“This won’t hurt,” my pediatrician said during a routine checkup. I was 4 years old. He swiped my left shoulder with a small gauze pad, and seconds later I was shrieking with pain. I felt betrayed and lied to. This definitely hurt.
In the 20 years since, I’ve suffered from trypanophobia, or fear of needles.
Previously, this phobia has kept me from getting tattoos or piercings, donating blood and even sewing. During the occasional hospital visit, a nurse will typically resort to a baby needle to draw blood because I can’t sit still and I wince, complicating things. Sometimes, I cry. Whenever I need to get blood work done, I count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds until I’ll be free. When the time comes, I grasp the chair’s arm as hard as I can, hyperventilating and wishing more than anything that I could escape.
As we grow up, it’s important to conquer our fears. Now that it’s been decades since the initial incident, I want to face my fear of needles. Literally. By getting needles put in my face.
Instead of waiting for my next dreaded blood work, I schedule an appointment at the community acupuncture clinic, a 10-minute walk from my apartment.
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese alternative medicine technique that involves inserting needles into a patient’s body at pressure points to ease pain. Research has shown the technique can reduce pain in the lower back, neck and knees, as well as alleviate headaches and other conditions.
Thursday night came, and my nerves only grew stronger as the clock ticked closer to the 5:30 appointment. As advised, I ate dinner prior so I wouldn’t be hungry during the procedure, then set out for the appointment dressed in a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants. My stomach was flipping with nervousness, but I didn’t dare cancel.
I arrived 15 minutes early, and the front desk greeted and handed me forms to fill out. It asked questions about my medical history, how I heard about the clinic, why I decided to make an appointment. When I finished, the acupuncturist appeared to review my information with me.
My ankles, I told her, were where I carried the most stress. As a child, my parents would sometimes fight at the dinner table and I’d bend my foot against the leg of a chair, twisting my ankle outward as far as it would go, no matter how much it hurt. This is still a habit I have today and, of course, explains why my ankles are frequently sore. Though I didn’t mention my fear of needles, I added that I had chronic anxiety. Background gathered, she escorted me into the back room.
Behind the door, it smelled like flowers. The lighting was dim. White noise machines and soothing instrumental music blocked out the car horns, door slams and other outside sounds. The atmosphere was relaxing on its own. Five of the six reclining chairs were occupied by resting people, some even snoring.
The sixth was empty, just for me.
The acupuncturist leaned my chair back and I spotted the needles, packaged in a tiny transparent bag, on the table next to me and gulped. What have I gotten myself into?
Earlier, the person at the front desk advised spending a minimum of 15 minutes with the needles in, though they recommended 45 minutes to an hour. I’d consider the mission a success if I lasted five minutes.
“Some people conk out for hours,” they mentioned.
The acupuncturist unwrapped the needles. I stared at the ceiling; I couldn’t look at what was to come.
“Ready?” she asked.
No. I inhaled deeply and nodded. She poked the first needle into my right wrist. It was a slight pinch. Whew. I released the air built up in my diaphragm. She poked my right ear lobe. I didn’t flinch. That’s all?
She proceeded to stick me in my left forearm, right earlobe, both ankles, the top of my head, forehead and other target areas. I glanced up at the needle above my eyes and noticed how thin it was. They were pretty flimsy; this one moved every time I blinked.
Before I knew it, she finished. There were 10 needles stuck in my skin. Everything is fine, I thought, and I meant it.
The acupuncturist said I should make eye contact when I was ready to have the needles out. She tucked me in with a blue blanket and left.
The first five minutes, I was antsy. The needles felt like fire in my skin. I glared at the clock, but continued to sit still. I didn’t feel sleepy. I anticipated a long, dreadful wait, wondering if I’d make it past the 15-minute mark.
I started taking deep breaths. I closed my eyes. Before I knew it, I couldn’t even feel the needles anymore. I felt the weight lifted from the needles, no more skin irritation around the punctures.
I slipped into a weird state, not quite awake, but not asleep either. My body felt like a wave in the ocean, swaying and swishing. I spun up and down, back and forth. I could feel the weight of gravity push against me, as if I were a tide crawling up sand on a seashore.
Soon enough, I opened my eyes. I brought awareness and consciousness back to my body, landing mentally back in the chair. The clock revealed 50 minutes had gone by. I couldn’t believe it: I had been sitting with the needles in for nearly an hour.
I spotted the acupuncturist across the room, made help me eyes and relaxed as she removed the needles. I propped myself back up, gathered my things and left.
Honestly, I don’t feel any physically different after the procedure — to reap the benefits of acupuncture, the clinic recommends two visits per week — but I wasn’t there to cure physical pain.
I do feel empowered.
Though I can’t say my phobia has vanished completely, but the next time I go to the hospital, I’m confident that I won’t need a baby needle. If I once could sit with 10 needles in for nearly an hour, I can keep one in for 30 seconds.