The Fifth Semester of My Masters

The time has come to sum up the final semester of my Masters. I am done. That’s sort of unbelievable. Given everything that’s happened since I started the course in September 2019, the end of the Masters always felt so far away and although I have lots of plans, I do feel a bit lost now that all of the work is done. Maybe it’s because I haven’t received my final grade or because I haven’t actually graduated yet; maybe once those things happen, the experience will feel a bit more… finished. It was always going to be weird – I’ve been going to this uni on and off for the last seven years – but knowing something and actually feeling it are so different.

So, here is my final semester review.


The final semester of my Masters course involves a largely independent project called the Major Repertoire Project and as long as you’re developing your songwriting skills and knowledge in some way, you can pretty much do whatever you want. People have done projects exploring identity, exploring their heritage, writing song cycles or musicals, digging deeper into their own songwriting and pursuing an artist project like an album, experimenting with newer applications of songwriting (such as in various therapies), and so on. It’s a fascinating module because everyone ends up doing something so different and so interesting. And after a spending a year or two focussing on their craft, the songwriting is so incredible; the final works that I’ve heard are amazing. It would probably take a month but I would happily listen through everyone’s projects.

For my project, I chose to explore my experiences as an autistic woman through songwriting, attempting to translate those experiences both through the lyrics and storytelling and the execution of the song, from the structure to the arrangement to the production and so on. I wanted to write songs that autistic individuals would hopefully relate to and that neurotypical individuals would hopefully gain some insight from. But while the overall goal was to create a body of work, a large part of the project involved researching our chosen area – Autism, in my case – responding to the research (sometimes that was through practice and sometimes it inspired specific songs), and reflecting on my songwriting process and how it was evolving during the project.

The module officially began in the second week of May but I’d already started working on it: I’ve been thinking about this project ever since I applied for the Masters so I was super excited to finally start doing it. But I’d barely begun when I started getting debilitating migraines that lasted for days at a time and resulted in several ambulance visits because the pain was so bad. We eventually traced the source back to one of my teeth: the emergency dentist thought the nerve was dying and diagnosed an abscess. I was top priority for an extraction and given antibiotics (which I had to have a second round of when it flared up again midway through the semester). Fortunately my university granted me an extension – giving me back the time that I’d lost – but it was a flexible extension in case I suddenly got pulled in to have the tooth taken out and needed some recovery time. Due to the long waiting list (and bear in mind that this was the waiting list for emergencies), I still haven’t had the tooth taken out and while the antibiotics and some good painkillers have prevented any more similar episodes, I’ve still been dealing with some tooth pain and migraines. So that hasn’t been ideal.

We only had four classes over the semester but since everyone was researching something different, they weren’t exactly classes. They were more group discussions where we’d talk about how our research and writing was going, whether we were struggling in a particular area, what we could do if we felt like we weren’t fulfilling one or more of the overall objectives, and so on. We had individual supervisors for the more specific guidance and problems whereas this was more general and we were able to share with each other what we’d found helpful, etc. These classes were online but we were finally able to come into the building. With most of the other courses finished for the summer, it was pretty empty and I felt safe there; you had to test negative just to get in the building and with no one around (pre-COVID, it could be a bit of a crush at times), my pandemic anxiety was a lot lower than it usually is when I’m out in the world. Being there after so much time and getting to see some of my friends again made me positively giddy! And there were some friends that I was actually meeting in person for the first time, which was just wonderful! I’m really going to miss it; I mean, I’ll pop in now and then for events and stuff but I’m really going to miss it being part of my day-to-day, week-to-week life.

Anyway. My supervisor was truly awesome. We had fortnightly and then weekly sessions and she was fantastic, not only with the academic stuff but with helping me to manage my anxiety, the things that tripped up my neurodivergent brain, and so on. And while we worked together well, we also had a lot of fun: we went on some epic tangents and there were multiple conversations that we had to mentally bookmark for later in order to actually get our work done. We got on really well and our sessions were always fun and thought-provoking, as well as helpful. I hope that this isn’t the last time we get to work together.

I obviously know a lot about Autism already so, after finding sources for that information, I started writing songs about my experiences and researching Autism further. Having the foundation of knowledge that I did, I think allowed me to research both more deeply and down different avenues since I didn’t have to spend so much time on the basic knowledge. And some of that research, from academic papers to anecdotal stories to art made by autistic individuals, sparked some really interesting song ideas (for example, I ended up writing a love song after watching Love on the Spectrum, which I found both upsetting and deeply depressing as an autistic person).

I don’t want to give too much away about the songs because I hope to release them but, over the semester, I wrote eighteen songs with a handful more that still need finishing. For the most part, I wrote alone – first because it was more convenient and then because I felt like my experiences were conveyed with more clarity that way – but I did work with a few different people, when I was struggling with a concept for example. I wrote with a couple of my friends – Richard and Luce (known as LUCE) – but I also wrote with new people that I’ve met during my time on the Masters – Luke (known as leadmetoland), Phill Vidler, and Katherine Moynihan – which was fun and exciting. It was nice to do both: I love cowriting and the back and forth of ideas but doing so much writing by myself really restored my confidence; I’ve spent so much time cowriting over the last two years and really not that much solo writing so I was nervous when I started to write alone again but after a while, it started to feel really good and that was really exciting.

But while I didn’t manage to write with Richard as much as I’d originally hoped to, we had many production sessions, mostly over Zoom. While I’d never considered the production unimportant, the project evolved to a place where the production was just as key to the representation of my autistic experiences and the emotions attached to them as the lyrics conveying the story or message. So the two of us spent a lot of time working on every little detail. While I’ve always been involved in the production choices of my songs, I’ve also always been aware that Richard knows a hell of alot more than me so I was happy to defer to his judgement. But with this project, for the first time really, I was taking the lead on production decisions – on occasion, I had the whole arrangement and production planned out before the session. But I felt more like a producer than I ever have: I was coming up with ideas that actually worked from idea to execution; I was able to pick out specific instrument, arrangement, and effect details in a way I haven’t been able to do up to now; and so on. Along with the songs themselves, that’s something I’d really proud of. I really feel like I grew as a musician and as a producer.

I absolutely loved working on my project. To be researching and writing songs about something I’m so passionate about was just so creatively invigorating. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard though. There were, of course, periods of doubt, insecurity, and anxiety over the academic elements and whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I desperately wanted to. Plus, some of the experiences I was digging into were pretty raw and writing those songs did get difficult, especially since I was suddenly doing the project without the support of my therapist, something I’d put in place to help me manage that. But apart from one bad bout of depression, my mental health was – somehow – reasonably stable (apart from my day-to-day, ongoing anxiety). As I said in my previous post, I think it was the constant creating (and creating things that I’m really proud of) that did it, that kept everything on a reasonably even keel.

Having said that, my chronic pain was almost constant, worse than it’s ever been. There were periods where my knee, for example, was so painful that I could barely walk and my back so painful that I could barely move. My Mum (once a massage therapist) said that it felt like I was storing rocks in my muscles. It certainly felt like they were made of concrete. Maybe it was my anxiety around the project, I don’t know, but the pain was keeping me up at night. I also struggled on and off with my hands and wrists, presumably from all of the typing, piano, and guitar playing I was doing. God, my various health issues are like freaking buses sometimes. I’m still waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, have been for months. I’ve just started with the Pain Clinic but one appointment was never going to change anything before the Masters ended. So all I had were various painkillers that were only sporadically helpful.

But my biggest ongoing obstacle was my difficulty concentrating, which I’m assuming is due to my (still untreated) ADHD. Staying focussed on my work was very difficult; I exhausted all of my energy trying. It felt like my concentration was so delicate that the smallest distraction would shatter it and then there was no way to know when it would come back; I felt like I was clinging onto it by my fingertips. So I couldn’t stop (really not healthy, I know). I couldn’t waste a second of it. That was super stressful and I often ended up sitting at my computer for hours and hours; there were multiple fourteen hour days, some successful, some not. People kept telling me to at least take a day off now and then but I just couldn’t. I was too scared of losing my concentration when my hold on it felt so tenuous.

During the semester, I also had a few other commitments; it was awkward timing but they were all great opportunities:

  • As I mentioned in my post about the previous semester, I was part of the judging panel for a songwriting competition. That ended up being a lot of work but fortunately I managed to get it all done in time for this module to start. The end was pretty stressful because our deadline was suddenly brought forward but it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it; there were so many amazing songs and so many talented songwriters and they’re all still pretty young. I hope they keep writing; some of them I’d love to see pursue songwriting as a career. The final winners weren’t the ones I personally would’ve have chosen but I guess that’s what happens when you’re judging by committee and there are so many good songs to chose from.
  • I also submitted work to a competition: three songs, two already written and one that I wrote as part of this project. I was supposed to find out whether I’d made it through the first round in August, I think, but, because they’re also an organisation and not just a competition, COVID has thrown a wrench in the plan and so the whole thing has been delayed until February. So I guess I won’t know anything for a while.
  • One of my tutors is doing a research project on the many reasons why we write songs and I volunteered to share my thoughts. In mid July, a handful of students came together for a Q&A panel about our personal songwriting intentions, processes, and experiences. It was really interesting with a pretty wide range of reviews and even a couple of debates. Hopefully some of what we said was useful for the research.
  • Also in July was the Taylor Swift focussed musicology conference I mentioned in my post about the previous semester and I presented my paper on some of Swift’s lyric writing techniques: her repeated use of certain imagery and the ongoing themes throughout her discography. I loved researching it (and hope to research it further in the future) and writing the paper – so much so that it ended up being over ten thousand words long and I had to do some major editing work. Presenting the paper – I ended up recording it and presenting it in video form because I was so nervous – was very nerve-wracking: everyone was lovely and very welcoming but I was just so aware of how inexperienced I was. But it went really well and I really enjoyed the whole conference; there were so many interesting papers. I hope it’s a conference that can happen again (not just because I have so many ideas that I’d love to research but because Taylor Swift is so fascinating on so many levels; there’s a lot that can be learned from her, not just around music but in business, in the development of pop culture, and so on). 

In the last month, my approach reached a new level of intensity. I was working constantly, quickly when my concentration was good and agonisingly slowly when it was bad. But I didn’t stop. I even worked while I ate. I know that’s not a healthy way of doing things but I was just so terrified of getting a grade I wasn’t happy with, that made me feel like I was letting everyone down, myself included. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty so I just kept working.

Finally it came time to try and distill all my work down to the most important points for the final presentation. My god, that was hard. Months of research, almost twenty songs, and a lot of reflection on my creative process all into an hour… Or, as I said, the most important points. But figuring what those important points were was a real struggle. Throughout the whole Masters, I felt like the module objectives were designed to trip me up – not me specifically, of course, but anyone reading them. Reading them felt like trying to interpret another language that you barely understand so I felt like I was just waiting to discover that I had it all wrong. Maybe it was my autistic brain, I don’t know. My supervisor was great regarding this anxiety but two years of feeling that way made it a hard feeling to exorcise. So I just did what I know how to do and worked through it, hoping it would be enough. And on the 6th September, I had my final assessment. Two tutors watched my presentation and then, after a brief discussion, they asked me a couple of questions, both of which were pretty straightforward to answer. And that was it. The project and the semester was over.


According to the usual rules, the results will be released in twenty working days, although I don’t know if that will apply given that my assessment was so much later than everyone else’s and they all received their results the day after I presented. So I’m just waiting to hear. I’m trying not to stress about my grade but, as I said in my previous post, I’m finding it hard. I’ve been working relentlessly – with so many obstacles to navigate – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get the Distinction I want so badly does upset me. I mean, I’d get over it in time but, yeah, it would be distressing. I just really hate the idea of thinking, “I could’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD, etc.” I know that that’s not a healthy way to think but the standards and expectations I have for myself are somewhat warped, something that I think is due to the late ASD diagnosis and the clash between twenty-ish years with neurotypical standards and then having to adjust those expectations in accordance with what I now know is a neurodivergent brain. It’s a mess basically. But I’m waiting for the results – they should be out on the 6th October – and hoping desperately that it went as well as I hope it did.

While the ‘project-for-assessment’ is over, I definitely want to keep working on the songs, write some more on various elements of my autistic experience that I just didn’t manage in the timeframe, and then, hopefully, release it in some form. That’s the dream. I’m so proud of so many of these songs and I really, really want people to hear them and hopefully find strength or comfort in them. We’ll have to see because these projects are just so expensive to put together, from the production work to making music videos to all of the marketing.

And while this is a topic for another post, it should be acknowledged that the semester ended on a very sad note. I found out the morning after my presentation that my Granny had died. Between that news and an intense semester’s worth of work and my brain is just at overload. I can’t tell if I’m not feeling anything or feeling everything. I don’t really want to get too deeply into all of this, partly because I’m not ready and partly because, if only on my blog, I want to keep this semester and this project separate. I really just wanted to mention it in the context of all the emotions I’m dealing (or maybe not dealing) with right now.

So that was the final semester. But there’s still a couple more chapters in this story, so to speak. Graduation will hopefully go ahead as planned – in person – in November and then who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

IMG_8797

My apologies if this post is a bit all over the place: everything’s really hitting me and I’m just exhausted but I wanted to get this out while it’s still fresh.

Quotes That Helped Me (Happiness Edition)

Today is the International Day of Happiness and no doubt social media is being flooded with posts and articles on how to stay positive and ways to find happiness, especially in the strange and unpredictable times we’re living in and coping with. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Learning how to find things that make you happy regardless of the circumstances you’re in is a good skill to have but I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion at this point in time when I’m just focussing on taking things day by day. (I liked this article though, if you want a recommendation.) Plus, given everything going on in the world right now, it felt kind of wrong and in poor taste to write about being happy or trying to be happy when maybe that’s not the natural emotional place to be.

So instead, I thought I’d continue with my series of quote posts. I thought an opportunity to look at happiness from various different perspectives might be something I could contribute today. Here are some of the quotes I found…


“I have this really high priority on happiness and finding something to be happy about.” – Taylor Swift

“All persons carry with them some means of happiness.” – James Lendall Basford

“Happiness is a form of courage.” – Holbrook Jackson

“Some pursue happiness, others create it.” – Unknown

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” – William James

“Sometimes we don’t find the thing that will make us happy because we can’t give up the thing that was supposed to.” – Robert Brault

“Cry. Forgive. Learn. Move on. Let your tears water the seeds of your future happiness.” – Steve Maraboli

“I don’t think most people want to be unhappy. It’s just something they’ve gotten good at.” – Robert Brault

“Joy is not in things, it is in us.” – Charles Wagner

“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” – Albert Camus

“Happiness is breathlessly chasing you.” – Terri Guillemets

“There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.” – Charlotte Bronte

“Happiness pulses with every beat of my heart.” – Terri Guillemets

“The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.” – Chuck Palahniuk

“Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

“I’ve always thought people would find a lot more pleasure in their routines if they burst into song at significant moments.” – John Barrowman

“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” – Sydney J. Harris

“All happiness depends on courage and work.” – Honoré de Balzac

“Even happiness worries sometimes.” – Terri Guillemets

“The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.” – C.S. Lewis

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha


I hope these were interesting – I kid you not: there are a lot of quotes about happiness out there to choose from. But these were the ones that resonated the most with me and so I thought they might resonate with you too.

Trichotillomania Triggers

Trigger warning: This post is dedicated information and experiences with Trichotillomania so if this is a difficult subject for you, please don’t read on. I would hate for you to be triggered. Having said that, immediately following this post will be one on a list of ideas and tips to help with hair pulling.

It’s been a while since I talked about Trichotillomania, whether about my experience or about the disorder in general. I’ve been learning more and more about what triggers me so I thought I’d do some research into triggers more generally and after doing all that reading, I thought I’d collate some of it in case it could be helpful to any of you guys.


CAUSES

Scientists still don’t know what causes Trichotillomania – and other BFRBs (Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours) – but there are various theories, including:

  • A way of dealing with stress or anxiety
  • A genetic factor, like a chemical imbalance in the brain, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • A change in hormone levels during puberty
  • A type of self-harm to seek relief from emotional distress
  • A trauma in childhood

Pulling can then become a type of addiction. The more a person pulls their hair out, the more they feel the need to keep doing it.

TRIGGERS

While there isn’t much definitive research into the causes of Trich, we are learning more and more about what drives people to pull once they’ve started pulling, the internal and external triggers that occur right before someone pulls. External triggers include certain people, or places, or situations while internal triggers include certain thought processes, emotional states, or physiological sensations. When the particular trigger (or one of multiple triggers) is experienced, a person who struggles with compulsive hair pulling may be ‘triggered’ to pull. The pulling satisfies something, like creating a feeling of relief or calm for example. 

These triggers can be sorted into a multitude of categories, these being some of the most common…

  • Emotional – The emotions behind hair pulling can be very complicated and multi-layered. For many individuals with Trichotillomania, pulling is a way of dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings, such as stress, anxiety, boredom, or frustration, to name just a few. Several studies have shown that stress was reported to be the most common trigger for increased hair pulling. This may be because pulling out hair relieves stress; when someone is anxious, the tension in their body increases and the sensation (and sometimes pain) of pulling can help to release some of that energy. I can definitely relate to all of this. When the pulling is focussed (as opposed to automatic – something I’ll come to later in the post), it can almost be a mindful activity, centering in on what your hands are doing and allowing some of the anxiety in your system to dissipate. Pulling can feel satisfying and create a sense of relief, which can reinforce the urge to pull, especially when trying to cope with negative feelings; we all want something to make us feel better when we’re struggling.
  • Sensory – Many people will pull out particular hairs that have a certain feel to them, such as being thicker or longer than the rest of their hair. Texture can also be a huge trigger, if certain hairs feel crinkly or just stand out when touching one’s hair, for example; this is huge one for me. My hair is mostly straight (if vaguely wavy) but the individual hairs are very smooth so when I find a crinkly hair, it really stands out and it’s all I can think about until the tension is so high that I can’t concentrate unless I pull it out. Sometimes that’s it but sometimes that causes a period of pulling that can last for days, or until my pulling arm gets so painful that I physically can’t lift it to reach my hair. The location (like the parting or hairline – another relatable experience) and the physical sensations that hair can create against the skin can also trigger someone to pull in order to relieve a person of those sensations.
  • Environmental – A person may have particular locations and situations where they are more likely to pull. The privacy of rooms like a bedroom or a bathroom may make pulling more tempting; these rooms are also ones where you’d mostly likely find mirrors and tweezers, items that could also serve as triggers. There are also certain activities that create opportunities for pulling, such as using a computer, reading, watching TV, and so on, all of which have certain things in common: these activities are generally stationary and your posture during these situations gives your hands more access to your hair, if you pull from your scalp or eyebrows for example.
  • Cognitive – Cognitive triggers are often connected to thoughts about imperfection. I can definitely relate to this as a lot of the triggers for my hair pulling are related to perfectionist thoughts and feelings. And these thoughts can manifest as hair pulling in multiple ways. The imperfection could be with the hair itself: that it feels too thick, too curly, that it’s the wrong colour, or that it doesn’t match the rest of your hair. And when the hair starts growing back, a person may feel compelled to pull out more hair to balance out the length of the regrowth. Sometimes the imperfection comes in the forms of attempting to stop pulling. For example, if a person challenges themselves not to pull for a day and then they pull just one hair, then they may think that they have failed. ‘Failing’ to meet those goals can results in even more pulling, out of frustration and a low sense of self worth. Pulling can also be triggered by perfectionist thoughts in other areas of their lives, like school or work or relationships, etc. When one (or many) of these areas start to break down and a perfectionist can’t fix it, the loss of control can be overwhelming, leading to the developments of problems like Trichotillomania where they feel that they do have some sense of control. At least to begin with anyway: when they feel out of control, they can pull out their hair and think, “Look, I can control what I look like; I am still in control.” However, when hair pulling spirals into the disorder that is Trichotillomania and stopping feels impossible, the perfectionist thoughts only get worse because now you’ve lost control in another aspect of your life.

There are two ‘types’ of pulling: focused pulling and automatic pulling.

  • Focused pulling is when a person pulls their hair out intentionally. This may be due to feeling a hair that’s too thick or too coarse or out of place somehow, to relieve stress or anxiety in their lives, or to get some relief from the overwhelmingly strong urge to pull. Or it could be a combination of things.
  • Automatic pulling is when a person pulls out their hair without realising it, or without fully realising it. Automatic pulling may occur while working on a computer, watching TV, reading a book, or really anything that can be done one-handed. Similar to this, some people are completely aware that they’re pulling but feel absolutely unable to stop themselves, like their hands have a mind of their own. This can be due to how long a person has been struggling with Trich or the strength of the urge to pull, for example.

Some people do one or the other but many people do both.


This is obviously not a medical or scientific guide. I completely encourage you to research the subject further if any of this resonates with you. The NHS, for example, has a great page about Trichotillomania but I wanted to share what I’ve learned while researching and my experience with some of the areas that came up. And as I said at the beginning of this post, I will be sharing a collection of suggestions for managing and potentially reducing your pulling directly after this post.

EXTRA NOTE: Here are some of the articles I read while researching that I found to be really interesting and potentially helpful: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)