It's quite remarkable how we can live from moment to moment with absolutely no awareness of what will come at any moment. No warning of, perhaps, impending terror. To go about daily business: tasks and appointments, planned in advance with no real concerns. Maybe a little nervous of what is anticipated and even that is purely a worry about what may not happen. People do tend to think of the worst. Not everybody though it is a common occurrence. No reason to think the worst, but to imagine the worst anyhow. It may never happen, whatever it is, but there is a chance that it might just happen. We cannot know our future. So, the totally unexpected does not offer a chance to adjust before it happens. No time to even imagine the worst. To presuppose the future in the imagination is one thing, but to live through that moment is quite another. If only I had known. What would I have done? I cannot know, but that will never happen now.
I had entered the building totally unaware of what was to come. I had taken the time to keep my appointment. I had arrived there. A friendly atmosphere. I didn't have any reasons to not keep this appointment. No feeling of trepidation or nervousness. I had gone there of my own volition. A routine procedure. If only I had known. Could I have felt so comfortable? I had removed all metal materials that I wore and ensured my keys were placed securely away from my person. I was dressed in a robe as I entered the room and was then asked to lay down on the bedlike platform. A pale blue blanket was wrapped around me with my left arm trapped beside me. Velcro tabs were brought together and I heard them opened and repositioned a couple of times for a good tight fit. I couldn't move. I realised that the bedlike structure must be a sliding platform. I hadn't taken much notice. That was unusual. Maybe I was more worried than I thought I was. This was Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, but I knew there was nothing to fear from this in itself. It's not nuclear energy in the sense of atomic energy though it involves atoms of hydrogen. This must be the reason it is called simply MRI and not NMRI. This could scare some people. The connection with nuclear could easily be misunderstood. Misinterpreted.
My glasses had been removed and as I lay down, my head fell back into a holder. The fit of my head in this holder was snug and ensured a firm grip, but it did not hurt and was quite comfortable. The first shock came as the cage was closed. The top half of the head cage swung across my face as the halves were closed together. I couldn't move at all. My left arm was firmly held beside my body under the blanket and my head was immovable in this cage. My imagination created a picture for me since I had no true image of what everything looked like. The next action puzzled me. A buzzer alarm was placed on my chest. One of those heavy black cables with a large button at the end. I should press the buzzer if I needed help. What help might I need? I couldn't imagine. I was soon to find out.
I was completely unprepared for what happened next. The tray with me atop of it like a spider's cocooned victim slid inside the tunnel that my imagination showed me was a very narrow tunnel. With just enough room it seemed to fit me in. This was the image I took with me into the MRI machine. I had no other to fix upon. The shock of being moved into this tunnel nearly overwhelmed me. It was so sudden and without any warning. Trapped inside a large magnet. A tunnel made with several tons of concrete or so I thought. My knowledge of the theory of the technology did nothing to help me. I thought I would scream in terror. It was so sudden and so shocking. The roof of the tunnel was so close to my face and I pictured it closing in on me. Ridiculous. But real. This concrete tunnel changed into a concrete tomb and I had been buried alive unable to move and unable to get out. I wanted to get out. I wanted to take myself back to five minutes ago. Impossible and irrational.
I heard a voice through a speaker somewhere saying that the experience would be a mixture of short and longer pulsed experiments and that they would be noisy. The longest was eight minutes as I recall and there would be several shorter ones. For a total of about forty minutes. A lifetime. No time would be too long in here. I was told I would have to endure forty minutes of this terror. I didn't know what was meant by noisy, but when it began it sounded like the loud ticking a train makes in a station as the compressor motors start up. And it was close up to my good ear! As I lay here looking upwards, I could see that a mirror was positioned like a periscope to allow me to view down the tunnel and through the glass window of the control room. This control room seemed a long way off like looking the wrong way down a telescope. My short sightedness made this mirror just about useless other than to allow me to make out any slight movement in the control room. Small comfort, but I felt so terribly alone. I could hardly breathe and I felt suffocated. My total immobilisation, the noise and closeness of the curved roof all combined to enhance my terror.
I started to think desperately hard trying to calm myself down. I was aware that my own pulse rate had rocketed and my blood pressure felt like it must have been off the scale. And I had been in here possibly less than a minute. I lay here silently, totally still, as my mind screamed "Let me out!" To abort this procedure. But if that happened I would have to come back and do this all over again up to and beyond this moment. I would just have to be here again, but in the future. It could only be worse if I had time to think about it. I might even never return. I had to do this. The very reason I was here. I didn't know the reasons for my growing problems, but this was supposed to provide some information to help explain symptoms. To help myself, I talked to myself silently. A quiet and rational conversation with myself in my mind inside this noisy and narrow cylindrical hole. Steady breathing. A slow intake of breath through the nose. Deep into the lower lungs. Allow the stomach to rise. Follow this with a slow and controlled exhalation through the mouth. Stay calm. I kept this up for a while. I had an idea how long this was for as I was told that the next pulse sequence would start shortly. I hadn't noticed the first one had ended. I reasoned that I had become unaware of the pulsing noise so when it had stopped I hadn't noticed. I was encouraged though I was still nearly overwhelmed by my fear. The diversion was working though and it had dulled the sharp edge of my fear.
The loud pulsing noise broke the silence as the next sequence started. This would be an eight minute experiment I had been informed. The information didn't mean much though as I had no sense of time. When this sequence had finished, it would signal that I was eight minutes closer to the end. I would endure this because I had to. Until the next sequence that followed. One thing at a time. Stay calm. Relax. Breathe easy. I can do this. This helped to dull my terror a little more. Moving slowly to the conclusion though still seemed a long, long way off in the distance. My pulse was very rapid and my blood pressure seemed to remain high. At least that's what it felt like. I cycled through a stifling awareness of where I was and my fears then to an inner calm unaware of anything except my breathing. Oddly, my breathing seemed very noisy, though that was probably the pulsing MRI instrument that had swallowed me. The initial shock was over as I became more accustomed to my new environment. Time had smoothed off some more rough edges of my fears and every moment I was getting closer to the end of what I must endure. I can do this. My confidence started to grow even though the noisy, narrow tunnel still threatened to overwhelm me. I couldn't stop the image of being in a coffin with the lid closed. Being buried alive in such a confined place. Unable to move. A sudden wave of terror surged through me. Calm yourself. Keep breathing. I am not in a coffin and I will be out of here soon, won't I? Doubts began to cloud my judgement and I began to wonder : have I been abandoned? How will I get out? I can't move!
Suddenly, I found myself outside in the room. It seemed as fast as I had entered. A shock? Exhilaration? To experience utter relief? It was a totally new sensation of total relief. To be out of there. I couldn't work it out. I was out, but I still couldn't move. I was told I been brought out of the MRI instrument to have an injection of a fluid that would help enhance and so clarify the scans. But I was out of that tomb. Rather comically to me the nurse-technician couldn't find a suitable vein. They all seemed to have gone into hiding. They had felt to me like they were motorways under my skin. The pulsing of my fears. And yet they were not even to be found. Like a frightened animal gone to ground. I found this terribly funny, but I didn't feel like laughing. Especially when I saw the needle and syringe. It seemed enormous. Almost the size of a milk bottle. Of course, it couldn't have been this big, could it? A doctor was called to do this difficult injection. To try to find a suitable injection site. To locate a doctor took time and all this time I was lying there considering my lot. I don't remember what I thought about; it must have just been the relief of being on the outside of that tunnel. The injection was done and I was sent back into my tomb just as suddenly as I had been taken from it. Back into my new home. My own tomb though with a warm feeling circulating through my body, provided by the injection. This time my stay was quite short. It was over and then I was out of there. That place.
What I do know now is that an experience must be experienced to acquire the knowledge of that experience. It is completely personal. It can never be understood by reading about it or hearing it described. The value is meaningless to anyone who has not felt such things. Nothing tangible. Nothing to compare with to even begin an attempt to explain. I do know now and I can only guess if my reaction would have been similar to what I actually managed to do. I came through it all. Everything eventually worked out possibly to the best outcome. I learned a lot about self-control. About reasoning. About real stress without a crutch to lean on. Yes, perhaps it could have been worse. Or better? What happened... well, it happened. I had no control of events, but I did have control of myself. I probably have more self-control now than before. To have learned. To have developed my character for the future, which could not now ever be the same. My present could never have been the same as it is today. This moment.
Much later I tried a tranquillizer obtained from my doctor since there was a need to repeat the ordeal in the future. Only this time I would be forewarned. That in itself is difficult to deal with. That knowledge of what is to come. That it might be different was difficult to imagine. It may be easier. It may be worse. I wouldn't know until after I had been there and done it. Again. A half-tablet did nothing. The next day I tried a whole tablet. This had an effect, but it was truly awful. I cannot remember feeling so awful ever in my life before that moment. To be completely bombed. Out of myself. Detached from myself. Somewhere else. It was worse than that strange feeling of concussion. To exist in a daze. But this was much worse : to be consumed by time standing still. The next time I would take my chances and rely on my own will. I had done it before and I'd do it again. And I'd do it better.
I think I can understand the terror that must exist for people buried alive under tons of broken buildings maybe in the aftermath of an earthquake. To be trapped, buried alive. Not able to move maybe with just enough air to struggle from breath to breath. And maybe never be brought out. Ever. Only one end. Eventually. All lived through in absolute terror. Several years ago, when this was fresh in my memory I could not have written this down. I couldn't sleep on my back. I couldn't bear to be in closed spaces. To relive in my imagination what I had experienced. An experience I would never have allowed myself to endure if I had known what to expect. By not knowing it is too late when it happens. Sudden. No going back. It's happening. I can only imagine what it might be like when the parachute you are wearing has not opened. No one can ever describe the sensation. No options. The only way is down. What terror that must bring. I do not know a word to describe my imagery. Complete. Absolute. These words do not even come close. Even infinite is not enough.
I can only imagine what may happen if we really did know the future. It's paradoxical: I think none of us could have a future if we knew it. We couldn't have one. Nothing would ever happen. By not actually knowing the future and maybe imagining a worst outcome doesn't stop our existence. We do move on. Maybe nervously. Cautiously. Fearfully. But we do move on. Perhaps that in itself is a learning. To promote survival by not being reckless. Like it or not we find out more about ourselves by not knowing. If we did know for certain, then we wouldn't move on. We would more than likely never have that experience and so never learn. The experience may offer something that costs nothing, yet has tremendous value. This is our own perceived value and is unique to the individual. Priceless.
Try describing happiness or contentment without having ever experienced either.
© Louis Brothnias (2004)