I’m proud of myself because today I survived my first MRI scan despite my claustrophobia. I had requested and been promised a scan in one of the “open” machines, but it turned out that, because the scan was of my left shoulder, my head and upper body were inside the lighted tube and only my lower body was in the open.
But the technician was comforting, not critical about my fears. She gave me earphones that played music, but did not drown out the loud rapping of the machine (which at times sounded like machine-gun fire). Once I was wedged with pillows and slid inside and felt the first wave of panic, I shut my eyes and kept them shut for the entire 20 minutes. I kept thinking how lucky I was that the scan was only about a possible torn rotator cuff. I overhead a woman saying to a male patient who went in ahead of me: “I’ll be praying”, so I knew he had a lot more reason than I did to feel stressed and panicky during the MRI.
(My claustrophobia is not crippling—I’m okay in a crowded elevator, but if the elevator got stuck between floors, I’m not sure how I’d react. And as for crawling into a narrow tunnel or cave, you can count me out.)
I have this theory about phobias that will probably convince you that I’m crazy. I think that early and life-long phobias may be the result of some subconscious memory of how we died in a previous life.
Of course some phobias are the result of traumas in this life—for example my dear departed Aunt Mary was so terrified of birds that even a feather duster could drive her into hysterics. But that was because, when she was little, her mean older brothers would terrorize her by chasing her with a live chicken.
But in some cases, like my claustrophobia, there’s no clear explanation. When I was very small, around five or six years old, I was listening in my room to a radio broadcast of some scary program like “Inner Sanctum.” (Radio was a lot scarier than TV because your imagination provided your own images.) The program began with a man’s voice saying something like: “Where am I? Why is it so dark in here?” Then a sinister, resonant male voice replied, “You are buried alive.”
I happened to be eating a Hershey Bar with almonds and I leaped off the bed, bolted to the bathroom and got violently ill. Needless to say, I turned off the radio. It took something like ten years before I could even look at a Hershey Bar again. Because of my violent, instant reaction to the words “buried alive”, I suspect that in a previous life I died, as so many have recently, by being buried in a mud slide or avalanche or earthquake.
As you can see, I believe in reincarnation, which is a very controversial subject in the West unless you follow one of several Eastern religions. But at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, there is a Division of Perceptual Studies (formerly the Division of Personality Studies) originally founded by Dr. Ian Stevenson, a Canadian biochemist and professor of psychiatry, which has collected more than 2,500 case studies of young children who claimed to remember a past life.
I’ve encountered a few such children myself who arrived in life, as Wordsworth wrote, trailing intimations of immortality. If you know a small child who is very verbal and ask something like, “Do you remember where you were before you were born?”, you may get a surprising answer. These memories seem to fade by around five years old.
But reincarnation is a subject for another day. Today I’m talking about unexplained phobias and my crazy theory. Not too long ago, I was at unisex hair salon and, in the next chair, sat a man having his hair cut by a blonde young woman. He was telling her how he had just come back from a trip to the Empire State Building in New York with his teenaged son. The dad, who had a phobia about heights, made it up to the 88th floor where you have to switch elevators, but then the father realized he couldn’t go on. He had to go back down to ground level. The son went to the top and later mercilessly teased his father about his phobia.
Then the blonde hairdresser told about her phobia, a new one to me. “When I’m driving and I go over a hill and look down and see that the road leads to a body of water, I’m always terrified that I’m going to drive the car right into the water and drown.”
Naturally I didn’t let on that I was eavesdropping, but that sounded to me like a phobia born of a past experience. Some phobias seem understandable: snakes (that one we can blame on Eve), spiders, bugs, sharks… but others: bridges, tunnels, airplanes, heights—may be rooted in early memories of a previous life. (Did you know that Woody Allen refuses to drive or be driven through tunnels or over bridges?)
What are your unexplained phobias?