What an MRI Scan Taught Me About the Lifelong Burden of Sexual Abuse and Trauma


What an MRI Scan Taught Me About the Lifelong Burden of Sexual Abuse and Trauma

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Do you remember that song from the film Jewel Thief, “Rula ke gaya sapna mera”? Vyjayanthimala sings this song as she paddles a boat. “Baithi hoon kab ho savera”, she croons. Bad dreams can do precisely this to you – they can make you cry and paddle boats of sorrow as you wait impatiently and endlessly for morning to arrive. Recently, I had one such dream that left me gasping for breath.

It went like this: Someone – I don’t know who because I didn’t see their face  – pushed me inside a house. The house was small; so small that the walls were closing in on me. It had mirrors for walls, so I could only see myself, no matter where I looked. I tried to move my hand but the house was so small that I couldn’t even lift my hand. I remember thinking in my dream, what is the point of moving my hand anyway? The ceiling is jammed against my head, occupying the exact space of the shape of my skull. All I could do was cry and howl. Eventually, I couldn’t breathe, first in the dream, and then in reality. So I woke up. 

I didn’t need any psychologist to interpret the nightmare for me. I knew exactly what had prompted it: my recent visit to the hospital to explore the depths of an MRI machine. I am struggling with some spinal issues – pain in my lower back, intense numbness and heaviness in my waist and my legs – that are putting a real special spin on my depression. I have been seeing a neurosurgeon, gotten a spinal X-Ray done, and have taken medicines that didn’t really help much, already. It is why he asked me to get an MRI, and to be honest, the prospect of that did excite me first. 

The MRI machine was a subject of fancy since childhood. I saw it being used in movies and it felt like a spaceship that could take me to another dimension. And in a way it didn’t disappoint. It did take me to a new dimension, only it was a whole new dimension of my anxiety and paranoia. 

Eventually, I couldn’t breathe, first in the dream, and then in reality.

The scan in particular, lasted for 50 unending minutes and was something nothing would have prepared me for. I was shoved inside the machine like bodies are shoved inside the furnace for electric cremations. The lab technician asked me to keep my eyes closed and to not move. Immobile, with my eyes closed, the dead body experience would have been complete if I could keep my brain drained of all my anxious thoughts

So I tried to think happy thoughts. Like the potential success of my book. How it could lead to movie deals. And about taking vacations in Europe with a guy I liked. Just when I was about to feel anxiety-free, my overactive brain interrupted the party. Suddenly, my focus was back to the noisy machine and my body’s temperature started rising even though the AC was on full blast. No guy, no book could have kept me engaged but I tried. But nothing worked and I finally opened my eyes. They felt tired of being shut. 

For a moment, I felt relief. I could see where I was. The heat was still building and travelling to my chest. Trigger warning shots were being fired by my brain, “Wake up, a heart attack is coming.” I wiggled my toes a bit. “There are people in the room. They won’t let you die,” I consoled myself. I proceeded to then take several deep breaths and calmed down for ten seconds. “It will be over soon,” I kept telling myself. Even when I tried wishing away my fear, it came right back. For a moment, I felt something crawling on my right hand. Was it a baby lizard that had managed to sneak inside the machine? What do I do? I wiggled my toes harder now. I stomped my feet on the machine. But no one noticed. I called for my mother, “Aai, how long do I have to stay in?” I was met with no response.

By now I was completely paralysed by fear. I was banging my hands against the machine and started howling, “Aai, Aai, take me out, take me out now, I can’t breathe” until they pulled me out. The doctor talked to me in a kind and calming voice and told me that I should go inside the machine for five more minutes. I spent each of those minutes counting seconds. And when I was told that I could go, I wiped my face, hugged Aai, rushed out of the lab, and refused to go inside my car for a while. I felt the rain drops falling over my face and they calmed me down but the trauma of the panic attack stayed with me. I took melatonin for my sleep and popped anxiety meds like candy. 

That machine took me back to the time when I was five. My friend’s grandfather forced himself on me and suddenly the large room he and I were in started feeling small. I called for help repeatedly but none came. In that moment, inside that MRI machine, I was that little girl whose almost lifeless body was on the floor, being violated. 

By making my pain public, I am unburdening myself of my trauma, at least a little bit.

It reminded me of a relationship I was stuck in, in my twenties. I wanted to escape but so deep was the trap of emotional dependence that I couldn’t. Inside that MRI machine I was that young woman. That suffocation was so familiar and scary because not only had I lived with it all my life but I had also tried to break free of it. 

The MRI machine was a time capsule. It made me journey through my childhood and my recent past, once again. It reminded me that those bits that hurt still live in me, those wounds are still raw. It made me realise that one can physically move away from trauma but you carry its psychological and emotional remains with you until your body is really ready to shed them. 

The book I am writing is one way of shedding some of that baggage: By making my pain public, I am unburdening myself of my trauma, at least a little bit. 

In the last season of my favourite show of all time, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca, the main protagonist, is asked to pick between the three men she has loved in different phases of life and still loves because unloving is hard. But she can’t come to a decision and keeps wondering why until through a dream, she realises that she can’t pick a guy because she doesn’t know herself yet. To make that life decision, to know what is right for you, you need to know yourself. Rebecca also struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, and the one thing we all have – anxiety. But in that moment, the scene encapsulated all of my emotions post my MRI-trip: That dreaming of falling in love and winning book awards can only help me heal that much. 

Like Rebecca, I have to pick myself first and find all my lost bits, piece them together, and become whole. Or else I will be spending my whole life being scared of myself. Isn’t this what the dream and all the mirrors were trying to say? Isn’t this why I was scared inside the machine? Because I was all alone with my thoughts? Maybe, this is the year of realisations: The year I get to wake up from a long sleep and my limbs struggle with muscle atrophy. But if there’s something I can say with certainty, it’s that this pain is what healing looks like. Maybe, I have to keep feeling like this, until it is gone completely. And of course, avoid MRI machines.