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.

Marco, The Explorer. He passed away a few years ago when his cancer returned.
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.

“I Will Always Find You In The Stars”. This is the last photo I did as part of the project (sort of) and the story behind it will break your heart.
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

Ryley, The Queen of Hearts

Written by SJ VanDee

Recovery Blogger. Sober AF. Photographer. Storyteller. Writer.


  1. You are incredibly talented. It doesn’t matter if you took a hiatus from your artwork while you were in the throws of your addiction/alcoholism/recovery. Time isn’t wasted if it brings you to a spot you need to be. If you are ready and the people supporting you in your addiction say you are, then you can always continue. When you are ready. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You (and all of us) need nurturing and care just like the little ones you’ve worked with. It’s for everyone’s benefit that you take the time to care for yourself and reflect so that you can continue to bless others with your beautiful talents. You deserve it, in fact!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Patty! xo I’m just finally coming to terms with the fact I’m doing this for myself and taking care of myself for a change. I feel so selfish doing it though – what a world we live in where we feel bad looking after ourselves first. But it’s true, we’re no good to others if we aren’t good to ourselves first. Lesson being learned 🙂 xoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The therapist is right. I myself told you how depressed I felt when looking at your project. Of course I appreciate and applaud your effort, the beautiful gift that you have given to all those children in capturing them as heros of their fantasy world, but it depresses me that there is so much suffering in the world, that little kids get very ill and some of them die too. Your project opens peoples’ eyes to this. And it hurts. (It hurts me so much I sometimes close my eyes.)
    A sensitive person like yourself could not remain unaffected. You could give those kids a few hours of your time, a beautiful picture, a nice memory but you could not give them what you wanted: health and a future. All you could give them was just a moment and a picture. Not enough is it? Not in your heart!
    That’s the trouble with being a sensitive person. Sensitive people are more fragile. Perhaps therapy will give you tools to accept that shit happens in life, that people get ill and die too, that life isn’t always just, that people hurt and not always of their own fault and that oftentimes, there is little you can do about it all! That’s just the way it is.
    Drinking is a coping mechanism, one of many, which may work if you are not an addict (it does for my parents) but it didn’t work for you. You need something else and I think you have already found it. Photography. Art. Writing. You can’t cure people of their illnesses and hurts, but you can capture their stories, spend a moment with them, make their grief/loneliness/pain just a little lighter if only for a moment. Thatś all you can do and even though it’s little compared to what you’d like to do, it’s A LOT. It’s a lot for these people because every beautiful moment – in a life structured by pain and suffering – counts!
    You can’t beat yourself for not being able to save the world or take a picture of everybody who wants it … You must learn to rejoice for every smile that your work, your existence and presence results in. You’ve done a great job already and you can always return to it. Unfortunately, there will always be enough children who will need a picture to see their future. There will always be people hurting who will appreciate a lovely moment and a recorded image to remember it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you again, so very much. You definitely hit the nail perfectly on the head. I need to learn that sometimes something is better than nothing…among countless other things. I do have this ridiculous feeling to save the world – or at best, come to terms FINALLY that I can’t. And it isn’t my responsibility to. I have no idea where that came from or why. But yes, I need to give myself some credit for at least doing what I’ve been able to do. Now, wrapping it up, or continuing with it in a much healthier balanced state of mind, would be a good plan for me to work on. Or maybe not. I’m sure I’ll learn so much over these next 4 weeks. xoxoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow.
    I am so touched by this post.
    You are incredibly talented.
    I can see how you hit the wall, as this would be emotionally draining.
    I am so glad you are taking care of yourself, and getting support.
    Much Love,


    1. Thank you so much Wendy xo I still carry all those kids with me – and all the ones I haven’t been able to work with that I had to say no to. I’ll be back to it one day, when I’m in a better place to understand it all. But, me first, for a change, I suppose (I don’t even like typing that…). xoxoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very very cool. I understand the guilty feeling regarding self care. At the risk at turning into a big old cliche…here’s another saying I scoffed at in early days of sobriety. “When the planes going down put your own oxygen mask on first ” Thanks again for being so honest. Hope you are getting some kip( that’s Irish slang for sleep)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am officially amazed (not the first time). You are not only very talented but also a spirit who is filled with a kind of love not everybody is able to feel. But I agree that too much involvement can be harmful. Isn’t that just awful? I hate that fact.

    In my opinion – and this is a darn cliche – time does not exist, so you could not waste it. Maybe you need to do a self-project, because you are also a superhero 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sophie xo And I FULLY agree. It’s so confusing to me. We were raised NOT to take. But to give. But without taking a little for yourself, you have nothing left to give. It’s finding that balance, I suppose. And I’m not the best at balance (yet). xo

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amazingly beautiful photographs. What a blessing you have been. I can see why you “burnt out”. A person can only handle so much pain. My daughter had to quit nursing because she felt so sorry for people. It was too much for her.

    I once had a breakdown because of seeing my grandson’s pain. I actually had to leave home and city and go live with my sisters for a few months. I’ve learned now, from Joyce Meyer, to quote Bible verses when I feel overwhelmed. This always helps me. There is great power in God’s living word.

    I pray the Lord will bless you with wisdom, recovery and give you peace of mind about how you feel about all this. We can only do what we can do. We are not machines. Jesus will show you how much to do I’m sure, when you ask him.

    Liked by 1 person

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