“3/2/96 — I think I have made up my mind. I really no longer want to be a part of this world. Hopefully a message will be sent out to society pleading with it to pay attention to depression, alcoholism, food addiction … with my death, hopefully I will touch more lives than I ever could alive.”
Elisa McCall wrote those words in her journal weeks before she would hang herself in her college apartment in Austin. Her death marked the end of her seven-year battle against bulimia nervosa, depression, and alcoholism. She would have been 40 years old this year.
In 1997, her father Rick McCall and stepmother Leslie honored her wish for good to come from her pain and created an endowment at SMU to aid students who were suffering from eating disorders (ED).
Two years later, they founded The Elisa Project to bring their mission to a national audience through case management services, advocacy, and education. At the project’s core was the aim to break the secrecy that surrounds EDs. At the time, Rick said they were not spoken about.
“There wasn’t any reason for this to be a secretive disease,” Rick said. “We didn’t have a resource to go to. We found resources. We found people to help, but we didn’t have, there wasn’t a central [organization]; there wasn’t a 911 for eating disorders.”
Leslie and Rick, along with Rick’s ex-wife, Judy, did everything they could for Elisa. After her first attempt to overdose on pills her freshman year of high school, Elisa was in and out of treatment programs and saw a list of psychiatrists and psychologists until her death. But neither Elisa nor her parents felt comfortable talking openly about what they were going through.
“Keeping [an ED] secret is what gives it life,” said Kimberly Martinez, Elisa Project Executive Director. “It is a deadly disease. It is life threatening. It’s horribly complex and horribly hard to get rid of. So prevention is key.”
Elisa and her parents weren’t alone in needing help and support. According to the National Eating Disorders Association [NEDA], in the U.S., approximately 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a “clinically significant eating disorder” at some time in their life.
What it’s like:
EDs want to live, Martinez said. They will do everything to distort the mindset of the one who’s suffering.
“The best thing I can describe it as, is when your child contracts an eating disorder, it’s like the devil climbs in. It possesses them. Their ED is their decision yardstick and voice,” Martinez said.
Elisa was a 1994 Highland Park High School graduate and former Highland Belle. She was smart, pretty, kind, popular, artistic, and a practical joker. She was a “Jennifer Aniston type,” her father recalled.
That was her public persona, Leslie said. She started suffering bulimia when she was 13 years old, initially triggered by her parents’ divorce the previous year. Her father said negative events would often cause her to fall off the wagon of recovery.
“She was fairly impulsive,” he said.
Elisa’s diary shows her to be intensely reflective and determined to heal, but frustrated by the one step forward, two steps back cycle.
“10/24/96 – … Just when I think I’m doing absolutely perfect and things couldn’t get better, I find myself falling fast. Lord, please help me. I’m trying.”
Martinez said: “These are smart kids destined to do great things if we can keep them alive. … Eating disorders are equally as smart and aggressive as the person who has them. … It has to be a collective front in order to help someone fight it off.”
Elisa was getting well, her therapist in Austin said in a series Park Cities People wrote in 1997.
But she wasn’t able to shed her demon.
ED’s have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, up to 20 percent, Martinez said. But despite the prevalence and lethality, research dollars are limited. Compared to Alzheimer’s Disease — which afflicts around 5.1 million and received $450 million in National Institutes of Health research dollars in 2011 — EDs received $28 million, on average 93 cents per affected individual, according to NEDA.
The Ongoing Fight:
Leslie helped grow The Elisa Project until 2004, when she and Rick decided to step back, take on a supportive role, and let the organization be about more than just their drive to honor their daughter.
“What we agreed to was that if the nonprofit was important in the community, then it needed to really move forward without us and let other people come in and take the helm,” Leslie said. “I think we’re both really proud about what they’ve accomplished.”
Today, The Elisa Project helps families and caregivers by informing them about EDs and their consequences, as well as teaching them how to encourage and support their loved ones on their way to recovery.
“I tell parents you can’t do it for them,” Martinez said. “They’ve got to do it. But they can’t do it by themselves. They can’t do it without you either.”
Martinez was working with a high school senior, encouraging her to enter a treatment program. The girl’s parents were resisting because they didn’t want to disrupt her senior year.
“But they have to,” Martinez said. “Statistically, if you send her, she’s going to come home, and it might be in a box. … Not that that’s what they want to hear.”
When someone who is suffering, or their caregiver, calls, The Elisa Project team will make an individual action plan to help them get the care and treatment they need, Martinez said.
Case management services include teaching them how to advocate for themselves; teaching them how to work with insurance companies and what vernacular they need to know; and connecting them with the treatment option right for their case.
The project works hard to make sure every client gets access to care, Martinez said, but that’s not easy.
“We’ve sometimes advocated a case all the way to Austin to get people treatment,” she said. “We’re going to keep going until someone tells us yes.”
To help prevent EDs, the project works with 73 schools in North Texas to teach an evidenced-based curriculum developed by Texas Tech University to students K-12. At the collegiate level, the organization focuses on binge drinking and eating habits.
“We teach age-appropriate curriculum – the difference between tummy and heart feelings,” Martinez said. “We ask – what is food for? Not to make us happy or make us sad.”
Martinez wants everyone to remember what their body is for and what food is for. Your arms are for carrying groceries, your legs are for carrying you through life, and food is for nurturing your body. Beware negative and self-critical thoughts.
“We talk about changing the body-image loop that they have going on in their brains,” Martinez said. “We challenge them to say: ‘If you wouldn’t say that to your best friend, you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself.’”