For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with digestive issues. I can recall my chronic constipation being a problem even in the second grade. There I was, in the bathroom at school, trying my hardest to poop when my teacher actually came looking for me because I was gone for so long. She was worried something had happened to me. I was mortified. I grew up with a lot of anxiety and embarrassment about my daily struggles to have a bowel movement. I begrudgingly ate prunes that my mother packed in my lunch, thinking all the while “This is old-people food! Kids aren’t supposed to eat prunes!” In the fifth grade, I remember my horror as my mother joked with my teacher that “Stephanie sometimes reads an entire book in one toilet sitting!” It was well-known in my family that my first stop after school was the bathroom for about an hour, where I’d sit and hope for a miracle.
Constantly plagued by constipation and stomachaches, neither I nor my parents thought to consider food as the source of my troubles. Years later, I would conclude that I was lactose intolerant, but this would lead to little improvement in my eating habits. A typical day of eating in high school would include chocolate milk and a doughnut for breakfast, pizza with chips and a big cookie for lunch, plus snacks and an animal-product-laden dinner. I relied heavily on packaged foods to satisfy my hunger and consumed very little fruits and vegetables. As I got older, poor physical health and nutrition led to a decline in mental health. As I entered high school, I developed eating disorders and severe body-image issues.
By the end of my freshman year in high school, I was seriously depressed, anxious and unstable. I thoroughly hated myself and intentionally abused my body through anorexia and self-harm. In the beginning of 10th grade, I started dating a boy who convinced me to stop hurting myself and, with practice, I was successful. However, the depression and anxiety remained as permanent fixtures of my mental state. By the time I finished 10th grade, I was smoking marijuana and taking LSD on the weekends. To make matters worse, I was in the process of trying every form of hormonal birth control on the market and experiencing various horrific mental and physical side effects. I frequently contracted infections and had emotional breakdowns. I found relief from my worries through substance abuse, and I would seek it more and more often as time went by.
Meanwhile, ironically, in 11th grade, I developed a strong interest in food, supplements and nutrition. I learned about processed foods and the toxic effects they had on my body and became passionate about buying organic. I first encountered raw foods when I was 18 and fresh out of high school. I purchased The Raw Food Detox Diet by Natalia Rose and learned about the dangers of animal products, processed foods and poor food combining. I tried the diet, and it got things moving for me—literally. My body started cleaning out, and I felt better. I knew there was something magical about raw foods, but I didn’t consider that I could eat this way all the time. For the next couple of years, I swayed precariously between my desire for health and my growing drug problem. I spent my money on organic and raw foods, supplements and drugs. In addition to smoking pot and taking LSD, I was now using alcohol, cigarettes, prescription amphetamines, ecstasy and psychoactive mushrooms on a daily basis.
The cumulative result of my inconsistent diet and lifestyle choices was a virulent dance between life and death. I battled candida infections and chronic fatigue so intense that on my worst days, I couldn’t carry my laundry up the stairs without collapsing or drive for an hour without pulling over to fall asleep. Even worse was my highly unstable emotional state. I had long since isolated myself from my family, and my relationship with my boyfriend had become poisonous. These crucial aspects of my life were toxic and unmanageable with the added burden of my health issues. I was almost constantly in a crippling state of anxiety or depression. I was killing myself slowly with drugs while desperately trying to restore my health at the same time, and I was failing miserably. My mind was overrun with suicidal thoughts, and for the first time in my short life, I wanted to die.
In summer 2012, I nearly lost someone I loved dearly to a drug overdose. This was the reality check I needed to take action in my life. I decided to get drugs out of the picture and start taking better care of myself. My abstinence from substance abuse helped me immensely, but I was still unwell. I had long since abandoned my healthy ideals and was eating animal products and processed foods again. I needed to heal, but poor choices were making progress impossible. I developed bulimia, and my digestive issues intensified. This continued for about six months before I sought change. I picked up my copy of The Raw Food Detox Diet and went through a cleansing period. I started juicing and eating better. With the help of a good friend and better nutrition, I overcame my bulimia.
Soon after, in March 2013, I began working at a hospital and got a firsthand look at the prominence of disease in my community. I met people suffering with complications from diabetes, heart disease, cancer and strokes. I was shocked by the sheer number of people we were seeing every day and the amount of time they spent in hospital beds. I knew I had to do everything in my power to prevent disease in my own life. Within me, something clicked. I resolved immediately to go raw for about a month before reincorporating cooked foods. I followed the principles of The 80/10/10 Diet and immediately felt the benefits of eating food that gives life to the cells, rather than taking it away.
Fast forward a year, and I’m leading a very active, fruitful lifestyle. I recently committed to a fully raw diet, and life continues to improve. Having all of this raw nutrition means being able to run, hike, kayak, scuba-dive, practice yoga and live my life with plenty of energy to keep me going all day. In the past few months, I’ve lost more than 10 pounds and have continuously improved in strength and endurance. Since becoming a low-fat vegan, I no longer crave unhealthy “foods” or substances that I used to turn to when I didn’t feel well, and I believe this is simply because I don’t feel unwell anymore. I am consistently in a calm, stable, optimistic and cheerful state of being. I’m known for my positive attitude and constant smiles, much like my childhood self before the standard American diet took its toll on my health. I live with passion and have much more confidence and love for myself. Self-acceptance and positive thinking are concepts that I was once unable to comprehend. I now practice them daily. I show myself love by consistently getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, hydration, exercise and relaxation time.
I always wanted to have a healthy relationship with food. What I didn’t understand was that I couldn’t have a healthy relationship with harmful foods any more than I could have a healthy relationship with an abusive person. Without this lifestyle, I’d be stuck in the same endless cycle of self-abuse and disease that most people eventually face. I now understand that the best version of oneself is attainable only through a healthy lifestyle. I encourage anyone to take steps toward a vegan diet rich in living foods, activity and rest to escape and prevent the suffering and poor quality of life so many of us have come to accept as normal. I believe vibrant health is our birthright, and we shouldn’t settle for less!
For those looking to transition to a raw vegan lifestyle, I recommend monomeals of fruit for breakfast and lunch and to get creative with raw vegan salads, soups, and zucchini pasta recipes for dinner. The more variety and color, the better! Buying in bulk helps keep the raw foods in steady supply, and frozen bananas are a must-have in my arsenal. There’s nothing quite like having banana “ice cream” for breakfast! The best way to succeed on a raw vegan diet is to have as much fun as possible with it and to indulge in the vast array of sweet and savory fruits, vegetables and herbs Mother Nature has to offer at every meal. Abstaining from harmful habits such as smoking, drinking or using stimulants such as coffee is as important as eating right. This should get easier with every green smoothie. Never give up! Committing to vibrant health through raw vegan living is the ultimate display of self-love. Practice daily!