This article is going to be a lot more personal but it is something that I have wanted to write about for a long time and in honour of mental health week (which was actually two weeks ago, it took a while to finish this article), it felt like a good time to finally share this with you.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that I have only transitioned to a vegan diet last February but that I have been a vegetarian for almost a year now. However, since writing about vegetarianism/veganism I have never actually written an article about why I personally chose this lifestyle. I have mentioned the meat and dairy industry, which I find absolutely disgusting, but to be completely honest that was not the main reason for my dietary choice.
The main reason was my mental health.
DISCLAIMER: I am not trying to generalise eating disorders nor am I generalising veganism. I am not saying that switching to a vegan diet is the best way to recover and will cure your eating disorder, because it is not. It is helping me recover, yes, but it is not curing it in any way. Eating disorders are complex mental health issues that are different for every individual experiencing them and to truly recover takes so much more than a change of diet (e.g. therapy). This is my personal story, not a recovery guide. Thank you.
I will try not to bore you with my entire mental health story, mostly because there is just too much and because I still don’t feel 100% comfortable talking about it, so this article will only cover my struggle with food. Here goes.
I started dieting when I was twelve. Nothing harmful at first; I tried to eat more fruits and veggies, drink more water, excercise more, all the good stuff. Except that I was twelve, had a low self esteem, and consequentially became a bit too obsessed with the number on the scale. When I was thirteen and sick with a stomach bug I discovered the efficiency of self induced vomiting, so as my mental health got worse, I started using more and more unhealthy dieting methods as a coping mechanism. At that point it wasn’t even about losing weight anymore, it was about self destruction. A year later my parents found out and send me to a therapist. Four therapists later and a terrible relapse which made my parents and my best friend cry, I realised that my self destruction was everything but a self destruction. By hurting myself I was hurting everyone that was close to me and I couldn’t live with that, so I decided to genuinely do my best to recover (I was 16 going on 17 at that point). I found a new therapist and went to a nutritionist to get tested to see if anything was physically wrong with me. From my blood to the chemicals in my brain, everything pointed towards a slight depression: my dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline levels were lower that the average human being, but not low enough for antidepressants. So we decided to try it the natural way: a change of diet and supplements (iron, magnesium, omega 3, etc.) plus a tiny bit of lithium, in order to control the mood swings. That was it.
Then came my exchange year in the US. When I first started working on my application with AFS they told me that there was very little chance of me actually getting accepted into the program because of my struggles with my mental health. I worked extremely hard to cooperate in therapy and eat well in order to prove them that I was not a danger to myself anymore nor the people around me. It was exhausting, but it paid off. When I finally got accepted it made me the happiest person ever. However, there was one thing that terrified me about going to the US: gaining weight (I had already gained a healthy amount of weight back during my recovery, but I was nowhere near being fully recovered, so gaining more weight than was necessary frightened me). During the first month or so I tried not to eat too much but I quickly realised how sad that was making me. I was happy with my life in the US, the happiest I had been in years. I learned there that I did not need self destructive coping mechanisms to survive, I was fine without them. So I decided to educate myself on nutrition by watching documentaries and by joining a fitness class. If there was one thing that I had learned that past year was that taking care of your body also meant taking care of your mind.
By watching documentaries on nutriton I realised the health benefits of a vegan diet, this is when I decided that I wanted to reduce my animal product intake. Step by step though; first no meat or fish, then no milk, then no egss, and finally completely vegan. This transition took about nine months because it’s a transition that has to happen carefully. Going from an omnivorous to a herbivorous diet is not easy, and to not only survive but thrive on a plant based diet one must have a good enough knowledge of nutrition and how much of what the human body needs on a daily basis. This is why I tried to educate myself as much as I could before actually making the full transition.
Going from an eating disorder to veganism may seem like an radical switch, when you think about it they are complete opposites: one is extremely unhealthy, the other (if done right) is extremely healthy. One is centred around pain and destruction, the other on avoiding pain and destruction. One thing they have in common though, is the sense of control. My eating disorder was mainly about control over my food intake/weight/body because I couldn’t control anything else that was going on in my life. It was a sort of reassurance, knowing that I had this power. This is why for me becoming vegan was the best thing for my recovery: I still have that sense of control which helps me feel in control of everything else that is happening in my life, and I feel better about myself because I’m healthier and each day, on a vegan diet I save 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.
I’d be lying if I said that I was completely okay now, that I never find myself skipping a meal or crouched over the toilet anymore. I’m still recovering and I will be for a long time. Recovery is a slow, exhausting and painful process and as I said, a change of diet is not enough to recover from something as complex as an eating disorder. The good news though, is that I’m better. I haven’t had a drastic relapse in years and I haven’t been to therapy in a while either. I’m more comfortable with my body and am learning that self destruction is not the answer, that being healthy and compassionate is what’s going to make me happy.