This is an excerpt from a letter sent to a kindred spirit.
I was a very radical ethical vegetarian/vegan for 8-9 years and mostly vegetarian for 6 years before that. I had developed an ED during my teen years that was never treated but EDNOS didn’t “exist” back then so I would have fallen through the cracks anyway.
Orthorexia came in 1996 after a miscarriage and a really scary health issue, all because of a blood test that was a false positive. I had to wait a whole month in absolute fear for the results of more testing, terrified of contamination during that month as I already had my first child and a loving husband both of whom I didn’t want to “infect”. Even though the new tests came back negative and I was free to continue on living, the fear of contamination stayed and it translated to food. Meat became my number one fear food and later, dairy and eggs.
So that fear was the first driving force behind my veganism but because it can be very focused on purity and perfection (even though purity and perfection will never be possible), I was predisposed to fall for it hard. I wanted to be the best possible vegan and that meant also embracing the ethical aspect so I schooled myself about it, reading everything I could find. Actually, if I’m being more precise, I have to say that embracing the ethical side was the way I found to make myself stay vegan. Because “being good to others” and “having compassion for others” where always, always more important to me than taking care of myself and having compassion for myself. So I thought that doing it for animals, I could never go back.
I was trapping myself into a Vegan Identity.
My need for control over every little thing increased and was, of course, very damaging to my mental health. But I didn’t realise it until I opened a vegan business, 3 or 4 years into my veganism. By then, I was well into being a radical, abolitionist vegan and that was the second most important thing in my life, the first being my family. But my sons and husband also went vegan at the same time as me. For years, I said it was a family decision but really, I was the one doing the reading, the researching and the convincing. They were much more measured in their opinions than I was, although they didn’t make any exceptions either.
For many years, I thought that veganism had “cured” me - just because the purging stopped and so did a number of other behaviors. I was still distorted but I viewed this as “normal woman territory” (sigh). I felt better about myself because I was vegan. My identity was tied into veganism: I felt I was a better person, a more moral person, and I thought I had value because of veganism.
Veganism was a Band-Aid for many of my issues.
In retrospect, the vegan business was my wake up call, or rather, its downfall was my wake up call. Financially, it was very hard to stay afloat and I felt I had to be even more vigilant with the research and giving the example of a “good and perfect vegan” because any complaint could only hurt us, I thought. As time passed, I was more and more afraid of making mistakes that would endanger the already struggling business so I started checking ingredients and information, not once or twice but four or six times, never being at peace. I was so afraid of making a mistake that would ruin everything.
Also, to help us stay in business, I made the worst decision for me, although it helped the business survive a little longer: I started baking and preparing food to be sold.
I don’t know if you can imagine what that did to me, as I was surrounded by vegetarians and vegans who had a lot of different food rules, to have my cooking under intense scrutiny. Sure, we all had certain restricted things in common (animal food), but other than that, everybody was following a different veg guru.
So trying to please more people, I transformed my cupcakes into gluten-free cupcakes but special dietary requests and complaints regarding baked goods, salad and sandwiches never stopped:
I should switch the kind of fat I was using,
the kind of sugar,
the kind of flour,
the sort or brand of bread,
the type of egg replacer,
the ratio of fat to sugar,
eliminate all sugar,
or even flour.
And what about raw? Or Fair Trade?
Is it organic and if so, certified by who?
Palm, soy, white sugar, fructose, wheat, spelt, agave, soy isolate, carrageenan, canola, were evil one day, and ok the next. Everybody had special “needs”.
And then, I had to follow a mandatory Food Safety course where we learned all about contamination and safe food handling, which was at the source of my orthorexia and fear foods. Everything was in place to help me reach my breaking point.
It quickly started to affect my behaviors, of course.
The stress & long hours had been there since the first day of the business, but it only got worse over the years so that didn’t help matters. Not enough sleep; not enough time off; not enough time to pause and reflect. So during that last year, my eating became increasingly distorted, I didn’t know what I could eat anymore, everything being a source of fear or guilt. I started skipping more meals, having insane cravings at 11pm because I was starving and nutrient deprived and therefore, I felt more and more like a failure. I was never eating the right things, I thought, even though I could not have told you what the right things were anymore.
Add to that increasing physical pain all over my body; and with my thyroid continuing to be an issue, I gained more weight, which then also meant a viscous cycle of distorted behaviors. At this point, when you realise that your business is failing anyway, and it’s not all your fault because other similar vegan business around you are also closing, you start welcoming it, even though you are scared shitless of what that will mean financially. But still, a huge part of me couldn’t wait for it because the stress and the pressure started affecting my children and because of the genes I have passed down to them, I really felt that I had to get them out of that environment and have us all take care of our health.
A year and four months later, after choosing Recovery for the first time in my life, I can say that I am in a much better place. I have made a lot of progress on some fronts but there is still a lot of work ahead. I have been unwell for so many years that even a little progress feels huge. Giving myself permission to put veganism aside was one of the most difficult things, and if I am being honest, it is still difficult.
My vegan identity took up a lot of space, affected my thinking, my friendships too, and it still doesn’t want to completely let go.
But I’m working on it.
Ethically, I don’t think in black or white anymore, which is a very good thing and I am much, much more careful about accepting information based on “good faith”. Running the business also gave me real life knowledge of how supply and demand works and I know their limits. That helps me re-examine a lot of the things I believed and correct, based on facts.
One other thing I wanted to say is that over those 10 years, I have met, talked and corresponded with a lot of vegetarians and vegans. I have noticed and recognized a lot of disordered behaviors and disordered thinking. Four different people have disclosed, to me, that they were ED sufferers. For those 4 who were able to disclose this, there are many, many more who didn’t.
I am not saying that veg*ism can trigger EDs in non-susceptible people. I am saying that veg*ism can be/is problematic for predisposed people.
But still, within that milieu, it is very important to be extra careful. If you can stay away from purity/perfection obsessed people and black & white thinking, it would be a very, very good thing. Also, if someone doesn’t allow for any exceptions, even really small and infrequent ones, then that is a huge warning sign. (One triggering customer even restricted food that “might contain traces”, not for allergy reason but for purity – that is not sane thinking. I want the term Vegan Orthorexia to exist.) If someone does Identity or Vegan Policing, avoiding them is a good thing, too.
With my Vegan Identity having been so tied up in my self-worth and sense of self and having carried my disorder for so long, ethical diets may always be my Achilles's heal, even if I fully recover.
But [name withheld], that is only my story.
Comments received 15/3/2014:
"I read your story and I want to thank you for sharing it with me. You are a wonderful, brave, strong, inspiring woman. <3 Have you ever read Health Food Junkies by Dr. Steven Bratman? It's a fascinating book about orthorexia. Of course, I probably shouldn't have read it, but I have this problem where I'm triggered by these things and yet I love reading them anyway, because I'm just so fascinated by psychology. Anyway. Thank you again."