Sunday, January 29, 2023

Making the Tough Decision

 A few years ago, when I decided to pursue my PhD in history, I quieted my inner voice whispering to me, "But what about your fiction writing?" I'd always wanted to earn my PhD, and I figured I'd have time to work full time, write my novels, and go to class part-time. 

Oh poor, sweet Melissa.

I've always tended to bite off more than I can chew, and as a result, that's one of the reasons I developed the chronic illnesses that I have by putting myself through far more stress than necessary (of course, an abusive marriage and 18 yrs of trauma had more to do with it than anything). 

With time, perhaps I'm finally getting wiser (and older, of course).

The first year of grad school went fairly well. I took one class a semester, continued to work full time, and even managed to finally, finally finish a novel I'd been working on since my divorce five years before. But my health continued to decline. I figured I could still keep up the pace.

The class I took for the fall 2022 semester challenged me in ways I hadn't bargained on, and it took up much of my time. I was so focused on writing a paper for this course that I had no time to devote to my novel. And boy, did I miss it.

About a month before the end of the semester, I began having serious doubts about my ability to continue in the program. I had to have a hard conversation with myself. With the limited energy you have due to your chronic health problems, how do you want to spend your time?

I took my question to Twitter, and one person's response really jumped out at me. They said, "In ten years, would you rather see your diploma on the wall with those three letters - PhD - behind your name, or a shelf full of your published novels?"

Put that way, there was no question about it. I wanted that shelf of published novels. 

Fiction has always been my first love. But I also love history. That's why I write historical fiction. Studying history and being an academic historian is another kettle of fish altogether. It's a different type of writing, a different way of thinking. Because of the cognitive issues associated with ME/CFS, it took an immense amount of concentration and brain power to focus on my classwork, leaving no time for fiction.

I asked myself some other questions. Did I really need the PhD to be a historian? No. I've already published two history books and given talks. Did I need the PhD to advance my career? Well, that depends on what career I want - and what career I can have with my limitations. Short answer? No, I don't. I never had any plans to teach or go into academia. And another important question: if I didn't have free tuition through my employment with the university, would I have taken out student loans or applied for funding for the program? Again, no.

But the real question I had to ask myself, the most important question, was this: what brings you the most joy? Writing fiction or studying history?

The answer, of course, was writing fiction. That is where my passion lies.

I decided to give myself some more time to ponder my decision before notifying my advisor, and so I took dissertation hours this semester. But really, I was only prolonging the inevitable. 

Last week, I told my advisor that I was withdrawing from the PhD program effective at the end of May.

I am at peace with my decision. While I enjoyed going to class, it put an additional strain on my body, as did the classwork, readings, and deadlines. 

These past two months, I've been focusing on my new novel, and it's been a relief not to have to worry about going to class, or having to worry about finishing an assignment. Sure, I miss classroom discussions and my fellow students. But in the end, this was the best choice for me.

I need to put my health first, and make myself a priority. That's hard for me to do. I spent years putting others ahead of me: my now-ex-husband, my kids, my job, etc. And I paid for it. 

Now? I'm taking care of me. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Unorthodox Schedules

 When you're chronically ill, sticking to a strict schedule is impossible. 

I go to bed every night not knowing how I'll feel in the morning. Will I be in pain? Exhausted? Or will I feel okay? This determines the schedule for my day.

On the good days, I do work, take a walk, maybe run to the store, and do some chores. In the evenings, I'll watch a movie or television show, then work on my novel, read, and go to bed.

On bad days, I usually watch television all day to keep my mind occupied and focused on anything but the pain and fatigue. Reading a novel is hard. Writing is harder. But I still try to at least look at my novel every day, even if I'm only doing a bit of light editing.

They, i.e. usually meaning people who don't know any better, say people with chronic illnesses should stick to a schedule. Well, that simply doesn't work for me. This morning, I woke up in severe pain. I only wanted to escape from that pain. Thus, I took a four-hour nap, sleeping away the afternoon. I woke up at 5 p.m. That means my sleep schedule is screwed up. Some people who think they know better would have told me not to take the nap because adhering to that sleep schedule is important! Well. Screw that. Writhing in pain all day is not my idea of a good time, sleep schedule or not.

I'm just a grumpy gus today.

Pain does that to a person. I feel like I lost an entire day. Yet here I am, writing this blog post. That's something, right? I managed to take a shower and wash my hair. Another victory! 

I decided this year that I'm no longer going to feel guilty for staying in bed all day and doing "nothing" if I'm having a flare. I've learned from past experience that pushing myself will only result in more days in bed, not less. ME/CFS is such a strange disease. Exercise can actually set us back in our health journey and make us worse. 

But oh am I ever glad I decided not to take any classes this semester. There's no way I would have been able to keep up. 

In fact, I'm focusing my spare mental energy on my novel. That is how I want it right now.

Well this blog post is all over the place. That's okay. That's how I feel today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Midweek Update

Though the week started out a bit slow for me health-wise, I finally felt well enough today to jump on the treadmill. As long as I have my music and I don't push myself too hard, I try and walk for 30-45 minutes or more. Some days are less, but that's the way it goes.

We bought a new puzzle board for our jigsaw puzzles. Previously I used a bulletin board to assemble the puzzle and plastic bowls or boxes to sort the pieces. I always had to put a blanket over it and store it under my bed to keep the cats (okay, ONE cat, Slick) off. This was an unruly set up as I would lose puzzle pieces and always end up with messes.

The new puzzle board is perfect. It comes with four drawers and a plastic cover to put over the work-in-progress puzzle. The only drawback is that it's pretty heavy, so I can't put it on my lap. Instead, it's now taken up permanent residence on the coffee table in the living room. Slick can lay on it to his heart's content (which he does) and not disturb the puzzle.

Last night, I didn't feel like writing on the novel. But I decided to open the Word doc and make a few small changes before I forgot about them, and then, voila! I ended up writing nearly 800 new words. Love it when that happens.

We had a storm today - lots of ice, rain, and a bit of snow - so it's been a good day to stay inside and work on the puzzle, watch a few movies, and yes, get some writing done.

Friday, January 13, 2023

In the Mood for...Murder Mysteries!

 It has been an excruciatingly long week full of pain and fatigue and the sense that I will never, ever feel better again.

"Crashes" are one of the hallmarks of ME/CFS. If we do too many activities, both mentally and physically, and we don't pace ourselves, we will crash, and crash hard. Sometimes the flare will last a day or two, and other times it will stretch on for weeks.

This one is going on a week now and I'm heartily sick of it. Although it's not as bad as some other flares, I feel completely worn out. After my stressful trip home, I knew this would happen, yet nothing really prepares you for how awful you feel.

So I have turned to my toolbox. If you are a person with a chronic illness, you have a toolbox to get you through the day! In my toolbox are "tools" to help me deal with my flares. Though medication is part of it, the pain meds I have do not do much to quell the vibrating feeling in my body. I've likened it to this: my body feels like it is made up of guitar strings that someone is constantly playing. This thrumming goes through my whole body, and it is very painful. Sometimes my joints will hurt; sometimes the fatigue is impossible to deal with. And meds do the bare minimum.

Therefore, I have other tools. I put together jigsaw puzzles (we are getting an awesome new puzzle board in the mail this weekend! I can't wait!), read, write in my journal, chat with friends on social media, and watch classic movies. I also love British television, and lately I've been binge-watching British murder mysteries.

Vera is one of my favorites, as are Endeavor, Father Brown,  and Miss Scarlet and the Duke. I also love all of the Agatha Christie adaptations. But this week, I decided to try a new series: Midsomer Murders. Considering there are 23 seasons - it's the longest running British mystery tv show! - I have plenty of episodes to keep me busy!

Even though the early seasons were filmed in the late 1990s, they still hold up well. I'm actually quite surprised at how progressive the episodes are as they deal very openly with quite controversial topics at that time (some are still controversial today!). I enjoy the banter between Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy, especially about Troy's driving. 

I enjoy immersing myself in these shows because I'm engaging my brain in trying to figure out the clues and how it all fits together. This takes my mind off of how my body feels, and it's like I give myself a little vacation from the pain.

I have to laugh, though, that so many of these murder mysteries are set in small English villages. Who said they were quiet? Coming from a small town, I know all too well the mischief people can get up to...

Sunday, January 08, 2023

The Pursuit of Joy


Vacation is officially over. I took two weeks off during the holidays, and I relished every minute of it. My trip home to see family afforded me so many wonderful moments with my Dad, my Mom, my brothers, and even my cousins.

I needed that time with them, to bond, to reconnect. Relationships must be nurtured, and if we leave them too long, they begin to show signs of neglect. Now, though, I feel as though I watered those relationships, gave them nutrients, and they're flourishing again in so many ways.

Normally I'd be gearing up for another semester of grad school, but not this semester. I decided to only take dissertation hours and not a class because I must think long and hard about my future in the PhD program. It's not that I don't want to earn my PhD - I do. But at this point in my life, with my limited energy due to chronic health issues (that are not improving), I must do the activities most important to me, the ones that bring me the most joy. 

History brings me joy, yes, but I've had to ask myself, do I really need a PhD? Will it help me accomplish my goals? Not necessarily. Since I'm only a part-time student, it will take me much longer to finish. And what am I giving up by pursuing that path? Last semester, I gave up writing my fiction. 

That didn't sit well with me. At all. 

Thus, I began to think about my future with the program and so, instead of making a hasty decision, I decided to give myself plenty of time to think it through.

Thus, this semester, I'm focusing not on school, but on my novel. And oh am I ever enjoying it. I have other writing-related events this year including two writing conferences (one is virtual which is wonderful for my health and my bank account!). I'm not leaving history behind, however, as I am attending two history conferences this year and I'm looking forward to those, as well.

You see, I was already "doing history" before I started my PhD program, and I know I can continue to do it without having those initials after my name. I already learned a lot in the four classes I've taken. Sure, I could learn much more in future classes, but honestly, I feel as though I have a solid foundation under my feet now that I didn't have before.

If I had lots of time and lots of energy (chronic illness robs me of both so often!), this wouldn't be an issue. But alas, I don't. So. 2023 will be the year of focusing on what I love.

I am pursuing joy.

Missing My Manuscript

After I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I wanted to take a break from it, get some distance before I started revisions. That didn...