Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 – #KindnessMatters

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Originally, this year’s theme was going to be sleep but with the impact of the pandemic on the world’s mental health, the Mental Health Foundation changed the theme to kindness:

“We think it could be the most important week we’ve hosted, not least because our own research shows that protecting our mental health is going to be central to us coping with and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic – with the psychological and social impacts likely to outlast the physical symptoms of the virus.”

Their website offers some really powerful insight into the importance of kindness:

“We have chosen kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community and deepens solidarity. It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health. Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something that all human beings need to experience and practise to be fully alive.”

We all know about Captain Tom Moore’s incredible fundraiser and Dolly Parton’s massive donation towards researching a cure, as well as other wealthy and/or famous people giving money to various charities that support all kinds of people struggling during this time. These are all amazing acts of kindness but the foundation are encouraging people to share acts of kindness they’ve experienced so I thought I’d list some of mine:

  • My street’s WhatsApp group – As many streets or communities do, my street has a WhatsApp group and the generosity displayed in it is really heartwarming. People are offering the use of various equipment, like ladders or gardening tools; people are offering to help those less able than themselves; people are giving things away for free, like packets of seeds, cooking ingredients, unwanted furniture, art that they’ve made, and so on. The sense of community has grown so much since the lockdown and that’s really nice to see.
  • My neighbour helping us to rescue my cat – When one of the kittens went missing, the WhatsApp group helped locate her (which has caused her to become somewhat of a local celebrity) and the owner of the garden with the tree she was stuck in was so lovely about letting us in to retrieve her (we were social distancing, of course). When I tried to get her and couldn’t, my amazing neighbour climbed all the way to the top of the ladder, got his shirt off while perched up there, and used it to drag her off the branch she was clinging too. He handed her straight over to me for a cuddle but asked for a quick cuddle with her himself to apologise for squishing her a bit while getting her down. He told my Mum later that he’s actually terrified of heights but didn’t even think about it while helping us. That actually made me cry. I’m so, so grateful to him – especially with a fear of heights – for getting Sooty down because even with us standing below her, she seemed absolutely paralysed and unable to get down.
  • The generosity of my neighbours – The family next door to us (the father was the guy who rescued Sooty) are just so lovely and have an allotment that they work super hard at. Whenever they bring vegetables back, they give us some and they often share cake or other gorgeous food that they’ve made. They’re honestly some of the most generous people I’ve ever met and I feel so lucky to have them as neighbours.
  • The trumpet player on my street – There’s a guy who lives in the street who has offered, via the WhatsApp group, to come and play ‘Happy Birthday’ on his trumpet for anyone who has a birthday while we’re in lockdown. It’s kind of bizarre but then the world is truly bizarre right now and it’s a lovely, special gesture for a birthday that could otherwise feel very un-special.
  • The handful of people helping my Granny – There are several people who have been helping my Mum’s Mum with her shopping and computer and series of electrical problems, as well as checking in with her (safely) to make sure she’s doing okay, and I’m so grateful. We speak frequently but we’re too far away to be helpful in the practical sense so I’m really thankful for the people making her life easier and safer.
  • The support of my module leader and tutor during the assessment period – This was a while back but still in the lockdown period so I think it counts. I found this assessment really stressful and difficult, whether that’s because I’m still not used to the Masters standard of essay writing or my mental health I don’t know, but my tutor, Dan – who is also the leader of this module – was so helpful. He helped me with sourcing material and gave me really useful feedback. The Masters course is the first time in education where, as an autistic person, I’ve felt truly, 100% supported in my learning, rather than being made to feel like a hindrance, a hitch in the otherwise smoothly running classes. This means so much to me, more than I can possibly articulate. While no autistic person should ever be made to feel this way, it still happens far too often so to have tutors be so accommodating (in such a non-judgemental way) has meant the world to me and made the course possible.
  • Kalie Shorr playing a song I’d requested during one of her livestreams – I said this multiple times but Kalie is one of my favourite musicians, Nashvillians, and people. I wouldn’t call us friends but we’ve met several times during my trips to the US and gotten on well (maybe one day we will be friends – that would be really nice). Since the lockdown began, she’s been playing a lot of livestreams, which has been really cool, and during one of those livestreams, she played a song that I’d requested. It’s an unreleased song, one that she posted a snippet of on her Instagram stories ages ago but I fell in love with it and had been desperate to hear more. So the fact that she actually played it meant a lot to me. And by some good fortune, that livestream took place when I was having a really hard week and it really lifted my spirits so I’m really grateful to Kalie for that.
  • My friend sending me a Sara Bareilles CD – I’m not sure now whether this was just before the lockdown or just after the lockdown started (anyone else having major issues with judging the passing of time?), but a friend of mine was passing on some CDs, knew how much I love Sara Bareilles, and sent me a copy of Little Voice. As I have the money, I’m slowly collecting my favourite albums on CD or even vinyl, so I really appreciated him gifting it to me.

Another one of the focuses of this week is to think about how to build a kinder future. I can’t explain it any better than they do so, again, I’m gonna post what they’ve said:

“We have a once in a generation opportunity not only during but also following this pandemic for a reset and re-think about what kind of society we want to emerge from this crisis.

Our own reports and others such as Sir Michael Marmot’s 10 years On report reveal how inequality is rising in our society and its harmful effects on our health. Life expectancy is falling for the poorest for the first time in 100 years. As child poverty rises, children and young people in the poorest parts of our country are two to three times  more likely to experience poor mental health than those in the richest. After the 2008 credit crunch it was the most vulnerable in our communities who experienced the severest consequences of austerity, with devastating effects on their mental and physical health. This not the hallmark of a kind society. We must not make the same mistakes after this pandemic. 

Applied kindness could have a transformative impact on our schools, places of work, communities and families. As the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has said, now is a time to put values above valuations. We must seize this time to shape a society that tips the balance in favour of good mental health, for all of us, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

I have to hope that the kindness I’ve been seeing, the general community focussed behaviour and mindset will only continue after the lockdown ends, even though our lives will be busier, with work and school and so on. We’ll go back to our normal lives but that normal doesn’t have to be the same as the old normal. Hopefully we can build a new normal, one that’s kinder, more connected, more neighbourly, and more flexible, because of this experience with the pandemic and the lockdown. How beautiful would it be if we could create something so good out of such a difficult, distressing time? It won’t, of course, bring back the people who’ve died but perhaps it could be a tribute to all those who have suffered during this time. Maybe it’s naïve but I have to have hope.

I couldn’t make this post without acknowledging the incredible courage and strength and… kindness isn’t a big enough word by far… of the all the NHS staff, care workers, key workers, teachers (fuck the Daily Mail), and all those working unimaginably hard to protect us, keep us safe and healthy and moving forward despite everything going on. We can’t thank them enough. We’ll probably never be able to thank them enough. Someday, somehow, I’ll figure out a way to say  a proper thank you, a way to give back and help people in their honour.

But coming back to Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation are, as I said, encouraging people to share the acts of kindness they’ve experienced or witnessed, using the hashtags, #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek on social media. You can find out more and access further resources through their website. And to quote them once more:

“No act of kindness is ever wasted.”

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Living in Lockdown

When I’m not spiralling into an anxiety-induced meltdown over the pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and (particularly) the thought of a loved one getting sick, I can look at living in lockdown in a somewhat detached, practical sense (something that has taken over a month to be able to do). Intellectually speaking, we’re living in unprecedented times, experiencing something that our parents are experiencing with us for the first time – something that very rarely occurs. There are very few people alive who have witnessed the last pandemic of this scale: the Spanish Influenza in 1918. So this is a big deal, one that will be written about in history books and studied in the future – from political, sociological, and psychological points of view to name just a few. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and I can’t help thinking how often history is told from the point of view of the powerful and how terribly, appallingly wrong that is, especially given the number of mistakes being made by the people in power during this period (I’m speaking from the UK but I think we’re all aware of the mistakes being made by other governments, especially that of the US). So, if we want that to change, we have to write it ourselves, write our own experiences of living in lockdown, both for the history books but also for our own sake, so that we don’t forget what this experience has been like and how our lives have been changed by it. And as true as it is that we’re all in the same position – all in lockdown with limited access to our families and friends, the world outside, and our ‘normal lives’ – each of us will be experiencing this differently so I think the more experiences written about the better. So here I am, writing about mine, both for the reasons I’ve already listed but also to keep from drowning in it all, in the anxiety and the fear and the attempt to keep going as if this isn’t a traumatic experience.

I was aware of the Coronavirus before it even moved out of China but it felt like such a horror movie scenario and caused me such anxiety that I worked really hard not to think about it too much. It seemed unlikely that it would get all the way to the UK so I focussed on the anxieties in front of me and got on with my life. Besides, surely the government would be prepared should it reach us, given how much warning they had. I didn’t vote for this government nor do I trust them but I assumed that their egocentric motivations would have them preparing the country as best they could, for themselves if not for their people.

But then the virus started to move from country to country and more and more people in the UK began to take the idea that it might reach us seriously. I battled with my anxiety around it, trying to act responsibly without thinking so hard about it that it sent me into anxiety induced meltdowns. To an extent, I felt fairly unafraid of getting the virus as a young, physically healthy person but having said that, I was very aware that I was in regular contact with immunocompromised people and I was terrified of getting it and passing it on to them. So I was careful to wash my hands, use hand sanitiser, and avoid busy areas and travel times where possible. My anxiety had already been high before the virus made the news so it was a daily battle, as it often is.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. One day I was making plans with a friend for later in the week and the next she was on a plane back to her home country because of the travel ban. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye (that’s my little bit of self-pity done because I know, without a doubt, that she made the right choice and I absolutely support her decision). Before that week of classes began, our course came together (electronically) and decided that we didn’t feel it was safe for us or others if we were travelling to and from uni, etc, so suddenly my weekly routine was gone, my education disrupted, and my friends were all going home, again without any of us actually getting to say goodbye to each other. I know we can all talk via social media and video calls and that this isn’t forever but depending how long this goes on, we may never come together as a course again and that is an idea I find really difficult to get my head around emotionally.

I think it was the next week that we went into official lockdown. My university pulled out all the stops to support us and within days, our classes had been moved online but prerecorded lectures and a forum aren’t the easiest ways to have discussions and a sudden lack of access to the library and facilities wasn’t an easy adjustment. I found the online classes difficult. Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate how hard they worked to keep our education up to date and as normal as possible – but it’s not the way I learn best. It’s just a personal thing. It also made working on the assessment essay much more challenging. Fortunately, I had a tutor who was incredibly supportive and with his help (and my Mum’s), I managed to get it in with good time, despite the added stress and the impact that had.

The essay, despite the anxiety it caused me, was actually a good distraction. As soon as it was done and submitted, I really started to feel the effects of being in lockdown. After all, up until then, I was pretty much doing what I would’ve been doing anyway: spending all my time on my assignment. But with that done, it all started to sink in.

The most obvious struggle is that I miss and worry about my family. I have four parents, only one of which I’m living with, and the others are all on their own; my brother is living by himself in London; my Mum’s Mum is also living by herself, a significant distance from any of us, even if we were allowed to visit each other (I’m thinking more in the case of an emergency where we would obviously keep our distance from each other and be very careful); and I have multiple family members categorised as vulnerable. So I have a lot of people to worry about and worry about them I do. The constant anxiety is exhausting. And as grateful as I am for video calls, it’s just not the same. I miss BEING with them. I desperately miss HUGGING them. I try not to dwell on it – or stress about how much longer we’ll be separated – because that is only more damaging to my mental health but it’s hard. It’s really hard.

On a similar note, I also really miss my friends. We have video calls, regular calls, texting, social media, movie dates on platforms like Netflix Party, and so on but again, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as hanging out with them, or hugging them, or going on coffee dates, or having writing sessions. As I’ve already said, I’m trying not to think about how long it could be before I see them again. We’ll manage, thanks to the technology we have,  but it will be really wonderful to see them again.

The other thing that I’m really struggling with right now is my mental health.  For those of you who know me or have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, amongst other things, I struggle daily with anxiety and depression. These are the particular problems that have only gotten worse since the appearance of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

  • Anxiety is my constant companion, although fortunately I have my ’emergency’ medication (to be taken as needed) for when it gets really bad, like I-can’t-breathe bad. My anxiety rises to that level at some point most days and the medication has kept it about as manageable as I think I’m going to get in the current circumstances. But my anxiety isn’t constantly that overwhelming (at least not anymore) and I’m wary of going through the medication too fast so most of the time, I’m just left with this relentless pulsing under my skin that leaves me restless and unable to think as clearly as usual.
  • My depression has been really bad too. Some days are a complete write off from the beginning, where all I can do is stare at the TV. Most of the time though, my mood is better but more precarious. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope: one little knock and I’m going to plunge straight into the darkness. It feels like I have to constantly watch my step, be hyper aware of any possible threat to my mental health, otherwise I’ll fall and who knows how long it would take to build myself back up again, given the uncertain, scary times we’re living in. Maintaining my mental health in this period is like trying to build a house of cards of shifting sands. It’s practically impossible.
  • Since the lockdown started, I’ve had serious difficulty concentrating. On anything. Getting my university assignment done took more force of will than I knew I had and while I knew that I’d need some recovery time after that and after finishing an intense semester, weeks later my ability to focus hasn’t returned. I’ve had phases where I’ve struggled to focus (likely caused by my fluctuating mental health and trying different medications) but it’s never been this bad. I can’t read a book, I can’t watch anything, I can’t do anything without my concentration drifting. Everything takes ten times longer to finish and ten times as much energy, if not more.
  • Most distressingly for me is that my creative brain is completely dead. Out of power. It just feels empty and I have no ideas. I’ve suffered extended periods of writer’s block before and usually experience it to a degree along with the exhaustion of finishing a difficult semester and stressful assessment period but it’s scary to feel that it’s still not working, even after several weeks have passed. I’ve tried all my strategies for writing and all my strategies for writer’s block but nothing is working. It feels like my brain is broken and that’s really, really upsetting.

I’ve still been having therapy, but via Zoom instead of in person. In theory, it shouldn’t be that different but somehow it is. I’d never really considered how important it is to have a space to work through all the hard stuff and then be able to walk away from it, which you just can’t do when you’re having therapy in your living room. Plus, Zoom calls are exhausting – here’s a good article about that – which only adds to how exhausting therapy can be. Then, when it comes to the content of a session, it all feels a bit frozen: it’s hard to tackle difficult emotions when we’re in the middle of different difficult emotions. And when I’m just about coping, feeling so fragile, I don’t want to trigger something and make life even more emotionally difficult for myself than it is already. So the whole thing is really tricky and confusing. Having sessions is definitely better than not having them but it’s not straightforward. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be when we made the plan just before lockdown.

And just to add to that, I’ve been struggling with sleepiness as a side effect of my medication for months but that’s gotten a lot worse since self isolating (perhaps from the increased anxiety – I don’t know). I’m exhausted by the smallest things and I seem to need so much more sleep. And that hasn’t been helped by a sudden, intense bout of hay fever, which has bestowed upon me the additional symptoms of an itchy, blocked nose and sore, itchy eyes. It’s been so bad that even having the windows open makes it dramatically worse so going outside definitely hasn’t been an option (I can’t take antihistamines because of my other medication). So I can’t even go in the garden, making me feel all the more trapped. Inhaling steam helps but only for short periods of time. The recent rain has been a blessing, giving me several days of relief. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s started to settle – I’ve managed a couple of trips into the garden without incident – but I don’t want to speak too soon.

And lastly, for now at least, I’m really struggling with how uncertain everything is, uncertainty having always been something that causes me anxiety. We don’t know when the lockdown will end, we don’t know when we’ll be safe again, we don’t know when we’re going to see our friends and family again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of my university course. And so on and so on and so on. So on top of the ongoing fear, there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Many of my summer plans have become impossible or at least difficult, while some have been cancelled outright, which has obviously been very upsetting and left me without anything to look forward to or anchor me. I feel very lost. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people at the moment. I try to focus on each day as it comes but it’s hard. We’re all so used to looking and planning ahead.

One more thing… I found this on Twitter the other day and wanted to share it:

I found it really helpful to have various explanations as to why I’m struggling, to know that my brain isn’t actually broken. Of course, knowing this stuff doesn’t actually fix the problems but being able to take a breath and reassure myself that there is a reason and that it won’t last forever has been helpful.

I hope you’re all safe and coping the best you can. And if you’re in the UK and they do loosen the lockdown this coming week, please continue to be careful. I hate being in lockdown but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if the government relax the rules, of how many more people will get sick and die. I’m scared out of my mind that someone I love will catch it. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure I’m not the only one with such fears. So please, please be careful. For all of us.

Two Years In

As of today, we have been living in the ‘new house’ for two years. So it’s not exactly new. But after living somewhere for fifteen years, two years feels like nothing. In fifteen years, I became a person, my own person. Then I blinked and two years went by. It’s not even comparable.

There were so, so many good memories in the ‘old’ house: the late night games me and my brother would play where we made nests out of our bedding, bringing Lucky home at eight weeks old, listening to the same Annie Lennox CD every year as we decorated the Christmas tree, evenings watching TV as a family, my Dad telling us made up Harry Potter stories until we fell asleep, waking up to Snubby curled up on the pillow next to me even if it meant a mouthful of fur, big dinners with family and friends, bringing Lucy home, things as simple as coming home to the living room windows open and Wimbledon on the television. There are more good memories than I can count.

There were also bad memories, like my Mum crying after her Dad died, coming home after being bullied at school, watching my brother come home after being bullied at school, the early meltdowns, Lucky getting sick, having my heart broken for the first time, being told my cat was terminally ill, taking her to the vet that last time and coming home without her… finding out that my Dad had died. They aren’t memories I want to spend time with but they are moments that made me who I am and so I need them safe. And those walls kept them safe for years. But memories aren’t like possessions. You can’t pack them into a box when you leave a place. So what if you reach your new house and they haven’t travelled with you? At least not with the same clarity, in the same condition, that they were in where you previously lived? What if small details have been left behind?

“So what is it that makes us mourn the loss of a structure? It’s not the great architecture, or the way the light pours in through the windows in the morning. It’s the loss of the vessel that held our memories. It’s almost as if leaving a home rich in such a lived-in history causes our memories to spill out everywhere, and we feel like we’ve spun out of orbit, scrambling to collect them… But we have to remember that we have lost the vessel, not the memories. We just have to build a new place to hold them.” – Kelli Kehler on Design Sponge (x)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around, looking at the house and trying to figure out how I feel about it, how I feel about the fact that it’s been two years since we left the place that I’d always considered home. I’d never thought far enough ahead to consider anywhere else home. This is where I live now – I know that – but when I think of home, it’s the old house. But that’s not home anymore either because it’s got other people in it who will have changed things – who will be filling it with their own memories – so I’m not sure where ‘home’ is. In a way, I feel kind of homeless. It doesn’t help that even though we’ve been here two years, we haven’t had much time to do anything to make it ours. Not really.

It’s a grieving process. And it’s one that hasn’t been properly dealt with because there’s been so much going on: medication changes, going back to university, challenges with my mental health. To say it’s been hard is a pretty huge understatement. It’s been one of the hardest things to happen in my life.

But I guess there’s a reason we call it a grieving process. Because it is a process. Our feelings change day to day. We move forward, we move back. Our emotions heighten, they settle, and then they heighten again. It’s ever changing. So rather than sum up the last two years, I’m trying just to think about now and when I think about now, this is what comes to mind: most days, it’s okay or it’s at least not something I think about. But there are still days where I hate it, where it feels like I’m walking around wearing someone else’s skin.

I’ve read various articles about moving out of your childhood home and adjusting to a new house and something that came up a lot was finding things you like about your new surroundings and where you find things you don’t like, try to figure out why and what you can do about it.

So here are some examples…

What do I love about it?

  • The living room feels like a safe bubble, where I can shut out the world when I need to. I especially like it since we hung fairy lights around the room. Plus it’s where the cats spend most of their time.
  • I like the white curtains in my room and the living room. I’d only ever had dark coloured curtains so I thought I’d hate them when we moved in but I actually really like them. As a person who’s sensitive to light, it’s really nice to be able to block out the bright light but still have natural light in the room.
  • I love the fireplace. It’s beautiful and fires in the winter is something that me and my Mum look forward to all year.
  • I love the big, glass double doors that lead out into the garden, which has a deck, a eucalyptus tree, and yellow roses. It’s the perfect garden.

What don’t I love and how can I change those things?

  • I don’t love my room. It’s not MY room; it’s just a room I sleep in. I don’t hate it – I like the colour and the curtains and the bed – but I don’t love it. I want to go through my clothes and get rid of things that don’t feel like me, put some pictures up, and generally just make the space ‘feel’ right. But, to a degree, I think that’s something I’ll only know when I feel it.
  • I want a space to make music – even if it’s tiny – where I can put my laptop, microphone, MIDI keyboard, and so on. I just want my own little space, not something I have to reassemble every time I want to record something.
  • Both me and Mum really dislike the bathroom. We don’t dwell on it but not a week goes by that one of us doesn’t curse one element of it or another. The floorboards are super squeaky, the flooring is ugly, it’s cramped, and it’s just impractically planned out. It’s the only room we’ve always wanted to completely re-do. We’d started the planning process but obviously that’s on hold while we’re in lockdown.
  • The house is still a bit bare, a bit impersonal. It still doesn’t quite feel like ours. I couldn’t figure out why until recently, when I looked around and realised that we still haven’t put up more than a couple of pictures. So me and Mum have pledged to put more personal touches around the house, as well as put up more pictures and photos. Given the lockdown, this is one of the few ‘decorating’ things we can do without leaving the house.

Me and Mum have been talking about this, about this feeling, for quite a while. But with my Masters, I haven’t had the time or the energy to do much about it. And Mum’s been working and helping me manage everything. But my second semester is ending and we’re stuck in lockdown so we’re planning to carve out some time to get more comfortable here – or get me more comfortable, at least, as the one more sensitive to this issue. We won’t be going out to get paint or new tiles or anything like that given the current situation but since we’re both stuck in the house with some extra free time, we thought we’d start with the things we can do while in lockdown, like putting up pictures. We also have a scale drawing of my room and cut outs of my furniture and have been moving them around to try and create a set up that is both practical and feels right to me, enough at least to try out.

So we’ll see how it goes. Nothing’s going to change overnight, but then what does? One step at a time, hopefully this house will feel more like home.

Tips for moving out of your childhood home. (x)

Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.

Grateful 2019

This year has been a weird year, something I don’t really want to get into until I do my end of year review. But it has been a weird year and with all the medication changes and mental health issues, it’s only the last three months that are really clear in my memory. I’m very aware of being grateful – there’s so much to be grateful for – but having had such a fuzzy brain, I feel sure that I’m forgetting things, something that’s causing me a lot of anxiety. Pieces of the year are just missing from my memory, whether blurry or plain misfiled, and so I worry that there are moments in there that I should and would be grateful for if only I could get a grasp on them. But I can’t. So this is the best I can do. Please forgive me if I’m leaving things out.

My Mum – I always list (or shout out) my Mum because she is the person that I am most, most grateful for. Being the person I am with the disabilities I have, I couldn’t survive in any way without her and for that, for her presence, I am so grateful. She goes above and beyond to help me through the bad days and achieve on the good days and I’m just in awe of her. She is the most caring person I know.

Richard (my best friend and writing partner) – During the first part of the year, Richard and I planned an EP that we were both so, so excited about. And then suddenly, overnight it felt like, that excitement disappeared for me. It was replaced by paralysing anxiety, so bad that I couldn’t even talk about the project. It was awful. But we got through it and the EP – Honest – is now slowly being released, all of which is largely because of Richard, both practically and emotionally. And that’s just our working relationship. He’s always there to text me shitty jokes, to help me write songs when I’m banging my head against the wall, to eat sweets and watch The Good Place with. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

My Family and Friends – I often give a specific shout out to Mum and Richard because they seem to be the ones who most commonly see and help me with my bad days and my anxieties but the rest of my family have also been amazing this year. They’ve always been there when I’ve needed them. I haven’t seen many of my friends as much as I would’ve liked to this year. Between the depression, the trying of different drugs, and starting the Masters, it’s been a messy and complicated year that I will write about more in my end of year review. Hopefully I’ll get to see them more next year.

The animals in my life – We started the year with our dog, Lucky, and three cats, Lucy and her kittens, Mouse and Tiger. We’d dabbled with the idea of Mouse having kittens, just to do the kittens experience one more time, but just as I changed my mind – it was too much change and I needed everything to stay the same – we came home and Mouse was having kittens, despite the vet telling us the week before that she wasn’t pregnant. And now we have two kittens in the house, two black furballs called Sooty and Sweep. They’re gorgeous and them, plus the rest of the animals, have really helped me with my anxiety (which has been overwhelming) over the last three months and that has been so, so important.

My Masters Degree group – Starting a new course or a new anything is always scary and for me, the scariest part tends to be the new people. Fortunately, I’m doing my Masters course at the same uni I did my BA so that was really the only new thing. But I got really lucky: I ended up in a really small group and they’re all really lovely people. It feels like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well and we’re all so supportive of each other. The groups are going to change somewhat after Christmas but it became a really safe environment, creatively and personally, and I’ll really miss it. I know I’ll still see them and our friendships won’t suddenly end but I’ll miss our little pocket in space and time.

My benefits being renewed – Given how scary the political climate in the UK has become and continues to become, I am so, so grateful that my benefits were renewed before the election and will last until just before the next election, regardless of what happens in the next few years. That was such a relief to learn. I don’t know what will happen after that but for now, I feel like I can breathe a little bit easier.

Red Bull – The major side effect of my current medication is this overwhelming sleepiness. When I told my psychiatrist about it, he said that it should wear off but that it could take months. I’d been drinking Red Bull to help me stay awake and help me concentrate; we discussed the fact that it’s not massively healthy but it’s his opinion that the sleepiness will wear off, hopefully within a few months and then I can give up my Red Bull habit. So we’re keeping an eye on it and in the meantime, Red Bull is my best friend.

Fanfiction – In times of great anxiety, I’ve reverted to a major hobby of my early teenage years. I read stories from every film and TV show I loved and wrote reams of the stuff. I’m not writing it this time around but reading it and getting lost in new stories from familiar worlds has been a very effective calming strategy. It’s made me feel safe. And it’s kept my creativity (always stifled by my anxiety) burning low, in the background, for when I’m ready for it.

His Dark Materials – I have been in love with this show from the first episode. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by and excited about a TV show currently airing (I’ve fallen in love with shows after they’ve ended, for example). Daphne Keen is an incredible Lyra and Ruth Wilson blows me away every episode as Mrs Coulter. The sets, the CGI, the characters’ relationships with their daemons, the complexity of the characters, even the introduction sequence are absolutely extraordinary. I’m so gutted that the series is over but I can’t wait for the next one.

Taylor Swift – I’m pretty sure I’ve always mentioned Taylor Swift but I probably always will. Her songwriting is incredible, she’s one of the hardest working people in the music industry, she’s generous, she’s intelligent, and she’s exceptionally kind. She’s one of my favourite singersongwriters and her recent album, Lover, is so, so good: one of my favourite albums of the year, possibly one of my favourite albums ever. It’s beautiful and vulnerable and special. She’s also been saying some very smart and very important things during her recent press cycle:

  • “I’m a woman, I’m not a coat hanger. I need to feel healthy in my life and I need to take pleasure in food and I need to not use my body as an exercise of control when I feel out of control in my life.”
  • “Do not let anything stop you from making art. Just makes things. Do not get so caught up in this that it stops you from making art or if you need to, make art about this. But never stop making things.”
  • “You’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.”
  • “If someone’s gonna take your hand, they’d better take your hand, scars and all.”
  • “I guess what I’m trying to say is that all any of the artists, or really anyone in this room wants, is to create something that will last, whatever it is in life. And the fact that this is an award that celebrates a decade of hard work, of art, and of fun and memories, all that matters to me is the memories that I had with you, the fans, over the years. We’ve had fun, incredible, exhilarating, extraordinary times together, and may it continue! Thank you for being the reason why I am on this stage, from the first day of my career until tonight.”
  • “I think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”

And lastly, she’s fearlessly standing up for artists and their right to own their music. It’s a big, hard fight but she’s using her platform and her power in the industry (“as your resident loud person”) to try and change that. Of course, she’s personally affected by it but she could handle it in private. Except she’s not: she’s speaking out and working to create change. And as a new artist, I really appreciate that she’s trying to make the industry I’m entering fairer and less discriminatory.

I think I’ll stop there. I’ve got my Christmas wrapping to do and a Christmas tree to guard from some very inquisitive cats. I hope you all have a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas where you feel as special and beautiful as you are.

EDIT: Honourable mentions to Nashville and the lovely people there, Agents of Shield, and fairy lights. But if I keep going here, we’ll be here until 2020.

2018 in Review

This year has been a struggle. Almost eighteen months ago, I made the decision to change my medication and that has basically been my life ever since. Lots of pills and doctors appointments but mostly dealing with the side effects, everything from nausea to shaking to a complete inability to think clearly. I don’t think I realised what a huge undertaking it was going to be but it’s not exactly surprising: you’re throwing all the chemicals in your brain and body out of whack. I tried Venlafaxine, Lithium, and Lamotrigine; I weaned myself off Venlafaxine, tried Amitriptyline, and now I’m taking Pregabalin and Clomipramine. This is the most promising combination so far and I’ve actually had a few really good days so I’m cautiously optimistic. But it’s been a long, hard road, sometimes so difficult that I wasn’t sure I’d survive it. And I don’t really feel able to acknowledge the good bits without paying tribute to the really tough things I had to go through and so got through.

The first of The Big Difficult Things was moving house. God, that was a struggle. Having thought that I’d found some sort of peace around it, when it came to the day, I was absolutely devastated. There were a lot of tears – from all of us. That house was my home for fifteen years – home to the greatest triumphs and tragedies of my life – and so, to some extent, it will always be my home. I think I could probably walk into my old bedroom twenty years from now and fall right back into that old rhythm.

I’m still learning the rhythms of the new house. There are days where it feels normal and then others where I hate it so much I could scream. Most of the time, it still feels like someone else’s house. Someone else’s house with all our stuff in. But every day is a step in the right direction. We’re filling all the empty space with memories, slowly but surely.

I’ve been writing a lot about Claire Wineland of late but I couldn’t write about this year and not mention her. Her death was another of The Big Difficult Things of this year. I stumbled across her YouTube channel late last year and have been following her on social media ever since. She was – and still is – a big inspiration for me and her death hit me really hard. It just makes no sense to me and never will and I’m still struggling to cope with that.

And through all of this, depression has been my constant, oppressive companion. While I had experienced depression before, this was a whole new kind of prison. The lows were lower than I’d ever experienced and there were several pretty scary moments. And as well as affecting my mood, my depression made it almost impossible to write songs. I’ve had many discussions about writer’s block over the years and I’ve always thought that there are things that can make writing difficult and so you have to figure out what’s causing the block and address it. In my case, it feels like depression suppresses the creative part of my brain: I don’t get random sparks of inspiration, I can’t solve problems creatively, and any active creativity – like songwriting – is like pulling teeth. It feels like writing songs requires a certain level of functioning that I’m just not capable of reaching while depressed. I want to write more about this – about depression and writer’s block – but that’s for another post.

Having said all of that, there have been good days, as well as good experiences on bad days.

By far the best part of this year has been the time spent with my friends and family, whether that be online or in the physical world, in Nashville, London, or Brighton. Or anywhere in between. These people have kept me going through the hardest period of my life so far and I’m so ridiculously grateful to them for that.

I got to travel a little bit this year, which was amazing. I managed to get back to Nashville where I had the most intense ten days possibly of my life. I got to see some lovely people, write songs (or try to), listen to some of the best songwriters in the world, and play a Song Suffragettes show. Even though I was incredibly anxious about it, that may very well have been the best day of my year.

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I also travelled to Iceland for the first time and saw so many beautiful things, including a 60m waterfall, the Diamond Beach, and the Northern Lights. The natural scenery in Iceland took my breath away time and again. It felt like the first breath you take after being underwater. Of course, there was a lot of anxiety during the trip but it helped me in a way that only the magnificence of nature is able to.

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There have been more wonderful live music events than I can count: Paramore, Kelsea Ballerini, Sugarland, Kacey Musgraves, Natalie Hemby (and all of Tin Pan South in Nashville), Frank Turner, Betsy Lane, The Shires, Sinead Burgess, The Brummies, Halsey, Kina Grannis, Aislin Evans, Maren Morris, and of course, Taylor Swift. Despite the anxieties around concerts, these are the places where I feel most alive and so, throughout this difficult period, I’ve always tried to ensure that there was another concert to look forward to.

And despite my musical struggles this year, I’ve actually played a few gigs and played shows that I am so proud to have been a part of. I got to play with WRTW again and it was even more fun than the first time (if that’s possible). I played Autism’s Got Talent in London, which was such a great opportunity. I played for Brighton Soup and Disability Pride in Brighton, two amazing organisations that I can’t praise enough. I also played Summer Fest in Worthing, my first show with my awesome friend, Richard Sanderson. And of course, I got to play a Song Suffragettes show when I was in Nashville.

I’ve also managed to do a handful to Autism research studies, as well as giving blood. I’ve been feeling so useless so I tried to contribute as best I could during this time where I’ve felt incapable of contributing anything at all.

Another big part of this year was getting used to the kittens: my cat had two kittens in February and me and my Mum just fell in love with them so we ended up keeping them. I love them dearly but it has been a major adjustment and a real struggle, especially with the daily battle that is depression. So this has been both a good and a bad thing. I want to write more about this whole experience because there were – and still are – a lot of complicated emotions involved. But above it all, we have Lucky and Lucy and the kittens and I love them more than life itself.

So, that’s it: 2018. It has been a hard, hard year, and one I’m very happy to leave behind but I’m cautiously optimistic about the next few months and the next year. I’ve felt better in the last couple of weeks than I have all year and I’m hopeful that this is characteristic of what’s to come.

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“2018, the year of living, fighting, but ultimately, surviving depression. There was a lot of gold in the grey but I’m so ready to move on to 2019.” (x)

Grateful 2018

Last year, I posted on Christmas Eve about the things I was grateful for (here) and I really liked it as a practice. Since we don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK, there’s no holiday directly related to being thankful and I think it’s important to make time to think and feel these things. And I always feel overwhelmed by how lucky I am at Christmas so this seems like a good time to do it, to do this post.

My family – I am endlessly grateful to my family. They have loved and supported me through some really difficult times this year and even though that’s what family should do, I’m so, so grateful to them for doing that. I don’t take them for granted. A particular shout out to my Mum for going above and beyond. She’s my hero.

My friends – I am also endlessly grateful to my friends. I haven’t seen as much of them as I would’ve liked this year but I’ve been doing my best to stay in touch. They mean so much to me and I hope they know that. Again, a particular shout out to Richard because he has been incredible this year, supporting me as a friend and a writing partner. I’m more grateful than I can say.

My therapist – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am so grateful for my therapist. My depression has been brutal this year and there were more than a few moments where I had no idea how I was going to survive (I say that like it’s over and I’m not sure whether it’s over or not). I absolutely wouldn’t have made it through that without her.

Song Suffragettes – If you don’t know what Song Suffragettes is, prepare to have your musical life changed. It’s an organisation in Nashville that focuses on boosting the up and coming female songwriting talent and they have weekly shows showcasing these awesome women. I was lucky enough to join them on my last trip to Nashville and it was definitely the best day of my year (and one of the best in my life). Everyone involved is so lovely and they are doing such important work. Check them out on Twitter here.

Claire Wineland – I’ve written about Claire quite a bit (here, herehere, and here if you’re interested) but she’s been on my mind a lot. I miss her – her presence in my life – more than I know what to do with but I am so grateful to have had her at all. That doesn’t make me okay with what happened (not at all) but I am grateful. She was an incredible human being and she’s still helping people even though she’s no longer here.

Flowers – This is a simple one but having beautiful, colourful flowers around improves my mood and improves my day. In a year that’s felt very dark and colourless, having flowers in the house has made a noticeable difference to my day-to-day life.

My bullet journal – Having somewhere to organise my thoughts and my life has been so helpful. Up until now I’ve never had a system that really worked for me so this is a big deal. I’ve written more about it here.

Lauren Kaech – I discovered Lauren on YouTube earlier this year and I have found her videos and her attitude really inspiring. I talked about her in my post about social media favourites and she makes videos about her experience of living with an eating disorder. And while that’s not an experience I can directly relate to, there are aspects that I can. She talks about facing the things that scare you, the realities of happiness, and a whole host of recovery related topics that apply to anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders. I’m so grateful to have had this in my life this year and at my very worst (in the very worst of my depression), looking forward to her videos got me through the day and kept me going.

Swimming – I’ve written a whole post about this (here) but I wanted to include it here because I’m so, so grateful for it. Almost every morning, I get up and go to the pool and do something that makes sense. Even if the rest of the day doesn’t, that does. I’m also really proud of myself for keeping this up for six months, especially given how bad my depression has been.

Taylor Swift – Miss Swift was on my grateful list last year and the reasons are all still relevant. But this year, I got to see her live (twice!) and that experience was so much fun in the middle of a really dark place. I felt all that weight lift for a couple of hours and that is a big deal. I’m also really grateful to her for voicing her political opinions (breaking her career long silence on the subject) and encouraging young people to vote. In the twenty four hours after she made her Instagram post on the subject, 65,000 people registered to vote, which is just incredible. It made me really proud to be a fan. I don’t think I can say more than, as always, I am grateful for Taylor Swift.

So there you have it. I could write more – there are so many things to be grateful for – but I’ll stop there. I’m wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas and I’ll see you in the next post.