The Glow of a New Hope: Redirecting Career Possibilities as a Scientist with Fibromyalgia

I love painting sunsets.

Aside from the fact that they are simply gorgeous, the glowing light also signifies a lot of hope for me. First, the warm colors in the light of the setting sun has a psychologically uplifting effect. And second, on a more philosophical level, sunsets signify a state of transition, where you are standing at the threshold between the old and the new. A state of liminality. The very nature of the sunset marks the end of an old, and therefore by extension, the beginning of something new! It’s a beautiful close to what once was, and invites you to think of what the future will bring.

Featured image: Twilight’s Last Glow (oil on 6X6 canvas; available)

It was about 7 years ago that I first got into academic research as a career. The field of epigenetics fascinated me: it is the study of the various modifications on our genetic material that fine-tune how the genes actually behave. If you think of the DNA code as just the lyrics to a song, then the epigenetic modifications provide the tune, so you can actually sing the song. I was enthused enough to learn more about the subject so that I joined a research lab that studies the same. Over the next 7 years in that lab, I first completed an undergraduate honors thesis, and then a Ph.D. dissertation.

Epigenetics
A conductor wouldn’t know how to direct the opera with just the libretto (the genes), s/he would also need the accompanying musical notation (the epigenetic marks).

All that time I was on a single-lane, yellow brick road to become a tenured academic professor in Oz. I worked hard since the junior year of undergrad, often working long hours without pay, paying all the seemingly appropriate dues for a supposedly cushy future. But I was devoted to the deity called “science.” I knew the sacrifices I would have to make to reach my goal, and I was ready for it. At the time I felt like that was really what I wanted of my life. And besides, it wouldn’t matter if I did not – I was conditioned to think that that was the only road possible for me after a Ph.D.

Yellow brick road
The yellow brick road to the ivory (emerald?) tower!

So then when I was struck with fibromyalgia, about halfway through graduate school, perhaps you can imagine my state of mind when I felt my dreams had just gone up in smoke. I felt I was now trapped into this very narrow specialized field, educated beyond most jobs, with a medical roadblock in the only credible path to a bright future. In addition, it certainly did not help that my advisor, who had high hopes for me, now thought that I was a lost cause. He had no reasonable advice for me other than to “just deal with it.”

I have now spent upwards of 2 years trying to get out of the dark mindset that my professional life is ruined because I am no longer able to spend 60-80 hours per week working any ol’ time of the day. It has taken a lot of career research, reading other peoples’ experiences of life after academia, and talking to people who were more supportive of my seeking “alternative” routes, to really figure out new possible directions for myself. More than anything else, it has required me to shake off the chains I had put around my own expectations of my future. I had to do some serious soul-searching about what I truly enjoyed about my job, in order to figure out how I could continue engaging in that, in a way that is not so detrimental to my health.

recycled-art
Reimagine the possibilities!

The result has been a liberating feeling that I have a lot more paths to choose from than what I was initially led to believe. I just spent the last year or so considering traditional postdoctoral research appointments, along with “non-traditional” post-Ph.D. options like teaching, as well as jobs in science publishing, government, and clinical laboratories. Some of these are more directly connected with the topic of my graduate training (molecular genetics/epigenetics) than others, but I was not shy about looking into related but different fields like human genetics, environmental health, public health and policy, and forensic science. I even considered options that would require further schooling, such as genetic counseling and molecular epidemiology.

Not all has been bright and sparkly, though, as I sought out new potential directions for myself. I learned that it can be incredibly hard to budge even a tiny bit from your field of specialization, especially after a doctorate. At the same time, I also received enough positive responses to have faith that difficult though it may be, it is not totally impossible! However, it does require you to be honest with yourself about your priorities (both professionally and personally), and keep realistic expectations of your job search. It is possible to carve out a new fork in the road for yourself, but it takes time, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck.

Despite it not being all glowy, I nonetheless feel like this period of transition after graduate school is like a sunset. It is a time to reminisce about the past as one chapter in my life comes to a close, and to contemplate what new experiences the next one will bring. Nobody knows what tomorrow holds; but for now, as I stand on this threshold, the possibilities are endless!

Love,

Fibronacci

 

Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

A Window Into Happiness

I read a beautiful article a few days ago on Crafts, Chronic Illness and Adulting about how happiness is a state of being, and it is our choice to make every day (as much as we can) to seek that happiness within ourselves. I have ruminated much about that elusive state of happiness before, and couldn’t agree more with that attitude.

I feel like happiness is a flame that is burning within us. Sometimes the flame dwindles, gets buried, becomes hard to reach, as daily frustrations take over our minds. It can be especially hard to deal with the everyday when one is also fighting a chronic illness. But in a moment of quiet, it is possible to find that little candle of happiness still burning, underneath all of the tears of anger, sorrow and frustration.

Depression, on the other hand, is the absence of that flame. You can push yourself, just like you push anyway with the pain and fatigue, to do your everyday tasks. You can cover it up with laughs, alcohol, drugs, music, company, whatever you think might make you happy. But really, all of it is to cover up the knowledge that that flame is gone.

I became acutely aware of that as I had to come off some nerve pain medication rather suddenly. The burning in my arms, trigger points, and spinal cord became more insistent, along with my other FM-related woes – but that was expected. What was a little unexpected (and perhaps stupidly so) was the effect it had on my mental health. I felt a return of my depression and anxiety like I haven’t felt in a decade.

Then funnily enough, I saw the light (again) on one of my absolute worst days. My muscle spasms were so bad in my upper back that I was largely immobilized from neck up, and I could only move my right arm with intense stabs of pain with each movement. Yet, I had promised to bring my friend’s daughter to the circus, and I did not want to cancel on an 8-year-old. So I doused myself in every pain relief method at my disposal, and I went.

Despite all my pain, the joy that emanated from the child at her first circus took precedence over all my misery. I feel like she not only stopped me that day from delving deeper into the hole that I was in, but she actually pulled me a little bit out of it!

That night was one of the worst nights I ever spent. I was practically paralyzed from the pain, and the only reason I did not go to the emergency room is because it would have caused me more pain to get there than just languish in bed.

Silver Lining_framed
The Silver Linings (5X7, oil on canvas)

And yet, that night I was able to find a little bit of the happiness spark, like the flickers of light from a flint, as if a caveman was trying to start a fire. It was like the first dim light that touches the earth after the darkest part of the night. As if from the ashes, a phoenix was trying to emerge!

That flame then grew stronger a day or so later.

I had spent another night in intense pain, so much so, that my husband said I moaned aloud in my sleep anytime he turned, or even touched the bed. He fed me a pain pill, and then spent the rest of the night on the couch to minimize my discomfort. I did not learn of this until the morning, and was filled with so much gratitude when I did.

As I learned that day, gratitude is a like a breath of air on a little spark, a little blow of oxygen that can stoke the happiness flame, and help it realize its potential as a bright source of light.

Although you don’t need much to be happy, on the darkest of days, it helps to remind yourself of all that you do have to be happy about.

I have much to be happy about. I have a husband who is made of the stuff of dreams, I finally have access to my nerve pain medicine again, my pain is slowly getting better (progressively fewer screams have been heard by my neighbors over the last couple of days), and I have a very understanding doctor. Not to mention the friend who trusts me with her children, on whom I can shower my adoration as if they were my grandchildren, and with whom I can connect and find tender joy.

Yes, I also have many challenges that I am going through right now, but I have a lot more to be grateful for. To be happy for.

So today, now that I have the choice, I will try to focus on the silver linings when I look at the clouds from my window. And by doing so, I hope that window opens into another dimension, one where the flame of happiness continually glows bright within me.

Love,

Fibronacci

 

Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!