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.

Migraines, Tooth Pain, And Blood Pressure Monitoring

So often in my life it seems, medical stuff is like waiting for a bus: weeks or months go by and then suddenly a whole slew of them show up. And that’s certainly been true of the last few months. Just as the final module of my Masters was starting, I was hit by a series of awful migraines, suffered with terrible tooth pain, and spent twenty four hours hooked up to a blood pressure monitor, a test ordered by a neurology unit in London. So it’s been a pretty hectic time…


MIGRAINES

At the time of writing this, I’ve lost approximately half of the last forty days to migraines.

I’ve had migraines before – maybe a handful a year, depending on my stress levels and the medication I’m taking – but they usually only last for a day or so before fading away. They’re not pleasant but they weren’t seriously impacting my life. But then I had one that lasted roughly four days and I ended up in A&E because, having fairly recently had the Astra Zeneca vaccine, my doctor was worried about the extremely rare side effect of a blood clot. I was sure it was a migraine but agreed to go and after most of the day there, I was released; the doctor agreed that it was most likely a bad migraine but told me to come back if it didn’t go away. And after another day or so, it did. While I was somewhat irritated about losing a day that should’ve been spent working on my end of semester assessment (despite the pain, I was pushing myself to work on it as I could, in the moments where the painkillers actually worked – I think that’s mainly why it went on so long personally), I am really grateful to all of the hospital staff. They were all great – warm, considerate, and personable – despite the somewhat alarming COVID precautions everywhere that weren’t exactly great for my anxiety. But they were really kind and gentle with me throughout my visit, making the whole experience a lot easier than it could’ve been.

I’d thought that that was it. But then, again and again, I was hit by migraine after migraine, all lasting unusually long periods of time (for me, at least). They were averaging out at about six days each time, sometimes more. That was extremely stressful, bearing in mind that I’m at the beginning of the homestretch of my Masters with this final module accounting for 60% of my final grade, and I was utterly miserable from the pain. I was also so light sensitive; at one point, even the darkest room in the house felt too bright and I dissolved onto the floor in tears, which only hurt my head more. It was awful. That was the first time we called 111 and they called paramedics. That time they determined it was, again, a severe migraine and recommended two other pain medications to try in the hope that they’d be more effective than Nurofen.

A couple of migraines later, with minimal help from the new painkillers, I had another really bad one, which had us calling 111 and they sent paramedics (both such lovely guys who fell in love with the cats and talked musicals with me while they did their tests). This migraine was slightly different: it had all of my normal migraine symptoms but I also had this almost blinding pain at the front and right side of my face. They thought it was probably a migraine but suggested talking to my doctor about having a CAT scan and/or whether there was something going on with my cranial nerves. They also had some practical, experience based advice around pain relief (one of them had personal experience with severe migraines). They said they could escort us to the hospital on the off chance that a doctor would do a CAT scan but did acknowledge that they might just take blood and keep me there while it was checked again, like my previous visit to A&E. So we chose the second option: Mum was going to go out and get the new medication option and call my GP ASAP.

TOOTH PAIN

That was the most recent migraine (at the time of writing this). As time passed, the pain in my head started to decrease, then my face, settling in my back-top-right teeth; every time they – and finally just one (after about a week) – knocked against the bottom teeth, the pain was so bad that my entire body would freeze up.

As soon as it had settled in my teeth, we’d called the dentist and they brought me in as an emergency (a few days wait rather than a few months). The dentist checked, took x-rays and saw some decay in the painful tooth, fairly close to the nerve root, and it already has a pretty big filling in it. At one point, somehow, the hEDS diagnosis came up (I was diagnosed since my last dental appointment) and the dentist said that she’s seen and heard about multiple people with a form of EDS (or who were later diagnosed with it) struggle with tooth decay, as well as being scolded by their dentists for not doing a good enough job with their dental hygiene even though they actually were; it was often the EDS causing problems, not necessarily their actions. This really is the diagnosis that keeps on giving (imagine a sarcastic snort at the end of that sentence).

Anyway, she diagnosed an abscess and gave me two treatment options: extraction or root canal therapy, which would involve multiple, multi-hour sessions that would be painful, ultimately might not work, and probably wouldn’t last into my late thirties. The whole thing felt pretty overwhelming and I ended up in tears. Extraction was the obvious choice as far as I was concerned and everyone else agreed; there seemed to be way too many downsides to the root canal option (plus it sounded horrendous and I find dental work, even fairly straightforward stuff, very distressing) and even if I was inclined to choose it, it’s the worst possible time given the end of my Masters. Even an extraction is going to be a significant disruption. I’m applying for extenuating circumstances, which both my supervisor and module leader have encouraged, so hopefully that’ll mean I end up with the same amount of time to do the work as everyone else.

So, I’ve been referred for an emergent extraction under general anaesthetic but I don’t know when that’s going to happen. They also prescribed me some antibiotics for the mean time. Now it’s a waiting game. But several days after the appointment, either the antibiotics are working or the nerve is dying or both because the pain is getting better and I feel more human. There are periods of time where I can actually ignore it, which is a huge deal considering how much pain I’d been in. So that’s definitely something to be grateful for.

BLOOD PRESSURE MONITORING

A couple of months ago, I had an appointment with a doctor from a neurology unit in London, which I believe I mentioned in this post. After spending most of the appointment vehemently telling me there was no point in getting any tests, he somewhat reluctantly offered to write to my GP, suggesting I have my blood pressure monitored for twenty four hours. It took forever to get a monitor from the hospital but finally test day came.

I had to go to the hospital where they fitted the monitor (found the right size for my arm, wrapped me up, made sure it was taking readings, looped the cable behind my neck, and used the tie from my coat to secure the monitor/data recorder around my waist) and gave me the instructions and paperwork to go along with the monitor. I wasn’t allowed to get it wet so I couldn’t have a shower while wearing it but since that’s when I usually get my blood pressure related symptoms, we devised a plan where I would go through the motions – with the shower on to create the heat and steam – so that it would still record whatever was happening to my blood pressure during a shower, as much as possible at least. The whole process was relatively stress free and the two women who sorted me out were great, warm and extremely competent but flexible to my needs. I’m really grateful to them for making it so easy.

All done, we headed home. It was a bit weird with the weight of the monitor, the too long cable getting caught on stuff, and so on but overall, it was fine. The cuff got very tight – tighter than I remembered them getting when you get a one off test – but it wasn’t a big deal and the rest of the day went on as normal. It was a bit of a struggle to get to sleep because I couldn’t get comfortable with the cuff on my arm but once I did get to sleep, the inflating and squeezing didn’t wake me up, something I’d expected to happen.

However, when I woke up, my arm was really sore. I felt like I’d been punched a hundred times in the same place, convinced the skin was bruised underneath the cuff (it wasn’t and no bruise ever emerged but damn, it was tender). I think the cuff had slipped in the night as well because I had several error readings on that second day.

I had my pretend shower and, as usual, felt shaky, dizzy, and lightheaded; having thought ahead, I’d timed things so that the monitor would be taking the reading right at the end of my fake shower. I’m intrigued to see what that reading says. That done, Mum helped me wash my hair, leant over the side of the bath; I had an online meeting and couldn’t bear the thought of doing that with unwashed hair. It wasn’t very dignified, especially with all the extra towels wrapped around me to keep the monitor dry, but it got the job done.

I wore it for the rest of the twenty four hours and then, with great relief, unwrapped the cuff. By the end, my arm felt really sore from the squeezing, plus it had started to pinch in various places at some point. There’s also that Autism-sensory-thing of wearing something constantly constricting, which starts causing anxiety after certain periods of time, like a long day in skinny jeans or wearing my retainer all day. Does that make sense? The anxiety had been building for the last few hours and it was wonderful to take it off.

Mum dropped it back at the hospital, so now I guess it’s another waiting game. I don’t know when we’ll find out the results and the conclusions drawn from them. I assume that they’ll let us know at some point, although it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to chase results. As I said, all we can do now is wait.

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So, yeah, hectic. At a very inconvenient time. But that’s life and I’m determined not to let it spoil the last of my Masters and this project that I’ve been looking forward to for so long. I am going to make the most of every good day I have, take the extenuating circumstances gratefully, and continue working as hard as I can.