Shelley Gawith lights up a room when she laughs. She laughs a lot.
With her bubbly personality, cheeky 'Dad humour' and vibrant skin, Shelley looks the picture of health and wellness. For this Wellingtonian however once her prospects were so dim her family feared the light might go out altogether.
Shelley was born with hyperthyroidism. Now a functional nutritionist, Shelley became so ill after working at one of Australasia's top investment banks that she couldn't stand or feed herself. Despite this, she continued working from home, in bed, until she was forced to move back from Sydney to New Zealand. However, Shelley has used food to turn her life around is using her functional nutrition practice to teach others to do the same.
Early days: "We were a sweets and candy family"
Shelley Gawith was born in Christchurch where she lived until she was four until Shelley’s Dad got a job near Palmerston North. Her father is an accountant and her mother was first a stay at home mother and has had a range of career moves, leading to her now opening a counseling business. Shelley is the middle child of two sisters. Due to their remoteness, the family decided to make the move to Wellington.
Growing up, Shelley admits her family were a ‘sweets and candy’ family. “We would spend all our pocket money on lollies on chips and junk food. We weren't allowed roll-ups or fizzy drinks, but we were very much eating out of a packet. My mum didn’t like vegetables back then and didn’t love cooking so we didn’t eat veggies that much.” Shelley’s Dad, however, had a love of cooking, influencing his daughter's future career.
The family didn’t have much money while Shelley was a child, so they would cook with cheaper cuts and pasta and other food from packets. Safe to say, Shelley’s diet was a far cry from what it is today. While she had a good childhood, Shelley admits that her health wasn't always the biggest priority for herself.
At school, growing up, Shelley wanted to be a fashion designer, however. “I loved art history and textiles. I wanted to make a career out of it so much I even moved schools” Shelley says.
After school ended, she applied to AUT, the leading fashion school in New Zealand at the time. While Shelley was waiting to find out if she got into AUT, she went to the open day at Victoria University. As a result, she applied to Victoria to do accounting, commercial law, and art history. By the time she found out she had been accepted into AUT, she’d changed her mind and decided she would take the latter course. “I very much enjoyed doing commerce and art history at Victoria University"
“I loved art history and textiles"
Initially, Shelley says she ‘hated’ University because she was shy and it was hard to make friends. “I remember coming home and crying at the beginning because all my friends had moved. By the end of University, I was crying because I didn’t want to leave. I loved the courses and I loved uni. While I didn’t make heaps of friends at Uni, I made friends through the part-time jobs I worked while I was there” Shelley says.
After four and a half years of university, Shelley was on course to work at a medium sized accounting firm ‘Curtis McLean’. With 6 months off before starting her job, she moved to Sydney for a Summer where she met her former boyfriend. After 18 months back in Wellington working Shelley decided to move back to Sydney permanently.
Sydney Life: “I said ‘Well, I have and I don’t want to work really long hours’ because I valued my life/work balance”
Shelley arrived in Sydney with no job and no friends. She quickly got in with a recruiter, and a job came up with Macquarie Investment Bank. Shelley didn’t know anything about the potential employer except they ‘worked you really long hours’ so she declined the offer. Her recruiter told her no one said ‘No’ to Macquarie. “I said ‘Well, I have and I don’t want to work really long hours’ because I valued my life/work balance,” Shelley says. “I was young and pretty naive!”
The recruiter rang her four times and finally persuaded Shelley to go to the interview.
Shelley arrived at the interview and promptly told her future employer she would not be working longer than 8:30 am - 5pm. She also told him she didn’t want to start until a future point that “was totally insane”. When her recruiter called her after the interview and Shelley detailed what had gone down, the recruiter told her she’d blown it. The next day, Shelley was offered the role at Macquarie. “I got the job on all my own terms and conditions,” Shelley says, “My boss had the last laugh though because 8:30 - 5 went out the door pretty fast.”
“My boss had the last laugh though because 8:30 - 5 went out the door pretty fast”
At first, Shelley loved Macquarie. She found she made friends easily and also was able to work her own hours. “I thought I was living a movie life, ” she says “it all seemed so glamorous.”
At the time, Shelley had hyperglycemia - severe blood sugar regulation problems. If she went for more than an hour without eating she would collapse. “The boys around the office would joke about how much food I ate”, Shelley says “If a meeting ran overtime I would almost faint. I’d have fruit bread for breakfast, maybe a salad for lunch or a pasta from home (although I was very bad at cooking then). All my dinners were home-cooked. I thought I was healthy when in fact I was very unhealthy. I ate sugary snacks all the time. I had no idea about food and how it could fuel my body. I hated food - I saw it as a waste of money. I’d pick clothes over good food.”
Slowly, however, her health crept up on her. Shelley had gotten shingles all through her university days which continued through to working. She went to her doctor and found out she had an under-active thyroid. One day she could barely stand to cook dinner at her flat. “At that point, I knew my health was bad but I went to the doctor who gave me a pill. I just wanted to maintain what I was doing (it was Thyroxine)." She was told she would need to be on it for the rest of her life.
Shelley went gluten-free after seeing a nutritionist but this just led her to consume more sugar. Two years later, Shelley got influenza which turned into chronic fatigue syndrome and saw her whole life come crashing down.
Shelley got sick after starting a new job. She’d recently completed a half marathon and suddenly got the ‘flu. She suddenly found she couldn’t walk to the corner of the street and would collapse going shopping for food. Her housemates had to feed her.
After a time, it was clear Shelley didn’t seem to be getting better. She was given the choice of being hospitalized because her doctor thought she would die or go back home to New Zealand. “I felt in my bones I would die, so I knew I had to come home. I couldn’t do anything for myself around this stage” Shelley says. Her parents came home, packed everything up, and shipped her back to New Zealand.
“I didn’t have the strength to do anything. I had no energy"
Shelley was numb to her core from her illness. “I didn’t have the strength to do anything. I had no energy. To try and eat my breakfast, the one thing I had to do for the day, would drain me. People would think they were offending me and I wouldn’t have even noticed because I was so unwell."
During all of 2014, Shelley slept and wore her pajamas all day. She had to crawl to the top of her parent's stairs. She couldn’t sit up. When she did shower, Shelley had to lie down because she was unable to stand.
Through it all, Shelley saw a range of specialists but she wasn’t making progress. It took her until the end of 2015 for Shelley to walk to her parent's front gate (around 20 meters). During this time she lost cognitive function so she couldn’t speak properly. The medical profession told her they couldn’t offer anything to help her get well. “My parents got sadder and sadder because they were like, is this it? I would wake in the night screaming from pain” Shelley explains. “What my parents have gone through is incredible. I will never understand what it was like for my parents trying to help their child and feeling helpless” Shelley says.
Shelley says during 2015 she started looking up different nutrition courses and telling her parents she wanted to study to get better. Her parents humored her but privately doubted any success could be had when Shelley was unable to stay awake for more than half an hour. Shelley found a course in the United States online in functional nutrition with a part of the course via workshops in Brisbane. Shelley would phone her instructor and slowly began to apply her learnings to her life.
"Her parents humored her but privately doubted any success could be had when Shelley was unable to stay awake for more than half an hour"
In May 2015 Shelley went to the first-course workshop in Brisbane. She stayed above the conference center and was the sickest of all the pupils on the course.
Shelley learned all about healthy fats, carbohydrate, and protein. She changed her diet quickly once she started applying her knowledge of the course and ridden herself of her hyperglycemia. “I could go some days without needing to snack. Being able to leave the house without a snack pack was insane. For me, I got rid of gluten, dairy, all sugar - and later on in the year I found out I was allergic to eggs. This isn’t for everyone, but eliminating these things helped heal my gut” Shelley explains.
By the final workshop, she was able to cook her food by herself and had almost returned to full health. “My classmates were like ‘Woah, you’re so much better,” Shelley says.
“I could go some days without needing to snack. Being able to leave the house without a snack pack was insane"
Shelley admits she knew she wanted to help people make changes in their lives early on. She took on a practice client at the end of last year and was able to make huge changes in that first person's life to the extent that she went from chronic fatigue to taking her children to Disneyland in two months. Naturally, her business grew from there naturally. Shelley has also been thrilled to be able to travel to Sydney where she has some clients.
Shelley is finally living her dream life and is thrilled she can help others. While the past is still chillingly recent, she now has hope for the future, a hope which food has given her. Shelley wants to help other's overcome their own struggles and now has her own practice on Brandon Street where she is working with business people from the city.
So what couldn’t Shelley live without in the kitchen? A tagine, a thermomix and pot. But more than anything Shelley appreciates what she's been given by that kitchen. A second chance at life.