2020 in Review

What the fuck was this year? I don’t even know. To think I ended 2019 with the phrase: ‘2020, please be kind.‘ I really don’t know how to write about this year. Time has become a bit of a nebulous concept and after a lot of thought, the only way I could divide up this year was by separating it into three ‘chapters’: pre-pandemic, lockdown-into-summer, and semester three of my Masters. It’s a bit of a weird system but then, is there anything about this year that hasn’t been weird?

So, here we go. This is my review of 2020, a year I’m sure none of us will ever forget.


PRE-PANDEMIC

The beginning of the year, the two and a half-ish months before the pandemic became less about ‘wash your hands’ and more ‘we’re going into national lockdown’ (in the UK anyway), feel impossibly long ago and kind of frighteningly busy. Looking back through my photos, it’s so odd to think that that version of me – of all those people in the pictures – had no idea what was coming. And now we’re entirely different people. I mean, I know I’m a completely different person because of the last nine months. I’m only speaking for myself but I imagine that a lot of people can relate to that feeling. I look at photos of myself from January, February, March and I almost don’t recognise myself…

Anyway, on with the review.

I wrote up January at the time because it was such a busy, emotional month. I had a frantic Christmas break, preparing for my January assessments (due to a misunderstanding about the assessment, a lot of my research wasn’t helpful and so I had to redo it so I got almost no free time during that holiday). That was incredibly stressful, as was the presentation, and I was beyond exhausted afterwards. And between the second single of the Honest EP, ‘Clarity,’ coming out and the very distressing DSA assessment in the following week, I didn’t really get any rest between the first and second semesters. And to top it off, I was pretty upset about the grade I received and by the time I felt coherent enough to appeal it, the deadline had passed. But in hindsight, it was the first grade of the Masters with a very new approach to working and grading so it’s probably not that surprising, especially as an autistic student.

The new module I was studying, Musicology (“the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”), was really interesting and for the most part, the lectures were really engaging, something that was definitely aided by how passionate my tutor was about the subject. I’ve known him since my BA and he’s so knowledgeable; he’s a really great teacher and he’s a big part of why I did so well in the module. Not that my tutor in the first module wasn’t great – she’s truly awesome and so inspiring and I learned so much from her – but I learned a lot about how the Masters worked in that first semester that I was able to put into practice for the second semester, making it easier on my mental health and helping me to work more effectively, which did result in a much better grade. I found the songwriting classes less inspiring but since I was challenging myself with FAWM (February Album Writing Month) for a big part of the module, that wasn’t too big an issue.

I got to spend some really good time with my friends, both in and out of uni. A couple of them came down from London to visit me, which was really nice. Others I spent time with at uni or around London. I also had lots of writing sessions with people, which was really, really fun. I love my uni friends so much – I love my non-uni friends as well, of course, but during the semester, I rarely get to see them because I’m so busy – and there are a solid handful of people I’ve met during my time at BA and MA that I know I’ll be friends with for a really long time. I feel like I learned a lot about friendship this year, as I mentioned in my grateful post, and I just feel so lucky to have met these people; they are so wonderful and I’ve found it really hard to be separated from them for so long. I’m so looking forward to seeing them again and being able to spend time with them in real life whenever that will be.

(I haven’t got photos with all of my friends from this year and I do like to use photos from the year I’m writing about but don’t worry, you’re most certainly not forgotten.)

As well as writing A LOT, I was releasing music and got to play several really, really fun shows but I want to keep the music stuff together so I’ll come back to those.

One sadness of that time was that my favourite place to eat in Brighton closed, first temporarily and then permanently. That was very sad and I know a lot of people were upset by it. They made amazing Belgian fries with loads of homemade sauces and drinks – that I LOVE – that I’ve only ever had when I’ve travelled to and around the Netherlands where I have family. And the staff were absolutely lovely and it was always such an enjoyable experience; I always took friends there when they visited Brighton. So that was a shock. With everything going on this year, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go (and I’m not sure it would’ve survived as an independent business) but I have missed it. It was a true Brighton gem for the time it existed.

I think it’s safe to say that the biggest part of January, the pre-pandemic part of the year, and possibly the whole year, was having to let go of our beloved Lucky, our nearly sixteen year old black Labrador who we’d first met at three days old. He was very old (most Labradors live to between ten and twelve) and had developed some very difficult health problems in the last year or so of his life. We got home one night and he didn’t get up. He didn’t lift his head. He didn’t wag his tail. He was just done. It was heartbreaking and one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever been a part of but the next morning we took him to the vet and they put him to sleep. It was awful and I still miss him everyday, even though I know it was the right thing to do. He couldn’t have been more loved, by us, by everyone he met. He was a bit of a legend. I still wish him back but, again, as I said in my Grateful post, I’m glad that he hasn’t had to live through the pandemic, the sensitive soul that he was; it would’ve been very stressful for him. And the idea that we might’ve had to have him put down during one of the lockdowns where we couldn’t be with him is unbearable, so I do take some comfort from that timing. Still, the house feels empty without him.

Life was fundamentally different after that but we kept going, day by day, and there were good moments. I got to see my course mates put on an awesome show at a local venue, Song Suffragettes announced that they were coming to the UK on tour (I’m pretty sure I dug into my savings to get a ticket for every show…), and my Mum and I celebrated Lucky’s sixteenth birthday, even though he was no longer with us. I’d been planning it and so we just decided to celebrate for ourselves. I think that, in the future, we will think of him or go on a specific walk or something to remember him, even if we don’t actually ‘celebrate’ his birthday. The date will just be an excuse to dedicate some time to thinking about him and all the years we had together.

As well as dedicating the month of February to FAWM, I also took on the #30dayfeb Challenge For Tommy’s, organised by my university tutor/friend/mentor/super inspiring person, Sophie Daniels, under her artist project name, Liberty’s Mother, to raise awareness about baby loss and money for baby loss focussed charities. The challenge involved doing something everyday for thirty days that was positive for your wellbeing; I saw a lot of people doing yoga, for example. I chose origami and made a different piece everyday. These were some of my favourites:

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I was lucky enough to see several shows and concerts before everything closed down. That’s something I’ve really missed this year as they’re sort of THE thing that I spend my money on and go out to. I was going to see The Shires, Alanis Morissette, OneRepublic, The Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton, the Song Suffragettes UK Tour, Taylor Swift at Hyde Park, and Tin Pan South in Nashville – those last three cancellations in particular hit me the hardest. I’d been so looking forward to them so I was really, really upset when they were postponed and then eventually cancelled.

However, I did manage to see Halsey twice on The Manic World Tour, which was incredible. I love her, I love this album (it was one of my favourite albums of the year), and the show was just mind-blowing. It was awesome to see her get to play at The O2 Arena (her biggest headline show to date, I believe), especially on International Women’s Day. She’s an amazing performing but I also love how she speaks to the crowd; it feels like she’s speaking just to you. I wanted to run out of the arena ahead of all the crowds so that that illusion wouldn’t be broken. Both shows, but especially that show in London, felt very special.

I also got to see Sara Bareilles in Waitress The Musical several times. I’ve seen several actresses (all amazing) play Jenna but there was something really special about seeing Sara play her, as the person who’d written so many beautiful songs coming from her perspective as a character. It took a minute to stop seeing Sara as Sara and start seeing her as Jenna but once I’d gotten my head around that, I was just enthralled. She was fantastic and so special; I loved the show all the more for seeing her in the lead role. I was lucky enough to go a handful of times and of those, on several special occasions (sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident): I saw Sara’s first show, I saw the one year anniversary of Waitress in London show, and I saw Sara’s final show, which also turned out to be Waitress’ final London show. So while I knew that show was special, I didn’t realise quite how special it was until much later. I tried my best to meet Sara (one day, I hope…) but for most of the shows, Sara was either out of the building before we could line up or we were hustled away pretty quickly. I did see her on the last night – she walked up and down the queue of people waiting and waved to everyone – but she didn’t stop to talk or take pictures or accept gifts because of the growing concern about COVID-19. That show was actually the last thing I did before we went into lockdown, not that I knew it at the time.

Everything changed very quickly. One day I was talking to my friend about plans we had later in the week and the next, she was on the plane home before the borders closed. I made the decision to start self isolating but before I would’ve had to go back to uni (or, having come to this decision, contact them about it), the classes were moved online.

LOCKDOWN-INTO-SUMMER

The UK officially went into national lockdown on the 24th March. I’d already been self isolating for eleven days, as had my Mum, apart from necessary trips out (food shopping and business related stuff that had to be done in person). I had two weeks of online classes plus my assessment essay, which I was already working on. It’s strange: at the time, I wasn’t really aware of the outside world because I was a hundred percent focussed on my essay (and it was probably the most difficult, research heavy essay I’ve ever had to write). Maybe I was channeling all of my anxiety into that so that I didn’t have to engage with my paralysing anxiety about the pandemic. But then the essay was done and submitted and it all came flooding in.

Between the inevitable post semester and assessment period crash and the pandemic anxiety hitting me full force, I just went to pieces. I was either having meltdowns or staring blankly at old tv shows, too overwhelmed by fear to function. That went on for weeks and to be honest, it’s kind of a blur. I think I was in some sort of checked out, survival mode haze. I just could not cope. In hindsight (and in the few moments of coherent thought I had at the time) I was and am so grateful that I had that summer semester off. Many of my friends on the Masters were having to work on their final projects during one of the toughest periods of our lives (and created incredible work in spite of it) and I just could not have done it. My mental health was in tatters. Even now that I’m in a better, more stable place, I still feel deeply traumatised by the events of the last nine months: by the constant fear and paralysing anxiety, by the sheer overwhelming grief that so many people have experienced and are experiencing, by the confusion and frustration and outright horror at how the government – the people we depend on to lead us and take charge during extreme situations – have behaved. I mean, how do you cope with completely losing faith in your country’s leaders? Who are you supposed to turn to? Anyway. That could easily turn into a rant and that’s not what this post is about.

I’m not really sure when I started to come out of that because it was such a gradual process. But slowly, with LOTS of ups and downs, I started to feel more able to engage – if only with the people directly around me and the things that I enjoyed doing. Thank god for the cats (and Mum – I’ve talked about how grateful I am for her in my Grateful post – but we both agree that the cats were a lifesaver during the lockdown). They’ve been so good for my mental health this year. It’s so mindful to watch them; you can’t help but feel calmer, watching them play or snuggle and so on. Especially without Lucky, their cuteness and cuddles have been vital and the ridiculous playful moments have made me laugh even when it felt impossible. I’m so, so glad to have had them around during this time and they certainly seem to enjoy our constant presence at home; a day rarely goes by without one cat or another draping themselves over me. As I said, they’ve been a lifesaver. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through without them.

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I had online therapy sessions but I struggled with them and often ended up cancelling at the last minute because they just felt too overwhelming. All I could think about was the pandemic and my fears around it; I didn’t want to dig into that even more and it felt impossible to talk about anything else. So my sessions were fairly sporadic throughout the lockdown and most of the year really. I think, in hindsight, therapy just felt too big, too overwhelming to be helpful while all of my emotions felt so incredibly heightened and raw. I was just focussing on getting from one day to the next. The cats were a big help; I started escaping into the worlds of new films and TV shows, like Absentia and Away; and I lived for the livestreams that a handful of people were doing in place of live shows. My favourites were Kalie Shorr’s, both because I love her and because she did so many of them. She did interviews with both interesting and entertaining questions, played covers, and played her own songs, released and unreleased. I’m so grateful to Kalie for doing all of that; they really helped me keep going, helped me get through the darkest of my pandemic-induced depression.

As I said, towards the end of the first UK lockdown, I became a bit more functional, although it was like balancing on a tightrope: one little knock and I was plunging back into overwhelming anxiety and depression. And it happened a lot. But I also had better, more productive moments. I managed to write a couple of songs (which is pretty monumental what with my mental health being so bad); I had writing and production sessions with Richard; I started gentle music theory lessons in preparation for the upcoming semester with one of my parents (she’s a music teacher); I spent a lot of time playing piano (I started experiencing awful nerve pain in my left hand – as well as in my back and leg – during the first lockdown so playing guitar was basically impossible); and I stayed up until almost six am to watch Ingrid Andress’ first livestream show and chat with her in a meet and greet session afterwards. So I was doing just about okay. Probably the biggest help was that all of my family (and most of my friends) were being exceedingly careful around going out: fortunately able to work at home, they only went out for essential trips, like food shopping and picking up medication, etc. I’m so grateful to them for that. So beyond grateful.

The lockdown began to loosen and more and more people were out, which I found terrifying. The silence outside had been weird at first but suddenly every little sound turned me into an anxious mess. Hearing people converse outside the shop we live above, for example, caused so many panic attacks (for fear that those people were spreading the virus). It was awful. For most of the summer, I kept the windows and curtains closed, enclosing myself in my own protective little bubble. It was the only way I could find to protect my mental health. With the gyms opening, I was desperate to swim again (as I’ve previously mentioned, it’s the only exercise I can do) – both for my physical and mental health – but I just didn’t feel safe at my usual pool. Their precautions just didn’t feel tight enough. On the plus side, after various COVID tests, I finally got to see my brother for the first time in months – longer than I think we’ve ever gone without seeing each other. We were still careful but it was so, so wonderful to see him.

Meanwhile, music stuff (mostly to do with the Honest EP) was still happening. Again, I want to keep most of this together (I’ll probably put it all in one paragraph towards the end) but I think this particular day is important beyond the musical context. I’d spent a lot of time worrying about the music video for ‘Back To Life,’ the next single due to be released at the time because my original idea wasn’t going to be possible during the pandemic, even with the lockdown restrictions having been loosened. Richard and I spent a long time discussing it and eventually came up with a plan…

The filming of the video was a big deal for me. I found it very difficult and very stressful being out for so long (even though our planning meant that, of the videos we shot for the EP, this one took the least time) and just being near people caused me a lot of anxiety, even down on the beach at the water’s edge. We were incredibly careful and I did manage to enjoy it to a certain extent but I’m grateful not to have to do another music video under such conditions. It took everything out of me; I spent the next three days on the sofa, barely able to move from the exhaustion. I have no idea how I managed to look so relaxed and even happy in the video. But, as I said, I’ll talk more about it when I talk about the whole EP process this year.

The rest of the summer was pretty gentle. I was trying really hard to improve and manage my mental health. It still wasn’t great but I was coping better than I had been earlier in the pandemic. So I spent a lot of time doing things that have proven to be good for my mental health: I listened to the Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore, on repeat; I played a lot of piano; I wrote songs when I could; I had video calls and online movie nights with my friends; I kept writing for the blog. I took part in research projects involving Autism Spectrum Disorder, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, and Anxiety; helping out with these always gives me a mental and emotional boost because it feels like some good is coming out of my difficulties, even if they don’t improve my experience directly. I also watched the final season of Agents of Shield, my favourite TV show ever. That was a very emotional experience because the show, and the character of Daisy Johnson, have been a really important part of my life over the last few years and the emotional processing of stuff from my childhood.

And I continued to work on my music theory as the module was based on these concepts and I wanted to be as prepared as possible but I found the idea of going back to university very stressful. I really didn’t want to defer so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do in terms of the new semester, what I felt safe doing. I’d originally thought that I’d much rather defer than do online or blended classes but now that the semester was almost upon me, I felt a lot less sure. After a lot of thought and discussion with my family and course mates, I decided to go back as an online student. It wasn’t ideal because of the lack of social interaction and how much harder it made cowriting sessions but I didn’t feel safe commuting to London to be in a building full of people from all over for just two hours a week. It just felt like too much anxiety for not enough reward. Online seemed like the most productive way forward. But even with that choice made, the process of going back to university, getting clear information, the correct timetable, etc, was incredibly stressful, causing meltdown after meltdown after meltdown. I really wasn’t at all sure whether I was going to be able manage university classes during a pandemic.

SEMESTER THREE OF MY MASTERS

The beginning of the semester was a bit rocky as the university tried to make blended classes (the online and onsite groups combined as one using Microsoft Teams) but in the end, it was simply easier and a more productive use of the time to split the onsite and online groups. My groups were great and everyone was really supportive and encouraging, tutors and students alike. Plus it was fun to work regularly with Richard again. The work was hard and the songwriting briefs difficult since musical language isn’t my strong point but after really positive meetings with both of my tutors, I never felt like I couldn’t ask for help or miss a brief if I needed to. As long as we was experimenting with our music – with the use of melody, harmony, arrangement, etc – and turned in the assessment work, everyone was pretty relaxed about what we were working on.

Despite a pretty heavy workload, I managed to get up to quite a lot during the semester. I celebrated my 26th birthday with the family I could and had a couple of socially distanced meet ups with friends; it was simple and quiet but I’m not really into big celebrations anyway. It would’ve been nice to see more of my family though.

I saw a lot of really awesome live-streamed shows, including Ingrid Andress at The Bluebird Cafe, various shows throughout the virtual Country Music Week and Nashville’s Tin Pan South Festival (I’m so grateful that we didn’t lose out on them entirely because of the pandemic), Halsey’s poetry book release day livestream, Maren Morris’ livestream concert, and Kalie Shorr’s charity StageIt show. But my personal highlights were Sugarland’s livestream show, Kalie’s ‘Unabridged For The First Time’ show (even though technical difficulties meant I missed bits of it), several of the Tin Pan South shows, and Tim Minchin’s ‘Apart Together’ livestream show.

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I also attended several webinars and conferences about ASD and mental health, as well as actually speaking at one. That was a really special experience, being invited to speak on a panel and share my experience about being autistic. I felt like I was really able to use my experience to help other people and several of the attendees confirmed how useful my contributions had been. So that felt like a really significant moment.

Even though I was still on the course, many of my friends did the Masters in one year rather than two. They had a virtual graduation ceremony, which I attended in support. They all created such incredible work and under such difficult circumstances; I’m so proud of them and can’t wait to see what they go on to do. Some of them have already released really cool and interesting work and I know that many more are working on really cool projects. We had a celebratory drink via video call afterwards, which was good fun. I hadn’t seen a lot of them since March so I really enjoyed that.

I finally found somewhere to swim that actually felt safe, or as safe as possible: they had really strict safety measures. So I finally got to swim again and it was awesome. Each session gave me such a mental boost and it felt so good to exercise and really stretch my muscles again. I couldn’t get there as often as I would’ve liked (they spread the bookings out to keep the numbers low) but it was absolutely wonderful to be going again. It was erratic, especially with the second lockdown and most of the country now in Tier 4, but I enjoyed every second of it while I had it and I will again when the pool reopens.

The swimming was also good for the nerve pain in my back and leg. A few months earlier, I’d been diagnosed with hypermobility (very common with autistic individuals) and referred for hydrotherapy, which I’m unlikely to get for a while, but the swimming and basic exercises I’d been given did help. Or they seemed to anyway. I’ve also been referred to Rheumatology, Occupational Therapy, Pain Management, and had an MRI just to rule out anything unrelated to being hypermobile. It’s been a very slow process but I feel like we are starting to make progress, which feels really good.

The US Election was obviously a massive deal and not just in the US. I’m really glad that it fell during my reading week because there’s no way I would’ve been able to concentrate on classes. I’m honestly surprised by how much work I got done that week, given how much time I spent checking the news outlets for updates. In the end, it was Richard who texted me that the result was in. I shrieked, I laughed, and then I cried. I was so relieved.

Apart from swimming, the second lockdown didn’t change much for me. I was spending most of my time at my laptop, working on uni stuff. I had to turn in a portfolio of songs and an essay on the 4th January and, determined to get an actual break this year (unlike last year), I worked super hard: I wanted to have all of the work done before Christmas. So the end of the semester was intense and suddenly it was the last week, the session with Richard, and then the Christmas holidays. I worked every day from the end of the semester to Christmas Eve but I did manage to get all of the work done, which I was very proud of.

Christmas was weird. We obviously couldn’t see our larger family but then we couldn’t even see my brother because London went into Tier 4 (and then we went into Tier 4 on Boxing Day). I’d been prepared for a very different Christmas but it didn’t really emotionally hit me until a few days before and then I found it pretty difficult. We tried to embrace the difference: we decorated our tree with origami creations rather than our usual decorations; we structured our day differently… we kept it as different as we could so that the forced differences (like the lack of my brother) didn’t stick out so much. But we still managed to have a good day, I think. My brother and his partner had made a really great quiz, which we all had so much fun doing. That was definitely the high point for me. We were all together, laughing our heads off, and that felt really good.

I also just want to throw in here that there were some really great albums released in the fourth quarter of the year, which definitely boosted my spirits and inspired me a lot. There was Taylor Swift’s folklore: long pond studio sessions, which was both incredible and a fascinating look into the stories and emotions explored throughout the album; Kalie Shorr released the deluxe version of Open Book, Open Book: Unabridged, which included four new tracks, all of them as stunning as the original album tracks, if not even better – ugh, can you tell I love this album? And then, as if folklore wasn’t a big enough surprise, Taylor Swift released a second surprise album, evermore, which was another amazing album. The three of these, plus Manic by Halsey, were the musical highlights of my year. I love them all and I learned so much from them as a songwriter.

We’ve had a quiet few days up to new year, which is good. It’s been nice to have a bit more space to breathe, if that makes sense; there’s a bit less pressure in my life at the moment. Having said that, being in Tier 4 with a spike in COVID cases, has caused my anxiety to rise again.

And that’s the year…

So it’s time to talk about the music. With more content coming, I don’t want to go into too much detail; I kind of want to save the real round up for when everything is done, but I do want to do a quick review of my musical year because I think this is the first year where I’ve really felt like a professional singersongwriter. Of the five tracks on the Honest EP, all but one were released this year (the first single, ‘Bad Night,’ came out late last year). The second single, ‘Clarity,’ came out in early January with an accompanying music video; it did even better than ‘Bad Night’ and was even selected as BBC Sussex & BBC Surrey’s BBC Introducing Track of the Day. That was very cool!

I got to play a handful of gigs, all of which were so much fun. I headlined one of Indigo Eve’s nights, where people both waved their phone lights to a song and sang along to another. It was one of best gigs I’ve done and one of the best nights of the year. I played as part of my university’s songwriters’ circles, which is probably my favourite uni event; it was particularly special because it was the LGBTQ+ History Month special. That meant a lot to me and it was a great round. All of the performers were fantastic and the atmosphere was so positive. Looking back at my Instagram post about the show, I said, “I’m just on a joy train!” That was very accurate; it was a wonderful night. I was also invited to perform in the foyer of The Brighton Dome for their Access Open Day event; it was so much fun and I was giddy about the fact that I was performing there again when it was the first place I publicly performed. And before the lockdown started, I even managed a day in the studio, recording a fun project with some friends.

Everything slowed down when lockdown began but with a lot of help from Richard, we did eventually get the EP cycle moving again, starting with the release of ‘Clarity (Academic Remix)‘. A month or so later, the third single of the EP, ‘Sounds Like Hope,’ came out, followed by a music video beautifully animated by the lovely Lois de Silva. This one didn’t do as well as the previous two but it was a much slower, less radio friendly song so that wasn’t surprising. Having said that, it got some of the highest praise of the EP so although it didn’t reach as many people as the others, it seemed to really resonate with the people who did hear it.

The summer was a very exciting time, in terms of the EP. I got to ‘perform’ in the virtual Disability Pride Brighton Festival: they played the ‘Invisiblemusic video and it was streamed online and on TV! That was very cool: seeing myself on the television for the first time! Then, as I described earlier, Richard and I planned and filmed the music video for ‘Back To Life.’ I was very anxious about putting this one out, given its upbeat sound and title during the pandemic. But in the end, I decided that to leave it out would be to release an incomplete body of work, as the song is an important part of the EP. So I announced it with this message: “Given the difficult and often distressing times we’re currently experiencing, I seriously considered delaying the release of new music, especially as we reach the more upbeat songs on the EP. But I didn’t want to leave the story half told. This song represents the upward turn after a painful chapter of my mental health and it feels important to include because while there are brutal lows, there are also wondrous highs. They’re all important and all part of the journey.” (x) I released the song in August, hoping that people would understand that the title was metaphorical, rather than literal. It didn’t do quite as well as the others had but given everything, I wasn’t surprised. It may have done better in a world without the pandemic but then we’ll never know, will we? Richard edited the video – with my feedback at various stages – and despite it not being what I’d originally imagined, I absolutely loved it. I’m really proud of it, especially given the circumstances and stress under which it was made.

And then, in October, I released the fifth and final single of the Honest EP, the title track, ‘Honest.’ It’s my favourite song on the EP and putting the last of our budget into promoting it, it did really, really well – the best of the EP. I’m so proud of it: the song means so much to me. It felt fitting to have the music video show some of the weird and wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ of this EP process…

As I said, the project isn’t over yet so I don’t want to write anything that sounds like too much of a conclusion but I’ve learned so much from it, from this year. I’ve learned a lot, dealt with enough stress that it’s probably taken years off my life, and never been so proud of anything I’ve done. I can’t wait to share the rest in 2021…

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This blog post spiralled into something much bigger than I thought it would. But then, given that ‘normal life’ sort of evaporated around us and everything was constantly changing, maybe it’s not that surprising. I guess, there were a lot of things I felt I couldn’t leave to assumption so I included them just to be sure. Hopefully it’s made sense and got you thinking (or not thinking) about your experience of this year. It’s weird, isn’t it: we’ve all gone through this massive, world-encompassing event together and yet our years will look quite different. It reminds me of a quote I saw on social media (that I will have to paraphrase, unable as I am now to find it): “We’re all on the same sea but we’re all in different boats.” So, yes, we all experienced a global pandemic but our personal situations created a spectrum of experiences, with either end looking nothing alike. But I think we can all say that we’ll always remember this year. I know I will.

Although I spent a lot of the year feeling very negative, feeling depressed or anxious or frustrated or angry, I’m actually finishing the year feeling overwhelmed by gratitude. Yes, I’m anxious about being in Tier 4 and the rising COVID numbers – I think it would be ignorant not to be – but I’m just so grateful for all the positive moments and experiences that I’ve had this year. And, of course, the people in my life. I could not have gotten through this year without them.

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I don’t even know how to fully sum up this last year. If I thought 2019 was difficult, 2020 was on a whole new level of emotional chaos. I’ve been in survival mode for most of it, just trying to wade through waters that kept rising and rising, and every time I thought I’d found my balance, another strong wave appeared to knock me down. It’s easily been the hardest year of my life and one I know I won’t ever forget. But as painful and terrifying and exhausting as this year has been, there have been some amazing moments too: pre-pandemic gigs, releasing my EP, the contact with my friends and family, time with my cats, the awesome music, movies, and TV shows I’ve discovered this year, the chances to swim… So despite all the negative emotions I’ve experienced this year (and continue to experience), I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the good in my life. // There’s a blog post with all my ramblings via the link in my bio 💜” (x)

The Manic World Tour

NB: This post is probably more for me than it is for you but it was a really significant experience so I wanted to record it. I hope you read it (or some of it – I know it’s very long) and I hope you like what you read. I promise there’s mental health and Autism content coming.

Last week, I was lucky enough to see Halsey not once but twice. I booked a ticket for London and then, as a very late celebration for my 25th birthday (as I explained in this post), me and my Mum decided to take a little trip to Dublin to see her again for a second date. She’s an incredible performer and her shows are amazing and as I’ve said in previous posts: “I often get overwhelmed mid show and so seeing [a show] multiple times allows me to get the full experience – and why would you not want to see a show you love more than once [if you can afford to], especially if it’s only on for a limited time?” Plus, she’s recently said that she’s not going to tour for an indefinite period of time so suddenly, seeing her that extra time became extra important.

The first show was in London at The O2. I couldn’t get a disability ticket so I had to get a regular ticket and because everyone was standing up to dance and jump, I had to stand up to see, which was not good for my fatigue and pain. I’m still not used to ‘being disabled’ and so I’m still ‘toughing it out’ and usually regretting it later. I leaned against my chair but it didn’t help much. I wish I could be in the standing section and stand at the front, hold her hand when she comes down to the  crowd, but just looking at all of those people packed together made my throat and chest tighten with anxiety.

We were on the side so the screens were difficult to see, blocked by the lighting rig and whatever else they have up there, which I was a bit disappointed by because Halsey always has such beautiful images on the screens behind her. I could still see them but I just couldn’t take any photos, which I love doing so that I remember all the details.

I wanted to list some of the moments I want to hold onto:

  • The first song was ‘Nightmare’ and everyone shouted the lyrics, ‘I’m tired and angry but somebody should be,’ which felt pretty appropriate for International Women’s Day. The shouting filled the arena and it was kind of amazing.
  • She had the blue black eye, like she has on the album cover. She’s done several variations over the tour so I was intrigued to see which one she’d do for the shows I was going to.

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  • She has everyone jump during the choruses of ‘Castle’ (another song I think is particularly relevant to IWD, since it includes lyrics like, ‘There’s an old man sitting on the throne that’s saying I should probably keep my pretty mouth shut,’) and she usually stops the track at the end of the first chorus to tell the crowd that they can do better but this time, she said it was, “the best of the whole fucking tour.”
  • Everyone sang along so loudly to ‘You Should Be Sad.’
  • She finally paused to speak to the crowd and everyone was really ready: “I’ve been looking forward to playing this show for a very long time. I mean, I’ve been looking forward to playing this show since the first time that I ever played a show in London. And as luck would have it, I somehow ended up here on International Women’s Day. And I don’t know what’s gotten into me but it’s like all that rage and that excitement and that ambition and that fire… I’m feeling electric tonight, I gotta be honest with you guys. If you are a woman, young or old, in this crowd tonight, I’m looking at you. I’m looking at you for that sheer unbridled lightning energy that’s gonna get me through this fucking show. And I know you’re capable of it because I’ve met women from London.” That caused a lot of cheering. “I wrote a song about one. She had quite the attitude. But we’ll get back to that in a little bit. There’s a lot we’re gonna do tonight. We’re gonna laugh, we’re gonna cry, we’re gonna get angry, we’re gonna get happy, we’re gonna get to know each other a little bit, alright? So I guess now feels like the right time to formally welcome you to The Manic World Tour!”
  • The set for ‘Haunting’ (I did not expect her to play that one) was incredible. It looked like some kind of diner with fluorescent lit windows and someone could be seen walking back and forth through them. It was very eerie.
  • The platforms (that also tipped so that they could be stairs) were so cool and a really unique piece for a concert. I’ve never seen a set like it.

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  • The colours on screen for ‘Forever … (is a long time)’ were so beautiful and there was also all of this brain imagery, like something from medical scans, and they were oddly beautiful. But I couldn’t take any pictures or videos of it because of the stage structures in the way.
  • Her vocals were even more incredible than the last time I saw her and I noticed it especially at the end of ‘Colors’ and in ‘Bad At Love.’
  • “Wow. I can’t believe I’m performing here right now. It’s so funny… I keep forgetting… I forget, like, every fifteen seconds and then I look up and I look up some more and I look up some more and then I look up some more and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. That is a lot of people.'” She talked a bit about why she’s decided not to tour for a while: “I announced pretty recently that I was going to be taking a break from touring after this tour. And that might seem pretty strange because I look like I’m having fun up here, right? Right?! Well, that’s because I am. ‘Cause my favourite place in the world is being on stage. The thing is I pride myself on being able to make mistakes and then write about them so that you don’t have to make ’em: you can just learn the lesson through listening to the song. I know. It’s a hard job. You guys have watched me make a lot of mistakes. You’ve watched me date a lot of people. In fact, you guys have watched me go on so many dates, you’ve watched me go on dates I don’t even remember going on. But I read the articles about them and think, ‘Oh, that must be nice. Maybe I’ll go on a real date with them.’ You guys have watched me say the wrong thing at the wrong time, make friends with the wrong people, be in the wrong place… You have watched me do all of it. And I write songs about it so that you can learn from those things but I started noticing something. I started noticing that you guys are growing up right in front of my eyes. All these familiar faces I talk about, that I see on Twitter, on Instagram, on Tumblr, in the crowds… Some of you guys, I met you or I saw you or I liked your tweet from the first time when you were sixteen years old and now you’re twenty two. I have watched so many of you getting married, go to university, get your braces off… and I started realising that I can’t do my job anymore because you guys are growing up faster than I am. So I can’t write those songs for you anymore to help you out in your times of need so I decided that it’s my turn to do some growing up so that I can write you better music when I come back. Because truth be told, as much as fun as I’ve had watching you guys grow up, I wanna grow up with you.”
  • She joined her band, playing ‘3am’ on the electric guitar, and the crowd sang along so loudly. It’s such a catchy song.

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  • She had everyone hold up their phone lights during ‘Finally // beautiful stranger,’ which is always one of my favourite moments in a show. I always wonder what it would be like to see an arena of people do that for me (I’ve had a room-ful and that was pretty fucking special so an arena must be amazing). And there were these beautiful, moving colours on the screen behind her, like the northern lights. I loved it and I’m really sad I couldn’t take photos of it.

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  • She introduced her band and asked them what they were going to do on the break from touring and it was nice to see the relationships between them.
  • She performed an acoustic, gentle version of ‘100 Letters’ compared to the version that was full of power and self empowerment on the hopeless fountain kingdom Tour. Not that this version wasn’t empowering, just in a different way. The song itself is empowering but this performance was softer and more delicate, letting the lyrics speak for themselves.

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  • She performed ‘Is There Somewhere’ next, which is one of my favourite songs of hers. She said that it was the first song she released and it became a fan favourite so she promised to sing it on every tour. She climbed down into the crowd as she always does, which makes the fans at the front so happy (I just wish she’d move around a bit so that the same fans don’t get that same opportunity over and over because they know where she’s going to be; that  way other fans could have that opportunity). And she herself also looked so happy, which made me really happy. I just wish I could be down there.

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  • She does these crazy mic flips and I’m always worried she’ll drop it or it’ll go flying across the stage. It looks freaking cool though.
  • She had these beautiful starry backgrounds, like a night sky, for Graveyard that morphed into flowers that then caught fire after the bridge along with flames and sparks on stage. Aesthetically, I think it was my favourite performance of the night.
  • “Oh, London, you are a fucking treat.”
  • The last song of the main set was ‘929,’ which is probably my favourite song off the album but it usually makes me cry because of the lyric, “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit, what she told me: she said, ‘Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die ’cause we need you,’ and honestly, I think that she lied,” but for the live performance she changed the lyrics to “honestly, I think she was right.” I almost lost it right then because I was filled with so many emotions.
  • The butterfly outfit was beautiful.

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  • She left the stage and for the encore, she returned to perform ‘Ashley,’ ‘Experiment On Me,’ and then she played ‘Gasoline.’ And as usual, she turned the mic to the crowd to scream the lyric, “do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me.” There’s something so empowering about that moment. And then, at the end, she repeated it over and over again with the crowd shouting along. It was new and empowering and special. And on the screen behind her, the word Manic appeared. It was gorgeous.

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 – From @u1123ae’s Twitter.

  • “Yeah, this is the best show I’ve ever played. I wanna tell you something really special: not only is this the best show that I’ve ever played in my life but it’s also completely sold out. Thank you for giving me, not only my dream show at The O2 but a sold out dream show at The O2. London, thank you for my dream.” She talked about how her family were there and how much she loves us, but if there’s anyone who loves us more than her, it’s her family because we gave her a second chance at life. “I promise you that I will not take this opportunity for granted because without you, this is a world without me.” It was a very emotional speech and listening to it again (I videoed it on my phone) made me cry and cry and cry.
  • There’s something so special about the way she talks to the crowd. She’ll shout to pump up the crowd but then she’ll just talk, about the songs and about herself, like she’s talking only to you. And afterwards, it feels like the show is a secret between just you and her. I actually wanted to get out really quickly afterwards because I wanted to keep that secret safe, because I didn’t want anyone to find out about it. It’s  silly, I know.
  • She ended the show with ‘Without Me’ and it was amazing. Everyone was singing so loudly, so aware that it was the last song, like they were trying to enjoy every second left of the show. It was magical.

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  • “Thank you so much! It’s being the greatest night of my life! I love you from the bottom of my heart!”

This is what I was tweeting afterwards, my feelings just bursting out of me…

And this tweet made me laugh:

And the next morning, once I’d gone through my photos and my emotions had settled a little bit, I posted on Instagram…

After standing for the whole show, my legs were very sore. I had several muscle cramps in my calves (and this went on for a couple of days) but one particularly bad one that lasted for about five minutes. Eventually it passed, which was a huge relief, but I had serious pain in that leg for days, so bad that I limped when I walked.

Now, as I said earlier, if you read my last post you’ll know that me and my Mum decided to go to Dublin, to see Halsey, as a very late 25th birthday celebration. So I went into uni on the morning of the Tuesday, went to my lecture, saw my friends briefly, and then headed for the airport.

We basically had to go straight to the arena, which is a beautiful space. The disabled seats are right at the back, which is fine because it’s not a huge room, but we were on the side of the room so, again, the screens were blocked by the stage equipment, lighting rig, etc, which was frustrating. I’m focussing on how grateful I am to have gotten to see the show twice, but it does feel like you miss part of the show when you can’t see the beautiful art that she’s created to be a part of each song. Having said that, I was really grateful to be sitting down, which was such a relief after the O2 show and the pain in my leg.

The show was amazing, just as expected. Halsey is always amazing. But even in a highly choreographed show, she still manages to make each show feel different and special.

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  • During ‘Castle,’ she did what she normally does: “Stop the track. What the fuck was that? I said, what the fuck was that? Okay. Okay, okay, okay. Look. I know you guys better than that… Are you guys gonna let London do a better job than you? I mean, fuck, even Norway did a better job… Let’s try that one more time.” The screaming just got louder and louder as she talked.
  • And then, a few songs later, she said: “I’m starting to rethink all that stuff I said back there. You guys are actually shaping up to be a pretty fucking amazing crowd. And plus, I gotta be honest with you: there’s a whole fucking lot of you squeezed in down there on that floor.”

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  • At one point, everyone started chanting ‘Halsey! Halsey! Halsey!’ and she got all cute and embarrassed: “You guys are just too fucking sweet.” She said she never knows what to say or do when a crowd starts doing that.
  • Again, she explained why she’s not touring for a while, saying something very similar to what she said in London.
  • The arena lighting up for ‘Finally // beautiful stranger’ was beautiful: “You see, this is a love song and when you sing a love song in a big arena like this one, everyone has to take out their lights. Don’t you know the rules?”

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This is what the colours behind her looked like during ‘Finally // beautiful stranger.’ 

  • After ‘Finally // beautiful stranger’: “Everybody thinks that a love song is the easiest one to write, right? Because… okay, like, you write a love song and it’s like, oh, it’s so trite and cliché and easy to write a love song. Anyone can write a bullshit love song. Fuck all the love songs on the radio… That’s bullshit. A love song is really fucking hard to write and I’ll tell you why. Writing a love song means you are opening yourself up to the world and telling them, ‘I was foolish and stupid enough to open up my heart and let someone in.’ It says to the world, ‘I might look like I have my shit together’ – personally I don’t, but maybe other artists do – ‘I might look like I have my shit together but I am a big dumbass who opened up my heart for somebody to walk right into.’ But that’s okay because you’re supposed to do that. You’re supposed to open up your heart and let people walk right inside and just trash the living room that is your heart, just fuck up the carpet, flip over the couch, break a lamp… because that’s how you learn. That’s how you get better at loving the next person, but I’ll tell you what… writing that song, I would rather stand on this stage butt-naked in front of you guys than write another love song like that. But that’s not a problem because if I ever do, I promise I’m going to keep my clothes on, I think. And I hope that I do because, you know, you guys have really spoiled me in a way. You have shown me a love that is so unconditional, I don’t think I could ever recreate it with another person. You’ve spoiled me.”
  • She actually stood somewhere else for ‘Is There Somewhere,’ after my internal commentary on how moving around would give different fans the opportunity to hold her hand and have that moment. God, I wished I was down there, wished I was able to be down there. Oh, and the guitar solo in the background was to die for; it was gorgeous.

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  • She’s so free with her body but so confident in it, in the way it moves. It’s like she has complete faith that every muscle will do exactly what she expects and intends it to do. I wish I could be like that; I wish I could feel like that.

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  • Introducing ‘Clementine’: “I wrote a lot of those songs when I was nineteen years old and I’m twenty five now. And some of the songs on Badlands… But most of them, I wrote before I had ever done a headline tour so I had no idea what it was like to have an audience of my own. So I wrote Badlands so that you could listen to it in your bedroom, not so that you could listen to it at a concert. Then I started to play shows, and I started touring, and I started getting in the studio and thinking, ‘what do I want to sing with them?'”
  • If you haven’t heard it, there are parts on the recording of ‘Clementine’ where you can hear a double track of her shouting the lyrics behind her singing the lyrics and the crowd shouted those shouted parts so loudly, louder than London. It was strangely powerful and I wish I’d gotten a video of it.
  • For ‘Graveyard,’ she asked – if it felt safe – for people in the standing area to get on each other’s shoulders because it’s an outside in the summer song and so many people did it, so many more than at The O2. And everyone was singing so, so loudly.

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  • In ‘929,’ she was singing the lyric, “And I remember this girl with purple hair down in Dublin, she told me… She said, ‘Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die because we need you and honestly, I think…” and then she stopped because the crowd was singing so loudly: “she was right.” I almost dropped my phone. I almost cried.
  • The crowd screamed, “do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me,” maybe even louder than in London, although that might be because the room is smaller with a lower ceiling. But it was epic and she did the same thing at the end, repeating it over and over with the crowd shouting along. It was awesome.

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  • Introducing ‘Without Me’: “We’re into encore time, motherfucker.” That made me laugh. “I’ll keep it quick. I know I haven’t shut the fuck up this whole show but I’ve got six years worth of talking I wanna do. I’ve got six years worth of stuff that I wanted to say to you guys that I had to pack into one show so… I’m gonna use my time wisely and I’m gonna tell you that a lot of you guys get to read all of the super bad shit about me because that’s what people like to write about. They like to write about all the dark moments in my life. They like writing about the shit that I’ve been through or the dark times that I’ve faced. For whatever reason, that’s what people like to write about and it used to really bother me, but now I’m kind of okay with it because… because all of those things did happen to me and some things even happened that, you know, the media, the press, whoever, they don’t know about. And some of this stuff has happened in the last couple of years while I’ve been Halsey. You know, I’ve kept it to myself at certain times but every time shit gets terrible, I always have you.” There was major cheering. “And every single artist who’s ever played a concert in the history of time gets on stage and says to the crowd, ‘I would be nothing without you,’ right? And sometimes I really believe that but, you know what? Sometimes I fucking don’t. And I think to myself, ‘You would probably be okay actually. Maybe you wouldn’t be as happy or as, you know, successful but you’d get a job, get married, do whatever, but there are so many times where I have been so, so unsure. So unsure. And you guys have made me absolutely positive. So basically this is a really long-winded way of saying thank you because without you, this would be a world without me.” That last sentence still got to me, even though I’d already heard it in London.
  • This is what the background looked like during part of the song, although it started off more like a ribbon:

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It was incredible, another incredible show, and I’m so grateful to have been there. It was an amazing birthday present. Getting back to the hotel was a struggle and my emotions felt very mixed up and messy. For over an hour, I just didn’t feel anything. I think I was just struggling with it all being over, with the idea of not having them to look forward to. Eventually that settled and real feelings started to bloom again but they were still confusing, like a lump of different coloured pieces of play dough stuck together. Impossible to separate and really identify.

The next day, when I got home and had a bit more control over my emotions, I posted to Instagram…

And now I’m home and the European Tour is over. The adrenaline crash was pretty brutal, the physical pain from London was bad, and I was exhausted after a wild three (actually four) days but it was so worth it. Halsey – Ashley – and her music mean so much to me and I’m so, so grateful for this experience.

The Last Few Weeks…

I’m not quite sure how to describe the last few weeks. Intense, maybe. There’s been a lot going on and I’ve done things and felt things that I’ve wanted to write about but couldn’t figure out how. So I’m writing this, with the good, the bad, and the weird of the last few weeks.

So first, I got to take part in a research study for the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. I’ve written about my experience with research studies before (here) so I won’t ramble on but I love doing them. It often feels like Autism takes opportunities away from me but this allows me to do something I’d never expected and that’s really exciting. I got to put the EEG cap back on and have my brain waves monitored while I did some computer tasks. It was investigating perceptual capacity in Autism (which I’ve written more about here) and it was really fun, like a Windows computer game from the nineties. And apart from trying to get the saline gel out of my hair, it was a really great experience.

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I also went and gave blood for the first time. That was very exciting! I’ve wanted to give blood for years but up until now I haven’t been well enough or I was on medication that disqualified me. So getting to do it was really exciting and a really cool experience. Everyone was really lovely and I’ve since had a text telling me where my donated blood has gone. So the whole thing was really special and I will definitely do it again.

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Despite these cool and inspiring experiences, my mental health has been pretty bad: I reached a new low with my depression. I feel like I’m always saying that the current period of depression is the worst it’s ever been but for me, there are real differences: new thought patterns, new emotional states, new lines, new fears. Each period of depression has a different colour. Anyway. It’s been really bad and really hard and I’ve had some desperate moments.

Medication wise, it’s been a rollercoaster. As per usual. I got myself all but off the Amitriptyline a while ago but I just wasn’t ready to try another medication straight away. It’s a tough process and I just needed some time to feel steady, even if that was steadily bad. Maybe not the most logical decision I’ve made but it made sense to me at the time. And ultimately it doesn’t matter now. I’ve started the Clomipramine, which is what everyone wanted me to do. Finding the right medication and the right dosage can be pretty gruelling and I just needed to be in the right mental headspace. I’m not sure how I feel about the Clomipramine but it’s still early days.

And on this last Monday, I went to see Maren Morris play an amazing, intimate show at OMEARA in London. The staff were great about making it accessible and I was let in without having to queue and there was a chair reserved for me – I really, really miss the days where I could stand for hours without a problem. And the show was fantastic. Maren is one of my all time favourite artists/songwriters and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.

“When this wonderful world gets heavy and I need to find my escape… yeah, I guess that’s my church.” // @marenmorris was a complete dream tonight. Beautiful, beautiful songs, singing, and stories. My little songwriter soul is so happy. (x)

It might be blurry but I love this photo of me and @richardmarcmusic after the @marenmorris show tonight. We had SUCH a good time. We’re constantly listening to her music, whether we’re in a songwriting session or just chilling out and playing Mariokart. So we were two happy beans tonight. (x)

And now it’s December. Most of my family have birthdays in December and January and of course there’s Christmas and New Year. So that’s a lot of fun things but it also means a lot of high emotion and stress. It’s a tricky time. I’ve found Christmas difficult for the last few years so I’m going to have to be careful to manage my physical and mental health throughout this period. I’m going back to the post I wrote last year about managing Christmas with anxiety and Autism – if that sounds like it might be helpful, you can find it here.