Today is my 500th day of being Vegan. In less than 2 weeks, it will be my 2 year anniversary of going veg. Since I am obsessively introspective, it is only fitting that I use these milestones as opportunities to reflect upon what I have learned and experienced since making such life-altering decisions. But there has been so much, where would I begin? The beginning seemed as good a place as any so I re-read my own postings about my Vegan journey since starting my blog, The “V” Word, last year. It’s interesting to see how much has changed and how much has not.
The details of my Vegan journey can be read in the blog archives but basically, I was a self-proclaimed “animal lover” who was pushing 270 pounds, struggling to fit into size 24 elastic-waist pants, and taking close to a dozen medications for a plethora of illnesses. A series of personal losses had me feeling depressed and alone despite the support of my husband (then boyfriend) Tom. Seeking a change, I had joined Weight Watchers yet again but when a herniated disk left me immobile and unable to go to work, I laid on the couch and watched food and cooking shows. There amid the recipes that featured nothing remotely healthy or figure-friendly, I found “Christina Cooks” on a local public network. The host, Christina Pirello, cooked food that was healthy and something she called “Vegan.” I had no clue what that word meant but I watched and I learned.
Step by step, I cleaned my kitchen of items with high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, artificial colors and flavors, and chemical additives until there was almost nothing left. Inspired by Christina’s own personal story, I replaced my groceries with healthier alternatives. That meant changing where I shopped and learning how to read labels. I requested Vegetarian Starter Kits from PETA, Vegan Outreach and Compassion Over Killing and was shocked by the cruelties I read about. Certainly, I knew that animals were killed for my food (though I didn’t see it and tried really hard not to think about it) but I had no idea about the specific atrocities these living creatures went through. I began reading books that covered the issues from various perspectives: health, ethics, animal welfare, politics and environmentalism. I watched the video “Meet Your Meat” and that was the final straw. I cried my eyes out and knew I could no longer be a part of that cruelty. I then asked Tom to watch it and while we both cried, we decided we would together begin a journey of compassion.
We became vegetarians but as we learned about the horrors of the egg and dairy industries, it became clear that Veganism was the only way to go. What difference did it make to spare chickens bred for eating while continuing to eat eggs at the brutal expense of other chickens? Why refuse steak or burgers only to consume dairy which, in my opinion, causes the most cruel suffering of all? We quickly replaced dairy products with alternatives and within months, gave up eggs and became Vegan. While I do believe that every bit helps, I also see vegetarianism as a stepping stone towards a truly compassionate life.
After changing how we ate, we changed our clothes, our shoes, and our toiletries. Rather than feeling deprived of the foods we had loved, we were amazed at the variety of foods that were opened up for us. We had never realized what a food rut we had been in, ordering variations of the same dishes over and over again. Now we experimented, tasting foods we had never tried before, eating ingredients we had never heard of before and eating at some of the amazing Vegan restaurants we never knew existed and now feel we can’t live without. My Vegan cookbook collection is huge and I love creating healthy, delicious Vegan meals.
Being a Vegan is about so much more than just what I eat or wear or buy. I got involved in trying to spread the compassionate message, attending protests, Veggie Pride Parades, Vegan cooking competitions and fundraising activities. I met other Vegans through groups on the Internet. I visited farm sanctuaries where I could see with my own eyes the innocent lives that represented the billions that are invisible to most of us. Through Veganism I found a new purpose and used my voice to help bring change.
Change also came to my own person as I went on to lose 113 lbs. (so far). Those size 24 pants are now replaced by size 10 clothes and I no longer have to shop in plus-size stores. As my eating changed, my health improved and one by one, I got off of every single medication. My blood pressure is now normal (it was once 220/110) and my blood test results no longer show someone who is at risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke. Because I eat a healthy, balanced diet, I get all the vitamins and nutrients my body needs.
So has my journey been all sunshine and Vegan cupcakes? No, it wouldn’t be realistic to say there haven’t been struggles or obstacles along the way but I see them as learning experiences. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes miss or get cravings for some of the things I used to eat but no craving or desire could ever outweigh the suffering that satisfying that momentary wanting would cause. When I was hospitalized last winter, they couldn’t figure out how to feed me. They kept sending up vegetarian trays with eggs, cheese and non-dairy creamer that contained whey. Even the hospital dietician was challenged by my requests and I ended up eating salad and chickpeas for 3 days. I have gone to events where the only things I could eat were olives and pickles so I have learned to plan ahead and either eat first or bring my own food. It takes some more effort to buy shampoo and make-up because I have to read all the labels and be assured they are cruelty-free. It took me months to find a coat sans wool and fur I could afford and I pose a challenge for every shoe salesperson. With every bite, with every purchase, I have a choice and I always choose Veganism.
While I don’t necessarily think it is more expensive to be Vegan, I do believe it can be expensive to be a social Vegan. There are so many special events like Vegan chef appearances at restaurants and charity galas that I wish I could go to, but unfortunately, many are too expensive for me. I have to admit I sometimes feel it is unfair that I can donate my time and energy to a cause or raise money for a cause but then can’t attend a dinner or party for that same cause because I can’t afford the ticket. I wish restaurants and organizations would take into consideration that not all Vegans have a lot of money. At this point, I can attend most events only if they are free or if I can volunteer or bring a dish. I know I’m missing out on a lot of great experiences with a lot of amazing people and I wish I could afford more but that’s not my reality at this time.
It has been amazing to see how angry and defensive people get when faced with messages of compassion, probably because it calls their own behavior and traditions into account. I have lost friends and been rejected by relatives who view my Veganism like a disease or moral failing. It seems ridiculous that relationships can be destroyed because of what one does or doesn’t eat. It reminds me that everyday I have to work on my own tolerance because I know I can be judgmental of people who haven’t “seen the Vegan light” yet. It is a struggle I acknowledge, own and am working on.
I have attended protests and marches where the “compassionate” message gets lost in angry and accusatory voices. I enjoy speaking up for animals but I honestly do not like some of the behavior that seems to only close the ears of those we want to listen and perpetuates the myth that Vegans are angry people-haters. I pick and choose which events I attend more carefully now and try to engage people with smiles so they might be more inclined to listen.
One of the sadder things I learned is that Vegans are not really one large, powerful group but that there are sub-divisions of Vegans based on their theoretical perspectives. I knew that some people were Vegan for the animals, some for the environment and some for health but what I didn’t expect was the in-fighting between Vegans. Rather than using their energy to fight against the people and organizations that truly abuse and exploit animals, there are some Vegans who choose to aim their anger at other Vegans fighting the cause in a different way.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just about being a Vegan but about being an abolitionist or a welfarist. I read so many articles by Vegans negating the work of other Vegans and animal advocates that my head spun. First I wondered if I needed to choose a “camp” and was confused because I agreed with tenets of both. Then I felt sadness that it wasn’t enough to just be a Vegan and that one could be judged and attacked, not just by the rest of the non-Vegan world, but by other Vegans. Finally, this ugliness led me to feel angry. How can people preach compassion, non-violence and ahimsa yet act in the very opposite way towards people who share the same ultimate goal? In the end, I decided the label “Vegan” was enough for me and that my energy was best used helping animals and strengthening the Vegan movement – the ENTIRE Vegan movement.
The greatest lesson I have learned is that I LOVE being a Vegan. When I started my blog a year ago, I wrote that I loved being a Vegan then. If it’s possible, I love it even more today. I feel so much pride in being a Vegan. Almost a year ago, I wrote, “So many people I know are afraid to tell their families and friends they are Vegan (or vegetarian) for fear of being rejected or laughed at or criticized. They hide their Veganism, which, to me, is sad and makes no sense. Why should anyone hide their compassion while the majority of the world engages in cruelty right out in the open? I am proud of being Vegan. I wear t-shirts and buttons that proclaim my Veganism. My office has posters, signs, and pamphlets about choosing compassion. While I do not try to impose my beliefs on others, I silently pray someone will ask me why I am not eating meat so I can proudly state, “I AM A VEGAN.” They might reply with “you’re a what?” and that just gives me an opportunity to teach someone the “V” word that I learned not even two years ago.” (The “V” Word, August 20, 2009)
This is even truer today. I feel as if I should introduce myself as “My name is Rhea and I’m a Vegan.” I love being in situations with food so that I can have an opening to bring up the topic of Veganism. I share my delicious Vegan cooking with omnivores as much ahttp://www.etsy.com/shop/dkanys possible to dispel the myth that Vegan food is just bland tofu and salad. I wear a beautiful necklace that Tom gave me so the whole world can know I’m Vegan. Two years ago I didn’t know what that “V” word meant and today it has more meaning than I could ever put into words. It is my proudest accomplishment and my deepest passion. Veganism is more than WHAT I am, it is WHO I am.