At 23, she struggled with anorexia for half her life. It ended in tragedy

When 23-year-old Madeleine Billings died in her sleep just after Christmas last year, she had been trying to starve herself for almost half her life.

Not that a casual observer can notice. She was an A student in school, played sports, attended college and had “a deceptively healthy appearance”, her parents said.

But during that time, she had also been through a dozen inpatient and outpatient programs, undergone therapy, and tried medication — anything that could get her out of the clutches of anorexia nervosa. Nothing worked.

“She was brilliant. But in the end, she was psychotic. I mean, the conversations I had with her the last week of her life, there was no Maddie there. It was all just sickness,” her father, Nick Billings, 53, told TODAY.

“That brain was obsessed with Dr Pepper and whether or not she had inadvertently taken a sip of regular food or diet. And what did that mean? I talked to him for hours on consecutive days about this.

Her mother, who is a clinical psychologist, saw moments when Maddie seemed to realize how much her health was in danger, only to continue to severely restrict her diet.

“The voices, the thoughts about the eating disorder she would have that were so cruel and critical to her were so strong that all the behaviors were coming back and she couldn’t do it,” said Lisa Billings, 54. “It freaked me out incredibly.”

Maddie Billings, left, shares a happy moment with her mother, Lisa.Courtesy of the Billings family

“We threw everything we had at it”

The Denver, Colorado family first noticed something was wrong just before Maddie was 13. That summer, before 8th grade, she had taken a bike trip across France with her grandparents in a group that also included a teenage girl who had an eating disorder. . It made an impression on Maddie, her mother said. Maddie had also taken a few lighthearted comments teasing her healthy appetite to heart.

That same summer, she also attended soccer camp and another experience away from home.

“By the time we got her back, she had lost so much (weight) that she just didn’t look like herself anymore,” Lisa Billings recalled.

Her parents put her in intensive therapy and Maddie quickly rebounded. But as she started high school and faced a tough class schedule, as well as field hockey and soccer practices, her eating disorder returned.

Maddie, right, and her sister Emma win a state football championship.
Maddie, right, and her sister Emma win a state football championship.Courtesy of the Billings family

Family stress

Maddie was very good at everything she did, but she also suffered from significant uncontrolled underlying anxiety, which she managed thanks to her eating disorder, her father said.

“He just started to come back and we saw him come back. There has been no denial around this disease at any time. We threw everything we had there,” he noted.

Nick Billings remembered how stressful regular dinner parties became as Lisa constantly negotiated with Maddie about what she needed to eat. Lisa felt her role was to make sure Maddie got the nutrition she needed, while Nick took care of the couple’s health. three other children. It was hard on the family and it was difficult to socialize with other families, they recall.

The Billings family on vacation: Left to right, parents Lisa and Nick, and their children Emma, ​​Pace, Cooper and Maddie.
The Billings family on vacation: Left to right, parents Lisa and Nick, and their children Emma, ​​Pace, Cooper and Maddie. Courtesy of the Billings family

Maddie looked very normal weight-wise during her teenage years “because we were doing all the work,” her mother said.

But then she dropped to 76 pounds at one point despite numerous treatment programs along the way.

“We had her in hospital. We had her on an outpatient basis. We had her in therapy. We had her on various medications. And it got worse.” said Nick Billings.

“I know of a conventional treatment, I guess it works for some, it didn’t work for her.”

He called it treatment-resistant anorexia, which, according to some studies, accounts for 10% of patients with eating disorders. Treatment-resistant patients have more severe depressive symptoms and “endorse more serious eating disorder beliefs,” the researchers found.

Maddie and her brother Pace.
Maddie and her brother Pace.Courtesy of the Billings family

As a clinical psychologist who trained in a children’s hospital, Lisa Billings had seen how horrible this disease could be.

Anorexia nervosa can be fatal and has an “extremely high” mortality rate compared to other mental disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Patients are at risk of dying from medical complications associated with starvation, he warned. Over time, serious health consequences include heart and brain damage and multiple organ failure.

Maddie graduated from high school “with an obscene grade point average and a standardized test score that annoyed and impressed many,” reads her obituary. She attended Dartmouth College for a short time before transferring to the University of Colorado because she wanted to be closer to home.

Maddie visited New York while in college.
Maddie visited New York while in college.Courtesy of the Billings family

When the pandemic shutdowns began, Maddie spoke a lot about her loneliness, which the family say exacerbated her turmoil. She became much sicker in the last year of her life, her mother said.

“She was the superwoman for so long,” Lisa Billings noted. “And then it was like the wheels came off and everything started to go wrong…she was just physically a complete mess by the end.”

Maddie’s resting heart rate was so low that when she stood up she would sometimes pass out, her mother said. His gastrointestinal system had shut down. The family went to the emergency department three times “really as if our child was dying in front of us”, recalls Nick Billings.

Last December, she was on a waiting list at an eating disorder treatment center in Denver, but there were no beds available, her parents told NBC News affiliate KUSA.

“She complained all day before (she died) how exhausted she was and how cold she was,” her mother told TODAY.

Maddie died at home in her sleep on December 30, 2021. Her parents are urging families to pay attention to the warning signs of anorexia, such as extremely restricted eating and an intense fear of gaining weight, and to take them seriously.

“If you have a kid who is really high and you find meth, the alarm bells go off and you do something about it. But if you have the same kid and they don’t finish their meals, or he only eats certain things, you take it a step further and say, ‘Oh, that’s okay,’ Nick Billings said.

“This disease will kill you. It isolates you, starves you and kills you.

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