Getting Back To Gigging

Over the last twelve months, I’ve barely been performing at all. I just haven’t been up to it. My depression has been completely overwhelming and has only been compounded by trying to find a new antidepressant, what with all the side effects: at one of the few gigs I have done, I was getting so dizzy that I couldn’t stand up long enough to play three songs. So it’s been a struggle. But in the last few weeks, I’ve had two gigs – and two gigs that I really wanted to do – and so I’ve had to figure out how to do everything that that involves while still struggling the way I am. It was hard work and the heat didn’t help but I managed to do them and do them reasonably well all things considered.

The first performance was part of Brighton Soup. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a community event where four people (or organisations) pitch their ideas to improve Brighton and Hove. Everyone votes and the pitch with the most votes gets the money from the ticket sales to make their idea a reality. They invited me to play at their next event and it turned out to be such a special experience. I was so moved by all of the pitches and the general spirit in the room.

I was really anxious about performing – more than I have been in a long time – and my hands were actually shaking. I find that very disconcerting, not being in control of my body. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine it flowing through my body, imagine everything settling. That helped a bit, as did trying to really feel every line of each song as I sang it.

Before this unplanned break from performing, I felt fairly confident on stage and although I did get nervous, it all but disappeared the moment I started singing. It took longer this time but, by the time I finished my four songs, I felt like myself again. I’m not sure I could explain the process – from shaking mess to confident performer – but I could feel it happening and that, in itself, helped with my anxiety.

The second performance was at Disability Pride in Brighton. I got to play last year (despite technical difficulties, it’s still one of my favourite performing experiences) and I was SO excited to get to play again. It’s such a special event.

It turned out to be a pretty challenging gig. The acoustic stage was inside an inflatable structure, which needed a generator to remain inflated. The generator was so loud that I couldn’t hear myself at all. I was reassured by multiple people that it sounded great from the audience’s perspective, but I still really struggled with it. Had this happened a year ago when I was performing fairly regularly, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much because the more you perform, the more it gets into your muscle memory. So, if you’re struggling to hear yourself, you can rely on other parts of your body to judge how the performance is going: how your voice feels in your throat, for example. But during this ‘break’ from performing, that muscle memory has faded and so I was relying heavily on hearing myself. So it wasn’t as easy as it could’ve been. Plus it was stiflingly hot and I’ve always struggled with heat.

But having said all of that, it was one of the most supportive and most generous audiences I’ve ever played for and I felt so, so lucky to be there. I wish I could’ve given them a better performance. My sincerest thanks to everyone who made the event possible; I literally can’t put into words (I’ve been staring at the computer screen for an hour) how much it means to me.

The last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster, but one that I’m really grateful for. I’d sort of forgotten how much I love performing but this has really helped to remind me.

 

A Holiday Bubble

From the age of about two years old, I’ve been going to a little town in Norfolk almost every year on holiday. While I was in school, we – me, my parents, and our dog – would go during the October half term but in recent years, we’ve been going in the early summer, before the schools break up. We stay in a caravan less than a ten-minute walk from a stunning sandy beach and I absolutely love it.

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Some people find it strange that we always go back to the same place but as far as I can tell, there are two basic types of holidays: going to explore and going to relax. Both have their pros and cons. This is definitely a relaxation holiday. It’s familiar and calm and beautiful. It’s a bubble away from reality where I can just be, in a way I can’t at home. And, of course, familiarity and Autism go together like fish and chips. We also ate a lot of fish and chips…

I’ve been back from Norfolk a few days and I just really wanted to write about it. After having had so much change with the house move, the changing of medications, and the decision to keep my cat’s kittens, it was really nice to be somewhere so familiar and safe. And as much as I love the cats, I really enjoyed having some dedicated dog time with Lucky. Because he’s now so arthritic, we have to be careful to not over walk him (his enthusiasm far exceeds his physical ability so he’s not much help there) but we manage a couple of trips to the beach, which he loved. He can’t really run anymore but there was a fair amount of skipping, one sure-fire way to know he’s enjoying himself. It’s very cute.

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The beaches in Norfolk are just beautiful. The closest beach, the one we jokingly call ‘our beach,’ is particularly close to my heart. Every year, I step onto that beach and everything just clicks into place. It’s subtle but I suddenly feel like my head’s a little clearer, like I can breathe more easily. Something inside me settles. It’s like I leave a little piece of myself there, that I miss all year round, and then, when I get back, it’s an overwhelming relief. I’ve spent some glorious evenings on that beach.

It was ridiculously hot all week so I spent a lot of time inside with all the windows and doors open. I’m really not good with heat. It’s something I’ve heard from quite a few other people with Autism; I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a link, given the hypersensitivity that often comes as part of being autistic. Anyway. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of writing and catch up a bit with my diary (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know that my writing can be quite compulsive). That felt really good. I also rewatched some of my favourite films and played chess. The latter is something I haven’t had the concentration to do for months so that felt like a victory in itself, much more exciting than actually winning at chess.

Being there doesn’t eradicate my anxiety entirely but it does a pretty good job of dampening it. Sometimes anxiety feels like this constant vibration that I can’t stop, can’t take a break from. But in Norfolk I can. I still get anxious about specific things but that relentless vibration momentarily ceases. And that’s such a relief.

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Travelling As An Autistic Person

Travelling is hard work for everybody. It’s exhausting and stressful and frustrating. But add in sensory issues or anxiety or whatever it is you struggle with and it can be a traumatic experience. Since we are now in the summer holidays and prime travelling time, I thought I’d put together some things that I found helpful to do as an autistic person who struggles with anxiety. I would like to point out (again) that there is a maddening lack of resources (and even simple testimony) for or from the point of view of autistic people. I spent hours searching for something but there was next to nothing; all the advice was for parents of young autistic children. Of course that information is important but it’s very demoralising to an autistic adult – essentially being compared to a child – especially one who was diagnosed late and has had to work so hard, often unaided, to manage their difficulties.

PLAN AHEAD – I know, this is my advice for everything, but it really does help. Struggling with unexpected change is a common trait in Autism and while planning can’t prevent all of those changes, it can make a huge difference. It can also give you a confidence boost, knowing that your actions have prevented a certain amount of anxiety.

SPEAK TO A TRAVEL AGENT – Being able to hand some of the responsibility off to someone else can be really helpful, especially if you have limited energy. You have to prioritise the tasks and if there are people who can help, that is a valuable resource. These people are also more likely to know the ins and outs of booking flights and accommodations etc and will therefore be more equipped to help you get what you need and want to get the most out of your trip.

CHOOSE YOUR ACCOMODATION CAREFULLY – Having somewhere where you can have time out and recharge is so important when travelling. We all have different sensory needs and different things we can tolerate so choosing a place to stay is really important. For example, staying with other people (people I don’t know) causes me a lot of anxiety so when we look through Airbnb, we look at places that allow us to be the sole inhabitants. It won’t be the same for everyone but if you can identify what you need, you can hopefully find somewhere to stay that can be a restful place rather than a stressful one.

WRITE A LIST OF EVERYTHING YOU’LL NEED AND HAVE SOMEONE CHECK IT – Having a list makes packing so much easier and having someone check it for you just reduces the chances of making a stupid mistake like forgetting your pyjamas. Because that really isn’t something you need to deal with when you arrive wherever you’re going. Also make sure that you’ve got any medications or medical equipment that you need because those can be particularly difficult to get hold of, especially if you’re in another country.

PACK AN EMERGENCY KIT IN YOUR CARRY ON BAGGAGE – On the off chance that your bags get lost along the way, pack a change of clothes, some medication, etc in your carry on bag so that you can at least get up the next day and work out a solution.

BRING YOUR OWN FOOD – You’d need to check with your airline but there are certain foods that you can take in your suitcase that won’t cause you any problems while travelling. That means that, at the very least, you’ll have something to eat when you get to your destination. But in my case, it gave me a staple food that I knew I could eat in case I couldn’t find anything I could tolerate. It took away some of the anxiety, for which I was grateful.

PREPARE SPECIFICALLY FOR THE FLIGHT – Apparently, we’re flying in this hypothetical. Many people have fears associated with flying and while I don’t have any magic words of wisdom there, there are a couple of tricks to make it slightly less difficult, especially if you have sensory issues. Take sweets to suck on and relieve the pressure in your ears. Wearing a mask over your face can help if you’re worried about bad reactions to everyone’s germs in one confined space, as well as chemicals from perfumes etc. I’ve also found that a playlist of familiar music helps with the constant noise of flying. And wearing comfortable clothes: you’re most likely gonna look awful when you get there anyway so why bother with anything more than a T-shirt and leggings.

BUILD IN TIME OUT AND DON’T FEEL GUILTY FOR IT – Easier said than done, I know but burning yourself out in the first couple of days doesn’t make for a good trip. So try to take breaks between things and listen to your body: if you need to rest, rest. It will make the whole trip more enjoyable and worthwhile if you do.

As of now, I think that’s all I’ve got. But if you guys have any tips that you’ve found helpful, please let me know!

Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

(Blog Note: I was hoping to post this yesterday but I just had to take a break from everything so it’s a day late. Sorry!)


As many of you will be aware, this last week, 14th to 20th May, was Mental Health Awareness Week and although I fully intended to have a series of mental health related posts ready to go up, life conspired against me to make that impossible. A big part of that was putting my first single out (available hereeeeeee!) so I’m not complaining but it has been stressful and taking up a lot of my brain. So my posts have been a bit all over the place – I’m working on that, I promise. But I did want to acknowledge this week because it is important.

I have seen so many social media posts this week where people have shared their stories and struggles with mental health and I’ve been blown away by each one. Sharing this stuff is such a big deal and I’m in awe of everyone who chooses to do so. This sort of stuff can make you feel like the world is shrinking around you but feeling understood opens it back up; it’s incredibly healing. I didn’t know how much I needed it until I found it. In my experience, talking about all of this has gotten easier, over time and with ‘practice,’ but it’s still hard. I still find myself hitting an invisible wall, choking on the air in my lungs, knowing that everything might change if I say the words out loud. It’s happened before. But I know that that’s the fear talking. And most of the time, I know better than the fear.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I live with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, although I wouldn’t blame you for losing track. My posts tend to jump around a lot, between different experiences and different diagnoses. Plus, things can change over time. Over the last twelve months, I’ve struggled particularly with the OCD, the anxiety, and the depression – the depression most of all. This time last year I was in a really bad place and one of the consequences of that was the decision to change my medication; it wasn’t the right thing for me anymore. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a new one without much luck; the side effects have been a rollercoaster ride and most of the time, I’m too numb to really feel any of my emotions. True, I’ve had very few meltdowns but, if meltdowns are the price of feeling things and therefore feeling like I’m actually alive, I will take them. So I’m not done with the medication search. Not yet.

I guess I’m surviving. I’m getting through. Hopefully, by next year, it will be more than that.

This week might have been about speaking out but that doesn’t mean it’s the only course of action that requires courage. Simply living with mental illness requires courage and as long as you are doing what you need to do to be safe and happy (or what will get you there), that’s all that matters.

The Weird World of Anxiety Dreams

I have experienced anxiety dreams, in one form or another, for most of my life. I don’t know very much about the science behind dreaming but as I understand it, we tend to have anxiety dreams when we’re trying to cope with stressful stuff, or they are our brain’s way of telling us that we need to deal with something. Some of the common ones include losing something important, finding yourself naked in public, being chased, and scenarios involving the end of the world. I have had all of these at one point or another so I thought I’d write down the ones that stick out most in my mind and put them out into the world. Maybe some of you guys can relate.

The first anxiety dream I remember having was about being trapped in a car. The car was sitting at the top of a hill, on a street I knew well, and then it suddenly began to roll down towards the busy main road. I was stuck inside, panicking and unable to make it stop. I always woke up before I reached the bottom but I can still feeling that suffocating fear. I think these started when I was about five or six and I had them many times for several years. Then, when I was a teenager, they changed slightly. Instead of being stuck in a moving car, I was suddenly expected to drive somewhere without knowing how, without ever having had a lesson. I don’t know why but the expectation that I could was definitely there. I would get in the car and attempt to drive and while I was initially successful, it was just a matter of time before something went wrong. This is apparently a very common anxiety dream, which isn’t surprising given that most of us hate feeling out of control.

My most common recurring dream is one where my teeth start falling out. There are a couple of different variations of this: sometimes my teeth just become wobbly and slowly fall out one by one, and sometimes they just disintegrate in my mouth and I’m spitting out fragments of enamel. They’re incredibly vivid and I’m always convinced that they’re real. I wake up breathless and disorientated. I have no idea where this one comes from or whether it means anything. I don’t subscribe to the theory that when you dream, specific things have specific meanings, but it seems pretty likely that feeling out of control in a dream links to feeling out of control in some part of your life. I still don’t know what teeth are supposed to represent though.

There’s another one that I’ve only started having recently. I’m walking into college, heading to a Maths lesson when I remember that I haven’t been to a Maths lesson in months and therefore will be expected to hand in months of late homework which I do not have. I could just not go but the exams are getting ever closer and I need to learn it all. My anxiety is just starting to spiral when I wake up and it takes me a while to untangle myself from it. If I were going to guess the meaning, I’d say it had something to do with my fear of falling behind and not being good enough. And getting into trouble. But that’s not a big leap to make.

I don’t know how anxiety dreams fit in to the picture when you live with an anxiety disorder, when you live with significant levels of anxiety every single day. Does it mean that the level of anxiety necessary to trigger the dreams is just higher? Maybe every dream we have is an anxiety dream but we only remember a fraction of them… I don’t know what the answers are. But I thought I’d put my experience out there and see if anyone relates to it. If any of you have had anxiety dreams, I’d love to hear how similar or different they are to mine.

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Side Effect City

Just over a month ago, I started taking Venlafaxine for my depression. I’ve tried lots of different anti depressants in the past, many of which I had a bad reaction to, so I was nervous. Weaning myself off the Phenelzine was hard and I was very, very depressed but somehow, I reached a point where I felt ready to feel different. It was a bit like breaking the surface after being underwater. I was, and still am, desperate to feel better.

Week 1

I started on a very low dose, half the lowest therapeutic dose, so that my body could get used to it. But despite that, I felt the effects straight away and incredibly strongly. I was very nauseous. It was so bad that I couldn’t really concentrate on anything else; all my concentration was focussed on not throwing up. It made me dizzy and I was tired all the time. I did check with my psychiatrist to make sure it was okay to keep going with it and he said it would pass so I focussed on tolerating it.

The other immediate change was my sleep. I went from struggling to wake up before eleven (and I mean really struggling: it felt like I was drowning) to being wide awake at eight o’clock in the morning. It was bizarre.

Week 2

The nausea faded around the beginning of the second week, which I was very grateful for. My mood, while still pretty low, was stable, and I was still waking up much earlier than I had been able to previously. However I started having headaches and I was exhausted all the time, which made it very hard to do anything.

Week 3

In the third week, I went up to the lowest therapeutic dose. This caused a pretty dramatic reaction. For the first few days I was so tired that I fell asleep in the middle of the day, something I haven’t done in years. But despite that, I was waking up even earlier, between six and six thirty am.

By the middle of the week, I couldn’t concentrate at all. I couldn’t hold a conversation, I couldn’t follow the storyline of a forty-minute TV episode, I couldn’t even play a game on my phone… That was scary, but I couldn’t even really feel that because I couldn’t seem to process the emotion. I started to feel faint and very shaky and that went on for several days. If I stood up for longer than a couple of minutes, my legs started to shake and my hands shook so badly that I couldn’t hold a pen. That was very unpleasant.

Week 4

Most of the fourth week was lost because of severe, unexplained leg pain that had me in tears. My psychiatrist didn’t think it had anything to do with the medication and DVT was ruled out but other than that, we don’t know what caused it. I’ve been taking painkillers since and it’s been better. So that tired me out and overwhelmed everything else. But since then, the shaking has mostly stopped and I’m back to waking up between eight and nine in the morning.

This week is the first where I’ve felt different mentally and emotionally while taking Venlafaxine. I wouldn’t say I feel better but I’ve been feeling a bit lighter. That feels very strange and a bit scary. With this new lightness, I’ve been feeling a bit lost which I’ve written about here. I’ve been so depressed for so long that I can’t remember what it’s like to not be depressed. But despite all of those confusing emotions, I am pleased that this medication is starting to work. It will probably take another month or so to really know how it’s affecting me but it’s looking positive and I’m really grateful for that.