How 12 Steps Worked to Produce a Vegan

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How 12 Steps Worked to Produce a Vegan

By Timothy Gager 09/08/16

Why was I able to accept this message now? Hadn’t I always had the opinion that I had personal rights over animals and apparently the entire planet?

How 12 Steps Worked to Produce a Vegan
Photo via Timothy Gager

No matter how hard I try, I still can’t look at videos of cows, pigs, and chickens being slaughtered for food. I won’t. Many non-meat eating people have tried to force me to watch, but I already knew the process, I just didn’t want to be reminded of it. I was a carnivore, I ate meat, and it was all just a part of the food chain with human beings, more specifically me at the top. That is what I used to think. Today, I have sobriety to credit for a better way of thinking about meat. 

When I was in high school, I was six feet tall and weighed about 145 pounds. On social media I once posted a picture on “Throwback Thursday” and received comments, such as, “Didn’t you eat?” and “Have a cheeseburger.” The fact is, I love cheeseburgers and I love, in general, to eat anything I wanted. My metabolism was so high I had to eat constantly, a good four meals a day, plus snacks, to maintain weight. My meals were well rounded too, two to three portions of meat, carbs, and a vegetable. My father loved desserts, so my mother would always prepare one after dinner. I would eat until I could feel my stomach stretched and full. Then I might wedge in a little more before I left the table.

I can identify that I drank and used drugs the same way that I ate. I had an equally high appetite for those and I would use until I was full and my reality was stretched. What was the point otherwise? I never understood social reasons to use, versus getting wasted and certainly, I didn’t want to associate with those teetotalers.

In high school, drinking helped me to invent myself as something I was not because I was an awkward, uncomfortable, unconfident, picked on, and an extremely “uncool” person. So I re-invented myself as a person that partied a lot and stood out as someone that didn’t do things in a conventional way. I played in a band, which fueled my drinking, drug-taking and womanizing fire.

When people guessed that I may have had a drinking or drug problem and had the courage to tell me, I was more likely to celebrate that fact than to try to fix it. At least, I was getting noticed. My parents even bought me A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamill, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t pro-drinking. That’s one way I identified with alcohol as a solution.

I wrote my first collection of stories, Twenty-Six Pack, in 1999, which I felt was celebrating those certain aspects of my life. Though, when I look back on it, it reads like a dark drunk-a-log. It turned out to be more of a message about the bad spaces you end up in when using, than anything else.

Then things started getting worse. Normal people were settling down and I was still out there. When you hit early to mid-thirties, you should no longer act and get wasted like you were 10 years younger, or it certainly is a problem. Now I was mid-forties and I was out of control, accepting that this was a life of my choosing. Adult progressive disease had taken over and it was a complete takeover. I had very few friends, bad relationships and was incredibly miserable to the extent of counting methods of suicide to get to sleep instead of sheep.

Out of desperation, I joined a 12-step program and eventually I did the work. I learned some things about myself, mostly that I had characteristics that caused feelings and I had the need to black them out. In Step Four, where you search your behaviors and take a moral inventory, mine included the usual recipe of fear, selfishness, self-centeredness, closed-mindedness, arrogance, rigidity, gluttony...things that I had been afflicted with but somehow overlooked as not a part of my character or a negative part that I accepted. By doing the work, I identified these things and adjusted them to the best of my ability, or so I thought.  

Until recently I thought I was a lover of our planet and an animal lover. I daily fed stray and feral cats. I have a couple of rabbits and a few fish tanks. I would tell people about the horrors of global warming, how it was scientific rather than a hoax. I would tell people about recycling and actively recycle items into my town plastic bin. Remember: Pollution is a bad thing. Low-pressure shower heads and electric cars were all good things. Selfish people had SUVs and watered their lawns. Morally, I was covered here, again, or so I thought. 

So what does any of the 12 steps have to do with veganism? Well, I still identify as a foodie but I no longer eat meat or animal products. The change was fast and I couldn’t have done it without my experience in recovery and watching the movie Cowspiracy. The documentary did not feature parades of images of animals being slaughtered, or else I would have turned it off. I had spent my entire life not wanting to know about this, while I blissfully smashed cheeseburgers all over my face. It was identical to the denial I used for not admitting I had a problem with alcohol.

In the same way, no one could take my booze away, no person, or conscious knowledge of animal slaughter, would take my meat away. This was until Cowspiracy. What the documentary did was inform me how the meat industries work to affect the well-being of our planet. How a one quarter-pound hamburger takes 660 gallons of water to produce for the cow and the cow’s feed and how animal agriculture used 80-90% of all US water consumption.

I learned how methane gas from cows causes more greenhouse gas than every type of transportation in the world combined. How animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. How even the grassfed or backyard animal models is not sustainable to large populations. For every single pound of fish caught, up to five pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. If you don’t believe it, check out the sources on

Why was I able to accept this message now? Hadn’t I always had the opinion that I had personal rights over animals and apparently the entire planet? Watching the film, I suddenly felt selfish and self-centered and that I was always above every person on earth by affecting their planet negatively. These were all the crappy characteristics that I realized about myself while working the steps and which I used to invoke the changes needed to stay sober.

Immediately, I decided to stop eating meat and dairy, many foods that I loved, otherwise I would need to make daily amends to the human and animal population of the world every day. 

Because of what I learned in AA and my step work, not eating meat, cheese and milk came surprisingly easy. It was the same one day, one minute, at a time discipline, which prevented me from taking a drink or using a drug that was now allowing me to not harm animals or the planet. There is also this amazing side-effect of being healthy, cutting cholesterol and seriously decreasing my risk of cancer and heart disease. Sobriety too, has many positive side effects, including physical and mental health and well-being. I never in a million years would have thought that I would have gratitude for giving up what had been intertwined within me, my entire life. Today, I know, I have made a difference.  

Timothy Gager is the author of 11 books of short fiction and poetry. He hosts the successful Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over 15 years. His work appears in over 300 journals, of which 10 have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His latest, The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan (Big Table Publishing), is his first novel.

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