Farewell Phenelzine 2.0 (The 2021 Edition)

The decision to change my medication has been a long time coming. I was diagnosed with ADHD back in January but, for various reasons, I haven’t been able to take any medication for it up to this point. As I said in this post, my specialist wouldn’t allow me to take any of the classic, stimulant medications for ADHD while I was still taking my current antidepressant, Phenelzine. So, in order to take anything for my ADHD (other than the less common medications that would only make me even drowsier than I am currently), I would have to come off the Phenelzine and either try a different antidepressant or try going without one. That all felt too much to manage while I was doing my Masters – it feels like a lot to manage now – but now that the Masters as is over and I’m already in a period of transition, it felt like it was time to come off the Phenelzine. The side effects were going to throw a wrench in several plans but that was going to be the case regardless of when I decided to do it and I hated the feeling of having it hanging over me. I know I need to do it but a big part of me really didn’t want to (and is still sceptical to a certain degree): over the last ten years, I’ve found it all but impossible to write songs during the periods when I wasn’t taking Phenelzine so it’s not surprising that it’s not exactly an easy decision. But if I want to get out of this limbo state, then I need to try.

So, beginning the 18th November, I started to reduce the dosage of the Phenelzine. For two weeks, I took half my normal dose and then I went another two weeks without anything in my system, giving my body the time to filter out any traces of the Phenelzine (known as the wash out period) and ensuring that way any new drug I take won’t result in a negative interaction. As always, it’s important to point out that this is a plan I’ve worked out with my psychiatrist and my ADHD specialist and is specifically tailored to me. If you’re making any changes around any medication you’re taking, please consult your doctor first.


REDUCTION PERIOD

WEEK 1 (Monday 18th October – Sunday 24th October)

For most of the week, I felt fine, which surprised me: usually, if I miss a dose of Phenelzine, I get hit with a headache pretty quickly but for some reason, that didn’t happen this time. I was tired and a bit more emotional than usual but nothing that out of the ordinary, nothing that couldn’t just happen anyway. I think those first four days lulled me into a false sense of security.

It hit me on the Friday. I felt weak and shaky and had a really unpleasant headache. And that turned into feeling absolutely awful over the weekend: I had debilitating migraines; I felt nauseous, shaky, and lightheaded; I thought I might faint every time I stood up. I also developed an annoying cough and, after multiple COVID tests, I had to assume it was part of the withdrawal and not COVID related (thank goodness – I don’t think I could’ve coped with that as well and I’m glad my family didn’t either).

WEEK 2 (Monday 25th October – Sunday 31st October)

The cough and the migraines continued into the middle of the week and then, fortunately, they started to let up. My sleep schedule was utterly screwed up: I was struggling to get to sleep and not drifting off until between two and five am and then, because I was so exhausted, I was sleeping in to the middle of the afternoon. And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t correct the schedule. I also had really weird, really vivid dreams that took me a while to drag myself out of and separate dream from reality. I did have a sudden, deep dip in mood where I felt really awful and discouraged about the various things I’m currently working on, which was scary: my big fear about coming off the Phenelzine has been returning to that really depressed place I was in before so to feel it happening was horrible. But fortunately it didn’t last and I’ve tried to just stay away from things that trigger those kind of feelings, for the duration of this changeover at least.

By Sunday, things had started to improve and I was feeling a bit more human. Having said that, I was not looking forward to the rollercoaster that the next two weeks were likely to be.

WASH OUT PERIOD

WEEK 1 (Monday 1st November – Sunday 7th November)

The beginning of the week was okay with just minor headaches and some nausea, both of which were pretty ignorable. And apart from sleeping really deeply and the continuation of the weird, vivid dreams, I felt okay. But by the end of the week, I was feeling very tired and just generally unwell again. The cough had faded but it picked up again and then, on Sunday, the nausea was back in full force.

WEEK 2 (Monday 8th November – Sunday 14th November)

This was a very big week. Unfortunately. It was a really bad time to be coming off a medication but, as I said, it’s almost always a bad time. There’s always something happening so I just had to get it over with. But this week held both my graduation from university (I had a great time but physically, I did spend the day counting down to the next dose of painkillers and – on several occasions – actively focussed on not throwing up) and my Granny’s Celebration of Life service (thankfully, by that point, I was feeling a bit better and was able to just focus on the day without too much distraction). Given those two huge things, I spent a lot of the week dealing with a lot of physical exhaustion and pain.

The cough was ongoing and I had migraines for most of the week, although they did lessen in intensity by the end of the week. I was nauseous, shaky, and overly emotional but, again, that had mostly passed by the weekend. On the Sunday, I was a bit weak and nauseous but I felt a lot more human than earlier in the week.


So, four weeks later, I’m finally starting medication for my ADHD. I’m excited but I’m also nervous; I haven’t had many good experiences with medications and it’s taken a lot of trial and error to find the only one that’s helped so far. So it’s a bit scary to be starting over with a whole new category of medications but I’m trying to stay… cautiously optimistic. I’ve started Xaggitin XL and now, I guess, I just have to wait and see.

Now That I’ve Finished My Masters…

After two years of being utterly focussed on my Masters, it’s definitely weird not having something specific to work on, having no deadlines to meet, and so on. It’s strange but also a welcome relief: between working on the module of the moment and dealing with whatever the pandemic threw up, plus my health stuff, it’s been an exhausting time. While I’m excited to start working on the next project, whatever that may be, I do need a break first – to rest, recover, and recharge my body and brain – and there’ve been a handful of things I’ve been looking forward to doing for when I finally reached this point.


These are some of the things I’ve held on to when I really felt the exhaustion or my motivation dipped:

  • Gentle days – I’ve spent the last couple of months at least working relentlessly on my final project; unless there was a very good reason, I probably spent at least seven hours a day working on various elements of it. I really pushed myself. Unfortunately, my prime working time seems to start around 7pm; that’s when I seem to really get on a roll and sometimes that meant I’d be working until after midnight (those were the really long days), which completely screwed up my sleep schedule. But even if I didn’t get to sleep until 4am, I’d still force myself up as early as I physically could in order to get back to work – my sleep schedule is going to need some serious overhauling. Now that I don’t need to do that, I’m looking forward to having some gentler days. I’m still happiest doing things but it will be nice to do them at a more laidback pace, for a while anyway. I might even sleep in occasionally!
  • See more friends and family – I’ve been so buried in this project that I really haven’t seen many of my friends or family, not properly, for ages. I’ve started catching up with people, both over FaceTime and in real life, which has been so, so lovely but there are still too many people that I haven’t seen in far too long. So I’m looking forward to that.
  • Read new books – Given that my difficulties with concentration make reading somewhat of a struggle anyway, I could barely manage the reading for my Masters, let alone anything for fun (not that I had much time for that). But I’ve got a list as long as my arm of books I want to read so I’m looking forward to getting into a couple of those. I think I’m gonna start with The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green.
  • Watch new TV shows and movies – While working on this final project, especially over the last couple of months, I’ve really only watched familiar things, using them as background noise – something that, most of the time, aids my concentration. I’m now thoroughly bored with all of them and, just like with the books, I have a great list of new things I want to watch, like Black Widow and Girls5eva.
  • Swim more – Obviously this isn’t an immediate goal: I’ll have to build up my swimming in accordance with how my hEDS is affecting me. But I am looking forward to doing a bit more here and there and slowly building up. While doing the Masters, I was always aware of how much energy it required, balancing that against the energy I needed to keep working at the necessary pace. So it will be nice to push myself a bit and not worry about whether I’ll need a rest day afterwards, at least until I get into whatever the next project.
  • Work on a new project – I have a lot of ideas in the works but they all depend on a bunch of different factors so, as of this moment, I don’t know which one will be my main focus (because, of course, I’ll still be working on the others) but hopefully it won’t be long until I do know and can get started. I’m really terrible at not doing things; I love having a project to work on.
  • Release new music – Whatever project I launch into next, I want to keep releasing music. It’s been a while since I released anything new (the acoustic EP was a different kind of release, in my head at least) and I’m dying to put more music out. The Masters was just too big and took up too much of my brain. So, now that that’s done, I’m so excited to start putting stuff out again. I have multiple ideas for bigger bodies of work but those will take time so I’m thinking of releasing a few singles while I pull that next body of work together. There are always songs that I love but that don’t really fit into the concept of an EP or album project so it will be really fun to give them a life out in the world. So, stay tuned! (That pun was accidental, I swear.)
  • Finish my album – During my final project, I started writing an album that I’m really excited about. I feel really good about it but there’s still a lot of work to do if I want it to be as good as I think it could be. With the Masters imposed deadlines now out of the way, I can go back to the songs and work on each one more slowly, using everything I learned throughout the process of the project (something that the earlier songs didn’t have the advantage of). I think this album could really be something and I want to give it all the time and attention it needs to achieve that potential.
  • Get back to writing on here – I’ve really missed blog writing while I’ve been working and I’ve had to actively restrain myself from writing blog posts when I should’ve been working so I’m very excited to be back and writing here. My brain is bursting with ideas and I’m struggling to figure out how to fit them all in, which, all in all, isn’t a bad problem to have.

There are also things that I’m less excited to do but they are important and I’ve been putting them off, either because they took too much time and energy away from working or because I was worried about how engaging with them would break what felt like the very fragile hold I had on my concentration, like it would be impossible to concentrate on my project again if I stopped, even for a little bit.

So things like continuing my Pain Clinic appointments, getting the prescription for my glasses updated (my current pair are at least four years out of date or whatever the phrase is – it must be doing a number on my eyesight and it’s probably not unrelated to all of my headaches), figure out what’s going on with my therapy situation, make a definitive decision about my medication, and try again to tackle my Trichotillomania. None of these will be fun or easy but hopefully they’ll all improve my life in the long run so they are worth doing.


So there’s my list. I love a good list. I find that they help me organise my thoughts – my often very restless, whirlwind thoughts. It’s been a tough few months but I’m looking forward to diving into all of these things.

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.