Mental Health, Health, and Life Update (September 2021)

And that’s that. I’ve finished the final module of my Masters and therefore the Masters itself. I don’t know what my grade is for the module or for the whole course yet but frankly, I’ve got a lot to process before I can even really think about the grades and graduation.

Looking back at a similar post before the module started, I was excited about the project but nervous about my health, mental and physical, and whether it would prevent me from doing everything I needed to do, from being able to enjoy the process. And those were valid concerns so I thought, having written a post about how I was feeling before the module started, I’d write another now that it’s ended – like bookends.


A lot has happened since the beginning of May.

Over the last four months, I’ve spent almost every day working on my final project, researching, writing songs, and working on the production of an album. It’s been incredibly intense and now that it’s all done, I’m utterly exhausted, both mind and body. And while, for the most part, I loved it, it’s also a relief to be free of some of the anxiety around it (I’m still struggling with my anxiety around the grade). Having said that, I feel strangely lost and untethered now that I don’t have this big thing to focus on. I know that I need a break but I am looking forward to the next project, whatever that may be. I’m always happier when I’m doing things.

My mental health was pretty good for most of the module, surprisingly so. By my standards at least. I think that the constant creating and the creating of stuff I’m proud of really helped. I had one particularly bad episode of depression, plus a handful of smaller ones, and my anxiety was pretty constant but that’s normal for me. It got very bad in the last month, which was hard to manage – trying not to let it destabilise me was a bit of a battle in itself. It hasn’t quite faded yet. For various reasons, I didn’t have any access to my therapist, which was an unforeseen difficulty and that made things a lot harder than I’d expected them to be.

I also really struggled with my concentration. I’m still not getting any support for my ADHD (something that I hope will change soon but I’m still so frustrated that I couldn’t get any help with it during my Masters) so staying focussed on my project, on my research, took all of my energy. It was exhausting. I felt like my concentration was so, so fragile that a single moment of distraction would break it and then it would be impossible or would take days or even weeks to get back. So I couldn’t stop. Not for anything. That was very stressful and resulted in many, many long days. Sometimes I’d work all day without moving (not healthy, I know) and end up going to bed very late. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep because my thoughts were racing. So it did a number on my sleep schedule too; I’m surprised I’m not nocturnal at this point.

That, plus the general fatigue I deal with day to day, meant I was tired all of the time. I’ve drunk an obscene amount of Red Bull (my antidepressants make me really drowsy, just to make things even more difficult, although I may be changing medications soon, which hopefully won’t have the same side effects) – I am beyond sick of the taste of it. But it got me through and I’m grateful for that. I will however be grateful to never drink it again (hopefully). And I’m really looking forward to getting both some proper sleep and some proper rest now that my work is done.

I also mentioned back in June that I’d been having migraines that seemed to be being caused by an abscess in one of my teeth. Since then, I’ve been on antibiotics twice, continued to have migraines, and am still waiting to have the tooth removed, a decision that was made at the appointment in June. Given how much disruption it was causing though, I did get extenuating circumstances which allowed me some extra time (although it wasn’t really extra since it was making up for time lost to a medical problem) to cope with those problems. It’s not bothering me presently which is a relief but I’m more than ready for them to take the tooth out, just so that they’re not even problems I have to think about.

While I managed to keep swimming twice a week – a routine I’ve been trying to maintain to create a solid foundation for my crappy joints – I was in almost constant pain throughout the module. At times, my right knee was so painful that I couldn’t walk on it and my back has been consistently painful; my Mum, who used to be a massage therapist, said it felt like trying to massage rocks and now that it’s all over and I’m trying to relax, the muscles feel like their made of concrete. Which is about as pleasant as it sounds. I’ve also had great trouble with my hands and wrists what with all the typing I’ve been doing. So, all in all, I’ve been a bit of a mess. I haven’t had any support for this – the hEDS – either; I’ve been waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy since December 2020 officially and May 2020 unofficially. I’ve just had to try and get by on various painkillers, none of which have been all that effective.

Despite working practically non-stop, I got everything for my project done just in time for my final presentation. My assessors were positive, which I’m trying to hold on to in the wake of my anxiety around the final grade. I’ve been really trying not to attach my self worth to my grades (something I’ve always really struggled with), or at least, lessen the power my grades have over me but I can’t help the fact that I really want to do well. I’ve worked so hard – with so many obstacles – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get a Distinction would be upsetting. I’d get over it but it would still be upsetting. I never want someone thinking, “Oh, she mustn’t have worked hard enough.” Or worse: I never want to think, “Oh, I would’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD or whatever, thoughts left over from my late diagnoses and the resulting difficulty I have in setting standards and goals for myself (more on that in another post). This anxiety isn’t helped by the fact that I keep thinking of things that I should’ve included in my presentation. My brain clearly hasn’t quite processed that the module is over.

And then, just when I thought I could relax, the world tipped under my feet. The next morning, my Mum told me that my Granny had died a few days earlier. She was ninety-three. Having barely started to process the end of my two year Masters and intense final project, this news was just too much for my brain. A few days on, I feel like I’m bouncing pretty erratically between two states, the first being this weird bubble where nothing can touch me and the second being, ‘if I stop thinking or talking or moving for even a second, I’m going to completely fall apart.’ It’s surreal and exhausting and sad. I’d like to write a piece about her at some point because she was such an incredible woman but I can’t really write more than this right now but it felt really important to at least acknowledge what’s happened because it’s so big and so important.


I don’t think there’s anything else to say right now. I’ve barely been able to wrap my head around this last week: my final presentation, the ending of the Masters, Granny, and everything that’s ahead given all of these things. It’s a lot to take in; I’m exhausted. I’m just taking it day by day.

Goals for 2021

I think it’s safe to say that we have no idea what this year is going to look like so making resolutions or goals could seem a bit pointless. But considering everything last year, I did make some recognisable progress with my 2020 goals, something I’m really proud of considering how much I was struggling. Yes, it’s a bit of a shot in the dark to make any sort of long term plans this year but I find that having goals like these give me some direction, some structure, which is especially helpful when I currently have so little external structure in my life. (As I said in my previous post, I prefer goals to resolutions: I find that resolutions create unnecessary pressure whereas goals help me to focus on particular areas. That works better for me but then I’m sure that that pressure is helpful for others.)

Since we don’t know what this year will hold, I’m still going to make goals. If I have to abandon them, then so be it but otherwise, they’ll hopefully be a helpful tool in moving through the year, creating some internal stability if nothing else. I’m hopeful that I can make progress in all of these areas: in my physical health, in my mental health, and in my work.


FIND A RHYTHM IN THERAPY AGAIN – The pandemic and lockdown have really thrown a wrench in my therapy sessions. Not only have they been physically disrupted, in the sense that they’ve moved from in person to online, but the pandemic has done such a number on my mental health that I couldn’t even cope with going to therapy for a while. And now that I’m going again, I feel like I don’t know how to do it anymore. I have a really good relationship with my therapist so I don’t know why I’m finding it so hard to talk about stuff; we just end up catching up about what’s happened between sessions. I really want to find a way back to the place where we really dug into things, the big things that affect me and my mental health. I’m not sure how to do it but my therapy sessions are so vital that it needs to be done so we’ll have to figure it out.

PROGRESS WITH MY INVISIBLE BRACES – Given how up and down last year was, I’m surprised I managed to wear it at all but this year I really want to build and embed the habit in what daily routine I have. The main problem is that, often, I’ll need to take a break and suddenly I haven’t worn it in months. So I also want to work out how to take a break without completely breaking the habit.

WORK ON MY CORE – For hypermobile people, the core muscles are particularly weak, which can cause referred fatigue and pain throughout the body. When I was diagnosed, the specialist asked what exercise I did and I talked about how much I loved swimming, how good it feels to exercise without having to bear the weight of my body. She said that swimming is the best possible exercise for a hypermobile person, especially someone actively dealing with pain and fatigue. I certainly didn’t need the encouragement to swim more. Where possible (in the context of the pandemic and lockdowns), I want to keep swimming as much as I can, as well as practicing the basic hydrotherapy exercises I’ve been given. I don’t know when my referral for hydrotherapy will actually go through, when I’ll actually get sessions, but hopefully it won’t be too long and hopefully that will help with the fatigue and pain.

COMPLETE MY MAJOR REPERTOIRE PROJECT – The final module of the Masters is dedicated to researching, writing songs, and creating a body of work around a particular subject. I’ve been really looking forward to this module, and hearing about the subject matter investigated by my course mates from last year (familial connections, identity, and gender transition, for example) and the work they created has only inspired me more. I have multiple ideas that I’d love to work on, although there are two that stand out more than the others. So I’ll have to choose at some point but we’re encouraged to remain open until just before the module starts. I’m so looking forward to really diving into a project and hopefully I can use my enthusiasm to help me get the best grade possible.

FINISH MY MASTERS DEGREE – By the end of September, I will have finished all of the modules and assessments of the Masters, all being well. With everything that’s happened since the start of the Masters, just finishing it will be an achievement in its own right but I really, really, really want to do well. It would be incredible to get a Distinction (that would be my ideal scenario) but, as I said, with everything that’s happened and how much I’ve had to deal with, that may not be on the cards. It might be initially disappointing to end up with a Merit but I know that, given some processing time, I could get my head around it and be proud of it.

MAKE SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS IN CATCHING UP WITH MY DIARY – Due to my university work and the ups and downs of my mental health, I’m majorly behind with my diary (although I do keep rough notes) and while I’m not sure how I’m going to manage this, I want to get the situation more under control. Being behind just causes me so much anxiety. The university work isn’t going anywhere though and I want to do my best there so I obviously need to find a solution to this problem before I can start implementing it. I’m hoping therapy can be useful here.

WORK ON NOT COMPARING MYSELF TO OTHERS, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO MUSIC – This was a goal last year but between the pandemic disrupting the entire music industry and my sporadic therapy attendance (in which I’d planned to work on this issue), I didn’t make nearly as much progress as I would’ve liked. This is what I wrote last year and I think it’s still fairly accurate:

This is probably the hardest one and a lot of the time, it feels unbearable to even think about. While I need to work on not comparing myself to others in general – in all situations – I figure that’s too big a task for such a difficult feeling so I just picked one area. Music has always been my happy place and I want it to stay (or go back to being or something) my happy place and it’s not, when I look at other artists and feel lost and sad and lonely and angry and bitter. So I want to work out – probably with therapy – how to focus on me and not worry about other artists beyond a practical, objective sense. This feels really, really hard so I don’t know if I’ll manage it in a year or whether I’ll even manage to start but I want to so I’m trying to think about it and figure out a place to start because I don’t want to feel all of these things. I want my happy place back.

Having released more music and received good feedback over the last twelve months, I think my self-esteem and confidence is a bit higher but it doesn’t take much to tip me into that black hole. I really, really want that to stop happening so whatever it takes to avoid those feelings (for the majority of the time, at least), I’m willing to do it and do it for as long as necessary. I want music to be a positive part of my life, not something that’s draining.

FIND MY NEXT PROJECT – As I’ve previously said, there is more content coming that’s part of the Honest project but now that all of the tracks and music videos have been released, I want to work out what my next project is going to be, what the next creative goal I want to work towards is. I may find it during my last two Masters module, I might find it after, or it might find me. I’ve got a lot of ideas I want to explore so I guess it’s just about figuring out which one is the best fit for me in this particular period of time. Whatever it turns out to be, I’m excited. The Honest EP has been such a gift, such a wide and wonderful experience, that I can’t wait to see what the next project has in store for me.


As I said, we have no idea how this year is going to unfold so I don’t know what I will or won’t be able to achieve (in terms of what’s possible with the pandemic and my personal health – physical and mental – in the mix) but these are the areas of my life that I want to work at. If nothing else, last year showed us how strong and adaptable we can be, so who knows: maybe I’ll make progress in all of them or maybe I’ll make progress in entirely different things. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

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.

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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.

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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.