Disabled vegans Health Interviews

On being chronically ill and vegan. Interview with Jade Elliott

Jade Elliott (28) lives near Portsmouth, in the south of the UK. Since her teens, she has been dealing with multiple chronic diseases. At the start of the COVID-crisis in 2020 she made the connection between the pandemic and the exploitation of animals, and then became vegan. I got to know Jade through Instagram, where she shares inspiration of her vegan journey.
In this interview she talks about her background and where she lives, the challenges she faces as a chronically ill vegan, misconceptions about living with chronic diseases, health shaming, and she gives some tips on how the vegan movement can become more inclusive.

Hello Jade, tell us who you are? What’s your background?

Hi! I live on the South Coast of England, near Portsmouth, with my partner of two years. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I live nearby to my mum who I am very close to. I have worked for Holland & Barrett as a supervisor for over five years and I am so grateful to have a manager who is incredibly understanding of my health limitations! In my spare time, my biggest passion is baking, and I have been enjoying learning to bake gluten-free recently due to this latest change in my diet.

I saw a photo on your Instagram of a pub in the New Forest in the south of England. I have fond memories of being there as a child and remember the ponies and donkeys roaming free. Do you live in that area?

I live nearby, about a 30 minute drive which is great as the New Forest is one of my favourite places! I feel lucky to live so close to such a beautiful place and have many happy childhood memories with the ponies and donkeys in the New Forest. One of my favourite places to visit there now is a completely plant-based restaurant called Offbeet, who sadly have been unfairly asked to leave their premises in Totton by the landowners when they started selling amazing vegan doughnuts that are high in sugar! (An article here for more info) It was so upsetting to hear about a local vegan business being targeted for such a silly reason when they’re trying to stay afloat during this pandemic!

You told me you live with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Can you tell us some more about these? When did you first start noticing symptoms?

My symptoms of ME/CFS started when I was 13 and I was officially diagnosed at 14 so it is something I have lived with for over half of my life now. My symptoms started after I had a bad reaction to a flu jab. Getting diagnosed was very difficult back then and at that age, but I was lucky to have my mum fighting for a diagnosis for me. I really struggled with my schoolwork and I was only in school one day a week at the start of my symptoms, but with help from physiotherapy and learning how to manage my symptoms with pacing I made it out of school with passes in nine subjects in my GCSEs (end of school exams in the UK) which I was very proud of! Unfortunately, I had a setback at 17 after a glandular fever infection that set off an almost yearlong relapse, and this caused me to drop out of college.

I was then diagnosed with IBS and GERD at 19 after a bad gastroenteritis infection left me unable to eat properly for months. This diagnosis meant I had to cut a lot of foods out of my diet (including dairy, which of course isn’t a problem for me now!) Recently I was having regular flare-ups, and after a lot of experimentation with foods I discovered I was having issues digesting gluten, so I have recently cut this out of my diet as well. I am on medication for these conditions that I’ve been taking every day ever since my diagnosis. For example, I have daily nausea and I am unable to eat or lie down if I haven’t taken my antacid medication. I started to notice the symptoms of chronic pain not long after this and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at 21.

Jade is standing with back against a red brick wall, wearing pink T-shirt and jeans, smiling, both arms raised sidewards and elbows bent with hand making V-sign pointed towards face.
Jade Elliott [alt txt incl]

How does a typical day look like for you? How is your day to day living impacted by your symptoms?

After living with these conditions for so long, I’ve learnt how to use pacing in my daily life to ensure I can manage my symptoms and limit flare-ups as much as possible (although, they do still happen sometimes!) I can acknowledge that I am very lucky to still be able to work, even if it’s only part-time, and I very rarely work a 9-5 day. A typical day at work usually starts with a really quick breakfast such as yoghurt or a protein bar, so I don’t waste any energy preparing food before I start. I get the bus to work and usually work a 3-6 hour long shift depending on the day. I often try to run errands or do grocery shopping after work rather than on days off, as I’m already up and about and then I can limit how many days I’ve got to expend energy.

A typical day off for me usually revolves around rest and recuperating my spoons! I will often play video games, watch TV or listen to podcasts and audiobooks to relax. I will also spend time baking on days off if my leg pain is not too high, or if I have two days off in a row and know I can rest my legs on the second day. I do love to do things at weekends with my partner when possible (pre-pandemic life of course!) So, when we do have a day out or a weekend away, I just make sure to plan around this and make sure I have a day or two off afterwards for rest. I’d say the biggest impact my conditions have had on my life is forcing me to plan everything, and often means I have to say no to things I wish I could do as I know they’d have an adverse effect on me for work the next day for example.

I’d say the biggest impact my conditions have had on my life is forcing me to plan everything, and often means I have to say no to things I wish I could do as I know they’d have an adverse effect on me for work the next day for example.

Jade Elliott

How has being chronically ill impacted your social and professional life?

When I was diagnosed with IBS and GERD at 19, I had to stop drinking alcohol as it makes my symptoms a lot worse, which really impacted my social life at the time! As a teenager, I admit I did go out drinking often, and when I stopped, I realised that the basis of most of my friendships revolved around drinking culture. Looking back, I’m actually grateful I got the chance to realise that, and it showed who my real friends were – the ones who stuck around to support me in a time of poor health. I’m a pretty introverted person now so I only have a small, close-knit group of friends which I’m perfectly happy with and they’re all very understanding about my conditions and if I need to cancel or reschedule plans.

In terms of my professional life, my chronic illnesses have absolutely had a big impact. I wasn’t able to complete any college qualifications because of my health and subsequently haven’t been to university either so job options are a little limited for me! I currently work for Holland & Barrett as a supervisor, and I have a 14-hour contract that I usually work over three days which is perfect for me and the limitations I know I have. I have worked office jobs in the past and I have found that sitting in one place and looking at a computer screen is actually far worse for me and my conditions than working in retail, as it caused my sciatica to flare up and regular migraines. In my current job, I can keep my joints and muscles moving which helps to ease pain, yet I am able to stop and rest if I need to. I also adore helping and advising people! My ultimate career goal is to run my own business and work for myself, which I’m hoping to be able to do in the near future!

What are common misconceptions about people living with the diagnoses you have?

The first thing that immediately comes to mind is ‘lazy’. Of course, with invisible illnesses, no one can see how fatigued or in pain someone really is, so there will always be people who just think I’m lazy or making it up so I don’t have to work as much or do as many things around the house. I’ve also come across people who don’t understand the distinction between tired and fatigued, so I have been met with ‘I know how you feel, I’m so tired today’ type responses from people before. In terms of my digestive conditions, I’m often viewed as a ‘picky eater’ due to the limitations I have with certain foods, especially now I am vegan and gluten-free too.

You went vegan last year. What inspired you to become vegan?

I had been dairy-free for many years because of my digestive issues so often ate plant-based food, and my best friend has been vegan a long time, so I’d been aware of veganism for a while. But due to the pandemic, the penny finally dropped for me in terms of realising that none of this would’ve happened had it not been for the exploitation of animals! I was off work for a month at the start of the first lockdown in 2020 and I used the time at home to really educate myself and slowly remove all the animal products from my life until I had fully transitioned in May. Sometimes I feel embarrassed to have called myself an animal lover in the past and still consume animal products, but I keep telling myself that everyone’s conditioned by our society to consume animal products and better to catch on late than never!

Jade sitting at table in what appears to be a tea house/restaurant, wearing pink T-shirt, holding a large cup with whip cream and red sprinkles on top. Looking towards camera, smiling.
Jade Elliott [alt txt incl]

How did your family and surroundings react?

My mum, who I am really close to and lived with until November of last year, went vegan at the same time as me. During the first lockdown, we were both spending lots of time exploring vegan food, getting into cooking and educating ourselves on the horrors of animal exploitation. I feel very privileged to have someone with me on my journey into veganism and to know that my closest family member shares the same views as I do.

We are not in regular contact with most of our extended family and, due to the pandemic, we haven’t had the opportunity to see them yet, so we haven’t told most of our family members. However, the ones we have shared the news with have luckily all reacted positively, and my uncle has even gone out and tried some vegan products from the supermarket and told us he’s willing to transition slowly away from using animal products, despite initially saying he’d never want to go vegan!

My partner was always very supportive of me becoming vegan, and since I love to cook, I make most of our shared meals and he was always more than happy to eat vegan and try new things. He then decided to do Veganuary this year and hasn’t looked back since! I’ve never wanted to be a ‘preachy’ vegan and would never judge someone for eating animal products as I ate them for 27 years of my life! But, by exposing my partner to amazing vegan food and having open conversations about what happens to animals in the animal agriculture industry, I helped to open his eyes to the truth, and he made his own way towards veganism without the need for me to be pushy or forceful.

How do your doctors react to your vegan diet? Are they knowledgeable about it, supportive?

I’ve not needed to see any doctors since changing to a vegan diet and I don’t have any regular check-ins with them anymore. Since I’m managing my conditions pretty well by myself and my medications are all working fine, they are just leaving me to it really! I’m in two minds about whether or not I’ll tell my doctors in the future next time I need to see them about something, but I’ll probably decide on a case-by-case basis depending on what I’m seeing them about.

You said you describe yourself as an intersectional vegan and feminist. What does that mean for you?

For me, it really just means being a compassionate person. It means caring about more than just the animals, but about people and their needs just as much as the needs of animals. I feel like the predominant face of veganism for a long time has been white, slim, able-bodied cis females, and I think it’s so important to recognise and celebrate vegans who don’t fit this stereotype (which your blog does amazingly by the way – thank you for that!) and I think being an intersectional vegan is so important for clearing the way for the voices of these people in the community. I just want people of all backgrounds and intersections to feel comfortable talking about animal rights issues and to be open to exploring veganism and I don’t think that’ll ever be achieved without an intersectional approach.

I feel like the predominant face of veganism for a long time has been white, slim, able-bodied cis females, and I think it’s so important to recognise and celebrate vegans who don’t fit this stereotype

Jade Elliott

You post a lot about vegan food on your Instagram. Is that your main form of activism? What reactions do you get?

I would say so yes. I think changing to a plantbased diet is the biggest lifestyle change anyone can make while transitioning towards veganism, and I hope the food I share can inspire people to look at what they’re eating and make changes to their diet for the better.

Of course, I understand the many limitations people may face when it comes to going vegan, but I fully believe that something is better than nothing and that the more everybody does to help reduce the use of animal products the better. A handful of people doing veganism perfectly would barely make a dent compared to millions making small changes they’re able to.

I like to see my Instagram as a conversation starter and many people in my life such as friends and co-workers have been curious about veganism after seeing the food that I post and are much more willing and open to hearing about the reasons for going vegan once that conversation has started. I know some are much more in-your-face about sharing graphic images of animal exploitation as a form of activism, but personally seeing those things before I was vegan made me less willing to have a conversation and less open to being educated.

When I first started posting on my Instagram account last year, I wasn’t vegan yet and found many friends and supportive people who made my transition so much easier, and I hope I can also be part of a supportive community for anyone else who needs the push into veganism too!

Close up photo of Jade, wearing a yellow T-shirt, backdrop is a wall with a large cartoon like drawing, smiling, holding both hands underneath chin.
Jade Elliott [alt txt incl]

Some vegans like to portray plant-based eating as a magical cure all for all diseases. What do you think about that?

To be honest, I think this often comes from a place of ignorance more than anything. There’s a huge crossover between the vegan community and health/fitness communities and I really hate seeing it. As a disabled person, so many fitness plans and whole-food diets etc. aren’t attainable for me and lots of others, but a lot of able-bodied people do seem to struggle to see this and just assume that if we all eat a whole-food plant-based diet and do lots of yoga, we’ll feel the same as they do. I do think seeing people talking about magical cure-all diets can be an opportunity to educate people though, as much as unsolicited health advice is annoying, people are often just ignorant as to how they’ll come across.

As a disabled/chronically ill woman of colour, have you experienced discrimination or prejudice in the animal rights or vegan community? Or in society in general? Do you have some examples?

I can definitely acknowledge the privilege that being mixed race has given me (I am mixed white & black Caribbean), and I’m very lucky in that I’ve not experienced any racial prejudice directed towards me in the animal rights or vegan communities.

However, I have as a result of being a disabled vegan definitely get looked down on often for some of the food choices I have to make because of my chronic illnesses. While I think it’s amazing how far the food industry has come with how many more accessible vegan options there are to choose from now, I have seen many other vegans trashing these options or even boycotting companies because they’re unhealthy or made/sold by a company they don’t like.

When I was first transitioning to veganism, I joined several Facebook groups for help and support, and the number of times I was met with ‘just make it yourself’ when I was asking for suggestions for certain premade products was astounding. While I absolutely adore cooking, I often need to make a lot of adjustments in the ingredients I use (e.g. pre-packaged flavoured rice that takes 2 minutes in the microwave) to be able to cook a nice meal and not overexert myself in the kitchen. Or there are some nights I can’t cook and just need to grab a ready meal and put it in the microwave, as I can’t manage more than that. Or my hands have seized up and I need pre-chopped vegetables. Trying to explain this to some people in the vegan community can be almost impossible sometimes, and again I’m viewed as ‘lazy’ because I ‘won’t make food from scratch’ rather than seen as a chronically ill person who needs adjustments in the kitchen!

I joined several Facebook groups for help and support, and the number of times I was met with ‘just make it yourself’ when I was asking for suggestions for certain premade products was astounding. […] I’m viewed as ‘lazy’ because I ‘won’t make food from scratch’ rather than seen as a chronically ill person who needs adjustments in the kitchen!

Jade Elliott

There is also, of course, the argument from some that medication isn’t vegan which I’ve never had directed towards me, but I have seen it all the time from people in the community. I take an awful lot of medication that isn’t vegan, but I know this doesn’t make me any less vegan as I’m still doing everything that I possibly can to eliminate all other animal products!

Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible?

Honestly, a great start would be for more people to be understanding and listen to what disabled people need. I also think a lot of vegans think they’re doing veganism perfectly and then look down on people they consider to not be doing veganism perfectly. I think a really important part of The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ and this is going to end up meaning something a little different to everyone, depending on their background and experiences. So, another really important thing to make veganism more accessible is to stop the gatekeeping around what veganism means to people. I would never try and force what works for me onto someone else, but rather encourage them to make the changes that suit them and their needs, and we need way more people doing this.

Is there anything else that you would like to share here?

Just a big thank you for inviting me to do this interview!

Jade Elliott – Interview CripHumanimal, by Geertrui Cazaux

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fairyscience

Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –

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