Mary (Wazeter) Mannhardt heads to her specially equipped van.
Leon Wazeter looks over the trophy wall in the basement of his Wilkes-Barre home that holds various awards won by his daughter, Mary, and other children.Don Carey photos/the times leader
Mary Wazeter accepts an award at the state track meet at Shippensburg University in 1981.
Mary Wazeter poses for a 1989 photo promoting her book, ‘Dark Marathon.’
Mary (Wazeter) Mannhardt speaks from her Gainesville, Va., home about her lifelong battle to overcome an eating disorder and depression that led to a jump from a Wilkes-Barre bridge in 1982.Don Carey photos/ the times leader
Leon Wazeter holds a photo of his daughter, Mary, taking part in a high school competition.
Mary Wazeter runs in school competition at Frances Slocum State Park in 1980.
Crews work to rescue Mary Wazeter from the Susquehanna River following her jump from the Black Diamond Bridge on Feb. 3, 1982. Injuries she suffered in the fall left her paralyzed from the chest down.
These sneakers, worn by Mary Wazeter when she won the state cross country title in 1980, hang from a trophy wall in her father’s home in Wilkes-Barre. They are a testament to his belief she may some day recover from the paralysis that ended her running career.Don Carey photos/the times leader
W ILKES-BARRE – Eighteen-year-old Mary Wazeter looked through the wooden planks of the Black Diamond railroad bridge to the swirling water below and decided:
This was the place to die.
Located on the outskirts of Kirby Park, the trestle was shrouded by heavy woods. The seclusion would ensure no passing cars, no pedestrians, could interfere with her plan.
A world-class distance runner, Mary had jogged across that bridge hundreds of times as she trained for championship races.
Just months earlier she had run side by side with some of the top female athletes in the world at prestigious races in Aruba and New York City.
But the applause, the smiling crowds, the trophies were all a distant memory.
It was the early evening of Feb. 3, 1982. The recent Meyers High School graduate and Georgetown University freshman was convinced her life was over.
For two years she had been battling anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that decimated her body and mind and plunged her into an ever-deepening depression.
She had decided there was only one option left: She would count to 10 and jump.
Slowly she worked her way across the bridge until she reached the center.
One, two, three.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” she thought as she ducked under the guide rail.
Four, five, six.
“I’m going to go to hell, but I deserve it,” raced through her mind as she steadied herself on the 12-inch-wide steel girder that jutted over the river.
Seven, eight, nine.
“There’s no other choice. This is how it has to be.”
She let go of the rail and pushed off. As her body hurtled toward the icy water 35 feet below, her mind screamed what her voice would not.
“God, please don’t let me die!”
Had it not been for an ice jam below, Mary’s story would have ended that day. Her body crashed onto the island of ice, fracturing the third thoracic vertebra in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.
Now 44 and living in Gainesville, Va., Mary, now known by her married name Mannhardt, is still paralyzed. But her life is far from over.
Seated in a wheelchair in the spacious condominium she shares with an aide, she recently spoke of the challenges she has faced, and of the journey of self-discovery that finally led her to understand what sent her down that path of self-destruction so many years ago.
It is a path more and more people, primarily women in their teens and young adulthood, continue to follow, eating disorder experts say.
It’s estimated that as many as 11 million people nationwide suffer from anorexia, bulimia and related eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting persons with eating disorders. Of those, 90 percent are women.
Anorexics, gripped by an intense fear of gaining weight, refuse to eat enough food to sustain their bodies, resulting in malnutrition and excessive weight loss. Many also have a distorted body image, seeing themselves as fat when in fact they are emaciated.
Bulimics suffer from a similar dysfunctional relationship with food. They binge, then purge what they’ve eaten from their bodies, usually by forcing themselves to vomit or by using laxatives and diuretics.
Eating disorders, classified as a mental illness, are extremely difficult to treat. But those afflicted can overcome, or at least control, the illness, experts say.
Spreading that message has become Mary’s life mission.
A certified school counselor with a master’s degree, Mary now works as a therapist specializing in treating eating disorders.
As students return to school this week, she and other therapists stress the importance for school counselors, families and peers to be aware of the signs of eating disorders because early intervention is so crucial to successful treatment.
Mary can only wonder what might have happened had she gotten help sooner.
There was little understanding of eating disorders in the 1970s and 1980s, Mary and other therapists say. Physicians didn’t know how to help her.
Hers was an extremely difficult case, she explained, because she suffered from anorexia and a form of bulimia known as binge eating disorder – an illness in which the sufferer binges on food, but does not purge. Her life has been a series of alternating cycles between the two, with periods of stability in between.
During the peak of her anorexia, her 5-foot, 4-inch frame dropped to a low of 80 pounds. In her binge phases she has weighed as much as 115 pounds. The average weight for someone her height is roughly 115 to 140 pounds, physicians say.
Today, Mary says the person who jumped from that bridge is long gone.
It has not been an easy journey. There have been joys and sorrows; successes and failures, including another suicide attempt several years after her jump.
But decades of self-reflection and her faith in God have helped her to finally attain inner peace and self-acceptance, she said.
It is a feeling that 26 years ago seemed impossible for a teenager who could barely stand to look at herself in the mirror.
“I think your thighs may be getting a little heavy.”
It was an offhand comment, spoken one summer afternoon in 1978 by Mary’s brother David in the kitchen of the home they shared with their parents Leon and Edith.
Mary, then 15, had just grabbed a handful of Oreo cookies and a glass of milk and was preparing to delve in when David appeared. David, also an avid runner, had introduced Mary to the sport three years earlier.
She had better watch what she eats, David cautioned her. She might gain weight and it could slow her down.
At first she shrugged off the comment. At 107 pounds, she had never worried about her weight. She had ranged from 100 to 105 pounds most of her life, a comfortable running weight. Besides, she was running an average of 70 miles per week. She knew those calories would burn off.
She didn’t realize it then, she said, but the anorexia seed had been planted.
Many anorexics speak of that one defining moment – a single comment about their weight – that sent them on their downward spiral, experts say.
It’s a source of considerable guilt among family members who, desperate to explain what’s happening to their child or sibling, often blame themselves, said Joy Armillay of Kingston, a registered dietitian and expert in treating eating disorders.
While it’s clear family dynamics play a role in the development of the disorder, it’s overly simplistic to point to a single incident as the cause, Armillay said.
Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of psychological, behavioral and sociological factors, Armillay said. In most cases sufferers have underlying psychological issues, such as depression, low self-esteem or obsessive compulsive behavioral traits, that act as a catalyst, Armillay said. New research also points to a possible genetic connection.
“It’s no one’s fault. That’s something that’s so hard for people to understand,” Armillay said.
Mary’s 87-year-old father, Leon, said for years he and Mary’s siblings questioned if they were at least partially to blame for her troubles.
“There is a feeling of guilt. Perhaps we encouraged her too much,” Leon said. “We were a close family. The success of anyone in the family was the success of the entire family. She never wanted to let us down.”
Born Sept. 6, 1963, Mary was the youngest of four children.
Leon was a sales manager for World Book Encyclopedia, and Edith, now deceased, was a homemaker. The couple worked hard to build a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle for their children in their Amherst Avenue home in Wilkes-Barre.
Mary was always a high achiever, Leon said. She was a straight-A student and took part in various extracurricular activities. She was even more determined on the race course.
“She always trained very hard. She’d be up at six in the morning to go running,” Leon said.
That training paid off as she dominated the local running scene in the early 1980s, winning four straight District 2 Class 2A cross country titles and taking the Pennsylvania championship in cross country in 1980. Leon said he was Mary’s most avid supporter, attending almost every race. He never felt he pressured Mary to win, but suspects that is the message she got.
It’s true she never wanted to disappoint her family, Mary said, but they never berated her if she performed poorly. They didn’t have to. She was much harder on herself than they could ever be.
“I can’t remember them ever saying ‘Come on, you have to do more,’” Mary said. “To the contrary, if I didn’t finish strong they’d point out that I had my best time and had improved. But I was always looking at the negative.”
She believes her drive to succeed was tied in part to a lingering sense of inferiority.
“I was not as popular as some of the other students. I was constantly comparing myself to others and coming up short instead of being thankful and glad for who I was.”
Her feelings of inadequacy were further fueled when, a few weeks after the Oreo cookie comment, she attended a running training camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
All the women there seemed so much slimmer than her. The female coach lectured the teams upon their arrival about the importance of maintaining a low weight.
“I remember the coach saying about all these girls whose careers went down the drain because they went away to college and didn’t pay attention to their weight,” Mary said.
Mary was convinced. She needed to lose weight. She began counting calories, limiting herself at first to 1,700 a day. Her obsession intensified during the next two years. She cut back her calorie intake further, down to 1,200, then 1,000 a day.
By the end of January 1980, Mary had dropped to 95 pounds – a reasonable weight for a runner, she thought.
But when she looked in the mirror, she still saw too much thigh.
If I could just lose a little more weight, I’ll be even faster, stronger, she thought.
But her body had had enough.
Suddenly, race courses she had breezed through became arduous just to finish. She knew something was wrong, and so she finally confided in her mother, who demanded Mary step on a scale.
It read 89 pounds, and they realized.
Something is wrong. Very wrong.
For people with eating disorders, acknowledging there is a problem is a difficult first step, Armillay said.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of those suffering from eating disorders are not currently in treatment, according to the nonprofit organization Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc.
Those who are often are uncooperative. They want help, but only on their terms, and that usually entails not gaining weight, Armillay said.
“It’s so difficult, even when they’re in treatment,” Armillay said. “They want their thinness, they want their low body weight and they want their control.”
Mary was motivated to gain weight to restore her running performance. Under the care of her family physician, she gradually increased her food consumption and began to put on pounds. But she was not receiving any psychological help.
At the time it didn’t seem to matter. She continued to rack up impressive wins in high school and placed in the top 10 in several national races.
To the outside world, everything seemed perfect.
Her physical condition had improved but no one knew of the visions of food that tormented her constantly – visions so intense they bordered on psychosis.
She would go for a run, for instance, and the entire time, visualize the bowl of cereal she had eaten that morning.
Her preoccupation with food was so intense she was unable to concentrate on anything else. She would read a book or magazine, and minutes later could not recall a single word. The visions of food would continue throughout the night, preventing her from sleeping.
“I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I just knew I was different,” she said. “I thought, if I could just gain weight, it would go away. I didn’t understand the underlying problems that went with it.”
Today, researchers know the symptoms Mary experienced are common among severe anorexics, said Kim Johnson, a psychologist with the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, an eating disorder clinic.
“Someone who has lost a lot of weight and is deep in the throes of anorexia, it becomes all-consuming. You do not allow yourself to have food, so all you think about is food,” Johnson said.
To Mary it seemed as though she had lost her mind. And she didn’t know how to get it back.
“It was mental torment,” she said. “You’re looking to people you care about and trust to have the answers, and they didn’t have one. My family stood behind me and supported me, but I felt very much alone.”
It was near the end of the summer of 1981 and she was about to head off to Georgetown University on a full athletic scholarship.
Concerned she would not be able to concentrate, she confided in her parents. Everyone chalked up her concerns to pre-college jitters.
They had no idea of what was to come.
Immediate problems at college
Major life transitions, such as leaving home for college, are a common trigger for eating disorders, Johnson said. Food becomes a coping mechanism, much like an alcoholic turns to liquor and a drug addict to narcotics.
“A person will go back to it in times of stress. That’s the battle for people trying to recover,” Johnson said.
For Mary, the thought of heading to Georgetown with its prestigious academic program, coupled with the self-induced pressure to win races, was unbearable.
Despite her misgivings, she forged ahead. She had been given a full scholarship. How could she refuse that?
“I had worked toward that scholarship for six years,” Mary said. “All my friends were going off to school. I’m going to stay home? There was no choice.”
Besides, school officials had assured her parents they would watch Mary’s weight and that she would receive counseling if needed.
“It was Georgetown. It had a good reputation academically and we thought I’d have a better chance getting help there than if I stayed in Wilkes-Barre,” she said.
Problems surfaced immediately after she arrived on the Washington, D.C., campus.
Her preoccupation with food intensified, leaving her in a near constant state of confusion. She could not concentrate or understand any of the material in her classes. She was constantly getting lost on campus, forgetting her keys, forgetting to take her running shoes to practice.
“There was a point I just didn’t know what to do,” Mary said. “It was very disconcerting. I felt very alone and isolated. I thought about food all the time and calories.”
As her despair deepened, her eating disorder took a disturbing turn for the worse.
She starved herself during the day, then binged uncontrollably at night on anything she could get her hands on.
Raids of vending machines were common. One time she entered a student’s dorm room and found a partially eaten loaf of French bread. She grabbed it and began tearing off chunks and stuffing them in her mouth.
Another time she was so hungry she ripped open her roommate’s box of hot chocolate mix. She was licking the last remnants off her hands when her roommate walked in.
“I went from not eating anything to the point I ate food out of garbage cans,” she said.
While her behavior off the track become increasingly bizarre, Mary continued to perform admirably for the cross country team, ranking as its No. 2 scorer.
But her parents suspected something was wrong.
Every night since she had arrived at Georgetown, Mary had called them, begging to come home. They would agree, only to have her call back a few minutes later to say she was OK.
It wasn’t until they visited her five weeks into the semester that the depth of her problem became clear.
Mary had dropped to 85 pounds.
They demanded Mary see a psychiatrist. She reluctantly agreed, believing she would get some quick help, then immediately return to classes. The doctor diagnosed her as anorexic, psychotic and suicidal and directed her to be immediately hospitalized.
He recommended Georgetown. Not the university, but its hospital on campus.
To Mary, her fall from grace was complete: Mary Wazeter, champion runner, had become Mary Wazeter, mental patient.
Struggles at several hospitals
From the window of the psychiatric ward, Mary watched as students hurried past on their way to class.
How, she wondered, could she have fallen this far?
Just weeks earlier she had walked on campus a star athlete. Now she was surrounded by people who mumbled to themselves.
“It was very upsetting to one day have a lot of promise and hope, and the next day to feel like you’re coming apart,” she said.
As word of her hospitalization spread, well-wishers flooded her with visits and cards of encouragement. While she appreciated their kind thoughts, in some ways it worsened her sense of hopelessness.
“Everyone was saying, ‘get better soon, get better Mary, just get better.’ But I didn’t know what to do to get better,” she said. “I began to wish I had a physical illness, like cancer or diabetes – something you could take medicine for.”
She remained hospitalized at Georgetown for four weeks as doctors tried in vain to devise a treatment plan.
“I had not developed a rapport with a therapist so I couldn’t start working on the issues. That’s when I really started to go down hill,” she said. “I just looked at it as I’m a failure. I’m lazy. I’m no good.”
Psychiatrists decided to transfer Mary to a hospital closer to her home. The ensuing months were an exercise in frustration and futility as her parents tried desperately to find a psychiatric program to help her.
She spent time in psychiatric units at the former Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital and the former NPW Medical Center in Plains Township.
Nothing was helping. She was still bingeing, obsessed with her weight and deeply depressed.
“If I saw some semblance that I could get better, I think I would have had more incentive,” Mary said. “I was just tired of fighting. I began thinking, I have to take my life.”
Leon Wazeter couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling as he pulled the family car into the driveway on that fateful evening of Feb. 3, 1982.
Just moments earlier he had driven past Mary and the family dog Rusty as they walked on Old River Road. He rolled down his window to ask where she was going. She assured him, as she had just told her mother, that she was just taking Rusty for a walk.
Leon wanted to believe everything was OK. The day before, Mary had been released from the NPW psychiatric unit, where she had been admitted after intentionally overdosing on pills. Doctors had assured her mother and father she was no longer suicidal.
Her parents did not know that earlier that afternoon Mary had walked across the Black Diamond Bridge and conjured up her plan to die. She thought of jumping then, but decided to go home to say one last goodbye.
And so Leon drove on.
But that nagging feeling would not go away. He turned the car around, but by the time he got back to Old River Road, Mary and Rusty had disappeared into the darkness.
Back at home, he awaited Mary’s return. Then he found Rusty outside, his leash dragging behind him, and panic set in.
He summoned the help of Mary’s cousin who lived nearby. She and several other people began searching the area.
One of the searchers heard a faint cry from below the bridge and discovered Mary lying on the ice jam, her feet partially submerged in the river.
Mary remembers little of the difficult rescue effort that ensued. But as she lay there, freezing, an “incredible peace” overcame her, she said.
“I suddenly wanted to live,” she said. “I couldn’t feel my legs. But I felt everything was going to be all right.”
In addition to the spinal injury, the fall broke six of Mary’s ribs, her left wrist and collapsed her lungs. She underwent 10 ½ hours of surgery to clear away broken bone fragments from her spine.
The ensuing days and months were filled with incredible physical pain, but the mental torment that had so dominated her life was suddenly gone, Mary said.
“After I jumped became a turning point. I began to have hope,” she said. “You’d think, normally you’d get worse. I realized I’d been given a second chance.”
She was especially touched by the tremendous outpouring of support from the community.
“I came to understand people cared about me for who I was as a person, not for just my achievements,” she said. “I realized, I was more than just a runner.”
While her mental outlook was better, there were numerous medical challenges to overcome. She underwent several more surgeries, including the installation of a halo – a device that’s bolted into the head and attached to the shoulders to prevent the head from moving.
Whatever her medical future held, Mary knew if she was to go on with life, there was one more thing she had to learn: to forgive herself.
It was then, Mary said, that she turned to God.
“I felt I had been saved for a purpose – to help other people,” she said. “I felt God was in control of my life and guiding me.”
After four months, Mary was released from the hospital and began extensive rehabilitation at several centers. During the next five years, she continued to rebuild her life.
She enrolled at King’s College in May 1983. She continued her efforts to overcome her physical disability, learning to swim as a paraplegic, and continued treatment for depression.
In the fall of 1986, she received a settlement of a lawsuit against NPW and the doctor who released her the day before her jump. She had also just completed the manuscript for a book, “Dark Marathon,” which detailed her struggle with anorexia.
Her life, it seemed, was on track. But the progress wouldn’t last.
The eating disorder that had lain dormant for years was about to return with a vengeance.
Sitting on a park bench in Wilkes-Barre, the old woman in the ragged dress muttered incoherently to herself as cars and pedestrians passed by.
Rolling her wheelchair alongside the bench, Mary flashed a smile.
“Do you have any money?” Mary asked. “I’m hungry.”
Mary wasn’t destitute. She was desperate. She had just left a swim class at the Catholic Youth Center and was overcome by an uncontrollable urge to binge.
The woman paused a moment as she scanned Mary up and down. She slowly pulled out two dollar bills and handed them to her.
Mary hurriedly rolled away in search of a vending machine. As she finished wolfing down the junk food, she realized: She had hit an all-time low.
In the three years prior, she had worked so hard to control her eating disorder. Her book trumpeting her triumph over the illness was in the publisher’s hands for final review.
And there she was, panhandling change from a bag lady.
Mary had fallen into a pattern that is common among people with eating disorders, experts say. Recovery is an extremely difficult, time-consuming process that is often fraught with relapses.
With treatment, 60 percent of patients will recover fully; 20 percent will attain partial recovery, while the other 20 percent are chronic sufferers who never fully recover, according to statistics gathered by Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc. Other eating disorder groups place the full recovery rate at 50 percent.
Left untreated, up to 20 percent of those afflicted will die either from suicide or medical complications caused by malnutrition, most commonly an irregular heartbeat or kidney failure, the organization says.
Mary can’t say for sure what triggered her relapse. She suspects it was fueled by anxiety over things occurring in her life.
In February 1986 she dropped out of college due to constant, excruciating pain caused by nerve damage. The pain suddenly vanished that May, and she was contemplating re-entering school.
But the joy of her new pain-free life was overshadowed by a growing sense of failure. By then most of her high school friends were graduating from college and moving on with their lives, while she was just getting started – again.
In the next year she plummeted to a depth of despair she had not experienced since that day she jumped from the bridge.
Unable to control her cycles of self-starvation and bingeing, she entered a series of hospitals and eating disorder clinics in Pennsylvania and Virginia, where her sister Judy lived.
Mary at first balked at the treatment. It was only after she realized she might be hospitalized against her will for the rest of her life that she began to cooperate.
By this time, Mary had become accomplished at feigning recovery. She convinced a clinic to release her in the fall of 1987.
Judy helped her obtain an apartment in Virginia. To her family, it seemed Mary was prepared to start life anew.
But the old Mary was still very much in charge of her mind.
That Mary wanted to die.
Rummaging through the medicine cabinet of the apartment she shared with an aide, Mary found a nearly full bottle of a powerful antidepressant. She downed the pills, then lay down on her bed to die.
Fortunately, her aide returned a short time later and found Mary unresponsive. She was rushed to a hospital, where she laid unconscious for more than a day.
At her parents’ insistence, Mary returned to Wilkes-Barre and continued with outpatient treatment. After years of frustration, she finally found a doctor in Philadelphia who could help her, and she began to rebuild her life.
She re-enrolled at King’s College and graduated in 1990 with a degree in psychology and a minor in theology. In 1993, she moved to Georgia to take a job in the offices of Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds homes for the underprivileged.
That is where she met Lowell Mannhardt. He and Mary hit it off immediately. They married in 1994 and moved to Buford, Ga.
Mary continued her education, attaining her master’s degree from Georgia State University. She formed a nonprofit agency, Leap of Faith ministry, which specialized in treating troubled women, including those with eating disorders.
But just like so many other times in her life, Mary was again struck by a serious bout of depression, and the marriage failed. The couple divorced in 2002. Mary moved to Gainesville, Va., the following year to be closer to her sister.
She has spent the past few years, building her counseling practice and making public speaking appearances. Patients with eating disorders “are not the easiest population to work with,” she said. But her own experience brings a unique perspective.
“A lot of people I treat have been to a lot of different therapists. They have textbook knowledge, but they don’t really have an understanding,” she said. “All the feelings and emotions they have, I’ve been through. They feel like I understand, like they are not alone.”
Mary has also remained physically active. On a typical day, she will get up early and go for a swim in her condominium’s pool. Other times she wheels her chair along the cart paths of her condominium’s golf course.
For certain, life is not perfect. She continues to deal with physical ramifications of her paralysis. Last year she was hospitalized for a pressure sore. She also suffers from back pain.
Through it all she has remained close with her family. She speaks daily with her father, who still lives in the home where she grew up.
Occasionally, Leon will venture down to the finished basement of that home to look over the dozens of Mary’s trophies and medals that line a wall.
They sit there along with a pair of ragged, old Nike sneakers that hang from a nail.
They’re Mary’s sneakers, Leon acknowledges. They’re the ones she wore when she won the state cross country championship.
Dare he believe she may some day don those sneaks again and step out of her wheelchair?
The fall did not sever her spinal cord, so the possibility of recovery remains. There have been some promising developments in stem cell research, and Leon, a self-avowed eternal optimist, says he has hope.
“It may not happen in my lifetime,” he said, “but I’m convinced. She will not only walk again. She will run.”
Mary shares her father’s optimism, but her focus is on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and continuing her efforts to help others.
That’s why she agreed to once again open the most intimate details of her life to public inspection, she said.
If there is one message she wants to convey to those struggling with eating disorders it is that, with the help of God, there is hope.
“It is a hard journey. It’s one I think for me has been a test of perseverance,” she said. “I think of myself as a piece of clay on a pottery wheel. I’m constantly being reshaped and molded through different trials.”
Just as she pushed herself to take those final, arduous strides in the races she ran decades ago, she continues to tackle head-on any challenge life throws at her.
“There are lots of times I wanted to quit, but I keep going,” she said. “There have been some real challenges. Sometimes I ask why. But I believe we are all called to finish the race before us. For me, this is my marathon.”
For the past 26 years, Mary has continued to battle with anorexia and depression and is now a counselor trying to help others with eating disorders.
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For more information about eating disorders, visit Mary (Wazeter) Mannhardt’s Web site at: www.marymannhardt.com
Other sites that provide information on eating disorders include:
• Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. – www.anred.com
• National Eating Disorders Association – www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
• National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders – www.anad.org