After spending the holidays of 2008 stuffing my face with rich, delicious foods, I felt as bloated as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. My love for food had led me to struggle with my weight, and that holiday season, I decided to change.
One afternoon, I wandered into Borders looking for a few Christmas-clearance weight-loss books. Most seemed like gimmicks, but one caught my eye: Instead of obsessing about ways to burn fat, it talked about becoming healthier by cutting out dairy and meat. Basically, it told me to become vegan.
Though I didn't buy the book, I took some of its ideas to heart, and three days later, after searching the Internet for exactly what veganism entailed (and stumbling onto a few horrifying videos taken at factory farms), I announced to my mother that starting Jan. 1, I would be going vegan.
She thought I was nuts, but only insisted that I make sure to get all the proper protein and nutrients. Her confusion was understandable. I'd been an avid fan of the five Cs my entire life: chocolate, chicken, cheese, Chinese takeout and cereal. But she sighed and let me take charge of the grocery shopping.
For the first few weeks, I loved my new lifestyle. My insides had never felt healthier, and after a surprisingly smooth colon cleanse, I felt full of energy. It was the first time I'd ever felt a real difference in the way my body was working. I was breathing just a little bit easier and got tired a lot less. I lost fifteen pounds, and I didn't miss chicken anymore.
But looking back, I realize I was only happy with tofu and fruits because I cheated on the side; if I accidentally ate something that had eggs or milk in it (like candy bars or bread), I didn't beat myself up. I told myself, "Whoops! Forgot to ask for no Parmesan on this pasta! Oh well—I shouldn't waste this food!"
Also, my "true" vegan friends were passionate about stopping animal cruelty. The only thing worse than the thought of suffering animals was the look my friends gave me when they saw me snacking on gluten-based candy.
I vowed to suck it up and take my conversion seriously. But between homework, rising extra-early for a trip to the gym (before a 45-minute commute to school by city bus) and a new part-time job, I had no time to cook something vegan-friendly at the end of a long day.
I realized that being healthy took a lot of time. I found myself drinking bowls of green tea and eating nothing but oatmeal and grapes. I was even starting to hate soymilk, because it became thick and creamy overnight and had to be shaken each morning, reminding me of some kind of rotting cream. I found my food options, and my energy, dwindling.
Eating—such a major component of my life, my family gatherings and my identity—had turned into a daunting task. Before, food brought me closer to my family, like when my mom and I would sit in the car with soft-serve ice-cream and listen to NPR, or when we would bring home a club sandwich from Beyond Bread and split it in front of Star Trek re-runs. Veganism began to feel like a frustrating trap.
As I opened the fridge one hot afternoon, I paused, entranced by the dairy compartment. A brick of fluorescent orange sat beneath the clear sliding door. My mother had brought home extra. Sharp. Cheddar.
Sliding open the clear door to the cheese compartment, I took in hand the cold slab of forbidden deliciousness. I grabbed a knife, stabbed it through the plastic, cut out a huge corner and sank my teeth into the soft, chewy stuff. With my mouth full, I hollered through the house, "Mom! I'm not vegan anymore!" The cheese was better than I remembered.
I tried to be an honest vegan. I failed with gusto.
But sometimes, failure makes a bigger impact on your life than success. In this way, I also succeeded—if veganism, at its core, is about being more conscious, that's exactly what my experience gave me.
Kaitlin Gates Tarter, 18, will be a freshman at Yavapai College in the fall. She is is a youth apprentice journalist at VOICES: Community Stories Past and Present, Inc. For more information, visit www.voicesinc.org.