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Published Apr. 25, 2013

Melissa Larsen, strong and capable athlete, all-around involved and engaging teenager, had an eating disorder.

She went to treatment. She went to therapy. She went "to hell and back."

Being sent away to "nowheresville, Arizona" for extended residential treatment "was the hardest time of my life," says Larsen, who is now a sophomore at the Eastern Carolina University. "But it saved my life."

She's a survivor, but she's not the stereotypical eating disorder victim. She's not the girl who looks in the mirror and despises what is staring back at her. She didn't make a conscious decision not to eat, or to purge everything she consumed.

Melissa Larsen is proof that eating disorders do not fit stereotypes and can affect just about anyone. Both girls and boys can suffer from eating disorders, and according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, one in five females is afflicted. Of 70 million affected worldwide, 10 to 15 percent are male. The effects are devastating.

"Looking back, I can see that my personality really changed from being happy-go-lucky and energetic to really living in a world of gray," Larsen says. "I never laughed, but I was never really sad either. I didn't have emotion."

Along with many teenage girls, Larsen, 13, took pride in her athletic ability and found a sense of security on the track and soccer field. She was never ashamed of her body; she realized her strong legs were what helped her excel in the sports she loved. In fact, she preferred her body over that of the super skinny "girly girls."

"I never expected it to happen to me," Larsen says.

When eighth grade came along, Larsen participated in track and field and played for her soccer team, as usual. She seemed to be following her normal course, except she was running much more. "I just started running a lot, and I ran when I was angry and I guess I was just angry all the time, because I ran all the time."

Larsen's main focus became getting in better shape and growing as a soccer player. "I started overexercising and then not refueling my body," she says. "I was just trying to be more fit - not necessarily skinny."

As student government association vice president and Beta Club president, Larsen seemed to have it all together. It was rare to see her without a smile dancing on her lips and a genuine "Hello!" jumping out at you as you passed her in the halls. She was always bubbly and never had a bad day, at least not that anyone saw.

"It just doesn't make sense a lot of time," Larsen says. "You can never really pinpoint why it happened, or when it happened, or why it (happens to you)."

With sports and physical fitness still a huge priority, she gradually began eating less and running more - and obsessing more.

Something was different. She could not do as much as usual, and a day at school would exhaust her to the point she would fall asleep in the car on the way home.

Doctors would tell her: You need to eat.

At this point, it was too late. "I just lost myself. I would want to eat, but I wouldn't let myself." She still ate, but only in small amounts.

As Larsen grew weaker, she started getting sick all the time. Doctors kept tabs on her weight and insisted that she eat, but for some reason she just couldn't. Then, one routine doctor's visit changed her life, she says.

"It was just supposed to be a doctor's appointment, and they just took me straight to the hospital," she says. Once there, she received a feeding tube - which she didn't even know existed - and was informed she was dangerously underweight.

Next thing she knew, Larsen says she was being handed her suitcase as her mom and pediatrician calmly informed her she was being admitted to a treatment center in Arizona. She was being sent away by the ones who loved her the most, because they loved her, she says; it was the only way they could save her. She was diagnosed with anorexia and exercise bulimia. If she didn't get help immediately, they said, she would be dead in two weeks. She was put on a plane to the Remuda Ranch Treatment Center, where she would spend 45 days.

At the center, she bonded with many other girls also suffering from eating disorders, and together, they grew. "We went through the hardest times of our life there. We went to hell and back with each other, and we cried together all the time," she says. The girls attended daily group therapy sessions and truly cared for one another. They learned that when one of them asked another how she was doing, saying "fine" was simply not an acceptable answer.

While there, Larsen found herself and her faith, and "I became such a hippy," she says with a laugh. "Everyone (there) was just such a hipster, before hipster even existed."

After 45 days at Remuda Ranch, Larsen transferred to the optional "Remuda Life Program" to help her slowly transition to the "real" world. She stayed there for 60 days, during which time she started high school, transferring to East Lake High when the program was over.

Recovery, however, was nowhere from over. "I kept on seeing a nutritionist, a psychologist and a psychiatrist for three years after," she says. "It's something that stays with you forever."

Today, Larsen says she has fully recovered from her eating disorder. She continues to obsess about food and compare herself to others, something she says she realizes a lot of people do, even those without disorders.

"I can spot it (an eating disorder) in others really easily," she says. "Even if they're not skinny, I can just tell, it's like a sixth sense or something." That sense was honed by witnessing the habits of the other girls at the treatment center who suffered from a wide variety of eating disorders.

Larsen's experience also sharpened something else for her.

"In middle school, I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career, and after, I knew that I wanted to work at a treatment center," she says. "I knew I wanted to be a psychologist for eating disorders." Living through what she did makes her want to help others.

As a start, Larsen formed a club at East Lake High specifically for students who are suffering or have suffered from eating disorders. "It was created to be a support system, so that people realize that they are not alone. So many people don't acknowledge the problem, so many people don't talk about it, and it needs to be talked about," she says. "And support needs to be given for it so people understand how huge this problem is."

One piece of advice she wants to impart: "Realizing, and admitting, that you have a problem doesn't make you weak; it means that you are strong. Pushing things under the rug is the weak way out, and it's only going to tear you apart in the long run."

Larsen was able to leave her "world of gray" for one of light, a light that encompasses her the same way a rainbow caresses the most terrific storm.