A Week In My Life (Going Back To University In A Pandemic)

So, I’m officially back at university, which feels very weird to say after six months of unstructured time in lockdown. With the ongoing pandemic and my mental health issues, it may be overly ambitious but, as I said in a recent post,  I really needed to try. So I thought I’d write a blog about the first week back as it was bound to be an ‘interesting’ experience. I’m only ‘in’ one day a week but that doesn’t account for extra work and assignments, as well as trying to balance extra theory lessons, therapy, and so on. So, unsurprisingly, I was pretty anxious going in.

The week in this post started on Tuesday 22nd September and ended on Monday 28th September 2020. It begins on a Tuesday as my academic week begins on Tuesdays this semester and I thought the week’s activities would make more sense in that context.


TUESDAY

I’d tried to go to bed earlier than usual the night before, which I had managed to a certain extent, but getting up was still a struggle. It’s been so long since I’ve been required to get up for something relatively early in the day and finding the motivation to get out of bed was a problem I’d long thought I’d conquered. It was very tempting to roll out of bed at five to nine and attend my lecture as I was. But I really didn’t want to look like a befuddled, just unfurled hedgehog so I eventually managed to drag myself up and into the shower. That was fine but apparently my makeup skills have drastically deteriorated since lockdown began; getting my eyeliner to match was practically impossible – I’d decided to wear makeup in the hope that it would make me feel more motivated, more normal, more in a university mindset, since I always wore make up to university. I got dressed – smarter than my usual lockdown attire but still comfortable – and put on jewellery for the first time in ages. Then, as the day’s classes were on the whole more introductory than anything else, I set myself up on the sofa with my collapsible desk and laptop and logged into the online class, ready for the nine am lecture.

My lecture class is online and we spent two hours going over the new module, Musical Language in Songwriting. We went through the learning outcomes, the details of the assessment, and listened to a selection of songs, hearing some of the musical concepts we’ll be learning about to then try out in our own music. I’ll admit to being anxious about this module: it relies on music theory more heavily than the other modules do and that’s not an area I feel super confident in. So while my tutors are really nice (I’ve met them both before) and I know I could go to them if I needed help, I am still nervous about not being able to do what is asked of me.

We had a two hour break where basically all I managed to do was eat some lunch. I’d forgotten how exhausting it is to go back into education when you’ve had a significant break, how exhausting university can be in general (especially when you’re dealing with issues like anxiety, for example), and how exhausting it is to study/work in an entirely new format. I’ve used Zoom and FaceTime and so on to socialise but I haven’t used it in this context before and it definitely felt like new territory. So I watched some TV and made sure I had a track ready to play in the Workshop.

The Workshop was much more of a challenge than the lecture. This was the onsite class but as I’ve already discussed, I’ve opted to do the whole module online. I felt that feeling safe and being safe was worth a little added difficulty in class. But it was a lot of added difficulty. I was one of two online students – and the other will usually be onsite – and I just felt very removed from the class. The position of the camera meant I couldn’t see any of my classmates and I couldn’t really hear what they were saying or the songs they were playing. That made it very hard to engage as part of the group and anyway, my only way to do that was to type into the chat box that showed up on the tutor’s laptop. Not exactly a great system in group discussions. I spoke to my tutor about the problems and made a note to speak to my student support person. It did make the class a struggle but hopefully, with some feedback, the situation will get better.

I don’t really know what I expected it to feel like. There had been so much administrative drama beforehand that I hadn’t really thought beyond the actual day ‘at’ university. But then it was over and I felt restless, anxious, and depressed. I don’t know what I expected it to feel like (or what I would’ve expected if I’d thought about it) but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that. So that was a bit upsetting.

Given that my lectures finished at three, I’d planned to log out of uni and get on with stuff: work on some blog posts, write in my diary, or even work on my songwriting assignment for the week. But I was so exhausted and so drained that I couldn’t concentrate on anything – staying awake took all the energy I had. I know I watched a Harry Potter movie (they’ve always been comfortable and familiar background noise) but I don’t really remember watching any of it. I made several attempts at blog writing but suddenly it was the evening and I hadn’t really done anything. I know that going back to uni and going to classes, even undemanding ones, is a big deal and that we shouldn’t base our self worth on our productivity but I felt really frustrated that I hadn’t managed to do anything. I feel like I have so much to do all the time – too much to do – and it just feels impossible to keep up. It’s exhausting, mentally and emotionally.

In the end, I just went to bed early but, of course, I couldn’t sleep. After a while, I was getting so frustrated that I got up for a bit and tried out Dare Me on Netflix. I watched a couple of episodes and although it felt pretty exaggerated and over the top, I found the characters and their motivations interesting and I found it visually appealing: the styling, the settings, the colouring. I don’t know if I’ll keep watching but it helped distract me from everything and eventually I was able to get to sleep.

First day back at university since late March: attempting to navigate online classes, trying to remember how to talk to people rather than cats, and desperately hoping not to make an idiot of myself on camera. (x)


WEDNESDAY

After such a disturbed night, I really, really struggled to get up. I just wanted to sleep all day. But eventually I dragged myself out of bed, got ready, and managed to eat something just in time for my Zoom session with Richard at eleven thirty.

Despite only officially receiving the first assignment the day before, the goal of the session was to work on this first song: a song with a modulation (a key change, for those of you unfamiliar with music theory) and the title ‘Little Pieces.’ I had, in fact, already written a song for this brief. I’ve been speaking to one of my tutors on and off over the summer to make sure I was as prepared as I could be for the module (hence my music theory lessons), especially considering how nervous I was about it and at one point, he mentioned what the first assignment was going to be. Knowing that I really struggle with modulations, I spent some time experimenting with them in various songs, in different moments of songs. And then recently, a concept matching the ‘Little Pieces’ idea popped into my head and I had to write it down before it disappeared. I tried out multiple possibilities for a key change and finally landed on one that felt like it matched the song rather than feeling like it had been shoe-horned in. Since the homework hadn’t been assigned yet, I didn’t do any more – I just emptied the ideas out of my head.

Once the task had been assigned, I looked at it again (I decided it was okay to use my song since it had been explicitly stated that we could use an older song if we did happen to have one called ‘Little Pieces’), made some tweaks, and sent it to Richard. We’re supposed to write the songs ourselves but we can bring in producers or session players as long as we’re making the artistic decisions. Richard and I usually produce very collaboratively but this time it was really on me to choose the arrangement, the specific instruments and effects, and give direction, if not exact instructions, on how instruments that I don’t know or have great experience in, should be played. So, to give you some examples: the track was based around my piano recording; I chose the electric guitar sounds, sometimes from a reference and sometimes from hearing a plugin, and in some cases, I sang a riff that Richard then interpreted (but made them better as he’s a much better guitarist than me, which was fine as they were sketches I was suggesting rather than exactly what I wanted); I directed how the song built and where that began; I suggested dropping beat one after the chord change to emphasise it as I was trying to make it a moment in the song rather than move smoothly over it. Having said all of that, I did use the opportunity to learn from Richard as a more knowledgeable and experienced arranger and producer. He told me about specific things that he would do, explained why certain things made sense musically, and suggested effects (like creating a pulse within a bass pad) that I didn’t even know existed. It was all my call but being so new to being in the production driving seat, it was very helpful to have someone point those sorts of things out to me. I definitely learned A LOT.

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We worked for almost four hours and I was absolutely exhausted by the time we closed the video call. I was also weirdly emotional. I just felt really raw and anxious and overwhelmed. I felt like I had too much to do but time was passing too quickly to do it all and I could already see myself getting behind in everything; the thought made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I did take some Diazepam but it didn’t shift the feeling completely.

I spent most of the rest of the day trying to work on blog posts but ultimately just flipping from one screen to another. I think I was just too tired to concentrate. Nothing could really hold my attention so it felt like I’d wasted the afternoon and evening, which just made me feel frustrated and even more overwhelmed.

Me and Mum had dinner with Friends – mainly because I was feeling too overwhelmed to choose something else (nothing felt right) and because we knew we were both too tired to watch something new, that we’d both just fall asleep and end up rewatching it. We do have a list of new things to watch though and I don’t want to give up my progress in consuming new media just because I’m back at uni. Having said that, it will probably be less, just because I have more things to fit into a week now.

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Eventually we just abandoned the day, gave the cats their before-bed snack (otherwise they wake us up at five, demanding breakfast), and went to bed. I was completely exhausted and although it did take me a while to relax, it didn’t take too long to get to sleep.


THURSDAY

I slept better than the night before but still not hugely well and it was a struggle to get up. I keep making plans to dedicate a day to a massive sleep in but it always seems to get pushed down the list of priorities. There’s always something to do, something I feel I need to do more. I never wake up feeling particularly refreshed so it’s difficult not to think of sleeping in as a waste of time. Why do something that’s supposed to be enjoyable if you don’t actually enjoy it?

I spent the morning working on various different blog posts. I honestly love writing for this blog, even when it’s difficult. Putting my thoughts or experiences into words – turning them into something tangible – just makes the world feel a little more manageable. And I really needed that. I was feeling really quite fragile and overwhelmed. I felt like I might start crying at any moment.

The list of the semester’s assignments had been added to the module resources so I looked through them and identified which ones felt more difficult than others, which ones I might need help with the theory of before working on the actual song. When my theory lesson rolled around at one thirty, we worked on different time signatures and how to play them on the piano, as well as different modes. That particular assignment involves multiple time signatures, a mode other than the most commonly used (the Ionian), extended chords, and an example of chromaticism – basically, my worst nightmare. I’m not going to achieve all of that in a week so I thought getting a head start on how to actually put those ideas into practice might help for when the assignment comes around.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working – very slowly – on blog posts and my diary. Again, I was just exhausted. I think this week is just A LOT and hopefully it will get at least a bit better as I establish a rhythm and better organise myself around my classes and assignments. I’m learning that booking in sessions and appointments in the morning just knocks me out for the day so I’m going to try, moving forward, to move them to the afternoon so that I can at least get some stuff done in the mornings while I still feel awake(ish) and capable.

I also finished Dare Me. It was definitely interesting. I think it did try to juggle too much in too short a season, making certain moments pretty blunt when they could’ve been more subtle and nuanced, but I loved that it predominantly revolved around female relationships: Beth and Addy, Addy and Coach French, Beth and Coach French, the spiderweb of connections within the cheer squad… I also found the characters themselves, especially the central three, really interesting and I liked that my opinions and feelings for them evolved throughout the season, according to the choices they made and so on. Originally, Addy was my favourite and I definitely related to the magnetic pull of a powerful, female authority figure in her life but over time her naivety began to grate on me as Coach French became more and more obviously manipulative. My first impression of Beth was that she was vicious purely because she got a kick out of it and because she liked being in control but the more I learned about her, the more I felt for her; she was so much more complicated than she seemed on the surface and she definitely ended up my favourite. I’ve been turning it all over in my head ever since I finished it and although I initially wasn’t that bothered about whether there was a second season, I do want one now, having done all this thinking about the characters. I want to know more about them and see how their stories continue to unfold.


FRIDAY

I woke up in the middle of the night, wide awake, but my cat, Lucy, came for cuddles so it wasn’t all bad. Eventually I managed to get back to sleep but then I was so tired that it was a really effort to wake up in time to be ready for my therapy session at eleven. But then, after much stressful back and forth, it was put off until next week. I hate it when plans change suddenly on the day. It just throws me for a loop and I think that, if I hadn’t already taken a Diazepam, I would’ve been having a serious anxiety triggered freak out.

It took a while to settle again, to be able to focus again and I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon working on blog posts. With this week being relatively light in terms of uni work, it made sense to create a buffer of posts so that, if things get really stressful down the line, I can focus on other things with the reassurance that I can continue posting on the blog even though I haven’t been able to write.

In the afternoon, one of my parents – who is in a bubble with us – came over for a visit. We did some catching up and I gave her the recording equipment she’d asked if she could borrow. Then she and Mum went out to get fish and chips for dinner so that they could both have a break from cooking and we ate together, watching Lucifer. I did some diary writing and it was just a really nice, chilled evening. After two episodes, we had a hug – based on one of those ‘how to safely hug during a pandemic’ guides – and said goodnight. Me and Mum (and Lucy) watched some Agents of Shield (we’ve almost reached the end, which is very sad) before going to bed.

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep. No matter what I tried – and I have many techniques for getting to sleep – I just couldn’t drift off. At about one am, I got up and read for a bit – just because I was so bored and frustrated, which probably wasn’t helping – and then eventually, I managed to go to sleep around three.


SATURDAY

Despite plans for a lie in (my Mum had actually forbidden me from setting an alarm), I woke up at half past nine, not much later than usual. My sleep did recover a bit after the initial few months of restless, nightmare filled nights but apparently that’s over and we’re back to this mess of a sleep schedule.

Eventually I managed to drag myself out of bed and spent a couple of hours writing up my diary, before having a shower and getting myself put together (ish – as much as I ever do in lockdown) for the day. Then I went back to my laptop and did some admin. Facebook recently charged me a big amount for no reason that I can figure out and looking through my bank statements, there are some things that don’t add up (oops – maths pun) so we’re trying to get that sorted out. I also set up my bullet journal for the month of October and filled in all the dates I have so far. I’m trying to juggle a lot and for the sake of my mental health, I really need to not let stuff get on top of me, overwhelm me. And the only way I know how to do that is to plan as much as possible.

In the afternoon, I got hit with a wave of anxiety. I’m not sure what was behind it. It’s probably just everything: ongoing pandemic anxiety, a big change in my routine with starting uni, uni assignments that stretch my abilities, lack of sleep, and so on. But I don’t know what exactly triggered it in the moment. I had thought I’d try going for a swim but all the anxiety was just too much so I stayed home and worked on a couple of things. I all but finished a track I’ve been working on with Richard, finalising the arrangement and mixing the levels, and I worked on an upcoming blog post. So even though I didn’t get to swim – I’d really been looking forward to it – I did get some good stuff done so I felt good about that.

I also started watching Blood & Water on Netflix. I didn’t get very far before needing to go to bed but I’m definitely intrigued. The missing person concept has always interested me (in fiction – I don’t think I can think of anything worse in real life) so whatever happens, I’ll probably HAVE to watch it through to the end, just to know what happens. And on a more personal note, listening to the South African accents was quite soothing: one of my best friends is from South Africa and I haven’t seen her (apart from video calls) since mid March when she had to fly home. Obviously not every South African accent is the same, just like with any accent, but every now and then, I hear a word or sentence that really reminds me of how she speaks and I can’t help but smile.


SUNDAY

I finally had a halfway decent night’s sleep, even though I wanted to go straight back to sleep as soon as I woke up. I stayed snuggled up under my duvet for a while, reluctant to leave my warm nest, but eventually I dragged myself out and got straight to work. I recorded some extra vocals on my current track and did all of the editing and mixing for them. I’m not very good at it yet but I think I did an okay job.

I went on to work on an upcoming assignment that involves a lot of complicated elements – multiple uncommon time signatures, an uncommon mode, extended chords, and an example of chromaticism – but that just turned me into a frustrated, teary mess. It’s so hard and I can’t figure out how on earth I’m going to manage it, hence why I’m starting it now because there’s no way I could do it in a week. I’m struggling with just the time signatures; I haven’t even attempted to tackle the rest. In the end, I had to give up because I just felt so overwhelmed and incapable. And it doesn’t help that I’m worried that if I don’t submit this song (with all of its examples of different musical techniques), I won’t get a good grade. So it wasn’t a particularly good start to the day: feeling stressed and anxious and stupid because I can’t figure out how to do this one assignment.

After a bit of chill time (Netflix and blog post writing), I headed for the bathroom and Mum helped me dye my hair. I usually refresh it before a semester starts but I just ran out of time last week so we decided that doing it for the second week (and my birthday, which is on the 29th) was good enough. It’s not the most thrilling of things to do but it gives me such a confidence boost that the amount of time and all the faff it takes is worth it.

Mum and I spent a couple of hours watching Agents of Shield while I did some blog writing and then my brother and his Mum came for a visit to celebrate my birthday. We’ve all been super careful around going out and everyone (apart from me as I’ve barely left the house) has recently had a Covid test so we figured we were safe, or as safe as possible. We caught up, had dinner together, and then put a candle in a lemon meringue pie. I got a deliberately out of tune ‘Happy Birthday’ and I blew out the candle; I think we can probably all guess what I wished for.

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It was a really nice evening and a really, really lovely way to start my birthday celebrations. I love my family so freaking much and not seeing them has been so hard. So getting to see them, even just for a short visit was so special.

When they left, it was a bit too early to go to bed so me and Mum watched another episode of Agents of Shield, quite possibly my favourite episode of Season 7: ‘As I Have Always Been.’ It’s an amazing episode and it just has everything: incredible acting, high jinks and hilarity, gorgeous character moments, and emotion in spades. It’s one of the best episodes I think they’ve ever done. So that was a good way to end the day.

Despite almost falling asleep on the sofa, I couldn’t sleep when I got to bed. After trying various tricks – running stories through my head, writing stories in my head, listening to a movie on my laptop (with the screen off), listening to music – for about three hours, I took half a sleeping pill and eventually fell asleep.


MONDAY

I woke up suddenly from vivid, disturbing dreams at seven thirty but didn’t get up straight away. I needed a little while to straighten out my thoughts, separate the dreams from reality. They’d had a weird, almost video-game-like quality. I can’t really describe it; it was just unlike any other dream I’ve had before and it really threw me.

I had a gentle morning, catching up with my diary a bit and writing some stuff for the blog. I was aiming for a quiet day, considering that I had uni the next day plus an extracurricular class late afternoon but then it all went wrong. I got the opportunity to get some help on what I’m currently calling ‘the nightmare assignment’ (which I mentioned on Sunday) but I just ended up feeling even more anxious about it. It feels like an impossible task. I haven’t even managed to improvise a melody over these new time signatures; I guess I’m so used to 4/4 (we probably all are as a huge chunk of mainstream music uses that key signature) that trying to sing over 5/4 and 7/4 feels both completely unnatural and unmusical. I ended up in tears because I’m finding it so stressful and although I did recover enough to continue with my day, I felt very low and tired. My eyes in particular felt weird and sore, even hours after crying. So it wasn’t the best day.

I spent the afternoon jumping from one task to another, getting bits and pieces done but not really fully engaging with anything. I just felt like a switch had flipped and I wasn’t quite as ‘there’ as usual. I was anxious about the next day as well, which didn’t help, even though I’d put everything in place to be as ready as possible. And I did get an email from my Workshop tutor, saying that they were going to try out a couple of different things to see if that made the class easier – easier to hear, easier to participate in, and so on.

Mum and I had an evening of Agents of Shield while I tried to finish up this post. We had dinner, I FaceTimed with some of my parents, and then tried to go to bed early. I achieved that – it was better than usual anyway – but then I couldn’t sleep and after three hours, I took half a sleeping pill since I had to get up early for uni.

It was also my birthday the next day, which I had a lot of feelings about. I don’t think I dislike my birthdays but I do sometimes find them difficult in the context of my mental health and ‘how far I’ve come (or not).’ But not only was there that this year, I also feel extremely unready to be twenty six, like I only got to have six months of being twenty five. And I think it’s pretty safe to say that that’s to do with the pandemic and the lockdown. I feel like everything I should’ve or would’ve learned, experienced in that year has been cut in half and so I’m not ‘ready’ to be twenty six, as if people are going to expect me to be capable of things a twenty six year old could do (all mental health and Autism stuff aside) that I won’t be able to do because I didn’t get the full experience of twenty five. I feel like this all sounds ridiculous but hey, feelings are weird and then don’t always make sense.

It’s been a long week.


So that was my first week back at university, my first week of a hundred percent online study, as well as balancing the other areas of my life such as my energy levels and my mental health. It’s been emotional and intense and exhausting. I’m not sure how I feel about it all yet, just that it’s a big adjustment. I’m still finding it very stressful and exhausting. Hopefully it’ll get easier and less emotionally taxing with time.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from this week and what I can do to manage everything better going forward and this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Scheduling appointments later in the day is better for my productivity – If possible, having meetings or writing sessions in the afternoon seems to work better as a system. They tend to wear me out and if they’re in the morning, I don’t get as much done in the afternoon. So working in the morning and having appointments in the afternoon is more efficient as someone who has to ration their energy so carefully.
  •  This is going to take a lot of energy – While I knew this from last year, my body kind of forgot in the six months since I last had to manage a university schedule. It takes a lot out of me. I’m not sure if I’ll adjust over time and find it less tiring or if it will just be something I have to manage day-to-day, week-to-week.

I’m sure there’s more but this is all I can come up with for now. I’m sure I’ll learn more as I go.