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Val Berenshtein: Founder of Need to bEAT

Name: Val Berenshtein 

Year: 2021

Major: Psychology and Anthropology and Human Biology 

Hometown: River Vale, NJ

Extracurricular Activities: Need to bEAT (self-started organization to raise awareness of eating disorders, fundraise for their research, and spread message of self-worth and inner happiness and peace), Concert Choir, Dark Arts, Yoga, Her Campus 

How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Strong, Wise, Independent, Thoughtful, Imaginative 

What does self-care mean to you? 

To answer honestly, I do not think I have discovered what self-care means to me. For the past five years, I have been struggling with anorexia nervosa, restrictive eating, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations – a whole array of mental illnesses – that have made me lose sight of the person that I once was; however, even during my youth, a time when my joy, radiance and energy scintillated through my life and the lives of everyone around me, I do not think I recognized what self-care meant. I always held myself to cumbersome expectations and negative thoughts, seemingly-subconscious yet vividly marking on my younger self. Today, as I go through my second recovery for anorexia and restrictive eating, I am slowly redefining the value of self-care in my life. To me, self-care equates to self-worth – knowing and having love for oneself enough to never put down one’s own values, thoughts, beliefs and actions. It is doing what feels right in the moment despite what everyone else is doing and being at peace with the decision to do this thing may be. Most importantly, self-care means living life based on one’s own rules and not the rules of one’s friends, family or society. Ultimately, each one of us is in charge of his or her own happiness, peace and life, so the goal of self-care becomes accepting the power that lies in one’s hands and using that power to design the road that one will be excited to travel on. 

Can you tell us a little about your website?

 My website, www.needtobeat.com, is part of my organization, Need to bEAT, that aims to raise awareness of and destigmatize eating disorders, while raising money for their research. I started Need to bEAT in 2016 as a campaign to raise money for eating disorder research. After a year of raising money and, subsequently, donating it, I maintained Need to bEAT as a blog, where I wrote about my ongoing experience and recovery as well as encouraged others to share their stories and experiences, struggles and successes as well. Despite maintaining the blog, I always envisioned Need to bEAT being more than just a place where I and others share our experiences; I envisioned it becoming an official organization that would have the same tenants as the campaign and the blog but that would also be a venue that people could visit for support, for resources and for guidance. This year, my executive team and I will be working on certifying Need to bEAT as an official 501c3 and going forth with campus- and community- wide fundraises and events, working towards bridging the gap between those who suffer with an eating disorder, disordered eating or body-image concerns and those who may not understand the seriousness of these mental illnesses. 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

There is no limit to the advice I would give my younger self, for if I could go back in time and fix all of the mistakes I made and wrong mindsets I developed, my life would be completely different from what it is today. When I was a child, I never experienced problems with mental health. Needless to say, I did not even know what mental illnesses were. I remember at 13-years-old making a joke behind my friend’s back, calling her anorexic and saying that I would rather be anorexic than fat. To nobody’s fault, I was so uneducated then, so uninformed. A year after making that comment behind my friend’s back, I became very ill with anorexia, followed by bulimia, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideations, and my life took a 180 degree turn into a tumultuous hell I did not know could exist on this earth. As a sophomore in high school, I was hospitalized for risk of cardiac arrest and organ failure, as all of my vital organs had shrunk due to extreme weight loss, and following my hospitalization, I spent seven months in treatment, after which I came out just slightly better than I did going in. Despite not being fully recovered, I did not want to pursue recovery any further because I was scared – scared of any physical changes that my body may have needed at the time, scared that my mind would be ill forever, scared that I would never be able to live a normal, happy and whole life. I put my health aside and began spreading awareness of eating disorders, giving presentations at public schools, organizing community-wide events and starting Need to bEAT. At one point, I thought I was better, and I looked forward to college, to starting a new chapter of my life that theoretically would destroy any remnants of my illnesses; however, I was very wrong. Although the first couple months of my first semester at college were wonderful, my health took a spiraling turn in the downward direction in November, 2017: I hit my lowest of lows, very frequently contemplating suicide. I thought that my life was over.

During winter break, however, I said No More; I had had enough living a life of survival, denial, pain, and fear. I wanted genuine life and happiness – I wanted them more than anything in the world -, so I embarked on my second recovery, this time undergoing it by myself – rather than with a treatment team -, getting help from what little scientific evidence on eating disorder recovery exists and from YouTube videos of people who recovered and who now share their journeys with the world. 

If I could go back in time and show myself how one mistake, one decision to lose weight because of the misperceived, adolescent notion that thinness equated to popularness and love, I would do it in a heartbeat. I would hold myself so tightly, grasp every inch of my younger self, and tell her that she is the most amazing, wonderful, talented and worthy person just as she is. Not one bit of her worth had to do with her appearance; rather, her worth stemmed from something much deeper: the kindness of her heart. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 

I do not know where I will be in five years because I choose not to look that far into the future. Frankly, if I were asked where I would see myself tomorrow, I would not be able to answer that as well. As a human being, I strive to optimize every single day, every single moment, and find the beauty within it, especially as I undergo recovery from anorexia nervosa and restrictive eating disorder. I challenge myself to look around at both the good and the bad, the victories and the struggles, and find the little sparks of life that reside in all of them. Every moment has its purpose, and every moment leads me that much closer to where I am meant to be and the people who I am meant to have in my life, perhaps, in this context, five years from now. 

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