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On learning to socialise.

I was a fairly social kid when I was quite a bit younger, however when I reached my teenage years I found it hard to hang out with others. Even when I was in groups and talking, I would feel isolated and was convinced that nobody wanted to be talking with me.

I’d never initiate social events. I’d need others to invite me out and for whatever reason, I’d often say no. Then I would be offended when I was no longer invited to things.

I’d have flashes of being actively social, mostly times that coincided with me being on Prozac. However, I went on and off the medication quite a bit and for the most part I was very reclusive.

One of the side effects of not going out enough was that I became angry and defensive. If I’m honest with myself, as angry and defensive as I was about not fitting in with social groups – I really did want to be part of one. I just found it hard to talk in groups. I’d freeze up when spoken to and because of the Crohn’s Disease, I’d get tired when I was out for too long. I’d be afraid to be the centre of attention. If I found myself talking to a group of people, I’d go quiet, or find an excuse to leave.

When I did socialise, I would pry too much into people’s lives and try to play the shrink. I used this state of analytic distance, which I’d learnt in therapy, as a blanket approach to all social interactions, because it felt safer than trying to engage in a ‘normal’ way.

(On that note): One of the major things we discussed in therapy was socialising. I mentioned to my shrink that I needed to work on my social life. And he emphasized the fact that it wasn’t something I needed to work on, socialising was a form of play. He said I just needed to learn to relax.

It was something I found near impossible to do. After school and university were over and there was no longer the structure of an institution where I could attend and fulfill my social needs, I needed to become far more active in keeping in touch with people and going out.

I found it hard to socialise at work and on my days off I’d sleep a fair amount during the day. I kept to my room a lot in my share house and rarely went out.

During this time, I started on antidepressants which worked well for me and I had an operation which allowed me to gain some control over the Crohn’s disease.

It was after this point, I became suddenly panicked. I noticed that everyone from school and university were paring off and would soon start families. I was scared that soon there wouldn’t even be a social life for me to join in on. I felt that I needed to go out now, as I would miss out on making important connections with people if I didn’t.

I had a short period, I think about a few months after I’d finished a book I was working on at the time, where I forced myself to go out as much as I could. I got in contact with a lot of people I’d went to uni with and asked them for coffee.

I’ve spoken to other people who’ve said they’ve gone through similar periods of intense socialising, after being ‘anti-social’ for most of their lives. So, I don’t feel that weird about doing it.

At first, when I went out with a group, I’d prepare things in my head to say and get drunk a lot. I’d be very conscious in how I acted as I was desperate to be liked. I’d try to crack jokes as much as I could and always be ‘positive’. I’d try very hard to have ‘fun’. Often being loud and frankly, a little obnoxious.

My shrink explained that going out didn’t always need to be 10 out of 10 to be a ‘successful’ night.  It only needed to 6 out of 10. A good night could be one where I simply didn’t make a fool of myself, or I had a nice conversation with someone.

I became more comfortable with socialising and started to feel the benefits of regular social activity. I want to save for my next post a lot of the actual changes in my perception of myself and others this period of socialising did for me. But basically, it was that I could see myself in relation to others and a groups’ dynamic in a way I’d never been able to before.

I also realised the importance of small talk. It is a way of spending time with someone, without opening myself or them to the potential of being hurt, as would happen if we only talked about our emotions.

I spoke in my last post about no longer needing therapy, which is why I stopped going, however another reason was because I wanted to learn to adjust to ‘normal’ socialising. It was an invaluable skill, which I simply didn’t have. I felt that staying in therapy might cause me to remain in the head space of prying too much into people’s lives and I wouldn’t learn to talk in regular social circumstances.

A few years ago, I would have had a knee jerk reaction to thoughts like this – asking why I needed to adjust to ‘normalcy’, why I needed to learn to be ‘normal’ just to be able to talk with others socially.

And if I was able to speak to myself then, I’d give the answer: because it’s a far less lonely way to go through life.

[Thanks for reading. Just a quick P.S: I received the first review of my novel – 5 stars – from Junior Books and Publishing (link here). I’m still smiling about it. It’s also now up on Goodreads (link here) :) ]

On giving up belief in the Rebbe – the leader my family’s sect of orthodox Judaism.

The sect of orthodox Judaism that I was brought up in is called Lubavitch. There were many leaders of this sect over the years and the one who was active at the time I was growing up was Menachem Mendle Schneerson – also known as The Rebbe.

Judaism holds that in each generation there is one person who is destined to be the Messiah. There are members of the Lubavitch movement, myself included when I was still religious, who believe the Rebbe is that Messiah.

I thought about him a lot when I was younger. I collected pictures of him, watched videos of him, sang songs about him. When I reached my teens and found that I no longer believed in God, one of the hardest transitions to make was to think of the Rebbe as just a human being.

This period highlighted to me the manner in which the people in my life, especially peers and elders, were the ones who reinforced my belief in God. Becoming an atheist, required that I lose faith in the people in my life as well.

One thing I’ve always been fascinated by is, if I’d remained religious, how would my relationship to the Rebbe have changed. Would I have kept up my childlike adoration by maintaining the notion that he’s infallible?

If so, how would I have maintained belief in everything he said, and everything that was said by the rabbis in my life, and still naturally mature to question ‘authority’. Is this just something I wouldn’t have done?

I still have pangs of regret for giving up on religion, as I would love to know how it would have played a role in my life as I’ve grown older. Which is another way of saying, I feel an absence in my adult life of one of the most important elements of my childhood.

And the Rebbe is one of those absences. Or more accurately, the belief that there are people out there who are divine, who know all the answers, who can offer comfort to any anxiety.

As I’ve previously discussed, just because I like the idea of believing again, it doesn’t mean I can. I can’t force belief. Whether it be a belief in God, or a belief in divine people. I think it would be dishonest for me to pretend and insulting to those who genuinely believe. If, you know, anyone would actually care.

Of course, many would say, losing faith isn’t really such a bad thing, or a big deal. It’s just something I miss.

 

[Thanks for reading. Just a quick P.S: I received the first review of my novel – 5 stars – from Junior Books and Publishing (link here). I’m still smiling about it. It’s also now up on Goodreads (link here) :) ]

On not romanticizing my anxiety disorder.

A few years ago, when I began on antidepressants that worked for me, I went through a transitional period from being mentally unwell, with O.C.D and depression, to being mentally healthy – in that neither of these illness dominated my life anymore.

Being on medication allowed me to gain control over the anxiety and depression, but it didn’t ‘cure me’ magically. I still needed to adjust the way I saw the world to this slightly altered, less debilitating, perception of things the medication awarded me.

Off the medication, the O.C.D in particular would make me feel trapped in cycles of thought. I felt compelled to follow strict daily routines and was stuck in my ways. Not only did I repeat actions, I would repeat life patterns and find myself in the same situation over and again. I felt too anxious to embrace uncertainty and take risks and as a result, I never took on many of the challenges necessary to building a life.

My shrink would say that what we were attempting to do was ‘unclog the works’, meaning allow my brain to develop, learn and adjust.

The most beneficial thing the medication did for me, was that it allowed me to start socialising again. One thing I discovered in socialising was that a lot of the emotional needs I was hoping to seek from becoming a writer, were actually ones I was better off seeking from other people.

I always thought, insanely in my opinion, that if I didn’t get published my life wouldn’t be worth living. I’d pegged this as the ‘fix’ to everything in my life. Once I got published, everything would be perfect.

Getting published, means you get a lot of praise, which is easy to buy into. Telling myself that I was ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’, meant that even if I exercised potentially damaging actions – sleeping too much, isolating myself, drinking when I was feeling anxious, stopping my medication against medical advice – as long as I wrote novels I could tell myself it was simply the uniqueness of my ‘genius’.

By reaching out socially to others, I quickly felt accepted and loved even without any novels published. A lot of the things I’d fantasized would happen after I got published – such as being able to talk confidently with others and feeling accepted and validated for who I was – happened when I started socialising.

In realising that my happiness would always depend on the people in my life, becoming a writer became far less of an imperative. As a result, writing felt less romantic, but became more enjoyable and in my opinion, my work became more readable.

Before I began on the medication, I wrote all day, but un-readable stories. And I didn’t read at all, a deep regret, because I found it hard to concentrate. So, I never progressed with the craft.

Being on medication, awarded me the simple ability of being able to sit and enjoy a book. And as a result, the quality of my writing improved dramatically. It was at this time, that I reflected on the way in which I’d been romanticizing my mental illness in the past, in that I’d always seen my anxiety disorder as ‘necessary’ to me being a writer.

I’ve since discovered that this is quite a widely held notion. Even my shrink, whom I possibly idealise a bit much, once said that my anxiety made me suffer, but it also made me creative. Although, I know he could have just been reflecting my own thoughts back to me.

It’s difficult to say why I feel compelled to write. And, like many things, just because there’s a question doesn’t mean there’s an answer.

However, one thing I can say with certainty, is that my mental illness does not contribute positively to my fiction in any way. Anxiety and depression, for me, feel very different to thinking creatively. Writing, in the past, has certainly helped me manage my anxiety and depression. But, being anxious and depressed isn’t the reason I wrote.

I know this, because even though now my anxiety and depression is at a manageable level, I write more than ever. In my opinion, I write better than ever. And, most importantly, I enjoy it more than ever.

On how I miss my therapist.

I started going to therapy when I was seventeen, about a month before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Although when I started seeing my shrink I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Crohn’s, I had been sick for nearly a year. One of the contributing factors to the depression could have very well been the Crohn’s disease.

I had been becoming less and less social with my friends for a number of years. By the time I went to therapy there was nobody I talked with. I felt alienated in the orthodox community and isolated because of the embarrassing nature of the bowel condition.

Therapy became a haven for me. We started off on weekly sessions and for a while, my therapist was one of the only people I spoke with. Within the first year, I made mention of the fact that I saw him as a friend and he was quick to qualify the fact that, although we were friendly, we weren’t friends.

When I grew older and started to pay for the sessions myself, I felt slightly betrayed when I received the invoice for my sessions. I found it hard to think of him as a doctor and not a friend.

As the O.C.D and depression continued to improve, we gradually began to cut back on my sessions and about a year and a half ago, I stopped them entirely. Since I started them when I was seventeen, this is now the longest stretch of time I’ve gone without a session. I’ve noticed that in my posts, I constantly talk about my shrink. In my fiction too, I find him popping up here and there. I realise now that it’s because I miss him.

He was a very important person in my life for a number of years. And just like that, I don’t ever get to see him again. Nearly every day, I still play out conversations with him in my head and ‘self analyse’ myself. I know I don’t necessarily miss him, I just miss therapy. I never knew him personally. He was always playing a part – agreeing with everything I said, reflecting back to me my thoughts so I could understand them with objective distance, being a listening ear when I needed it.

Although I want to go back, I won’t for a few key reasons. The most important being that I don’t need it anymore. My mood doesn’t dip as extremely as it did before I started on the antidepressants and the medication keeps my anxiety in check.

The second reason is that I’ll be tying up the resources of a highly trained professional, when there are others who need it more.

I hope nobody reads this and takes it as me encouraging to stop them seeing their therapist. I went for 8 years before I stopped and it was only because I went for that time, that I am now able to stop.

I’ll finish with quite a famous video I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s a performance piece by artist Marina Abramović, where she invited people to sit across from her and simply stare without saying anything. One of the people to come was an old lover.

I’ll probably get lynched by my artist friends for giving a single interpretation of this work, but I’ve always understood it to represent the manner in which we create barriers through social constructions, which limit our ability to speak with each other. It felt appropriate in a strange way.

On the importance of letting myself get angry.

When I was teenager I used to have quite a temper. I’d get angry for no real reason and once I was angry, I couldn’t control my temper. As I got older, especially after the initial stages of dealing with Crohn’s disease and beginning on antidepressants, I found that I calmed down quite a bit, to the point where I rarely got angry at people at all.

There were people in my life growing up who had irrational tempers. I got to a certain age and associated getting angry with losing your temper. My shrink would point out that there was difference between anger and fury. We naturally get angry several times a day. Anger was an emotion that arose when we feel we have been done wrong by.

Whenever I would feel someone had done me wrong, I found that I didn’t get angry in the moment. When I was with people, I’d try to be happy all the time, as if any time we weren’t enjoying ourselves was an indication of faults in our friendship. If someone did make me angry, I’d calm myself down, let it go, keep my temper and inevitably get angry at them in my head later. Eventually I’d build up enough resentment towards them that I would stop seeing them all together.

I’ve since realised that being able to get angry with someone shows more trust in the relationship. Trying to be happy all the time is emotionally distancing.

It’s taken a while to start to get angry again, mostly to feel confident in my relationships with people to know that if I do assert myself, I won’t lose them. I realise now that I may even feel closer after a fight because it’s the only time we properly communicate. Expressing anger, also allows one person to see the extent to which they’ve upset the other.

I’m aware that fights and getting angry can also be destructive. However, I think my fear of anger wasn’t helping my relationships with people.

As I’m putting my work out there on sensitive topics, as I’m sure nearly every other writer knows, I will inevitably have people who don’t like what I do. When I realised that my novel was likely to accepted, part of me became scared that once I had entered into a public sphere, I would gather a small army of people who didn’t agree with me.

However, that hasn’t been the case. It may seem quite late in the game to have this revelation, but differing in opinions with someone doesn’t mean that I can’t remain close with them.

It’s obvious when I think about it now, but I couldn’t have been sure until it was put into practice. I really don’t want to spend my life fighting for my opinions. The point of writing on certain topics is to create a platform of thought, where others can join and give insight on matters I wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk about on such a large scale.

Blogging has proven to be the perfect arena for this endeavor. Before I began blogging I was scared I would hate it. But, frankly it’s been fantastic. Making contact with people from around the world and talking about what matters to me is fantastic. This is everything that I want from writing.

I can see now why everyone keeps a blog. It isn’t a self serving, self promotional tool. It’s about connection. At least for me. I can’t believe I took so long to start.

On my fear of becoming a failed writer.

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Three years ago, after I’d had my second short story published in Voiceworks magazine, I was emailed by an editor at a small publishing house saying she wanted to read my novel. I’d advertised this novel, (not the one to be published this year, but a different one I was working on at the time), on my Wheeler Centre profile. So, the editor had a pitch and, with the short story she’d read, a sample of my writing. That’s all any editor really needs to know if they want to take you on.

I got her email on the same night that I got another email saying that my third short story was going to be published in the Sleepers Almanac. I was quite a strange and excitable young man back then, only slightly less so now, and I remember I was eating a burrito in Melbourne Central train station when the emails came through.

I was working full time and would go to the train station after work to have dinner and do my day’s worth of writing. I chose the train station because it was away from my room (not having my bed in sight made me less sleepy) and they had free internet. I like to write with the net on.

After eating my dinner, I opened up the short story I was working on at the time and after ten minutes or so, I rewarded myself by checking my email. Naturally, I couldn’t write for the rest of the night.

My hands were shaking and I was delirious with excitement.

Having been sick with Crohn’s Disease, O.C.D and depression for a number of years, I had very little confidence in myself. Being chronically ill placed me in a constant state of self pity and doubt. I didn’t believe that I could do the same things healthy people could. Because, I guess, for a long time I couldn’t.

When I finally got well, I believed my limitations were to do with me, not because I’d been unwell. Even when my first two short stories had been accepted, although part of me was excited, part of me was convinced that the editors had made a mistake. When I got my marks for my honours degree, I believed the same thing. I had to bring down my achievements in order to match the inferior perception I had of myself.

However, when I got this email from the publisher saying she wanted to see my book, I couldn’t keep my self esteem down. Because I knew it was a pretty rare thing to happen and I had to have something to offer with my writing, otherwise I wouldn’t have received any attention for it.

As happens to people with inferiority complexes who suddenly and magically have reason to feel good about themselves, I became impossibly, unbelievably, embarrassingly arrogant.

I pinned my entire new-found self esteem on this offer. I bit off more than I could chew, overcommitted myself, put too much pressure on myself and couldn’t pull off the book. I finished it after nearly a year of writing, however, it wasn’t accepted.

I didn’t do very well after this. I fell apart, is the truth. It wasn’t only because of the natural feelings being rejected bring up. It was also because I knew I’d done a bad job.

I’d tried my absolute hardest and I’d failed. At this point, I became terrified of two things. One, my writing space would be tainted. And two, I’d become a ‘failed writer’.

From then on, when I wrote, I had to take it in short spurts because my mood would dip quite drastically and I’d start to doubt myself. I made sure to only write when I was enjoying it. This started off not being much at first, however as my next book, the one that comes out this year, started to build I became excited and wrote more and more.

Soon, I became absolutely obsessed with the novel and I started to look forward to coming home to it each night.

When I finished this next book, (which we’ve titled The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, and is about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community)  I felt fantastic, because I knew I’d done a good job. And when it was accepted, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or overexcited. It just made sense.

Having been on the brink of becoming a ‘failed writer’, I now see what it means. It’s someone who stops writing because they never received the validation they thought they deserved from the publishing industry. Their whole reason they write is to get published and when they realise they probably won’t be, they see no more point in writing.

That was never the reason I started writing and won’t be the reason I’ll stop. Death will be.

Since this latest book was accepted, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several other published authors. What I’ve learnt through this, is that, at least in Australia, very few authors live off their writing.

It seems obvious now that I’m writing it. However, I would be lying if I said that a large part of my fantasy of being a writer wasn’t that I would be able to earn a living off it.

Now, that I’m soon to be published, I know the reality. I’ll probably never be able to live off this. But, honestly, that’s cool. It takes the pressure off. And I’ve realised (not to get too sentimental) that all that time I was writing while working on the side, I was already living the lifestyle of a ‘real’ writer. Because, that’s pretty much what it’s like now — and probably will be for a number of years.

On why being an atheist doesn’t feel like a choice.

I was brought up as an orthodox Jew. Even had I not been, I think I would have found religion at some point. I’m the ‘spiritual type’ (at least in my opinion). I’m romantic, I have a habit of thinking there’s more to things than meet the eye and I care more about abstract concepts than anything concrete.

And I really loved believing in God. I couldn’t understand how there could be so much beauty and order to the world without a divine touch involved. Believing in God made life easier for me. It made everything seem fairer and it made me feel far less anxious thinking that there was a reason to everything.

I’ll skip quite a few years to when I was about seventeen and I stopped being religious. I know others give up the religious lifestyle, however maintain and adapt their belief in God. And I was warned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But, it wasn’t that I disliked the religious lifestyle and therefore needed to stop believing in God in order to live the secular life I wanted. It was my natural aversion to the mentality of belief, which made me want to stop the religious lifestyle.

A belief in God, at least the way I experienced it, was a mental state in which I would question everything, except whether God existed. It was this inability to question, which I found went against my nature. I found it hard to pick and choose what I would analyse and dissect. It was this need to question and explore life, which initially caused me stop believing in God.

(As I already qualified above, it doesn’t mean I’m against those who do believe in God. I’m not angry at religion, or religious people. I actually get upset when people bag out religion and say being an atheist is a superior manner of living. Anyway…)

While I was writing my book about a religious character earlier this year, I was deeply excited about reliving the belief in God, which had left me when I was a late teen. I realised how much I missed believing in God. And it made me wonder why I don’t just start again. Or become agnostic. It seemed reasonable enough that I would.

But, I know I can’t do this. And the reason is because I know what it felt like to believe in God and now I know that I don’t feel that way. Therefore, I’m an atheist. Simple as that. It’s just a feeling, the same as someone knowing they believe in God. I simply don’t. Obviously I don’t mean to suggest you have to have been religious at one point to call yourself an atheist. It’s just how I see it with myself. (Alright, I’ll stop qualifying everything now.)

Growing up, I was always taught there is no such thing as a Jewish atheist. Even if they didn’t know it, they still secretly believe in God on some level. But, I know through and through, this is what I am. And as a ‘spiritual type’ without God in his life, I’m now just an over analyzing, overly romantic, overly sensitive writer. Possibly, with a bit of a chip on my shoulder.