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.

The New Plan

The last few months have been tough, medication wise. I had a wonderful, un-depressed Christmas (which I’m massively grateful for) but since then, I’ve been struggling. My mood just kept dropping and my anxiety just kept getting worse and we tried to alter the medication to compensate, to find that perfect balance, but it’s gotten to the point where we just need to try something new. So I’m taking stock of everything and trying to figure out how I feel about all of it.

The Clomipramine (a Tricyclic anti-depressant) worked for a while. As I said, I had a really good Christmas where I felt joyful and energetic and actually happy for the first time in a really, really long time. But then it seemed to lose its effectiveness and my mood dropped, whether that was because I was taking a magnesium supplement (I talk about that here) or because it just had a short shelf life. I don’t know. But it stopped working and my depression returned. Since then, my depression has been stifling and I’ve really struggled with suicidal thoughts, at an intensity I’ve never experienced before.

My anxiety also skyrocketed so, in addition to the Pregabalin (also known as Lyrica) I was already taking, I started taking Flupentixol to help manage it. At first I felt no different but after adjusting the dose, my anxiety decreased dramatically and I started to feel a bit more functional. But in the months since then, it seems there have been a number of difficult side effects: my energy levels dropped dramatically, to the point where even a shower is a real struggle. Standing for any length of time is impossible and I ended up being wheeled around multiple airports in a wheelchair during my Nashville trip. The worst part though was that my hands felt thick and clumsy, like my fine motor skills had just evaporated into thin air. Playing guitar was practically impossible.

At first I didn’t realise that these things were connected to the Flupentixol but thanks to my Mum and her incredible attention to detail, we realised that the dates all seem to match up and since we reduced said medication, these problems have disappeared. I’m ridiculously grateful to have my hands back, even if my anxiety has flooded back in.

We’ve reached a point where I can remain where I am or start over. So I’m starting over. I don’t want to live like this. So, after a lot of thinking and talking to my psychiatrist, I’m coming off both the Clomipramine and the Flupentixol. I’m not a massive fan of the Pregablin either to be honest but even changing two things at once is ambitious. So that one can wait. I’ve already started reducing the meds and I’m bracing myself for a barrage of mood swings, depressive episodes, and more. It’s not going to be fun. But it will be worth it. Hopefully.

The current plan is to come off the two drugs, go the ‘wash out’ period (two weeks of no drugs – apart from the Pregablin – so that there aren’t any negative interactions between the medications), and then start Phenelzine again. Yes, Phenelzine – the drug I stopped taking two years ago because it had stopped working, because the joyfulness it gave me felt fake and suffocating. BUT it’s the only drug that’s allowed me to be functional – creatively and otherwise – so we’re giving it another try. It did work for a long time and if it doesn’t, we’ll try another MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) anti-depressant.

I’m not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. Part of me is frustrated and disappointed. I’ve spent two years trying to find something better only to end up where I started. But on the other hand, that’s two years of knowledge, experience, and confidence that I didn’t have before. I’m a different person and chances are, my reactions will be different: our bodies change and our chemical makeup is constantly shifting. These medications all but cause a hurricane inside us. So I’m trying to be optimistic. I’m trying to be hopeful.

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When Things Get Really Bad

Since I last posted on here, literally all I’ve done is survive.

After putting up last week’s post, I went to therapy, which just about wrecked me. It was really hard going. I don’t want to get too into what we talked about and what I’m currently struggling with because I’m really struggling with it and I’m still figuring out how to put all of it into words. But I think the gist of it is important to include: I’m struggling with ‘feeling’ autistic, like I’m never going to be able to function the same way as everyone else. I don’t know how to cope with a thought like that. And that has really triggered my depression, in a massive way. I feel like I say this every time, but it feels like the worst place I’ve ever been; but maybe I say it every time because each time takes more out of me.

It looks so small and simple when I write it out like that. But in reality it’s powerful enough to overwhelm everything.

I left therapy feeling absolutely drained. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day, get through the week to the next session. But somehow I did, one minute at a time. This week has been about survival because sometimes that’s all you can manage – I feel like I’m standing on the very edge of the black hole that is my depression and it’s taking all of my focus to not get pulled in. So while I feel like I’ve achieved nothing, I’ve actually achieved everything. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

So I thought I’d write down what I do when I’m in this place, where the only thing I can do is survive:

Each day, I get up at seven and go to the gym to swim for thirty minutes. I always want to do more but through trial and error (usually error), I’ve found that this is the amount I can do and still kind of function. If I push on, I end up falling asleep during the day and screwing up my sleeping pattern or I end up in a place where everything makes me cry. So I’m trying to be sensible and build it up slowly.

I get home and head for the living room. I curl up on the sofa, turn on the TV and continue the rewatch of whatever TV show I’m watching (currently The Mentalist). I’m not really watching; it’s more about having familiar, comforting background noise so that the scary thoughts can’t get in. Then I find something that will distract me from all the overwhelmingly difficult things. The activities that work best for me are playing piano and printing, cutting, and sticking pictures from Tumblr into notebooks. And sometimes reading a book works, if I have the concentration to actually read.

And I use those things to get me through the day. I spend time with the animals in my house. I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who works from home so that I can have someone with me when I need to have someone with me. I try to eat well.

And then I go to bed not too late and start all over again.

It’s a hard thing to get my head around and I’m aware that I’m very hard on myself. Because even though I genuinely believe that sometimes all you can do is survive, I find myself getting desperately upset that I’m ‘not doing anything.’ I feel like I’m not trying hard enough – in my mental health, in my music, in my life – and that I should ‘push through it.’ And it’s so hard to think that when I feel so overwhelmed by my depression.

And, outside all of that stuff, someone I care about is in hospital and no one really knows what the outcome is going to be. So I’m trying to manage all the anxiety around that too but it’s like trying to stand on ground that’s constantly shifting.

I think that, if I keep writing, I’m going to end up going in circles: ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ to ‘I should be trying harder’ and back to ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ and round and round and round. So I’m going to stop here. But regardless of all my anxieties and negative thoughts, I know that it’s okay to focus on surviving. And I hope you know that too.