My doctor said I needed an MRI, and I said hell no. You see, I’m a card-carrying claustrophobic, the real deal, the kind that breaks a sweat just thinking about being confined (even as I type this, my adrenals are doing laps). I double-check locks on bathroom doors to ensure they’re working, scout out exit signs and stairways, and breathe easier when there are breakable windows in a room. Even jewelry with complicated clasps are verboten. Subways and elevators cloak me in potential panic, and my husband and I have an understanding: in case of breakdown, he has to render me unconscious before I become a madwoman. (In the 25 years we’ve been together, I suspect there were times when he relished the thought).

Marilyn Gillard

It’s all about control; I cannot abide restraints of any kind, real or imagined. Whence it came from, I don’t know, but according to Wikipedia, “claustrophobia develops as the mind makes the association that small spaces psychologically translate to some imminent danger.” So when the doctor insisted on the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, aka massively restrictive interior) to diagnose some painful back issues I’ve been having, I immediately did what any normal red-blooded crazy phobic person would do: I demanded drugs. Even if I could get my body there — my mind better be elsewhere. And this “go to your happy place” crap was definitely not going to cut it.

Studies show that approximately 30 percent of patients refuse to undergo the scan, and without better living through chemistry, I would’ve, as well. The findings indicate that some people first discover the severity of their claustrophobia when experiencing an MRI scan and that the procedure can actually cause the phobia to occur, with lasting ramifications. There are websites and blogs dedicated to this issue, and you can even listen to the sounds of the machine (think jackhammers) before actually experiencing it in person. There are relaxation techniques galore, lists of natural herbs, suggestions for musical choices; I went straight for the tranqs. I spoke with the pharmacist about the comparative attributes of Valium and Ativan and the necessary dosage for a mind like mine.

After diligent research, I went into action mode. I called the lab, informed them of my particular brand of claustrophobia, and asked what happens in the event of a power failure. A friend wryly commended me for always looking ahead.

I checked out the different machines and soon realized that trying to understand how they work was useless and complicated — something about magnets and coils and radio frequency fields. Santa Barbara has the option of an “open” MRI, but the resonance of the scans is less detailed and there was a chance that I would have to undergo the procedure again. NOT. Also, the word “open” is hugely relative here. What that means is that you could see out the sides but still can’t move — you’re the squished slice of ham in a ham sandwich. There’s also new audio-video technology that allows patients to view videos while in the tube. I don’t know about you, but watching America’s Top Chef while hyperventilating doesn’t seem like a solution.

I took half of a pill at home and the rest in the car with aforementioned husband driving. Mellow, but still very present, I changed into the gown and followed my technician into the room. Her name was Kerrie, and she was terrific, soothing, unhurried, a gift from the gods. When she tried to position me headfirst, I babbled something about having read of feetfirst alternatives, and she switched me around. Earplugs, headphones, (I asked for Dylan — nothing like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to distract you), but no blindfold (it’d make me even more nervous), and finally we were ready to go. Every article and blog insisted that keeping your eyes closed was imperative so as soon as my head entered the tube, I sneaked a peek. Big mistake. There was a whole lot of white about an inch from my nose and I frantically squeezed the emergency freak-out ball, signaling an immediate retraction. I lasted a grand total of three seconds.

Time for another pill. At this point, my husband, who was in the room with me, started sweating, too. He didn’t want a madwoman, but a comatose spouse was not high on his list either. Kerrie said the procedure would take about 25 minutes and that she would check in every three or four. Ready? I closed my eyes and croaked out a yes.

The first few minutes were still a little grim, but I pushed down the rising panic with deep breathing and jumbled prayer. Kerrie’s voice continued to check in, and by the time I was halfway through, the clanking had taken on the rhythm of drums and the tube was magically imbued with cocoon-like qualities. Within the hour, I was home, under the covers, and the whole experience had become a nonevent.

Remember — an MRI could save your life. I am truly grateful for the technology and the gift of living in a country where this is all possible. I just don’t want to be there when it’s happening.


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