The First Semester of my Masters Degree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Finally Read Reasons To Stay Alive By Matt Haig

So, I was having a particularly difficult day and I found myself online, reading articles about depression and looking for insight. I even found myself googling ‘reasons to keep going,’ not in a suicidal way but because I was in the midst of all these overwhelmingly huge, complicated, and awful feelings and I felt like I needed some clarity, a straight answer to a very big question. You probably won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t find one but I realised that I was essentially searching the title of the book that was sitting on my bedside table: Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I’ve had it on my to-read list for months but I haven’t had the concentration or motivation to actually read for about a year. Maybe I was finally desperate enough that I was able to push through that. Maybe it was influenced by my recent change in medication. Who knows. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything affects everything.

I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about this book. There was so much hype around it and everyone I know who’s read it has recommended it to me. I expected to love it but like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh god, she’s going to criticise the crap out of this and I don’t wanna know,” please give me a chance and hang in there a little bit longer. These are just my thoughts, good and bad and different. Hopefully I’ll have something useful to add to the discussion around the book.

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The first thing is that I love Matt Haig’s writing. I find it easy and natural to read but also powerful and evocative. And there were parts that made me laugh; I found the continuing comparisons to having various body parts on fire very amusing. He’s a very engaging writer. I like the way he talks about depression, frank but empathetic. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • “There’s no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are.”
  • “If your leg is on fire, it is not selfish to concentrate on the pain, or the fear of the flames. So it is with anxiety. People with mental illnesses aren’t wrapped up in themselves because they are intrinsically more selfish than other people. Of course not. They are just feeling things that can’t be ignored.
  • “The main thing is the intensity of it. It does not fit within the normal spectrum of emotions. When you are in it, you are really in it.”
  • “Depression can be exacerbated by things being all right externally, because the gulf between what you are feeling and what you are expected to feel becomes larger.”
  • “People say, ‘take it one day at a time.’ But, I used to think to myself, that is all right for them to say. Days are mountains. A week was a trek across the Himalayas. You see, people say that time is relative, but it really bloody is.”
  • “Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.”
  • “I stared at a cherry tree and felt flat. Depression, without the anxiety. Just a total, desperate flatness.”

I think that descriptions like these would be particularly helpful to those who haven’t actually experienced depression but are trying to understand what it’s like for someone they know or someone they love.

And in a similar vein, I think he describes the seriousness of depression incredibly well: “Depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other disease.” We all talk a lot about how serious depression is but it’s not often that someone can so succinctly get the message across.

This, I think, is my favourite quote from the book:

“Most of the time we do not feel the near-infinite nature of our physical selves. We simplify by thinking about ourselves in terms of our larger pieces. Arms, legs, feet, hands, torso, head. flesh, bones. A similar thing happens with our minds. In order to cope with living, they simplify themselves. They concentrate on one thing at a time. But depression is a kind of quantum physics of thought and emotion. It reveals what is normally hidden. It unravels you, and everything you have known. It turns out that we are not only made of the universe, of ‘star-stuff’ to borrow Carl Sagan’s phrase, but we are as vast and complicated as it too. The evolutionary psychologists might be right. We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.”

I’ve described depression as having a black whole in my chest and this quote reminds me of that. When I’m deeply depressed, it feels like ‘a whole universe’s worth of darkness.’ It does. It’s that strong and overwhelming.

I also like the format of the book. Having not done much reading (because depression – and quite possibly my medication – dulled all the parts of me that made reading a book possible or enjoyable), reading a whole book was a very daunting challenge so having short, succinct chapters made it feel much more possible. It may well be a good analogy for how we tackle depression: trying to fight it as a huge, indistinct is such a difficult, exhausting task. Breaking it down into manageable steps seems like a better idea.

Now, onto the more difficult stuff. I have to say, I found the book pretty upsetting. There were several major differences in our experiences of depression and while I know, of course, that this is his experience of depression only that he’s writing about (which is absolutely his right), I ended up feeling like we have struggled with entirely different illnesses. That, I think, made it much harder to connect to the book. I mean, I’ve just talked about how much I liked his descriptions of depression and I do but while we have both really FELT depression, our actual experiences and the circumstances around having depression are completely different. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. Let me give you the analogy of dog breeds: they’re all essentially dogs – they all have dog DNA – but they appear in hundreds of different ways. That’s how this feels to me. We’ve both had the DNA of depression, but where his is bulldog, mine is a German Shephard (I’m not gonna lie – trying to find two different breeds of dog that are very different without belittling either of our experiences by comparing one of them to a dachshund or a Chihuahua was a challenge).

The biggest thing for me was that I felt like there was this inherent implication that, after being depressed, you will never be that low again. Because you lived through it, because you survived it, or whatever, that you have this new perspective on the world that will somehow protect you from depression. It’s a belief that many people have but for me that is just not true. Each time I think I’ve reached the lowest point I can possibly survive, there’s always more. There’s always worse.

On a similar theme, he references another common idea, that feeling the good stuff is worth feeling the bad stuff: “You know, before the age of twenty four I hadn’t known how bad things could feel, but I hadn’t realised how good they could feel either. That shell might be protecting you, but it’s also stopping you feeling the full force of that good stuff.” Let’s say that’s true. What does that matter if the bad to the good have odds like 364 to 1? Is it worth it? I’m not sure. In my experience, the bad stuff is so much more devastating than the good is good. I’m not attributing this idea to Matt specifically but I feel like it’s worth commenting on. This idea equates the strength of good and bad emotions (something that is practically impossible), and suggests that it’s acceptable (and even expected) to feel really terrible, simply because you’ve had some good moments. I’m just really wary of anything that justifies struggle and trauma.

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About halfway through the book, he talks about how he overcame his separation anxiety when his partner needed him to, because she had to go to the hospital with her sick mother and someone had to be at the house. I found that really hard to read, because a lot of the time, for a lot of people, that’s not the case. For me, that’s not the case. Anxiety, depression, mental illness… they don’t go away just because you need them to. I wish they did and, if I’m honest, it just made me feel more pathetic. I can’t help thinking that it would’ve been more helpful if he’d mentioned some of the times it hadn’t been like that and then said something like, “I don’t know why it was different this time.” Just to represent that problem, to give it context. I mean, I’m making an assumption that there were moments where he couldn’t overcome his anxieties but I think it’s pretty safe to say of anyone who’s struggled with severe anxiety for an extended period of time.

The chapter ends with, “needless to say, they came back,” in reference to his paralyzing anxiety that something would happen to his partner and her parents while not in his sight. This is something that I struggle with on a daily basis but my fears not coming true hasn’t ever dulled those fears. Instead I feel like my time – my run of good luck – is running out. You can only throw heads so many times, you can only be lucky so many times before the inevitable bad thing happens. In my experience, anxiety isn’t rational and can’t be managed as if it is.

He goes on to say, “I had reasons to force myself to be strong…” which, I have to say, irritated me. We know that depression and anxiety and so on are illnesses and are therefore out of our control. It’s not logical. You can’t reason with it or simply will yourself out of it. In my experience, my reasons keep me going for a while, get me through what I need to get through, but then I crash, often lower than before. It’s great and important that he found that motivation and I don’t want to take away from that I just don’t think it’s as straightforward as that.

“…To put myself in situations I wouldn’t have put myself in. You need to be uncomfortable.” I hear this expression all the time and I HATE it. I hate it enough to put the word hate in capital letters. I am ALWAYS uncomfortable. I cannot remember the last time I was comfortable in anyway, whether it be emotionally, mentally, or physically. Maybe my ASD makes it impossible to be comfortable. Maybe there’s another explanation. So, how does that fit into this formula? I don’t know the answer. And what if there’s no good in it, no purpose? What if that’s all there is? I don’t know the answers to those questions either.

“People often use the word ‘despite’ in the context of mental illness. So-and-so did such-and-such despite having depression/anxiety/OCD/agoraphobia/what-ever. But sometimes that ‘despite’ should be a ‘because.’ For instance, I write because of depression.” I don’t disagree but I’d like to propose an addition: and. So-and-so did such-and-such and they have depression/anxiety/OCD/agora-phobia/whatever. I have struggled with identity stuff for a long time – probably from my BPD and the late diagnosis of ASD (which obviously does affect everything I do as it is something I was born with) – but I’d like to think that I am not who I am solely because of my mental illnesses. A lot of people say that their experiences with mental illness have made them kinder, more compassionate and thoughtful people and that’s amazing but I don’t think they give themselves enough credit. Everything we become we were always capable of becoming and the circumstances and coincidences that start those chain reactions shouldn’t get all the glory.

Despite the parts of the book that I struggled with, there were parts that really spoke to me. There were several quotes that I related to so strongly that my chest physically hurt when I read them:

  • “The weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. The only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased.”
  • “In a world where possibility is endless, the possibilities for pain and loss and permanent separation are also endless. So fear breeds imagination, and vice versa, on and on and on.”
  • “So, if [the universe] catches you smiling, even fake smiling, then – well, that stuff’s just not allowed and you know it, so here comes ten tons of counterbalance.”
  • “Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, an intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure.”
  • “He was looking at me like I was my former self. How could he not see the difference?”
  • “I was scared of the quiet. I was scared, I suppose, of having to slow down and soften the volume. Scared of having nothing but my own mind to listen to.”
  • “And we are scared of our own crumbling, and the crumbling of others.”
  • “If the stone falls hard enough, the ripples last a lifetime.”
  • “Feeling. That is what it is all about.”

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Ultimately I have mixed feelings about this book. I can see why people love it and why people find it helpful. And I think, had this been my first experience of depression, it would’ve helped me too. I would’ve found it inspiring. But I struggled to connect with it and I found that very upsetting. Maybe it’s my fault for reading it when I did; maybe I was too depressed for anything to help. Maybe, if I’d read it when I wasn’t feeling so completely hopeless, I would’ve had a different experience. Maybe I would’ve felt the differences less and the similarities more. I’ll never know. But regardless, I’m really glad that it’s helped people. Having your struggles and your experiences validated can change everything. As Matt says in the book: “There is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.” That, right there, is why I write this blog.

I hope this was interesting and I hope I’ve managed to represent my emotions about the book (reading it was a very emotional experience), rather than blindly praising it or bluntly criticising it. Despite struggling with the book, I love Matt Haig’s writing and he is one of my favourite people to follow on social media; I have great respect for him. I’m really looking forward to hearing him speak on Tuesday and to reading Notes on a Nervous Planet when it comes out.

Yes, It’s Another Medication Review

In my last session with my psychiatrist, we went over my experience of taking Lithium and decided that it was time to try something else. He actually said that he was impressed I’d held out so long so that’s something to be proud of. I think. I wasn’t trying to be a martyr: I’ve just had so many experiences of people brushing me off that I always feel like I have to have enough evidence to prove that it’s real. Anyway, he prescribed me Lamotrigine and because that can be taken with Lithium, I could switch without having to wait for the Lithium to get out of my system. So that was good. I’m getting increasingly frustrated by this process.

As always, this is just my experience. Please, please don’t ever mess around with your medication without the advice of your medical professional.

WEEK 1

The first week was really tough. I swung sickeningly between hot and cold, had migraine-like headaches, felt nauseous and shaky and very anxious. I also felt the closest thing to depression that I’ve felt in a while. With the hope of the sleeping through the worst of the side effects, I had started out by taking it at night but straight away I found that it was affecting my quality and ability to actually sleep. I had several nights of barely sleeping until I changed to taking it first thing in the morning.

WEEK 2

The main thing in the second week was the extreme fatigue. I slept long hours and found it difficult to wake up in the morning, then I struggled to stay awake but often fell asleep during the day. I was easily overwhelmed and felt anxious most days. The feelings of depression hadn’t dissipated either.

WEEK 3

As prescribed, I increased the dose so there wasn’t much time for the side effects to settle. My sleep was still pretty disrupted. I slept restlessly but woke early and fell asleep during the day. I was still incredibly tired. I had periods of feeling very shaky and dizzy; at one point it was so bad that I couldn’t get out bed until the evening. I was still feeling anxious and depressed and although my concentration and motivation hadn’t been great up to that point, it became practically non-existent.

WEEK 4

Again, I was sleeping a lot but still absolutely exhausted. I was also very anxious even though there didn’t seem to be a cause for it, which of course made the anxiety worse.

WEEK 5

This week was my first week in Nashville so it’s hard to tell what was a result of that and what was a result of the medication. I was more anxious than I have been in months and it got to the point where I was questioning everything, even the things that I’m usually steadfast about. That was very distressing. The jet lag hit me hard and I was constantly exhausted, falling asleep in the middle of the day and still struggling to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime.

WEEK 6

The second week of Nashville was a bit easier. I was still exhausted but the anxiety faded a bit as plans started to work out and produce results. That usually lessens some of the anxiety but there was still more than on a normal day and although I had one evening of feeling on top of the world (playing Song Suffragettes – see my Nashville post), I was still struggling to keep my head above the surface of the depression that felt like it was just waiting to drag me under.

WEEK 7

During this week, I moved house, something I had been long (at the very least) apprehensive about. So, in the days before, I was anxious and unsettled and then the actual move was very difficult. I was almost too anxious to function and on the evening of the day we moved in, I had a meltdown for the first time in months. It was a horrible experience and for days after, I was fragile and shaky and emotional. I barely slept and even though I don’t eat much anyway, I barely ate at all for a few days. And at the end of the week, something – I don’t know what – triggered a new, suffocating wave of depression that really threw me. That was as low as I’ve been for a very, very long time. I was very depressed and kept bursting into tears; I felt like glass filled to the top with water that you only have to nudge slightly before it spills over. The smallest thing – nothing even – made me cry, or start laughing hysterically that then turned into crying. I was miserable and exhausted. In the midst of all that, we increased the dose but I honestly can’t tell what was medication and what was just life.

Week 8

It took a while to get out of that depression, even just a little bit. And then I was back in the vague blankness that has been characteristic of my recent experiences with medication: it’s either anxiety and depression or nothing. There was a point when I thought that would be preferable to the extremes of emotion I’m used to feeling but now I know it isn’t. Feeling is everything; there is nothing worse than apathy. And that’s where I still am.

Another thing that I never even wrote down is that I’ve been experiencing muscle twitches, mostly in my legs. It’s not dramatic and it happens so infrequently that I didn’t even equate it with the medication until it had happened several times. It’s not an issue but I think it’s worth mentioning and something that I was concerned would get worse if we continued to increase the dosage.

But after speaking to my psychiatrist again, we’ve decided to try something new. Lamotrigine hasn’t been terrible but it hasn’t been good enough: my concentration and motivation are still terrible, I’m exhausted, and the anxiety and depression are still significant struggles. It hasn’t made anything worse but it also hasn’t made anything better, which is the point of them. So I’m trying a new medication. I know that Lamotrigine is there if I need to come back to it but I need something to hope for.

And a final note: if you’re struggling with medication, whether it’s your first try or your fiftieth, please don’t give up hope. This process is ridiculously long and complicated but when you find the right one, it’s so worth it. You can be you again but more efficient. And that is potentially it forever. You may never need to try another medication again. So this time – this struggle – is an investment. Try to hold on to that.