The Fifth Semester of My Masters

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

So, here is my final semester review.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A (Fairly) New Development: Chronic Pain

This post feels like it has been a long time coming but I didn’t want to post anything before I had more to say than ‘I’m in pain’ and, at long last, I do. But first, context: I started struggling with chronic pain about halfway through the first UK lockdown, early last year, and it’s been really, really tough. But recently I finally got some answers and started to get some support. And while it’s not a journey that’s over – if that’s even a possibility – I’ve come far enough that I feel like I can talk about it with a certain level of knowledge and emotional distance. So, here we go…


It started out as sporadic pain in my left hand and arm. I’ve experienced this on and off before, due to my extensive writing and my compulsive hair pulling, so I wasn’t overly concerned. Waking up to my hand being numb and tingly was unusual and a bit unnerving but given how much I was writing and how much hair I was pulling out – both of them being outlets for stress – during that first lockdown, I figured that I was just straining that arm a bit more than usual and that it would probably go back to normal as my anxiety decreased.

But then I started developing an ache in my left leg. I don’t really know how to explain it but it felt like it was coming from somewhere deeper than the centre of my leg, deeper than was physically possible. And then what started out as a painful but sporadic ache turned into attacks of debilitating pain, like electric shocks shooting through my leg at random. They were (and are when they still happen) excruciating and had me collapsing on the floor every time, sobbing or even screaming. There were a few so bad that I ended up hyperventilating so hard and long that I nearly passed out. And if that wasn’t bad enough, both the ache and random electric shock attacks spread up to my lower back. None of the common painkillers did anything and I was living in constant fear of the pain hitting me with no warning.

Eventually I was prescribed painkillers but I could only take them for a few days at a time to avoid their addictive nature. They actually – FINALLY – helped; it was such a relief. But the days in between were miserable and the painkillers I was taking in between was barely making a dent. I was also referred to Rheumatology at the hospital.

That was in May (of 2020) and I had to wait until December for an appointment. While, objectively, I can completely understand that, given how overworked hospitals are due to the pandemic, the waiting was also horrendous: I was in constant pain and desperate for help. It was hard to be patient, especially when it was affecting my education because the pain was so bad that I could barely play any of my instruments. It was a really hard time, and that was without all of the COVID-19 and other life stuff.

Eventually the appointment arrived. We didn’t learn much but it got things moving. The hypermobility diagnosis was confirmed and the possible diagnosis of Fibromyalgia was dismissed. I was referred to various departments, including Occupational Therapy, Hydrotherapy (although the consultant wasn’t sure when it would be available due to the pandemic), and, after discussing multiple different medications (many of which I’ve already taken and had negative reactions to), Pain Management. The consultant recommended I have an ECG every five years or so as heart problems can occur with connective tissue disorders and booked my first one for me, as well as an MRI, just to double check my back. She said we’d have another appointment in three months, after the ECG and MRI (it’s been more than three months at this point but I’m hopeful it will be soon since I’m still in a lot of pain).

After the wait for that appointment, I was expecting to wait for ages but we received a call about the MRI less than a week later. The woman who arranged it for us was really thorough and really aware of what might be helpful for me as an autistic individual, suggesting and putting in place so many things to reduce any of my anxiety; for example, I could have Mum in the room with me, I could play music, I could hear the sounds the MRI made before getting in it, she suggested taking Diazepam first, and so on. So that was really helpful. Surprising (I don’t think that’s ever happened before an appointment or procedure before) but very helpful.

The MRI itself was actually a really interesting experience. It was completely manageable and I actually found it quite soothing in a weird way. And, of course, my musician brain couldn’t help but wish I could sample the different sounds the MRI made to use in various tracks. It was over pretty quickly and the whole process was super efficient. I really want to see the images; I don’t know if she’ll bring it up but I’m gonna ask the consultant if I can see them at the next appointment. I’m weirdly intrigued. I mean, I’ve always been kind of fascinated by how my body works specifically (seeing my brainwaves was super cool, for example, and one day I’d love to see images of my brain) so I’m just really curious about what my spine looks like. Like every other spine, I’m sure, but I’m still curious.

(Throughout this time I had been swimming where possible – according to what felt safe and as lockdown allowed – and I’d started incorporating the basic hydrotherapy exercises that the hypermobility specialist had recommended.)

I was prescribed a new daily pain medication but I didn’t really feel like it helped (and I’m still not convinced that it’s actually doing anything helpful). The only thing that helped – and still the only thing that helps is the painkiller that I can only take for a few days at a time; it’s the only thing that has consistently given me pain free periods of time. But, as I said, I can only take it for a few days at a time and the other days are pretty awful.

Around New Year (2020-21), I noticed that the pain was spreading and by the end of January 2021, I was struggling with pain from my toes all the way up to my neck. I rarely experienced pain in my whole body all at once but it had reached a point where there was practically no area of my body that didn’t experience this specific type of pain and often for extended periods of time. My hands, arms, lower back, and lower legs were the worst.

I began Occupational Therapy in February for the pain in my hands. The therapist gave me compression gloves (I have tiny, skinny hands and so they turned out to be too big and I had to buy a smaller pair) and a series of ‘gentle’ exercises that would supposedly allow me to control the hyperextension in my fingers. Right from the start they were painful and I had to drop one of them straight away; it just hurt too much. But I worked hard at the others, whilst simultaneously trying not to work too hard and accidentally regress.

The therapist also discovered that the Pain Management referral hadn’t gone through and put a rush on it – apparently, because the pain is directly affecting my education, I should move me up the waiting list more quickly than if I wasn’t currently doing my Masters. So I guess that’s good news. Hopefully it makes up for the time lost with the referral not going through. She also had some suggestions around swimming during lockdowns, which unfortunately didn’t come to anything but it gave me hope and it was something to work on. That was better than just waiting.

In the following OT session, we talked about the pain caused by the exercises and she reduced them to every other day, which has been better, but I’m still in pretty much constant pain to some degree. But she was pleased with the progress I’d made. Unfortunately though, she thinks I’m probably in the group of people that take the longest to see real change. That’s not massively surprising to me – I’ve been in similar positions before – but it’s still frustrating. Like, out of all of this stuff, couldn’t one thing not be super hard? Couldn’t one thing have the best possible outcome? Anyway. It’s pointless to speculate about that stuff; it’s not like I can change it.

I’d been doing some research on hypermobility but as far as I can tell, it’s a symptom rather than a condition or disorder, like Joint Hypermobility Syndrome or Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. And since only ‘hypermobility’ had been mentioned up to that point, I asked what my actual diagnosis was and after some conferring between the various people involved, they agrred on a Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which explains both the chronic pain and the chronic fatigue (I don’t know what this means for the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis – at some point, we’re all going to have to sit down and work out which diagnoses are still relevant and which are now out of date), as well as multiple other problems. So there was this huge rush of relief and that lasted several days before I just felt overwhelmed. It’s an experience I’ve had before: finally knowing is amazing but then the reality of it all sinks in and it’s just a lot to process. Life is suddenly different. It’s not what you thought it was. So, yeah, it’s a lot. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about if you’ve been through a similar experience. But I’m getting there. The dust is starting to settle.

We’re still waiting on some of the other things, like the Pain Management referral and the second appointment with the Rheumatologist. And I’m continuing with the OT; I’ll be graduating to a new set of exercises soon. I’m also super excited to swim again when it becomes possible. We’ve already got several slots booked at our favourite pool. Plus, I’m due to get my first COVID vaccine soon, which will make me feel safer about swimming, even at this pool that takes the safety precautions so seriously.


So this is where we are. As I said, I didn’t want to write this post until there was a natural stopping point in the writing of it. And this seemed to be that moment: we have the beginning, the diagnosis (or diagnoses), and now we have the treatment. Obviously that’s ongoing and there are still different areas to pursue for support. So, I guess, all we can do now is see how things go and hope the pain improves.