L in the Southeast

L in the Southeast
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
November 04
Retired PR Director
I am a retired Public Relations professional who now writes purely for fun and catharsis. I covered most of my memoir-type pieces in the first three years here. Lately I have dabbled in politics, current affairs, pop culture and movie reviews. Life is my muse.


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FEBRUARY 7, 2013 2:02PM

Claustrophobia and MRI Don't Mix!

Rate: 19 Flag

It all started when I was about eleven.  Being from the suburbs, we didn’t have much need for elevators.  Seemed like everything was on ground level back then. Mama took my sister and me to visit one of her work friends in The City.  This lady lived in a brand new hi-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. 

I always wanted to be one step ahead of everybody else, even back then.  So, when the bell dinged signaling the arrival of the elevator, I rushed in, eyes ablaze with excitement and wonder over the impending ride. I don’t know how or why it happened, but the doors on the elevator closed before Mama and my sister got in.  I was alone.  I had no idea how to “run” this contraption.  The few others I had encountered always had an operator on board.  This one had nothing but rows of buttons.Stuck in elevator

I screamed bloody murder while that elevator rose to the top of the building, stopped momentarily and began to re-descend.  Eventually, Mama made the stupid thing stop by pressing the button on the bottom floor.

Since that time I have lived with a fairly severe case of claustrophobia.  I demand aisle seats in theaters and airplanes.  I refuse to be escorted to a doctor’s examining room until I am sure the doctor is either already in there or is on the way. I avoid crowds at all costs. 

This morning I had an appointment to have my head examined.  Literally.  I was to have an MRI of my brain to try to ascertain the possible cause of some neurological issues I’ve been having.  The last time I was required to have a CT scan, I was only in “the tube” for a few seconds before my eyes started twirling in circles (at least that’s the way it felt) and I broke out in a cold sweat.  Fortunately, I was able to endure the relatively brief test without totally freaking out.

MRI machineThis one was quite different.  Not only was this test conducted in a much bigger machine, I was going to be required to lie perfectly still for an entire 45 minutes.  After 35 of those minutes had passed, I would be pulled out in order for the technician to inject a contrast dye into my vein, while I don’t move a muscle.

The first thing I did was hit the rest room.  Twice.  Nothing would screw up this process more than if I needed to make a pit stop 20 minutes in.  Next I requested a blindfold.  I have learned that claustrophobia is primarily a visual phenomenon; if I can’t see that I am confined, the phobia won’t kick in…or so I hoped.

Those readers who have endured an MRI know already that it is not humanly possible to fall asleep during the procedure, although the nice lady said some people do.  Earplugs are standard issue, so the decibel level inside that tube is ear-splitting.  Those who fall asleep must be stone cold deaf!

During the first few seconds, I fought panic.  My breathing was shallow and far too frequent.  My eyes remained squeezed shut throughout the test, so there was a regular light show going on behind my eyelids. 

To calm down, I visualized what I usually resort to when panicked: a waterfall.  Realizing that wasn’t going to be helpful in keeping my mind off my bladder, I switched to writing a blog post in my mind.  That’s when the noises started. 

Thumps, rhythmic clangs and percussive repetitions seemed to come from somewhere near my plugged right ear.  When the sounds switched to chops, I decided I would take my first ever helicopter ride.  But just as I was above the ground and hanging on for dear life as the pilot made a sharp left turn, the sound stopped.

Not knowing what to expect next, but knowing there was no way that 35 minutes had already passed, I again began to hyperventilate. No!  No!  Stop it! Breathe deeply!  Relax each vertebrae…one…two…three…four…phew…

Suddenly the machine began to knock, 42 times in a row.  Yes, I counted them.  How else could I stay focused, calm?  There were a total of 8 of these 42-knock segments.  By this time I was totally relaxed – until the cramp began to form between my shoulder blades.  No big deal, I tell myself. I live my entire life with something hurting somewhere. 

That’s when the corner of my right eyelid began to itch.  Uh- huh.  Try ignoring that!  That spot had been itching for two days now.  Usually, it happens in reaction to some fragrance.  Was it the new shampoo?  I started singing.  I didn’t know if the act of singing would create movement in my brain, so I switched to humming one of my collections of earworms.  “These are a few of my favorite thinggggggssss…la la, la la la, la la la, la la la.”

I was also freezing.  The nice lady offered me a blanket in the beginning, but I declined.  My problem is usually quite the opposite, what with the occasional personal summers I host.  Now it felt as if icicles were forming inside my capillaries.  So I thought about glowing charcoal and blast furnaces.  Even Hell.

“Ms. B, you can get up now.  We are all finished.  You did great!” Huh?  Where had I just been?  There was a gap in my consciousness.  Did I actually fall asleep or did I just hypnotize my fool self? 

That sense of triumph we competitive types get whenever we win…anything…spread over me like a shower of honey.  Hah!  I did it.  Oh, happy day.

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Good for you! I don't have small area fever but I do have to have a duel MRI/MRA done once a year. It's about 1 1/2 hours. To heck with what they say about open MRI'S because you can't turn your dang head amyway to see out of them anyway. At any rate, because I can't hear the music they play and they don't have a good ZZ top Cd this is what I do: I close my eyes and listen to the noises you described. Then I visualize an African rain dance where the dance movements correspond to the sounds. I see the wonder of the colors and sense the smell of the burning embers. By the time it's done I've had a grand show...all alone..in my head. I wonder if my images blur when I do that? ;-) Glad you survived. ~r
You did so well!!! My mother just went through one at 94 years old and she focused on the man she could see monitoring the test. She counted. 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 This is what she does to get to sleep and to survive the tremendous pain she is in sometimes. 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 works well too. A friend said she imagined the boat trip she often took between the beautiful islands in Southeast Alaska. I think I would think about the great lovers I have had. lol I don't know. I might panic. I wonder how many people do?
leslie, I too have gone through that and have claustrophobia. The worst feeling in the world to be laying in that thing and you could not have described it better.
Hope everything is okay
TME: Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you around. Hi! I like your self-induced visions. I hope there won’t be a next time, but if there is, I’ll try it.

Zanelle: I do something similar to what you Mom does when I want to fall asleep. I count backwards from 100. Counting backwards seems to keep my mind focused enough to prevent extraneous thoughts from breaking through. I asked the technician if many people do panic. She said “Yes!”

Linda: Sometimes the tests and treatments seem far worse than the symptoms of whatever they think it could be. Thank goodness, I am pretty tough about all the other things.
I had two MRI's this year. I cheated. I took something beforehand. :)
Joanie, I didn't want to take anything because I had to drive myself home. I didn't want to wait around until they decided it was safe. It was offered, though.
I can see how a claustrophobic would freak out in one of those. And that noise is awfully obnoxious. I had to have one a couple of years ago and just tried to go into a zen state. Being sleep-deprived and hungover may have helped. It was of my head and as I like to tell my friends - They found nothing!
I could never comprehend the claustro because the thing has open ends. The stress comes when the techs keep asking if we have claustrophobia! The clanking and not being able to move or breathe every so many minutes is the annoying thing. You have the real thing, so you get my empathy and praise for being very brave. R and hugs.
L: If this ever happens to you again, which I hope it won't, please, consider the drugs! They have been a godsend for my husband. He can't stand the darn MRI. Yes, I have to arrange my schedule and drive him home. But darn, it is way worth it. Plus, he's really funny on that uber Xanex. I had a friend come with me and my husband to lunch afterwards, in part because he's such a card when he's all legally drugged up. So much better than the trauma from the previous MRI experiences.
Boy, do I know that...well. I am big time claustrophobic, and I can't count the ways these techs and doctors invent to get around "full enclosure" with me. R
Oy. You did just a little too fabulous a job in describing this experience. I have to crawl in one of these suckers every year in April for the rest of my life I guess.

I get through it by meditating in there, which sounds weird, but works really well, and sounds like what you did–yielding, listening to every clank, breathing into the buzzes. In my version, they inject the dye into the IV while you're inside the critter, and tell you they are about to do it over the speaker system. That moment is kind of incredible...the cold stuff flowing into the vein can really be felt.

So...everything is AOK, I hope?
Marvellous writing. R.

Enclosure and height cause me much anxiety. Flying combines these frightening experiences. Take care.
My wife is borderline claustrophobic and dreads MRIs. For me it's just another visit to the doctor.
Seer: I’m with you completely on the height issue. And I did tell I was claustrophobic and they offered me drugs. I declined because I had to drive myself home.

Abra: Hahahaha.

Zuma: It’s the closeness of the tube to my face that bothers me. If the top was open, I wouldn’t have a problem at all. I’m just stoked that the blindfold got me through it.

Helvetica: Thanks for the info on the drugs. Maybe next time…

Thoth: We are claustro-twins! Cool. :D

greenie: They had to roll be out to inject the dye, but I didn’t feel anything cold flowing into my arm. Maybe it was because I was already half frozen!

Lyle: Thank you! Yep. Flying can be problematic for me, too. I NEVER accept a middle seat or a window. It’s either on the aisle or wait for the next flight.

Con: I wish I could say that.
Oh how I hate those things. And I've had my share. Hope you are alright.
Way to go! Kudos to you! My husband has had a few MRI's and I go with him in the room, but I swore I'd never go in that machine unless I was completely knocked out! He does great, nothing bothers him...but not me! The sounds alone would make me insane. For the life of me I can not understand how we could send a man to the moon, but they can not create a quiet MRI machine that gently hums and doesn't sound like a war zone!
I hope your story helps others with claustrophobia, but I will still pass. I also hope your results are great!
I'm glad you were able to get through it okay. While I don't have a problem with claustrophia, I've had more than my share of injuries, so I've had several MRIs in recent years. Meditation helps a lot in staying calm and not letting the process become too stressful.

Because it's so soon, I assume you haven't yet had your follow-up visit with the doctor to discuss the results of the scan. I hope it gave enough useful information to help in assessing the problem that led you to this ordeal. Wishing you a positive follow-up with answers that will help resolve that problem.
Christine, Linda and bikepsychobabble: Thank you for understanding what I went through. The report from my Primary doctor is that they found three lesions on my brain. She said they are not unusual in a person my age who has a history of high blood pressure, but I need to consult with a neurologist to be evaluated. MS runs in my family, so… The appointment is on Feb. 26,so… we shall see.
I started hyperventilating as I read your piece! The first time I tried to take an MRI, no sooner had I laid down on the table...than I told the tech, "I want to get out of here." I left. I went home, practiced lying under tables. Forget it. Nothing was going to help. Did a bunch of research (this was 10 years ago), found what was considered an open MRI (not a tube but it still lowers something 1/2 an inch from your face. They told me they would give me an IV of medication. Got the meds, had someone with me, and as soon as I started to gain consciousness, I said, "More drugs."

Childbirth was easier!
Marcia: LOL! It is comforting to know I am not the only one. Thanks for sharing your tale of horror. :D
The noise in those contraptions is just disgraceful. I can think (and I'm a design engineer) of no good reason why they have to be that loud. Nevertheless I did manage to doze off when I was inside one, I think out of a need to get away from the racket.
did an open MRI once, but a panicked in a closed one.
I'm claustrophobic, too, and had to have several MRIs and other scans in 2009. The imaging place would give me a Xanax, but that meant I had to have a driver. I so hate being dependent on other people that I started passing on the Xanax just so I could drive myself. I'd keep my eyes closed so I couldn't see that I was confined, but knowing that the machine was open at both ends helped. It was like being in a giant toilet-paper roll instead of in a coffin. That was about the best face I could put on the experience: I'm in a giant toilet-paper roll.