My Veg*n Story

February 6th, 2009 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health

Going veg*n was the best mistake I’ve ever made, an accident that has affected every aspect of my life in a purely positive way. I never, ever thought this would happen to me. It was certainly never my intent. So, I praise serendipity. This is my story.

I was raised omnivorous, and although I was always an avid animal lover, I never gave much thought to the inherent contradiction of my diet. As I matured I became interested in nutrition, and started eating a less processed, more whole foods diet. Thanks to a rare disinterest in cheese and a lactose intolerant roommate who got me swilling soymilk in my morning coffee, I had almost entirely omitted overt dairy by my mid twenties. Of course, I smoked like a fish and I drank like a chimney, but c’mon, it was college! I still ate ‘better’ than everyone around me.

In college I studied biology and conducted research in parasitology. No mincing words here: I participated in animal testing. I personally trapped, euthanized, and dissected dozens, if not hundreds, of fishes. I suffered horrible nightmares about what I was doing to those fish, but I told myself that I was following standard protocol, and that there was no suffering. And it was not without purpose. Our findings are in queue for publication, and have significantly affected the field of parasite ecology. I am still quite proud of my contribution to science.

I had wrestled with my feelings about animal testing and vivisection at the beginning of my stint in the lab, and had decided I fell ‘on the side of Science’. Once I had drawn that line, my brain shut down around the issue. I used my imaginary line to justify not just animal testing, but my omnivory as well. It’s strange, because in college I was very politically engaged, an activist in fact. I fought for social justice, I marched for peace, I petitioned for the right to choose, and I rallied for marriage equality. But animal rights causes, all around me and available for participation, were something I always avoided. I consider myself a fairly open-minded individual, and so looking back at my lifestyle choice is a bit dismaying. In retrospect I recognize my absolute and essential disconnect in regards to behavior and diet. My own history is proof that our moral-override can be fearsome powerful, when acting in the name of convention and convenience. Now, I try to remember this when navigating conversations with non-vegans. I recall my own past, and use it to ground me in humility, to stimulate my sensitivity.

Fast forward a few years: post graduation, post engagement, post move to Portland, and my partner and I were quitting smoking. This miserable, gut-wrenching process, I would not wish on my own worst enemy (if I had one, that is). It took an entire year of my life to disentangle myself from cigarettes, and for a whole year that’s pretty much all I could focus on. Like so many, I used food as a coping mechanism. Hey, it works! But food-as-medicine meant a lot of peanut m & ms, a lot of pepperoni pizzas, and more midnight donut runs than I care to admit. Emerging from the other side of that year I was a non-smoker, true, but I also felt as though I had poisoned myself from the inside out. It was time to clean up my eating act, and to facilitate this, I planned a cleanse. A week long, ‘vegan cleanse’.

In my most candid moments, I had always conceded the ethical superiority of a vegan lifestyle, because I could not with intellectual honesty argue otherwise. There is just no denying the extreme wastefulness, the ecological devastation, the human hunger impact, the environmental destruction and the grievous misallocation of resources associated with the meat and dairy industries. I could admit to all of this, but somehow still maintain my cognitive dissonance. I told myself it was an impossible life choice, debilitating in its restriction and malnourishing without constant attention. I was an adventurous epicurean, a ‘foodie’, and much too exciting for rigorous meal planning. Veganism was just not practical, man.

That is of course, until I tried it. And it was easy. It was really just so easy. Not just easy, but to my surprise, it was rather . . . delightful. And so in that first week it became very clear to me that, if it really was so effortless (it is), and so pleasurable (oh yes), then it would be morally incorrect of me NOT to go vegan.  And I thought, “Damn, I can’t ‘un-know’ this”.  There was only one way that I could proceed while keeping my integrity intact.

On my list of reasons to go vegan, animal rights was at the very bottom, and I decided to give the lifestyle a ‘trial’ period of 6 months. And because I am a scientist to my very core, I approached my veg*nism as such – with exhaustive research and experimentation (kitchen, that is). I scoured discussion forums all over the Internet, I read literature including Skinny Bitch, I watched documentaries including Earthlings, and I listened to the Vegan Freak and Food For Thought podcasts. Very quickly, and admittedly unexpectedly, a new and beautiful compassion began awakening inside of me. I was moved – quite shaken – by a blossom of empathy that seemed to fill me in a place that I hadn’t even realized was empty. I am not kidding when I say that within just a few short weeks, I was a changed person. I knew I could never go back.

The longer that you live without contributing to the suffering of innocents, the stranger and more violent an act it seems. These days I could no more imagine eating meat or milk than I could imagine beating my dog. I see the world differently, and I move through the world differently as well. I experience mental clarity, bodily energy, physical ‘lightness’, and emotional stability. I have big healthy poops! (don’t be squeamish, you cannot talk about health without talking about poop) I am noticeably happier, internally derived happiness. I attribute all of these changes to my veg*n lifestyle. It is difficult to describe this feeling without sounding like an Evangelical kool-aid sipper, so you’ll just have to trust my intellectualism. This choice is unparalleled in its positivity.


  • Amber Kaplan

    Why did you use the word “vivisection” to describe the disections you did? Doesn’t “vivisection” mean disection of live animals?

  • Sayward

    Hmm, I didn’t intend to imply that what I did was vivisection. I meant that when I began working in the lab is when I began thinking about all of those issues, working them out in my mind, and then drawing my line and sticking to it. Perhaps it was not worded as clearly as it could have been.

    *I edited for clarity

  • TC

    You sounded a little like an “Evangelical kool-aid sipper” but by no means was it offensive. Will you still like me if I tell you I’ve been known to go hunting (only for sustenance, no trophy hunters live here) but haven’t been in a couple years; I do eat meat but know and talk to some folks who don’t; I smoked all my life (I’m 52) up until 6 years ago when I quit cold turkey; I love gardening and strive to garden 100% organically; I won’t hold it against folks who practice IPM (Integrated Pest Management). And my! I think this might be the first public manifesto I’ve ever written.

  • Sayward

    @ TC – No judgements here, man! I’m very jealous of your garden, however.

    And congrats on quitting smoking! Hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

  • Lisa

    I think that in regards to your hens, it is a very gray area in terms of whether it’s vegan or not, but I don’t think that you could be accused of being inhumane. Keeping chickens can be equated with having a dog or cat, and eating their eggs could possibly be compared to freeganism or dumpster diving.

    I think that there aren’t really any hard and fast rules with veganism, you could drive yourself crazy splitting hairs. For instance, bikes are really good for the environment and your body, but when you break it down, but rubber has animal by-products in it, you don’t know how they were manufactured and the pavement you ride in is definitely not vegan. But does that mean you should never leave the house or walk only on grass? No, it means that when presented with options like these, you choose not the lesser of all evils, but the choice that ends up being the best for as many beings as possible.

  • Sayward

    @ Lisa – I *totally* agree with you about the madness of splitting hairs. For me, I like to adhere to the original definition of the word, “. . . seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose . . .” (from The Vegan Society) But that’s just my own personal line. I commend anyone who is trying their best to be conscious of what they eat.

  • Kat

    OK, I was going to comment on this: but I think I’ll just make it one big comment.

    I buy wool and alpaca yarn from small companies and family farms; I have met some of the sheep whose fleece I spin into my own yarn. They are named, loved, and well taken care of. Not sheered, sheep lose their fleece yearly (and are miserably dirty and itchy while it’s happening). I buy milk from a local farm in the next town over, that I drive past every time I go to the grocery store. Unmilked cows are sore, depressed, and can actually become ill from swollen udders.

    So how, in the original definition of “not hurting any living creature”, is wool and milk (and eggs, for that matter) un-vegan? Wool and milk, on a small scale, taken consciously, is HEALTHY for the animal, and absolutely does not hurt them. Is it still exploitation if it benefits both parties? (The sheep are taken care of, and humans get clothing; the cows are taken care of, and humans get milk)

    If this comes off as confrontational, I apologize. I’m just confused and trying to reason it out in my head.

  • Sayward

    @ Kat – Don’t worry, you don’t sound confrontational at all. I appreciate the inquiry and I’m thrilled to see people thinking about these issues.

    That said, these are very big ideas, and everybody will evaluate them from their own, unique perspective. I can only speak my truth, from my experience, and seek out information with an open mind. You can only do the same. =)

    I’m going to provide some links that may help answer your questions. They are full of useful information that pertains to these questions.

    This podcast episode on the wool industry is the most comprehensive analysis of the vegan viewpoint that I’ve found (this is actually the second time in as many days that I’ve passed along this podcast!) – here

    The issue with milk is simply this – female cows only make milk for their babies.
    An overview of the dairy industry – here
    Another podcast episode, this one about milk – here
    And this podcast was very powerful to me, and certainly related to the issue – here

    Most fundamentally, I do not believe it is possible for a relationship based on exploitative commerce to be ‘mutually beneficial’. This is proven true in human-human cases throughout history, but is especially true in cases where one party is not even capable of simple consent, as in human-animal situations.

    I truly appreciate your interest, and I wish you luck on this journey.

  • Lisatlantic

    Why did you stop eating your chicken eggs? It seems to me, as you said, that there’s no reason you couldn’t eat them.

  • Shango

    I am a new reader to your blog. Actually have read 70% of it tonight. I too am curious why you decided against the eggs. Please share. You have been right on with everything I have read so far and am curious.

  • Sayward

    @ Lisatlantic and Shango – Hey guys, sorry it took me a while to address this! I hope you check back and I didn’t miss you altogether. =)

    When I got the hens I was omni and I ate their eggs. I didn’t get them for the eggs, I got them because chickens are effing awesome animals and having them around brings me endless amounts of joy. People who say chickens are stupid and ‘automatons’ (I’ve had people say this to me) have obviously never spent time in the presence of a happy healthy hen. They are vivacious, proud, feisty little individuals with a unique personality, every one.

    Anyway, so as an omni I ate my hen’s eggs because why not? Then I went veg*n and cut out all other animal products period. But after much searching inside myself, I couldn’t really find ethical fault with eating the chicken’s eggs. As I saw it, they laid them every morning and then they walked away. I would have to remove the egg or it would rot. So why not remove it to my tummy instead of the trash? That was my line of thinking and I spent about 8 months as a veg*n living like that (to be clear – I never called myself vegan when I was eating my chicken eggs. That’s an important distinction, and what may or may not be ethical is not always in alignment with what may or may not be vegan.)

    After I looked into the matter a little more, I learned about chickens in terms of their reproduction and the way they have been – excuse my language – totally fucked over by the poultry industry. Pretty much ALL chickens today lay an egg a day, because they have been bred to. This is totally unnatural and pretty much destroys their poor little bodies, leaving them weak and nutrient deprived and shortens their life span immensely. It’s so sad.

    And that’s when I discovered that the chickens themselves LOVE to eat their own eggs. Seriously, they’re crazy for ‘em. It’s their favorite part of the day!

    So if laying the eggs is such an energetic burden, and recouping those nutrients is something they ‘desire’, then I could no longer in good conscience take those eggs from them. Which was fine with me, I was tired of living in a grey area and getting into discussions to explain myself. I was happy as hell to shed the * and just become a real vegan. A few eggs here and there wasn’t worth the headache, to me. And of course, it WAS what was best for the hens. That was the most important thing – that was my personal bottom line. As a vegAn, I have no question that I’m doing the best for those lives that are in my care, and also setting an example to other humans about how to live a completely compassionate life.

    So that’s what brought me to where I am. Hope that helps!

  • Alis

    For those interested in legalizing chickens within Hillsboro city limits. Hillsboro is one of the few cities around Portland that still doesn’t allow chickens within city limits.

    And I agree, chickens are effing awesome! So peaceful & happy. I’m a vegetarian, not a vegan, so I would be eating some of the eggs. But you’ve inspired me to leave some of them for the chickens to eat themselves. If they legalize them, of course. :)

  • Sayward

    @ Alis – I didn’t realize Hillsboro didn’t allow chickens. That’s too bad! Good luck on getting them legalized. You’ll have so much fun with the little buggers!

  • S.

    I just came across your website. Love it. Texting my sis about it cause she will love it too.

    I am celebrating my first year anniversary for being a vegetarian (not vegan….but I buy free range organic) and I have to say, as a fellow animal and biology lover, I have always been torn between science and compassion. The phrase that you used “The longer that you live without contributing to the suffering of innocents, the stranger and more violent an act it seems.” so perfectly describes the process of converting to vegetarianism. You have a wonderful site. Congrats on the baby!

  • Sayward

    @ S. – Thanks! And congrats on the veg-anniversary! That’s such an awesome accomplishment. =)

  • wendy

    hey, Sayward! congrats on the baby, you both look beautiful! i came across your blog from another blog, and it’s lovely. i love reading about how others have come to veganism, and your story is very interesting. i hope to adopt rescued chickens and goats some day. i now go to poke around here a bit…

  • Aayla

    Hi Say, just wanted to say this was really well written and I enjoyed reading it. I hope you inspire your readers even more than you already do. Also, let’s have a dinner date night soon!

  • Sayward

    @ Aayla – Yessssss! You need to meet the bebe!

  • cammie

    I have been stalking around your blog for the last 2 days and it has really got me questioning some of my own lifestyle choices. i even posted a link to it on my facebook. but those who know me will think i’ve lost my mind. i’m an omni, drink too much, smoke too much, and don’t recycle (please don’t hate) but reading up on your blog actually makes me want to change. maybe some life changes will help heal this void that i’m stuck with on a daily basis. after seeing your farmers market I declared today i want to move to portland, til I realized how cold it is there…so now i’m on a venture to find somewhere warmer with the same cultures around to discover. thank you for all your research, I did not know chickens like to eat their own eggs, so now when i finally get my farm, i know not to take the eggs, which i don’t eat anyway. but the milk & cheese….still working on that one. thanks for all the effort you put into this site…it is quite awesome, even for those of us who basically are wrecking the world & ourselves, but you are giving us initiative not to. :) ive learned so much about being healthy, enviro conscious, and myself in the last few days.

  • Sayward

    @ cammie – Thank you so much for such an open and honest comment! When I hear that this blog has a real impact on people, that somebody finds what I’m doing here to be meaningful in their own life, well, that just makes my damn day. So thank you. =)

    Your comment really resonates with me, too, because you sound a lot like me five years ago! I was a carnist, a pack-a-day smoker, and a 6-pack-a-night boozer. I was also a litterbug! (eek! those cigarette butts oh man . . . ) It’s taken me years to get to where I am now, and who knows where I’ll be in another five years (I’ve certainly got more growing to do, oh yes oh yes!) I think a lot of people see certain lifestyles (vegan, chemical-free, vehicle-free, etc) as unattainable because it seems so far from their current state. But no one decides to ‘get healthy’ for example, and then does it in a week. It’s a long slow process of baby steps and minor tweaks, backslides and hard lessons and amazing epiphanies and strange discoveries. At least, that’s been my own personal experience and that’s what I try to remind people of when they say they want to change.

    Nobody is perfect so there’s no use in trying to be. But if you wake up each day determined to be the best version of yourself that you can, well that will go a long way. If I’m reading your comment correctly, it sounds like you’re at a tipping point and ready for a big change. That’s so exciting! You can do anything you want!

    Good luck on your journey, wherever it takes you. And dude, enjoy the ride!

  • Krystle Rose

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so true once you start eating a veg*n or even vegetarian diet there’s no going back. I can’t imagine eating chicken, even though a year ago I couldn’t imagine *not* eating chicken. My story is similar because going veg for me also changed my view on the world. I think more clearly and pay attention to every aspect of my normal day by asking, “how am I impacting the earth/my health?” It’s a beautiful thing.

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  • Anne241

    Hi Sayward, how did your chickens learn to eat their eggs? My partner has some rescue hens, and they don’t lay much anymore, but when they do they never attempt to eat the eggs, even if you leave them there for a few days. Do you break one for them and do they then start eating it of their own accord? Thanks!!

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Yes exactly, you have to break them open for them! When I would pick up an egg my girls would start jumping and clucking with excitement, haha. I would just gently throw the egg at the ground and it would crack and they would dive on in. =)

  • simplykat

    I know this post is very old, but I stumbled across your blog while researching some health issues I’ve been having (I want to stay veg!) and got sidetracked reading through your food archives……but what made me comment is your name. I named my eldest daughter Sayward and you are the first person I have ever come across who shares her name. I was inspired by the trilogy “the awakening land” . In any case, I adore your blog and your name and will be a frequent reader :)

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi SimplyKat, that’s so awesome to hear! I’ve heard of (and even met one!) other Sayward’s over the years, and so far we’ve all been a product of The Awakening Land series.

    I LOVE my name and think it’s played a huge part in making me who I am. Thanks for being awesome and giving your daughter such a great name! ;-)