On MRIs and Claustrophobia and the Cloud of Witnesses

Last week I had an MRI to see if what looked like cysts really were cysts.  I’d had an MRI 18 months ago after my breast cancer diagnosis – and didn’t remember having a problem with claustrophobia.

Did I just forget in the whirlwind of information and procedures and emotions of that time?

Perhaps, but I sure don’t remember feeling the anxiety about a closed space as I did this time.

Here’s my story.



Since an MRI is magnetic resonance imaging (meaning a big, powerful magnet is involved), my check-in involved techs being sure that I wasn’t wearing anything metal or have any metals in my body (just fillings, which apparently aren’t in danger of being pulled out).  And I had to have an IV for the contrast fluid.  I still hate needles but did okay since one tech was asking the 100 questions as the other was inserting the needle.  I do lots better with needles when I’m distracted.

Then it was on to the MRI machine.  It’s one of those big tubes that they slide you into.  I had to lie face down, kind of like on a massage table.  The tech put something into my ear, and I asked, “Oh, is this the earpiece for the music?”  Because I did remember that 18 months ago the music made the MRI more tolerable.  But no music this time.  The stereo was broken.  These were ear plugs, because the MRI makes really loud noises – loud enough to shake your protons (literally).

Anyhow, at this point I was pretty comfortable.

My thinking was this:

I’m lying on my stomach, my breasts are in place to be scanned, my eyes are closed because I know that not looking at how close my face is to the plastic part of the head area is the best bet for me.  The tech says I have to be absolutely still.  I’m doing great.  I’ve got this.  They start sliding me into the tunnel.  And my right arm brushes the side of the machine.  That makes me very aware that I’m in a confined space . . . .

I mentioned that I’m claustrophobic, right?

The first time I was aware of being claustrophobic was when I was in Ireland in 1999.  Our group was going into Newgrange, and our guide said, “If you’re claustrophobic, get in the back of the group.”  I was smack dab in the middle of our group of about 20 as we went into the rough stone passageway.  About 15 feet in, I was seized with panic.  The stones were so tight, so close.  I felt smothered.  I had to run out into the open and escape!!

I was calculating this:  How many people do I have to knock down to get out???!

Then I somehow managed to take a few breaths and push down the fear, and in just a few moments we were in the chamber, which had a high ceiling and enough room for me not to feel closed in.

Was I feeling some ancient fear in that passageway as we went into a space that was carved over 5,000 years ago?

Whatever it was, ever since then I’ve been aware that I’m claustrophobic.

Fast forward to the MRI machine last week.  When my arm brushed the side of the machine as I slid into it, the panic hit.  I was very aware of being in a confined space.  I wanted to leap up, to claw my way out of the tube, to scream and flail and escape.

But I didn’t do any of that.  I lay there a few seconds as my anxiety increased.  And then I asked the technician if she could take me back out for a minute because I was feeling claustrophobic.

I had to get into a better space in my head.  She reversed the direction and slid me out of the tube.

Whew, I could breathe again!

I took about a minute to take some deep breaths and go into the calm(ish) place in my mind.  And I moved my arm so it wouldn’t touch the side of the tube.  As long as my eyes are closed and no part of my body touches the tube, I can take myself somewhere else.  If I can’t see and feel how tight of a space I’m in, I can handle it.

So I gave her the okay, and back I went into the tube.  The noises of the machine began.  I could feel the panic crawling up my back, heading toward my neck and skull, but I breathed into it, telling myself to let go, to relax, to be with the moment – the moment that had no pain, no fear, no anxiety, nothing that didn’t begin in my head.  And my head could take me to a comfortable space.

St. John of Cross icon

St. John of the Cross icon

I know this is going to sound weird, but I felt my mother’s presence then.  She died in 2004.  Sometimes (often, actually) I feel the presence of those on the other side.  I did during this MRI.  I felt my mother’s presence letting me know that it was okay, that I could let go of the fear.  And so I did.  I thought of St. John of the Cross confined in his 6 x 10 cell for months and how he had mystical experiences there.  I thought of all of the people who were praying for me, who had encouraged me on Facebook and through email and in person, who were with me in spirit right now.  I thought of what my friend Margaret called “the cloud of witnesses” when I told her about this experience after the MRI.

Or actually, I felt them.

And the anxiety diminished, subsided, and gradually evaporated, like early morning mist on a sunny day.  Even when I could feel my exhaled breath bounce back because my face was so close to part of the machine, I didn’t panic.  I stayed with the moment, not creating fear where there need be none.

And before too long – 30 minutes, a little more? – the MRI was over.  The tech slid me out of the tube.

I had survived – no panic attack.  I hadn’t moved at all during the scan.  I had stayed perfectly still.  They had gotten a good scan.

And it was time to wait for the radiologist to read the results and let me know what he saw.

They brought my friend Margaret back to wait with me.  I got a little shivery with tension since I knew I was about to get an answer to whether the “concerning” places were cysts or cancer.  I commented about feeling the vibrations during the MRI, and I swear that during the scan I could feel my hydrogen protons spinning.  Or at least I could feel my legs and feet vibrating with the loud noises.

The wait wasn’t very long.

As I said in my last post, I got the all-clear from the radiologist.  He showed me the scan results on his computer and let me take photos (one of which is above).

I suppose I could say I felt relieved.  But that wasn’t really my emotion.  I felt happy.  But I don’t feel the highs and lows that I used to feel.  I know that good and bad are relative.  I know that nothing lasts.  I know that life is in constant flux.

I also know that we are all in the midst of a cloud of witnesses.  That we have unseen support and love.

I know that I can breathe into claustrophobia, whether it’s induced by a 5,000-year-old tomb/womb (#99 here ) or a 21st-century magnetic resonating contraption.

So that’s my story of MRIs and claustrophobia and the Cloud of Witnesses.  I’m learning more and more to be in the moment, to let go of hope and dread, to be with what is now.

Right now it’s raining.  Several days ago, I saw these azaleas in Savannah.  And I can enjoy their images right now.

And share them with you. . . .  and our cloud of witnesses


6 thoughts on “On MRIs and Claustrophobia and the Cloud of Witnesses

  1. Krista,
    Thanks for the great MRI explanation along with your body’s response. I’m still deeply humbled to have seen your heart beat, your malignant tumor, and your no tumor! Just your implant :>.
    Thanks be to the mystery for the Cloud of Witnesses and Janele that day. I hope you are recovering from a tremendous amount of emotional energy being held in your body. With loving kindness, Margaret

  2. I had an MRI a couple of weeks ago and found the noise rather than the space almost intolerable… The first 30 minutes they gave me a useless pair of head phones… No music. For the second 30 minutes i was given ear plugs… I tried to focus on what the noises sounded like but was so glad when it was over!!!

  3. You write so wonderfully! Thank you do much for sharing it. I think of you often and so enjoy your pictures, too.

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