Westport loves food. This is a town where Martha Stewart opened a catering business. Where specialized shops, from Garelick & Herbs to Saugatuck Craft Butchery, thrive. Where “06880” posts like yesterday’s on restaurants draw drooling comments.
Westport is also a town where the social pressures to eat very little — to be as thin as possible — are enormous. At times they’re overwhelming.
Teenage girls know that, excruciatingly well. Just ask Dustyn Levenson.
At 12, the lifelong Westporter was diagnosed with anorexia. For 3 years — from November of 8th grade through February of 10th — she pinballed through 12 hospitals.
“I had rapid weight loss, low self-esteem, anxiety — all that fun stuff,” she says. She speaks honestly and forthrightly. There is no sugar-coating anorexia.
“I was spiraling out of control.”
She was also stubborn. Each hospital — even though they specialized in eating disorders — called her case hopeless.
“A lot of times, I was so entrenched I didn’t want to get better,” Dustyn says. “But you can’t see clearly.”
At her lowest point, she was “as close to no daily consumption” of food as possible. She had feeding tubes, and PICC lines to her heart. Dustyn’s anorexia led to osteoporosis, and heart and blood disorders.
Her disease devastated her family. Her younger sister Gracyn — now a Staples freshman — suffered the most.
“She’s always been my best friend,” Dustyn says. But at her 1st hospital, Gracyn made a surprise visit while Dustyn was in the midst of a seizure. “That really traumatized her,” Dustyn says.
Finally, she landed in Avalon Hills. The clinic in remote Utah is known for treating “the worst of the worst” anorexics. Dustyn rode horses. She confronted her demons.
She began to recover.
It was not easy. “I had to realize how stupid I was being,” Dustyn says. “I had to see there is so much more to life than that.”
She says she will always be in recovery from anorexia. “It’s almost impossible to be a ‘normal’ eater in America today. There’s so much social pressure. So much striving to be the ‘thin ideal.'”
Entering Staples midway through sophomore year — where she was buoyed by a few good friends, including one who had written her every day while in treatment — Dustyn joined Staples Players. (She’s been cast as a dancer in “Oklahoma!.”)
Vowing to give back some of what she’s received, she became a certified EMT.
She also formed Reshaping Reality. The non-profit organization — affiliated with the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association — is raising awareness about the dangers of dieting and disordered eating.
“Anorexia is so stigmatized,” Dustyn explains. “People say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Just eat!’ But it’s a mental illness, with the highest mortality rate of any of them.”
Dustyn has asked doctors, dieticians, therapists — and teenagers — to join the Reshaping Reality board. They’ll offers speakers, make videos and public service announcements, and help educate youngsters that “there’s more to life than your appearance.”
Next month, Dustyn will speak at an eating disorder fundraiser in New York. In December she heads to Utah for another speech.
She is grateful for all she has today.
“My family has been awesome,” Dustyn says. “They couldn’t be more supportive, after all I’ve put them through.” Gracyn — who calls her sister “my biggest inspiration” — has always been by Dustyn’s side.
Today, Dustyn says, she feels good. She’s doing well, and is excited about this new chapter in her life.
Her goal in starting Reshaping Reality was “to help one person. And my website has already had some awesome responses.”
“People tell me they thought they were the only one with an eating disorder. All I want to do is share my knowledge, and put my 3 years of treatment to good use.”
Dustyn Levenson already has.