Taking Health to Heart
And Not Being so Hard on Your Younger Self
Why don't people take their health more seriously?
It seems to me that most people only seem to take action when they're ill. When the doctor tells them: "Something has to change, or you'll develop diabetes" or "You are at risk of heart disease," then they start to think that they have to make a change or their lives will be cut short. But why does it have to get to this point before people start doing something? Why does someone have to tell you that you might die young if you carry on leading an unhealthy lifestyle, before it actually hits you? My favorite line from the book How Not to Die by Michael Greger is: "how health eludes some and embraces others." What I am interested in is what determines which of these two categories you fit into?
I was brought up in a family who doesn't really care much about their health. My dad smoked for over 50 years of his life (but has given up for the last six months); everybody eats meat, nobody exercises, yet my health is the most important thing to me. How has this happened? Does it mean that it doesn't make a difference what kind of a family you're brought up in? Does it mean that it falls entirely on you to make your own choices? I think it partly does. I think it requires someone who has a strong mind to break through the norm, to break through what they are used to, and to take a step back from it all. You begin to realize that you have become a victim to society's conditioning for so many years, and you no longer want to be a part of it. Yes, it takes guts to stand up for yourself and for what you believe in, and unfortunately you have to put up with small-minded people every day of the week (and probably for the rest of your life) but then you also come to realise that these are the people who make you stronger, and make you want to keep fighting for what you believe in, every single minute of every single day, because you can't give up. Because giving up would mean not standing up for the living beings who don't have a voice; and everything I believe so strongly in is for the animals who can't speak for themselves.
Not only have I come to believe that your health is in your own hands, but the lives of others are also in your hands. It never ceases to amaze me how some people can shrug off the harming, exploitation and murdering of animals every day like it is nothing. Though I must be honest when I say this, it has only affected me in the last year of my life.
I became a vegetarian when I was ten years old and I remember sitting around the dinner table at my grandparents’ house—wee were having rice with minced meat. I sat there desperately attempting to pick out the meat from the rice without saying anything to anyone, but then they started to notice.
"What are you doing? You don't like it?"
"No. I don't want to eat it. I don't want meat."
"Oh, it's that friend of yours, isn't it?" they all said, nodding in agreement. "That silly vegetarian friend. Has she said something to you about not eating meat?" They all roll their eyes.
"No, I just don't want it." I pushed the plate away from me and I got up from the table and left. It was from that point on that I made the decision to no longer eat meat, at ten years old. Yes, my family thought I was crazy, and they thought I was a nuisance to them all because now they would have to cook a separate meal for me every time we had dinner together. Christmases would never be the same either. They’d go a bit like this:
"What are you going to eat, Anna? Are you sure you don't want some turkey? Oh, come on, it’s not going to kill you if you just have a bit!"
No, I do not want to eat a dead bird, but thank you for asking, was what I wanted to say, but didn’t. And how insensitive of you to say that it won’t “kill me” when that turkey was killed just to end up on your plate. The entire lifespan of that animal, taken in a split second, just to feed you for a few minutes.
When I was 18, I was on holiday in Cornwall with my auntie, uncle, and cousin—three people who absolutely love to eat meat and couldn't fathom a life without it.
"You have to start eating meat again, Anna, it has gone on for too long now," my uncle was telling me as we were walking to get some dinner—and what did they all want? KFC. I can't even remember what I had. Just chips? I don't think they made veggie burgers. "Can't you just try to eat some chicken? It's good for you, you need protein in your diet."
I hate to admit this, but I went home from that holiday and their constant persuading and nagging me to eat meat left me questioning myself and feeling stupid. I was asking myself: am I doing something wrong? Is what they are saying right? I turned vegetarian when I was only ten after all, maybe I should listen to them. The 26-year-old me right now is shaking her head as I am remembering and writing this. It is such a perfect example of how we are conditioned as we are brought up; and now, thankfully, I can say that I am wiser and know myself better than I ever have done in the past. It just takes time. It takes time and courage.
The same auntie, uncle, and cousin came to our house for dinner one evening and yet again they were attempting to persuade me to eat some chicken. "It's so nice, Anna!" my cousin, four years younger than me, was saying. "I don't know how you cannot like it." Maybe I just gave in because I wanted everyone to shut up? Maybe I was fed up of hearing their constant pleas for me to become one of them and to stop being so difficult. So yes, I am afraid to say, they won that battle—that time. I didn't know myself enough and neither did I feel like I had a voice strong enough to stand up for myself. It is sad to think back and realize this, but that is the reality.
I never became a real meat eater like the rest of them, though. I ate chicken and fish a few times a month and that was it. Every time I would eat it, in the back of my head, there was a small, weak voice saying it was wrong. What are you doing, Anna? This does not feel right at all. This was one side of the voice, and the other side was: but it was probably a good point they made about protein—I need it for my body, right? NO, the answer is a big firm NO. Well, actually, the answer is yes, you do need protein, but not animal protein. The 26-year-old me is still shaking her head! I feel like I want to go back in time and shake the shoulders of the 18-year-old me and say: "Look at what you are doing! Listen to yourself, listen to your heart, and drown out the voices of everyone else, because no one else’s opinion matters but yours."
I was twenty-five years old. I was sat on my bed on my phone, scrolling through Instagram. I found an account—a vegan activist, let's say—who opened up my eyes. I sat there on that summery evening watching documentaries such as 'Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, Earthlings, and What the Health, and I sat there on my bed and cried. I cried and cried and cried my broken heart out for that entire night. 26-year-old me right now, shaking her head, with tears in her eyes remembering that moment. It was only a year ago, but it feels like a lifetime. So much has changed in just one year. It just goes to show, that you can live 25 years of your life (a quarter of a century!) and then it only takes one thing to happen and everything completely changes.
That evening, I decided to go vegan. One of the first questions people ask me is: "Isn't it difficult?"
Yes, it is difficult. What is difficult is having to deal with people who do not have any respect for my choices. What is difficult is having to put up with people who laugh, or who shake their heads and roll their eyes, oh dear God, not another one of those hipsters. Here we go! There's always one in the family, isn't there? Always one weirdo! It's a trend though, isn't it? It's becoming quite popular these days. No, it is not a trend and it is not fashionable to become "popular". It is the sudden realization that what you have been doing your whole life was wrong. So wrong that it still breaks my heart when I think about it.
So, going back to that initial question of whether or not becoming vegan was difficult: No, it was not. It was the easiest thing in the world to do. I saw the suffering, I saw the pain; not only did I witness it, I felt it, and I have felt it every day since. I took myself out of that equation and said that I was no longer going to be a part of causing harm to others. It was soul-destroying, health-destroying, and earth-destroying. These three things hit me so deeply.
Becoming vegan was one of the best choices that I have ever made, and the only thing that I am hard on myself about is not doing it sooner. But there is a time for everyone, and I guess it just wasn't my time. Breaking free from the traditions of your family and their imposing views was definitely the hardest thing when I was younger, but I can now say that I have found my voice, and not only do I speak for myself, I speak for the animals that have no voice, and so I have to speak up twice as loud to make sure that I am being heard. Never again will I become a victim to society's conditioning, and never again will I believe that it is acceptable to cause pain to others when we have so many available options that do not involve killing animals.
I often ask myself if I hadn't seen those documentaries that opened my eyes to the horror that is factory farming, if I ever would have realized. But I did see them and I did realize. I am certain that if my family watched them, they wouldn't even flinch. Sure, they might turn their faces, they would probably shut their eyes and put their fingers in their ears; or better still, just change the channel. But I didn't do that—why? I kept my eyes on the screen the whole time, even though they were cloudy with tears and it felt like the air was being knocked out of my lungs, I still didn't turn away. I let it hurt and I let it change the way I saw the world. And this is what I think people are not ready to do, they would rather stay stuck in their bubble than accept the truth—the truth that what they are doing and what they are contributing to is wrong, so they look away. What you don’t see, can’t hurt you.
Going back to the beginning of this article: How does health elude some and embrace others? How does this separation occur between us? What divides us? How do some of us ignore the pain and suffering whilst others are determined to try and stop it from happening? It's just a matter of whether or not you are ready to accept the truth and willing to change your ways. Are you going to look away or are you going to make a difference?
“Peace begins on your plate,” as the saying goes, and when you don’t eat death, suffering, and torture, you find yourself becoming a completely different person.
A message to myself: Try not to be so hard on your younger self. Be thankful every day that you woke up and realized. Be grateful every day for your strength to carry on, even though people make it hard. You are doing it for all the right reasons and you will never question or doubt yourself again.