I think this happens to a lot of people when they go veg: People around you don’t understand, which is sometimes on them, but in my case, probably had a lot to do with me not being able to explain what my decision really meant to me. Regardless of their motivations, many vegetarians’ beliefs are often questioned, and sometimes in really rude ways (like my grandfather, who regularly said, “Someday you’ll meet a nice man who likes his steak. What are you going to do then?”), so you get defensive. For me, getting defensive meant that suddenly veganism was no longer about compassion and dedication to animals, it was about right and wrong, with me or against me. Good-natured conversations with meat-eating friends became angry lectures. And then I got to college and saw what my militant attitude looked like from the outside.

I went to a tiny and very politically radical liberal arts school. One of my college friends and I joked that everyone who wasn’t already vegan when they got there became vegan in the first week; it was funny because it was true. What was not funny was watching all of these new vegans yell at the not-yet-converted the way I had yelled at my friends and then start vegan-policing each other…and me.

There was a particularly militant nu-vegan guy who we called Rainbow Brite because of his multi-colored hair (Manic Panic is vegan, BTW) who regularly antagonized me like this:

“Dude, is that bread vegan? Did you read the ingredients?”

“Yes. I’ve been vegan for a year,” I reminded him. (This was admittedly kind of a dig, since he was a recent convert, but he was also a douche.) “I read the ingredients then.”

“Well, what if they’ve changed?”

I threw the bread bag at him so he could read it. I was right.

Another day: “Wait, you’re going to Taco Bell? How can you go to Taco Bell! That’s not just meat, it’s, like, the worst-grade meat ever!”

“I get the bean burrito without cheese,” I huffed, too pissed off to share my helpful pro tip that you could actually order anything on the Taco Bell menu and ask them to substitute beans for meat and hold the cheese and sour cream. (An updated version of this pro tip: If you ask for something “fresco style,” they’ll make it without dairy.)

“You’re still supporting the fucking meat industry!” he railed.

So I sunk to his level and pointed at the beer in his hand, asking, “Is that a Guinness?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not vegan. It has some sort of gross fish thing in it.”

“But it’s my favorite beer,” he blustered, then started yammering about how his family was Irish and that might have to trump veganism, identity-wise.

I stomped off in the combat boots that he’d recently pointed out were leather while utterly dismissing my argument that I’d gotten them before going vegan and thought it was wasteful to just throw them away, like he was planning to do with his shiny new Doc Martens.

This finally snapped me back to the mindset I’d been in when I first saw that Degrassi episode and wondered why it had to be all or nothing for Liz. Why couldn’t Caitlin protest cosmetic companies, but still take her epilepsy medicine? Why couldn’t I eat at Taco Bell and wear used leather, and why couldn’t Rainbow Brite drink his stupid Guinness? Why did those things have to outweigh everything else we were doing? Did they really make us less dedicated?

The other thing that it took me a little bit longer to realize was that even though I outdebated the people in my philosophy class and outshouted my mom and my meat-eating friends, I hadn’t actually won them over—in fact, I became one of those angry animal rights activists that people cringed away from or made fun of. In contrast, the people who’d guided me to vegetarianism and veganism hadn’t been mean or pushy about it. They’d told me what they believed in and answered the questions I asked without judgment. My vegetarian junior high friends had nudged me in little ways because they knew I was open to vegetarianism—they reminded me that pigs were smart and cows were cute; they encouraged me to order cheese pizza and vegetable fried rice when we had sleepovers; Bryn lent me reading material and taught me her favorite vegan recipes.

I started taking that tack as well. Now, I don’t go into every food situation with my metaphorical vegan card on display like an FBI agent, shouting, “I AM VEGAN AND THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULD BE TOO.” Instead, I eat the things I want to eat. If someone asks why I’m not eating something, I casually tell them I’m vegan. If they have polite questions, I answer them, but I don’t climb up on a soapbox. If someone I don’t know well asks why, I say simply that I’ve always loved and felt compassion for animals, and that it’s a personal decision. This is my way of stating, this is my choice, please respect it, as I respect that yours might be different. If pushed, which I very rarely am, I say that aloud.

After working through my own emotions some more in therapy, I’ve become more open with the people closest to me about what’s behind the “personal” part of the choice. I told my mom that her “anorexia” comment was hurtful and why. She apologized, and now, instead of calling her a hypocrite for not being a vegetarian, I smile when she tells me that she got a vegan cookbook or that she really liked the vegetarian restaurant I took her to. My mom will probably never stop eating meat entirely, but she eats less meat, just like some of my vegetarian friends still don’t want to give up cheese. By being the friend or family member that people can go to ask for recipes or vegan substitutions for a dish they’re bringing to a dinner party, I’m making more of an impact than I was by being self-righteous.

I stayed vegetarian because of my empathy for animals, but I stayed vegan because I developed empathy and compassion for people, including myself. However, being an incredibly strict vegan did not work for me emotionally. So when I go to the movies, I put whatever the buttery substance is on my popcorn. At work, if there are cookies or candy that aren’t vegan and I feel like eating them, I do. When I lived in Chicago, I used to “cheat” on my birthday and have pizza because Chicago did not have great vegan pizza options, but it did have great deep dish. Now that I’m in Seattle, where the reverse is true, I only eat vegan pizza. And, yes: Based on my defensive response to my friend at the theater, I do still hear that Rainbow Brite guy’s voice pointing out my vegan imperfections in my head, but I shut him up by reminding myself that I weigh each of my food choices carefully. Ultimately, the way that I remain dedicated to something that has mattered to me for more than 20 years is by being flexible both for myself and for others. I remember that everyone’s level of dedication is personal. ♦