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 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 January 18, 2020
Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.
I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.
My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.
Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.
I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…
I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).
Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.
The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.
Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.
We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:
I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.
However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.
They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.
It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.
I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.
Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:
Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.
Category: holidays, mental health, music, ocd, university, video Tagged: anxiety, asd, assessment, assessments, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic, christmas, christmas holiday, creative process, elizabeth gilbert, essay, first semester, i'm with you, luce barka, masters degree, masters degree in songwriting, meltdown, meltdowns, mental illness, perfectionism, presentation, research, review, semester, songcraft, songwriters, songwriting, student support agreement, tedtalk, tutor
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…