“Just breathe normal,” a man said in a calm voice. “You’re doing great.”
Despite his encouragement, the instruction made me want to gasp for air.
“What exactly is normal?” I asked myself. “Am I breathing normal? I don’t normally pay attention to my breathing. I’m not sure if this is normal.” The more I thought about it, the more unsteady my breathing became.
I tried to forget about where I was. I tried not to open my eyes. The realization that I was lying inside a tube filled with bright yellow light made me feel like I would panic. The thought that my arms were raised straight above my head made me want to pull them down. The thought that the man had injected a drug into my arm to keep my internal organs from moving made me even more self conscious of the fact that my stomach was rumbling. I hadn’t eaten for a day and a half, and I was hungry.
It was my first experience inside an MRI machine, and I was trying very hard to pretend to be completely calm and relaxed. It didn’t help that every few seconds a loud, pulsating sound would reverberate inside the tube.
Then, Bom! Bom! Bom! Bom! Bom!
Even with my noise cancelling headphones firmly in place, the sounds were jolting. I felt like I was standing next to the tornado siren at 10 a.m. the first Tuesday of the month.
“Breathe normal,” the voice reassured. I tried harder to keep my breathing slow and steady. Or was it too slow? Too steady?
WHAT. IS. NORMAL?
There’s really nothing normal about being strapped to a table for nearly an hour and being told not to move. The fear of this experience was one of the reasons I had put off the MRI for 10 months. Back when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, my doctor had ordered this test to get a better view of what was happening inside of me. It took me a while to get to a point that I felt like I wanted to know the answer.
As I sat in the patient waiting room for two hours, I watched a dozen other women come in and out in their robes and hospital gowns. I wondered why they had been sent to radiology. I analyzed their faces for any signs.
I decided that the women in the dark blue robes were there for a mammogram. They still wore their normal pants and shoes. Some came in with dress pants and high-healed shoes under the blue robe. Others wore sweats and tennis shoes. They changed into their robes in the little dressing room, like we were all getting ready for a spa treatment. But they got in and out much faster than I did.
I had to sit for two hours drinking large cups of contrast fluid. I was the only one wrapped in white blankets as I chugged the ice cold liquid.
A few other women came through dressed like me. They wore the baggy light blue hospital pants and the gown that tied in the back.
It was refreshing in a weird way. We all were there for different reasons — some routine, some more serious. But just the fact that we were there meant we were carrying something. We shared the weight of the unknown. Of what the test would reveal. In that space at that moment surrounded by total strangers, life felt so real.
I occupied myself by listening to a podcast, called “Missing Richard Simmons.” It’s a documentary style story about the flamboyant exercise guru who has made millions with his trademark silk shorts and curly hair. People know him as an outgoing, caring, highly emotional man with what seems like ceaseless energy. Then, one day, he vanished. He stopped going to his exercise studio. He stopped returning e-mails. He stopped running out of his house to greet vans full of tourists on the prowl for Hollywood stars.
He secluded himself inside his home, not to be seen for three years. Which might not be a big deal. Except that he’s Richard Simmons. And for Richard Simmons, that’s not allowed. It’s not normal.
Later that day, I had an appointment with my hair stylist.
The environment was oddly similar to the radiology department. Women coming in and out and putting on black robes to protect their clothes. Their regular pants and shoes poked out underneath. We were all there for the same purpose. This time to get pampered. We chitchatted about superficial stuff. The pretty parts of life.
I looked at each woman there and thought about the women I had just shared space with in radiology. I realized these women weren’t so different.
Each one of us had a weight behind the smiles and foiled hair and casual conversation. Even a celebrity like Richard Simmons is carrying something that became too heavy — that made him suddenly want to disappear. It’s not as obvious when we trade our hospital robes for the salon capes. It’s actually harder to talk about when we all look so… normal. It might be a difficult relationship or an addiction. It might be a health concern or a financial crisis. It doesn’t show on the outside, but I’m guessing for most people, it’s there.
We know how to walk around concealing what might be troubling our souls. We’ve all figured out how to breathe without giving it too much thought. Slow and steady. Stay calm.
Even hours later, I found myself still taking deep breaths.
Still wondering why it was so hard to carry out his simple instruction.
“Just breathe normal.”