My Story: Why and How I Went Vegan
My reasons mostly fit into the ethical and environmental categories, although I certainly appreciate the health benefits of a vegan diet.
One of my life mottos is "Do No Harm." The simple fact is that animals feel pain, they suffer. Farm animals aren't simply killed for food after living wonderful lives, no, they live in utter pain and misery for their whole lives because of the way they are raised. I am a vegan because I want to reduce the suffering of all animals; that is considered animal welfare. And, most of the animal suffering in the U.S. is due to the use of animals for food. I love all animals, and quite honestly, as George Bernard Shaw said, "Animals are my friends...and I don't eat my friends." So, while my first priority is reducing suffering aka animal welfare, I also believe in animal rights which means that I do not believe animals are our property to do with as we will.
How It Started: The Long Version
When I was 13-ish, I developed a huge crush on River Phoenix. I loved that boy something fierce. This was circa 1989, and I was in junior high. When people ask me about how I became vegan and I give them the long version of the story, I always start with that. They laugh and wonder how River Phoenix can possibly have anything to do with my veganism. And I’ll tell you.
I didn't collect Tiger Beat, Bop, or any of those other teen magazines, but I read them at the library. After discovering River Phoenix, I read a biography about him (River Phoenix: Hero & Heartthrob) which talked about how he and his family were vegans. I had never heard of vegetarianism before, much less veganism, and I had no idea that someone could even live like that. More importantly, I had no idea that animals were treated so inhumanely. River went from crush to role model in a heartbeat. Few others have ever had such an impact on me. I still feel it to this day.
In fact, I was devastated by River's death. I locked myself in my room for days, and cried my eyes out as I watched the news covering his overdose. For the longest time I refused to believe he even died of a drug overdose. I insisted it was a conspiracy and that it had to be something else, possibly even murder. Even today, and I don't know why, I have a hard time watching movies with his brother, Joaquin (also a vegan), in them. I can watch River's movies, though it's still a bit painful, but it is far more difficult for me to watch his brother's movies. I imagine this is because a part of me wishes it was River I was watching instead. I still miss him.
River truly inspired me. After reading his biography, I started to read everything I could about animal welfare/rights and to write letters to companies who tested on animals. I was very prolific. I wanted to stop eating meat right then and there. And I did.
But man, did my mom freak out about that! She was worried about my health. Back then, not a lot was commonly known about vegetarianism and there were a lot of myths that people could not be healthy with just a vegan diet. Heck, some of those myths are still circulated.
My mom and I had a legendary stand-off one night after I had first made my decision. She had made London Broil and I refused to eat it. I explained that I was abstaining from eating meat and hadn't eaten any in at least a week. She insisted that I would eat it or face disciplinary actions. Oh, it was bad! But it wasn't discipline that was going to sway me. My parents have always been very smart, reasonable, and practical people and their guidance has always been very valuable to me. Seeing my mom so distraught and upset had me questioning my decision and wondering if she was right about me endangering my health.
Somehow, after hours of yelling and screaming and sitting in anger, we both compromised. I agreed to eat turkey, chicken, shrimp, and clam chowder. And she agreed to cook those things for dinner. In fact, as a family we rarely ate beef after that. My mom started using ground turkey for most things, and I ate chicken burgers when everyone else had hamburgers. She also bought me my first vegetarian cookbook, Sunset's Vegetarian Cooking, which I still have. Oddly enough, I have rarely ever used it. Despite the step forward of eliminating some meat from my diet, I was still conflicted. I still wanted to be vegan. And I felt like I was choosing between my mother and River Phoenix. A part of me felt like I had let him down.
At that point, I called myself a semi-vegetarian. For 10 or so years I stayed a semi-vegetarian. I repressed the guilt and made myself believe I could not be vegetarian or vegan because it would be too hard and I didn’t want to cook for myself. Ignoring it all was easy until I finished my undergrad degree and moved out of my parent's house in 2001.
I suddenly had to start cooking for myself. I think I cleaned and cooked chicken just 3 or 4 times before I realized I could not do it ever again. I would hold those chicken breasts and see the blood and fat and veins and I’d come face to face with 'remembering' that these were animals I was eating. And I’d think about my cat and the chicken and how they were both living creatures, and who determined which animals we ate and which ones became pets. I could not fathom eating my beloved cat. And suddenly, I couldn't fathom eating any animals at all.
I gave myself a month-long trial of being lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning I would eat eggs and dairy but no meat. The changes stuck. I didn't go back. I had to rewire my brain and habits a bit, but otherwise, it was really easy. By this time my mom and family didn't blink an eye about me going vegetarian. I think they knew I was headed that direction all along. And there was a lot more information in the news about the vegetarian diet actually being quite healthy.
5 years later...April 1, 2006 I decided that I finally had to go vegan or at least try it for 30 days. I wasn’t convinced I could stick with veganism, but I desperately wanted to convert to an entirely plant-based diet if I could. I was already completely grossed out by eggs and the horror stories of egg production, I didn't particularly love cheese, and I already used soy products instead of regular milk and ice cream. It seemed like I was halfway there. And it definitely helped that a friend of mine had just committed to the vegan diet a few months earlier so I wasn’t in it alone. The 30 days went by so fast. In fact, I didn’t even realize the trial period was over until a week past it.
I was the happiest I had ever been and I loved being vegan. Finally my lifestyle and behaviors matched my ideals and I felt at peace. Going vegan was one of the best decisions I ever made. I’ve been vegan now for over 7 years and I know I always will be. One of the highlights of going vegan has been hosting an annual vegan thanksgiving-style dinner, and both omnivores and vegetarians come every year; it's my favorite new vegan tradition.
It took me a while to make the journey, River. But I made it. And things look so much better on this side.
Thank you, Riv. You are missed.
"Vegetarianism is a link to perfection and peace."