Today marks the end of an era, an all too brief era in the eating disorder community. September 1, 2021 marks the resignation of Elissa Myers as Executive Director/CEO of the Academy for Eating Disorders. And at a time when the eating disorder community so desperately needs a selfless leader, a champion standing up for those who are vulnerable and in pain, a person of insight, humility, intelligence and grace, that very person is moving on to other and greater challenges … well, other challenges anyway.
I first met Elissa at the ICED event in Chicago in April of 2018. At first, it was a brief discussion during a break in the afternoon sessions. Then that night, after observing snowflakes the size of half dollar coins falling from the night’s sky, (in April, really?) I saw Elissa, Therese Waterhous and Bonnie Harken talking in the lobby bar of the Downtown Marriott. There was a half-filled martini in front of her and I thought, “She’s one of us!” I was prepared to just give a passing wave and move along, but Elissa invited me over to have a drink with them. Keep in mind this was less than eighteen (18) months after my daughter, Morgan had been taken and looking back, I was still operating in this fog of depression, despair and guilt.
We talked for a while. Elissa, Therese and Bonnie allowed me to go into Morgan’s story a bit. We then talked of nothing and of everything. And I walked away from that impromptu meeting thinking, feeling, there was just something different about this person, Elissa Myers. Something special.
As we continued to correspond, Elissa invited Patti Geolat and me to her spacious abode just outside of Washington, D.C. We were going to talk about all things eating disorders related and she had set up an in person and Zoom meeting with other people in the eating disorder community. And so, in August of 2018, Elissa opened her doors to us.
The initial impressions were many. First, you better immediately love “Indi” her black lab. If not, well, I’m sure there are comfortable hotels nearby. And then, you look around at the eclectic furnishings and decorations, you remember the numerous photos of her on social media always with her ubiquitous calling card, “the air bunny symbol, ok ok, the peace sign formed by her fingers,” and then, it hits you right between the eyes, “My God … this woman is a hippie! She probably even likes Hillary Clinton!”
Well, going downstairs to our room for the next two days, at the bottom of the stairs was a life size cut out of … Hillary Clinton. Naturally, I had to get selfies with Cardboard Hillary since Real Life Hillary was not then readily available. And then I thought of all the inappropriate things that had been foisted upon Hillary by former President Bill Clinton and thought, Hillary needs her vengeance. So, Cardboard Hillary ended up in bed with me (more selfies), which of course were sent to Elissa. The next morning as Elissa was fixing breakfast, she looked my way with a wry smile and slightly raised eyebrow. Sorry about that Elissa. But, I could not resist that “Come hither” look on Cardboard Hillary’s face. And humor, tolerance for silliness and the loving nature of Elissa shined brightly.
Just two months later, in October 2018, we were hosting a screening of Lisa Sabey and Josh Sabey’s powerful documentary, “Going Sane.” Lisa Sabey agreed to fly down for the event. We extended an invitation to Elissa fully not expecting her to show up. One cannot truly fathom our joy, our elation, when Elissa graciously agreed to not just appear, but agreed to say a few words at the screening and appeared on a local radio show we had organized. What made her appearance even more significant was that, and I didn’t learn this until long afterwards and from other sources, that certain people had tried to convince Elissa not to come to Dallas. “That Steven Dunn is a madman. He’s a troublemaker! He’s the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass! Don’t your go down there!” And yet, in making the decision to come to Dallas, she stood so much taller than those naysayers. For a hippie of diminutive stature, she stood so tall, the courage of her convictions elevating her to dizzying heights.
And truly, a special friendship with that wonderful, soulful hippie grew stronger. In March of 2019, ICED was being held in New York City. The week before ICED started, a federal court in San Francisco published its Wit v. UBH decision. As I reached out to one of the lead attorneys in Wit, I noticed his office was in Manhattan and we began to communicate. I immediately contacted Elissa, filled her in on who he was and the importance of the Wit case and told her I thought I could get the attorney to appear and give a presentation. (after all, it was only a few days before ICED was to begin. It’s not as if Elissa and Dawn had a full schedule!). And yet, Elissa jumped on this opportunity right away. And in a matter of days, an appearance at ICED was organized. Thanks to Elissa, Brian Hufford, one of the lead attorneys in Wit appeared, spoke for over an hour and the room was filled with a veritable Who’s Who of industry leaders. All because of Elissa’s foresight and wisdom.
On social media, Elissa’s joyous life was captured in photos she posted in from places like South Africa, Singapore, Dubai. And each time, that brilliant smile and that peace sign spread the message of AED embracing the reality that eating disorders are a global issue and must be treated as such.
When I was able to obtain speaking opportunities with Raytheon in February 2020 and Apple in September 2020, Elissa sent AED material which I gladly included in the information sent to those corporate giants. I wonder how many of those employees’ and their families’ lives were helped because of Elissa’s selflessness.
As Covid a/k/a “The Zombie Apocalypse,” sank its insidious claws into all aspects of our lives, the pressure and demands on business entities and organizations continued to increase and engulfed us all. Some organizations failed. Many leaders of organizations faltered and failed. Retailers with decades of serving customers shuttered their doors. And eating disorders as well as all mental illnesses were reported in never before seen numbers. Sources of revenue and donations to not for profit entities plummeted.
When some organizations were bereft, their very existence in question, that is when our diminutive, peace loving, “Kumbaya my Lord,” hippie stood tallest. Guiding AED with a firm hand as she was confronted on all sides by a deadly virus, fear within the AED membership, pressure from others outside of AED and uncertainty about the future. Pressures, fears and uncertainties that would have, and did, unhinge others.
And yet, for Elissa Myers, it was surely her finest hour. You see, it is easy to be the captain of the ship when the sun is out, the winds are comfortably blowing, the seas are relatively calm and the jagged rocks seem so far away. But, the true test of a captain takes place when the night time clouds are illuminated only by hellfire and lightening, when the winds are howling, when the sea is rough and unforgiving and the jagged rocks are just ahead.
There is no doubt that Elissa is leaving us at a time of great unrest in the eating disorder realm. Private equity owned treatment centers having to expand or merge as debt obligations come due. The Wit case illustrating the deficiencies in the treatment of eating disorders. Will NEDA survive? What of the fat activists who are a very small minority but yell loudly? Racial tensions. People in the past who were once regarded as leaders but who are now being exposed as anything but, as more information comes to light regarding their egos and self-important motivations. Who will AED select to replace Elissa? For that matter, will they replace her at all?
Elissa has this incredible life essence which commands respect from both university based professors and treating doctors alike. And yet, this respect does not come because she has an over-the-top, outrageous personality, or an egocentric need for self-recognition and personal accolades. No. In fact, if one were to ask Elissa if she was fully aware of what an “icon” she became, and is, in the eating disorder community, she would sincerely laugh it off and steer the praise to others.
For people like Elissa, the respect due her, what will surely be her legacy, comes from a place of humility, of listening, of extending grace. It comes from wisdom and courage, kindness and love.
I could go on ad infinitum. Instead, I know for at least me, I am a better person, a better father, a better man, a more reflective person because of Elissa Myers.
And so my friend, know that when your incredible soul is released to explore other universes, there will be no doubt at all that you left this world a better place than what it was when you first arrived. Is there any greater legacy than that?
Well done good and faithful servant. Well done indeed.