She Had Claustrophobia, So How Could She Handle an MRI?

Small spaces terrified her. What would help her find peace instead of panic?

by
- Posted on Oct 24, 2017

A woman undergoes an MRI examination

I lay on the table of the MRI machine. The technician put a pillow under my head and Velcroed my legs and wrists to the table. “Stay still,” she said. “It’ll be over before you know it.” For the next half hour, I had to lie motionless inside a tube so narrow, its top nearly touched my nose. I was on the verge of panic. The Velcro straps felt like shackles. I wanted to get up and run.

What was wrong with me? I’d never been claustrophobic. Very little scared me, in fact. That was the athlete in me. I’d done competitive gymnastics when I was younger—the reason I was getting this MRI. An old hip injury had acted up, and the doctor wanted a look at the joint.

Actually, I suspected the reason behind my panic but it made no sense. A few months earlier, my husband, Chris, and I had watched a TV documentary about how, long ago, people were sometimes inadvertently buried alive because medical science wasn’t advanced enough to determine death reliably.

“How dreadful!” I’d said when the show was over. I didn’t think much about it until we took a trip to California and I stepped into a hotel elevator. At once, panic gripped me. The walls of the elevator seemed to close in. My heart raced. I broke out in a sweat. Even worse, it was one of those slow, clanky old hotel elevators. Just getting to the second floor took forever. At last the door trundled open and I bolted out.

I felt so foolish. That TV show had spooked me more than I thought. I told Chris when I got to our room and figured that would be the end of it.

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It wasn’t. From then on, anytime I rode an elevator alone, I freaked out. I was fine when someone else was with me. On my own, I couldn’t handle it. I started avoiding elevators.

“Trying to stay fit!” I’d say whenever someone asked why I’d just climbed five flights of stairs. I prayed. I got pep talks from Chris. Still, my fear didn’t go away.

Now here I was, about to enter a space so small, it made that elevator seem like a palace. And I was Velcroed down!

I tried praying, but it was too late. The table slid inside the tube and I made the mistake of keeping my eyes open, watching the ceiling of the tube slide past my nose.

The half-hour exam seemed like a hellish eternity. My throat constricted. I went from hyperventilating to barely breathing at all. I fought the urge to press the little panic button wedged in my palm. I had never felt so afraid.

At last the table slid out.

“Is everything okay?” the technician asked.

“Fine,” I croaked. I had to wait until my body stopped shaking to get up.

Luckily, my hip injury turned out to be some muscle tightness and all I needed was some physical therapy.

My phobia? It only got worse. The MRI had kicked it into overdrive. Just thinking about riding in elevators made me sweat and hyperventilate. I looked at every tall building with terror. Me—someone who’d always considered herself a courageous, adventurous person.

A decade went by, and I made no headway conquering this fear. I came to think of myself as vulnerable, uncertain. My confidence ebbed. I didn’t want to tell anyone besides Chris. I felt as if I were going crazy.

Then the worst thing of all happened.

“I’d like to order an MRI,” a doctor said to me one day. I was in an orthopedist’s office for a painful shoulder. An X-ray had indicated a large calcium deposit lodged in a tendon, and a closer look at the joint was needed.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“It’s the best way to determine what’s wrong,” the doctor said. “Why—do you have a problem with MRIs?”

“No,” I lied. “Just wondering.”

Trying to act normal, I scheduled the MRI with the doctor’s assistant and went home.

“I don’t know if I can go through with it,” I said to Chris.

“You can do it,” he said. “I’ll come with you.”

A few days before the MRI, I was at Bible study at church. The conversation jumped from topic to topic until, for some reason, the pastor started talking about the standard psychological evaluation he’d undergone before being ordained.

“I used to have a lot of panic attacks,” he said. “But I didn’t realize until I became a pastor just how common fear is. We all struggle with it to some degree.”

The room fell silent. All of a sudden, I blurted out, “I’m terrified of elevators!”

Why did I just say that? I turned red. Everyone looked at me. Would they burst out laughing?

“I never knew that, Andrea,” the pastor said kindly. “How long have you had that fear?”

I glanced around the table, too embarrassed to speak. Nobody was laughing. Everyone was concerned, caring, empathetic. A new feeling came over me. A sense of weight being lifted or, at least, being shared. Taking a deep breath, I told them the whole story of the television show, that first horrible MRI experience and about how frightened and ashamed I’d been for so many years.

“Nothing works,” I said. “Not even prayer. And I have another MRI in a few days!”

“Guess what?” the pastor said. “I still get panic attacks sometimes. But they don’t bother me as much as they used to. I’ll tell you what I do, just in case it helps. I used to fight those panic attacks. Now I just try to see them as a familiar part of me. When I feel one coming on, I say, ‘Hello, old friend,’ and I talk to it. All the power fizzes out of it. You could give that a try.”

Old friend? This claustrophobia had been my mortal enemy for years! But I thought about those words: A familiar part of me. Was there a reason my fear had stuck around so long, defying even prayer? Maybe God knew something I didn’t—that my fear was just as much a part of me as everything else. It was part of a whole, serving purposes I didn’t fully understand. What if I tried simply accepting myself as I was? Greeting my fear as an old friend? As my pastor said, it was worth a try.

On the day of the MRI, Chris and I drove to the imaging center. He gave me a reassuring hug in the lobby and said, “You’re going to do great. I’ll be right here.”

How I wished he could come with me! I changed into a hospital gown and entered the room with the machine. I lay down on the table and waited while the technician got me positioned and put the noise-blocking headphones on my ears.

She placed the panic button in my palm. I felt my own panic rise. “Hello, old friend,” I said. The panic kept building. I took a deep breath.

“Hello, old friend,” I said again. And I breathed in again, even more deeply, imagining with each breath God’s peace flowing into me, the fear being exhaled away. I closed my eyes. The table slid into the machine. I listened for my heartbeat. It was normal!

The technician started the music I’d selected for the headphones—Elvis. I kept up my deep breathing and soon, to my astonishment, felt myself getting drowsy. This was relaxing!

The half hour flew by. I slid out of the machine and got back to the lobby as quickly as I could to tell Chris.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“Great!” I said. He hugged me again and told me how proud he was. That winter, we took a ski vacation to the Arizona mountains. We stayed in a three-story hotel—and on the third floor. Downstairs at breakfast, I realized I’d left my gloves in the room. I headed for the stairs, then stopped. There was the elevator. One of those slow, clanky hotel elevators. I watched as it arrived on the first floor and the doors opened.

I walked into the elevator and pressed the third-floor button.

“Hello, old friend,” I said. The elevator lurched up and I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, greeting my fear.

Before I knew it, the doors were opening and I was on my floor. I stepped out. No panic! Thanking God, I went to the room, retrieved my gloves and returned to the elevator, where my old friend was waiting. I was ready to greet it.

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