My Vegan Story
I became a fully committed vegan in February of 2016, though my journey began many years before then. I was never someone you might have expected to go vegan - I'm a foodie (notoriously hard to convince that there's a culinary world outside of meat and cheese), I'm Latina (our cultural food is very meat-centric), I was a picky eater who hated vegetables, and I learned most of what I know about food through my time living in France (also not vegan-friendly). By all measures, I am, and was, about as average and standard as you could imagine living in America. I grew up on my moms delicious Colombian food and on the Standard American Diet (aka the SAD diet), I ate junk like any teenager or college student, and I had little desire to change my habits. I was just like probably everyone reading this, including most vegans before becoming vegan, and as such, an unlikely candidate for a *seemingly* radical lifestyle change.
My journey towards veganism began as an extension of my slow journey towards finding health (you can read more about it here). After years in college, eating entire boxes of frozen pizza rolls during study sessions, eating Lean Cuisines because I thought they were healthy and would make me lose weight, or eating 3 bowls of cereal for dinner because I didn't know how to cook, I went to the doctor one day years after college and discovered that I had really high cholesterol. Shocker, I know. I've always been at a healthy weight and I've always exercised so I thought I was fine, but inside my body was slowly heading down the path towards heart disease and death and I had no idea, nor did I care to know. Ignorance was bliss, until those tests came in. Suddenly, I was mortal, I had an expiration date, and it would be sooner than expected if I didn't change something quickly. In my sudden interest in health, I stumbled upon Forks Over Knives - an incredible documentary highlighting the benefits of a plant-based diet for reversing, curing, and preventing disease and for promoting optimum health and wellness. I was sold. From that moment on, I was determined to eat as plant-based as possible, and I really started to fall in love with simplifying my diet and eating things from the earth. It felt good in my body right away and that fog I had learned to live with suddenly lifted. It was obvious that plant-based eating was a miracle drug and I wanted in.
This was probably around 2011 and while the concept of veganism/being plant-based seemed appealing, I also was not ready to give up many foods (including cheese, the obvious final clinger food) so my mentality was mostly relaxed and circumstantial about when and how I ate plant-based. I thought of it as a diet, so like with most diets, the occasional (or regular) treat was always fine and I never felt guilt over eating what I wanted because I am and will always be a foodie and I wanted to enjoy my life. I also moved to France so naturally my efforts to become vegan fell by the wayside as I was surrounded by cheese, butter, and meat for every meal. In France, when I could cook for myself, I'd usually cook vegan (mostly because it was cheapest), and I occasionally looked for the hidden vegan gems around the city, but generally speaking, I was 100% omnivorous and that was fine for that time in my life. I never look back at this period of growth with any regret - I was not ready to be vegan yet, and thats ok.
Years went on and I would pick up spurts of veganism when I felt re-inspired to get healthy. I'd go plant-based for a few months, and then some event would come up and I'd drop it and go back to omnivorous eating, though slowly reducing things like dairy and red meat. I eventually began to dig a little deeper and I learned that a plant-based/vegan lifestyle also has huge benefits for the environment, so I found another motivation to stick with it since I always fancied myself a bit of an environmentalist and I want to do my part for the planet. Veganism started to grow stronger in my mind as I kept going back to the fundamental knowledge that it was the healthiest way to live and the wonderful bonus that it was great for the planet. A few major life-changing events (death in the family, etc) sparked a deep and painful existential fear of dying or losing loved ones and I became profoundly attached to the idea of living as healthy as I could for the sake of myself and the ones I love. I started to see the ways in which I had been poisoning and slowly killing myself and I saw myself with my now-fiance (then-boyfriend) and I knew I wanted to live forever and ever with him. Life became precious and I started to see that I had the capacity to take control over my fate, so my motivation to eat right and care for myself grew wings and flew.
All of these events inched me slowly towards veganism but in February of 2016, I found the missing link that propelled me entirely into living a truly vegan life, for life: I watched Earthlings. This part of the story was another tangential journey beginning in childhood and climaxing one day on the bus home from work. I've always been an animal lover in as much as most of us are animal lovers. We say hi to cute dogs we see in public, maybe we have pets, we get sad when animals are hunted in the wild, we love movies like Babe and Free Willy, and in some peripheral way, we know that meat is sad but we just aren't connected to it. My first pet was a hamster named Jeffrey and when he died I cried a lot. I was 8. My second pet was a black lab named Shakira and she was my soul mate and I still miss her every day. She died suddenly and tragically in my arms when my sister and I took her for a walk in our pajamas one day. She was 5, I was 17. Then we got Bailey and I learned I could love another dog again and she's almost 12 years old and still acts like a puppy. In college we had fish and hamsters and I loved each of them as much as you can love a fish or a hamster. J and I got Elliott and Hugo, our amazing cats, in the last few years, and I've felt more love for an animal than I ever thought humanly possible. Animals have played a role in my life as much as they have for most people and I would venture to guess that most people have a similar pet-history as mine. Any way you look at it, I'm an animal lover. I was never an animal activist or someone who worked closely with animals on a daily basis, nor was I a biologist, veterinarian, horse trainer, or farmer. I'm just a normal person who has loved animals on a personal level and has seen the beauty that they possess in the ways their souls fill ours.
Somehow I rarely ever made the connection between the animals that I loved and the animals that I ate. I had glimpses of sudden awareness at various memorable points in my life, but nothing lasted longer than a few moments. As a kid one time my parents made lobster for dinner but first they let us play with the live lobsters in the sink. I named them and gave them personalities and then suddenly they were on my plate, dead, and I was disgusted and refused to eat dinner. One time I was preparing a whole roasted chicken for dinner and as I was cleaning it under the sink, I realized I was holding a dead animal. I hated the thought so I turned on some music and continued cooking. I never allowed myself to "go there" because I knew it would be painful and sickening and I wasn't ready to accept the truth, so I avoided it. The small voice in the back of my head, the little voice that cuddled every night with Elliott and Hugo on the couch, the voice that cried when Shakira died, the voice that got a little bit sad at the zoo or that felt enraged when animals like Harambe were killed… it got stronger and stronger, and I became moderately open to learning a bit more about what happens to animals in the food system. I thought buying humane meat was a good solution so I bought ground beef from my local farmers market and patted myself on the back for my good deed of the day. I bought cage free eggs and smiled at the idea of all the cute chickens laying eggs for me. I felt like a real saint for the most part but even when the meat was organic, I still had these flashes of realization that it was also dead.
In college one of my roommates who liked to torture herself by watching horror movies and videos like "2 Girls 1 Cup" told me she had just found this really "f***ed up" movie that I needed to watch because it would change my life. She said it was called Earthlings and for some reason the name of the movie stuck with me almost 10 years later, when I was thinking about her, about that conversation, and about whether or not I should find out what that movie was after all. Out of sheer twisted curiosity, I looked up 'Earthlings' on YouTube on my bus ride back home after work one day in February and I started watching (with headphones and a privacy screen, don't worry). Joaquin Phoenix's sultry voice prepared me for a journey I was utterly unprepared to take on, and about 45 minutes in, after crying silently into my scarf the whole ride, I paused it, got off at my bus stop, ran home anxiously to finish. I climbed my 3 flights of stairs, shaking still from what I had already witnessed, and who greeted me at the door with a big happy 'meow'? My two furry kitties, waiting excitedly for mommy to come home. I saw their adorable little faces and I lost it. I suddenly made the connection that I had avoided making my entire life. Primed with the suffering of animals being tortured and exploited for our consumption, their blood still burning in my minds eye and their cries of death and despair ringing in my ears, I saw these two beautiful, healthy, happy critters who I adore and I knew immediately that they were not so different from the ones I had been consuming. I saw them as equals and I saw myself as one of them and suddenly it all made sense. I finished watching Earthlings with my two cats on my lap, crying hysterically the whole time, at one point even screaming at the TV during the scene when they show the torture and abuse of circus elephants - I yelled through my raging tears, "STOP IT! STOP HURTING HIM!!" I was physically ill. I was broken. I had been awakened, and I understood now that life could never be the same. I had shielded myself and contributed to the most oppressive, violent, corrupt system on earth and I hadn't cared until now. My heart hurt. How did I not know?
That night I lay down on the floor and cried while my two cats licked my hair and purred in my arms. I felt as though they were my conduits to the rest of the animal world, like by loving them deeply I could stay connected to other animals that I had never met who may be suffering. I saw real pain in that movie and I wished nothing but to protect my cats, my dogs, my friends, my family, and myself from that enormous suffering and I knew instinctively that I would never eat an animal or its secretions ever again. I was reborn, given a new opportunity to be my best and highest self, to align my actions with my values rather than live in dissonance, and I was reconnected to my inner compassion and sensitivity which suddenly opened up my heart to love and be loved in ways I never knew were possible. Watching that movie rocked me to my core but it healed me profoundly.
I committed to veganism then and there. I got rid of whatever food I could and I planned out my meals for the next day, which wasn't too hard since I already had a fundamental understanding of vegan food from my many attempts over the years at becoming plant-based. I called my dad and told him I was vegan now and he wished me luck and then made a lame joke about missing out on salmon and I gave him a sarcastic laugh and let it go. I knew it would be a journey ahead but I was prepared to do it, as now I finally had a purpose, a connection, a mission, and an alignment to my true self. It felt good to do good and I was happy.
I will be sharing a post about my first year as a vegan in a few months, but I will say this now: As of writing this (October 2016), being vegan has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. The health benefits have been monumental (no more cholesterol, lost weight, better sleep, better skin, stronger nails, better hair, better teeth, more energy, stronger muscles, more endurance, less anxiety, improved mood, etc etc etc) but the emotional and psychological benefits have been life-changing. A friend once asked me if being vegan was easy and I said this, "Yes. The process itself may have an initial learning curve, but living in a way that is aligned with your values is the easiest thing in the world."
Veganism is good. It is great. I couldn't be more grateful to have found this life.