I’m Only Sleeping

I didn’t sleep well last night again. I thought/hoped I would sleep better now the interview is out of the way, but obviously not. First I couldn’t get to sleep, although I felt incredibly tired. I think I didn’t have enough “introvert alone time” after “peopling” for so long. Then I woke up about 5.30am feeling anxious. I can’t even remember what I was anxious about, although I know it was connected with the other job interview, the one I had last week and haven’t heard back from yet where I wanted the job more than the job interview I had yesterday. I think I was worried about being able to take off Jewish festivals and “early Fridays” in the winter when Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) starts early. I did eventually fall asleep again, and slept through until gone 10.30am and still woke up exhausted and burnt out. I don’t know if it’s depression, autistic burnout or medication side-effects (or a combination of the three) that makes me so tired in the mornings, but it’s hard to know what I can do about it. I know this increasingly feels like a sleep/burnout blog, which I guess is good, as it means the depression is less of an issue during the day and my other autism and social anxiety symptoms are under control (albeit probably because I’m not doing much that is social), but I’m not sure how interesting it is for anyone else.

***

I try not to use the word “triggering” regarding myself, as I feel that it trivialises the term for people who really have c-PTSD (just as I don’t like people saying they’re “depressed” when they mean vaguely down, or they’re “OCD” when they mean they’re neat and tidy). Still, some things are more likely to upset me and start negative thoughts than others. These upsetting thoughts can be vaguely obsessional, in the correct sense this time of being hard to get rid of, spiralling in on themselves and making me anxious and agitated. These kinds of thoughts tend to come from newspapers, news sites and the dreaded Twitter (Twitter is a bit like swimming in raw sewage that occasionally tells a good joke). I’m most vulnerable to these types of thoughts when feeling burnt out and mildly depressed… but I’m more likely to encounter these things when procrastinating (online or leafing through the hardcopy newspapers at home) because I’m feeling burnt out and mildly depressed, as happened today. I actually coped OK with coming across them today and dismissed said thoughts reasonably easily, but it can be difficult sometimes.

I probably should delete my Twitter account, just as I deleted my Facebook account seven years ago, but I think I would still be able to see other people’s Tweets, which is the dangerous bit and I have vague thoughts that I could use my Twitter account to job hunt or join in with Doctor Who fandom, although if I avoided doing either of those two things during lockdown, the likelihood of doing them afterwards seems very remote.

***

Achievements: after a lot of procrastinating (see above about the risks of this) I wrote a first draft of this week’s devar Torah (Torah thought). I managed to write a thought for every week this year, excluding a couple of weeks when Yom Tov (festivals) fell on Saturday and the regular Torah reading was postponed. The thoughts were about 600 to 1,000 words long, which is longer than it sounds (for comparison, I think most of my blog posts are around 1,000 words), and I do try to do some research for them rather than just rely on secondary sources; even if I find something in a secondary source, I like to trace the reference back to the original source in the Talmud or the Midrash or whatever, if I can find it and if my Hebrew/Aramaic is up to it (Sefaria.org is a blessing).

I didn’t manage a lot else. The main thing was a half-hour walk. I did some Torah study – as yesterday, listening to a shiur (religious class) for fifty minutes or so as I was too depressed to read much. Even so, I struggled to concentrate and drifted in and out of it. I think I should consider listening to shiurim more on days when I feel depressed and/or burnt out, although I need to work out how to get shiurim from YU Torah Online on my phone or ipod.

Otherwise, I watched TV: another episode of The Civil War (after talking of gore here the other day, there were some graphic photographs of wounded soldiers that I couldn’t look at) and I’m about to watch Star Trek Voyager.

EDIT: I forgot to say, I had dinner in the sukkah with my parents and two of their friends. I feel more comfortable with these friends than with some others, but I still was really only eating with them so I could eat in the sukkah. It started raining heavily after a while and we all went in; fortunately I had just about finished my pizza and went upstairs.

In Praise of Idleness

Today I felt tired with poor concentration. It is not surprising; I went to over six hours’ worth of shiurim (religious classes) on Zoom yesterday, so it’s only to be expected that I feel burnt out today. Still, I feel bad for struggling to do things. Beating myself up a bit, although trying not to. I really wanted to work on my novel, or at least read some more of the book I’m reading on characterisation, as well as do some Torah study, but I struggled to do anything. In the end I read a little of the characterisation book (it mostly made me feel like a bad writer), did about fifteen minutes of Torah study, quickly cooked some plain pasta for dinner and went for a walk. That was about all I could manage today. Mum and Dad spent the afternoon at the hospital, so I was lucky to have the house to myself. I felt too burnt out, and Zoomed out, to go to Zoom depression group this evening, so I plan to watch Star Trek Voyager until bedtime; I don’t really feel up to doing anything else.

I wish I could just do more with my life, that intermittent bouts of depression and autistic burnout didn’t regularly derail me, and impede my functioning even on better days. As Ashley said on her post today, “high functioning” is an unhelpful term, as functionality can vary over time or in different environments or with different tasks, not to mention the fact that “high functioning” is essentially an arbitrary term that means different things to different people. I certainly feel that my “high functioning” autism is not always very functional, and the same probably goes for when my depression was more severe, but I was still working. I was present at work, but my work was sub-par and getting through each day was an ordeal.

***

Perhaps because I feel burnt out, I’ve been thinking about idleness this afternoon. Orthodox Judaism is very intense and demanding, not just with work and family, but Torah study, mitzvot (commandments) and chessed (kindness, which covers a multitude of concepts: visiting the sick and cooking for them, visiting mourners and cooking for them; hospitality to guests, including strangers; giving to charity and volunteering; and more). Relaxation is allowed primarily as a way of recharging, or when it coincides with another religious activity (e.g. recharging by spending time with friends is praiseworthy if those friends are invited as guests for a Shabbat meal). It’s not just Jews who feel like this (I just went downstairs for something and an advert came on the TV saying, “Do you wish you felt less tired so that you could do more of the things you love?”) and one could talk about capitalism and the Protestant work ethic and so on, but I feel there are perhaps even more demands on our time in the frum (religious Jewish) community, combined with an ethic that stresses that we’re here on Earth to do things with our lives, to study Torah, help people and connect with God, not to relax.

Yet I feel much more comfortable just pottering. I don’t think I’m lazy, although I’ve called myself lazy often enough in the past. I think with autism and depression I just get overloaded really easily. It’s much more comfortable to do one thing at a time, slowly, with breaks than to try to fit everything in. Doing too much triggers burnout and, if it goes on too long, depression. I need lots of downtime to recuperate from things.

Part of it is being creative. I know I’ve noted here before that when I started writing my novel, I got frustrated by the amount of online procrastination I would do when trying to write; it took me a while to realise that my brain needs this. If I get stuck on something I’m writing, browsing aimlessly online lets my unconscious work on the problem. This is often better than trying to resolve it consciously. But I do genuinely feel I need to live my life at a much slower speed than most people, even though that makes me worry (a) how I will ever earn enough money to support myself and (b) how I will ever find anyone willing to be in a long-term relationship with me. Plus, I suppose, how to justify myself religiously, beyond saying that any other work-life balance seems simply impossible right now.

I drifted into mild depression in the early evening, perhaps because of the thoughts about earning a living and finding a partner. There were other anxieties or somewhat obsessive thoughts during the day which I’m too tired to write about now.

***

I said I would write some more about some of the shiurim I went to yesterday. Rabbi Rafi Zarum spoke about the idea that Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about judging how existence is going and about our own potential and whether we’ve fallen short of our potential. To be honest, that talk didn’t say so much that I didn’t already know, but Rabbi Zarum is a very engaging speaker and always good to listen to. I didn’t take any notes on Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ brief message; he was talking about the idea of God’s House being a portable tent that we can take to our homes in COVID times.

The final shiur I went to was Rabbi Alex Israel talking about the paradox of Rosh Hashanah, that we stress that God is the powerful King, but also that he will pardon us for our sins if we repent. He quoted a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) where Avraham (Abraham), defending the people of Sodom, tells God that if He wants pure justice, He will have to destroy the world (because people are inherently imperfect and sinful); if He wants a world, He will have to suspend justice; He can’t “take the rope by both ends” and have strict justice and a world. A similar Midrash said that God had to allow the creation of the wicked because otherwise it would be impossible to create the righteous too. I thought that was similar to what Gila Fine said in the morning, which I blogged about yesterday, about God wanting our love and suppressing His justice to get it (there was some overlap with Rabbi Zarum too). Rabbi Israel stressed the idea that Rosh Hashanah is a day of love and mercy as well as justice and that God knows we are flawed. I thought this was important for me to hear, given that I get fixated on my flaws, as shown by the “lazy” worries today.

Quiet Shabbat

Someone is playing loud music outside at 10.30pm…

Shabbat was pretty good. No insomnia this week. I woke up at 9ish and said the Shema (the most important morning prayer, which at the moment should be said by 9.30ish). I wanted to stay awake, but was tempted to wrap myself in my duvet to self-comfort and fell asleep BUT I woke up in time for the later deadline for saying the Shacharit Amidah (second most important morning prayer), so I’m counting this morning as a win as usually I don’t manage those at all. I didn’t doze this afternoon either (read, studied Torah and went for a walk), so I might go to sleep at a reasonable time tonight (if the music stops).

I mentioned to my parents my theory that my depression is now mostly autistic burnout after doing too much and they agreed. They said they’d thought that for a while, but hadn’t known how I would react if they said anything. I definitely still have odd days when I hit clinically depressed-type lows when burnt out, but I don’t think they stick around long enough to be classified as clinical depression (which should last two weeks). I look forward to hearing what my therapist says about this on Tuesday. (For what it’s worth, I think I still do have things to bring to therapy at the moment.) I do still struggle with mornings, although as my Dad said, none of us in the family are morning people (actually my sister is now, but only since she married a morning person).

That was it, really, aside from some dating anxiety. I seem to be able to keep a lid on it during the day, but it explodes in the evening for some reason. I’m excited to be messaging the person I’m messaging and so far things seem good, we seem to be connecting well, but I’m just terrified some unsolvable problem will open up somewhere down the line. I know, it’s been LESS THAN ONE WEEK that we’ve been messaging each other, I really shouldn’t be worrying that far ahead. But I do jump ahead when thinking about dating. I get so terrified of rejection, or of losing someone who I have come to care about, that I worry about it from the off, which is not good on multiple levels.

***

Speaking of JDate, I got an amusing message from someone who does not think we are a match but who recognised me from primary school! I have to say I don’t recognise her, but I suspect her hair in her profile picture is not her natural colour or style. In any case, I don’t really remember most of the girls from primary school, I didn’t really speak to them much at that age. I mean, I didn’t speak to most of the boys, let alone the girls.

***

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Mishlei (Proverbs in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and that I’ve struggled in the past with its rather rigid theology that good is always rewarded and evil punished in this world, which is not what I see. It’s fair to say that many of the proverbs do read like that, but some don’t. I found one I liked over Shabbat: “The way of a man may be torturous and strange/Though his actions are blameless and proper.” (21.8, The JPS Bible translation). I like that. I don’t know if my life is bad, but it does feel torturous and strange at times, so it’s good that I don’t have to blame myself for that. Also, the Hebrew word translated as ‘torturous’ is ‘hafakhpakh,’ which is a good word to say aloud (the ‘kh’ is a guttural like in the Scottish ‘loch’).

Bonus Post: Faithful Trust and Loving Trust: A Devar Torah

As I mentioned in my last post, I thought the devar Torah (Torah thought) I wrote this week might be of interest. Because it’s not for a general audience, my use of Hebrew isn’t explained as much as usual and I don’t have time to edit it, but it should be broadly comprehensible.

This week’s sedra of Shoftim contains a difficult commandment: “You shall be wholehearted with HaShem your God.”[1]  This appears to challenge us to be completely wholehearted in our attitude to HaShem, a difficult thing to undertake.  If we look at the wider context of the passage, we see that this commandment is not quite as daunting as it appears.  The verses immediately preceding this one prohibit the use of charms, augury, soothsaying and other methods of trying to foresee the future or of contacting spiritual entities to receive hidden information.  Our verse is therefore telling us to focus wholeheartedly on our relationship with HaShem and not to turn to other supernatural methods of communication, regardless of whether such methods work or are merely foolishness, as Rambam would say – either way they distract from our relationship with HaShem, which should be our sole focus.

Rashi[2], basing himself on the Midrash, draws out a wider message from the verse.  He states, “Walk with Him [HaShem] wholeheartedly and put your hope in Him and do not inquire about the future, rather accept everything that happens to you wholeheartedly and then you will be with Him and be His portion.”  Here we see that not only should we avoid trying to predict the future, we should also accept the present wholeheartedly.  Even if challenging things happen to us, we should accept them as HaShem’s will, trusting that He knows what is good for us better than we do ourselves.  This will have the effect of bringing us closer to HaShem.

The issue of trust in God is very difficult, particularly at the moment when the news seems full of terrible things happening to lots of people.  It can be hard to believe that this is good for us, either on a personal or a global level.

Help here comes from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who distinguished between two types of religious trust, both valid, but slightly different.  He said that the most common is what he terms “faithful trust.”    This is trust that God will ensure that the best outcome will come to pass in any given situation.[3]  Rabbi Lichtenstein quotes the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Karelitz) as questioning the nature of “faithful trust”, saying “as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, that outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know God’s judgements and providence?” meaning that a humanly desired outcome may not be God’s will.  Instead, the Chazon Ish states that “trust means realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of God’s decree.”[4]  This is what Rabbi Lichtenstein calls “loving trust”: that even if the worst comes to the worst and a negative outcome occurs, we will still trust that this is part of God’s plan and will stay loyal to Him and to Torah observance.  Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to quote Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher that trust in God means, if necessary, giving up one’s life rather than transgressing the Torah.  It is, as Rabbi Lichtenstein puts it, a demand rather than a promise, but also “a source solace and strength” that HaShem is with us.

A famous example of this approach is found in Rabbi Akiva.  The Talmud [5] quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying that one must say that everything God does is for the best.  This is illustrated by a story.  Rabbi Akiva was travelling with a lamp, a donkey and a rooster.  He came to a town where none of the townspeople would let him stay the night, so he slept in a field saying that everything God does is for the best.  The wind extinguished his lamp, a cat ate the rooster and a lion ate the donkey.  Then an army came and took the townspeople into captivity.   Only Rabbi Akiva escaped.  If his lamp had been lit, he would have been seen and captured.  Likewise if his rooster had crowed or his donkey brayed, he would have been found and captured.  Rabbi Akiva said that this demonstrated his point, that everything God does is for the best.  Had he slept in the town or had his lamp not been extinguished or his animals killed, he would have been taken captive too.

This would seem to indicate that things will somehow always turn out for the best.  However, Rabbi Akiva is also famous for the story of his painful death at the hands of the Romans.[6]  While the executioners tore the flesh from his body, Rabbi Akiva said the Shema, extending the final word “One,” referring to the unity of God, until he died.  This can be seen as an example of trust in God as a moral demand on us that offers solace and strength in times of difficulty, as Rabbi Lichtenstein put it.  Rabbi Akiva showed his trust that everything that God does is for the best even when it seemed diametrically opposed to what he would have chosen for his life, even when he was called on to make the greatest sacrifice possible.  Indeed, Rabbi Lichtenstein saw Rabbi Akiva as a paradigm of both forms of trust: the faithful trust that God would redeem the Jewish people in his lifetime and the loving trust of willingly dying a martyr’s death even when this desired outcome did not materialise.

Let us all draw inspiration from Rabbi Akiva’s example in these difficult times.


[1] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18.13

[2] Rashi Commentary to Devarim 18.13

[3] Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Bittachon: Trust in God in By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God : Based on Addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Adapted by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler

[4] Chazon Ish, Ha-emuna Ve-ha-bitachon, quoted in By His Light

[5] Brachot 60b

[6] Brachot 61b

Heat and Light

Shabbat (Sabbath) was OK, but a bit of a struggle.  It’s just too hot.  I know that in some places it gets hotter and more humid, but bear in mind houses in the UK are built for cold.  They are insulated and sometimes poorly ventilated.  So it’s pretty sweltering.  I couldn’t sleep at all last night.  I stayed up reading.  I eventually fell asleep around 5.00am.

Once I slept a lot again over Shabbat, despite the insomnia.  I slept late once I got to sleep and I napped in the afternoon, so I’m super-awake now, which is not good.

***

Today we ate in the garden, both lunch and seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).  I was apprehensive about this, because I had a vague sense it ought to be religiously prohibited, but I couldn’t think of a reason why, or at least, not a reason I couldn’t argue against.  That said, if I hadn’t seen our super-Hasidic next-door neighbours do it last week, I don’t think I would have done it.  Still, I guess it’s progress in being less religious OCD-defined, and more open to things generally.  There’s probably a good deal of autistic “I don’t want to do anything new” in the “It’s halakhically forbidden (forbidden by Jewish law),” as much as OCD and over-caution.

***

My mood was variable.  I had the weird thought that in terms of dates, I’m doing about as well by just posting stuff on my blog and occasionally meeting people romantically that way (meeting online or in person) than I am being proactive in the real world or even hoping non-internet women would want to date me.  Obviously my online presence is more confident, more charming, more I-don’t-know-what than my in-person presence (unsurprising, as in-person presence is socially crippled by social anxiety and autism).  Who knows whether I’ll meet someone else that way?  Still, I do feel the odds are against my finding anyone soon, or even really being able to manage a relationship soon.  It’s just counter-productive to dwell on those thoughts.

(It’s strange, but despite my shyness and social anxiety, I do quite like meeting people in person who I have “spoken” to online.  I’ve done it quite a lot.)

I realised that somewhere along the line I stopped praying to find my spouse.  I’m not sure why.  I know in the last year or so I’ve cut down a lot of voluntary/spontaneous prayer because of feeling depressed and tired and overwhelmed and far from God.  That was probably a bad idea, making me more distant from God, but it’s hard to know how to get back to it.

I never know what to pray for about dating anyway.  I don’t exactly feel like I could get married at the moment, certainly financially and maybe emotionally.  Maybe I should pray to find some other activity or social network that would take away the loneliness?  But it feels unJewish to be in my late thirties and unmarried and not doing the one proactive thing I can really do about it (prayer).

Plus, how would I pray to feel less sexually frustrated, from a Jewish point of view, without praying to get married?  There isn’t another option.  It’s pretty clear from the Talmud that praying to reduce your libido doesn’t work (“There are no half blessings from Heaven”); marriage is the only option.  But what if, financially and emotionally, that isn’t possible right now, maybe never?  What should I pray for?

***

Those thoughts about finding a spouse by just waiting until she finds my blog (maybe) cheered me up a bit, but others brought me down.  I started crying while I was davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers), I’m not sure why.  I had been thinking about a chiddush (novel Torah thought) I had and I’m not sure if it was connected.

In Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 6, God tells Noach (Noah) to build the ark and that it should have a “tzohar.”  It is not clear what a “tzohar” is.  The Medieval commentator Rashi (based on the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah) gives us two options: “Some say this is a window and some say this is a precious stone that gave light to them.”

However, contrary to the way a lot of people read it, Midrash isn’t just about finding quirky facts about the Torah.  It is about finding deeper meanings.  What is this teaching us?

In his book Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet notes that the description of the flood undoes the Creation narrative from chapter 1 of Genesis, with the world being uncreated stage by stage in reverse order as everything is destroyed, back to the point where the waters above and the waters below were divided on day two, leaving only the light created on day one.  The only thing not mentioned are the luminaries, created on day four.  We can assume they were covered by clouds, from the point of view of the ark, but this is not explicitly stated.

We might then argue that the “window” opinion assumes that the luminaries were still visible and all that was needed was a window to let the light of the sun and moon in, whereas the “luminescent stone” opinion assumes that the luminaries were invisible, and some artificial (quasi-supernatural) light source was necessary for the ark’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the deeper symbolism is this.  The “window” option assumes that even at a time of strict justice, when God withdraws his mercy and lets destruction reign on the world, even then there is hope as a natural part of the world.  There are intrinsically positive aspects of creation still around, still shedding their light from a distance.  God’s Presence can always be felt.

The “luminescent stone” approach is darker, in all senses.  It says that sometimes the world is so dark that you can find no natural source of light altogether.  The world outside is absolutely awful with no exceptions.  At a time like this, we have to rely on God to cast light for us directly and miraculously because the outside world is just too dark and horrible for us.  (I feel that this is a post-Holocaust type of perspective.)

I thought about the above, then I immediately went to daven Minchah, as I said, and I suddenly started crying and I didn’t know why.  I strongly suspect it is connected to what I was thinking, but I don’t know if I felt overwhelmed that God was providing light for me after all, or upset and alone that I feel He is not providing light for me.

***

My parents and I didn’t play a game on Shabbat this week, partly as Shabbat is finishing earlier now and partly because our neighbours came to the door for a socially distanced conversation with my parents towards the end of Shabbat, when we’d been playing (we all nap in the afternoon).  I’m trying to persuade my parents to play a longer, more involved game on a Sunday afternoon, as we’re all in at the moment, maybe Trivial Pursuit or Risk (my family don’t like to play Trivial Pursuit with me because I win.  I think at one stage they would only play if I answered the Genius Edition questions and they answered questions from a similar, but easier, quiz game).  I don’t remember the rules to Risk, but I’ve been thinking lately that I want to play it again.

***

I’m trying to listen to a long playlist on Spotify, but someone keeps editing it, so every time I open Spotify to listen to it, the track order has been changed and it’s hard to keep track of what I’ve heard to and what I haven’t.  Very annoying.  It’s one of the Spotify-produced (as opposed to user-produced) playlists too.

Depression, Divrei Torah and Shopping in Partial Lockdown

I had a weird dream about my maternal grandparents last night.  They were doing decorating or something and then my grandma dropped dead (after doing a flip while dressed as a dog, rather improbably).  I had to call for an ambulance and for my Mum and somehow ended up locked out of the house and unable to unlock the front door while Muppets (actual Muppets, from The Muppet Show) crowded me and put me off.  It was a pretty weird dream, but I think it’s an attempt to process feelings about my parents’ mortality after Mum being ill on Sunday and her cancer in general (it was her parents in the dream).

Perhaps because of this, I felt pretty depressed on waking.  Or maybe I just did too much yesterday.  Plus, it was a fast day today in Judaism, one of the sadder days of the year, which always brings me down, even though I’m not allowed to fast on most of them any more because I’m on lithium.  I usually at least don’t brush my teeth on fast days as a small gesture, but I forgot and did that.  It’s hard to stay in the fast day state of mind when not actually fasting.  Similarly, in previous years I would have drunk just water today, but I drank tea and coffee and I doubt I would have got through the day easily without them.  The longer my depression goes on, the harder I find it to get into the mindset of the “sad” days of the Jewish calendar.  I guess I just feel that I’m depressed all the time and I’m struggling to get to normality even on a sadder day.

I did have depressed feelings about the future on waking.  The usual thoughts that I won’t ever get married, or probably even be in a relationship again, rooted in fears that I will not find another job, which seems to be necessary to find a girlfriend, and that I will  not get over the depression, which would also be good to get rid of before dating.  My unemployment may be fixable.  I hope it is, at any rate.  My depression I suspect is here to stay, on some level at least.

I wrote a lot more about this, but deleted it, as I don’t want to wallow in depression again.  I know I have made progress with the depression over the years and I’m certainly not as bad as I was circa 2003 to 2008 or even later, but it’s still a struggle and I don’t know what my improvement is down to, which makes me worry that I will relapse somehow.  Medication is certainly part of the improvement.  Maybe a certain amount of occupational therapy in terms of keeping active.  Psychotherapy has helped me understand myself a lot better and to deal with some short term problems, but I’m not sure it’s really helped me resolve much in the long term.  It is certainly helpful to talk to a therapist on a week-by-week basis to vent, but I’m not sure how much it helps in the long term.

***

Achievements: despite feeling very depressed, I spent two hours or so working on my novel, fairly absorbed and “in flow.”  I finished another chapter and did some reorganising of the plan for the last few chapters.  Once I started work, the depression feelings did subside quite a bit.  I am concerned that I don’t quite have enough plot left to generate the 13,000 or so words I need to make this acceptable even as a short novel.

I had to do some shopping and wanted to go further afield than I’ve been for a while.  There are basically two places to shop around here: a small parade of shops less than ten minutes’ walk away, and a big high street and shopping centre about fifteen or twenty minutes away.  I hadn’t gone further than the “less than ten minutes away” shops since lockdown started and felt I should push myself to go further, plus the thing I needed was more likely to be in the shops on the high street.

So, I set out.  The weather was horrible, but I saw it as exposure therapy as much as anything, as I’ve been worried about how I will adapt to “normal” post-lockdown life.  I wore a mask when I arrived at the shops, and then wore it home.  I was OK, albeit annoyed that it was often not possible to distance myself from other people as I would have liked.  I went into the Judaica shop too, which was a bit of a reward for getting down there, but I didn’t buy anything.  I still find masks uncomfortable.  I think I will still avoid the shops unless absolutely necessary, at least while Mum is immunosuppressed.

I also wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  I realised I’ve never really written about these here in detail.  These thoughts are short essays, typically 800 to 1,000 words on the week’s Torah reading.  I started writing them at the start of the Torah reading cycle last autumn, initially just to read aloud to my parents at the Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner table, but I now send them to a few friends and family too.  I do feel the pressure of the weekly deadline sometimes, but it can be quite a rewarding experience to think about the text, look at commentaries, and set out some ideas about it.

I’m slightly curious to look back over the ten months or so and see what themes emerge.  Even without doing that, I know there are some writers I quote a lot.  It’s pretty much inevitable that anyone writing on the Torah portion in the mainstream Jewish tradition is going to quote Rashi and Ramban (the two greatest Medieval Torah commentators) a lot.  More personal is my looking to the Kotzker Rebbe and (lehavdil bein chaim lechaim) Rabbi Lord Sacks a lot for inspiration.

One theme that I know has come up a lot, including this week, is the concept of individuality in Judaism, the idea that we all have a unique outlook on life and that this is, or should be, a theme of Jewish life over and above the conformist nature of a community.  The idea that God sees our individuality and that therefore we should strive ourselves to see and accept individuality, and that leaders in particular should do this.  I’m sure on some level it’s from feeling that I am not always accepted as an individual that I feel the need to stress these ideas, but that does not make them less valid or true.

***

From Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe (emphasis added):

Moses was the most humble person ever to walk the earth.  He was constantly asking himself, “Who am I?  And how can I possibly… ?”  So God said to him, “It is not true that you are not fit, and it is not true that you have faults and blemishes, God forbid.  Your self-doubting is itself a form of worship, the type of worship that illuminates the world, coming as it does through a chain of causality from the name of God that is the future.”  It comes from the name of God, EHYE — “I will be.”  When a person feels that there is nothing worth looking at in his heart, but says, “I am nothing right now, but from now on I will try to be something,” his worship takes on the aspect of God’s Name, EHYE — I will be.  It draws out a reciprocal promise of EHYE — I will be.

I Don’t ♥ the NHS

I had a lousy afternoon.  My doctor’s surgery didn’t tell me that my (routine) blood test today was supposed to be a fasting test, with the result that I didn’t fast and couldn’t have my blood test.  So that’s a wasted NHS appointment and a waste of my time – and energy – going to the hospital.  That wasn’t what made me angry.  The anger came from the contempt that the GP’s surgery receptionists treated me with when I tried to find out what was going on, if I was really supposed to have a fasting blood test or if it was a mistake, as if I had no right to ask why the doctor wanted someone to stick a needle in me and take my blood.  Because I’m just the patient and should shut up and do as I’m told.  I actually left because I could see they weren’t going to listen to me, but I was still angry.  When I realised I had forgotten to collect my repeat prescription from the surgery, I went back and decided to ask if they could check with the doctor that I was supposed to have a fasting blood test.  They said they had checked with him, presumably after I had left.  So either they were worried that they were not right to dismiss my questions, in which case they have even less justification for treating me so badly for asking, or they lied to me to shut me up.  I couldn’t say anything as I couldn’t prove that they had lied and was too tired to continue.

Seriously, I am coming to hate the NHS, although saying that publicly in this country makes me about as popular as Richard Dawkins on a tour of the Bible Belt, and for much the same reason.  I forget who said the religion of Britain is the NHS, but it is, and a useless little tin idol it sometimes is too.  Not that anyone will say that on this election campaign; the NHS has long been Labour’s not-so secret weapon.

Because of anger and tiredness, my shopping afterwards took longer than it should have done and I got home at 5.30pm exhausted and unable to do much useful.  I didn’t really do anything all day other than my two-hour-plus afternoon of trying to sort out the blood test and some related shopping and my shiur (religious class) in the evening, although I did find the time to speak to my sister and to write a devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week.

I’ve thought up a devar Torah for every week so far for this cycle of Torah readings (five weeks so far), although one was thought up while we were away and didn’t get written down.  I thought about sending them to some friends from shul (synagogue), but I’m too wary that people may not like my interpretations rather those of rabbis that are, so to speak, certainly kosher, particularly not when I do things like query whether there have been scribal errors in religious texts like the Midrash, as I did this week.  I suppose I can change my mind in the future.

And that’s it for today really.  I’m exhausted and don’t have anything else to say.  I was too busy being angry and frustrated to be depressed or particularly introspective.

Thoughts from Rebbe Nachman

The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy: Timeless Wisdom from a Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, aside from having the type of title that gives a cataloguer like me a headache, is a collection of short thoughts from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), who is very important to me.  I’m slightly suspicious of the book, as most of the thoughts seem to be sentences taken from much longer teachings and I wonder what the full context was, but I’ve read the book twice and flicked through it many times.  I’m currently reading two pages a day.  Each page has one or maybe two thoughts on it, so reading them take mere seconds, but I was hoping I might connect with Torah here when I seem unable to do it in other books.  To be honest, nothing much has clicked, until today.  These were today’s quotes:

Go carefully: Spiritual growth must proceed slowly and steadily.  Too often we want to improve ourselves and our relationships so quickly that we make ourselves frustrated and confused.

Never insist that everything go exactly your way, even in matters spiritual.

Believe that none of the effort that you put into coming closer to God is ever wasted – even if in the end you don’t achieve what you are striving for.

These spoke to me.  I have a tendency to push myself too fast, although at the moment I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere at all.  And I do want things to go my way spiritually, even if not in other ways (although I really want them to go my way there too I suppose).  But I think it’s the last one that resonates most.  I wonder sometimes if the effort I have put into trying to be frum (religious) was worth it – not that I really want to be non-religious, but that I feel I haven’t achieved any kind of spiritual growth at all.  I hope it is not wasted.  Certainly in this world I don’t feel that it has led directly to good results, except inasmuch as it might have prevented me from adopting elements of secular Western millennial society that I might have adopted and been the worse for, but even then I’m not sure what the practical outcome would have been, whether I would have done those things if I had had the option.  I just hope the effort I put in was justified, given how much of my life I’ve dedicated to it.  It’s not about reward so much as feeling that I haven’t wasted my life on an impossible dream.  That I’ve managed to do something with my life, because at the moment most of the time it doesn’t seem that way.

Indifferent Honest

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

Today I am alternating between feeling wicked and incompetent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Struggle

Not much to report today.  Work is a struggle against boredom, tiredness, exhaustion (in my mind the tiredness I fight in the morning is qualitatively different to the exhaustion I fight late afternoon, the former the result of lack of sleep, the latter of working too much without enough of a break), hunger (some of which is probably disguised boredom and some exhaustion), depression and anxiety about doing the wrong thing or making mistakes, and general self-consciousness. I’m currently feeling particularly self-conscious for carrying around a big cabin bag, as, while my backache has largely gone, I’m wary of it coming back if I take a heavy rucksack again; yesterday my boss asked me if I was staying away from home in the evening.  I was crying at my desk again this morning.  I feel that something has to give, but I know from experience that I can stay in the ‘something has to give’ state indefinitely, even for years, before an outside event makes things somewhat better or worse; the melodramatic and violent (in multiple senses) ‘breakdown’ of fiction is not really the everyday reality of depression.

I was thinking on my way home, not for the first time, that I’m not sure what the difference would be between my life and Gehennom (purgatory).  Gehennom supposedly consists of a constant re-viewing of one’s life, filled with guilt and shame for everything one did wrong.  I can only see two or three differences: Gehennom only lasts a year (then one usually goes to Heaven unless one is very bad, in which case one ceases to exist) and eventually has a therapeutic effect whereby the soul comes to terms with the bad things that it has done.  On the other hand, if I was really in Gehennom, I probably wouldn’t have my books and DVDs, so I’m somewhat better off in that respect.

Similarly, the news – I mean the actual national/international news, not my personal news – is depressing beyond belief.  I’ve largely tuned it out.  It feels like something has to give there too, but, again, I doubt it will.  We’ll probably just carry on, lurching wildly first to the right and then to the left, interspersed with occasional financial crashes and wars, the way we have done for thousands of years.

I’m trying to call myself out on my negative self-talk/internal monologue, but it’s hard.  Harder still to replace it with something more positive.  I still worry that if I don’t beat myself up continually, I will turn into some kind of psychopathically violent narcissist.  Inasmuch as I see myself as a good person, which isn’t much, I fear that it’s less down to natural goodness and more overactive conscience, runaway guilt and social anxiety.

I still don’t know what to do about the woman my Mum wants to set me up with.  My feeling is that if we don’t have much in common, there wouldn’t be much point dating, but if we do have stuff in common, it could potentially lift my mood.  Unfortunately, I can’t find out if we have anything in common without going on a date if she’s even interested, which she may not be.  In the very frum (religious) world, it is common to ask all kinds of questions in advance of a date to see if two people might have stuff in common (even though this is in conformist communities with perhaps less individual variation than normal, at least according to stereotype), but I don’t think I could get away with that.  Also, someone did it to me last year and it was quite irritating.

I’m apparently currently glutted with women being suggested to me, which is unusual.  Glutted only by my standards, though i.e. two.  I’m just back from shiur; it was cancelled, but I didn’t realise until I got there because my phone isn’t working properly, so I didn’t get the WhatsApp messages.  Someone else obviously didn’t get them either, because he was there.  I’ll call him Talmudist, because I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.  I’ve mentioned him before as the person who was astonished to learn that I’m single and told me to marry.  He greeted me bluntly with “Would you go to Israel to live?”  I could see where this was going, but feigned ignorance to buy time and said that was a big question to suddenly ask me in the street.  Apparently someone’s sister-in-law’s daughter (or was it his daughter-in-law’s sister?  One of the two) is looking for someone, but only if he’s willing to live in Israel.  I made non-committal noises and was told to I need to think about such things (actually, I’ve been thinking on and off about living in Israel for years, but for better reasons than looking to marry, but I don’t think it’s feasible for a number of reasons).  I was also recommended to look for a wife in Manchester, which at any rate isn’t as far away as Israel, with less of  a language barrier.  According to Talmudist, many Jewish men find brides in Manchester, although the laws of supply and demand, not to mention basic biology, being what they are, I wondered what happens to the glut of Mancunian men deprived of native-born wives.  Perhaps they all come to London (or Israel).

Anyway, Talmudist says he wants to see me happy and fulfilled, which apparently is only possible if I marry.  Years ago I would have welcomed this sudden interest in finding me a mate, but lately I feel that I’m better off trying to find ways to be happy while single.  Give me the serenity to accept the things I can not change and all that.  On the way home I wondered what would happen if I publicly admitted to being a weirdo geek freak with depression, social anxiety, complex trauma and high-functioning autism.  I’m honestly not sure.  I don’t think Talmudist would understand.

I suppose this seems all very strange and backwards and Fiddler on the Roof-esque to most of my readers.  The Orthodox Jewish community is small, conservative and traditional; it’s considered quite normal to be overly-interested in other people’s behaviour and to feel threatened by even minor non-conformity.  The assumption is that everyone wants to conform really, so you can help them by nudging them in the right direction.  That’s not to say it’s right, morally or halakhically.  You’re not really supposed to rebuke people (or you are, but only in narrowly-defined situations that most people won’t meet) and talking about sensitive subjects is flirting with ona’at devarim, hurting people with words, a very serious sin according to the rabbis.  But most people in the community marry early and with fewer people suffering fertility issues than in the past, most people don’t really understand what long-term single people or childless couples go through.  It’s a failure of empathy, really.  I suspect this incident may repeat itself…

A curious autistic-type moment today: thinking about the first time my sister brought her now-husband to meet us, I found myself wondering why I was so nervous about meeting him when I get on well with him.  It took me a minute to realise that past-me hadn’t met him yet, and so didn’t have the knowledge of present-me (knowing that we get on well).  I know difficulty with perspective-taking is a common autistic symptom, but I hadn’t experienced it with a younger version of myself.

I finished a masechta (volume) of Mishnah today (the Mishnah is the older, shorter and simpler part of the Talmud).  Four down, fifty-nine to go.  It’s good to have small victories, even though I sometimes fear they just throw the failures and anxieties into sharper relief.  The pile of unanswered emails and jobs to do, grows exponentially, though.  Even the urgent jobs to do list is too long.  Well, I can at least use some of the time I would have spent at shiur trying to sort out the problem with my phone.

Sukkot 1 and 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Late for the Pebbles to Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Quick Thoughts

Just a quick note to say that I had a lot of anxiety at work again today.  I felt like I was going to start shaking while talking to my boss and while talking to students.  I didn’t, but I’m not quite sure how I avoided it.  There’s some stuff that I don’t want to talk about publicly that upset me too.

I went to my shiur (Torah class).  I was wondering if I should tell the assistant rabbi, who gives the shiur, about my mental health, as part of my attempts to open up a bit more about it to people, especially at shul (synagogue).  It was academic, as when I got there he was struggling with his printer and by the time he gave up and decided to use his ipad for his source sheet, other people had turned up and I’m not ready to make such a public declaration.  Some of what he said is sort of relevant to what I’ve been brooding over lately, about having no share in Olam HaBa (the Next World) and he looked right in my eyes when he said some of it, which was a bit unnerving (I guess this is as close as I get to the miracles that people talk about on Hevria.com), but I think I need time to process it before I say anything here.

One last thing: I realised today that my depression is a moody adolescent, despairing, self-pitying and sometimes angry, but my anxiety is an anxious little child, I guess about four years old.  I hope that isn’t too twee or silly.  I think my therapist will appreciate it when we speak tomorrow.  I actually have as my computer wallpaper a photo of me age three years old and my sister aged six months.  The photo is an old analogue one that my Dad scanned and the resolution isn’t really good enough for full screen, so it looks a bit pixellated, unless you stand further away from it, but I keep it there because I like it.  We’re wearing matching New York outfits that my uncle bought for us.  I have my arm around my sister, less from brotherly love and more because she hadn’t got the hang of the whole ‘sitting upright’ thing and was prone to falling over if left unsupported for more than a few seconds.  I like the photo because I’m smiling, really beaming.  That happiness would ebb away with the stresses of the coming years, but in that photo I’m happy and I like that.

Torah from the Depths: Vayetze

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

Throughout this week’s sedra, Yaakov (Jacob) is cheated by his uncle Lavan (Laban), who first makes him work seven years so that he can marry Lavan’s daughter, Rachel, then tricks him into marrying her sister Leah and insists he work another seven years for Rachel.  He then encourages Yaakov to work for him for wages for another six years, but repeatedly changes the terms of the contract to try and fleece* him of his salary.  Finally, Yaakov goes back to the land of Canaan, leaving secretly for fear that Lavan will keep Rachel, Leah and their children with him by force.  When eventually Lavan catches up with Yaakov, Yaakov finally gives in and delivers a whole speech (Bereshit/Genesis 31.36-42) complaining of his ill-treatment.  Yet Lavan simply rants back at him and they end up making a truce.

From a mental health perspective, this reminds me of the way that when someone with low self-esteem starts to stick up for themselves, those around them who have been used to them being a doormat feel that they are being attacked.  They feel that the formerly timid person has become an angry monster, when they are simply establishing healthy boundaries where none previously existed.  Similarly, Yaakov, although not suffering low self-esteem, suddenly asserted himself when previously he had been quietly forgiving, but rather than admit his guilt, Lavan saw this as an unjustified attack and fought back forcing a face-saving truce rather than an outright victory for Yaakov.

 

* No pun intended, but as Yaakov was working as a shepherd, maybe this is overly appropriate.

Torah from the Depths: Toldot

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

I didn’t write a Torah reflection last week, as I couldn’t see anything in the sedra (Chayei Sarah) that resonated with me.  This may have been my unconscious refusing to connect with a sedra that centred almost entirely around the idea of marriage (most of the sedra dealt with Yitzchak’s (Isaac’s) marriage, with Avraham’s (Abraham’s) remarriage added as an epilogue).

This week as well I struggled to find a direct connection with the sedra, but I did connect with Rabbi Lord Sacks’ essay on the sedra (it doesn’t seem to be up on his website yet; I subscribe to get it in email form each week).  In it he asks why Yitzchak was chosen as the next generation in the line of the covenant rather than his half-brother Yishmael (Ishmael)?  And similarly why Yaakov (Jacob) over his twin Esav (Esau)?

Rabbi Sacks notes the traditional reason, rooted in the Midrash, that Yishmael and Esav were simply evil and unsuitable for that reason, but he challenges the reading of Midrash back into the peshat in this way.

(A side note to explain: there are four traditional levels or types of Jewish biblical hermeneutics (interpretations), indicated by the acronym PaRDeS (‘orchard’, but related to ‘paradise’): peshat, the literal meaning (or perhaps more accurately, contextual or ‘straightforward’ meaning, as Jews are not textual literalists, and there are occasions where we reject the literal meaning even on a peshat level e.g. physical descriptions of God); remez, ‘hint’ i.e. the allegorical meaning; drash (from which we get Midrash), the halakhic (legal) and ethical meaning of the text; and sod, the ‘secret’ or esoteric meaning i.e. the philosophical or kabbalistic meaning, depending on whether you are a rationalist or a mystic.  What Rabbi Sacks is saying here is that we shouldn’t read the level of drash into peshat, which is completely true, although he’s fighting a losing battle in terms of how most Jews have understood Midrash now and in the past.  Most Jews have blurred the lines between the two, with many Midrashim being more well-known than the biblical text.  This is far off-topic, but I can’t resist sharing the anecdote of the great Orthodox educationalist Nechama Leibowitz playing a practical joke on some Israeli army officers she was teaching, when she told them to turn in the Tanakh (Hebrew bible) to the story of Avraham breaking his father’s idols.  She left them leafing through Tanakh in vain for some minutes before revealing that the story appears only in the Midrash.  The fact is, most Jewish children learn the story before they ever open a Tanakh or a Chumash and it’s hard to see it as a later rabbinic construction rather than The True History of Avraham.)

To get back to the point, Rabbi Sacks argues that we are told that Yishmael was “a wild donkey of a man” (16.12) and “a skilled archer” (21.20) and Esav was “a skilled hunter, a man of the field” (25.27), men who were at home in nature and who might have been seen as heroes or even gods in the pagan cultures of the time.  Unlike them, Yitzchak and Yaakov needed the help of the God who is beyond nature just to survive (in fact, even to be born – both were born from one or two infertile parents), rather than their own skills and the natural world itself.

Although this is perhaps not entirely what Rabbi Sacks meant, this seemed to me to be supportive of the neurodivergent and the mentally ill, the people who don’t go through life winning easy victories.  In fact, almost the whole of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) is about how the people who easily get married, have children, find a home, defeat enemies and so forth are not the people who God chooses.  God chooses those who struggle to find their soul mates, the infertile, the homeless, the weak and persecuted and so on.  This is in fact an idea that Rabbi Sacks has returned to time and time again in his sedra essays over the years: that in Judaism it is never the obviously successful who are the religious heroes, but always the underdogs.

None of the founders of Judaism is explicitly identified as mentally ill or neurodivergent (although to return to Midrash, Yaakov might have been depressed for the twenty-two years that he thought Yosef (Joseph) was dead; I have seen some discussion online as to whether Yitzchak might have had Down’s Syndrome.  There is obviously difficulty diagnosing something thousands of years later, but it’s an interesting idea), but one can obviously extrapolate that deviating from the social norm is not something that means rejection by God; in fact, it might be the reverse.

Torah from the Depths: Vayeira: Becoming Laughter

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

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

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

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

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

Torah from the Depths: Lech Lecha: Progeny and Place

What resonates with me most about this week’s sedra is the idea of impossible hopes.  Rabbi Lord Sacks has pointed out that what Avraham (Abraham) is worried about in this week’s sedra (which all the avot and imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs, were worried about) is children who will carry on his ideals and a land in which to live out those ideals.  He further points out that throughout three thousand years of Jewish history, these fears have been the same: will there be another generation of Jews and will they have a land of their own?

But I am looking here at it in a personal sense rather than a Zionist or anti-assimilation sense.  The idea of progeny and place.  Somewhere were I can be myself and someone who, while being a separate individual, will in some way carry on the ideals that I live for.  Both of those seem very distant from me, just as they did for Avraham.  More immediate is the promise of the suffering that precedes the reward, the four hundred years of exile, but the suffering seems unending.

Torah from the Depths: Noach: Just for a Day

I thought I would write about Noach’s (Noah’s) drunkenness, what Rabbi Lord Sacks describes as his survivor syndrome, but oddly the thing that grabbed my attention this week was the rainbow and God’s promise not to destroy the world in a flood again.  It’s an oddly circumscribed promise, as if God had His lawyers draft it: I won’t destroy the world in a flood again (but maybe some other way, or maybe I’ll let you destroy it yourselves).  Not that I think that God will destroy the world like that, but that He isn’t giving any real reassurance here.

From a mental health point of view that resonated with me.  I have lost track of the number of times I have felt myself to be “recovered” only to fall back into depression.  I think the message here is that every recovery is only in this partial way.  Every recovery is only for today.  And from this we have to try to build a new world, without any strong guarantees that the sky won’t fall on our heads tomorrow.

Torah from the Depths: Bereshit: God’s Depression

Orthodox and Conservative/Masorti Jews read through the whole of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) each year, one section a week.  Each weekly section is called a sedra or a parasha.  I had the idea of writing something related to mental health each week on the sedra, not a devar Torah as such, but just a reflection, letting the Torah illuminate mental health or vice versa.  This is probably impossible (the run of sedrot from the second half of Shemot (Exodus) through Vayikra (Leviticus) and on to the beginning of Bamidbar (Numbers) is going to be difficult), but I thought I would try.

Traditional Jewish hermeneutics (textual interpretation) places great emphasis on opening words, first appearances, first lines of dialogue.  Obviously the early chapters of Bereshit (Genesis) are full of firsts, but I noticed one I hadn’t noticed before this week.  Right at the end of the sedra it states that God saw the evil of mankind (which has only been around for a few generations at this point) “And the Eternal regretted that He had made the man on the earth and He was pained to His heart” (Bereshit 6.6).  This, so far as I can tell, is the first time that an emotion is imputed to God.  He isn’t said to be happy with His universe in the creation story (He says it is good, but we do not hear what He feels about it) or angered by the sins of Adam and Chava (Eve) or Kayin (Cain), but He is pained by the evil of mankind as a species.  Without getting into the theological question of whether God really experiences emotions or whether (as per the Rambam) He is merely described as having them for educational purposes (an argument I do not feel qualified to enter into), I think it is significant that He is described as feeling regret and inner pain and that this is in fact our first introduction to His emotional life (or “emotional life” if you prefer). While on one level this sets the scene for Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) as a whole, which is one big story of God’s usually unrequited love for mankind in general and the Jewish people in particular, it also seems to be a way of legitimating depressive emotions as natural and suggesting that they should be expressed and not repressed or sublimated as some Jewish thinkers (particularly Chassidim) would say.