On a whim, after seeing a Facebook friend post a video of her son’s swimming success, I signed my daughter up for lessons. And if you know me, doing anything “on a whim” is completely out of character—I’m more of an “obsess, plan, obsess some more, regret making plans, and obsess again” kind of person. Nevertheless, I found myself scheduling a lesson for the very next day. Which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal…except that my daughter is terrified of water. Well, it’s not the water, exactly—she takes baths, drinks from her Frozen cup, runs through the sprinkler, and even splashes in the lake (as long as her feet touch the ground)—the panic sets in when the water touches her face. And even the thought of submerging her head? Forget about it.
Given her fear, and a previous attempt at swimming lessons that only succeeded in making her more fearful in the water, I had my doubts. But in our family (where we all have a penchant for anxiety…because genetics), we’ve taught our girls to follow Sheryl Sandburg’s sage advice and lean in to their discomfort. So maybe they’re not (yet) fighting against sexist attitudes and gendered stereotypes to get a seat in the boardroom, but you know that big, scary slide at the park that makes your knees feel wobbly? Go down it. Those monkey bars are higher off the ground than you’re normally comfortable with? Try it out. You’re worried you’ll miss a note at your piano recital? Get up on that stage anyway. So it’s with this attitude in mind we approached her swimming class. And after that first day, my strong and brave little girl was determined to overcome her fear. She even wore her goggles around the house, constantly requesting a bath so she could practice getting her face wet before her next lesson (my compromise was dunking her head in a bowl of water at the kitchen table—it’s summertime, kid. I’ll hose you off in the backyard, but I’m not bathing you every day). Two weeks later, and she’s not quite ready to try out for the Olympic freestyle, but she’s made tremendous progress in overcoming her phobia.
A few days after her first lesson, I found myself staring down my own crippling anxiety. For those who don’t know me, I tend to be a bit of a hypochondriac; no matter the symptom, all signs (and all WebMD searches) point to cancer (or now, COVID). And all things medical tend to freak me out—I hate needles, avoid hospitals like the plague, and even the thought of getting my blood pressure checked raises my numbers. This past summer, I had some health issues requiring more blood draws, doctor visits, and lab tests than I care to remember. But finally, we (think) we discovered the issue (long story short, turns out I have the spine of an 85-year-old who didn’t drink her milk), and I needed an MRI.
“This will be easy!” I said to myself. “No needles, non-invasive… no biggie.” My husband, who’s had his share of experience in the MRI tube, billed this as an opportunity to reach Nirvana. “You can really zen out! Practice your meditation. Clear your mind. Enjoy yourself!” And on that note, I was off. My first clue that things weren’t going to be quite as I’d hoped was the automatic door—when I arrived at the medical office, it wouldn’t open; not for me or for the receptionist on the other side. Ten minutes of jumping and waving our hands like lunatics, and we finally managed to trigger the sensor long enough to let me in.
I sat down and pulled out my phone to text my husband about the door—”A sign I should turn around and head home?” I joked. But before I could think too much more about it, my name was called, I quickly shoved my phone in my bag, and followed her back (to my doom).
The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, swaddled in a blanket, ear plugs muffling the sound of Today’s Hits blaring through my headphones. “Here is your panic button!” the tech said cheerfully, placing a small round ball in my palm before my body slowly slid into the depths of the tube. “Panic button???” I screamed in my head. “Why do I need a panic button? Like if I can’t breathe? Wait… can I breathe??? Are these walls closing in? They feel like they are closing in!!!!” My heartbeat thundered in my head as I struggled to pull air into my lungs. So that’s why they have a panic button… “I’m panicking!!! Get me out!!!” I shouted.
Turns out, I’m claustrophobic. As my breathing returned to normal, the technician looked at her watch. “So…do you want to try putting a cloth over your eyes? Some of my claustrophobic patients find that helps.” A blindfold??? Unless Christian Grey is planning to join me in that tube, I want full control of my own vision, thank you very much. “How about a shot of tequila?” I joked (she didn’t laugh). “So, what happens if I really can’t do this?” “Well, we do offer adult sedation…” she said. As I contemplated my options (and the tech glanced at her watch again), my mind wandered to my little girl, in her pink sparkly goggles, dunking her head in a bowl of water at our kitchen table. Leaning in to her fear. Don’t you hate when your own parenting forces you to be a better person?
So, I took a deep breath, gave myself a pep talk, and got back in that tube. I won’t say I was any less panicked the second time. And I certainly didn’t enjoy myself. But I did manage to stay still and continue getting air into my lungs, so I’ll call that a win. And when it was all over, I was proud of myself for getting through it; I felt almost as brave as my little girl in her goggles. Now if I ever need another MRI, I know I’ll survive. But next time, I’ll remember to bring along a flask.