A few weeks ago, I was afraid to leave my home. When I did, I carried hand sanitizer in my pocket. Scared of touching anything, I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio playing the obsessive-compulsive Howard Hughes in The Aviator, brutally scrubbing my hands free of germs.
As an unvaccinated adult living through a measles outbreak, I was terrified. Growing up, I never received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. I can’t recall receiving any of the other recommended shots, including a tetanus shot.
I was a child of the so-called anti-vaccination movement, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place that’s now being scrutinized for its relatively high percentage of children who are not vaccinated.
Some 300 child care centers in the Bay Area have a measles vaccination rate of 92 percent or less, falling below the ideal rate for containing an outbreak, or as experts call it, maintaining herd immunity.
Attending school in the 1980s, I submitted paperwork opting out of immunization for religious reasons.
If you asked me back then why I wasn’t vaccinated, I doubt I could have provided more of an answer than that: for religious reasons.
My parents belonged to a loosely organized New Age movement that encouraged living a natural life; the guiding vision was of a return to Eden. Anything modern, especially in terms of medicine, was not exactly encouraged. Growing up in this world of contradictions and restrictions felt a lot like being a kid on Peanuts where all the adults talked in wah-wah static.
But what was I to do as a child—literally looking up to the nonconformist adults around me?
I assumed what I heard the adults say was right, and I feared whatever they shunned.
Vaccines are filled with bad things, like monkey pus.
Your body is a temple, and nothing unnatural should enter it.
If you eat right, you won’t get sick.
It’s a conspiracy, and the vaccines will just make you sicker.
These are all theories I recall hearing from my childhood, not necessarily from my parents, but from those around us. My mother’s choice not to vaccinate me was entirely accepted, and even encouraged, within our social circles. Many of my friends were home-schooled, and their parents didn’t vaccinate them, either. (I was also home-schooled for two years.) The spiritual leaders my parents followed, as well as the many naturopathic doctors we befriended, discouraged immunization. And while my mother to this day can’t exactly remember the details, rumors of vaccinations linked to autism and other calamities were widely circulated as fact. In my pristine corner of the world, Western medicine was a derogatory term, a practice used only as a last resort.
Back then, just the idea of an injection of monkey pus kept me up at night.
My parents did entertain some aspects of Western medicine. I had a pediatrician whom I saw regularly. Even so, my mom’s first response to an earache was a drop of tea tree oil on a cotton puff, then homeopathy, followed up by the acupuncturist. In my house, apple cider vinegar and brown rice cured just about anything.
Both of my parents had received shots at certain points in their lives. In fact, one of my fears about vaccinations stemmed from a relic on my father’s arm, a smallpox vaccine scar. At that time, we thought by keeping me unvaccinated, we were actually making me stronger.
Those “conscientious objections,” as my mother later described them, returned for their reckoning this winter.
The person who told me it was time for my shot was my mother. She texted: “Honey, I think you should get a measles shot. Ask your Doctor??”
My mother—who three decades earlier had sent me off to school with paperwork requesting a religious waiver from vaccines—was now telling me to join the herd.
I didn’t reply right away. Instead, I showed the text to my boyfriend. “Well, I guess I should get vaccinated,” I said.
He just looked at me. “What? You aren’t vaccinated?” he asked.
The following day, while I was on a train departing Penn Station, without missing a beat of that maternal sixth sense, my mom texted me again: “Padmananda, they have found an outbreak of measles at Penn Station. Go get Vaccinated.”
Here’s the thing: When my mom uses my full first name, it’s serious. I was on a train and had just left a station where someone infected had passed through. I freaked out.
Should I be wearing a mask right now? What train was the person with measles on? Should I just cover my head and stop breathing?
That’s when I realized I hardly knew anything about vaccines, nor did I have a very good reason as to why I never got them. All of it was totally inexplicable, a faint memory made up of a chorus of voices telling me to fear something I didn’t even understand.
Once I got off the train and returned home, I vigorously washed my hands and then went off to Google-search answers. Among other things, I learned that hand-washing and applying globs of hand sanitizer did not protect me against an airborne disease.
By the following afternoon, my boyfriend had sent me two texts, one with a link to CVS clinic locations followed by another: “Not to alarm you but you should go as soon as you are able,” with a link to a news story that quoted Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, referring to “certain communities in California” where “herd immunity doesn’t work very well.”
My home state was now in the center of this latest debate over vaccines, starring as the villain. Back then, vaccinations seemed like a personal choice. I never thought of how my parents’ decision might have an effect on the rest of society. I had certainly never heard of herd immunity. So with this new perspective and an order from my own mother, I turned myself in.
Walking the few blocks from my work to the clinic, I was still nervous and even felt ridiculous. An adult about to get a shot I should have received years ago. What if it hurt? What if the doctor glared at me like I really had been on the run, finally coming forward to declare: Yes, I’m one of those kids raised by parents who lived in that small pocket of the world where hippies really do exist. I’m ready to surrender.
I signed in at the clinic.
“I’m here to get the measles vaccine,” I said, waiting for a look of shock from the nurse.
None came. Instead, she pulled out a small box. It was the MMR vaccine. “We’ve been going through these like water,” she said. “We have one left.”
And with a single prick, I was leaving my Bay Area bubble behind for good.
That night, I called my mom to let her know it was done. I was immunized. I asked her why she had opted out for me before.
I was on a health thing. No one got them for their children then. It was very open in California back then. I believed it was harmful.
While plenty of people back in the 1980s suggested to us that I could get sick from a vaccine, no one ever alerted my mom to the possibility that, vaccine-free, I could make others ill.
What happened to change your mind? I asked.
She told me she had been watching a medical report on ABC News that explained that the claims linking vaccines to autism were untrue. My mother had become open to the possibility that fears about the vaccine were unfounded. She was willing to listen to the other side of the debate.
We had both left behind the culture that told us vaccines were bad. Between my years on the East Coast and my mother’s move back to her home state of New Mexico, we had picked up a new normal, along with new experts, even ones whose names ended with “M.D.”
The evening after getting my shot, I felt relieved.
I would no longer have to wash my hands or hold my breath in fear. And I certainly wouldn’t be afraid of monkey pus anymore.