How we drew strength from art to help us to turn our lives around after serious illness – Belfast Telegraph

Ellen Cunningham (55) and her husband Paul live in Newtownards with their children, Rebecca (27) and Adam (17). Ellen says:

Twenty years ago I was in a really bad car accident and it took a long time to work out what was wrong with me. I was left bedridden and couldn’t wash or dress myself. I couldn’t even walk to the end of the driveway.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and fibromalgia as a result of the trauma of the accident.

I was told I would be left in a wheelchair and at just seven years old my daughter Rebecca asked me if I was going to die.

I answered her in shock that I was sick but I was damned if I was going to die. I was going to get better and be there for my children.

After that I was determined to take steps to help myself. I went to see a psychologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital and they recommended that I find something I was interested in which I could do for myself.

At school I’d always been good at art and had been encouraged to go to art college. So, I saw this as a second chance. I went back to school -slowly and leisurely at my own pace.

I trained to be a teacher and I also took art classes.

Eventually I did my teaching diploma and became a teacher of ICT which is something I could work around my illness as, at the start, I only did it a few hours a week.

I continued to study art and did a foundation degree at Bangor Tech. They understood my illness and knew I wasn’t well enough to travel to Belfast every day.

I discovered I had a real love for ceramics and designing and creating pieces. The art freed up my mind and helped my brain to heal and to cope with the illness. It had a very therapeutic and calming effect on the mind.

I was still extremely tired due to the ME and the fibromyalgia meant I had pains all over my body. But I felt the creativity helped me calm down and forget about it for a time.

At the same time the internet was just being born so I started researching and looking into different ways of coping with the illness.

I came off a lot of the medication and started to use alternative treatments such as acupuncture.

With illnesses such as mine, doctors tend to give you medication and you end up on pills for the rest of your life which you can’t come off. I didn’t want to be like that.

So, I changed my lifestyle and let the art take over. Two years ago, I decided to give up teaching and concentrate on the art.

I grew up in Groomsport and was always by the sea so a lot of the inspiration for my pieces comes from that.

I have created special pieces on the stones and sands at the Giant’s Causeway. I work a lot in the colours and tones of the sea.

I also teach and enjoy watching people come who perhaps have low confidence or been through some life changes explore a new talent.

I enjoy taking part in the Creative Peninsula each year as it is a chance to showcase local talent and to let people see the types of work that is available and it promotes community crafts by letting people visit artists in a relaxed and informal way.

My health is so much better now. I still fight with the beast but I have studied mindset a lot and am into the power of positive thinking.

I am off all medications. Every day I drink aloe vera gel which I believe helps me. I have proved the doctors wrong and looked for alternative solutions. I eat healthily and I detox my body.

My head is in a good place and art has helped tremendously with that. I work hard and I persevere. I don’t work in the nine to five rat race any more and I love that.

I surround myself with positive people and I like to give back to the local community. I have taught people who are now full-time artists as well and it is great being part of their journey.”

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