I have an eye surgery scheduled this November and the surgeon asked that I have an MRI to ensure all was well with my brain. (Friends and family may enter their jokes here.)
Two years ago, my first encounter with an MRI took me by complete surprise. I’d worked on a hospital public relations staff and later as a hospital chaplain, and had observed–and been called upon to enter–tragic, even emotionally and visually gruesome situations. No problem. I’d endured surgeries of my own. Ditto. I’d spent weeks with my parents in their respective hospital crises. Check. And so, I felt prepared and calm as I entered the room where the imaging machine waited for me.
I rested on the elevated bed that would slide into the scanner, and conversed with the technician as she described the process. We chatted, laughed, and calmly prepared for my excellent MRI adventure.
Then she clamped down a head brace, like a cage around my head, and began to slide me into the belly of the beast. Instantly, without warning, a wave of panic crashed over my consciousness and set off alarms throughout my body.
I asked her to pull me out and open the brace. “Asked” is perhaps an inexact word; I’m quite certain I screeched like a banshee. I sat up, feeling my heart race, trying to invite deep breaths and reason into my spirit, so my body and mind could catch up with each other. I had no idea what had just happened. I was embarrassed. Tears formed in response to my psyche’s sense of being under attack.
The technician’s patience and my own determination got me through the next hour, but it had been a perplexing and frightening encounter I never wanted to experience again.
When my surgeon requested another MRI last week, terror entered my mind and stayed, like a squatter taking up residence.
I began to lose sleep, lying awake and entertaining adrenaline rushes while I relived the earlier claustrophobic, nightmare experience over and over, dreading the next one and counting down the days and hours.
I asked Phillip about his reaction to MRI’s. “I just lie there and hang out; it doesn’t bother me.” Others I spoke with, while not ridiculing my fear, admitted their own phobias didn’t include MRI’s (though I know I’m not alone in loathing them). The universe-spanning distance between our reactions to the same stimulus began to intrigue me, and I explored my fear more calmly, and with an awakened curiosity and need to understand.
If two people enter the same experience, why would one endure it calmly and the other respond like an unhinged hyena? I wasn’t interested in unearthing some childhood instant that set such a fear in place, but rather in the irrationality of the fear to begin with: there was nothing in the experience of an MRI that could harm me: I was lying on a bed, in a safe place, with a professional watching over me…my mind could control this experience, rationally. I could breathe into it, even enjoy it. Why should I spend time rehearsing and forecasting that the next MRI would be a repetition of the first?
I began seeing this as an opportunity to grow beyond my fear. I imagined the hour after the MRI, and the days, and weeks. I focused on people and 4-legged’s I love, and on all the loving energy they would be sending me. And certainly, I thought about the millions of people who would welcome an MRI as a gift compared to the experiences they were enduring daily. I played the “acting as if” game, seeing myself as one who would calmly enter the room and perhaps be even a bit bored by the procedure, but endure it politely. This could work.
I felt almost excited when I got up early yesterday morning and drove in the dark to the outpatient clinic. I could do this! Because I’d scheduled my MRI at 7:30, the process was underway within minutes of my arrival, a medical miracle in itself.
This time I shut my eyes before the head-cage clamped down, and kept them closed throughout the procedure. The radio was turned up and the MRI- generated noise wasn’t as frightening. I tried to breathe and focus. I managed a chuckle in response to something the attendant said through my headphones…hey, this was going to be alright! And it was, for the first two minutes.
But my fear wasn’t going to shake hands with my reason quite so easily, despite my generous attempts to subdue it. It tore into my fragile peace quite effortlessly, and soon I could feel myself riding it, like a bucking bronco. But this time I wasn’t going to let it knock me down. Forget about meditation, dwelling lovingly on those who needed my own peaceful energy, or resting in the Spirit: I had to do something that moved as fast as my fear. I began to create phrases for the initials MRI: Marching Russian Infantry; Melting Rancid Igloos; Milking Righteous Indignation; Mucous-Ridden Ibex; Multi-Rainbowed Iguanas; Males Revealing Idiocy; My Raging Imagination…
Elemental, but it helped.
In an hour, I was on my way home.
So I didn’t evolve to a higher spiritual plane; I can’t say I had that expectation (but what a great blog entry that would be). Instead, I took a few steps, entered a fear and began to befriend it, and welcomed that part of myself with greater compassion. I fell back on one my one of my gifts—words—and that was instructive as well: we can use our gifts to calm our fears.
The Spirit pays attention to our resistance. As surely as we decide, consciously or not, that we will avoid something, you can bet we’ll encounter it, again and again, in one form or another. Each time, it comes with the invitation to grow in our self-compassion and the compassion and connections we share with others. Fear is humbling; it unites us with the “humus” from which we’re all created, and thus more deeply with each other.
These encounters with fear are always archetypal journeys. The hero or heroine (which we all need to be in our own lives) enters the dark forest, armed with a few powers—or gifts—and is expected to overcome evil (the fear, the darkness, the monster; ultimately some unloved part of the self), and return home with greater wisdom. The souvenirs of such journeys may be lasting spiritual peace, healing, and wisdom, earned in increments, but nonetheless hard-won rewards.
Of course, we’re never alone on these journeys. The loving thoughts and energies of family and friends surrounded me yesterday. And our Source, Love, embraced me as well. There is a deep comfort in the presence of this kind of love, this sense that we’re accompanied. And when, in the midst of facing fears, we forget our connection to Love, I again learned that we can rely on the unique gifts with which Love has blessed us.
Mindful Revelations Illuminated. Merry Responses Ignited.
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