25 May 2017

Vegetarianism and Recovery

*This post is based on my personal experiences and opinions. Everyone's lifestyle/recovery is their own. What matters, above all else, is that you make the right choice for you!

   "She's a friend the the Animals" 

Launching this post with a little quote from Woods, Elle - the mother of Bruiser and a fierce champion for all things bright and bunnyful. For, like Elle, I have always found a friend in fluffiness, from hamster hugs to Millie Moo snuggles. 

Some of my earliest reading memories include Dick King Smith's Sophie Books, Jenny Dale's Puppy Patrol and the incomparable Sheltie. Oh Sheltie... did anyone else read those books? There began my ambition to own a horse and be an Olympic Show Jumper... Along with Sam and Jake the border collies, not to mention Auntie Al and Sophie's entire menagerie, animals were my chosen ones (sorry humans, grow a tail and get back to me).
This continued throughout my childhood. At the age of seven, I put away the ballet shoes in favour of Bryn, Cafferies, Maisie, Bella and co, the horses who define my decade in the saddle. I loved all of it, from the stable smell as I entered to the gigantic "until next time" hugs. *Edit - the many falls weren't so enjoyable, but it's all part of the experience! I was never an ambitious/win all the rosettes rider. It wasn't really a sport for me; my PE report will attest to my lack of skill in this area. In fact, some of my favourite moments were outside the arena. 

I simply loved being with the animals  and, looking back, I think diabetes only strengthened this; animals were my Always through periods of great uncertainty and could always lift my spirits. The stables were a surefire way to boost serotonin, while cuddles with my guinea pigs (Fluffy, Dusty and Phoebe) could always distract me from high blood sugar worries. 

Then, when I was 18, my lifelong dream to be a Mother of Dogs was realised. Millie arrived and that was when I found myself truly asking: "why is any other life different?" Nevertheless, it wasn't until I was 22 that I was finally tipped over the veg... so what took so long?

Here's my story on the veg edge of glory, written in full awareness that my puns are beyond the kale...  I corn only apologise.

     When Nature meats meets Nurture      

When I made the decision to move toward vegetarianism, one of the questions people  asked was: "why now?" The context of diabetes and an eating disorder, understandably, raised concern. Consequently, it was very important to explore "why now?" for myself. When I made this choice, I had to be sure it was SOPHIE who made it. So when asking "why now?", it was perhaps more useful to ask "why not before?" Doing CBT, which involves looking at past and present values, definitely helped here. For i've identified that my values were strongly influenced by two factors Nature and Nurture. 

Let's start with  Nature... Aka mong-standing frenemy (circa 2002), Mr diabetes! I've addressed the diabetes/diet debate in a couple of posts before - these can be found down rabbit hole 1 and rabbit hole 2). However, if you're already late for a very important date and don't have time for Wonderland, the debate can be summarised in one troublesome word: carbohydrates. (Fun fact:, I've only just realised this word includes "hydrate"; a bit ironic when high blood sugars make you crave ALL the water).

In the world of equations, diabetes looks like: Carbohydrate + Insulin = Stay Alive. Growing up, I would eat snacks at an allotted time, with allotted amount of carbs/no carbs at all. I remember snacking on things like chicken drumsticks, cold meats and many years trying to convince myself I liked cheese. Protein = no need for insulin/stabbing myself with a needle. For an 8 year old, this choice was pretty straight-forward. Whenever I saw a dietician/ my diabetes team, it was the unspoken assumption  that I was a conventional omnivore.

If there were issues with my blood sugars, protein and meat were never to blame. Instead, poor old Mr C and his bowl of Shreddies were called into question (Another fun fact: my childhood love of shreddies has now been usurped by own brand malties - silver lining to IP treatment right there).  On reflection, there was never any guidance on how to be a diabetic veggie. Conversely, my current dietician was hesitant when I told her about my move to vegetarianism last year. Suffice to say, I made the CBT gods proud and stood my ground! So that's nature for you...
...now onto nurture. I want to start by saying that none of this is at all a criticism of my loved ones; as you may have guessed by the word choice in blue, I really do love them very very much. They were simply like the majority of people in society - omnivorism was the norm. I don't think I even knew what a vegetarian was until senior school and, even then, it seemed more hippy than Shakira and her hips that don't lie. Vegetarianism was Phoebe Bouffay, while I swear I thought Vegan meant a person who didn't wear shoes.... oh dear.

Through CBT, one of the biggest things i've identified is my fear of rocking the boat. Once again,  we can  put a lot of this down to limelight-stealing Mr D. He gets around, doesn't he? When you are faced a life-changing diagnosis at the age of 7, this word is pretty much sent on a one way ticket to Mars. Your concept of "belonging" - which is so pivotal in childhood - is completely appended. Suddenly, you see everyone else in a world of fairies and pick 'n mix, while you face the daily finger prick. So my response, my therapist assures me, was entirely natural; I ran away from any other source of "difference".

So what does this have to do with meat? Well, it turns out, quite a lot. Growing up, I often had questions regarding animal welfare, but rarely voiced them. I kept them to myself, because eating meat was "what you did". Yet there were occasions where my voice rose to the foreground. I remember going to SeaWorld and being disturbed by the bent Dorsal Fin go the oldest Killer Wale, Tilikum (for more on this, I highly recommend watching Blackfish). I pointed it out to my family, who said this was "normal" and I didn't question any further.

On another occasion, I was on a school trip and we somehow got onto the subject of lamb. From a young age, I would periodically go on a 'baby animal strike' and refuse to eat lamb/veal. However, my family would assure me that lamb was a misnomer, so I duly returned to the 'status quo'. So when, on this school trip, my friend insisted that "lamb" was actually - you guessed it - lamb, this moral/social conflict once again resurfaced. 

Even now, writing this, I'm shocked that I could prioritise one life over another so easily, in short thanks to some seasonal marketing. Yet what about Babe in Charlotte's WebFantastic Mr Fox? The entire cast of Chicken Run!? Somehow my mind overlooked this... and then things got altogether more complex. 
     When Ethics meat meet Anorexia     

By the middle of my teenage years, diabetes became wrapped up in an eating disorder and buried my ethics even further. Carbs were the devil and protein had its own persona halo screaming "hello me halloumi", despite the fact that I dislike cheese. For 'likes' and 'dislikes' went out the window; I recall spending a disproportionate amount of money on fish and meat as a student, ft. a lifetime's supply of tinned tuna.

These days, the mere thought of a tuna sandwich makes me feel a bit ill, as I lived off them for so long; that, or I simply ate it out of the tin. Even in recovery, I my intake was often focused on macros and getting the "right" balance. Hummus was only an acceptable lunchtime filling alongside a tin of tuna. Oh god that tuna... I swear I kept John West in business for a good two years. 

Moreover, I admit to being hugely influenced by the media and what was defined as "healthy." One day, I read an  article that branded venison the "lean and clean" version of Beef. Suddenly, 18 years of vowing "never to eat rudolph," were discounted; venison was back on the menu and Daisy was banned, unless you count the "skinny latte". I'm literally recoiling now as I write this, but it shows how manipulative an eating disorder can be.

I was often curious to see the ever-growing range of vegetarian food on the shelves. However, a quick 'label scan' saw me putting them back on the shelf. From lentils and chickpeas, to a seemingly innocent quorn burger, the slightly-elevated C word declared them "off limits". It was back to what I knew. Chicken and potato were easy to count, so easier to comprehend for diabetes and my distorted mind.

     When ethics meet MEET recovery...    

In the past few years, there has been a huge rise in the prevalence of Vegetarianism/veganism - including those in recovery for an eating disorder. With regards to the latter, there has also been a lot of backlash. Various articles/stories have denounced vegetarianism/veganism as an eating disorder in (faux) sheep's  clothing. 

I want to offer an alternative view of this; specifically, how vegetarianism has HELPED my recovery! For me, the final catalyst for my decision wasn't social media, but going to University. I was surprised to see just how many people were either long-term herbivores, or just beginning life on the veg. Back at home, beet-eaters were a rare and exotic breed, whereas Exeter presented a new normal. Sophie was curiouser and curiouser than ever before...

Nevertheless, anorexia was terrified.  Far from vegetarianism offering an "opportunity" for restriction, it meant facing up to one of my biggest fears. Because, without meat, what did you eat? Surely not...  Yes, you guessed it. Carbs. Yet, in truth, my head was not in the right place to accept it, Although SOPHIE wanted to make this ethical choice, which aligned with so many values growing up, anorexia didn't. What happened was that I cut out meat, but basically lived off fish and vegetables. 

Until, that was, I suspended my studies to receive IP treatment. Obviously, the importance of this admission went far beyond this. Before I could save any other life, I had to save myself and that is what the incredible staff helped me to do. Yet once I was medically stable and starting to emerge from the "cloud" of anorexia, I decided to challenge this long-standing carb conundrum. Soon, my menu choice shifted from breaded chicken to veggie goulash. Hummus sandwiches were picked over tuna and, in the moment of putting that tick in another box, I was petrified. I still did it.

Once I was discharged, I was introduced to Quorn, Cauldron, Amy and Linda. Sadly, after an initial honeymoon period, anorexia snuck back in. Fish appeared on the shopping list more and more, along with boiled-everything and a side of diet coke. Mr PB and his friend Captain chickpea were left on the shelf. By the time I was readmitted to hospital in November, I felt so detached from myself. Anorexia had called the shots before, but I had never felt this removed from Sophie.

I was so angry at anorexia; angry that my values were being buried by numbers and fears. It was then that I decided, during my first week on the unit, to be honest with staff. I asked them to help me pick the options I'd not even contemplated earlier that year; I told them that I wanted to go into a restaurant and order that vegetarian dish. And so I did. On one particular day, the only veggie option on the unit was pasta; the meat option was a relatively 'safe' fish and potato dish. 1st admission, I picked option 'safety'. 2nd admission? Hello veggie lasagne. I remember feeling absolutely terrified beforehand, but afterwards there was this new feeling of... peace.
That is what this 'journey' is giving me. Peace. The days of fifty shade of fish are a distant memory. Now, I have burgers, sausages, stir fry, ravioli, cottage pie... the same as my parents, just mine are the veggie variety! I still have a way to go and lots of things are still a challenge, but I have made progress. Perhaps my biggest "achievement" is eating out, where I can't remember the last time I ordered a fish dish. I have gone out and ordered pasta, falafel mezze, avocado and hummus sandwiches, veggie cakes that require me to completely guess my insulin dose. Yes, this causes a lot of anxiety and, no, I don't always 'get it right'. However, every time I go to a restaurant and place that veggie order, I honestly feel such freedom.

Freedom in being me. The Sophie whose smile can always be raised by the sight of a pony in the field or Millie  bounding towards her. And it is a feeling that no amount of fear can tarnish. This is something that is right for me, that seems so natural to me and something I am truly grateful for. I am excited to continue exploring this new world while knowing, despite what others may think, that I am standing by my beliefs. I have also ensured that all my cosmetics, beauty products and clothes are bunny-friendly, taking time to educate myself through documentaries and blogs.  

I've spent so long being afraid to rock the boat, so deciding to take a leap outside the status-quo is liberating. I am not ashamed to be the Luna Lovegood in a world of of Malfoys; the oddity who occasionally talks to a tree; the SPEW advocate who believes in Free Elves; The girl who is learning, with help from the humble veggie, how to finally BE

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