Going Back To University During A Pandemic

So, as of next week, my university classes start again and given that the pandemic is worse than ever in the UK (when it comes to the number of cases, at least), I definitely have mixed feelings about it. Had this year gone ahead as expected, I would’ve been super excited to go back to uni but with all my anxiety about the pandemic, not to mention the state of my mental health in general, it feels like an almost impossible feat. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it. But before I start thinking about that, I thought I’d document how I got to this point…


When the pandemic hit the UK and the lockdown went into effect, I only had two or three weeks of online classes to contend with before my final assignment, which was a piece of coursework. Once that was turned in, I was done, with only unstructured time ahead of me. As a part time student, I didn’t return to classes until late September so, although I’d planned to do a lot of things (I made a post about that here) in that time, I didn’t have to try and manage university alongside all of my anxiety about the pandemic. I didn’t have to think about university for a long time and since we didn’t know much about Covid-19 at the time, it seemed pointless to speculate. So I put those worries to the side and just tried to manage day to day (with varying levels of success).

When August rolled around, the anxiety about what I was going to do started to build. I’d thought about deferring but I really didn’t want to do that: I didn’t want to delay my education more than it already had been with years off to manage my mental health; I felt like I’d be at a real disadvantage in the second year modules, having potentially forgotten skills I’d learned in the first year; we don’t know how different things will be in a year anyway and I’d rather be working through the modules with people I know, whether that’s the case or not. So if I was going to do it, I had to figure out what felt safe and manageable.

Eventually I got an email from my university with some information about how they’d planned out the module, trying to balance safety and getting the best out of our education. My first module of the year was going to be 50% online and 50% onsite: the lectures would be via Microsoft Teams and the practical workshops – where we put the musical skills into practice – would be in person, although there were various different rules about whether anyone could actually perform what they’d written, depending on the number of students present. That all felt very uncertain and anxiety-provoking. Plus commuting to London (using trains and the underground) for only two hours of classes felt like a lot of risk (especially with the number of cases on the rise) – and that’s without considering the effects it would have on my energy levels and mental health and how that would affect my ability to complete the module – for not necessarily enough reward. It all felt very risky and scary.

I spoke to the head of the module, a tutor I’ve known for a really long time and have a really good relationship with. I wanted to get a bit more detail about what was happening, especially as it’s the module I’ve been most worried about: music theory has always been a struggle for me and even though it’s more about experimenting with those concepts in our writing, I’ve still worried about it from the beginning of the course. It’s the module I’ve always felt I’d need the most support and clarity in. Unfortunately, this trusted tutor will be running the online classes and not onsite at all – not that I’d want him to put himself at risk but that plus the fact that my two closest friends wouldn’t be there either only increased my anxiety. In what was obviously going to be a very stressful semester, I felt like I had very few people that I could go to if I needed help or something triggered a meltdown, for example. It was all feeling more and more overwhelming and difficult.

There was the potential to do the whole module online and at the beginning of lockdown, I’d refused to consider it, feeling that I wouldn’t get the education I had chosen and was paying for, if all the classes were online, especially when it’s such a practical course. But if I didn’t want to defer, my only options were to do the 50/50 approach or move entirely online. And after thinking about it a lot and talking to multiple members of my family, we decided that all the stress of going into uni felt like a significant cost compared to the benefit. So eventually I bit the bullet and decided to transfer to being a fully online student.

For a while, everything was fine – or as fine as it could be. But as we started building up to the new year, everything started to unravel. I always find the start of the new academic year stressful but this year has been a special level of hell. One example was ongoing complications with my timetable, which only exacerbated my already high anxiety and caused multiple meltdowns. I could probably rant for hours about the problems in education around mental health and neurodiversity but I won’t. At least not here.

The last week or so has probably been the worst, mental health wise, since the early days of lockdown: there has been constant anxiety, sickening drops into the depression that I’ve been carefully tiptoeing around since the pandemic reached the UK, and many meltdowns. I’ve also fought with Mum, which almost never happens. You know I’m in a bad place when that starts happening. My emotions have been very volatile; my anger has been particularly explosive. Anger’s not an emotion that I usually experience, especially not to this degree, so that’s been really hard to know what to do with. I’m really going through it at the moment.

It’s been suggested and even recommended that I defer, given the state of my mental health and my anxiety around the pandemic but I really, really don’t want to. I don’t want to defer and I don’t really want to do the module online – neither feel like great options, if I’m honest – but we have no idea what the situation next September will be and of the two, I’d rather be moving forward.


Today my group had our induction session, which was helpful. And it was really nice to see my course mates and tutors again; it was a little glimpse of normality, even if it was through a screen. I don’t know if I feel any better about the whole situation – I’m still terrified that the odds against me are just too high and I’ll fail everything – but I’d rather try than not. If get a couple of months in and it really is too much then I’ll reconsider but I have to try. I just can’t not try.

Plans For My Empty Semester

Because of the way my course is organised for part time students, I now have a semester without classes while the full time students do their third semester. I’ve been looking forward to this, not just to take a bit of a break but to work on new music with the skills I’ve learned, return to hobbies I haven’t had the time or energy for while doing the course, and to just generally catch up with things, be productive, and get some long awaited projects done. Of course, everything changed with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

So my list is different now, depending on what is possible and what isn’t. I’d started collating this list – this post – before lockdown was announced and I’ve been reluctant to simply scrap it all just because it no longer fits with the future I’d expected. So I thought I’d post it anyway, just divided into different categories, for posterities sake if nothing else. I guess I just want to remember what I’d thought this summer would be like versus what it ends up being like.

Impossible:

  • Get back to swimming regularly – That’s obviously not possible as all the gyms are closed.
  • Mental Health Awareness Week Assemblies – For Mental Health Awareness Week, I was supposed to go back to my old secondary school and do a series of assemblies, talking about mental health, my experiences with it, and play some songs. I was really looking forward to it but then we went into lockdown and schools had closed long before Mental Health Awareness Week.
  • London gigs – I was scheduled to play a couple of shows in London but they were cancelled due to lockdown. Hopefully they’ll happen when it’s safe again.
  • Concerts – I was due to see several shows over the summer including Taylor Swift at Hyde Park and The Shires in London and Brighton but they’ve all been rescheduled or cancelled. I understand it, of course, but I’m still gutted because I was really looking forward to those shows.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – I was hoping to see Waitress at least one more time before it closed but it’s run ended during lockdown and they’ve announced that it will not be returning. I’m so, so sad that I’ll never get to see it again. But I’m grateful that I got to see it as many times as I did and that the last time was Sara Bareilles’ last show. That made it extra special.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – I’ve wanted to get my photo albums up to date for months but there’s a problem with the external drive that holds my Photos library and since all the shops are closed, including the computer repair shop I go to, I can’t get it fixed until they reopen and it’s safe to go there. And therefore I can’t catch up with my albums yet.

Difficult or Different:

  • Music Theory lessons – I had a plan to improve my knowledge and understanding of music theory during this time, to prepare myself for the next semester but now, my teacher and I can’t meet or even travel to meet for lesson. In theory (pun intended), we can still have lessons using Zoom or FaceTime but it’s definitely more difficult when we can’t sit side by side at the piano, when I can’t lean over to watch his hands, and when he can’t adjust my hands on the keys, and so on. I’m sure we can find a way but it’s definitely more complicated than it was before.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I really wanted to spend as much time as possible writing with my friends and course mates. They’re all so amazing and unique. Of course, we can still write using Zoom and FaceTime but it’s not a creative process that I’m super comfortable or productive in. I’ve been doing some but I find them exhausting and just not as much fun as I usually find collaborating.
  • Catch up with my friends – To be fair, I have been catching up with friends but it’s obviously always over Zoom or FaceTime. We can talk and I’m grateful for that but we can’t hang out or hang out in groups and I miss that. I miss just chilling out together, doing things companionably, and my god, I miss hugging them.
  • Sort out my bedroom – This is another project I’ve wanted to do for so long and while there are still aspects I can do (and still plan to do), there are a lot I can’t, which is very frustrating.
  • Create my studio space – Again, this requires changes that aren’t possible right now because having aesthetic building work done obviously doesn’t come under the lockdown advice but there are things I can do and have started to do. Despite the difficulties, I’m creating a space to work – some of which will be permanent and some which are makeshift and I’ll change later when it’s possible – so it’s a start.
  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This project I have yet to figure out and I’m not sure if it’s even possible without certain changes in my room, changes that won’t be possible until life is more normal again. But I’m still turning it over in my head, how and where to create an aesthetically pleasing space to make videos from. So we’ll just have to wait and say when it comes to this one.

Still Possible:

I feel like it’s important to add an extra note to this one because, while all of these plans and activities are physically possible, they’re not necessarily possible. I’ve been seriously struggling with my mental health, especially with my anxiety and depression, and my creativity has taken a serious hit too. So, while I do want to do these things and they are within the rules of what’s allowed and technically possible, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to achieve them, or achieve as many of them as I would like.

  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I’ve been trying so hard at this and I’ve managed some but with my creative and concentration struggles, it takes a lot of hard work and is really emotionally draining. It’s amazing when I can break through the fog though.
  • Sort through my clothes – This is something I’ve started to do but it’s tricky because there’s nowhere to take the clothes I want to pass on. It feels good to be clearing out some of my stuff and creating some space though.
  • Catch up with my diary – I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of ‘catching up with my diary’ but I’d hoped to use this time with limited distractions to really get caught up. But with my concentration in such shambles, it seems to be taking even longer than usual, which is endlessly frustrating. I have to keep going though. My OCD doesn’t take a break just because there’s a pandemic.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – I bought a Kalimba and it was going to be a present to myself for finishing my second semester assessment. I love the sound and I really want to learn how to play but, as I’ve already said, my concentration and motivation haven’t been great so I’m struggling to apply myself to it.
  • See a meteor shower – I have technically done this one already but it wasn’t a very impressive show so I’m looking forward to the big one, the Perseids meteor shower, in August.
  • Update my songwriting book – My songs are all over the place (in various notebooks, my laptop, different hard drives, and random pieces of paper) so I’d really love to compile them all into one book, something I’ve just started to do.
  • Watch some of the things on my To Watch list – I’ve been trying with this one but I’m finding it quite difficult to watch new things. It’s like there isn’t enough space in my brain and I don’t have enough spare emotion to invest in new characters and a new world, etc. Does that makes sense? I’m going to keep trying though. I think it’s going to be a case of just hoping that the trying and a moment of feeling okay will coincide.
  • Improve my guitar skills – I feel like my guitar skills have come to a bit of a halt recently and I really want to get out of that rut and get better. I don’t feel the need to be the best guitarist in the world but I’d love to be proud of what I’m playing when I play solo, rather than feeling like I’m playing a really simple part just to accompany myself.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – It’s not for a while yet but I want to have some potential ideas for my final project so that I have time to think them over and make sure I choose something that’s a good fit, for the exam criteria but also for me as an artist. It will just make me feel more prepared and more inspired when the time to start arrives.
  • Improve my piano skills – Just as with my guitar playing, I want to get better at playing the piano. I love playing the piano but I still feel like a really basic player. I want to be able to play more interesting chords and progressions, with more interesting and unique rhythms and melodies.
  • Read some books from my To Read list – During my course, I don’t tend to have time to read anything other than course related material so I was really excited to read some different stuff, especially fiction. But as with watching new films and TV shows, it just feels too hard to learn a new world and new characters and concentrate enough to get through a book.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I love learning. I remember being a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to do when I left education and I was completely mystified by the idea that you’d ever want to leave education, ever want to stop learning (obviously you don’t stop learning things when you leave education but I was very little and that’s what I understood it to mean). I never want to stop learning things and I was excited about having a solid chunk of time where I could focus on learning things outside the sphere of my Masters, as much as I love my course. Having said that, it’s hard to take in new information when I’m struggling with my concentration.

Uncertain:

  • Shooting a music video – It was during this time that Richard and I had planned to shoot a music video and now we don’t know when we’re going to be able to do it, given how far apart we are and the infection risk of travelling there. In theory, we’d be able to do it socially distanced so if we can figure out how to get the two of us there, then we might still be able to create the video I’d always imagined for this song.
  • EP gig – I really wanted to throw an event (a gig and a party rolled into one, I guess) to celebrate the EP and all we achieved with it but I don’t know when gigs are going to be allowed again or, more accurately, when they’re going to be safe again so I’m not whether this plan is possible. I don’t want to do it until it’s completely safe but I also don’t want to wait until months after the EP is complete to have this event. So I’m not sure where we stand with this plan.

I truly have no idea what the next few months will look like (especially with the government making a mess of everything, especially the lockdown) so I don’t know how many of these things I’ll be able to accomplish. Each day is unknown and that’s both terrifying and exhausting. I think that, whether you’re a person with mental health problems or not, just getting through this period of time (and managing your health – physical, mental, and emotional) is achievement enough. So I guess, when the next semester starts, I’ll look back at this post and see what I managed to do while keeping that in mind.

Living in Lockdown

When I’m not spiralling into an anxiety-induced meltdown over the pandemic, the resulting quarantine, and (particularly) the thought of a loved one getting sick, I can look at living in lockdown in a somewhat detached, practical sense (something that has taken over a month to be able to do). Intellectually speaking, we’re living in unprecedented times, experiencing something that our parents are experiencing with us for the first time – something that very rarely occurs. There are very few people alive who have witnessed the last pandemic of this scale: the Spanish Influenza in 1918. So this is a big deal, one that will be written about in history books and studied in the future – from political, sociological, and psychological points of view to name just a few. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and I can’t help thinking how often history is told from the point of view of the powerful and how terribly, appallingly wrong that is, especially given the number of mistakes being made by the people in power during this period (I’m speaking from the UK but I think we’re all aware of the mistakes being made by other governments, especially that of the US). So, if we want that to change, we have to write it ourselves, write our own experiences of living in lockdown, both for the history books but also for our own sake, so that we don’t forget what this experience has been like and how our lives have been changed by it. And as true as it is that we’re all in the same position – all in lockdown with limited access to our families and friends, the world outside, and our ‘normal lives’ – each of us will be experiencing this differently so I think the more experiences written about the better. So here I am, writing about mine, both for the reasons I’ve already listed but also to keep from drowning in it all, in the anxiety and the fear and the attempt to keep going as if this isn’t a traumatic experience.

I was aware of the Coronavirus before it even moved out of China but it felt like such a horror movie scenario and caused me such anxiety that I worked really hard not to think about it too much. It seemed unlikely that it would get all the way to the UK so I focussed on the anxieties in front of me and got on with my life. Besides, surely the government would be prepared should it reach us, given how much warning they had. I didn’t vote for this government nor do I trust them but I assumed that their egocentric motivations would have them preparing the country as best they could, for themselves if not for their people.

But then the virus started to move from country to country and more and more people in the UK began to take the idea that it might reach us seriously. I battled with my anxiety around it, trying to act responsibly without thinking so hard about it that it sent me into anxiety induced meltdowns. To an extent, I felt fairly unafraid of getting the virus as a young, physically healthy person but having said that, I was very aware that I was in regular contact with immunocompromised people and I was terrified of getting it and passing it on to them. So I was careful to wash my hands, use hand sanitiser, and avoid busy areas and travel times where possible. My anxiety had already been high before the virus made the news so it was a daily battle, as it often is.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. One day I was making plans with a friend for later in the week and the next she was on a plane back to her home country because of the travel ban. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye (that’s my little bit of self-pity done because I know, without a doubt, that she made the right choice and I absolutely support her decision). Before that week of classes began, our course came together (electronically) and decided that we didn’t feel it was safe for us or others if we were travelling to and from uni, etc, so suddenly my weekly routine was gone, my education disrupted, and my friends were all going home, again without any of us actually getting to say goodbye to each other. I know we can all talk via social media and video calls and that this isn’t forever but depending how long this goes on, we may never come together as a course again and that is an idea I find really difficult to get my head around emotionally.

I think it was the next week that we went into official lockdown. My university pulled out all the stops to support us and within days, our classes had been moved online but prerecorded lectures and a forum aren’t the easiest ways to have discussions and a sudden lack of access to the library and facilities wasn’t an easy adjustment. I found the online classes difficult. Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate how hard they worked to keep our education up to date and as normal as possible – but it’s not the way I learn best. It’s just a personal thing. It also made working on the assessment essay much more challenging. Fortunately, I had a tutor who was incredibly supportive and with his help (and my Mum’s), I managed to get it in with good time, despite the added stress and the impact that had.

The essay, despite the anxiety it caused me, was actually a good distraction. As soon as it was done and submitted, I really started to feel the effects of being in lockdown. After all, up until then, I was pretty much doing what I would’ve been doing anyway: spending all my time on my assignment. But with that done, it all started to sink in.

The most obvious struggle is that I miss and worry about my family. I have four parents, only one of which I’m living with, and the others are all on their own; my brother is living by himself in London; my Mum’s Mum is also living by herself, a significant distance from any of us, even if we were allowed to visit each other (I’m thinking more in the case of an emergency where we would obviously keep our distance from each other and be very careful); and I have multiple family members categorised as vulnerable. So I have a lot of people to worry about and worry about them I do. The constant anxiety is exhausting. And as grateful as I am for video calls, it’s just not the same. I miss BEING with them. I desperately miss HUGGING them. I try not to dwell on it – or stress about how much longer we’ll be separated – because that is only more damaging to my mental health but it’s hard. It’s really hard.

On a similar note, I also really miss my friends. We have video calls, regular calls, texting, social media, movie dates on platforms like Netflix Party, and so on but again, it’s not the same. It’s not the same as hanging out with them, or hugging them, or going on coffee dates, or having writing sessions. As I’ve already said, I’m trying not to think about how long it could be before I see them again. We’ll manage, thanks to the technology we have,  but it will be really wonderful to see them again.

The other thing that I’m really struggling with right now is my mental health.  For those of you who know me or have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, amongst other things, I struggle daily with anxiety and depression. These are the particular problems that have only gotten worse since the appearance of Covid-19 and the lockdown.

  • Anxiety is my constant companion, although fortunately I have my ’emergency’ medication (to be taken as needed) for when it gets really bad, like I-can’t-breathe bad. My anxiety rises to that level at some point most days and the medication has kept it about as manageable as I think I’m going to get in the current circumstances. But my anxiety isn’t constantly that overwhelming (at least not anymore) and I’m wary of going through the medication too fast so most of the time, I’m just left with this relentless pulsing under my skin that leaves me restless and unable to think as clearly as usual.
  • My depression has been really bad too. Some days are a complete write off from the beginning, where all I can do is stare at the TV. Most of the time though, my mood is better but more precarious. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope: one little knock and I’m going to plunge straight into the darkness. It feels like I have to constantly watch my step, be hyper aware of any possible threat to my mental health, otherwise I’ll fall and who knows how long it would take to build myself back up again, given the uncertain, scary times we’re living in. Maintaining my mental health in this period is like trying to build a house of cards of shifting sands. It’s practically impossible.
  • Since the lockdown started, I’ve had serious difficulty concentrating. On anything. Getting my university assignment done took more force of will than I knew I had and while I knew that I’d need some recovery time after that and after finishing an intense semester, weeks later my ability to focus hasn’t returned. I’ve had phases where I’ve struggled to focus (likely caused by my fluctuating mental health and trying different medications) but it’s never been this bad. I can’t read a book, I can’t watch anything, I can’t do anything without my concentration drifting. Everything takes ten times longer to finish and ten times as much energy, if not more.
  • Most distressingly for me is that my creative brain is completely dead. Out of power. It just feels empty and I have no ideas. I’ve suffered extended periods of writer’s block before and usually experience it to a degree along with the exhaustion of finishing a difficult semester and stressful assessment period but it’s scary to feel that it’s still not working, even after several weeks have passed. I’ve tried all my strategies for writing and all my strategies for writer’s block but nothing is working. It feels like my brain is broken and that’s really, really upsetting.

I’ve still been having therapy, but via Zoom instead of in person. In theory, it shouldn’t be that different but somehow it is. I’d never really considered how important it is to have a space to work through all the hard stuff and then be able to walk away from it, which you just can’t do when you’re having therapy in your living room. Plus, Zoom calls are exhausting – here’s a good article about that – which only adds to how exhausting therapy can be. Then, when it comes to the content of a session, it all feels a bit frozen: it’s hard to tackle difficult emotions when we’re in the middle of different difficult emotions. And when I’m just about coping, feeling so fragile, I don’t want to trigger something and make life even more emotionally difficult for myself than it is already. So the whole thing is really tricky and confusing. Having sessions is definitely better than not having them but it’s not straightforward. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be when we made the plan just before lockdown.

And just to add to that, I’ve been struggling with sleepiness as a side effect of my medication for months but that’s gotten a lot worse since self isolating (perhaps from the increased anxiety – I don’t know). I’m exhausted by the smallest things and I seem to need so much more sleep. And that hasn’t been helped by a sudden, intense bout of hay fever, which has bestowed upon me the additional symptoms of an itchy, blocked nose and sore, itchy eyes. It’s been so bad that even having the windows open makes it dramatically worse so going outside definitely hasn’t been an option (I can’t take antihistamines because of my other medication). So I can’t even go in the garden, making me feel all the more trapped. Inhaling steam helps but only for short periods of time. The recent rain has been a blessing, giving me several days of relief. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s started to settle – I’ve managed a couple of trips into the garden without incident – but I don’t want to speak too soon.

And lastly, for now at least, I’m really struggling with how uncertain everything is, uncertainty having always been something that causes me anxiety. We don’t know when the lockdown will end, we don’t know when we’ll be safe again, we don’t know when we’re going to see our friends and family again. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of my university course. And so on and so on and so on. So on top of the ongoing fear, there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Many of my summer plans have become impossible or at least difficult, while some have been cancelled outright, which has obviously been very upsetting and left me without anything to look forward to or anchor me. I feel very lost. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people at the moment. I try to focus on each day as it comes but it’s hard. We’re all so used to looking and planning ahead.

One more thing… I found this on Twitter the other day and wanted to share it:

I found it really helpful to have various explanations as to why I’m struggling, to know that my brain isn’t actually broken. Of course, knowing this stuff doesn’t actually fix the problems but being able to take a breath and reassure myself that there is a reason and that it won’t last forever has been helpful.

I hope you’re all safe and coping the best you can. And if you’re in the UK and they do loosen the lockdown this coming week, please continue to be careful. I hate being in lockdown but I’m absolutely terrified of what will happen if the government relax the rules, of how many more people will get sick and die. I’m scared out of my mind that someone I love will catch it. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure I’m not the only one with such fears. So please, please be careful. For all of us.