The procedure will last about an hour, the technician explains. Relax, I say to myself as she arranges my legs and gives me a cloth to cover my face. It’s mind over matter. Plus, the clonazepam’s kicking in. Closing my eyes, I picture a beach in Mexico.
There’s a whirring sound, then a clank. Feeling the bed shift, I reach reflexively for my daughter’s hand. Instead, my fingers meet a smooth wall, sealing me in.
Nearly 30 years ago, in an underground city in Anatolia, Turkey, I felt a sudden panicked awareness of the rock above me. One minute I was obliviously ducking through a maze of narrow tunnels; a minute later, the confinement was unbearable. I shot to the surface and have avoided underground cities ever since.
My terror in the MRI machine is a hundred times stronger, a volcano of blind panic. My heart spasms and I crush the emergency button in a death grip. The erupting fear obliterates everything else.
The trundle bed moves. I hear voices. Too agitated to register what they say, I lurch from the machine. My daughter grabs my hand. I’m sobbing.
I lasted, at most, half a minute.
The technician could not be nicer. As I sputter apologies, she assures me she’s seen this before. “Would you like a glass of water?” she asks. “Take a moment. Then we’ll try again.” I smother an incredulous laugh: A glass of water? Against the Terror Volcano? I will fight the nice technician mano a mano before I’ll get back inside her Death Cylinder.
I cry while my daughter drives us home, frustrated and ashamed and now convinced I’m going to die of an untreated brain tumor. She settles me on the couch under a blanket and finds a television show to watch. “Don’t worry, Mom,” she says, handing me a piece of chocolate. “You can totally do this. I’ll help.”
My daughter knows about irrational fear. At 17, she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. A high school junior with straight As and a perfectionist streak, she became unable to finish her AP chemistry tests, caught in an obsessive-compulsive loop that forced her to check and recheck every calculation. In addition to anxiety and OCD, she suffered dissociation and intrusive thoughts. I found her a therapist, a prescribing psychiatrist and a cognitive behavioral specialist. At home I read Sherlock Holmes stories out loud while she ate potato chips with her head in my lap, soothed by junk food and Conan Doyle’s diction. “Focus on your breathing,” I used to tell her, about as helpful during a panic attack, I now realize, as a glass of water. I wonder how she refrained from punching me, and I marvel at her self-control.
I’ll never fully know how my daughter experiences anxiety. But my terror in the MRI machine gives me a glimpse. I start to cry at the thought of her going through that not once but dozens of times. “You poor, poor kid,” I weep. Gently but firmly, she sends me to bed.
The next morning, she explains the concept of exposure therapy. I don’t like where this is going. But the clonazepam I’d put my faith in hadn’t grazed the surface of my fear, and now I need to reschedule my appointment. While I search MRI hacks for claustrophobics online, my daughter improvises a substitute in the living room. She finds a wheeled dolly for moving potted plants in the mud room. The space behind the couch forms a narrow, enclosed tunnel. Covering the dolly with a pillow, she makes a tada gesture with her hands. Can I really be scared of something this ridiculous? I think, my haze of despair shifting a little. Gamely I lie down on it. Nothing’s going to hurt me, I tell myself.
My daughter wheels me behind the couch.
Panic explodes like fireworks. It is, if anything, more intense, every cell in my body now on a hair trigger. Sweating and shaking, I claw my way out from behind the couch. “That was good,” she says encouragingly. “Now let’s try it with a cloth on your face.”
“No, it’s not realistic.” I say, desperately stalling. “The machine at the hospital made noises.”
Undeterred and tech-savvy, she pulls out her phone. A moment later it’s emitting genuine MRI clanking and banging sounds. She places the phone on my chest.
My entire body clenches. To hell with the MRI, I think. I’ll take my chances with a brain tumor.
“Ready?” my daughter asks.
I asked her the same question, standing by the door with the car keys in my hand, before her first cognitive behavioral therapy. When I picked her up after that session, her face was blotchy from crying. But she went back the next week, and the week after that. It was painful and difficult, but she didn’t give up. She dismantled her former methods of avoidance and learned healthier ways to cope, facing the anxiety head-on with a combination of CBT and medication. Now, as a sophomore in college, she’s thriving.
Humbled, I lower myself onto the wooden dolly. I close my eyes. “I’m ready.”
A month from now, I will make it through a real MRI exam, lying still for a full 40 minutes. But it won’t be because I’ve addressed my claustrophobia: I’ll be drugged to the gills. The test will show an absence of tumors. I’ll go back to avoiding underground cities, and the dark space behind pieces of furniture.
But neither of us knows that yet. As my daughter rolls me behind the couch, the space bears down, threatening to suffocate and crush me. On my chest, the phone whirs and clanks. You can do this, I repeat. You can, you can, you can. Tears stream down my face. I endure for what feels like eternity.
When I can’t take another second, I thrust myself back into the living room, gasping for breath, into the openness and light.
My daughter throws her arms around me. “Mom, you did great!” She’s beaming. “That was almost four minutes. You should be so proud.”
And I am proud. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Of her strength and her warmth. Of her hard-won empathy. And the bravery I’m just beginning to appreciate.