Non-superficial people, pretty much by definition, can’t be identified from the outside, only by the depths of their souls.

I wondered what authenticity really is. I used to think it was about depth, being passionately into something worthwhile, but I wondered if it was also about breadth, having a balanced outlook and many different interests. If being into one thing, however positive it is in the abstract, is ultimately limiting (e.g. the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) super-focus on Talmud study ahead of things like being economically self-sufficient and serving the country you live in).

There is a saying from the Greek poet Archilochus that, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” I used to think ideal people were foxes (Renaissance men), then I thought that they were hedgehogs (Romantics); now I wonder if they need to be a bit of both. I don’t know where I fall, but I want to be a bit of both.

However, I wonder if this argument moves us away from authenticity. I’m still reading Rabbi Samuel Lebens’ The Principles of Judaism. Today I saw the quote (in the context of what he terms “Extreme Hassidic Idealism,” namely the belief that the universe is just an idea in the mind of God, an idea that he perhaps surprisingly argues forcefully in favour of), “If God tells you that you’re a figment of his imagination, what would your prayer be? “Make it non-fictionally true that I’m a poignant character is your dream,” or “within the story of your dream, give me health, wealth and happiness”? Lebens seems to think everyone would naturally go for the second option, but I really don’t see it (this is assuming that poignancy is related to authenticity, which may be a leap). I’m not saying that I wouldn’t go for that option in the end, but I would really have to think about it, maybe trying to fudge it by saying that I need the latter to be the former (which is basically how Jewish prayer works, where we ask for God to inspire us to be good, but also to give us wisdom, health, wealth, etc. because they make it easier to be good).

Or is poignancy not the same of authenticity either? Maybe authenticity is something instinctive, something that vanishes if you overthink it. I’m not sure. I feel I haven’t really come to a conclusion here, after spending a whole day thinking about this.

***

Other than this, Shabbat was normal, or “new normal” (i.e. normal from the pandemic onwards). The rabbi led Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and started a circle dance (or “dance,” as the layout of the crowded room and, to be honest, the average age of the congregation means that it’s a slow shuffle around the room in a shape that’s more of a square than a circle, but holding hands, which I don’t like). He tried to drag me into it, which I felt uncomfortable with on multiple levels. I feel he should respect my feelings not to join in, which are mostly autistic with a little COVID fear. But I also wish I could be “normal” and get something out of bonding with people that way and entering into the moment and the emotion (back to authenticity, I guess).

Other than that I didn’t do much: some Torah study, mostly Yehoshua (Joshua) and Rabbi Michael Hattin’s book on it, a little Talmud and more of The Principles of Judaism, which I’m really enjoying and finding meaningful even if I don’t understand all of it. I read a little of The Coming of the Third Reich, but not much, as I fell asleep last night, in my clothes, about 11.30pm. I woke up at 1.00am and quickly changed into pyjamas and went to bed. I felt drowsy after lunch today and drank coffee to stay awake, but I still slept for nearly two hours in the afternoon. I fear I won’t sleep tonight, and also that I’m getting too old to be able to eat a heavy meal without needing to sleep it off.

More/Less Successful

I saw an advert today for an event at the LSJS where one of the presenters is someone I was at university with. I didn’t know her well, but she’s obviously successful as a barrister (lawyer), from the advert, as well as presenting at an institution I only attend as a student.

I thought I was over these feelings of inadequacy, but obviously I’m not, even if I feel I have a sort-of exemption from achieving things now I know I’m on the spectrum. Although that doesn’t feel like a good sort of exemption, more like someone saying, “Luftmentsch is special” in a very patronising tone of voice.

Then I saw in the Jewish Chronicle that (Orthodox rabbi, social commentator, civil rights activist and writer (and former Hevrian, which is how I know him/know of him)) Rabbi Shais Rishon (also known by his nom de plume of Ma Nishtana) came out a while back as autistic and polyamorous. Leaving aside the polyamorousness, which is is really his own business [1], the autism claim inspires uncomfortable feelings. When I see people who are more competent and successful than me coming out as autistic, a whole load of thoughts go through my head. First, are they ‘really’ autistic? Have they been diagnosed professionally? I feel bad for even thinking this, because I know I should support people on the spectrum, or who are moving towards diagnosis, but this is the first thought that comes into my head, sadly. The reason for this is because after this thought, I have more uncomfortable thoughts. I wonder if I should be as successful as they are. Note the “shoulding” and the implication of being required to be successful if someone else with autism is successful, even though autism manifests itself in different ways in each individual. I think on some level I also wonder if people are going to be less understanding of my issues and say that I should be like the successful autistic person. Sad to say, the ‘ideal’ high functioning autistic person from my point of view still has considerable struggles — but not too many, to make me feel like I’m the one whose faking it and making excuses for being useless.

[1] Actually, reading stuff about other people’s successful sexuality makes me feel inadequate too. E thinks I’m strong for being thirty-eight and still a virgin, but I’ve never seen it that way, mostly because, one or two occasions aside, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but something forced on me. I probably would have decided this way if it was a choice, but I can’t be sure, but ideally I would have been married ages ago and it certainly wouldn’t apply. But I guess this is something that I just have to deal with.

***

One thing I do want to do, which I thought about before I saw all of this, is to start a non-anonymous blog on The Times of Israel and/or The Jewish Weekly (two linked Jewish newspapers, one Israeli (although English language) and one British, both with prominent user blog sections) for my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts), just to put them out there and see if anything results. It probably won’t, but it’s worth trying. I won’t do it for a few weeks, though, as the current weeks at the end of Shemot (Exodus) and the beginning of Vayikra (Leviticus) are very ritual-based and hard to connect with from a modern perspective. I don’t want to start and then get stuck for things to write for several weeks.

***

I picked up another book from the free book box, this time Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s history book, Jerusalem: A Biography. I feel at the moment I am buying and acquiring books far faster than I’m reading them. I feel particularly guilty about the free book box, as I haven’t really donated anything other than a rather grubby history book, but have picked up quite a few books. I feel I should donate some things that I’m unlikely to read.

The Square Root of Infinity

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was in the normal pattern for the last few months. I went to shul (synagogue) and got a bit overwhelmed by all the clapping and banging on tables. I’m sure it didn’t used to be this bad, but maybe it was easier to cope when the room was larger and more spaced, even though there were more people? That said, I think there has been objectively more clapping since we got a more Hasidishe rabbi about a year before COVID started. Before that, fewer people clapped and hit the tables, and they didn’t clap or hit as loudly.

I didn’t go to shiur (religious class) again, although I did quite a bit of Talmud study at home. My Talmud study is probably completely out of sync with the shiur by now. I’m not actually sure where they’re up to. I was ahead of them, but then I stopped for a few weeks when I went to America. But I’m trying to do one page (single side) every week or so, going over it three times, whereas they go through more slowly, looking at the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, which I don’t tackle in the absence of a translation. I feel that I’m understanding it a little bit better than I was. That said, I had the insight a while back that Talmud study is not meant to teach you halakhah (Jewish law), but to teach you to think like a rabbi, to compare and analyse rabbinic sources and to learn how to connect orally-transmitted laws to the written Torah. I’m not sure that it’s working for me there, although I’m not sure how many people it does work for in that way.

I had trouble sleeping on Friday night and again on Saturday night, so maybe it is not just nights before work where I have trouble sleeping. I wonder if it might be related to my medication reduction, but I think it was happening before then.

***

Today did not start well: I overslept, slept through my phone ringing, which turned out to be a work-related phone call (which I wouldn’t have had the answer to anyway) and woke with some anxiety (albeit fairly mild). On Friday I had a burst of creativity, of ideas for a potential satirical novel (see below). This flood of inspiration started before Shabbat and continued into Shabbat, although I was trying not to think about it then, as it wasn’t appropriate. I wrote down a lot of ideas last night and laid out some kind of rudimentary plot outline. I wonder if this exhaustion is a consequence of that creativity? Usually I associate exhaustion with actually doing something, not just thinking about it, but it’s hard to see what else it could be.

***

I emailed the occupational therapist I saw a number of years ago to see if she can recommend someone who can work with me on fatigue management and maybe thinking about why I make so many mistakes at work. I did a quick online search and there are OTs out there in London who work with people with Asperger’s/high functioning autism, although I’m not sure how many work with adults.

***

I had an idea for satirical novel recently. On Friday (and to a lesser extent over the whole weekend), I had a burst of inspiration about it. I don’t intend to work on it right now, but perhaps as the next project, although I will continue to note ideas and maybe to slowly evolve plot and characters.

I am terrified of being ‘cancelled’ because of it as, while it satirises many things, it focuses on ‘wokeness’ and performative forms of politicised morality. Although it is more likely that I would simply not find an agent or a publisher who will touch it, as the publishing industry is very woke. E asked me if I would rather be cancelled or never do anything worth being cancelled for. I guess that makes sense. I would rather be cancelled than censor myself.

What I really wanted to do was just not to write about politics and fly under the radar, but obviously my unconscious disagreed. Orwell wrote that writers have to be honest, and not swayed by public opinion, political expediency or state censorship, which I guess is true, but the thought of losing friends upsets me more. I don’t mind having friends with different political outlooks, but I fear some of my friends wouldn’t want to associate with me if they knew some of my thoughts, which aren’t even particularly extreme, but the world is so polarised that even slight deviations are punishable. I feel the world divides at the moment into those who take offence at everything and those who vanish to avoid saying anything controversial. I don’t want to take offence at everything, but I am beginning to feel that vanishing is not much fun either, even if it’s my instinct.

I don’t really see myself as a satirist or a polemicist, and my impulse is to run away from controversy. But maybe that’s why part of me is pushing me towards this. Like wanting to go bungee jumping or skydiving. Live dangerously, not something I’ve ever done until now. And it does trouble me that not only does our society no longer have any shared values, we can’t even agree on basic facts any more. Where would you even go to find impartial facts? Not the supposedly-impartial BBC, nor the self-proclaimed fact checkers (who fact checks the fact checkers?). It’s troubling. How can a society function when there are two (or more) different sets of basic facts? And maybe neither are correct. It’s not that one group is saying 2+2=4 and the other says 2+2=5. It’s more like one group says 2+2=5 and the other says 2+2= the square root of infinity.

The End of the Holiday

I was physically exhausted by yesterday evening and cut down a lot of my evening activities. I had written my devar Torah (Torah thought) during the day, but planned to do some additional Torah study too, but I largely cut that out, as I largely cut out my hitbodedut (spontaneous prayer/meditation). I read for a short while and went to bed, but, although tired, I could not sleep. I knew it was because I had not really relaxed before bed. I got up, drank some hot chocolate, and watched The Twilight Zone (which was really not the best thing to watch). After that, I felt relaxed enough to go back to bed and sleep.

I dislike the fact that I tire so easily, and that I need so much relaxation time, as distinct from other activities that are, on some level, or seem to others, to be ‘me’ time, like prayer and Torah study. My parents and E have always been understanding about this, but I feel like somehow Torah study (etc.) should be enough for me, when necessary, without additional relaxation time. When really exhausted, just going to bed feels like it should be enough, but it isn’t.

I woke up about 10am today, which was late, but earlier than yesterday. Even so I lay in bed for forty-five minutes, until the Tesco delivery came and I went to help with that. Afterwards I felt ill until I had breakfast. I’m not sure if it was lack of food or drink that made me feel ill or just running around on an empty stomach. I’m not really getting the ‘headrush’ feeling that I was getting sometimes before my trip, but walking up three flights of stairs while wearing a mask to get to my apartment and to E’s apartment while I was in New York did make me feel ill too. I probably should see a doctor about this, and to see if I can reduce my medication to try to increase my energy levels (and lose weight). I am scared to do this, as in the past trying to come of medication has always led rapidly to severe depression, but I do think I’m in a better place right now than I have been since I was sixteen or so.

I spent an hour or so chasing a reference from something I’d seen years ago by Rabbi Lord Sacks for my devar Torah. I couldn’t find it, although I’m pretty sure it exists somewhere, as I doubt I would have made the quote up and I can’t imagine anyone else saying it. I will use the idea in my devar Torah and just note that I can’t locate the exact reference, as I don’t have time to write another one. I possibly do worry too much about finding references for these divrei Torah; it’s not like they’re being published professionally. I did find a somewhat relevant quote that helps a bit. Skimming through a lot of lectures and articles by Rabbi Sacks was at least a worthwhile revision session, and a reminder of how quietly radical his theology was.

***

Holiday: Tuesday 25 January

I woke up totally ‘out of spoons’ (autistically exhausted). I went to E’s apartment and slowly drank some coffee (remember I wasn’t making coffee or tea in my apartment as I was scared of breaking the fancy copper gas stove kettle). By this day E and I were feeling pretty museumed out and masked out and aware we had spent a lot of time masked indoors in the last week.

We decided to go for a walk on the Lower East Side instead of going to another museum, spending the afternoon walking around Chinatown and Little Italy. It was very interesting and different to London. We went to a kosher pickle restaurant — all the food they sell is pickle-related. It was a bit weird, but good. I would go again, if I was in that area! Although kosher, it’s not in a particularly Jewish area, so we think it must be aimed more at a general hipster market, being located in an area that is gentrifying.

In the evening I filled in the passenger locator form that I was supposed to fill in for my flight home the next day. This turned out to be total nightmare, fiddly to complete on my phone (I have fat fingers and should have asked to borrow E’s laptop) and crashing when I was nearly finished. Nor was this the only trouble I was to have with it…

We went for falafel again afterwards.

Wednesday 26 January

We had intended to go back to the Met Museum on this day, to fill in the time before my night flight home. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Met is currently shut on Wednesdays because of COVID (?!). There wasn’t really time to go anywhere else, so we sat in E’s apartment and read. E read the Doctor Who novelisation I bought earlier in the week while I read Drama Queen, an autism memoir E thought I might want to read. The book was familiar from other autism memoirs that I’ve read, but a few things resonated, particularly the difficulties of coping in a busy work environment, also familiar from my own work life. I did appreciate the description of life as being like walking on a treadmill and autistic life as being walking on a treadmill going much faster than a neurotypical person’s treadmill, resulting in the autistic person having to walk or run much faster just to stay in the same place, and incomprehension from the neurotypical person at why the autistic person is getting so tired.

As my flight was a night flight, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get dinner, or when, so we went for a couple of slices of pizza mid-afternoon, then on to the airport, avoiding a dog who barked repeatedly and aggressively at me as his owner tried to drag him down the pavement and away from me. At the airport, I had trouble getting my passenger locator form to open properly, perhaps connected with the fact that I don’t usually access email on my phone, as I use a not-terribly good webmail interface. The person trying to check my form fiddled with the phone, then she gave it to someone else and eventually sent me to the website for filling in the form, where I remembered the correct password (not easy, as the problems with it the previous night had led to me setting up two different passwords on two different sites, and I wasn’t sure which was which).

I checked in and was facing a long wait, as I had arrived very early. The long wait was extended, as it slowly became clear that the plane was being delayed as a previous flight had been cancelled for technical reasons and those passengers were going to be flown on our flight (I’m guess both flights were well below capacity) as this was the last one to the UK that day. I tried to sit calmly, not get agitated, and practise patience and acceptance, knowing I couldn’t make the wait any shorter by worrying or getting angry. We eventually boarded, and left two hours late, around midnight EST. I had an empty seat next to me again despite the extra passengers, for which I was grateful. I read Talmudic Images and Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon and watched The Simpsons. I feel I probably read or watched other things too, but I can’t remember what. I didn’t sleep, as I can’t sleep on planes. EDIT: I do remember what I did, I listened to The Kinks’ greatest hits. I think The Beatles were a better band than The Kinks, but The Kinks say “The Sixties” to me in a way that The Beatles don’t. Also, The Kinks’ music is much better at wry social observation. Kinks songs like Summer Afternoon, Plastic Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and A Well-Respected Man are neat portraits of social ‘types.’ We made up some lost time and landed one hour late rather than two hours.

And that was that. I eventually found the right door out of the airport to meet my parents and they brought me home. I tried to beat jetlag by staying awake despite not having slept the night before, but failed and slept for an hour and a half in the afternoon.

I enjoyed the trip a lot, although I’m not sure if I would stay in an Airbnb again. It did have some advantages over a hotel from a kosher/Shabbat point of view and a price point of view, but there were also disadvantages and there probably was a degree of luck/Providence in things turning out OK at several points. I would like to spend more time in the Met Museum at some point, as well as some of the museums I didn’t get to see, but preferably without wearing a mask.

After the Holiday; The Holiday Retrospect

I think the Talmud says it takes three days to recover from a journey (this had practical halakhic (legal) consequences in Talmudic times that don’t apply any more). A journey in Talmudic times was obviously likely to be longer, more difficult and more dangerous that the one I’ve got back from, but I still feel exhausted. To my surprise, I found the energy to go to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, albeit somewhat late. I sat at the back and didn’t talk to anyone after the service. I didn’t really want to socialise. I was probably exhausted at dinner and everything I said seemed to come out sounding more angry than I intended. I napped for an hour and a half after dinner and consequently couldn’t sleep at night. I might still be running on Eastern Standard Time instead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Today was mostly spent sleeping and doing Torah study again. I didn’t feel up to going to shul or shiur (religious class), which did not surprise me, as it’s such a struggle to go at the moment (post-COVID) even without jet lag and travel stress. After Shabbat, and helping to tidy up, I didn’t do much except plough through some emails and write this.

***

I argued with Dad about COVID restrictions. I said I might not wear a mask to shul in future, which he thought was risky. I said that I’m triple-vaxxed so COVID is unlikely to be like more than a bout of flu for me, and I accept the risk of catching flu every year. My sister currently has COVID and says it feels like a bad cold. To be honest, I vacillate on this. Sometimes I do feel that we have to accept COVID as being like flu and live with it; other times I worry about going to places with no masks. I think my father is similarly confused; he went to the theatre (masked) with Mum while I was away, which I am currently very reluctant to do, even though I travel on the Tube a couple of times a week. I find it hard to work out a consistent level of COVID safety that satisfies me, as so much depends on habit (I’m used to using the Tube in the pandemic by now; I’m not used to going to the theatre or cinema), media influence (if I’ve been reading articles for or against greater opening up) and peer pressure (including the negative peer pressure of masking to allow myself to look down on anti-maskers).

***

Over Shabbat I finished reading Talmudic Images, a series of short biographical essays on leading figures in the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that I bought and started reading in New York. I find it has given me more of a grasp of the chronology of the Talmud and how it fits together, particularly for the post-Mishnaic period. Perhaps strangely for someone on the spectrum, I find it easier to understand abstract arguments if I understand a little of the people proposing them. This approach was controversial with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, though; one of the reasons why Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud translation/commentary was rejected by that community was the (much shorter) biographical sketches he provided there of leading Talmudic figures. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s willingness to state that great rabbis had human flaws, and his suggestion that their personalities and worldviews might have influenced their halakhic (legal) reasoning are seen as incorrect and even immoral in the Haredi world, which prefers to see great rabbis as perfect saints operating in a universe of pure logic and reason.

***

Holiday: Tuesday 18 January: Coming to America

I arrived at the airport only to feel rather overwhelmed by the number of people and the confusion about what I had to do. Airports are not the most autism-friendly places. I managed to check in at the automated check in point and then drop off my luggage and get my COVID vaccination and test details checked. A baby in a parallel queue started waving to me; I waved back at her, but felt sad that she couldn’t see me smile because of my mask. As humans are social beings, and communication is through body language as much as speech, mask-wearing is not a cost-free option.

I got through security OK and eventually onto the plane. I was lucky enough to have a free seat next to me on both the way out and the way back, despite both planes being nearly full. This made me feel more comfortable and less crammed in. One of the air stewardesses looked and sounded exactly like Jodie Whittaker (the current Doctor Who), at least as far as I could tell with her mask on.

I did get a headache on the flight which approached being a migraine. It probably kicked in about three-quarters of the way through the flight. I’m not sure if I was dehydrated, as the amount of liquid they give you on an eight hour flight is minimal and I forgot to buy a bottle of water after clearing security, or if it’s a form of travel sickness, as I got a migraine last time I travelled abroad too. A quick internet search shows that aeroplane headaches are apparently a thing lots of people suffer. I hope this isn’t going to be a regular feature of air travel for me. I took some painkillers, but they didn’t help much.

I passed the time with reading The Psychology of Time Travel (very good science fiction mystery novel), listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast and, listening to episodes of The Goon Show and Round the Horne. When the headache became too bad to read I tried watching a wildlife documentary on the in-flight entertainment console, but it had a rather more sadistic focus on the brutal death of young chicks than I felt able to deal with in my headache-weakened state, so I gave up and watched The Simpsons. From what I’ve seen, recent episodes are not as funny as the early episodes, but they are still amusing compared with most comedy on TV.

I met E at the airport without any trouble, but my headache was worsened by the long taxi journey to the apartment I was renting, and I was glad I didn’t throw up in the cab. E and I were both driven quietly crazy by the cab’s audio system, which seemed to be playing the same half-dozen adverts over and over and over. When we arrived, we found the lockbox that was supposed to contain the apartment keys open and the keys missing. We were about to find a cafe where we could try to message the landlord when I remembered she had a cleaner and thought that she might be in there. I buzzed the apartment to find that, yes, the cleaner was running late and still up there.

I was more intimidated than I thought I would be by the loft bed (a sort of bunkbed for grown-ups), but someone had made the bed on a mattress on the floor instead, so I didn’t have to climb up every evening. I was also intimidated by the copper kettle, to be boiled on the gas stove. I was terrified of breaking it somehow, so simply refused to drink hot drinks in my apartment. I also realised that American toilet paper is awful, far too thin and flimsy.

When my headache felt better, E and I ventured out for dinner. We went to a kosher pizza restaurant relatively close by and ordered one pizza to take away for the two of us. I was worried if this would be enough, but when it arrived, it was big enough for two. We ate in my apartment, after which E left me so I could have an earlyish night.

Still Drained

I slept through the morning again. Looking at my energy accounting record for yesterday, I was running a deficit again yesterday. I didn’t do a huge amount, but I didn’t do much relaxation either. I did a bit before bed, but that was probably too late at night, when I should really have been asleep. I do need to be online less and doing things that actually relax me.

I struggled through the day with low energy and mood, trying to do things. I went for a walk and wrote a devar Torah (Torah thought) that was nowhere near as good as I thought it would be when I had the idea for it a few weeks ago, and wrote some important emails. The other achievements were Mum cutting my hair and my checking which museums that I want to visit in New York are closed because of COVID. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace seems to be the only museum that is actually shut, perhaps because of the difficulty of socially distancing in an old house, but most of the other museums require, or at least recommend, advance ticket purchases, so E and I will have to plan which days we intend to go to which places. I feel a bit daunted, as I have no idea how my mood and energy levels will be, so planning days in advance seems like giving hostages to fortune, as if COVID hadn’t done enough of that already.

I didn’t do much else. My mood was brought down further by something family-related that happened that I don’t really want to go into here.

***

At the back of my mind all day was the ongoing Downing Street party scandal. I wrote two paragraphs about that yesterday and deleted them, telling myself it was too political for a blog that I try to keep apolitical. But I keep thinking about it and wondering if it would have happened whatever party was in power. There’s no way of telling, but I currently have a low opinion of all of them parties, and have done since about 2017. And weren’t there civil servants at this party as well as Conservatives? It’s all just sickening. The anarchist doctrine of “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” sometimes seems very true.

Paying Off the Deficit

I was completely drained when I woke up today, probably a result of doing so much yesterday. I’ve only been measuring my energy for “energy accounting” purposes for a week and a half, and already I’ve learnt that I run up massive energy deficits on work days that I spend non-work days paying off (hampering doing things like writing fiction on those days) and that not only does mindless internet procrastination not restore my energy levels, it actually drains them, particularly if I’m reading political or religious stuff — not even stuff that I necessarily disagree with, but seeing other people arguing drains me. I’m not sure how to stop that, as it’s a fairly compulsive bad habit that I’ve tried to stop in the past with things like setting myself limits regarding when I can be online or turning the computer off at a particular time in the evening. It doesn’t help that almost all my social life (blogging), and a lot of my interactions with E (WhatsApp, Skype) happen online or on my phone, which often leads to habitual internet usage. If my phone is on, it is very easy to open the internet, even if that was not my intention originally.

The energy deficits make me worry a bit about what might happen next week when I’m in New York. I already knew I would need downtime and some quieter days, but I worry about how much downtime I might need. It also makes me worry long-term about being able to run a home and have children, although it’s probably not healthy to think about that right now.

By coincidence/Providence, on my feed today I saw this post. I’m still looking for the perfect article on shutdowns, both for me and my family, but this was quite useful coming today. I do feel like I often have a shutdown after work, at least for an hour or so, but sometimes, like yesterday, for much of the evening and followed by an “emotional hangover” the next day (I was pleased to see that term in the post as I thought I was the only person who used it). I do wish there was an easy test to see if what I experience really is a shutdown, as it’s easy to blame myself for being weak or overreacting.

Because of this, I didn’t do much today, and most of what I did do was preparation for my New York trip. I went for a walk, read some information my airline provided about COVID tests and the like for the trip, and phoned my credit card company to tell them I would be making payments from the US and they shouldn’t worry that my card has been stolen. (Is this normal? My Dad gets me to do it every time I go abroad, but I’ve never seen anything on the website to suggest it’s something most people do.) I downloaded some radio comedy programmes to listen to on the flights as I have a feeling I will be too anxious, and too tired on the return flight, to read much, although I do not know why I think that. However, I’m having trouble getting my iPod to sync and am too tired to deal with it now (yes, I know most people use their phones. I’m very bad at upgrading stuff).

***

I did a little Torah study, about half an hour. As often happens after a shutdown or exhausted day, by the time I felt awake, it was too late to do anything, but I wanted to do some Torah study. I finished reading Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) from cover to cover, in order, in Hebrew (albeit struggling with the Aramaic chapters, of which I think there are nine). I had read Tanakh cover to cover before in English translation, and I had read each book of Tanakh in Hebrew, but not in the right order, but this was the first time I read through the whole of Tanakh in order in Hebrew. I’m not sure how long it took me, probably something like seven or eight years, as there were times when I stopped doing it for long periods when I was suffering depression or burnout, or when I was working a lot and it was not easy to read it on the train.

Traditionally, when finishing study of a Jewish religious book, you start the next volume straight away, so you’re always studying. I will be returning to Yehoshua (Joshua) at some point (I keep the Torah (Five Books of Moses) on a separate cycle, the annual Torah cycle), but after my trip to New York. This is because I ordered two of the Koren Maggid Studies in Tanakh books (Joshua and Judges) for me to collect from E’s apartment, as I haven’t been able to get hold of most of them in the UK lately, I assume because of COVID/supply chain issues. I could order them directly to the UK, but the shipping is prohibitive.

***

My diet (which wasn’t a big thing anyway, just trying to cut back a bit) has hit a bit of a block, as cutting back hasn’t shifted my weight, reinforcing my feeling that it’s all medication-related, which in turn makes it hard not to eat a bit of junk on days when I feel down or exhausted, like today.

More On Energy Allocation

I didn’t blog yesterday as nothing much happened. I was off work as it was a bank holiday. I went in to the office today. I missed my stop on the Tube as I was engrossed in my reading. This was good, in a way, as I was reading Mishnah (the oldest stratum of the Talmud) and was surprised that I got so involved in it that I missed my stop.

Work itself was boring. I spent about three and a half hours stuffing invoices into envelopes and then putting stamps on them. I couldn’t listen to music, as I had forgotten to charge my iPod and wanted to leave what battery it had left for the journey home. For variety, I had to take a few credit card payments over the phone, which I still find awkward, but it is getting less scary with experience. I spent a little bit of time on the large statistics-collating task I started last week, which wasn’t as fearsome as it first seemed, although there is a lot to do, including the hardest bits.

There was some bad mask compliance on the Tube. Most people are actually wearing masks, but the few who aren’t are sometimes overly-conspicuous or downright stupid, like the woman today not wearing her mask so she could speak on the phone, but with her hand over her mouth, or the guy last week who not only was not wearing a mask, but was also picking his nose (gross!).

I was exhausted/burnt out/whatever it is by the time I got home. I’ve been trying to allocate values showing how much each activity drains or replenishes my energy and just from one working day I can see better how draining work is for me, even with the reduced hours I’m doing and even without taking into account commuting and going to the shul in the building for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) after work. Interestingly, going online to catch up on emails and blogs as soon as I get in (well, after I’ve spoken to my parents, anyway) was definitely draining rather than replenishing today, which surprised me a bit. I’m not sure how to cut or reduce that without falling behind on things, but it does look like a seriously bad idea. Last summer I sometimes came home and sat in the garden and read a book for half an hour before going online, which might be a sensible habit to get back into, albeit indoors until the weather improves.

***

For the last few days I’ve been going through cycles of higher and lower anxiety. I get anxious about my trip to New York, then I do research on whatever it is I’m anxious about or move forward with booking things and I feel less anxious until the next thing comes up to worry about.

In terms of trip planning, I thought finding an Airbnb near E would be easier and cheaper than finding a kosher or Shabbat-compliant hotel. This may not have been true, I’m not sure. I tried looking on Airbnb, but struggled to get a sense of what was close to E. My sense of geography is not great regarding places I’ve been to, let alone places I’ve only seen on a map, plus Airbnb will only give the rough location until you confirm you are going. E helped me find somewhere that looked reasonable and I booked it. I’m very worried about COVID ruining this, but hopefully I’ll be in New York in two weeks!

It will be good to spend time with E and to be able to do couple things again. Dating long-distance is hard, and dating long-distance with mental health issues and neurodiversity to factor in is extra-hard, but I think ultimately it could make our relationship stronger in the long-term. Certainly we have an ability to talk to each other very honestly and openly about our feelings and come away feeling closer to each other, and I know that’s a massively important and powerful thing to have in a relationship, especially given that I’m autistic and not always good at emotional and interpersonal things. I’m excited about my holiday and seeing E, albeit also scared to acknowledge that excitement lest it somehow jinx things through C*V*D.

Energy Accounting and God’s (Lack of) Emotions

I struggled to sleep last night, and then massively overslept today (again). Then I felt wiped out in the afternoon, although I managed to go mattress shopping with my parents. (I was astounded as usual at the ease with which my parents can chat to the shop assistant. I can’t do this at all!)

I still feel like I’m struggling with all the stuff I’m supposed to do (generally, not just today), even without my near-permanent exhaustion. And I know that no one makes me do regular prayer and Torah study, or write a weekly devar Torah, or write novels and try to get them published and I could cut all these things from my life easily, except that it would be even smaller and less meaningful than it already is. I can accept that some of these things might have to be cut down or put on hold for a year or two as E and I move towards marriage. It doesn’t make it easier to decide what gets cut, and how much.

In terms of keeping up with writing while struggling to do other things, I’ve heard of “microwriting,” writing in tiny bursts of just a couple of minutes. I can see they would add up, but I feel that I need a longer period to really get in to some writing, so I’m not planning on microwriting my next novel.

I would like to do some “energy accounting” to balance my energy output and intake to try to stop the burnout. The hardest part of energy accounting is having no real knowledge of how much energy tasks require, or how much I get back from different types of relaxation, which makes it all seem like guesswork. Ashley suggested that factoring in more relaxation time might improve energy levels overall, and it might, but I feel I already have some relaxation and I’m wary of factoring too much. It’s hard to work out how much is “correct.” If I could swap procrastination time for relaxation time, that might work, but reducing procrastination time is difficult, as it creeps in when trying to do other things rather than being scheduled. I have been trying to turn to blogs and sites online that I want to read for novel research rather than the Jewish and news sites I usually turn to when looking to procrastinate, but spending ages reading about addiction probably isn’t the best thing to do for other reasons. (It’s also constantly expanding. I just discovered that Chabad.org has a whole section of their site, which I think is still the largest Jewish website in the world, for Jewish addicts of all descriptions.)

Aside from the mattress, I tried to write my devar Torah for the week, but was really stumped. It’s not even a ‘difficult’ sedra (Torah reading). I just couldn’t think what to say. I found a sermon in the Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, the Holocaust sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piasczno Rebbe that I will try to summarise and, if I feel up to it, add to. But I’m not sure if I’ll be able to add much, or when exactly I’m going to get the time or energy to do this.

I basically spent much of the day feeling exhausted and depressed (like clinical depression in intensity) and I don’t know why. Actually, I wonder if it’s because I’ve been off work for a few days. I think I do need the structure, even if it exhausts me.

I will try to relax tonight and tomorrow and again at the start of next week when I have another bank holiday-induced break. I think going to work on the Thursdays will probably be for the best.

***

I had a thought today. I mentioned I’ve been spending time recently reading things by frum (religious Jewish) addicts as novel research. An idea that comes up a bit and is supposed to be inspirational is: “If I avoid acting out, it will give HaShem (God) nachas.” Nachas ruach or nachat ruach is the Hebrew term for contentment; in Yiddish, nachas refers more to the reflected glory from your children or grandchildren doing something successful. The idea is that God is emotionally pleased when an addict chooses not to act out or that He is generally pleased when people overcome the temptation to sin, like a parent who is pleased when their child does something significant.

I feel uncomfortable with all of this. Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Moses Maimonides) says that God has no emotions, because if God had emotions, we could divide God into ‘God’ and ‘God’s emotion(s)’. This would disrupt God’s unity and is a big no-no from the point of view of Rambam’s Medieval rationalism. The most we can say is that the Torah anthropomorphises God, saying He is angry, joyful etc. because it’s the only way to understand something that is beyond human understanding (the nature of God). But God Himself is never angry, joyful etc.

I wonder if this is why I struggle with the idea that God loves me. Because I view it as a metaphor for something I can’t understand and not something literally true, as the addicts were suggesting. I would agree with Rambam that the mitzvot (commandments) were given for our benefit; keeping or not keeping them makes no difference to God, Who is eternal and unchanging no matter what we do.

I do feel that Rambam and other Medieval rationalists only appeal to a very limited number of people, I suppose very intellectual people who don’t need much emotional connection to Judaism, or at least can separate the emotional connection from the intellectual. My feeling, having mostly studied Rambam second-hand, is that he neglected the affective side of Judaism and wanted everything to come through the intellect. So he wants Jews not to believe, but to know via logical proof that God exists and, while he is very open to the idea that mitzvot teach us behaviour and positive character traits, he sees this teaching as happening in a very intellectual way, making us think about something, not through the mitzvah making us have a particular emotion (this is the source of my disagreement with him about animal sacrifice which he struggled with, whereas I see it as building on fairly straightforward emotions even if it’s not exactly to modern tastes). I feel that the Medieval rationalists were right, or more right than the kabbalists (mystics) (from my limited knowledge of Medieval rationalism and kabbalah). But I find it hard to live my religious life like that. It’s too dry and unemotional.

(Aside: I just ordered this book. Even with a 30% discount code, it cost A LOT, for a book that I’m worried I won’t understand. I spent eighteen months procrastinating over whether to get it. But I feel that some of the things I struggle with intellectually in Judaism could be eased a little by serious academic Jewish philosophy. I am, generally speaking, be willing to pay a lot of money to learn things that I think are true and meaningful.)

(Actually, while the credit card was processed, it really looks like something went wrong with the order, as I haven’t had a confirmation email, and my order history on the publisher’s site is empty. Something else to worry about and deal with…)

***

I am nervous about buying plane tickets to go to New York to visit E tomorrow (buy the tickets tomorrow, not go to New York tomorrow, obviously), which is super scary, but I will try to do it. It would be scary even without COVID and the need for PCR tests, but with COVID it’s even worse. But I’m going to do it!

Shame and Guilt

Yesterday was a dull day at work. I didn’t have much to say, so I didn’t blog, although I spent somewhere between one and two hours writing a private post. It felt freeing and I don’t know if that was writing for just E and me, or writing about something I’ve never really written about before.

I did go into the Judaica shop in search of tzitzit and came away with tzitzit strings to tie myself (even though I said I wouldn’t do that any more — it turned out to be significantly cheaper) and an expensive book, which I want for novel research, but also want to read anyway (On Repentance by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, edited by Pinchas H. Pelli — the new edition). I’m not sure if this was sensible in retrospect.

I feel tired today, not hugely burnt out tired, but it’s hard to do anything. Maybe it is a bit burnt out, though, inasmuch as going for a walk was hard and studying Torah was hard. It’s hard to tell. I really feel that I need to speak to a doctor about this, the persistence of tiredness and lack of energy long after the low mood of depression has gone, as well as what seem to be occasional “blood rushing to the head”-type moments lately, particularly when climbing stairs. However, I’m scared of even trying to get an appointment at the moment, with COVID expanding queues and everything non-essential shutting for Christmas. I worry about not being taken seriously too; autistic fatigue (if that’s what it is) is not widely understood or accepted. And I suppose I’m vaguely scared of having some kind of undiagnosed physical issue, possibly blood pressure-related (I think I’ve historically had slightly low blood pressure).

I didn’t do much Torah study today, although I did finish my devar Torah for the week. It was a more speculative one. I somehow struggle to find the balance between the classic sources and my hiddushim, innovative interpretations. Maybe the ideal balance only exists in my head and I just dislike whatever I write.

I didn’t do much else either, I guess because of the lack of energy. I did a little novel research and then E and I went to a virtual class about the influence of Christian art on Medieval Jewish art. It was interesting and makes me want to learn more about art generally.

***

Doing more research about pornography addiction, I came across the idea (in Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction by Paula Hall) that shame about sex or pornography addiction can actually feed the addiction, but guilt about it can help stop it. This is based on the idea that shame is about feeling you are flawed as a person, which is destructive and throws you back into the addiction, but guilt is about feeling an act you did was flawed, which leads you to want to stop doing that action.

I wonder if this applies to non-addictive shame and guilt. I feel a lot of shame comparing myself to my peers, especially at shul (synagogue) as well as school and university peers, for not having managed to meet the social expectations on clever or even average people my age (career, family, house, etc.). I also feel shame at shul for perceived inadequacy in prayer, Torah study and mitzvah performance. So this sucks me deeper into depression when I’m depressed, or low mood when not clinically depressed, and into lower self-esteem. If I focused on guilt for specific acts, this might be less all-consuming and more productive. It’s hard though. I get eaten up by shame very easily.

Monsters: Anxious, Insomniac, Green-Eyed and Antisemitic

At shul (synagogue) yesterday evening, they announced my engagement to E. Quite a few people wished me mazal tov and several wanted to talk a bit about E and me. Only one person seemed too inquisitive and unwilling to heed my hints that I didn’t want to talk about particular things (in this case, why E will probably be moving here rather than me moving to the US), which was probably a minor miracle, as people can sometimes be nosy. I think I was even a little bit pleased at the attention, although it did bring back some anxiety.

I was drained all day, but shul finished me off. I didn’t manage to do much Torah study in the evening, although I did a little.

I was pretty anxious over Shabbat, partly because of this, but also because I know E is struggling with anxiety too and it’s really hard not being able to be present physically for her. Over Shabbat I can’t even text or Skype. I just want to give her a hug! I decided that I want to go to the US as soon as possible in the new year. I was planning on going in January or February, but now I want to do it as early as possible (or safe). Unfortunately, the COVID news is not good. Today the Mayor of London declared COVID in London to be a “major incident,” (a term usually reserved for terrorist attacks) and the Netherlands went back into lockdown. A post-Christmas lockdown in the UK and/or US looks pretty likely, sadly, so I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to go to the States.

(As an aside, I feel like we’re only going to get out of this COVID situation with mandatory vaccinations to ensure herd immunity. I’m triple vaxxed, but I’m wary of giving any government that much control over people’s bodies. But the alternative seems to be endless lockdowns. COVID feels more and more like one of those horror film franchises that goes on until everyone’s sick of it (literally)).

Going back to Friday, I dozed after dinner, which was probably a mistake, as I had insomnia when I went to bed later. I had finished reading Gaudy Night and started People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn. It’s a well-written, but depressing book about Jews and non-Jews. It’s about antisemitism, but also other ways people look at Jews. For example, the first chapter sees Anne Frank as being presented by the world as an innocent uniquely empowered to grant absolution to the non-Jewish world (Horn explicitly draws the parallel with Jesus) rather than engaging with her story and the complexities of her life and what she would have experienced in the death camps (the diary stops before then). She compares Anne Frank’s diary with diaries and memoirs written inside the death camps or afterwards by survivors which are more brutal in their lack of redemption, but which are not as well-known.

This essay reminded me of something I’ve thought of myself. As Horn says, most people have never met a Jew. This is pretty much inevitable given the small Jewish global population and the fact that it’s concentrated in just a few places. People think about Jews using the images in the wider culture, and with Jews I feel the religious imagery of Jesus and Judas as the most prominent Jews in the Christian story is very powerful, even in post-Christian Europe. The expectation is that Jews should be morally perfect and all-forgiving (again, see Anne Frank). If not, we must be the worst of all possible people. It’s very black and white. This turns up in the media a lot, news media and fiction (it appears several times in the works of John le Carre, for example).

I did feel some envy for Dara Horn, who seems to have the life as an academic and writer that I would have liked. It’s a futile thing to think about, but it’s there. I wonder what I would want more, the kudos of being an acclaimed writer, or simply the financial security it would bring E and me? Anyway, I try not to think like this, but it’s hard not to sometimes.

When Dara Horn got too depressing, I switched to Batman (Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 5). I go in and out of Batman phases. I think relatively few Batman stories conform to what I want from a Batman story, which is primarily deduction, rather than endless fight scenes. These stories were woke, or the nineties equivalent thereof. I don’t really see a problem with being anti-pollution or in favour of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren, but a Batman story is a pretty blunt instrument to use to get that moral across, particularly when you only have twenty-two pages to do that and tell a story.

I did eventually fall asleep last night. Today I was drained. I skipped shul (synagogue) and shiur (religious class). I just didn’t feel up to it. I dozed in the afternoon, which was probably a bad move. Since then I’ve been doing the usual post-Shabbat tidying chores and other chores, as well as some Torah study. I Skyped E briefly, to check in with her and just to connect, really.

***

I still feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on in my life. I feel like I’ve been falling between two stools, sometimes trying to do too much and staying up late to do it, other times trying to get up early and get an earlier start on my days, but not really managing either of these consistently, and being burnt out too much of the time. I want to set myself a challenge of getting to bed earlier and getting up earlier, or at least trying to do so, but it’s hard to go to bed with so many things to do. I feel desperate to start work on my novel in earnest, and my Torah study seems to have dropped from about an hour a day to half an hour. Not for the first time, I feel like my religious life is bedieved, Hebrew for ‘after the event’ meaning, you shouldn’t do this in the first instance, but if you did it accidentally, it’s OK after the event. I would like to be living a more ideal religious life, but it doesn’t seem to be possible.

***

My therapist suggested trying some affirmations to stay focused on the here and now and avoid drifting into anxiety. I have had mixed results with these in the past. Years ago I had an occupational therapist (through a Jewish mental health charity) who printed and laminated some cards with affirmations for me. I tried to find them, but the only ones I found were “People have learnt from me” and “I am a well-respected person.” I’m not sure whether the second one is even true, and the first seems oddly specific, but maybe I need to have something specific rather than a general “I am worth it” statement that feels empty and meaningless.

The Three Jewish Stories

I overslept again. I made a bit of an effort to get up when my alarm went off at 9.30am, but I failed and fell asleep for another three hours. I don’t like sleeping so much, and being so exhausted so much of the time when awake, but my sleep pattern is really resistant to change, after twenty years of this, and the winter is worse than the summer, because I just go into hibernate mode. I feel like I’m already trying to do a lot (relationship; paid work, albeit part-time; trying to build a career writing articles and novels; exercise; Torah study; chores) even without factoring in planning a wedding. It’s a real balancing act and I feel like I’m wobbling a lot.

The difficult thing is that I’ve finally got some kind of self-esteem about who I am and what I should be doing — and now I feel like I can’t keep all the balls in the air. I feel I should be doing paid work, but also working on articles and novels that, realistically, no one else is going to be writing (I mean, not from the same perspective and sometimes not at all). This means I need to read (other novels, non-fiction for research and Jewish texts if I’m writing about Judaism) and think about things. And I feel more than anything that I should be with E, that we are soulmates. We will need money! Which means working at least part-time. And everyone needs to exercise and do housework. It’s hard to balance everything. I feel like, if I’m fulfilling my mission on earth, shouldn’t it be a bit easier? I mean, it should at least seem feasible. I can’t streamline my life down to just E and writing, because those things are interleaved with so many other things.

I looked at some old divrei Torah to see if any could be turned into website articles that I might sell, but most were not usable. I went for a walk and tried to think up some article ideas, but still struggled. My divrei Torah are mostly based on reading the weekly Torah portion and looking at traditional commentaries on it, whereas Jewish website articles tend to take ideas in the news or popular culture and find some inspirational Jewish connection. I feel like I need the security or framework of a text, whereas they seem to prefer articles only tangentially related to a text, presumably to avoid being off-putting to less religious people.

The only idea I had on the walk was about why I don’t like inspirational stories about supposed miracles. I had a friend who wrote a lot about the miracles in his life that made him frum (religious), but he currently no longer identifies as Orthodox or observant. That struck me as salient initially, but on reflection, I think it’s mean of me to draw too close a connection between the two as I don’t really know his story any more and I suspect there were a lot of other factors. I do think religious observance needs to based on more than miracles if it’s to last long-term, but I probably shouldn’t hang that idea on his story. So now I’ve talked myself out of the one idea I had in half an hour of thinking.

I had another idea from a day or two ago that I went off too. I’m trying to read the Jewish websites I’d like to pitch too, at least some of their articles, and hoping that will generate some thoughts, but so far I haven’t had much. I don’t know how so many of their writers can see events in the news or in their lives and expand them into a 700 word article with a neat moral point. I find it hard, and not just because my brain tends to be suspicious of neat moral points.

***

It’s probably too early to tell, after sending to just six agents, but I wonder if I used too much Hebrew in my novel. I wrote it, particularly the first-person bits, the way frum Jews speak, English peppered with bits of Hebrew and Yiddish (sometimes referred to as Yinglish or Yeshivish). I think I’ve said here that it would seem wrong to write about a character from broadly my religious background saying “On the Sabbath, I prayed at the synagogue” when he or she would clearly say “On Shabbat [or Shabbos], I davened at shul.” But maybe this is too off-putting for non-Jewish readers. I did get a non-Jewish editor friend to look at the first chapter, and she said it was fine from that point of view, but I think she thought that chapter introduced all the words I would be using, whereas there are a lot of new ones throughout the book. I think I’ve got eighty or a hundred words and phrases in the glossary, so it probably is a lot. I do feel daunted by the thought of a total rewrite, but maybe I need to grasp the nettle. But I’ll try it with some more agents first before taking drastic action.

I do need to find a way of submitting to more agents, though, as so far I’ve only managed six. E thinks I’m perfectionist about meeting the requirements regarding layout of submissions and even the text of my enquiry email and that is probably true.

***

I feel like there are only three types of story the mainstream world wants to tell about frum Jews:

  1. The Leaving Story: how the main character leaves traditional Judaism (e.g. Unorthodox);
  2. The Marriage Story: how the main character avoids an arranged marriage to someone s/he doesn’t like and/or gets married to someone his/her parents disapprove of, often not Jewish (e.g. Fiddler on the Roof) — this can be neatly combined with The Leaving Story so that the hero leaves traditional Judaism in order to marry someone deemed inappropriate;
  3. The Holocaust Story: any story set in the Holocaust (see this article by Amy Newman Smith on the banality of much Holocaust fiction and especially Holocaust romances, which apparently are really a thing).

A while back I saw a YouTube video by a frum artist studying book writing and illustration. Her coursework was an illustrated novel about an ‘older single’ in the frum community. She depicted the problems he has finding his soulmate. When she showed her professors, they all wanted to know when the hero would leave Orthodoxy. They assumed if he couldn’t get married and was increasingly uncomfortable in the frum world, he would leave. It was with difficulty that she persuaded them that it wasn’t that type of story. It is possible that any story about frum Jews for a wider audience would have to drift into apologetics just to get the audience to accept the premise of being frum in contemporary society. This depresses me.

I feel there is definitely an opening for more books with frum characters, although I have no idea who will read them, outside of the Modern Orthodox and moderate Haredi communities (the very Haredi communities won’t read anything from outside the community). I don’t know if non-frum Jews or non-Jews will read them. Still, I think they would be a good idea, and I would like to write them, if I can find the time. Today I got stuck on working on articles and going to therapy and doing the ironing; I started to do some novel research, but ran out of time and energy on a work night, which kind of proves my point.

The Road Goes Ever On

Perhaps inevitably after such a busy day yesterday, I crashed last night/this morning. I slept until after noon and woke up feeling very anxious, partly because of weird dreams about family bereavement and also about James Bond/explosions (I don’t like long build ups to explosions in action films). I spent most of last night and a chunk of today feeling like I’d been run over by a steamroller. Eleven hours sleep clearly didn’t help, or did too much.

I feel like I’ve been relying for the last couple of days a lot on the idea I posted the other week, about, “I’m not responsible for the first thought; I am responsible for the second” to deal with anxiety. Actually, it would probably also be good to think that, “My thoughts are not always my friends.”

On the plus side, I think E and I are both very aware that, given our mental health histories, having some difficult thoughts and feelings at the moment is inevitable, and we can accept and support each other in that (even if we are not always so good at accepting ourselves!). That makes me feel safer. It is hard to do this long-distance, when half the time we both know that we really just need a hug! No one has ever invented a good long-distance hug alternative, although Mark Zuckerberg is probably trying (anything to remove the humanity of humans).

My parents have now told all their (many) friends about E and me. A lot of people seem happy for us. My parents were excited today at the responses they got and couldn’t work out why I was so withdrawn this evening — a mixture of autistic fatigue (even autistic regression, horrible phrase), autistic difficulty processing and responding to other people’s emotions, and social anxiety, the feeling that my parents’ friends now expect things of me, even if only that I will have an exemplary happy marriage. I hope I do have an exemplary happy marriage, but it’s hard to be happy when it feels like dozens of people are staring at you, expecting you to be happy. Or it is for me, anyway.

Still, I am glad they are happy for us, and I am happy at getting engaged. I just feel this would be easier if people had more acceptance of atypical emotional responses. At least E understands it, which is the main thing.

***

E and I had a serious conversation about jobs and finances as we’re both worried about that aspect of our lives together. It’s hard to know what to do. It’s hard knowing that I’m not able to work full-time and might never be able to do so. Only 20% of autistic people are in work and while some of the 80% unemployed are probably much more severely autistic than me, not all are. It’s just very, very hard to find the right workplace with the right desired skillset. The National Autistic Society work with some employees to promote jobs for people on the spectrum, but they seem pretty “typically autistic” jobs with numbers or computing. I’m not sure how I could find writing work or the like. It’s also hard to tell if I really have blown my chances at librarianship or if I should keep applying for jobs in the sector. Some jobs I’ve been interviewed for have told me, “You weren’t right for this job, but if we advertise again, we’d like to see you,” while others have responded as if I’m a total idiot and probably lied about my qualifications. It’s scary to think that it might just be environment or mood that produced one outcome rather than the other.

***

I terms of actual achievements today, I cooked dinner (lentil dal — I forgot how easy the recipe is), emailed my shul (synagogue) to inform them of E and my engagement and revised my OCD article with a view to publication on the Jewish website (I’m still waiting for copyright clearance). I wrote a devar Torah that I’m not at all happy with, about a biblical mixed metaphor that has long interested me. I’m not sure I really got to grips with it. I found one interesting perspective, but didn’t develop it as I would have liked (I had an idea for development that didn’t go anywhere) and had to pad it out with a idea taking largely at random from Chabad.org. I spent forty minutes doing research for my second novel, which I want to spend more time focusing on (but I also want to focus on practising my cataloguing skills for work, sending my first novel to agents and exercising, so something’s going to get neglected).

Doing things did perhaps help me shake myself out of my drained state, although I tend to be at my best in the afternoon generally. It’s now after midnight and I finally feel alert, in a good mood, and ready to do things, posing the classic question of staying up late Doing Things or going to bed hoping tomorrow will be a better day. I stayed up a bit late and did a few things, which is probably falling between two stools.

***

This Unherd article predicts some kind of lockdown soon. It also says the omicron variant will be “on the level of a very bad flu season”, which I guess begs the question of whether we would/could/should lockdown for bad flu. The Evening Standard is claiming that “Omicron takes over in London” which annoys me because (a) I hate articles that anthropomorphise COVID, (b) it’s stupidly melodramatic and extreme and (c) it sounds like a plot synopsis of a Doctor Who episode (“While the Doctor and Romana are on Skaro, Omicron takes over in London”). Meanwhile, in Parliament, nearly one hundred backbench Conservative MPs rebelled against Government plans to move back towards lockdown yet again while still insisting there will be no Christmas lockdown.

I honestly don’t know what to think any more. As Andrea Leadsom said in Parliament earlier today, we don’t lockdown every year for flu. Flu lockdowns sound ridiculous to us. But I don’t want 50,000 people to die this winter (although I’m not sure how many excess deaths we’re talking about i.e. people who wouldn’t have died of something else). But I don’t want to ruin a generation of children’s chance of education or to self-destruct the economy either. I also don’t want to wear a mask all the time or to be stopped from visiting my fiancée in the new year, but I think those are basically foregone conclusions at the moment. I very much want COVID to end, but I’m still quite nervous of being indoors with unmasked people. I don’t trust people who think a “Zero COVID” policy is viable, but I trust the horse de-wormer quaffing antivaxxers even less. It is hard to know what to think. A predicted six week lockdown has gone on for nearly one year and nine months. I just want it to be over.

Life is With People

I had another draining day at work. Not a huge amount to do, but draining, especially as I had to make some phone calls for the Very Scary Task. I was able to do some of the Task by text, which made it a bit easier. J doesn’t seem to have much of a preference for one medium unless there’s an urgent need to contact someone. I’m torn between makeshift exposure therapy from phoning versus not being in a state from texting. By the end of the day I was feeling exhausted and hungry, which fuelled anxiety. It wasn’t until after dinner that I felt completely recovered. I guess it’s a reminder that mental health ‘wobbliness’ persists even at the happiest of times, or, if we’re being honest, especially at the happiest of times. I say wobbliness because I’m not sure whether I’d technically meet the criteria for mental illness at the moment, but there are definitely a lot of overwhelming feelings around sometimes.

I told J about E too. He was pleased and asked me some questions about us. E and I are a bit wary about who we feel comfortable telling our whole story to: the on/off bit and the fact that we haven’t actually spent all that long together in person. You, dear reader, know that there has been a lot of skyping and deep conversations, that we have thought a long time about this and know what we want; the rest of the world has no idea. Only a couple of my friends are sufficiently frum (religious Jewish) to see getting engaged after a dozen dates as ‘normal.’ I would rather not spend a lot of time telling our story to the others.

I came home and sent some more emails to friends to tell them about E and me. I’ve now told all my friends, which didn’t take long. I thought I had more friends, but some of the names in my address book I haven’t communicated with for years and I didn’t feel comfortable suddenly getting back in touch for this.

When I got home, my parents were in the middle of telling all their friends, by email and by phone. They have a lot more friends than I do and they prefer to phone where possible, so this was more of an undertaking. Even so, some people got emailed. Everyone is happy for us, which is good, but it feels overwhelming. If the engagement feels this overwhelming, how will I cope with the wedding?! Somehow everyone wishing me mazal tov makes me feel that I’ve done something terribly wrong and everyone will be upset with me soon. Is that a weird type of Imposter Syndrome? That I don’t believe I deserve people’s good wishes and will end up showing them how useless I am?

My parents want to host an engagement party for their friends. I guess in Hebrew we would say a lechaim i.e. people drink a toast to us. They say I wouldn’t have to attend, although I would feel obliged to make some kind of nerve-wracking appearance, however brief. They’re planning on inviting quite a lot of people. I don’t think E thinks that this is normal. It seems somewhat normal to me, but possibly only because my parents went to a similar engagement party last night for the engagement of the daughter of two of their friends (I’m not sure if the engaged couple were there either or if it was just their parents’ friends). I think E is surprised that my parents have often met their friends’ children’s spouses at shul (synagogue) or family celebrations long before the wedding. I think some of my parents’ friends were surprised that I got engaged because no one had told them I was even dating. I’d say that the frum world can be incestuous, but not all these friends are even that frum, it’s just the North-West London Jewish bubble. As the title of an anthropology book on the shtetl (Jewish towns in Easter Europe pre-Holocaust) proclaimed, “Life is with People“.

***

I went to a Zoom class at the LSJS. It was on three recent English Bible translations: that by Robert Alter, the Steinsaltz Tanakh (Bible), which isn’t actually by Rabbi Steinsaltz, although it is based on his modern Hebrew commentary, and the Koren Tanakh, which is being promoted as being translated by Rabbi Sacks, but he died after only completing the Torah (in the narrow sense of the Five Books of Moses) and Tehillim (Psalms).

To be honest, I didn’t get a lot from the class. Having spent about twenty years reading the sedra (weekly Torah portion) every week in Hebrew, trying to translate it myself and comparing with an English translation, I have a good sense of the pitfalls of translation and the difficulties a translator must face.

Of the translations, the Alter one sounded the most interesting to me, now that my Biblical Hebrew is reasonable, because he has a detailed commentary on problems of translation and alternative word choices and sometimes suggested amendments. Nevertheless (and this may sound crazy fundamentalist), I heard Alter speak when the translation came out and he said translating Tanakh only moved him in a literary/aesthetic way, not a spiritual way. That upset me in ways that I did not expect and can not really describe. I knew he wasn’t Orthodox, but somehow only getting aesthetic pleasure from Tanakh troubles me. It reminds me of what T. S. Eliot said when people speak about “The Bible as literature,” that the influence of the Bible for English literature was that it was seen, not as literature, but as the word of God, and now it is seen as literature, it is unlikely to have much literary influence in the future. Strangely, Alter’s use of Higher Criticism (the type of Bible criticism that tries to break the Five Books of Moses into putative ‘sources,’ an activity that has never been accepted in Orthodox Judaism and which I do not believe in) does not bother me as much and I’m not sure why.

***

I have more things to say, but I’m too tired and ready to crash. I’m not sure what I’ll crash in front of, though. I have half of a so-so episode of The Twilight Zone that I started watching over dinner, before I had to stop for the class. I’m still reading Gaudy Night, but my inability to distinguish half the characters from each other and the falling off of the escalating tension in the second half of the book has left me longing for the end with another seventy pages to go. I’m invested enough to want to finish it, but not tonight. I think I’m too tired to read anyway.

I am tempted to break my diet to reward myself for a stressful day, but I should try to be strong. I am definitely hungry enough to want to eat cereal before bed, though, a bad habit I should try to break. It would probably save me more calories than skipping my one biscuit a day.

Kafkaesque

I woke up again at 7am after only having had about six hours of sleep. I thought about getting up, but six hours sleep didn’t seem enough, so I went back to sleep and, inevitably, slept through most of the morning. I think it’s weird that this keeps happening. Maybe my body is trying to tell me I really don’t need so much sleep, but I do find it hard to get by on six hours, so I wonder why I keep waking up after that amount, and why I sleep for so long afterwards if I don’t need it. I think I need to bite the bullet and get up at 7am or whenever I wake up and see what happens, but it’s hard to think like that when I’ve only just woken up and I only get a few seconds to decide what to do before I fall asleep again.

After I fell asleep again, I was having some weird bad dream when my Dad knocked on the door. I think I gasped audibly or even screamed, but I’m not sure.

***

When I filled in the job agency registration form yesterday, they asked for references. I gave two, but I thought I ticked (or tried to tick — it’s hard on a Word document) the box for not asking them for references yet. However, J texted me today to say he’s been asked for a reference. There isn’t much I can do about it now, and it’s probably not a bad thing that J knows that I’m looking for supplementary work especially as I’m still hoping he’ll make my current role permanent (technically I’m a freelance contractor even though I’ve been there for a year now). Still, it was a conversation I was hoping to push off for a bit.

***

More fun with bureaucracy: the autism hospital phoned me back, which surprised me a bit. The person I spoke to said that they need a referral form from the GP rather than a letter, which may be what the problem was. She said that she doesn’t deal with the autism-adapted CBT any more, but that she thought the people who do would have sent the form to the GP. I’m not sure that this has been done, although it’s hard to tell, because there is apparently a huge backlog of referrals that they are working through (I assume because of COVID). I didn’t think to ask for contact details for those people when I was on the phone (because I’m autistic and have issues with dealing with conversations, especially on the phone!). I phoned back afterwards to do so, but it went straight to voicemail. So I may be on the waiting list already, or I may not be, but I’m not sure how I find out for sure. Honestly, it’s like something out of Kafka.

***

I emailed my oldest friend. We haven’t Skyped for a while and I wondered how he was getting on. More selfishly (not exactly selfish, but focused on the self), as my relationship with E gets more serious, I feel I need to mention her to my friends, so it won’t be a shock (or too much of a shock) when we get engaged.

***

I had a positive therapy session, but in many ways my biggest breakthrough was outside therapy. It was in realising that, while I do not have good Talmud studying skills, I do have some good Midrash study skills. The Midrash is the rabbinic expansion of the biblical narrative, like fan fiction that explores the characters and themes of the original text. Midrash can be hard to understand, as it can be intensely symbolic, even surreal, but the meaning of the symbolism may be unique to the individual passage, so there isn’t a set of universally-applicable ‘keys’ to learn. There is a tendency in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world to take Midrash very literally and to see the text as revealed by God in a straightforward way (similar to the Haredi understanding of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)), but in the Modern Orthodox world, it is seen as more literary and authored by individual rabbis rather than an objective description of factual events.

I find this a lot easier to understand that legal arguments. Yesterday I went from being curious about a passage in the Torah to looking up some Midrashim (in translation), finding a relevant Midrash, being baffled about the meaning, figuring out what seemed a likely symbolic reading and linking that symbolic reading to an understanding of the wider narrative in the Torah that it related to and writing a devar Torah about this with a homiletic conclusion all in the space of an hour or so. I think not many people would have been able to do that, even if they could understand halakhic (legal) passages of Talmud easily. It’s really a creative process not a rational/logical one. You stare at it for a bit and either the meaning of the passage suddenly hits you or it doesn’t and you go to the next one. Certainly having experience in reading serious literature helps here. (In fairness, there were other Midrashim I looked at that I couldn’t understand.)

I would like to build wider Midrash study skills further, but that would require investing time on improving my rabbinic Hebrew and also investing money on buying some volumes of Midrash rather than relying on Sefaria.org (there isn’t much Midrash easily available in parallel Hebrew-English translation). It is something to keep in mind for the future.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner. I had warned my parents that I would probably be drained after therapy (I feel like I’m just expected to fall in with everyone else’s plans). I definitely got ‘peopled out’ partway through the evening, around the time I had to listen to the story of my parents’ recent holiday for the second time (the first was the Shabbat after they got home, but sister and BIL weren’t here then). Perhaps because I was drained, my inner filter switched off and I was — not rude exactly, but cheeky. I have to admit they are still here, and I just slipped away from the meal because I needed a break. Even though my sister, BIL and I have early starts tomorrow, the meal is still ongoing. It is getting rather late and I really want it to be over, not because it’s bad, but because I just need some downtime before bed. I should probably go back downstairs and rejoin everyone as I’ve been up here for quarter of an hour…

First World Problems

(If I had a band, First World Problems could be my first album.)

My parents have gone for a few days in sunny (probably not that sunny) Bournemouth, so I’m home alone. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Aside from when they went to Ipswich for a few days earlier in the year, I haven’t been home alone since before COVID, so it still feels strange.

I wanted to go for a run today, but because I got up late, and because I prefer to do various tasks before I go for a run, knowing that I have a strong likelihood of getting an exercise headache afterwards, it was dark before I was able to go. I had a weird intuition that I shouldn’t run in the dark today. My parents never like me running in the dark, and, while I’ve done it before, running in the dark while the streets are full of piles of potentially slippery fallen leaves didn’t seem a good idea, especially when there was no one around to come looking for me. I do wonder how much I’ll be able to run in the winter if I stick to this plan. As it happens, I went for a walk instead, and it was drier and better-lit than I thought/expected (why did I think it had rained over the weekend when it hadn’t?), but I think I probably made the right decision regardless.

I didn’t do much else today aside from that walk. I cooked dinner (macaroni cheese, with enough pasta to go with a bought sauce tomorrow) and did some Torah study. I have no real ideas for my devar Torah at this stage; the story of Yaakov (Jacob), his wives and children in the household of Lavan is always one that seems bizarre and hard to understand, even understanding some of the history behind it (using maidservants to bear children for their barren mistresses who would then adopt the children by having them born while the maidservant sat on the mistress’ lap was a real practice in the ancient Middle East, strange though it seems to us now).

I’m thinking of stopping volunteering for a while. I feel very overwhelmed with my life at the moment. I’m not sure how much time it would free up, as I’m unlikely to get up that early without a reason, but it does leave me drained all day, from physical exertion and probably also from ‘peopling,’ so it might leave me with more of an afternoon, particularly on weeks where I don’t have therapy.

I feel that lately I’ve disagreed with people here and in real life about what my next move should be in life. Not big arguments, but I always doubt myself when people see things differently to me. Part of me says, “I’m the subject matter expert on my life, and I’ve researched what I want to do more than they have,” but part of me says, “I catastrophise from anxiety and I get stuck on particular ideas from autistic rigidity, so I should listen to other people.” Probably there is a medium to be struck somewhere.

***

Doctor Who was better than last week. Still a lot that didn’t seem to make much sense, and a lot I would have done differently, but it was broadly entertaining, although it was too long and I got fidgety.

I finished reading People of the Book:A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy too. It was pretty good overall, but the author biographies at the back are basically just lists of all the awards the writers have won, which I found intimidating when thinking of my own writing.

Opportunities, Missed and Otherwise

I am OK today. I am quite a bit down, but I’ve been used to that over the years. It’s a rush today because Shabbat starts at 4.10pm, but I wanted to note a few things briefly.

I’m hoping for a restful Shabbat (the Sabbath). My parents are out for dinner tonight, so I should have some time for recreational reading. E says I should read more for fun on Shabbat even if that means doing less Torah study and she may be right. Tomorrow Talmud shiur (religious class) at shul (synagogue) returns and I’d like to go, even though that means staying on for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and then staying afterwards to help, where I feel I usually just get in the way, however hard I try to be helpful. But I’ll see how I feel tomorrow afternoon. It’s eighteen months since we’ve had this format for the shiur, because of COVID and because the timetable is different in the summer when Shabbat afternoons are very long compared with the winter when they’re very short.

There is an oneg being hosted by someone from my shul tonight. An oneg is a kind of Shabbat party where you sit around a table and there are snacks and soft drinks and alcohol, and people talk and sing religious songs and share divrei Torah. I used to try to force myself to these things to make friends. Usually I just sat there terrified, not speaking. Sometimes I stood outside crying at my social anxiety and social impairments and my inability to face my fears. I can’t really be bothered with that now, but I do wonder how else to make friends.

***

I found, lurking in my email inbox, an email from over a year ago from a job agency that helps people on the autism spectrum into work. I think I didn’t go down that path a year ago because I wasn’t diagnosed then, and because my current job appeared soon afterward. I might contact them again soon.

***

There’s a woman who keeps writing for Chabad.org about her fertility issues and the fact that she might never have children, and I want to read her articles, but I can’t, perhaps because they’re too close to home. Not that I have fertility issues per se, but that E and I worry that with all the mental health, neurological and financial issues that we have between us that we’ll never be able to support children, practically and financially. I guess that’s my main worry at the moment. I think E and I will be together, but I worry how we’ll cope, even without children.

***

I keep being drawn back to this interview with the late Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl where the interviewer lists Rabbi Sacks’ achievements and asks if he ever failed anything and Rabbi Sacks bursts into laughter and says, “I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.” I heard another interview where he said that being a rabbi was his fourth career choice, after he failed at becoming an economist, an academic philosopher and a barrister (lawyer). So that gives me a little hope, because I’m nearly forty and I haven’t done anything with my life.

He also says, “I think all that goes with the affective dimension of Judaism, the emotional life, is being neglected…  I think we haven’t done enough with the affective dimension, and music is probably the most important… Cinema, too, isn’t used enough in this regard. I think we haven’t done enough with that to tell people what the life of faith does for you. I have so many stories that I think ought to be made into film. Stories of ordinary people I know who have done extraordinary things.”

He doesn’t talk about prose fiction, but I think it applies there too, particularly in terms of telling stories. Although the stories I want to tell are not necessarily ones he would want to tell. But I think/hope there is an audience out there, although not necessarily or purely a frum one or even Jewish one. I just hope I can convince the gatekeepers (agents, publishers, reviewers) of that.

I know I say things like this a lot, but, honestly, I have to keep saying it or otherwise I stop believing in it myself.

***

The reason the interview was posted is that it’s just over a year since Rabbi Sacks died. I still feel his loss acutely, even though I never really met him (although I was in the same room as him a few times). I wish I had had the opportunity, or made the opportunity, to speak to him — really to speak to him about my Jewish life, my creative life and my aspirations to unite them both. I struggle to understand my place in the world in general and Jewish world in particular. I don’t understand why God made me autistic, or what He wants from me. I feel he would have understood, and would have had good advice. It’s too late now.

The Hive Switch

I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.

Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders[1], improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades [2]. They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.

(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)

Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.

Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.

So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.

The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)[3]

I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.

Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.

[1] I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.

[2] Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.

[3] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.

***

Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.

I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.

Overwhelmed, and Overwhelmed Friend

I woke up drained again today. I had gone to bed early (for me) last night, but I’d done a lot during the day and I overslept and woke up late. I felt overwhelmed for much of day. I feel bad about this, even though I know I wouldn’t if I had a physical illness (actually, given how I behave when I have a migraine, I possibly would feel bad about the effects of physical illness). I just feel I could/should do more despite autistic fatigue or the remnants of depressive fatigue or whatever it is.

I had my flu jab today. I don’t usually get one, but the NHS still seems to consider my Mum as vulnerable and I was offered one as I live with her. It seemed sensible to take it. I shook a bit when I was injected. That happens a lot when I am injected or have a blood test. It’s anxiety, not about needles, but about shaking; fear of shaking ironically triggers shaking. In the past I would breathe deeply to calm myself, but with a mask on that makes things worse if anything. The nurse got a bit worried about me and insisted that I sit in the waiting room for a few minutes. I think she was worried I would faint.

I cooked dinner while trying to listen to a podcast E had been on for her job, but I struggled to multitask and abandoned the podcast after twenty minutes. I struggled during the afternoon and evening with intrusive thoughts about antisemitism (not helped by watching an episode of The Twilight Zone about a former SS officer being put on trial by the ghosts of the people he killed). I don’t know why I sometimes get focused on this and can’t stop thinking about it.

My other main achievement, aside from planning E’s trip here with her over Skype, was writing my devar Torah (Torah thought). I wanted to write something about the balance of universalism and particularism in Judaism, but I couldn’t work out what to say, so I wrote about Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, mostly taken from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. It was one of those divrei Torah that I’m less proud of, where I’m taking my ideas from one (credited) source, rather than mixing sources or adding my own ideas.

I decided not to go to volunteering tomorrow, as I feel like I’m still recovering from the Yom Tovim (festivals) and have not made any progress on finding an agent for my novel, which is my main task for tomorrow. I did spend a bit of time planning the second novel, so I guess that’s another achievement. I do still feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m trying to focus on the positives, namely that E will be here next week (God-willing, COVID-permitting) and also on my excitement at writing my second novel, although with all the planning and research I want to do, it will probably be a long time before I sit down to write it.

***

I’ve been emailing a friend who is also on the spectrum who I hadn’t communicated with for a while. She is struggling with her job. She has been working at home because of COVID, but her employers want her to return to the office. She feels that public transport during rush hour is more than she can bear and would have left the job earlier if COVID had not allowed her to work from home. She sounds very overwhelmed in many aspects of her life.

I don’t know what to do about this. I feel I should do something to help, but I don’t know what. Although she is working full-time and I am not, her autism is worse than mine in many ways. She is much more sensitive to noise and crowding and perhaps more rigid in her needs and her ability to find solutions. Also, English is not her first language and I struggle to understand her sometimes. She has already contacted AS Mentoring. I don’t know how I could help her and I’m wary of taking on her troubles and overwhelmed feelings in addition to my own, especially as she is not a close friend. I suppose if I had some idea of what might help her I could see if I could take on some of it, but I’m wary of giving her a blank cheque. But I feel really bad at not helping someone else on the spectrum.

***

If I go into the artists section of iTunes and click on the label for George Harrison, iTunes shows me a photo of John Lennon. I guess, it’s understandable that in 2021 someone working for a massive music related company can’t tell the difference between Harrison and Lennon; it’s not the like The Beatles are the most successful band in history or anything. I like to think it’s the ghost of Lennon trolling from beyond the grave.

Ego Depletion

I woke up about 8.40am today, got up to go to the toilet and then tried to stay up, but gave in too easily to tiredness and went back to bed. I finally got up around 12.00pm. I could have done with using an extra two or three hours time today, so I really regretted going back to bed. The problem is that my will power when tired first thing in the morning makes me behave uncharacteristically. Normally I am the type of person who will defer pleasure to focus on necessary, unpleasant tasks, sometimes to the point of discomfort or worse, but when I wake up, I mostly just want to sleep until the last possible moment. If I could work out how to make my sleep more refreshing, maybe this would change, but I am not sure how to do that.

I would have liked to have had more time to write a query letter to an agent, for example. However, the one I found on Friday, who dealt with Jewish-themed fiction, turned out to have retired from agenting to become a school teacher. I’m going to look for agents who deal with general literature, but if I can find one who deals with minority characters or settings, that might be helpful. Although diversity-orientated people tend to see Jews as “white” and not in anyway different to white Christian/atheist people, which is not helpful or realistic (just read my blog), but there you go.

As it is, I did a few chores today, including writing to my GP about my autism-adapted CBT referral. The surgery seems to have no email address, or not one they publicise, so I will have to physically post it through the door. I went for a run and came back with a headache, which further limited what I was able to do. I did about an hour of Torah study, with head aching too much to find much of interest for my devar Torah, and that was about it.

***

My parents both have what we all hope are heavy colds, but they went for COVID tests all the same, just in case. Mum works with vulnerable people, so it’s a reasonable precaution. I couldn’t have a free test, as I don’t have any symptoms, but I’m worried that if my parents do have COVID, I will have to have a test and will test positive despite being asymptomatic, which will disrupt E and my plans for her trip here soon. I guess I should hope that my parents just have colds.

The Stories in my Head

I don’t have much to say about today. I only managed to sleep for a couple of hours last night. I felt overwhelmed on the way to work, thinking about the things to do in the coming days and weeks: read about how to get my novel published, send query letters to agents, plan my second novel, research it, maybe start writing (I have an intuition writing and researching will be in tandem, but I’m not sure what that would mean when I don’t have the whole story planned out and need to do research to get to that stage), spend time with E when she comes over, move our relationship on, all against a backdrop of work, chores and religious obligations. It all seems overwhelming. Good, but overwhelming. I need to plan and order things, even if only vaguely e.g. “I will spend six months researching my novel” or “I will send five query letters to agents a week”. I did actually find vague targets useful when writing the first novel.

However, I am too tired to do this today, as work was extremely draining. It was draining partly because it was my first day in the office for a couple of weeks and perhaps also partly because I went to the bank which entailed walking down busy London streets, which can be autistically draining. I read heavy non-fiction things on the way home too, which was probably a mistake. I was really too tired.

I spent much of the evening struggling with tiredness. I Skyped E, which was restorative, at least while we were talking. We are trying to do a weekly Torah study session together for the new Torah reading cycle that began today. It seemed to work pretty well today. E had a bunch of questions for me; I need to find more things to discuss next time.

***

Margaret commented yesterday about changing interests. This was in regard to my comments about Doctor Who fandom. I’ve always preferred the original run of Doctor Who (1963-1989) to the current version (2005-present)*; I suspect I may drift further from the new in coming years. Lately I find that I’m more interested in my own stories than those of other people, including Doctor Who. Fandom is very creative and I don’t want to imply it’s not, but I find I want to tell my own stories, from scratch, rather than play with someone else’s toys. My own stories have taken up residence in my head.

*The 1996 American co-production TV Movie is usually lumped in with the original series, but it shares a lot of traits with the new series and I see it as a transitional phase in the programme’s evolution.

“Well, I tell them there’s no problems/Only solutions”

I’m still haunted by the Very Scary Task. Although my work on it was already completed, the actual event I was organising happened today. My Dad woke me up early (not very early, but early for me), thinking I still had work to do on it. Then I got a call less than an hour before the VST was due to start which scared me into thinking something had gone wrong until I saw it was Mum. She couldn’t get to work because of traffic caused by people panic-buying petrol at all the petrol stations. (Panic-buying seems to be a persistent issue of recent years and I’m not sure how to stop it. Ministers going on TV saying, “Stop panic-buying” does very little and might even make it worse.) Anyway, that Very Scary Task must be over by now and no one phoned me up to complain, so hopefully it went OK.

***

The good Sukkot weather we’ve been having came to an end with heavy rain this morning, although the skies are clearer now. At least I got out there for lunch and dinner every day. Tomorrow we start praying for rain, which always feels like the ‘official’ start of autumn.

I think I’ve coped OK with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I coped with ‘peopling’ and general religious stress better than I expected, if anything, although I got to shul (synagogue) less than I would have liked. I plan to go to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) tonight and maybe for Minchah tomorrow, but not at all over Simchat Torah. I’ll just pray at home. It saddens me to have to just completely give up on a Jewish festival, but the alternative is to end up thoroughly overloaded and miserable.

Simchat Torah is just too stressful for me as someone with social anxiety and autism, with the raucous singing and dancing, not to mention the auctioning of honours in return for commitment to Talmud study, which just drives home to me how little Talmud study I do in comparison to some people, and my unwillingness to commit to much for fear that a mental health relapse will stop me meeting that commitment. The shul community tries to study the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest stratum of the Talmud, every year, with different people committing to study different chapters in return for different honours in the shul over Simchat Torah. The biggest honours are reserved for people who will study hundreds of pages of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemarah) over the coming year. While I prefer this system to those shuls that auction Simchat Torah honours in return for donations to the shul or to charity, it still makes me feel uncomfortable on multiple levels. It seems prideful and lacking in humility, as well as creating (or maintaining) a de facto hierarchy based on intelligence and study skills. Actually, the three very biggest honours are awarded to three people who have done things for the community, which I find preferable, although usually one of them is someone my age and I realise I will never get an honour like this, as I don’t have the ability or headspace to do community work. Although I think I would freak out if I was the centre of attention like that.

There was one year I did really get into Simchat Torah, and I’m not sure how I did it. I think my depression was in remission at the time and I was in a community where I felt more comfortable, the one I had grown up in, and there probably weren’t that many people there, as it was a declining community.

***

I finally got through to the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out where I am with autism-adjusted CBT. Apparently my GP should have referred me and applied for funding, instead of handing it back to the psychiatrist who assessed me, so I’ve just lost a couple of months and am still not on the waiting list. I don’t blame the GP, as NHS bureaucracy seems so convoluted that it doesn’t surprise me that even NHS doctors don’t know how to navigate it. I am so past surprised that this has happened. But now I have another reason to try to see my GP next week, if the NHS gatekeepers will deign to allow me an appointment (none were available online today).

***

I feel like I need a holiday. I’ve found the Yom Tovim draining and I didn’t get a real break over Chol HaMoed because of the VST. I haven’t had a proper holiday since the end of 2019, and, while I often find holidays stressful, at least on some level, COVID and a job that sometimes stresses me out more than I would like have left me longing for some kind of break, especially after such a disruptive month. I’ve got to get through the next month before E comes over. That’s probably the best kind of break for me, in that I don’t have to go anywhere, pack, travel, and do all the things that stress me as an autistic person going on holiday. Also the best kind of break in that it’s with E!