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'Doctors told me I was crazy and it was in my head ... but there's days when I can't get out of my bed'

When Lady Gaga took to social media recently to talk about suffering fibromyalgia, Enniskillen plus-size model Lisa McCabe was moved to tears. Here, she tells Stephanie Bell about how she copes with the debilitating condition

Fashion designer, lifestyle blogger, plus-size model and charity fundraiser Lisa McCabe's busy lifestyle would exhaust anyone 10 years younger.

What makes the 29-year-old's hectic way of life and achievements all the more remarkable is the fact that she lives with the devastating condition fibromyalgia.

A Lady Gaga fan, she was moved to tears this week when she watched the star's new documentary in which she revealed for the first time that she too lived with fibromyalgia.

Like her pop idol, Lisa is an inspiration to anyone living with a debilitating illness as, despite chronic pain and fatigue, she has made her mark on the local fashion and beauty scene.

As well as her own fashion brand, Nor Lisa, which has been showcased at Belfast Fashionweek 11 times and is favoured by many well-known local celebrities, she has worked as a plus-size model for a number of years on beauty and fashion campaigns.

Her curvy size 16 figure is one she celebrates and appreciates after having battled anorexia in her teens. At 5ft 9in, she was a very skinny size 10 at the height of her illness.

Lisa is also a fervent fundraiser and over the past seven years has raised over £7,000 for the breast cancer charity Pretty 'n' Pink. Her latest passion is for raising funds and awareness for mental health after losing a close friend to suicide as well as creating more understanding of fibromyalgia.

She is also due to get married in November to fiance Stuart Hetherington (42), a trainer with British Telecom, and while life couldn't be any busier, most days her smile masks a terrible pain. Lisa has spent the past seven years going to doctors with severe symptoms but it was only three months ago that she was finally diagnosed.

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Another shot of Lisa modelling

Earlier this week, she talked openly about the condition on RTE radio when the Ryan Tubridy show visited Enniskillen Castle.

She is now on a mission to educate people about this largely misunderstood illness and was thrilled when Lady Gaga drew attention to it worldwide by revealing she, too, was a sufferer.

In her no-holds-barred documentary, Five Foot Two, launched on Netflix earlier this week, the singer talked about how fibromyalgia impacts on her life and also filmed a scene in which she bends over while a female friend gives her a pain relief injection into her bottom.

Convincing people that fibromyalgia - a largely hidden condition - is real, says Lisa, is one of the toughest parts of dealing with it.

Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain all over the body. People with the condition also experience fatigue, muscle stiffness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and headaches.

The exact cause is unknown, but it's thought to be related to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain and changes in the way the central nervous system processes pain messages carried around the body.

Because there is no test, it is difficult to diagnose.

Lisa says: "I can do the pain, I can deal with that, but people don't think it's real or think you are over-reacting or imagining it and that's the hardest thing to cope with.

"I actually cried watching the Lady Gaga documentary as I could relate to everything she said and was going through.

"I am a fan anyway and to have someone I admire who lives on the other side of the world going through the same thing as me and having the same symptoms was amazing.

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Lady Gaga

"She has such a great influence and will help open people's eyes. What struck me most were her words - 'If I'm rich and I can have any treatment I want, how can anyone who is without money cope with it?', that really stuck with me.

"There is a big taboo about talking about your health but I don't care how it makes me look, I just want to raise awareness.

"I think it is important people realise that just because someone is not in a wheelchair or using a walking stick, it doesn't mean they are not in pain or disabled."

Lisa has been suffering from the condition since her early 20s and has lost count of the number of doctors who dismissed her symptoms.

She says: "I was told I was crazy, that it was in my head, just to get over it and man up or to take up yoga or swimming. There are days when I can't get out of bed and one of the difficult things with this condition is how unpredictable it is. You don't know from one day to the next how you are going to be.

"I am one of a few people with it who still works as I would go crazy at home and like to keep my mind active. I work 9-5 managing an alterations shop, I do my fashion designs and blogs at night and I do a lot of fundraising."

Lisa grew up in Enniskillen, one of four children who she says were encouraged to always do their best but follow their hearts.

She chose the art route and studied fashion and textile design at the University of Ulster and spent 10 years living and working in Belfast as a designer and model, before returning home to Enniskillen two years ago where she met her fiance Stuart.

She makes all of her own garments by hand and describes Nor Lisa as "high impact, high glamour".

Fans of her work include local model Katie Larmour, who has worn Lisa's creations to red carpet events, and former Miss NI and Miss UK Lucy Evangelista, who has also called on Lisa to create something unique for celebrity occasions. Reality TV star Ashleigh Coyle also wore one of Lisa's designs on the catwalk of West Coast Cooler Belfast Fashion Week shortly after coming out of the Big Brother House.

"I like to think of my work as wearable art," says Lisa. "Glamour and femininity are the keystones to my brand identity.

"My designs are set to empower women, and I take pride in creating garments which allow each of my clients to feel truly special.

"High impact, high glamour, my brand identity is based around creating unique designs, which not only are flattering to the wearer, but through my use of hand-printed and custom-made prints are unlike anything currently being produced at the moment.

"I want my garments to be distinctive. If someone wears one I want people to realise it is by me.

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Lisa at a Pretty 'n' Pink charity event

"My designs consist of sweeping full-length gowns, distinctive custom-designed prints, laser cutting and designs which always stand out.

"My signature 'Spitfire' motif is what I am most widely associated with. It encapsulates the period of the 'Pin Up' girl, when women always strived to be glamorous.

"Whether it's in a simple shift dress or a glamourous gown, my aim is to design pieces that will always create drama and make my clients feel special. Because of my illness I have had to be more selective in the commissions I take on, so most of my work now is by commission."

As well as enjoying the design side of the fashion business, Lisa is also a regular on the catwalk and just this week modelled for a fashion hair photo shoot in Belfast.

She is proud of the fact that she is one of the few plus-size models making a living in the industry in Northern Ireland.

Struggling in her mid-teens with anorexia is not something she has spoken about before. To enjoy a career as a part-time model with curves is something she says she hopes will set an example to other young people that you don't have to be skinny to be happy and successful.

"When I was 15, I had anorexia but I kept it quiet and I dealt with it myself. It was probably bad for about two years and then I grew out of it," she says.

"I think the older I got the more I realised that it isn't about how skinny you are but how happy you are and I have always been happier curvy.

"It never fully leaves you. Even today I am conscious of what is in everything I eat - how many calories, how much sugar and fat - but I just have to put it to the back of my mind and focus on what is healthy and as long as it is healthy that's all that matters.

"I am tall at 5ft 9in and when I dropped to a size 10 when I was ill, I was very small for my height. If you're curvy or a plus size, people think you eat lots of food, but it is about making sure it is healthy and good for me and everything in moderation."

Lisa is looking forward to her wedding in November which she says will be a small affair with 50 of her closest friends and family.

When it came to the all-important dress for her big day, being a designer certainly made choosing it a lot easier.

"I got engaged last November and the next day went online and ordered my dress," she says. "I know what I like and what suits me and I ordered a plain dress and I have altered it myself, adding beads and sleeves and lace to make it my own.

"It is very exciting and also a very busy time as I am also doing all my flowers and table arrangements myself.

"We are going to New York for our honeymoon. I have never been to America before so I am very excited about that."

Her fiance Stuart knows better than most what Lisa suffers with fibromyalgia. Helping others to understand is now something of a mission for her.

She says: "Finally getting diagnosed three months ago was such a relief because I can talk to others now who have it and also Google it and learn how to control it.

"I've found heat helps so I got a bath installed and I have a long, hot soak at night. I have also bought a heated blanket which I use in bed to try and relax my muscles and hopefully stop the pain.

"It's completely unpredictable. Last weekend, I was so bad I couldn't make a cup of tea for myself or cook for myself and needed help to get out of a seat.

"I've had the condition so long now, it is just part of my life and if I am in pain I try to get up a bit earlier to get myself going so that I can go to work.

"I do keep busy despite it and, as well as working full-time as manager of Sew it Seams, I go home to work on my fashion designs and my blog.

"I also enjoy charity work and I have raised a lot of money for Pretty 'n' Pink but now hope to do what I can to raise funds for mental health charities and to raise awareness.

"People don't understand mental health but it is a disease like any other which people have to live with even though it is often not obvious to others."

She adds: "I don't want to be miserable, so I put a smile on my face and get on with my day but that doesn't mean I am not in pain.

"I just hope to do what I can to create a better understanding of fibromyalgia and to let people know that it is a very real and very serious condition."

You can follow Lisa's lifestyle blog at norlisafashion.blogspot.co.uk and catch her on Facebook - facebook.com/NorLisaFashion/ Twitter - twitter.com/norlisafashion and Instagram - instagram.com/norlisafashiondesigner

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