How Going Vegan Saved My Life

Okay, that sounds like a melodramatic, click-baity title, I know. But it's the truth, so I just decided to go with it.

This spring marks 6 years since I first started my path down that tofu- and chickpea-lined road, and I wanted to reflect on why I started this journey, how my motivations have changed since, and the seemingly endless positive repercussions the decision has had on my life.

Six years ago I was figuring out the logistics of my decision to leave culinary school and move to New York City. My life in upstate New York had become restrictive, painful, and unconducive to any kind of forward progress, and I followed my instincts to head down to the city, a place I had found so freeing and inspiring during my art school days.

Six years ago I was also in the throes of a resurgence of disordered eating, and had spent the bulk of my time in culinary school learning to produce rich, delicious foods while simultaneously seeing just how little of it or any other food I could put into my own body. So when I first started looking into veganism, it was partly about a desire to further control my diet, and close that iron fist as tightly as possible, and partly about my actual health and wellbeing, as the sane part of my brain sought out ways to tame the side of my brain trying to destroy my body. It was the first time those two agendas had ever aligned, and I decided to see where it led.

As I already only ate meat sporadically - chicken several times a month and beef several times a year - I had observed the effects on my body after: that heavy and dull feeling sticking around like an unwelcome guest (which it literally was, traces of meat can stay in the intestines for ages), and wanted to see if the same observations could be made about dairy and eggs. I read various books and websites about plant-based living, watched some documentaries, and decided to try out six months of veganism, after which I would decide whether or not to keep on with it.

It was slightly easier to find vegan foods in New York City than upstate, but at that time it was still pretty tough anywhere in New York to find restaurants or groceries with plant-based options of any real nutritional value (I'm looking at you, french fries and bread-based veggie burgers). It forced me to make all of my own food, and the transition to vegan cooking was pleasantly easy and tremendously fun. As I tried out new recipes, making my own energy bars and other "diet" foods, I found that, as I ate food that didn't weigh or slow me down, the amount of calories I let myself eat each day started creeping slowly up and up, into a range that was nearly normal, and then, magically, I stopped caring as much about keeping exact track of my caloric intake at all, adding extra snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables without worry. Somehow, by eating what many considered a restrictive diet, I could finally stop restricting my diet, and I finally felt free to eat with much less anxiety or guilt.

But, as is often the case with mental illness, when we find treatment that works, we start to feel like we don't need treatment anymore. So when six months passed and it came time to evaluate my time as a vegan, I was torn. I'd had no trouble when cooking for myself, had in fact found it easy and enjoyable. But whenever I went out with friends or family it was immediately clear how much of an inconvenience my diet was. We had to either go to a completely vegan restaurant and I would feel awkward forcing others to eat like me, or we had to go someplace where I would settle for eating french fries and green salad for the 1,592,374th time. Plus, I'd read all of these articles about the transformative nature of a switch to veganism, and felt let down. Where was my plant-based buzz that everyone talked about? Why wasn't I floating off the ground like so many books and blogs said I would? So I decided to scrap it. I didn't really have any vegan friends, and the inconvenience and isolation outweighed the health benefits. So, that was that.

...For about three months. Turns out, I had gotten pretty buzz-y and float-y during my stab at veganism, but it wasn't until I weighed myself back down with meat and cheese that I noticed. The sluggishness and fatigue as my body felt heavy and useless again was overwhelming. And this time, instead of returning to plants, picking up where I had left off, and healing my body, I took the darker path, restricting my diet further than ever before and abusing my body more drastically than I ever had.

The physical and mental torture I was putting myself through, compounded with a lonely and unfulfilling job, an unhealthy living situation, and the misery of New York in the winter, brought me to frighteningly low depths, and I had neither any idea how nor any real desire to pull myself out of them. But after a few months I started to notice that, on drives back upstate, I would start to feel a little more alive, a little more myself, as soon as I hit the forested part of the highway heading north. I would breathe a little more deeply, hunch my shoulders a little less. Sometimes I would dance in the car and even forget to hate my self and my body. As spring ever so slowly crept in on New York, the part of my depression caused by the cold and dark started to lift, and I could see paths through the parts that were caused by diet, lack of movement, and just plain old depression itself. Just as intuitively as I had known it was time to move to the city, I knew it was time to leave it. I made moves to piece together a life back upstate that was on my own terms. I wasn't going to finish a degree I didn't need just for the sake of saying I had. I wasn't going to get a job I despised because it paid more. I wasn't going to eat food that made me hate my body. And I was going to hang on tight to what had been the only bright spot in my darkest days: driving through the woods.

So after creating an apartment of sorts in the third floor of my mother's new house, returning to my beloved bookstore, now in a full-time position, and taking every available moment to walk among the trees, I could feel life returning to me, full force. With one large, nagging exception: my body still dragged, my meals still left me anxious and uncomfortable. So I returned to that path I had barely even begun a year before, and committed myself to a vegan life. Not for six months, but for as long as it kept feeling good.

Well, that was five years ago. It most certainly still feels good, in fact that "vegan buzz," that float-y feeling of being truly nourished is noticeable nearly every day. I find food to be fun and freeing again, and it's been five years since disordered eating has overpowered my life. That instinct and urge is still there; mental illness doesn't just evaporate. But many days it's so easy to overcome that I barely think about it. I still need to control my eating habits more than a "normal" person needs to, and straying from my routine can still make me anxious. But food is no longer a destructive force, a weapon for my illness to use against me. Food is how I let my body know I love it. More than that, the choices I make with my food are how I let the world and her creatures know I love it.

That's probably the most beautiful change in the last five years, what now motivates me to be vegan. What started as a way to get healthy has become my normal, and there is no end goal because I'm living it every day. Taking away my own, small reasons for going vegan has opened me up to all of the big-picture reasons to do it. Every meal is an opportunity to respect a planet that is being poisoned and burned for the sake of consuming incomprehensible amounts of flesh. Respecting the earth happens to align with respecting my body, and that's no coincidence. I no longer care about others' judgment or convenience, but about living in a way that puts me on the side of the water, of the plants, and of the animals. That's the second beautiful change that's taken place. I've stopped apologizing for being plant-based, and I've cut out the people who were always pushing for me to "cheat" and eat animals, treating my way of life as though it was Atkins or Weight Watchers, and equating taking animals' lives with indulging in an extra scoop of ice cream. I don't try to force people to my way of life, but I no longer tolerate attacks on it. In short, I do no harm but take no shit.

So, the next time you meet a vegan, before you crack a joke about bacon that I assure you they have already heard, consider that it may not be as simple to them as eating more vegetables. There's a chance that what you see as a diet is a reflection of their whole lifestyle, and when you ridicule someone's tofu scramble you ridicule their respect for the planet and their body, and you may even be ridiculing the very thing that saved their life.

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