Former English Schools champion Maddy Austin on facing up to anorexia and why it’s crucial to stop misconceptions when it comes to improving mental health
“Did athletics cause your anorexia?” It’s a question I’ve heard asked all too often. The answer, of course, is no. Anorexia, as well as any other eating disorder, is a mental illness. It takes everything that you’ve built for yourself and renders it useless.
It’s a common misconception that eating disorders are sometimes brought on by young female athletes trying to run faster. This is wrong. They are life threatening, all-consuming illnesses that can affect anyone of any gender, any race and any age.
I think what led me into competitive 800m running also played a big role in me developing anorexia. I had a perfectionist attitude to everything. No race, no run and no track session was ever good enough. I always wanted better.
In athletics, this drive to do better, to keep improving, the will to win, is what often leads athletes to be great. However, for me, it was too much. I pushed myself too hard.
My “easy” runs weren’t easy while in sessions I’d push myself to my limit but never be satisfied. My 45-minute runs turned into an hour and injuries were not hurdles I had to overcome but things that would leave me devastated, miserable and inconsolable.
Losing weight was a symptom of an underlying depression. Anorexia was my escape from life, a life I just did not want to live any more.
Once losing weight took over my life, athletics became an excuse. I was eating more healthily “for my running”, I wasn’t obsessively exercising to burn calories, I was “training”. Finally, what I thought I had control over completely took control over me.
I was lost. I was consumed with darkness, and running, something that had always been my passion and my dream, was taken away. I was a shell of the girl I was before.
Since being open about having anorexia, I have received a number of messages from athletes, some saying their coaches had told them to lose weight in order to get faster, praising their spiralling weight loss. I have heard commentators describing an athlete as having an ideal power to weight ratio, when they are clearly not an achievable or sustainable body shape for most people.
It’s comments like this that can make someone who, like me, just wanted to be perfect, become severely mentally ill.
I was lucky, my coaches Alli and Tim Crossman noticed that I’d “lost my sparkle”.
They were so supportive and told me straight how things would end if I continued down my pathway of self-destruction.
No pressure ever came from them or my family, I piled the pressure on myself.
Athletics may be important, it may be what fills all your dreams, what you constantly think about. However, your mental health, and we all have mental health, is so much more important.
Now, I still love running. I run when I want, how fast I want and how far I want. Running will always be my escape. When I was physically healthy, running helped me sort out the nightmare in my mind.
I don’t really compete any more, unless you count Edinburgh University Beer Mile (1st), the London Marathon (7048th) and the Southern League 5000m (DNF).
The simple truth is, many athletes are vulnerable and insecure. I desperately urge coaches to educate themselves on the signs of eating disorders and to understand that they are serious mental illnesses. Saying that “losing weight is a sure way of getting faster” is simply untrue and, more importantly, unacceptable and dangerous.
LOOKING FOR HELP?
If you feel like you or someone you know is struggling there is a lot of information on the BEAT website (b-eat.co.uk).
Talk to someone close to you (I spoke to a teacher I could really trust) and then make an appointment with your GP. There is help out there, you don’t need to struggle alone.