From Shadow to Light

Memoir about Alvin Cohen. He grew up during the depression, suffered a tragic early loss and overcame a battle with depression. He became a well known psychiatrist in New Orleans and overcame his fears in life one by one with a list of fears and goals.

From Shadow to Light: the Life and Legacy of Alvin Cohen

As a Private First Class in medical school, I was entitled to $131 a month, which the army gave as a stipend for rent to recruits who didn’t live on the post. I lived at home, and I felt rich with the salary. I was able to afford to buy a gardenia every Saturday for my girlfriend who I later married. I was now making enough money to get married and live comfortably, which was fortunate because it was during my second year of medical school that I met Ruth.

Although the army was paying for my medical training, I still needed to earn pocket money, so in my spare time I worked in the library shelving books. It was in the poetry section that I bumped into a lovely girl named Ruth. I had broken up with a girl I was madly in love with, and unbeknownst to me, Ruth had just broken up with a guy she was madly in love with.

Books were an obvious first topic, but that soon carried into other topics. I realized she was someone I wanted to get to know better. I nervously asked her out on a date, and to my delight she accepted. On our first date we went for a bicycle ride along the river. I enjoyed Ruth’s company immensely, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I had a dilemma, though. Ruth was probably expecting me to ask for her phone number to arrange further dates. It was hard enough for me to ask her out in person; talking on the phone was intolerable for me. I solved the problem by asking her out before I dropped her off at home. We made precise arrangements for the following week, so there would be no necessity for a follow up phone call.

“Do you want to come to my house for dinner?” Ruth asked me shyly on our third date. I accepted, eager to meet the family of the girl I adored. I was overwhelmed by her family. I had never seen such a healthy, intact family in my life.

Ruth’s father was a jolly man who cracked jokes, and the whole family ate a hot dinner together. (How wrong I was about their family! It was only after I was married that I discovered that Ruth’s father was a gambler who had abandoned the family a number of times.) After several dates, I popped the question. “Ruth,” I said nervously. “I think we should get married.”

Ruth stared back at me in shock. “Get married? But I hardly know you. And besides, I’m not even 19 yet. I’m too young to get married!” But I was adamant. “I hate uncertainty. If we’re going to continue dating, I need to know now, whether or not it’s going to end in marriage.” I gave her an ultimatum of three months to give her decision, whether or not she was going to marry me.

Ruth consulted her mother. “Marry him.” Her mother advised firmly.

“But I don’t know if I love him,” Ruth protested.

“What does it matter if you love him, he’s going to be a doctor!”

When the time was up, Ruth agreed to marry me. She later told me that a major factor in her decision was my declaration that if I ever had money one day, no relative of hers or mine would ever want for anything. She told me that the more she got to know me, the more she loved me. She also thought that I was too good to lose. After all, her other two boyfriends hadn’t actually proposed and “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

We got married in 1944 when I was in my senior year of medical school. We had a simple wedding; Ruth lovely in a white dress, and I, in my army uniform. Ruth’s family paid for the reception, and various family members brought sandwiches for the wedding guests. With the $131 I was getting from the army and Ruth’s modest salary we could live like kings.

Dieting Mania

Spending hours sitting on a chair listening to my psychiatric patients talk, took a toll on my weight. I thought back longingly to the days in the Army when I was too underweight to be drafted into the Navy. I meditated for a long time trying to figure out where all the excess weight was coming from. I ate a light breakfast of toast and coffee, almost no lunch, and several portions of whatever was served for dinner. Wandering around the kitchen late one night, a handful of potato chips in one hand, and bottle of beer in the other, I hit upon the solution. It was the late night munching, the handful of this and the handful of that, which was causing the pounds to start climbing and the needle on the scale to start rising.

I rushed into the living room to share my epiphany with Ruth. She was in the living room folding laundry, while she watched her favorite T.V. show.

“Ruth, Ruth,” I called out.“I’ve just figured out the secret to my weight gain, and the absolutely perfect way to lose it!”

Ruth looked up with a modicum of interest. “Yeah, what is it?”

I was bursting with enthusiasm. “It’s like this. I realized that it’s the second supper I eat that is causing all the pounds to pile up. So we’re not going to eat dinner at home. Every night we’re going to go to a different restaurant. A restaurant is the ultimate in portion control!”

Ruth’s eyes were already straying back to the T.V. “Whatever you’d like Alvin. Which one do you want to go to tomorrow?”

I was warming up to this plan. “I don’t want to have long arguments each night, about which restaurant we’re going to. Let’s just go to Veterans Highway—that street is lined with restaurants—and just go to them in order.”

It was a few months into my new diet and things were going great. I had dropped a few pounds, because when I came home from the restaurant, there were no seconds of dinner to eat, and as per my request, the cupboards and fridge were bare.

As usual, I parked the car, and Ruth and I walked to the next restaurant in line. But this time things didn’t go according to The Plan. Ruth took one look at the restaurant. “I’m not going into this restaurant,” she said, “It’s filthy.”

I peered inside the window. It was hard to see inside because the glass could use a bit of a wash. She was right. It was a little dirty. But rules were rules.

“We can’t go anywhere else,” I said firmly. “We make an exception tonight, and that

will be the end. Every night we’ll have endless arguing about where to go.”

“Alvin, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “This restaurant is dirty. I couldn’t care less about

what kind of food we eat each night, as long as it’s clean. I promise you, I’m not going to

start arguing each night.”

I stood firm though, and eventually Ruth acquiesced. The food was terrible, the service

even worse, and that night Ruth got sick with agonizing stomach pains. That was the end

of the Veterans Highway diet.

My next diet was the monotony diet. I figured that if I ate the same food every single night for dinner, I would eventually get sick of it, and eat less and less each night. So for weeks on end, I would eat only tuna fish, hamburgers or gefilta fish. When gefilta fish was the food of choice, I would go to the local store and buy a new jar every few days. As I placed the jar of Manischewitz gefilta fish balls on the counter, the cashier remarked, “It’s funny, we never used to sell much of this gefilta fish. But recently, we have sold so much of it. I guess it’s really gotten popular!”

I didn’t bother informing the sweet brunette cashier that the only one buying all this gefilta fish was none other than me.

My last resort at dieting was to pay my kids fifty cents—a princely sum—every time one of them caught me eating after dinner. If I would just avoid the fridge and stay out of the kitchen, I could have saved myself a lot of money. But I had a compulsion that kept on sending me to that fridge again and again. After a few weeks of paying out substantial sums of money, I got smart. I started sneaking into the kitchen when everyone was sleeping and helping myself to the fridge contents. One night I crept out of bed as usual after everyone was asleep and softly padded into the kitchen. Just as my hand was reaching into the pot of cold pasta, suddenly all four of my kids, Jeanie, Diane, Lisa and Larry, jumped out from the corners of the kitchen. “Caught you Dad!” they announced gleefully. “We caught you!” And they stuck out their hands, “fifty cents please.” And that was the end of the Pay­Food diet.

It became a lot easier to just buy my clothes one size larger.

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