[Chatter] At Last, Let’s Talk About Depression.

I think over the last year or two I may have attempted to draft out this post four or five times. As I wrote this very first paragraph for this working draft, it was January of 2018. I knew I wanted to put this up eventually, and I felt like it was approaching the right time to do so. I also knew that I have always struggled to express the feelings (or lack of) in a proper way that feels like it’s doing my experience justice, so in order to get my words out on time, I started early.

Do feel free to grab some tea.

If you’re a friend I have directed to this post, it’s because I’m crap at explaining this in person or even over WhatsApp, especially when I’ve been caught off-guard on a Sunday evening. All this is just me talking about things I have always wanted to talk to you all about but never got the words right for. I hope none of you mind.

Here’s a Trigger Warning for Depression, Self-Harm and Suicide.

For a long time, I didn’t quite relate to the idea of needing a trigger warning (even if I understood the reason for it) but recently I have been feeling extra sensitive towards this topic myself. It’s not particularly graphic or anything, though. If you’re not sure whether to read on, I’d err on the side of caution and not continue.


Firstly, I may as well tell you what the symptoms of depression are. We can spot them together as I back-track through my life. Here it is, the DSM-5 criteria for a diagnosis of depression:

A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning; at least one of the symptoms is either

  1. depressed mood or
  2. loss of interest or pleasure.

Note: Do not include symptoms that are clearly attributable to another medical condition.

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day.
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick).
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

B. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
C. The episode is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or to another medical condition.


The earliest recorded indication that I was depressed probably goes back to 2015 when I was still 17. In fact, it was on this blog because I had no other outlet. I’ve always written my honest thoughts on this blog, as bland as my life was, because it’s just not the same otherwise. To sort-of quote one of my old blog posts, pretending is draining. It’s the same reason that I love to share happy things with others and it’s for the same reason that I am a terrible liar.

So I was looking all the way to 2015, the first year of the blog and my first year of A-Levels (Y12), and life doesn’t seem bad. Mundane? Yes. Occasionally, I got angry, and I got stressed, but within what I thought were normal means for a student of Hell A-Levels. I went to work, I slept, I tried my best to manage everything and was failing. I was easily triggered, especially by my school reports, and I clung to my hobbies (and this blog) a lot as a means of coping.

My grades were suffering, and teachers were pulling me aside to ask me if anything was wrong. I said no because, at the time, I genuinely didn’t know. Some teachers thought I was just lazy and lacking effort (which I admit I agreed with). I mention Student Support briefly in this post from April 2015 from when I got sent there instead. They thought I was overworking myself and lacking in sleep (the latter being true). I didn’t feel this was the case as I simply was not getting anything done despite always being at my desk. I was stuck in this spiral of unproductivity, lack of sleep, and hating myself all in abundance. It was mostly hating myself, though.

For quite a while, I thought most of my issues were the fault of the school or the education system. Now, after lots of rational thinking, I don’t blame my school for my depression at all, because how could they have helped me out when I had no clue what was going on, mentally speaking, myself?

In October 2015 (the beginning of Y13 and my second year of A-Levels), I expressed a thought on this blog post about wanting to see the GP about my mental health. This means that I must have been thinking about it for quite a while, prior to that post going up. I had probably at least googled the symptoms and taken the quiz on the NHS site. Note the mental breakdowns (I think this means my negative emotions peaking and crying myself to sleep), and note the P.S. where I mention that I was finding it hard to concentrate. Yet at this point in time, I ended up not going to the GP about it.

I mentioned the breakdowns again in February 2016, talking about stupid school assessments, but this time more casually. I was getting the impression that this was a normal thing, that my feelings were not significant enough to seek help for and that this was part and parcel of being an A-Level student. My emotions were fluctuating, even then, but now it was so long ago I can’t really mention any specifics.

Later, I decided to include less of my feelings on the blog and more of what I was actually doing, so there’s not much there that shows what I was feeling until much later.

What I do remember, though, is that during that school year we studied depression as part of the abnormal psychology topic, and I distinctly remember the lesson on diagnostic criteria – looking at the list of symptoms on the board and thinking ‘all of that sounds like me.’

Anyway, I finished my last year of school, and my A-Levels went terribly (I say that, but I didn’t fail any) and I decided to take a gap year. Despite this, life was not particularly awful – in fact, it seemed like a lot of fun judging from past blog posts. Things seemed okay. I was beginning to branch out with what I was doing whilst making time for my hobbies and, well, widened my horizons a bit.


In the latter half of March 2017, I booked my first appointment with my GP for my mental health. I thought of having this post up on the 28th, a year since the date of my first appointment. It would be the first of quite a few that spring/summer. To this day I am still incredibly proud of myself for doing the adult thing and picking up the phone. I was so terrified.

At the appointment, I wanted to explain things logically to my GP, but I ended up breaking down crying, saying something like ‘I don’t know, I just… I just feel so sad all the time’. The truth was, that was the first major step I had taken to do something about my depression and I felt the impact of the moment – I didn’t know whether any of what I was doing would help, but I knew it was important that I did something.

My GP asked me why I was having the emotions that I had (as opposed to the what of early 2015) and I replied that I genuinely did not know. Where earlier I was comparing my experiences with others and not finding my situation comparable to them, this time I was on my gap year and life really did not seem bad at the time. My depression was, and still is, very irrational of me considering my circumstances.

I went to see a counsellor. It helped a little bit, but not that much. I think most of the change in mindset afterwards happened by itself.


A month and a bit later, I was a week after finishing my medication and my next GP appointment was not for another two days. On the 14th of May, I was not in a good mood, and neither was my mom. We got into a heated spat about something very minor. I broke down in the bathroom, and I saw the open cabinet door with the pair of scissors in it.

Scissors are relatively very blunt compared to other sharp objects, so all I ended up with were some very red, raised lines, and the tiniest beads of blood. It took a lot of pressure and self-hate to make those marks at all, let alone draw blood. Had that been a razor (we don’t use hand razors in this house) I might have ended up in hospital or worse. I spent a lot of time afterwards looking at the marks on my arm, ‘trying to figure out what they mean’, according to a diary entry. The lines are unnoticeable now but sometimes I wish I still had a scar to remind myself always that things were worse before and better now.

However, I wrote a private diary entry in an old notebook after my shower, and that’s enough. This is how I can write about it now because I knew it was a new low for me, and one that I needed reminding of. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready to be without the antidepressants yet, and I noticed multiple times later on that if I didn’t take my medication for a few days my mood would crash pretty badly without any other obvious cause. Needless to say, I tried not to go without them again and scheduled my appointments appropriately for the next few months.


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In September 2017, I started to evaluate my mood on a scale of +10 to -10. My average mood when I am depressed being around -3 or -4. In general, I was feeling much better. I actually hadn’t taken my medication for months at that point but I didn’t feel awful and I didn’t feel a crash as I stopped. I went out with some friends on the 9th September, and my mood was about a +7, according to my diary: “I felt so good. I can’t stress that enough, I’m so surprised by it.”

Then I managed to crash to a -7 which I now have pegged as ‘suicidal thoughts with minor urges to actually carry it out’. I genuinely wanted to jump out of a window, and I was petrified that I would. I couldn’t sleep and ended up writing in my diary at 2:20am, two hours after getting home, after breaking all sorts of rules. It took me weeks to climb back up from that -7. I thought it might have been the alcohol, at the time, but now I don’t think that was the case. It was at least the first time that I realised how sensitive my mood could be to change even if things were good.

Again, nothing was inherently wrong with my life besides my feelings. There was no ‘why’. I had exciting events planned and I was about to start at my university. There was a complete mismatch between my situation and my mood, objectively, and I think that lead to a dysphoria, a ‘state of unease or dissatisfaction with life’ that was really hard to shake off. When people ask me what’s wrong, there’s genuinely nothing wrong, and it’s hard to explain that I can’t control my mood fully even with all my best attempts to do so.

But I did write that night about how my parents can’t be blamed for things. That they worked their butts off and always did the best they could for their kids and that I felt bad they ended up with a crap daughter like myself. It’s strange, because I’ve never felt so comfortable with myself by my own standards but the moment that the other people I love are involved I’m not worth anything anymore. 

That feeling still persists from time to time. I’m working on it.


 

20180211125525_IMG_7703-02-01.jpegSince we are on a timeline, I want to also mention Jonghyun of SHINee as I’ve been meaning to say something about him, too. Never found the right words, though. He committed suicide on the 18th December, 2017 after a long battle with depression. He was a successful performer, y’know – world at his fingertips and all, and he still felt that way. He finished all the preparations for his new album, Poet/Artist, and he even filmed some variety shows. His album was released posthumously. It’s fantastic.

I can’t claim to know what he was thinking. From what I could tell, he had been planning it for a long time, all whilst thinking of who and what he loved and was leaving behind. As a member of SHINee and as a solo artist he knew he was very, very, very well loved, and still chose to make the decision to end his life. I think the album and what he left behind were all signs of that – that he cared so deeply for his family, his friends, and his fans. I think one of the few things that kept him wanting to be alive was just that.

That’s something I relate to. For me, I think my life is small and trivial, but my friends are my world. I would not want to wish the after-effects of my death on them, and if it means staying alive for them, then sure. I think suicide, in a sense, is selfish in that way (I’m not sure how better to word that). What I’m trying to say is, I think Jonghyun chose to end his life as a final act of self-care, and still he was thinking of those he loved by planning his album and his suicide. I am sure he has found his own happiness now.

Again, I cannot pretend I know him, and I just wanted to share some thoughts on my point of view, and finally get it off my chest. I didn’t realise it would shake me so badly. I cried reading the initial announcements on the news, and even weeks later I feel tremendously sad at anything involving him, like Lee Hi’s performance of a song he wrote. I haven’t been able to listen to the final track of his posthumous album yet. It’s a piano ballad. I heard the first few notes and noped completely out.


This brings us to roughly the present day. This section is actually the hardest to write, because I never feel like I have a proper grasp of my feelings until long after the time has passed.

However, I promise you that right now, as I finish up this post before it goes out tomorrow, I’m in a good place. Maybe a little muted, but good. Depression never feels like the kind of fight that is won. 

Most days I’m good. I have things I want to do, small aspirations, almost never a plan. My modal average day is no longer a -4, but more of a 0 or -1. In fact, the week of my birthday I was consistently at +4/5. That was great, and I long for more weeks like that.

Other days, I don’t feel good, but not bad either. On those days, instead of caring a little less, which can be good for me, I don’t care at all. All my emotions seem muted or absent. Sometimes, I ‘slip’ a little, back into that old pit of sad. Sometimes, I feel without purpose or just aimless, and I have moments of sadness welling up in my chest throughout the day. Sometimes, before I know it, a bad day has become a bad week – time can really fly when you’re depressed.

However, since last year I’ve been hyper-aware of my feelings and as such, I’ve been better at spotting these kinds of days and clamping down on them ASAP. I’ve found that the best way to do that is to have all the important crap started and sorted earlier so I can take time out for myself. Then things are mostly OK.

Although sometimes, my wrists itch, and it’s frustrating.

Even now, I have times where I doubt my experiences. How serious are my symptoms now? I am constantly comparing my current mental state to that of last year and I think it might prove counteractive eventually. For example, I often think ‘this can’t be that bad of a day. I have had worse. I have survived worse.’ It sounds pretty good until I remember that I have never been able to justify my awful feelings and low mood days and I’m not about to start. In reality, it’s ‘this is not that bad of a day, but I feel like crap anyway.’

The third type of day is the worst kind. I’m having a good day, and I am happy, and I’m laughing a lot. That’s good. But beyond that feeling of happiness, there’s a pit somewhere and I am still stuck down it. Is it a crap ton of self-doubt? Is it the sense of impending doom? Is it the feeling of knowing that happiness is more temporary than sadness? I hate that I am this stubborn in my sadness.

I have slowly become more accustomed to talking about my depression to my friends, especially the few I love the most because I know they worry about me and appreciate that they do, even if I don’t want them to. Whilst it’s so easy to let a bad day pass and pretend to my friends that it never happened, these days I can just tell them it’s a bad day.

Not all the time, though. I actually tend to rotate and tell one person each time, so they’re not all worrying about me at once.


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On top of that… I’m twenty now. It feels like a happy little miracle. As I told someone one time, ‘my mental health got to a point where I genuinely did not think about being alive for this long. Like I wanted to get better but didn’t know what I wanted to live for.’

As a result of this, I didn’t keep any aspirations over the last few years beyond ‘I want to make it to the end of the day having smiled at least once’.

When I was 13 I had my heart set on writing. I still do, as it’s my Plan A (Plan Ambitious). That said, I wish I felt the urge to be writing regularly and this blog is the closest I am getting to my daily quota of creative writing. My Plan B (Plan Believable) is something more akin to teaching languages, working abroad or working in a field of psychology after I graduate. Perhaps even all three. My short term goals are to study well, save money, and successfully get a study placement in Korea. Heck, guys, I have GOALS. I have things I want to aim for! That’s pretty amazing!

I finally see that I have a life ahead of me. Isn’t that the most terrifying thing?

Thank you for reading this far.

Until next time,

X

[Chatter] A Quiet Evening

I’m sure it happens to a lot of us.

I’ve noticed recently that I go through these phases of being very talkative, oversharing and social, then feeling very very quiet and reserved, and wanting to keep to myself as much as possible. Even now, I don’t feel like writing a lot. I don’t particularly feel like doing anything, actually.

Last night, I was having a bit of an ‘off’ evening where my mood was really low for no reason. I was struggling to take care of myself and had finally pushed myself into the shower, and forced myself to do my skincare and brush my teeth. As a bonus I even body-buttered myself. But on these days I also feel this strong urge of not wanting to sleep, and it was past midnight at this point.

This is a rather regular occurrence for me, by the way. I usually just try not to work against it and take some ‘me’ time without guilt and, when sleep takes over, the feeling lessens in the morning and I can take things from there. These phases pass. I am working on a long post about my depression, for later this month. In writing it, I realised how much this blog helped to track my emotions, so I do want to be talking more about my own emotions here.

Anyway.

I took out my deck of tarot cards. I was partly inspired by Alice’s post here, where she had her cards read, because it got me thinking, and reminded me that I have a set of cards. Do check out her blog – I find it very fascinating to read about her experiences living in Japan as someone who wants to live there one day or at least study abroad in Korea.

I’m not a heavy believer of tarot and I am obviously not a skilled reader. If anything, the cards present more questions than answers. However, I like to use them as a source of ideas and reflection, and they sometimes offer a new perspective on a problem I have.

I’ve been meaning to invest in a Rider-Waite deck and may actually get around to it soon. My current deck is just a small introductory one my friends picked out for a birthday once, but I really like the small size and its design.

A card that represents a part of my past that may be influencing my present

10 of Wands

Wands represent energy, growth and personal enterprise. The picture on this card depicts a man carrying a lot of sticks. I think it suggests a heavy workload. It brings to mind the idea of taking on too many new challenges and not being able to handle them all. Also, as you all know, I keep a lot of hobbies although I am not active with all of them at the moment, and this card is also making me think of that.

A card that represents the present situation –

Temperance, reversed

The image depicts a woman pouring something from jar to jar, amongst vines and a tortoise and a hare. It reminds me of how I like to be busy (the hare) but also need time to take it slow, like with my talkative and quiet periods (the tortoise).

Temperance means self-restraint. In particular, voluntary restraint or self-moderation. Mine is upside down, which could mean the opposite, or it could emphasise the normal meaning. To me, it means something is abnormal here. Am I too controlled or too uncontrolled right now?

I’m not fully sure what it could be referring to as there isn’t anything, in particular, I have been practising extra restraint or freedom in. Perhaps it could be about my mood, which is often out of my control and definitely was last night… but I find that to be too convenient of an interpretation, perhaps.

A card that represents an issue of the future

the King of Swords.

The picture depicts a king with grapes and a fox.

This card represents independent judgement and rationality, two things I can lack at times. Swords represent interaction, communication as well as intellectual pursuits, so I usually take the meaning in the context of work and study. This card suggests that I might improve in these aspects or that opportunites will arise in which I can, and this will be something that challenges me in the future.

A card that represents what can be done in the present to prepare for the future

2 of cups, reversed

The picture depicts a boy and girl holding a wine on which cups rest. SIGH. Cups in general represent the emotional and relationship side of life. I assume this card means relying on others for emotional support. This card could also be advising me to keep things light-hearted with a focus on relieving tension.

So, these were just a few things for me to think about and pass the time with. I’m always a little surprised at how applicable these can be and what I can learn from these despite not reading seriously.

Have you ever had a look at tarot card reading?

Until next time,

X

Twenty Thoughts from A Twenty Swanna (i.e. it’s my Birthday.)

Hi everyone!
It will be my twentieth birthday as this post rolls out. I can’t quite believe that I’ve survived two decades of life so I’m kind of chuffed.
Did I do anything particularly special? Er… no. My regular outing with Tray has had to be moved due to uni things and on top of that, we both have university lectures on our actual birthdays! The official celebration isn’t happening for another two months as a result.
I wasn’t actually feeling a big celebration though and didn’t plan anything in the meantime. Well, I attempted to plan things but also had uni events and deadlines to keep up with. In the end, I ended up with very impromptu plans to go out for food with friends… three times this week!

 

THANKS FOR THE CAKE, RK. I celebrated really early with her as she flew home over a week ago. I love her chocolate handiwork.

 

I thought that ‘twenty things I learned in the last twenty years’ would be a good thing to do. After all, what is this blog without some sort of reflection?
But then I ran out of things after ten, so now it’s just ‘twenty thoughts‘.
Even then, I struggled with thinking of stuff.

One.
Care a little less.

This is my mantra for everything, these days.
I care less about people’s opinions of me when I talk. This does result in me sounding a little passive-aggressive, sometimes, but also being less willing to take other people’s crap. I also seem to have a knack for flirting when I am into it.
I care less so I don’t stress too much about my work, too.
In the words of my brother, things just are not that deep.

Two.
Make the best decision you can, and then put your all into what you decide to do.

This way, I end up with fewer regrets. It’s easy to just say ‘don’t do things you’ll regret’ but that’s the best advice I can give on actually preventing them!

Three.
Get that sleep in.

I know for sure now that I function best on at least 9 hours of sleep and I have been better at getting to bed early when I need to. Luckily, my uni schedule has been nice for this, too. I’ve definitely noticed that over a longer period of time running on sub-par nights, my mood also suffers in ways I can’t help. I’m pretty sure there are now scientific studies that found the same thing. I will have to find them sometime.

Four.
How to dress for my body type.

As my body changed in my teens, I didn’t know what to do with it. My style went from tracksuits all day, every day, to A-line tops, leggings and canvas shoes, to discovering skater skirts that flatter my waist, paired with nice ankle boots. Your teenage fashion is always going to be cringe-worthy but take what you like most about yourself and accentuate it, always try things in store and don’t buy on a whim.
Yeah, with my body type online shopping is mostly a no-go.

Five.
Keep the curtains open in the winter.

I struggle to get up in the mornings when it’s dark. So sometimes, I leave my curtains open and it does help me get up when my room is [fractionally] brighter. As for the summer… I’ll figure that out later.

Six.
Cafes.

I hugely underestimated the power of a nice coffee shop.
Even if I usually order a pot of tea at one.

Seven.
Adults can be idiots too.

I was taught to respect my elders and I still do, but I was also taught that they are never wrong, and that’s not right. Respect their opinion, by all means, but they can be wrong… And hypocritical. Especially now I’m an adult myself, this has never been more apparent. That’s right… This has been an open declaration that I’m an idiot.

Eight.
Food costs a lot.

SOB.

Nine.
Sharing is [Self] Caring

Okay, I know I have self-confessed tendencies to gossip which I blame on my mother’s side of the family. But that’s not what this is about.

When I am struggling with something, usually my emotions or other decisions or general stress, just being able to vent out to someone is a real help. Most times organising my thoughts for them helps me to find the answer myself, and when I’m being extra irrational my friends are the best voices of reason, too.

Ten.
Don’t wait for free time. Make it.

I think I picked up this piece of advice during a year of NaNoWriMo and honestly, I’ve never let go of it since it clicked. Sometimes, instead of waiting for a free day to draw or knit or read, you have to take matters into your own hands.
Find that spare half hour.
Push around the minutes.
Make time.

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A note about my name – you could spell it Su-Wa-N, Su-Wo-N, Su-A-N or Su-O-N in Katakana. It doesn’t matter since it follows the pronunciation, and on top of that, there are sounds that can’t be written in Japanese.

Eleven.
Friends aren’t made in a day.

This one I keep having to remind myself of since starting at university. Of course, I’m not going to be besties with everyone. It takes years of hanging out until we have too much dirt on each other to let each other go in order for that to happen.

Twelve.

Skills aren’t mastered in a day either… and they take practice!

On one hand, my standards are really low. I’m happy to be alive, and I’m happy to be happy. But on the other hand, it’s difficult not to keep comparing myself to others my age with bigger achievements no matter how small it may seem.
Also, I know I still have a long way to go to reach the place I want to be with my writing and other skills, but I need to remind myself that I’m not really getting anywhere by not dedicating time to them. I haven’t worked on my novel in a while.

Thirteen.

Everyone should spend at least a summer working in retail.

You’d appreciate shopping a lot more, believe me. It doesn’t even have to be a summer – it could be the really busy Christmas period. Experience handling fussy customers and in the end you’ll wish you never have to be That Customer for someone else.

Fourteen.

You can’t look after other people
if you’re not looking after yourself.

I began to think about this since last year, but I was discussing life priorities with someone the other day and was reminded of this. On my own list of priorities, my mental health and wellbeing are at the top whereas for someone else it might be that they put everyone else before themselves.
Either is fine and doesn’t make you all the worse for it.

It’s just that when I’m under the weather, I’m of practically no use to anyone else.
But also, I have to look after myself so that my friends don’t have to stress about me since I know they worry about me sometimes.

Fifteen.

Honestly? Honesty.

I don’t know about you, but lying never got me anywhere.
If it’s important, the sooner it’s discussed the better.
In most cases.

Sixteen.

Be reasonable. Be rational.

This one mostly applies to my shopping habits, but it also applies to interacting with people, sometimes. It’s why I always go to my friends when I feel like my thoughts and opinion don’t make sense and needs objective input. It involves making an effort to understand someone else’s point of view before I go about judging them.

Seventeen.

There is always tomorrow.

No matter how terrible that day is, there is always the opportunity to go to bed and wake up feeling a little better and I’m grateful for that.

Eighteen.

Starting something is the first step towards finishing something.

This is especially true for writing as I find starting the hardest thing to do… even if I haven’t finished a novel yet.
It is less true for trying to exercise.

This brought to mind that quote from Adventure Time:
‘Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.’
-which I think ties into point twelve as well.

Nineteen.

Don’t start things last minute.

This might sound hypocritical of me since I can be guilty of this myself. But honestly, once I get started, as mentioned in point eighteen, the rest comes a bit easier. Start from the middle of something if you have to. But basically, if the thing is started early, such as the essay draft, that’s a little less to do later when you’ve suddenly been bogged down with work and other deadlines.

Twenty.

Blood is NOT thicker than water.

This one probably sounds a bit harsh but when it comes to my family, I am equal parts attached and apathetic. I am lucky to have really close friends in my siblings but beyond that… I have less sympathy. My family get no free passes because we have blood relations. That’s never quite made sense to me. However, I do also want to make an effort to be closer to my wider family in Vietnam, who always make me feel welcome when I am there, because recently I was wondering what I would do if my parents were not around to bridge the gap between us.


Okay, that was surprisingly hard! I didn’t realise that twenty things was so many. I don’t think I’ll be able to do thirty when I’m thirty…

Dad mentioned something about being grateful for being born and stuff, and I am – that’s a given. But I’m also grateful to myself for still being here, despite my horrid mental health. For making it through and letting me experience a lot of cool, fun stuff as of late. Parents get their own days to celebrate in mothers’ and fathers’ days but birthdays are for the individual to celebrate themselves and making it on their own strengths.

As a final point, I’m doing so many things as an adult that I never imagined I would be doing when I was a teenager or even younger. I didn’t think I would be a concert-goer or that I would ever go to a nightclub (I’ve only been once, but still). I’m actually relatively surprised at the amount of independence and freedom I have now even if I do still complain sometimes.
I mentioned that it’s difficult to make friends, but leaving primary school I had pretty much none, and leaving secondary school I have a handful of close friends and a bucket load of names I want to meet up over a pot of tea sometime. (If you went to my secondary school, that’s you. I’m serious, hit me up.) I’ve said this before, but honestly, if my eleven-year-old self could see me now, she’d cry in amazement.
My friends are the reason I’m still here – the reason I still choose to be here. If you’re a friend reading this, THANK YOU. I’m really bloody grateful for all of you. Heck, I’m crying happy tears.
Happy Birthday to Me.

Until next time,

X

My Photography Process

As another one of the Twenty Swans’ 3 year specials, I am including my current process for taking photos as my draft got long enough that I thought I should separate it from the main process post. Again, this is with a focus on beauty blogging.

I’m not gonna lie – my camera does so much of the work it’s insane but there are options less bank-breaking to explore! In particular, a light box for £20 can do SO MUCH.


My approach to writing posts and taking photos is very ‘grab-n-go’. As in, as soon as I notice the sun is out, I grab a shiny new product or whatever I need photos of, and I grab an item of clothing to use as the background, and I go.

My entire setup is on top of my bed, or my parents’ bed as the lighting in their room is usually better! I prop a pillow up or an A3 board I have lying around and cover the pillow in my chosen scarf or another clothing item.

The photos below are from previous posts (apart from one which is from a review that never went up, and another which is from an upcoming post) and all have an item from my wardrobe (or mom’s…) as the backdrop. I also think it adds the ‘at home blogger’ kind of touch without being overly put-together.

 

Some pointers:

  • pick interesting textures like faux fur coats, knits, satins or lace.
  • make sure it doesn’t make the photo too busy or clash with the product. This means you have to be careful with bold leopard print or overly flowery patterns.
  • It also goes without saying that you should avoid using anything with major pilling unless your background is going to be very blurred.

If my product can stand well upright, I would prefer to take a picture of it that way instead of on a flat lay. It also avoids the problem of having to find blu-tack to stop bottles rolling around and such, and for me, this also solves the problem of having my own shadow cast on my flat-lay photos all the time.)

 

I also like to use an object with a flat top as a display podium of sorts for my items. I stick it under the bit of clothing I’m also using as a backdrop, or I find something else that matches. What I use depends on the product. I have grabbed money tins, flat glasses cases and pots of body butter stacked up for this purpose.

Be aware of the colours you use for your background. On my DSLR the colours can change how the image registers, as well as the level of sunlight. Whilst I used a gorgeous white dress for a time, I found that it sometimes washed out the colours of the product a little. I can’t say if this will be helpful for you as I am still experimenting but so far that’s what I’ve noticed.

 

That said, sometimes white works super well and that dress remains a fail-safe if I ever need it.


So… that’s my current photography process. It’s changed a lot in the last year and I have been experimenting more since getting my new camera but all the things I learnt, I think can still apply to photography with my phone.

[I then went and attempted to recreate a shoot for an upcoming Lipsticks in Rotation post using my phone camera, and failed massively… ]
Here are some old photos from the blog in 2016 and even 2015 when I first started adding skin care to the blog, just so we can all compare them to the (even if I do say so myself) amazing shots above. The best photos were taken just inches from my window because that’s how hard it was to get nice lighting…

I think back then I was using either the family iPad or my current Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. Probably more of the family iPad.

 

Anyhow I hope that you learned something, however small, when reading this. Even if you didn’t, perhaps it was fun to read and look at my old photography!

Until next time,

X

[Chatter] Re: Exams

Hi everyone!

If you’re doing A-Level mocks or modular university exams, then exam weeks are upon us and I wish you all luck! Some of you have probably even finished now so I hope they all went well. My own exams start just as this post goes up and end on Friday.

Exams have never been my strong point – let me point you to the gap year that resulted – but I think I have ways to manage now. I tried to put in a little extra effort as soon as possible to account for the inevitable week-long slump (which happened. I think it’s passed. I sure hope so). Luckily my course is assessed through a variety of methods (compared to exams I love a good essay) and although these exams are still 75-85% of their respective modules it’s still a bit of weight off.

I’ve been sleeping less well recently. Some nights I just struggled lying awake, other nights I genuinely had to chant ‘bed, bed, bed’ to myself whilst still scribbling down a couple (okay, another paragraph) of words. It’s revision guilt. It happens. I never feel like I’ve done enough. I never really feel ‘stressed’ in the same way that others do as I feel so calm even now, but then I worry about not being worried.

The only way I have found to help combat that a bit is to go do a chore or something I’ve been putting off. Shake things up. Move around. But I’m even struggling to get my skincare routine done. I’m still scribbling down notes for some reason. But anyway… I usually get to bed in the belief that the next day will be better. That’s the mindset to keep.

But it’s so, so important for me to get nine/ten hours sleep and I’ve only been managing 7 on average. I would say 7 is recommended for a barely functioning Swanna, but nobody wants that. 8 is pretty good because I feel less like crap. If I only have 6 my immune system also doesn’t do too well and I will suddenly catch a cold (which I am generally pretty resilient to. I used to be that kid that was never ill.)

As a result of all that, I think my general mood took a hit but when I think about it my mood does do a bit of a consistent dive before my period starts anyway… Since getting treated for depression I’ve remained hyper-aware of how I am feeling and what contributes to major or concerning changes in my mood and I have been putting things in place to help with that.

So, if you have an exam, have you planned an after-exam treat yet? It was actually meant to be the Paramore Birmingham concert, for me, but due to timings that ended up being actually right before my exam week (!!) but my current treat is Pierce Brown’s book signing at the end of the month. No doubt I’ll find a way to get food or buy something nice immediately after my last exam too! But yeah, I always plan some kind of event and keep it there, set in stone. Make it a lil special.

Remember to look after yourselves and prioritise your mental health over your mental ability. There’s nothing that worries me more than people who survive off three hours of sleep (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!).

Until next time,

X


Days since last buying lipstick: 21
Lipstick worn today: Maybelline Creamy Matte in Brown Sugar over MaxFactor lipliner in Red Rush.

My Blogging Process

Hi everyone!

For Twenty Swans’ third anniversary I thought I would put up an extra post or two to celebrate it, about how I go about putting together something for the blog. This will mostly focus on my beauty posts since that is the only type of post with a tangible routine to it, and there will be two parts for my writing and photography. Today, I’ll be writing about… well, my writing.

Draft out an idea in my Evernote.

For me, Evernote is pretty fantastic because I have it as a smartphone and a desktop app, and when I am using it at uni I use it in the web browser. My notes are always synced across so I can shut down and continue drafting in bed when inspiration strikes! In Evernote, notes can be sorted into ‘notebooks’ and even ‘notebook stacks’ and all my blog stuff and beauty inventory is part of one stack. If I have something new on trial, this is where my initial thoughts go.

To be honest, this is where everything goes. Uni notes, story ideas, all there, all the time. Did I mention I’m only on the free plan? On premium, you can download whole notebooks for offline use! (It’s my major motivation for finishing NaNoWriMo because you get three months free as a reward!) I’m not sponsored – I rely on it so much it deserves this promo.

(Oh, but sometimes things like checklists get lost in Evernote because I have a lot of them, so I put them in Google Keep where I keep a lot less notes. I use it only for things that need chasing up on and can be deleted soon after.)

I make sure to think about what I want to see in a review when I write one, for example for lipsticks, I think the lip swatches are very important and sometimes colour comparisons, too, so I include a note to include them. For lip balms and skincare I don’t mind not including it but I make sure to mention standout ingredients and what they do. I used to include ingredients lists but I’m no cosmetic chemist… what are your thoughts on including ingredients lists? Is that helpful?

Recently I have tried to [remember to] include information for people looking out for vegan or cruelty-free products as I realised that just because it’s not a deal-breaker for me, I shouldn’t forget about it. Especially when a few of my friends find that important and I may want to buy gifts for them!

Take photos.

Unless stated otherwise [or maybe I’ve forgotten one somewhere], all the images on the blog are my own snaps!

When a draft is being written I also include notes and positions for possible photos I want to take. Recently I have also included theme colours as well so I know what to reach for when looking for background items.

Most times, I have a little photo session every time the sun is good. Sometimes, the sun is out before I even have had a chance to draft ideas but I hurry and take some snaps anyway even if it is not all the ones I need, by grabbing my most recent purchases, for example. My actual photography process is getting a separate post after this as it’s a bit long, looking at my draft…

For posts that don’t need product photos and are just chatty, like this one, I keep a backlog of background-type photos that aren’t busy-looking, and actively seek out patterns and gradients just to keep it from being boring.

Move and edit photos.

One of the best features of the Canon 750d is the addition of wi-fi and its own mobile app, which is my favourite method of moving my photos to my phone. I haven’t developed a process for editing photos on my laptop yet because it’s old and sometimes the colours are inconsistent based on the angle of the screen, so I prefer to use my phone where the colours appear consistently making it easier for me to edit.

I like to use Snapseed on my phone to adjust small things like brightness and contrast, although as I adjust my camera settings manually whilst shooting, I often don’t need to. Many phones now also have the option to increase exposure and other light settings, too. I also add a Twenty Swans mark in the bottom corner of my images.

For some posts that don’t need product shots but perhaps just a title image, I use the in-app options for text. It’s not a unique idea and I’ve seen similar title cards being used a lot, but they’re quick and easy and pleasant-looking.

Put everything together.

I use the WordPress mobile app to upload the photos. It’s also good for checking up on my daily stats and reading other WordPress blogs on the go. Then I switch to my desktop to paste over my draft and edit the whole post so that everything is in order with tags and categories and the scheduled date. That said it’s not unusual for me to just leave a post and forget about it before scheduling it! Like… I’m sure there are sheet mask photos just buried in my computer somewhere!


That’s it! I’m missing a whole section on promoting my own blog because I tend to slack off in that department. At most, there’ll be a tweet. I used to use Buffer, but recently I quite like Tweetdeck for this. Instagrams are once in a blue moon (the official twitter and insta handle is @twentyswans. Please follow me ^-^)

I hope you got some ideas from this and found this interesting! I personally love this type of post once in a while.

Until next time,

X


Days since buying lipstick: 20
Lipstick last worn: NARS Velvet Matte Pencil in Train Bleu over Primark’s Black lipliner and New Look’s [discontinued] Pure Colour Dark Purple lipliner.

‘How to Edit Your Novel’ Workshop!

Last month, I signed up to the How To Edit Your Novel workshop at Waterstones Birmingham. Writing and editing a novel can sound a bit daunting to anyone who has never gone through that process before, so it’s great to hear from authors and editors about how they go through this really intimidating process.

The panel of lovely people talking about editing were:

  • Gillian McAllister – her thriller, Everything  But The Truth is released in March
  • G X Todd – whose thriller novel, Defender, was recently released
  • Stephen Aryan – who writes the current Battlemage series of epic fantasy
  • Amanda Rutter, a freelance editor

They divided the general writing process into four steps – the first draft, the structural edit, the copy edit and the proof. I have roughly divided this post that way, but there’s a lot of universal tips scattered throughout.

The First Draft

Firstly, they discussed their approach to writing their novels. Gillian McAllister wrote her first draft in three months, and stressed to us that it was absolutely terrible. She then scan read it (it’s too terrible to try and read any other way) and condensed it all into scenes on index cards. From there, she decided on weaker, ‘saggy’ parts of the story or ones that could be removed entirely. Then she would move on to the second draft.

GX Todd, on the other hand, took a very different approach. She aimed to write 2000 words a day and each day, revise the 2000 words from the previous day before writing more. It’s similar to my current approach only with less daily words!

Stephen Aryan said his approach was a mix of the two. He noted that he has to read the end of his chapters for the hook that keeps one reading. Amanda Rutter added that the Davinci Code by Dan Brown was a good example of a book with great hooks as it meant she finished the book in one sitting!

Some tips for re-reading

Get critical beta readers. Pay attention to all they notice, good and bad, reason or no reason. If they’ve noticed it, it’s something you should probably pay attention to. If all your readers say the same thing about a specific section, then pay special attention. If they say something different about the same section, take their words with a pinch of salt, although it is clear that there’s something to pay attention to even if it stands out less.

Read your work out loud, especially dialogue. This is a common tip and it’s not hard to see why – it’s dialogue, it’s meant to be spoken.

When reading though your work, do it in a different way. Chances are you were staring at your laptop for ages,so try reading your work on a kindle or printed (double spaces with room in the margins to annotate) or change the font to something different.

The Structural Edit

Let the first draft go~! You may become emotionally attached to a draft you spent months or even years on, but the first draft is always gonna be pretty terrible and that’s a given.
Don’t be afraid of big structural edits, and keep an open mind as to the direction of the story!

From what I heard, it seems structural edits look more at the work as a whole, an overview of the project. The major themes of the story, the plot, the characters and their roles, all are sorted out in this editing step. I say ‘sorting’ but it could be ‘figured’ out afterwards. This is the time where you get an idea of where your novel sits on a bookshelf – its genre.

Some extra writing tips from the panel included ‘never start with waking up’ and ‘don’t be too continuous’. If it doesn’t progress the plot it may not be necessary. This is one of my problems! I somehow have to move my main characters from place to place without writing a documentary of their day.

Another plot advancement tip is ‘achieve more than one thing with a scene’. This means don’t just focus on advancing characters development in one scene and plot the next. Make one scene do twice the work.

2nd drafts can get bigger instead of smaller! I think the numbers thrown around were 80k to over 100k!

Know the 1 sentence pitch of the book. Keep it in mind as you write. You might say ‘it’s ____ meets ____’ but also keep in mind not to overshoot your ambitions by , for example, ‘it’s Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings!’

The copy edit covers things like spelling and punctuation but also fact checking. For example if you’ve mentioned someone shooting a bow and arrow, that detail has to be right because eventually, someone who knows how to shoot one may read it and get very annoyed at any detail that is wrong. I know I would get annoyed!
Structural edits may be suggested at this point as well but you don’t have to implement their suggestions.

The Proof

Finally the proof. Final checks are made like in copy editing, but this time there’s also a physical version, something that’s being sent out to reviewers. In the meantime, the authors will keep reading their own book, and making tiny changes. GX Todd mentioned that she read her novel start to finish at least 34 times before it got published (throughout the entire process) and McAllister says she read hers about 20 times.

GX Todd adds that she didn’t pick up the book again after it was sent off to publish… Not until she had to write the sequel, anyway.

They all agreed that deadlines are a good thing for them, because they’ve never felt like their projects were finished. There’s this urge to keep working on the manuscript but if they followed it, it would never be published!

Again, they stressed that Fresh Eyes are important. This is why fonts are changed and we read things on kindles and we have beta readers. The more ways of reading a project like its new, the better, since most readers will be new to your story. To add, try reading stuff in reverse! Read your manuscript starting from the last chapter or just work back page by page. Rutter says it good to stop yourself from getting caught in the story.

Lastly, tips for finding an agent. They mention and praise the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook which is published annually and includes a list of agents and what they publish. An agent is pretty much essential and they stress that having one is worth every penny.  They will make sure you get paid decently for your work.

Finish the manuscript before you start to approach agents. The panel agreed on three rounds of editing before sending the work off to one. It’s going to be edited more with the agent as well as the publisher too.

Remember that agents read 8000 submissions a year! It takes a bit of luck and being the right manuscript at the right time.

If an agent has a social media profile, go stalk it a bit. You might find they are in the mood for something in the genre you wrote in. Twitter has made them ever more accessible with hashtags like #askanagent, too.

That sums up all the advice we got from this talk! It was super helpful. My main takeaway from this was that, as much as I am working my butt off on this draft, it really is just the start – the tip of a bottomless iceberg or something. Therefore I should really stop fussing over how perfect my second chapter has to be at the moment.

I hope you found this helpful too. I didn’t get absolutely everything in my notebook but I tried my best to get down as much as I could. Lastly, a special thank you to the lovely panellists and Waterstones Birmingham for hosting this workshop!

Until next time,

X