The vaccine issue isn’t black and white

Feb 7, 2022 | General, Illness Anxiety

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Nothing in my posts should be taken as medical advice. I am merely sharing my own personal experience.

Vaccines have become a very contentious topic. And at least on the internet where people seem to be so heavily divided, the way it looks is that if you have not had the covid vaccine, you are an ‘anti-vaxxer’. And it may sound funny to say this as an autistic person since we are often described as having black and white thinking – but I would like to put it out there that the vaccine issue is not a black and white issue. There are so many elements that shade people’s decision making and I think that it’s unfair, unhelpful, and can be downright dangerous to paint every person who hasn’t vaccinated with the broad brush of selfish, stupid anti-vaxxer.

I don’t know why some people have chosen not to get the vaccines. I can only speak for myself on this one. But I am speaking about it because I would like to do what I can to shift the perspective that some people have about this decision. I know that I am not going to get everyone to agree with me, but for the sake of fostering compassion toward others, I am taking this very difficult step of talking about my personal decision not to get vaccinated.

Illness anxiety disorder

I have Illness Anxiety Disorder. This has been debilitating at times, and most recently, back in August, it came to a peak where I had a very significant breakdown and I was having multiple panic attacks every day for days on end.

I have significant fears of disease and illness. I am often afraid to have my blood pressure checked. I am even afraid to have my husband check my pulse. I have been terrified by palpitations many times, even though they are caused by anxiety and the fear of them only makes them worse. If I have to have any blood work or imaging work done, I find the procedure and the wait for results unbearable.

And even in my everyday life, I go through spells where I am fearful of things around my physical health. In the lead up to every period, I am worried that I will have some awful clotting or non-stop bleeding. There have been times when I have been afraid every time I go to the toilet in case I am bleeding, or see something out of the ordinary. This fear extends to topical products. I am afraid to try new soaps, shampoos, and lotions. The fear also extends to anything I ingest. I worry about food contamination many times when I am cooking. I wash my hands excessively to the point of bleeding at times. I wonder whether I will be poisoned or have an allergic reaction if I try a new food. Or take a new vitamin. Or try a medication. And the fear can linger. Maybe I won’t be struck down immediately, but what if there’s a cumulative effect? Or a delayed effect? I avoid basic medications such as panadol or ibuprofen, even though I’ve had them many times before because maybe this will be the time that I get poisoned by the medication, or it will react with something else I have eaten or taken.

But isn’t everyone who isn’t vaccinated stupid?

Despite what I’ve heard or read about so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’ I am not an unintelligent person. In fact, I was in gifted programs in school. I was a very good student, and received scholarships. I was often on the Dean’s list of the prestigious University I attended, and I graduated with high distinction. Most people who get to know me describe me as highly intelligent. On one level, I know that these anxious thoughts and beliefs are silly. But it’s not my cognitive brain that is reacting with anxiety. It’s my nervous system which is reacting BEFORE thoughts come into play. And when the nervous system goes into fight or flight, the thoughts that tend to follow feed that fight or flight.

While I have learned a lot through the counselling and therapy I’ve had over the last year, I still don’t feel as though I can cope with the aftermath of vaccination. I have chosen to deal with the risk of getting covid over the risk of having a vaccine reaction. Perhaps this is partly because I believe I had covid in February 2020 and while it wasn’t pleasant, the worst of it was over after three days. And I have known so many people who have had covid in America and in my little world, I’ve seen scarier impacts in the vaccine, with a close family member getting myocarditis. I worry so much about sensations in my chest, and palpitations. I am sure that I would be just beyond stressed expecting the worst post-vaccination.

And it’s not even 100% about having an instant reaction as much as it is about knowing that the vaccine is inside of me, and I could have a reaction down the track. Not to mention that the number of vaccines recommended is at least three now, and who knows how many boosters will be required.

I know that if I was to have the vaccine, I would be constantly waiting for my body to implode in some way. And not only that, I would be noticing every single sensation that could be a vaccine reaction. And I would become obsessive about it. OCD would take over. I am way too vulnerable at this point in time to take a vaccine that my brain is computing as potentially more harmful than beneficial. Again, I can only speak for myself, and in my case I know that my mental health is my priority. I have had this conversation with my doctor, and while I think he would prefer for me to have the vaccine, he is of course unable to make the decision for me.

Here’s where I get stuck. If I got the vaccine, it would cause high anxiety from the moment I made the appointment, and this anxiety would probably last until I had the next vaccine and then the cycle would start again. I would be in a perpetual cycle of anxiety and panic for however long governments decide that people need to continue getting vaccinated. On the other hand, if I got covid, I would have covid for a length of time, and endure what I would endure and either heal or die. Not that I want to get sick or die, but a more hands off approach means that I only have to deal with the anxiety of being sick if I get sick. I don’t have to deal with the anxiety of pre-injection and post-injection. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to everyone, but this is how my brain works.

Isn’t it selfish not to vaccinate?

Maybe it looks like I only care about myself. To me, my choice not to vaccinate based on mental illness is just as valid as someone choosing not to vaccinate due to a physical condition. And while some people may believe that I have a duty to vaccinate to protect others, I believe that vaccinating would hurt others. My family and I have had to endure so much since my mental illnesses ramped up beginning in November 2020. I have worked so hard to get to the point where my entire life isn’t spent avoiding anxious feelings and panic attacks. And with the covid stuff going on, it’s been difficult for the average person to cope so just imagine how bad it must be for someone with a lifetime of anxiety and panic disorders. I often feel like I am hanging on by a thread and I think that for the sake of my whole family’s mental health, it’s important for me to do what I can to avoid massively triggering events.

None of this is easy. I am a very sensitive person. It’s difficult to feel like I am hated just because of one decision I’ve made. Even if people haven’t said it to my face, reading about what some people online have written about people who aren’t vaccinated is hurtful. Even if I don’t know these people, and will never meet them. Even if they don’t know I exist – being judged as stupid, selfish, and horrible hurts me very deeply.

This is what I meant in the beginning of the post when I said that it could be downright dangerous to paint every person who hasn’t vaccinated with the broad brush of selfish, stupid anti-vaxxer. I have gone through some very difficult times ruminating over the fact that people think that I am a horrible person. Fortunately I have good support systems in place that help me when I am getting caught up in the rumination, but not every vulnerable person with mental health challenges has a good support system, and this kind of rhetoric can be the sort of thing that pushes people to significant depression, anxiety, self-harm or suicide.

I also struggle with the idea that our society can be divided based on vaccine status; that people can be punished based on their medical decisions. That we may not have the freedom to choose what goes into our bodies. Too many people have lost their job, or been ostracized from society – left unable to participate in the normal everyday things we took for granted. I know people who can’t go out in public aside from grocery shopping or to seek medical care because they aren’t willing to take the vaccines. And sometimes people are being prevented from being with loved ones in hospital, or unable to cross borders, even within the same country, based on their vaccine status. It feels really unjust and bizarre to me. It feels like the measures that are being taken are way out of proportion with the actual risks.

Life is full of risks

I know that life is full of risks. I like to control what risks I take and I know that I can’t control all of the risks. So like everyone, I pick and choose what feels more risky to me. Where I feel more in control. To me, it feels safer to risk getting covid, and to trust that my immune system will take care of it rather than knowing that the vaccine is in me, and that I could get some awful side effect or die as a result of it. In my case, this is not a debate about science or facts. This is my nervous system and a lifetime of anxiety and medical traumas that have led me to this decision. I know that I could be wrong, but I could be right too. Only time will tell.

A plea for compassion

I think that my own experiences with mental illness have actually helped me to have more compassion for other people and to reserve judgement. In fact I often go a bit overboard giving people the benefit of the doubt. While people tend to think that autistics do not have empathy (an idea that thankfully is now being challenged), I feel that I have an abundance of empathy and I am often overly considerate of others. I don’t tend to judge people at face value, and when I disagree with their choices, I tend to think about all of the many reasons they may have made the choices they have made. So I haven’t judged people for the decisions they’ve made around vaccination even when they are different from my choices. I know that for many people it has been a tough choice. For others it’s been simple. And everyone makes their choices based on their own experiences, beliefs, and neurology so who am I to judge?

I hope that sharing my experience can help people open their hearts to be compassionate, and open their minds to be able to listen to people who think differently than they do. It is my hope that if we tell our individual stories, people can see us as individuals with our own unique set of experiences, beliefs, and factors that go into our decisions. I hope that people will see that this is not a black and white issue, and there are many colours to the vaccination issue. And that we can agree to disagree without hurting each other. I know I am idealistic. That’s part of my autism that can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes it can cause me to be unrealistic, but I think that it’s also beautiful that I can still believe there is capacity for people to treat each other with love and compassion in this world.

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