2021 in Review

I’m not really sure how to sum up this year. It has been one of extremes, to say the least: anxiety, joy, stress, excitement, depression… And, at this point, I feel a bit like I’ve run out of capacity. For anything. So this was a hard post to write and it wasn’t helped by the dichotomy between most of the year and the last few months; I’ve found it very hard to look at each part without the other colouring it in some way.


The biggest part of my year was most definitely the final two modules of my Masters, which turned out to be my two favourite modules of the course, The Writer’s Voice and Major Repertoire Project. Having written about these already, I don’t want to repeat myself but I do want to look at them in the context of the year. From January to September, I wrote furiously and with such joy. There was anxiety and depression and stress – they were all in there – but it felt like all of that writing balanced the scales. I wrote so many songs that I love, that I’m so proud of, and that I can’t wait to release. While I did release new music this year – The Honest EP (Sunburst Sessions) – they weren’t new songs and I’m so excited to share new songs. I have lots of plans that I’m really excited about and despite the chaos of the last few months, I have been working on my next project. I’m very excited to share it in the new year.

I’m very proud of myself for completing the Masters, especially given that I did most of it during the pandemic, and I’m so proud of my final project; it is the best thing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to get it out into the world. I poured everything I had into that project so getting such a high grade and then the Outstanding Student Award at Graduation felt really good. I feel weird talking about it but I am really proud of that achievement and the recognition of how hard I worked means a lot to me. Because of an administrative screw up, I’m not sure when my graduation will be official, when I’ll get my certificate – something that caused a lot of distress – but practically, it’s done.

My health, both physical and mental, hasn’t been in great shape this year. The chronic pain was really bad, the fatigue not much better, and the ongoing migraines are pretty miserable. My mental health was fairly stable and actually not too bad for the most part, until the last few months of the year. Then it got really bad. In order to try medication for my ADHD, I had to come off Phenelzine – the only medication that’s ever helped me – and then start Xaggitin. That went extremely badly. My depression all but overwhelmed me; it was the worst my mental health has ever been. I’ve stopped taking the Xaggitin and I’m taking Bupropion now and it’s different but I’m not sure if it’s any better though.

I’ve felt very alone this year, in regards to tackling and managing all of this. I came out of every appointment feeling angry, distressed, dismissed, or invalidated (and often multiple of these in various combinations). I haven’t felt safe with any of them; I didn’t feel like my existence even registered with them. So I’m finding all of that very hard and each new appointment is preceded by extreme anxiety, a kind of anxiety I’ve rarely experienced. It’s a bit like a fight or flight response. I’ve never had a great relationship with the medical profession but I’ve felt particularly let down this year. I have finally managed to get back to therapy (although this was before the newest variant threw a wrench in all of our plans) but it’s been a long time and a lot of stuff has happened; I feel like I’m having to learn how to do it all over again.

It’s also been a hard year, family wise. I haven’t been able to see one of my parents – in real life – since before the pandemic (for medical reasons) and that has been so hard. We talk on FaceTime and stuff and that’s good but I still miss her so much. And then, of course, my Granny died in September, just as I was finishing my Masters. At that point, I think, my brain just couldn’t take anymore; I don’t think I’ve processed any of it, to be honest. To a certain extent, I feel frozen, like I stopped while everything around me kept going. It’s not the first time I’ve felt like this but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m sure all of those feelings will make their presence felt in the new year. But as hard as all of that is, I’m so grateful for the friends and family around me; I’m not sure where I’d be without them.

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“What a surreal year. I don’t even know how to sum it up really. Everything I felt, I felt in extremes: stress, anxiety, depression, joy, excitement. I wrote songs that I’m so proud of, I hugged friends I hadn’t seen in months, I completed a Masters degree that I loved. I struggled with even more health issues, I was almost overwhelmed by the worst depression I’ve ever experienced, and I’m learning to live in a world that doesn’t have my Granny in it. The high points were so high and the low points were so low and I’m honestly exhausted right now. This year has been more than I know how to handle and I’m still kind of drowning but I’m also still here.” (x)


This end of year post isn’t quite the same as what I’ve done in previous years but it’s been a weird year and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m experiencing some form of burnout. I have a few plans but honestly, I have no idea what the next period of my life looks like and that’s scary. I hate how my life goes on hold whenever I change medications and I feel more than a bit lost right now. All I can do is wait and see and after all these years, there’s very little I hate more.

Migraines, Tooth Pain, And Blood Pressure Monitoring

So often in my life it seems, medical stuff is like waiting for a bus: weeks or months go by and then suddenly a whole slew of them show up. And that’s certainly been true of the last few months. Just as the final module of my Masters was starting, I was hit by a series of awful migraines, suffered with terrible tooth pain, and spent twenty four hours hooked up to a blood pressure monitor, a test ordered by a neurology unit in London. So it’s been a pretty hectic time…


MIGRAINES

At the time of writing this, I’ve lost approximately half of the last forty days to migraines.

I’ve had migraines before – maybe a handful a year, depending on my stress levels and the medication I’m taking – but they usually only last for a day or so before fading away. They’re not pleasant but they weren’t seriously impacting my life. But then I had one that lasted roughly four days and I ended up in A&E because, having fairly recently had the Astra Zeneca vaccine, my doctor was worried about the extremely rare side effect of a blood clot. I was sure it was a migraine but agreed to go and after most of the day there, I was released; the doctor agreed that it was most likely a bad migraine but told me to come back if it didn’t go away. And after another day or so, it did. While I was somewhat irritated about losing a day that should’ve been spent working on my end of semester assessment (despite the pain, I was pushing myself to work on it as I could, in the moments where the painkillers actually worked – I think that’s mainly why it went on so long personally), I am really grateful to all of the hospital staff. They were all great – warm, considerate, and personable – despite the somewhat alarming COVID precautions everywhere that weren’t exactly great for my anxiety. But they were really kind and gentle with me throughout my visit, making the whole experience a lot easier than it could’ve been.

I’d thought that that was it. But then, again and again, I was hit by migraine after migraine, all lasting unusually long periods of time (for me, at least). They were averaging out at about six days each time, sometimes more. That was extremely stressful, bearing in mind that I’m at the beginning of the homestretch of my Masters with this final module accounting for 60% of my final grade, and I was utterly miserable from the pain. I was also so light sensitive; at one point, even the darkest room in the house felt too bright and I dissolved onto the floor in tears, which only hurt my head more. It was awful. That was the first time we called 111 and they called paramedics. That time they determined it was, again, a severe migraine and recommended two other pain medications to try in the hope that they’d be more effective than Nurofen.

A couple of migraines later, with minimal help from the new painkillers, I had another really bad one, which had us calling 111 and they sent paramedics (both such lovely guys who fell in love with the cats and talked musicals with me while they did their tests). This migraine was slightly different: it had all of my normal migraine symptoms but I also had this almost blinding pain at the front and right side of my face. They thought it was probably a migraine but suggested talking to my doctor about having a CAT scan and/or whether there was something going on with my cranial nerves. They also had some practical, experience based advice around pain relief (one of them had personal experience with severe migraines). They said they could escort us to the hospital on the off chance that a doctor would do a CAT scan but did acknowledge that they might just take blood and keep me there while it was checked again, like my previous visit to A&E. So we chose the second option: Mum was going to go out and get the new medication option and call my GP ASAP.

TOOTH PAIN

That was the most recent migraine (at the time of writing this). As time passed, the pain in my head started to decrease, then my face, settling in my back-top-right teeth; every time they – and finally just one (after about a week) – knocked against the bottom teeth, the pain was so bad that my entire body would freeze up.

As soon as it had settled in my teeth, we’d called the dentist and they brought me in as an emergency (a few days wait rather than a few months). The dentist checked, took x-rays and saw some decay in the painful tooth, fairly close to the nerve root, and it already has a pretty big filling in it. At one point, somehow, the hEDS diagnosis came up (I was diagnosed since my last dental appointment) and the dentist said that she’s seen and heard about multiple people with a form of EDS (or who were later diagnosed with it) struggle with tooth decay, as well as being scolded by their dentists for not doing a good enough job with their dental hygiene even though they actually were; it was often the EDS causing problems, not necessarily their actions. This really is the diagnosis that keeps on giving (imagine a sarcastic snort at the end of that sentence).

Anyway, she diagnosed an abscess and gave me two treatment options: extraction or root canal therapy, which would involve multiple, multi-hour sessions that would be painful, ultimately might not work, and probably wouldn’t last into my late thirties. The whole thing felt pretty overwhelming and I ended up in tears. Extraction was the obvious choice as far as I was concerned and everyone else agreed; there seemed to be way too many downsides to the root canal option (plus it sounded horrendous and I find dental work, even fairly straightforward stuff, very distressing) and even if I was inclined to choose it, it’s the worst possible time given the end of my Masters. Even an extraction is going to be a significant disruption. I’m applying for extenuating circumstances, which both my supervisor and module leader have encouraged, so hopefully that’ll mean I end up with the same amount of time to do the work as everyone else.

So, I’ve been referred for an emergent extraction under general anaesthetic but I don’t know when that’s going to happen. They also prescribed me some antibiotics for the mean time. Now it’s a waiting game. But several days after the appointment, either the antibiotics are working or the nerve is dying or both because the pain is getting better and I feel more human. There are periods of time where I can actually ignore it, which is a huge deal considering how much pain I’d been in. So that’s definitely something to be grateful for.

BLOOD PRESSURE MONITORING

A couple of months ago, I had an appointment with a doctor from a neurology unit in London, which I believe I mentioned in this post. After spending most of the appointment vehemently telling me there was no point in getting any tests, he somewhat reluctantly offered to write to my GP, suggesting I have my blood pressure monitored for twenty four hours. It took forever to get a monitor from the hospital but finally test day came.

I had to go to the hospital where they fitted the monitor (found the right size for my arm, wrapped me up, made sure it was taking readings, looped the cable behind my neck, and used the tie from my coat to secure the monitor/data recorder around my waist) and gave me the instructions and paperwork to go along with the monitor. I wasn’t allowed to get it wet so I couldn’t have a shower while wearing it but since that’s when I usually get my blood pressure related symptoms, we devised a plan where I would go through the motions – with the shower on to create the heat and steam – so that it would still record whatever was happening to my blood pressure during a shower, as much as possible at least. The whole process was relatively stress free and the two women who sorted me out were great, warm and extremely competent but flexible to my needs. I’m really grateful to them for making it so easy.

All done, we headed home. It was a bit weird with the weight of the monitor, the too long cable getting caught on stuff, and so on but overall, it was fine. The cuff got very tight – tighter than I remembered them getting when you get a one off test – but it wasn’t a big deal and the rest of the day went on as normal. It was a bit of a struggle to get to sleep because I couldn’t get comfortable with the cuff on my arm but once I did get to sleep, the inflating and squeezing didn’t wake me up, something I’d expected to happen.

However, when I woke up, my arm was really sore. I felt like I’d been punched a hundred times in the same place, convinced the skin was bruised underneath the cuff (it wasn’t and no bruise ever emerged but damn, it was tender). I think the cuff had slipped in the night as well because I had several error readings on that second day.

I had my pretend shower and, as usual, felt shaky, dizzy, and lightheaded; having thought ahead, I’d timed things so that the monitor would be taking the reading right at the end of my fake shower. I’m intrigued to see what that reading says. That done, Mum helped me wash my hair, leant over the side of the bath; I had an online meeting and couldn’t bear the thought of doing that with unwashed hair. It wasn’t very dignified, especially with all the extra towels wrapped around me to keep the monitor dry, but it got the job done.

I wore it for the rest of the twenty four hours and then, with great relief, unwrapped the cuff. By the end, my arm felt really sore from the squeezing, plus it had started to pinch in various places at some point. There’s also that Autism-sensory-thing of wearing something constantly constricting, which starts causing anxiety after certain periods of time, like a long day in skinny jeans or wearing my retainer all day. Does that make sense? The anxiety had been building for the last few hours and it was wonderful to take it off.

Mum dropped it back at the hospital, so now I guess it’s another waiting game. I don’t know when we’ll find out the results and the conclusions drawn from them. I assume that they’ll let us know at some point, although it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to chase results. As I said, all we can do now is wait.

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So, yeah, hectic. At a very inconvenient time. But that’s life and I’m determined not to let it spoil the last of my Masters and this project that I’ve been looking forward to for so long. I am going to make the most of every good day I have, take the extenuating circumstances gratefully, and continue working as hard as I can.

One Year of Self Isolating

As of today, I have been self isolating for a whole year. 365 days. In that time, I’ve probably left the house no more than twenty times: for one morning of work (that had to be done out while the rest I’ve been able to do from home), for medical appointments, for swimming/hydrotherapy. And a haircut (when my Trichotillomania was particularly bad) during a period when it was considered safe to have one. But other than that, as a vulnerable person, I’ve stayed home. I worked out the numbers and that means I’ve spent 95% of the last year in my house. I look at that number and it kind of blows my mind. I’ve always been a homebody but this is so not the same thing.

So, to acknowledge the occasion, I thought I’d make a post about it. I thought about doing a list of good things and bad things, but given that the year has been dominated by the pandemic, that just felt wrong. Like, in general, it feels like the bad things carry so much more weight; a list like that just didn’t feel like an appropriate way to look at the last year. So, instead I thought I’d make a list of some of the things I’ve learned this year. There have been so many new experiences, new approaches to everyday tasks, new thoughts, new emotions, and so on. So I thought that might be a better way of looking at things. I doubt I’ll remember everything but I’ll give it a go.


  • ADJUSTMENT TAKES TIME – Going from normal life, the same lives we’d been living for considerable periods of time that rarely changed dramatically, to suddenly spending all of our time inside, missing our friends and family, and dealing with all of the fears and unknowns around COVID-19 was a big deal. A really big deal. And as someone who really struggles with change and uncertainty, this was a nightmare for me. I was barely functional for the first few weeks, if not months, because I was so overwhelmed. Eventually I managed to do the bare minimum but I continued to really struggle with anxiety. And things that had once been normal suddenly felt hard: I couldn’t concentrate enough to read anything; my songwriting felt blocked by my fear around the pandemic; cowriting sessions had to take place over Zoom, which felt awkward and made being creative more difficult; doing therapy via Zoom felt weird and the conversations felt limited and stuck because COVID was obviously the biggest thing going on but I really didn’t want to talk about it because it felt so upsetting. All of these things have gotten better over time (the reading is still a struggle though). At the time, the stagnation was unbearable but slowly I adjusted to each new version of normal and each time, I adjusted more quickly and with less difficulty. It’s all had a cumulative impact on my mental health and it’s gonna take a lot of work to get back to where I was pre-pandemic but I’m coping better than I was earlier on in the pandemic.
  • I HATE HAND SANITISER – I really hate it. I will 100% use it without complaint because I know how important it is in the effort to keep us all safe but oh my god, it feels (and smells) disgusting. As someone so sensitive to sensory stuff, I have really struggled with it but if it’s helpful, if it’s the right thing to do, I will willingly put up with it. I get the impression that it’s going to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future so I’m going to make it a priority to find one that I don’t hate, just to make the experience less gross.
  • I NEED STRUCTURE BUT I CAN’T DEAL WITH EXACTLY THE SAME THING EVERY DAY – Knowing what is going to happen in my day is a really important part of managing my ASD and my mental health; having structure and certainty helps me to avoid anxiety and be more productive. So planning and a certain amount of routine are massively helpful but having such a strict routine that I do exactly the same thing at the same time everyday isn’t helpful. It just makes me feel trapped and anxious and suffocated.
  • PRE-PANDEMIC, I WAS SO LUCKY TO SEE MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY AS MUCH AS I DID (AND I HOPE THAT THIS WILL CONTINUE ONCE AGAIN WHEN IT’S SAFE) – There’s not much to expand on here. I feel so lucky to be so close to my family, to have always seen them so often before the pandemic. Having to go without seeing so many of them (in person) for so long has been really, really hard. I also feel really lucky because I know that, as soon as it’s safe to do so, this will continue. I can’t wait.
  • I’VE LEARNED WHAT I REALLY NEED IN A FRIENDSHIP – This isn’t related to the pandemic directly (so many of us have been struggling socially so it would be unfair to judge someone on whether they’re a good or bad friend based on this period of time) but it’s something I’d been thinking about before the pandemic and I continued to reflect on it during the lockdowns. I thought about the friendships that have lasted and the friendships that haven’t and had a bit of a revelation about the few fundamental things I need to be getting out of a friendship in order for them to be positive and fulfilling and, in addition, what makes a friendship draining and detrimental. That’s where it turns from a friendship into something unhealthy. But I think I’ll expand on all of this in another post.
  • I’M REALLY LUCKY TO HAVE THE FRIENDS I DO – My friends have been my lifeline to reality over the last year, a year of feeling like I’m trapped in a box (a feeling I’m sure, many, many people can relate to). I haven’t been as good at staying in contact with some as with others but it’s because of them that I’m pretty sure that I haven’t completely fallen apart. I feel really lucky to have a handful of friends from each ‘era’ of my life so far (school, college, university, and now post grad) that I’ve stayed close to but I feel like we’ve become even closer this year, even though we haven’t been spending time actually together. I’m really grateful to have these incredible people in my life and I just hope they know how much they mean to me.
  • SWIMMING MAKES ME FEEL REALLY GOOD, IN MYSELF AND ABOUT MYSELF – Swimming is the only form of exercise that I can do without pain but due to the constantly varying pandemic restrictions around gyms and pools, I haven’t had many chances to swim. But the times I have managed to swim have felt fantastic. It makes me feel almost giddy with joy and it also makes me feel strong and in control of my body, all things that I rarely ever feel. I can’t wait to swim as much as possible (and is sensible) as soon as it’s safe.
  • IT CAN BE SO EMPOWERING TO BE AN INDEPENDENT ARTIST/MUSICIAN – That’s not to say that it’s not hard, or even impossible sometimes, that it’s not utterly terrifying. Because it is. A lot of the time. For me, at least. I can’t speak for anyone else. It is very scary to be the one ultimately in charge of your artistic career because every decision and every consequence comes back to you. And oh my god, it’s incredibly expensive. But putting all of that (and more) aside for a minute, it has felt very empowering over the last year to be that person in charge: no one knows what’s happening, no one knows what’s going to be happening in three months time, so you just have to go with your gut and hope it’s the right choice. If it isn’t, it isn’t and that’s disappointing but being a new, independent artist in a pandemic is hard and possibly the worst time to be starting out so I think we all, at the very least, deserve some credit for even trying. And then there are the choices that do work out and they really make you stop and think because that came down to you or you and the small team you work with and it actually worked. It was actually successful. And that’s pretty mind blowing, especially so in these completely unknown times.
  • ONLINE LEARNING IS HARD, BUT THERE HAVE BEEN SOME BENEFITS – I can’t talk about online learning without recognising that I’m in a very fortunate position compared to many other students: I was and still am living at home, my university and my course are relatively small, my course can be completed remotely (although, of course, I’d much rather be doing it in person) even if it is much more difficult, the available technology has made it possible to continue creating and creating collaboratively, I have a good mental health (and now physical health) support system and so on. I’m very lucky. It’s been painful and difficult at times but less so than it could’ve been, not that I would’ve said so during the painful and difficult times, of course. But I feel closer to my coursemates than I’d have thought possible, given the fact that we’re only ever together via a screen. But we’re all going through this big, unknown, scary, frustrating, upsetting experience together and I think that’s created a unique bond. I can’t say whether or not we’ll all still be in touch in, say, ten years time – I hope so – but if we aren’t, I know I’m going to look back and think, “Those were some of the people that got me through the terrifying experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and for that, they will always be special to me.”
  • ALL OF MY DIAGNOSES ARE CONNECTED – Again, this isn’t pandemic related but I don’t know if it would’ve happened (or, at least, happened now) if not for the pandemic. After years of researching, endless doctors appointments, SO MANY referrals, and talking to various different consultants, we finally struck gold and found a superhero in the form of a hypermobility specialist. She was able to make things happen, move various processes along, and just get people to listen to me. Since meeting her, I’ve had various tests and appointments and a couple of diagnoses that seem to have finally pulled all of my apparently unrelated problems together, which is both overwhelming and… good. I kind of haven’t processed beyond that. Again, I want to go into this in more detail in another post, when I’ve processed it more deeply and where I can go into much more detail. But it’s a big deal. A really big deal.
  • AS PART OF A SOCIETY, WE ARE PART OF SOMETHING SO MUCH BIGGER – I obviously knew this already but that knowledge has felt different since the pandemic began, when it became clear that we were going to have to act as a collective to reduce the effect of the virus and return to something that at least vaguely resembled normal. And in some ways, that’s been a very powerful and emotional experience with people stepping up and helping each other simply because they could and because it was the right thing to do it. Although, having said that, it’s also been hugely frustrating to watch people not do their part when so many people are making such sacrifices. But on the whole, it’s been an honour to be a part of a group doing all they can to end the pandemic. What I personally can do, of course, is not on the same level as the frontline and essential workers – my god, not even close – but if the most I can do is obsessively follow the safety instructions and stay at home unless absolutely necessary, then that’s what I’ll do and I will do it without hesitation. I have such incredible respect for these people who have helped so many, who have made such sacrifices, and who have gone through so much during the pandemic that I will do (or not do) whatever is asked of me to make their lives and their jobs even the slightest bit more manageable. I will never forget what they’ve done for us during this time, not for as long as I live.

As I said, I’m sure there are more things that I’ve learned during this time but I think that these are all of the big ones, the big, personal ones. I’m included in the group currently being vaccinated (although I’ve yet to hear anything) so maybe I will be heading out a little more often once that happens, if only to get some more exercise. But to be honest, given how this last year has affected my mental health, I don’t think I’m going to be exactly quick to adjust to the idea that things are somewhat safer (the government certainly seems to think so, what with their plan to come out of lockdown). As desperate as I am to see my friends and family again and get back to swimming again, I don’t think I’m going to feel safe again for a long time: as I said, I don’t cope well with change.