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How Veganism Supports My Borderline Personality Disorder Recovery

When I was younger and found out what veganism was, my journey of cognitive dissonance began. I thought the idea seemed really cool, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. One morning in second grade, I announced that I wanted to be vegetarian — and by the afternoon, had changed my mind. When my dad came home from the grocery store, I slyly asked him if he’d gotten hot dogs. For the rest of my childhood, I didn’t give eating meat — or eggs and dairy — for that matter, much thought.

Then, my junior year of high school, someone in my English class gave a presentation as part of an assignment about the horrors of animal testing, and I saw an image of a cat who appeared to be in deep pain who looked exactly like my cat, Hazel. I also took marine biology and environmental science instead of chemistry that year. In marine biology, I saw the documentary “Blackfish” about Sea World, and felt awful for the whales. In environmental science, I saw footage of factory farms. But despite the fact that my anxiety leaves me easily triggered and grossed out by images of graphic scenes, I wasn’t swayed. I am also on the autism spectrum and am slightly overweight, so the lack of people like me in the vegan community left me unmotivated to make the change.

That same year, I went on a school trip to Quebec, where I got to know someone else who was vegan. We hung out because we had a friend in common who was on the trip, but our personalities didn’t click. She was very logical and rigid, and let’s just say I say I spend too much time daydreaming. I noticed her French was better than mine. One night in Montreal, when the waiter cleared her vegan meal, she said, “Merci, le repas cetait trés excellent.” Earlier that same in Quebec City, when the waitress cleared my plate, I uttered, “Ce bon.” The girl had to correct me and explain that you say “cetait bon.” I had learned that in class but couldn’t come up with it in the heat of the moment. This girl was also in advanced math, taking more advanced placement courses than me and would go on to win several academic awards. I was still a good student, but compared to her, I felt very inferior. My relationship with veganism was not looking up. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was on a mental and emotional high from traveling — signs of my undiagnosed borderline personality disorder (BPD) and mood disorder. So I unapologetically ate crepes and poutine in front of her, high on the French-Canadian culture. Little did I know how much my mental health would deteriorate very soon.

My lack of identity, anger, loneliness and dissociation took their toll on me senior year. I had assumed it was all normal my entire life, until it led to frightening panic attacks which faded into depression. I went inpatient for a week in February due to suicidal thoughts, and the experience left me feeling safe and coddled. My science teacher, who had showed no signs of caring about me before, sent my parents a note saying I was an amazing woman. My French teacher, who I had a crush on, sent me a note in French. He was the same teacher who had chaperoned the Quebec trip, and had brought his wife and daughter. He told me his daughter said I was the nicest student on the trip. One of the teachers in the hospital school showered me with attention because she thought I was smart, witty and a good writer. I received gifts from my relatives such as pillows, books and makeup. But I was jealous of those in worse condition than me. When it was time for me to discharge, I begged to stay another night, and had a dream I was falling off a cliff into the ocean.

After I got out of the hospital, I had to attend an intensive outpatient program, where the subject of not wanting to get better came up in one of the check in groups. I identified with this to a debilitating degree without understanding why. I had become proud of being mentally ill in an unhealthy way, going as far as to spend all my time researching abnormal psychology and diagnosing myself with other illnesses. I thought it was my unhealthy mental state that made me worthy of love of and attention — I didn’t care what kind. Despite picking up on my behaviors, history and recent self-harm, no one suggested I could have borderline personality disorder because I am a “quiet borderline.” But trust me, I’d researched that too but am officially diagnosed now. In the group, I piped up about how I was feeling and the therapist said he wished us adolescents could see the adult psych ward and learn there’s nothing glamorous about it, it’s not a good peer group and that it smells bad. But it took being a patient there for my attitude to start changing.

By then, I was working with a good therapist, but had a psychiatrist who didn’t listen. I was on a gap year to focus on my mental health, but nothing was working. My moods left me agitated and miserable. My therapist agreed we weren’t making much progress, so she set up a neuropsych evaluation. But it was getting too late. I was engaging in more and more impulsive borderline behaviors, which got me back to the emergence room. The psychiatrist on duty agreed I was a danger to myself, but the adult unit was a lot less warm and fuzzy than the last one I had been to. We weren’t allowed to have our own blankets and pillows, and the rooms weren’t carpeted. There were no gifts or nice messages, and instead of being validated, I was told I had to gain better coping skills, which at the time felt like blame. I was one of the youngest people there, making it difficult to relate to a lot of the patients. But I did a different IOP program afterwards which gave me the opportunity to process my feelings that had bubbled up over the past couple of years. But my identity wasn’t integrated. The day of the neuropsych evaluation, I had to fill out a questionnaire in which some of the question related to self-harm and suicide. The doctor treated me like a young child.

I wanted to self-harm so badly when I got home. But I didn’t. Instead, I watched YouTube videos about veganism. Mental illness had snatched away so much of my wellbeing and dignity, so I had nothing to use with this lifestyle. It occurred to me just then that I have a future, and that there are other ways to connect with people and be a part of something that isn’t related to mental illness. I waited to fully transition until after the IOP, and weaned myself off Nutella. Instead of ruminating and obsessing over my mental health, I was researching and cooking new recipes. I’ve even tried to be more socially conscious with my purchases, making sure not to wear leather or makeup tested on animals. I had something to do when I was feeling agitated and restless. I’ve discovered kale isn’t bad at all and really balances out my system, while peanut butter gives me the energy I need to get through the day with mental health challenges. Of course, I’ve had my challenges and disappointments. I haven’t found a good vegan macaroni recipe, and miss eating bagels and lox with the Jewish side of my family. But there is a cupcake place near my house with vegan options, and I love guacamole and vegetable ramen noodles.

I do try to avoid the thinking trap that everyone should go vegan. For some, it is financially and medically impossible. I have a friend who can’t do it because she had an eating disorder and sensory issues around tofu and fake meat. I commend her for putting herself first. There is a lot of negativity in the mainstream vegan community such as fat shaming, ableism and misogyny. My parents initially hesitated to support me in this endeavor due to my black and white thinking, and didn’t want me to feel like I’d failed if it didn’t work out. But it’s actually been a good way to practice the DBT skills I’ve been learning. Earlier this year, I went to my friend’s birthday party, and her mom made me a salad with croutons. I ate them before seeing on the packaging that they were coated in butter, but I had to be polite anyways and not beat myself up for my mistake. I’ve used interpersonal effectiveness to ask for food modifications while ordering in restaurants. I’m learning to ask for help at home if I’m having trouble cooking my own food due to weak executive functioning. I’ve used radical acceptance when it comes to missing certain foods. Veganism isn’t for everyone though. There are a lot of situations where it can exasperate symptoms of mental illness. I encourage people to make sure they are being self-aware when embarking on this lifestyle change and doing it gradually. But for now, veganism has made me feel like part of something positive.

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Thinkstock photo via mizina.