Saturday, April 25, 2015

Animal Free Reaffirmation

Two and half years ago, I began living life as a vegan.  For those who haven't read the post describing the transition,  allow me to offer a brief recap. [And if that doesn't sound appealing or you have doubts as to whether or not I can truly be brief, simply scroll down a few paragraphs]   

Returning from a 3 week trip to the Philippines in 2012, I was rejuvenated and grateful for my heritage and my roots, but I had consumed entirely way too much meat as I strove to honor the gesture of the meals that were prepared especially for us as well as my role as a guest in the homes of family and friends.  So to "cleanse," I decided I would follow a strictly vegan diet for 1-2 weeks upon arriving in Austin to give my digestive system a chance to rest and recover.  

The decision that I did not make came when I attempted to reintroduce meat into my diet just over a week later.

Celebrating my roommate's birthday, he had made way too much white bean and chicken chili, and feeling bad that so much might go to waste, I decided to have some.  But once it entered my mouth, I was literally unable to chew.  My jaws would not move.  There was this feeling of confusion and an overwhelming emotion that something was not right.  And just like my reaction to tequila, the chili ejected itself right out of my mouth and back into the bowl.  

As I've learned over the years, my body does not tend to mince words.

So I stuck with it, always allowing myself the freedom to change my diet again when it felt right or when my body expressed a desire to alter its course once again.  But in these last 30 months, that has not happened.  Meat has not appealed to any of my senses and I have not desired it nor missed it.  And if anything, my body and my mind have thrived in its absence, seeming to accelerate as my diet continued streamlining towards whole foods with an emphasis on local, seasonal, and organic produce.  After decades of struggling with food and my body's broken record response of feeling bloated,  pained, chronically fatigued, disconnected, and malnourished despite the "balanced diet" I was told would heal me, I was experiencing an entirely new level of peace with my physical being.  And just as my body is direct in telling my when things are wrong, I discovered that it could be equally direct in letting me know when things are right.  And I found happiness and I found self-love.  

[cue violin cadenza]

So now fast forward to 7 weeks ago.

On the bus making my way to meet a friend for dinner at a new restaurant she wanted to try, I receive a text that her car has broken down in the rain and that she will be unable to meet me.  Being only 5 minutes away at that point, I decided to follow through and scout the restaurant for our next opportunity to go together.  I sit down to inspect the menu, and find gluten free, vegetarian, and paleo options clearly marked, but no mention of vegan.  A server visits the table and after sharing some questions with him, he promptly consults with the kitchen to verify the "veganness" of the refried beans and guacamole.  He returns with suggestions on how to modify the two vegetarian tacos to make them both vegan and gluten-free and we're off to the races.

They arrive quickly, and the server presents the tacos wrapped in jicama, smiling and verifying that they are both vegan and gluten free.  A large monitor is mounted over the bar, and a complicated interrogation scene is taking place.  As I take my first bite of the taco with spinach, refried beans, and avocado, the lawyer deliberately bumps the detective who is holding a cup of coffee, and it spills all over him.  That's when I notice something in my mouth that is very chewy and sinewy.  Very unlike refried beans, spinach, or avocado.  And into my hand I spit a large piece of steak.

A cold sweat breaks over me.  My server is helping a long line of people at the bar, and I begin scanning the room for someone that could help me.  I begin to feel my pulse quickening.  Across the restaurant, a group of friends clink their bottles of beer and cheer in celebration of some event or achievement.  It is deafening.  A couple who appear to be on a date sit next to me at the empty table.  I begin to gather my things, doing my best to not appear frantic, putting on my jacket, and zipping it up tightly as my knees start to bounce.  My throat feels dry, but I do not want to ask for water nor do I want to drink anymore of the ginger beer I ordered.  The door to the restaurant opens a few feet from me and I feel the wind gust in heavy with the smell of rain, ozone, and car exhaust.  The interrogation scene is over.

My server appears to greet the couple who have just sat, and coming over to my table he asks if I am enjoying everything.  This is normally that time when someone asks how the food is and you respond with a general affirmation that everything is fine.  I would have loved to have done that.  But instead, I have to point out the partially chewed piece of meat, and I have to see his smile disappear and the blood rush from his face.  He is profuse with apology, explaining that it's a small kitchen, and that maybe meat from the cutting board fell into the pot of beans, asking if I want the one I bit into remade or if he can offer me something else.  And then I have to tell him honestly that all I want to do at that moment is leave.  He is understanding, and as I hand him a cash tip for his troubles, he says that he hopes I will come back.  I silently nod, and then I am gone, walking at punishing pace into the evening.

The common concern expressed when someone who is vegetarian or vegan eats meat is with the physical consequences of consuming meat (e.g., "Did your stomach hurt?" "Did you get nauseous?").  But as I walked away through the parking lot towards the sidewalk, the sickness I felt had nothing to do with my digestion.  I was flooded with emotions, on the edge of crying, screaming, and punching a wall.  My skin was crawling, and try as I might, I was struggling to slow my breath.  And my mouth tasted horribly of blood, like when you split your lip in such a way that it doesn't close up.  And looming above it all was this suffocating feeling of guilt.  I didn't order the meat.  I didn't put the meat into my food.  I didn't choose to put it in my mouth.  And yet, there was this horror and anger at myself for what I had done.  What I needed was a hug.  For someone to tell me that it would be okay.

That storm of emotion stayed with me for almost a week.  The metallic taste in my mouth stayed with me for almost 6 weeks, bringing me to the point where I could not eat with metal utensils without my hair standing on end and goose flesh erupting across my body. The 2-3 seconds of meat being in my mouth did not seem to warrant this magnitude of repercussions, and I wondered how much of this was actually happening in my body and how much of it was in my head.  Which, of course, was when I was reminded by my mentor that my head is, in fact, a part of my body.  [cue light bulb and doorbell]

Just a few days before this incident, I was asked by an acquaintance how long I had been vegan.  And in answering the question, I was sincerely surprised by how long it had been, and I wondered to myself if there would ever be a time in the future when I would no longer be vegan.  Funny how the Universe answers every question, isn't it?  Sometimes subtle, sometimes subconscious, at times swift and violent, at times with a bulls eye; what we want to hear, what we need to hear, what we hoped we would not have to face.  But there is always an answer if we are willing to receive it.

And the answer I received is that animals are not food.  

My adoption of a vegan diet in 2012 was an attempt at restoring balance within.  It was not for ethical nor political reasons.  But after this recent experience and the unmistakable trauma of it, I can no longer pretend that that is not how I feel.  When I look into an animal's eyes, regardless of whether it may be commonly perceived as a pet, as livestock, as wildlife, or as pests in the garden, I do not see "other."  I see "same."  I see a soul, I see life, and I see a purpose.  And I cannot justify the taking of that life and the appropriation of that purpose so that there may be food on my plate to satisfy a craving, to fulfill dietary requirements, or to conform to extrinsic norms or standards.

BFFs: My niece, Lyla, and Seeley, our dog.

I wanted to share this experience because I felt remarkably alone and isolated after it happened.  I felt myself coming unhinged, and I became fearful and paranoid when eating - an all too familiar feeling that I had hoped would always stay behind me.  I asked friends and coworkers who are vegetarian and vegan if they had ever been "meated," framing it as a joke so that if they responded with an experience unlike mine that it would not betray my disappointment.  But as I listened to each one of them speak of the emotional pain and their own unique experiences of trauma and guilt and the time it took for them to recover, I found solace.  And beyond that, I found a deeper sense of connection and commitment to being vegan, and a feeling of security within a community.  

Following a plant based, animal free diet is not just a singular decision.  For me, now more than ever, it is a means of coexisting in peace with the world around me, letting go of my ego, and restoring balance, not just within my being, but throughout the rapidly shifting reality of our planet.  In a day and age where daily we are flooded with images and headlines of destruction, selfishness, violence, and senseless acts of entitlement and imposition of power, it does not make sense for me to play out similar dynamics in the choices I make for my diet.

This is where I am now on my journey.  
And with gratitude and love, I continue to move forward on the path I see.

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