Melissa Doss. Christ follower, wife to Daniel, mommy to Vale, fur mom, and attorney; reads her Instagram bio. Known to her loved ones and friends as Mel, she’s a woman wearing many hats. An accomplished lawyer running her own firm in Kentucky and new mom to daughter Vale, fitness has been looking a bit different these days for the two time CrossFit® Games athlete.
Originally from Kentucky, Mel describes herself as a super active child who shared a body type akin to a “string bean”. Mel spent most of her middle and high school years cheering competitively. In high school she cheered on both her school team and a competitive team, which kept her extremely active and busy.
Mel describes cheer as a sport that requires a specific type of physique, which can create immense pressure for young competitive girls entering adolescence.
At 16 Mel developed anorexia, which turned into bulimia, and lasted well into her college career. The pressure of competitive cheer along with her perfectionist personality bled into every aspect of her day to day existence.
“I was so sick I had to sit out at competitions because of how weak I was. I took exercise to the extreme and really began to use it as a way to punish myself.”
When Mel began cheering more competitively, she lost five pounds without even really trying or meaning too, which caught the attention of some of her coaches and peers. “I lived on chocolate donuts,” she laughs. “I never really needed to eat anything specific to stay thin, which was a blessing and a curse. When I turned 16, I became more aware of my body and a little bit more self-conscious. My mom was trying to teach me how to eat heathy as in, not eating chocolate donuts and milk shakes all the time,” Mel laughs.
From simply tweaking her diet slightly she easily lost weight. At the time she weighed in at about 135 standing at 5’7”. A seemingly healthy place to be.
Mel recalls walking into practice one day and her coach saying she ‘looked really good’ and she should ‘keep doing whatever it was that she was doing.’ Unintentionally, this sparked something in Mel.
“Something about that was like ‘oh wow, he really notices me’. So, I started losing more weight. Once an eating disorder gets ahold of you and turns from a diet into an obsession, it’s really, really hard to dig your way out of it.”
Mel’s family put a lot of pressure on her to eat in front of them. In wanting to appease them new aspects of her eating disorder began to manifest itself. “I don’t even remember the first time I purged, but that’s when it turned into full blown bulimia.”
It didn’t take long for Mel’s parents to realize there was something serious going on: she was withdrawn and began to look frail. They insisted she begin an outpatient therapy program. There, she would work with a nutritionist and a therapist that she would routinely lie to about her recovery. Mel confesses that she would wear three or four layers so she would seem heavier when they would weigh her in.
“When I think about it now it’s like a whole different person. When you are sick like that you lie all the time. I remember one time I even stole money from my parents. Bulimia was really expensive. God, I was a horrible person.” On this call, Mel seems entirely disconnected from that part of herself that could go to such drastic ends. Who was that person? The tone in her voice demands.
To make matters worse, Mel had a few other friends who were struggling with anorexia, bulimia or a combination of both, like her. These circumstances made it extremely difficult to socialize with these friends due to the normalization of what they were all going through.
Other girlfriends were extremely concerned for her, but at the same time didn’t know what to say. “You can’t just tell someone that they need to eat. I know my mom felt really helpless watching me self-destruct and knowing that she couldn’t do anything.”
Unfortunately, Mel was not able to move into recovery before she left for college.
Because of her new found freedom in college, things began to spiral. Mel began self-isolating. She didn’t want to go out with friends to eat or be in social situations. It changed her personality tenfold from an otherwise outgoing person. “I wish I could go back and re-do that time in my life, all the time,” Mel exhales into the phone.
“Throughout all of this I was dating my husband. When we first met, I was healthy and happy, then he just watched my personality drastically change. We drifted apart in my first year of college because of my eating disorder.”
Mel and her husband met their freshman year of high school though mutual friends.
“I remember thinking he was the cutest thing I had ever seen. He was dating one of my friends, as much as you can date in high school — as in sitting next to each other at the lunch table. Then we started dating at the end of our junior year, the year right before I developed my eating disorder.”
Daniel played football and Mel cheered so they would hang out a lot before and after games. He knew her when she was in her words, ‘normal’ before an eating disorder had completely engulfed her emotions and actions.
Finally, Mel hit a breaking point her Sophomore year of college. She was home one weekend in her parents’ house purging, when her heart began to race as if she was going to have a heart attack. Mel knew that women die from serious eating disorders due to cardiovascular complications.
“I was having chest pains and just kept thinking that I was going to die that night. I prayed and just kept telling God that if he helped me get through this I would be done. If God would let me live, I would change everything.”
Up to this point Mel had been through years of therapy and nutrition counseling, but after waking up that morning alive she never binged and purged or restricted her food, again.
“It just started with one meal, then two meals, then a week, and then a month. Something changed in me that gave me the will to live that night. I love life and I was so grateful for so many things in my life.”
"There is no gradual when you have an addiction," says Mel. "You just decide. You decide you’re not going to do it even though the temptation to relapse is always there."
“A few years ago, I joined an eating disorder recovery group through my church. Listening to the other girls’ stories made me so thankful I was in a place of recovery. It helped me realize a lot about myself. I am a perfectionist to my core -everything needs to be a certain way. I joined this group so I could lead the following year, but along the way I learned so much about myself.”
For Mel, like many others, her eating disorder was a form of control. Addictions in all forms are coping mechanisms. They act like a mirage when things that are going on around you are out of control. The irony of that is the eating disorder ends up controlling you.
“I learned quickly that if you don’t heal yourself, you’re going to trade one addiction for the next. My new disease was trying to make people happy.”
Mel is forthcoming about her relationship with God and her unwavering faith, which grounded her through her struggle with anorexia and bulimia.
“If it wasn’t for my relationship with God, I don’t know if I would be here today. Every single day I would wake up and ask God to heal me. Even now, everyday, on my way to work, I ask God to help me have a good day, allow me to do good work, and to use me in situations where I can make a difference I the world.
Reflecting on her childhood, Mel says she was always involved in her childhood church she didn’t really begin to connect with her faith until later, in her adult years. She was baptized as a child but then re-baptized a few years ago when she rededicated her life to faith.
“I do try to live a life that would please him. Sometimes I fail, but I try.”
In April 2012, Mel moved to Northern Kentucky upon graduating law school and was preparing to take the bar exam. At this point, she had been in recovery for her eating disorder for several years and was working out occasionally. At this time, exercise looked like jogging around the block and doing push-ups- it was sporadic and unintentional. Mel definitely wasn’t lifting weights or participating in a gym setting of any kind.
Mel saw a Groupon online for CrossFit® that piqued her interest. She was intrigued, but since she was still in school while Daniel was working full-time, finding a deal was really the only way she could ever consider affording it.
She walked into the gym on a Saturday morning while the class was doing a CrossFit Open workout.
Seven minutes of burpees.
“After that first class I just kept coming back because I fell in love with it. It took me 6 months to get a pull up and I literally thought it would never happen. It also brought me back to my competitive cheer days when I was part of a team. I begged my husband to let me keep going after the three month trial was over. As a student and newlywed, we had no money, but I wanted to make it work.”
Mels love affair with CrossFit® swept her up and her husband started to notice. Mel was getting strong, quickly. “Once he finally started going with me, he was on board with the whole thing. It was a lot more fun to do together.”
When Mel started at the gym, she was studying for the bar exam and working part-time at a law firm. She has never been one of those athletes who was fortunate enough to totally focus on exercise.
“It was hard competing with the other athletes who only thought about training and recovery every day, when I was also focused on being a new lawyer and a newlywed. There were so many times I wished I had a more flexible schedule and didn’t need to get up at 5am to work out.”
Mel’s first year competing at Regionals was 2013. Before The CrossFit® Open began that season, the owner of her gym approached her. He saw something in her. If she wanted to have a chance of making it she needed to get a muscle up, fast.
“I learned how to do a muscle up from watching a YouTube video. I was hoping for just one in the workout that year and I got six, but it’s worth mentioning those six took me over ten minutes.”
Mel finished high enough in the The CrossFit® Open that year to qualify for the Central Regional and felt like a fish out of water in Columbus, OH. She had literally just learned how to squat snatch.
“I had no idea what I was doing. Now that would never happen. You need to be incredible to make it on any level.”
“After going individual that year a friend from CrossFit Conjugate asked me to join their Regionals team.”
Mel was working full-time at a law firm then driving an hour away every night to train. She would work out from 6pm-8pm and then drive an hour back home. At the time, she was also coaching CrossFit® classes at her own gym (the 5 am and 6 am) prior to training at night three to four times a week.
“Some of the decisions I made back then I really have begun to question. My husband was very supportive but it did not help us maintain a close relationship as a couple. I remember in 2015 having an argument about how much longer I was going to continue doing this for. I wanted to start thinking about a family and my husband was ready to start a family, but I was always traveling for competitions.”
“My husband frequently couldn’t come to competitions because he was working and we didn’t want to pay for his ticket. He loved me and he loved watching me compete, but watching hours upon hours of CrossFit® is really only for fanatics.”
In 2014 Mel’s team went to The Games and finished in second place.
Then in 2015 Mel decided to open her own law practice. “I remember my boss telling me that if I cared about my job as much as I cared about CrossFit®, I would have been an amazing lawyer. “ Hearing those words were hard to swallow, but she really couldn’t deny the validity of her bosses feelings.
Mel was at work all day every day but she wasn’t doing anything extra. She wasn’t there on the weekends or working late into the night. She really didn’t feel like she went above and beyond; she got her work done and that was it. She didn’t have time for more.
“I don’t know any great lawyers who are also great at CrossFit®. It’s just a really hard thing to do.”
The average new lawyer works 60-70 hour weeks. Mel decided to open her own firm because she wanted to have more flexibility. “I really didn’t like what I was doing and I wanted to do something different. Plus, I wanted to be able to choose the clients I worked with.”
The move wasn’t necessarily driven by competition, although she was in the thick of her competitive season. However, the change allowed her to workout at more flexible times.
In 2016, Mel was still driving to Lexington 4 days a week to train with her team in order to meet the requirements of qualifying for Regionals. She would leave for the gym at 5 am, allowing her to spend the evening at home with her husband. Her hectic training schedule continued to cause tension in the relationship and eventually she gave up her morning hours of coaching in order to have a better balance.
“I would make the hour drive every single Saturday to train with my team for three hours. It was literally my whole Saturday, but I loved it. I think about it now and I’m like — I was a psycho. If my teammates hadn’t been some of my closest friends, I would have never put that much effort into it. “
In 2017, Mel’s training season abruptly came to a halt when she fell off the peg board training. She shattered her tibia and fibula in a compound fracture less than two months out from The Games, where her team was slotted to make an appearance.
“There was a little mat and my ankle landed just on the side of it. I looked down and it was no joke hanging off. I was in shock but I still thought to myself ‘oh maybe we can tape it and I can still compete. I had told myself that it was going to be my last year there so it was really important to me because after we were going to start trying to have a family.”
One of the paramedics in the ambulance told her that her days of competing were over. Something she was absolutely not ready to hear. At the hospital Mel was placed in an external fixator to keep the fractured bones stabilized. Her swelling was so severe that they could not perform surgery for five weeks.
“It felt like my foot was getting smashed into cement every day. It hurt that bad. I hobbled around a lot.”
On top of that, Mel had just moved her law practice to a larger building so she was also trying to work and go to court.
“It was really, really hard.” I think even that was an understatement.
Mel couldn’t even begin to fathom how much harder things would have been for her if she was de-conditioned. Getting around would have been impossible.
“My mom stayed with my husband and I after both of my surgeries. I was pretty down and out during that time and she just stayed with me to make sure I didn’t get too depressed. Some days I honestly wished to sleep as late as I could to make my day shorter. It’s really heartbreaking thinking about things like that, because waking up early is one of my favorite things to do.”
Mel now has three plates and 12 pins in her ankle. Her range of motion is about 60% of what it should be and probably the best it's going to get. Mel lost over 20# recovering from this injury, mostly muscle, and her body fat percentage dropped to an all-time low.
A common side effect to such an incredibly low body fat is losing the ability to ovulate, a necessary precursor to conception.
“In my mind I felt like this was the time to finally get pregnant.” Unfortunately, Mel’s injury and years of competition had derailed that.
In 2018, a gym called on Mel looking to send a team to Regionals. She didn’t think she would be ‘any good’ post ankle fracture and warned them against using her, but regardless of her reservations they still wanted her.
“I did what I could in The Crossfit® Open.There was a double under workout that year with 600 double unders and that was the hardest thing on my ankle. I couldn’t walk for a week after that workout.”
Despite the odds against her her team qualified for Regionals that year.
“I never thought I would ever compete again. Even though we didn’t do as well as I would have hoped, it was so great getting back out there.”
After Regionals that year, Mel decided that would be her last year of competition. Coincidentally, same year Regionals were replaced by sanctioned events, which made her decision even easier.
Mel and her husband had been trying to get pregnant throughout most of her 2017-2018 season.
“I think competing actually destroyed my body. My body fat was around 7% and I was in adrenal fatigue. I felt so worn out, my body had no fat on it, and I wasn’t ovulating. There are a few outliers who can get pregnant while still competing at a high level, but I have seen a lot of fellow athletes and friends struggle with infertility. It’s hard to watch.”
Mel acknowledges that anytime you begin competing in a sport at an elite level it’s going to take a toll on your body. If you want your hormones to readjust and function optimally, you’re going to need to ease back on your training at some point.
“I had to completely change what I was doing. I lowered the weights I was using. I watched my heart rate. Then I went on fertility drugs and metformin after I was diagnosed with what the doctor called Lean PCOS. Even though the doctor thought I developed PCOS when I was younger, it was definitely exacerbated by competing.”
PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome, is a hormonal condition that can affect women during their childbearing years.
When Mel and her husband did finally conceive, she began to feel some backlash from followers. A few outspoken individuals provided some unwanted opinions regarding pregnancy ruining her ‘perfect body’.
Even with her history of anorexia and bulimia, Mel was so excited about being pregnant she never once thought about the changes her body was about to go through as a negative.
“Sometimes people don’t think about what they are actually saying. I think people may have meant I have a really strong healthy body and would I be afraid of pregnancy changing that? I think a lot of the comments just came out wrong. I loved being pregnant. I felt so beautiful and I can’t wait to be pregnant again, I think it’s such a beautiful thing.”
After having Vale, Mel obviously wanted to optimize the time she had with her while still retaining work/life balance. “Sneaking a workout in most mornings has been hard because Vale wakes up early and wants to feed.” Mel found herself wanting to hang out with her newborn rather than going into the basement and missing out on precious time with her just to get a workout in.
“I’ve had to change my whole routine. There is a 30-minute bootcamp class I take at the gym every Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Sometimes I go on the weekend and if I have some extra time, I’ll stay to do a lift.”
What about work life balance?
“Vale is in daycare four days a week. I work from home one day so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on everything. I wanted a day every week dedicated to my daughter because one hour in the morning and one hour at night isn’t really a whole lot when you think about it. Plus, our weekends are generally hectic with commitments and life.”
“Dropping Vale off at daycare has actually been really good for both of us. It lets me focus on work when I’m at work and then focus on her when I’m at home. We do love our Fridays together though!”
Mel says she doesn’t feel guilty about this time away from her and wasn’t as sad to put her in daycare as some warned she may be. It has actually had the opposite effect and made their time together better and more meaningful.
“All of the bumps in the road have really made me focus on what I have and how truly full my life is. I’m at one of the happiest, most content places in life right now and hope it only continues.”
Interview and Article By: Genevieve Gyulavary