Cork artist: I don’t want to waste my life lying in agony

Artist Ciara Chapman will show her work throughout September, to mark Pain Awareness Month, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork artist: I don’t want to waste my life lying in agony

Ciara Chapman, illustrator, with some of her artwork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

ARTIST Ciara Chapman may suffer from life-changing chronic pain, but she refuses to give in to it, opting instead to create art as a response to an extremely challenging situation.

While some would take to the bed, drowning in painkillers, if they suffered severe pain, Ciara does her best to use her talent to try to convey what she is going through.

The 39-year-old Carlow native, who lives in Turners Cross with her Doneraile-reared husband, David Crowley, is a graduate in fine art printmaking and graphic design from the Limerick School of Art and Design.

An award-winning artist, Ciara is presenting three elements to her project, ‘My Chronic Pain Diary’ to mark Pain Awareness Month this September. She is influenced by Alice in Wonderland.

Ciara Chapman and Aoife Claffey (Art trail project co-ordinator). Picture: Courtesy of Crowley’s Opticians, photographer Ted Murphy
Ciara Chapman and Aoife Claffey (Art trail project co-ordinator). Picture: Courtesy of Crowley’s Opticians, photographer Ted Murphy

An exhibition of Ciara’s work is taking place at Cork Printmakers Gallery. She has produced a book of her artwork and an art trail of her sometimes amusing illustrations are in a number of shop windows in Cork city.

Ciara had an accident six years ago but didn’t immediately seek medical help.

“I fell down the stairs,” she says. 

“It almost looked like a sitcom-type of thing where my legs flew up in the air. I crashed right down on my pelvis. Whatever way I threw my right hand out to grab the banister, it really twisted me the whole way around. I had tears in my discs and I put out my hip. I was walking crooked.

“I was seeing a physiotherapist at the time for something else. She popped something in my body back in place and I thought I was OK, but I wasn’t. It’s like my body had gone into shock for a period and then a few months later, I woke up with sciatica. It just came on overnight.”

Had Ciara gone to hospital immediately after the accident, she said, “things probably would have been very different going forward. I was working at the time in Mahon and I walked to work from Turners Cross two or three times a week because I hated getting the bus. But that really damaged me. It was just bad luck really.”

While suffering from painful sciatica, caused by discs compressing against her sciatic nerve, Ciara lost a lot of feeling and function in her left leg, from the knee down.

“But the pain went the whole way through. I lost the reflex in my ankle, my foot dropped and then I started to lose the reflexes in my knee. I think I have about 30% function in my leg. If I try to walk a distance, I’m kind of dragging my leg.”

Thankfully, Ciara’s pain has been eased to an extent as she was fitted with a spinal cord stimulator two months ago.

“It’s like two electric guitar wires that are placed inside my back parallel to my spine. At the small of my back is a kind of battery pack stitched in. It’s amazing really. It kind of intercepts the pain. Instead of pain, I feel a kind of buzz that goes through me, like interference. You get 40% to 70% pain relief from it. I’m at the higher end. I feel pain in my legs a bit now and in parts of my back not touched by the stimulator. But I am getting a lot of relief compared to what I was going through six months ago.

“Now, I’m getting out a bit more and seeing people which is really nice. I had tried a lot of things. The stimulator is quite an expensive piece of technology. To qualify for it under your health insurance, you have to tick a lot of boxes.”

Ciara takes pain medication occasionally. She also practises mindfulness.

“I did a trial at NUI Galway which involved Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Mindfulness was a big part of it. I found the whole therapy incredibly useful, especially the breathing techniques. It won’t necessarily bring down your pain but it can be prevented from escalating.”

Part of the trial included ‘thought challenging’ which Ciara said really helped her with the guilt that comes with chronic pain.

“There’s guilt when at the last minute, you have to cancel plans, often big events, because of pain. I learned to think about what was really happening. Is this person going to hate me for missing the event?

“Mindfulness helps too. I think people should be using it at all stages in life regardless of pain. The same with thought challenging. It’s really remarkable,” she said.

These days, Ciara likes to keep busy. She is always working with her hands, doing embroidery, drawing and origami.

“I have this awful fear of wasted time. I don’t want to look back and see that I spent a big chunk of my life just lying there, in agony, doing nothing. That’s why I started drawing and pushing it. But I never do things on days when I’m in awful pain.”

Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s tale, Ciara says she too fell into a rabbit hole when she became unwell.

“All the information I received was seen through a filter of the television or the internet. It feels like living in a kind of distorted reality. It’s like you’ve woken up somewhere else.”

Ciara Chapman's work titled 'Physio'.
Ciara Chapman's work titled 'Physio'.

Not surprisingly, Ciara became depressed at times.

“I was really lonely. It’s not something you want to talk about to your friends because you feel you’re always talking about yourself. You can’t talk to your family because you’re afraid you’ll worry them that you’re not coping. 

"I didn’t even realise I was depressed until my physiotherapist sat me down and had a talk with me.”

Ciara and David decided to get a pet to help her.

“It had to be a pet that I could take care of even on my worst day. So I couldn’t get a dog and I didn’t really want to get a cat.”

In a pet shop, the couple saw a little white rabbit.

“We got him. He really added to the Alice in Wonderland theme. I started putting him into illustrations. It wasn’t until later on that I realised people thought I had made him up. He’s called Obie. We got a second rabbit called Jess. They’re great company. I just love watching them. On a bad day, I can watch them getting on in their little world.”

There’s a dark side to the ripple effects of severe pain.

“My husband said at the start of this, ‘why us?’ It was a year after we got married when the accident happened. I remember thinking ‘why not us?’ So while my default setting wouldn’t be anger, I do get angry sometimes.

“If I get sick with something else on top of the pain, like a tooth infection or migraine, I’m going ‘do I not have enough wrong with my body than to have this as well?’ When you get sick and already have nerve pain, the pain gets worse. The nerve pain flares up every month with my period. If I get flu for example, it feels very unfair.”

Apart from missing her family, Ciara says Covid made little impact on her life.

Her guilt stretches to wondering if her husband (who is very supportive) would be happier if he was married to someone else “who wasn’t in this situation. I also worry about being a drain on my family but they’re all amazing and incredibly supportive.”

People often have a naive view of the medical world, says Ciara.

“They think you go to the doctor and you get better. I blame TV for that, such as Dr House and Grey’s Anatomy. It’s not the way life is. Sometimes, you just don’t get better and sometimes, you just have to keep going.

“Some people don’t believe in chronic pain. They think you’re making it up and looking for attention. Or they use the phrase our mothers would have used saying ‘she suffers from her nerves’.

“I have to remind myself that people don’t understand because they’ve never experienced severe pain.”

Ciara’s illustrations are attractive, often accompanied by pithy observations.

“I’ve noticed that art, which involves conveying pain or fear, is always really dark and heavy and not something you can hang on your wall. I wanted to balance it out so people wouldn’t be turned off before they even saw my work. That’s why I went for bright colours and delicate lines. And I don’t use a huge amount of red.”

Ciara is clearly resourceful and creative, determined to show her lighter side.

On Culture Night (September 17), there will be a tour of the art trail showing Ciara’s work around the city, starting from Cork Printmakers Courtyard at 5pm and at 6pm.

For more on Ciara’s work, see www.mychronicpaindiary.com.

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