GROSSE POINTE CITY — Bright, pretty and gifted artistically as well as athletically, Elizabeth Grace Watson, of Grosse Pointe City, “could have done anything,” said her mother, Martha Watson.
Elizabeth never got the chance to realize her full potential: She died on March 1, 2016, at the age of 21, after a 10-year battle with anorexia nervosa. Martha Watson will honor her daughter’s memory by raising awareness of the disease that claimed her life.
At 5:30 p.m. March 4, Yoga Shelter in the Village will host a special yoga class to draw attention to eating disorders. The class, which will be led by yoga instructor Victoria Birk Hill, is open to anyone, and although there isn’t a set admission fee, organizers are suggesting a $15 donation, with the funds raised to be donated to the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association’s Feeding Hope Fund for Clinical Research.
The event coincides not only with the one-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s death, but also with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is Feb. 27 through March 4.
“Obviously, it’s a tremendous loss,” Watson said. “I’m looking for a way to make a positive out of it.”
Elizabeth and her mother practiced yoga together at Yoga Shelter, so the setting is a place that was special to both of them. Birk Hill said they attended a class of hers at Yoga Shelter, and “Martha is a dear friend of mine.”
“We’re just trying to bring greater awareness to this issue,” Birk Hill said.
Like Watson, Birk Hill said that eating disorders are a mental illness. She said if they could even help one person as a result of this event, or start a dialogue, that would be a good outcome.
“There’s such a stigma about mental illness,” Birk Hill said.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and one person dies from their condition every 62 minutes — or almost one per hour. Although anorexia nervosa and bulimia are the most well-known, there are a number of different forms of eating disorders, and a person’s weight doesn’t necessarily serve as a sign of good health, as there are eating disorder sufferers who appear to be a normal weight.
A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD, found that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with 5 to 10 percent of patients dying within 10 years, and 18 to 20 percent dying within 20 years. ANAD also determined that the death rate for those with anorexia nervosa was 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death for females ages 15 to 24.
It’s vital that people take action if they recognize that someone they know is affected by an eating disorder, gently raising the topic and offering support.
“If you notice someone struggling, speak up,” Birk Hill said.
Because of knowing what the Watson family went through, the yoga instructor said she’s learned a great deal about eating disorders.
Watson said her daughter experienced a “fairly sudden weight loss” as a child when she was around 11, and she was overly interested in the caloric content of food — some of the classic symptoms of someone with anorexia nervosa.
Some health experts now believe people may be biologically predisposed to suffering from eating disorders, and while Watson said she doesn’t know of anyone in her family with one of these conditions, she’s convinced that was true for her daughter. Watson wants to remove the stigma attached to these diseases as well, and get people to start talking about them in an effort to combat — and hopefully treat — these life-threatening illnesses.
“They’re not choices — they’re real diseases,” Watson said of eating disorders.
There’s currently no in-patient treatment facility for eating disorders in Michigan, so Watson said she and her husband, Glenn, had to take their daughter to facilities in Wisconsin, the Boston area, and Princeton, New Jersey. Although the treatment is covered by insurance, Watson said care for her daughter was denied at one point, and she had to fight with her insurance carrier to get it paid for. In addition, she said this type of care is “expensive treatment” because it requires weeks or months in a hospital or residential facility.
“Thank God for charities like the Ronald McDonald House,” said Watson, noting that she and her husband had to stay at these sites while their daughter was getting medical treatment.
Although her pediatrician caught Elizabeth’s condition right away, Watson said they were “never able to significantly” treat the disorder.
Eating disorders may be most commonly thought of as impacting young white women from upper income brackets, but NEDA statistics show that this isn’t the case. According to researchers, 10 million men will battle an eating disorder at some time in their lives, eating disorders are as common among people of color as among white populations in the United States, and teen girls from lower income families are 153 percent more likely to be bulimic as girls from higher income families.
Families and loved ones of those with eating disorders need to steel themselves for a lengthy fight.
“It’s a long-term battle,” Watson said. “Recovery isn’t linear.”
Elizabeth attended Grosse Pointe Academy for preschool and elementary school, University Liggett School for middle school and Cranbrook Kingswood School for high school, where she excelled in many subjects — especially foreign languages, math and science — and won a number of academic awards.
She studied piano and violin, and found a showcase for her soprano voice as a member of the prestigious Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus, Kingswood Madrigals, Grosse Pointe Memorial Church Choir and Wellesley College Choir; she was a student at Wellesley for a semester before her deteriorating health forced her to leave school. She was also a competitive swimmer, soccer player, field hockey player and sailor, as well as a graceful figure skater.
“She had so much talent — I’m sure she would have done something amazing,” said Watson, fighting tears over the phone.
Elizabeth’s story is one that has already made an impact on the lives of eating disorder patients who knew her and are using her experience to motivate them to fight their own conditions, Watson said. And now, she’s hoping to continue the work her daughter never got the chance to do.
“She wanted to help people with this,” Watson said. Elizabeth hoped to become a psychiatrist so that she could treat others with eating disorders.
Because of Elizabeth’s passion for music, Birk Hill said they will be incorporating some of her favorite songs into the yoga program. They’ll also have information available about eating disorders. Because some participants have never done yoga before, she said she’s planning on conducting a gentle session.
“We want to make the class available for everybody,” Birk Hill said.
Melissa Whorf, owner of the Village Yoga Shelter, said they’ve had a number of benefit classes there.
“Grosse Pointe Yoga Shelter is really about connecting and dialing into the community,” she said. “When we heard about what had happened, we wanted to do whatever we could to support the family.”
Whorf said Yoga Shelter has had other students who’ve struggled with eating disorders.
“We really try to teach about body awareness and eating healthy,” she said.
Interest in the class has been strong so far, and participants are asked to register so that all attendees can be accommodated.
Watson wants others to know that there is hope, and people with eating disorders can win this fight, despite the challenges.
“Recovery is possible, and there is help out there,” she said.
Yoga Shelter is located at 17000 Kercheval Ave. in the Village. To register or for more information, visit www.grossepointemi.yogashelter.com.
For more about the Feeding Hope Fund for Clinical Research, visit its page on the National Eating Disorders Association website at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.