When I wrote this article explaining that I left veganism because it’s too cult-like, the backlash was swift — and painfully ironic.
A few ex-friends from my sign-holding, street-pamphleting days of old swarmed social media with slander against me and my partner. Another lady called me a “fat gross twat” and suggested that I should move to Jonestown and drink their Kool Aid (in laymen’s terms: ‘go kill yourself’). One acquaintance flipped out and made a dramatic post about how he was now going to delete me on Facebook (while a few others chose to do so quietly). And a handful of my remaining vegan friends acknowledged that they were well-aware of the drama going down on social media, but remained oddly silent…. and oddly difficult to make plans with ever since.
Let’s look at that again: I told vegans their practice of harassing, abusing and excommunicating ex-vegans is cult-like. And they responded by…. harassing, abusing and excommunicating me.
The lesson here is that, as a cult educator, it serves no one to tell cultists that they’re behaving like cultists. Yeah, it seems like the common-sense thing to do, but it would only be common sense to people who have the luxury of being introspective and self-aware — luxuries that cultists do not have, considering that a cultic mindset requires ever-increasing and unfathomable levels of dissociation from the self to facilitate integration into the hivemind.
Now that I’ve learned the hard way that honesty is not necessarily the best policy, I must consider new options. How can I educate cultists about cults, without triggering their hyperactive cognitive defenses?
Another thing I learned from this whole ex-vegan debacle, is that being open about my history of psychological abuse is a great litmus test for who the fuck is a covert abuser.
Just look at the comments on that Let Them Eat Meat post. Really, go look. I lost count of how many people made a statement along the lines of: “Well, you yourself just admitted that you suffer from cognitive distortions. So how can we trust your perception of veganism? Clearly you aren’t capable of critical thought or coherent analysis, because you’re too out of touch with reality.”
Gaslighting. To take my traumatic history and use it to discredit my opinions, assertions and experiences, despite my deep commitment to veganism for five years… that’s gaslighting. Not to mention manipulative, apathetic and cruel (oh, that’s right, vegans aren’t capable of cruelty! I forgot! Silly ol’ cognitively-distorted me!)
Thankfully, I’ve armed myself with enough knowledge to understand that these covert abusers aren’t actually making a point; no, they’re deflecting, and questioning my sanity because that’s safer than questioning their own.
And serious question: if I, as a well-educated cult survivor and a vegan of five years, am not qualified to make a judgment call on the cultishness of veganism, then who the hell is?
Nobody, apparently. Nobody can criticize veganism. Not current vegans, not ex-vegans, not vegetarians, not lifelong meat-eaters, not doctors, not psychiatrists, not ex-cultists…. Nobody. Because veganism is perfect and has all the answers.
Meat is still off my plate, as that is a boundary I don’t see myself relinquishing, at least not soon. It wouldn’t have made sense for me to decry veganism as too “extreme” but then hop to the other extreme of eating meat, especially after 6 years of not having it. Vegetarianism feels like a nice, fair balance, and a practical path towards recovery.
In only a month of renouncing veganism, there seems to be more time in my days now — probably because less of that time is being spent on searching in vain for local vegan fare or pre-preparing meals. I also find that I can be more social, as the list of things I can eat (and therefore, places I can go) is much longer. And I’m hungry less often and with less intensity.
I also feel more…. relaxed. After years of restrictive eating, my gratitude for this feeling cannot be overstated. I didn’t even know I was constantly tense until I started eating eggs and dairy again, and allowing myself to eat things without checking labels. When I want cake, or a bagel with cream cheese, or a little cream in my coffee, I have it. In the past, I had to deliberate and negotiate with food constantly (should I have that sandwich on bread that might contain monodiglycerides sourced from animals? ) Little did I know what toll this was taking on my brain. But now, my mind feels so much lighter, and calmer.
I can see why so many cults use dietary restrictions as a means of mass thought reform (as a matter of fact, I can name five major cults of the top of my head that push veganism in particular on their members. I’ll definitely write more about this in a future post.) Because mental resources are precious! And when you’re draining them your mental resources on something as arbitrary as whether a slice of bread is safe to eat or not, you have less energy for maintaining healthy mental boundaries and thinking critically.
The past month has also been a fun experiment in reliving flavors. I get to have some of my favorite things again: Italian rainbow cake, gulab jamun, fried eggs with runny yolks….
Not only do I get to have nonvegan foods I used to love, I finally get to try foods I’ve never had. Macaroons, for instance. Can you believe I’d never had macaroons? I had two on Saturday: earl grey and hazelnut-chocolate. They. Were. Awesome.
This heals me. Not only as a recovering cultist, but as a former bulimic, and most of all, as a woman. A woman raised in a society that gives women long, long lists of things we’re not allowed to eat, lest we take up too much space and start thinking wayward thoughts.
To anyone who hasn’t personally lived at the intersection of bulimia, womanhood and cultism, making dairy and eggs into my new spiritual practice may sound woefully impulsive and even juvenile. But I trust my intuition, which gently coaxes me to feed myself and leave the guilt out of it. And I know how I’ve changed in just the past month alone. No more feeling like I’m under constant surveillance as I eat. No more shame when surveying restaurant menus. No more declining invitations to social outings. No more arbitrary restrictions and rules.
From now on, flavor, indulgence, growth, and a stomach that doesn’t tolerate prolonged emptiness. From now on: taking care of myself.
As a closing note, I want to reiterate the question I asked in my Veganniversary article: is veganism psychologically healthy?
Ultimately, my intention in writing that article about why I’m not longer vegan was not to insult or hurt anyone. My intention was to remind us all that physical health is not the only kind of health we should be concerned about. Psychological health matters. I’m exhausted from hearing vegans stress the physical benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. When are we going to take our mental health seriously?
I personally wasn’t able to find a way to be vegan without slipping into destructive behaviors and thought patterns. This is a dilemma faced by many recovering cultists. As a matter of fact, my best friend and fellow cult survivor Roman, before he took his life, also struggled with maintaining veganism. He found that he couldn’t commit to the lifestyle without over-doing it, layering it with other restrictive lifestyles like raw foodism, locavorism, paleo, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
Even when I was a devout vegan, I could see how much he tried to make it work because he was a compassionate man who adored animals; but he also couldn’t live with that level of obsession and guilt. So, like a pendulum, he’d swing back and forth, back and forth, outrageously vegan for a time and then suddenly not. Never once did I judge him for desperately trying to heal himself. How could anyone?
I stand by everything I wrote in that Veganniversary article. My questions are valid. My experiences are valid. And nobody has the right to suggest that I kill myself, over my decision to prioritize my health. In most of the responses to my observations about the cultic aspects of veganism, vegans only gave me more reasons to believe that their movement operates as a cult.
I still care about animals and ending factory farming, I think if any of these vegans did too, they would take the point and consider how to make their movement less cult-like, and turn it instead into healthy community. Because, let’s be real here: a social justice movement built on cognitive distortions and high-demand group dynamics cannot be an effective activist movement. Drained, tired and unhealthy activists cannot change the world when they barely even have the wherewithal to think straight.
Basically, I just want people to know that if their vegan community or ideology makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, they have the right to listen to their intuition, question the group/beliefs, set new boundaries, and even leave if the climate of the group/ideology becomes intolerable. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your boundaries.
You have the right to change your mind.