Firstly, I would like to acknowledge that this post went in a different way than I had anticipated it would. I have mentioned the documentary Forks Over Knives a number of times, but this is because I found it fascinating and profoundly relevant. I am in no way connected to that documentary nor its makers.
My human blood family is pretty compact. The concept of “Family” is a little alien to me, inasmuch as I have never really had much of it to deal with. Mum and Dad came to Australia from Germany after World War II, while all the rellies, bar my Aunt, stayed in the Vaterland. Now I have my Mum and my Aunt who is actually my Dad’s cousin, and no siblings. I also have my partner, Jiffy, and thus a connection to a few of his relatives, like his Dad and his partner, and Jiffy’s Aunt.
What I have discovered as the years go by is that family have become more precious. Albeit they often shit me to tears, the fact is that they are my family and I am mostly glad that they are around. I have considered the possibility that maybe I do my share of shitting them too……maybe…..
What a clanger veganism can be when it comes to family! My first tentative baby steps into vegetarianism, which began when I was a child, were met with harrumphs and very little support. Given my parents were German and, let’s face it, the Deutschies of that generation sure loved eating animals – knackerwurst and leberwurst, kalbsnierenbraten, kohl und pinkel, braten in general, wurst, wurst, and more wurst. They ate – and omg, I ate – bloodwurst, the notorious black pudding (who the hell thought up putting “blood” and “pudding” in the same sentence, ffs? It’s just wrong)! If you’ve ever wanted to know what that is – and believe me, you don’t – one definition is “a kind of black sausage made from minced pork fat, pig’s blood, and other ingredients” (1). The German word for meat, “fleisch” even sounds creepy, especially since its literal translation is flesh – it is pronounced “fl-eye-sh” as one syllable. Meat could be (and usually was) served at any and every meal, vegies were boiled to mush and salads were made up of cooked vegies. Bleh.
My folks were overjoyed in the least possible way that I wanted to quit eating critters. They believed that vegetarians were weird, pale, sick-looking hippies shunned by society while they ate handfuls of nuts. I wish I’d grown myself a pair of nuts back then because it was all too hard without my parents’ support and basically, I still enjoyed the taste of meat. Not pretty to admit, but it’s the truth.
At twenty years of age, doubled over in agony and vomiting bile, I was admitted to Emergency in the local hospital. During an ultrasound, the tech was pointing out my inside bits as they appeared on the screen – “There’s your kidney…there’s your this and your that…” and I had to take his word for it because couldn’t recognise anything, the screen was just a weird accumulation of grey and white. Suddenly onscreen there materialised this easily-identifiable “bag” tightly filled with marbles, and the tech informed me, “That’s your gall bladder, nicely filled with gallstones!” Oh happy days. Gallstones had a reputation in those days – to develop them you were supposed to be female, fair, fat, fertile and forty. Tick the female bit, so to speak. But hang on – I was half the freaking recommended age, fairly fair (after several drinks), only slightly chubby, fertility was unproven, so HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? It turned out that the gallstones were formed out of cholesterol – hello, clue!
Mum picked me up after the operation. We’re talking here of a vertical incision from solar plexus to belly button because the wankers hadn’t invented keyhole surgery for gallstones back then, thus I was left sporting one big physical scar and countless emotional ones. I was hungry because all I’d been given to eat in hospital was hospital stuff (they called it food). My darling Mum offered to take me somewhere for lunch and I was starving and craving fish and chips, the battered kind that beckons all manner of disease and nasties. That’s what I ate for my first post-hospital meal, after being rampantly surgerised for a disease probably caused by my diet. Kick me, somebody.
There were rumblings indeed from the mater and pater when, some six years later, I finally grew those nuts I mentioned back there a bit and chose a vegetarian lifestyle. It took another seventeen and a half years before I went vegan and by that time Dad was no longer around – he had developed type 2 diabetes and, after an initial fright at the diagnosis during which he made the calculated switch from drinking beer to the healthier scotch whiskey (!), he carried on smoking and drinking. And it killed him, although he did manage to make it to 77, copping a stroke along the way. I had many “discussions” with him about his diet and my own lifestyle choices. This, a man who adored animals – he just would not stop eating them.
I wonder what he would say today, after I’d bound and gagged him and forced him to watch Forks Over Knives?
I kept talking to Mum but she couldn’t help herself, apparently – butter and cream, eggs and salami, down the hatch they went. She stacked on the weight and found herself a tad unfit. About 18 months after Dad had passed, we were walking to her house, a mere 500 metres from mine, when she had to stop and catch her breath. Shortly thereafter she was admitted to the Emergency Department at a nearby hospital with shoulder pain. They ran an ECG and sent her home with medication to treat an ulcer. A short time later the same thing happened. Again she was sent home. The third time she experienced this severe, recurrent pain in her shoulders, and just after she desperately told me that she didn’t want to die, I drove her to the major hospital in the city (an ambulance would have been bound to take her to the local hospital again) and there, finally, the ECG revealed she had suffered a heart attack.
An angiogram showed that the blood vessels to her heart were in such a poor state, with one major vessel reduced to the width of a hair, the doctors decided to let her ticker rest for a couple of days before performing bypass surgery. She was hooked up to a machine to help pump blood around her body.
Only after all this did my Mum give up eating meat. Eight years on and I am still asking her to quit the dairy. She doesn’t consume much and most of it is when she is out at her weekly seniors gathering. She has come a long way and I do acknowledge that.
Then there was Jiffy’s Mum, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at, if I remember correctly, four years of age. A few years ago we accompanied her to a ceremony where a small group of diabetics who had lived for 50 years with the disease were presented with a commemorative medallion. Most of their diabetic peers had died in the interim, and it is worth noting that the majority of the people presented with a medallion that day had shared the same doctor, Jiffy’s Mum included. She used to tell me she was convinced it was cow’s milk that had caused her diabetes. While I don’t know if that is what happened, there is plenty of compelling material online to support her theory – just Google something simple like “cows milk diabetes”. Some will agree with her belief re milk, some may find it controversial, others will just disagree. I know what I believe. She had a lifetime of pricking digits to test blood several times a day, injecting insulin and watching what she ate and drank. She once told me she was terrified of losing limbs, an insidious possibility that is a complication of the disease.
Jiffy’s Mum passed away in July last year, barely making her sixties. The cause was diabetes mellitus.
Jiffy’s Dad lives on the other side of Australia from us so we don’t see him very often. One of our visits in recent years was a response to a call from his partner’s daughter, who informed us he’d had a heart attack and was in hospital. When we arrived, his partner was a train wreck, and he was in bed, oxygen mask on his face, and his whole head was bright red. He was also unusually emotional and started crying when we spoke to him. Lucky enough to avoid bypass surgery, he had had a stent inserted into one of his cardiac blood vessels. He too had barely made it into his sixties. He now eats a hearty regime of medication every day, including Lipitor, aspirin and stuff to lower his blood pressure. He still eats animal products, but feels secure in the knowledge that the milk he chooses is low fat (ha! Watch out for that one if and when you watch Forks Over Knives!). He has had a few associated health scares that put him back in hospital, notably two episodes of severe dehydration.
People! Drink water and avoid that shit!
My Aunt who lives here in Perth was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes years ago and has done very little about moderating her lifestyle to deal with the disease. I have spoken with her so many times, but I identified that changes, even small, perhaps slightly inconvenient ones, were graciously plopped in her too hard basket. Things like losing some of her way-too-much weight that obviously interfered with her enjoyment of life, or reducing the amount of animal products she consumed, and drinking water. But she hates water. She liked orange juice – yes, the sweet kind – and drank that by the two litre carton. Her liquid intake was mainly coffee and OJ. She liked sweet biscuits with her coffee. She loved her weekly outing to eat fish and chips on the wharf. She was recently diagnosed with kidney failure, and has been given a year to live.
I have spoken with all these people, my family, about food and lifestyle choices. My Dad used to shut down our conversations about vegetarianism; indeed, shortly before he died (and a dozen years after I became veg) he still emphatically stated to me, “You have to eat meat”. But why did he think I have to?
It is obvious to me that there is something very wrong with the long-term health of many of my family members. I wonder why they are intellectually able to acknowledge that what they eat today is what they are tomorrow, but then are so challenged by the thought of giving up animal products, even for a relatively short period of time, even if just to see how they feel (and I’m not talking a token vegan dinner). I get the impression that deep down there is an angst that compels them to reject embracing veganism because of course it threatens their ingrained way of life, the very thing that has got them this far (the ones that are still alive, that is). It probably got them here in the condition they’re in, too……While some of the rellies, notably my Dad (77) and my Aunt (80-something) have made it to a ripe age, their quality of life was/has been severely compromised by the state of their health. Anybody truly want to live a long, unhealthy life? Or at least, would they consciously choose to be unhealthy?
I am certain that many vegans are all too familiar with dealing with family members who just don’t want to know about veganism, even though it is one of the most empowering decisions we can ever make for ourselves. I attempt to share ideas with my family because, first of all – I care for them! And I have familiarised myself with information that is available for those who wish to discover it, information that is not in the mainstream (although I suspect the mainstream can now just about see it coming. I suspect it looks a bit like an avalanche). For me it’s a lifelong quest and to wit, I have just started reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II. I’m 16 pages in and already shaking my head in disbelief.
Don’t be disheartened, fellow veegs! Sometimes trying to share the good stuff with family reaps rewards. Jiff and I sat down with his Dad and partner a couple of weekends ago, and we all watched Forks Over Knives. While his partner chose to focus on only the info re processed food, Jiff’s Dad, bless him, piped up with, “Yeh, okay – let’s give it a shot,” which was promptly followed by two loud clunks as our jawbones hit the deck. Cynicism can become a habit, you know. I am unsure whether the compelling info on the documentary convinced him, or the fact that we advised him Ozzy Osbourne decided to try veganism after watching the same program. Or maybe it was the fact that the word “vegan” was hardly heard at all; what was referred to was “a wholefoods, plant-based diet”. I guess for some people, choosing veganism is more about their own health than animal rights and that’s okay. Either way I am convinced it is better for the planet, for us and our fellow beings, so if humans latch on to health themselves up, it’s still a great thing.
I have since emailed Jiff’s Dad more info, plus links to various sites, including the registration site for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s next 21-Day Vegan Kickstart which commences on 2 January 2012 – I am now hoping he is still as enthused about taking responsibility for his health as he was after the credits rolled on the documentary. 21 days is a short amount of time when you are talking a whole life, and really – what has he got to lose?
A lot, come to think of it.
For the critters ….