Finding My Place
From Tenure-Track Faculty to At-Home Wife and Part-Time Piano Teacher:
My Musical Struggle with Chronic Illness
In the late 1990s, as an impressionable and eager graduate student, I was encouraged by my piano pedagogy professor to attend MTNA national conferences, NCKP conferences, and additional local and state conferences as often as I could. These experiences truly broadened my perspective as a young teacher and changed the way I approached my future career as a music professor. After attending a few conferences, my professor and I presented a session at a state conference, and I admit I was absolutely hooked from that point forward and wanted to experience the excitement of sharing knowledge again. Together we prepared and presented a research poster session at the next year’s MTNA conference, then as a doctoral student and young faculty member, I presented more poster sessions on my own. My future goals immediately began to form and included the desire to communicate more research via workshops, poster sessions, and articles at local, state, and national venues, and become a strong and contributing leader within the national piano pedagogy community. This was my professional goal and the place I desired and aspired to be.
Fast-forward a few years to 2007. As a young full time faculty member, I attended the MTNA National Conference in Toronto and continued learning, forming new perspectives towards my own teaching, and assembling ideas into prospective sessions and articles. I was excited to return home and begin focusing my attention on these new projects. However, during the first part of my plane ride, high above the snowy landscape of the Rocky Mountains, I was stricken with terrible pains radiating throughout my body. I had no idea what was happening to me because nothing like this had ever occurred before. I thought to myself, “If I could just get home and lie down, everything will be okay.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment as the plane touched down in Denver was the last moment I would think of myself, my career, and my life in the same way.
Throughout the coming months, I continued to experience more severe pain and brain fog (which is exactly what it sounds like), and I became more and more fatigued, irritable, anxious, and depressed. Then one day in September 2008 it happened. I awoke one morning and for a moment thought I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. Not a single muscle. I had a full day of classes and lessons to teach that day. How was I going to get ready for work? How was I going to work with my students? How was I even going to drive myself there? I wasn’t. It was impossible, and I was terrified. It took several minutes before I could pull myself together enough to crawl out of bed and onto the couch, grab my laptop, and begin searching for an answer. The first thing I did was call my primary care physician and schedule an appointment. She immediately referred me to a specialist who couldn’t see me until a month later. An entire month later. At least that gave me plenty of time to research my symptoms…
I knew that something was incredibly wrong, and I spent hours scouring information on medical websites, natural health websites, and a variety of blogs and other sites. I saw doctor after doctor and heard, “You have a stomach ulcer. You need to eliminate some stresses from your life.” “You have mononucleosis. Go home and get some rest.” “You have allergies. Make an appointment to get tested.” “You’re just tired. Get some rest and come back to see me in three months.” “It’s all in your head. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” and finally, “You’re just getting older. Things like this happen as we age.” What!? “Things like this happen as we age!?” I was only thirty-two years old and had so much of my life ahead of me. I was just beginning my career with wonderful colleagues, and teaching amazing students at a terrific college in a tenure-track position I viewed as my “dream job”. I was too young to be falling apart like this. I refused to believe this was how my life was going to be.
Finally, that excruciatingly long month passed and at last I saw the specialist, who uttered five words that would change my life and my place in the world: “You have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a very complicated disorder that includes extreme fatigue, pain, depression, anxiety, and a variety of other symptoms that cannot be explained as the result of any specific medical condition. The fatigue worsens significantly with physical and/or mental activity, but it doesn't improve with rest, no matter how much rest one gets.
My imagination began to spiral out of control. What does this mean? Is there a cure? Will I feel like this forever? What about my students? And my career? And my dreams to fulfill a place as an active participant in the future of music teaching? When I finally came back to reality, I recognized some truths. At least I had a diagnosis. At least now I understood why I awoke each morning feeling like I had run a marathon in my sleep. At least there was a name for this struggle I had endured for so many long and seemingly endless days. Now I could begin researching what to do about it so that I could get better. If I could get better.
The first thing I had to do was swallow my pride, simplify my life, and bring things down to a more manageable level. I had to resign from my position on the Mississippi MTA Executive Board, I had to resign from my job as a church pianist, and I had to eliminate many other things in my life that I had always enjoyed and even taken for granted, but that I could no longer do. I had always loved exercising, and I had been training for my first 5K until that alarming morning in September. But now, even the thought of walking the short distance from my office in the music building to my car in the lot just behind it, especially when carrying books or my laptop, was almost more than I could bear. I had to rethink my priorities and only continue to do the things I had no choice about, such as going to work each day and doing my absolute best to continue teaching my students what they needed to know and encouraging them so that they could be successful, even though my intense love for teaching had completely vanished as a result of the CFS. My plans for being active in my musical community and in national circles evaporated like dew in the morning sun.
My life as a musician was crumbling around me. I began to build walls of protection around myself to try and hide the fact that I was no longer who I used to be. I struggled to define who I was and what I was doing with my life now that my life was so drastically different than it had been just a couple of years before. I worried what my colleagues, my students, and my former graduate school colleagues were thinking of me. I worried that my reputation as a musician was suffering as badly as I was, even though I desperately tried to hide my condition from everyone around me. I worried that I might be living the life of an imposter, fearing for my job, my career, and my future. My place in the music world had shifted dramatically, and I no longer knew where, or if, I belonged.
As my life and my priorities continued to change, so did my perspective. For many months I deeply mourned the loss of my former self, and this mourning process freed me to let go of the person I used to be and focus on who I currently was. It was also during this time that I met Greg. He was incredibly supportive of me from the moment I told him of my illness. He encouraged me, he supported me, and he loved me. I resigned from my faculty position after the 2009-2010 academic year so that Greg and I could get married and I could join him in our new home in Virginia.
My life now in 2012 is not at all what I had envisioned it would be when I was a young graduate student excited about the challenges of impacting the world; however, my life now is just as it should be. I currently am not able to work full time, so I stay at home each day and focus on improving my health by following a very specific natural healing program and by getting as much rest as my body needs, which varies greatly from day to day. I also teach several weekly piano lessons in my studio in our home, and I look forward to working with those students each time we meet. I am finding deep fulfillment and great satisfaction in teaching, and I am loving it once again. My health and energy level have improved enough that I have begun blogging and resumed writing, reading and studying, practicing the piano on occasion, and becoming excited about my future as a musician.
I may not be the same person I once was, at least on the outside, but even though my body is weak from several years of battling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I consider myself to be very strong. I am exceedingly and abundantly blessed and happy with the life I have now, and I am strengthened daily by the hope of what my future holds, for I believe it is bright and will be filled with the joys of music and excellent health. Enveloped in these comforting thoughts as a warm blanket on this snowy winter morning, I have finally found my place.