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Pascack Valley Teen Shares Eating Disorder Struggles To Help Others

Valery Berenshtein, a junior at Pascack Valley High School,
Valery Berenshtein, a junior at Pascack Valley High School, Photo Credit: Contributed by Valery Berenshtein

RIVER VALE, N.J. -- Valery Berenshtein of River Vale fought valiantly against anorexia and bulimia as it spiraled out of control before concluding her life was at risk.

Now, the Pascack Valley High School junior shares her story so that other young girls do not find themselves fighting a similar battle. She organized an Eating Disorder Family Awareness Night at school in February, and on June 12 is spearheading an Eating Disorder 3k walk to raise money for what she believes is one of the nation’s most underfunded scourges.

At its apex in December of 2014, Berenshtein’s disorder compromised her vital organs. Her heart shriveled in size, and she risked cardiac arrest and organ failure. She took medical leave from school to start treatment at Overlook Hospital, where she spent two months in a Partial Hospitalization program and nearly three months in outpatient programs. “If not for this treatment,’’ Valery said, “I would not be here today.”

A series of events led to the Bernshtein’s health issues. She swam competitively for years before an injury forced her to quit when she was in 8th grade. She became nervous about weight gain.

Hurtful words from bullies fueled her anxiety. While attending a friend’s bar mitzvah -- “All dressed up and feeling beautiful,’’ she said -- a boy called her an “earthquake,” another said she “was the most ugly one of my friend group” and girls laughed at her. “I was humiliated,’’ Valery remembered.

She dieted, exercised and entered her freshman year at Pascack Valley feeling confident. She even returned to swimming. After the season ended in late fall, however, she became fearful weight would return, and started counting caloric intake. “It went downhill from there,’’ Valery said.

She developed anorexia in February of 2015, and three months later found herself fighting bulimia. “I hated the state I was in,’’ Valery said. “But it wasn’t me. It was the eating disorder. That’s the hardest thing to understand.”

She remembers her first bulimic episode, when she purged after eating at a restaurant with her family. “I thought it would be a one-time thing,’’ she said. But binging and purging became more frequent, first every three weeks and then every other week, and eventually weekly. She told her mother in July about her health struggles. “I really wanted to help myself without treatment,’ she said. “I’m persistent and determined. Ultimately, I couldn’t do it on my own. The last resort was treatment.”

Berenshtein found treatment challenging, even with support from physicians. “I feared the process,’’ she said. “There wasn’t a moment I felt like I was getting better. I was in a depressive state. It’s a lifelong process, and every day brings its own challenges. I’m still recovering and have good days and bad days. But I know I’ve made tremendous strides.”

Berenshtein’s message to young women is to “be confident in who you are. That’s the most truthful advice I can give them. Be confident, and be true to yourself.”

Berenshteins’s battle is a familiar one for many families, especially those with teenage girls. She hopes to bring more attention to eating disorders, and raise money to help fund programs.

“Eating disorders are a mental illness that is extremely underfunded,’’ she said. “It’s just as serious as any other mental illness. The more money we can raise to help people, the better off we’ll be in eradicating them.”

The walk on June 12 begins at 10 a.m. at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale. The fee is $2, and music will be provided. Water and other items will be sold. For more information, contact Valery at berensva@pascack.k12.nj.us. Complete details are also on the attached PDF.

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