- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In 1968, 15-year-old Cathy Rigby inspired American girls to pursue gymnastics with her U.S.-leading performance in the Mexico City Summer Olympics. Today, Mrs. Rigby-McCoy aims to inspire others through the story of her 12-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia.

Mrs. Rigby-McCoy began her battle with eating disorders at 15, when she began to gain weight. “People say, ‘You’re over the hill,’” she said. “At the age of 15, that’s frightening.”

She thinks her lapse into anorexia and bulimia stemmed partly from her drive for perfection, a characteristic that also made her successful at gymnastics.

Mrs. Rigby-McCoy battled eating disorders until she was 27. During that time, she left gymnastics, married, had two children, commentated for ABC and began an acting career. She said anorexia and bulimia isolated her, despite her attempts to distract herself by pursuing achievements and perfection.

She shared her story as part of the 2006 National Eating Disorders Association conference held last week in Bethesda.

“You wake up in the morning thinking, ‘How much do I weigh?’” she said. “It’s mind-consuming and life-consuming, and everything else is secondary. You’re sort of carving away at your body as if it’s this clay sculpture that you’re dissatisfied with.”

Late in her struggle, she found herself near death and hospitalized because of an electrolyte imbalance.

“The success hadn’t solved my problems,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is going to kill me if I don’t do something about it.’ The admission that this was a problem and that I wanted to change was probably the first step.”

Then, Mrs. Rigby-McCoy said, she made the decision to live life on her own terms. She and her husband divorced, and she sought the help of a psychologist.

The direct intervention of her second husband, Tom McCoy, also helped her through her recovery. She said Mr. McCoy, with whom she had two more children, helped her to deal with her personal issues, instead of just coping with her eating disorder.

Acting also helped Mrs. Rigby-McCoy in her quest for recovery. “I finally found something that I loved more than my eating disorder,” she said, adding that her most famous role was as Peter Pan, which earned her a Tony Award nomination for best actress.

For the first few years of her recovery, she occasionally would relapse. “I finally just said, ‘OK, when I have a relapse, it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. I just need to get back on track,’” she said. Her life has since returned to normal, she added.

Mrs. Rigby-McCoy said parents can help their children by not basing their identities on their achievements. “As parents, be there,” she said.

Children “need an outlet,” she added. “If it can’t be their parents, if it can’t be someone they trust, they’re going to find another way.”

NEDA hopes to help educate Americans about the scope and nature of anorexia and bulimia. The organization states that as many as 10 million U.S. females and 1 million males have eating disorders.

Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of NEDA, said lack of funding is one of the chief barriers to stopping eating disorders in America. In comparison with the $12 million the National Institutes of Health provided last year for research on anorexia, which affects 10 million Americans, NIH gave $647 million for research on Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 4.5 million Americans, NEDA information says.

In addition, data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders indicated that at least 18 states do not mandate insurance coverage for eating disorders. Physicians such as Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, however, say eating disorders are mental illnesses, not lifestyle choices.

Dr. Bermudez, chairman of NEDA’s board of directors and medical director of the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Okla., said eating disorders affect people of all ages and all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Risk factors include being female, perfectionist or overachieving; having a family history of eating disorders or chemical dependency; and engaging in highly competitive or stressful environments, he said.

Dr. Bermudez said those who develop eating disorders uncover dormant, environmental vulnerability when they begin to diet or exercise. “People embark in the process with the intent of doing well,” he said, but their vulnerability to developing an eating disorder causes them to lose perspective. They allow a voice into their head that declares food is bad, he said, and they think they’ll gain too much weight if they eat more. They desire control, he said.

Dr. Bermudez thinks that timely treatment can lead to a full recovery. He said patients first need to stop the behaviors typically associated with eating disorders, and then need to change their perspectives and find other ways to deal with the problems in their lives.

“We need to trade those bad coping mechanisms for good coping mechanisms,” he said.

Ms. Grefe said many eating-disorder patients cannot afford adequate treatment, especially without insurance coverage. She said inpatient treatment programs can cost $15,000 to $30,000 a month. Insurance companies that do offer coverage often will pay only for one month of treatment, which Ms. Grefe noted is often not enough for patients who have dealt with their eating disorder for years. She called on state and national leaders to pass legislation that includes eating disorders in provisions for mental health parity, such as the one New York announced Wednesday the state Senate would vote on soon.

“If my daughter has an eating disorder, I’m hoping that my child will get the same coverage as someone who has lymphoma,” she said.

“It’s very shortsighted not to take care of people because insurance is going to have to take care of it in the end,” she added, noting that eating disorders can lead to other health problems, such as early-onset osteoporosis, kidney failure, and bone, teeth and hair loss.

She also said the lack of coverage has led to the stigma that is associated with eating disorders. “Wouldn’t you feel stigmatized if you have an illness that your insurance company doesn’t recognize as an illness?” she said.

People who fear they or a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder should seek help from a specialist, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org or call the NEDA help line at 800/931-2237.

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