About this blog: Discussing religion, spirituality and values. About the writers: Amy Umble is the religion reporter for The Free Lance-Star. Janet Marshall is the religion editor for The Free Lance-Star.
Charting a course to battle eating disorders
Mary Mannhardt was on a path to the Olympics when she hit an ice block.
That painful bump in her road led Mannhardt down a much different course, one that has now brought her to lead a faith-based eating disorder support group in Spotsylvania County.
The award-winning distance runner had just accomplished one dream: An athletic scholarship to Georgetown University. And she was gearing up for her next dream—the 1984 Olympics—when her eating disorder put a large speed bump in her way.
Mannhardt had leaned toward excessive dieting for years: spurred on by a runner’s fear of excess fat and a family tendency to focus on pudge.
Then, in her junior year of high school, Manndhardt injured her hamstring and had to hang up her running shoes for a few months. She spent that time terrified that calories would take control of her body without her daily 15-mile runs.
“I would look at running magazines and compare myself with other distance runners,” Mannhardt said. “And I thought if I were 10 pounds thinner, then all would be right in my world.”
At the time, the 5-foot-4-inch teen was just over 100 pounds. She obsessed over calories, a preoccupation she kept even when she laced up her shoes and resumed her runs.
“It was like an addiction that I just couldn’t let go of,” she said.
Manndardt believed that shedding all fat would make her a faster runner, which would in turn earn her a scholarship to a prestigious school.
When she started at Georgetown, however, Mannhardt didn’t relax.
And she didn’t eat.
She couldn’t concentrate. Or finish reading any of her coursework.
She was always freezing and could never sleep.
After a while, she could barely run.
Mannhardt ended up in a psychiatric hospital and then went home to Wilkes–Barre, Pa., where she entered another hospital.
She received treatment with people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. But there was no one else struggling with an eating disorder.
“I felt very much alone,” Mannhardt said. “I just didn’t have any hope. Nobody said, ‘Oh you’re going to get over this.’ I just lost hope and tried to take my own life.”
One winter night, Mannhardt walked to a bridge over the Susquehanna River and jumped.
She landed on a block of ice, punctured her lungs, broke her ribs and severed her spine.
Mannhardt spent three months in intensive care, where she relied on her faith and a sudden, strong desire to live.
That faith was tested when Mannhardt learned she would not run again—or even walk. The suicide attempt left her a paraplegic.
She went from a Nike sponsorship to a wheelchair. And the transformation drew quite a bit of attention. Mannhardt soon realized that her paralysis left her with a new strength—the ability to shine a light on a hidden epidemic of eating disorders in the sports world.
Her story was told in People and Sports Illustrated magazines, in
the New York Times and on television talk shows.
Each time, Mannhardt received mail from girls who were starving themselves, thanking her for sharing her story.
“I realized then that I wanted to go into counseling and to reach out to other girls who are suffering,” she said.
Mannhardt has hosted several support groups, combining Christian faith with art therapy, journaling and sharing experiences.
Two years ago, she moved to the Fredericksburg area. On Sept. 11, she will start a support group at Grace Church of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania.
The 12-week program is geared toward teens and college students with eating disorders. It is a faith-based group, but Mannhardt said that the program is open to anyone.
“We’re going to be using writing, art and biblical studies to learn about different ways to heal from eating disorders,” Mannhardt said. “It’s a support group but it’s also going to be providing healing tools.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973 firstname.lastname@example.org
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Streams in the Desert, a faith-based eating disorder support group
WHEN: Wednesdays, Sept. 11 through Nov. 20, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Grace Church of Fredericksburg
COST: The program is free, but participants are encouraged to buy workbooks.
DETAILS: Contact Mary Mannhardt at 540/891-6359 or email@example.com.