Vegan Life talks to activist Joey Carbstrong on his early life in Australia and how veganism turned his life around.
Joey Carbstrong is exactly what you expect him to be. Bright, intelligent eyes with a fiery determination — he is a force to be reckoned with. It is not surprising to me that Joey has turned so many people vegan, there are very few people I’ve spoken to who are so passionate about creating a vegan world, but Joey hasn’t always been this way. In fact, it may surprise people to find out that one of the biggest names in vegan activism has done time in a maximum security prison.
Joey grew up in Australia with his two brothers and sister. Joey said: “As a youth, I was very connected. I tell this story about when I was five not wanting my brother to step on an ant on Christmas morning because it shows the innate compassion we all have for animals when we are children. I always start my talk with that story because it’s interesting to me how easily that was programmed out of me.
“I had this innate compassion for other beings and then I was programmed to think that eating part of a cow is acceptable and necessary and then later on I found other violence, when I got involved in the gang life, acceptable and necessary. You can be conditioned to violence.”
I ask Joey about his upbringing, which he describes as fairly typical.
“My parents had broken up when I was young and all my friends parents had broken up. I had a young mother who was still experiencing life herself. I saw my father periodically and mum had different partners throughout my life.
“As a youngster I was very curious, kind of a lost youth, and I wanted to experience drug taking and things which were taboo. I took that to the extreme. Even as young as 13 or 14, I started to experiment more and by default I started hanging out with guys who were smoking marijuana.”
Joey was soon accepted into a gang of Australian youths, mainly from low income backgrounds. He identified with them and the group all began shaving their heads and smoking marijuana together. Joey describes how the gang became more than just friends; they became brothers which led him down the path that would eventually see him behind bars.
“At the start I was very nervous about things. I was shy and I wasn’t hardened. I wasn’t a hardened lad and they were. They had been in it longer than me, even at 15, and I got pushed into the gangs and I started to become hardened as I experienced street life and acts of violence and alcohol- fuelled fights. The more I experienced them, the more I became conditioned to it and I became more comfortable with it as time went on.” Joey is incredibly open as he speaks to me about his past life. He has clearly accepted that part of his life as an experience to learn from, but the way he sits, speaks and the way you feel in his presence doesn’t match his words. Clearly the person he was and the person I am speaking to now are worlds apart. I ask him if he remembers the moment he knew he wanted to walk away from his gang.
“The U-turn happened 10-12 years down the track. 10-12 years of an addiction that really progressed from taking drugs, to dealing drugs and then to a strong addiction, which hurt my psychology.
“Obviously, the gangs went from street gangs to adult type of gangs — more like organised crime — and from there I was arrested for carrying a firearm.
“I spent 18 months on home detention before I went to prison and 6 months before I was due to go to prison, that’s where the turnaround happened.”
Joey was badly affected by home detention; he put on a lot of weight and soon fell into depression.
Joey told me: “I was trying to numb the emotion with food because I had limited access to drugs. I shifted it to food. I was eating calorie dense foods like meats and cheese in the morning with eggs and all these unhealthy foods. I got fat and depressed and was still drinking alcohol.
“I had enough and I was looking for the best diet online and I came across Dan MacDonald, the raw juicer, and he had a really cool energy and he was really upbeat. He said some really significant things to me.
“One of the things he said to me was when you eat suffering and death, it becomes you. If you eat violence, this dead food, these animals that have suffered, it manifests as disease in your body. It was like a karmic thing which I already believed in.
“Six months later, when I’d gone to prison, I had a sober epiphany that this life wasn’t for me, that all the mistakes I had made had led me to prison and it wasn’t a very nice place and I didn’t want to live my life like that.”
You can read the interview in full when you pick up the February issue of Vegan Life.