'Insidious and manipulative disease': Maddy Tyers uses her own childhood experience to help kids battling eating disorders

Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied 

Australian actress and performer Maddy Tyers is used to being very open as entertainer, having appeared in Neighbours and Lego Masters Australia.

But her latest venture is a highly personal one, sparked by her own struggles with an eating disorder that first struck when she was just eight years old. 

Now 31, Maddy says her experience is unfortunately not that unique

"There are some scary statistics coming out in the last few years about the rate of young children, even as young as five, presenting with symptoms of an eating disorder and toxic behaviour and habits around eating," she told Essential Kids.

According to Eating Disorders Victoria, the average age at the onset of symptoms is between 12-25 years, though they note they have been diagnosed in children under five years. 

"It's a scary thing to be confronted by and one of the main reasons I wanted to share my story." 

For Maddy, what family first thought was a sporty kid taking a healthy interest in nutrition slowly morphed into more obsessive behaviours, and she's now on mission to help parents identify these traits early. 

While there was no one trigger that 'kicked everything off' for her, it began after she moved schools in year two. As a 'very sensitive kid' and high achiever, eating and exercise became a way for Maddy to find a sense of control when feeling displaced. Once these behaviours started, they became unshakable. 

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"What initially started out as family and friends thinking was 'healthy eating' slowly became more and more restrictive and dangerous. It wasn't until I was 16 that I was hospitalised and officially given a diagnoses of anorexia," Maddy said. 

"It's an insidious and manipulative disease that sneaks up over a long time and grabs hold. It slowly crept into obsessive behaviours. It's a secretive illness and there were habits and things I was hiding from the people around me."

Striking in the early 1990s, Maddy said eating disorders weren't as well understood and it took time for her to get the right support, despite her family's efforts.

"It got to a point where my parents were frustrated and concerned that I wasn't partaking in family dinners and they did take me to see a psychologist when I was about 14, but nothing sort of stuck."

"At the time I was completely in denial something was wrong with me. Things got our of hand and spiraled in the middle years of high school and I got quite sick." 

Maddy was in and out of hospital as a teenager and her early twenties until she was able to get to a healthy weight, and while physically well now, says the mental side of the disease is something she will always live with. 

Having first experienced symptoms so young herself, she decided to write a book - told through a child's eyes, to help kids like herself who may be struggling to maintain a healthy relationship with food. And work as a guide for schools, parents and health professionals. 

Calling the book 'When Anna came to stay', it tells the story of May, a young girl whose world is 'turned upside down' when she meets an imaginary friend Anna, who starts giving her advice. 

The book also highlights some of the early signs of an eating disorder, so that parents or their school community can act when it begins to develop. Something Maddy says is crucial to bettering recovery outcomes.

Signs she says are common to the early stages are kids showing a preoccupation with food and exercise, obsessing over meals, categorising food into 'good' and 'bad', body/mirror checking, constantly talking about or adjusting daily activities around food. 

"For me, potentially had I had something like this at school or home with the themes it touches on, it might have started a conversation with my parent and sent us on a path to recovery earlier," Maddy said.

"It's about getting it into the right hands to get someone who is suffering the help they need before it gets too bad. I hope it can be used as a tool to either help someone in a sufferer's support network or the sufferer to understand it better."

If you need help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, please call Butterfly's National Helpline on 1800 334 673 or email support@butterfly.org.au.