Posted on September 21, 2020
Trigger Warning: This post contains mentions of self harm, but it’s simply a statement that it happened and there are no descriptions, graphic or otherwise. If this could upset or trigger you, please don’t read any further. Please always put your mental health and emotional state first.
I feel like it’s been a while since I posted a mental health update. And while most of my recent posts have mentioned mental health, I haven’t really felt able to write anything mental health centred. I’ve tried but it’s been really hard. Since the pandemic hit the UK and we went into lockdown, my mental health has basically been a black hole of anxiety and depression that I can only occasionally distract myself from. So it’s been hard to write about it, to write anything beyond “my depression is overwhelming and my anxiety is off the charts.” And there’s only so many times you can say that before it just makes things worse. So I’ve been focussing on things that might be helpful in lockdown, music things, and the day to day approach that I’ve been taking to things. The blog itself has been a method of managing my mental health. But now I’m going back to my Masters (my first classes – all online – are tomorrow) and I wanted to try and describe where my mental health is before I take on that new challenge. I guess it’s something to measure myself against, to see whether I’m coping or whether I’m struggling even more, because I really don’t know how these next few months are gonna go. So here we are, this is the state of my mental health at the beginning of my third semester of my Masters in September 2020…
My anxiety has been – and still can be – paralysing. Early in lockdown, it was a constant, debilitating state but it has evolved since then. It’s easy to get sucked in but day to day, I seem to be able to manage it with a combination of flexible tasks to distract but not restrict me and large amounts of Diazepam. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage going back to university classes with deadlines and uncertainties but as I’ve previously said, I need to try. I will reevaluate if my anxiety starts to become unmanageable again.
My depression has almost become background noise at this point, just a deep, dragging feeling at the back of my mind. I’ve had days where everything just felt so overwhelming and insurmountable that all I could do was stare at the TV and breathe but most of the time, my anxiety has just taken up too much of my attention to really feel it. This still seems to be the case: my anxiety is just too demanding to allow it much space in my brain.
My OCD, which manifests as a compulsion to write down everything that happens to me, has been easier to manage in lockdown with not much going on. I was majorly behind when lockdown began and, because this period of time is so unknown, I wanted to document it in real time so I started a new notebook with the plan to catch up with the old one as time passed. Unfortunately I still haven’t managed that and with multiple stressful things happening in the last few weeks, I’m behind in my current one so I’m going into a new academic year already trying to juggle that. My attempts to balance my OCD and my anxieties around Masters work was a really challenge last year and it looks like it’s going to be just as bad, if not worse, this year. So that’s really not fun and causing me a lot of anxiety already.
My Trichotillomania really spiked in the first few months of lockdown when I was so anxious that I could barely do anything. I’m currently writing a post about the triggers of hair pulling (not to be confused with the causes) and three big ones were really present here: stress, not having something to occupy my hands, and feeling out of control. So I was pulling a lot – to a painful level – back in March, April, May. But as I’ve slowly been able to distract myself and get things done, I’ve been pulling less – significantly less. It never completely goes away but I’ll take whatever I can get.
I’ve had multiple autistic meltdowns since lockdown began. Living with such a high level of anxiety, it doesn’t take much for something to trigger a meltdown. I’ve had about twenty (which I’m pretty sure is more than the whole of last year but I don’t have last year’s tracker in front of me); most of them have been ‘normal’ for the meltdowns I have but a couple of them have been significantly worse, taking days to recover from. They’re really, really horrible and I feel awful afterwards, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
While there have been periods of time where I’ve self harmed consistently, it’s more often than not a one off occurrence with big gaps of time in between. I’ve always considered it a coping mechanism for very specific emotional scenarios rather than a habit or addiction. Given how much I’ve struggled emotionally during lockdown, I’m kind of shocked that I’ve only done it once but then, with my Mum around all the time, maybe it’s not all that surprising: I know that it upsets her and that only makes me feel worse so I have suppressed it in the past. But there was one occasion where I just couldn’t. So it could’ve been a lot worse.
I’ve missed a lot of therapy sessions over the last few months. If I’m honest, I’m finding it really hard to know how to approach them. Obviously, the biggest thing is the pandemic and my pandemic anxiety but we can only talk about that so many times before running out of things to say and yet, I feel so mentally fragile at the moment that tackling any of my other issues feels like just too much, like the process of digging into something difficult might disrupt my delicate, carefully maintained ability to function. So I’m not really sure what to do. I’ve just started having regular sessions again so I guess we’ll see how it goes.
Am I ready for this next semester? I have absolutely no idea. I really don’t know how I’m going to manage it with my mental health as it is but as I’ve said, I need to try. The only thing worse than trying and failing would be not trying at all. Maybe that’s a naive approach to things, considering my mental health problems, but that’s how I feel. I can only hope that, if there are any warning signs that things are getting worse, I can see them and make the appropriate response.
Category: anxiety, autism, covid-19 pandemic, depression, emotions, medication, meltdowns, mental health, ocd, self harm, therapy, trichotillomania, university, writing Tagged: anxiety, anxiety disorder, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic adult, autistic meltdown, autistic meltdowns, dbt, depression, dialectical behaviour therapy, diary, diary writing, diazepam, hair pulling, lockdown, lockdown 2020, masters degree, masters degree year two, masters part time, medication, meltdown, meltdowns, mental health, mental health in lockdown, mental health update, obsessive compulsive disorder, ocd, online therapy, pandemic, pandemic 2020, pandemic anxiety, part time masters student, part time student, remote therapy, self harm, self injury, therapy, trichotillomania, trigger, trigger warning, university
Posted on August 8, 2020
Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.
So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.
As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.
What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…
It was a chilly morning in March 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.
I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.
I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.
One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.
It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.
To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.
Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…
IN THE MOMENT
ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED
Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:
This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.
Category: covid-19 pandemic, emotions, event, meltdowns, mental health, self harm, therapy, tips, treatment, university Tagged: a levels, advice, anxiety, as levels, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic meltdown, coping skills, coronavirus, covid-19, exams, fail, failing, failure, feedback, friend, friends, future, gcses, grades, kindness, meltdown, mental illness, pandemic, panic attack, processing emotions, resit, resits, results, results day, safe place, school, secondary school, self injury, sixth form, sixth form college, talking, teacher, trauma, traumatised, trigger, trigger warning, tutor, tutoring, tw, undiagnosed autism, validation
Posted on July 18, 2020
On Monday, for the first time in over a hundred days, I left my house.
I was already self isolating when the UK lockdown went into effect. My university classes had moved online, I have friends and family that I could put at risk if I caught the virus, and it generally seemed like the safest, most socially responsible thing to do. Then the lockdown was officially put in place and it was me and my Mum in the house together. Struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I don’t go out a whole lot because I physically can’t manage it but I had previously had university classes, seeing friends and family, and swimming at the gym (the only exercise that doesn’t cause me physical pain – probably because it’s non weight-bearing), all of which were suddenly gone. My Mum went out only to food shop and pick up medication prescriptions as necessary.
I’ve only been out once since then and that was to rescue my kitten who got stuck up a tree in a neighbour’s garden – we think she’d been up there for more than twelve hours. And when we did go to get her, all involved socially distanced and wore masks. It was stressful in the face of the virus but my kitten would not come down by herself and we were all getting really worried about her.
Ever since then, I’ve stayed in the house. My mental health has been a monumental struggle during this time, especially my anxiety – to the point that something as simple as laughing from outside or looking through the window at the street can cause severe anxiety and autistic meltdowns. And the longer this goes on, the worse it’s getting. I’m in contact with my psychiatrist, taking my medication, and having online sessions with my therapist but I don’t feel like it’s making much difference to my anxiety.
The easing of lockdown only increased my anxiety. With the scientists and Public Health England still warning of the dangers of Covid, it seemed (and still seems) incredibly irresponsible of the government to be making such changes. When it was announced that hairdressers would be opening on the 4th July, my anxiety sky-rocketed. Ever since the pandemic began moving into Europe, my Trichotillomania has escalated dramatically. It’s been a problem for years but with the recent extreme levels of stress, I’m now pulling my hair out more than I ever have. It’s not only causing pain in my scalp and damage to my hair, it’s also causing terrible pain in the fingers, hand, arm, and shoulder on the side I pull from, as well as tingling and numbness that often doesn’t pass for most of the day. So while I did, of course, want a hair cut (as I think everyone did), I was also desperate for advice and help with this problem. Plus, I go to an independent hairdresser and wanted to support them.
But despite all of that, I just as desperately didn’t want to go. Even with the all the strict safety measures they’d informed their clients of, I still felt overwhelmingly unsafe going out, especially into town. To make it feel more possible, we spoke to them and they arranged my appointment to be as stress free as they could possibly make it: we cancelled the colour to reduce my time there (it felt unnecessary as it was something I could do at home – I’d booked it way back when when it had looked like it would be (or feel) safer, they scheduled my appointment first thing on a Monday morning so the environment would be as clean and safe as possible, and they were happy to have my Mum come with me in case my anxiety got too bad. When we made those arrangements, it felt as good as I thought it was ever going to and we moved on, the appointment still a few weeks away.
But as it got closer, my anxiety grew and grew until I was having panic attacks over it. I didn’t want to go. I really, really didn’t want to go. It felt so unsafe to be going out, even with a mask, gloves, hand sanitiser, and safety measures in place. I didn’t want to go. The anxiety was unbearable and I had multiple awful panic attacks.
In the end, my anxiety just wiped me of all my energy and on the morning of the appointment, I just didn’t know what to do. I had nothing left. So Mum took over, got me up, and took me to the appointment. Even being outside felt terrifying: I felt so unsafe and exposed and vulnerable. We got there and the hairdressers was almost empty, as planned, and my hairdresser was as lovely as always. I’ve been camouflaging my Autism and my anxiety for so long – I’ve spent my life building a mask to help me manage in difficult situations, something that I want to write about more in the future – that most people see the ‘usual’ me but in reality, I was so anxious that I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly (and that had nothing to do with the facemask). I almost destroyed the fidget toy I’d brought with me and the whole experience was just exhausting. It felt like it only added to the trauma of the pandemic and lockdown.
(I do want to make it absolutely clear that that has nothing to do with them as people or a business. It was all about going out and feeling so unsafe outside my house.)
My hairdresser is awesome and so lovely and we had a good conversation about the condition of my hair and the textures that trigger my pulling. We talked about what might improve the condition of my hair and therefore lessen the textures that trigger me, which products might be helpful. So we’ll see how that goes. And simply cutting off the dry ends of my hair will hopefully help with the pulling too.
We were there less than an hour but I was completely exhausted. I was barely functional all day and ended up falling asleep on the sofa at about 10pm, hours earlier than I usually get to sleep at the moment. And it’s taken days to regain enough energy to concentrate and actually do things again. Even now I’m not sure whether I made the right choice or the safest choice but it’s done and I can’t go back and change it. Several people have said to me that going out would make going out again easier but if anything, it’s made it feel even scarier so, for the moment at least, I’m not going anywhere.
The next challenge, I guess, is when gyms reopen. As swimming is the only non-painful exercise I can do, my exercise has been severely limited during lockdown and on a personal level, I’m desperate to get back to it. I love it, I miss it, and I miss how it makes me feel, physically and mentally. But I just can’t imagine how on earth it can be safe. So there’s a lot of investigating to do, a lot of thinking and weighing the pros and cons to do. I’ve never been so jealous of people having their own private pools.
Category: covid-19 pandemic, emotions, mental health, trichotillomania Tagged: actuallyautistic, anti anxiety medication, anxiety, anxiety disorder, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, autistic meltdown, autistic meltdowns, cat, cfs, chronic fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome, coronavirus, covid-19, easing lockdown, easing of lockdown, energy, exercise, fatigue, fear, gym, hair, hair pulling, haircut, hairdressers, independent business, kitten, lockdown, mask, masks, me, medication, meltdown, meltdowns, mental illness, pain, pandemic, panic attack, panic attacks, phases of lockdown, psychiatrist, risk, salon, self isolating, shielding, social distancing, swimming, therapist, therapy, trich, trigger, trigger warning, triggers
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 the first three songs are available on all major platforms.