*This post is by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD
Sarah is a 35-year-old successful career woman, married and mother of two. She is known among her colleagues and friends for her positive attitude towards the world, and the natural tendency to make lemonade from every lemon life throws at her. Although Sarah never thought she could ever feel this way, for the last two years she is in constant pain – sometimes bearable, sometimes agonizing – at every moment, everywhere she goes.
In just a few months’ time, without any ability to stop it, she has started to see and feel the world around her as a world of misfortune, injustice and great suffering. She became a suspicious, judgmental, negative person to almost everyone around her. The pain she suffers from is often misunderstood or ridiculed by her friends and even her husband, who accuses her of being oversensitive, irrational or somewhat insane.
In her mind, the world is collapsing, and everyone around her is somehow responsible. She is struggling to make sense of it all, and she is all alone.
Sarah is a vegan who suffers, without necessarily knowing it, from the “vegans’ trauma”.
“The vegans’ trauma” is a clinical concept coined by myself after a long period of research in a series of talks I gave from 2017 through 2019 to an audience of psychologists and psychoanalysts around the world. My goal was to describe and bring awareness to the global psychologist community to a unique form of trauma which many vegans who chose veganism for moral reasons cope with and suffer from.
The vegans’ trauma is a chronic and complex trauma that can be described as a multi-layered trauma: A layer of vicarious trauma stemming from repeated exposure to animal suffering in our world, and a layer of a complicated, agonizing inter-relational and social trauma. Both layers influence each other, respectively.
“Vicarious traumatization” also known as “compassion fatigue”, is a trauma caused by exposure to trauma inflicted on others. It is a state in which the exposure to the traumatic material leads to dramatic changes in one’s experience of himself, others, and the world in general, while unwanted images of traumatic images related to the trauma often penetrate his or her consciousness.
Exposure to someone else’s trauma is the vegan’s experience. A vegan is a subject who is always aware of animal suffering. This awareness is a result of a radical shift in one’s view of animals in a society based on animal usage, as described painfully by Finnish poet Eeva Kilpi:
“One day you will see everything differently, Even cookbooks.
You won’t look at them the same way as before.
You will see only devastated life in them.”
This change of experience may manifest in mood changes and dramatic shifts in one’s perception of the world, causing one to see it as an unjust and cruel world.
Because in our culture, animal exploitation for humankind’s benefit is a widespread phenomenon, and the majority of the world’s population consumes meat and other animal products, the vicarious traumatic experience is a chronic one.
For vegans, every piece of meat and every animal-based product, such as the common cafe latte, is a reminder of the other’s trauma which they have witnessed in a video they saw, or even by reading or hearing someone talk about the suffering of animals in the food industry. This is a trauma they know is still happening on a massive, incomprehensible, and constant scale.
The social and inter-relational layer of the trauma is a result of society’s contribution to the animals’ trauma, which is their consumption habits of meat, fish, dairy and eggs, and its obliviousness to the vicarious traumatic stress it inflicts on vegans. This obliviousness causes vegans to question their perception of reality and leaves them feeling isolated and hurt.
M. Coetzee describes this horrifying experience through Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist in his novel ” Elizabeth Costello”:
“Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all?
I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me.
Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.
I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”
The “vegans’ trauma” was also defined in 2017 by Clare Mann, an Australian psychologist, as “Vystopia”, and described by Yaki Sagi, an Israeli clinical psychologist in 2016 as the vegan burden:
“Imagine the world you knew disappeared, and when it returned, it was all made up of slices of hell. Imagine that the grocery stores, the restaurants and the cafés all became home to the products of hell. Imagine that your loved ones turned out to be accomplices to absolute evil, to physical and mental torture, to terrible apathy. Your friends from school, your neighbours, your family – they all consume and fund the ensemble of horrors involved in the production of milk, meat and eggs. This is the world that comes into focus through the vegan lens. This is the vegan burden.”
The numerous testimonials of vegans of all ages in Israel and around the world I’ve heard in my research and my clinic over the last seven years cannot be overlooked. They all describe this trauma in various forms and intensities, and they need to be acknowledged. And if you can find some similarities between what I’ve described in this post – to your experience – please know that you are not alone.
I hope that this knowledge somehow relieves some of the burdens of this traumatic experience. I also encourage you to share this with your family and friends, and even your psychologist or therapist – and urge you not to stay alone with this pain.
*This post is by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD
Shiri Raz – PhD candidate; psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Shiri focuses her research on the psychoanalytic and linguistic aspects of people’s mental attitudes toward the consumption and use of animal-based products.
Shiri serves as a therapist for couples and individuals, specializing in work with vegans and mixed couples (vegans and non-vegans) in Israel and worldwide (through video chats). She is an animal rights activist, academic lecturer, resident lecturer for the Vegan Friendly association’s educational program and for the Animals Now (non-profit) organization, and a public speaker.