I’m not happy in tight spaces, a characteristic that probably falls short of a clinical phobia, but still significant. The box-torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty and the entire movie Buried stayed with me long after viewing, conjuring feelings of anxiety when I imagined myself in these dreadful scenarios. (As I write this, I wonder if my public admission is akin to Winston confessing his fear of rats in Orwell’s 1984. If ever the powers that be want to break me, they know what to do.)
Which brings me to the dreaded MRI procedures I had to face not once but twice last spring, a result of an immobile left shoulder. Why my entire body had to be inserted into such a tiny tube to scan a small area of my shoulder I don’t understand – I’ll leave that to the sadistic medical experts – but for the first MRI I was in good shape. I was given headphones, I asked for some easy-listening 70s hits, and twenty minutes later I was birthed from the cocoon transformed in neither beauty nor health, but with results that gave the doctor what he needed: permission to do another MRI, this time with painful injections before the procedure. Yea!
It was this second MRI – twice as long as the first – that nearly did me in. The technician offered me ear plugs instead of headphones, which immediately put me on edge. The bedside manner that was so calming the first time around seemed to be lacking, and when I asked for headphones the technician seemed annoyed, which caused me to blurt out a fatalistically unspecific response when asked what kind of music I wanted to hear. I said, “Something light and soothing.” Oh, was this a mistake, for the technician put on the most banal, painful, incessant piece of new age piano rubbish ever to pollute the airwaves. It was the formless expression of someone who wanted to make a living writing scores for independent film but who lacked the talent, an affront to all thing musical with meandering phrases and NO ENDING. I mean it never stopped! Meanwhile, my mind was focused on how much I wanted to scream and wiggle my legs and arms, and how much I needed to raise my head beyond the encasement whose ceiling hovered just inches from my forehead, and with each thought I became more and more anxious until I finally called out, “Can we take a break?”
Through the crackle of the distorted audio on my headphones, the technician seemed nonplussed by the request (and yes, I’m using nonplussed in the correct sense, not the sense that’s been promulgated recently, including by none other than President Obama).
“We’re not even half-way through,” she said.
Oh no. “Just a break,” I said.
She conveyed me out, and we talked things through. I said I didn’t know if I could finish, but maybe if we changed the music I could persevere. This time I returned to my musical stalwart of easy-listening 70s hits, and as I was slid back into the tiny compartment, the piano intro to Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat” began to play. It’s a song that I know very well, having seen Stewart play the tune at City Winery less than a year prior, and my son having played the piano intro off and on ever since. The piece felt like a well-worn sweatshirt on a bone-chilling evening, it’s soothing message of mystery settling my nerves instantly.
To help me through my journey, I imagined walking around my residential block, but slowly, carefully, fully aware of each and every step I took and each detail my eyes observed. Flower by flower, tree by tree, house by house, I strolled down Highland Avenue, then east on Fremont, then south on Oak, and by the time I reached half-way down that block, with “You Are the Woman” by Firefall accompanying me, the procedure was complete.
The result? Nothing that couldn’t have been prescribed without the MRI! Physical therapy for a frozen shoulder. A complete waste of time, money and spent anxiety. But a reminder of the power of music, whether life-affirming or torturous.
Next spring my daughter will graduate with a degree in music therapy, and if her life’s work can help easy people’s suffering the way 70s rock did for me, it will be a career well-spent.
Now, can we discuss why the openings of MRI machines are so fricking small?