The Third Semester of My Masters

So that’s it. The third semester of my Masters is officially completed. As I write this, I have just submitted my assessment work and have a week before the next semester starts (online, due to the current number of COVID cases). I have some reading to do for the next module but before I dive into that, I just want to reflect on the last semester, the ups and downs, and all that I’ve learned.


It began with a great deal of stress, and long before the semester was due to start. At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d said I absolutely didn’t want to do my course online and would defer if that was going to be the case. But as the new semester drew closer, I got more and more anxious. I didn’t want to defer but I also didn’t feel safe commuting to and then through London for two hours of classes a week so, after many hours of talking with my family (and many tears), I decided that the best option was to attend as an online student. It was a sad decision to make because I’ve always loved the group dynamic of my university classes but it just didn’t feel safe or responsible to attend in the way I’d have to.

And then, in the week or so before classes started, there was a great deal of stress around getting the right timetable as an online student: conflicting information, the classes not showing up on my online timetable, and so on. When things were already so stressful (the anxiety about the pandemic aside, I was really nervous about whether or not I was mentally up to doing the module with my mental health so fragile), this just triggered a series of really terrible meltdowns. It was a horrible and exhausting way to start the semester, especially the one I’d always been most anxious about: Musical Language in Songwriting. Music theory has never been a strong area of mine so the idea of experimenting with these concepts was very daunting.

While this was very distressing, I don’t want to point fingers or place blame. These are hugely difficult times and no university – no institution – is perfect, even when the world is running according to what we consider to be normal. So it’s not fair to expect everything to run smoothly. And now that I’m on the other side of the semester, I can only sing the praises of my tutors: over and over, I’ve seen just how dedicated, hardworking, passionate, and supportive they are. There have been bumps in the road, of course, but even with the sheer amount of stress they’re under – and that’s just the stress I’m aware of as a student – I’ve been consistently met with warmth, thoughtfulness, and understanding. And I’m just so beyond grateful for that. I couldn’t have completed this semester without their support.

I wrote about my first week back (here) but to summarise, it was a challenge. My uni were using a blended model of teaching so the lecture was online and the workshop was onsite (but as an online student, I was looped in through the online learning platform). The lectures were straightforward since we were all online, and productive once we got into a rhythm and stopped accidentally interrupting each other. The workshop, however, was more complicated: between not physically being there and only being able to communicate through the tutor’s laptop, plus not being able to see or really hear my course mates, it was very difficult. But I spoke to my tutor after the class and the next workshop was better.

I’d thought we were making progress but then suddenly, between week two and week three, I was moved to a new workshop group, an online group made up of just the online students. That really threw me; the constant uncertainty was doing a real number on my mental health. I was really struggling during this time: my anxiety over the pandemic, the expectations of the course, and being able to do well in the module was incredibly high; I was hugely frustrated with the whole situation; I was feeling overwhelmed by my depression, my low energy levels and side effects of medication… I was constantly in tears, constantly having meltdowns.

But slowly, as things started to settle, my mental state started to settle too. I had a really positive meeting with one of my tutors where he went through the learning outcomes and grading criteria and generally what makes a good assessment portfolio. I’ve found that having a meeting like this early on in the semester both helps me to work on the assignments more effectively and avoids unnecessary anxiety. As I said, I felt really supported throughout this module and I’m so grateful for that, both in terms of the module itself and in terms of the broader picture.

The assignments were challenging and definitely interesting, including a reimagination of a cover, a reimagination of an original song, and a brief that still makes me shudder: a song in an uncommon mode, using both 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, with extended chords and an example of chromaticism (I struggled particularly with this one). We also had to consider the arrangement of each songs and to an extent, the production. The briefs definitely stretched me and prompted some very interesting songs, many of which I absolutely wouldn’t have written if I’d not done the module. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them but I definitely learned a lot from writing them. Having said that, I did spend a lot of time feeling very unsure of myself and the quality of my work, both in terms of whether they were actually good songs and whether they were fulfilling the grading criteria.

About halfway through the semester, my course mates from the year before (those who’d done the Masters full time and completed it in one year rather than two) graduated and I joined them for the online ceremony to celebrate them and their achievements. We were all disappointed not to be able to get together to celebrate properly but hopefully that plan is simply postponed rather than cancelled. They all deserve it and it would be so  lovely to see them again.

Six (out of twelve) weeks in, I was exhausted all the time. I was also still struggling with the nerve pain in my hand – the pain that I’ve been experiencing since the middle of the first lockdown – which was only getting worse, making it even more difficult to play instruments. I was still waiting for my rheumatology referral – that didn’t come through until the last week of the semester and even now, they still don’t know what the problem is.

The latter half of the semester was much more focussed on the assessment, at least it was for me. I worked on the songs I’d already written during the module before taking them into class again for more feedback so that I could get them as good as possible for submission (although I did impulsively write a rap that ended up being part of my portfolio). I also worked on the other part of the assessment: a short essay, analysing one of the songs I’d written and how I’d employed different aspects of musical language. I worked as hard as I could, determined to have at least most of the work done by Christmas so that I could have a break of some kind before the next semester started, unlike last year when I had to work straight through the Christmas break.

Despite the meeting early in the semester, I found it very difficult to judge whether I was doing ‘well enough.’ The learning outcomes and grading criteria felt incredibly vague and therefore not at all Autism-friendly, causing me a lot of anxiety. I mean, it’s Masters level and they have to cover all of the different styles of songwriting on the course so I do understand it but as an autistic person, it’s been one of the hardest parts of the course (uncertainty being a common area of difficulty for autistic individuals). I had multiple conversations with my tutors about it and although they noted it, it’s not like they could change them in the middle of the semester. I guess we’ll see if anything changes over time. I did get useful feedback on my songs and essay during those conversations but I still have no idea what to expect grade-wise.

By the end of the semester, I was almost done: I was making final edits to the songs and trying to cut down the word count of my essay. But the last week was hectic to say the least. I had a really lovely last day of classes – both groups I was a part of were so positive and fun to be a part of – and then a final one-on-one session with my tutor for any last feedback before the deadline (the first day after the Christmas break). That was really useful, especially as I was so close to finishing everything. I also had a meeting with my tutor for the next semester, so that I could prepare for it or, at the very least, get my head around what the expectations of the module were. Again, another attempt at reducing unnecessary anxiety, plus it was really nice to see him again; he’s taught me on and off since my first day on the BA (he actually auditioned me for the BA!) and he’s such a great teacher. I feel like he gets me and my approach to songwriting and I’m really excited to have him as a tutor again. And the semester itself ended for me with a meeting on behalf of ICMP where a group of us (students from different courses) spoke about our experience with the university. That felt good; I only ever want to leave things better than I found them and that meeting felt like an opportunity to do that. It’s re-inspired me to keep trying, even if I didn’t really need to be re-inspired.

I had one last session with Richard, sorted out a couple of technical issues with the tracks, and then I spent every day working non-stop. On Christmas Eve, I managed to finish everything. I was done – or had done as much as I could do without endlessly obsessing over every tiny detail – and could have an actual break between semesters. I really needed that and I had a good Christmas, despite everything going on. I wish I could’ve been with more of my family but we all recognised how risky that was. So we had a truly bizarre and hilarious Christmas Quiz and Zoom call and then dinner within our bubbles; it wasn’t perfect but I think we truly made the most of it and I really enjoyed it, even if there were difficult moments.

After a pretty restful break, I logged onto the student gateway to upload all of my work on New Year’s Day, several days before the deadline. But, for some unknown reason, the pages weren’t set up in a way that allowed us to upload the work required for the assessment. I had multiple meltdowns over it and after a handful of emails to various tutors, I was given an alternate way to submit. I shouldn’t really be surprised: this has happened multiple times and with the deadlines always on the first day back, there’s usually no one to contact for help. I was lucky to have had a tutor respond. Fortunately, it did get fixed on the morning of the deadline and we were all able (and asked) to submit. They usually fix it in time but it’s very stressful every time.


As I’ve already said, I’d been dreading this module but I ended up enjoying it a lot than I’d expected. It was still stressful but the tutors were incredibly supportive and my course mates were engaged and encouraging. It felt safe to bring in whatever I’d written, even if I really wasn’t sure about it (the rap, for example). It is hard being part time though, just as much this year as it was last year: for me at least, I’ve always felt ‘other’ to a certain degree, excluded (unintentionally) from the main group, the full-timers. Rather than being part of two years worth of Masters students, I’ve just felt not quite a part of either. It’s hard to explain but I’ve just never felt truly part of the course, like I’m always missing out on something because I’m only there (or ‘there’) half of the time. Does that make sense? I’m not even sure. Being part time has definitely been better for my mental health but it has made things more complex socially.

But ultimately, the module has been a good experience (although I’m sure my perspective on it will be affected to a certain degree by the grade I get). I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, or the skill that has developed the most, is how my decisions serve the song I’m writing; it’s made me much more conscious of my choices and it made me realise how much I already knew about the techniques we were using but just using them instinctively rather than deliberately. So that was surprising but it has opened up doors in my songwriting.

It was also exciting to start looking ahead to the next two modules: we had extracurricular sessions where students from last year presented their final projects to give us an idea of what that last module would be like. It was reassuring because it made the whole thing feel much more clear and less like a huge, intangible, overwhelming pile of work. Now it feels like an exciting challenge and I can’t wait to get started, regardless of the stress and anxiety involved.

IMG_7157

A Week In My Life (December 2020)

Since my last week-in-my-life post didn’t include any time ‘at’ university, I thought I’d write another one this semester, one that included uni time and all that that entails.

After three really bad mental health days, I was a bit wary about the week ahead – starting it feeling so depleted. It ended up being a very mixed week, as they’ve all been recently. Maybe it’s an end of term thing: I start off strong but then I hit a wall somewhere in the middle and it doesn’t always take much. I’ve worked hard this semester so hopefully I’ll be able to finish all of my assessment stuff fairly quickly – it’s mostly just polishing now – and get some proper holiday time. Last year, I had to work every day of the Christmas break, only taking Christmas Day off. So some time off would be really nice.

The week in this post began on Monday 30th November and ended on Sunday 6th December 2020.


MONDAY

I slept badly so I took my time getting up and having a shower. I had some breakfast (and ALL of my pills – there’s so many at the moment, what with my normal medication, extra supplements, and some antibiotics) and then I got myself sorted for my session with Richard.

We spent about three hours on the call, working on the production for a new song I’d written, and then just chilling out together, chatting about our uni work, the various projects we’re working on, the tv shows we’re watching, and so on… We’re always texting and we have our Zoom sessions but we haven’t hung out together in months and I really miss that.

IMG_5645

When we finally hung up, I was exhausted and what started as an episode of The Split while I recovered turned into finishing the second series. It was really, really good – even better than the first series. Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan were particularly fantastic. I love Nicola Walker; she was incredible in Spooks, Scott & Bailey, River, and now in Unforgotten and The Split. Her performances throughout this second series have been breathtaking and the ending had me in floods of tears. She blows me away every time.

I spent what was left of the afternoon and early evening working on my assessment essay. Then Mum and I had dinner together before starting a rewatch of Unforgotten (yes, we’re on a bit of a Nicola Walker kick at the moment), while I did some diary writing. I’m so far behind, what with everything I’ve been dealing with healthwise and doing for uni. My anxiety over it is so high but so is my anxiety over my uni work so the two are constantly pushing against one another. I never have any respite from it and it’s exhausting.

I managed to go to bed reasonably early, which was an achievement, especially since I had to get up early the next morning for uni.


TUESDAY

Again, I slept restlessly but with disturbing dreams that I couldn’t quite remember when I woke up; it just left me feeling kind of uneasy for most of the day, which wasn’t fun. I swear, I’ve had as many nightmares or disturbing dreams since the pandemic began than in my whole life up to that point. It’s horrible; I really feel for anyone who deals with this generally, independent of the pandemic.

I got up, got showered and dressed, had breakfast and pills before logging into my first class of the day. I could only stay an hour of the two (pre-arranged with my tutor) but we spent that hour identifying and discussing different kinds of hooks and how they’re used in songs. Then I had to sign off for a call about my rheumatology referral. It seriously cannot come quickly enough; the pain in my arm, hand, back and legs is only getting worse as time passes.

Before I got down to work, I checked my Spotify stats and saw that the Honest EP has surpassed 30,000 streams. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that so many people have heard these songs. A good feeling, but a weird feeling. I can’t really describe it.

I spent several hours working on my essay, all but finishing the first draft. So that was a good bit of work done – more than I can usually manage between classes. I had some lunch, some time to dedicate to my diary writing, and then I was signing back into class.

The afternoon’s workshop was a productive one. We got through a lot of songs and we had some really good discussions, despite only having an hour. Everyone was really lovely about my song, which meant a lot since it was such a personal one. I also had questions about the grading criteria and learning outcomes because I find the language very unclear and that lead to a good conversation about the assessment as well as inclusivity and accessibility of the course. So it felt like a really positive class, in all sorts of ways.

When my class finished, my Mum and I FaceTimed with my Granny for her birthday and I also got to see my aunt (they’re in a bubble together), which was really lovely. I don’t think I’ve seen either of them in person since Christmas, which has been hard, even knowing that it’s the right, responsible thing to do. It a weird world – a difficult world – when the best way to love someone is to stay away from them.

I also FaceTimed with one of my parents who’d had a particularly rough day. So it was a very social day! It was good to do but I definitely felt drained afterwards.

I was having some downtime, doing some blog writing and watching TV, when another of my other parents called me and told me to change channel to a very cute programme about puppies. It was indeed very cute and it did make me wish for a puppy again, not that we intend to get one in the foreseeable future – we don’t have enough time to properly devote to one so it wouldn’t be fair. But I’m always up for any puppy time I can get.

But the best bit was how one of my cats, Mouse, reacted to it. She was fascinated by the puppies, even patting the screen, trying to touch them. It was utterly adorable. She sat patiently through the advert break and was just as absorbed by the puppies when they returned to the screen. She watched intently for the rest of the programme and then, when the credits rolled, she got up and walked away. It was the funniest thing.

So that was very adorable.

Mum and I had dinner with another few episodes of Unforgotten and I finished my essay. Well, the first draft anyway. It needed a read through and a tidy up before I sent it off but what I’d wanted done for my tutorial session was essentially done. A productive day’s work and in bed before eleven: not bad at all.


WEDNESDAY

So Lockdown 2.0 has ended, not that it felt like much of a lockdown. If you’re going to call it a lockdown, then you have to do what you did in the first lockdown and shut everything down. Otherwise it’s not going to make a difference, people are going to have even less faith in it as a safety measure, and they’ll flaunt the rules because they don’t think it matters. It’s been driving me up the wall. I’m so frustrated: with the government, with the people ignoring the rules (and boasting about it), anyone who is putting casual convenience over the safety of others… Yes, that’s a generalised statement. I’m aware that there are important and necessary reasons to go out but there just seem to be so many people who just don’t care that we’re still in a pandemic and I find that incredibly distressing.

I woke up at eight and intended to get up but then suddenly it was quarter past nine so I must’ve accidentally gone back to sleep. I did manage to get up then and headed straight for my desk to record the vocals for the song I’d been working on with Richard. Even though I love it, for some reason, I find it really hard to motivate myself to start recording so it seems that the easiest way is to just get up and do it before I can get into a procrastinating mindset.

That done, I had breakfast and a shower, leaving me with just enough time to tidy up my essay and send it to my tutor before heading out to have a blood test. I had one a month or so ago and it showed dangerously low Vitamin D levels so I’ve been on a high dose Vitamin D supplement to try and build them up again. This blood test should tell us whether they’ve helped and what the next steps are.

It was almost dark by the time we got home so we settled down in the living room, lit a fire (one of my favourite things about this time of year and about this house – the fireplace) and continued watching Unforgotten. I also kept working on my Lockdown 2.0 blog post. I’d been keeping the list updated throughout the lockdown so it was just a case of tidying it up, adding all the right links, and writing an introduction and conclusion.

I had to stop in the middle to sign in to my tutorial. I had a really good session with my tutor. He was complimentary about what I’d already done and had some really good feedback so I feel pretty good about my next steps. I know what I need to do and now I just need to do it. Then I get one more tutorial before the holidays for any final feedback or guidance. The deadline is in sight, which is more than a bit scary. I just really, really want to do well.

I was exhausted afterwards but I still managed to finish and post the Lockdown 2.0 blog. So I guess it was a pretty productive day.

That done, I had a quick scroll through social media and saw that people had started to post their Spotify stats of the year, both as listeners and as artists. I always find this difficult, regardless of any rational talking to I give myself, regardless of whatever I’ve personally gone through or achieved that year; it just taps into my lifelong insecurity of not doing well enough, not being ‘good enough.’ So it’s not easy. This year should’ve been different, with four of the five tracks from my EP being released since January, but Spotify doesn’t count anything after 31st October and with ‘Honest‘ coming out on 30th October, only one day of its streams were counted. So my most successful song wasn’t a part of my Spotify Wrapped, making it completely inaccurate. So I haven’t shared it – haven’t wanted to – and I feel a little bit robbed of that. I have included the percentage increases here but in reality, they’re a good bit higher since ‘Honest’ did so well.

Hopefully next year, or whenever it is that I release more music, the figures will be more accurate and I’ll feel confident in sharing them. This ‘comparison anxiety,’ as my friend called it, was something I really wanted to work on in therapy this year but even when I’ve felt able to ‘go’ to therapy, it’s been difficult to get much further than damage control around the pandemic. That’s been really difficult – a real frustration – this year. I’ve just felt completely stuck at therapy: while I want to move forward, I’ve only felt able to maintain the fragile balancing act I’ve managed to create. And I haven’t even been able to do that a lot of the time.

Early evening, my Mum and I FaceTimed with my Granny before having fish and chips with one of my other parents. We watched the new episode of His Dark Materials (Series 2 Episode 4) and it was so good. Oh my god, that cliffhanger!

I was just getting ready for bed when I felt the pain in my back. It had been aching all afternoon but that’s not unusual right now but then it started to get worse, sharper and higher. It came on so suddenly that I couldn’t get from the bathroom to the bedroom without Mum’s help and then, when I collapsed on the bed, I couldn’t move because the pain was so bad. It seems to come in waves: there’s the pain and then it surges like a series of electric shocks before finally (FINALLY) receding back to the original pain level. And I never know how long it will go on for; sometimes painkillers seem to make a difference  and sometimes it seems to go on for ages regardless. I’m not entirely sure how long this one went on for but it was at least half an hour. And then it always takes quite a long time for me to get my body to relax afterwards, my muscles having been so tense while the electric shock pain was so bad. So even though I was exhausted, it took me a long time to get comfortable and drift off.


THURSDAY

It took me a long time to get up because I was so stiff and sore. The rheumatology appointment can’t come soon enough. I struggled through breakfast and a shower and then had a Zoom production session with Richard, continuing to work on the song we’d started on the Monday. Considering how out of our normal styles the song was, I think we did a good job, especially for a demo and I’m definitely interested to hear what my class have to say when they hear it.

We also had some chill time, just chatting and hanging out, almost like we would if we were actually together, which was really nice. We’re coping with remote sessions but I cannot wait to hang out again properly, have face-to-face writing sessions, and actually do things together. Or not do things together but do that together in the same room, if you know what I mean.

IMG_5823

When we finished, I did a couple of FaceTime calls with family and then collapsed on the sofa. I was completely exhausted. Me and Mum watched the last episode of Unforgotten Series 3 and oh my god, it gets me every time (if you know, you know – I’m not going to spoil it but the acting is incredible). Nicola Walker does not get the credit she deserves, although from what I’ve read in interviews, she seems to be pretty happy just buckling down on great projects and not doing the whole spotlight thing. (I’m so annoyed with myself that I missed seeing her in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – I would love to see her on stage and it’s such a great book.)

Mum and I were having a relatively chilled evening until I asked her about her call with my doctor. There had been multiple things to update her on and ask about but some of the advice she’d given was just really triggering and upsetting. I will talk about it at some point because I think it’s an important thing to have conversations about but it’s not something I’m personally ready to talk about yet. But it really upset me and just killed the warm, cozy mood of the evening.

And then, to make matters worse, Mouse (the cat) brought in a dead mouse, which is something that almost always sets off a meltdown (fortunately Mum understands this and is okay with dealing with it while I do my best to avoid said meltdown). I managed to remove myself quickly enough that I didn’t have one but it was just the final straw on what I could handle that evening so even though it was still quite early, I went to bed. It was all just too much.


FRIDAY

I slept for about twelve hours but I still woke up feeling exhausted, depressed, and miserable. I feel like I spent most of the first lockdown working really hard to get my mental health into some sort of box so I felt like I wasn’t constantly overwhelmed but most days, it still feels like I’m walking on a tightrope and it takes so little to knock me off and back into that suffocating depression. And that’s exactly what the night before did.

I really struggled all day. I just felt completely unmotivated and so, so tired. I was also having to deal with side effects of my antibiotics – they left me with a disgusting taste in my mouth all the time – which was just an extra strain. I only had one day left so I tried to focus on that but it just felt so much harder than it would’ve had I not already been feeling so awful. I did manage to finish and post the blog post about What’s Next for the Honest EP so that was good to do and helpful for my mental state – ticking stuff off my list always gives me at least a bit of a boost.

The good news of the day was that Kalie Shorr had re-released (I guess) her debut album, Open Book (which I wrote about here), but as Open Book: Unabridged, the original album plus four more songs. ‘My Voice’ and ‘Lying To Myself’ had already been released as singles and she’d played ‘Eighteen’ during her livestream concert but ‘Out Of It’ was completely new, which was really cool. They’re all stunning songs and all in their own way. ‘My Voice’ is empowering and unapologetic, as well as a very effective middle finger at the Country labels in Nashville. ‘Lying To Myself’ paints an aching authentic picture of insecurity after a break up with incredible lyrics like, “I picked out all my favourite things you said, then like a delusional architect, I built you up like a house of cards” and “You liked it up on that pedestal ’cause damn, you looked incredible, but coming down’s inevitable.” ‘Eighteen’ is a brutally honest, heartbreaking song about looking back at a relationship that really wasn’t okay, where you were all in but you were only ever treated badly. And ‘Out Of It’ is similar to a previous Kalie song, ‘Awake,’ but this time, she’s saying ‘no’ and isn’t going to get pulled into the bullshit; this time, she’s cutting the cord between herself and the other person. And because I’m a lyric nerd, here is my favourite (or one of my favourites) from each song:

My Voice: “Too rock for country, too country for punk / But who said I had to pick either one / Tattoos at the Opry / I could cover em up but it’s not me”

Lying To Myself: “I’m a little out of touch with reality, it’s never been that nice to me / I like the pictures I paint the best”

Eighteen: “I see you out with younger versions of me / While I’m trying to find who I used to be / I’m terrified that you and I will always be chasing eighteen”

Out Of It: “Your mom and dad put you through hell / You tell your secrets ’til you scare yourself / It’s a big dramatic entrance then you leave / And now I’m the girl I said I’d never be”

Late afternoon saw me dragging myself through some preparation for a mental health assessment that I have coming up, which was another thing I needed to do. But I was so tired that it took forever and I spent a lot of the time it took with my head on my arms, just trying to think. It was just a really bad mental health day. There was no way around it so I just tried to get through it. I was too tired to do anything really but I still tried to write my blog post about the UniversitiesUK Conference. I find it so hard to just do nothing; it causes me a lot of anxiety so even when I’m exhausted, I’m still desperately trying to do something.

By necessity, it was a quiet evening and I went to bed early, all too aware of how soon I had to wake up again to watch Maren Morris’ livestream concert.


SATURDAY

After MANY alarms, I struggled up at 2am to watch Maren Morris’ livestream concert. It felt very strange to not be a part of the crowd, singing (or screaming) along with her but it was so good to see her perform and hear her gorgeous voice again. It was very comforting, like a reminder that some things don’t change. The world might’ve turned upside down but Maren Morris is still Maren Morris, an exceptional songwriter, singer, and performer. So I was really grateful that she and her team put together this show for us.

I didn’t get back to sleep until about five and couldn’t be roused for anything. I eventually woke up at twelve and then I felt so tired and heavy that I could barely get out of bed. I spent several hours unable to do anything but lie on the sofa and watch TV. Disrupting my sleep patterns always throws me for six and with the depressive feelings still very overwhelming, I was really struggling.

Eventually I managed a shower, which completely exhausted me. It also makes me feel sick and dizzy to stand up for the amount of time it takes to sort the shower, have the shower, and then get dried and dressed. One more thing on the list of things being investigated.

Back in the living room, I put on Lucifer and attempted to do something productive. Mostly I ended up jumping between this and my diary, writing a few sentences here and there before switching back, just too tired to think enough to write anything decent. So that was frustrating, plus I had the nerve pain in my leg again – not the electric shock version but the bit that always comes before that (even if it doesn’t turn into said electric shock feeling) where it aches deeper than feels physically possible. So that didn’t help.

Mum and I had an early dinner and then she went for a swim. I really wanted to go and felt like I should – I’d been looking forward to it ever since the pool closed for lockdown – but I just had absolutely no energy. So she went and hopefully I’ll feel able to go next time. I got some good writing done though, so at least the time didn’t go to waste.

Having gotten up so late, I ended up going to bed too late, which was a bit of a pain. My sleep schedule is so easily knocked off course and then so difficult to correct. It was worth it though. Seeing Maren Morris perform is always good for my soul.


SUNDAY

I slept restlessly and struggled up around ten. I still felt incredibly depressed and it took a huge amount of effort to just get out of bed, into the shower, and up into the living room. I had a quiet day, not that that I think I could’ve managed anything else. I managed to finish and post my blog post about speaking at the UniversitiesUK Conference. I also finished all the paperwork for the upcoming mental health assessment and worked on the interview questions my university had sent me about doing the conference (that interview has since been posted). So, considering how awful I felt, I did manage to get something out of the way and check some things off the ongoing list, which – as I think I’ve said – at least helps me to keep my mental state from sinking lower. Having said that, I don’t want to promote the idea that being constantly productive is essential for your mental health; I’ve just found that, if I can tick something off of my to do list, even if it’s something tiny, then that can help me to keep moving forward, help me not to get stuck in my depression. It doesn’t always work; sometimes I just have to surrender to a bad day and hope that the next one will be better. But trying , even if not succeeding, does seem to do something positive.

In the evening, one of my parents came over and the three of us had a chilled evening, eating dinner in front of the fire and continuing our rewatch of Lucifer. It was gentle and undemanding and I did feel better for it. I often simplify my mood into two levels: surface and deep. And in this case, even though my deep mood was still very depressed and twisted up, my surface mood was a bit lighter. Calling it a surface mood doesn’t, to me at least, make it any less important than the deeper mood; it just means that it’s the mood that deals with the day to day stuff while the deeper mood is the one that you carry inside you and the one that sits with all the big, important stuff in your head and in your life. I guess, I see this mood as the one that’s so intricately intertwined with a person’s overall mental health. For example, in the previous few days, I was depressed on both levels (I’m not sure how good a job I’ve done of illustrating that but it’s the truth) but after the Sunday evening, my surface mood started to lift out of that depressed place. My deeper mood was still there though (and still is as I post this). But the lightening of my surface mood did make it a bit easier to face Monday and the coming week.

I tried to go to bed early but as usual, failed. I swear, I’m desperate to sleep all day and then, at about seven o’clock in the evening, my brain snaps on and starts firing wildly, almost too fast for me to keep up with my own thoughts. It’s so frustrating. It’s almost as if my brain has got day and night confused.


So there you have it: another week completely different from the last. I think I’m grateful for that – it must be better than feeling like you’re stuck in a hamster wheel surely – but it’s not without it’s difficulties. When planning is the thing that makes life easier to bear, it can be hard when each new week seems to bring something unexpected.

You guys seem to like these posts so I’ll be sure to do another one soon but probably not until the new year. Touch wood, I can get all of my coursework done in the next ten days and then I can have some time off (although I’m not exactly sure whether it will feel like time off – my brain already has an anxiety fuelled to-do list waiting for me – but I’m going to try my best.) Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope to see you in the next post.

A Day In My Life (University With Autism Spectrum Disorder)

As opposed to my usual week-in-the-life posts, I thought I’d do something slightly different this time and zoom in on what it’s like to be an autistic student at university (one doing an MA in COVID-19 times anyway). This is obviously just my experience – as the saying goes, ‘if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’ – but I thought it might be an interesting post to write. I feel like it’s so important to share our experiences as autistic people, especially when media is being created that can be harmful to us (i.e. everything that’s been going on with Sia’s new film – I feel like I should be writing about that but I still don’t know how to; it makes me so upset that I can’t really write anything that feels articulate enough to represent the significance of the issue). So I hope this is an interesting read.


THE NIGHT BEFORE

Monday was hugely busy, with a production session, two doctors appointments, and working on the essay of the module in the spaces between. I’ve been working on it somewhat steadily but since I have a feedback session coming up, I’ve been a bit more random in my approach to writing it – fitting writing time in wherever I can or just writing about certain things as they occur to me –  so that I can get as much out of that session as possible.

So it was one of those days where I barely had time to think.

On Monday evenings, the Masters course have a song sharing session between 7.30pm and 9.30pm. I’ve been a couple of times but I tend to find it too much. I’m most creative at night and so filling my head with new songs and song analysis right before I try to sleep really messes up my ability to sleep, which I have to try to do relatively early with my first class on a Tuesday at 9am. And if I don’t get enough sleep on a Monday night, I’m useless in every class on the one day I have classes. So, unless there’s a really good reason, I can’t really prioritise them.

I also find them quite hard socially: as much as doing the Masters course part time was the right thing for me, it has meant that for both years, I’ve never quite felt part of the group. There’s a handful of us in the same position and I can’t speak for them but it’s always left me feeling a bit ‘other,’ like I don’t really fit anywhere – not quite part of the group in the first year and even less part of the group in this second year. Everyone on the course is lovely but it does have a pretty big impact on the social side of the course. And when you struggle with feeling like you don’t fit in, it’s hard to feel it in yet another area of your life. So sometimes that factor just makes it too hard on my mental health. Maybe it will feel easier when one of my best friends rejoins the course in January.

So, instead, I used the time to do some more work on my essay before emailing everything required for the feedback session to my tutor (I wanted to make sure he had enough time to go through it all before we met on Wednesday afternoon). Then I tried to unwind a bit. Somehow I still ended up going to bed too late – not that 11pm is hugely late but for me, the night before a class, it’s on the border of being dangerously late.

I have a prescription for sleeping pills because my anti-depressants can cause problems with my sleep but I try to avoid them where I can. Having said that, knowing how exhausting a uni day can be, I usually take one the night before to make sure I’ve had enough sleep to give me the best chance of getting through said long uni day.


THE DAY ITSELF

I wouldn’t say I slept well and I struggled to get up but I’ve had worse nights so I just tried to push through the fatigue. I got dressed and made up and then collapsed on the sofa for a rest. Standing for the time it takes to shower, get dressed, and do my make up makes me feel weak, and lightheaded, and sick – something we’re still investigating with, unfortunately, very little progress – but getting up as early as I had meant that I did have enough time for some recovery time. It’s all down to planning. My life is dependent on planning. I also managed to eat some breakfast and take all of my pills. I’m taking quite a few at the moment – more than the ‘normal’ ones that help me maintain my mental health – because of a Vitamin D deficiency and horrible nerve pain down my left side (I’ve been waiting for a hospital appointment for the latter since about April or May, which may be my personal record for appointment waiting times).

My seminar started at nine (if you’ve read my previous university posts, you’ll remember that I’m doing all of my classes online this semester). My normal tutor (who is legitimately one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met) started the class before handing us over to a guest tutor who gave us a two hour class on arranging strings and horns. He was incredibly knowledgeable and engaging and so it was really interesting. Plus, Tiger came and sat with me for most of it, which was very nice. University with cats is a definite advantage of online lectures.

IMG_5359

I was struggling to concentrate by the end of the class so I was relieved when we wrapped up. It was a lot of knowledge and sensory information to try to process and sort through and digest. I felt more than a bit dazed. Fortunately, the session was recorded so I can either go back and listen to it in shorter sections or go back and search for something specific.

My next class wasn’t until five so I had rather a lot of time to fill. Pre-pandemic, I’d hang out at uni and do cowrites, go to the favourite local coffee shop with friends, or work on whatever was on the list at the time but I’m finding it much harder to use this time effectively, whether that’s due to having my classes online or down to the pandemic just really screwing with my brain. Stuff that wasn’t hard before is now and the only thing I can put it down to is the pandemic, even if I don’t know precisely why. All I know is that it’s a weird time and so it shouldn’t be surprising that certain things aren’t the same as they were before. But it’s still frustrating to have such a big block of time that I could be using productively and not have my brain cooperate. Early in the semester, I ended up staring at my laptop screen, desperately trying to work on stuff and just not being able to. I got more and more frustrated and demoralised and eventually I just had to accept that this is not productive time. So I’ve been trying to come up with ways to fill it that aren’t too demanding but still feel like there’s a point to them; I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted it by just staring at my phone or mindlessly jumping between the open windows on my laptop because that’s just not good for my general mental health. So I’ve been trying things like reading or watching new movies or TV shows – these have been good sources of inspiration in a time where I’ve struggled to find inspiration – or having a nap if I need one… Things that don’t require a lot of energy but still feel worthwhile (most of the time).

I did a quick scroll through my social medias to see if there was anything that needed replying to and then did some admin work: replying to emails, updating my bullet journal, and so on. Just as I was about to move onto something else, I got a load of notifications from social media, all Taylor Swift announcing her acoustic concert film going up on Disney+, folklore: the long pond studio sessions. That was so exciting that it temporarily scrambled my brain, in both a good and a bad way. As an autistic person, I’m really not a fan of surprise drops because I just get hit by a tidal wave of emotions and I feel so overwhelmed that I actually feel sick. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the film because I am so, so grateful for all that Taylor has been putting out during the pandemic (her work really has been one of the things that’s helped me during this time) but the suddenness with which she’s been announcing things has been difficult because that doesn’t give me enough time to do the emotional processing that I need to do. So although I eventually settled into being really excited, I spent a lot of the day feeling painfully twisted up and anxious over the mess of emotion I was experiencing.

IMG_5402

That did leave me floundering quite a bit, I have to confess. So, to try and take my mind off of everything I was feeling, my Mum and I caught up with the latest episode of His Dark Materials. It did help a bit. It’s such a great show; the casting, the acting, the sets, the interwoven storylines, etc are all so beautifully done. I loved the first series and I’m really enjoying the second one. I love Dafne Keen as Lyra (I so related to Lyra’s reaction to popcorn – it was freaking hilarious) and Amir Wilson as Will but I think it was Ruth Wilson as Marissa Coulter and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby who really stole the show this week (pun actually not intended – if you know me, you’ll know I love a good pun). Their big scene together was just so powerful and how Ruth Wilson played the aftermath was particularly emotive.

I spent an hour or so working on a new blog post but after a while, I was just getting slower and slower and eventually I gave up and had a nap. I slept for about two hours before struggling up for my second class at five. I could’ve easily slept longer but I did my best to shake it off and concentrate on the workshop. This is where we (in this case, all of the 100% online students – the rest are blended and do the workshop in person onsite) share the songs we’ve been working on over the week and get feedback from the rest of the group. For most of the semester, we’ve had briefs each week but now we’re just working on whatever’s right for us. So, for example, I didn’t have a song to present because I’ve been working on the feedback for previous songs and the essay, rather than a new song (although I did recently write a rap, although I’m not sure whether I ever want anyone to hear it). Everyone else had songs to play though so I could still participate and give feedback, although I’m not sure how helpful I was because of how tired I was. But I tried. Some days I was just have less energy to work with than others.

I had an hour break before the evening session, which runs from seven to nine; they’re technically extra-curricular but I try to attend them when I can, especially now that they’re online and therefore more accessible. I don’t want to miss out on anything I don’t have to.

During my break, I had a quick dinner and catch up with my parents. The Grammy nominations had also been announced so I went through those. I’m super pleased for Taylor Swift: folklore is such a great album. Six nominations – Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Song Written For Visual Media – is incredible and I’m really excited for her. Personally, I think she deserves at least several of those, especially considering the other nominees. I’m absolutely psyched for Ingrid Andress and her three nominations: Best New Artist, Best Country Song, and Best Country Album. I’ve been following her for years, having met her in Nashville at least a couple of years before her album was released. She’s an amazing writer and it would be just so awesome for her to win even one Grammy award this early in her career. But I’m concerned about her chances; she has some serious competition in all of those categories. The Best Country Song category, for example, is incredible, full of so many amazing songwriters that I love so much: Natalie Hemby (‘Bluebird’ by Miranda Lambert and ‘Crowded Table’ by The Highwomen, a group of which she’s a member), Maren Morris (‘The Bones’), and then Ingrid, of course. I want them all to win it. I was disappointed that Halsey still hasn’t been nominated. Manic is such an incredible album, as is Badlands (Live from Webster Hall), and it’s so frustrating that she doesn’t get the industry recognition she deserves. Especially given how popular ‘Without Me’ was, I’m really shocked that she’s never been nominated.

I just made it in time for the late session, which involved two of last years graduates presenting their final projects, one about using songwriting to explore different aspects of personality and the other about the experience of their gender transitioning and how sharing that story has the potential to increase understanding and empathy and break down barriers. They were both really cool projects but it was also massively helpful to see their processes, how they’d developed their ideas and researched them and how that research had lead them to writing the songs they wrote. It was fascinating and I definitely feel more prepared for my own project. I’ve got several ideas I’ve been turning over and the presentations have been helpful in my decision making process too. So I got a lot out of it, even if I was completely exhausted by the time the session finished.

It was about half nine and I probably could’ve gone straight to bed but I went and spent some time with my Mum, watching some TV together as we both wound down from the day. But it wasn’t long before we  were both falling asleep so we put the cats to bed (they sleep in the kitchen so that we’re not woken up at five – the time they start demanding breakfast) and headed to bed ourselves.


THE NEXT MORNING

I’m not one of sleeping in so I always set an alarm. Then I can get up and start doing things (I have a real problem with needing to be productive) but usually, the day after a uni day, I sleep through the alarms I set. It doesn’t seem to change anything though. I keep setting alarms and sleeping through them. But that morning was special. I dragged myself out of bed at eight to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions, as soon as it was available. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable to get up when I was so exhausted but it was absolutely worth it. The film was amazing, so amazing that I still haven’t figured out how to put all my feelings into words yet.

Since this post is just about my day at uni, I won’t write much more but just as I wrote about the Monday night, I thought I’d write about the Wednesday morning. Usually there isn’t a brand new Taylor Swift film to watch so I try to rest and recover my energy – physical, mental, and emotional – from the day before. As I said, I’m struggling with this need to be productive all of the time so with that in mind, I try to schedule undemanding tasks for Wednesdays. That particular day, I had a couple of half hour tutorials with tutors, so I spent the morning making sure I was ready for those. I’d already made notes of what I want to ask and discuss so I spent the rest of the morning going through those to make sure I felt as prepared as possible.


So, as you can probably tell, it takes a lot of planning and prioritising and rationing of energy to make it possible for me to go (or at the moment, ‘go’) to university, to make it possible to live my life in the most positive and productive (to a healthy extent) way. This isn’t an unusual day for me. While stuff like big Taylor Swift announcements and the Grammy nominations don’t happen every day, there’s often something that can cause emotional reactions like the ones described and I deal with fatigue and anxiety everyday. It’s one big juggling act. Every day. One enormous, exhausting juggling act every day.