My Story: The Long Version
To start, looking back on my life, I have never really been big on meat and dairy (with the large exception of ice cream), but like most people, I grew up consuming both without ever making the connection between what is on my plate and how it got there, or how it affected my physical health. I grew up in central Pennsylvania with a lot of animals — horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds — we even once had a lamb that my sister rescued from slaughter. I always hated the idea of killing animals, or seeing animals harmed. Most days you could find me in our barn, up in the hay loft playing with our various barn cats, who all had unique names.
In my junior year of high school, my life spiraled out of control very quickly. At the time, I was an athlete, was in good shape, had a long-term boyfriend, lots of friends, was really into art and photography, was working at my first job, was in the top 10 academically out of a class of 500+ students, and was just enjoying my life, completely unprepared psychologically for what was about to come.
At the start of the school year, everything came crashing down when my dad unexpectedly passed away. He had a sudden heart attack while he was letting the dog out at night, and I’ll never forget that night for as long as I live. My dad and I were as close as close could be. I should probably disclose that he was my step-dad, but he raised me from the time I was a wee little one, and we always had a special connection. He came to every single softball game, took me to 6 a.m. pitching camps, drove me everywhere at any time, took me to every field hockey practice, went to every art fair, you name it — he was always there.
His sudden passing hit me especially hard. We got into our first ever serious fight a couple days before he died, and I recall yelling something awful at him that went like, “Whatever, you aren’t even my real dad!” Those were the last words I spoke to him. I never got to mend that, and it haunted me to my core. After his passing, we found out some things were happening that he was keeping from my family, and those things (which I don’t feel comfortable sharing), hurt me deeply. I couldn’t understand how someone who loved me so much could betray me in that way. At the same time, my boyfriend of three years began cheating on me with my best friend. So, I quickly lost three very close people in my life at the same time, and my adolescent psyche was not equipped for it. My brother was also having a lot of very serious issues, which required a lot from my mom. His grief was more outward and obvious, requiring more calls to 911 than is normal for a typical household. So, filled with pain and feeling so alone and betrayed, I spiraled, and I spiraled hard.
In my pain, I turned to food. I can’t say that I turned to it for comfort exactly — looking back, it seemed like something else, like self-sabotage. It was more to somehow inflict pain on myself in a strange way. I couldn’t be around people, and I just wanted to disappear into a hole. I stopped caring about myself and everything around me. I remember feeling lonely, desperate and so hurt.
I put on weight extremely fast, and I’m not just talking about 20 or 30 pounds. Try adding 100 onto whatever your guess is, and you’re probably closer. I stopped playing sports, which had a lot to do with my dad being gone. I stopped making art. The more weight I gained, the deeper I sunk into depression and self-loathing.
The final year of high school was rough. Looking back, I wish I would’ve responded to the times when I was pulled out of class by concerned teachers and guidance counselors, but I was so out of sorts that I couldn’t even hear them speaking to me. I even crashed my car intentionally once, then blamed it on a deer.
Somehow, I went off to college, despite my plummeting GPA, and things felt a little better, but I was so unhappy and still couldn’t cope with life. I continued to gain weight in college, but being in a new place was helpful. My freshman year was an absolute mess, but I started to come around after that, though I struggled with depression and binge eating throughout college.
Eventually, in my senior year of college, I started to care about myself again. I was starting to realize how bad things had become and wanted to make a change. I even began running around an outdoor path at a park near my apartment. I remember the feeling of my thighs rubbing together and how much it burned, but I was determined to fix myself. I wanted to go on dates like my friends and feel like I was part of the world. I started trading in pizza and ice cream for vegetables and whole grains. I was excited that I had this new mindset.
Then I got walloped again.
One morning I noticed the middle finger on my right hand was quite swollen, and I assumed I had stubbed it or done something stupid while out drinking. But the swelling wouldn’t go away. I started waking up with intense pain in my hip joints, at the base of my spine. The pain got so bad that I couldn’t sit up to get out of bed. All I could do was cry. I had to call my mom to drive up to Penn State and take me to the hospital. By that time, my knees were swelling up and I couldn’t bend my legs at all, along with swelling in my collarbones, wrists and ankles, and I also had these large balls of inflammation on the bottoms of my feet, which made walking nearly impossible. I remember having to wear giant slippers because normal shoes wouldn’t fit me. The pain and inflammation was so bad that I couldn’t walk unassisted for two months; I started to wonder if it was possible for my skin to explode.
What the hell was happening to my body? I must have visited 10 different specialists, who all ran all kinds of tests and did all sorts of bloodwork. I kept hearing “You’re too young to be walking like you’re 90” or “You look worse off than my elderly patients!” Great. Thanks for the medical expertise.
Eventually, a rheumatologist prescribed me with steroids and medication to bring down the swelling, and I was able to move a bit again, but the pain and swelling continued at varying levels. I can’t even count how many needles I’ve had shoved into my wrists, fingers, knees and feet, and how much time I’ve squealed and cried in pain from the cortisone filling my joints. It was overwhelming, both physically and emotionally.
That’s when I took matters into my own hands and decided I had to be the one to fix me. I knew my weight gain and self-sabotage must have been responsible for what was happening. One morning, I went into a Linens N Things and took a scale off the shelf. I stood there in the aisle alone and crying, fearful of what it would read, but I felt like knowing this would help motivate me. (I never once let doctors weigh me. I refused because I was so embarrassed.) But I had to know what I was dealing with. 263 pounds. How was this possible?
That day, I went home and opened up to my mom, crying uncontrollably, and she was so happy I finally did. I told her I was changing, starting that day. We went out to lunch, and I remember getting a veggie salad from Subway. After that, I started reading about nutrition and eating a ton of veggies, but I still ate meat, dairy and processed foods. I also joined the YMCA even though I could barely afford it, and worked up the courage to put on a suit and swim every single day because it was the only exercise that didn’t hurt. I felt alive in the water; it was the only place where pain didn’t follow me. I was committed, and the weight started to drop off. After a year, I was down over 100 pounds. It was a painful, difficult struggle a lot of times, and sometimes I still can’t believe I did it given the pain I was in.
It wasn’t until I went plant-based that I was able to thrive with little or no medication, and also lost that final 10-20 pounds that I just couldn’t seem to get rid of in the previous years of working out and eating “healthy.”
Over the years I have struggled with periods of bad flare-ups, debilitating pain, brain fog and depression from my RA. I even had pleurisy in my lungs for over a year, which was maybe one of the most difficult things to handle (pleurisy is when the lining of your lungs are inflamed, so you feel sharp pain when your lungs expand, so basically every breath you take). All of this came with being prescribed various medications, sleep deprivation, weight fluctuations and a ton of physical and mental stress.
I’ve had some relapses where I’ve found myself crying in pain, unable to sleep, unable to turn a doorknob or bend my fingers, wondering if the pain will ever truly go away. It got so bad that my left wrist is actually fused and won’t ever bend again. The medications I’ve been prescribed have mostly had negative side effects that made me feel terrible and didn’t really help address the root of the problem. I still believe medication can be useful for bringing down a bad flare, but I don’t ever want to rely on it for daily use ever again.
Through this journey, I’ve also learned so much about how animals are treated and where our food comes from, and I simply can’t unlearn those things, nor do I want to. The same goes for the effects of animal agriculture on our planet. Going vegan is something that has made me feel truly at peace and recognize the difference between loving pets versus loving animals.
The transition to veganism was pretty much cold Tofurky for me. I watched the film Forks Over Knives in 2011, and something just switched in my brain. At the time, I had been eating healthy and wasn’t consuming large amounts of animal protein at all, so it wasn’t a difficult switch for me to make. I think there has always been something inside of me that was drawn to this way of eating, but I don’t know why I never made the switch. Watching Forks Over Knives truly inspired me, and to this day, when I start to feel down, I just watch it, and my motivation is renewed.
I have fallen off the wagon a bit more than once due to extremely stressful times professional and personally. I know what it feels like to get stuck in a cycle that is difficult to escape from. During those times, I allowed myself to ignore labels, consume more processed foods or vegan junk foods; I just generally wasn’t following the plant-based diet I had so much success with in previous years. My body responded, and the results weren’t pretty.
Since then, I’ve gotten back on the plant-based train, and I plan to stay on it. I am still in the process of figuring out how to balance a career while also prioritizing health and happiness.
Starting this blog and my Instagram account was a way for me to share my experience and help others, but also to keep myself accountable and motivated. You would think feeling good would be enough, but life can be stressful, and I’m human — and in times of stress, we don’t always reach for the alkalizing green juice first. Lately I’m feeling better in my own skin, and I am finally opening myself up to others, figuring out who I am and understanding the importance of mental health. I’m pretty excited about that.
Please feel free to drop me a line via the Contact section on this blog, or reach out on Instagram. I’m always happy and excited to connect with others.
For our health, for the animals and for the planet, xx