What Growing up Unvaccinated With Depression Was Like
My mother’s obsession with holistic health affected our relationship and the way I see the world.
The room was spinning. I closed my eyes. The floor swayed beneath my bed. My hands moved through the darkness to turn the dial of my five-disc stereo up, The Wall on repeat, and grab another handful of Goldfish from the bag. Then I lied back down. I hadn’t left my room for days and hadn’t eaten a meal for nearly as many. I’m sick, I told myself. Feed a cold, starve a fever, right? I willed myself asleep, with the thought that I’d wake up when I felt better. I was 14.
My mother had discovered a new diet, the Schwarzbein Principle, similar to Atkins or keto, where anything protein-based and low-carb was king. Our fridge was loaded with local, organic, grass-fed beef and butter. It was supposed to help with digestive inflammation, give you more energy, boost your immune system—never mind the weight loss benefits. Her nurse practitioner said it could even improve her memory. My mother combined this dietary shift with a series of supplements prescribed by her cadre of holistic healers. There was krill oil for her heart and joints from her naturopath; collagen and probiotics for digestion from her nutritionist; St. John’s wort for seasonal depression from her counselor; vitamin K2 and elderflower for allergies from her D.O.; anti-aging herbal tinctures from her energy worker; milk thistle for liver function from her chiropractor; lutein for eyesight from some article she’d read. She took them by the cupful over breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While she stocked the freezer with sides of local pork, I discovered old copies of PETA magazine in my library’s "Teen Corner." Years before the internet, I poured over printed pictures of bloody chickens and pigs crammed into cages. “I’m a vegetarian,” I declared as my mom stuck a London broil in the oven.
“That’s horrible for your body and your mind,” she responded. “You’ll get tired and your muscles and brain won’t develop like they should.”
My Mother Was All in on Holistic Health
A holistic approach to health preaches the body-mind connection above all. In my mother’s world, there wasn’t any issue that couldn’t be resolved with nutrition and supplements. When I told her I was feeling sad, she said, “Try St. John’s wort and vitamin D.” When I told her they hurt my stomach, she said, “You don’t get enough protein.”
If my siblings or I refused supplements, or the ailment persisted, it was time to seek another type of healer. My sorrow came in waves, but my little sister’s anxiety was intensifying. She described spells of disassociation and suicidal ideations. When the chiropractor couldn’t help, shamans were hired to retrieve her soul. Two gray-haired women with heavy New England accents showed up in a minivan, carrying sage, crystals and a drum stretched with deer hide. For an entire afternoon, my sister laid on the floor covered in a blanket while they beat the drum and called for her soul to return to its body. “Your soul is ancient,” they reported. “You have plenty of guides. They say you will never know yourself as well as they do—you’ll be fine. This lifetime is but a fraction in the limitless tapestry that is the universe. Your spirit animal is a mountain lion.” My sister was 13.
How My Mom Became an Anti-Vax Mom
My mother’s abandoning of traditional science was a decision developed over her lifetime. Just as my vegetarianism acted as a semblance of control and rebellion in an otherwise cultivated environment, my mother sought alternative healing in a deeply medical household. My grandmother was one of the first women to graduate from Cornell medical school, and my grandfather was the director of a famed New York hospital. My mother’s voice was lost in a household of science, swallowed by doctors that always knew better and never had the time.
She was raised to believe that if there was a problem, a pill could cure it. Towards the end of her life, my grandmother took pills by the cupful over breakfast, lunch and dinner, for her arthritis, her digestion, her mental acuity—and for the side effects of the pills. She died chasing a cure for the Parkinson’s she battled, never fully accepting a life outside the diagnosis, nor the grown children waiting to be loved by their mother.
My mother rebelled by moving west, a prototypical flower child of the '70s. She found acceptance in a community that stood against war, shunned the Man, preached that love conquers all and believed Mother Earth contained all the herbs and nutrients we needed to heal. For the first time in her life, she felt love and light. Eventually she returned east, got married and had three children. She swore she wouldn’t be like her parents. Believing traditional science was the ultimate evil, she packed our cupboards with herbs and refused to vaccinate her babies. But the paranoia didn’t stop with medicine. It grew into her views of the government and religion. We were not only homeschooled but unschooled—an education without curriculum or rules. In her mind, all she wanted was for us to be held in the same light she had found. She didn’t understand that stepping too far into that light can lead to a life in the shadows.
Turns Out, I Needed Professional Medical Help
Last year, the swirling started again. I lost my speech and couldn’t sleep at night, sobbing at random intervals throughout the day. I started questioning if life was worth it, if there ever was—or could ever be—any hope. I was back to the days of Goldfish and wanting nothing more than bed and sleep and an end to it all.
This time, I sought a psychologist. “You’re having a major depressive episode,” she said. “I expect you’ve had these before.” Now in my early thirties, I thought back to my teen years. “Have you tried antidepressants?” I could feel my palms sweat and my stomach clench. No, but I’d tried St. John’s wort. I was taking vitamin D. I even saw an energy worker. “I can help you with talk therapy,” the therapist explained, weeks later, when I still wasn’t recovering. “But your brain is in a pit right now. The pit is so deep, it’s hard to get out of it alone. I’ve rarely seen people get out without help.” She searched to meet my eyes. “It doesn’t have to be forever, just for right now.”
Okay, I thought. I’ll give this a shot. I found a psychiatrist, and he prescribed a low dose of Lexapro. “See how it makes you feel, and we can go from there,” he said. Slowly, I started sleeping through the night. I upped my dose and stopped crying during the day. I was getting better. I was healing. I kept seeing my therapist, and eventually, when speech became easy and hope returned, I started working with my pharmacist to wean off the drugs again. But I know they are there if the pit returns.
How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers About Depression (Hint: Just Don’t)
I couldn’t tell my mother I was on antidepressants. I tried to broach the subject once over dinner, and her entire body shifted. “I just don’t feel antidepressants do any more than diet and meditation,” she snapped. “Big Pharma just wants us to believe that pumping our body full of cancer-causing chemicals is the only way to heal. Did you try any recipes from that Heal Your Gut book I sent you? Feelings of lethargy and sadness can be traced back to gut flora. And what about those guided meditations I forwarded from my spirit group? Each session is around an hour, but worth it. Sandy says she cured her insomnia.” I closed my eyes and let the topic drop.
“The way it works,” my sister says when she recalls our upbringing, “is you feel so ashamed of these practices that you keep them a secret from the rest of the world. Like, ‘This is the truth and you’re wrong, but I can’t tell because I don’t want to be ridiculed for it.’ It’s incredibly lonely and isolating. The mainstream becomes the enemy. The only constant is doubt.”
Understanding Anti-vaxxer Beliefs Has a Silver Lining
The other day, I watched as my mother counted out capsules that she’d spread across her kitchen table. “I’m adding red yeast rice supplements to the mix,” she explained. “My nurse practitioner says it will help lower my cholesterol. I don’t want to have to go on Lipitor.” She spits out the last word, like an evangelical housewife talking about the devil. “I’m also going to be extra strict with my keto this week—I’ve been so bad recently. No more fruit! No more treats! So if you see me saying no more often, don’t be surprised.”
Even though I’m grown up, it’s still hard for me to untangle my mother’s world from my own. But I also see how much of her waking hours—not to mention her paycheck—are consumed by these alternative regimens. What started as a movement toward acceptance shifted toward exclusivity and control—a dogmatic psychology that can guide its participants toward alienation and isolation in their eternal quest for health. For me, I’m beginning to understand that the concept of “holistic health” only works if it is treated as just that: a practice exploring alternative perspectives and modalities working together as a whole. In that way I can finally accept the gifts she gave me: I will not be scared to question the norm. I will advocate for myself and demand more from the mainstream medical community. But I will also know my limitations and allow medicine to step in and take over when I’m down in that pit.