I’m not sure if I’ve even written this much text in a single blog post before. I usually try and keep my posts short enough to be easily consumable and absorbed, but I hope this is a happy medium between absorbable and content heavy. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but it’s taken me over a year to figure out how to do it. And because it’s been in my mind for nearly all of 2014, I feel that it’s the perfect way to sum up the past year. The past several years really. I’m so inspired by other bloggers’ stories of gaining and finding their own health. Now, when I truly feel that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, I feel that I too can add to that blogging tradition of sharing how I got to this point where I feel that I’ve finally found true health.
This post has been in the works for a long time now, nearly 2 years! I’d like to start out by saying that I’m not writing this to ascribe or disperse any type of blame or responsibility to anyone else. I fully recognize that as an individual I am the sole agent in my own personal health and wellness. That being said, there were factors both within and beyond my control that shaped and impacted my health at various times over the course of the past several years, and I acknowledge those in this post. This is also a very personal and heartfelt blog entry for me to not only write, but also to share publicly. Please keep that in mind while you’re reading this — that this is my story, and while I feel that we all have some version of this saga some where in our lives, (even if we’re still in the process of writing it) this entry is about the steps I personally took to get where I am now, and in no way is meant to serve as a standard for measuring or pathway to taking back your own wellness. This is my story of losing and regaining my own health, of what it feels like to let that aspect of your life slip away, and how truly empowering it is to reclaim it.
So, let me start at the beginning. I feel that my journey toward health began in the middle of college, and my relationship toward my veganism, health, and this blog (as you will soon see) are almost inextricably linked. Entering a university was the first time in my life where I really began to see the intersections between physical health and stress collide, right there, right in front of my eyes, on my own body. I became vegan within weeks of getting to college (I’d been a vegetarian for years and had always wanted to go vegan) and like a lot of new vegans I didn’t exactly do myself any favors in the menu department. For a while, a couple of months, I stuck primarily to what I knew I could eat. (I really think I lived off of hummus, Ezekiel bread, and nutritional yeast and Earth Balance for a while.) Then I started reading blogs. Lots of blogs. Lots of vegan blogs. And I began to see the wide world of vegan foods. This thrilled me, and I immediately began to regret the meal plan I’d purchased through the campus dining services (Thinking back on that, I still have the same reaction: YUCK!). I began taking a to-go box down to the dining hall near my dorm and filling it with raw veggies from the salad bar, then coming back to the hall kitchen and cooking them up for myself. The next year, I went without a dining plan and instead walked to Carrboro to the co-op fairly often, and went to Trader Joe’s with my mom on a weekly basis.
So excuse the next 2 photos. Somehow I dug up pictures I took of the food I made back then, before I started blogging, and the quality is TERRIBLE!
Still, to this day, some of the most emotionally charged and nostalgic feelings I have toward food and food preparation stem from that dingy college dorm hall kitchen. Preparing delicious vegan food became my solace — often it was my only time alone. I’d keep the overhead florescent light off, and the softer light above the stove on, playing music from my laptop to the smells of sautéeing onions and garlic. Living in tight quarters with another person and hardly ever having any privacy was nearly always terrifying and stressful for me. But that kitchen — that kitchen became my shelter from the storm. It was around this time that I began my first blog. Yes, Veganland is not my first. Sexy Sustainability was my first. (Cringe!) I kept that blog up for nearly a year, and even started to be recognized around campus for my writing and photos on it. But something about that blog was just off. It wasn’t me. It didn’t feel authentic. Looking back on my mental images of SS, which has (thankfully) ceased to exist, I realize the scope of what I was trying to accomplish in that blog was simply too broad; I was all over the place and struggling to solidify the ramblings in my head with what could feasibly be written in a blog post and absorbed by a reader.
This just cracks me up. This is a photo that I took in my dorm room of the first batch of hummus I ever made. EVER. I was so proud of it, too.
So I deleted that blog. In the process of coming into my own academically (Oh art history, my love, this is when you found me!) I decided to take a more pedagogical approach to blogging. I did my research. I found a few more vegan blogs that seemed to fit me even better than the ones I’d been reading. I slowly began to move away from the starter blogs and found ones that aesthetically and stylistically better suited who I was as a young scholar and as a vegan. After taking several gender studies classes, my approach toward veganism and the intersectionality present in feminist thought and theory became so closely intertwined that today they could never be separated.
I took a year off of blogging.
I got into a relationship, and with the support of my then partner, I wrote Veganland’s first post. (Again, cringe!) And this is the part where I’m going to fast forward a bit. The longer I was in that relationship, the worse my physical health got. For a variety of reasons, I stopped working out. I didn’t got to the gym for an entire summer and getting back into it was extremely hard. That summer turned into nearly a year. My way of eating radically changed a lot too, because living with someone means you’re not just cooking for yourself any more. I tried a lot of replacement foods that I’d never eaten before in nearly 2 years as a vegan on my own: Daiya, vegan chik’n, pepperoni, soy beef. In a lot of ways, I sacrificed how I personally liked to eat in attempt to try new things and also in some ways to please someone else who was transitioning to veganism. Let me just go ahead and say: there is nothing wrong with these foods. They’re perfectly good foods, and very tasty. But for me, these are “sometimes foods” that I very rarely eat now. This coupled with my lack of exercise did of course lead to what was for me physically detrimental weight gain, but also a slew of health problems: the joint stiffness and pain I’ve experienced since childhood began to flare up and plague me daily, my digestion issues spiked, I felt uncomfortable in my own body — from the way I moved to how I felt when I was sitting down. All this was paired with the stress of a slowly and very painfully degrading relationship.
To cut a long story short: total health meltdown.
I wasn’t eating enough vegetables, and was consuming more and more processed and refined foods that didn’t make me feel good about my body or what I was eating. While I had cut out gluten and was making more of an effort for a while to regain health, somehow those efforts just fell short. I couldn’t stick with it. It was just too hard to make two meals, or go without the bread in that vegan french dip sandwich on the menu for dinner. When that relationship finally ended, part of my way of coping was taking steps to regain my health. My loss of health was so closely tied to the events in that relationship that I found it empowering to regain what I’d lost really and truly as an act of self care. I stayed with my parents for a while, until I got back on my feet. The first day I was there, I walked into my dad’s home gym and picked up the same weights he’d bought me for Christmas during high school. I felt the weight of them in my hand, the coldness of the metal, smelled the smells of metallic weights and sweat, and dust. The physical place aside, I was home again.
At this point in my story, I’ll take a moment to acknowledge how truly and utterly painful and earth shattering it was for me to lose my exercise routine. As much as cooking in that dorm hall kitchen had been a source of respite, my gym time was even more so. Losing weight lifting especially was like losing a loved one, a dear friend so close that they were family. The only way to cope with this loss was to reclaim it. I reclaimed it immediately, as soon as I was out of what had become a bad relationship. Those weights got me through that time in my life just as they’d gotten me through the difficult years of high school and the trying first years of college. In some ways, they were my oldest friends. They made me feel good, and I lift(ed) not to look a certain way but because of this act of muscles contracting repetitively, over and over again, was a form of spiritual sanctity for me, an active meditation, and one that I’d sorely neglected and left behind.
I noticed changes in my body within the week. Within the month I started to feel like myself again. I started eating more whole foods again, though the vast amounts of tortillas and fried chips I was eating at work kept me from reaching my full potential for the next year. Again nothing wrong with these foods, but when they’re staples of your diet they’re not exactly ones that facilitate sustainable health. And when I say this I mean that many of my health problems were reduced but the stress of work coupled with not so healthy eating and drinking kept me from finding health. For the first time in my life, I walked up to my tattooer’s chair alone and got tattooed, just me and my good friend (who was scraping needles over me) and tattoos that no one else but the two of us saw or knew about until I took the wrappings off and chose to let someone else see them. I began to become the version of myself I’d always hoped I would be, and I began to more fully tattoo that self.
Soon in another relationship, and yet again having another person around greatly impacted my eating decisions. This time, the 2nd party wasn’t vegan and had no interest in becoming vegan or in the food politics that were so important to me, then and now. While that meant a lot of modifiable and collaborative meals, it also meant a lot of dining out — something new for me, as I’d always cooked much of my food at home as a vegan. Over the winter, I cut out gluten (again) and (again) I felt great — a lot of my health issues were reduced because I was eating more whole foods and less processed. This time was truly my transition period both mentally and emotionally. I was constantly walking a thin line between eating in a way that made me feel best and in a way that just wasn’t meeting my needs internally or externally. Emotionally, I was redefining my relationship with food and coming to terms with the bodily changes that had occurred over the past two years because I’d sacrificed my health. But still: I just didn’t feel good about my food choices and I wasn’t exercising as much as I wanted to. During late 2013-early 2014,I always felt that I was so close to (re)gaining my health, but some sort of glass ceiling was holding me back from just reaching out and taking it into my hand. That relationship ended, and I had another really rough time of it. I went out a lot with friends and co-workers, and didn’t sleep as much as I should have. I drank too much. I didn’t eat well.
Then, my friends, then graduate school happened. The huge, huge, HUGE turning point.
I made one of the biggest choices in my life so far, and I began to make smaller choices to make it happen. The academic and personal goal I’d strived for for nearly 5 years began to take shape, real tangible, touchable shape in the form of an acceptance letter, then in a funding offer, and in turn my own acceptance to both of these at one school and my rejection of several others. In making these decisions, I felt the empowerment I’d needed to fully find my health. That glass ceiling shattered. I started running again, coming home early from bars and going on fast paced night runs around town, working out the amount I wanted to, and taking even more steps to cut down on gluten and replace it with whole foods in my diet. (Which I’ll say briefly I eliminate gluten, though not 100%, for a more healthful approach to eating, which really works well for my body and lifestyle. More on this to come!)
I moved 500 miles away from the state I’d always known to a strange land of palm trees, Spanish moss, and alligators — just me and that cute, fuzzy cat of mine. I brought my little dumbbells and my yoga mat with me on that initial 10 hour drive down the East Coast, and on my first day in my new apartment I unrolled that mat in my beautiful little sunroom and lifted weights while watching Total Recall downloaded on my Kindle. Once again, I had a kitchen all to myself, and a schedule more cohesive to cooking delicious, healthful foods and having more regular meal times. I kept the overhead light off, and the softer light above the stove on. I listened to music streaming from my laptop while I chopped, and sliced and diced. I bought the few kitchen items I needed to accommodate the types of foods I wanted to make. I looked outside my window at the Florida sunshine while pumping iron and feeling amazing. And it was that feeling — that sense of deep knowing and understanding that I felt rushing through me; a connection between mind and body and exercise and food that finally solidified and made me feel truly healthful for the first time in my life.
And somehow, I took a picture of that moment. I am so, so glad that I did.
In those first few days alone in my first solo living situation I finally regained what I’d lost over 2 years ago, or perhaps something I never felt I’d had: my health.
And so, dear readers, here I sit. In that same sunroom. These days, I see the foods I buy as beautiful, and I dream up ways to prepare them that are both nourishing and delicious. My kitchen witchery is still my shelter from the storm that is life and now it’s connected to pure bliss and enjoyment of what I both cook and eat, and I love seeing how what I consume is expended into energy to help me with that exercise practice that is still so, so personal and important to me. I feel uplifted by these things and I just feel… great. I’m not tired or run down any more. I feel a sense of peace inside of me that keeps me steady and grounded. This past year, 2014, was one that I marked as the year of balance and new beginnings. What a beginning this has been, the pathway to finding true health and from that, happiness.
I hope to expand on this happiness over the next year: 2015, the year of trajectory. I’d like to take this momentum, the things I’ve witnessed, the things I’ve (re)gained and learned and use it for full steam ahead! And I just can’t wait to see what that holds for me and that fuzzy feline of mine.
Happy (healthful) 2015 all!