ME/CFS Research: Photo Diary (Pre Lockdown and During Lockdown)

Not long ago, I volunteered for a research study into ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and part of it involved keeping a photo diary as a visual representation for how my life is affected by my CFS. Obviously my life before the pandemic and my life now are quite different and so the researcher asked me to include pre-pandemic photos as well, to ensure that both experiences were recorded for the study. The collection of photos (and descriptions) I sent her was very long but I thought I’d do an abridged version to post here because it was a really interesting exercise.

(It’s worth noting that this was put together before I started back at university, hence why there aren’t any current references to classes or assignments.)


PRE-LOCKDOWN

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1. During my BA, I frequently took naps in quiet corners of my university between classes and then at my best friend’s flat when he moved onto the same street as the university. I found the commuting exhausting and the classes were long (some of them three hours) and took a lot of concentration. By the end of the semester, I was often really struggling to wake up to go back for the next class. A few times, I slept straight through both my alarm and my class. Fortunately that only happened a couple of times!

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2. I’m currently doing a Masters Degree in songwriting part time and pre-lockdown, I’d go up to London usually once or twice a week for lectures, workshops, and cowriting sessions. This is an example of one of the assignments we had during the first module, which was called Creative Process.

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3. Because living alone would be too much for me – I wouldn’t have the energy to look after myself, let alone do anything more – I commute to university (pre-pandemic anyway), involving lots of underground travel and multiple train journeys a week, something that I find exhausting. This is one of the reasons I chose to do my Masters part time because it reduced the amount of travelling and therefore allowed me to spend more energy on the course/work rather than on travelling.

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4. At the end of any day that involves hard work or anxiety, I’m utterly exhausted and usually end up horizontal on the sofa or going to bed as soon as I get home from wherever I am. In this instance, I’d just done the assessment presentation for the first module of my Masters – which I’d been incredibly anxious about – and was completely exhausted. Plus the day had involved practicing it in the morning as well as travelling to London and back. I was so tired that I could barely stay awake long enough to eat dinner before going to bed.

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5. I spent most of my days out of uni on the sofa, working on music, my mental health blog, or catching up with my diary, a favourite movie or TV show on in the background because I work better with background noise. I’m usually joined by a cat or two.

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6. As a singersongwriter, I try to perform as often as I can, both in terms of opportunity and having the energy (I once played three gigs in three days after which I could barely function for over a week because I’d just used up so much physical, mental, and emotional energy). That’s not a common problem – managing my energy around the amount of gigs – as there aren’t a huge number of opportunities with so many aspiring singers in the two cities I perform in, London and Brighton. I love performing. It’s the place I most feel myself, especially if I’m singing songs that I’ve written. I don’t feel any fatigue while I’m performing – I’m feeling so much joy that it’s like I’m flying – and I don’t feel any fatigue until the adrenaline wears off, anywhere between thirty minutes and several hours later.

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7. Since getting an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, I’ve been able to get access to disabled seats at concerts, which does (in certain ways) improve my concert experience. It can be more stressful and it can make no difference at all but at the very least, it makes me feel better. I am in the disabled section and therefore no one can judge me or think that I don’t deserve to be at the show because I’m not dancing around, not ‘enjoying myself enough.’ That makes me feel more able to sit as I need to, which does make the concert experience easier on me and my body. Having said that, I’m not always so sensible out of sheer enthusiasm.

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8. Before the pandemic, my best friend, Richard, and I had almost weekly writing and production sessions. My current EP was made almost entirely by the two of us in various rooms in the various places we’ve lived in over the last few years. These sessions are so fun and invigorating and even when it’s a struggle to find the right words or get the production to sound exactly how I want it to sound, it always feels right. I often feel very drained afterwards because it involves a lot of concentration and communication and we often work for four hours or more at a time. We have had sessions that last all day where I’m barely coherent by the end.

SINCE LOCKDOWN

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1. We have five cats in the house and I’ve been spending a lot of time with them. They’ve always been really good for my anxiety – probably because they are so mindful and live so fully in the moment – but they’ve been an extra comfort during these stressful times. I always try to get a good cuddle in the evenings since I get particularly anxious before bed because I’ve been sleeping so badly and having lots of nightmares during lockdown.

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2. I generally drink at least two Red Bulls a day to keep myself awake and somewhat alert, although I don’t think they work as well as they used to. I’m sleepy all the time, but whether that’s from the CFS or the side effects of my anti-depressants or both, I don’t know. I hate feeling like I need to drink it and I worry about the effects on my health but it’s currently the only way I can stay awake for at least most of the day. My Mum and I are investigating other options, or we were until the pandemic brought everything to halt. We haven’t given up though.

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3. This is my usual day-to-day view at the moment. I have a desk designed for bed or sofa use so that I can work from the sofa, which is more comfortable for me than working at my desk since I’ve been have problems with pain during lockdown (I’ve been referred to various hospital departments but I’m still waiting for the appointments). I’m usually working on my laptop – on my mental health blog, on my diary, on music stuff, etc – and there’s usually a cat draped over me.

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4. I usually have the TV on in the background because I seem to be more productive with familiar background noise, like a familiar TV show or movie. But I’ve also been watching new things during lockdown, both to escape from all of the stress around the pandemic but also as inspiration for my music as not much is happening in my personal life to draw from for songs. This is the very last episode of Agents of Shield, my favourite TV show and I was hugely sad to see it end although the ending was as perfect as the end of something you love can be.

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5. Since face-to-face writing sessions aren’t safe at this current time, I’ve been doing all of my writing sessions via Zoom. I’m currently doing about two a week, mostly with my writing partner, Richard. We alternate sessions: one on my songs and then one on his songs and so on. It’s harder work and not quite as fun or productive as a normal pre-pandemic session (who would’ve thought that not being able to point at something would trip up the creative process?) but it allows us to keep creating, which I’m grateful for. I’m always careful not to plan anything too difficult afterwards because these sessions are really draining and after about four hours, my ability to concentrate starts to fade.

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6. I’ve been playing a lot of piano during lockdown. It distracts me from all that’s going on, I want to improve my skills, and I just genuinely love playing, especially in the lower octaves. I find them very soothing. I can play for hours without noticing the passing time; it’s lovely. Playing and singing for hours is, of course, tiring but it’s worth it because I get so much enjoyment out of it.

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7. Because of my fatigue, I spend a lot of time on the sofa, which can get boring and frustrating, but it’s not so bad when I have my Mum (she’s self-employed, primarily working from home – especially now) and the cats around.

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8. Most days consist of sitting on the sofa, working on my laptop. I’m writing a lot of posts for my mental health blog at the moment, preparing for when university starts again and I have less time to write. My Mum often does emails similarly, keeping me company even if we aren’t actively engaging with each other.


So that’s my condensed photo diary for the study. There are, of course, other areas of my life and other areas of my life that my CFS affects, like food and exercise but I don’t have any photos relating to those. For example, swimming is my main form of exercise but pre-pandemic I wouldn’t take my phone further than the locker room and since lockdown began, I’ve been struggling to find a way to swim that feels safe. I may have found one but I’m trying not to get too excited: I’ve missed it so much and I’m so desperate to get back to it, for my physical health, my mental health, and my relationship with my body. I was also reluctant to include other people; my exception was Richard because our work and social media presence are so intertwined. So there are obviously gaps but I tried my best to give an overview. Hopefully it will be a useful contribution to the research.

Reducing and Coming Off Pregabalin

Months and months ago, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist and we reviewed the medications I was taking and how I was faring mentally. There was a lot to discuss but we spent a significant amount of time talking about how affected my life is by the sleepiness I experience, as well as the high levels of anxiety I’d been experiencing despite taking the Pregabalin. The result of this conversation was the decision to reduce and eventually stop taking the Pregabalin as it didn’t seem to be helping.

The reduction ended up being pretty uneven, without any particular structure. That was mainly due to the decision to take my time and take less as I felt able to; I didn’t make any alterations during my assessment period at university, for example, as I figured I had enough to cope with. But there were also periods when I was so preoccupied that I simply forgot that I was in the process of reducing it and only lowered the dose when I remembered. Fortunately it wasn’t as traumatic a transition as some of them have been.


150mg —> 100mg

Dropping from 150mg to 100mg, I noticed fairly quickly that my levels of anxiety were going down. At the very least, I had fewer periods of the paralysing, suffocating anxiety that short-circuit my brain, killing my ability to do anything at all. I also started to have more periods of general okay-ness. I wouldn’t quite describe my mood as good, but it definitely moving in a more positive direction than it had for a long time.

I was experiencing specific anxiety around the spread of Covid-19 but I figured that was normal for most people, especially those who already suffer from higher levels of anxiety or anxiety disorders. My as-needed prescription for Diazepam was helpful when it came to managing that, as well as taking precautionary measures.


100mg —> 50mg

I immediately suffered from side effects after this change. I had almost migraine level headaches that I could only manage by lying in bed in my darkened room. They remained at that intensity for several days before fading to a dull throbbing that painkillers took care of for the most part. I also had trouble keeping food in my system; I don’t think I need to go into any further detail on that.

I didn’t feel any different once the side effects passed but after a while, my Mum commented that I seemed less sleepy. I wasn’t convinced but kept an open mind and eventually I did think that I wasn’t feeling quite as drowsy. Part of that was down to the fact that I was drinking less Red Bull than I had been. That seemed to prove that I was needing less caffeine to function and was therefore feeling less sleepy.


50mg —> 0g

Again, I felt the side effects straight away. I had the same headaches although fewer of them and my digestive system also struggled. But with this reduction, I was also nauseous on and off for days and constantly shaky. It was very unpleasant and still hasn’t faded completely, even though I’ve been Pregabalin free for a couple of weeks. But maybe that’s been underneath the Pregabalin all along. I don’t know.

Aside from the side effects, my ability to sleep well disappeared overnight. I can’t be sure that it’s connected but it did start happening around the same time so I think it’s important to include here. I either wasn’t sleeping or having vivid nightmares that left me feeling disturbed and unsettled throughout the next day. I’ve read that this has been a common complaint during the pandemic so I’m thinking that it’s more to do with that than the Pregabalin however, it did start just as I finally stopped taking said medication. It seems unlikely that there’s no link at all.


Now, a few weeks later, I think it’s safe to assume that I’m no longer being affected by the Pregabalin or any withdrawal symptoms. Having said that I am still pretty sleepy and drinking at least one can of Red Bull a day, usually two. I still feel pretty weak and shaky, especially if I have to stand up or exert myself for more than about fifteen minutes. I’m also still sleeping badly with nightmares almost every night. It’s pretty gruelling.

I’m continuing to review the medication situation with my psychiatrist – although it is more difficult while we can’t have face to face appointments – and there are multiple options to think about. I haven’t decided what to do yet. We’re also continuing to investigate physical causes for my fatigue, although that has been put on hold by the lockdown. The restrictions are loosening but I’m not sure what that means for this situation. So, for now, all I can do is research and hope to make the right decisions when the time comes.

Grateful 2019

This year has been a weird year, something I don’t really want to get into until I do my end of year review. But it has been a weird year and with all the medication changes and mental health issues, it’s only the last three months that are really clear in my memory. I’m very aware of being grateful – there’s so much to be grateful for – but having had such a fuzzy brain, I feel sure that I’m forgetting things, something that’s causing me a lot of anxiety. Pieces of the year are just missing from my memory, whether blurry or plain misfiled, and so I worry that there are moments in there that I should and would be grateful for if only I could get a grasp on them. But I can’t. So this is the best I can do. Please forgive me if I’m leaving things out.

My Mum – I always list (or shout out) my Mum because she is the person that I am most, most grateful for. Being the person I am with the disabilities I have, I couldn’t survive in any way without her and for that, for her presence, I am so grateful. She goes above and beyond to help me through the bad days and achieve on the good days and I’m just in awe of her. She is the most caring person I know.

Richard (my best friend and writing partner) – During the first part of the year, Richard and I planned an EP that we were both so, so excited about. And then suddenly, overnight it felt like, that excitement disappeared for me. It was replaced by paralysing anxiety, so bad that I couldn’t even talk about the project. It was awful. But we got through it and the EP – Honest – is now slowly being released, all of which is largely because of Richard, both practically and emotionally. And that’s just our working relationship. He’s always there to text me shitty jokes, to help me write songs when I’m banging my head against the wall, to eat sweets and watch The Good Place with. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

My Family and Friends – I often give a specific shout out to Mum and Richard because they seem to be the ones who most commonly see and help me with my bad days and my anxieties but the rest of my family have also been amazing this year. They’ve always been there when I’ve needed them. I haven’t seen many of my friends as much as I would’ve liked to this year. Between the depression, the trying of different drugs, and starting the Masters, it’s been a messy and complicated year that I will write about more in my end of year review. Hopefully I’ll get to see them more next year.

The animals in my life – We started the year with our dog, Lucky, and three cats, Lucy and her kittens, Mouse and Tiger. We’d dabbled with the idea of Mouse having kittens, just to do the kittens experience one more time, but just as I changed my mind – it was too much change and I needed everything to stay the same – we came home and Mouse was having kittens, despite the vet telling us the week before that she wasn’t pregnant. And now we have two kittens in the house, two black furballs called Sooty and Sweep. They’re gorgeous and them, plus the rest of the animals, have really helped me with my anxiety (which has been overwhelming) over the last three months and that has been so, so important.

My Masters Degree group – Starting a new course or a new anything is always scary and for me, the scariest part tends to be the new people. Fortunately, I’m doing my Masters course at the same uni I did my BA so that was really the only new thing. But I got really lucky: I ended up in a really small group and they’re all really lovely people. It feels like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well and we’re all so supportive of each other. The groups are going to change somewhat after Christmas but it became a really safe environment, creatively and personally, and I’ll really miss it. I know I’ll still see them and our friendships won’t suddenly end but I’ll miss our little pocket in space and time.

My benefits being renewed – Given how scary the political climate in the UK has become and continues to become, I am so, so grateful that my benefits were renewed before the election and will last until just before the next election, regardless of what happens in the next few years. That was such a relief to learn. I don’t know what will happen after that but for now, I feel like I can breathe a little bit easier.

Red Bull – The major side effect of my current medication is this overwhelming sleepiness. When I told my psychiatrist about it, he said that it should wear off but that it could take months. I’d been drinking Red Bull to help me stay awake and help me concentrate; we discussed the fact that it’s not massively healthy but it’s his opinion that the sleepiness will wear off, hopefully within a few months and then I can give up my Red Bull habit. So we’re keeping an eye on it and in the meantime, Red Bull is my best friend.

Fanfiction – In times of great anxiety, I’ve reverted to a major hobby of my early teenage years. I read stories from every film and TV show I loved and wrote reams of the stuff. I’m not writing it this time around but reading it and getting lost in new stories from familiar worlds has been a very effective calming strategy. It’s made me feel safe. And it’s kept my creativity (always stifled by my anxiety) burning low, in the background, for when I’m ready for it.

His Dark Materials – I have been in love with this show from the first episode. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by and excited about a TV show currently airing (I’ve fallen in love with shows after they’ve ended, for example). Daphne Keen is an incredible Lyra and Ruth Wilson blows me away every episode as Mrs Coulter. The sets, the CGI, the characters’ relationships with their daemons, the complexity of the characters, even the introduction sequence are absolutely extraordinary. I’m so gutted that the series is over but I can’t wait for the next one.

Taylor Swift – I’m pretty sure I’ve always mentioned Taylor Swift but I probably always will. Her songwriting is incredible, she’s one of the hardest working people in the music industry, she’s generous, she’s intelligent, and she’s exceptionally kind. She’s one of my favourite singersongwriters and her recent album, Lover, is so, so good: one of my favourite albums of the year, possibly one of my favourite albums ever. It’s beautiful and vulnerable and special. She’s also been saying some very smart and very important things during her recent press cycle:

  • “I’m a woman, I’m not a coat hanger. I need to feel healthy in my life and I need to take pleasure in food and I need to not use my body as an exercise of control when I feel out of control in my life.”
  • “Do not let anything stop you from making art. Just makes things. Do not get so caught up in this that it stops you from making art or if you need to, make art about this. But never stop making things.”
  • “You’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.”
  • “If someone’s gonna take your hand, they’d better take your hand, scars and all.”
  • “I guess what I’m trying to say is that all any of the artists, or really anyone in this room wants, is to create something that will last, whatever it is in life. And the fact that this is an award that celebrates a decade of hard work, of art, and of fun and memories, all that matters to me is the memories that I had with you, the fans, over the years. We’ve had fun, incredible, exhilarating, extraordinary times together, and may it continue! Thank you for being the reason why I am on this stage, from the first day of my career until tonight.”
  • “I think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”

And lastly, she’s fearlessly standing up for artists and their right to own their music. It’s a big, hard fight but she’s using her platform and her power in the industry (“as your resident loud person”) to try and change that. Of course, she’s personally affected by it but she could handle it in private. Except she’s not: she’s speaking out and working to create change. And as a new artist, I really appreciate that she’s trying to make the industry I’m entering fairer and less discriminatory.

I think I’ll stop there. I’ve got my Christmas wrapping to do and a Christmas tree to guard from some very inquisitive cats. I hope you all have a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas where you feel as special and beautiful as you are.

EDIT: Honourable mentions to Nashville and the lovely people there, Agents of Shield, and fairy lights. But if I keep going here, we’ll be here until 2020.