health

Maddy was just 8 when she became obsessed with food and exercise. At 16, she was hospitalised.

Warning: This post discusses eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers. 

It started with categorising food into piles. 

What Maddy Tyers put into her mouth was either a 'good' food or a 'bad' food. And as time went on, more and more food started creeping over to the 'bad' pile. 

Then there was the mirror checking. Or window checking. A constant preoccupation with looking at her reflection and obsessing over the way clothes felt and fell on her. 

This all started when Maddy was only eight. 

Watch: You might recognise Maddy from Lego Masters 2019. Post continues after video.


Looking back, the now 31-year-old recognises that she was a very anxious child. A constant perfectionist who has always been incredibly hard on herself. But it was moving schools that seems to have been the catalyst. An event that Maddy tells Mamamia, "just shook up my world."

"I think all of those combined factors (my personality traits and then the move) led to me using food and exercise as a way to have control. And what sort of started as what I saw as 'healthy eating' and a 'healthy way of living,' slowly but surely progressed into a full-blown eating disorder that saw me hospitalised at the age of 16."

Maddy would be told in that hospital bed, that she was so under-nourished and under-weight that she was at risk of having a heart attack. Only then did the gravity of her illness start to sink in. Before that, she'd spent years deceiving her parents, obsessively exercising, refusing food and covering up her behaviours. Maddy stopped socialising and spending time with friends, as her obsession with food and exercise grew.

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"That's just the way I am. Leave me alone", she'd tell people when they'd question her weight, or her workouts or her lunch. 

In the depths of her Anorexia Nervosa, Maddy describes living with another entity in her head. Another voice in her mind that sort of morphed into her own. 

"You are basically 24/7 from the moment you wake up to the moment you sleep being constantly belittled [by that voice]. It's kind of like a spiral of self hate. Constantly, all day, every day you're second guessing every movement you make, and everything you put in your body. It's exhausting," she told Mamamia.

In recovery she'd name that voice Anna. 

As she started to get better, Anna became a way for her to distinguish herself from her illness. It wasn't Maddy. It was Anna that was tormenting her. And she could tell Anna to go away.

It took a long time for Maddy to heal. She only managed to work her way up to a healthy weight range and a 'normal' life eight years ago. While Maddy doesn't think she'll truly ever be 100 per cent recovered, Anna no longer has a hold over her. So she's decided to offer her up to the young children that are inevitably falling down the same dangerous path she did.

In March 2021, Maddy published When Anna Came To Stay, a children's picture book aimed at ages six to 12. It's the kind of resource she wishes her parents had access to growing up. 

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While there's plenty of literature around for teenagers and adults, children have largely been left out of the conversation despite Danni Rowlands, The Butterfly Foundation's National Manager of Prevention Services telling Mamamia, children as young as five have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Rowlands says eating disorders are complex in how they develop, particularly in under 12s. 

"There is not a single cause, nor do they develop due to a particular parenting style," she explained. 

But, she does believe parents can play a significant role in helping their children build resilience and manage their emotions and life experiences positively, while helping them to foster a healthy relationship with their body.

Here is how that might look for parents and caregivers:

  • Appreciate their body for what it allows them to do, rather than how it looks.
  • Celebrate diversity in body shapes, sizes, and weights.
  • Baulk at the narrow and unrealistic body ideals and standards (for women and men).
  • Use language that is non-shaming or critical of body shape, weight or size (their own or others).
  • Participate in physical activity and movement because it feels good and encourage fun physical activity as a family.
  • Challenge diet culture by avoiding fad and restrictive diets/lifestyle plans and enjoying a range of foods because they are nutritious and delicious.
  • Ask for help yourself if you are struggling – children need to see that it’s okay to ask for help, for the little things and the big things.

Maddy is hopeful that her externalisation of an eating disorder as a character will provide parents a way of exploring the issue that will feel emotionally safe for children. Ms Rowlands agrees that the book is both helpful and positive in its approach. 

"If I can help one kid potentially heading down the route of developing anything near what I experienced, and we can nip that in bud before it takes hold, that's my job done," Maddy told Mamamia.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website,  here.  

You can purchase Maddy's book here.

Feature image: Maddy Tyers.

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