For years, Stephanie Davis had attempted to self-medicate her crippling anxiety with alcohol until a stint in rehab led to her being diagnosed with high functioning autism – age 26.
The now sober former Hollyoaks actress, 29, exclusively tells OK! VIPs how she turned her life around by understanding the root cause of her difficult behavioural traits, which include a deep fear of social sitautions and a need for rigid routine.
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As Stephanie Davis greets us on our shoot in North London, she has boyfriend Joe McKalroy tightly in tow. “I can’t understand how to get from A to B,” she says on making the 200-mile trip from her hometown of Liverpool.
“That’s why I’ve brought Joe with me. I call myself Dory the fish from Finding Nemo because I’m so terrible. I get lost and I get really, really anxious. I can’t get trains on my own any more.
“But I’m good at masking anxiety now. It’s like I can go from one extreme to the other and cover it with overconfidence.”
For Stephanie, who is mum to Caben, five, shifting between these extremes is a symptom of high-functioning autism (HFA). An estimated 700,000 have some form of autism in the UK, yet it took 26 years and a suicide bid for hers to be diagnosed in 2019.
The 29-year-old – who found fame in 2010 as Sinead O’Connor in Hollyoaks and was the runner-up on Celebrity Big Brother in 2016 – has a deep fear of social situations and a desperate need to follow rigid plans. And living her life in the public eye has not helped. Stephanie self-medicated heavily with alcohol in an attempt to mask her crippling anxiety. Now sober, she knows she’s had a lucky escape.
“Before I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, drinking was the only thing I knew,” she says. “I needed to drink a bottle of wine before a night out because of my severe anxiety in social settings. I also needed to know the layouts of places. So when I’d walk into somewhere new I’d go, ‘Right, the toilets are there, the bar is there.’
“In the end, my anxiety got so bad I couldn’t leave the house without a drink. If something went wrong, I’d drink. I saw that as my medicine, it was my best friend, but in the end it destroyed me to the point I wanted to take my own life.”
Speaking exclusively to OK! about her condition, she says she hopes to help others who might be struggling without even realising they are sufferers. People with HFA may not need the same level of support as those with more severe forms of autism but they can still face quite an ordeal.
One lifeline for Steph has been her boyfriend Joe, 25, who she met at one of her support meetings last December after he lost his brother to suicide. She says unlike other guys, he is understanding of her condition and has allowed her rigid routines – which include reciting tomorrow’s to-do list in painstaking detail before going to sleep every night – to become the norm in their lives.
“When we get into bed at night we always say, ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ We talk through everything, from the time we’ll wake up to when I’ll take Caben to school, do the shop, get a haircut and go to the gym. We plan it all out meticulously just so I know what we’re doing, then I say, ‘Night, love ya.’
“I can’t cope when I’m out of routine. I have to do certain things in a certain way, like cleaning. Even when Joe’s being amazing and wants to help, I’ll still have to redo everything he’s done when he goes away as it’s not done the way I want it done. I’m a bit like Monica from Friends. I also can’t stand background noise. If I call someone and they’ve got the TV on in the background, I feel like I’m going to combust.”
She adds of their relationship, “Joe’s the most beautiful person. He’s calm and peaceful, which is good for me as I’m erratic and panicky. He also doesn’t drink, which helps.”
Joe marks the end of a chequered relationship history for Stephanie. In 2017, she started therapy after ending her high-profile relationship with fellow CBB contestant Jeremy McConnell, 32, who is Caben’s father. The model was convicted of attacking Steph in their Merseyside home while she was holding their son, then eight weeks old.
But out of her darkest time came her diagnosis, in 2019. This finally helped her understand herself and turn her life around – and she went on to win Best Actress at the Inside Soap Awards in October later that year.
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“I was so low after that I was drinking myself to death,” recalls Steph. “I got dragged to rehab by my parents and they said, ‘Please help her because she’s going to die’. My mental health was so bad, it wasn’t just addiction. That’s when a consultant psychiatrist recognised my traits and told me I had high-functioning autism, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“When I got the diagnosis, I didn’t really understand what it meant, but as soon as I did my research I was like, ‘Whoa, that is me.’ Everything jumped out and it made me feel more at ease because I felt, ‘It’s not just me.’ It made me accept myself for the first time and start to look forward. It was the biggest relief.”
Trust is at the core of Steph’s relationship with Joe. She says her autism means she “can’t lie and can’t bear liars”, and has tortured herself by standing by unfaithful men in the past.
“One of my exes cheated on me and that’s a big thing with high-functioning autism – I don’t understand how people can lie,” she says. “I’d sit there trying to analyse, how can you lie? I just kept bringing it up all the time, like they’d murdered someone. It was a f***ing disgrace but I just couldn’t understand it. It really hurt me. I’m very black and white – there are no grey areas.”
Steph traces the first signs of her autism to early childhood and admits she has recognised similar traits in Caben, which have caused her concern.
“I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in at life and never fitted in, like an alien,”
she says. “When I was little, my mum and dad would think I was spoilt because I’d have strops if they said we were going to do something and then changed the plans. I’d have a meltdown and I struggled so much.
“With Caben, I see little traits with him that are the same. I do think ‘Oh no’ because when I was at school I didn’t get any help. I was just the naughty kid, or the one not concentrating. I never had that support and I do wonder if things would have got so bad for me if I’d have had that support when I was younger. That’s why I’m keeping such a close eye on Caben, so I can get him help if he needs it.”
Steph’s anxiety escalated when she joined Hollyoaks and found herself in pressurised social situations daily. While she had no problem memorising scripts, she would have panic attacks if a co-star called in sick and the scene order changed.
“TV is fast-moving – we had a lot to learn every day, often 40-50 pages and 10 scenes,” she says. “I can memorise easily but if someone called in sick, they’d change the scenes around and I’d panic. In the end, I asked for my whole week’s scripts in advance so I could learn them all. I didn’t realise then I had HFA.”
Autism hasn’t only impacted Stephanie’s mental health – it has had severe physical effects. When she is feeling panic and obsession, her skin “crusts over” with thick layers of flaky, burning skin, leaving her confidence so low she won’t leave the house.
“I know people will say it’s only my skin but it’s had a huge impact on my anxiety. It breaks out when I’m really stressed, or obsessing over something, and my skin goes so tight it changes the way I look. My eyes pull so tight it would hurt to turn my head because the skin would pull – the feeling is so intense. It would be red and angry and weep, then go crusty and shed like a snake. I couldn’t even bring myself to do the school run.”
After trying every cream on the market – and making her skin worse – she found a treatment that helps, using 3D Dermaforce treatment from One Aesthetics.
Stephanie isn’t the only celebrity who has opened up about their autism diagnosis and the condition’s impact. Others include Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, singer Susan Boyle and TV presenter Melanie Sykes, who was diagnosed at 51. And last November, Real Housewives Of Cheshire star Christine McGuinness shared her autism diagnosis aged 33, reassuring Stephanie she was not alone.
“I dropped her a message,” reveals Stephanie. “I saw what she’d been through and it’s the same. It’s brilliant to see other strong women coming out and speaking about things like autism. Some people don’t as they feel people will look at them differently. But most people are on the spectrum – it’s so wide.”
During lockdown, Stephanie says her mental health flourished as she was removed from day-to- day social pressures and able to focus solely on herself and Caben, before finding love with Joe. It made her question whether she wants to return to TV and she is instead thinking of opening her own rehab centre.
“Looking back at my life in the public eye, I was so young,” she says. “I didn’t have strong support and I feel I got thrown to the wolves. It’s not been easy but all along I’ve trusted the journey because if I didn’t go through all that I’d never have had Caben. And I believe I went through all that to help other people and one day I’d like to open my own rehab.
“I’ve got the experience, I’d just need a good team. At the moment, I want to focus on family stuff, but in the next two or three years that’s something I want to look at setting up, to give back and help people.
“When you’ve been to those depths of despair, to think of anyone else going through it, you just want to do anything to help, as most of the time it ends in death, or prison or institutions.
“Still, I’m a work in progress. I’m not perfect and I’m going to mess up, but I’m grateful because if it wasn’t for those experiences I wouldn’t be where I am with the knowledge I have and the lessons I’ve learned.
“By speaking out, if I can help just one person who might be unknowingly suffering with autism get diagnosed and understand themselves better, then it’s all worth it.”
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