I don’t know when it started, the fear of needles. I can’t pinpoint the moment when an innocuous metal object became a source of terror for me, but I know how it makes me feel now. Perhaps it was somewhere in my childhood doctor's office, somewhere between back-to-school visits and that cavity my mother yelled at me over. But now, at 10, being told “She’ll need an update on her shots this visit, they won’t let her into school without it” I just know that it's here. The mere mention of the shots I’ve been putting off for the last 24 months sends a wave of genuine terror through my body. My eyes are wide, pupils blown out, and sweat is already forming on my upper lip as I turn to my mother, ready to beg and plead. She is a statue in the corner, she knew this was coming. She knew we had no choice, we’d pushed it off too long. As we walk down the corridor bathed in yellow light she tries to tell me it will be fine, its a quick pinch, what happened to me I was so good with shots as a baby??
Every step down the corridor is a death sentence, every moment closer to that back room sends my heart racing and my adrenaline spiking. I can’t do this, it feels like I can’t breathe, my heart is pounding outside of my chest, tears are already welling in my eyes, my legs are trembling, it’s too much, it’s too soon, it's….its….!!
It takes two nurses plus my mother to hold me down for two brief pricks in my upper arm. I look down at the bandage now adorning me forlornly, hot wet tears still streaking my face, snot under my nose, and my throat raw from screaming. They cajole me, telling me I was brave, offering me sweets. “See! It was just a little prick.” Lies. They have no idea how it felt, the terror that gripped my spine, the way my throat tightened, air became hard to breathe. My heart pounded wildly, my chest felt like it would explode. The fear I felt was larger than my small body, bigger than I could contain, spilling over in tears and screams and begging no, no, no. It was the worst feeling, and that night and the next night I woke up sobbing from nightmares about it. I never want to experience that again.
Years go by, and at 13 I am bashfully asking my mother if I can get my nose pierced. The answer is a resounding no, for a range of reasons. It’s ugly, I’m too young, I can’t have it at school. “How will you even get your nose pierced- you can’t even get a shot!” The words find their mark and I recoil, reminded that getting my nose pierced will involve a needle. Even just the thought makes me flinch and my heart rate jump. But I push that down, I think of the nostril piercings I have seen online, I think of the 8th grader I pass at second period who has a hoop in one nostril and is the coolest girl in school. “I can get my nose pierced, it’s different!!!”
It is not different. I am 14 sitting on a table in the piercing studio. There is a small dot of ink on my nose that is about to be replaced with a big silver hoop- just like that cool 8th grader. I am trying not to shake, there is sweat on my brow and my heart is pounding in my ears. The moment the piercer places a slim metal tube into my nostril I jerk away, a lightning strike of fear streaking down my spine. She smiles and tries to calm me down. My mother, in the corner, crosses her arms. I can see from the set of her brow we are moments away from her dragging me home. I look back at myself in the mirror, I think of that hoop in my nose. I picture that girl. When the piercer slides the tube into my nose I tense, but I don’t flinch. She tells me to breathe and I don’t, as if holding in the air could hold back the pain. It doesn’t, and for a split second, my nose is on fire. It’s gone as quickly as it came, replaced by the strange tugging and pressure of the jewelry going in. My eyes are watering, tears threatening to spill over the moment I open them. I think about the needle and I feel the panic rise again in my chest, I open my eyes blinking back the tears….and it all goes quiet. The hum of anxiety and fear in my chest, the racing thoughts. My brain empties out as my eyes catch that glint of steel that is now in my nose. I look in the mirror and a calm sort of excitement fills me. I did it! I did it! When I look in the mirror I don’t see my acne, I don’t see my uneven eyebrows or the freckles under my eyes I hate. I don’t see the weird girl, the nerdy girl, the unpopular girl. For a few moments, I just see that ring. I see the cool girl with the nose piercing. For the first time in recent memory, I look in the mirror and I love what I see. I catch my mom's eye in the mirror as she sees the grin blossom on my face and I see the thoughts in her eyes. “This is going to become a problem…”
I celebrate every birthday, every holiday, and every good report card with a new piercing. My ears become a canvas for metal and gems, my face feels more me with every new addition. Despite this, I still feel that fear every time. The second the car pulls into the parking lot my heart rate spikes. I have to focus on picking the jewelry because otherwise, I will just think about the needle. The moment I get on the table all my self-control evaporates. I am nervous, I am scared, I am not sure I want this anymore, can I actually have a second? Maybe we can come back tomorrow? Excuses threaten to spill from my lips, and my brain whips thoughts into a frenzy “It’s going to hurt so bad, you can’t do this, it’s going to be the worst thing ever, just back out, just go home.” The voices of fear are drowning out all of my thoughts. All of them, except for one. That singular voice saying “Just imagine the piercing.” I cling to that voice like a life raft in a sea of panicked thoughts. I try to remember the piercing, I try to imagine how it will look in my head. That voice gets me through it, sweaty, shaking, flinching, and crying, but I make it through it.
I don’t know when the fear of needles started, but I know the desire for piercings is just, ever so slightly, stronger.
That desire grows. Each piercing I get, every moment of fear I conquer, and each new, glittering piece of jewelry grows that desire. The fear however does not shrink. It remains, cropping up at different times. It used to follow me in from the parking lot, weighing on my shoulders even in the lobby, leaving me dry-mouthed as I picked out jewelry. Then it came up as I filled out paperwork, signing my name on a contract that I knew meant facing down the needle once more. But as the desire got louder, the fear got pushed back. In time it arose only when I got on the piercing table, the realization of what was about to happen stirring all those old feelings, bringing them up anew.
Eventually, I began working in the industry. I began learning to become a piercer. Now the needle went from being my worst fear, the source of nightmares and dread and meltdowns to my partner, my colleague, my most intimately known tool. I learned about the process of creating needles, what went into forming hollow tubes of steel, and sharpening them to the most precise point. I learned that people spent time trying to make needles gentle and that a woman with love in her heart poured care and compassion into their design. I learned that she was once afraid of needles too. I spent hours learning the mathematics that went into the creation of the needle, and the way its bevels could control every element of the piercings we did. I learned how to hold them, package them, and store them. Everything I learned pulls back another layer of mystery that had formerly made them terrifying. These unknown objects, designed to hurt me, transformed through knowledge into a geometric shape of steel and silicone whose curves and lines I knew as well as my own body. The unknown became known. The fear became intimacy.
Today I sit on a piercing table. I will be letting a colleague practice a new technique on me. I lay back, and a sense of nervous calm fills me. I scan down my body, feeling the quiet quickening of my heart rate, and noticing the sweat forming on my palms. I am pressing my toes into the bottom of my shoes, flexing and relaxing the muscles of my legs. The fear remains, but it is small now. It does not control my entire body the way it once did. Where once I ran from it, pushed it away, and fought it, I now welcome it. I allow my palms to become slick, I feel my heart rate elevate and I settle my awareness into every tightly coiled nerve, humming with anticipation. I greet my fear with a hug, like an old friend I am happy to see again. As my colleague lines up, I feel my breath shallow out, and for a split second, the fear springs violently awake. Adrenaline is alive in my blood. It’s like leaning back in your chair a bit too far, it’s stumbling on the uneven pavement and catching yourself. They ask me for a big deep breath and I settled my mind on the inhale. On the exhale, I am aware of every sensation as the needle kisses my skin. The first, second, and third bevels as they split apart the tissue. I can discern the heat of the second bevel carving out the channel and the pinch of the third creating space for the jewelry. I know the moment the jewelry slides in behind the needle. Once, these sensations filled me with dread. Now I can pick them all apart individually. Afterwards, I compliment their process, I give them advice about their transfer. The post-piercing calm settles over me. In the wake of the adrenaline, endorphins flood my body, and that delightful sensation that keeps people coming back to piercings envelopes me. The fear is as much a part of that sensation as the calm afterward, the stark contrast of the two combining to create a heady mixture of hormones that makes my head light and my body relax.
In a few hours, I will be piercing a little girl, who looks at me with an equal mix of excitement and nerves in her eyes. Her mother caresses her hair and tells me how brave she is. She’s been asking to get her ears pierced for years, and today is the day. I crouch down to her level and she reaches to touch my ears. “You have so many earrings! Weren’t you scared? I don’t know if I can be brave.” The smile that blossoms on my face is genuine. “I was so scared, much more scared than you have been. But being brave doesn’t mean we aren’t afraid. Being brave is when you are very scared, but you do the thing anyway. You want the earrings more than you are afraid of getting them.” She looks at me for a moment, thinking. “I want them” She whispers. A few moments later, with a few deep breaths, and the smallest of tears, her ears are pierced. She looks in the mirror and I watch her have the same experience I know all too well. The look of pride and excitement spreads across her face, her step becomes lighter. All of the nerves and fear are gone. She has conquered a summit many adults back away from. A summit I know like the back of my hand. I smile as they leave, watching her chatter happily about all the earrings she can’t wait to wear.
I return to the studio, to my little room in the back, surrounded by the needles that once terrified me. I select one carefully from its package, holding it with reverence in my hand. The tool that allows my very job to exist. The object that has over the course of years facilitated almost every important moment of personal growth, self-expression, and self-love that I have undertaken. The source of my pride, my excitement, and my passion. I smile, already excited for the next time I will feel the kiss of the needle, the swell of fear down my back, and everything else it will bring.