I stopped eating all meat in November of 1995. For several years, I never, ever thought I'd go vegan. Back then I thought, What's the harm in cheese? There's no blood or flesh in ice cream. It's harmless! But toward the end of my high school years, I learned about the nastiness that is milk (pus?! WHAT?!) and started phasing out dairy products.
Still, it was 2003-2004 that hosted the bulk of my true transition to a cruelty-free diet. I learned more and more online, not just about the yuck factor of dairy, but also how horrible it was for cows. I hated all of the soy-based alternatives that were on the market back then, but I kept plugging along. Several months had passed where I ate little to no dairy. Then one night I went out for ice cream sundaes with friends. It was the first time I had eaten dairy for a long time, and it didn't take long for me to realize I had made a mistake. I became SO SICK shortly after eating the ice cream that, after a long night of stomach cramps and other unpleasantness, I went vegan. I declared Valentine's Day of 2004 my official start of being vegan, as it was the first V-Day that I didn't eat Hershey's (another weakness of mine).
So there I was: a young, freshly-vegan woman, the only vegan in her family or circle of friends, someone who never spent much time in the kitchen. 2004-2005 was one hell of a learning experience.
I've heard many people say that they lost "so much weight" when they first went vegan. This was true for me, too, but not because I was healthy -- it was because I was hardly eating anything. I knew for sure what I did NOT want to eat, but that left me feeling lost and confused about what was left. Because I was intimidated by cooking, I depended on overpriced, prepackaged food items (Enter: Amy's products) and crap like veggie subs from Quizno's or flavorless pizzas with no cheese from the pizza place near our house (this was long before I realized wheat products didn't sit well with me and was the cause of some other health maladies during that time). I hated most of the food I was eating and hated how many of those foods (wheat) made me feel, so I ate very little. Looking back at pictures of me during that time, I looked incredibly pale and very thin.
I found heaps of information and support in online vegan communities. Right from the beginning, I am thankful for all of the vegan people around the country with whom I connected. We commiserated, we swapped recipes, we referred each other to different websites and books and events. Without that support system online, I probably would not have survived!
And then I ended up moving to a very small town in Missouri, with no health food store in sight, and not even a full-size supermarket the first year I was there. I was forced to overcome my hesitations with cooking, and this is when things started looking up. I figured out how to cook rice, got creative with tofu, and experimented with different ways to prepare vegetables. It was still very basic cooking for a couple of years, but I wasn't scared anymore. As time passed, I fully embraced beans, loved leafy greens, and explored different grains. I read cookbooks like novels, lingering over the photos, marking the recipes I would (eventually, some day) cook. I finally started listening to my body and, through an elimination diet, discovered that wheat products destroy my insides.
I haven't been a size 5 since those early days as a sickly new vegan. While I would love to be that small again, I wouldn't trade in the way I felt back then to the way I feel now. I am NOT a perfect vegan. I do not eat balanced meals that include all colors of the rainbow every single day. I wish I had the time and resources to create beautiful meals each day, but I'm too busy to make edible works of art. I eat pretty well, though, and much better than in the beginning.
I've come a long way, baby.