I lost friends when I became a vegan — now I’m a lot happier
The first sign that there was something wrong between George* and I was when we went grocery shopping.
Ever since becoming vegan one and a half years ago, supermarkets had taken on a whole new dimension: I could wipe out whole aisles entirely, while other pockets of the store that some might only glaze their eyes over had instantly become a lifeline.
But this spring afternoon when the Jacaranda trees were in bloom, purpling an overcast day, all I saw was the tray of prosciutto that George shoved in my face.
It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten any type of meat, and I was certainly never fond of prosciutto. But what made it all the more revolting was that someone I thought was my friend — a close and true friend — would do something so crass and offensive.
For a million reasons, I stayed silent when perhaps I should have screamed. I suppose my mind was spinning too much. From that afternoon, I started to realise: we had been intensely close, reimaging the world to how we wanted it to be, yet George never really knew me.
This was confirmed when, another night, he insisted we go to a Hungarian café for dessert. “It’s only cheesecake,” he pointed out. “You can eat that.”
I could have written a whole book about George. Knowing him tipped my world off-centre: his friendship saved me at a time when I was very alone, and then he left me writhing in agony.
As an atheist, I never laughed or criticised him for his unwavering belief in God. When he went to church to pray after having a nervous breakdown, I was glad he had found the help he needed.
But when I made my veganism explicit (or, rather, even more explicit than it already was) he replied that I would get fat from that sort of diet. “And it’s impossible to lose the weight,” he warned, “even if you eat dairy again.”
Sure, it’s easy to write George off as an exception, a nutcase, but in truth he isn’t alone. Another friend of many years, who prided themselves on being very liberal and progressive, constantly pointing out their anger at any form of prejudice, soon became my greatest critic.
“How long is this craziness going to last?” they asked.
Later, they sent emails saying that I looked ill and unhealthily pale; that vegans needed to see a doctor. There was eye-rolling when I mentioned joining an activist collective, irascible shrieks when we went to a vegan café. Soon enough, they also disappeared. Others became distant or kept the conversation so general we might have been strangers seated next to one another on a plane.
Clare Mann, vegan psychologist and author of Vystopia: The anguish of being vegan in a non-vegan world, notes that while it is definitely possible for vegans and non-vegans to be friends, deep friendships are based on core values.
“One of the saddest things for vegans is that they lose a lot of people they used to have something in common with and, suddenly, the friendship just doesn’t work anymore,” she says.
Mann explains how the simple act of catching up for coffee and cake, or going clothes shopping, can suddenly make a vegan uncomfortable depending on what the other person is consuming.
Veganism is a journey. Although I’d been vegetarian for around five years before, my life changed completely. For a start, I learned to cook. Almost straight after I went from being a painfully private person to someone who would stand in public spaces to protest animal rights, namely through Anonymous for the Voiceless.
At its core, there is nothing simpler than being vegan: it is the unwavering belief that using and eating animals is morally wrong. Indeed, if you take out the word vegan then many meat-eaters will likely agree with this sentence.
However, vegans have to learn to navigate a world that suddenly becomes labyrinthine in its complexities. Some vegans tell me that, more than maintaining friendships, the workplace is especially difficult.
There are rules against discriminating against anyone in the workplace based on factors such as race, sexuality, religion, ability or gender. It’s true that they aren’t always abided by, but at least such a framework exists. Discrimination against vegans is still common. Some people tell me they get laughed at regularly for their choice. It doesn’t surprise me. Even in 2018, animal cruelty and torture remain pretty high on the laughometer, otherwise we wouldn’t celebrate horse-racing or take our kids to the circus.
Mann confirmed that she has met with vegans who are warned by their bosses during performance reviews that they are difficult, no fun, not a team-player. “All vegans long to work in a business or workplace in line with their values, so to be told that sort of thing can really trigger anxiety, and a feeling that your job’s at stake,” she notes.
This year, I started baking cakes and muffins for my colleagues. I have no idea whether they find it an endearing or annoying gesture, but I continue to wear shirts that say VEGAN to work because if casual clothes are allowed then why not?
My friendship circle has never been particularly wide; I am just not that sort of person. My close friends who still eat meat are happy to dine with me at vegan restaurants, and never question my choice. If I hadn’t become vegan, there’s a chance that past friends might have stuck around or that I wouldn’t be looked upon as some sort of aberration, but I can’t say I regret losing any of them. That’s not to say I don’t miss George and the others at times, because I do.
I miss telling them how wrong they were.
*Name has been changed