*disclaimer – the original version of this blog post can be found on the blog Whine Night, run by my friends Emily and Abi. During the writing process, I found a lot of resolution and clarity about my issues with food. Due the personal and public responses to the post, I wanted to update it a little and share it again in this general sense before I write more in depth, specific, more emotional pieces focusing on the mental illnesses behind my issues with food. So many people suffer from some kind of disordered eating, just because someone doesn't "look the part" doesn't mean it's not happening.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved food. My mom can tell you, I was her “good eater” kid. I’d try anything and everything – a quality I’ve kept up with my entire life. Food and I used to have the best relationship. I’d eat whatever I wanted, and between dancing, playing softball, and generally, always being super active, nothing bad ever happened to me (well nothing bad ever happened to my figure – I can’t really speak for my arteries). Even in high school, while most of my female peers consumed salads and raw veggies at lunch, aiming to reach a certain dress size for prom, there was me, eating four servings of tacos and going on dates to Wendy’s to order everything on the dollar menu twice over. And I still barely filled out my size two gown. I know. I was the worst. I hate old me too.
Then I went away to college and everything changed. I thought I could eat the way I did in high school. I mean, I was still dancing and I’d go to the gym or run every so often when I wasn’t nerd-ing out in the design/photo lab. I was one of those kids that had no interest in drinking right away and had (have) a fear of using the phone. Between zero calories of alcohol and no chance of ordering late night Chinese, I genuinely thought there was no possible way I could gain the freshman 15. God I was wrong. And in the end I gained so much more mental and spiritual weight than any physical weight fried rice and liquor could give me.
I still remember the first time my parents came up to visit me. It was probably half way through my first semester and they came up to watch me dance in one of Dayton’s football games. Quick debrief for a moment: my mother and I have a very open, best friend kind of relationship. A relationship that to this day is very honest and safe. However, this relationship is a double-edged sword. She’s the first to acknowledge my accomplishments, but also the first to point out my failures and flaws. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I need someone to be honest with me. I’d rather it be from the woman who loves me the most. But still, it’s a blessed curse. Criticisms always hurt, no matter who is giving them. And back to the story. After the game, she had told me she didn’t recognize me at first, and it looked like I was on some kind of steroid based on the extra fluff and “water weight” (aka: pizza weight) I was holding. I was shocked. It was only a few months ago that she was telling me how skinny I looked, that I should have no reservations in college. This was supposed to be the start of the best four years of my life. I was only a few months in…how did I already mess up so much?
Food had betrayed me. What was once love now turned to hate. I became obsessive. Calories became the enemy. I did everything in my power to not let them beat me. Immediately after that weekend I only bought salads and fruit from the dining halls. And I'm talking one large container of salad with no dressing and one medium sized container of fresh fruit - which was to last me the entire day. I’d freeze 100-calorie yogurts and only on days where I’d burn an extra 500 calories in the gym did I let myself have one. I can remember pretending to sleep, waiting for my roommate to leave for her morning class. As soon as I heard the door shut, I was out of bed and on the scale. Ugh, the stupid effing scale. Actually, scratch that. It was more like, ugh, the effing number on the effing scale. That was the enemy. I weighed myself meticulously every morning letting whatever digital number on it determine my day. I knew about water weight and fluctuation, but that didn't matter. I ached for a loss of at least half a pound every morning (like that was actually a realistic possibility - and I was so mad at myself when it didn't happen!) If the number went up so did my self-hatred. A lower number was good, but it was never low enough. Nothing was ever enough for me.
This kind of thinking followed me through the rest of college. My life – every aspect of it – revolved around my weight. When my weight went up I’d seclude myself, missing out on memories with my friends. I hated getting ready with them, watching them raid my closet and look better than I ever could in my own clothes. Envying them because they were born into cute tiny bodies while I was the tall monster of a friend. Literally, that's what I felt like. I'm 5'9 - in college I was floating around sizes 10-12 (which I know for some people is a fantastic size to be, it just wasn't what I was used to). My roommates were all 5'2-5'7 - size 0s and 2s, maybe a 4 in a certain brand. I hated - legitimately dreaded - going out with them because no matter how great my hair or makeup looked, no matter what little confidence I could muster up that night, as soon as I saw myself next to them, all I wanted was to change into sweats and lay in bed. No matter what actual life achievements I was gaining, no matter how great a design was going, no matter what compliment a professor gave me that week, everything good I felt about myself immediately vanished once we were all dolled up together. I couldn't look boys in the eye, wondering how disgusting they found me. I didn't branch out and engage with people at parties, swimming in a sea of negative thoughts. I began thinking that my friends had a better time without me because of all of this. Because I was too distracted by my reflection in the microwave door to play beer pong. Because I was hiding in the corner, trying to look as small as possible, instead of dancing with them on tables. Because I was sad. And when my doubt got the best of me, I acted sad. I couldn't even hide it. The worst part was taking pictures. Picture time was the bane of my existence as pictures were physical proof of the monster I thought I was becoming. Pictures got uploaded to the internet. They got tagged. They could be seen by anyone who had a "six degree of Kevin Bacon" connection to you. Pictures showed the world I lost my self control. That I didn't have it all. Pictures showed I was losing myself. And I began to despise the girl smiling back at me.
As (hopefully) you know, restrictive diets aren’t maintainable. So, sophomore year I began binging and purging. Second semester of junior year, I started drinking (as I was about to turn 21). Like most with disordered eating, I would cycle. I’d go a week barely eating 500 calories a day, then, because I was so hungry I couldn’t stand it, I’d binge and purge or use laxatives the next 5. I’d then be so ashamed of my lack of self-control. I punished myself with long ass runs in hoodies and sweats in the middle of summer or 2 hour long cardio sessions, in two hoodies and 3 pairs of sweats, in the middle of winter. I’d restrict. I began going out solely to drink so much that I’d have to throw up. Could you imagine? Most college kids drink to get buzzed and have a good time. I was drinking to have an excuse to throw up later that night. This was the darkest point of my life. By far. I’d take any heartbreak over the mental hell cycle that is disordered eating. Because that’s what it is. Actual hell. A Dante’s Inferno 7 layered Mexican dip of despair. Your mind becomes this trap, telling you that you shouldn’t eat, or rather, that no matter what, you CAN’T eat.
When I graduated college I was the heaviest I had ever been. And I know this because I had gone to my yearly Dr.’s appointment and my Dr. was surprised with yet again the amount of weight I was carrying. Binging and restrictive eating weirdly do that to a person. You’d logically think “Oh, if I’m restricting, and then displacing what I do over-eat, I should be able to at least maintain if not lose weight.” Well, I’m living proof you won’t. Don’t even think about it, let alone try it. So there I was. A seemingly happy person, great degree, job out of college who should have been living the dream, was actually depressed, starving, purging, and self-harming. I lived like this for a few months. Hiding everything I could, making excuses for my weird eating habits and obsessive exercising. But deep down, it wasn’t the food stuff that was the problem. It was the self-loathing. It was looking in the mirror every morning trying to hide my body in any way possible. It was always wearing long sleeves so I didn't have to see my arm fat jiggle or the scars on my wrist. It was always sitting on the edge of my chair, making sure my thighs didn’t look any bigger than they already were. It was constantly walking with my head down, avoiding any and all chances of human interaction. It was refusing to go to the mall, because trying on clothes caused me full-blown panic attacks. It was constantly googling plastic surgery procedures. It was feeling completely trapped in a skin prison. It was wanting to give up solely because of the way my body looked. Yes. I was at the point of wanting to fall into a coma so that A) I wouldn’t have to look in the mirror anymore but more importantly B) thinking that by being on an IV/feeding tube would make me lose weight and I would wake up beautiful again. How f***** up is that?! I knew that deep down that's not what I wanted, but I was on this track of only going downward. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. If anything, maybe there was an enticing ember glow from hell. I couldn’t live like this anymore. I couldn't. Something had to change in my relationship with food or it was going to kill me. I turned to the Internet for alternative ways of living because admitting I was having trouble wasn't even an option. (*please note that this was happening 2 years before my big breakdown and the help of therapy and coping mechanisms - still in denial I needed professional help)
One day, I stumbled across the documentary Forks Over Knives. It completely changed my life. I won’t spoil it for you, but essentially it dives into the question: “If we are the most evolved, technologically advanced we have ever been, why are we the most sick/disease ridden we have ever been?” From there I went to watch Cowspiracy and Earthlings. I had also found a plethora of vegan YouTubers. I got on Instagram and followed vegan accounts. I loved looking at beautiful smoothie bowls and salads. More importantly, I loved how genuinely happy the girls looked who were posting them. I found a new way to obsess about food. And needless to say, I was quickly inspired to go vegan.
Now, I wasn’t able to go vegan completely overnight. Believe it or not, I was the girl who used to weave strips of bacon together to top my cheeseburgers. (How did I not die of a heart attack, seriously) The whole process took me roughly about a year. I came up with a work week/weekend 80/20 kind of plan (that I think I made up myself? - at least I didn’t read any blogs on transitioning this way – who knows). First round, I was pescatarian (only fish – no chicken, cow, lamb, pig, etc) during the week, and allowed myself a steak or bacon on the weekend. A few weeks in, I found that by Monday morning, I felt like total crap. So I changed my plan. Now I was vegetarian during the week and pescatarian on the weekend. I held this stance for a few months. It wasn’t until I did more ethical research on the fishing industry that I wanted to cut my ties – or quit tossing in my line I guess (I know, I’m the lamest). So I moved up a level on my eating plan. Vegan during the week, vegetarian on the weekend – this was the hardest stage for me to want to leave. And selfishly, it was because of Sunday brunch. Most people think they can’t go vegan because of the cheese deal, but for me, I really didn’t want to give up omelets or have to be that weird girl who only ate fruit for breakfast. I was also back into the dating scene and I was really scared of being immediately rejected for lifestyle/food choices I was making.
But I guess that’s the kicker. Not just with romantic relationships, but all relationships in general. Your life, is well, your life. Yours. It’s no one else’s say on how you get to live it. How you're supposed to live it. And even though we think we need everyone else’s approval, we actually don’t. If someone immediately finds me unattractive as a human because I don't eat burgers anymore, well, that sucks for them, because I (now) think I'm pretty friggin great. It took me 24 years to actually get that, but thank God I finally did. So I took the leap. I decided that I was going to go full on vegan. And yea, it weirded some people out. I got a lot of questions. People stopped asking me to go to restaurants with them. I lost some friends. But the few I lost are nothing compared to the amount I’ve thrived since then.
Of course weight-loss is a benefit of going vegan (I’m a size 2 again), but at the end of the day, my weight is no longer my goal. Mybeing is what I care about now. I care about being kind, of showing love to everyone, of being helpful. I care about my quality of life. I look in the mirror now and see the sunbeams of my soul. Yea I still think I have superficial body flaws. Of course I'm going to compare myself to VS models and Instagram bloggers. But I've learned that life is so much bigger than that. That MY life is so much bigger than that. That I want to be remembered for the way I lived my life, not what dress size I wore. It really is true, that you shine the most when you're content with who you are. But in addition to the weight thing (which I do get is an attractive reason to go vegan) so many other aspects of my body have changed as well. My skin rarely gives me issues, my hair and nails grow at a rapid pace, my energy is really stable, and I no longer have to depend on multiple cups of coffee to get me through my day (which between my career job and dance teaching job is usually 10-12 hours). Through veganism I’ve learned to love my body and the things it’s able to do again. People generally ask me about “how I get my protein” and honestly, my diet has everything covered. I never feel deprived and I’m doing more athletic things I ever have in my life (hello 36” box jumps!) Reflecting and writing about all of this is hard. I tried so hard to block out such a negative time in my life. But as I sit here (aka lay here on the floor) writing this, it makes me see how happy I am now. I look in mirrors again. I don’t hide behind my friends in photos. I wear crop tops. I show my arms. I smile. Isn’t that a crazy concept? I actually smile now. Because I want to. Because I'm happy.
My name is Kelly Gallagher and I love food. And I know now that food was never the enemy. Disordered eating was my enemy. The stupid dark voice inside my head was the enemy. Food has always loved me. I just never loved myself enough to feed it properly. I know I can’t speak for any other vegan and I will never force my way of living on another human, but going vegan is the best thing I ever did for myself. (Yes, I know preachy vegans are the worst – I don't like them either – but getting you to go vegan isn’t my goal here – ask my boyfriend, he eats meat all the time and it doesn’t bother me – he’s also amazing and will try any vegan meal I make us [PS - he usually really likes it]). But really, veganism is one of the most liberating ways of living. I never count calories, I intuitively eat, and I eat whatever I want (seriously, the amount of potatoes I consume a week is actually frightening). Now granted, I don’t overeat vegan processed “meats” or cookies, I stick to a very whole food kind of diet, allowing for splurges here and there. And honestly, after eating this way for so long now, I really don’t crave the processed stuff. So that's pretty cool. But I also don't guilt myself when I do eat coconut ice cream or vegan veggie nuggets. Life is too short. Enjoy it. Besides, there are so many options and accommodating restaurants out there now a days. Even here in Pittsburgh, more and more places have vegan options. I strongly urge you to at least try a "Meatless Monday" here and there. It's weird how proper nutrition can make you feel so much better...
Ann Wigmore was holistic health practitioner and raw food advocate who once said, "The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison." That is a statement I now believe in whole heartedly. And not just about physical health. I genuinely believe I have a stronger mindset and will power because of the way I eat. I'm not asking you to give up steak forever. But if you find yourself at war with your body, if you hate the way your jeans fit you (heck if you refuse to wear pants with a zipper and button at all!) - if you find yourself reading this and think "Hey, I relate to a lot of this" - do yourself a favor and eat some ripe, colorful fruits and veggies. You can't begin to love yourself if you aren't getting the nutrition you need. Your mind actually doesn't work as well, as efficient, or as clearly when you fill it continuous with crappy fuel. Your body, and brain, will thank you. I promise.