‘You couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with Maddy ... anorexia was like a sort of de­mon in­side her’

As his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is pub­lished, Mark Austin talk­sto Gabrielle Fa­gan about war re­port­ing, his daugh­ter’s anorexia and how fit­ness helps his men­tal health

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - NEW YEAR INTERVIEW -

For more than 30 years, Mark Austin has cov­ered some of the big­gest news sto­ries in the world for ITV and now Sky, and wit­nessed first-hand some of the most sig­nif­i­cant events of our times while work­ing as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. The award-win­ning re­porter — his ac­co­lades in­clude five BAFTAs — has cov­ered the Iraq War (dur­ing which his friend and col­league, Terry Lloyd, was killed by Amer­i­can gun­fire), South Africa’s tran­si­tion from apartheid to democ­racy un­der Nel­son Man­dela, the Rwan­dan geno­cide, as well as nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as the Haiti earth­quake and the Mozam­bique floods.

But the 60-year-old fa­ther-of-three, who lays bare his ex­pe­ri­ences on and off-screen in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, And Thank You For Watch­ing: A Mem­oir, re­veals his most trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence was far re­moved from war zones. It took place at home, watch­ing his el­dest daugh­ter, Maddy, bat­tle to sur­vive the eat­ing dis­or­der and men­tal ill­ness anorexia ner­vosa. At her low­est point, she weighed only five-and-a-half stone.

Here, Austin, who lives in Sur­rey, talks about the ex­pe­ri­ence, look­ing af­ter his own men­tal well­be­ing, along with his jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer and why he has no plans to re­tire...

What’s the event that’s most shaken your world?

“Un­doubt­edly the tough­est per­sonal time was my daugh­ter, Maddy, suf­fer­ing anorexia ner­vosa. It nearly killed her. Her ill­ness be­gan in 2012, when she was 17, and lasted three years. At one point, I was con­vinced I was watch­ing her slow, in­ex­orable death.

“You ex­pe­ri­ence a lot of ter­ri­fy­ing mo­ments when you cover wars, but that was the most shock­ing per­son­ally, be­cause it in­volved some­one so close to me.”

How did you cope dur­ing that time?

“I still feel guilty that I didn’t un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing, or that it was a men­tal ill­ness. At first, I thought it was just a teenage fad and kept telling her to ‘grow up’ and to eat. It was very dif­fi­cult for sev­eral years and al­most tore our fam­ily apart. I worked be­cause it gave some sense of nor­mal­ity in the mid­dle of a night­mare and was a dis­trac­tion, but I don’t know if that was the right thing to do. I didn’t know how to han­dle it all.

“You couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with Maddy be­cause anorexia had its hold over her, con­trolled her and was like a sort of de­mon within her. I feel so guilty for telling her at one point, ‘If you re­ally want to starve your­self to death, get on with it’. That came from com­plete des­per­a­tion, frus­tra­tion, be­ing at my wits’ end and just want­ing the whole sit­u­a­tion to go away.

“It’s a great re­lief that she’s now at univer- sity, healthy and happy, and I’m in­cred­i­bly proud of her for talk­ing pub­licly about the ill­ness. We made a doc­u­men­tary to­gether to help other par­ents and high­light the lack of men­tal health re­sources needed to treat a con­di­tion which costs lives. We’re so lucky to still have our daugh­ter.”

Has the ex­pe­ri­ence changed you?

“I’ve con­sciously made an ef­fort to worry far less about day-to-day lit­tle things, which has come about partly be­cause of Maddy’s ill­ness. I used to waste worry on the small stuff of life, say whether I was go­ing to miss out on cov­er­ing a story, or be­ing in the right place to re­port an event. “I know now that, every now and then, big things will come along when you re­ally have to be strong, and they are what’s re­ally worth wor­ry­ing about and con­cen­trat­ing on. The rest you can’t con­trol and doesn’t re­ally mat­ter much any­way. There’s a very good say­ing: ‘Noth­ing mat­ters very much and few things mat­ter at all.’ My wife, Cather­ine, a doc­tor deal­ing with life and death on the front line in A&E hos­pi­tals, has al­ways been very good at ground­ing me when­ever I’ve got stressed about work over the years by telling me, ‘It’s im­por­tant, but in the end it’s only tele­vi­sion’.”

What was it like writ­ing the book?

“It was very up­set­ting at times, but cathar­tic in a way, to re­visit mem­o­ries of what I’d wit­nessed over the years. At the time, things hap­pened, I was lucky I was able to men­tally file away in a box the bad stuff I saw.

“The only ex­cep­tion was the Rwan­dan geno­cide in 1994, which was hor­rific, and as a fa­ther of young chil­dren it was even harder see­ing chil­dren suf­fer­ing, maimed or dead. I know re­porters who still ex­pe­ri­ence night­mares and flash­backs of that time.

“The book proved to me that I hadn’t pro­cessed a lot of what I’d seen, and I think it’s been good for my men­tal health to fi­nally do that. Frankly, view­ers only see a tiny per­cent­age of the sheer hor­ror and dread­ful things, be­cause you have to self-cen­sor on grounds of taste and ac­cept­abil­ity.”

You’ve been in some in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions — what’s kept you safe?

“I sur­vived, or at least have so far, largely due to an in­nate cow­ardice. I’ve found cow­ardice is a much bet­ter pro­tec­tion than any amount of flak jack­ets, hel­mets and ar­moured ve­hi­cles. I’m not a nat­u­rally brave per­son who likes cov­er­ing wars and gets an adren­a­line rush from it, so I de­cided early on I’d take risks, but they’d be cal­cu­lated. That’s stopped me go­ing to many places and do­ing many things in war zones, which has prob­a­bly saved my life and the crew’s.

“Some­times, of course, you get it wrong, and my big­gest mis­take was in Bo­phuthatswana, South Africa, in the months be­fore Nel­son Man­dela was elected. There was ri­ot­ing and vi­o­lence, and at one point I was marched into a field with a gun point­ing at my head. I thought, ‘What on earth am I do­ing here? I must be mad. I’m go­ing to die’.

“In gen­eral, and very wor­ry­ingly, I think the world’s a much more dan­ger­ous place for jour­nal­ists, as they’re now seen as le­git­i­mate tar­gets by peo­ple such as Al-Qaeda, Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist groups, who view them al­most as ex­ten­sions of the state.”

Will you re­tire?

“No, I’m still as pas­sion­ate about re­port­ing news as I was when I started out in my 20s. News is an ad­dic­tion, and work­ing in 24-hour news for Sky is a new lease of life.

“Al­though I’m 60, I feel the clock stopped at 52. I sim­ply don’t count the rest of the years. Run­ning and swim­ming around three times a week helps clear my mind, and I play golf. I think keep­ing fairly fit helps men­tal health.”

I know re­porters who still have night­mares about Rwanda

And Thank You For Watch­ing: A Mem­oir by Mark Austin is pub­lished by At­lantic Books, priced £20

FAM­ILY FIRST: Mark Austin with his daugh­ter, Maddy, in 2017 and (be­low) re­port­ing from Rwanda and meet­ing Nel­son Man­dela

FA­MOUS FACE: Mark Austin has no plans to re­tire

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