Brendan Norris

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Surviving as a Vegan in a Non-Vegan Family

only_vegan_in_familyVegans can find it very difficult to respond to the multitude of reactions they receive from their family members about their vegan lifestyle choices. The extent of the difficulty depends on why they have chosen veganism. If the choice is one of adopting a healthy diet, reducing food costs or because of the impact of food production on the environment, they are likely to be less challenged than the ethical vegan.

The ethical vegan is someone whose life is underpinned by the philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan, who is primarily concerned about their health, might easily be able to counter criticism or undermining by others in the same way as someone who doesn’t drink alcohol or is on a particular diet. They might get tired of comments and attempts by others to change their behaviour, but they wouldn’t necessarily be offended by other people’s choices to drink alcohol or eat different foods themselves.

The ethical vegan is in a different situation. They have chosen this path because they are distressed by animal cruelty and the use of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture etc. When they see others act in ways that collude with this cruelty, they understandably find it enormously difficult.

The Vegan’s Dilemma

When the vegan enters the non-vegan’s home, they are confronted by reflections of animal use. It’s not a case of ‘I am a vegan and your non-vegan choice doesn’t affect me’ but rather ‘By you choosing not to be vegan after I have told you the facts of how animals are treated (and how humans demonstrate their control over animals by using them for their own use), you are colluding with the inherent cruelty in the production of those items.’

This is the vegan’s dilemma – they can’t look the other way because to do so, they avoid speaking out for the voiceless and, in effect, collude with the cruelty themselves. However, there is an extra layer of challenge when the non-vegan context includes one’s family with all the complexities of family bonds, upbringing, culture, tradition and influence.

How does the vegan respond when they see other people contribute to animal use? This may be passive or active. It might be passive in terms of having to witness one’s family eating, wearing or using products that have included animal use without them attacking the vegan for their choices. It is still difficult for the vegan to witness this, especially when all the facts have been shared about animal use. The vegan can become frustrated, angry or feel powerless to get people to change. It also complicates their relationship with their family since they may love them but loathe their choices. The other scenario is when the vegan is criticised, ridiculed and undermined about their choices or the extent of animal suffering. Worse still, they may be tantalised about the joys of eating meat or wearing fur. These two different reactions by non-vegans can be easier to manage by imagining people are somewhere on what I call ‘The Continuum of Awareness’.

The Continuum of Awareness

awareness-continuumImagine a continuum that extends from Indifference/Disinterest at one end and Full Awareness/Positive Action at the other end. The indifferent person has no interest in veganism despite possibly having all the facts. The person at the Awareness end is open to changing their life and making an emotional commitment to not contributing to animal use. In the context of the non-vegan family, decide where you think each person is on this scale. The passive family member would appear to be indifferent. The active and anti-veganism family member might be considered beyond indifference, far beyond awareness. But don’t be fooled.

The person who actively attacks you for your choices is affected by what you have told them. If they weren’t, why would they spend so much energy trying to undermine you? They may have an increasing awareness of what is going on and it must have reached them at an emotional level or else they would remain indifferent. We could argue that they strongly believe it is acceptable to use animals and for some it might be. However, if they were secure in their choices, why would they have to defend them by attacking the vegan lifestyle? It’s likely that they have moved along the awareness continuum and resisting it strongly, despite a strong emotional reaction that somehow it’s not right to continue as they are.

Influencing Others to Change

If you wish to influence others about veganism or anything else, attacking them won’t work and, in the context of veganism, nor should it. The non-abuse of animals must surely include the non-abuse of human animals as well as non-human animals. The best thing is to become the best example of being a vegan that you can be.

Learn to manage your strong emotions and transmute them into powerful words and actions that get people saying ‘This person seems to be so self- assured, healthy and happy about their vegan lifestyle, perhaps I should look into it?’ It can be difficult to keep calm, when others are attacking you about something you hold so dear to your heart, but if you want to be the best voice for veganism, you must start with yourself.
There are proven strategies that can help manage your anxiety, anger, despair in many life experiences, including veganism. When you become equipped with the tools and strategies to manage yourself across time and situation, and you combine it with proven ways to communicate effectively under pressure and when feeling strong emotion, you will become a powerful voice for veganism – both within the family and outside of it. Do whatever you can to learn these techniques and seek professional help if you find you just can’t do this on your own.

 

 

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On The Brink Of Madness

Why animal activists and vegans don’t feel understood by other people

by Clare Mann

As a psychologist with over twenty years experience, I admit that I have a mental health disorder. Some professionals might say I have an eating disorder because I am vegan. Others would show concern that I regularly feel anxious, depressed, experience panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress symptoms at what I have and continue to see in society’s abuse of animals. I say this because, In the past year I have seen an increase in GPs referring people they believe are suffering from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. However, upon meeting them, I find that these preliminary diagnoses follow these patients explaining that they are vegan. What if their associated symptoms were not signs of mental illness at all, instead signs of extreme anguish, grief, betrayal and the madness of Speciesism?

Not being understoodSo if you are reading this and are actively involved in animal advocacy and consider yourself to be an ethical vegan, then perhaps you should be issued with a health warning? Not a physical health warning because with the proper nutritional advice, your health will positively improve by adopting a plant based diet, but with a mental health warning. Once you lift the veil on what is going on behind our speciesism, you will most likely reach the same conclusion – that it is a form of madness but not your madness. The madness of how our society thinks speciesism – our unspoken superiority over the animal kingdom and differing treatment of different species – is ok.

So why is it so painful to be an animal advocate or adopt a vegan lifestyle? Most importantly what can you do to alleviate your pain and help animals? Throughout this discussion, I will use the phrase Vegan to refer to a person whose values and lifestyle choices are unpinned by the ethical belief in the non-exploitation and use of animals. In addition they are those who take action to end the suffering of animals.

Feeling alone with your knowledge of speciesism

Many advocates say that since discovering the truth about institutionalised cruelty towards animals, they experience enormous symptoms of grief, trauma, depression and loneliness. This is only alleviated when they speak to other people who report similar emotions. However, when talking to people who resist, disbelieve, criticise or are indifferent to hearing about their findings, they feel isolated, angry and despairing.

Of the advocates I have talked to, the vast majority say that they no longer have non-vegan friends because they simply don’t feel understood by them. This is particularly the case when they want to talk about the trauma they feel in relation to animal cruelty. But does someone need to be traumatised by animal cruelty themselves in order to support or understand your suffering? If this assumption is correct, it has implications for the basis of understanding others generally. Does it mean that people can only understand experiences like, e.g. abuse, depression or divorce, if they have been through these experiences themselves?

An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact driven slightly made by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness – so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.

- Eva Ensler

Vegans typically report the following about talking to non-vegan friends. They advise the person of the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, e.g. in factory farming, retail or manufacturing. If the friend is a good listener, they are encouraged to share more and are offered support and strategies to alleviate their related anxiety and trauma. Having told the friend of the extent of animal cruelty and that if a person doesn’t choose veganism their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, they expect the other person to also make the vegan choice. They say things like ‘If my friend or family really understood my pain, they would be vegan. How could they not be’?

There can be a lot of differences between friends on many issues and deep friendships can develop despite life experiences being very different. We don’t just be friends with divorcees if we have gone through this ourselves. However, there seems that there might be a difference regarding the subject of veganism. Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised through industrial processes related to food production, clothing, furniture, product testing and other uses. A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet not choose to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in production of goods and services they buy. Thus the non-vegan is not knowingly colluding with animal cruelty. They are unwittingly colluding with it, until the vegan advises them of it. The vegan who then talks to their friend about these issues, who then doesn’t become vegan, believes that their friend either agrees with the cruelty, disbelieves what goes on or is indifferent to it. Either way, the vegan knows that the non-vegan now has the knowledge but chooses to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their friends or family don’t understand them. They might believe the non-vegan friend is demonstrating that:

  • Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
  • They do not wish or are unable to empathise with the vegan’s trauma or
  • They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.

To examine whether a non-vegan friend is required to experience something of what the vegan presents in order to understand them, let’s consider other issues, for example issues like divorce, infidelity, and child abuse. In hearing of a friend’s pain, would a person who had experienced these things be more understanding of the friend? Maybe. If they hadn’t, would it mean they were less understanding? Maybe. What if they hadn’t experienced an issue and yet continued to be friends helping the other person to come to terms with what is going on for them? The knowledge of the issue would not necessarily be calling upon the person (who had not experienced the specific pain being discussed) to change anything about their personal behaviour. This is because their non-experience of the issue isn’t directly or indirectly saying that the contributors to the pain are acceptable. They don’t automatically collude with the issues underpinning the pain unless they champion the actions that contributed – and in any case, the friend would be unlikely to know about it if they did.

Non-veganism is different. Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, the non-vegan is unwittingly colluding with the cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled as cruelty free, sit on a leather couch or wear a wool jumper. It is impossible for them not to collude with the industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan is challenged and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them.

It is probably only fundamental religious belief that would result in a similar dynamic and yet this too is subtly different. For example a fundamental Christian might say that their non-Christian friend doesn’t understand the imperative of their belief because if they did, they too would become Christian. Here we have a similar dynamic. However, it is different from the vegan issue. The friend or family member who chooses not to become a Christian might still act in accordance with Christian values of e.g. not deliberately causing harm to others. Their actions to be non-Christian only affect themselves for if the belief was so rewarding, they are surely missing out. However the friend who chooses not to become vegan is, by their daily lifestyle choices, colluding with harm to others. It doesn’t just affect them. It affects the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of consumer demand.

So can a vegan only receive support and help from another vegan? Not necessarily. It is up to the individual to decide. They might remember a time when they too didn’t know about the industrial cover-up and the extent to which societal norms and culture keep in place behaviours and actions that collude with animal use i.e. speciesism. Our family or friends, like other human beings, have the capacity to empathise with another’s pain. Some people are better at helping someone else than others to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of life. To some extent it depends on the extent to which they have experienced grief or trauma in their own lives. However, when a person’s beliefs that are so great that they enter a minority called Vegan, who modify their entire everyday choices to avoid colluding with animal cruelty, they are more likely to feel truly understood by others whose hearts have been similarly opened.

Moving Forward

How does the vegan avoid marginalising non-vegans and losing out on connecting with people who don’t share their lifestyle choice but who truly care for them e.g. like their families? Dr Will Tuttle offers us a solution to help us on this journey. He says that each of us are born vegan and is on the path to returning to this place. If you are an animal activist or vegan reading this, you will most likely remember a time before your eyes were opened to the institutionalised superiority humans hold over animals i.e. speciesism. Draw on that experience to ‘leap ahead’ for other people who have yet to have their eyes opened, holding the vision of a more compassionate world, one in which humans do not exercise superiority over non-human species and where animals live their own lives for their own sakes – not ours.

Resources:

Will Tuttle’s World Peace Diet is an inspiring read for vegans to become examples to non-vegans of returning to a place from which they originated i.e. their own veganism. http://worldpeacediet.org/

For specific help on how to manage your own emotions regarding animal cruelty and communicate veganism more effectively, join the Sydney Vegan Club’s 30 Day Go Vegan Challenge. Whether you are a vegan or not, you will find thirty practical techniques and strategies to cope with challenging conversations as well as advice from Vegan Naturopath Robyn Chuter and 30 exquisite vegan recipes from Vegan Food Blogger Angela Thompson. http://www.sydneyveganclub.com.au/30daychallenge/

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What strategies help vegans manage their trauma?

People become vegans for numerous reasons; a desire to be physically healthier on a plant-based diet, concern for how food production damages the environment, a strongly held belief in social justice for all living beings and/or because they have learnt about the abuses of industrialised animal cruelty and wish it to stop. It is the abuse of animals that has the greatest potential for post-traumatic responses that many suffer.

This includes typical symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, anger, negative thoughts, despair and fear. For many, the images of animal abuse they have witnessed replay in their mind with flashbacks, nightmares and anger towards people who resist or deny what is happening to animals behind closed doors. Many ethical vegans report that the life they might have once known has changed forever. Everything for them is now hopeless and negative, whereas before, life had its ups and downs, but they could remember that they laughed and saw a positive future.What can the vegan, caught in the depths of despair do to alleviate their pain and live a meaningful life?

There are many strategies a psychologist would suggest to help someone to minimise the overwhelming symptoms of post-traumatic stress. This would include working through the different stages of grief so the person can find a new way of making sense of their life after a great loss. >For the despairing ethical vegan, this would probably be the loss of a better world they might once have believed existed. Strategies can also be adopted to manage the physical overwhelm of grief and panic, including breathing exercises and techniques like Emotional Freedom Technique. Reframing events that have been witnessed is also important so the sufferer can move from feeling totally powerless to someone whose actions can contribute to the overall end of animal suffering. Also, by improving one’s communication skills, vegans can be more confident in clearly articulating what they want to say, irrespective of other’s responses.

The Importance Of Gratitude

gratitudeIf you are a vegan caught in the depths of despair (common in the early stages of veganism and periodically throughout one’s journey), you probably can’t imagine how gratitude could possibly help. After all, ‘What is there to be grateful for?’  The answer to this question I believe is twofold. Firstly, whenever anyone is overwhelmed and feeling powerless to change (whether their own or another’s plight), breaking things down into manageable steps is the only way to move forward.

Taking ‘one step at a time’ is much easier and possible than having to remove all animal abuse in order to breathe again. One way to do this is to practice Gratitude. Every day, ask yourself ‘What am I grateful for in my life?’ In the depths of despair, this answer may not come easily but there are things to be grateful for. Be grateful for the simple things: a warming drink, a smile from the person serving you in the supermarket, a dog playing in the park or a child enjoying the rain. By focusing on these events and being grateful, you can give yourself permission ‘moment by moment’ to feel better. With regular practice, you can learn to quickly change your mindset, your emotional reactions and can learn to breathe again.There is no merit in feeling guilty for doing this, thinking maybe that it ignores the reality of what is going on.Resourcing yourself from the inside is the best thing you can do to change the world to be more compassionate and thus end the source of your suffering.

The second reason for practising gratitude is that is has an effect energetically on how you want the world to be and is your contribution to creating a better world. Remember, you are not alone in your suffering and changing yourself contributes to a growing number of people who are choosing to be more compassionate – to animals, people and themselves.

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