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'Beasts' of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Ravaged Gymnast's Body : Health: Christy Henrich was 22 and weighed less than 60 pounds when she died. Her family hopes her story will save others.

August 21, 1994|STEVE WILSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Strong, lithe and vivacious, Christy Henrich spent years spinning, leaping and vaulting across balance beams, around parallel bars and over padded mats, a muscular sprite nicknamed "E.T." for Extra Tough.

That seems impossibly long ago.

On July 26, withered to little more than a fragile skeleton, her papery skin a ghostly gray-white, her gums and kidneys bleeding, her throat ulcerated, her heart barely pumping, Henrich died of multiple organ failure.

She was 22 and weighed less than 60 pounds.

Engaged to be married, she had never reached puberty. A starvation diet had tricked her emaciated body into perpetual childhood.

Many saw the tragic wasting of her body caused by bulimia and anorexia nervosa, but few saw inside to the torturous shame she hid away, until it was too late.

She had been hospitalized more than 15 times since 1990, her final year of competition as one of America's top gymnasts. She once yanked out an intravenous tube and let it drip into a wastebasket, worried the sugar water would make her fat.

If such details of Henrich's struggle are to help any of the thousands afflicted by eating disorders, as her family hopes, the depth of the degradation she imposed on herself must be understood.

"My life is a horrifying nightmare," she once said. "It feels like there's a beast inside of me, like a monster. It feels evil."

Henrich grappled with shame--intense, insidious, impossible to shed--throughout therapy last summer. It was a desperate time, perhaps her last real chance to save herself, and she ultimately quit in exhaustion.

"She felt shame toward everything in her life and it drove her obsessive-compulsive behavior, her perfectionism, her self-punishment," said Dr. Gail Vaughn, a psychotherapist for addictive disorders who counseled Henrich and her family for four months. "She was afraid of failure. She was terrified of being fat."

Much has been made of an offhand comment by a judge at a 1988 meet in Hungary. No one is sure what the woman said to Henrich, but the gymnast, at 4-feet-11 and 95 pounds, took the remark to mean she was fat. She'd long believed the Soviet and Romanian girls were beating her because they were thinner; Henrich was more muscular, like Mary Lou Retton.

That night, Henrich pulled coach Al Fong into her Budapest hotel room and asked him repeatedly if he thought she was fat. Fong failed to reassure her.

After that, Henrich ate only small salads and apples--apart from binges of fast-food burgers and fries she threw up.

But Vaughn noted that Henrich had paid extraordinary attention to food since age 9, when she started training with Fong, years before the judge's comment. In therapy, Henrich recalled reading the sides of cereal boxes as a child to check protein and fat.

But she loved to cook. For family and friends, she piled plates high with food.

"That's one of the symptoms of people with eating disorders," Vaughn said. "They'll go out of their way to feed other people, but they don't feed themselves. The sight and the smells of the food teased and taunted Christy and set up many more problems. She was constantly saying, 'C'mon, have another piece of pie!' And all the time inside wanting it for herself but denying it, or taking it and not being able to stop with one piece, and after eating two or three going to vomit or use a lot of laxatives."

More significant than the judge's misinterpreted remark, Vaughn said, was a misplaced sense of responsibility that evolved out of Henrich's status as the center of attention in both her family and the gym.

"The amount of support and energy Christy's family gave her was incredible. I mean, anything for Christy. But inside, she carried that as a burden," Vaughn said. "No matter how well she did, the message she gave herself was that it wasn't enough, it wasn't OK."

Henrich felt guilt for all the sacrifices her family made and for taking attention from her older brother, Paul. She wanted the attention but felt shame at getting it, Vaughn said.

She agonized over failing her coach by missing the 1988 Olympic team by 0.118 of a point.

"She felt shame about having the disease," Vaughn said, "and that she couldn't be the woman Bo (her fiance) wanted her to be. Yet Bo didn't put any of those messages on her. He loved her unconditionally. She put them on herself. She put everything on herself.

"One story she told me was that her mom had a migraine headache one night and was sick while driving her to gymnastics when she was around 10 years old. Her mom had to stop the van and get out and vomit, and Christy was right there saying, 'C'mon, Mom, c'mon, we're going to be late, I've got to go.' Christy had a lot of shame and guilt about those things."

The therapist continued: "When you don't feel good about yourself and you have a lot of shame . . . then a subconscious acting out of that is to punish yourself in some way."

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