My first novel, Blank, is about fifteen-year-old Jessica’s struggle to piece together her shattered life after a brain injury. As far as brain injuries go, hers is very severe and rare because it leaves her with major memory loss. She remembers very little about her past, and the doctors can’t make any promises about whether her memories will ever come back to her. I have never personally experienced, fortunately, a brain injury or any memory loss but I feel tremendous compassion for the millions of people around the world who have. Although Blank is not meant to be a medical book in any way, but more of an exploration of how our memory ties into our sense of who we are, I wanted to be as true to the real experience as possible. That meant a lot of research.
I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and have studied memory and how it works, the anatomy of the brain, and how things can go wrong in that amazing little machine sitting in our skulls. Like most people, though, the impressive things that lumpy organ can do is something I mostly take for granted. For Blank, I delved into research, reading a lot of books and online information and watching videos. It was fun and fascinating and, I admit, sometimes a way to avoid actually writing. It took me about a decade to write Blank, so technology and research and information changed while I was writing the novel. Staying truly on top of things would have been a full-time job. So I am still no expert on the topic – especially since, just ask my neuropsychology professor, memorizing the names of neurotransmitters and parts of the brain is not my forté. N-Acetylaspartylglutamate? Periventricular preoptic nucleus? It was a lot for my little brain to handle. But I learned a lot during my research, including that scientists still don’t have the body’s most complex organ and its functions all figured out.
In the book, my character obviously undergoes tests and rehabilitation that many of us will never experience. One of my concerns was that I would get some of the details wrong or not to be able to truly understand what it’s like to go through these challenges. It’s a writer’s job, of course, to try to get into the head of someone else, someone who isn’t real, but this was a job that I didn’t want to fail out of respect for people really facing the huge obstacles brain injury can present. One test Jessie goes through is the MRI. I talked to people who had had one – including my dad – and watched videos of people having the test, and read online testimonials of peoples’ experiences. I imagined that Jessie would feel worried, a little freaked out. In the book, Jessica handles her MRI very well. It turns out she is much stronger than I am. Last week, because of issues with vertigo and headaches, I had an MRI myself. Wow. All that research, and I had no idea.
The first thing that set off alarm bells was the question the clinic asked when they called to set up the appointment: are you claustrophobic? I’m embarrassed now to admit it, but I think I may have laughed. No, I don’t think so, I said. The question lingered in my mind throughout the day, though, and doubt crept in. How did I know? When was the last time I had been crammed into a tight space: childhood, maybe? Once, one of my daughters followed me into a play tunnel and crawled onto my back, and we got stuck and couldn’t move. I remember laughing about it, later, but how about at the moment itself: did my heart pound and did I feel like I couldn’t breath?
You can see where this was going. All that thinking and analyzing had me freaking myself out to the point that I would create a phobia that probably wasn’t even there. Instead, I decided to be proactive. I didn’t have time for cognitive therapy or desensitization training or whatever else the experts might do, so I decided to do it myself. I had seen the videos and knew what the MRI was like. I put on a ski helmet. I grabbed a bunch of cardboard boxes and created a long tunnel by stacking them around a dining room chair. I lay down on the floor and slid myself upwards on the floor, head first under the chair, trying to imagine the bed below was moving. Once lodged snuggly in my tunnel, I let out a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t feel trapped. I only felt slightly worried that my husband might come home from work and find me there, cocooned in the dining room, and worry about my sanity. I got out and took off the helmet and decided that no, I was not claustrophobic. I would be fine.
It turns out a fake, fabricated MRI machine made out of cardboard boxes is no replacement for the real thing. The real machine is huge. The tunnel you need to be in is long. You cannot see anything in the room around you, not your feet or anything. As soon as I saw it, my heart started pounding. I tried to be cool, tried to make jokes with the technician to release stress. He wasn’t in a kidding around mood. This was serious business, of course, I couldn’t blame him. I lay down in my giant oversized hospital gown and let him put on this massive skeletal helmet. And I couldn’t help thinking: Jessie did this. She did it. So can you.
Yes, I know. Jessie is a person I created in my head, and although I’m a bit of an artsy type I am still rational enough to know she’s not real in any sense of the word. But there are millions of people dealing with brain injury who undergo these kinds of tests on a regular basis, and they do it with grace and strength. It’s just one minor annoyance compared to the symptoms of injury they’re dealing with. I had no reason to feel sorry for myself. So I took a very deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried my very best to imagine I was actually under my dining room chair with a ski helmet on. The crazy loud clanking noises and beeps, I told myself, were coming from the construction at the house next door.
I was in the machine for twenty minutes. I did yoga breathing. I kept my eyes squeezed shut, not daring to look at how close the walls of the tunnel were to my face. I tried to distract my mind by thinking about Jessie, and the excitement of my first novel coming out this week. All that kept me from pushing the panic button, but barely, for what seemed like forever, until the technician informed me we were about halfway. I nearly cried. I didn’t think I could do it for another ten minutes. I thought more about Jessie, and then my mind drifted to the character in the new novel I am working on now. Amazingly, thinking about her and her problems and what she really wanted and what she would have to do to get it, was the magic topic. As the machine clanked loudly and hot air blew in my face and I held the panic button gently in my grasp, I got lost in a mental brainstorming session so productive that I nearly forgot where I was. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I got through it. When the technician finally announced that I was finished and the bed started sliding out of the tunnel, I nearly cheered.
All this time, I have thought I was the puppet master who controlled the actions of the characters I write about, the one who determined whether they failed or triumphed in their quests. I had never really considered the possibility of them saving me or guiding me along at a challenging moment. But this, I realize now that I am out of that tunnel and able to breathe easily, is the beauty of fiction. Whether we read it or write it or both, books give us a glimpse into things we may never experience otherwise, and allow us to get so lost in our imaginations that we can better handle the reality of what’s happening around us. And, not to mention, reading is just plain more fun than having any kind of medical procedure.
So thanks Jessie. I owe you one.