Mental Health, Health, and Life Update (September 2021)

And that’s that. I’ve finished the final module of my Masters and therefore the Masters itself. I don’t know what my grade is for the module or for the whole course yet but frankly, I’ve got a lot to process before I can even really think about the grades and graduation.

Looking back at a similar post before the module started, I was excited about the project but nervous about my health, mental and physical, and whether it would prevent me from doing everything I needed to do, from being able to enjoy the process. And those were valid concerns so I thought, having written a post about how I was feeling before the module started, I’d write another now that it’s ended – like bookends.


A lot has happened since the beginning of May.

Over the last four months, I’ve spent almost every day working on my final project, researching, writing songs, and working on the production of an album. It’s been incredibly intense and now that it’s all done, I’m utterly exhausted, both mind and body. And while, for the most part, I loved it, it’s also a relief to be free of some of the anxiety around it (I’m still struggling with my anxiety around the grade). Having said that, I feel strangely lost and untethered now that I don’t have this big thing to focus on. I know that I need a break but I am looking forward to the next project, whatever that may be. I’m always happier when I’m doing things.

My mental health was pretty good for most of the module, surprisingly so. By my standards at least. I think that the constant creating and the creating of stuff I’m proud of really helped. I had one particularly bad episode of depression, plus a handful of smaller ones, and my anxiety was pretty constant but that’s normal for me. It got very bad in the last month, which was hard to manage – trying not to let it destabilise me was a bit of a battle in itself. It hasn’t quite faded yet. For various reasons, I didn’t have any access to my therapist, which was an unforeseen difficulty and that made things a lot harder than I’d expected them to be.

I also really struggled with my concentration. I’m still not getting any support for my ADHD (something that I hope will change soon but I’m still so frustrated that I couldn’t get any help with it during my Masters) so staying focussed on my project, on my research, took all of my energy. It was exhausting. I felt like my concentration was so, so fragile that a single moment of distraction would break it and then it would be impossible or would take days or even weeks to get back. So I couldn’t stop. Not for anything. That was very stressful and resulted in many, many long days. Sometimes I’d work all day without moving (not healthy, I know) and end up going to bed very late. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep because my thoughts were racing. So it did a number on my sleep schedule too; I’m surprised I’m not nocturnal at this point.

That, plus the general fatigue I deal with day to day, meant I was tired all of the time. I’ve drunk an obscene amount of Red Bull (my antidepressants make me really drowsy, just to make things even more difficult, although I may be changing medications soon, which hopefully won’t have the same side effects) – I am beyond sick of the taste of it. But it got me through and I’m grateful for that. I will however be grateful to never drink it again (hopefully). And I’m really looking forward to getting both some proper sleep and some proper rest now that my work is done.

I also mentioned back in June that I’d been having migraines that seemed to be being caused by an abscess in one of my teeth. Since then, I’ve been on antibiotics twice, continued to have migraines, and am still waiting to have the tooth removed, a decision that was made at the appointment in June. Given how much disruption it was causing though, I did get extenuating circumstances which allowed me some extra time (although it wasn’t really extra since it was making up for time lost to a medical problem) to cope with those problems. It’s not bothering me presently which is a relief but I’m more than ready for them to take the tooth out, just so that they’re not even problems I have to think about.

While I managed to keep swimming twice a week – a routine I’ve been trying to maintain to create a solid foundation for my crappy joints – I was in almost constant pain throughout the module. At times, my right knee was so painful that I couldn’t walk on it and my back has been consistently painful; my Mum, who used to be a massage therapist, said it felt like trying to massage rocks and now that it’s all over and I’m trying to relax, the muscles feel like their made of concrete. Which is about as pleasant as it sounds. I’ve also had great trouble with my hands and wrists what with all the typing I’ve been doing. So, all in all, I’ve been a bit of a mess. I haven’t had any support for this – the hEDS – either; I’ve been waiting for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy since December 2020 officially and May 2020 unofficially. I’ve just had to try and get by on various painkillers, none of which have been all that effective.

Despite working practically non-stop, I got everything for my project done just in time for my final presentation. My assessors were positive, which I’m trying to hold on to in the wake of my anxiety around the final grade. I’ve been really trying not to attach my self worth to my grades (something I’ve always really struggled with), or at least, lessen the power my grades have over me but I can’t help the fact that I really want to do well. I’ve worked so hard – with so many obstacles – and the idea that that still wasn’t enough to get a Distinction would be upsetting. I’d get over it but it would still be upsetting. I never want someone thinking, “Oh, she mustn’t have worked hard enough.” Or worse: I never want to think, “Oh, I would’ve gotten a distinction if I wasn’t autistic or had ADHD or whatever, thoughts left over from my late diagnoses and the resulting difficulty I have in setting standards and goals for myself (more on that in another post). This anxiety isn’t helped by the fact that I keep thinking of things that I should’ve included in my presentation. My brain clearly hasn’t quite processed that the module is over.

And then, just when I thought I could relax, the world tipped under my feet. The next morning, my Mum told me that my Granny had died a few days earlier. She was ninety-three. Having barely started to process the end of my two year Masters and intense final project, this news was just too much for my brain. A few days on, I feel like I’m bouncing pretty erratically between two states, the first being this weird bubble where nothing can touch me and the second being, ‘if I stop thinking or talking or moving for even a second, I’m going to completely fall apart.’ It’s surreal and exhausting and sad. I’d like to write a piece about her at some point because she was such an incredible woman but I can’t really write more than this right now but it felt really important to at least acknowledge what’s happened because it’s so big and so important.


I don’t think there’s anything else to say right now. I’ve barely been able to wrap my head around this last week: my final presentation, the ending of the Masters, Granny, and everything that’s ahead given all of these things. It’s a lot to take in; I’m exhausted. I’m just taking it day by day.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Back in October 2020, I had a long overdue blood test. I think it was actually supposed to be the test that told us whether I’d absorbed and responded properly to the iron infusion I’d had in June 2019 but with starting the Masters and then the pandemic, it had only just become possible.

Going out and going to the Doctors’ Surgery did cause me a lot of anxiety – I’m still struggling with going out and with feeling very vulnerable when I’m out – but the appointment felt very safe and very efficient. I was probably in and out in less than ten minutes. About a week later, we got the results back and my iron was within the normal range. So all good there. However, my Vitamin D levels were seriously low, so low that they wanted to take immediate action. I was prescribed Colecalciferol, a prescription Vitamin D supplement, and instructed to take one a day for ten weeks.

It wasn’t surprising to hear that my vitamin D was low. It’s not uncommon for autistic individuals to have low vitamin D levels and with the pandemic and lockdown, I was staying inside a lot more and therefore not getting as much sunlight as usual, let alone the sunlight I needed. So I wasn’t shocked. I was pretty wary about taking supplements though: my last attempt with supplements had rendered the anti-depressants I was taking at the time completely ineffective, leaving me in a deep, dark hole of depression. Even though I stopped taking the supplements immediately, the anti-depressants never worked again. So I was concerned that something similar might happen again and I’d lose the only consistent (and I use that word loosely) anti-depressant I had in my toolbox. But my doctor explained just how important it was to get my vitamin D up and despite my anxiety, I committed to taking them.


For the first three weeks, I didn’t feel any different. My sleep was as sporadic as ever and I was constantly tired, something that is very much linked with my anti-depressant medication but is also a symptom of a vitamin D deficiency. Week four passed and I still didn’t feel any change but my Mum felt that there had been a slight shift, in my day to day behaviour and my engagement in whatever I was doing. She couldn’t quantify or qualify it any more than that but she did have a feeling that something was slightly different. I was reluctant to believe her, not feeling it myself.

Weeks five and six were tough: I was constantly exhausted and incredibly depressed, although it wasn’t always noticeable, covered up by anxiety-induced busyness. I was sleeping a lot but I was still tired but by the end of that sixth week, I was starting to wonder if I felt different. It’s just so freaking difficult to tell when the change you’re watching out for is so gradual. I wasn’t sure, just cautiously optimistic.

I’d been instructed to go back to the doctors’ surgery for another blood test between four and six weeks to see how I was responding to the supplement. It was closer to six weeks given some difficulty getting an appointment but when it finally happened, it was quick and efficient, just like the first appointment.

During what was the seventh week of this period, I was still tired and sleepy but again, I was starting to think that it wasn’t quite as bad as it had been. It wasn’t drastically better but I did feel a slight – intangible, I guess – difference. But week eight gave me a real sign that things were changing. I was still fatigued easily, still had days where I was really sleepy but I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t needing to drink as much Red Bull as I had been. Ever since I started this round of anti-depressants, I’ve been relying on Red Bull to keep me awake during the day and when the vitamin D first showed up as  problem, I was probably drinking three a day – more when I was commuting to university (and yes, I’m aware that this isn’t healthy and have a plan with my psychiatrist to address it, although that has been derailed somewhat by the pandemic). But during week eight, I realised that I was getting through the day on one, sometimes less. Still not super healthy, yes, but a really good step in the right direction. And if I wasn’t feeling like I needed them as much to stay awake, then I had to assume that my energy levels were improving, to some degree at least.

When the blood test results came back, they showed that my vitamin D levels were back within the normal range but still pretty low so my doctor wrote me a new prescription for the rest of the winter with potential for extending it throughout the duration of the pandemic. I’m grateful for that; it’s one worry off my mind at least.


My energy levels still aren’t great. But getting my vitamin D levels under control was never going to be ‘the fix.’ Fatigue is a constant in my life, between my anti-depressants, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and other health (physical and mental) problems. But that doesn’t mean I can’t improve my situation. Getting my vitamin D levels back up has helped, hopefully hydrotherapy will help, perhaps the next anti-depressant won’t have such bad side effects (whenever I have time to try a new one – mid-Masters isn’t exactly the perfect time, especially having just reached the modules I’ve been most excited for). Sometimes I need to rage and cry about the pretty constant tiredness, but most of the time I can look forward and focus on the next thing that could help.

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.