Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Came for the Health Benefits but I'm Staying for the Animals

Something has happened to me recently, but first, let me talk a little about how I arrived at this point. For most of my 43 years on this planet, I've been a vegetarian. When I was 14 years old, living with a foster family who owned a cattle farm, something clicked in me and I decided that I'd had enough of eating animals. But it wasn't easy. There wasn't a Whole Foods on every corner. Grocery stores in my little country town did not sell almond milk and tofu. The vegetables I'd been exposed to were peas, potatoes and corn and not much else up to that point. I didn't know how to cook anything and I didn't have my own money to even buy my own food. Luckily, that farmer's wife helped me sign up for a subscription to Vegetarian Times and was very supportive of what I wanted to do. It could have gone another way, for sure.

So, for years, I did it for the animals. I didn't have graphic videos of male chicks being ground and suffocated. I didn't know about gestation crates. I certainly knew nothing of the atrocity that is foie gras. There was definitely nothing around like Earthlings, although Faces of Death certainly had an impact on my life and eating habits when I was young. At any rate, at that young age I knew, deep down inside, that I didn't want something to have to die so that I could eat.

During those years, I had slip-ups where I didn't realize something I was eating had meat in it, like French fries or refried beans. That is normal and everyone has them. I didn't even know for years what gelatin was! I was just a kid and there was no Internet! I thought Jell-O was fruit! I also had moments of weakness, occasionally returning to the comfort foods of my childhood. Bacon. Thanksgiving turkey. Chicken nuggets. BBQ. Though they were few and far between and consisted of those tough times that are social events and holidays, they were still very disconcerting and it was hard not to see myself as a complete failure and just give up.

I'm not the kind of person who likes to draw attention to myself and I don't do well when put on the spot. When I got married, my husband then (now my ex-husband) was a meat-eater. He had lots of reasons why I needed to be eating meat and didn't hesitate to let me know about them. It got worse when I became pregnant. Gradually, I started eating more and more meat and making less of a fuss about going to places where I could find things to eat that were vegetarian. I can't even tell you why. I was young. I don't like conflict. You grow up with meat and that's what you know. I wasn't really taught to stand up for myself, much less for animals, which everyone around me considered lesser beings.

It's not that I'm such a people pleaser or really care what people think about me. The truth is, I'm a pretty odd ball and generally celebrate my weirdness. But what I don't like is constant, uninformed criticism and knee-jerk reactions. And that's what vegetarians and vegans get a lot of from meat eaters who feel they must defend what they do. I don't take issue with educating or informing someone who has a genuine interest in why I eat the way that I do, but there's a certain kind of person that it's just not worth it to argue with. Their minds are closed and they do not use facts or reason and they see anyone who does something differently from them as an assault on their way of life. My husband was one of these people and many of my family members are like this, so I guess I just sort of compromised my feelings a lot of the time and gave up.

Some of you might be going through this right now or maybe you have experienced times like this in the past. The truth of the matter is, nearly all vegans are made and are not born into it. So, when the Vegan Police come knocking on your door, remember that. Nobody is perfect and it's highly unlikely that meat or milk or egg hasn't passed their lips and any harsh criticism they have for you might be rooted in the right place, but it isn't without some hypocrisy.

So, anyway... After separating from and divorcing my husband, I went vegetarian again for quite a long time. Then I had a couple of years of being an omnivore when I started dating my new husband but tapered off of animal products over a couple of years and ate vegetarian until I went vegan in 2010. And then, recently, I fell off. I can't even tell you how it happened. There was no external pressure to eat animal products. There was literally no reason for it. And yet, I did it. And I knew what I was doing.

Except that there was a sort of deception going on. I was playing a game with myself. I was literally willing myself not to think about the things that I know to be true. If I just block it out of my mind, I will be okay, I would tell myself. If I just don't think about this flesh as flesh. If I just don't allow myself to contemplate that this is muscle. Skin. Organs that function just like my own organs function. Those are ribs like my ribs, that once protected a living being's breathing lungs. But just don't think about it.

A while back, I bought a whole chicken to cook for my family. And I was cleaning it and getting ready to bake it. In one hand, I was holding a butcher knife. The other hand was reaching into the chicken, removing the heart and liver and gizzard. And the next thing I knew, I was on the floor, waking up after having passed out.

I know that story is going to be disgusting and graphic for some of you. And for that, I apologize, but I feel like I need to get this story out of me. For others of you, perhaps those of you who are going plant-based for the health benefits, you might not be offended by that imagery at all. And that is the point I am trying to make.

When I went vegetarian so long ago, I did it for the animals. But when I went vegan, it was for me. It was because I was so fat and my cholesterol was through the roof and I was unhealthy. I was a vegetarian who was eating tons of butter and eggs and dairy and thinking that I was really doing something for animals. Granted, that's not to say that reducing meat consumption is bad for animals. It's certainly not, but I was playing a game with myself. I may have gotten rid of the meat, but I was doubling up on the eggs and cheese. I was drinking half a gallon of milk a day and not thinking a thing about it. And I was paying for it!

And so, when I went vegan, in just a matter of a few months, my cholesterol was perfect and the pounds were flying off me. And then when I got to a place where I felt kind of happy and healthy with my weight, the cheese started sneaking back in. And next came the eggs. Not very often, mind you, but often enough. Eventually, I didn't even have to justify why I was "sneaking" some cheese on my bean tacos or asking for the sour cream, too! And from there, it wasn't long before I had some "abstract" meat on some nachos and just didn't pick it off or send it back.

And then I was buying chicken again. How did I allow myself to get to this point? By playing a game with myself. By avoiding allowing the truth of what I was doing into my mind. By justifying this and making excuses for that. Talking myself into things because they taste so good and I'm tired and don't feel like driving past 40 fast food places to get to my house and then have to chop vegetables for 20 minutes and wait 40 minutes for rice to cook. Telling myself that I don't want to be rude and not eat this lovely meal that someone has prepared for me just because it has some ham in it.

I became angry with myself. I started wondering just who the hell is this person, really? Who am I that I can so easily give up something I felt so strongly about once upon a time? Who am I that I can take all the hard work I did on my own body and well-being and let all that go by the wayside for some cheese? Who am I that I can take a thing that I once felt was so completely and totally wrong and turn it around so that it's right? And it all came down to the fact that I was just not allowing myself to be the person I truly am. I was suppressing my true feelings about things in order to be able to avoid conflict with others or not have to feel like I am defending myself constantly. Some of the time I was just being 100 percent lazy. And selfish, to boot. Seriously. I mean, there was a point when I hid some of my favorite vegan groups and pages in my Facebook feed because of the incredible guilt I was feeling about how I was eating and also because I didn't WANT to see the images that I KNEW would make me want to stop eating animals again. I didn't want to hear the truth. I definitely didn't want to see it.

But one day, I finally just had a serious confrontation with myself and laid it all out on the line. I don't want to kill animals. I don't want animals to die on my behalf. I don't want animals to suffer. It's wrong. And I cannot be in denial any longer. I need to be the person that I am and stop kidding myself and fooling myself and turning a blind eye to what is really happening. It is sometimes hard and overwhelming and I am just one person in this huge world. Sometimes that is the hardest part of it all. Knowing that I am not really doing much and I am not making that much of a difference simply because of the scale of this thing. I cannot even truly feel good about being vegan because so much suffering and death still exists in this world. Sometimes, I just have to allow myself to have the feels and not suppress them. Cry a long, painful cry and do the best I can to reconcile myself to the belief that just because I can't save all of them doesn't mean I should stop trying to save the few that I can. My impact may be small, but it still matters. I don't want to keep giving up because I feel so helpless. Imagine how the animals feel!

So, if you're here because you saw some video about how factory farming works and decided to go vegan tout suite, do not pass go, overnight, all or nothing, then welcome. I am glad that you are here and if I can give you one piece of advice it would be to not ever let anything deter you from your goal. And if you're here because you have been vegetarian for a long time and it clicked one day that you weren't doing enough and that eggs and dairy are just as bad for animals as meat, then I welcome you, too. If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to never let one slip-up (or even a series of slip-ups) derail your entire cause. Move on and move forward and don't beat yourself up too much about it. Don't stop. Keep making progress! And if you're here because you're in it for your own health or the health of the planet, perhaps trying to reverse diabetes or not have another heart attack or prevent one altogether, lose some weight, prevent Alzheimer's and live longer, then I welcome you, too. If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to keep your mind open. Read vegan blogs. Join vegan Facebook groups and forums. Follow vegans on Instagram. Go to meet-ups with other vegans in your town. Just because you're in it for you, don't avoid clicking the links to those animal welfare videos. Don't suppress the feelings it may evoke in you. Take it all in. You may find that the reason you stay is different from the reason you came, but in the end, we all benefit, animals and humans alike.

So, when I say that things have been bad for me lately, it's true. But it's also been necessary for me. It is easy for some to end their lifelong exposure to and consumption of animal products on a dime and never look back. It is not as easy for others. It is not easy to parse the entirety of veganism and what it means to each individual. There are many variables to deal with and it is sometimes a complex journey. What matters is that you keep making your way to the final destination which is: "...a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose."

So, it comes with great pleasure and relief to say that I am here for the animals. And I want to be here for you, too. No matter why you're here, I'm glad you're here and I welcome you.

If you need another place to feel welcomed while you're new at all this, I have to give a shout out to a group on Facebook called Trying Vegan that I have found to be just wonderful. It's an active group of about 4500 people and they're very supportive and helpful to those who are new to the diet and lifestyle and are great at getting you back on the right road after having a screw-up with gelatin or bone-char sugar or dough conditioners. There's definitely a learning curve when it comes to figuring out the lingo and reading labels. It's the perfect place for the newly vegan you to grow and learn.

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