Our 22-year-old son Zach has been in the medical world his entire life. He’s sustained hundreds of invasive procedures such as blood draws, injections, surgeries and other tests. He’s so brave, it’s impossible not to let him inspire me when I have to do hard things myself.
But in a recent conversation with a loved one, I realized something interesting about Zach. He seems to do hard things easily but get tripped up over what I might consider doing the “easy” things. He makes doing the easy things hard.
When he needs to have labs drawn, we have a plan: It involves booking the first morning appointment early on a Saturday (so we don’t interrupt his weekday routine) at the same Quest lab (so we don’t confuse him with what we are doing) and making sure one adult stays in the waiting room while the other keeps him in the hallway (to avoid unnecessary exposure to germs from other patients) until they call him.
The phlebotomists know Zach pretty well. At 80 lbs. he is still light enough that the easiest way to secure his posture is to place him sideways on my lap, with his targeted arm free and extended, and his non-targeted arm wrapped around my body where it can’t interrupt the process. I used to have to wrap his squirmy legs in mine also, but mercifully we seem to be past that part.
If you are cringing just thinking about getting blood drawn, or getting a shot, you are not alone. But for Zach, the draw is the easy part. He literally watches the clinician like a hawk, as if he were the supervising phlebotomist, studies the needle as it goes into his own arm, does not flinch, waits patiently while the tubes are interchanged out of that port for various tests, and immediately says the same thing when the needle comes out: “He did it,” followed up with a sincere “Thank you!”
For many people, the needle is the hard part. But Zach does this part easily.
The hard part for him, is Zach’s anxiety which hits the roof the moment he realizes today is a day for labs. He predictably starts perseverating, asking the same questions again and again, with increasing conviction as we get into the car, get closer and closer to the lab, and eventually park. He finds this to be so stressful, and will repeat “boo-boo, no boo-boo, stay home” and things of this nature. He objects in the ways he can. The anticipation is always the worst for him, and therefore his parents.
For years I tried to rationalize with him and remind him that the “boo-boo” is no big deal, that he does much harder things like trying to walk on legs that are mis-shapen and painful. I remind him how courageous he is going out into the world every day with a body that doesn’t do many things it should. His Dad has nicknamed him “Superman” and buys him clothes and socks to remind him of his bravery!
But to no avail. Nothing we have said, bought, dressed him in, or reminded him of seems to impact the fateful stress infused ride to the lab on Saturday mornings. At this point, we just go for it, coffees in hand, sunglasses dimming the bright morning light, and allow him to squirm all the way there.
It’s curious, that the fear or anticipation of a specific procedure generates more of a physical and mental reaction from Zach, than the actual procedure itself. Is it the unknown? Even though by now he certainly knows what’s coming. Is it the lack of control? Having no say? Or just a plain rejection of the life he has to show up for even though parts of it suck?
I ask these questions because I think they resonate in my own life, and perhaps in yours too. Are there things I resist doing because of how I feel about them, the stories I tell myself about what might happen, fear of being out of control or just plain annoyance that I have to do this “thing” yet again?
If the answer is yes (and it is for me!) I suggest taking a look at anything we are making harder in anticipation of the event, than the actual event itself. Can we change the narrative? Can we ease into the anticipation of doing something hard by reminding ourselves of the reason we are doing it, or by finding some part of it to be grateful for?
For example: Getting a mammogram is one unpleasant experience middle-aged+ women go through every year. I find it annoying that I have to take time out of my day, to go to the appointment, expose myself physically to vulnerability and mild pain and discomfort. I am not a procrastinator, but this is one of the things I like to put off.
But instead of getting myself worked up about it, can I just tell myself I am so Blessed to live in a place that has this type of screening, that as a women I am independent and free, that I am so fortunate to have health insurance, that I have a vehicle to get me there and nurses to help me through the procedure?
Can I expand that gratitude beyond my small self, to honor women who have come before me, and died because they didn’t have adequate access to this type of screening procedure? Can I just say “Thank You” as I drive and take the moment to meditate on how lucky I am? Would that change things?
There is one way to find out. Next time you jump into a familiar pattern of mounting a response of “UGH” over whatever you may “have” to do, remember Zach. Recall that the needle is the easiest part. Try to find something to be grateful for and change the narrative. Then let us all know, if this made the undesirable thing more bearable, and if so, how so!