When I completed my first course of CBT two years ago, one of the ‘goals’ of my treatment had been to get to the stage where I could walk into a blood donation centre and give blood for the first time. It had been something I had always wanted to do but, for obvious reasons relating to contamination and crippling fear, I had never been able to do it. In fact, each day when I walked past the local blood donation centre on my way home from work, I always walked on the opposite side of the road. I couldn’t bring myself to walk that closely to a place whose sole business was human blood.
So, here I was, a month or two after my CBT course had ended, sitting in a waiting room of a blood donor centre. If it wasn’t such a clusterfuck of anxiety, emotion, fear and lead hot nerves, I think I could have probably found the whole thing quite funny in its ridiculousness. A contamination OCD-er in a blood centre? Ha! Walking into the centre alone, through the gates, onto blood ground, was a big enough step in itself – I suppose I could have just left it at that for one day, having at least taken that one monumental step closer to freedom from OCD. But, for whatever reason, I carried on right in. I opened the door, trying to ignore the sound of my mind screaming at me that there was blood all over the door handle. I was given a form to fill in – shit, how do I know the woman who just gave me this form hasn’t got blood all over her hands?! Where is the nearest toilet? Am I able to wash my hands somewhere?!
I look around. Ahead of me is the Post-Donation Area – cups of tea and biscuits abound. This is where donors sit reading magazines and sipping sweet tea, safe in the knowledge that they have just done a good deed for the day, perhaps even helped to save someone’s life. They are quietly smug and demonstrably chuffed with themselves – and who can blame them? Most people don’t give blood – even though we really ought to – so, good for them I say! Feel smug, good deeders, for you have earned it! Besides, at this point, my attention has been diverted to the cotton wool pads that have been fixed to their arms to stem the bleeding. Underneath those pads, they are bleeding. Actual blood. Red, dangerous, blood. I start to wonder if any of the Smug Ones have perhaps come into contact with their own blood. I wonder if they have actually washed their hands – or are they just sitting with blood soaked hands? There is blood on their hands; these people who are now handling the tea machine and biscuits.
I fill out my form and, there it is, in bold and in black and white. The word. The letters. The three letters that have me sitting in a clammy cold sweat, restlessly fidgeting and scanning every inch of this room: HIV. They have to ask you about it, of course they do. You can’t give blood if you are HIV positive. You can’t give blood if you have had sex with someone who is HIV positive. The list goes on. There is something about a capitalised acronym that gives weight to any term. Think about it, in the movies, you never see FBI officers running around with jackets emblazoned with their logo in lower case, do you? The authority of the Bureau would seem fairly diminished if its officers were forced to wear jackets with “fbi” on the back. No, it’s FBI for a reason – the capital letters tell you to bow down and be afraid, bitches! Be very fucking afraid. Ditto goes for HIV. The capitalisation somehow packs a punch that symbolises a greater power. You need to be scared of this.
Having filled out my form, I take a seat and fidget my way through the next ten minutes or so. I distract myself by updating Facebook, encouraging people to donate blood if they can. A few friends start liking my status – all but two of them thinking that my status is about the act of giving blood. And in a way, yes it is. But mainly it’s a FUCK YEAH to myself because I am sitting in a blood centre and I am not screaming and I am not crying. I am just sitting (albeit restlessly, twitching like I’m on some kind of come down). A small nurse carrying a clipboard calls my name and ushers me into a side room. I’m wary of touching handles, of holding doors, who knows what the fuck is on them. But I follow her anyway, feeling a little more empowered with every passing minute.
In the room we go through the form, she explains what will happen. She takes an iron test, which involves having my finger pricked before a drop of my own blood is squeezed into some kind of solution that apparently gives the go ahead for my donation. Suddenly, the table upon which the solution rests becomes toxic, and I am instantly very aware of my surroundings, my sense of danger is heightened and my stomach burns. My eyes are fixated on the cup of solution – how many other people have bled into that solution? And how many have then placed their punctured skin on this table, dripping blood all over the exact spot where my arm is now rested? I look at the nurse, who doesn’t seem to flinch. I am flinching. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that this table could be covered in HIV. Her hands, her pen, that form, this room. We are sitting at a table of blood and she is not even wincing. There is not so much as a disinfectant wipe nearby. Does she even wash her hands between donors?
As she wraps up, she asks me if I have any questions. I seize the opportunity and ask her if my blood will be tested for HIV (for an OCD-er with my kind of OCD, this is a huge bonus to giving blood – it’s an inadvertent HIV test, which, for someone who is permanently afraid of contracting the virus, is quite a terrifying-but-good thing. At least I will know….). I ask her if they will let me know if my blood comes back as having tested positive for HIV. She looks more than a little concerned at this question and asks me if I am expecting it to come back as HIV positive. Suddenly realising how odd this question must seem to her in this context, I end up muttering something about how I have OCD and how this entire event is a goal of my CBT therapy. Looking perplexed but fairly reassured, the nurse looks at me, nods very slowly and shows me back into the waiting area, where I am placed in a queue to Give Blood.
When My Time Comes, I shuffle over to the donation station, all the while trying to stay the thoughts and simultaneously pay attention to what is actually happening. A chirpy, chipper nurse introduces me to an odd looking contraption, not quite a chair, not quite a bed. It’s a wipe clean affair, which means that, in theory, it should be clean and disinfected. The thing is, I do not see the other nurses disinfecting the chairs between each donor, so now I am wondering exactly how much blood there actually is on this thing, and how contaminated this whole space is. Underneath the bed-chair, there is a box where I can put my belongings – thank Christ, because there is no way in hell I am putting my stuff on the floor. Shit knows how much blood has been on this floor at one point in time. So much blood in one place, there is bound to have been an accident at some stage – leaking blood bag, needles on the floor, open puncture wounds dripping blood everywhere; the whole room is bound to be contaminated in some way. Ahead of me there are shelves of blood, literally shelves of blood. Boxes of bags filled with human blood. Someone once told me that one in every hundred people* in Britain is HIV positive, which means that – statistically speaking – one of those bags could contain blood that will test as HIV positive. I am sweating. My whole body is on fire. I am fighting every instinct to get the fuck out of there before it is too late, before the contamination ‘sets in’, before the contamination of this bed-chair seeps through my clothes and onto my body, onto my skin and into my blood stream.
(*I have since learned that less than 1% of the population is HIV positive, which means this statistic is way off. Lesson: question everything.)
The aforementioned chirpy, chipper nurse sets about trying to find a vein. She gives me the ‘sharp scratch’ spiel (sharp scratch my arse!! It’s a fucking puncture!), and inserts a chunky mother of a needle into my left arm, before hooking it up to the Flimsiest Looking Bag You Have Ever Seen (don’t tell me those things don’t split all the time!). She comments on the speed with which my blood is flowing into the bag – I am not surprised, my whole body is on fire, my blood must be surpassing the speed of light if my thumping heart is anything to go by. I set to work trying to do the hilarious leg lifts and butt clenches that you’re supposed to do during the donation, to keep the blood a’ flowing. I look around and, suddenly, in the midst of the anxiety, and in the midst of feeling like I am literally drowning in blood, I start to feel a little bit smug. Smug because I am here, smug because I am helping someone somewhere, smug because fuck you OCD, look at this!! Three months ago I couldn’t walk on the same side of the street as this place, yet here I am, hooked up to a machine that is sucking out my blood. Sat next to a bunch of other people who are hooked up to machines that are sucking out their blood. Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood.
I start feeling quite comfortable with the chirpy, chipper nurse. We begin to tread the path of small talk which is a welcome distraction, to say the least. I am feeling more pleased with myself than I have in a very long time, so much so that I cannot resist telling her that my being there is more than my being there. This is a CBT goal and I am kicking its arse (kind of). I don’t think she quite understands what the fuck I am going on about, but I can see that she understands that, for me, this is a Big Fucking Deal. She congratulates me, she smiles cheerfully and I am thankful for this moment. I know that it was a long time coming, and I know that the next time I kick OCD’s arse in this way may be years away, so I am relishing every second of this. I am being a normal person doing a normal thing, just giving blood, just living my life. Look at me. GO ME!!
“She’s going! Let’s get her upside down!”
That’s right, I passed out. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was emotion, adrenaline or just sheer relief that it was over. My brain probably just thought to itself, fuck this, I’m taking a time out!
I walked out of that blood donor centre like a rock star. I sent texts to tell the people I knew would understand. They did, and it was wonderful. I was drowsy from the momentary pass-out, excited at the achievement, and just generally feeling so damn alive! At last I could count myself as one of the Smug Ones! Yes! You can just call me Ms Smuggy Smug McSmug. Then, I did what I always do, I put headphones in my ears and strutted (well, as much as anyone can strut when feeling slightly sick, delirious and a little drunk) all the way home, wearing the cotton pad on my arm with pride.
That was two years ago. I have some way to go, but I cannot wait to be able to do that again.
PS. If you are physically and mentally able to give blood, do consider it. You may save someone’s life. For more info, go here – http://www.blood.co.uk/index.aspx