I'm claustrophobic, and I just had an MRI

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I've just climbed a mountain. Well, at least metaphorically.

I'm claustrophobic. And I've had an MRI.

In all of my night terrors - the kind that make you clench your teeth and massacre the sheets - I am captive in a narrow, confined tube.

Once, years ago, I had to bolt after just a few minutes of an MRI. I've never forgotten the humiliation - and the relief.

So I've always pictured the next scene: a doctor explaining quietly that I must do this, that it's a diagnostic necessity.

I'd picture my shame as I would say respectfully that I simply cannot go into that tube.

For so long, claustrophobia has been my dirty little secret. I guarded it, hid it, and felt ashamed of it. But there it was.

I was great at passing as "normal." I found ways to deftly avoid elevators by insisting that climbing stairs was just another form of exercise.

It did get tricky in skyscrapers, so I avoided them, and I can report that one can, in most instances, live a full life missing whatever's on those very high floors. Clearly, I've never lived in a penthouse.

Fear is powerful. And I happen to be surrounded by several daughters and sons-in-law who are trained in the mental health field. It wasn't long until I was fair game for them.

First and foremost, I credit them with their kindness and tenacity. Though it's never wise to be "treated" by kin, even including the family's most pedigreed psychoanalyst, he tried to help me in small ways without ever intruding. But that's a tough balancing act. We finally gave up.

Was I born with this condition? I was not.

Strangely - or maybe not - I can pinpoint the exact moment it began.

It was on my first trip to Israel, a place I'd yearned to see, and a trip that is branded into my soul. Being there was a daily encounter with awe and wonder.

But then along came the day when I stepped into a crowded elevator in a busy hotel in Jerusalem. Suddenly, it lurched to a stop between floors.

All around me strangers were speaking in rapid-fire Hebrew. I knew about three phrases in the language, so I felt isolated.

Something in my psyche exploded, and I was paralyzed with fear. It has no respect for logic. Or age. Or rational self-talk.

Some of the strangers around me must have read my terror that day. One older woman took my hand and just held it. She motioned for me to close my eyes, and I think I did.

But, oh the wreckage already done.

So there you have it. The root cause, some might say.

After several decades, not just years, that nightmare still comes back to me in circumstances involving tight spaces. I've made it a point to duck most that I can predict and avoid.

Although some "cures" have enabled me to ride an elevator, I still much prefer taking the steps, however many.

I always aim for the front passenger seat in a car I'm not driving, choose the emptiest spot I can on the High Speed Line, and beg for aisle seats in a theater.

And then, a few weeks ago, during a recent painful bout with a bad back, I heard the dread MRI mandate. It was necessary for a diagnosis. Basically nonnegotiable.

I lost plenty of sleep thinking of ways to argue with a kind and reasonable doctor.

I made my poor husband listen to my fears, and though this man could probably talk down just about anyone, he failed with me.

The ultimate solution was almost comically simple.

I finally called the MRI center, 'fessing up, stammering apologies all the way, blurting out that I was tormented by even imagining the experience, and, yes, had already bolted from that MRI-in-progress some years back.

When I finally stopped talking, the scheduler on the other end of the phone - a total stranger - said she understood. She didn't try to minimize my fears. She told me that doctors and football players and corporate titans fight the same demons. Women more than men, by the way.

And then the breakthrough: She invited me to visit the exact open MRI that was prescribed for my procedure. I loved that word, open. But I didn't quite trust it.

Then I was told I could look at that MRI as many times as I needed to.

And this miracle: I could have someone in the room with me, close by, but safe, of course, from any danger.

I'm not optimistic by nature. But something - I can't explain what - broke through my terror.

I made that visit. I repeated it twice. I studied the machine as though I were about to buy it for our living room.

Then I chose my husband as my companion since we'd been through everything meaningful, important, monumental, and scary in our lives.

I also gratefully accepted the offering of a mild sedative that came with this package.

On a late winter day, trembling slightly, but also feeling some semblance of prefight bravado I can't explain, I did the deed.

The last thing I remember was Vic's thumbs-up as I drifted into a glorious peace. The next thing I knew, I was seeing Vic's thumbs-up again, this time accompanied by his wide grin.

I'd broken through at least one of my demons. I wept with relief.

That doesn't mean I'll love elevators and small spaces. Nor will I volunteer to have more MRIs.

But, recently, I found myself standing in front of the sweet guy at the box office of a Philadelphia theater I love. He greeted me with the usual, "I know - aisle seats."

I paused for a second, then pulled myself up to my towering 5-foot-1 stature and said, "No, center this time."

He didn't say a word, but I think he knew, somehow, that this was momentous.

And so did I.

pinegander@aol.com