So I have this problem with needles. They make me faint. I remember getting vaccinations one day back in secondary school; everyone was competing to tell stories about how big the needle was and how much it hurt, and I keeled over in the corridor afterwards. Some sensitive 13 year-old boy in my class leaned over me and yelled “Is she dead?”. I’d say it probably started there.
It’s a pretty common thing; they say at least one in ten people suffer from some form of needle phobia, or trypanophobia. (If you’re interested in Greek, the prefix ‘trypan-‘ is also used to describe parasites that bore into the skin). Trypanophobia refers to fear of hypodermic needles and injections, not to be confused with aichmophobia (fear of sharp pointy things) or iatrophobia (fear of doctors).
Who cares, you might think, and I pretty much agree, having coped so far through the cunning threefold strategy of (a) never giving blood and trying not to feel too guilty about it, (b) asking to lie down every time I get an injection and (c) not getting ill or pregnant. However, there’s only so much needle avoidance a future doctor can get away with without looking completely stupid. And I won’t be the only medic to have this problem. Luckily I have the loveliest GP in the world who referred me to a cognitive behavioural therapist, and this is has been the source of a fair amount of surreal experience and hilarity over the last couple of months.
Interestingly, needle phobia is one of the few phobias that can actually kill you – the sudden blood pressure drop that tends to happen after the event and cause fainting can be so severe that you die. So I may become a doctor or die trying. Some evolutionary psychologists say that needle phobia is a survival mechanism; faced with a severe injury, that sudden drop in blood pressure means that less blood is likely to be lost. Thanks body, that’s just great.
So the general idea is that we, my lucky therapist and I, make a list of unpleasant needle-related experiences, rate them on a scale of 0 (fine and dandy) to 100 (utter hell) and then go and do them, with repeated exposure helping to break the psychological ‘overreaction’. Wonderful. Oh and I practice a highly dignified technique known as ‘applied tension‘, which basically involves tensing all my muscles til I go red in the face, which is supposed to raise the blood pressure and thus ward off fainting.
So far I’ve gazed at cartoon needle pictures, stuck a big photo of a needle up on my desk at work, trawled YouTube for alarming videos, watched people giving blood and sat at home playing with a pile of needles and my own mini sharps box. All that stuff was ok really, probably because I’m adept at disconnecting from reality.
Yesterday I went and got some blood tests. Two, voluntarily, which is a minor miracle for me. I sat upright in a chair while the lovely healthcare assistant talked me through it. I tensed my arms and legs frantically, feeling like an idiot, while she put the needle together. I looked at my bulging vein. I looked away. I looked back at the needle in my arm, wiggling around a bit as she took the blood bottle off. She took it out. I tensed. I felt ok! I sat there. I felt a bit queasy. I tensed. I had some water. She did it again. I looked at the needle in my arm. She took it out. I felt horrendous, properly awful. I staggered over to the bed, panting and sweating and shaking and probably turning a fetching greeny white. I guess there’s still some way to go. But I didn’t die, and I had some more water and we chatted and then I went home and baked a cake. Til next time.