You know those optical illusions where, at first glance, they look like one thing, but then on closer inspection, they turn out to also be something else? The vase that is also two faces is one example. Once you see it as the other thing, it’s hard to refocus in order to see it the other way again. That’s how the topic of vaccination feels to me. My transition from a non-vaccinating to a vaccinating parent was a revelation; it was like being hit on the head by a frying pan. It occurred over the course of an intense few days. While I can still rattle off the usual concerns among vaccine hesitant parents, I have a difficult time putting myself back into that mind space, because all the usual reasons for not vaccinating are not based in reality, and I see that reality, like seeing the two faces instead of the vase, every time, and through every argument. When my story gained attention, one of the first things people wanted to know was why I didn’t vaccinate in the first place. What was my reasoning? I had a hard time answering the question, because I’m just not in that mental place anymore. Recently I dug around, trying to find some evidence of my reasoning beyond just, “scary sounding ingredients and potential side effects,” and found this from April 2010:
I am so horribly torn about what to do…I read everything I can get my hands on, and I’m still not feeling like I can make a good decision. There are passionate, informed, intelligent advocates on both sides, with convincing arguments in their favor. It just drives me nuts. As a new mother I wholeheartedly admit that I care about my daughter’s welfare above all else, but I also think that what is in her best interest is not separate from what is in the best interest of everyone. It’s a really tough position to be in, especially for an over-thinking person like me. It seems like whatever I end up doing will be wrong in some way. I guess that comes with being a mom and I’d better get used to it.
And this from August, 2011:
It’s such a tough thing – when I am really thinking about it and reviewing in my mind all I’ve learned about the topic, I feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing. At [my daughter’s] last checkup, the [anti vaccine] doctor said most kids these days have had several ear infections by her age, and the fact that she’s had none is a testament to her strong immune system. Things like this reassure me. But then I don’t think about it for a while, and I see that scary pertussis commercial and read articles in magazines and newspapers about how important it is to vaccinate, and I start to doubt all over again…it is an agonizing, ongoing, uncertain kind of decision. The funny thing is, I don’t truly believe that [my daughter] would suffer from terrible side effects if I did choose to vaccinate her. I’m more worried about subtle, little things that you can’t necessarily attribute to vaccinations, but then again can’t ever know for sure. Slight alterations resulting from something artificial introduced to an immature system. I’m also deeply suspicious of “the system,” of the funding sources behind the research, and of people with an economic stake telling me what to do (when is the government ever right about how we should live our lives?). All of it adds up to an uncomfortable, tentative decision that in this case, at this time, I’m more comfortable with passive risk than with active risk.
This sentiment still resounds deeply with me, even though it is no longer attached to vaccination. As parents, we feel like the stakes are so incredibly high, and we only have this one chance to do it right. We’re not birds – we don’t raise a clutch or two to adulthood each season, able to become better, more experienced parents from start to finish several times in a lifetime. It’s a one shot deal. As a new parent, I felt a heavy sense of responsibility to do everything right, to strive to be the perfect parent, to correct the perceived mistakes my parents made and do them one better.
However, I have always had a hard time taking an ideological stand on controversial, complex issues. I suffer from a chronic case of “analysis paralysis,” where my natural tendency to see things from many sides can hamper my ability to make a decision. In the case of vaccination, my default mode was to take no action and hope for the best. I learned, at my children’s and my own expense, that passive risk can be a much worse gamble than active risk. I was afraid of somehow altering my children, of cheating them out of some unquantifiable potential, by injecting them with substances I did not understand. And even though, as my comments above illustrate, I was nowhere near confident in my choice, I did feel a sense of defensive righteousness about that choice. “Gah, her kids are sick again,” I’d think to myself. “She should have researched the dangers of vaccination and how they can compromise the immune system.” Though flawed, it’s a human tendency to rationalize and rank superior our choices against the choices of others.
While I don’t have any evidence of this other than my own observations, I have a sense that there can be an inverse relationship between the stridence with which one expresses one’s opinion, and one’s confidence in that opinion. Statements like, “I have made up my mind and no amount of ‘evidence’ you throw my way will make me change it,” are the tenuous, defensive kinds of things I hear from anti-vaccine voices. I see an incredible distrust of “big pharma,” yet a suspension of disbelief when like minded peers claim from within the echo chamber that they have a vaccine injured child, or know someone who does. I hear loud anti vaccine voices adopting a faith based ideology that has allowed itself to be tricked into trusting quacks, malcontents, false whistle blowers, and self-interested manipulators of data, over working experts in the field. We all admire the lone voice of reason in the darkness, the underdog success story, but sometimes what sounds like reason is actually lone wolf obstreperousness for its own sake. I see these things because I was there, occupying that cognitive space, believing it and even identifying with it.
Once you get into something deeply, once you have made an all-or-nothing stand, you know you will break if you bend. You know you can’t give an inch. So, like old Procrustus, you’ve painted yourself into a corner of your making, and are forced to start chopping off the parts that don’t fit. This is why so many anti-vaccine voices threw back their heads and howled “fraud!” when they saw my story. It didn’t fit the narrative – I was the black swan that wasn’t supposed to exist. Like the story of “No True Scotsman,” they claimed that no one who was genuinely and truly anti-vaccine would ever switch course like I did. In one sense, they were right. It took a few years, but finally I was able to recognize I was in a bed that didn’t fit, and so I got out.