Recently, I had what might be considered an emotionally challenged episode. I guarantee if I had access to a razor, I would have shaved my legs. There’s nothing funny about losing your mind. Which is why I have to find humor in it, so I can keep it. It started with an MRI gone awry at the tail end of a year of spine surgeries with four children and a husband on-location. Just not on my location. It was the spinal straw.
I laid on the MRI table as the tech prepped me for my last-ditch effort to diagnose the origin of my left sciatic nerve debacle. An issue that worsened after my most recent artificial disc replacement in my L5-S1. I can not bear weight on my left leg without calling for Jesus. So far he hasn’t picked up.
My left foot lilted inward to my right, like a boy left hanging for a kiss. My right foot sat straight up – disinterested. She was not that kind of foot.
The technician noticed the muscle atrophy in my left foot and asked if I would mind if she taped it to my right one to hold my legs in the proper position for them to obtain a clear view of the nerve from my lumbar down to my foot. It’s a long nerve. The procedure would take an hour. I was to stay completely still. With my legs straight.
The tape screeched and snapped around my feet. A sound usually reserved for wrapping presents. My left foot was happy. He got the girl.
Then it was time to position my hands. The tech said I could do one of two things. Hold them above and behind my head, or fold them over my chest. I opted to place them over my chest. I figured I’d practice for my coffin. Cuz this year was killing me. Then my right hand began to slip, my elbow hit the cold metal of the table beyond the cushion. My right hand has similar issues as my left foot. She’s tired. If she were a prostitute, she’d get paid just to lay there. My pinky and ring finger used to at least tingle with aggravated numbness. But now they’re over it. Done performing, they have retired into my palm when at rest. They come out when I make them, but I’m tired too.
I asked the tech if she could tape my hands like she did my feet, accepted the sleeping mask, put in the ear plugs in, held the panic button, and took a breath. Breathing was allowed.
I then asked for a pillow to place under my left knee. This was usually a non-negotiable item for me. In order for my lower spine to be at all comfortable, I need a pillow or leg-riser when laying on my back. She couldn’t give me one. It would have been easier to get a Margherita than a pillow. The leg needed to be straight. And flat.
The tech left the room and entered her cockpit. Her voice came over the speaker. It was time to go deep. My spine and legs were straight as a board. I was ready. The slab moved my body into the one-hour time capsule.
I was at least grateful for the eye mask. If you are at all claustrophobic, MRI’s will send you to the moon. The first time I had an MRI, it was for my neck. They placed me in a Hannibal Lector-type mask. When I entered the tube, I made the great mistake of opening my eyes. For the first time in my life, I understood the power that the mind has over emotions. I realized why they called it the ‘panic button’. In a matter of seconds, my eyes saw the blurred edges of the grate over my face morph with the roof of the MRI just inches above the grate. My breath was magnified, As far as my senses were concerned, I was being buried alive. My heart raced, palms sweat, mouth dried, and fear surged through my body. All logic was gone. I squeezed the pain button. The tech extracted me from the coffin and said, “Oh yes, I forgot to mention, it’s probably a good idea if you don’t look up.” I was hyperventilating. I just experienced my first anxiety attack triggered by an episode of Claustrophobia. Fortunately, the tech was patient with me. I was not her first freak-out. (Although I did pass her on the way out smoking a cigaret.) She gave me a facecloth and folded it over my eyes. I re-entered the tube. I thought soothing thoughts. Like MRI techs dressed in Lady Gaga’s meat dress, hanging over a lion’s den. Like the ones from Siegfried and Roy. That ate either Siegfried or Roy. I could never keep them straight, perhaps because they’re gay.
I now had a coping tool for the MRI. It might be called an “open” MRI, but it doesn’t matter to a claustrophobe if you can’t see the open part at the crown of your head. I learned to dress so I never had to change into the assless-chaps, I mean medical gown. As long as you do not wear metal, you’re good to go. Nothing with zippers, snaps or hooks. Remove necklaces and bracelets. Rings and earrings are usually ok, unless your hand is near your pelvis at which time you should probably wear the assless chaps.
So, considering my vast experience this past year with multiple MRI’s, I assumed this last MRI would be a walk in the park. Until I choked.
My arms were taped over my heart. My feet were in bondage. My legs were perfectly straight. About twenty minutes into the scan, the pain began to light up my lower spine. It felt like a knife, twisting into bone right where the inflammation of my sciatic nerve begins.
There are few words to explain this type of back pain. Which is why God created the F-word. My eyes welled with tears. One by one they trickled down my cheeks, whetting my eye mask until river inlets followed the frame of my hairline into my ear plugs.
If I pressed the panic button, it would mean a longer time in the tube. There was no way out of this one. To calm myself, I imagined a white light traveling through my body protecting me from the invisible knife-wielding pain holding court at my L5-S1. After the hour, I was spent. My mascara coiled beneath my Forever Shimmer highlight blush. I don’t know why I continue to put makeup on prior to medical tests or procedures. Maybe it’s my war paint.
I gathered what composure I had left and entered the hallway to the waiting room. My head fell onto the shoulder of my mom’s neatly ironed white jacket. It had been almost a year since my journey of spine surgeries, procedures, injections, diagnosis, torture began. My mother held me. My whimper gradually evolving into a guttural moan. Waves of feelings ached into a silent cry; the kind of cry when your heart hurts so much that God decided its tears should never be heard. I slumped deeper into my mother’s chest, crumbling, a remnant of what I used to be. The year had finally caught up with me. The months of recovery from multiple surgeries only to find out there is more to be done. I finally had a taste of what some of the wounded I work with have gone through. This was my own kind of war. I just didn’t wear camo, go to the Middle East, get shot at, fly helicopters,step on an IED, miss the birth of my first child ~ that would be especially odd ~come to think of it, I know little about the pain our wounded go through. But I do know pain. And I see how people might stare at that ‘something’ about us that makes their subconscious mind chime in with “Not normal…” I see the doors with the handicapped sign that I cannot open. I enter a public bathroom when the handicapped stall is taken by a child who just didn’t know. I notice that well-meaning people will stand when we talk at a party, instead of sitting at my level, leaving my neck strained.
The inability to sit on a park bench, get my kids from school, walk with my husband, love him like I was healed. The fact my car needs a lift for my scooter, there are two wheelchairs in our garage, I have a handicapped placard, our bedroom has a fridge and coffee maker and a leg wedge, a cane and crutches. I am forty-three.
I thought about the MRI. How I held my hands across my heart. How it felt like a coffin. How I felt a part of me die that day. So many times I had listened to one of our troops explain how they felt like a part of them was missing after their incident. I realized I was listening, but I wasn’t understanding. They spoke of having to find their ‘new normal’. Now I had to find mine. But how.
A nurse brought me a wheelchair and helped us to the car.
I buckled my belt and the feelings built. The heaves of tears and then without warning or any control on my part, a guttural scream erupted from the depths of my soul. The scream of a mother who just lost her child. I had lost myself. It hit me all at once that my world as I knew it was over. The crying increased. My mother’s tears fell into mine as she held onto my arm. We were almost home. My body writhed. Waves, oceans thrust thru my chest, a vice churning a year of fossilized pain and denial into a kaleidoscope of agony.
Mom pulled into my driveway. I could not move. My arms and legs were lead. Every ounce of energy was going up into breaking down. It hit me that I was having a breakdown.
Mom stood outside my passenger door. Helplessly. She kneeled on the cement. Her hand on my knee. Her fingers wiping my tears as they fell. For the first time in our life, we didn’t care what the neighbors might think. I had earned this right to break all social rules. I could not look in her eyes for fear that I would see her pain and hear her wondering: If she could just get me to bed. If she could just rub my back. If she could just make it all go away. But this was too big for her to handle alone. It was a helplessness only God could touch.
Mom guided me into the house and to the stairs. My daily Everest. My tears fell on each step. My dog by my side, my shadow, refusing to take the lead. I crawled onto my bed. The sheets were cool and familiar. I could put pillows between my leg or a wedge underneath. My daughter’s stuffed animal from the night before stared at me. I wanted my children. I wanted my husband home. I wanted I wanted I wanted. I curled sideways into the center of the bed, pulling the sheets and bedspread around me as I curled into a fetal position. My fingers anchored into the pillows, sealing them around my face. I was morning my own death.
I felt sad, angry, guilty that my condition had affected the lives of my family and everyone around me.
I pulled tissue after tissue. My mother held her phone close to her ear, she was using a lifeline. She called my doctor who wasn’t there.
It wouldn’t stop. I could not control my tears. Over and over I said ” I feel like I’ve died.” And I did. I felt exactly like I had died. I now knew what that feeling was. And it scared me. It was as though God allowed me to venture to the edge of sanity because he knew I would return.
The waves became smoother. My mind slowed. I passed out for almost five hours.
My breakdown that day taught me how emotions can take over due to pressure whether it’s physical or psychological. I had both. Breaking down was the best things I have ever done, because it is the most human I have ever felt. It was the lowest I have ever been, and one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. Without it, I would never know how much the heart can take before it needs to release. How important it is to realize that being different than you once were can possibly be the greatest blessing of your life.
I hope to connect with our wounded more deeply than before. I will see people in chronic pain and wish I could take it away. I understand how powerful the mind can be, and imagine what it could do if I used it as a tool in my healing. My shadow, Reggie, is now registered with the US Service Dog Registry as a Therapy Dog. He can now bring as much joy to others as he brings to me. Even on an airplane.
Ironically, the following day was my Cognitive Behavioral Assessment with my insurance company’s psychiatrist to assure I was of sound mind so they could approve the implantation of the Electro Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant. I passed with flying colors. Timing is everything.
I don’t know what my new normal will be; If it will include a cane, a chair, a shoulder filled with tears. But I do know that whatever it is, it will be mine to shape and know that whatever it looks like, it will be beautiful, because it is above all else touched by the hand of God, as real as life could possibly be. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Micaela Bensko is a photographer and blogger whose work has been seen in national publications such as Conde Naste as well as on Martha Stuart Living. She has been featured as a leader in her field by Professional Photographer Magazine. Bensko is VP of Rebuilding America’s Warriors, providing free reconstructive surgery to our troops returning from war. She and her family currently live between Los Angeles and Nashville as her husband is Production Supervisor on the show “Nashville” on ABC. She also has a very short dog named Reggie.