“Paradigm shift” was a funny-looking phrase I noticed in a Dilbert cartoon desk calendar that my accountant dad kept in his office. Para-dig-um? My pre-adolescent self dismissed it as a term that only a highly uncool, white-collar cubicle worker could understand. But my dad tried to explain: it’s when one widely-held belief is challenged by a new discovery, like when civilization had no choice but to accept that the Earth is round, not flat.
Finally, I experienced my first paradigm shift at age 15, when I learned that I could manipulate the shape of my body by controlling what foods I did or did not eat. The second happened a year later; I was watching the Twin Towers fall on a television screen in my biology classroom, while the real terror was happening just 30 miles away, and I learned that the potential of evil was worse than I could imagine. My third and most recent paradigm shift was one I accidentally created myself: at age 25, I had no idea what reading one book and changing some habits could do for my creativity and my ability to tap into the vital energy that binds all living beings.
I chose Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals on a whim. I happened to notice it on my brother’s bookshelf and had heard good things about it. At the very least, I thought I could benefit from understanding why my best friend had decided to be a vegetarian during the first few years I had known her. Maybe I could find a reason why preparing raw chicken had been starting to repulse me, even though I had no problem eating cutlets cooked and served by someone else.
Regardless, my history with eating - not only animals, but everything - is tortured. Like many young women today, I discovered that I should probably hate my body, even though my feelings about my body had been neutral before one of my friends had starting calling herself “fat” in the department store dressing rooms I shared with her. If she’s fat, then I must be fat too, I would think to myself, kneading my belly in the mirror. Thus began a pattern of restricting and disordered eating, which I didn’t believe would actually change anything about my body, until it did. I lost so much weight that one day, while showering, I looked down at my hip bones protruding through my skin and scared myself. I felt helpless, like I didn’t know how to reclaim my old self or return to my previous state of ignorance.
I asked my parents if I could get help, and they connected me with a therapist and nutritionist, who helped me feel comfortable enough to eat my way to what they deemed was a healthy weight. From the looks of it, I was cured. But the truth was that I had developed a new obsession with neither gaining any more weight nor losing it again. I didn’t want to exceed my new healthy weight and definitely didn’t want to repeat the recovery process. I followed strict eating patterns and felt unable to relax.
As a result, I could relate to the simple rectangle I found drawn on a two-page spread within the pages of Eating Animals. In reference to the rectangle, Foer writes, “In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of space—the size of the rectangle above.” I nearly dropped the book; I felt just as trapped by my own anxieties and insecurities. At that very moment, and without ever having considered it before, I decided to become a vegetarian. I would do it for as long as it seemed like a viable pursuit.
Adopting a vegetarian diet seemed like something that, in addition to alleviating the suffering of at least a few animals, might also help relieve my tortured mind. On one hand, I could still maintain that sense of control I needed to have with my diet because I could choose and refuse foods. At the same time, I could expand my diet by adding new foods like tofu, which I hadn’t eaten since my “New-Agey” and health-conscious grandpa had encouraged me to try it as a little girl.
My first few weeks as a vegetarian were awkward and confusing, as I expected them to be. I didn’t have a plan and moved forward with the most obvious changes; I eliminated chicken, turkey, fish, and the very occasional beef while consuming more of the other protein-rich foods, like eggs and cheese, that I had already been eating. My go-to dinner was either frozen mini ravioli with marinara sauce or poached eggs over rice or spaghetti. Slowly and with great hesitance, I introduced new foods into my diet. In one diary entry I wrote during that time, I documented my adventures trying to figure out what to do with that slimy, paste-white brick of tofu that I remembered from my childhood.
Relying so heavily on dairy, I gained at least 10 pounds during my vegetarian experiment, which was becoming more and more of a commitment. Surprisingly, the weight gain didn’t bother me because I still felt in control, and I was too occupied with being creative and I wanted to stick with the lifestyle, despite criticism and endless questions from friends, family, and coworkers. Perhaps the probing made me stronger. I felt what it’s like to live on the fringe in a way I hadn’t ever felt before, and I could relate to people who are ostracized for reasons both within and beyond their control.
About a year after my initial decision, two things inspired me to take the next step. First, I saw the documentary Forks Over Knives, which advocates a dairy-free, plant-based diet to prevent and even eradicate chronic illnesses like diabetes and obesity. At the same time, I met a kind young man, who was an exceptional, nonjudgmental listener. The film convinced me that I couldn’t continue to rely so heavily on dairy products, and the young man, who I started to date, was lactose intolerant. He couldn’t have dairy, so it was easy for me to abstain from it, especially when we were together. He encouraged me to make the leap to veganism: eliminating all animal products including dairy and eggs. With his support and his willingness to try my vegan cooking,
which had been getting more and more ambitious, I was able to wean myself off dairy and eggs.
I’ve always considered myself to be a creative person, but my eventual transition to a vegan lifestyle expanded my creativity. I know how to prepare ingredients, like tempeh and seitan, that for a quarter century I didn’t even know how to pronounce. Most people think a vegan diet is limiting, but I eat a more varied diet than ever before. As a creative writing teacher, I like to compare the vegan diet to a formal poem like a haiku; the form or restriction may seem constricting at first, but it actually frees the writer or eater to be more creative in the way he or she fills the form. In a free-verse poem, like in the typical, American free-for-all diet, too many choices can induce anxiety.
As a vegan, I have become sensitive to other people’s dietary preferences and sensitivities; a simple bite of food is loaded not only with flavor but with so many emotional and cultural implications. I’m careful to consider them when meeting someone new, and at the same time I’m also more proud of sharing the commitment I’ve made to myself. Only sometimes do I feel alone. According to a 2008 study by Vegetarian Times, less than 4% of Americans are vegetarian, and only about 0.5% of those are vegan. Social media helps, though. One glance at my Instagram feed would make anyone believe that veganism is thriving.
Recently I hosted a completely vegan dinner party for a group of non-vegan friends and introduced them to foods they had never tasted: a “cheese” wheel made from macadamia nuts, “popcorn chik’n” made from tofu, mushroom-walnut “meatballs,” and sweet potato bites with miso mayo, among other delicacies. My best friend, the one who had first intrigued me with her vegetarianism, brought a stunning, homemade, vegan chocolate-almond tart that inspired oohs and aahs. As I stood in my kitchen holding my miniature dachshund Charlotte and looking with satisfaction over my friends’ smiling faces, I felt that even though my initial decision to become a vegetarian had been mine alone, the entire world had opened to me in a way I would not have been able to access before.
Laryssa Wirstiuk lives in Jersey City, NJ with her miniature dachshund Charlotte Moo. She teaches writing at Rutgers University and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Her collection of short stories, The Prescribed Burn, received an Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards (Mainstream/Literary Fiction category).