Posted on January 9, 2021
So that’s it. The third semester of my Masters is officially completed. As I write this, I have just submitted my assessment work and have a week before the next semester starts (online, due to the current number of COVID cases). I have some reading to do for the next module but before I dive into that, I just want to reflect on the last semester, the ups and downs, and all that I’ve learned.
It began with a great deal of stress, and long before the semester was due to start. At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d said I absolutely didn’t want to do my course online and would defer if that was going to be the case. But as the new semester drew closer, I got more and more anxious. I didn’t want to defer but I also didn’t feel safe commuting to and then through London for two hours of classes a week so, after many hours of talking with my family (and many tears), I decided that the best option was to attend as an online student. It was a sad decision to make because I’ve always loved the group dynamic of my university classes but it just didn’t feel safe or responsible to attend in the way I’d have to.
And then, in the week or so before classes started, there was a great deal of stress around getting the right timetable as an online student: conflicting information, the classes not showing up on my online timetable, and so on. When things were already so stressful (the anxiety about the pandemic aside, I was really nervous about whether or not I was mentally up to doing the module with my mental health so fragile), this just triggered a series of really terrible meltdowns. It was a horrible and exhausting way to start the semester, especially the one I’d always been most anxious about: Musical Language in Songwriting. Music theory has never been a strong area of mine so the idea of experimenting with these concepts was very daunting.
While this was very distressing, I don’t want to point fingers or place blame. These are hugely difficult times and no university – no institution – is perfect, even when the world is running according to what we consider to be normal. So it’s not fair to expect everything to run smoothly. And now that I’m on the other side of the semester, I can only sing the praises of my tutors: over and over, I’ve seen just how dedicated, hardworking, passionate, and supportive they are. There have been bumps in the road, of course, but even with the sheer amount of stress they’re under – and that’s just the stress I’m aware of as a student – I’ve been consistently met with warmth, thoughtfulness, and understanding. And I’m just so beyond grateful for that. I couldn’t have completed this semester without their support.
I wrote about my first week back (here) but to summarise, it was a challenge. My uni were using a blended model of teaching so the lecture was online and the workshop was onsite (but as an online student, I was looped in through the online learning platform). The lectures were straightforward since we were all online, and productive once we got into a rhythm and stopped accidentally interrupting each other. The workshop, however, was more complicated: between not physically being there and only being able to communicate through the tutor’s laptop, plus not being able to see or really hear my course mates, it was very difficult. But I spoke to my tutor after the class and the next workshop was better.
I’d thought we were making progress but then suddenly, between week two and week three, I was moved to a new workshop group, an online group made up of just the online students. That really threw me; the constant uncertainty was doing a real number on my mental health. I was really struggling during this time: my anxiety over the pandemic, the expectations of the course, and being able to do well in the module was incredibly high; I was hugely frustrated with the whole situation; I was feeling overwhelmed by my depression, my low energy levels and side effects of medication… I was constantly in tears, constantly having meltdowns.
But slowly, as things started to settle, my mental state started to settle too. I had a really positive meeting with one of my tutors where he went through the learning outcomes and grading criteria and generally what makes a good assessment portfolio. I’ve found that having a meeting like this early on in the semester both helps me to work on the assignments more effectively and avoids unnecessary anxiety. As I said, I felt really supported throughout this module and I’m so grateful for that, both in terms of the module itself and in terms of the broader picture.
The assignments were challenging and definitely interesting, including a reimagination of a cover, a reimagination of an original song, and a brief that still makes me shudder: a song in an uncommon mode, using both 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, with extended chords and an example of chromaticism (I struggled particularly with this one). We also had to consider the arrangement of each songs and to an extent, the production. The briefs definitely stretched me and prompted some very interesting songs, many of which I absolutely wouldn’t have written if I’d not done the module. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them but I definitely learned a lot from writing them. Having said that, I did spend a lot of time feeling very unsure of myself and the quality of my work, both in terms of whether they were actually good songs and whether they were fulfilling the grading criteria.
About halfway through the semester, my course mates from the year before (those who’d done the Masters full time and completed it in one year rather than two) graduated and I joined them for the online ceremony to celebrate them and their achievements. We were all disappointed not to be able to get together to celebrate properly but hopefully that plan is simply postponed rather than cancelled. They all deserve it and it would be so lovely to see them again.
Six (out of twelve) weeks in, I was exhausted all the time. I was also still struggling with the nerve pain in my hand – the pain that I’ve been experiencing since the middle of the first lockdown – which was only getting worse, making it even more difficult to play instruments. I was still waiting for my rheumatology referral – that didn’t come through until the last week of the semester and even now, they still don’t know what the problem is.
The latter half of the semester was much more focussed on the assessment, at least it was for me. I worked on the songs I’d already written during the module before taking them into class again for more feedback so that I could get them as good as possible for submission (although I did impulsively write a rap that ended up being part of my portfolio). I also worked on the other part of the assessment: a short essay, analysing one of the songs I’d written and how I’d employed different aspects of musical language. I worked as hard as I could, determined to have at least most of the work done by Christmas so that I could have a break of some kind before the next semester started, unlike last year when I had to work straight through the Christmas break.
Despite the meeting early in the semester, I found it very difficult to judge whether I was doing ‘well enough.’ The learning outcomes and grading criteria felt incredibly vague and therefore not at all Autism-friendly, causing me a lot of anxiety. I mean, it’s Masters level and they have to cover all of the different styles of songwriting on the course so I do understand it but as an autistic person, it’s been one of the hardest parts of the course (uncertainty being a common area of difficulty for autistic individuals). I had multiple conversations with my tutors about it and although they noted it, it’s not like they could change them in the middle of the semester. I guess we’ll see if anything changes over time. I did get useful feedback on my songs and essay during those conversations but I still have no idea what to expect grade-wise.
By the end of the semester, I was almost done: I was making final edits to the songs and trying to cut down the word count of my essay. But the last week was hectic to say the least. I had a really lovely last day of classes – both groups I was a part of were so positive and fun to be a part of – and then a final one-on-one session with my tutor for any last feedback before the deadline (the first day after the Christmas break). That was really useful, especially as I was so close to finishing everything. I also had a meeting with my tutor for the next semester, so that I could prepare for it or, at the very least, get my head around what the expectations of the module were. Again, another attempt at reducing unnecessary anxiety, plus it was really nice to see him again; he’s taught me on and off since my first day on the BA (he actually auditioned me for the BA!) and he’s such a great teacher. I feel like he gets me and my approach to songwriting and I’m really excited to have him as a tutor again. And the semester itself ended for me with a meeting on behalf of ICMP where a group of us (students from different courses) spoke about our experience with the university. That felt good; I only ever want to leave things better than I found them and that meeting felt like an opportunity to do that. It’s re-inspired me to keep trying, even if I didn’t really need to be re-inspired.
I had one last session with Richard, sorted out a couple of technical issues with the tracks, and then I spent every day working non-stop. On Christmas Eve, I managed to finish everything. I was done – or had done as much as I could do without endlessly obsessing over every tiny detail – and could have an actual break between semesters. I really needed that and I had a good Christmas, despite everything going on. I wish I could’ve been with more of my family but we all recognised how risky that was. So we had a truly bizarre and hilarious Christmas Quiz and Zoom call and then dinner within our bubbles; it wasn’t perfect but I think we truly made the most of it and I really enjoyed it, even if there were difficult moments.
After a pretty restful break, I logged onto the student gateway to upload all of my work on New Year’s Day, several days before the deadline. But, for some unknown reason, the pages weren’t set up in a way that allowed us to upload the work required for the assessment. I had multiple meltdowns over it and after a handful of emails to various tutors, I was given an alternate way to submit. I shouldn’t really be surprised: this has happened multiple times and with the deadlines always on the first day back, there’s usually no one to contact for help. I was lucky to have had a tutor respond. Fortunately, it did get fixed on the morning of the deadline and we were all able (and asked) to submit. They usually fix it in time but it’s very stressful every time.
As I’ve already said, I’d been dreading this module but I ended up enjoying it a lot than I’d expected. It was still stressful but the tutors were incredibly supportive and my course mates were engaged and encouraging. It felt safe to bring in whatever I’d written, even if I really wasn’t sure about it (the rap, for example). It is hard being part time though, just as much this year as it was last year: for me at least, I’ve always felt ‘other’ to a certain degree, excluded (unintentionally) from the main group, the full-timers. Rather than being part of two years worth of Masters students, I’ve just felt not quite a part of either. It’s hard to explain but I’ve just never felt truly part of the course, like I’m always missing out on something because I’m only there (or ‘there’) half of the time. Does that make sense? I’m not even sure. Being part time has definitely been better for my mental health but it has made things more complex socially.
But ultimately, the module has been a good experience (although I’m sure my perspective on it will be affected to a certain degree by the grade I get). I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, or the skill that has developed the most, is how my decisions serve the song I’m writing; it’s made me much more conscious of my choices and it made me realise how much I already knew about the techniques we were using but just using them instinctively rather than deliberately. So that was surprising but it has opened up doors in my songwriting.
It was also exciting to start looking ahead to the next two modules: we had extracurricular sessions where students from last year presented their final projects to give us an idea of what that last module would be like. It was reassuring because it made the whole thing feel much more clear and less like a huge, intangible, overwhelming pile of work. Now it feels like an exciting challenge and I can’t wait to get started, regardless of the stress and anxiety involved.
Category: anxiety, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, covid-19 pandemic, holidays, meltdowns, mental health, music, university Tagged: anxiety, arrangement, asd, assessment, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic adult, autistic meltdown, autistic student, cfs, christmas, christmas break, christmas holiday, chronic fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, coronavirus, covid-19, depression, essay, essay writing, fatigue, graduation, graduation ceremony, masters, masters degree, masters degree in songwriting, masters degree year two, masters part time, meltdown, meltdowns, mental health, mental illness, music language in songwriting, music theory, musical arrangement, musical language, online classes, online learning, online university, pandemic, pandemic 2020, pandemic anxiety, part time masters student, part time student, songwriting, stress, tutor, tutors, university
Posted on August 15, 2020
It hasn’t been that long since my last week-in-my-life post but life is so different week to week at the moment that I thought I’d do another one once I started to see how the week was turning out. I thought, if anything, it would be interesting to be able to look back and see how different different periods of time could be during this pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
The week in this post started on Monday 20th July and ended on Sunday 26th July.
I got up around eight, determined to be productive: do admin, send emails, work on blog posts, and so on. But I quickly discovered that the internet was down for the whole street and so I had to adjust my plans. I went back to my photo library and managed to finish sorting out my photo library: I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this but when I loaded my photo library onto my new laptop, there were multiple duplicates of every single photo and the only way to be sure that I was getting rid of all of them (and not losing any of the originals) was to go through it manually. It took about two weeks of dedicated work but that morning, I finally finished deleting the duplicates, cutting the library down from 85,000 to 30,000 – no wonder Photos was running so slowly… I wasn’t quite done: I had to finish organising the remaining original photos into albums but it was real progress and that was very satisfying.
Since I was filming the music video for my next single, ‘Back To Life,’ the next day, I’d recoloured my hair a couple of days earlier (it had grown out A LOT) but since my usual dye had been discontinued, I’d had to guess at a new one and I wasn’t super happy with it so with my Mum’s help, we dyed it again, using a much redder dye than the previous one. It still wasn’t quite what I wanted but it was better than before.
I spent the afternoon working on (and finishing!) my next blog post, My Lockdown Favourites, and then, in the evening, I tried on the outfits and jewellery for the video, just to make sure that everything matched and was comfortable enough to move freely in. I avoid weighing myself because of my struggles with food – I don’t believe I have an eating disorder but I have gone through phases of disordered eating so I’m careful to avoid things that trigger that, like keeping a frequent eye on my weight – but I don’t think I’ve gained much, if any, weight during lockdown. My weight fluctuates within a certain range and I’m currently wearing the bigger size of jeans but that did happen pre-lockdown times. So I was relieved that everything was comfortable and that I don’t need to spend money on new clothes.
I was happy with the two different looks and as comfortable with our safety plan as I could be, given that I find just going out incredibly stressful, but I still felt very anxious about making the video. We were shooting early to avoid as many people as possible, would be masked (apart from me when I was on camera), and would be socially distanced, but I was still anxious about being out, about acting relaxed and happy for the upbeat song while feeling so anxious, as well as all the normal anxieties about making music videos and being filmed. So it’s safe to say I was struggling. But if we didn’t shoot the video, we couldn’t move forward with the EP, and I would continue to carry all of that anxiety.
In an attempt to relax a bit before bed, I caught up with one of my parents over FaceTime and watched an episode of The Mentalist with Mum. Then we went to bed early, given that we had to get up pretty early for the video shoot. I don’t know how I’ve managed to come up with three music videos (four shoots in total), all that have involved getting up at vaguely ridiculous hours.
My alarm was due to go off at six but I woke up at five thirty. That was positively luxurious compared to Richard’s ‘call time,’ since he’d had to leave his house before five (he was catching the first train from London – we’d talked about this a lot before we even started planning but he said he felt safe doing it, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone forward with the filming). But that extra time was good: it gave me some time to settle myself and collect my thoughts.
When my alarm went off, I got up and got showered, made up, and dressed in the first outfit I’d be wearing. I had a bit of breakfast and it was all going really well when, of course, I discovered a problem: a white residue had appeared on the frames of my glasses. It’s happened before but Mum had managed to get rid of it using a general household cleaner but nothing seemed to be working this time. We were supposed to be picking Richard up from the train station but I couldn’t do the video with my glasses looking the way they did (it was really noticeable and would look horrible) and I was rapidly spiralling into a meltdown, which I really couldn’t afford to have if we were going to film the video. In the end, Mum had to go and get Richard while I desperately tried to clean them, using anything and everything I could think of. A combination of googling and just experimenting later, I discovered that a thorough scrubbing with toothpaste was the answer. So, just in case you ever find yourself with the same problem…
PRO TIP: If your glasses develop a white residue on the frames, a good scrubbing with toothpaste will make them look as good as new.
I was just finishing when Mum and Richard got back and we headed straight out to the beach. I’d expected it to be pretty quiet, given that it was eight in the morning and a section of the beach a good distance from Brighton, but it was actually quite busy: there was an almost constant flow of people, most of whom weren’t wearing masks. This only added to my stress, in terms of safety and in terms of filming.
I don’t want to give too much away since this post will go up before the video is released. But we shot footage in three different locations (which included a somewhat awkward outfit change) and got everything we needed. I’d been worried about singing and making eye contact with the camera, something I’ve never done before, but that turned out to be much easier than before. It was hard work though, especially considering I’ve been inside for the last several months and my high level of anxiety. But we got it done and I’m cautiously optimistic about it as a finished video.
Here’s what I posted on Instagram afterwards…
After so much physical exertion (for the last year or so, even standing for extended periods of time can make me feel lightheaded and dizzy), it was a struggle to get back to the car. My whole body hurt, particularly my hip and knee joints and my steps got shorter and shorter. It felt like there was broken glass between the bones at each joint. It was horrible.
Eventually we made it back to the car and then home. We sat socially distanced in the garden for some lunch and then, as I watched Richard attempt to reconnect with the cats, I ended up falling asleep in my chair, completely exhausted by the emotion, the anxiety, and the physical activity. Fortunately Richard understands that this does happen – it’s happened before. I didn’t sleep for long and then we had a good catch up before dropping him back at the station around four. We were both really wiped from the early starts and the shoot.
Home again, I flopped down on the sofa and caught up with my other three parents who were all eager to hear how it had gone. Then me and Mum watched a couple of episodes of The Mentalist, had dinner, and went to bed early.
It was a really tough day because I was in a lot of pain after the shoot the day before. My whole body hurt, every single time I moved, every time I even shifted my weight. It was hideous. No one has managed to explain why I experience this level of pain after ‘normal’ levels of activity and our investigation has been stalled by the pandemic. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to find out, or at least find some solid ways of managing it so that I don’t feel so limited (I think the lack of exercise – swimming is the only form of exercise that I can do without pain – hasn’t helped).
I’d planned to have a very gentle day anyway, knowing I’d be tired, so I settled in to watch Absentia Season 3. I knew from watching the first two seasons that I would get so absorbed that I wouldn’t want to stop until I finished it so I dedicated the day to binging the whole thing. I’m finding this to be a really good form of escapism at the moment, especially because I don’t have the concentration to do anything but watch it. Anyway, it was really good and I really, really enjoyed it. Having only started it a month or so ago, it’s already one of my favourite shows. I think the first season is my favourite but I’ve loved all of them and I love Emily Byrne (played by Stana Katic). She’s such an interesting character with such a complex history that I could just watch endless episodes of her. It’s definitely a show that I’ll watch over and over again.
This is the trailer for Season 1 even though I was watching Season 3 – I just don’t want to spoil the show for anyone.
I was so overwhelmed when I finished it that all I could really do was sit and absorb it. But eventually my brain started working again and I had a quick scroll through social media (I haven’t been spending much time on it recently but I do try to check in every now and then so that I’m update to date with what and how my friends are doing) before doing a bit of work, despite my dedication to a day of relaxation. A Dutch journalism student had reached out to me, asking if he could interview me as a new artist dealing with the pandemic. I’d been happy to help and he’d sent me a series of questions that I’d been thinking about so I pulled them up and wrote out my answers before sending the document back to him.
I FaceTimed with one of my parents (it’s hilarious – we talk more now than we did pre-pandemic even though we’re currently doing less and therefore have less to talk about, leading to some pretty bizarre conversations) and then me and Mum had dinner with The Mentalist. And after taking some time to digest, she gave me a massage (I think I’ve mentioned previously that she used to be a massage therapist) to help with all the pain I was in. It wasn’t exactly comfortable but I think it helped in the long run.
Lying on the carpet post massage, I was so relaxed that it was very hard to get up. I didn’t end up going to bed until around eleven.
Despite the less than early night, I woke up at six and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was still tired but I enjoyed the cool and quiet of the early morning. It’s the time of day when I feel most calm, I think.
I stayed curled up in bed but I got to work, answering all of my outstanding messages (and there were A LOT of them). Over the last month or so, I’ve found that taking a couple of days away from social media can be really good for my mental health but then almost all of my socialisation with my friends is through social media so I’ve been working at finding a comfortable and healthy balance. The messages do pile up every now and then though so I’m not there yet. But I’m trying.
That done (and it felt like a real achievement considering how many messages there were), I got up and went downstairs to feed the cats. I was still in pain but it was mainly just in my joints and where the body bends, rather than absolutely everywhere like it had been the day before. So that was progress.
I spent the morning updating my bullet journal and working on various blog posts with Friends on the TV with volume turned down low (background noise helps me work and it seems to be the only thing that doesn’t distract me). I was just getting on with that when I got a handful of notifications from Taylor Swift’s social media accounts, announcing that she was releasing a new album at midnight (or 5am for me in the UK).
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Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore. Surprise 🤗Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. I wrote and recorded this music in isolation but got to collaborate with some musical heroes of mine; @aarondessner (who has co-written or produced 11 of the 16 songs), @boniver (who co-wrote and was kind enough to sing on one with me), William Bowery (who co-wrote two with me) and @jackantonoff (who is basically musical family at this point). Engineered by Laura Sisk and Jon Low, mixed by Serban Ghenea & Jon Low. The album photos were shot by the amazing @bethgarrabrant. Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with. Love you guys so much ♥️
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My brain basically short-circuited. It was such a shock – a good one, yes – but a shock nonetheless. I was incredibly excited but I also had this weird mix of adrenaline and anxiety rushing through my system; I think the only way I can describe it is that it’s like when my plans suddenly get derailed and I’m left scrambling to try and figure out what the new plan is. It’s not a comfortable feeling. Having said that, I don’t want to come across as negative because I was genuinely immensely excited but sudden changes are a lot to handle when you’re autistic so I was dealing with a lot of overwhelming emotions.
Given this news, my concentration was shot for the rest of the day. Usually, we have a lot longer to wait between announcement and release so the anticipation builds over months but this time, it felt like it was all compressed into less than a day. It took hours to get back into a headspace that wasn’t just ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! TAYLOR SWIFT IS RELEASING A NEW ALBUM AND WE’LL HAVE IT IN LESS THAN TWENTY FOUR HOURS!’ and even then, the thought would leap up out of nowhere and smack me in the face, derailing my thought process. So it wasn’t the most productive day ever.
I spent (or tried to at least) the rest of the day trying to catch up with my diary so that I could immediately write down my thoughts on the new album the next day. I didn’t quite make it but I got close enough that I would still be writing about it on its release day.
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folklore will have 16 songs on the standard edition, but the physical deluxe editions will include a bonus track called “the lakes.” Because this is my 8th studio album, I made 8 deluxe CD editions and 8 deluxe vinyl editions that are available for one week😄 Each deluxe edition has unique covers, photos, and artwork. Available exclusively at taylorswift.com
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Something that I started doing with the ‘Red’ album was predicting which songs I would like based on the titles. Obviously that’s not much to go on and there’s no logic to it really but it’s a fun exercise. My guesses for ‘folklore’ were ‘the last great american dynasty,’ ‘exile’ (I mean, a collaboration with Bon Iver?!), ‘my tears ricochet,’ ‘seven,’ ‘august,’ ‘this is me trying,’ and ‘epiphany.’ So I wrote those down, set multiple alarms to wake me up for my traditional 5am first listen, and went to bed early.
My alarm went off at 4.45am and I flipped through various apps on my phone, just trying to wake myself up for the 5am release. But when the time came around, the album wasn’t available on iTunes. Fortunately lyric videos for each song had been uploaded to YouTube so I watched those according to the track listing. It’s always really important to me to listen to a new album in order because that’s a creative decision the artist made when they put it together. I often continue to listen to albums like that (unless I’m in a specific mood and need the validation that songs of a similar emotion provide).
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In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down. folklore is out now. 📷: Beth Garrabrant
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As I listened, I noted down my thoughts about each track. I love how our relationships to songs change over time and as we discover all the layers within them so I always find it really interesting to look back and see what my original thoughts were for comparison. I don’t know if anyone cares but I’m going to stick them in here because I love the album and loved it from the first listen.
I’m really looking forward to hearing ‘the lakes’ and seeing how that fits into the album and I’m just really excited to listen to the album over and over and over again, until I know every little detail. Again, because I love it so much (and because I’m a Songwriting Nerd), I’ll probably make a whole post about it at some point once I’ve listened to it more and have a better understanding of the stories. If that’s not your thing then I absolutely won’t be offended if you skip that post.
I bought some merch (the international shipping is atrocious but I’m trying not to beat myself up since I’ve barely spent any money since lockdown began) and spent the morning on Tumblr, reading people’s reactions and theories and analyses of the new songs. This is always one of my favourite parts of a new Taylor album, everyone coming together to peel back all of the layers in each of the songs. It reminds me of this Daisy Johnson quote from Agents of Shield (my favourite TV show): “Usually one person doesn’t have the solution, but a hundred people with one percent of the solution? That will get it done. I think that’s beautiful… pieces solving a puzzle.”
Early afternoon, I had a Zoom session with my therapist. We talked through the week since my last session, discussing the difficulties and how I’d dealt with them. She also let me ramble about Taylor Swift for a little bit because she knows how much I love her and how important her music is to me, both as a person and as a songwriter. For the most part though, we talked about how much I have and still am struggling with the different reactions people have had and are having to the pandemic and lockdown. I’ve never been able to get my head around the way some people have managed to be super motivated and productive during this time while I feel like I can’t move past the fact that we’re in a pandemic, that tens of thousands of people have died, hundreds of thousands of people are mourning, and so on. It’s like this giant roadblock that I just cannot navigate around. Yes, I’ve been able to do bits and pieces here and there but this is always in the middle of my brain, making it impossible to be much more than minimally functional. I don’t think a person is bad or wrong for being able to compartmentalise or manage however they are managing; I just don’t understand how someone actually does it. Usually I can understand how someone might approach a situation differently even if I can’t actually do it myself but right now, I can’t. I wish I did; I wish I knew how to not feel constantly overwhelmed by distress and grief and fear.
By the time we finished, I was really starting to flag; the early start, the emotions of ‘folklore,’ and the difficult discussions in therapy. I was TIRED; I was struggling not to fall asleep on the sofa. I lay there for a while, just processing everything, and when Mum came upstairs to check on me, we ended up watching The Mentalist together while I did some diary writing. My emotions were all over the place and I just needed some gentle time.
Dinner and another episode later, me and Mum got in the car and went for a drive. I always introduce her to new albums on long drives and it’s a tradition we both really love (something we haven’t done since before we went into lockdown). We didn’t have anywhere to drive to so we just decided to drive up to a particular junction on the motorway and back, listening to the album beginning to end. For some reason, it feels like an album that sounds best in the dark, hence why we’d waited until the evening. It was really fun and we both really enjoyed it. Mum’s initial favourites were ‘illicit affairs,’ ‘this is me trying,’ and ‘mad woman.’ After a day of listening to it, my top three were ‘this is me trying,’ ‘mirrorball,’ and ‘exile.’ But I really, really love a lot of them. It’s mostly a case of which ones do I love more or less and which ones do I connect to more or less.
There was a diversion due to roadworks so we ended up getting home pretty late. We were sorting out the cats and getting ready for bed when we came to a decision on something we’ve been discussing for a while: we decided to buy the one thing I wanted for my birthday, a Gretsch hollow body electric guitar. I’ve wanted one for months and it was going to be my birthday present but me and Mum had discussed it and decided to buy it a couple of months early so that I can make the most of it before university starts again in early October (my birthday is at the very end of September). I want to improve my skills and also just play for fun as much as possible before I have to start factoring in university work, in whatever form that takes. We’ve been talking about it for a while now but that evening, we decided to finally stop talking about it and actually do it. It was very exciting and would be arriving in just a few days (the picture below is from when it arrived).
I woke up feeling tired and unsettled and anxious and it just got stronger and stronger throughout the day. I just felt really overwhelmed by all the things I feel I still need to do before uni starts again, which ironically and frustratingly made it harder to get anything done.
It was a rainy day so the cats spent a lot of time indoors with us, which was a comfort. They’re usually busy playing in the garden so it was nice to have them around. They were all pretty affectionate but Sooty was especially snuggly and I gratefully accepted every invitation to cuddle.
I posted my weekly blog post, My Lockdown Favourites, and then spent most of the day catching up with my diary. It’s so easy to get behind and that causes me such anxiety. I also spent a bit of time at the piano and continued messing around with a couple of song ideas I’ve been working on recently. I’ve been experimenting with writing from the point of view of fictional and historical characters over lockdown and although I find it much harder than writing about my personal experiences, it’s a fun challenge and one that I think is improving my songwriting skills, as well as resulting in some interesting songs. So, all in all, it was an okay day.
In the evening, one of my parents came over for dinner in the garden. We’d also planned to watch Hamilton together but given how stressed and anxious I’d been, we decided to postpone that until next time so that I’d actually be able to enjoy it. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing it so I was grateful for the flexibility; I wanted to be able to really get stuck in and engage with it and I just didn’t feel able to that day. Still, it was really nice to see her in really life and hang out together.
When she left, me and Mum watched a couple of episodes of The Mentalist while I did some diary writing and then we went to bed, far too late as usual. Sleeping badly has got me all twisted up about going to bed so I dread it and put it off and usually end up sleeping worse because of it. It’s a habit I’m trying to break but so far I haven’t done very well. It’s just so easy to get sucked into trying to finish whatever I’m doing.
I slept restlessly (as is my new normal) and woke up feeling tired and low. But I dragged myself up and me and Mum fed the cats – it really is a two person job with five very eager cats. They’re so cute though and watching them practically inhale their food and then skip out into the garden to play is a good way to start the day.
Mum headed out straight away and drove to our gym since she hasn’t been able to get anyone on the phone. Because of my Chronic Fatigue and the ongoing problems with my joints, weight bearing exercise can be really painful so swimming is really the only serious exercise I can do. I’m really concerned that gyms are opening too early but as they are, I at least wanted to know what the safety precautions are and what my options might be. Our gym has a therapy pool that was always empty first thing in the morning so we would use that but when she returned, she reported that the therapy pool wasn’t an option because they didn’t have enough life guards yet. And when it came to their safety precautions, I just didn’t feel like it was worth the risk. But we’re going to keep talking to them and try to work out an arrangement as a disabled member. So it’s not the end of the road but it was very disappointing and didn’t help my mood.
I was supposed to have a music lesson (via Zoom) but my anxiety was even worse than the day before so, in the end, I cancelled it. Fortunately my teacher is one of my parents and so she understands that if I say I can’t do something, I really can’t. I’d really tried to motivate myself and push through my anxiety but I just felt like I was going to start crying at any moment. It was just too much.
So I curled up on the sofa with the TV on low and continued catching up with my diary. I always get behind when Taylor Swift releases an album because I end up writing so much about it – the lyrics, what I like and what I’d do differently, the production, my overall thoughts – and sticking in interesting analyses from Tumblr. I’m always amazed at how quickly some people are able to analyse a song and see all the layers while I’m still overwhelmed by the amount of layers and all the emotions the songs evoke.
I also did a bit more work organising my photo library but I hadn’t got very far before I was interrupted (very pleasantly) by one of my parents dropping in to say hello. She hadn’t planned on staying long but then we got talking about ‘folklore.’ She’s a huge music nerd so she’s always interested to know what I’m listening to. I played her a couple of the songs and that turned into a full album listening party, which was really fun, although I’m always a little anxious about playing her music that’s special to me because she can have really strong opinions. But she was really into it (she particularly liked ‘mad woman’) and asked me to share it with her so she could listen to it some more. So that was very cool.
I ended the day having dinner and watching The Mentalist with Mum (we are both complete saps when it comes to the Jane and Lisbon relationship in the final season) while I continued writing my diary.
So that’s another week of my lockdown experience. I feel like, aside from unexpected difficulties with my mental health or an autistic meltdown, I’m finding a groove where I’m as productive and comfortable as I can be. It’s far from what I would’ve wished for during this period (apart from the new Taylor Swift album) but I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m managing a bit better, in the sense that I’m better at taking things day by day.
So I hope this was interesting to read, interesting to see someone else’s experience and maybe escape your own life for a bit. I hope you’re all doing well, staying safe and coping the best you can.
Category: autism, body image, covid-19 pandemic, emotions, event, favourites, meltdowns, mental health, music, therapy, video Tagged: a week in my life, absentia, agents of shield, anxiety, back to life, behind the scenes, blog writing, blogging, cat, cats, cfs, chronic fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, coronavirus, covid-19, daisy johnson, dbt, diary, disordered eating, disturbed sleep, ep, face mask, facemask, facetime, family, fatigue, folklore, food, friends, glasses, gretsch, guitar, gym, hair dye, honest ep, interview, journal, laptop, lockdown, low mood, making a music video, mask, massage, me/cfs, mood, music lesson, music theory, music video, music video shoot, new guitar, new music, new single, organisation, pain, pandemic, photo albums, photo library, pool, quarantine, quote, safety, safety precautions, singer, singersongwriter, singersongwriter life, sleep, stress, swimming, taylor swift, the mentalist, tumblr, tv show, university, video shoot, wear a mask, week in my life, weight
Posted on June 24, 2020
A year ago today, we were unexpectedly blessed by two new kittens, Sooty and Sweep, also known as “the beans.” And what a year it’s been.
Last spring, my Mum and I were toying with the idea of a last round of kittens before we had our younger two cats spayed. The experience of raising kittens had always been such a positive one and we liked the idea of doing it one more time. Of the two cats, we thought Mouse would be the better choice and so we had Tiger spayed but left Mouse to wander. But a couple of months later, my mental health plummeted and the idea of getting attached to kittens only to have to let them go just felt too much so we took Mouse to the vet for the pre-spay check up. The vet was happy with that but said she could probably do with losing a little bit of weight. I did wonder if she was pregnant but the vet categorically disagreed and explained the spaying process to us again.
Less than a week later, my Mum and I came home from a family dinner to find Mouse pacing on the doormat just inside the front door. As soon as she saw us, she started yowling and headed upstairs, pausing every few steps to make sure I was following. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure but it was exactly the same behaviour that Lucy had displayed when she had her two litters of kittens. So I followed Mouse up to my room where she curled up in the cat bed and within a couple of hours, our two little black furballs were born. Girls was my guess and I was right.
So that was a bit of a shock.
But, of course, they were gorgeous and I was immediately in love. Unfortunately, Mouse wasn’t the natural mother that Lucy had been to her and her sister. She’d curl around them, feed them, and clean them, but then she’d get up and leave them for fairly considerable periods of time. And since kittens can’t regulate their own body temperatures, I was worried, even though it was summer and the weather was very warm. So we had to take somewhat drastic measures: I set up camp on the floor next to the cat bed and every time Mouse went to leave, I turned her around and nudged her back inside. Most of the time, she simply climbed back in and curled up with them; it was like she just didn’t know that that was what she was supposed to do but with a bit of encouragement, she started to get the idea. I stayed there for two weeks until I was confident that she didn’t need my direction although I didn’t stray far, just in case.
To make matters more complicated, we were in the middle of a heatwave and I was worried about them all overheating (we even ended up at the emergency vet at one point). Mouse – a very fluffy cat – did have to leave from time to time, just to stretch out and cool down, although she had by that point gotten the hang of things and didn’t leave the kittens for long. I struggle with the heat and so we’d just bought a pretty expensive fan but we ended up mostly using it to keep the general room temperature down. It was a stressful balancing act.
The arrival of the kittens also changed the general cat dynamic in the house, as well as my relationship with them. The living room (where we’d moved the bed with the kittens – it was easier to manage the temperature in there and still allowed me to work while I kept vigil) had always been the central hub of the house, where we all – cats included – hung out. But suddenly Lucy and Tiger were nowhere to be found and since I was on kitten watch, I barely saw them. That was quite upsetting as I was used to Lucy always sticking close and Tiger constantly climbing all over me. I missed them. I just had to hope that things would return to normal once the kittens went to their new home (the plan my Mum and I had discussed and felt comfortable with, especially if they could go to the same home).
Then Mouse started trying to move the kittens out of the bed, into different corners of the living room. It would have been cute if she didn’t keep trying to stash them in potentially problematic hidey-holes: amongst the wires behind the TV, behind the sofa… She even got one of them half way down the stairs a couple of times. That wasn’t exactly ideal. In the end, we managed to compromise – yes, I was compromising with my cat… I built her a new nest under the TV, carefully covering all of the wires with a blanket and then another in the crate we still had from the last litter.
The best part of having kittens is when they open their eyes and started stumbling around, exploring and playing clumsily. They’re so in the moment, all of their focus on what they’re doing. It’s so mindful and so calming to watch. And their innocence is just good for the soul. There’s something magical about knowing that you’re giving these open, trusting little creatures the best possible start in life, giving them as much love and attention and care as you can.
While I do kind of love the idea of having a big litter of kittens running around, there’s something really special about just having two. They were partners in crime, always snuggled up together, playing together, or getting into trouble together. They were constantly getting stuck in ridiculous places, no doubt due to their boundless curiosity. There was one particularly memorable incident where I scraped up my arm, forcing it behind the bookshelf to retrieve one of them when she got trapped behind it. How she got behind it in the first place I have no idea. Safely rescued, she shook herself off and was off playing with her sister, no worse for wear.
We did end up naming them, for ourselves at least. It wasn’t like we could refer to them by colour since they were both ‘the black one.’ So they became Sooty and Sweep (I’d always wanted to do matching names – even if it was just going to be for a little while and just for me), Sweep being the fluffier of the two. Due to their birth order, it should really be Sweep and Sooty but oh well. You can’t win ’em all.
(In the second photo, they’re watching the TV.)
Mouse has slowly become a really good mother and to this day (spoiler alert: we kept them, as the title suggests), she’s still very close to them, especially Sweep. We often find the two of them cleaning each other or curled up together. It’s very cute. She’s close to Sooty too but more often than not, Sooty snuggles up with me. They’re both very people friendly cats, inquisitive about new people, obliging when we want affection, and downright cuddly when they want affection. They have really lovely characters, both of them.
Lucy and Tiger eventually stopped avoiding them, curiously checking them out. Sooty and Sweep were very enthusiastic, always wanting to play or snuggle. The older cats were more reserved but after a while, they formed a little pack: we call them our pride of cats. Now they eat together, play together, and contently share the cat tree.
Lucy and Tiger also returned to their normal behaviour. Lucy spends her days stretched out on what she considers ‘her’ chair, hanging out with me while I work or write or practice, and Tiger, while fairly independent, comes to lie on me every day, sometimes multiple times. That always makes me really smile-y; I’d missed that.
They weren’t quite old enough to go to new homes when my mental health suddenly plummeted, my depression dropping to new gut-wrenching levels and my anxiety through the roof: sometimes it was so bad that I could barely speak. And in the middle of that, I started my Masters and started the release cycle of my first EP, both of which were incredibly stressful. But the kittens helped in a way nothing else did or could, their mindful behaviour very soothing.
As I said, we hadn’t intended to keep them but with the stress I was under, Mum was happy to leave the process of finding them a new home until I felt a bit more settled and emotionally stable. But I continued to struggle – having meltdowns almost everyday, leaving me physically and emotionally drained – and it turned into a landmine of its own. The thought of them going was physically painful and I couldn’t bear to bring up the subject, knowing that the conversation would just cause yet another meltdown. And with the amount I was having, I was desperate to avoid actively causing them.
Weeks after they originally would’ve gone, me and Mum had had a few brief conversations about the situation and how difficult and overwhelming I was finding it (on top of everything else) and we realised that, somehow, the decision had made itself. We were keeping them. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed with relief and Mum held me until I was all cried out. I was exhausted but a weight had been lifted and during this awful period where everything felt wrong, something finally felt right. I don’t think either of us have regretted it for a moment (well, except maybe when it seemed to take Sooty forever to transition from using the litter box to the garden).
I’ve loved every second with our pride of cats but they’ve truly been a life saver during this pandemic, one of the very few things that have helped with my mental health, helped calm (or at least manage) my overwhelming fears; cuddling or stroking them, even just watching them, can pull me out of an anxiety spiral. They’re completely unaware of the pandemic, of the bigger picture, and when I get lost in my panic, watching them exist in their own little world – waiting for their next meal, chasing bugs in the garden, stretching out on the cat tree, or demanding my attention – helps me rein in all the ‘what if’s and reestablish a sense of perspective. As much as possible anyway.
And now they’re a year old. I kind of can’t believe it. Somehow it’s simultaneously flown by and been the longest year of my life. But as I said, I’ve loved every moment with them. My family of cats is one of the most precious things to me and the addition of Sooty and Sweep has been a true, if unexpected, gift.
(One second a day of Sooty and Sweep’s first year.)
Category: animals, covid-19 pandemic, emotions, meltdowns, mental health, video Tagged: 1 second a day, 365 days of kittens, actuallyautistic, anxiety, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic adult, autistic meltdown, cat, cat lover, cat owner, cat video, cats, coronavirus, covid-19, degree, depression, kitten, kittens, masters, masters degree, meltdown, one second a day, pandemic, stress, university, year of kittens
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as several mental health issues. I’m a singersongwriter (and currently studying for a Masters in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
I’m currently releasing my first EP, Honest, track by track and all five songs are now available on all major music platforms. However, there’s still more content to come…