Originally posted June 22, 2017.
Last week I had an MRI, not my first. Familiarity takes some of the edge off my anxiety about it, but it still runs like a current through the weeks and days.
All too soon, I’m in a dressing room at the MRI center. I’ve long believed that keeping on one’s own clothes is essential for staying this side of medical discouragement. They let me keep my shirt but have me wear a hospital version of harem pants. Then I’m in the MRI room, the staff telling me to lie on the narrow bed, attaching an IV to my arm, placing a great rubber-like mat they call the “camera” on my torso and clamping a pair of huge headphones over my ears. All set, the staff leave. The technician, controlling events from another room, presses a button and slides the bed and me into the MRI tube.
For the next forty-five minutes, I must keep still while several images are created. The process of taking each picture involves several minutes of pulsating sounds, their nature and rhythm different with each process. In one, I all but hear the phrase, “We’re taking a picture. We’re taking a picture. We’re taking a picture,” repeated countless times. Another photographic sequence causes my flesh to ripple.
The difference that makes all the difference between the experience of an MRI and trapped isolation is that technicians can talk to me through the headphones. I’ve learned to ask them to tell me from time to time how many minutes remain.
There are pictures at the beginning and end that require me to hold my breath for several seconds. Through the headphones, the technician tells me when to start, and then when I can resume breathing. At one point, I wiggle my feet to help relax me in the belief the motion will have no impact on my torso. But the technician detects the movement and irritably breaks in to tell me again to stay still. It’s a forceful reminder of how connected all our body parts are, how dependent each is on the rest.
By now, inside this metal tube, I’m telling myself not to panic. But seeking ways to occupy my mind, I find that summoning up memories of people and events only stirs up emotions. I’d find even recalling music threatening—I’ve refused the staff’s offer to pipe music through the headphones because it sounds distant and grim under the machine’s racket. For me, the safest memories might be literary. People who have endured solitary confinement write about working through all the poems they’ve memorized or reciting the plots of novels they’ve read. But I have very few poems memorized, and my recall of plots and character names is poor. Besides, the MRI machine is clanging away, making thoughts hard to hear and my feelings jangly.
I eventually find two points of comfort. One is awareness of my girlfriend, outside the MRI room, reading (on my recommendation) Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, a novel about a slave ship that ought to put my predicament in perspective. The other is the thought of the flowers we planted along our terrace just the weekend before.
At long last, the voice in my headphones tells me we’re done. My narrow bed and I are retracted from the tube. I say, “Thank goodness,” as two staff members hurriedly and wordlessly disconnect the IV and pull the “camera” off me. Other patients are waiting.
Note: I extracted this account from an essay where I now realize it didn’t belong. That post, a revised version of which you can find at https://adrianspratt.com/resisting-kafka/, was about handling scary dreams.