The Empty Semester of My Masters – The Other Side

Back in June, I made a post about what had been my plans for the empty semester of my Masters and how I’d adjusted those plans according to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. I was still hopeful that I could get a lot done in the time before my next semester started but the pandemic had a massive effect on my mental health and therefore my productivity so it took me a long time to gather myself enough to do anything even vaguely productive. So while, in pre-pandemic times, this list of completed goals probably would’ve felt disappointing, I’m trying to shed those expectations and be proud of what I’ve achieved considering the current circumstances.


MANAGED TO DO:

  • Sort through my clothes – I actually did this twice because I know that I get decision fatigue and end up keeping things that I don’t want because that’s the easier option. So I did a second sort through, reducing my wardrobe further. There’s still more than I’d like to get rid of but I feel like I made a serious dent in what felt like a pretty overwhelming situation.
  • Watched some of the things on my To Watch list – For a while, I only felt able to watch familiar things because it didn’t feel like there was the space in my brain for new stories or characters but eventually a few things started to catch my eye and it turned into a really good method of escaping all my anxiety about the current situation. I’ve also been watching quite different things, which has been fun. Plus, it’s a great source of inspiration while not much is happening in my personal life.
  • Improve my piano skills – I’ve spent a lot of time playing piano during this unstructured time and not only has it been really fun, I have actually improved. For a long time, I couldn’t hear or see any improvement but recently, I’ve been able to do things or pick up things much quicker and much more easily and that’s really exciting, even if there is still so much more to learn. To be fair, it’s not like that isn’t a universal fact.
  • Music Theory lessons – These didn’t even up happening the way I thought they would but I’ve spent some solid time working on my theory in the hope that it will make the upcoming Musical Language module less stressful and more fun.
  • Shot a music video – Despite the current circumstances, somehow Richard Sanderson and I managed to come up with a safe way to make a music video for ‘Back To Life‘ (from concept, to planning, to execution). It was actually fun, despite the high levels of anxiety I was experiencing. I hadn’t thought we’d be able to do it but somehow we did and I’m really proud of the result.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – Despite the death of my computer, setting up a new one, reorganising my entire photo library, setting up the albums on the computer, and choosing photos for the eighteen months I was behind by, I somehow managed to get my photo albums up to date. It was a massive job, a much bigger one than I’d anticipated, so to have done it feels like a really big achievement, especially given how long I’ve been wanting to do it.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – As I said in the original post, the project isn’t for several months still but I wanted time to find a concept I could really engage with. I’ve jotted down a list of potential ideas (which I do have to find as it’s apparently wandered off…) and spoken to one of my tutors about it. He was really enthusiastic about the ones I mentioned so I feel like I’m off to a good start.
  • See a meteor shower – Me and my Mum drove out of the city and lay in a field to watch the Perseids meteor shower in August. It wasn’t the best meteor shower I’ve ever seen but we saw a handful of fairly decent shooting stars and it was a really clear night so just looking up at all the stars was a beautiful, pretty profound experience.
  • Catch up with my friends – Obviously when I set this goal, I’d imagined hanging out at people’s houses, movies nights, going to the beach, and so on. But then the pandemic happened (or more specifically, began…) and none of that was possible. Considering the amount of anxiety I’ve been dealing with, I think I’ve done an okay job of staying in touch with my friends, doing video calls and Netflix parties. Since the restrictions have eased a bit, I’ve seen a couple of friends too (socially distanced, of course), which has been really nice since I do find the constant communicating via screens exhausting.
  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I haven’t been as productive as I would’ve liked to be during this period but then my creativity is always negatively affected when I’m struggling with my mental health. But I’m trying to remember that I’ve done the best I can. At no point did I give up (beyond taking a break to avoid unnecessary distress) and when I couldn’t directly write songs, I worked on surrounding areas, like production or chord progressions and so on.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I’d planned to do as many cowrites as possible, with as many people as possible, and while writing sessions have been possible via platforms like Zoom, I must admit I find it much more difficult to be creative and collaborative when I’m not in the same room as my cowriter. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible and I’m pleased with what I have managed to do but doing it this way has meant that I haven’t done nearly as many sessions as I’d hoped, especially as I have found Zoom sessions with less than familiar people harder to do than spending time with less than familiar people. If that makes sense.

IN PROCESS:

  • Catch up with my diary – I’d really hoped to have caught up with the diary I was behind on and then aborted when lockdown began, wanting to document this surreal experience in real time. I’ve been trying to catch up alongside everything else but I’m still behind and with everything going on at the moment, I’m behind in the current diary too. So when I start university again, I’m going to be trying to write three diaries at once, which feels very stressful. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that but I’m going to have to figure it out because, if I haven’t said it before, OCD’s a bitch.
  • Update my songwriting book – Initially I made quite a lot of progress, writing up a decent amount of my more recent songs, but then I realised that I’d somehow left out a significant number of songs. That was very frustrating. And since then, I haven’t been quite sure what to do. I hate the idea of having them out of order but I’m also reluctant to add to my workload by making the decision
  • Sort out my bedroom – I’ve made a lot of progress over the last several months and it looks and feels so much better but I’ve been waiting for a couple of sets of shelves to arrive to help me better organise all the ‘loose ends’ of my stuff, if that makes sense. There’s just still a lot of bits and pieces around that don’t have their own space. I think that, once that happens and once all those things are a bit more organised, I’ll feel like most of the work is done. I’m looking forward to that.
  • Create my studio space – Again, I’ve made a start. I don’t have all the equipment I’d ideally want. For example, I wish I had some better speakers. But I’ve set up the equipment I do have, although it’s still a bit trial and error when it comes to the most effective set up. I’m still not super confident when it comes to all of this but I’m learning all the time. So we’re getting there, step by step.

COULDN’T DO:

  • Mental Health Awareness assemblies – Obviously these didn’t happen as the schools were closed when Mental Health Awareness Week was happening.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – This wasn’t possible as the show’s run closed during lockdown. I think it’s so sad that they didn’t get the finish. The show closed after Sara Bareilles’ last show so she and Gavin Creel (who played the male lead) had their closure but I’m sure Lucie Jones and David Hunter were really looking forward to coming back. Plus the rest of the cast must’ve been sad to see the show end with so little warning. They’d earned the chance to celebrate the incredible show they put on and the amazing run they had and it’s heartbreaking that they haven’t been able to do that.
  • Concerts – Concerts are only continuing to be rescheduled and even though some socially distanced shows are happening, I’m not at all convinced that it’s safe yet. I miss them so much but I can’t imagine feeling safe in that sort of environment for a really long time.
  • London gigs – Again, I’ve had a couple of booked gigs rescheduled multiple times but then it’s so hard to make concrete plans when we have no idea what the even near future holds. So I’m just trying to take things as they come, make responsible decisions, and not worry too much.
  • Get back to swimming regularly – Obviously for a long time the gyms were closed. When they opened up again, I went to see what their precautions were like but I really didn’t feel safe. The gym have been great about trying to make it easier for me to access their facilities as a disabled person but I’m still not completely convinced. We’re continuing to try to make swimming a possibility and maybe now that so many people are back in school, there will be more periods with less people. We’ll keep trying. I really miss it.
  • Improve my guitar skills – As I’ve already said, it took a long time for me to manage anything beyond staring at the TV in a perpetual state of panic and then, just as I started to feel capable of doing things, I developed awful pain in my arms, from my shoulders to my fingertips. Sometimes it was sharp, shooting pains, sometimes it was a deep ache, and sometimes I’d wake up to find my fingers completely numb. That’s been going on for most of this ‘semester,’ although it has started to improve recently. I still have a specialist doctors appointment at some point to assess the problem so hopefully I’ll be back to playing guitar soon.
  • Read some books from my To Read List – My ongoing anxiety has done a number on my concentration, particularly when it comes to reading. I’ll try to read a book, only to realise that I’ve read several pages and have no memory of what they said. I miss it and I am worried about what will happen when I get back to uni work but that’s the situation as it is at the moment. I’m talking to my Psychiatrist about it at my next appointment.
  • EP Gig – Since my timeline for the Honest EP has been pretty flexible, I wasn’t sure when the last single would be released and when therefore when we’d have the gig to celebrate the EP’s completion. As it’s turned out, the final single isn’t out yet so that’s not something I would’ve had to worry about, even if we had been able to put on events.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – Just as I’d managed to wrestle my motivation towards the Kalimba, I discovered that there was a problem with the one I’d bought and so won’t be able to start learning it before university starts again but I do still really want to learn. So I’m just going to have to reschedule that to a later date.

DIDN’T MANAGE TO DO:

  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This wasn’t hugely high on my list of priorities so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s one of the things to fall by the wayside. Plus, I haven’t completely finished the practical elements of my room so I think it’s something I can pursue without too much difficulty once that’s done.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I’ve struggled with my concentration throughout lockdown but most especially when trying to do things that involve absorbing new material so I didn’t manage to do much extra curricular learning. I managed a few TED Talks and read articles but I haven’t managed any in depth study like taking classes on Skillshare.

So, as I said at the beginning of the post, I’ve been trying to realign my expectations as to what has been possible during this time, based on the lockdown restrictions and my fluctuating mental state. With everything so uncertain, it was impossible to know what I’d achieve. Looking at this list now, I’m proud of myself. For the most part. And in the moments when I feel frustrated or disappointed, I acknowledge those feelings, let them have their space, and then try and let them go. I don’t always succeed but I try. Because, given everything going on, I think what I managed to do – especially looking back at how I was (or wasn’t) functioning at the beginning of lockdown – is something to be proud of. And when I can’t feel proud, I practice proud.

Now, on to the next semester.

Going Back To University During A Pandemic

So, as of next week, my university classes start again and given that the pandemic is worse than ever in the UK (when it comes to the number of cases, at least), I definitely have mixed feelings about it. Had this year gone ahead as expected, I would’ve been super excited to go back to uni but with all my anxiety about the pandemic, not to mention the state of my mental health in general, it feels like an almost impossible feat. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it. But before I start thinking about that, I thought I’d document how I got to this point…


When the pandemic hit the UK and the lockdown went into effect, I only had two or three weeks of online classes to contend with before my final assignment, which was a piece of coursework. Once that was turned in, I was done, with only unstructured time ahead of me. As a part time student, I didn’t return to classes until late September so, although I’d planned to do a lot of things (I made a post about that here) in that time, I didn’t have to try and manage university alongside all of my anxiety about the pandemic. I didn’t have to think about university for a long time and since we didn’t know much about Covid-19 at the time, it seemed pointless to speculate. So I put those worries to the side and just tried to manage day to day (with varying levels of success).

When August rolled around, the anxiety about what I was going to do started to build. I’d thought about deferring but I really didn’t want to do that: I didn’t want to delay my education more than it already had been with years off to manage my mental health; I felt like I’d be at a real disadvantage in the second year modules, having potentially forgotten skills I’d learned in the first year; we don’t know how different things will be in a year anyway and I’d rather be working through the modules with people I know, whether that’s the case or not. So if I was going to do it, I had to figure out what felt safe and manageable.

Eventually I got an email from my university with some information about how they’d planned out the module, trying to balance safety and getting the best out of our education. My first module of the year was going to be 50% online and 50% onsite: the lectures would be via Microsoft Teams and the practical workshops – where we put the musical skills into practice – would be in person, although there were various different rules about whether anyone could actually perform what they’d written, depending on the number of students present. That all felt very uncertain and anxiety-provoking. Plus commuting to London (using trains and the underground) for only two hours of classes felt like a lot of risk (especially with the number of cases on the rise) – and that’s without considering the effects it would have on my energy levels and mental health and how that would affect my ability to complete the module – for not necessarily enough reward. It all felt very risky and scary.

I spoke to the head of the module, a tutor I’ve known for a really long time and have a really good relationship with. I wanted to get a bit more detail about what was happening, especially as it’s the module I’ve been most worried about: music theory has always been a struggle for me and even though it’s more about experimenting with those concepts in our writing, I’ve still worried about it from the beginning of the course. It’s the module I’ve always felt I’d need the most support and clarity in. Unfortunately, this trusted tutor will be running the online classes and not onsite at all – not that I’d want him to put himself at risk but that plus the fact that my two closest friends wouldn’t be there either only increased my anxiety. In what was obviously going to be a very stressful semester, I felt like I had very few people that I could go to if I needed help or something triggered a meltdown, for example. It was all feeling more and more overwhelming and difficult.

There was the potential to do the whole module online and at the beginning of lockdown, I’d refused to consider it, feeling that I wouldn’t get the education I had chosen and was paying for, if all the classes were online, especially when it’s such a practical course. But if I didn’t want to defer, my only options were to do the 50/50 approach or move entirely online. And after thinking about it a lot and talking to multiple members of my family, we decided that all the stress of going into uni felt like a significant cost compared to the benefit. So eventually I bit the bullet and decided to transfer to being a fully online student.

For a while, everything was fine – or as fine as it could be. But as we started building up to the new year, everything started to unravel. I always find the start of the new academic year stressful but this year has been a special level of hell. One example was ongoing complications with my timetable, which only exacerbated my already high anxiety and caused multiple meltdowns. I could probably rant for hours about the problems in education around mental health and neurodiversity but I won’t. At least not here.

The last week or so has probably been the worst, mental health wise, since the early days of lockdown: there has been constant anxiety, sickening drops into the depression that I’ve been carefully tiptoeing around since the pandemic reached the UK, and many meltdowns. I’ve also fought with Mum, which almost never happens. You know I’m in a bad place when that starts happening. My emotions have been very volatile; my anger has been particularly explosive. Anger’s not an emotion that I usually experience, especially not to this degree, so that’s been really hard to know what to do with. I’m really going through it at the moment.

It’s been suggested and even recommended that I defer, given the state of my mental health and my anxiety around the pandemic but I really, really don’t want to. I don’t want to defer and I don’t really want to do the module online – neither feel like great options, if I’m honest – but we have no idea what the situation next September will be and of the two, I’d rather be moving forward.


Today my group had our induction session, which was helpful. And it was really nice to see my course mates and tutors again; it was a little glimpse of normality, even if it was through a screen. I don’t know if I feel any better about the whole situation – I’m still terrified that the odds against me are just too high and I’ll fail everything – but I’d rather try than not. If get a couple of months in and it really is too much then I’ll reconsider but I have to try. I just can’t not try.

The DSA Process For My Masters Degree

Since the academic year is starting up again, I thought I’d write about my experience with getting support for my Masters Degree as a disabled student. The DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) process can be very difficult so, having been through it twice now, I thought I’d share my experience. I don’t know if I’ve had a good, bad, or typical experience but I thought that simply putting the experience out there might be helpful to anyone at the beginning of this process, to give them an idea of what may happen down the line. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult and tiring but that’s not to say that I would discourage someone from applying. I was just very naive going into it the first time and was blindsided by how complicated and stressful it was; I’m lucky to have had help going through this both times. Having support from sources such as DSA can be hugely beneficial but I wouldn’t want anyone going into the application process unaware so I thought I’d share my experience as I haven’t seen many accounts of the whole process…

I wrote about my first assessment in great detail here, so I suggest reading that but I’ll also sum it up here to make sure I’m sharing the full experience in one place. So… That first assessment was a complete disaster. The assessor was perfectly nice but when we got to discussing what support DSA was willing to offer me, it went downhill fast. They would offer me a laptop, but not one with an operating system required to run the programs I needed for my course because apparently that was a course specific need rather than a disability specific need despite the fact that I – a disabled student – needed them to do my course. They wouldn’t offer me any travel support towards commuting because I’d ‘chosen’ to live at home when I actually had to live at home because of my disabilities. And they have no direct contact with the universities themselves so they couldn’t offer any support through them. So, essentially, they weren’t going to offer me anything because my needs didn’t fit their guidelines, because my disability didn’t fit with their idea of disability. It was hugely frustrating and distressing and I left in tears. I felt completely let down and abandoned.

By the end of the assessment, I was so utterly distressed that the assessor told us that we could appeal, which we did. The second assessment was with a different person, a really lovely woman called Rebecca, and was much longer and in much more depth. We went through everything again in minute detail: from the necessary computer specifications to the exact details of an average university day’s travel. She went through all the possibilities and all the potential outcomes, as well as the potential roadblocks and the reasonings behind them. It was a lot of information but I did leave feeling more hopeful; I really felt like she was on the case, like she was really committed to helping me get as much support as possible. Her report went through several different people before reaching a senior SFE (Student Finance England). It was initially rejected but then, when we provided them with documentation proving I receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), they changed their minds and granted me a new laptop, software and apps to help with my lectures, independent study, and mental health, and mentoring through the National Autistic Society (although it seems that, due to the pandemic, this service no longer exists). I didn’t get any support for the travel but I’m grateful for what I did get, plus the travel costs haven’t exactly been an issue over the last few months… From that second assessment, it was four months before I received the support I was awarded.

In my experience, the whole DSA process is very slow. It was slow when I went through it during my Bachelor’s Degree and it’s been even slower this time, presumably due to the pandemic. I started this process in January – much later than intended but my mental health was so bad that I couldn’t handle the in person assessment – and didn’t get the equipment until June. Then the laptop that arrived wasn’t the right one and so we had to spend another two weeks – and a somewhat ridiculous amount of emails proving that it was in fact the wrong one – organising the swap, insuring that I got the one that my DSA assessment had determined I needed. A couple of weeks later, the new laptop arrived but setting it up took much longer than it should have. This was due to how the people who’d previously worked on my laptop had set it up, making the transfer of all my files much more complicated and messy. It’s still not as sorted as I would like it to be but it is functional.

Factoring in all of this, had I been doing my Masters in one year rather than two, I would’ve had this equipment for less than a semester before I finished the course. Yes, this was affected by the pandemic, problems with the university Autism support person, and the late start in pursuing DSA but that was due to the reasons I was in need of support so it’s not the most efficient system in that regard: what happens if you’re too disabled by your disability to seek help?

The laptop and software that DSA have provided me with has been invaluable, especially since my laptop was dying a slow death around the time I received the new one. We didn’t get everything we were hoping for but it’s definitely better to have it than to not. So, having now been through this twice, I thought I’d offer some tips that would’ve been helpful to me before going through the process…

  • If you disagree with part or all of the final assessment, ask to talk to someone else – It’s not something you’re necessarily made aware of when you have the assessment but I was so distressed by the end of the assessment that the assessor told us we could appeal. My second assessment yielded quite different results than the first one so it’s definitely worth asking if you feel that you haven’t been heard or fully supported.
  • Ask what kind of documents act as proof of a need for support – The earlier you find out what paperwork might help your case, the quicker the process will go. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that the PIP documentation was helpful and the whole thing may not have taken so long if we had.
  • Take someone with you as it can be overwhelming and tiring – These assessments can go on for hours and there’s a lot of information to both give and receive. Plus, it can be a pretty emotional experience so having someone with you can make the whole thing easier; you have someone to lean on and two pairs of ears to take everything in.
  • Ask for everything that you would find helpful – You might not get it all but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask and hopefully you’ll get some of it. It’s also always worth asking what you’re potentially entitled to because there may be things you aren’t aware of that could be helpful.
  • If you’re told something isn’t possible, ask why – The assessors can’t know every relevant question to ask and you can’t know every relevant piece of information to give so if they tell you something isn’t possible or available, it’s worth asking why because you may have some information or some paperwork that changes the situation and what support you can get.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone considering or going through the process. I hope I haven’t made it sound too scary. I really do recommend it but I wouldn’t want anyone to be unaware of how difficult and stressful it can be. You deserve to get the support you need and I only want to make that easier, if only by arming you with information and advice. So, if you’re going through it, I wish you the best of luck and I’m rooting for you.