My Journey to Healthy Living

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By: Ilene Cohen

I didn’t understand what I’d lost until I started gaining it back. 

I can’t remember when I stopped using my right leg when going down the steps, or when climbing stairs became a struggle.

I didn’t see that I’d gained weight. 

I didn’t recognize that I was existing, but not living. 

Unhealthy habits form slowly, over time, and the impact is unnoticed when you are in the whirlwind of life—children, jobs, household responsibilities, volunteer commitments, Shabbat meals, and family emergencies.  Alone at night, I soothed the stress with ice cream, cookies, candy, anything chocolate.  I gained weight, exercised less, and generally didn’t have the energy to do much more than work and take care of my family.  I knew something had to change, and I promised myself I’d focus on my health…soon.  But soon never happened.

I didn’t have an “aha!” moment.  Rather, it was a series of small events that made it abundantly clear that if I wanted to enjoy the next 20 years of my life, I had to make a change.  Not soon—now! 

My mindset started to shift in 2017, in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana.  I spent the month of Elul in serious introspection, committing to make some changes.  In late August, I watched the footage of the horrible flooding in Houston and realized I didn’t have the ability to help myself in an emergency, and I didn’t like the feeling of helplessness. 

After years of taking care of everyone else, it was time to take care of me.

The first and best decision I made was to walk away from a job that I loved, with the full support of my husband.  The prospect was frightening.  I knew in my heart that it was the right decision, but I struggled to make it. Could we really live on one income?  Was I ready to do the hard work of rebuilding my health? What if I couldn’t follow through on my commitment to take care of myself?

My new beginning coincidently began as we read Parshat Breishit in shul.  I had big plans as to how I was going to spend all of my newfound time—lofty goals of cooking healthy meals, exercising at the gym 3 days a week, cleaning out the closets, catching up with friends, and entertaining on Shabbat. After a week or two of trying to push myself into a new schedule, I succumbed to utter exhaustion.  I was more depleted than I had realized.

Once I gave myself permission to simply stop and be in the moment, things started to shift.  When I was tired, I rested.  When I became overwhelmed by the news of the day, I turned it off.  I started cooking more vegan meals. My “need” for sugar decreased, and along with it, the inflammation and foot pain.   At around the 4 month mark, the veil of chronic exhaustion lifted.  I’d lost some weight and was able stand for longer periods of time.

I returned to wellness strategies that I’d tried in the past but had put aside. I pulled out the gratitude journal that I’d left under the bed.  I paid attention to the Breathe app reminders, and I practiced mindfulness. I learned more about essential oils and integrated them into my healing and recovery.  I replaced toxic cleaning products with healthy, holistic alternatives. 

I knew I was getting healthier because preparing for Pesach was less physically taxing than it’d been in recent years.  But I still wasn’t succeeding with regular exercise.  A friend recommended a personal trainer who works in a private space with women of all “ages and sizes”.  I’ve always viewed personal training as a luxury expense.  Now I understood that it was key to regaining mobility and being able to enjoy the decades ahead.  I re-worked our budget accordingly, again with my husband’s blessing.

Phase two of this journey began immediately after the Pesach dishes were put away.  I committed to three days a week at the gym.  I set a modest goal of being able to walk up and down stairs confidently. After about 3 weeks, I found I was no longer using my arms to propel me up the stairs, and I was able to fully extend my leg when climbing up.  At the four-month mark, I’m proud of the measureable progress I’ve made, and I know my goal is attainable.  I’m enjoying physical activity for the first time in years. My husband and I ride our bikes on local trails. We’ve worked up to 11 miles and counting.

It’s important to note that this transformation would have been impossible in the years when my husband was unemployed and we faced several difficult family challenges.  I did the best I could at that time. The coping strategies I learned along the way brought me to this point.  It’s all of the baby steps, all of the hard work through those tough years that has enabled me to move forward today.  Integrating new habits, especially the use of essential oils and exercise, has set a new, stronger foundation upon which to grow.

During Elul 5778, I’ll again spend time in reflection and introspection.  I’ll set new goals for personal health and professional work that brings me joy.  I’m grateful for this time to become a better me.  I hope that sharing this journey will be a source of inspiration and encouragement to others. 

 
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Ilene Cohen

Ilene Cohen is a wife, mother and leader in the Pittsburgh non-profit community. After a lifetime of prioritizing the needs of others over her own, she set a personal goal to reclaim her health and well-being in October 2017.  She welcomes discussion at ipcohen@gmail.com.

 
Rochel Lazar