Being Vegan With Bipolar Disorder

From the soaring stock price of Beyond Meat, to celebrity endorsements, to fast food chains like Burger King and Del Taco adding plant-based menu items, veganism is definitely having a moment. As a vegan, I hope it’s more than just a moment. I want it to be the beginning of a worldwide movement.

And I’m not just an ethical vegan. I also have bipolar disorder.

What’s an ethical vegan, you ask? It’s someone who not only doesn’t consume meat, dairy, eggs and honey, but who also refrains from buying leather, silk and wool. An ethical vegan does their best to buy cruelty-free products (like laundry detergent and lipstick) that don’t contain animal ingredients and aren’t tested on animals. In short, it’s someone who becomes vegan because of their belief that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, testing or entertainment. As an ethical vegan, I try to have as little negative impact as possible on the lives of animals.

I believe everyone is born compassionate. Our ability to empathize with others (human or not) is squeezed out of us by society. The world can be a harsh place. The ability to not take everything personally is healthy. You have to develop a thick enough skin to handle some inevitable life events. If we crumbled to ash every time we experienced rejection from a loved one, the loss of a job, or saw the effects of climate change on the news, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed every morning. And you need to get out of bed to fight climate change, to get another job, or to look for another partner. But we also turn off our emotions to eat animals, and that’s not healthy, because it’s unnecessary. If you think about how cows are treated every time you eat a burger, you’ll likely have a harder time eating it. It just won’t taste as good when you acknowledge the unnecessary suffering caused for your food. It’s especially unnecessary now, when there are plant-based meats that taste, look, smell and feel exactly like their inhumane animal counterparts.

My journey began at age thirteen. I was a vegetarian through high school, college and into my twenties. I became a vegetarian long before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I remember seeing PETA flyers in the late 1980s that shocked me. I saw pictures that exposed the cruelty behind animal testing for cosmetics and the horrors of factory farming. Once I saw the suffering animals endured at the hands of humans just because they “tasted good” or were cheap test subjects for disposable razors, I felt deeply compelled to take action. I began buying cruelty-free shampoos and makeup, and I stopped eating meat (yes, including fish too). I recognized that there is no such thing as humane meat. It’s a myth. Killing an animal for food is always inhumane, because they want and deserve to live.

Because I have bipolar disorder, I tend to feel things more deeply than most people do. I’m often more profoundly affected by stuff that triggers an emotional response. While lots of people—who could go vegan—are aware of the harm caused by animal exploitation, not everyone goes vegan. That doesn’t mean those people are bad, it just means they’re able to turn off that part of themselves that gets upset when they think about where the burger on their plate came from. I’m just not one of those people. I just can’t turn that part of myself off. It was my sensitivity that forced me to not look away when I saw suffering. I believe my ability to feel things so deeply, and my capacity for empathy are the natural results of my bipolar disorder. In turn, it was my mental illness that made me empathize with animals.

I’ve always related to those who’ve been exploited or abused. I grew up with an emotionally distant, bipolar father who created my daddy issues: my lifelong need for the attention and love I never got from my dad. I was picked on in school. I’ve struggled with my self-esteem for most of my life. I was married to an abusive man. I can’t help but put myself in the position of others (human or animal) when I see them in pain or experiencing fear. Going vegan seemed like a natural thing for me. I know what it feels like to be scared, upset, hopeless and helpless. That’s what depression feels like. I recognize what I see on the faces of animals in a world that uses and abuses them.

A few years ago, I watched the documentary Earthlings, and I became vegan that day. It sealed the deal for me. I felt a switch inside myself flip. All the emotions I’d been trained to ignore in order to survive in an often cruel world suddenly flooded over me like a waterfall. Earthlings isn’t like Forks Over Knives or Cowspiracy or even What the Health. It’s not for the faint of heart. I don’t recommend watching it if you struggle with depression. Although that movie was the push I needed to motivate me, I also had horrible PTSD for months after watching it. I had nightmares, and I kept seeing the film’s disturbing images over and over again. I couldn’t get them out of my head. I cried a lot. The intrusive memories were overwhelming.

Most people who go vegan because of ethical concerns go through a normal adjustment period.
For more information on what happens when you stop eating animals, check out these wonderful, inspiring and immensely helpful  podcasts from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau:

Stage 1: Validation and the Voracious Consumption of Information

Stage 2: Guilt & Remorse

Stage 3: Coming Out

Stage 4: Evangelizing

Stage 5: Sorrow & Anger

Once I recovered from my initial shock, about three months after going vegan, I settled into a lifestyle filled with joy, boundless love and a feeling of deep connection with everything around me. It became a positive experience. I now live my values every day, through almost every choice I make. I’m proud of that. Being vegan has brought me emotional and mental peace. I’ve reconnected with the compassion I was born with. I’m helping fight climate change by not contributing to the deforestation and pollution that accompanies animal agriculture. Being vegan has given me a sense of purpose. Even when I’m depressed, being vegan has helped me. If I’m feeling down on myself for lacking the motivation to do much else aside from waking up and managing to eat, at least I know I helped save a life when I chose the food I ate. My diet has improved my physical health, and I have more energy than I used to. I won’t say going vegan was easy, but it was 100% worth it.

If you like the image above, thank you! I designed it!
You can check out my online store on Redbubble.

If you’re considering going vegan, find and be inspired by what motivates you. If you’re sensitive to triggers or struggle with depression, don’t overdo it by watching dozens of disturbing videos in the voracious consumption of information stage. If you have bipolar disorder, remember that—like with everything else in your life—you have to practice extra special care, and take your own emotional needs into consideration.

Are you considering going vegan?
Colleen Patrick Goudreau is a wise woman and I trust her advice.
She says “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. Do something. Anything.”
The 30 Day Vegan Challenge is my recommendation for a healthy, positive journey.
And it’s free!

I’ve found six tips for helping me feel my best, while taking both my bipolar disorder and my veganism into account:

(1) Embrace your own compassion. Being vegan is a wonderful way to connect with the world around you, people, creatures, nature, and yourself. Practice being gentle with not just other beings, but with yourself too.

(2) Eat healthy foods. It’s easy (and tempting) to be vegan but live on carbs and junk food like Oreos, Fritos, Ritz Crackers and Tater Tots (those are all vegan!) but eating nothing but junk food is bad for everyone – bipolar or not. Besides being a way to help save animals’ lives, I also view veganism as a way to help me feel my best, by eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains. That makes me feel physically good, which in turn affects my mood in a positive way.

(3) Avoid triggers. I try not to look at upsetting stuff anymore, because it gives me nightmares. My bad dreams prevent me from sleeping, which destabilizes me. Sleep is an absolute necessity for those of us with bipolar disorder. Being tormented by nightmares is not a good way for anyone to live. Viewing upsetting footage of animal abuse when you struggle with depression doesn’t do anyone—you or the animals—any good.

(4) Don’t count meds. If you take antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, or any other medications to keep you stable, don’t stop taking them! Yes, those are tested on animals. No, there aren’t any holistic alternatives that work just as well. It’s a sad fact, but it is what it is. You and I can’t help animals if we are unstable, depressed, manic or experiencing severe anxiety. And we need those meds to stay in recovery.

(5) Take care of yourself. I heard some sad news recently. Mary Max, the wife of Peter Max, who was a tireless animal rights activist and who also struggled with depression, died by suicide in June of 2019. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her death, but there is something to be learned here. Those of us who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness need to take care of ourselves. Suicide is often a tragic result of untreated or unmanaged mental illness. Remember that your own self-care should be your biggest priority.

(6) Don’t forget why you’re vegan. I’m vegan because of a deep respect for other beings. That includes non-human animals and humans. Veganism helped me rediscover my empathy. Just as I value the individual rights of non-human animals, I also honor the rights of other humans. I don’t judge or condemn non-vegans. Their decisions are just as worthy of respect as the choices I make. I’m not better than anyone else. Lots of people live in communities with very few vegan options. Many people don’t have the financial means to spend extra money on cruelty-free products. (I could write another entire article on the travesty of higher-priced vegan and cruelty-free products.) Those people deserve the same dignity that non-human animals do.

Fun fact: Did you know Russell Brand is vegan?
He’s also very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder.
Check out his recent interview with Plant Based News.
He’s an inspiring example of someone who has bipolar disorder,
who chooses to be vegan, and who lives his best life.
You go Russell Brand!

Whether you have bipolar disorder or not, whether you’re considering going vegan because of environmental concerns, health, or ethics, remember that it’s a journey. It’s not just a diet. And if you do have bipolar disorder, remember that self-care is important. Saving animals is noble, but you can’t help them if you don’t take care of yourself first. Remember the airline safety instructions: put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help others. You’re no good to the animals if your own mental health is compromised.

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