The other day I watched my friend Samantha get a tattoo. She got to talking with the tattoo artist about his clients’ various bad reactions to the tattooing process.
“I had one lady scream so much I had to stop working on her,” he said, guiding what looked like a small electric drill over the lines he had drawn in ink on her arm. His own arms were fully encased with twisting patterns of red and black. “She just kept yelling, ‘Fuck! It hurts so much!’ I was like, sorry, we can’t do this anymore.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Samantha. “I’m an acupuncturist.”
“Oh,” he said knowingly. “So you use needles, too.”
“Yeah, and I have a lady just like that,” she said. “Every time she sees me, she says, ‘You are not going to stick a needle right there.’ And I say, ‘Oh yes I am.’ I have to fight her about it every time. It doesn’t seem worth all the trouble.”
“Oh, but I would be like that, too,” said the tattoo artist. “I hate needles.”
Of course we laughed at him.
“I know, it sounds silly,” he said. “My doctor always makes fun of me when I don’t want to get a shot. He says, don’t you work with needles all day long? And I say, yeah, but not hypodermic needles.” He shuddered a little at his own mention of them.
“Yeah, actually, I hate them too,” said Samantha.
“I hate how long they are,” the tattoo artist said. “And what I especially hate is when they put them in sideways and you can see the needle sliding around under your skin.”
It’s a very human thing to be scared of things that puncture our skin. Most of the shots that we get don’t hurt that much—not any more than banging our heads or stubbing our toes, things we don’t live in terror of—but we just don’t like the principle of having things stuck into our flesh, ruining the illusion that our bodies are permanent and coherent manifestations of our souls and not a bunch of malleable matter, just like everything else.
My cat was not scared of shots at all. Whenever she had to get a shot at the vet, I expected her to cry and protest as the needle was inserted, but she would just look slightly nonplussed; her more violent objections were reserved for the rectal thermometer. When I had to give her subcutaneous fluids at the end of her life, I was far more disconcerted by the needle than she was. She would sit calmly once she resigned herself to the fact that I wouldn’t let her move around, which was the only thing bothering her about the procedure.
When I have to get a shot, however, I anticipate it nervously all day. I had to have a tetanus booster a few months ago, and I was sure it was going to be excruciatingly painful. My previous tetanus shot was fourteen years earlier, when I cut my foot on the filthy driveway of my apartment building. The next morning, at the university clinic, the nurse chastised me for not having come in as soon as I cut myself. Then she reopened the wound on my foot and spent five minutes flushing it out with a hypodermic needle the size of a turkey baster.
Then she gave me the tetanus shot. And then she told me that I looked like I was going to faint, and wouldn’t let me leave until I had consumed a packet of saltines and a little can of juice.
Preparing for my recent tetanus shot, I tried to discount this memory—it couldn’t have been as painful as I remember. But when I told a few coworkers that I was going to the hospital for a tetanus shot, they all said, Oh, I hate that one. That one hurts a lot. They rubbed their upper arms and winced as they remembered.
I was pretty shaky by the time I got to the hospital.
“Why are you so bruised?” the nurse asked me as I pulled up my sleeve to expose my arm. I had several purple spots on my upper arm from being grabbed, and a large round bruise on my bicep where someone’s heel had landed as I tried to catch her side kick.
I was tempted to make a joke about my boyfriend beating me, but then I remembered that I was at a hospital. “That’s from kickboxing,” I said.
“Well, be careful,” said the nurse, rubbing alcohol on my upper arm.
“I don’t like needles,” I told him, as he prepared to stick one into my arm, hoping that he would distract me with some conversation.
“Yeah, nobody likes this shot” he said. I felt a prick on my arm, the smallest little pinch.
“That’s it,” he said. “Not so bad, right?”
“Wait,” he added. “Didn’t you just say you’re a kickboxer? And you’re scared of a little needle?” He started laughing.
I did feel pretty stupid, considering the shot didn’t hurt at all. But I feel better knowing that nobody likes shots, not even people who make their living sticking needles into people.
Well, that is, except for the people who like getting things stuck through their bodies: piercing enthusiasts, masochists, those people who get suspended by ropes through their muscles as a hobby. I assume they like having their bodies cut into for the same reason that most people don’t like it, for the same reason people want to go spelunking or climb up the sides of cliffs or fly in airplanes: because you’re really not supposed to.