I was vaccine-hesitant. Now I’m fully vaxxed I know why.
How to address vaccine hesitancy
It is 9:25 am on November 23rd and I am sitting in Brisbane’s Convention Centre Vaccine Clinic, where, for the second time in three weeks, I am absolutely sure that I am about to die from myocarditis. Palpitations, ectopic beats, pains above, below and around this vital organ: post-vaccination, my chest pounds and I know I am about to die.
Because I was vaccinated exactly eight minutes ago, I also know that it’s too early for these symptoms to be the real thing; genuine myo- and pericarditis apparently takes one to five days to emerge.¹ My knowledge tells me there’s nothing to fear.
At the same time, I know that I am 100%, without a doubt, minutes away from vaccine-induced death. Erratically and irrationally, my heart throbs and throbs and throbs.
A week later, and aside from a sore arm, I find I am absolutely fine. Well, fine, aside from the anxiety-induced nightmares and the moments when I wake up unable to feel my heartbeat, desperately afraid that it has stopped beating in the night. But these aren’t vaccine side-effects, of course — they are the psychological effects of being injected with a vaccine I was afraid to take.
Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has been publicly available for almost a year now, and the science tells us we shouldn’t be afraid to get the shot; as experts have said all along, it is safe and effective. Yet where anxiety prevails, scientific rationality can become irrelevant to our decision-making. And unfortunately, fear, not reason, undergirds vaccine hesitancy.
Here I speak from experience. When the vaccines became available, I was incredibly and irrationally anxious about getting jabbed. I hesitated — but it wasn’t because I was uninformed or a so-called ‘victim of misinformation’. My problem was the way vaccination asks us to actively submit our lives and bodies to chance.
I knew contracting COVID-19 wouldn’t be safe or pleasant. Yet to me, illness seemed less frightening than suffering iatrogenic harm — that is, harm caused by medical treatments designed to help us. A viral illness, I believed, would feel bad in an ordinary and predictable way — but a vaccine injury? Being hurt by medicine would feel like a grand and self-inflicted betrayal.
There is little reason to this position — it is pure preference — yet we all know that doesn’t matter. For with passionate words divorced from logic, my heart told me to wait, to avoid the vaccine for as long as possible. And so, beyond reason, I hesitated.
Until I didn’t. When the Australian government announced that the country’s borders would open late this year, I reasoned — or better, scared — myself into believing that I should now take the vaccine. To move myself to action, I read over the frightening facts, travelled to the vaccine clinic, and ignored my thumping heart as the needle slid into my skin.
Now I am fully vaccinated, and I do not regret my decision. Rationally, I know I served myself by getting the vaccine. Yet a profound unease remains. Because I fought my vaccine hesitancy with a rationale of fear, I feel like I betrayed myself emotionally. Instead of resolving my anxiety, I simply overpowered my obstinate heart with the violence of reason. To get the vaccine, I repressed my fears: doing so, I transformed them into psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety, forcing them out of my mind and into my body, compressing it into the silence between heartbeats, where it now lingers arrhythmia, ectopic flutters, inexplicable pains.
As I write this article, I’m conscious of all my heartbeats. I’m equally conscious of the anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests that have raged throughout Australia and other countries in recent weeks, and I wonder if protests are the political equivalent of psychosomatic chest pain. Both, perhaps, say that we are afraid, that our future is frightening, that something in our lives must change.
If we want to overcome our fear of vaccines and viruses, repressing anxious resistance — whether via scientific reason or government vaccine passports — is not the answer. Instead, we should take a lesson from our psychotherapists. To avoid pathological outcomes, we must express our fears in an emotionally open and honest dialogue with one another. Through speaking and listening, we can overcome our anxieties, and produce the emotional knowledge our politics needs to give us the security we truly desire.
Together, then, we must all listen to the fear beneath our words, between our heartbeats, and work to relieve it, rather than quashing it with repressive language. Only in this way will we solve the problem of vaccine hesitancy and achieve the health outcomes we need.