Shalhavit’s Story

“YOU are me… only a few years ago. I’ve attended this Hope and Inspiration forum, religiously, for the past 5 years. Always admiring the speakers with dreamy eyes… Now it’s me. Thank you for being here so I can share.

I am 4 years old right now and I am sitting in the corner of the sandbox, in preschool. I am sitting here because nobody really wants to play with me. The boys by the sandbox are bullying one of the girls “Edna the cow!” Edna happens to have a skin tone that is even darker than mine and her clothes aren’t as clean. My skin tone is dark, it looks dirty to me too. You see, my sister has the white skin like my dad – but my skin is dark and dirty just like my mom’s… God – why did you make so many people with dirty skin? I don’t understand. My sister also has straight hair and she is dressed in pretty clothes. My hair is kinky and hard to deal with, it happens to be defective and dry like my moms, or so she said, so they always cut it boy short. Because I’m always last one chosen to play games, I spend much time in the corners sitting and thinking.

My childhood thoughts and perceptions were the beginning of my body struggles. I calculated from all the facts and messages given to me, that God simply had leftover materials on his floor after making the clean people, so he took those pieces and made us, and this is why our skins are dirty. But you know, I kinda like being on the corner of the sandbox. It is safe here. Nobody will notice me. And Ican escape into the world of imagination… Imagining that I am white, or that one day I will use my long times of thinking, often by sitting in the corner, and I will figure out a way to become a beautiful princess and I will bring all the dirty people up with me. Somehow.

OH! I AM 15 YEARS OLD now. Times of body change. I am standing at the corner of the swimming pool. I don’t want to take my towel off because…. I am deeply afraid to bother people’s eyes. You see, I got my mom’s thighs now as well. She says I got all the wrong genetics from her and so I am wearing a black one-piece swimsuit. My sister is naturally a better swimmer because she has my dad’s long slim body, which is why she can wear a rainbow-colored swimsuit. But I… sneakily get close to the pool and quickly take off my towel to jump right in – as quick as I can so the water will cover my shape. How much I LOVE swimming in the water, it protects me by covering my weird body and makes my hair wet and almost straight and I imagine that I am a white mermaid with straight hair… Mom has taken me through so many hair treatments to flatten my hair. I believe I have such a defected body and She really tries to help and protect me from the evil world that will hate my features. She pays a lot for special loose black dresses for me to HIDE the difference between my thighs and waist because you see, my thighs are huge and disproportionate to my waist, just like hers. This year she even bought me these special unbreathable pants, the slim-fast pants that make my thighs sweat more when run so I can get rid of what she calls cellulite. I still have a larger bottom than most people my age. God why? I wish I was lucky and created differently. You know, whenever I am with people I try my best not to have my backside facing anyone, so my bottom won’t bother their eyes…

But I am a strong thinker! I learned that society and media shape an ideal image that is not me. This and other clues I learned at home strengthened my extreme inferiority feelings. I stayed in the shade as much as I could, so I wouldn’t tan much, and wore long sleeves on the hot sunny days. Following my mom’s beliefs that dieting is the way to approval, I slowly began finding creative ways to diet. CONTROL and extreme self-discipline became my life theme. Let’s fast forward around 10 more years:

I’m standing on a pedestal with a trophy in my hand. I hear the DRUM ROLL and the man’s voice announcing, “and Miss Fitness Israel 2011 is… Shalhavit Cohen please come to the stage!” Can I describe to you the thoughts running through my head right now? I won. Yes. I am finally given a medal for being miss-perfect-body. I’m placed in category #1 for proportions and aesthetics. A panel of human judges determined that for me. After years of accumulated belief that I AM disproportionate and ugly finally now… But while I’m on stage holding the trophy, the thoughts which come up are “agh, I still have more pounds to lose. Look I still have a curve here and here and… Omgosh HOW embarrassing it is or a country to have their representative win with SUCH BIG THIGHS?!?” yep. Those thoughts will never leave me. Sometimes I find myself gazing at those white tall skinny people who can afford walking on the sidewalk with a hot milky drink in their hands, they are so supreme… but not me… You know, because I don’t eat I am constantly fidgety, impatient, and on a sugar low. I tense my muscles often, so my body breaks other parts inside for energy, that’s called ketosis. Gosh I really can’t focus when I am not moving because my sugar levels drop. …But the skinnier I get the more I become obsessed with how I look. My mood is dependent on how skinny I feel – agh – When I see others all I do is judge their bellies… and mine.

Interesting theories developed in my head. About food and humans. The popular media added its part. I read about starvation cults and calorie restrictors. They tried to prove scientifically that if a person eats less they may live longer. Now that I look back I realize living that way is really just hibernation. It’s being frozen. Living longer on low. Is that really living though? On a more personal note, I thought of how my ancestors were in the holocaust and how THEY survived long without eating. So, I thought I can too… Don’t eat, don’t spend money on yourself. Today as I look back I can say confidently: THEY did not die so that I will live like that.

Their prayer was that nobody will ever have to endure that craziness. You know, recent studies support that when the body does not receive enough nourishment, it turns on “starvation mode”: it produces endorphins to counteract a frozen metabolism; heart rate and temperature go down. Often this mode brings with it an “anorexic high”. Different cults through history chose to starve to feel a spiritual high. For me it made me feel “higher,” smarter, better. I somehow felt so spiritual and knowledgeable from starvation. Recently I read about a woman who has altered her body to look like Barbie, she restricts immensely and believes humans only need air and light as nourishment. She reminds me a lot of how I was back then. I was not surprised to read that today she believes she is an alien supreme being. Additionally, studies suggest that malnourishment messes with other neurotransmitters in our body such as serotonin and dopamine, which can create anxiety issues and immensely alter our social behavior. No wonder my relationships were screwed up. All I saw and valued in people were their bellies…or the lack of. This was my story. An unstable place between superior and inferior, I am nothing, I am worthless, “I”… am… ugly. Then I am superior, I am wise, “I”… am… better… The common word here? ______ “I”. This is a very self-centered disease.

My anorexic mindset began to change during recovery. One day a friend called me and sounded very emotional. She was used to my know-it-all anorexic self-bombarding her with instructions as answers. But with recovery I lost this “high”, I no longer felt like I knew it all, I was no longer superior. I told her I’m really sorry for her…. To my surprise, she responded, “OMGosh Shalhavit! This is the best advice you have ever given me! You simply… listened!” It was humbling and unexpected: Not being Ms. Perfect was actually better. I learned that to help humans you’ve got to be a human too. NOT a robot. Speaking of being human, asking for help was maybe the most important step and it began with…let me fast forward 5 more years:

It’s a sunny hot day and I arrive: #9 Hope Ave. Hope huh. I took a selfie with the sign.

HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN TO A PLACE IN YOUR LIFE WHERE YOU FIND THAT THE CORE FOUNDATIONS OF YOUR FAITH, E V E R Y TH I N G YOU THOUGHT WAS RIGHT.. COMPLETELY C R U M B L E D BENEATH YOUR FEET?! THIS WAS THE BEGINNING OF RECOVERY FOR ME: All the things I believed about self-discipline, my body, my skin, the ideal human… all these assumptions, were completely reversed from now on. Here was where I began this wild journey that becomes more beautiful than I could have ever imagined: Recovery. Hell, it was and is NOT easy.

You want to know how I asked for help? It was very hard in the high-mind-state to acknowledge there was a problem. When my therapist had read to me the definitions of anorexia, I yelled “No way! I’m super healthy!”. Admitting that my ego and confusion wouldn’t let me act on this information, I asked if I could call the treatment center as part of a therapy session. They scheduled me to come in the following day. From there it’s history. But let me tell you about staying in the treatment center. My tears flooded my soul. It was my own tsunami. So SHAMEFUL and yet so grateful someone will maybe give me a hand . The self-pity of looking back at my life, the self-hate, the body shame beliefs and events that had brought me there. The fear of food. The deadly-scary-yet-oh-so-blessed times at the residential program: so much journaling. Forced feeding. More journaling. Soul talks. Reflections and… the worst was right after treatment: dealing with that mindset that still is not completely convinced, yet my body IS changing.

IT IS MY BIGGEST FEAR, and it is still happening, it seems like I am struggling to… kill myself. Gaining weight feels worse than dying. Did you know that 80% of kids in the US prefer to have cancer than be fat? … Seriously, it is a HUGE cognitive clash of my thoughts fighting my actions. I know I am doing the right thing – but am I really?

Two years ahead now: I was invited to speak at a convention center in NYC, where Madonna spoke, and now I was invited to speak as Miss Fitness Israel. Nobody knew I had recently spent months in the hospital. I was SO EMBARRASSED… I got up on stage and confessed to my athletic fans: “I made a mistake. All this time I thought I was in control of everything. I controlled my hunger, my body, my looks, my feelings… now I find myself completely CONTROLLED BY my own fears! I lost control over my thoughts, I have been afraid of food, I am afraid to meet friends for dinner because I panic just thinking about the menu”. There at the talk I “came out” to the public about my eating disorder.

Two years into recovery I’m still trying my best to ignore what I am doing to my body – to ignore that I’m gaining weight. I use every distraction I can. Quick side note: for my PhD I am going to work at a new hospital that actually is building a distraction room, with the understanding that distraction is a huge component in healing from anything. Yes – distraction distraction distraction. Immersing yourself in things that excite you. Movies, friends, communities, listening to other people, doing art, really focusing on anything you can while these uncomfortable feelings arise. I honestly do the wildest things to recover.

Although some may find it objectifying, what I will describe next was extremely liberating for me. During a night out with my girls I was asked to dance on stage because of one of my ASSets. My first thought “WHAAAAAAT?? On stage???” I spent the evening with my most embarrassing part wiggled in front of people… and everyone cheered. WHAT? They are looking at the most shameful part of MY LIFE… some holding their cellphones up.. And no – they didn’t know my story, they didn’t do that to make me feel good. They simply really liked my big behind. And my energy. I felt so liberated as they cheered on for something I was told would bother people’s eyes…. I keep joking that one day I’ll write a book titled “Twerking saved my life”.

Additionally, the sex positive communities have taught me to practice healthy role play, ultimately aiming for me to own myself and my body. Play, and positive sexuality, were parts in my recovery mix. Next were body-positive photoshoots, which helped me accept my new belly. These photos accumulated into a HUGE body positive exhibit that was presented at an opening to the United Nations’ diversity event. My black and white WORLD is becoming a rainbow. See, we’re meant to have different body shapes! I want to bless us all to OWN our unique incredible shapes. HELL YES TO DIVERSITY!!! I even dyed my hair rainbow …Because I want to remind everyone that we are all special.

Did you know that an adult needs some fat in their belly? I learned that Hormones are made of fat. And so is our brain. When I dieted enough to have a flat belly, I did not menstruate. In fact, I did not get my period for 8 years. And recently came my heavenly miracle…with endless gratitude in my heart I will sharethat I was able to give a huge gift to a person by donating my eggs. A woman from the UK became pregnant with a baby, a real life was created thanks to my recovery. A HAPPY AND HEALTHY HUMAN CAME TO THE WORLD.

Speaking of mothers. My mom told me about her own childhood pain and she is recovering in her own way. Sometimes triggering but as I look at her I see MY role model for growth. Coming from where SHE did, to where is is now, took UNBELIEVABLE work. She told me how she practices “weaving threads of gold” through her own childhood trauma. Mom was a victim of physical abuse, but she remembers the warm meals her mom cooked every night while caring for THEM.

Weaving my own threads of gold, I first ACKNOWLEDGE that my initial perceptions were horribly wrong, but now that my brain is fully nourished, I can finally SEE this beautiful shy little girl who did whatever she could to survive. And she is not ugly. She has a beautiful heart and she just wanted to help. My sitting on the corner as a kid made me a strong thinker. Last May I graduated from a great academic institution and have begun my PhD research to heal the world. My super sensitive and extremely empathic child has grown to be a helpful responsible grownup who notices other’s emotions so carefully Because I felt a deep need for love, I became an actively loving person, I value others and am active about making friends. At my job in MIT they would send me first to collaborations, calling me “the team’s secret weapon.” There is so much more to say. Let me segment to my life today:

Obsessed with recovery – yes, I am. I am a mother to my own self, my inner child. A lioness — who makes sure that her  little baby unicorn, me, her own mind and soul, is nourished. My recovery toolbox is very colorful. In my toolbox are daily online conversations, bi weekly zoom, whatsapp and skype meetings, from the Anorexics and Bulimics anonymous 12 steps, although I am not a 12 stepper, but the peer support helps. Some therapists were wonderfully helpful, some not so much. Its takes time to Find YOUR therapist, it’s like dating. I could never do this alone. There is no way. I was so by myself in the corner. In the corner of the sandbox, in the corner of the swimming pool, in the corner of my room, in the corner of the street looking at these other people drinking their milky drinks knowing I could never drink that. I could have never done this by myself, in the corner. You guys, WE NEED EACH OTHER and we CAN get HELP. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Find a support group. Don’t give in to THE LONELY depression… Did you know that in the United States, 37% of people say they do not have someone to talk to? And even worse… 21% of American say they DON’T NEED SOMEONE TO TALK TO…I KNOW that it might seem counterintuitive but, and even Research supports, that getting help from OTHERS actually makes you more independent and free.

Another item in my toolbox is a google document (it’s super long now) that I’ve titled “Anorexia Memories,” as indicated by the title I guess my aim was for all of this to be only memories. Memories such as “Hi diary, so I am at a dance party and literally just NOW realized that actually NOBODY is looking at my stomach! Everyone’s simply in their own worlds of expressing themselves.”

A favorite science phrase of mine is: Neu·ro·plas·tic·i·ty, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, after an experience, or following injury. I want to tell you: Neuroplasticity is real: your brain CAN – I repeat – CAN change! My feelings didn’t change right away, it takes time. Just like my body iMage. YOU will be surprised by how magical your mind can be if you give it time and be persistent and honest in healing. I want you to know that YOU HAVE NO IDEA how much YOU WILL CHANGE – THE FUTURE IS AMAZING. As another way to view neuroplasticity… First, the word appreciation, in addition to recognizing good qualities, means to grow or enhance. Now, what YOU appreciate will appreciate. When you put your mindinto something it will learn to DO that something more. That’s neuroplasticity.

My psychology professor at Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar, used this statement regarding gratitude: the more gratitude you practice, the more things arise that you can be grateful for. Likewise, our bodies and mind – I let my body and brain grow. I allow my perception to grow. And not only YOUR mind grows. But who YOU ARE grows. And my brain really has changed . it IS appreciating! I definitely appreciate this self-love education! Let me give you one final example: I just returned from abroad. Obviously, mirrors were horrifying throughout my body change. Seeing myself in the same mirror where I used to look different was, intimidating, to say the least. I walked into my room and happened to glance at my current body. I was shocked by my immediate thoughts, THIS brain which has been training for a while on self-love and is nourished and healthier, my NEW brain has converted those fears into a new mindset of “Hum, I think perhaps my ass can get just a little BIGGER. I need some more fat on. I like my curves.”

You guys, in my darkest nightmare I’d never imagine I would actually wish my body to grow. Gosh, also with my first wrinkles appearing I would like to perceive those as beautiful marks of wisdom and adventure… Hell yes, for healthier minds. Amen. So yes. Add this to your lexicon: Neuroplasticity. You have designed yourself into it. YOU CAN DESIGN YOURSELF OUT OF IT. With help.


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