Eleventy billion years ago, when I was in college, I took a bunch of classes with an awesome professor who used the Blues as a method of framing Southern American literature. We read William Faulkner and Alice Walker and listened to Bessie Smith and just had feelings. Both the Blues and literature have been described as “equipment for living” (read Kenneth Burke’s literary theory tonight if you can’t sleep), a means of capturing what’s working and not working within our lives and our greater society, of celebrating our joys and coping with our sorrows.
Now, once I got my degree I promptly pushed all that literary theory out of my brain, but the soul of what I learned never left me. I still listened to Ma Rainey and read Toni Morrison. Then my life changed, and my reading tastes did as well. I’d been reading romance novels since I was a teenager, but not as voraciously as I did during my mid-twenties and on. I no longer read as much “literary fiction” (a label I find obnoxious and pretentious) as “popular fiction.” I put down my Louise Erdrich in favor of Eloisa James.
Why? Because I got sick, and romance novels became my coping mechanism, my equipment for living. Everything in the Regency felt softer, easier to digest. Life was about balls and stolen kisses and pretty gowns and it would all be okay in the end.
In 2009 I started experiencing strange pains in my body. One day my hands and arms would hurt so badly that I could barely open a bottle of water. Two days later I was fine. The next month, my shoulders and back hurt so badly I could barely move. Eventually the pain would subside, but I would have days of crippling fatigue, unable to get out of bed.
I wasn’t diagnosed with fibromyalgia until 2013. During those four years I had enough blood drawn to feed the entire cast of True Blood. I had MRI’s and CT’s, and I was told, unequivocally, that nothing was wrong with me.
I spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices and when I left the house for my appointments, filled with anxiety that I would again be told that this was somehow all in my head, I would grab my security blanket—a dog-earred Edith Layton paperback. Once I got an e-reader, I had her entire backlist at my fingertips. I added Eloisa James and Jane Austen and Sophie Jordan and Julie Anne Long and Jill Barnett to my warm and fuzzy file.
Those doctor appointments made my stomach hurt. I would hold out hope for a diagnosis, and instead I would be summarily dismissed. I was told I was depressed (obviously), had anxiety (well, duh), was too stressed (you fucking think?) and it was strongly implied that I was either attention seeking or that I was a giant big baby who couldn’t handle the daily aches and pains that come with getting older. You know, like at 28.
After being told again that I was fine, one of my doctors looked at my e-reader and said, “You know, you read more than any of my other patients. You’re always reading when you’re here.”
I wanted to say, “If I wasn’t reading, I’d be screaming.”
I retreated to Regency ballrooms where the worst thing that could happen was that Prudence spiked the punch. I felt a certain sympathy for Mrs. Bennett and her “poor nerves.” I considered buying a fainting couch and smelling salts and diagnosed myself as having “the vapors.”
I started to believe the hype. Maybe I was, somehow unintentionally, seeking attention. I saw a Law & Order that featured Munchausen’s and wondered if I had that? Maybe I really was just a giant baby.
Then I had my tonsils out, which everyone told me would be the worst experience of my life short of birthing a ten pound baby, and it wasn’t that bad. I went back to my surgeon after six days, already having given up pain medication, and told him I was ready to go back to work now. “You’re insane,” he told me. “Most of my patients are still drooling and hate me at this point in recovery.”
“Well, it hurts but it doesn’t hurt that bad,” I said. I knew what that bad was, and this was manageable.
“You have a crazy pain threshold,” he told me, shaking his head. Then he asked, pointing to my book, “Whatcha reading?”
The following summer I felt a little sick while on a trip with my mom and sister, back and abdominal pain making me go back to the room early to take a nap. Turns out I passed a kidney stone. But again, it sucked, but it wasn’t that bad.
So I somehow managed to survive a kidney stone and a tonsillectomy with little fuss, but according to the medical community, I was still exaggerating my pain episodes. Even though I never asked for drugs or a written excuse to be off, it was implied that I was drug seeking or looking to avoid work. I would clutch my Desperate Duchesses book in my hand and grit my teeth. The Duke of Villiers would not put up with this shit.
Then the pain got really bad. My knees ached. I had trouble going up and down stairs. I felt like I had somehow been badly sunburned under my skin, even though nothing was red or swollen, I swore I could see heat radiating off my legs. It hurt to towel myself off after a shower. I ached everywhere, my hips and shoulders so tight I felt like I was in a steampunk corset all day, without the bitchin cleavage.
I called in to work sick more often than I wanted, riddled with anxiety that I would lose my job, and I would curl up in bed and read Carried Away for the millionth time, the “ten toes down” scene making me smile even when I wanted to cry.
I told my doctors that I thought I had fibromyalgia or maybe chronic fatigue syndrome. I was told I was “too young for that” and my personal favorite slap in the face, “I’m not convinced fibromyalgia is a real diagnosis.”
I was ready to give up. I wasn’t doing this anymore. Clearly there was something wrong with me mentally or emotionally and I just needed to accept this was how I was going to feel. I was depressed, anxious, stressed out. All the causes of my phantom disease were really by-products of feeling like shit and being told that I was fine.
My husband and mother pressured me to try one more doctor, one more time, when I really wanted to give up. I wanted to cry and sleep and stay in bed forever. The thought of meeting one more stranger and being dismissed, overlooked, made me nauseated.
I went. I brought my all-time-go-to-depression-bunker-buster, Pride and Prejudice. My hands were shaking when I talked to the doctor, my brain desperate for her to leave to the room so I could accept my rejection and go back to the assembly already.
I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other physicians.
“You need to see a specialist,” she told me. “Something is wrong with you and I don’t have the tools to figure out exactly what.”
What. The. Fuck.
She sent me to a rheumatologist, a really good one that took forever to get into. Again, I was almost physically sick with anxiety the day of my appointment. I did yoga breathing. I pictured Mr. Darcy rising up out of the pond, his shirt clinging to him (yes, I know that didn’t happen in the book, sue me).
He spent a long time with me. He went over my medical history, my family history, my emotional health, my job, my family, my support systems. “What do you do to feel better?” he asked me.
“I read, a lot,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Keep doing that.”
A doctor had just prescribed me books, motherfucker.
Then he told me, “You have fibromyalgia.”
I wanted to tell him how ardently I admired and loved him.
And I cried. I sobbed right into my Kindle, not because something was wrong with me, but because something was wrong with me. I was really sick. This wasn’t bullshit. He explained to me that my story is typical, his patients are dismissed and brushed aside and generally eye-rolled at because you can’t diagnose fibro with a blood test or scan. You eliminate other factors. Plus, it affects women more often than men, and just like the Regency Mamas I’d read about, the medical community was happy to blame my symptoms on “nerves” rather than investigate.
I’m better now, mostly because I know what I have. I take prescriptions to help manage the pain and fatigue, but most of it self-care. I can’t “over-do” physically anymore; I have to pace myself. I’ve become more aware of my diet (although kicking aspartame is like kicking meth, sweet delicious meth), and I make sure to take time to do what I enjoy, what I love, to decompress.
I read romance novels. I read them because they are awesome, emotionally-wrenching yet fulfilling, and smart. I read them because I get closure at the end. There will be a happily ever after. There’s an answer, a solution. Life is full of ambiguity. I’d personally rather my fiction not be.
Someone might say that I read these books because “they do the work for me” by presenting me with an ending I already know ahead of time. I won’t have to struggle intellectually with what’s going on. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, romance novels come HEA guaranteed, but it’s not about the end, it’s about how you get there. I think it’s a testament to good writing that I can be so emotionally involved with the text when the end is a forgone conclusion. I know things are going to be okay, but my pulse still races with that first illicit kiss, my heart aches when the hero and heroine reach their black moment and think they’ll be alone.
I get that emotional journey with a happy sigh at the end. How could anything be better?
So what’s Dr. Elyse’s prescription for Regency Feel Goods?
Jane Austen is obvious, and I break her out when I really need a dose of warm and fuzzy. Pride and Prejudice ( GR | A | BN | K | ARe | free at PG ) will be my favorite book forever, I suspect, but I really love Sense and Sensibility ( A | BN | K | ARe | Free – PG) and Mansfield Park ( A | BN | K | ARe | free – PG) as well.
I’ve discussed Edith Layton’s excellent Regencies in a previous post, and I still go to His Dark and Dangerous Ways ( A | BN | K | ARe), To Wed a Stranger ( A | BN | K | ARe ), and To Tempt a Bride ( A | BN | K | ARe ) when I want to revisit an old friend.
I love Sophie Jordan as well. One Night with You ( A | BN | K | ARe ) and Once Upon a Wedding Night ( A | BN | K | ARe ) have all the feels. My all-time favorite Jordan novel is Too Wicked to Tame ( A | BN | K | ARe ). It has a feisty heroine and a broody hero named Heath who has a reputation for being mad. It’s all like Wuthering Heights meets Pride and Prejudice After Dark.
As you all know, I’m an Eloisa James fangirl, and would probably cry if I met her. I’d also probably hug her whether she wanted to or not while sobbing things like “Villiers…just…FEELS…I can’t even…” When Beauty Tamed the Beast ( A | BN | K | ARe ) is my favorite fairytale trope coupled with Regency House fanfiction. For reals. And it is so fucking good. A Duke of Her Own ( A | BN | K | ARe ) features my favorite rogue, the Duke of Villiers, who decides it’s time to reform…and brings all his bastards under one roof. This book has plot moppets like Tribbles. They’re just multiplying. And the heroine…Eleanor is glorious.
Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series is phenomenal. I’ll always love The Perils of Pleasure ( A | BN | K | ARe ) a book with tons of action (the heroine saves the hero from being hung…hanged?( Maybe he is hung but about to be hanged?) and it’s a lot of action for a Regency.
And then there is Jill Barnett, who does not write Regencies, but is awesome regardless. Carried Away ( A | BN | K | ARe ) is a book about two brothers who, filled with good intentions, kidnap two women to be their wives. One of the heroes is a rapscallion, the other kind of a nerd. There is slap-slap kiss-kiss AND slow-burn. There is a horse who hangs out in the house. People’s faces get painted blue. It’s amazing.
So are her medievals. Wicked ( A | BN | K | ARe ) is a Taming of the Shrew story. Wild ( A | BN | K | ARe ) features a witchy, wildling heroine who nurses a knight back to health. Wonderful ( A | BN | K | ARe ) is a battle of wills between a hero and heroine who are equally stubborn—and also beer-making. There is beer-making.
I know a lot of readers who have used romance novels as coping mechanisms, whether it’s due to chronic pain or the occasional blues.
Do you read to feel better? Which books are your “equipment for living?”