My Tribute to Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh

As presented by Cynthia Bulik, PhD, FAED at ICED 2014, March, NewYork City

I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. But none so big as asking Leah Dean, Executive Director of FEAST, to send out a clandestine and seemingly innocuous email to members of the FEAST community asking if anyone had thoughts or comments they would like to share about Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh who is the recipient of this year’s Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and/or Advocacy.

On a normal day, my inbox tends to get pretty bloated, but I woke up the morning after I sent that request to a virtual deluge of comments, honors, tributes, and congratulations to Laura. So many, that I could never do justice to the depth and warmth of their words in a two minute speech. So even though word clouds are a little yesterday, here are some of the highlights of the responses I received. Leah has posted a tribute wall to Laura on the FEAST website.

Laura2104AEDAwardFor those of you who don’t know, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh was perhaps first well known for her book “Eating With Your Anorexic,” which provided a blueprint for all parents struggling with the elemental challenge of parenting a child with anorexia nervosa. In 2008, Laura became the original Executive Director of FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders) and is now finishing up her term as Policy Director for that organization. Quoting their mission statement, “F.E.A.S.T. is an international organization of and for parents and caregivers to help loved ones recover from eating disorders by providing information and mutual support, promoting evidence-based treatment, and advocating for research and education to reduce the suffering associated with eating disorders.”

Laura embodies that mission statement, but personally, she is so much more.

I deliberated about how best to describe the ways in which Laura has served countless families afflicted with eating disorders, and want to focus on two main functions.

First, when families are floundering in despair now knowing how to help their dying children, Laura is a beacon of hope. She is not a warm and fuzzy beacon, but she prepares and activates parents for what is ahead of them. She lets them know that there is a way—a difficult way—but a tested approach, a support system, and teams of parents who have been in the same position who are ready and willing to guide them down the challenging path of treating anorexia nervosa as a family.

Second, Laura is like an electric car charge station. As families become exhausted, start losing hope, or begin to doubt whether they are doing the right thing, they can plug into Laura and become recharged in their resolve to work as a family toward recovery.

Laura is a tireless and an outspoken advocate and activist. One of the things I love about her is that she challenges me. Just when I think I might start being able to anticipate her perspective, she throws me a curve ball and forces me to see things in another way, through the eyes of families. She tells me when she thinks I am off base. I can tell her when I think she is off base. She can take it to the mat, and remain friends on the other side. She can admit when she is wrong, get past it, and move on to the next challenge. Her resolve is unwavering and her compass is always set to do what is necessary, even if unpopular, to advocate for families working toward recovery from eating disorders.

Yet another characteristic I admire about Laura is her constant willingness to stick her neck out—even if occasionally she has to pull it back in. Being an effective advocate isn’t a popularity contest and sometimes you need to tell it like it is even if it gets you labels like brash, cantankerous, curmudgeon (all of which have been applied to Laura, sometimes by herself!). By doing so, she embodies the principle of using her voice to advocate for those who are rendered voiceless by eating disorders.

Lots of people have ideas: Laura both has them and transforms them into action. Some people get an idea, mull it around for awhile, deliberate, and then maybe at some point in the future it becomes a reality. With Laura, it’s more like a direct line between stimulus and response. On Monday, she might wake up with the idea, “I think we should create a structure that will be a tribute to my dear friend Charlotte Bevan who is dying from breast cancer and will support genetic research on anorexia nervosa throughout the UK.” The next day, Charlotte’s Helix is built. There is a website, a logo, several international researchers in eating disorders and genetics who are participating, ways to donate money to the fund, galas planned, and videotaped birthday wishes from all around the world donating birthdays to Charlotte who sadly did not survive to see the Helix bloom. Laura is a tornado, she doesn’t mess around, and she doesn’t believe in insurmountable obstacles. With Laura… you blink, you lose. There are no tomorrows for Laura. Action is now. It’s like no one ever told her that she couldn’t do something, or if they did, she said, “Just watch me.”

Maybe being a great advocate means not caring what other people think about you as a person, because ultimately you are representing a cause. Laura’s willingness to go to any length to advocate for eating disorders shows that she puts the cause first.

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Laura Collins & Fiona Bromelow

Here’s an example of, not caring about what others might say. Laura dealt with her anxiety when her friend Charlotte was having an operation by dying her hair blue. The next thing I knew, the trend was catching on. Here we Fiona Bromelow appearing with her own blue streak. Then as I was watching the red carpet at the Oscars I was gob smacked to see that somehow Laura even Liza Minnelli to wear a blue streak to the Academy Awards!

We should all be grateful that Laura is on our team. I for one would not like to play against her!

It is my true honor to present the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and/or Advocacy to a consummate advocate and friend, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh.

For more tributes to Laura, see