TARPON SPRINGS — It started out so innocently in the spring of 2009.
Bailey Monarch wanted to eat healthier and lose a little weight. She counted calories and liked her thinner reflection in the mirror.
But then, her hair began falling out.
Her right foot tingled and went numb in spots.
By the time she realized her body was starving, her internal organs had begun shutting down.
"I was obsessed with counting calories," said Bailey, 17, a senior at East Lake High School. "I withdrew from social events because so many happened around food and I didn't want to deal with food. My friends wondered, but I said no to going out so frequently, they stopped asking questions."
In August 2009, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a serious eating disorder primarily of women in their teens and early 20s.
In December, she underwent intensive treatment in California and has been on the road to recovery.
Now she's become a state and national advocate in the fight against eating disorders and has even organized a walk for early next year to raise awareness and money for the cause.
In March, she went to Tallahassee as part of a group to support House Bill 07/Senate Bill 182, the Coverage for Mental and Nervous Disorders Act, which included eating disorder treatments.
And Sept. 29, Bailey flew to Washington, D.C., to support the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders, or FREED, Act of 2009. The bill addresses costs that people with eating disorders face when attempting to get treatment. It also addresses research and education for medical professionals.
"Treatment is costly," Bailey said. "An insurance company will cover you until you're medically stable, but medically stable isn't mentally stable. That takes months."
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In the spring of 2009, Bailey was a straight-A sophomore, juggling AP classes, drama and ballet. She participated in a long list of after-school activities that left her little free time.
By the summer, Bailey's sister, Brandee, now 20, noticed something was wrong and told their parents, Jerry and Cherié Monarch, of Tarpon Springs about her suspicions.
Bailey was diagnosed in August, but her lab work came back normal. She told her mother she was okay.
"I didn't want to miss school so I said I'd eat," she said. "I thought I could take care of it myself."
Over the next few months, she fed her biscuits to the dog and tossed out half her lunch at school.
But then her blood pressure dropped and the numbness in her foot spread.
"My foot became paralyzed," Bailey said. "I couldn't dance, couldn't do what I loved."
In December, the Monarch family flew to California. Bailey entered the University of California San Diego Eating Disorders Treatment Program.
She used the Maudsley Approach, a family-based, week-long intensive therapy that teaches how to do the treatment at home.
"My body weight was so low I couldn't make rational decisions," she said. "They (the treatment therapists) decided how much I should eat, and I gained weight and went home with my parents."
Two months later, Bailey was within her normal weight range. She won't give a specific weight, but says she was 30 pounds underweight.
She no longer focuses on calories and pounds and credits her California treatment for teaching her healthy ways to cope with a disease with symptoms that revolve around food, but is rooted in emotional distress.
"When I got into my weight range, it was amazing," Bailey said. "I felt like myself again, healthy and happy. My schedule and stress hasn't changed, but the way I dealt with it has.
"Today if I feel stress, I take a walk or listen to music. I controlled what I ate as a coping mechanism, and used to keep my feelings inside. They'd eat at me. Now, I've learned to talk about what upsets me."
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As Bailey felt stronger in her recovery, the opportunity to help others arose.
In February, Brandee invited Bailey to her school, the University of Florida, to hear a presentation for students on eating disorders. Still recovering at the time, Bailey met Allison Kreiger Walsh, Miss Florida 2006, who founded Helping Other People Eat, or HOPE.
Kreiger Walsh asked Bailey to speak to the group about her eating disorder, so she did — in front of 400 students.
"When I met Bailey, I found her such a source of hope and inspiration," said Kreiger Walsh, who lives in Winter Park near Orlando. "Especially then at 16, having been through so much and having such a desire to help others."
Bailey learned about an upcoming Lobby Day in Tallahassee through the former Miss Florida and attended.
"I felt like I was making a difference," Bailey said. "Eating disorders are the only mental illnesses not covered by insurance. That's a huge problem."
Then came her visit to Washington in September. The state and federal legislation is still pending, but Bailey's not letting that slow her down.
Next up will be her own event.
She's organized the first Tampa Bay National Eating Disorders Association Walk, a 5K for Feb. 19, to raise community awareness of eating disorders and money for the National Eating Disorders Association.
"I wanted to participate in a NEDA walk, but none were in the area, so I coordinated one," she said. "Every day at school, I see people who are suffering. The walk is my way of telling people that eating disorders are a serious problem, an epidemic."