Nine years ago, at the age of 58, I returned to school for my PhD in transpersonal psychology. As a healer and writer, I thought that my research would be a perfect fit for my life path. In addition to wanting to do research and write books and articles to help others with their journeys, I also wanted to enhance my own spiritual practice.
My previous education included undergraduate work in health administration and nursing, and then a master’s in writing, which I also completed as an adult. I believe that being an only child who lived in a somewhat chaotic household turned me into a lifelong seeker of knowledge.
Going Back to School
The first time I went back to school as an adult was in 2001 at the age of 47. I’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a hectic time in American history, as 9/11 had just occurred, and many of us, including me, were feeling a great deal of uncertainty.
My own confusion was eventually magnified by my own trauma as I healed from a mastectomy and reconstruction. All this unknowing led me down a path of living out my dream of returning to grad school. My three children were still living at home, so I did a low-residency program at Spalding University in Kentucky.
Having a Door Open
I’d been a writer my entire life. My husband, who’s a “fixer,” had a difficult time watching me navigate the intense physical and emotional pain of cancer. One evening as we nestled up close, watching the evening news, he wrapped both of his hands around mine and looked deeply into my eyes, as he had the day of my beloved father’s passing.
“Right now,” he asked, “if you could do one thing that would make you happy, what would that be?”
“Well,” I responded, “aside from transporting our children across the country from the West Coast [we lived in Southern California] to be with me, I want to go back to school for my Master of Fine Arts in writing [MFA].”
“Okay, then, let’s make that happen,” he said. And we did.
It’s not that his offer completely healed the deep psychological wounds of having lost a breast, but the idea of returning to school gave me something to look forward to and which I felt could also be part of my healing journey.
Journaling Leads to a Dream Fulfilled
My mother had given me my first journal when I was 10, and since then I’d often found solace in the written word. Journaling became a passion that I turned to during many turbulent times, such as the loss of loved ones, a challenging adolescence, difficult pregnancies, and two cancer diagnoses.
Both my MFA and my PhD work resulted in the subsequent publication of two books. For my MFA, I gathered my journal entries, reflections, and poems written during my breast-cancer journey and shaped them into a self-help memoir called Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. As a result of my nursing background, I was able to research and gather enough information to help others who were navigating a similar path.
I knew that my writing life wouldn’t stop there, though. Daily journaling continued to be an integral part of my well-being and a key to my survival. I was inspired to help others heal and transform through writing by teaching workshops based on my book.
After my memoir was published, I found it stimulating to be a part of my publisher’s marketing strategy. It was fun being interviewed by the media and sharing my story.
Once Again in School
Jump ahead 11 years, when I returned to school for my doctorate. My research focused on the healing and transformative powers of memoir writing. Eventually, I published my findings and was inspired to create a writing reference book and a companion journal for others who wanted to write about their lives.
In 2017, my book Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life, along with its companion journal, were published. Prior to COVID-19, I continued to facilitate workshops on writing for healing and transformation. I was told that my teachings changed many lives and were motivating and empowering.
Although I’ve never stopped being a writer, I was able to build upon my early education by advancing my studies in my areas of interest. Once my husband and I became empty-nesters, our time became our own, and we were free to make our dreams a reality. Also, by this time in our lives, we knew what made our hearts sing and what made us happy.
Being a seeker has always been important to me. For me, returning to school was one of the best decisions of my life, and in many ways, it might have saved my life as well!
Have you thought about returning to school in your later years? What push do you need to fulfill your dreams of higher education? What do you think returning to school will bring into your life?
–Originally Published in Sixty and Me, August 17, 2021