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What my Son Taught me about Respecting People’s Fear of Needles

I grew up with type 1 diabetes and so it became crucial that I get comfortable with checking my blood sugar and giving myself injections in front of other people.  I would often be afraid of their reaction.  Would they be disgusted?  Worried?  Alarmed?  I have always used some discretion when handling these acts in public but I’ve also been vocal about how these acts affect me and not anyone else so I really don’t want to hear anyone complaining about it.  After all I’m the one enduring the pain, right?  Well, I may have been wrong.

My children are six now, but I noticed that when they were about 4, my son would stare at me when I gave my insulin shots.  He would watch the needle go in and out.  He’d even observe as I put the orange cap back on the syringe and zipped it back up in its case.  I thought to myself, “well, he sure seems interested” and I’d answer any questions he had about what I was doing.

As he got older he would ask questions like, “mommy, does it hurt when you do that?”  And I’d answer truthfully, “yes, sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t”.  He would then say something like, “I sure am glad I don’t have diabetes.” In the past year, he has winced every time I prick my finger for a blood sugar check or given an insulin shot.  I also noticed that sometimes he would appear to physically shake off the image he just saw the way a parent might when envisioning a worst case scenario involving their precious child.

I have been quite accustomed to doing all these diabetes things in the same way someone else might pull their hair up into a ponytail or role up a shirt sleeve.  In other words, I have grown into an adult that recognized I needed to be comfortable checking my blood sugar and giving insulin anywhere and in front of anyone for my wellbeing and so I do these things mindlessly and without the crippling worry I felt as a child or teenager.  In doing so I’ve learned that most people have a lot of empathy and compassion.  They are cautious if they don’t know me and if we are say, shoulder to shoulder on a plane ride, but still rather polite.  I always imagined that I’d have children who wouldn’t even blink at my pricking my finger because I figured they’d be used to it.

My daughter has been an interesting comparison.  She doesn’t wince or tremble or look like she is in pain for me at all.  Instead, she looks away and continues what she is doing, staying just as happy-go-lucky as always.  Recently, after injecting, my son said,  “Mommy, it hurts me so much every time I see you do that.”  I quickly rushed to his side and said, “But, I’m ok sweetie, it only hurts a little, I’m still happy and smiling and everything is ok.”  Then he explained how he knows it does hurt sometimes, how he has seen the little bruises that sometimes arise, and how he hates that something painful is what keeps me alive.  Such empathy!  Then I was stunned when he said, “Would you please turn around when you are giving your shot so I don’t have to see?”

And I suddenly understood something I hadn’t before.  Some people watch us inject or prick our finger and genuinely feel a tingle through their body thanks to a release of cortisol brought on by the stress of the great load of empathy they feel for us.  Most of these people know we have to do what we do but some people are very sensitive, so much they might appreciate us having more discretion around them because they will feel our pain to some extent.

You might think of someone you don’t particularly like and not really care too much about their reaction.  I get it, but we all desire compassion from others and the only way to really earn that is through reciprocal empathy.  I care about you and you care about me.  My son doesn’t get that stress response anymore because even in the comfort of my own home I turn around or go to a different room.  When we are in close quarters I let him know what I have to do and he appreciates the warning so he can turn away.  Then I say I’m done and both my kids look at me and smile.

I now extend this awareness and courtesy to others wherever I go.  I bet there are less people out there with a fear of needles than those who are quite simply sensitive to another’s suffering.  And who would want to make this sweet little face upset?Christmas-Day-2011-134.jpg

Just to clarify, we people with diabetes should absolutely do what we need to do, when and where we need to do it. However, life should be played by ear and there are easy little ways to spread compassion as we go.  I’m not boldly defiant about my diabetes management in public–i’m calmly adamant that it’s the right thing to do.  When I soften myself up and show empathy towards others, they show it right back. It’s a win-win, what I’m advocating for.

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