'Why music is the only thing that helps me forget the agony I'm suffering'
Anna Murphy, from Co Antrim, spends most of her life in chronic pain, but a unique way of striking up new friendships is helping her to cope. She tells Karen Ireland how her crippling illness has finally given her something to sing about.
Anna Murphy (62) has always sung. When she was younger, she used to sing in youth groups, choirs and folk groups, before meeting her husband, Alex (65), when they started travelling the world singing together.
"We actually met on a night out listening to bands at a place called The Net, which was a meeting place for Youth for Christ. There was an outing planned and I was teamed up to go in Alex's car and that was it - we hit it off and have been together ever since," says Anna.
"We've been married for more than 42 years and, when we started singing together as a duo, we travelled all over England, Sweden and Germany. We auditioned for gigs for a chain of restaurants in Sweden and ended up staying there for about five years.
"It was a great time and we had a wonderful life, but when it came to settling down and having children, I wanted to be closer to our families for a more settled life, so we returned home and had our two boys - Paul, now 35, and David, who is 32."
Still determined to keep their links with music, the couple opened a business selling pianos from their home in Ballinderry, Co Antrim.
But, 10 years later, fate dealt Anna a cruel blow when, in her 30s, she began to get crippling pains in her shoulders and hips.
"At the start, it would come in bouts. I would be in terrible pain and then it would go away again," she says. "When I went to the doctor, I was diagnosed as having the onset of fibromyalgia.
"At the time, I didn't know a lot about this condition, but I soon discovered there was no cure and I would get progressively worse. Unfortunately, this has happened and now I am in almost constant pain with my joints and muscles. I am also very stiff. I am on different medication, but I am still in tremendous pain.
"For years, I didn't tell a lot of people about my pain, or that I had the condition. I just tried to hide it and get on with things.
"Alex would look at me at times and say, 'You are in a lot of pain, aren't you?' and I would shrug my shoulders and just grin and bear it."
Anna continued to sing and play the guitar. Leading worship in her local church gave her a release from her agony, too.
"I took a step back from the business and the boys began helping their dad in the piano shop. I struggled, as I didn't find a lot of support out there for people with fibromyalgia.
"Then, I joined an online support network called Hope 4 Me & Fibro Northern Ireland, which helped a lot. People were suffering very similar symptoms to me. Many doctors are still in denial about the condition and don't recognise it - they put the aches and pains down to arthritis. Now, I have good days and bad days. There are days I am so sore that I can't get out of bed, or I have to go back to bed and lie down in the afternoon if I have something on I need to do in the evening. I also find the condition affects my memory - it can be very foggy at times, which I hate.
"Singing definitely helps. It opens up my lungs and gets oxygen flowing to the brain and I feel better and have a more positive outlook on things. I forget the pain and I'm just myself for a little while."
A chance meeting with a neighbour, Debbie Deboo, led to Anna finding out about Chronically Fabulous, an organisation of volunteers working with people with chronic illnesses of all kinds, offering them support and pamper days, where they can go along and have a makeover done and a photoshoot and feel fabulous for a day - despite their illness.
"Debbie told me all about it and I found myself telling her about my condition. I had just reached a stage where I needed to hold my hands up and admit I was struggling with it. Debbie suffers from myalgic encephalopathy (ME), so she knew how I felt and we were able to understand each other.
"Debbie invited me to one of her events, which I went along to. It was fantastic - I was treated like a queen. We had 'mocktails' on arrival, then there was someone there to do my make-up and my hair and to pick gorgeous clothes out for me to model. Then Debbie and a friend took photographs."
Anna revealed to Debbie that she had actually been working on a song to thank the team at Chronically Fabulous - and her latest effort, Chronically Fabulous Tonight, was born.
"Debbie contacted me later and said they loved the song and wanted to record it. They wanted me to help some other members of the group learn the words and to help them sing it properly before it was recorded.
"I felt very honoured and went along to rehearsals for the song. It was great to meet up with other people who are in similar situations to me. There were also a lot of people who were living with a lot worse and it put everything in perspective and made me very aware of what other people are going through."
The "choir" came together to record the song and it was launched at a special fundraising event last month.
"It was great meeting up to rehearse and gave us all a real focus. I wrote the song based on facing up to the illness, but doing so with a fighting spirit - it needed to have a more positive outlook.
"I sang the lead vocals together with a girl called Tracy McConnell. She has a beautiful voice and copes with Klippel-Feil syndrome (a rare condition caused by congenital fusion of any two of the seven cervical neck vertebrae).
"We called the group The Fabronics and had fantastic fun launching the record, which can be viewed on YouTube and bought on iTunes, or Amazon, with the proceeds going directly to Chronically Fabulous."
Debbie Deboo, founder of Chronically Fabulous and a finalist in this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector award, says: "About a year ago, my friend, Felicity McKee, who is a former model, and I were talking about chronic illness and the lack of support and awareness of many conditions.
"She has an eating disorder and I have ME and we agreed there were a lot of silent illnesses, which weren't really talked about in the media.
"We got together and did a photo-shoot with some sufferers of different illnesses and it took off from there. We try to have a Chronically Fabulous Day once every couple of months and, so far, we have helped about 40 people."
Debbie says the group has a Facebook page, where people can register and fill in a questionnaire and then are selected from there.
"This is just our way of giving something back to people who are living in pain every day of their lives. We work with people with little-talked-about illnesses, such as Crones, fibromyalgia, IBS and muscular dystrophy.
These people are just getting on with their lives in chronic pain and it has been going on so long, most people have stopped asking them how they are feeling."
- Get in touch with Chronically Fabulous via their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/chronicallyfabulousNI