The day eight months ago that saved Judy Toner's life was also the day that could have ended it. Ill, broke, depressed and overweight, she phoned the Samaritans and told them she was contemplating suicide. "They stayed with me on the phone for ages, listened and talked me out of it. They asked if I would like them to call the following morning and I said 'yes'.
"When they phoned next day and asked how I would spend it, I said I was going up to Airfield to volunteer my services as a gardener. They phoned back that evening to see how I got on, and I was able to tell them I had kept my promise.
"I knew Airfield employed volunteers and I was interviewed by the head gardener, Emer, who said she would take me on for one morning a week. That was April 25, 2007, the beginning of the rest of my life. This is a magical place and I've never looked back."
Judy sits across the table and tells me her life story. She currently suffers from fibromyalgia -- a form of rheumatism linked to ME -- Parkinson's disease, osteoarthritis and degenerative eye diseases which may blind her within the next 10 years.
She can be in intense pain at any given time -- except when she is digging, raking and planting the farm, house and gardens at Airfield, Dundrum, in south Dublin, where she now works four mornings a week. "I would work here seven days if I could. I can dig for four hours and walk home without an ache or a pain."
Twice married, once divorced, once separated, many of Judy's symptoms are stress-related, and she seems proof that some physical diseases have a psychological root, at least in part. "You could say my symptoms began the day I was born! I was the eldest of four and didn't have a happy childhood. I was lonely, and responded by rounding up all the kids on the road, forming a drama club and bossing them around.
"I've always gone out to people; I thrive on positive human contact, but I think the unhappy feelings in childhood can stay with you and come out in all kinds of ways."
A creative thread also runs through her life, and wherever she has lived, she has made a garden. She emigrated to France after leaving school, and at age 26, met and married a Polish film-maker and moved to California. "We were happy at the start but then things began to go wrong. I felt unloved and began to suffer from stomach ulcers. Previously I had visited the Navajo Indian Reserve in Monument Valley, Arizona, and been very attracted to their weaving, and went on to train as a weaver.
"So when my marriage ended after seven years and I returned to Ireland, I set up a company, Eager Weavers, applied and got a grant from the IDA, and began to do well. We made a range of clothing; we had a workshop and retail unit in the courtyard of Marlay Park, Rathfarnham."
Judy married again at age 36. Over the next decade, her work included training weavers under FAS contract, working for Kent Social Services in the UK, growing organic vegetables and herbs for sale in the Dublin markets and cooking for the landed gentry in Co Meath.
In spite of such productivity she was becoming increasingly unwell, suffering from depression, great tiredness and muscle pain all over her body. The mid-1990s were a low point. In 1994, Judy's father died. She had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 1995, her marriage ended. In 1996 her long-term symptoms were finally diagnosed as fibromyalgia, an ME-related illness, causes still unknown, which presents as constant fatigue and severe systemic pain in muscles and ligaments.
'A family member paid for me to see a rheumatologist who prescribed plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep.
"I tried different kinds of exercise, but I couldn't run, I wasn't very good at walking, I couldn't afford the gym. I was now living on disability benefit. I started gardening again, initially for my landlord in Monkstown, Co Dublin, where I was then living.
"Then I became a local authority tenant, initially in Bray where I ran art classes for the children and did the neighbours' gardens, all voluntarily as it kept me active and helped me get to know everyone.
"I moved to Goatstown in 2002 into an old house with no heating, with a neglected, overgrown field for a garden. I continued to design and maintain gardens for neighbours.
"Then, last year, things began to go wrong again. I had a problem which defeated and depressed me and made me ill. I withdrew from life. For a year, I spent 13 hours a day in bed. I put on three stone, and the night I phoned the Samaritans, I was feeling there was no point in going on.
"But from the very first day I began working in Airfield, my spirits lifted. We're in the process of planting 96,000 bulbs -- tulips, daffodils, anemones ... I've lost three stone in six months through exercise and healthy eating.
"I use my gardening as a form of meditation. I lose all negativity; it drops away like a dead skin and with it the pain goes.
"I think the most creative pathway through pain is to channel it into something positive."
For Judy, life is transformed. "With my GP's permission, I've been able to reduce my medication. I have no pain when I'm here.
"I'm happy. I belong. I've got my life back and I'm so grateful."A HISTORY OF AIRFIELDAirfield, Dublin 14 -- the former home of the Overend family -- opened to the public in 1994. Consisting of a farm, gardens, shop, restaurant, and original Big House, Airfield offers an arts, educational and gardening programme for adults and children.
The Victorian gardens were originally planted in 1810. There are rare and unusual plants sourced from round the world, including Ireland's largest collection of ornamental grasses.
Airfield's head gardener, Emer O'Reilly, has no doubt that gardening is good for body, mind and spirit: "It's easy to lose contact with nature. Gardening puts us back in touch."
Wednesday gardening group -- €6 for adults, €4 for over-65s. Visit www.airfield.ie