FACE washed. Face washed again. And once more. Becky Thomson’s morning ritual was a laborious, painfully slow and repetitive process that made her late almost every day.
Interrupt the carefully timed ritual that started the moment she woke up and continued until she left the house, and Becky would have to start from scratch all over again.
At least that was what her tormented mind was telling her. That she had to stick to the same routine, in the same order, without fail. Or else.
“It was in my head that if I didn’t follow this routine of getting ready, that something bad would happen,” she explains. “I had to wash my face three times, I had to put on make-up a certain way, do my hair the right way, even what I’d put on first.
“A bad day would be when I was really worried about something and I’d get the routine mixed, it would be really frustrating.”
Looking back now, Becky, 23, can see how her 15-year-old self was displaying classic signs of OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder – sparked, she believes, by the overwhelming and very modern pressures on her to fit in and be accepted by her classmates.
“It was all about who had the latest fashion label, the best bag,” she recalls. “And I felt that if I didn’t have them, then I wasn’t good enough. I felt stupid for getting myself stressed about things like that, but at the same time, I couldn’t help it.”
Today, however, Becky has learned vital techniques to help her conquer the OCD that tortured her during her final years at high school. And, in a complete twist, she has used her experiences to turn the tables on the ‘fashion must have’ generation with their designer labels and expensive gear, to create her own fashion line of clothes inspired by her illness.
Remarkably, her striking outfits have received interest from Topshop and international online boutique ASOS, which has asked the Edinburgh Napier University student for more details and further examples of her Sarah Rebecca 300.3 collection – the 300.3 refers to the medical diagnostic number given to OCD.
Becky, who is in her final year of her graphic design course, says she decided to create the fashion collection in the hope it might encourage other teenagers to become more aware of problems like OCD and overcome the stigma surrounding mental health.
“I’m trying to spread a different message about mental health problems,” says Becky, who lives with her parents, Angela and Martin, in Polwarth. “I really want to reach out to other young girls in the age range that I was when it happened so they know they’re not the only ones.”
She was a pupil at the Royal High when the first signs of her illness emerged.
“It was mainly down to pressure to fit in and keep up with everyone else,” she recalls. “I remember always feeling quite stressed about school, it wasn’t that I was being bullied, it was more me feeling that I needed to fit in with people and being worried and anxious about it.
“I was constantly worried that I was going to be bitched about because I didn’t fit in. It got out of control in my head. I convinced myself that if I followed certain routines, that everything would be OK.”
The teenager would spend so long carefully following her morning routine that she often made herself late for school which only added to her already soaring stress levels. Once there, her anxieties, whether over deadlines for getting through her work, typical teenage angst or torment over her perceived inadequacies compared to the school’s ‘A list’ popular girls, would spill over into terrifying panic attacks.
“The panic attacks were frightening,” she remembers. “My heart rate would go up, I couldn’t breathe properly, it was like having a heart attack.
“Sometimes I’d get myself so worried about having a panic attack that I’d actually end up bringing one on. I was at the point where I didn’t want to leave the house any more and I knew I’d never get out of this unless I could find a way of stopping myself.”
Becky was far from alone: OCD affects around 12 in every 1000 people, from young children to adults. There are an estimated 750,000 people living with OCD of varying severity in the UK.
While some cases can involve frustrating and time consuming rituals – which the sufferer believes will protect them or a loved one from harm – the disorder can also lead to persistent and irrational thoughts and fears. It can be so debilitating that the World Health Organisation has ranked it in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind in terms in lost earnings and diminished quality of life.
Becky hid her problems from her family, but eventually the truth of what was happening spilled out. “I knew my parents were getting stressed about the school phoning them all the time to say I was late again and I didn’t want them to be worrying, so I told them what was happening.”
Her brave decision to open up meant she could finally get the help she needed. Soon Becky was receiving support from the Young Persons Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where she learned how to break the rituals she’d enforced on herself and reclaim her life. “My parents were worried, they thought I was really seriously ill, but actually what I was going through is really common,” she adds.
Becky had previously turned to art to help her express some of her deepest concerns. By the time she reached her final year of her graphic design course at Napier University, she knew she wanted to combine her artistic talent and love of fashion with a serious message of support to other teenagers in the grip of mental health problems.
Her fashion collection is based around a unique patterned fabric she designed to represent the turmoil that OCD created. It features on a plain white skater style frock which Becky created to reflect a particular subtype of the condition – germaphobia, an obsession with cleanliness.
“The dress is clean and white and trimmed with this little rim of fabric that represents the ‘madness’ that goes on behind this perfection,” she explains. “I’ve tried to use the clothes to reflect the way OCD affects someone.
“For example, I’ve designed a pair of shorts that represent anxiety and panic – there’s a panel on them that is woven with leather and splashes of pink and yellow and with metal spikes which is to convey the way a panic attack just spikes up on you.”
Becky, whose collection forms part of the university’s Creative Degree Show, from May 24 to June 2, now plans to extend her idea into a support charity for teenagers with mental health problems and further clothes collections reflecting disorders like bulimia, depression and schizophrenia.
“I wanted to do something that would appeal to people of that age, clothes that they would want to wear and which might make it easier for them to cope with their problems and for other people to understand what they are going through,” adds Becky.
“Hopefully by wearing the clothes, it can be a symbol of acceptance or support.”
Teens feeling the strain
TEENAGERS are under immense pressure from modern day stresses to look and be perfect, fuelling a rise in various mental disorders.
New research has show one in ten teenage girls has an eating disorder, while boys as young as ten are showing increasing signs of being at risk.
It shows a 13 per cent leap in the number of new cases of eating disorders diagnosed each year between 2003 and 2009.
The highest rates of new cases are among girls aged 15 to 19 and boys aged just ten to 14. While part of the reason for the increase could be down to better awareness, there is also a belief that the rise is being fuelled by pressure from social media and celebrities, which leads young people to become fixated on their looks and weight.