A trained actress whose life was blighted by terrifying epileptic seizures believes that leaving the stage to paint portraits of cows has “cured" her of the stress triggers that led to her elliptic episodes.
Seizure-free for two years, Lauren Terry 31, of York, stumbled on her unusual “treatment" back in 2011 when, a self-taught artist, she copied a picture of a cow from a greetings card and gave it to her dad, Justin, 64, a retired tailor.
So impressed by her efforts that he had it framed, when the shop owner suggested it was good enough to exhibit, Lauren rose to the challenge—holding her first exhibition in Wykeham, North Yorkshire, England in 2012.
Lauren Terry (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I had 18 cow portraits and at my first exhibition I sold six, which I was chuffed with. They were sold for up to £450 ($560) each, which was a decent amount of money."
Then, using £5,000 ($6,222) from her savings and with £1,000 ($1,244) invested by her mum, Jude, 63, now her business partner, she launched her new artistic venture.
A side project until 2016, when she and her husband, James, 31, an area sales manager—with whom she is expecting her first child in May—moved from London to Yorkshire, and she ditched acting to paint cows full-time, Lauren soon began to reap extraordinary health benefits.
Lauren's cow portraits (Lauren's Cows/ PA Real Life)
For her life had been blighted by epilepsy—a condition affecting the brain and causing seizures—since she was 10 years old.
First experiencing absence seizures, causing lapses in awareness, she would briefly lose consciousness.
“It felt like I'd gone into a deep daydream or into some sort of trance. Sometimes I'd completely zone out and my teacher would assume I wasn't paying attention."
“Or, I'd just stop in the middle of crossing a road and my parents would be yelling, 'Lauren, what are you doing?'.
“People just thought, 'Oh, Lauren's away with the fairies."
But at a school parents' evening in 2000, when the teacher noted something wasn't “quite right" with their daughter, her parents took her to see their GP, who referred her to York Hospital, where, after a series of tests, a neurologist diagnosed her with juvenile absence epilepsy.
Lauren showing some of her portraits (TOMCo. Media / PA Real Life)
“I burst into tears when they told me. It's a really scary thing, when you're only 10, to be told something is wrong with your brain."
In a bid to suppress her episodes, which were happening 10 times a day, Lauren was prescribed Epilim—an anti-convulsant medicine used to calm brain activity—to be taken twice a day indefinitely.
Luckily, her seizures subsided, but with unfortunate side effects, including headaches and weight gain, which really took hold when Lauren reached her teens.
Some of Laura's artwork (Lauren's Cows/ PA Real Life)
“My hormones were all over the place and I could never lose weight. I used to swim four times a week, but I was still chubby."
But in the summer of 2005, aged 15, when Lauren went to her friend's house for the evening to revise after a mock exam, she had her first tonic seizure—causing a sudden stiffness or tension in the muscles of the arms, legs or trunk.
“I dropped to the floor in my friend's kitchen and had an epileptic fit. I was completely out of it for a few minutes and shaking all over. When I came to, I was completely confused. Then I was in denial, as if it hadn't happened."
Taken to York Hospital, Lauren was prescribed the epilepsy drug lamotrigine—to be taken twice a day.
“The only good thing about taking it was that I lost loads of weight."
“When I went back to school after summer, I was a size eight, not my usual size 12, and everyone was like, 'Who is this new girl?'"
But, sadly, Lauren continued to have tonic seizures every few months.
Lauren as a child (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“They'd happen either first thing in the morning or late at night. I remember one time I was washing my hair over the sink and I started fitting."
“My chin was smacking into the bath and my dad rushed in because of the noise and pulled me away."
“I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I've dodged a bullet there—that could've been really dangerous'."
Lauren Terry (TOMCo. Media / PA Real Life)
Thankfully, Lauren has never suffered any life-threatening injuries because of her seizures.
“I've given myself a couple of black eyes, I've banged my head and bitten my tongue, but nothing too serious has happened."
But she was embarrassed and vowed only to tell her closest friends that she had them.
“I didn't want to make myself a target. I remember overhearing some boys on the bus once who were talking about what it would be like to have sex with a girl who had epilepsy if she had a fit."
“Right then I promised myself I wouldn't tell anyone I didn't trust about my seizures."
An aspiring actress, Lauren joined the Guilford School of Acting in 2010, but her epilepsy took a turn for the worse.
Lauren photographing some cows (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“It was my first time living on my own and I just wanted to be normal and go out and party and drink. I ignored the fact that alcohol was a trigger for my seizures. I just wanted to brush it under the carpet."
“As a result, for a while, I ended up having two seizures a month—and I wasn't taking my medication when I should."
But, when Lauren—who met her husband James while she was at university—turned 21, she resolved to tackle her epilepsy and began taking her regular medication properly, as well as Clobazam—used to control seizures—whenever she felt one coming on.
Lauren painting (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Still, her tonic and absence seizures would sometimes creep up on her.
“Stress triggers my seizures and absences and the uncertainty of acting was so stressful."
“I was fine when I was in the cycle of a play, but between jobs, when I was auditioning and juggling other side jobs, my stress levels would skyrocket, and I'd suffer seizures."
“I worked as a waitress in Wimbledon in south west London, and after the tennis everyone would pile into the restaurant and it would just be chaos."
“Everyone would be calling my name, and if I got an order wrong it and it all became too stressful and would trigger an absence and I'd zone out."
“On one occasion I just dropped to the floor and had a seizure in the middle of the restaurant."
Lauren on her wedding day (www.antonyrturner.com/ PA Real Life)
But all that changed with the advent of her new bovine portrait business, Lauren's Cows.
“It started off with just prints of cow paintings and then we expanded to cards and coasters, mugs, jugs, tea towels and aprons."
“When I started doing it properly in 2016, and trying to get it up and running full-time, I would still have a seizure every six to eight months—triggered by silly things."
Lauren and James on their wedding day (www.antonyrturner.com/ PA Real Life)
“Maybe me and James, who often acts as a sounding board for me and for ideas for my business, would discuss things late at night and if I started overthinking—especially when I was tired—it would trigger a fit."
But now, fully in control of running her own business, Lauren is far less stressed, and her health has improved enormously.
“I have the option to say no if I don't feel well or need a break, unlike with acting, which was so demanding. I don't have to worry I can just go home and chill out."
“We ship worldwide and it's crazy, how popular our stuff has become, but I don't want the business to grow too big."
“Yes, it's given me money, but it's also very much about the lifestyle this career provides, too."
And it is that lifestyle, according to Lauren, that means she has not had a seizure now for two years.
Lauren and her family (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I do believe that painting cows has helped me to stop having seizures. Although I think Art has helped to control my brain activity and therefore my epilepsy, I would never use it as a replacement for my medication."
“I paint all week in my own studio space. It's so relaxing, my mind isn't stressed or going into overdrive."
“When I'm drawing pictures of cows, which now I photograph myself and paint the photograph, I'm in a really relaxed state. I just zone out while I'm doing it, so my seizures don't creep up on me anymore."
“My mum Jude is my partner and she handles the more taxing areas of the business-like managing stock levels and the finances —which is brilliant for me because it just allows me to concentrate on painting."
Yet, while cows have given her a whole new future, she says cows have not always been a life-long obsession.
“People think I have this mad infatuation with cows, but that's just not the case."
“Drawing cows was a complete accident after the one I drew for Dad all those years ago, I do absolutely love cows now and they've got such a great personality and they've got such a calming effect."
“The more I've worked with them the more I've grown to love them as animals—I didn't appreciate them as much as I did now, there's just something so good natured about them."
“And the portraits of cows always make people smile—and that's what I love the most that our products bring cheer to our customers."
After growing up in Yorkshire, Lauren is very glad to be home and feels her job, her relationship and her surroundings have provided the perfect recipe for improving her health.
“Acting was so uncertain, and the stress of that would often trigger my seizures. Now, I'm much more relaxed, which really helps.And while I used to hate my brain and the way it worked, now I really appreciate it."
“Suffering from absences and tonic seizures was horrible, but that same brain has given me this business and if it didn't work in the weird and wonderful way it does, then I wouldn't be where I am today. So I'm actually really grateful for it now."
According to Epilepsy Action, it's not known exactly why stress might trigger seizures.
“Many people with epilepsy say that if they are feeling stressed, they are more likely to have a seizure."
“For some people, feeling stressed can lead to other things, such as changing sleeping or eating habits, drinking more alcohol, and feeling anxious or depressed."
“All of these can also increase your risk of having a seizure."