A former health communications professional who touched many by candidly sharing her 32-year battle with a dual eating disorder in a blog has died.
Michelle Stewart, 49, died Wednesday from kidney failure.
In her final entry, written five months ago but posted by her older sister, Karen, on Thursday, Stewart wrote about what the blog meant to her: “What I discovered was that it was possible to share the parts of yourself you have hidden in the world — even from yourself — and that transformative things could happen.
“People began to open up to me in a way I never dreamed possible. Far from letting me go — they just held on tighter.”
Stewart grew up in Pine Falls, Manitoba, before moving with her family to B.C. She was a radio journalist for 10 years, then moved into communications in the 1990s. She spent 17 years in the field, primarily in the Ministry of Health, but also worked for the Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Island Health Authority (now Island Health) and the Public Affairs Bureau.
Stewart began her blog in May 2013, when she was in the final stage of renal disease. While she weighed in on politics and shared childhood letters, it was her candour in writing about her eating disorder, as well as other difficult moments in her life — such as losing her father at a young age — that drew the greatest response from readers.
On May 16, 2013, she wrote for the first time that her kidneys were failing as a result of her long-time illness. “Anorexic, bulimic — name a label — I’ve had them all. Words that represent to me profound shame — and worse, a lifetime of lost energy and opportunity that cannot be reclaimed,” she wrote. “Well-meaning people in my life have suggested I should buck up and fight it … and to them I gently say, I have been fighting my body for decades now and am beyond tired.”
Stewart received 56 comments of overwhelming support, including from people who said they suffered eating disorders, too.
Former colleague Marisa Adair said Stewart was passionate about health care. Few of Stewart’s colleagues knew what she was going through until reading the blog, Adair said.
“I think the overwhelming power of that blog was that it not only provided support for people who have been in similar situations, but it also allowed her friends and larger family in the community to really show her how much they loved and respected her,” Adair said.
Stewart was hard on herself, Adair said, and was surprised by the good wishes that came in response to her honest accounts. “It showed her she was defined by far more than her disease.”
Former Times Colonist journalist Jody Paterson, who met Stewart professionally but got to know her online, said she admired Stewart’s bravery. “I hope her blog and her death trigger a mountain of conversation about disordered eating, because there are plenty of us who have experienced the pull of that in one way or the other,” Paterson said.
Several colleagues described Stewart, who hired many of the health communications professionals now in leadership positions, as honest, supportive and funny.
Ministry of Health communications manager Carlene Thistle-Walker said it’s hard to put into words the impact Stewart had on her life. “She was extremely giving, incredibly funny and fiercely loyal. By being courageous enough to share her story so openly, I know that Michelle made a difference in how people perceive themselves and people living with eating disorders in general.”
Public affairs officer Laura Stovel said: “From the moment I met Michelle, I knew she was someone I could trust, someone who would champion for me if needed.”
Stewart leaves family, friends and her partner, Kirk Mason, whose granddaughter was born 28 hours after Stewart’s death. Her blog, “Bess, I’m a Blogger Now” is at bessiamabloggernow.blogspot.com.