This post isn’t by me. I’m extremely happy to be able to offer my blog as a space for a good friend to be able to write about her experiences of autism, veganism and mental health issues while protecting her anonymity. I think her words are extremely important – and they really, really resonate with me – so it’s a privilege to be able to host them here.
She writes …
Talking about my experiences with veganism being autistic and having mental health problems, is perhaps one of the hardest things I ever had to do. There are a lot of reasons that I never intended to talk to anybody about all these things because for many (if not most people) my ideas will be fairly controversial and, perhaps most importantly, it would give them an insight on my personal life that I am not sure I am comfortable with them having. But then again, I have to tell somebody, someday… Because I am pretty sure that am not the only one struggling with these issues or thinking this way. First of all, I want to talk about why I am a vegan. Then I want to talk about how having multiple other identities (autistic, highly anxious individual, immigrant, Greek etc) highly impacted on my ability to adhere by the standards of veganism on various occasions during my life.
My decision to become a vegan was at first out of empathy (yes autistics have a lot of that, despite common beliefs). I always loved animals and I cannot see animals suffer. As many people who include meat in their diet, I did not think of the death the animal that was on my plate had to go through, or their life for that matter. I kind of knew what meat was, but I never really realised it. After all, it looks so freaking different from the whole form of the animal it was taken from (except from fish, but I always considered fish as something a little more than swimming plants for some reason) for my literal mind to make any kind of connection between the two. Interestingly, my first disgust for red meat came when I sliced my finger and removed a piece of skin big enough that you could see underneath it. I then saw my “meat” in all its bloody gore and it looked so freaking similar to the red meat I had been eating that I could not stand the mere sight of red thereafter. For a large part of my life (and despite my father’s, who grew up in an animal farm, gross descriptions of the massacre of the Christmas pig or the journey of the Easter lambs from the day they were born to the slaughterhouse) I believed that the animals that I was eating were living a happy and peaceful life in the valleys and mountains of Greece and one day the just dropped dead so humans went and picked them up much like apples from a tree and brought them to the rest of us humans to eat so that they don’t get wasted. It’s fair to say that I was pretty resistant in comprehending the cruelty that was attached to my dinner choices.
I was first introduced to vegetarianism through a group of spiritual/new age people I used to hang out with at university and their main argument was that meat affects your vibrations, as you consume all the negative feelings of the animal that you are eating. Needless to say I found that argument silly and I wasn’t convinced. Even after becoming vegan I was relatively angry at those people who used such silly arguments to promote vegetarianism, when there are so many serious and legitimate reasons for people to minimise their animal product consumption.
Around late 2011 I was introduced to the concept of veganism for the first time in my life by spending my recently graduated mostly unemployed free time on the internet following links one after the other. And I saw everything. I saw the posts. I saw the videos. I saw the death. I saw the suffering. I saw the factory conditions. And I was horrified. I was hugging my pillow and crying for days. I was emailing slaughterhouse videos to my mother begging her to not serve me meat again, only to hear that these things “only happen in America” and in Greece things are far more humane. Regardless, I started firmly believing that it was wrong of me to use and abuse any animal for my own personal pleasure. Plus, there was another big motivator: according to the internet if I became a vegan I would magically lose all the extra weight that I hated and was bullied of for all my life, the weight which, at the time, embodied everything that I hated about myself and everything that differentiated me from other people (pffff… yeah. One topic at a time). So I made a decision: after the Christmas holiday is over (because I considered it to be impossible for me to tell my parents that I am not going to eat turkey at Christmas) I would go vegan. And I did. And it lasted. For a month…
And here is the vicious circle of my eating habits as manifested by my efforts to “go vegan” and stay vegan.
- Buying lots of vegan food and filling up the fridge
- Cooking with the vegan ingredients and trying very hard to manage food planning on top of every other aspect of my life.
- Having my anxiety taking over my life (as it often did and does) and failing to manage any aspect of life, let alone my food consumption.
- Failing at eating a vegan diet, feeling like a horrible person, eating my feelings away and feeling even worse about it.
There are a lot of things that veganism made me realise about my eating habits.
I realised that one of the few ways I have to control my anxiety is eating. The other one is self-harming. I know this is going to be a controversial opinion but I consider (superficial) self-harming (aka cutting myself on the arms/wrists with a razor) to be the healthier option, because it makes more sense to me to damage my body “cosmetically” in ways that are going to be easy to heal than damaging in internally in ways that are probably be more harmful in the long term. But the problem with it is that it leaves scars. Scars that other people can see. Scars that are going to tell people things and scars that people are going to make assumptions about, assumptions you don’t want to necessarily want them to make because it feels like inviting them into your problems, even unintentionally. With eating, nobody can see you do it. You can sit alone in your room and eat to your heart’s content whatever you want and then wash your hands, brush your teeth and, unless you have been consuming whole bulbs of garlic one after the other, nobody will ever know what you did.
I realised how deeply entangled our food habits are to who we are. I realised how much culture, relationships, exchange of love and even identity revolve around food. When I first mentioned that I am going vegan to my family members and few friends, I had to endure everything from hearing that it will only be a fleeting phase that I won’t stick to, to collective verbal attacks and abuse about who stupid me and my choices are, to my grandmother’s frustration that I can’t eat her chicken livers in tomato sauce (a dish that was a really strong bonding thing between the two of us during my childhood and adolescence – and I have a REALLY strong bond with my grandmother), to my every “why do you have to be so pedantic and difficult, it just has a little bit of egg white in it” that my ex-boyfriend told me after every accidentally non-vegan dish that he would cook for me (one of the many, many reasons I was constantly told that I was pedantic and difficult). I realised the ridiculously high level of questions and unwanted communication it brings from other people, from genuine curiosity to having to hear yet another silly joke about cows’ tits and how huge they are because of all the milk.
I also realised something that should be fairly obvious: my eating habits will always be with me, coexisting with the rest of my life for the rest of my life. They were there when I was crying every day after school in my first job as a special education teacher for the way my students were treated. There were there when I discovered I was autistic. They were there when my mother used to chase me around the table to get the resignation form out of my hand when I wanted so desperately to quit, because the other teachers simply refused to listen what I struggle so much to communicate. They were there when I was rejected by the (then) love of my life and best friend. They were there when I moved to a whole other country. They were there when I did my master’s, whilst trying to get used to living to a whole other country, all by myself and not knowing literally anyone. They were there when I graduated and was making £600 a month at my first job. They were there when I had to move house, after house, after house. They were there when I was sitting on the bathroom floor, trying to think of ways to end my life. They were there when life got impossible. They were always there… And with the already very disturbed relationship I have with food as well as the ever-present anxiety that never leaves me alone and escalates to extremely dangerous heights from time to time (actually feeling like a heart attack), I tried to manage them as best as I could.
If I was ever to publish a diary of everything that I eat in a day for everyday for an extended period of time, the title people would give me, at best, is “mostly vegan”. Many vegans in particular would be absolutely disgusted by me and my inability to “stick to a vegan diet”. They would call me a bad representation of veganism, give me unsolicited “well-meaning” advice on nutrition and the effect of what I eat on my mental health, mountains and mountains of nutrition pseudoscience and about how to deal with my mental health problems or what they might mean, I would get told repeatedly about how I need to think about “the animals first” and about how they have it worse than I ever could (which, to an extent is true, chances are that I will never be tied upside down, dipped in electrocuted water and then passed in front of a throat-cutting machine that may or may not get my throat and then skinned, possibly still alive), hell, I might even get death threats, as such is the way that the internet seems to work, particularly in certain circles.
But here’s the thing: the definition of veganism 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.” And here’s my question: who gets to decide what is “possible and practicable”? Who gets to tell me how manageable my anxiety is, from their perspective of course, and how they “also had an eating disorder” but they overcame it by doing this and that magical little thing? Because in any way other than my anxiety, I have done EVERYTHING I possibly could to be the best vegan advocate that I can. I have learned to cook amazing vegan food that has left even the most hardcore of carnivores utterly satisfied. I have talked about veganism and what it means for me in every given opportunity to people I met. I have spent hours and hours thinking about what is the most effective ways to talk about these things and to who. I have read practically every single thing that there is on the internet about veganism and the vegan lifestyle. I have read practically every single book that was written on the subject, or at least added it to my Amazon wish list. In true autie mode, I thought that the more I learned about veganism, the more of a chance I actually had to stick to it one day. And therein lies an important distinction that needs to be made: my problems were never about veganism. My problems were about how I manage my anxiety and how it manifests in my life because of my individual set of traits. I know many other auties who are vegan and many more anxious people who are also vegans and their anxiety or autistic predispositions have nothing to do with their food choices or even their eating habits. I don’t think that veganism is incompatible with those who have mental health problems or are autistic. In fact, I don’t think that veganism is incompatible with the anybody’s lifestyle, considering they live in the western developed world, above the poverty and don’t have multiple serious food allergies. But I do think that some people, even if they don’t belong in the aforementioned categories, will have a much bigger trouble sticking to a vegan diet. Particularly for those on the autism spectrum, food sensitivities and food aversions may be a huge factor, as well as executive functioning difficulties. At the end of the day, some people find life harder than others, regardless of any individual choices they have to make.
So then what about my veganism? Why do I insist on calling myself a vegan even if I struggle this much to stick to a vegan diet? For me, veganism is a very political decision. I disagree with the assumptions people make about (some) animals. I disagree with the idea of animal ownership and the concept of having complete control over another individual’s way of living and lifespan. I disagree with the idea of human superiority. And many other misconceptions humans have about non-human animals. I also am particularly concerned about the way the food system currently operates and the current food waste levels (which is not an exclusively vegan problem of course, but it is gets particularly alarming when animal products are wasted, given the amount of food, water, space and pollution that went into creating those animal products). I am very concerned with the conditions slaughterhouse workers have to work under, particularly in pass production lines. I am extremely concerned about the environmental implications of animal agriculture. The list goes on, there are so many different issues affiliated with the consumption of animal products.
But perhaps of the most relevance is the fact that I don’t want you to know about my mental health problems or about how I handle them. Shocking as it may sound, I actually consider them a personal matter. And saying that I am “mostly vegan” will first of all be a painful reminder of all my failures and a reason for anybody else to ask me why “mostly vegan” or what I mean by “mostly vegan”. It will give an excuse to people to treat my veganism less seriously and serve me animal products whenever they felt it is most convenient for them to do so. And at the end of the day for all intents and purposes I AM a vegan. Because I am vegan “as much as it is possible and practicable”. It is neither possible nor practicable for me to be a vegan when under acute anxiety. And that is something that I have to deal with, not anyone else. And anxiety is something that, as much as it very much controls my life sometimes, it doesn’t define my identity.
I sincerely hope that I find better ways to manage my anxiety for many reasons, not the least of which is my honest and deep desire to not contribute in any way towards the animal agriculture industry ever again. Veganism is something that I very firmly believe in and I fully intend to be a vegan for the rest of my life. Vegan options are growing by the day and I believe that the day when I’ll have readily available vegan options on those distressing times is not very far. Until then, I’ll do the best I can. And that’s the only thing anybody can promise.