Monday, January 18, 2010


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.


Jessica said...

Yes, exactly. While I wouldn't say that I *enjoy* shots, I am fascinated by them. In fact, I like to watch once the needle has actually gone through my skin-- a needle is like a portal into our real physical selves.

We all like to think the we are impervious and immortal, but all it takes it a little piece of sharp metal to get through our skin to our guts or our blood.

Karin Spirn said...

That's right, and you enjoy giving blood, too, you weirdo scientist! Well, you know what they say..."You think you really know yourself, and then you realize you've never seen your own esophagus."

sondra said...

I have no problem with shots. Being diabetic, it comes with the territory. And I wasn't scared to get my tattoos, either, but DAMN the last one hurt! Every so often I just had to say OW! Then my adorable tattoo artist would say very gently, "Sorry." I don't think he understood that I was just saying "ow" because that made it hurt less.

Karin Spirn said...

I always wondered what it would be like to have to give yourselves shots every day; couldn't keep being scared of them after that. I liked your insulin pump, though I suppose that's like getting shots all day long in a way.

I can relate to that needing to say "ouch." I have this problem with melodramatic breathing; it is so ingrained in me to take deep breaths when anything is mildly stressful that I often make my small army of body workers (chiropractor, massage, accupuncture, etc) think that they are hurting me when they are not at all. They're always exclaiming, "Are you okay?" when I am actually completely spaced out and thinking of something else altogether.

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sondra said...

The insulin pump is a godsend. I don't feel it at all once it's hooked up. I have to change the insertion site once every three days, though--so it's like getting a shot every three days instead of 4 times per day, like before.

And then, of course, there's the pricking my finger 4-6 times per day . . . .

Yeah, after all that I've come to see my skin as very permeable. It doesn't faze me to jab things into it--unless it really does hurt a lot.

Melinda said...

Who likes shots? I used to think I was pretty hard core about stuff like that, until I got sick in Vietnam. Did I tell you that story? Both JP and I got super ill and had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.

The doctor was very nice, but the nurse hated me. I was told that I needed a shot, so started rolling up my sleeve when the nurse shook her head and signalled that I should pull my pants down. I was in disbelief, saying, "Are you sure?" And she just nodded, looking terribly pleased.

It was a mother of a shot but the thing that I couldn't believe was that I had to get it in the hip. I hadn't had a shot in the butt like that since I was maybe 9.

I was stunned when I came limping out into the waiting room, and when I told JP what happened (he'd gotten his in the arm), we both couldn't stop laughing. A shot in the was just so unexpected.