Needles for Veterans

In most instances I am a pretty brave guy.  I am not the sort who backs down from a worthwhile fight nor I am the sort who can be goaded into a stupid fight for fear of being called a chicken.  However, my courage does have limits.

There are only three things in this world that I am truly scared of: snakes, clowns, and needles.

I don’t know what prompted the fear of snakes.  I have just always hated them and their little flicking tongues.  I blame Stephen King’s book It for my Pennywise-induced coulrophobia.  My aversion to needles came about thanks to Dr. Nissen at Penobscot Valley Hospital.  His infamous bedside manner was on full display when 8-year old me filleted a thumb with a brand new Cub Scout knife.  Watching (and feeling!) as ole’ Doc Nissen probed under my thumbnail to deliver a local anesthetic spawned a life-long phobia.

The fear takes different forms of course.  When I see a snake a very high-pitched shriek is usually followed by gunfire or the sound of a shovel slicing through the air and snake-flesh.  I have yet to decapitate a clown with a shovel, but there are a few well-intentioned Shriners out there who received verbal warnings to keep their distance.

My feelings toward needles usually follow a routine cycle.  I avoid them until some authority figure compels me to suck it up and submit to being lanced, probed, injected, or siphoned.  The fear isn’t so bad that I pass out or have to be restrained, but I have to fight to contain the panic within my chest where it makes my heart beat faster and my breathing extremely laborious.

Earlier this week a young Veteran and I were discussing various treatment strategies for Post-Traumatic Stress.  Some counselors want to take you back to the traumatic event, which not every patient wants to submit themselves to.  Others believe in group counseling, but many Veterans are tired of hearing war stories and want no part of that.  Then there are the drug-pushers, doctors who believe if they get you high enough you’ll feel better.  There are so many different approaches, but the challenge for Veterans is finding someone you trust who practices a strategy you are comfortable with.

What does treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress have to do with my fears?  Last week I learned of a free acupuncture clinic for Veterans that reportedly helps with anxiety, which is a common symptom of PTSD.  This week I took one for the team.

I am not someone who believes in holistic or alternative medicine, but I do believe that if you find something that works for you then I have no business judging.  I am also not someone who will recommend a treatment strategy I have not researched for myself.

The Bangor Veteran’s Acupuncture Clinic meets every Thursday at 1845 in Grace United Methodist Church on Union Street in Bangor, which is where I found myself this week standing in a cold rain trying to muster up the courage to go through those doors.  I didn’t know what to expect but I knew for certain there was someone with needles on the other side who wanted to put them in me.  I reminded myself that this might help someone else and I stepped through the door.

I was about five minutes late so there was little time for idle chit chat.  A nice man named Tom directed me to sit in a comfortable chair and sign a release.  He quickly explained that I was going to get five needles in each ear.  There was one each to help my heart, lungs, kidneys, anxiety, and something else I forgot as soon as he said it.  I then cleaned my ears with an alcohol swab and Tom began administering the treatment.

I had mentally prepared myself for a man with a pony tail (because in my mind all holistic types have pony tails) attempting to harpoon me like Queequeg in pursuit of Moby Dick.  Instead, Tom (who most definitely does not have a pony tail) very gently inserted all ten needles into my ears without a single twinge of pain.  Doc Nissen could have learned a few things from Tom.

The lights were turned down and some soothing music was turned on.  Me and the dozen other pin cushions sat there in complete silence.  Panic initially tried its familiar battle with my heart and lungs, but it subsided fairly quickly.  Then something amazing began to happen.  I relaxed.

I don’t relax.  Ever.  Relaxing makes me feel uncomfortable, but not this time.  My head became extremely heavy and I found myself battling to stay awake.  That fifth thing Tom mentioned must have been sleep because I really wanted to nap.  The 40 minutes flew by.  Then the lights came on and Tom emerged to painlessly retrieve his needles.  And then I went home and slept like a baby.

I still don’t believe in holistic medicine, but something worked.  It wasn’t the fellowship with Veterans because hardly a word was spoken that evening.  It could have been just knowing that great people like Tom and his fellow practitioners are donating their time and talents to help Veterans in this community.

Next Thursday I plan to once again be at the Grace United Methodist Church on Union at 1845.  If nothing else I want to drop a few bucks into the donation jar so that Tom and his colleagues can continue to offer this free clinic to my brothers and sisters.  If counseling doesn’t work for you, then I invite you to join me.  I promise to not engage you in any meaningful conversation.  And I apologize in advance if my snoring interrupts your own experience.


On an unrelated topic, an enterprising young Veteran is gathering market data for a potential project to help disabled veterans.  Please take a moment to complete the following survey:  It is only ten multiple choice questions.  They are so simply even a civilian can answer them.

Clifford M. Gray

About Clifford M. Gray

I grew up in Enfield and moved to the Bangor area in junior high. I enlisted in the US Air Force Immediately after graduating from Hampden Academy. During my 20-year career I served in intelligence, command & control, and the Air Force's history and museum program. Following my retirement I completed my undergraduate at California State University, Chico, with a BA in History and Social Science. I returned to Maine last year to attend graduate school. I currently work as a veteran advocate in the area of peer support.