WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) — At first glance, 16-year-old Dustyn Levenson exudes all of the qualities of a typical teenager as she flops down on her parents' couch and fusses with her long brown hair.
Her vibrant personality shines through as she chats about her love of dance and giggles about her close-knit family, but beneath her warm smile lies an undercurrent of pain.
At 13 years old, Dustyn was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and subsequently battled the debilitating disease for the next two and a half years, bouncing between 13 hospitals in a quest to regain her strength.
"Anorexia is a mental illness and acts like an addiction," Dustyn said. "I knew that I had a problem, but I wasn't able to give it up, I was trapped and I couldn't do anything about it."
A classical ballet dancer since the age of 3, Dustyn said her disease was spawned by her constant quest to maintain the perfect body image. Calorie counting and eating as little as possible became a way of life for the young dancer, and by the age of 12, her family was faced with the painful reality of her illness.
"I feel as if I was bound to get an eating disorder because the ballet world is all about body negativity and brutal examination," Dustyn said. "I can't event tell you what my weight was at my worst, but I was severely underweight and eating close to nothing every day. It created a really tense environment with arguments all the time with my family. It took a big toll on the family."
November 2009 marked the first of many hospital visits for Levenson, who bounced around the country unsuccessfully until she visited Avalon Hills, a resort of sorts tucked into the mountains of Utah.
It was there that Dustyn gained the mental clarity she so desperately needed to battle her inner demons and break free of anorexia.
I've seen way too many people die of this disease," Levenson said with a shudder. "My own roommate (at a treatment center) died of cardiac arrest."
Throughout her painful experience, Levenson decided to share her knowledge of eating disorders in an effort to help others struggling to see the light and founded the organization Reshaping Reality in June.
The mission, Levenson said, is to increase the self-esteem of struggling teens and encourage others to focus on the benefits of health and acceptance rather than dieting to obtain the "ideal" weight.
"The world is so distorted when it comes to body image, weight and food," Levenson said as she glanced at a photo of herself as a young dancer. "The thing is that there are so many people out there struggling from this disease, but they're embarrassed to say anything about it. But I was there once and I was miserable, so I hope I can help at least one person through my organization."
In February, Levenson returned to Staples High School as a junior and quickly re-acclimated into high school life. She even scored a role in the upcoming performance of Oklahoma.
Between scheduling speeches through Reshaping Reality and reclaiming her life as a teenager, Levenson said she hopes to form a group at Staples dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders.
"Staples is way too looks oriented and 50 percent of the girls look like walking skeletons," Levenson said. "It's crazy, but personally, I've learned enough in my three years of therapy that I'm happy with who I am and I feel awesome. I'm loving every minute of my life."