I’ll be talking in detail about some minor medical procedures (involving needles and blood) you commonly get done during a check-up. These are things I have strong phobias of, but this is my way of trying to get past them. If that’s not stuff you can read about, I feel you. See you next time.
I went to the doctor yesterday for a wellness visit. Haven’t done that in many years, and never independently. Even the doctor remarked that I was a rare case being a male in my 20s coming in.
He’s an MO, which means he is trained in osteopathy:
Osteopathy is a type of alternative medicine that emphasizes the physical manipulation of the body’s muscle tissue and bones. … Osteopathic medicine in the United States differs greatly in scope and approach from osteopathy as practiced in Europe elsewhere. The USA recognizes a branch of the medical profession called osteopathic physicians, trained and certified to practice all modern medicine.
I was a little concerned about this, since I very much value science and evidence in medicine. I’m a fan of Steven Novella and the Science-Based Medicine blog. (I was wearing my SGU “placebo band” that morning.) Words like “holistic” or osteopathy being linked with so many alternative medicine treatments made me a bit skeptical. With more reading, I learned that opinions vary, and MOs can be just about identical to MDs.
I stumbled into this two weeks ago when I was getting STI tests done. I agreed to the recommendation the nurse practitioner gave that he sign me up for one of their doctors as a primary care physician, so I didn’t have much input into whom. (Still an adulting win, though!)
When I think about my concern further, though, the rigid requirements I had in my head may be there so that I’m being looked at by someone I trust, but more likely I’m creating artificial barriers to give me an excuse to not visit the doctor.
(The perfect being the enemy of the good, as I am increasingly saying.)
The reality is that this doctor was more than capable of doing a check up for me. He gave me advice on how to navigate the insurance nomenclature to save money and talked to me at a level that I appreciated. The only noticeable difference, which I read a bit about to expect, was when he basically pressed into my stomach and body with his hands.
Which, while it may be doing nothing at all… Honestly, felt kinda nice. There’s your placebo effect, the benefit of personal touch and perceived effort, in action. As long as I’m aware of it, my situation is demonstrably better now that I have a doctor.
So great! One life barrier down. I have a PCP and have done a checkup. The ambiguity in my health has narrowed significantly.
I wasn’t expecting that the doctor would suggest blood tests and a tetanus vaccine, though.
I am terrible with needles and drawing blood. For some reason I can pick a scab and watch it bleed all day, but the second that is done for medicine in a controlled way, pulling it out of me purposefully, I panic.
I have tried to give blood twice in high school and failed to pass the finger prick. Even writing about this puts me a little on edge.
I went back and forth on it, knowing the massive amounts of anxiety that will pour over me once I agree and especially once it’s about to happen. I wasn’t planning for this. I had just let them draw blood for STI testing two weeks ago (being poked for the first time in an equally absurd number of years), so it’s fresh in my mind what the experience is like in my brain. This time would be even worse, with a double dip into panic mode, on a day where I didn’t get enough sleep and would be staying up quite late that night.
My higher-functioning brain was reminding me that I would be benefiting from the vaccine for ten years if I could endure ten minutes of discomfort and stress. It similarly had to work overtime to get me to realize the benefits and longer-term comfort of knowing so much more about my health if I allowed them to do the blood tests during the same visit. I wanted it to be done, not linger. Additionally, I wanted to fully comply with what my doctor suggested. He specifically said it was my choice, but it helped to know that this was recommended or imagine he’d be happy to have the right information to make decisions.
So I agreed to do them. I wait anxiously as every noise of foot traffic might mean I’m about to enter crisis mode. The nurse came back momentarily to give me the shot, which was a surprisingly short endeavor. I knew then to ask quickly to be lowered to let the blood reach my head again and regain my color, as well as ask for water and 5-10 minutes before the next procedure. I know my own response by this point.
While alone I laughed at myself periodically as a muffled “Paparazzi” played in a distant room. I was amused at how severely I take these things, but also happy that one part of it was over.
I’ve heard that laughter’s evolutionary origins may have been as a signal to others that danger has passed. I never feel more like a life form, like a body and brain comprising millions of years of evolution and adaptation, than at the doctor. I’m given so much time to wait and stew over what is out of my control that there’s no other option but to hyper-analyze every behavior or response I exhibit.
After a while, the nurse comes in and asks if I’m ready for the blood draw. I say I am, because I actually am. I don’t know if it was knowing how to properly deal with my reaction (go horizontal, don’t look, ask for water, allot recovery time) or if I’m actually getting used to this. I’ve never had to have surgery, never been on long-term medication, rarely been to the doctor, so I’ve managed to keep this phobia alive by deftly avoiding it. It makes me wonder if some latent fear of hurting myself and requiring a doctor visit has influenced my life choices to be a sedentary computer programmer, or if the causality is reversed and I’ve simply never had to test my fears by coincidence.
That would have been a great thing to think about (like just about anything) while another nurse started wrapping a cloth tightly around my arm. I was grateful that the first nurse stuck around to look me in the eyes on the side of my body that wasn’t being poked. She reminded me to breathe when I held my breath at the start.
Breathing. In and out. Feeling something unusual in my upper left arm. Feeling the twinge of pain in the middle where I’m pricked. Squeezing my fist to draw out the blood, actively making the thing that causes me so much fear and anxiety happen. I had to be reminded to keep squeezing last time, which threw me into the anxiety deep-end. Didn’t let that happen this time.
It’s weird how I can never tell when the damn needle is out of my body. I’m so tense and fighting to think of anything else, while still somehow always thinking about the blood leaving my body, that I can’t tell what’s really going on until someone states it’s been out for a while. Talk about psychosomatic.
It’s scary how different I become when under these conditions. I construct an elaborately-designed version of myself to present to people. I’m witty, kind, thoughtful, I tell myself. But when I’m in this situation, I am clinging to anything, returning to baser instincts. I’ll construct empty sentences and answer questions in ways I don’t mean to just to fill the air. I’ll trust this nurse I met 15 minutes ago to guide me through that I’m perceiving as severe trauma (which is probably an insult to people who have actually had trauma).
But in my more collected self, I’m independent. I get across ideas carefully and listen. It’s troubling to see that break down. Hospitals and doctors’ offices remind me of my mortality, which I don’t enjoy. Hearing and seeing myself collapse into an unrecognizable puddle feels like a flash forward to when I’m eventually dying, unable to keep up the ruse of who I am and admitting the terrifying finality and fragility of my existence.
(This is not unrelated to a core reason I very rarely drink and have never been drunk, by the way. I don’t like losing control or numbing my faculties.)
The blood-drawing nurse tries to wrap up the spot but complains that I’m too sweaty and it won’t stick. I don’t feel sweaty, but I honestly don’t trust my senses. She gives me a band-aid. Mentally coming back up for air, I manage to complain that if Spongebob isn’t on the bandage that I’ll be disappointed. She draws a smiley face on it just for me.
I didn’t ask if they had lollipops. Shit.
I’m left alone again, which I needed. It didn’t take me the 20 minutes I was given after my STI tests to be able to get up and get going. Again, whether this is acclimation or preparation, I don’t know, but it is progress.
I’m very proud of myself that I committed to doing both of those things despite not preparing for them (and for doing the STI testing earlier). I wrote this detailed post to offer a glimpse into what my experience with doctors and medicine has been, to offer insight into what one might consider a phobia of something increasingly necessary as we age.
I also wrote it for myself, to cement this experience as real and not a figment I’ve imagined. To face it again by writing it out.
I feel better not only in the short term in soon knowing more about my current health, but also in the long term. I had a persistent, low-level anxiety of not knowing how I would be able to survive growing older if I couldn’t manage these basic tests. I’m learning that, even if it never gets easy, I’m already adapting. That’s my non-lizard brain at work!