It has been a while—far too long, I think—since I shared a Green Recovery post. But I’m happy to return to the series with a particularly wonderful submission. This one is from Angela, a graduate student working toward her Master’s in Public Health. Angela is an exceptionally thoughtful and articulate writer, and I think you’ll find that she has a very interesting perspective on the the connections between veganism and recovery. In particular, I think Angela illuminates some of the anxieties that arise with “coming out” as a vegan when you have an ED history, and she speaks to a lot of crucial issues of identity and self acceptance. It’s a long submission, so I won’t say more till the end. I hope you all enjoy it every bit as much as I did.
I told myself I was just going to get “healthy”, a term that means everything and nothing in our society. In response to gaining some weight after starting a new medication during high school, and consequently feeling very self-conscious in tightening jeans and clinging clothes, I started to reduce my portion sizes, eat less junk food, and exercise more. However, in the context of my perfectionist, obsessive tendencies, this mentality was quickly distorted into starvation, drastic weight loss, excessive exercise, and social isolation. These habits followed me on a trip to Italy during my junior year of high school, during which I fueled myself with art, music, architecture, and scenery rather than the culinary classics of Italian cuisine—gelato? Just one lick. Pizza? I’ll pass. Spaghetti? Snubbed.
It wasn’t until I returned from that trip, just short of skeletal and missing my periods, that my parents brought me to a therapist and nutritionist for a much needed wake up call and intervention. Though I gradually gained back weight to a healthy level, I still left those appointments feeling like I was just being told what to do, that I wasn’t really tapping into the core causes of my disorder. In the end it wasn’t a psychiatrist that helped me begin a genuine recovery process, it was a puppy. And it wasn’t a prescribed nutritional plan that helped improve my dietary behaviors, it was a yoga practice that fed my mind, body, and spirit.
During my years as an undergraduate I was understandably overwhelmed by tackling schoolwork, navigating new social spheres, exploring laboratory research, and pursuing internships, all while confronting my eating disorder. The president of the college was kind enough to let me walk his two Irish Setters and I quickly found our strolls around the quad to be quite therapeutic, helping me disconnect from the everyday stresses surrounding my school life and eating disorder. Recognizing this effect, and since I was still commuting to college from home, I convinced my parents to allow me to get a canine companion of my own. That’s when Nella, a standard poodle, was introduced into my life and recovery story.
Image of Nella © Ty Foster Photography
Nella reminded me to smile and laugh more often, to eat enough so I’d have the energy to run and play with her, and to accept myself for who I was as a person, not for my weight or size—things that meant nothing to her. As fate would have it, not long after bringing this puppy home, I started experiencing digestive issues and Nella did, too. During the time we were trying to figure out what was wrong I spent many hours commiserating with my puppy, and found myself asking, why love one animal and eat another? A question I couldn’t answer. We eventually figured out that Nella had a sensitive stomach and could only tolerate a certain kind of dog food and that I was lactose intolerant. On my 20th birthday I made the choice to stop eating animals and, by default, became vegan overnight.
At the college I attended I also had access to free weekly yoga classes. As I developed my practice and understood the unique healing effects of breathing, stretching, and mindful movement, I was able to begin reconnecting with my body, develop a new awareness of my feelings, and bridge the divide between my mental and physical self.
Both of these activities allowed me to decompress during the week and relieve the stress and anxiety that I was diverting to my eating disorder. After becoming vegan and continuing to research this lifestyle, it slowly became easier to talk about food, enjoy meals, and even feel proud of my diet. Instead of focusing on myself—how I looked, how much I weighed, how little I could eat in a day and get by—and hiding what I was, or wasn’t, consuming, I was able to appreciate what a vegan diet gives to others—life to animals, a better environment, food for the hungry rather than farmed animals, and optimal nutrition.
Despite these revelations I had plateaued in my recovery. Though I don’t think individuals ever completely recover from eating disorders, in the sense of being cured of an illness, and I had gained back the weight I had lost, I didn’t feel that I had totally reached a point of peace. I still assumed that there were two groups in society, those with eating disorder histories and those without, and that since I had succumbed to an eating disorder I had fundamentally changed and could never be like “normal” people.
At first I used to think to myself, I can’t be vegan because I’ve had an eating disorder and others will assume I made this choice to continue restricting my food. I can’t train to run races, because I’ve had an eating disorder and enjoying exercise will make others think I’m still obsessed with burning calories. Or, I have to eat junk food to prove I no longer have an eating disorder. And, how can I pursue a career in public health or nutrition, if I couldn’t even take care of myself.
But, I’ve realized that I can’t let my eating disorder continue to define how I see myself and assume others see me. I can’t let it keep me from expressing my enthusiasm for plant-based eating and embracing my interest in public health and nutrition. I’m not confined to the boundaries of one social box. As a unique, always-learning and ever-changing person I have a multifaceted identity that reflects my experiences and relationships with a spectrum of people. And, just because one aspect of my personality predisposed me to an eating disorder, doesn’t mean I have to abandon the rest of my traits or construe them as automatically part of my eating disorder past.
I’m not interested in nutrition so that I can analyze every calorie I consume, I’m fascinated by how macro and micro nutrients function within the body and how greatly food can influence our health and well being. I don’t decline some offers to go out to eat at restaurants with friends because veganism is impossibly restrictive or I’m afraid one meal will cause my waistline to expand, I’m an introvert at heart that prefers to spend some quiet time alone to decompress after a long week. I’m not interested in veganism so that I can restrict what foods I eat or appear elitist, I’m passionate about how this diet can reduce suffering and environmental harm, and I strive to be a good role model for other veg-curious acquaintances, friends, and relatives. Now, are there times I still make choices based on feelings of self-consciousness or anxiety? Yes, and I think many people do the same whether they’ve ever had an eating disorder or not. But now I can recognize these motives for what they are, learn from them, and move forward instead of letting a situation spiral into a harmful relapse episode.
What it comes down to is that I no longer feel compelled to have to defend or define myself. I just have to be true to myself, unapologetically Angela.
I’ve also made a concerted effort not to let my perfectionism continue to control me in other ways. I’ve come to accept that I’m not a vegan super heroine who can spout off nutritional facts on the fly, who unabashedly eats anything as long as it’s technically vegan, who has the boldness to approach any fur-wearing person I cross paths with, who has a social life involving weekly dinners out where I revolutionize omnivorous menus or the skills to whip up vegan goodies for every event on the calendar. The ideal of the all-accepting, ever-advocating, everything-in-moderation, guilt-free, social butterfly found at the intersection of mainstream and vegan social media, is not me. Of course, I try my best to do what I can when and where I am able, ascribing the Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s ethos of, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. Do something. Anything.” But I give myself permission to not try to be the perfect vegan, the extraordinary animal rights activist, or the quintessential healthy, active young adult. I’m focusing on developing the skills I do have to help make the world a better place for all beings.
Now, if I was an outgoing, daring, extrovert as a youth and adolescent before my eating disorder set in, then I might be concerned that some of my choices and behaviors were still truly restrictive, limiting, and disordered. On the contrary, I’ve always been reserved, quiet, and contemplative, and veganism has allowed me to celebrate and reveal the best side of these traits. In fact, introverts have personality traits that make them sympathetic to the plight of animals and veganism, and I believe these traits can converge with classic eating disorder symptoms. For some there is a fuzzy line between personality and paranoia that’s often hard to discern from both an internal and external perspective, especially considering research shows there is a genetic predisposition for developing an eating disorder. However, I think it’s possible to develop a healthy mind-body relationship without compromising your character, whether introvert or extrovert, and feeling like you’re trying to be someone you’re not. Granted, my personality traits may evolve over time, and I’m completely open to that, but they won’t change because I feel pressured to embody the antithesis of a woman with an eating disorder or a complacent vegan. I also recognize that it’s healthy to explore your edges and honor your ambitions, but I feel that this should be done in an organic, intuitive way.
Gandhi is quoted as saying, “My life is my message” –a poignant statement considering the truth of the adage “actions speak louder than words”, and the shortcomings of words to capture our deepest feelings. I hope that my life’s message resounds with compassion, joy, justice, nonviolence and honesty. You may walk to the same beat, but each of us plays a different instrument to create societal rhythms. It’s my hope that all of us can appreciate the tone, pitch, notes and sounds of the instruments that we play, so that we can ultimately harmonize to create a symphony of peace that reverberates throughout the world.
Angela is a graduate student expected to earn her Master in Public Health degree in May 2013, after which she plans to pursue a MS in Human Nutrition. Her Master’s thesis focuses on the association between self-efficacy and food security. She has also earned a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University. Angela is interested in the intersections between public health, nutrition, environmental health, and animal rights. She hopes to incorporate these interests into her work, by exploring careers in the research, practice, and policies of food systems. When not studying or working as a research assistant, Angela enjoys freelance writing, photography and spending time with her companion animals.
Thank you, Angela, for an incredibly intelligent, honest, and eloquent Green Recovery post!
One thing that stands out to me from Angela’s story is the way her veganism and her embracing of her own identity seem to have developed concurrently. I also have found that my self-acceptance and sense of identity have benefitted from my veganism. For me, opening up about my veganism took a certain kind of courage and confidence; I was a little worried about how I’d be perceived, and concerned about some of the stereotypes that people attach to the word. Today, I could care less about those stereotypes or whether or not anyone wants to associate them with me. Veganism is a part of my identity, and it’s a part I’m proud of—misconceptions be damned. It’s no surprise to me that, since developing this kind of comfort with my vegan activism, I’ve become far more able to embrace other parts of my personality that I have historically tried to “tone down,” perhaps because I sensed they might be threatening to others: my assertiveness, my candor, my directness, my ambition.
I can also relate to Angela’s sense of discomfort with being a “model vegan.” I think we all have an editorialized, magazine-ready image of the “perfect” vegan role model in our minds: a brilliant and strong, yet gentle advocate; a graceful and talented cook; a person who is compassionate and kind at every turn; a person who oozes social responsibility. On any given day, I can think of tons of men and women who seem to me, for different reasons, to be vegan role models: Colleen Patrick Goudreau, Jasmin Singer, Angela Liddon, Kathy Patalsky, JL Fields, Ginny Messina (to name only a few). They seem to embody strength, class, and culinary genius, they make vegan food look incredible without breaking a sweat, and they model the lifestyle with grace. I often wish I had Angela or Kathy’s culinary genius, JL’s energy and dynamism, Jasmin’s conviction, Ginny’s analytical brilliance, or Colleen’s elegance and kindness. On many days, I feel far too harried and disorganized, far too uncreative, far too selfish or acerbic or prone to judgment to be a great vegan advocate.
But then I remember that there is no “perfect” vegan role model, nor single way to share the lifestyle. We all help to share veganism simply by being our best selves. And to me, “best” has nothing to do with that most dreadful of words, “perfect.” It means living bravely and honestly. When I live this way, I feel I’ve done justice to veganism as a movement, to the animals whose lives we are trying to fight for, and to me. Unapologetically Gena.
I’d love to know what you think of Angela’s story. Which parts of it ring true to you? Have you ever shared Angela’s anxieties about how your veganism would be interpreted, or whether people would unfairly conflate it with parts of your personal history? I’d love to know.
Happy weekend, all.