At 14, Rebecca Reid was felled by ME. Confined to bed and subject to cruel whispers, she was going slowly mad. And then she wrote herself sane...
Mum-of-three Rebecca Reid, from Bangor, tells Una Brankin how she fought back from illness to build a career as a model and thriller writer
Struck down at 14 with the severe fatigue and weakness syndrome ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy), the stunning former model Rebecca Reid had to be schooled at home in Bangor for two years. After her tutor read one of her essays, she recommended sending it to the local paper, which promptly called her in to discuss her ideas.
Against all the odds, the plucky teenager fought through her illness and managed to write a weekly lifestyle page for the Bangor Spectator at the age of just 16. A year later she became a successful fashion model and in 2009 received a creative writing grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
She has just published her second novel, Thickets Wood, a dark psychological thriller set in the ficitonal Thatchbury village, which follows on from her critically-acclaimed debut The Coop, published in 2012.
Now working on the third novel in the trilogy, Rebecca (30) still lives in Bangor beside her parents Ronnie, a former art lecturer, and Liz, an artist and art critic for the Belfast Telegraph, and her sisters, Tara Craig (39), editor of Wedding Journal, and Jenny Galbraith (36), an artist. Married to Johnny (29), an archaeologist she met at Queen's University while studying English Literature, Rebecca has three daughters, Molly (7), Matilda (4) and Cherry (2). She tells us about the challenges she faced from having ME at such a young age and how she overcame the illness with the love and support of her family and friends.
Rebecca, in her own words ...
I was diagnosed with ME when it had very little recognition. It was terribly alienating at such a young age to be pulled out of your life and restricted to the confinement of your own home, so I turned to writing as my vent. I think had I not become ill, I would never have found it.
Getting ill at any stage in your life is hard to deal with. There’s the ifs and buts of the short-term and then the reality of the long-term throws in its tuppence worth. You mull over the whole scenario in your head for a while — let it breathe, give it time to sink in —yeah, like oil on sand.
Then life pulls out the trump card, the real deal. Not only are you still a kid, but hey, here’s the bit that really gets you laughing, this thing you’ve got, this ME — most people don’t even believe in it.
“It’s all in her head,” they’d say. “Nothing but an excuse for skipping school.” When it comes to adults, they tend to think it’s a quick route to early retirement. They’ll whisper behind their papers, between sips of coffee, “Yeah, bit of tiredness, the odd ache and pain. Haven't we all got that?”
Yep, there’s the ace: your life’s been hijacked and jackpot! Ding, ding, ding — your lucky strike, the big cheese, no one’s going to believe you.
I was 14 when I caught a 24-hour virus in Florida. It knocked me flat like never before, but it passed and I was right as rain,or so I thought. A few weeks later, I was over the jet-lag — at least, I was meant to be, but something didn’t feel right. It was another bug. Maybe from the travel? All the late nights? It was a flu this time, a really bad one.
I hadn’t had headaches like it before and the pains were crippling. I was too exhausted to move out of bed but the worst bit, the killer, was not being able to sleep. Mum would say: “Get some sleep and you’ll feel better.” That’s what people always say when you’re sick, isn’t it?
Well, yeah, I’d love to but chance would be a fine thing! No matter how exhausted I felt or how many days had rolled in, there was nothing getting me to sleep. As the weeks passed and nothing improved I caught the subtle whispers of my parents. I didn’t need to know this wasn’t normal. I decided I would drag myself up and go to school — it was the beginning of GCSE prep and I couldn’t fall behind.
So that’s exactly what I did, very unsuccessfully.
I would make a day and then be absent for the following fortnight, and that continued until even half a day was too much. I couldn't keep up with the work and was sent home. Life was slipping away and I didn’t understand why.
I then spent months of going from specialist to specialist, undergoing test after test, until they eventually put it down to ME — basically a condition they pinned on anything they didn’t quite understand. Anything with no scientific explanation. Of course, it was fantastic to hear I had nothing life-threatening, nothing terminal, but instead I got lumbered with this thing that really, they had no real idea about because the symptoms vary hugely from patient to patient. I sat there crying when I was diagnosed. The doctor reassured me that “Yes, of course, some people come through it and have a healthy functioning life but no, we have no idea if or how long that could take, it could be a few years, 10 years, possibly never”.
And so the tears kept coming — in the office, at home, in bed when everyone was asleep. It felt like the whole world was sleeping, except me. There I was, a speck in the universe, drifting in my own black cloud, alone. This is when I started to write; I went crazy at night with the insomnia and the silence, the tossing and turning, battling the relentless grip of exhaustion. This was a fight neither was winning, let alone me. So I picked up my pen and I wrote about a world where feeling like this didn’t exist. I wrote myself sane.
I eventually came to accept this new life and the hope I found in my mother's constant search for alternative therapies and treatments that had even the slightest chance of improving my condition.
But after the first year, a loneliness had settled in, despite the love and care of my family. It was, I guess, an emptiness of youth. Everything I knew had gone and this, the daily grind of home life, was my now. I needed something to pour my love into, something to love me back and be there at night when I was alone, so after a lot of research into companion pets, I got a Siamese cat.
Getting Ching-Te was the best thing I ever did throughout my time with ME and I still have her today. She became a new best friend.
She sat with me as I wrote. She sat with me as I cried and sat with me when I laughed, coming out the other side.
I was lucky and by the age of 16 I was well on the way to recovery and haven’t looked back since. Yet, as terrible as it felt at the time but it lead me to writing fiction and if that was what it took to get me here, I’m glad I got something great out of it.”
Thickets Wood by Rebecca Reid is available now, Liberties Press, £12.99
On Modelling and writing
Q How did you get into modelling and did you enjoy the work?
A I was spotted by a local agent at 14, and much to my disbelief, I loved it. It was very nerve-wracking at first but with time comes confidence in what you’re doing and it was great fun.
Q Which models do you most admire?
A I am going to assume that most people pick this lady, but Kate Moss is amazing. She was the face of modelling when I was growing up and despite all the hype surrounding her with weight and drugs etc, she always came out on top. She may not have been a fantastic role model or influence but, really, I believe she was just a true reflection of her generation.
Q You got married and pregnant relatively young while you were at Queen's. Did you have any time for student fun there?
A Oh, I had fun, much too much of it. I did most of my modelling through university so I would say I was absent more than I was present. But I enjoyed every second! Saying that, had I not gotten married and had a baby in my final year, I may never have knuckled down to doing any work. That suddenly grounded me and pulled me into focus.
Q How did you get the artist Neil Shawcross to design the cover for your debut novel The Coop?
A That man is amazing, a true gentleman! I showed up at his studio, home-baked cookies in my hand and begged him to do my covers. He simply agreed. A lovely distraction, he thought. Seeing his reflection of my words is amazing. I never know what to expect but somehow he seems to capture the stories essence perfectly.
Q There's a paranormal bent in your work, that’s certainly far from chick-lit ...
AI hate chick lit! I have been interested in all aspects of the paranormal since I was old enough to read. I hunted out books on everything from evidence of angels to the ghastly truths of hauntings. I wanted to know and understand it all. Throw in a love for fairytales and you get a mixing pot where anything is possible. A lot of it comes from the fact there are things out there that are unexplainable, that despite the advanced world we live in with ever-evolving technology, there are some things that we can never quite pin down. Not for sure. Not 100%. Fiction lives in the world of that doubt.
Terrible toll of ME on 250,000 in UK
- It is estimated that some 250,000 people in Britain are affected currently by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy)
- ME/CFS has attracted more than its fair share of controversy. Initially, and for many years, there was a debate as to whether it was actually an illness at all. Although the situation is still not perfect, many influential bodies (The World Health Organisation, the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health, the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Psychiatrists and General Practitioners among them) are now in agreement that it is real
- All ages are affected. Severe and debilitating fatigue, painful muscles and joints, disordered sleep, gastric disturbances, poor memory and concentration are commonplace. In many cases, onset is linked to a viral infection. Other triggers may include an operation or an accident, although some people experience a slow, insidious onset
- In some the effects may be minimal but in a large number, lives are changed drastically: in the young, schooling and higher education can be severely disrupted; in the working population, employment becomes impossible for many. For all, social life and family life become restricted and in some cases severely strained. People may be housebound or confined to bed for months or years
- There is currently no accepted cure and no universally effective treatment. Those treatments, which have helped reduce particular symptoms in some people, have unfortunately proved ineffective or even counterproductive in others. An early diagnosis together with adequate rest during the acute phase and during any relapse appears to bring the most significant improvement.