Finding my Mama in an MRI Machine
I discovered a strange and curious new happy place
Today I participated in a brain injury research study conducted by a local health sciences university. Parts of it were fascinating (I experienced virtual reality for the first time) and other parts were exhausting (moving items around on a computer screen). But the best part, by far?
Researchers took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of my brain.
And my, it was divine.
I know, most people cringe when they think of having an MRI, and it gives rise to panic and claustrophobia in many. The idea of being strapped into a tube and being subjected to all sorts of clicking, banging, and buzzing doesn’t appeal to the majority.
But wow, it was the most relaxing part of my day.
I love MRIs. Weird, huh? Of course, I had to get to the bottom of this strange attraction. But first, I had to think my way through the process and dig deep for my ‘aha’ moment.
This first part will be familiar to those who have had MRIs.
I scramble up onto the table (two big steps) and I lie down on my back. I position my head into the ‘head cup’. It’s really just a contraption with a barrier on each side, to keep my head in position while the imaging is taking place. The radiologist and I both realize I need to scootch up for a better fit. It’s comfortable enough, but then the technician gives me a pair of neon orange foam earplugs, and I twist and squish one into each ear. I used to wear them around asphalt pulverizers when I worked in construction, so they feel familiar to me. Already, I’m comfortable.
I’d forgotten how much fun it is to try to determine what others are saying once the plugs are in. Normally, I wear hearing aids but when they’re not in, I have to squint to hear people and often ask them to repeat themselves. Those squishy orange cones give me an excuse to avoid listening.
I hear something that sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown TV shows— a“Mwa mwa WAH wahwah” that I hope isn’t last-minute instructions. But then the assistant slides massive stereo headphones over my ears, and suddenly I hear the voice of the research coordinator, who reassures me he’ll be right outside, and I can stop the process at any time. He is so soft-spoken I feel like he’s singing a lullaby. I’m probably squinting to hear him. But my noggin is snug and secure, like a high-tech mother’s hug. All good.
Then, the first head ‘clamp’ is put into place—it looks and feels like a bulky virtual reality helmet, except that there is just a tiny screen showing me an even tinier little white cross. Another piece clips over top of it. Is this what Indy car drivers feel when they don those crazy helmets, I ponder? Locked and loaded, ready for anything. Can I see the white cross? Yes, I answer, I can. Should I be seeing something else? Unicorns? Jellyfish? A bright light calling me forward? Nope, I’m reassured. Just the cross. Damn. Maybe I was too optimistic, hoping for more.
Did I mention my entire body is strapped in? The medical folks call them seatbelts, but to me they’re security straps, my touch with reality, my grounding, holding me fast and keeping me from falling or flailing. I suspect neither is appreciated during my time in the photo sausage casing booth, and I’m keen to behave myself.
The great thing is, the radiologist and study coordinator walk me through everything. It’s a relief, giving them control of the process, because they—unlike I—know what they’re doing. They cover my tattoos with cold, damp sheets. Sometimes, they explain, there is a metallic element in tattoo ink, and the coverings will protect any potential heat issues associated with metal in the MRI machine. I immediately think of the time my dad put a plate in the microwave and it began sparking, sputtering, and popping. I imagine myself as MRI microwave popcorn, my inked wrists and feet exploding and setting off the smoke detectors. Whoa, I think that’s a short story in itself.
Slowly, I’m rolled into the sausage tunnel. It’s like a conveyer belt, sending me into deep space. I feel my elbows pushed in toward my torso. I’m ready for my closeup.
My wonderful research coordinator checks in—remember, your panic button is in your right hand. You can stop at any time. And…try to think happy thoughts, he says.
Instead, I’m super aware and focusing on what is happening around me. I feel my heartbeat increase (with trepidation or excitement, I really can't decide), and I breathe deeply to slow its pace. I’m extremely relaxed. I just kind of space out, and I’m becoming increasingly drowsy. I know we’re not supposed to fall asleep during MRIs—we’re supposed to concentrate on being still. But wait, the noises haven’t even started yet.
OK, I’m whispered to, we’re going to start now. This first one will take about 12 minutes. Try to relax, I’m reminded. Go to your happy place.
When do I tell him I’m already in my happy place?
Because, while the procedure itself is fascinating, I’m perfectly at ease. This is cool.
The noises don’t bother me much; I’m grooving on the rhythm of the click-click-donk of the camera. It’s like a little beat box inside my brain. Some people request or are offered music to help them remain calm during the procedure. Not me! In fact, that would be overwhelming for me…I’d have to listen to the music while grooving on the robotic rhythm AND concentrating on being as still as possible. Too much work.
By the time we’re through the first round of imaging, my heartrate has slowed, and my muscles have melted into the bed. I’m immobile and grounded, calmer than I am when I turn out the light in bed at night.
During one of the scans, I’m told to focus on that tiny white cross. I know I’m concentrating when I suddenly see two little crosses, dancing side by side. I wonder, and I hallucinating or dreaming? Or sometimes, when I’m tired, my eyes will involuntarily cross. Is that what’s happening? Can the medical folks see what I’m seeing? Have I slipped into a blissful abyss?
It doesn’t really matter, I’m as physically still and externally silent as bedrock. I’m doing just fine. Exquisite, in fact. I’m experiencing something quite unexpected. And here’s where it gets interesting.
I'm 'snug as a bug in a rug', as cozy as I've ever been, and strangely, I'm content. A snuggly, cuddly machine? Weird reaction, right?
I popped out early from the womb; I spent my first days as a preemie in an incubator, a tiny hatchling who was monitored but never coddled or shown affection. I had to fight to stay alive.
When I came home, it was much of the same. There’s no doubt in my mind that my mother loved me, but she wasn’t in the least nurturing; it simply wasn’t in her nature. Conversely, she was often distant and early interaction with her was unpredictable and inconsistent. Now, it wasn’t just me that she didn’t lovingly tend to. Our cats, our dogs, and the other humans in our household weren’t physically nurtured either.
My husband thinks it’s noteworthy that when I’m stressed or riddled with insomnia, the only place I can fall asleep is the sofa. I paste my body against its back and swaddle myself in a blanket, benefitting from the security of a protective wall and a soul-nourishing fabric hug.
So this full-body embrace, a calming snuggle from a diagnostic mom, is fascinating but perhaps not that surprising. It’s giving me something I didn’t realize I was missing. Obviously, I appreciate the difference between a machine and a human; I can differentiate between love and nurturing, between affection and a sense of security.
But in the MRI, I’m safe and secure, wrapped up tight, cared for, and nothing bad is going to happen to me. I’m sure more than one psychoanalyst would have opinions about this basic infantile need satisfied in such a strange and inorganic way.
Of course, I asked for a copy of the MRI images. I’ve never seen my brain before, despite all the bonks and bumps it has somehow tolerated over the past decades. And I’m not a medical professional, so I won’t be viewing them for diagnostic purposes. More likely, just occasionally, I’ll look at them and remember that feeling of security. I’ll breathe deeply and imagine the machine hug.
And I’ll think: This is me. My brain, my beat-up warrior organ, a blissful moment in time. A sweet memento from my perfect, perfunctory MRI mama.
About the author
I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.
I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions