I remember being 6 years old and exhausted, and by the time I graduated high school, I had severe IBS so bad I sometimes could hardly walk; the family doctor just gave me a Rx for a smooth muscle relaxer that sometimes sorta worked. It had a terrible impact on my life all through my undergraduate degree. Anyone who's had chronic pain knows what I am talking about. There was an element of hopelessness that just seemed to drain all the color out of my soul long before my soul even had color to it! (I later learned that it was a good thing I couldn't see a doctor - a friend of mine did get "help" for some similar trouble, she spent a week in the hospital getting a ton of painful, frightening and invasive exams, only to be old "you have IBS and there is nothing we can do for you.") As far as I knew, I would spend the rest of my life suffering intermittent, unpredictable attacks of pain that would leave me drained, while also sleeping sometimes 14 hours a day just because I had zero energy. By the time I finished undergrad, I really thought that whatever was wrong was going to kill me (in spite of the fact that IBS isn't deadly - but how could something so debilitating NOT kill you?). Even if I lived, it would be on welfare because who would ever hire someone who would literally fall asleep at the drop of a hat right in the middle of anything?
By sheer luck my mother picked up a book for me, it was called Gastrointestinal Health. Author didn't even suggest a vegetarian diet, rather he suggested a diet based on whole foods that happened to include a lot of plant-based foods. He eliminated junk food and processed foods. I began doing a few things he suggested, just a few, and then more. My health did a 180 within 6 months. For the first time ever, I actually had more or less a normal life, and I wasn't sleeping it all away. And then one day, something remarkable happened: I realized I had not eaten meat for 2 months, and that was just fine, didn't even miss it.
I began reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, which in Smalltown Alabama was not much (plus I had little money to buy books since I was in grad school). I learned that meat and dairy products are destructive to human health, as well as the planet, and this gave me the only motivation I needed to stay away from meat permanently. Dairy took longer to give up (it is addictive after all), but my allergies about that time took a turn for the worse and *that* was excellent motivation to give up dairy. It took me probably 18 months to do the whole transformation.
I still have some health problems, and I have learned that stress hits my body very, very hard. Changing my diet, and sticking to good quality whole foods as much as possible, basically fortifies my body to stay generally healthy - and then I just have to watch for stress issues and deal with them when they come up. I have not eaten a bite of meat since about 1999 (I truly don't recall the last time I did, so that is an approximate time).
I have voluntarily eaten dairy ONE time that I know of, in 2005 (??) at a Hindu festival when someone dumped a spoonful of farina on my plate before I could stop him - pretty sure it contained ghee. Throwing it out would have been the worst anathema, so I ate it - knowing I risked getting sick, then ran home and took an entire bottle of antioxidants, which stopped the allergic reaction before it could start. (That was an important lesson learned for the future.)
I don't think much anymore about being a strict veg, looking up restaurant menus and checking ingredients is something I do by rote now. But good health is something I will never again take for granted. I suffered way too much the first 24 years of my life.
Pain free. Able to do things. Having hope. Not feeling like a victim all the time, or a statistic in the making with only welfare to look forward to. These things are HUGE. They mean the world to me.