My veins are shot. The ones in the crooks of my arms, at least. The rest of them still work ok. Spending most of September in the hospital last year is what did it--made my hard-working, long-suffering veins give up their ghosts. What does that phrase mean?
I remember hating shots as a kid. Being afraid of needles. It hurt so much I wanted to scream.
When I was eleven and got diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, blood draws became a not uncommon occurrence. Maybe a few times a year my mom would take me to Children's hospital to get some lab tests done. The blood lab was on the first floor. We would wait in the hallway that had no toys until it was my turn to go. The fear was still there--I felt it in my stomach. I wanted to cry. I didn't want a shot and this was worse than a shot.
Blood draws became IV sticks which were even worse. Those are bigger needles and they need to be jiggled into your vein and held there. The pain is a white-hot fire followed by streams of aching, stinging pain. I had a colonscopy every year so I got an IV every year--the tubing leading from the needle in my vein bringing me the forgetting meds they give you when you enter the weird dream state they put you in when they need to stick a flexible tube into your butt, into your colon, taking turns around intestinal loops that you can still feel in the dream state, just like you feel like you're falling off the bed even as they assure you that you are not.
After being discharged from the hospital following my liver transplant I was driven back to the hospital every morning, to stand hunched around my abdominal incision as I waited for the double-glass doors to opens so I could go get my labs done, first thing in the morning as my nightly dose of immunosuppresants was wearing off, before I took my next does. Every morning for thirty days, getting my blood drawn, my labs and med levels checked, tracking the function of the liver that was now mine. More needles, little cups of juice in my hand afterward.
Somewhere along the way I adopted the habit of turning my head away as the needle readied to enter my skin, enter my vein. I looked away and tried not to clench my body, gradually learning to take deep breaths. The pain got less intense. Sometimes the phlebotomist, the nurse, would ask me if I was ok. I assumed they were worried I was trying not to faint. Now I wonder if some among them noted that I had left my body and checked in because they felt the difference and wanted to draw the pieces of me back. Probably not. Or they noticed but couldn't tell what they were noticing, just that something had shifted.
I took my kids' to get flu shots a few weeks ago and for the first time had all four of them in one room with just me. They have varying comfort levels and levels of interest in their doctors' appointments, one or two of them gladly interacting with Dr. Miller the pediatrician I adore who has taken care of them and me since I first drove tiny Lily across the Bay Bridge the day after she got released from the NICU, the first time I'd ever had her in the car, the other one or two either crying out to me that it was time to leave or silently sitting in watchful judgement. As a mother it has been one of my jobs to soothe my babies, looking into their eyes as I hold their hands still as nurses plunge needles into their soft perfect skin. I've seen the flinches, felt them, as my kiddos get violated by pain for a second.They usually cry, snuggle into me, and get over it pretty quickly. This time I watched as the memory became permanent, embodied, in at least the oldest two. They will remember and they will be afraid the next time, I think. It made me sad. More than sad it made me feel like I was watching life happen in front of my eyes, catching the moment and holding it as it demonstrated it's universal truth to me. That the needles don't become less painful, we become more used to them.
I learned to leave my body, which felt necessary. My body got attacked, from within and without, over and over and over again. I did not know how to survive it, the pain and the violation, and so I left. It didn't feel like a choice I made. I didn't weigh the consequences. It just. . .happened.
The problem is that it became a habit. Unconscious. It wasn't like slipping in and out of a comfy robe that I pulled around me when I needed to soothe myself. I found that place, that out of body place, without putting rules or boundaries around the practice and soon I started to live there. I have been living in my head, in my thoughts, in my words, talking and thinking and observing. Narrating. I thought everyone did this. And even when I realized not everyone watched and thought about and narrated everything going on them, I didn't know it was something that was hurting me. Deadening my ability to feel anything at all. The trick was that still felt like I felt things. So I guess I did. Just not very much. So it's taken me decades to wake up to the sad bargain I've been making, trading away my body and the pleasure it can feel. Turning away, not just from the needles, but from the finely-tuned compass of my physical self and all the messages it has been sending out, in hope and increasingly in desperation.
I shrug things off. That's my style. Some people admire my calmness, my Zen. Sometimes I've felt cool, as though the things that bothered or worried others didn't make me sweat. But neither of those descriptions is accurate. Well, maybe accurate but not real.
The real me, the 9-year-old girl who stands shyly before me, grateful to be noticed now that I'm finally paying attention again, says its time to stay in this body, this precious vessel, and see where it takes us. Even though that means staying in the pain.
I get my blood drawn once a month now to check my liver function and my med levels, among other things. The same woman has tried every time for a year to draw from my antecubital veins, even as she frowns as she prods, feeling the scar tissue inside. She gamely tries anyway, as I keep my mouth shut because part of my almost life-long experience of leaving my body includes quietly receiving practitioners mistakes, the process of abandoning myself already begun. She stuck the needle in the crook of my right arm and the pain zinged through my body to the top of my head and the tips of my toes all at once.
After a minute, I was glad. Because I'm coming back. And it hurts like hell.