Karen Flello loses her composure only once during a conversation about her sister Michelle Stewart.
When asked to recall childhood memories, Flello confides that her father died of cancer when she was five and Michelle only three. Relatives convinced the girls’ mother to give up a younger brother with Down Syndrome.
“My mother had a difficult time. We had a lot of turmoil in our lives. She was my little sister, you know … I would do anything for her,” she says, her voice breaking.
Stewart died May 14, 2014 after a decades-long battle with eating disorders.
She worked for 10 years as a radio reporter and for 17 years in communications for the B.C. Ministry of Health. By all accounts she was bright, intelligent and insightful, but mental illness cut her life short at age 49.
“Michelle was diagnosed with renal failure, but by the time she went to the doctor … it was end-stage,” says Flello.
However, the diagnoses was an awakening for Stewart who began to blog about her illness and publicly stated it was due to her 32 year battle with anorexia and bulemia.
“She told me once that she didn’t want to die with all that stuff inside her,” says Flello, principal at South Island Distance Education School.
Stewart began her blog a year before her death.
“It got harder during the early months of 2014, she was on a lot of medications which build up toxins in the bloodstream. She was not as sharp as she was before. Still she’d write. We talked about making the blog into a book to be able to reach a wider audience and she was supportive of that.”
Flello and Stewart’s long-time partner Kirk Mason worked with Maggie Langrick at Life Tree Media to take Stewart’s words and tell her story.
“It’s written like her blog with all of the original titles and dates, interspersed with her original poetry that hasn’t been seen before. We reduced the material to focus on a couple of main messages,” says Flello.
The result is Shell, a unique account of Stewart’s lifelong battle with the destructive disorder.
“It’s the life of someone suffering with a longtime eating disorder [and] the life of a palliative patient and her experiences with the palliative response team.”
The book also touches on health policies and what Stewart refers to as “the pecking order” of diseases.
“The last part of the book is a love letter to family and friends who she couldn’t talk to about her illness and how she realized her illness affected others.”
Flello says there is a desperate need for open and compassionate discussion around eating disorders. “I’m stunned how everybody I talk to about this knows someone or has a family member who is affected.
“We need to recognize the behaviour and start to deal with it as a mental health issue. The anxiety, the perfectionism, the depression and lack of self worth that create the need for the behaviour before it becomes an addiction, before it becomes a problem in terms of your physical health,” she says. “If we wait until you’re skeletal before we deal with it, we’re waiting too long.”
The family has also started Michelle’s Voice: The Society for Eating Disorder Awareness and Education. Find it online at facebook.com/michellestewartbook.