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Tetanus is a terrible disease. Muscle spasms, lockjaw, bone fractures (from prolonged convulsions), pulmonary embolism, pneumonia, and in about 30% of cases, slow and excruciating death. Absolutely horrifying.

Unfortunately for me, the only thing more horrifying to contemplate than tetanus is getting the tetanus vaccine. I am completely, viscerally, uncontrollably freaked out by needles. This is, I've just now discovered thanks to Google, known as aichmophobia. It started when I was about 12 and got a shot of adrenaline to take a breathing test during my first bout of bronchitis. It's gotten progressively worse. I get dizzy, nervous, sweaty hours or even days in advance. I invariably faint. I understand intellectually, of course, that it's not going to kill me, just a little pinch, just a little poke. Emotionally, though...that's a whole different story. I guess that's the deal with phobias.

Anyway, two weeks ago at the gym, I cut my thumb on a faulty locker latch. I cleaned the wound and got a bandaid and didn't think anything of it for several days. Then, at about 4 am last Wednesday, I woke up with a start convinced I was going to get tetanus. I called the doctor, who informed me that, no, I most likely did not have tetanus, and since I didn't get a shot within 72 hours it was too late to do anything, but I should come in for a booster anyway. I made an appointment for that afternoon. Then I cancelled it.

Then the nurse called me again this afternoon and coaxed (or rather, guilted) me into making another appointment. "I've seen people with tetanus," she said. "They died."

"Um, I don't like needles," I said. "Really. I'll faint."

"You can lie down." So I made the appointment again. My palms were sweating already. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a mild state of panic.

I showed up at the office just before 4. Rosemary the nurse -- a sturdy woman, socks-with-Birks, no-fuss gray hair cut short, not humorless but definitely up for no trouble -- had an air of seen-it-all calm about her that made me feel ridiculous for my silly little needle fear. She took my temperature, told me to take my arm out of my sweater and asked me to lie down. I was clammy and starting to shake, but I figured I could handle it if I just did my "belly breathing" (a technique I was taught for curtailing asthma attacks). It would all be over soon. No big deal. Just a little pinch. But as soon as my head hit the pillow, I couldn't catch my breath. I shook, I gasped for air, I sobbed. Rosemary tried to calm me down. I couldn't stop. Then, feeling utterly foolish and embarrassed, I started crying even harder. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry," I said. She never gave me the shot.

Instead she brought me some water and tissues and spoke very calmly to me and gave me the name of a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. I felt like such an idiot. Humiliated and tear-streaked and histrionic. And, of course, in my fear I forgot the name of the shrink. I wiped my eyes and finished my water and skulked out of the office in shame.

But, hey, at least I didn't have to get the shot.

Replies: 9 Confessions

Belly breathing is excellent for anxiety but for asthma, you might want to try pursed-lip breathing, which is all the stuff about belly breathing plus when you exhale, you purse your lips (obv) so that you are exhaling against resistance. This helps keep your little alveoli from collapsing and trapping air inside them, which is one of the reasons you might feel like you can't get enough air when you are wheezy. The goal is to spend more time exhaling than you do inhaling. Caution: Try not to make eye contact with strangers while using this technique; you might send a wrong message.

Reverend Agnes @ 04/06/2002 02:40 PM CST


Yow! That sounds horrifying! Uh, sure: Literally horrifying, I guess. I've always done okay with needles, but the last time someone gave me a shot for a scan called an IVP, I think, I had to look away. Looking away was good for me, the 12" needle felt just like one of the cute little 3-inchers. I still didn't want to watch, though. Luckily, BTW, they didn't find anything in the IVP, though I'd have liked to have seen the pictures. I've never seen my own urinary tract, before.

Charlie @ 04/08/2002 01:28 PM CST


I have a similar reaction, but only when the needle is to take something out, not put something in. Covered in tattoo ink, with little songs playing as the breeze hits my flesh, I see most pokey things as just a more firm and precise sort of paintbrush. But once that needle wants to suck out my life's essence, well there's only one end to that story: blackout and convulsions.

I accompanied a friend on a medical testing gig; I was 14, faking 24, being gother than thou and doing an almost-recreational medical trial. I guess you don't have to have a phlebotomy license to do postdoc studies, tho, 'cause these researchers sucked at taking blood, sucked worse at catching fainting girlies. Ever since then, no matter how good the drawer, it's gonna end up me flat on a bed with a butterfly needle in my dangling hand, cold, clammy, dark, tinny, little spots, and finally oblivion. Of course this means I have to have someone drive me. Someone to witness it all, which you know makes me that much more comfortable. ;)

Jessica @ 04/08/2002 08:24 PM CST


Your post is freaking me out, Jessica.

I had to be relieved of about a thimble-full of blood for a thyroid test a few years ago, and the nurse just kept rooting around in my arm looking for a vein. Poke, poke, poke, rummage, wander, sigh. Of course I waited until after she gave up and crossed the room to head face-down to the linoleum. I can't see myself ever donating blood, unless they come up with some other way to get it.

amyc @ 04/09/2002 12:28 PM CST


I ahte getting shots in my bum. Its weird knowing youre going to have a piece of metal stuck into my tushy while I cant see it coming. Im usually scared for days before getting any sort of needle, although I can handle blood tests better. The last tetanus shot left me close to tears, I thought Id get it in my arm when the doc grinned and said "im afraid its not going in thereĀ£", then he told me to lie down and roll over and loosen my jeans.
I could hear my own heart beating as he prepared the syringe. Then he walked over beside me and yeanked down my jeans, wiped a cold alcohol pad on the target spot. Then I heard the cap of the needle drop onto the tray and got rigid with fear. Then I felt a hard painful stinging jab as the needle hit me. I remember feeling it go the whole way in as tears came to my eyes. The medicine was pushed in then and burned a lot. It seemed to be in there forever then he withdrew it, wiped again which was stinging even more and told me I could get up.
I could hardly walk out of the office and it hurt for days. NEVER AGAIN

lisa @ 06/11/2006 10:56 AM CST


I cut myself badly 13 days ago on my thigh. I went to the hospital and they irrigated and stiched the wound. When they ask if I had had a tetnaus shot I lied and said yes. Why? Because I to have your "CONDITION" with fear. When I went to get the stitches out the wound opened up and I am now on my second round of antibotics, but my culture was clear. Now I am also convinced that I have Tetnaus and am afraid. I found your site when I was Googling to see how late is too late to get the shot. Thank You so much for posting.

Melinda @ 06/29/2006 08:53 PM CST


I've only ever had one injection in my bum and it was tetanus. I was on a night out and stepped on something sharp. My friend said it could get infected and came with me to the A&E. We waited for 3 hours and once my cut had been attended to the (male) nurse asked me if my tetanus was up to date. I said that I didn't know and wish I had lied! He said that I had to have a tetanus shot and I started to roll up the sleeve of my dress. "It's not going in there" and next thing I'm my tummy with my knickers down, my dress up having a man I don't know getting to see my bottom. I was so embarrassed that I wanted to cry. Then the needle went into my right cheek and the horrible pain as it got injected. My friend was waiting outside and she just laughed! My bum was sore for two days.

rachel @ 03/13/2007 03:39 PM CST


I'm "ok" with needles. I don't care if the shoot me and I don't mind the sight of blood. The first time I had blood taken I was nervous and I passed out. I believe it was because they dug around and poked me many times with a needle. Since then I've had many drawings where I was a tad nervous but no biggy. Today I had it again. I was ok but started to panic. My conclusion is that I'm ok as long as it's quick and relatively painless, otherwise I panic and faint.... I'm not sure if its common. It's definitely not a phobia... something in my freaks when they poke tooo much or it hurts too long... a drop in blood presure??? What do you think?

Stacy @ 01/08/2009 06:29 PM CST


I'm "ok" with needles. I don't care if the shoot me and I don't mind the sight of blood. The first time I had blood taken I was nervous and I passed out. I believe it was because they dug around and poked me many times with a needle. Since then I've had many drawings where I was a tad nervous but no biggy. Today I had it again. I was ok but started to panic. My conclusion is that I'm ok as long as it's quick and relatively painless, otherwise I panic and faint.... I'm not sure if its common. It's definitely not a phobia... something in my freaks when they poke tooo much or it hurts too long... a drop in blood presure??? What do you think?

Stacy @ 01/08/2009 06:30 PM CST


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