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'My mum lied about my medical history so I couldn't be vaccinated. Then I was hospitalised.'

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines seem to be on everyone’s minds.

For me, they have a complex history. My mother was an anti-vaxxer. At 12 years old, I watched as my classmates lined up outside the school hall to receive their HPV vaccine. I stayed in the classroom. 

My mother refused to sign the permission form the week before. “You’re allergic to vaccines,” she explained. I took this information as gospel. Why would I question my own mother? If anyone ever asked, I would tell them I was allergic. Allergic to what exactly, I wasn’t sure.

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Then at 15, I was hospitalised for full body hives that swelled my throat and caused me to black out. I forgot my name and where I was. Swathes of red rashes covered my entire body, prompting my first time in an ambulance. 

My mother refused to indulge in any further medical testing.

After the third reaction within months sent me crying into a cold shower in the middle of the night, I begged my mother to take me to an allergist. “Waste of money,” she replied.

The next week, she sent me to see an energy healer. The results were, obviously, inconclusive. 

Since my mother was so vehemently opposed to allergy testing for such a violent, physical reaction, I began to question her claim of my allergy to vaccines. “You had a seizure after the measles vaccine,” was her explanation. Yet my father had no memory of this ever occurring.

My parents divorced when I was 10 years old, and I moved overseas with my mother six months later. Her truth became my truth. With a single parent — there is no other alternative. 

I only realised years later that she was using the story of my health as her badge of honour.

Working as a naturopath, my mother used my vaccine history as evidence traditional medicine was evil. 

She even bragged to her friends about the vaccinations I didn’t receive. I was her ticket to the anti-vaccination community. 

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Whenever I was sick with the flu or debilitated by chronic bronchitis, all I had were her never-ending trail of natural remedies, which did nothing for me.

It wasn’t that she wanted to keep me sick—quite the opposite. She was too ashamed to take me to the doctor and admit defeat. I suffered through years of wondering when if ever, I would have another reaction. 

I wondered what would happen if I stepped on a rusted nail and needed a tetanus shot. Would I react to that? It was my invisible enemy.

In 2018, I was finally free of my mother’s reign. After a spectacular disagreement that ultimately became our last, she dumped a box of old memories outside her house for me to take with me. 

She wanted no shred of evidence that I existed. Before moving overseas, I combed through the box of my baby photos, my yearbooks, and various newspaper clippings from my childhood. 

A booklet caught my eye; the title included “history” and “vaccination.” I thumbed through the pages in shock, reading the dates and details, the official stamps that declared the numerous vaccines I received before I was 18 months old. There were many. Including shots my mother said I’d never had.

I sat back, reading the stamps over and over again in rage. I carried a lump of fear my entire life, not even knowing the truth about myself. I still didn’t know the truth. 

I lived far from my home country and any access to a legitimate health record. Everything I knew about myself was from what my mother told me. And her stories changed each season, her recollections changing to suit her mood or who she was talking to. 

Her ego had always influenced whether I received medical treatment at all. I tossed aside the faded booklet full of knowledge I didn’t know what to do with yet and sunk back into the unknown. Years passed. I thought briefly about getting my shots up to date, but I was still travelling, still living away from home. 

Then, COVID-19 hit. 

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Getting home, and staying home, suddenly became the most important thing in my life. During our days of a lockdown in New Zealand, my sister gave birth to her first child. In a beautiful gift of fate, he was born on my birthday. 

My aunt called to congratulate me on becoming an aunt myself. “Are you going to get your shots before seeing the baby?” she asked pointedly. “Of course,” I replied. “Oh, good.” “Do you know Mum is an anti-vaxxer?” I probed.

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“Yes, your mother always advises me against them. Even the flu shot. I just do it and hope for the best.” I rolled my eyes. My mother, in fact, cancelled her own accreditation and left the natural therapy industry, claiming her anti-vaccination beliefs put her at risk of online shame, abuse, and even legal action. 

She took a job as a receptionist. Yet she was still advising family members. I took a sip of satisfaction in knowing my aunt, who spoke with my mother weekly, would surely pass on this information. I was getting my vaccinations. I was leaving my mother’s lies behind me. 

So I found myself, days before Mother’s Day, three years after speaking to my mother for the last time, getting my first vaccine in over 23 years.

The medical form asked numerous questions about my vaccination history. Embarrassed, I left the lines blank. The next question read: Have you ever experienced a severe reaction to this vaccine?

Three years earlier, I would have answered “yes.” In fact, I wouldn’t have been getting a vaccination in the first place. I was almost excited to write “no.” In writing “no,” I was leaving my mother’s lies behind me. A story that was never true, never mine.

The pharmacist looked over my medical form with a furrowed brow and asked, “When was your last vaccination?” I shrugged. “My mum, she never—” I began. “I don’t have my history.” “It’s okay.” She smiled knowingly. “We will just keep you here for a while to monitor you afterwards.”

She prepared the shot and asked if I was ready. I was afraid of the rippling anxiety returning, the way I used to feel when my mother told me about all the things that would happen to me if I ever got vaccinated.

The worry I felt about not being vaccinated, even though it turns out I was — kind of. After the shot, I waited by myself in silence. No seizures, no anaphylactic shock. No allergic reaction like my mother told me would happen. 

I didn’t die. I didn’t faint. I was doing the right thing.

***

Now that I’m home for the moment, I will be able to actually seek out my health records and have the information I have needed for over two decades. 

I can make my own decisions and fix any mistakes my mother made on my behalf. I can enjoy the next generation of our healthy family. One day, I can make the right choice for my own children. The fear of the unknown is no more.

Feature Image: Getty.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. You can find more from Jess at her websiteInstagram or Twitter

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