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.

A Day In My Life (University With Autism Spectrum Disorder)

As opposed to my usual week-in-the-life posts, I thought I’d do something slightly different this time and zoom in on what it’s like to be an autistic student at university (one doing an MA in COVID-19 times anyway). This is obviously just my experience – as the saying goes, ‘if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’ – but I thought it might be an interesting post to write. I feel like it’s so important to share our experiences as autistic people, especially when media is being created that can be harmful to us (i.e. everything that’s been going on with Sia’s new film – I feel like I should be writing about that but I still don’t know how to; it makes me so upset that I can’t really write anything that feels articulate enough to represent the significance of the issue). So I hope this is an interesting read.


THE NIGHT BEFORE

Monday was hugely busy, with a production session, two doctors appointments, and working on the essay of the module in the spaces between. I’ve been working on it somewhat steadily but since I have a feedback session coming up, I’ve been a bit more random in my approach to writing it – fitting writing time in wherever I can or just writing about certain things as they occur to me –  so that I can get as much out of that session as possible.

So it was one of those days where I barely had time to think.

On Monday evenings, the Masters course have a song sharing session between 7.30pm and 9.30pm. I’ve been a couple of times but I tend to find it too much. I’m most creative at night and so filling my head with new songs and song analysis right before I try to sleep really messes up my ability to sleep, which I have to try to do relatively early with my first class on a Tuesday at 9am. And if I don’t get enough sleep on a Monday night, I’m useless in every class on the one day I have classes. So, unless there’s a really good reason, I can’t really prioritise them.

I also find them quite hard socially: as much as doing the Masters course part time was the right thing for me, it has meant that for both years, I’ve never quite felt part of the group. There’s a handful of us in the same position and I can’t speak for them but it’s always left me feeling a bit ‘other,’ like I don’t really fit anywhere – not quite part of the group in the first year and even less part of the group in this second year. Everyone on the course is lovely but it does have a pretty big impact on the social side of the course. And when you struggle with feeling like you don’t fit in, it’s hard to feel it in yet another area of your life. So sometimes that factor just makes it too hard on my mental health. Maybe it will feel easier when one of my best friends rejoins the course in January.

So, instead, I used the time to do some more work on my essay before emailing everything required for the feedback session to my tutor (I wanted to make sure he had enough time to go through it all before we met on Wednesday afternoon). Then I tried to unwind a bit. Somehow I still ended up going to bed too late – not that 11pm is hugely late but for me, the night before a class, it’s on the border of being dangerously late.

I have a prescription for sleeping pills because my anti-depressants can cause problems with my sleep but I try to avoid them where I can. Having said that, knowing how exhausting a uni day can be, I usually take one the night before to make sure I’ve had enough sleep to give me the best chance of getting through said long uni day.


THE DAY ITSELF

I wouldn’t say I slept well and I struggled to get up but I’ve had worse nights so I just tried to push through the fatigue. I got dressed and made up and then collapsed on the sofa for a rest. Standing for the time it takes to shower, get dressed, and do my make up makes me feel weak, and lightheaded, and sick – something we’re still investigating with, unfortunately, very little progress – but getting up as early as I had meant that I did have enough time for some recovery time. It’s all down to planning. My life is dependent on planning. I also managed to eat some breakfast and take all of my pills. I’m taking quite a few at the moment – more than the ‘normal’ ones that help me maintain my mental health – because of a Vitamin D deficiency and horrible nerve pain down my left side (I’ve been waiting for a hospital appointment for the latter since about April or May, which may be my personal record for appointment waiting times).

My seminar started at nine (if you’ve read my previous university posts, you’ll remember that I’m doing all of my classes online this semester). My normal tutor (who is legitimately one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met) started the class before handing us over to a guest tutor who gave us a two hour class on arranging strings and horns. He was incredibly knowledgeable and engaging and so it was really interesting. Plus, Tiger came and sat with me for most of it, which was very nice. University with cats is a definite advantage of online lectures.

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I was struggling to concentrate by the end of the class so I was relieved when we wrapped up. It was a lot of knowledge and sensory information to try to process and sort through and digest. I felt more than a bit dazed. Fortunately, the session was recorded so I can either go back and listen to it in shorter sections or go back and search for something specific.

My next class wasn’t until five so I had rather a lot of time to fill. Pre-pandemic, I’d hang out at uni and do cowrites, go to the favourite local coffee shop with friends, or work on whatever was on the list at the time but I’m finding it much harder to use this time effectively, whether that’s due to having my classes online or down to the pandemic just really screwing with my brain. Stuff that wasn’t hard before is now and the only thing I can put it down to is the pandemic, even if I don’t know precisely why. All I know is that it’s a weird time and so it shouldn’t be surprising that certain things aren’t the same as they were before. But it’s still frustrating to have such a big block of time that I could be using productively and not have my brain cooperate. Early in the semester, I ended up staring at my laptop screen, desperately trying to work on stuff and just not being able to. I got more and more frustrated and demoralised and eventually I just had to accept that this is not productive time. So I’ve been trying to come up with ways to fill it that aren’t too demanding but still feel like there’s a point to them; I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted it by just staring at my phone or mindlessly jumping between the open windows on my laptop because that’s just not good for my general mental health. So I’ve been trying things like reading or watching new movies or TV shows – these have been good sources of inspiration in a time where I’ve struggled to find inspiration – or having a nap if I need one… Things that don’t require a lot of energy but still feel worthwhile (most of the time).

I did a quick scroll through my social medias to see if there was anything that needed replying to and then did some admin work: replying to emails, updating my bullet journal, and so on. Just as I was about to move onto something else, I got a load of notifications from social media, all Taylor Swift announcing her acoustic concert film going up on Disney+, folklore: the long pond studio sessions. That was so exciting that it temporarily scrambled my brain, in both a good and a bad way. As an autistic person, I’m really not a fan of surprise drops because I just get hit by a tidal wave of emotions and I feel so overwhelmed that I actually feel sick. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the film because I am so, so grateful for all that Taylor has been putting out during the pandemic (her work really has been one of the things that’s helped me during this time) but the suddenness with which she’s been announcing things has been difficult because that doesn’t give me enough time to do the emotional processing that I need to do. So although I eventually settled into being really excited, I spent a lot of the day feeling painfully twisted up and anxious over the mess of emotion I was experiencing.

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That did leave me floundering quite a bit, I have to confess. So, to try and take my mind off of everything I was feeling, my Mum and I caught up with the latest episode of His Dark Materials. It did help a bit. It’s such a great show; the casting, the acting, the sets, the interwoven storylines, etc are all so beautifully done. I loved the first series and I’m really enjoying the second one. I love Dafne Keen as Lyra (I so related to Lyra’s reaction to popcorn – it was freaking hilarious) and Amir Wilson as Will but I think it was Ruth Wilson as Marissa Coulter and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby who really stole the show this week (pun actually not intended – if you know me, you’ll know I love a good pun). Their big scene together was just so powerful and how Ruth Wilson played the aftermath was particularly emotive.

I spent an hour or so working on a new blog post but after a while, I was just getting slower and slower and eventually I gave up and had a nap. I slept for about two hours before struggling up for my second class at five. I could’ve easily slept longer but I did my best to shake it off and concentrate on the workshop. This is where we (in this case, all of the 100% online students – the rest are blended and do the workshop in person onsite) share the songs we’ve been working on over the week and get feedback from the rest of the group. For most of the semester, we’ve had briefs each week but now we’re just working on whatever’s right for us. So, for example, I didn’t have a song to present because I’ve been working on the feedback for previous songs and the essay, rather than a new song (although I did recently write a rap, although I’m not sure whether I ever want anyone to hear it). Everyone else had songs to play though so I could still participate and give feedback, although I’m not sure how helpful I was because of how tired I was. But I tried. Some days I was just have less energy to work with than others.

I had an hour break before the evening session, which runs from seven to nine; they’re technically extra-curricular but I try to attend them when I can, especially now that they’re online and therefore more accessible. I don’t want to miss out on anything I don’t have to.

During my break, I had a quick dinner and catch up with my parents. The Grammy nominations had also been announced so I went through those. I’m super pleased for Taylor Swift: folklore is such a great album. Six nominations – Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Song Written For Visual Media – is incredible and I’m really excited for her. Personally, I think she deserves at least several of those, especially considering the other nominees. I’m absolutely psyched for Ingrid Andress and her three nominations: Best New Artist, Best Country Song, and Best Country Album. I’ve been following her for years, having met her in Nashville at least a couple of years before her album was released. She’s an amazing writer and it would be just so awesome for her to win even one Grammy award this early in her career. But I’m concerned about her chances; she has some serious competition in all of those categories. The Best Country Song category, for example, is incredible, full of so many amazing songwriters that I love so much: Natalie Hemby (‘Bluebird’ by Miranda Lambert and ‘Crowded Table’ by The Highwomen, a group of which she’s a member), Maren Morris (‘The Bones’), and then Ingrid, of course. I want them all to win it. I was disappointed that Halsey still hasn’t been nominated. Manic is such an incredible album, as is Badlands (Live from Webster Hall), and it’s so frustrating that she doesn’t get the industry recognition she deserves. Especially given how popular ‘Without Me’ was, I’m really shocked that she’s never been nominated.

I just made it in time for the late session, which involved two of last years graduates presenting their final projects, one about using songwriting to explore different aspects of personality and the other about the experience of their gender transitioning and how sharing that story has the potential to increase understanding and empathy and break down barriers. They were both really cool projects but it was also massively helpful to see their processes, how they’d developed their ideas and researched them and how that research had lead them to writing the songs they wrote. It was fascinating and I definitely feel more prepared for my own project. I’ve got several ideas I’ve been turning over and the presentations have been helpful in my decision making process too. So I got a lot out of it, even if I was completely exhausted by the time the session finished.

It was about half nine and I probably could’ve gone straight to bed but I went and spent some time with my Mum, watching some TV together as we both wound down from the day. But it wasn’t long before we  were both falling asleep so we put the cats to bed (they sleep in the kitchen so that we’re not woken up at five – the time they start demanding breakfast) and headed to bed ourselves.


THE NEXT MORNING

I’m not one of sleeping in so I always set an alarm. Then I can get up and start doing things (I have a real problem with needing to be productive) but usually, the day after a uni day, I sleep through the alarms I set. It doesn’t seem to change anything though. I keep setting alarms and sleeping through them. But that morning was special. I dragged myself out of bed at eight to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions, as soon as it was available. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable to get up when I was so exhausted but it was absolutely worth it. The film was amazing, so amazing that I still haven’t figured out how to put all my feelings into words yet.

Since this post is just about my day at uni, I won’t write much more but just as I wrote about the Monday night, I thought I’d write about the Wednesday morning. Usually there isn’t a brand new Taylor Swift film to watch so I try to rest and recover my energy – physical, mental, and emotional – from the day before. As I said, I’m struggling with this need to be productive all of the time so with that in mind, I try to schedule undemanding tasks for Wednesdays. That particular day, I had a couple of half hour tutorials with tutors, so I spent the morning making sure I was ready for those. I’d already made notes of what I want to ask and discuss so I spent the rest of the morning going through those to make sure I felt as prepared as possible.


So, as you can probably tell, it takes a lot of planning and prioritising and rationing of energy to make it possible for me to go (or at the moment, ‘go’) to university, to make it possible to live my life in the most positive and productive (to a healthy extent) way. This isn’t an unusual day for me. While stuff like big Taylor Swift announcements and the Grammy nominations don’t happen every day, there’s often something that can cause emotional reactions like the ones described and I deal with fatigue and anxiety everyday. It’s one big juggling act. Every day. One enormous, exhausting juggling act every day.