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‘Maddie tried, and we tried’: Eating disorder took her life and changed her family’s world

Madeleine Mae, 23, spent half her life fighting an invisible opponent. During the pandemic, it got harder. As eating disorders increased, treatment space filled up.

DENVER — The obituary for Madeleine Mae Billings: A photograph. A list of accomplishments –  all significant. And the cause of death.

"I see pieces of us in Maddie, and I see pieces of the other kids in Maddie," said her father, Nick Billings. "I think Maddie had the biggest heart in the family. She felt everything deeply, which made her very emphatic and caring but also was a burden for her. She was one of those kids who made it look easy to do things really well."

Maddie was their firstborn. The caretaker and perfectionist. The girl who would spend half her life fighting against an eating disorder.

"I think it preys on that feeling of feeling special or feeling like you can be the best at something," said her mother, Lisa Laumann Billings. "Maddie was fiercely competitive, and if you look at her transcript, you will see the results of that. There was also this element to her personality that she could do all of this and survive on less fuel than all of us."

In the summer before her teenage years, her eating changed. Her mom, who is also a psychologist, took her to a therapist, who offered a stark warning.

"She was so small and innocent and tiny. And she said something like – the only thing this eating disorder wants from you is to put a headstone on you," Lisa said. "It's going to challenge you to the very end to believe that if you follow its order, it's going to bring you to some kind of life or some kind of perfection or some kind of special spot. It is a very devious and dangerous disease."

It was a disease that creeped in and out of Maddie's life, year after year.

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Credit: Photo courtesy of the Billings family
Maddie Billings, second from left, and her siblings ride on a cart in Africa.

"And for periods of time with the illness, she would be incredibly functional – just killing it, academically, athletically, socially, while starving herself," Nick said. 

"Her therapist would say early on, she's one of the sickest kids I've seen," Lisa added. "You'd look at her and she didn't look like one of those anorexic kids you'd see in the hospital, but her thinking was so – was so caught up in it."

Middle school, then high school and then Dartmouth College.

Yes, Dartmouth. Maddie had plans. Until the disease took over.

"She did not want to be the person she was when she was really in her eating disorder. She hated that person, and it was torturous for her," Nick said. "I feel emotionally, we did everything we could. It was treatment-resistant because we threw all the treatment we could at this, and in the last year, we were grasping at straws."

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Billings family
Maddie Billings with her dad, Nick.

Outpatient and inpatient programs – dozens of them. They tried it all, but by the end of 2021, there was nothing left.

"I said, 'Maddie, you could die from this. You have to listen to us. You have to,' " Lisa said. "I think she was scared. At that stage she wanted help.

"We were on the wait list at the Denver Health acute facility, and Maddie had been there, and we had reason to believe she might respond again there, but there were no beds available."

Since the start of the pandemic, the eating disorder unit has been full and on a waiting list.

Maddie passed away in her sleep five days after Christmas. 

"I think her heart just finally said, 'Can't do it,' " Lisa said.

Maddie was only 23 years old. Funny, loving and brilliant.

"Her brain was one of her greatest assets, in addition to heart, but her brain was also her greatest enemy," Nick said.

Lisa feels the pain of her absence every day.

"I really miss her so much," she said.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Billings family
Maddie Billings with her mom, Lisa.

Maddie didn't want to die. In her last week of life, she enrolled in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins for treatment-resistant eating disorders.

"Maddie tried, and we tried, and it didn't work, and we tried everything," Nick said. "So clearly, there's a population of people who suffer from this illness that need something more."

What that something more is, they don't know.

They do know they loved Maddie and miss her deeply.

"I think it's opened a door to be really transparent with each other about how we feel," Lisa said. "To take every opportunity to tell each other how much we love each other."

A memorial for Maddie will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at her high school, Kent Denver School.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Billings family
Maddie Billings played soccer at Kent Denver School.

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