Blog posts, musings, and thoughts on life in general

Vocal health is something I’ve become really interested in over the years, as more and more of my professional life relies on being able to use my voice on a regular basis. There was a time, a few years ago, when I would get a pretty serious infection a couple of times per year, and would lose my voice for a couple of weeks each time, and during that time I did a lot of research in to what did and didn’t help me. Right now, I’m sat in bed with a horrendous chesty cough, and have been for over a week, so it seemed like a good time to put all my learnings together in to one place so I can check if I’ve missed anything this time around..!

1. Over the counter remedies

Firstly, don’t waste your money. They don’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried them all.

2. Prevention is better than cure

Not much help to me right at this moment in time, admittedly, but it’s always worth remembering. Since my husband and I started on a daily regime of fresh ginger shots in the morning (a chunk of ginger juiced with one apple each) I have had a much better time, health-wise, and when I have got a cold or sore throat it has gone away within a few days. Also coming under this heading are things like good singing practices. Think about your posture, are you tense in your throat, are you supporting your voice with your diaphragm? Make sure you warm up properly. Take regular breaks. Drink lots.

3. Rest

This is vital, especially if you are feeling a bit under the weather. Physical rest for the body, and vocal rest - by which I mean not speaking unless absolutely essential. Especially don’t whisper, as this puts extra pressure on your vocal chords. 

4. Lubrication

It doesn’t really matter what you drink, but keep your fluids up, as it’s important your vocal chords don’t dry out. Sucking sweets can help as it makes you swallow - again it doesn’t really matter if it’s a throat lozenge or just a boiled sweet, it’s the lubrication that will help to ease your throat. You might find warm drinks easier to manage if you have a sore throat.

5. Ginger 

Ginger is my go-to when I’m feeling under the weather. As well as daily ginger shots I will also drink ginger tea - grated ginger, hot water, and honey. 

6. Honey

Speaking of honey, it is great for soothing the throat and for making ginger tea drinkable for people like me! You might be tempted to buy expensive manuka honey from the supermarket but to be honest I don’t think it will actually make an appreciable difference, and you may as well just get cheap runny honey. The main benefits to you will be lubrication and soothing rather than any medicinal properties.

7. Lemon

Lemon is another great one, and has antibacterial properties so is great for fighting infections. Be a bit careful if your throat is the main problem area though as I am told that lemon can dry your throat out quite quickly. The best thing I do with lemon is to squeeze a couple of lemons in to a glass, and add about 3-4 teaspoons of runny honey. Stir until the honey is dissolved, and then drink as a shot. For an interesting twist on this I sometimes also add port ;)

8. Turmeric

Turmeric is another thing that is supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties. I can’t say that I have noticed a huge difference when I’ve used it but if you want a bit of a change from ginger tea you could always look up a recipe for golden milk - essentially milk (I use almond), honey, turmeric, and black pepper.

9. Steam

I always forget about steaming, but actually it’s one of the most effective remedies for shifting a persistent cough. If I’m having a coughing fit in the night that I just can’t stop I will often go and sit in the bathroom with the shower running (and extractor fan off), and once the steam has built up a bit the cough will ease off without fail. (This is common advice for young babies but it works really well for me too!) I’m not a fan of the towel-over-the-head-over-a-bowl thing, I find it really oppressive, so outside of the shower I do most of my steaming over cups of ginger tea. 

10. Salt water gargle

By far the most effective remedy I have found for a sore throat is gargling with salt water. It’s disgusting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s incredibly effective at numbing the pain.

11. Sage tea 

This also works very well, for sore throats. You can use fresh sage if you have it, but dried works just as well. I’d put it through a tea strainer though as it gets a bit bitty otherwise! Just add hot water, and I usually stir in some honey with it.

12. Cough remedies

A friend of mine makes a cough medicine that basically involves chopping up an entire raw onion and leaving it to steep in half a jar of honey overnight. I have to say that I haven’t dared try this yet, but I might do if I can’t shift my current cough! My granny always used to say that chocolate is good for coughs, and I half thought she was putting it on, but actually chocolate contains something called theobromine which is a natural cough suppressant. The darker the chocolate the better. I also have a vague recollection of granny giving me raw jelly cubes when I was younger (to be fair that might just have been because she was the sort of granny who always has a plate of cold sausages in the fridge for snacking), and having done a bit of googling today glycerin does seem to have some quite soothing properties. Anyway, I’m currently sucking on jelly cubes and they seem to be about as effective as cough sweets. Marshmallows can be good as well, apparently, but I haven’t tried those yet!

i have only found two types of cough sweets that really seem to make any difference for me. One is Ricola (herbal lozenges) and the other is Jakemans. Jakemans are my go-to I-need-to-get-through-this-choir-rehearsal aid, but they haven’t helped much with my current chesty cough. Also, I had a few too many of them yesterday and got a bit of an upset tummy..!! I would also be careful of taking in too much menthol if you have a sore throat, as I’m told it can dry out your throat very quickly.

I must say that none of this advice is designed to replace proper medical advice from your doctor, and if you’ve been ill for over a week and nothing seems to be helping then you should always check it out with your GP. I’m currently having to take steroid drops up my nose twice a day, not that they are making much difference at the moment.

I’m back off to the doctors tomorrow to beg for antibiotics, but in the meantime if you have any suggestions I could try then please let me know!

Happy New Year! 

I’m a bit late with the link up this month, and it all looks a bit different as I’ve moved my blog over from metheboythemonster.com so that it’s all here in one place. However, it’s all the same underneath, I promise! This month’s linked blogs are below, but more will be added all the time so do pop back and check. 

Please remember to comment on and share any blogs you like, and click on the blue ‘Click here to enter’ link at the bottom to add your own post.

Don’t forget to tweet me when you’ve added a post, so I know there’s something new to read and share!

I’ve just added my blog post [YOUR POST NAME GOES HERE] to @folkycat’s Adoption Blog link up. You can add yours too! Click to Tweet

My autism diagnosis is still a really new thing for me, but I’ve been feeling more and more over the last couple of weeks that I wanted to tell people about it. One reason is because there are quite probably tens of thousands of people like me, who have no clue that they’re autistic, and the only way that is going to change is by amplifying autistic voices and providing an alternative to the ‘awkward geeky guy’ stereotype that most people associate with the word ‘autism’.

The other reason though, I think, is because I feel this real need to live my new life as authentically as possible. My life since diagnosis has been a series of lightbulb moment - sudden realisations that explain so many different aspects of my past. I do feel like a different person. I feel calmer, lighter, more aware of myself. I’m enjoying getting to know the person under the many layers of masking that have built up over the last 38 years.

My life since diagnosis has been a series of lightbulb moment - sudden realisations that explain so many different aspects of my past. Click to Tweet

The strange thing is, I always knew I was masking - I just didn’t call it that. I always knew there was an ‘external’ me that was presented to the outside world, and an ‘internal’ me that was reserved pretty much entirely for my family. Close friends would sometimes get a bit of the real me, but the vast majority had to make do with the carefully constructed external mask. For quite a number of years the mask even had a different name, as I continued to work under my maiden name of Cat Kelly. In my head it made a nice distinction between the me who was out and about meeting people, doing things, and generally being busy, and the me who liked nothing better than curling up under my duvet and not leaving the house. In some ways it did make it easier to go to work - I could ‘put on’ Cat Kelly, and just get on with it. Cat Kelly was good with people. However, even before I was consciously aware of the masking I was doing, I used to get frustrated that other people couldn’t tell when Cat Kelly got back in the box and I was just me again. If I was working at a festival I was quite happy to chat to people after my workshops, or after my gigs, when I still had Cat Kelly on - but then someone would spot me in the queue for potato wedges and want to chat to me about something, and, although I did my best to be polite, I would be inwardly cringing at my awkwardness, and baffled as to how they couldn’t see that I wasn’t available for talking right now, because Cat Kelly had gone away and Cat McGill does not like small talk. (I mean, obviously I do understand that we look pretty similar from the outside.)

The penny dropped a few months ago, when I had started to suspect I was autistic. I decided that I wasn’t going to mask any more, and did a complete revamp of my professional life so that everything was in my new name. (I did have to have the conversation a few times about how, yes, I had got married, but no actually not that recently, in fact it’s been about five years now.)

However. Taking the mask off is quite a scary thing. I wrote in my last post about how I feel that I haven’t quite done what I ought to have done in my career, and today I’ve been wondering whether part of that is down to the masking. I’ve been writing regularly for about five years now, but it’s been scattered all over the place, hidden under various pseudonyms, on three or four different blogs. I’m quite happy to stand up in front of hundreds of people and teach them a song, but if they’re just there to hear me sing - even my Cat Kelly mask isn’t quite thick enough to cope with that. My whole life was about being in the background, putting other people first, making other people feel good, or look good, achieve something. And I was in the background, safe, and yet frustrated. Both wanting to be seen, and terrified of being seen.

My whole life was about being in the background... safe, and yet frustrated. Both wanting to be seen, and terrified of being seen. Click to Tweet

What I have realised over the last few years, but even more so over the last few weeks, is that people do like to read my writing. I write in a way that people can relate to, and a lot of people find it helpful. I like that, because I do like to be helpful, and the process of writing it helps me too, so it’s a win-win really. Today I decided to bring all my different writing together in one place. I’ll be honest, I nearly set up a new website for it. But 2019 is my year for streamlining my work, and living more authentically, so I decided to put it all here, in one place, as me. 

As I have taken a break from trying to please all of the people all of the time I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I actually want to spend my life doing, what I want to give my time to, and what interests and excites me, and I really want to use this knowledge to get some focus into my professional life. Bringing together all my various strands of thought in one place has given me some new insights in to what connects them all. If I had to choose one word to summarise it all, it would be relationships. (Which is a little ironic, coming from the social-phobic autistic over here.) In some ways, it’s the autism that has nurtured this fascination of what makes people tick; it’s not something I instinctively understand, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been absolutely fascinated by it. A lot of my work is about using music to connect, build relationships, and bring people together. My first full-length book is about how to build a relationship with a child who’s been traumatised by adoption. My writing on autism explores my relationship with myself.

It is nerve-wracking, thinking of having this all together, in one place, because there’s nothing to hide behind any more. It feels a bit strange that people who sing in my choirs might read this post, and realise that the Cat McGill who stands up in front of them every week acting like a wally to make them laugh is the same Cat McGill who is sometimes so wracked with social anxiety that I’m unable to leave the house. (In fact, in a very real sense, music provides a safe and structured way for me to connect with people.) I admit, I am nervous about revealing this much of myself, but it’s not because I don’t want anyone to know, and it’s not because I think people will judge me. Maybe it’s actually because I think they’ll probably say nice things, and I never quite know how to handle that. It means so much to me when people like what I do, but I find that quite difficult to express.*

So perhaps we should make an agreement. If you’ve read this, and you like it, and you want to tell me about it, then maybe email me? Or tweet me, leave a comment, whatever suits you best. And if you see me in person and want to tell me then maybe limit it to a couple of words and a hug. I do like hugs.

 

*Having said that, if you have a specific question, then ask away, as I can talk for hours once I know what you are interested in hearing about..!

I have had a very mixed experience with the world of employment. I often feel like I haven't really achieved the things I'm capable of, haven't got where I want to be in my career. Where I'm capable of. I don't quite mean that I haven't reached the pinnacle of my career yet, I mean that I, as I am today, right now, ought to be doing better than I am.

I'm pretty sure this is not a uniquely autistic thing, but there are a few things I need to unpack about why I've struggled in work, so that I can move on and do better. I also really want to do this in a balanced way, so I can work out what I do well, as well as what I struggle with.

To the outside world, I think I look quite successful. People are often saying nice things about 'amazing' things I've done, but I have come to the conclusion that they are using completely different measures of success to me. It's quite difficult for me to marry up these positive comments with how I feel inside - again, not exclusively an autistic thing, I know, but I think there's an additional element in that I find it really difficult to understand how other people see me. (I have an awful lot to say on theory of mind, but that will have to wait for another day!)

I'm thinking about all of this a lot at the moment because I've been approached by an organisation who would like me to come and work for them. I'm currently self-employed and the idea of working for someone else terrifies me - I've had some pretty bad experiences in the past. However, this job, and this organisation, are both amazing, and I would really like to see if I can give it a go. I have already mentioned my autism to them, and they are very open to working with me on accommodations but the trouble is, I don't really know what I need. I'm still at such an early stage of exploring it all myself that I have no idea of what to ask for. I've been talking it over with my husband and decided to try and work my way through some of my previous experiences to see if I can pinpoint why things went wrong previously, and also when they went well, and what was different.

One of the things I love most about being freelance is the ability to have total control over how I spend my days. I once worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school where I had absolutely no say in how my day was spent. Requests for assistance would come in to my line manager and she would assign me to various departments at particular times. I would turn up and be told what they wanted me to do. I didn't mind the work, as such, and I enjoyed the variety in my day, but I hated being sent here there and everywhere with no idea of how I was going to spend the day until I got there. The music teacher got really territorial over me, and used to insist that I be sent over to the music department because she thought it was demeaning that I should be pumping up basketballs in PE when I was such a talented musician. And then she would have me sorting out her sheet music and really didn't see the irony in that. I felt dehumanised, like a useful tool to be passed around, and I hated it. The stress of it made me ill, and I left.

Shortly after that, I ended up working as an administrator for the Police, and I LOVED it. My dad told me afterwards that he'd thought I had a problem with authority, so was quite relieved when I managed to stick it out at the Police. At the time I was a bit affronted by that, but looking back now I can see why he thought it. I have no problem with authority when my values are aligned with theirs, I am clear about what their job is and what mine is (by their actions as well as in theory) and I feel respected and valued as a member of the team. When those things aren't in place, then yeah I guess I do have a problem with that sort of authority, and I also have a problem keeping that to myself!

I loved it at the Police. There was a very clear hierarchy, and I may have been right at the bottom of it but my role was valued by the others in the team. I was clear on what my tasks were. Some of them needed to be done first thing in the morning, the rest I could manage as I pleased. On the whole I was trusted to get on with things, but some of the tasks would link in with what the Sergeant was doing so I always knew that she was keeping an eye on things, and she would come and tell me if she wanted something done slightly differently.

So how can I summarise the differences between these two jobs and how they made me feel? Working with the Police there was a mixture of regular, daily tasks, and stuff that was different every day. Expectations were clear, and I understood my place within the team, and felt valued as a member. I had some control over how my day was spent, and trusted that my boss would be clear about whether a task was time-limited, and if it wasn't, would leave it up to me to manage.

I think one of the key things I struggled with as a TA was not having any autonomy over my own time, but also not having any structure or predictability. I later became a teacher, so whereas my time was still arranged for me at least I knew in advance what I would be doing day to day.

I absolutely loved teaching, but the strain of 'being a teacher' was too much for me. In addition to all of the social contact, which would leave me exhausted but not really understanding why, there was so much in the culture that I couldn't handle. The thing I probably struggled most with was that the things that thought were important about what I did at school really didn't seem to tally up with the things that the senior management thought were important. I worked really hard to make my classroom a safe and supportive space for the pupils to be creative, to try things out and take risks, and to learn how to support each other constructively, because these are the things I thought were important. It seemed to me that the senior managers considered the clothes I chose to wear were more important, along with ticking all the right boxes, attending all the right meetings, and making sure children lined up silently outside the classroom at the start of the lesson. (I was a music teacher for heavens sake, I actively encouraged them to make noise!)

It was this mismatch of values that meant I couldn't stay in teaching, but there were other aspects I found difficult which I think could be useful to reflect on for future work, and these were all do to with my difficulty with executive functioning, or in other words, my ability to mentally organise tasks so that I could complete them. At the time, I'd never heard the phrase 'executive function', but what I did know was that I often felt scatty, lazy, or disorganised. My desk was always a complete mess (and yet I could find whatever I needed on there, so 'disorganised' isn't quite accurate), and I got in to trouble for forgetting to go to meetings, or more accurately, not realising that I was supposed to go in the first place. I did have one spectacular blow up with a school that ended up with me signed off with work-related stress, and negotiating a termination my contract with a pay-off (via my union) because of the way it was all handled. It wasn't until after I was diagnosed with autism that I could completely forgive myself over that. Don't get me wrong, they handled it terribly, and if I'd had enough emotional energy I should have taken them to tribunal over it, but I was so entrenched in this mindset that I was a terrible person because I couldn't organise myself in the way that they expected me to that I used to get panic attacks just driving through the village where the school was, and for a good year or so afterwards would feel anxious when crossing the threshold of any school.

As I said, it's only since my diagnosis that I've been able to look back at that period of my life with self-compassion, and start to understand what I went through, and what led me to it. All of this happened around ten years ago, and I've only forgiven myself in the last two, three weeks tops. It takes a great deal of time, and emotional energy, to unpack thirty eight years of believing I was one way only to find that wasn't the case after all.

I don't think I've got all the answers by any means, and I think I'll need to come back to this question again, but for now writing this post has definitely helped me work through some of the thoughts in my head. Moving forward in to 2019, if I do decide to take this job then here are some of the things I will need to bear in mind:

- I like it best when I understand exactly how an organisation works, and how I fit in to it. If you want me to be a minion, I need to know that. You can't employ me as a 'specialist' if you actually want me me as a minion, because that is going to really bother me, and you won't like it when I use my specialist knowledge to tell you how things ought to be done. (That's a whole other story...!)

- I need to know that my values align with yours, because if they don't I can't work for you. I just can't.

- I need reassurance that everyone else in the team is doing the bits that they are supposed to be doing, otherwise I can get anxious and try to control everything, just to make sure it all gets done. If something needs doing in a certain order, I will be pretty much incapable of doing it outside of that order, so find it difficult to work around other people being late with things, for example. Equally, I like to know that someone is checking up on me and making sure I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing, and that they are going to tell me straight away if that's not the case.

- I am quite capable of organising and managing my own time, but if you are expecting me to be at something that you have organised, and set the time and place for, then I may need reminding more than once.

- I like variety, but I like it best within certain constraints.

- I work best when I have my own bits of work that I am responsible for, and a certain amount of freedom over how they are done. However, you and I will need to make sure I completely understand what outcomes are wanted from these bits of work, because if you don't make it clear, and I do it how I think it should be done, I am not going to like it when you want me to change it all at the end.

I'm sure there's more, but I think that's probably enough for now.

I am taking part in the Instagram Chronic Illness January Photo Challenge, and I thought I'd try and write a few blog posts to go along with the pictures I'm posting. Today's theme is 'Diagnosis'.

One of my main motivations for writing about my experience with autism - aside from using the process of writing to help me work through my thought process - is to provide another voice for women who have lived a significant portion of their lives without knowing that they're autistic. I'm certain I will know other people who are on the spectrum, but haven't realised it, and if writing honestly about my experiences can help someone else make a connection with their own life then I feel I ought to do it.

So - diagnosis.

The first thing I did, before I even thought about seeing my GP, was an awful lot of online research. The process of thinking 'oh my goodness... I think I might be autistic... everything suddenly makes sense...' was quite a nervewracking one, because what if I was wrong? I don't even know if I can explain how anxious it made me. Having just had this humongous lightbulb moment, which appeared to explain everything that I found difficult about life, and everything that I'd struggled with in the past, what if I was mistaken, and it turned out I was just not very good at being a human - which is how I already felt a lot of the time. I have worked so hard all my life to fit in, to be liked, to make other people happy, and never quite feeling like was getting anything out of it. I couldn't work out what I was doing wrong. Here I had potentially discovered an explanation for all of that. Maybe.

I had a lot of preconceptions about what autism is, and isn't, and most of them were based on what I had learned during my psychology studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back in those days, there was a very male-dominated narrative around autism (there still is, but it has got a bit better at least) and we were taught that women were very unlikely to be autistic, but when they were, it was very severe. We now know this is not entirely true.

There are some great resources online describing the experiences of autistic women, and I would encourage anyone who thinks they may be autistic to have a look at these.

National Autistic Society

Tania Marshall's Aspienwoman screening checklist

Samantha Craft's unofficial checklist (this was the one I found that made me realise I was autistic)

The Aspie Quiz (a screening tool - worth looking at)

Musings of an Aspie

What women with Autism want you to know

The Psychologist

I spent a long time reading everything I could find online about women with autism. (The above list is by no way extensive, a quick google will give you a lot more to be getting on with!) I also joined in conversations on Twitter with other autistic people, a lot of them female and late-diagnosed, like myself. The #ActuallyAutistic hashtag is a great place to start, and #AskingAutistics if you have any particular questions.

Once I was fairly convinced I was autistic, I decided that I definitely didn't want to get formally diagnosed, that just knowing myself was enough for me. Then I decided it wasn't. A lot of the autistic community are very accepting of self-diagnosis, and although I have no problem with other people calling themselves autistic on the basis of their own research, for me it wasn't enough. I couldn't allow myself to accept that I was autistic without an official diagnosis.

It was scary though, not least because of the over-reliance of male stereotypes in the diagnostic criteria. I had been reading about how it is much harder to diagnose women with autism because it often displays so differently, and the testing hasn't really caught up with that knowledge. It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but eventually I went to my GP and asked to be referred for a diagnosis.

In the area where I live, the adult diagnostic service is contracted to an organisation called Healios, who carry out all their appointments online, over video call. It was a bit of a strange idea at first, but it actually worked out really well for me.

The first part of the diagnostic process was a questionnaire, which I went through with a clinical psychologist. There was 80 questions in total, and it took us about three hours to get through it all. (For anyone who's interested, it was the RAADS-r.) To be diagnosed as autistic you have to have had difficulties before a certain age, so for all the questions I was asked whether this was something I'd experienced as a child, as an adult, or both. I found it hard work, going through the questions. Some of them were unexpectedly difficult, making me think about things in a way that I hadn't before. Some of them I felt didn't quite apply to me, but nearly did, and I felt anxious about whether that might be the male bias in the test showing up. I found the sessions quite exhausting, and usually needed to lie down for a bit afterwards! My psychologist was lovely though, and really supportive.

After the questionnaire was over, I had to see a different psychologist for what they called an 'observation' session. It's best practice for autism to have more than one clinician involved in the diagnosis, so don't be alarmed if this happens to you. The observations sessions were based on a test called the ADOS-2, and I found these even harder than the questions! One of the things I had to do was tell a story from looking at a series of pictures. I found this surprisingly hard to do and it made me quite emotional, but not nearly as emotional as when I had to make up a story completely from scratch, based on five random objects on the screen. The psychologist had done it before me (with different objects) to show me what he meant, and I remember doing a double take when he started telling me this story about 'Mr Paperclip' as it hadn't even occurred to me to animate the objects like that. When it was my turn I stared at the screen, trying to copy what he'd done, make something up, and I just couldn't. My brain froze. Even though the psychologist had literally just demonstrated how to do the task, I couldn't do it. I got quite teary over it, but I'm not sure my clinician really understood why. It wasn't really to do with the fact I'd failed at the task (he was reassuring me that I wasn't the only one) but more to do with the realisation that I was being asked to do something ostensibly fairly simple but my brain simply did not work that way. In a way, it was validation that it wasn't all in my head, but at the same time a wake up call about the fact that actually, some things are really difficult for me. All my life I have avoided stuff that I'm not good at, and I think I have some pretty deep rooted feelings of shame associated with failing. Perhaps that's something to explore another day.

It took about three hours to get through all the stuff in the observations sessions (this was split over three sessions) and after that it was a couple of weeks before I was sent the draft report, formally diagnosing me as autistic.

The report, again, was difficult to read. I think it's somewhat the nature of the clinical system at the moment, it's all done on a deficit-based model, and reading in black and white about all the things I'm not good at I found really difficult. At the same time, having a formal diagnosis was incredibly validating.

If this happens to you, I would really recommend involving yourself in some more positive discussions around autism, and what it means to be autistic. There are some wonderful things about my neurology that make me exceptionally good at spotting patterns in things, that allow me to hyper focus on things I find interesting, that mean my attention to detail is second to none. I'm learning about myself more every day, whether it's noticing things about how I'm reacting in certain situations, or having a sudden lightbulb moment about something that happened twenty years ago. 

My diagnosis was not the end of the journey, but the beginning.

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