Divorce Advice from an MRI: Turn Fear into Focus

By: Kat Forsythe MSW
March 03, 2017

Who knew? As I lay motionless in the MRI tube yesterday, I learned a valuable piece of divorce advice: No matter what “noise” rattles and screams around you, there’s a way to listen beyond it – to hear the music that’s your key to survival. You can turn fear into focus, even in the scariest of places. Here’s how I did it:

I’d never had an MRI. So when my knees collapsed on me, and my doctor ordered an MRI, I had no idea what to expect. I was mildly terrified to discover that I (my whole body) would be inserted horizontally into a tiny tube – a hole in a loud, clanking donut-shaped machine, about eight feet high and the same in width. Think iron lung on steroids. It filled the whole room. As I entered the room, it gurgled, popped, and sighed with a regular beat. I asked the tech if this were electronic music. No, the machine makes these sounds when “at rest”. For the life of me, I felt like I was on location at a Star Wars filming. Except that this was no digital creation. This was reality and I was about to trust my life to a panting, gasping enormous machine – preparing for its meal of me. Not an especially comforting thought.

I climbed unto the flat gurney, and the instructions came flying at me: stay motionless while the machine makes noise, use the headset to dull the din, be prepared for loud unpredictable clamor and pounding, hold the “just in case panic bulb” in my left hand, the tech will tell me when I can move, and the whole shebang will take about 30 minutes. I thought: plenty of time for a panic attack in that tiny space.

As I was wheeled into the tube, I looked up at my last glimpse of daylight for 30 minutes, and noticed a three-foot “GE” emblazoned on the side of this monster (now devouring its supper). It occurred to me that computers were once this size. I decided it was incumbent on General Electric to get creative and reduce the intimidation factor of this enormous behemoth. I knew in 20 years, they’ll look at this baby and laugh. That didn’t help me now.

In I went. I decided to close my eyes and meditate. Ohhhmmm. Breathe In. Breathe out. Then, in the headset: “Are you ready, Katherine? This first series will last seven minutes. I’ll play Hawaiian guitar music in the background, but you’ll probably still hear the machine.” Lovely. I can meditate to the music.

From the headset: “Here we go.” The pandemonium began. SCREECH! CLANK! POUND! POUND! POUND! Then, a few strains of guitar harmony shortly drowned out by THUMP! THUMP! SQUEEK! SQUEEK! CLANG! BUZZ. BUZZ.

The panic began inside me. In the belly of the monster, I was helpless. Above me, a white ceiling four inches from my nose. I couldn’t (shouldn’t) move. No way out. The clatter alarmed me. My heart picked up speed. I grabbed the “just in case panic bulb”. I began to squeeze when the clamor stopped and a calm voice said, “That’s the end of the first series. You’re doing well, Katherine. Are you OK?” No, I wasn’t. Claustrophobia consumed me. My heart was racing. “Are you ready for round two?” I said, “Give me a minute.”

Right then, I realized the metaphor. I’d been listening to the wrong sounds. I’d spent the whole time waiting to hear the guitar music. It never happened because I was focusing on the scary thuds and crashes of the machine. The truth was: the lovely guitar music was there all along, playing constantly while the machine struggled and groaned. True, the guitar was hard to hear – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. If I wanted to hear it, I had to work at it.

I promised myself to listen for the guitar – even when the machine was screaming at me. I said, “OK, I’m ready for round two”. The same clanging started. I combed the background for the guitar. I found it, and focused on it, that eeny-weeny sound in the distance. I forced my brain to ignore the screeching machine. Then, the realization: I will make it through this just fine. I simply have to decide I’m going to listen to what feels right, and safe to me: the guitar. I will not listen to the rest of it.

In 23 minutes, when the whole exam was over, I was rested – and actually a little sleepy. I’d enjoyed flowing Hawaiian guitar, with a few annoying interruptions from a monster I had learned was, actually, harmless.

When we’re knee-deep in divorce, we get loud, distracting noises (divorce advice) from all directions – in therapy, from well-intentioned friends, from dubious former spousal units (our exs), from attorneys, from financial advisors, from family. Everyone has an opinion on what to do, how to survive, and what tune we should be singing. They all mean well (except, perhaps, our ex!), and they’re all trying to help us heal.

The booming, nerve-wracking noises from the MRI machine were well-intentioned, too. They, too, were a means to heal. But note: if we listen to the noise, whether it’s the intestines of the MRI or that clamoring harangue of people voices around us all day long, we miss the most important sound of all – the lovely one that’s playing the tune we need to hear, deep inside of us. That voice is our own inner voice. Call it “gut” or “intuition” or “a feeling” – it’s the voice that knows what we need to do.

How to access that voice? Simply listen for it. I have a question I always ask myself, and I instruct my clients to do the same: Will the Katherine [use your own name, of course] who can best handle this please step forward? That part of you who needs to be heard, who knows the next step, who will navigate the troubled waters, amazingly appears. You might have to focus intensely through the noise around you, but he/she is there. Keep asking the question. Don’t give up. Pay attention to the message inside you – your own inner wisdom, and listen beneath the noise outside. That little voice – the sweet one inside you – can turn your fear into focus.

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