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Newsreader shares the heartbreaking reality of parenting a child with anorexia.

For a long time British newsreader Mark Austin admits he “failed to grasp” the reality of his daughter Maddy’s eating disorder.

At least once the father-of-three told his teenager her anorexia was “crass, insensitive, selfish and pathetic”, but only because he couldn’t understand she had no control over her condition.

“I even remember saying, ‘If you really want to starve yourself to death, just get on with it.’ And at least once, exasperated and at a loss, I think I actually meant it,” Austin wrote in a candid column for the Sunday Times Magazine.

“What I failed utterly to grasp was that she was seriously mentally ill and could not see a future for herself.”

Maddy, now 22, was just 18 years old at the peak of her illness, when she dropped to around 35kg.

“One moment she was a vibrant, strong, energetic and beautiful young girl; the next, she had begun a rapid, dangerous descent towards what seemed, at times, certain death,” Austin wrote.

He described how his beloved daughter was absorbed quickly by her disease, eventually to be replaced by an “emaciated, ghostlike figure”.

In 2012, she began skipping meals. After just a few months she had collapsed at school.

LISTEN: Meshel Laurie discusses when food becomes the enemy on The Nitty Critty Committee. Post continues after snippet…

Not long after that, Austin found himself sitting with his wife and child in front of an eating-disorder specialist, who confirmed Maddy’s anorexia.

While she insisted that nothing was wrong and promised to start eating, things only got worse.

“[She] seemed bent on self-destruction and it broke my heart. The daughter I thought I knew became remote and filled with cunning,” he wrote.

“She would lie about how much she had eaten and then explode with rage if we challenged her. She was abusive, seemingly possessed by demons she could not — or, worse, did not want to — control.”

Mark and Maddy at a film premiere in 2001. Source: Getty
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He conceded that "going on the attack" was not the correct response, but, as a father, he “excluded and hated”, ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

It's estimated that around four per cent of the world is affected by eating disorders — about a million people in Australia.

And yet, as Austin points out in his piece, misinformation is rife and adequately funded services, at least in the UK, are few:

"So often, girls — it is overwhelmingly girls — are forced to wait months, even years, to get real help. They fall through the cracks in an inadequately resourced and financed system.

"We must not let these girls down."

The Austins were lucky — and Maddy, who eventually ended up as a day patient in a hospital-based treatment centre, recovered.

There was one nurse in particular who she credits with saving her life.

"What haunted me, and I imagine haunts most parents of anorexics, was the lurking question of whether we were to blame," Austin, who ends the piece with a call to take mental health more seriously, added.

"Five years on, we have our daughter back. She is healthy, leading a normal life and back at university. Others are not so fortunate."

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.  

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