Seeing Yourself in the World Around You

When it comes to TV shows, movies, and books, I see myself fairly regularly in the physical sense: I’m a young white woman. But when it comes to the things that I most associate with myself – being Autistic and struggling with my mental health – there is very little. Depictions of neurodiversity and mental illness are usually very stereotypical and often downright wrong. And that only adds to the stigma around mental health.

Now, I’m a twenty five year old woman with ASD and several mental health problems (including anxiety, depression, and BPD). I recognise that my experience is very specific. I’m not asking for a fictional version of myself; I just want some characters that I can really relate to. That isn’t an unreasonable request, is it? Seeing yourself in the world around you is so important, at least it is in my experience. It validates my emotions, my experiences, and makes me feel less alone when those things often make me feel very isolated and, if I’m completely honest, broken.

I’ll give you an example:

In Season 2 of Supergirl, the character Alex Danvers comes out as gay and a major part of the season is dedicated to her coming to terms with that and her relationship with another character, Maggie. This storyline meant a lot to a lot of people but the thing that I really connected to was Alex’s emotional journey and her relationship with being happy. In episode 9, her sister is abducted (said sister is Supergirl so she gets into trouble a lot but that’s beside the point) and her reaction is: “I was happy for five minutes,” revealing a belief that she doesn’t deserve to be happy, that somehow she is being punished for trying to be happy. This is brought up again later when she says, “I feel like the universe is just magically smacking me down from being happy.” These two moments were huge to me. This is something that I really, really struggle with and I have never seen it anywhere but inside my head. So to hear it from a character I admired meant everything to me. It made me feel less alone and less ridiculous for feeling this way. Because if this woman (who is more or less a superhero) feels like that, then it’s not unreasonable for me to feel that way, is it? Of course, I’d love for it to be revisited because it’s not something that goes away overnight but the fact that it was mentioned at all kept me going for days – weeks – and even a couple of years later, I can watch that episode and feel better.

And recently, Chyler Leigh – who plays Alex Danvers – has revealed that she lives with Bipolar Disorder. She first started experiencing symptoms at twelve years old and struggled through her teens and most of her twenties: “The mania would come and go, but the depression felt like it was always there. There are a lot of different ways mania manifests: I had extreme irritability and felt like an engine running on overtime; I couldn’t sleep at all; and I felt disconnected from reality, almost like I was high. As a teen, I did a lot of drugs, and that made me feel better, but crashing was devastating.” She tried to be the one in control of everything when she felt so out of control. She was diagnosed in her late twenties* but before her diagnosis, she says she felt like she was drowning and saw multiple medical professionals and multiple medications that just made her feel nothing: “[They] made me feel nothing, and that to me was more important than feeling happy or feeling sad. I withdrew and I shut down… I just didn’t know how else to function. And so I lied about a lot, I hid a lot. I kept to myself. And that caused an incredible amount of chaos and just destruction in the family.” Eventually she hit an awful breaking point, a mania so high that she couldn’t sleep at all and ended up hospitalised. Once she was released, she talks about how she needed to start fresh and find what worked for her. It was “very, very difficult” but now she’s in a good place: “I did find a medication that works that I still take, which keeps me very level, much more even. There are not really big peaks and valleys. It makes me function as a human being where I feel like, ‘Okay, I can manage when things are really hard and I can also really celebrate victories.'”

Ten years later, she’s ready to talk about it and use her platform to support others and raise awareness: “It’s something that’s terrified me for a long time because it feels like I’m admitting some sort of secret, or some sort of way that people are going to look at me differently or judge me but I’ve been met with nothing but acceptance and love and support, which is just amazing.” Her story is complicated but unfortunately very common and she and her husband are raising three children who either have mental health problems or are neurodiverse. The link to the initial interview (I believe) is here in case you want to read more about it. She also talks about talking about mental health and mental illness with her children in a healthy way that isn’t scary and that’s really incredible. She’s now teamed up with the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health movement to advocate for mental health awareness and acceptance: “We have an incredible opportunity to change the narrative and change the conversation, and lead people to places that can encourage them and really take them where they need to go… It’s OK to not be OK. And it’s incredibly important to reach out. Be willing to let your guard down a little bit to be able to find that community. And also know that if you’re really struggling that there are so many resources.”

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#ValentinesDay gives a chance to reflect on and honor our relationships, romantic or otherwise. I want to use today to specifically talk about how my #mentalhealth has connected to my relationship with my husband and family. Through it all – the highs, the lows, the inbetweens – my husband has been my rock. In my lowest of lows, he and my children have been incredibly open and supportive, lifting me up and encouraging me when I needed it the most. That is what got me through. For those who are going through it: surround yourself with people you can trust and reach out to them. Talk about it. If you don't feel you have people you can open up to, there are many organizations who want to hear from you and help you. You can go to @bevocal.speakup for more information on how to reach out and speak up. #BeVocalSpeakUp #MentalHealthMatters #Sponsored

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*”When I first got the bipolar diagnosis it was sort of like, ‘Oh my gosh, if that was me, how on earth am I going to deal with this? Am I in the same place? Am I equipped? Do I have what it takes to actually really genuinely take care of myself?'” I find this quote really helpful because that’s how I feel everyday. I wonder EVERYDAY if I’m ever going to be equipped to look after myself.

And here’s another example:

One of my favourite fictional characters is Daisy Johnson from Agents of Shield (which will be ending soon, something I am genuinely devastated over – it’s going to take actual therapy time to adjust to such a meaningful change in my life). Again, she’s practically a superhero (there’s a theme, I know) and ever since I started watching the show, I’ve been very inspired by her and her storyline. She’s a force of nature. She’s experienced great tragedy and each time, she uses it to reinvent herself, searching for ways to do good and make positive change in the world. She might be a fictional character but she means so much to me. And that led me to following the actress that plays her, Chloe Bennet, on social media. A few months after I started watching the show, she did an interview where she talked very honestly about her mental health: “I suffer from anxiety, I’ve had depression… it’s hard.” She talked about having panic attacks. She talked about the importance of mental health. And she talked about having therapy: “I see a therapist on a regular basis and that has helped me so much.” Reading all of that meant a lot to me. Knowing that someone I admire has had a similar experience makes me feel less alone in that experience.

Bello Magazine (November 2016)

It goes without saying that I wish none of us had to deal with these challenges but hearing people talk about these experiences really helps me. It makes all of this less lonely, less isolating. And seeing strong, smart, insightful, compassionate people (real or fictional) deal with the same things I do, reminds me that I can be those things too, that my mental health problems don’t make me less of a person with less of a future. Seeing people succeeding in what they do, while living with these challenges makes me believe that that’s possible for me as well. Representation is a powerful thing.

BEHIND THE VIDEO: ‘Clarity’

A while ago, I released the music video for my latest single, ‘Clarity,’ directed by myself and Richard Marc with animation by Lois de Silva…

It’s been a while since it was released so I thought it was about time I posted the behind the scenes video. It was a really fun and fascinating process to make for me so I thought you guys might like to see some snippets of the process…

I hope you liked it! More music to come soon…

Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.

A Week in My Life (February 2020)

So I thought it might be fun to document a week in my life, both as a person with mental health problems and Autism and as a person doing a Masters in songwriting. So recently, for a week (one of my more interesting weeks), I took notes on each day so this is those days collated, a week in my life right now.


MONDAY

My Monday started at home in Brighton (doing origami for the #30dayfeb) but I was hugely nervous (and excited) because I was playing my university’s songwriters’ circle that evening. And what made it extra special was that it was the LGBTGIA+ History Month Special. I proudly come from a proudly LGBT family and identify as queer myself, although that label is as far as I’ve gotten. When your mental health and Autism take up your whole life, there’s not a lot of time for figuring out your sexuality. I haven’t talked about sexuality on here much because I felt like I needed to know specifically what I identified as (gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc) before I said anything but now I’m thinking that not knowing yet is also important to talk about. I don’t want to do too much of that here though because I think it deserves its own post.

Anyway, I was nervous but also really excited.

I caught the train to London and the tube to uni where the songwriters’ circle was being held. I met Richard (Richard Marc, my best friend and writing partner) there and we practiced for a bit: we were playing a song we’d never performed before. So we worked that out, ran through it until we were confident with the performance, and then went to get food before going back for our soundcheck. That went well and we met everyone else who was playing; they were all absolutely lovely.

The special guest was an alumni, RIS, described as: “an up-and-coming Sofia-born electropop artist based in East London. The queer singer-songwriter’s brooding vocals bring euphoric melodies to life over dramatic alt-pop tracks, rich with sizzling synths and sonic ear candy.” They were really lovely and I absolutely love their songs: I can’t wait for them to release more.

The other students, Lea Frances, Francesco Pio Ricci, Becky Kerly, and our host tutor, Anjali Perin, were all amazing and interesting and different and it was a really  incredible experience to be a part of. You can actually listen to the whole circle here and hear everyone’s beautiful music and stories. There’s something strangely spiritual about a songwriters’ circle and I hope you can feel that without actually being there. Speaking for myself, it felt magical and exactly how songwriting and songwriters’ circles should feel: a coming together and sharing of stories, of songs, and of souls. And holding it in a music university, getting a sing-a-long isn’t difficult and that’s one of, I think, the most special things you can experience as a songwriter, as a performer. The whole event was so wonderful and I felt so lucky to be a part of it.

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TUESDAY

My lecture didn’t start until eleven so I got a bit of a lie in after the late-ish night and all of the emotion but then I had a bit of a headless chicken morning, running around, back and forth, getting ready and packed up for uni. But I made it on time, a little early even so I got to chat to my friends. It felt like a very weird morning: I just felt super emotional and like crying at every little thing. It was hard work to stay composed.

The lecture covered the grading criteria for the assessment essay, which was really helpful. I find the language really confusing so going through it with a tutor explaining it in detail and in real, human language made is much more accessible and easier to understand.

But the main part of the lecture focussed on Max Martin – we cover one songwriter a week and look at techniques they use and so on. It’s really interesting, especially because they’re all really different. So, for Max Martin, we focussed most on melody, syllable count, and melodic math: a device used to make melodies really tight and memorable. It was fascinating, especially to someone who puts lyrics before melody. I don’t know if I could ever do it consistently because lyrics are so important to me but it’s definitely something I’d be up for trying out, just to see what the result sounded like.

Then I have a four hour break before the next class but I spent some of it hanging out with my friends, an hour at a meeting about the upcoming Nashville trip, and then two hours writing with one of my best friends on the course, Luce, while our other friend, Sharné sat in the room with us and worked on some of her own work. We worked on a song for a couple of hours, getting quite methodical and looking at the deeper message of the song and so on but I don’t think either of us were in quite the right frame of mind to write so the three of us just ended up talking. They’re such lovely people that talking with them, whether it’s about random stuff or intense, emotional stuff, the conversations mean a lot to me.

The second and final class of the day was the workshop, where we play songs we’ve written based on the previous week’s artist’s techniques. A lot of people don’t turn up, presumably because it’s not assessed and they need the time for other things, so it was just me, Luce, and Sharné, which was actually really nice. There was a lot of time for feedback and I really enjoyed working on their songs and my song more intensely than we would usually have time for. They had both written great songs, both of which I really loved.

My only complaint about the classes is how cold the classrooms are. They’re absolutely freezing, so cold that we’re wearing our coats, scarves, and gloves in class. The air conditioning is on even in December and January. We’ve asked them to turn it off but there’s been no change. Especially on a day when I was very emotional, being so cold just made me want to cry.

Fortunately, my Mum was working in London and the end of our days coincided so she picked me up and we drove home together, catching up about our days. We got home and I was so exhausted that I went straight to bed. It had been a long and emotional couple of days.


WEDNESDAY

After my busy Tuesdays (and this busy Monday), I take Wednesday as a rest day. And I tend to work on at least one weekend day. I might technically be doing my course part time but I have to be very flexible about the way I work because of Autism and mental health problems cropping up and making work difficult. I can’t write a song or research an essay if I’m recovering from a meltdown for example. It sucks, because it means I have to plan my life very carefully to allow for these problems but also be very flexible in case they do. It’s so frustrating. I hate it.

I did my origami and then spent the day bouncing between writing my diary and the continuation of moving my songs all into one notebook. They were very calming tasks. I tried to work on a song but just couldn’t make my brain work (I think I was too tired) and then, when I gave up, I lay down on the sofa and accidentally had a three hour nap.

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All of the cats!

I finished the day having dinner and watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit with my Mum (it’s the show that just the two of us in the family watch). It was very relaxed and really nice to spend some time with her.

I had had serious anxiety about the work I have to do all day but had been managing it with Diazepam. It’s something I deliberately try not to think about on rest days because they’re my weekend where I have fun or recharge. I’ll spend the other days of the week working on those things but rest days are for resting. It’s still hard to shut off that anxiety though, even with the Diazepam.


THURSDAY

As had become my pattern, I started my day with my piece of origami for #30dayfeb. On this day, it was another bird. I did a lot of birds. They were pretty and not too challenging (I wanted challenging but some of the origami tutorials I watched were virtually impossible for a beginner like me).

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Most of my morning involved going to therapy. It ended up being a very intense, upsetting session – therapy can be a bit of a funny paradox because if you leave feeling exhausted and drained, chances are you’ve worked really hard and done some important work; you’ve just got to look after yourself afterwards. We were talking mainly about a difficult relationship in my life and how to handle it as well as my OCD and how it’s affecting my Masters work. Trying to control it enough to get the work done is gruelling and exhausting and sometimes it feels just too hard. It spiralled into harder and harder stuff and I ended up in tears. Getting myself together to leave was a struggle. And then, to make things worse, the cab I needed to get home didn’t turn up and I was left waiting in the rain for half an hour, until my therapist came to check on me. She lent me her phone and I called another one.

I eventually got home and called my Mum at work, sobbing down the phone because it had been just too much after a difficult session. Plus changes in plans really throw me. Talking to her managed to come me down a bit and I felt a bit better when we hung up. I was tired enough to sleep but my brain was whirring too fast so I was still awake but groggy when Mum got home.

We had some dinner (and some red bull) and caught the train to London. We were going to see Waitress again, mainly so that I could try and meet Sara Bareilles after the show. She’s had such an impact on my life that I just really, really want to meet her and thank her. And getting to see the show again isn’t exactly a hardship. I love the music, the cast is fantastic, and the story always inspires me; it makes me feel like I might end up happy, even if it’s not in the way I expect or currently want it to. That’s big for me. And Sara is just amazing. She just is Jenna. She’s plays the part like it was written for her and she sings like Jenna is a part of her. ‘She Used To Be Mine’ is one of my favourite songs ever and there’s something magical about hearing her sing it live. This show is so important to me and it always will be.

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Sara’s bow!

We rushed outside to see if I could meet her and we met some of the other cast who kindly chatted with us and signed my ticket but Sara herself didn’t appear. After a while, the security guard said she’d left but I was reluctant to just go, having been told the same thing in the past and gone home only to see people posting selfies with her on Instagram. But this security guard had been really nice to us earlier in the night – so I felt I could trust him and his explanation – and he told us that she had an early engagement the next day and so she’d had to leave straight away (as it turns out she was on This Morning the next morning so it was entirely true). So we went home. We have one more opportunity to meet her before her run ends so hopefully I’ll get to meet her then. I know a lot of people don’t get my dedication to seeing shows more than once (I often get overwhelmed mid show and so seeing them multiple times allows me to get the full experience – and why would you not want to see a show you love more than once, especially if it’s only on for a limited time?) and meeting the artists but they’ve really shaped my life and therefore become part of my life so it feels important to connect, even if in the tiniest way.

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Marisha Wallace (who plays Becky – she has an incredible voice and is utterly hilarious) signing my ticket.

We caught the train home and fortunately got back not too late, considering we’d waited afterwards (I appreciate that they hadn’t just left us waiting in the cold). I went straight to bed and was asleep in seconds.


FRIDAY

I did my origami (an apple) and then spent the morning doing some reading for my Masters, working on my songwriting book when I needed a break. It was very gentle and chilled after the emotional day and late night from the day before – the perfect antidote.

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Lucy keeping me company.

I had a late shower but ended up sitting on the bathmat, sobbing because there’s just so much sadness in me. There’s so much sadness, past and present, happening in the world and to the people I love. It overwhelmed me and I just got so upset. It happens sometimes, quite a lot in fact. I’m an emotional person but I’ve been particularly emotional recently.

In the afternoon, I had an appointment with the doctor. Mum always comes with me to these appointments, especially with doctors I’m not familiar with (the Autism specialist doctor has been away), in case I get overwhelmed and because she knows my mental health and Autism history really well, sometimes better than me. We talked to the doctor about the pain I’ve been having from my fingers to my shoulders (I was, at that moment, having some really bad pain in my hands and left shoulder), which is obviously cause for concern. We talked about support for people with Autism, which there still seems to be a distinct lack of, plus several other things. I found it very unhelpful and distressing but Mum seems to think that the information we got, good and bad, means movement – in her plans and research, I suppose. So I guess that’s something.

To cheer me up, we went home via the nearby pet shop. We need to replace the cat tree/scratcher so we went to look at the ones they had and there were some possibilities but we need to do some measuring before we commit and buy one. But we did buy a couple of little cat toys, mainly to make me happy: a little unicorn and a little Grumpy Cat (we try to avoid buying toys that look like real animals so that they don’t give us a huge shock, thinking the cats have brought in a mouse or something). They’re really cute.

The unicorn toy and the Grumpy Cat toy.

Then we came home and had a gentle evening. I did some reading for my essay and then me and Mum had dinner in front of SVU. When I finished eating, I did some diary writing. It was an attempt at calm but I was still very anxious, even taking Diazepam. I’d intended to go to a friend’s gig in London but I just had too much pain in my hands, arm, and shoulder that I just couldn’t do it. I felt so bad because it’s been so long since I’ve been to one of her shows and I felt like a bad friend for ‘not supporting her.’ I could’ve managed the show but the travel just made it too much. I felt really guilty for not going, something I struggle with a lot – guilt, that is. So it was a difficult evening.


SATURDAY

I spent most of Saturday songwriting (after doing my origami). I tried to write both with a pen and on a computer – diary, blog writing, or research – but my hands felt thick and stupid (which we think was a side effect of a medication I’ve now stopped taking since it wasn’t helping and there were too many side effects – none of them serious but all of them unpleasant and unhelpful) so it was a real struggle. Playing piano was really the only thing that wasn’t difficult in that sense and so I spent a lot of the day playing, writing, and editing songs, several of which I really like.

I also put up my blog post about Lucky, which I’m really proud of.

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Me and Lucky on Christmas Day with his new toy.

Me and Mum spent some time in the afternoon and early evening talking about a presentation I have coming up, talking rather than writing since my hands were still struggling. Then we had dinner and watched some TV together. I ended up falling asleep on the sofa at seven because I was so exhausted by everything going on and Mum had to all but drag me off the sofa and steer me to bed.


SUNDAY

I woke up stupidly early (at half past four) and couldn’t go back to sleep as hard as I tried. Eventually I got up and moved to the living room, putting the TV on low and getting to work: sending emails, social media messages, and so on. I’m better in the mornings, more awake and less anxious, so those things feel easier.  I organised my diary and did some blog writing. It was a productive start to the day, despite the painfully early start.

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Mouse keeping me company while I worked.

Once Mum was up and we’d had breakfast, we did some house jobs (such as fitting the new cat flap) and I talked to a friend who was very upset before getting down to work on my presentation. I’d been talking to various people since it was set as an assignment so I felt prepared when I sat down to make the presentation slides. I spent the day working on the slides and beginning a script for what I was going to say.

In the evening, I ran it past Mum (who does a lot of presenting as part of her job) and she critiqued it for me. Then one of my other parents came over and we had dinner in front of Tim Minchin’s Orchestra Tour DVD. He’s truly an incredible musician and performer.

It was a productive day and I went to bed as late as I could manage – about ten o’clock – and took a sleeping pill to make sure I got a good night’s sleep.


I hope that was interesting, that it gave you a glimpse into my life. Let me know if you want more of these because it was definitely interesting to write.

‘Clarity’ Music Video – Out Now!

As of today, the music video for ‘Clarity’ is out and available for you all to watch! I’m so excited for you guys to see it. Richard Sanderson and Lois de Silva did such an amazing job and I’m so proud of the result. I hope you love it as much as we do.

Again, this video is different from anything I’ve ever done. They’ll be a Behind The Scenes of the video video coming soon where I’ll talk about it in detail but the idea of the double version of myself was really fun and having animation was really cool. And working with Lois was such an amazing experience; we went to college together and I’ve always wanted to work with her so getting to do that so early in my career was so special. She’s so good at what she does and she was so enthusiastic and professional about the project. I’m so, so happy with the final result and I hope you guys love it too.

BEHIND THE SONG: Clarity

Today I posted a new video, telling the story behind the inspiration, the writing with Imogen Davies, and the production of my current single, ‘Clarity.’ I’ll let you watch the video but again, it does relate to mental health so I wanted to post it hear, as well as on my social media. I haven’t explained the experience that gave me the idea because I don’t want to get in the way of the way someone applies the song to their life or interprets the story. It’s a song about something difficult so I feel weird saying, ‘I hope you like it!’ but I hope, when you listen to it, it means something to you. I hope it makes you feel something.

If you haven’t heard the song yet, you can buy or stream it here and the music video will be out soon.

The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.