The Drawing Hope Project

There is a massive weight I've been carrying with me for 5 years.

And, it's not my father's passing (though that is obviously a huge component). I've always addressed it as guilt for not fully completing a project, and for letting certain people down because I hit that wall where I simply couldn't do it anymore. You know the wall.

The one you try to climb, but each time you gain any ground, it just grows taller and taller. Like Jack's Beanstalk, growing to a point where it breaks through the clouds and you just don't have the strength to keep climbing.

This came up in therapy yesterday, and my counsellor turned it around for me in a way I've never looked at it before, and I had one of those 'huh' moments. Insert my slowly shaking head and face palm here.

It actually does start with my father's passing. As some of you know, I do fine art surreal photography (also known as those weird photos). It's just another way for me to get my thoughts out into something tangible, that can be translated into every language – sight and soul.

Well, my father was very sick and I wanted to do something to cheer him up, so I took a drawing I did for my Grandmother (who has recently passed away) at the age of 5 or 6, and turned it into a photograph. It cheered him up so much – he was my biggest fan. In the depths and final days of his cancer, it was a rare thing to see him happy and excited about anything.

Long story short, I started doing this for other families. Children born with life threatening illnesses or fatal diseases would send me their drawings and their personal stories – and I would travel to them, have a super fun photo shoot, then turn their drawings into real life photos, starring themselves. Essentially, bringing their imaginations to life. Their dreams coming true.

That Anything Is Possible.

It's called The Drawing Hope Project.

I was a wish granter. To the parents and caretakers of these children, it meant the world. They were able to see their child doing things they'd never dream of – and likely wouldn't live long enough to have a chance to do, anyway. To see your children's imagination come to life must be such a wonderful thing for them, when they aren't certain about their children's actual life at all.

“When you have a child that goes through a life threatening illness, every single picture is so very precious. Each picture you take captures a moment that can never be repeated. And when your child’s future is uncertain, there is nothing more valuable than those pictures to remind you of all those moments.” - Joanna Mitchell (Ryley, The Queen of Hearts' Mom)

So I started turning "sick kids" into superheroes. Queens and Princesses. Astronauts and magicians. Whatever their mind and heart desired, I waved a camera and a little magic, and turned into a sort-of reality for them. Their reactions were priceless, and for the first time in my life I felt I'd found my calling.

I can't seem to embed this video, but it really helps explain what it's all about:

And...this one too:

I just watched that video for the first time in a couple years, and typical me, I'm crying. That was last time I felt any real hope or worth.

The words debilitating illness are ringing me ears. The irony.

How did I end up going from that, to here? I was an absolutely functioning alcohol back then, but I still managed to be contributing something good to the world.

I did this on my own time, with my own money. Travelling across the county, and even once flying to Las Vegas to work with 7 children in one day at the Nevada Childhood Cancer Centre (ABC World News with Diane Sawyer tagged along to document it that day).

And, it continued - it went viral. And every day, I'd receive hundreds of emails from despondent parents asking me to make their child's dream come true. That their son had a terminal brain tumour and this would be the most priceless gift if I could give it to them.

I wanted to say yes to everyone. How could I say no? 

Every one of those children became my adopted children in an odd way – they looked up to me, I'd receive cards and random videos with updates, and I'd go for coffee with their parents just to listen. (Insert my business that pays the bills falling to the wayside, because balance isn't my forté). I'd bring them bags of art supplies, to encourage them to keep drawing and creating.

I initially wanted to work with 10 children, and take all the characters I've turned them into, and weave them into one magical storybook full of hope. In the end, when I hit that wall, I had worked with well over 60 in 2 short years. It was covered the The Today Show, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, all the local and national news networks, NBC, and overseas in publications in nearly every country.

And then I just stopped.

I carried the stories of every one of those children – including a few we've lost to cancer or other illnesses – with me, every single day since I met them. Including the ones I wasn't able to help. And it's there, at the bottom of every glass of wine I've drank during and since. Guilt and regret. 

I've always attributed it to not being able to continue, or complete the project - the much anticipated storybook that everyone has been waiting for. The one that some families will only see their child in now that they're gone and have passed away. Because I delayed. Because I just couldn't finish it.

I've isolated and my drinking went through the roof because I couldn't come to saying no to any of these families or children. I've withdrawn because I didn't have answers - at least the ones I wanted to be able to give them – about when I'll be doing this work again, or when the project will be finished.

But I will say, it was the highlight of my life and the most I've ever felt like I was doing something positive with what I've been given to work with this in life.

And I've spent so much of it wasted. Wasted so much of it wasted.

My counsellor identified it as a trauma – delving into these families situations and taking them on myself. It was never like I just showed up, took a photo, then left. I've become their friends. He explained it's hard enough for 1 family to go through what they're going through, but I've taken on 60 and feel for whatever reason it's my responsibility to make it all better for them. To be the magician that can take away their pain and give them hope.

He identifies this as one of the driving forces behind my recent alcoholism, but the root of that empathy and sense of responsibility stems much further and deeper - and we aren't even getting there yet.

So, have a look if you'd like. Prepare to cry a little. These little kids have so much strength, and I'm feeling absolutely selfish and awful for wasting so much of my time and my health, taking both for granted in a world where little guys like this are struggling and hoping they'll make it to ten years old.

I feel like an asshole. So much irreplaceable time wasted. And I promise every one of them this morning I am going to channel their strength - the strength of 5 and 6 years olds – to help me through this.

My tiny little inner army.

You can visit the site here, see the children's drawings and stories / magical photos here, and see some video coverage here.

I'm not even going to proof-read this before posting because it's broken my heart thinking about this this morning.

Maybe when I'm strong enough, I'll do a series for recovered addicts and alcoholics? We can definitely all use a little hope as well, and could certainly use the reminder that anything is possible.

xo Shawn

Sober, alcohol free recovery blogger.

Photographer. Writer. Ex-Blackout Artist.

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