JUDITH Gill had almost given up any hope of living a normal life after battling a chronic fatigue syndrome for 20 years.
But a chance visit to the National Glass Centre (NGC) has thrown her a lifeline and the ME sufferer has been offered a new lease of life through an adult learners’ course.
She has now had her work nationally recognised, is about to launch her own glass design business and has a new-found confidence that is finally helping her to conquer the “invisible illness”.
Today, she is able to thank staff at the University of Sunderland’s NGC for giving her a second chance in life and fulfil her dream of becoming a successful designer.
But back in 1990 it was a different story for the 54-year-old.
Judith always knew she had a passion for art and design, inspired by her grandmother’s own work creating costumes for theatrical companies.
Supported by her family, she embarked on a degree as a textile designer at Huddersfield University, but when she graduated in 1981 she was faced with limited job prospects amid a huge UK manufacturing recession.
However, she eventually found a gap in the market and began freelancing for a number of international woollen companies, producing designs which would help promote their products.
She said: “I ended up trying to design garments for men, women and children, but I was so green at the time and fell into the trap of leaving my work with some of the companies, hearing nothing back, only to find my work had been copied and was on the high street the next week.
“There was nothing I could do and just had to try and make ends meet. It was a very different time and simply wouldn’t happen now.”
Determined, Judith continued to freelance, eventually landing a job as a knitwear designer in Leicester before moving on to the role of design manager at a company in Manchester in 1990.
But after just a month in the job, Judith noticed things weren’t quite right with her health. Problems with her sinuses increased and she initially blamed it on her allergy to wool.
She also had unexplained exhaustion, an aversion to bright light and noise, muscle pain and an inability to concentrate and write. She also lacked the energy to get out of bed.
“It was like I was being held down by lots of weights. I just couldn’t move,” she said. I even stopped telling anyone about the illness because no one could understand it as I didn’t look very ill, and they had never heard of the illness.”
She claims she also faced mounting prejudice from sceptic health professionals at a time when ME was still labelled “Yuppie Flu”, even recalling one doctor asking if her condition could be blamed on trouble with a boyfriend.
Seriously ill, she had to move back to live with her mum. Her sister, a practice nurse, recommended a doctor who might provide the answers to her mystery illness.
Judith, who became bed-ridden for six months, said: “The doctor my sister recommended was brilliant. He believed me when no one else did and I have been with him ever since.
“I had no idea I had ME at the time and there is no medication to treat it. I guess I was fortunate that the onset was so quick and left no doubt of the physical symptoms. It was obvious I was ill and not faking it.”
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has remained with Judith over the last two decades and her recovery has been gradual.
The condition causes relapses and remissions, so no two days are alike, but desperate to work and regain her life, she has attempted various courses and volunteered with various groups with disabilities when she felt able.
But all that changed two years ago during a visit to the NGC with her niece and nephew. While watching a glass-blowing exhibition, her interest in the craft was immediately sparked.
She eventually found the confidence to sign up for the part-time Introduction to Fusing Course, an adult glass-making course at the NGC.
More glass courses followed and the inspiration once again started to flow through Judith’s designs, experimenting with intricate jewellery and glass bowls, using dichroic – glass containing multiple micro-layers of metal oxides which give the glass optical properties.
By January 2011, Judith was persuaded by a friend to enter a national competition organised by the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London entitled Inspired By and run in conjunction with The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
The design she submitted, a necklace, was one of the first she had been able to create for a long time and was shortlisted from more than 108 entries.
Judith was invited to attend the awards ceremony, where she received a certificate and her jewellery went on display at the museum last month.
“I was so excited by the V&A shortlist. Due to the support and facilities at the National Glass Centre I was able to recover my confidence to design again, which is immensely important to me.
“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity the staff have given me, particularly Midori Shinmura, who gave me the chance to exhibit at such a prestigious institution.”
For information on courses or to book a place, email email@example.com or visit www.nationalglasscentre.com.