In response to a controversial NC House bill that would impose new and unprecedented restrictions on the ability of teens to obtain health care services, Chapel Hill freelance writer Jennifer Ferris shared the following extremely personal, but powerful story with NC Policy Watch today. Thanks, Jennifer.
A mom remembers
Talking about teenagers and sexual health is not comfortable. And even less comfortable is the story I’m about to tell you. It’s one I’ve held tight to my chest these past 20 years, and I don’t savor breaking the “in case of emergency” glass I’ve placed it behind.
Deep sigh. Here goes.
The year was 1993. I was 16, an Honor Roll student and employee of the month at my job. I was also in a great deal of pain. My pelvic cavity felt like it was being violently twisted into knots and I was running a fever so high I was hallucinating tiny multi-colored spiders in the corners of the room. My mom knocked on my door and stuck her head in to see why I was still in bed at 3 in the afternoon.
“Just period cramps mom. No worries.”
Satisfied with my answer, she went on her way and I continued to squirm and cry. The pain was awful, and in that pre-internet age I had no way of knowing if I was going to die or if my uterus was going to crawl out of my body and declare itself an autonomous being with a social security number and passport. So why didn’t I tell my mom what was going on?
Because about a week previous I had had unprotected sex with my boyfriend, a young gent who, I was pretty sure, wasn’t only sharing his bed with me. It was a monumentally bad decision, and now that I was sweating through my sheets, one that I was sure I was being punished for. I didn’t want my mom to know I’d had any sex, much less without protection. And so, with the infinite wisdom of the teenager, I decided to bear down and wait for my punishment to pass.
Three days went by and the waves of pain grew so sharp I could barely breathe. I looked up “STD” in the yellow pages and pulled myself together enough to crawl into my car and drive to my county health department. I sat in the industrial waiting room flanked by prisoners in orange jumpsuits and women holding screaming children.
When I went in to see the doctor he informed me that I had Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, a sexually transmitted infection that if left untreated could lead to infertility and even death. He also diagnosed me with gonorrhea and chlamydia, more gifts from my unfaithful Lothario. After giving me a lecture about safer sex and a handful of condoms, the doctor put me on broad spectrum antibiotics and sent me on my way. Within a few days I began to feel better and a follow-up check several weeks later showed me to be free of infection.
As a young person I was just doing what I needed to survive. Going alone to that clinic was scary and foreign, but even as an adult I can say with authority that I would have sooner died in my sweaty bed than tell my mother I suspected I had an STI.
Now that I’m a parent I see that story from an entirely different angle. If my child were in pain, or sick, I would want to be a part of his treatment. The idea of my kid having a potentially fatal condition, seeking treatment, and being cured without my knowledge is a horrible thought to me. It runs counter to everything I’ve done as a parent, ever since I gritted my teeth through the first time some beastly nurse cut my newborn’s heel to extract a few precious drops of his blood.
And so this week when representatives in the North Carolina House of Representatives introduced a bill to require parental consent for treatment for sexual and mental health, I understood completely where these lawmakers were coming from. I mean, of course a parent should be involved with their children’s health. What good parent wouldn’t want to be, and what good child wouldn’t turn to their parent first with any concerns about addiction, pregnancy or infection?
But then I remembered myself at 16. And I thought about what would have happened had that doctor sent me home with a permission slip to get signed before I could get tested and treated. I don’t think I’m catastrophizing to say I probably never would have gotten a chance to sit here on my parental high horse and declare no child of mine would ever seek medical treatment without me at his side.
Today I called my Representative in the House, and have spoken to Speaker Thom Tillis’ aide to explain why I think House Bill 693 is terribly misguided. Because the truth is, once our children become able to make adult decisions, we need to empower them to seek adult solutions as well. It’s uncomfortable to imagine a young woman sitting alone in an exam room, nervously awaiting the results of a pregnancy test, but that doesn’t mean we should bar her from that practice.
Because what’s the alternative? It’s terribly convenient to say all children should make good decisions and no child should need medical services their parents shouldn’t know about. But that’s not the reality. And if we don’t empower these kids to make their own medical decisions when they need to, then they just won’t. And they will suffer. And no amount of lawmaking or armchair parental quarterbacking will change the fact that teens need our care and support, even when they make a decision that makes us uncomfortable.