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The Open Door That Matters

I have a checkered history with elevators. Or any tight, enclosed space. I’m not sure how I survived and thrived in my mother’s womb. Or crawled through the straw-bale-tunnels my brothers constructed in our young years on the farm when it was baling season. Those tunnels were dark and tight and stuffy with straw dust. They had twists and turns and were as elaborate as my brothers could make them. But I knew I would eventually come out the other end where there was light and air.

            That’s it, of course. I was sure of the outcome. Not so with elevators or even public restroom stalls. I have been known to leave my cubicle door unlocked, just to make sure the lock wouldn’t stick. I try to go into stalls that have ample space under the door for crawling out. It doesn’t always happen.

            I am prone to claustrophobia. I fear being in tight places, unable to get out.

            One drab winter day in Siberia, I learned that Trent and I would be staying with our host family in a questionable-aged apartment building, where the only access to their flat was a tiny, rickety, and dimly-lit elevator up ten floors. We would be living with them for a week, going out daily for Trent to teach at another location. That meant getting into that elevator twice a day.

            I reasoned within myself: they get into that elevator twice a day—or more—and they are alive and well. I seem to use this reasoning in other situations, such as restroom stalls. I don’t know of anyone who has never gotten out of one. But I could be the first.

            I was in a very modern elevator in a very modern Colorado hotel one summer day, all by myself, when the elevator stopped between floors. This is my perennial nightmare. However, this particular elevator had a glass wall. Up seven stories, I could look down to the main floor and see my husband, laughing. He knows not to laugh at my claustrophobia, but he also knew that if I could see out—and be fairly certain of rescue—that it was okay to laugh. I shook a menacing finger at him anyway.

            On another occasion, with friends in New York City after a Yankees game, we found ourselves jammed into a huge elevator with about thirty other fans. When nothing happened, my friend said quizzically, “Is this elevator moving?” She lives in New York City and has doubtless ridden that elevator numerous times. She has always gotten out. But I felt a surge of panic flood my whole body. I broke out in a sweat. I could see our two husbands up ahead in the tightly packed crowd. I felt the need to get to mine, but it was impossible in the crush of people.

Claustrophobia is an unreasoning reality for some. For me.

It’s fairly obvious by now that I have never been stuck in a tight place interminably. I have always gotten out.

But that didn’t help much when the next occasion arose.

         The “next occasion” was an MRI, that small, tight space—with my head, they told me, to be secured in a cage. I was to have two MRI’s, back-to-back, and each one would be forty-five minutes long. That meant an hour and a half flat on my back, with my body in a tube and my head in a cage. Not allowed to move. Just the thought made my heart pound. I wrote to the doctor: please give me a sedative. She ordered two tiny pills. I was to take one and, “if needed, the second.”  I wondered if I would have to be kicking and screaming to alert the technicians that I needed the second one.

            Researching claustrophobia, I found out that I “should” have had a traumatic experience in my childhood—somebody putting me in a dark room by myself or pinning me down so that I couldn’t move. Except for my brother repeatedly jumping out at me from dark corners (which resulted in me being very skittish but not claustrophobic), none of that happened to me. As recently (relatively speaking) as college, I even had an on-campus job of doing inventory of the items in my dorm kitchen’s walk-in freezer, a room about the size of a long, narrow, and tight closet. There was just enough space to walk between the floor-to-ceiling shelves, with the heavy door shut securely behind me. I never panicked. Why the difference? Why did I become claustrophobic?

More to the point: what could I do about it?

Well, I took the sedative. Both tiny pills at once. Needless to say, I was blissfully uncaring about that tight space. I may have overdone it. I could hardly stagger around the house the rest of that afternoon.

But you can’t live on sedatives. Especially if you’re just visiting the restroom in an airport.

Unexpectedly, another MRI was ordered. Not so long this time, so I decided to brave it without any artificial help. Prayer was going to be my refuge. Prayer to the God of the Bible and of heaven has long been my lifeline. It would be now. (I did ask for music, but the banging and buzzing were so loud, it sounded like wailing voices in the background, which was worse.)

I was rolled into the tube and felt my head being secured. I kept my eyes shut, recited Psalm twenty-three: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want …” and prayed. I was amazed at how well I was doing. But after a while, the buzzing had gone on so long, I began to feel panic rising. Just then, my bed in the tube started moving and I was being drawn out. I said, with my eyes still shut, “Is it over?” A man’s voice answered, “Yes. And there will be a bright light.” It sounded like heaven. And it almost felt that way.

I’ve always, as I said, liked to be sure of the outcome. Elevator doors will open. Every door will open. I will make it through an MRI without fear.

We can’t be sure of most outcomes in this life. But I’m sure of this: someday I will stand before a door in heaven, and it will open, just when I need it to.

“…and its gates will never be shut…”[i]




[i] The Book of Revelation 21:25

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Mark, I'm so sorry for your experience! Who knows what mine would have been without the sedative!

Ultimate hope DOES give us confidence in the present.


I had an MRI for my shoulder a few months ago, and it was one of my worst medical experiences ever, and I'm not even claustrophobic. So I have some empathy for the great illustration you gave us for our ultimate hope.


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