This past week, Lisbeth Rhine, the head of the Eating Disorders Information Network, lost her battle with anorexia. Her death is a devastating blow to those who knew and loved her as well as the eating disorder recovery community as a whole. It is especially tragic when a person who is a champion for this cause succumbs to the illness. We feel an overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness when we lose a warrior on the front lines.
I met Lisbeth when she joined the EDIN board four years ago. She was passionate about the issue because she had battled with an eating disorder for decades, dating back to her days dancing with the Atlanta Ballet. She was an active and involved board member, always raising her hand when we needed a volunteer. When EDIN needed a new executive director, Lisbeth stepped in as interim director. She did such an excellent job that the board made her role official.
Lisbeth took on the role of running a nonprofit just as the economy was tanking. Dozens of charities were closing their doors. Lisbeth made sure EDIN was financially sound, sometimes refusing to pay herself so that EDIN would be in good shape. She was a dedicated steward of our resources, eliminating expenditures and making us a lean, mean nonprofit machine.
Over the years Lisbeth’s role expanded. In the tough economy, she steered EDIN away from annual galas to a popular new fundraiser, the Celebrity Dance Challenge (CDC). She worked tirelessly behind the scenes to organize these highly successful, entertaining (and affordable) events.
Even as the leader of an organization, Lisbeth was uncomfortable in the limelight. Two years ago, I was invited to dance in the opening Bollywood number at the CDC. Just before the big night, a dancer dropped out. I convinced Lisbeth to take her place. Lisbeth’s dance background was evident as she instantly picked up the moves. Remembering her out there onstage, I imagine this was a healing experience for her. After the high-pressured world of ballet, here she was in a rocking, sexy, funky dance. It was gratifying to watch her take a risk and experience dance in a new way.
Despite dancing in front of crowds, Lisbeth had a terrible fear of public speaking, an important part of her new role with EDIN. She recognized that it was important for her to conquer this fear, so after some coaching and encouragement, she started addressing groups of kids, teens and parents. This past fall, she even spoke at the CDC, openly sharing her own struggle with an eating disorder. For someone who held her cards close to the vest, this was a big moment.
To see how much she had grown personally and professionally, people might think that she had conquered the demon, maybe even driven him out of town. This is why we were all so shocked by her sudden and unexpected death.
An event like this leaves survivors with a painful mix of feelings. After the initial shock is a wave of guilt. “What could I have done? Did I miss the signs? Could I have saved her?”
After the guilt comes anger: “How could she abandon us?”
Then, the loss of hope: “How can we defeat an enemy that destroys our leaders?”
Then, guilt about feeling angry: “How can I be angry at someone who suffered and died? I am horrible.”
Please do not feel guilty for feeling angry. What happened should make you feel angry. We all feel angry at the senselessness of this loss.
Losing Lisbeth is wrong.
Those of us in the trenches often feel like David fighting a cultural Goliath. We need tireless optimism and hope to keep soldiering on. Such a loss can steal our resolve or throw us off our trajectory.
So we must utilize and channel our hurt and anger. Used properly, anger propels us to act. This is why it’s helpful to think about the Eating Disorder (ED) as an entity separate from the person suffering from it. This is the only way to understand how a loving, kind and caring person like Lisbeth can hurt herself. Lisbeth was tormented by an inner bully so evil that it took her life.
Be angry about this. Be angry at ED. Be angry about all the places that ED appears in our lives, then speak up, confront it, challenge it and change it.
Lisbeth’s death does not make any sense, but her life was important. The way to honor her life is to continue in her mission. And that means we must love fiercely. Be brave in your love, and give your compassion away freely, not just to others but to yourself. Beating yourself up only feeds the enemy.
Finally, I want to share a beautiful poem that was sent to me today. Obviously the universe wanted me to share it with you.
"The Summer Day"
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?