A Somewhat Reluctant Birthday Post

My birthday this year was definitely weird, hence why I’m only just writing about it a couple of months after the fact. I’ve been struggling to process the last few months just because of how much stuff has happened: the final project of my Masters wrapping up, the final assessment, the Masters being over, the sudden death of my Granny, her funeral, performing again for the first time in eighteen months, changing my medication, graduation, the celebration of life for my Granny… It’s been a lot and I honestly have no idea how I feel most of the time. But I’m hoping that, by putting it into words, it’ll help. Somehow.

So, for the last few years, I’ve been trying to ease my anxiety around birthdays with some birthday rules I picked up from Tumblr a while back. My first post about them is here, but the basic idea is to do something you wouldn’t normally do and buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy, to make each birthday unique and special. For some reason, this year was harder than the previous ones and I really struggled to commit to an idea for both rules. But, given that it’s now two months later, I think I need to let it go and stop obsessing. Whatever’s causing my anxiety over this, it’s taking up too much energy that I need elsewhere.

So, I’m writing it down and putting it to bed…


Rule #1: Do something you wouldn’t normally do.

I was going back and forth on what to do when the perfect thing fell into my lap: the opportunity to perform again for the first time in about eighteen months! And not only that but it was two gigs, the first at the original Hard Rock Cafe in London and the second at the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly Circus. So, while I was very nervous, I was also very, very excited. Given the tight turnaround between getting the gigs and them actually happening, Richard and I only managed to practice together once. Fortunately, we are very well practiced at the Honest EP songs and picked them up again quickly so we could, for the most part, focus on the other songs we were playing.

The first night was actually the night of my birthday and I was so nervous that I could barely breathe. My body felt so awkward and it was almost like I couldn’t remember how to perform, how to hold my body, how to not bump into the microphone, how to talk between songs… But, by the second half of my set, it was all rushing back and I was just overflowing with that unique joy of getting to do the thing you love most in the world (well, other than the songwriting itself but you know what I mean). I was SO HAPPY. I was positively giddy with it. It wasn’t my strongest performance ever but after eighteen months of playing to my living room, I wouldn’t have expected it to be. It was jumping in at the deep end. And although it felt so awkward at the beginning, it all came back very quickly and I couldn’t wait for the next night so I could do it all over again.

The second night went well, on the whole. Despite the night before, I was still nervous and it was a very different space; the lower ceiling meant that the sound bounced around differently and it took a while to adjust (just like everything, adjusting to the space you’re performing in is a skill that requires practice) but, again, I had so much fun. Performing songs that I’ve written about things that matter to me… it’s when I’m doing that that I feel most comfortable in my own skin, most in sync with the world around me. It’s the best feeling. Everyone was so lovely and I had such a great time.

It was just so fun to perform again. And it was so fun to perform with Richard again (and what a trooper he was, having moved house the day of the second performance). I loved getting to play the songs from the Honest EP, I loved performing some of my unreleased songs, and I loved playing a few brand new covers (including ‘Lullaby’ by Kalie Shorr and ‘this is me trying’ by Taylor Swift, both of which are among my favourite songs). I’m so grateful to everyone at both shows – those working in the venues and the other performers – and my friends and family who came to support and celebrate with me; it was just a complete joy and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my birthday any other way, even if I was beyond nervous about it.

Rule #2: Buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy.

I was very aware that Taylor Swift was releasing Red (Taylor’s Version) in November and given how much the original means to me, I knew I would want to spend money on it when it came out. So I tucked some money away until the album was released on the 12th November. As much as I loved it before, I fell in love with it all over again, not to mention the new songs: they’ve added so many new layers to the world of the album. It’s a stunning album and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’m learning even more about songcraft.

Along with the album and the vinyl, I treated myself to some of the accompanying merch, including the scarf and the notebook. Oh, and the jumper with ‘Taylor’s Version’ across the front; that was just so perfect. What she’s doing with the rerecordings is incredible and, as someone entering the music industry, it’s both encouraging and inspiring to have a woman like her advocating for the rights of songwriters and artists. Plus, it seems fitting. Her music has had such a huge impact on my life; I wouldn’t be who I am now if not for her music.


So while both of these things were Good Things, it was a weird and hard birthday. There’s just been so much to process – so much change – and so much anxiety; it was hard to settle on a decision because nothing felt right. But I’m starting to think that, given everything going on, nothing was going to feel right. So it’s time to move on. It’s time to stop worrying about it. I did the best I could with that birthday I had and it was good, even if it was messier than I would’ve liked. Such is life.

Lauren Alex Hooper, MA.

During this last year, as I worked through the second year of my Masters, I’ve been thinking a lot about graduation. Primarily, I thought a lot about whether it would even happen – in person, that is; last year’s graduation was done online – and what it would be like, what it would feel like to graduate with a Masters and a Masters completed for the most part during a global pandemic and multiple national lockdowns. The whole idea seemed surreal. I was mostly thinking about my university’s award ceremony, our unofficial graduation since we officially graduate from the University of East London (UEL) – such complications are a part of life at a specialised university, I guess. I hadn’t thought much about the UEL graduation; I’m glad I went for my BA but it doesn’t feel like my university so I wasn’t super invested in going one way or another. Even if it’s more symbolic than official, my university’s awards ceremony was what I thought about when I thought about graduation.

But, as is often the case, graduation was much more complicated than I’d imagined. It’s big and complicated and emotional but long story short, my graduation isn’t official yet. I’m not entirely sure when it will be but I’m following it all up. And as my final project supervisor said, “the graduation is not the achievement – that is in you. Regardless of when you receive the MA certificate, you are Lauren Hooper, MA.” That has really helped me, over and over again through this last part of the journey, and it definitely helped me make the most of the day.


There are various different parts or different layers to this day so I thought I’d split them up and look at them one by one…

DRESS

I stressed A LOT about what to wear to graduation. I’ve struggled with body image for a long time and, to be completely honest, I struggle daily not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of hating how I look. That, combined with just really wanting to feel good about myself for such a special occasion, meant I had multiple meltdowns and almost meltdowns over the whole thing. It’s just a very loaded thing for me, especially at the moment it seems. So that was a big thing to throw into an already complicated and emotional situation. I went back and forth on multiple options and only at around midnight the night before did I make the final decision.

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Probably because I’d spent so much time thinking about how I felt and how I felt about how I looked, it didn’t really occur to me to think about anyone else’s reaction; people commenting on my appearance isn’t something that happens very often. But suddenly, there were all of these people – including people I didn’t even know – saying really nice things and I didn’t really know how to respond to them. It was kind of surreal, nice but still surreal and strange. As I said, it’s just a really loaded and difficult place in my head. I loved the way it sparkled under the lights when I walked across the stage but then I look at the photos of myself and… I really struggle with looking at photos of myself. This whole topic really needs its own post but it was part of the day and so I didn’t want to leave it out. I’m trying to separate how I feel when I look at the photos and how it felt to hear people say positive things. That’s all I can do right now.

CEREMONY

Between a very early alarm and getting to London in time, it wasn’t the most relaxing start to the day and I found it very stressful (which didn’t help the migraine and nausea I had to battle all day – it was unfortunate that coming off my antidepressant and graduation overlapped). But we got there (Union Chapel is a beautiful venue and it was very cool to be graduating there), the COVID precautions were really good, and it wasn’t long before I was heading in with a handful of my coursemates.

There was the usual sprinkle of chaos. We had to get into order by surname, despite the fact that a not insignificant number of us had never met or even seen each other in the one set of online lectures we all had together. And it didn’t help that multiple people had been left out of the program (and some, myself included, didn’t get the official certificate after crossing the stage). So it was… interesting. But it was lovely to see some many people that have been a pretty significant part of the last two years of my life; I’m just sad that some of my favourite people couldn’t be there due to other commitments.

There were five or so courses that walked the stage before us, plus the head of each course gave a speech. Given how little time I was actually onsite during my course (not even six months of the two years), I was surprised how many people I knew. When you’re in the building, it’s not hard to end up becoming friends with people from other courses but with everything online, those casual encounters don’t happen and, to me at least, it felt like the different courses existed in their own bubbles. But having said that, I realised I knew a lot more people than I thought and it was an unexpected bonus to get to celebrate their achievements along with those of my close friends and coursemates. And some of the speeches were great, inspiring and moving; there were some great quotes there that I’ll take away with me.

When it was our turn, the head of our course gave a great speech and then, one by one, we were walking across the stage. Because they didn’t have my certificate (due to the aforementioned screw up around my graduation) but  as I was receiving a separate award (more on that in a moment), they asked if I’d wait until the end of the line. That was fine with me; it was really nice to get to watch everyone do their walk and cheer for them.

AWARD

My name was finally called and I got to walk across the stage. It was kind of a blur of sensory information – lights, noise, the ground felt like it was moving under my feet – but I made it across the stage. I didn’t take it in at the time but watching the video my Mum had taken and hearing the cheer for me… it makes me pretty emotional. It’s a bit like with the dress: I guess I’m just not used to being noticed. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling invisible that being seen – feeling seen, really seen – kind of takes my breath away. I don’t know how to describe it, if I’m honest. It just means a lot to me.

As I said, there wasn’t a certificate for me but each course gives an award to one student for ‘outstanding achievement.’ And given everything I’ve just said about feeling invisible, I was very emotional when I found out that I was being awarded it; I’m still processing it, to be honest. So, having crossed the stage, my head of course (who has also taught me on and off over the last seven years) had me stand to the side while she introduced the award. She said some really, really special things – particularly about my final project, which I absolutely poured every part of myself into – and presented me with the award. We took the picture and I slid back into the row with my coursemates. Everyone was so lovely about it and I’m just so grateful to all of them for making my Masters experience what it was; despite all of the hard stuff, I wouldn’t have had it any other way because of the people I met.

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RECEPTION

After the final few courses walked the stage and the last of the speeches, the ceremony concluded and we moved upstairs to the bar for the reception. It was somewhat surreal to be seeing and hugging and hanging out with people I’ve (pretty much) only seen online for the last eighteen months or so, surreal but wonderful. I saw so many of my friends; I got to meet their families; I caught up with a handful of my tutors, both from the MA and from my BA (some of them I haven’t seen properly since early 2020 at the latest since they didn’t teach on the MA and so I only ever saw them in the halls, something that obviously didn’t happen when we moved online). I had some really lovely, really special conversations that I will treasure. These last two years have been so weird – with such extremes of difficult and wonderful – and, with all of that still so fresh and still going on to varying degrees, I just felt so aware and so grateful for the good things, many of which are tied to my MA and therefore graduation.

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I was absolutely exhausted and in a lot of pain afterwards. I could barely walk to the car. But all of the time on my feet, all the anxiety, the medication withdrawal, the emotion… it just hit me like a train. It took me days to recover – not an unusual experience – and, with my Granny’s Celebration of Life a few days after and the whole medication change, I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet. It’s been such a weird, busy, emotional time and it’s just been hit after hit after hit. I’m doing my best to cope with it all but it’s a lot. But I did it. I finished my Masters. I am Lauren Alex Hooper, MA. Those two letters after my name mean so much to me because they represent how hard I worked to be here and I can’t be anything but proud of that.

Farewell Phenelzine 2.0 (The 2021 Edition)

The decision to change my medication has been a long time coming. I was diagnosed with ADHD back in January but, for various reasons, I haven’t been able to take any medication for it up to this point. As I said in this post, my specialist wouldn’t allow me to take any of the classic, stimulant medications for ADHD while I was still taking my current antidepressant, Phenelzine. So, in order to take anything for my ADHD (other than the less common medications that would only make me even drowsier than I am currently), I would have to come off the Phenelzine and either try a different antidepressant or try going without one. That all felt too much to manage while I was doing my Masters – it feels like a lot to manage now – but now that the Masters as is over and I’m already in a period of transition, it felt like it was time to come off the Phenelzine. The side effects were going to throw a wrench in several plans but that was going to be the case regardless of when I decided to do it and I hated the feeling of having it hanging over me. I know I need to do it but a big part of me really didn’t want to (and is still sceptical to a certain degree): over the last ten years, I’ve found it all but impossible to write songs during the periods when I wasn’t taking Phenelzine so it’s not surprising that it’s not exactly an easy decision. But if I want to get out of this limbo state, then I need to try.

So, beginning the 18th November, I started to reduce the dosage of the Phenelzine. For two weeks, I took half my normal dose and then I went another two weeks without anything in my system, giving my body the time to filter out any traces of the Phenelzine (known as the wash out period) and ensuring that way any new drug I take won’t result in a negative interaction. As always, it’s important to point out that this is a plan I’ve worked out with my psychiatrist and my ADHD specialist and is specifically tailored to me. If you’re making any changes around any medication you’re taking, please consult your doctor first.


REDUCTION PERIOD

WEEK 1 (Monday 18th October – Sunday 24th October)

For most of the week, I felt fine, which surprised me: usually, if I miss a dose of Phenelzine, I get hit with a headache pretty quickly but for some reason, that didn’t happen this time. I was tired and a bit more emotional than usual but nothing that out of the ordinary, nothing that couldn’t just happen anyway. I think those first four days lulled me into a false sense of security.

It hit me on the Friday. I felt weak and shaky and had a really unpleasant headache. And that turned into feeling absolutely awful over the weekend: I had debilitating migraines; I felt nauseous, shaky, and lightheaded; I thought I might faint every time I stood up. I also developed an annoying cough and, after multiple COVID tests, I had to assume it was part of the withdrawal and not COVID related (thank goodness – I don’t think I could’ve coped with that as well and I’m glad my family didn’t either).

WEEK 2 (Monday 25th October – Sunday 31st October)

The cough and the migraines continued into the middle of the week and then, fortunately, they started to let up. My sleep schedule was utterly screwed up: I was struggling to get to sleep and not drifting off until between two and five am and then, because I was so exhausted, I was sleeping in to the middle of the afternoon. And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t correct the schedule. I also had really weird, really vivid dreams that took me a while to drag myself out of and separate dream from reality. I did have a sudden, deep dip in mood where I felt really awful and discouraged about the various things I’m currently working on, which was scary: my big fear about coming off the Phenelzine has been returning to that really depressed place I was in before so to feel it happening was horrible. But fortunately it didn’t last and I’ve tried to just stay away from things that trigger those kind of feelings, for the duration of this changeover at least.

By Sunday, things had started to improve and I was feeling a bit more human. Having said that, I was not looking forward to the rollercoaster that the next two weeks were likely to be.

WASH OUT PERIOD

WEEK 1 (Monday 1st November – Sunday 7th November)

The beginning of the week was okay with just minor headaches and some nausea, both of which were pretty ignorable. And apart from sleeping really deeply and the continuation of the weird, vivid dreams, I felt okay. But by the end of the week, I was feeling very tired and just generally unwell again. The cough had faded but it picked up again and then, on Sunday, the nausea was back in full force.

WEEK 2 (Monday 8th November – Sunday 14th November)

This was a very big week. Unfortunately. It was a really bad time to be coming off a medication but, as I said, it’s almost always a bad time. There’s always something happening so I just had to get it over with. But this week held both my graduation from university (I had a great time but physically, I did spend the day counting down to the next dose of painkillers and – on several occasions – actively focussed on not throwing up) and my Granny’s Celebration of Life service (thankfully, by that point, I was feeling a bit better and was able to just focus on the day without too much distraction). Given those two huge things, I spent a lot of the week dealing with a lot of physical exhaustion and pain.

The cough was ongoing and I had migraines for most of the week, although they did lessen in intensity by the end of the week. I was nauseous, shaky, and overly emotional but, again, that had mostly passed by the weekend. On the Sunday, I was a bit weak and nauseous but I felt a lot more human than earlier in the week.


So, four weeks later, I’m finally starting medication for my ADHD. I’m excited but I’m also nervous; I haven’t had many good experiences with medications and it’s taken a lot of trial and error to find the only one that’s helped so far. So it’s a bit scary to be starting over with a whole new category of medications but I’m trying to stay… cautiously optimistic. I’ve started Xaggitin XL and now, I guess, I just have to wait and see.