Warning: This is part of my effort to conquer needle phobia, so it may trigger you if you are a fellow sufferer. Proceed with caution.
Before I pass out, I know it’s about to happen. My neck gets hot and prickly; the world blurs and shifts; sounds become muddy and the light goes dim. The base of my skull turns to lead and I drift backward and downward, drawn by its weight. I have to sit down, head between my legs, eat something, breathe slowly, cry for a few minutes. Or fifteen minutes.
But if I ignore the signs — if I think I’m stronger than the pull of my own skull — I begin to daydream. I imagine what it might be like to pass out right here, right now, on the table where I’m filling out paperwork for my new job, as if the video we’re watching about blood-borne pathogens is a boring documentary in science class. I throw up on the table while unconscious, and then have to explain to the EMTs that no, it’s okay, I don’t have to go to the hospital. I just have a phobia.
Daydreaming is peaceful. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.
The woman next to me says, “Hey, are you okay?”
I lift my head from my paperwork and the harsh light rushes back. My arms are numb and my mouth tastes like bile, but I check the table — a little drool, nothing more. No vomit.
“I passed out,” I explain. “I have a needle phobia.” The first time, I had to ask what happened, but this is the third time, so I know. My head sways with the force of the blood rushing back to it. I start to shake.
“At first I thought you fell asleep because the movie was so boring, but then you started breathing strangely.”
I touch the table again, checking for signs of throwing up, but there are none. It’s hard to tell daydreaming from reality sometimes. I sit on the floor and feel too weak to stand again for a while, answering questions from the nurse and then the EMTs. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I don’t want you to prick my finger. I’ll try to stay calm if you have to but… Please don’t prick my finger.
Then I listen to the video without looking at it, finish my paperwork, and get on with my day.
The video was comparatively tame. There were a few people lying in pools of blood, but blood alone doesn’t normally bother me anymore. I started to feel lightheaded and prickly when they talked about the HEP B vaccination, but I pressed on, not wanting to cry during my orientation, and then someone rolled up their sleeve and the needle neared the skin… That is the last thing I remember.
Doctors have never taken my phobia seriously. They have told me that I should just be glad I don’t have diabetes and that little kids react better than I do. Maybe this dismissive attitude was supposed to help me get over my phobia, but instead of getting over it, I avoided doctors altogether. I never studied abroad for fear of needing injections. I postponed a necessary wisdom tooth extraction for a year because the thought of an IV in my arm made me weak and brought tears to my eyes. Just writing the words “IV in my arm” right now is making my arms shake. Excuse me, I need a few minutes to compose myself.
After I passed out during my new job orientation, I realized that I wanted to do something about this — I had to do something. I started reading about it and learned that it can be more dangerous than other phobias, because it can cause your blood pressure to rise and then abruptly drop, making you pass out, or it can cause you to avoid medical treatment that might save your life.
Many people who claim to share my “fear of needles” don’t realize this. They think that feeling uncomfortable or disgusted when a needle is actually in their arm somehow means they have a phobia. A phobia is not a simple fear: it’s an irrational fear that’s blown way out of proportion until it disrupts your life. When you eat soup for a week because your wisdom teeth hurt too much to let you chew but you still won’t get surgery, that’s a phobia.
I have a whole list of examples I could give you. I was about eight years old and the doctors held me down during a blood test. I woke up from surgery at nine years old and tried to pull out my IV. In one day I had to have a vaccine, a forearm skin test, and a finger prick, and my arms fell asleep and I couldn’t sit up for half an hour. When I finally got my wisdom teeth out, the Valium and the laughing gas couldn’t calm me down and I sobbed and shook until the IV anaesthetic kicked in.
If I’ve established that needle phobia is a serious thing, though, I would rather move on, because my hands are getting too weak to type.
The best recommendation for conquering this phobia is to figure out where it comes from — extra sensitivity to pain, fear of the needle as an object, fear of the involuntary response your body has, connections with past traumatic needle procedures — and to address that. Most needle phobics can be helped by anaesthetic creams and devices that lessen or entirely eliminate the sensation of the needle going in.
For me, I am terrified of the idea of anything piercing my skin, whether I can feel it or not, and it doesn’t help that needles do hurt me a lot and that I tend to lose control of my body when I so much as see a picture of one. I want to know exactly when to expect the prick and the pain, but I don’t want to see the needle itself at all and I certainly don’t want to see it going in.
I didn’t have time to get a prescription cream or buy anything when I had to get a forearm skin test for my job yesterday morning. All I had was a breathing exercise, my person’s hand on my shoulder, and an understanding nurse. I lay down on my back, cried a lot, shook a lot, completely forgot my breathing exercise, and reminded myself that at least it wasn’t a blood test, and within a few minutes I could sit up again.
“I did really well this time,” I said with an unsteady voice, wiping my tears.
“Wow, really?” The nurse smiled as if she was just glad I hadn’t kicked her when she stuck the needle in.
The best thing I believe that I can do to conquer my phobia is to continue to have experiences with needles that are not so bad, like the one I had yesterday. I have little control over the attitude of the nurse, but it makes a big difference. Watching medical dramas has made it easier to see videos of needles, so I will keep doing that. Whenever I see a picture or a video or read a story and my body begins to react, but there is no danger of a needle actually coming near me, I can use a breathing exercise and remind myself that in this moment I am safe.
Look at that. My arms are a little weak and numb, my head is a little light, and my skin feels a little crawly, but I didn’t cry once while writing this post. Take that, phobia. You won’t beat me.
If you’re suffering from needle phobia, these pages might help you out. It took me a few days to get through them because I kept having reactions while reading, but the information was worth the effort.
- Phobias and Fears: Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-Help has general information about phobias and a few notes about needle phobia specifically to get you started. No pictures or especially triggering language.
- The Needle Phobia Page is extensive and specific. It was the most helpful thing I read, but I had to stop several times due to triggering language. Can’t really be helped. No bad pictures though. I highly recommend reading the whole page.
- The Needle Phobia Information Site is by a doctor and has a section I like about how medical professionals could avoid causing most cases of needle phobia in the first place. It also talks about determining the source of your fear and dealing with that.