22-year-old Maddy Austin spent the latter years of her teenage life battling with anorexia. At her lowest point, at 18, she weighed just 5-and-a-half stone and developed bone marrow failure. Her family struggled to find adequate treatment for her before eventually coming across an NHS day patient service that they say saved her life. Now, Maddy and her father, former ITV presenter Mark Austin are fronting a new documentary for Channel 4 called Wasting Away: The Truth About Anorexia, which takes a look at the impact eating disorders can have and asks, as mental health issues continue to grow among young people, whether enough is being done to actually treat them.
Here, she tells Refinery29 what her journey with anorexia was like.
Anorexia takes you. It takes your personality, your strength, your self-worth. It takes the life within you and replaces any goodness left with an all-encompassing nightmare. Anorexia took me along a tightrope of self-destruction and inner torment. I spent years feeling unworthy; unworthy of help, unworthy of love. I genuinely believed that the world, and everyone in it, would be better off without me. I starved myself, to get smaller and smaller in the hope that, one day, I’d just disappear.
When I was in the midst of anorexia, I truly believed that I would never get better. Any time someone suggested that recovery was possible, that I could one day be free to live a life without a constant shadow, to be sociable, feel happiness, feel light, I didn’t believe them. I thought I’d feel heavy forever; only now can I see the irony in that. I felt constantly full of darkness, buried under the weight of pain.
I starved myself, to get smaller and smaller in the hope that, one day, I’d just disappear.
If you had told me that things would get better, I probably would have responded with explosive fury. I was full of anger. I became violent and disturbed. I turned that anger in part onto those around me who were so desperate to help, but mostly onto myself.
Looking back, I can’t tell you one moment where things turned around. I can’t give you the exact formula to lead you out of the hell that is anorexia. But the reality is, eating disorders are beatable. And I don’t just mean on the surface – being a healthy weight and eating normally is just a fraction of being healthy again. You can live without constant criticism circling your mind, you can appreciate the beauty in the world. It’s possible to have bad days, stressful days, boring days, and learn to find ways of coping other than torturing yourself. There are days ahead that are not focused on food and body image.
Recovery is not a straight line. Once I started the long, arduous journey of rediscovering who Maddy was, there were a few things that helped me through the inevitable tricky patches. Firstly, it was realising you’ll never be 'ready' for recovery. You have to jump and make the decision every day to try. Despite feeling like it’s impossible. The eating disorder in you will have somehow persuaded you that it’s a safety net. It’s not. Every day spent with an eating disorder is another day of not living and every day spent trying to recover is a day of learning, a day of living, a day of recreating yourself, however shit that might be.
What I also realised is that you do not have to go back to being the person you were before you were ill, you can become whoever you want to be. I have gone from the perfectionist, self-centred, driven girl to Maddy, a girl who feels strongly, loves greatly, has fun, cares less. To some, that might seem like a change from success to unfulfillment. Yet as I write this, I think of things I never even noticed before I was ill and most definitely not when I was ill. I appreciate tiny moments, sunsets, smiles, laughter, tears. I also have flaws – ask those closest to me. However, those flaws are just who I am and instead of tirelessly working to change that, I just accept them. I’ve realised that if someone hates something in me, maybe they’re not worth having in my life.
Finally, I’ve come to understand that life will never be sunshine and rainbows. Recovery from a mental illness does not lead to a life of constant happiness. I have down moments, down days, just like anybody else. Maybe I respond to them differently because I know how low I can get, and I know how it feels to not be able to lift the fog. However, I don’t turn on myself anymore, and there are people in my life I can talk openly to. Because the number one thing I’ve learned since anorexia and I parted ways, is that I am loved. I am not a burden and – trust me on this – neither are you.
So why have I spoken out? Because I had the opportunity to do so, and so I took the chance to try and start a conversation about something that is so common yet so rarely talked about. When I was ill I felt I needed to know that recovery was possible. So here I am, trying to show that there is hope, however hopeless it might feel right now.
Wasting Away: The Truth About Anorexia is on Channel 4, Thursday 24th August at 10pm. If you or someone you know is suffering with disordered eating, please contact eating disorder charity Beat for help.