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How I Almost Died Pretending to Be a Vegetarian in College

I didn't think of myself as a pretend vegetarian lying to my friends. I told myself that I was just a vegetarian who kept having meat accidents with my mouth.

My mom is a vegetarian and has been for as long as I've been alive. I was too for many years growing up. But then I grew out of it.

Today, 20 years later, I am still convinced by all of the intellectual arguments for vegetarianism. I believe that vegetarianism is a more efficient diet for a global community. I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and said, "Yes, factory farming is a terrible blight on our world!" I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and agreed with the book's premise that we should eat mostly plants.

But despite being convinced in my mind, my taste buds remain a hold out. The other night I ate an entire pouch of pepperoni slices while sitting on the floor of my kitchen, wearing only my underwear, the refrigerator door still open.

My sister, three years my junior, was a better vegetarian than I was. I craved restaurant visits because I knew it would be my chance to taste the sweet fatty goodness of charred animal muscles. In contrast, meat repulsed her. The smell of it, the taste of it. It never appealed to her. For her, the intellectual arguments came later, a secondary justification to what was first a gustatory preference. I envied her. For me, I tried starting with intellectual arguments hoping that my palate would fall in line. So far, it hasn't worked.

Despite what I see as my personal shortcomings in this dietary matter, I have spent many years of my life as a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian from ages 12 to 18, and there was a six-month period in there where I went vegan. During that time, it would also be fair to say that "Being a Vegan" was my primary personality trait. The only thing about me cooler than my tendency to steer any conversation to being about Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation was my habit of painting my Birkenstocks with vegan slogans like "Meat is murder" or "Kiss me, I'm vegan."

I told myself that I was just a vegetarian who kept having meat accidents with my mouth.

I did truly believe everything I was saying about the benefits of vegetarianism, but I think if I'm honest, I have to admit that I primarily enjoyed what I imagined was the alt cache that came with my lifestyle choice. There weren't many vegetarians in my hometown of Evergreen, Colorado.

Then I got to college and there were lots of vegetarians. Hell, there were dumpster-diving, Freegan revolutionary socialists who were way more hardcore than I'd ever be. Vegetarianism was no longer a special thing about me. It was just a lot of hard work. College was hard for me in a lot of ways, and at some point, while eating alone in a dining hall, I didn't have the mental energy to remain disciplined. I ate meat.

But I didn't think of that as me stopping being a vegetarian. I didn't think of myself as a pretend vegetarian lying to my friends. I told myself that I was just a vegetarian who kept having meat accidents with my mouth. Oops, how did that steak get in my burrito? Did I say steak? I meant beans, but, oh well, since you've already made it I guess I'll just eat it and also I better order two more steak burritos with extra steak please I love meat thank you thank you.

Besides, I'd introduced myself to all of my new friends and classmates as a vegetarian. I would feel like a fraud if a few months later I was like, "Oh, never mind." So my entire freshman year, I kept telling other people, and myself, that I was a vegetarian. I promised myself that each time I slipped off the meat-free bandwagon was the last.

I was delusional. And my delusion nearly led to my death in the spring semester.

The author, not eating meat. Photo from Nate Dern.

I signed up for an "Alternative Spring Break," a trip with other students to do community service at a therapeutic horseback riding farm in South Carolina. As was my habit, I told the others on the trip I was a vegetarian. I did this thinking it would help keep me honest on the trip and not eat meat. One of the other students on the trip was a Lebanese student named Ghia who told me that she was also a vegetarian. We bonded a bit over that and I immediately developed a huge crush on her.

On one of the last nights of the trip, for dinner our host prepared grilled chicken cutlets. The vegetarian option was iceberg lettuce. Ghia and I commiserated over this, and then she ate her lettuce. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, grabbed a handful of cutlets when nobody was looking, and ran outside.

I stuffed the chicken into my mouth, trying to eat it as quickly as possible, a single light hanging above the steel garage door illuminating what I'm sure was a disgusting display. After a day of manual labor, the cutlets tasted amazing.

Even when it felt like blood vessels were popping in my eyeballs, I still tried to swallow harder.

Then something went wrong. I was choking.

Not "Oops, it went down the wrong pipe, how embarrassing, can you pass me a glass of water?" but full-on choking. No air going in or out, esophagus blocked. I panicked. I was an animal with my gullet sealed shut.

Through the fog of my panic, a choice became perfectly visible to me: go back inside for help, reveal to everyone I was a pretend vegetarian, and survive...or stay alone outside with my secret and risk choking to death.

I stayed outside.

I punched myself in the stomach with both fists. Nothing. I threw myself on the top bar of a wood fence attempting to self-Heimlich. It didn't work. Then, in a final attempt to live, I summoned all my strength and I tried to swallow as hard as I could. Even when it felt like blood vessels were popping in my eyeballs, I still tried to swallow harder. My neck muscles contracted, my face turned blood red. The chicken went down.

Traumatized and tears streaming down my face, I went back inside and sat down. "What's wrong?" Ghia asked. "Have you been crying?" I shook my head no and mumbled something about feeling emotional about the meaningful community service work we were doing. I had bruises on my solar plexus and my throat was sore for weeks.

That scare kept me a real vegetarian for a couple years. I stayed true until a study abroad trip to do thesis research in Buenos Aires the summer before my senior year. Once there, the temptation of home cooked, meat-filled empanadas with my host family was too great to resist. Plus, I didn't want to be rude. Plus, it was in a foreign country, so that hardly counted. Plus, meat tastes so damn good.

I promised myself I would be a vegetarian again when I returned home. This time for good. This time I meant it. This time I really, really meant it.

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