Therapy Saved My Life: Part I

A former client shares her intimate journey overcoming specific phobia and OCD. Through a two-part blog series, she shares her challenges, hard work, and how she ultimately overcame her anxiety.

            Many patients feel that therapy saved their life. In some cases, that’s true, in a way. Now they have a better life, a happier life, and that’s definitely being “saved.” In some cases, such as mine, it actually saved my life. Without having been to Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, I may not be alive today to tell you my story.

            When I was a child, the age of 5, I had a traumatic experience with a pediatrician and a needle. I can’t remember much at that age, but this experience has never left me. Understand this is my five year old self’s memory, so it may be different from what the adults in the room remember. I was sitting on the bed in the room, and asked the doctor if I was getting a shot. I don’t remember being terribly afraid, just wanting to know. He had his back to me at the counter, and told me no. Next thing I remember, he turned around, and had the needle in his closed fist and stuck me in the leg. In today’s times, what happened would have created a wp-content/uploads firestorm and probably resulted in a lucrative lawsuit. In those times, the late 1980’s, it was just a doctor doing his job. I’m sure he figured if I didn’t see it coming, it would be over in a blink and I’d be fine without all the fuss. His decision that day set me up for a lifetime of mistrust.

As a child, I had no option for whether I’d be getting a shot. Every single time I had to have an injection or blood drawn, I had a meltdown of epic proportions. There was screaming, begging, tears, on one occasion I even tried to leave the room. I would be held down by either my parents, nurses and/or the doctor and forced to have the procedure. You can’t blame the adults, I was a child and I needed whatever it was being done. As I became an adult, I started doing research and found that forcing, or “flooding” can have detrimental effects. How is a parent supposed to know? Your child needs this shot, or vaccine, or blood work, you get it done.

I had an even worse experience at school. In the 8th grade we were all required to have a shot. I don’t even recall what the injection was. Some adult in the school figured it would be a good idea to just have a nurse come to the school and do it during the school day. So now, I have exactly zero support. To make matters worse, we were all given a slip in the morning with our time written in ink. My time, of course, was late afternoon. The doomsday clock started ticking.Needle

I spent the entire day at school terrified. I tried to imagine how I could get out of it. Could I just leave the school? No, of course not, I couldn’t drive or anything and I’d just be back the next day. Could I lie and say I’d already gotten it? Nope, of course they’re keeping records. I tried to convince myself I could do it. Just get it over with.

So down the quiet halls I walked, directly to the nurses office. Now I see it’s not just me and a nurse. It’s myself, and many other classmates in line. We are all watching the one ahead of us get the shot. Understand, I was so terrified of needles I couldn’t bear to be in the same room, much less watch injection after injection. All of my classmates too it like champs. Then it was my turn.

Of course I had a meltdown. I tried to explain to the nurse my fear, but at that age I didn’t understand it wasn’t fear, it was a full blown phobia. Quite frankly, I discovered growing up that most nurses, doctors, phlebotomists don’t even understand a needle phobia. So this nurse sits me in a rolling chair, pulls up my shirt and starts swabbing me with alcohol.

I lost it. They put me in a rolling chair and I used it like roller skates. I slid and rolled all over that nurses office. My classmates watched, both amused and shocked. Some laughed out loud. Finally, a nurse, another school office adult, and a fellow classmate blocked the rollers, held me super tight, and I got the injection. I yelled and screamed, and this was during class announcements over the loud speaker. The entire school new what a baby I was.

My fear of needles almost killed or maimed me more than once. I had ingrown nails that were infected, that I hid with socks everyday so my parents wouldn’t know. They bled, they were a real mess and I hid them as long as I could. My mother saw my socks and that was that. Still a minor, I was forced to a doctor for a procedure. Before needles were even gotten out, the nurses were concerned. I was shaking, sweating, pale. I was having a full blown panic attack. Nobody recognized the phobia for what it was. I received ten shots, five in each foot. I cussed my mother under my breath. I was done.

I managed to avoid any other injections or bloodwork until after I was married. I never went to the dentist as a teenager. I constantly had abscesses in my teeth that took me to my knees. My parents would take me to the dentist for antibiotics and painkillers and that would be that. No root canal for me! After I married, I had another abscess. It was the worst one yet, a whole the size of a pencil eraser in my molar. Tylenol seemed to be helping ease the pain. Turns out I took 35 Tylenol in roughly a six hour period. Not good.

I started showing signs of overdose. My husband rushed me to the hospital. He had no idea that I had such a phobia. Once he knew I was so afraid, his response was like everyone else’s. “Just close your eyes, it’ll be over in a second.” “It’s just a pinch, a cat scratch is worse.” Nobody understood that it wasn’t really the pain. It was the loss of control.

So in the emergency room my doctor told me I needed bloodwork to determine my liver enzymes, to see if I needed the antidote. I said no. He explained again that Tylenol could be killing my liver, and we had a short time to administer the medication. I said no. He left, exasperated, to “give me time to think.” He came back again and I told him I was just too afraid, and I’d sign whatever I needed to not have him be liable. He said, “Are you afraid to die?” I looked him square in the eyes, and said, “No, I guess not.” I signed papers, and left after a nurse explained where the pain would be if my liver started to shut down. My husband was livid.

Phobia word cloud

After that came the much needed dental work. “Don’t worry, we’ll give you a Valium, you’ll be out of it.” So I took my Valium that morning, and had the exact opposite reaction. I was more hyped up than I think I’d ever been. I found out later that you can actually reverse the effects of Valium if you’re that nervous or scared. I laid in the dentist chair, having another epic panic attack, and the oral surgeon was shocked. He kept saying, “I had no idea. This girl’s not kidding, she’s terrified. I had no idea!” He finally agreed to gas me with Nitrous Oxide, then insert my IV while I was in a twilight state. So I got my gas, still panicked, just much less so. I still felt the needle, I still tried to yell, I still cried. Thankfully I got what I needed, and vowed to never return.

In 2004, at 21 years old, I got into a car accident. I fell asleep at the wheel and totaled my truck. I shattered my right kneecap into bits. I tore the tendon that allows you to lift your leg up and down, side to side. Essentially, my right leg was dead weight. After the accident, I was trapped in the truck. The paramedics arrived and got in the passenger side. I imwp-content/uploadstely shrank against my door, telling her, “No needles! Don’t stick me!” Even with everything going on, the needles were at the front of my mind. Not that I couldn’t move my leg, not that I was alone, not that I’d totaled my truck.

Turned out I needed some pretty serious surgery to get that leg going again. The first doctor I went to said he’d remove the kneecap entirely. He said I needed bloodwork before surgery. I told him that wasn’t going to happen. He simply told me I would have a peg-leg for life, and he refused to try and help.

Thankfully the second doctor agreed to give me gas, not Nitrous, but completely zonk me out, and then put in the IV. I was so grateful. I thought it would be easy going. Instead, I still considered not having the surgery. I finally decided I had to, or be in a wheelchair. The idea of the knock-out gas was appealing. The problem, it turned out, was more medical professionals not educated concerning needle phobia. With the exception of my wonderful doctor, the staff hassled me the entire time before my surgery. They spoke with attitude and shortness and frustration. They loaded the tops of my hands with numbing cream. I still said no. They kept asking me what my problem was. The anesthesiologist did not want to give me the gas. I kept reiterating that it was doctor’s orders. Do it, or no surgery. All the way until I breathed my last gasp of knock-out gas, they were short with me.

After that, I had some serious conversations with myself. What would I do next time something like this happened? What if I got really, really sick and needed something? I decided long ago, if I had cancer, or whatever possibly terminal illness you can get, I’d have to just let myself go. I could not make myself be okay with needles. I would literally rather die, than be stuck. Even my husband had made comments that I’d have to be unconscious before anyone could stick me.

This blog was written by Desiree Byars and published by the Houston OCD Program with permission.

This story is to be continued…