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Veganism, activism, and the reality of depression

Since I have become vegan a lot of positive things have happened. I am physically healthier and I am finally living a life that aligns with my values. I would NEVER go back to a life in which I chose to embrace ignorance over knowledge, particularly because the cost is the life of another. Now that I am vegan I will never again value the ease of the status quo over the difficult reality of the truth. In fact, now that I am vegan I understand the need for each person to live not only a life of compassion and equality, but to act as an advocate for others by engaging in activism.

Though I prefer the path that I have chosen it has come with significant and sometimes painful side effects. For me, veganism and activism has come with depression. Once I acknowledged that what happens to nonhuman animals is the fault of human animals, and once I accepted responsibility for working toward assuaging the injustice that leaves billions dead every year, I knew for the first time in my otherwise privileged life what it felt like to be impotent, ineffective, and silenced.

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I do not know if I am alone. But I am discussing this because I assume I am not, and I don’t think that silence is helpful. As vegans and animal rights activists we live in a world that questions our lifestyles, our motivations, our health, and even our sanity at times. For this reason, many are fearful to talk of any negative aspects of our veganism. However, I want to air our vegan laundry. First, because not talking about these things does not make them go away. And second, in this case, it is not our fault. We are not unbalanced or unhealthy for reacting with sadness to the fact that most people choose murder in order to preserve the status quo. We are not pathological, the rest of the world is, and it is okay to experience pain in the face of this reality.

We know that the decision we make not to partake in abuse and murder is the only logical decision to make. But we also know that most people insist on remaining blinded and denying the injustices they engage in, for fear of the changes they will need to make. To add to all of this, we are few and far between so in many environments we are tokens. We don’t represent ourselves as individuals, but to our families or colleagues or classmates we are the face of veganism or activism. This can lead to the idea that we need to be perfect human beings for the sake of promoting the vegan message. I think that because of this, we neglect discussing the difficult issues we face as a consequence of the necessary and compassionate choices we have made. We seem to embrace Stepford veganism in an attempt not to deter others from embracing a vegan lifestyle.

In an effort to prove to the world that our choices are right, we neglect to attend to or even admit negative side effects that come along for the ride. But acknowledging that there are billions murdered and abused on a daily basis is a painful recognition. It is only logical that this recognition comes with pain. Before I became vegan, I was not bothered much by conspicuous consumption. Now I have what I have dubbed the “Schindler’s syndrome.” Every penny I spend becomes a life to me—a rescued animal I could have helped spay, a Sea Shepherd salary I could have helped fund, footage of an undercover investigation I could have helped distribute.  Before I became an activist I could sleep soundly at the end of the day. Now I get in bed exhausted, tinges of pain over each moment that could have gone better, worried the time that I took for the protests is effecting my job, worried that my job is effecting my dedication to activism, concerned that friends and family won’t understand why I must sometimes choose activism over them, frustrated that no matter how hard I fight, the movement seems only gain a critical mass of potluckers but not protesters. This all accumulates into anger or sadness or frustration on a regular basis, emotions I rarely dealt with previously.

I believe that with time I will learn to manage and deal with these feelings. I hope that one day I can understand the pain I feel in a way that allows me to better work toward change. In the meantime, I have decided not to hide this experience. This is an issue in our community that I am probably not alone in facing. We need to acknowledge that accepting the path of compassion can come with sadness. We need to be aware that our comrades might feel this way. Once our community acknowledges that we are not supposed to be super humans, we can help each other cope and heal and strive to at least become super guardians, super fosters, super advocates, super spokespersons and super activists for the animals.

I am depressed. Some days my heart is heavier than my feet and I have no energy to get up and go. But I am not depressed because I am vegan nor am I depressed because of my activism. I am depressed because most people choose to exploit animals for culinary preference, fashion, and entertainment—no good reason at all when it comes down to it. While this is my burden, it is not my problem. The problem is them, not me.

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Viva La Vegan is a very positive and happy space for vegans. So it was no surprise when I was supported to repost this article but to also think about positive ways to combat depression. We become vegan and we become activists because, in the end, the rewards are greater than by following any other path. So it is important that we remember to engage with the rewarding parts as we find support for the rest. Here are a few ways to help combat depression when/ if it arises.

Enjoy animals

Take time not only to focus on the pain animals suffer, but also to revel in the joy of their lives. Nothing will make you happier than meeting an animal who is living a free life, instead of a life of pain.  Visit an animal sanctuary and meet individuals who have overcome the odds and found a safe space. You may make a friend, receive love, and you can certainly give a lot of love. You can also hang out with the other animals that you or your friends live with—pet, play, go for a walk together, etc. Everyone will be happier afterward!  

Talk about it

Do not feel pressure to be silent about how you feel in order to protect a vision of veganism and activism as a better way of life. Of course eliminating killing others and living a life of conviction is a better way of life! So speak up to others in the community, or go to a therapist who can not only listen but may also help you develop ways to think about and/or manage the sadness in a productive way.

Read up!

You are not alone if you are feeling down and there are books and blogs out there that can help you. Here are just a couple suggestions:

Aftershock by pattrice jones: “Many activists also must struggle with "aftershock," the physical and emotional reverberations of frightening, horrifying, or otherwise traumatizing experiences endured in the course of their activism. This book is for aftershocked activists and their allies…. It includes practical tips for individuals, organizations, and communities, as well as information about how traumatic events affect our bodies and abilities. 

Unstuck by James S. Gordon: “Despite the billions spent on prescription anti-depressant drugs and psychotherapy, people everywhere continue to grapple with depression. James Gordon, one of the nation's most respected psychiatrists, now offers a practical and effective way to get unstuck. Drawing on forty years of pioneering work, Unstuck is Gordon's seven-stage program for relief through food and nutritional supplements; Chinese medicine; movement, exercise, and dance; psychotherapy, meditation and guided imagery; and spiritual practice. The result is a remarkable guide that puts the power to change in the hands of those ready to say 'no' to suffering and drugs and 'yes' to hope and happiness.” (Note: The author of this book does not come from a vegan perspective).

Exercise

A therapist once told me that the first drug any depressed person should take is exercise. When your body feels like lead and your heart is weak, the thought of taking time to run around or spend the money on yoga seems either ridiculous or physically impossible. But do it. And do it daily for a couple weeks. It will do a number of things. Physically, it will get your endorphin levels up and make sleeping at night and waking up in the morning easier. Mentally it will remind you that you are strong.

A note on medicating: After reading and talking and exercising and eating well, if you decide antidepressants are what you need, DO NOT feel guilty. They are tested on animals so you should avoid them if you can, among other reasons. But if you can’t, the animals would have been tortured and died anyway, and so it may be better that an activist benefits and continues to fight for them than an activist refuse them and give up on the fight all together. It is a greater good argument, it is a complicated argument, and it is a problematic argument. But if you have no other choice, since a non-animal tested option does not exist, do it and move on.

Give yourself a break

You do not need to be a superhero. In fact, you have to admit that you are not a superhero. Sometimes you will want to spend your money on health insurance or a concert ticket. Do it without thinking about how that could have been used to pull an animal from a shelter or donate to an investigation. You may need to take a month off or organizing or protesting, etch. If you give yourself breaks, and earnestly accept that they are okay to take, you will avoid burning out and debilitating self-blame.

And I know this advice is easy to give and hard to embrace. I wrote this blog post over a year ago and I still have not taken my own advice…

This article originally appeared on vegina.net on June 15, 2011. 

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vegina has been blogging since 2009 about animal liberation, feminism, and the ways in which oppressions intersect.

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