Mary Nearpass is able to help young women with bulimia and other eating disorders because she knows exactly what they are going through. (Photo by Len Lear)

Mary Nearpass is able to help young women with bulimia and other eating disorders because she knows exactly what they are going through. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Lou Mancinelli

Former Abington Hospital administrator, yoga teacher, freelance writer and local resident Mary Nearpass is a role model for resilience, for overcoming the most traumatic knockout punches that life can deliver.

In the summer of 1975, before she entered college, her older brother died, and her parents were separated. In the following year, things got much worse. In her first semester at Millersville University in central Pennsylvania, she was gang-raped by a group of freshmen football players. She was 17.

She had never previously had intimate relations with a man. She never reported the crime. Over her entire freshman year, she continued to be raped by the school’s quarterback. She never had the courage to use the baseball bat she kept for protection.

“Biggest mistake of my life,” said Nearpass, during a recent interview, about the fact that she never told anyone about the horrific crime until four years later. The quarterback’s father and her father were friends. The rapist told her no one would believe her story, and she believed him.

Mary had been a type-A, straight-A student at Abington High School. After the treacherous crime at Millersville, Nearpass continued along her path of overachievement as if by accomplishing great things she could replace what had been stolen.

“I had the disease to please,” recalls Nearpass, 57, a Willow Grove resident. “I kind of didn’t have a self.”

Mary’s self-esteem had disappeared. She recalls working in the university’s cafeteria kitchen and seeing “those monsters” who had raped her. She couldn’t eat. The sight of food made her want to throw up. Soon she was anorexic before she even knew what the word meant.

Nearpass had entered college a healthy 5’8” and 135 pounds. When she graduated four years later in 1979, after avoiding and ignoring the issue that had ravaged her body and stole her self-esteem and self-confidence, she was down to 85 pounds.

Eating disorders have become increasingly common among the young. Ninety-one percent of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), and 86 percent of students reported the onset of an eating disorder by age 20.

At Millersville, people began asking Mary about her dramatic weight loss. Some girls, apparently envious, even asked what her secret was. “I had a four-year disassociation,” she said. “I just went numb in order to move on … My parents had enough of their own shit.”

Mary also became bulimic. She had to eat in order not to starve, but after eating she would often throw up. She was caught in a wrestling match against anorexia and bulimia that lasted until she was 33.

All the while she worked by day and took classes at night, earning two master’s degrees. “When you have an eating disorder, you’re not thinking clearly,” she said. “You’re missing periods. Your hair falls out. Your brain’s powers suffer from a lack of proper nutrients.”

Now, as a freelance writer for magazines like PhillyFit, Prevention and Ladies Home Journal, among others, Nearpass is telling the story of overcoming personal demons like addiction, eating disorders and trauma through the tales of other individuals who have tread through the same emotional quicksand. The stories are both harrowing and uplifting.

Like the story of a soldier in his 20s who had his legs amputated after returning from Afghanistan. He could earn a master’s degree online, but he insists on taking his classes at school with his fellow students.

Nearpass, one of nine children from an Irish-Catholic family that moved to Abington from upstate New York when she was 9, has overcome her personal tragedies through her faith and state of mind. “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react,” she said.

After college, Nearpass, who had majored in elementary education, took a job in the Saint Alphonsus Parish Community in Upper Dublin teaching kindergarten and music. “You tell yourself that you’re all better; you’re cured,” she said.

After three years, she took a job with Nutrisystem as a weight-loss counselor. She became regional manager and at the same time earned her first master’s degree (in health education) in 1983.

Nearpass later became a medical staff coordinator at Abington Hospital and remained there for 11 years. During that time she married, though she is now separated. When Nearpass was seven months pregnant with her first daughter, Hannah, now 16, she left work at the hospital.

She then worked for Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook for five years, followed by a job with a non-medical health company. But in 2002 her second pregnancy had complications that led to 15 weeks on bed rest. While in the hospital, three months into her new job, she received a certified letter informing her she had been laid off.

Mary’s second daughter was born six weeks prematurely. The next two years were full of surgeries. The baby, Riley, is now 12. “That was pretty tough to take,” said Nearpass.

Mary eventually got a job as a proofreader for Prevention Magazine in Emmaus, Lehigh County, and eventually became a certified teacher in 2004 (she was already a certified massage therapist). She also taught classes at nearby L.A. Fitness centers. In 2009, however, she was in a horrific car accident and broke her back.

Doctors told her by the time she reached her mid-50s she’d be confined to a wheelchair. “This was not an option for me,” said Nearpass, who regularly swims and lifts weights.

She has also written a book, “Dead Woman Walking” about “how I was for 15 years existing, not living.” She is seeking a quality publisher for the book.

In the May 29 issue of the Local, Mary wrote an article about Jillian Gasper, 26, who managed to hide her bulimia while an All-Catholic high school soccer player and all through college.

Nearpass wants everyone to keep in mind that beauty, like fashion, is a trend. The most important thing, she insists, is to be aware of who you are, maintain a positive self-image and know you are a valuable human being.

“Women will change their bodies to whatever is fashionable at the time,” she said. “Marilyn Monroe would be considered fat today.” Several reliable studies have shown that more than one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys are using unhealthy weight control methods such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives.

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