I’m lying on a narrow table, head and knees supported by foam pillows, weighed down by the hospital gown made of that pure, heavy cotton that only seems to be used for hospital linens. Every nook and corner of the room is filled with fluorescent light and white noise, an all-pervading hum as if from a powerful ventilation system, and the more immediate, slightly lower-pitched drone of the machine in front of me. The table begins to slide forward. A series of red digits appears above my head. “666,” I remember. Just beyond the numbers is a dull orange light, which speaks as I am looking at it. A voice sounding very much like that of the radiologist who had placed the pillow under my knees says, “Take a deep breath and hold it.”
A young woman is lying with her legs across my lap, trembling violently, squeezing my hand with a steady pressure. She is in the aftermath of another debilitating panic attack. “Take a slow, deep breath,” I remind her. “It doesn’t help! It’s just something they tell you, and it’s a lie,” she insists. Like a midwife’s order for bystanders to boil water and tear up sheets, the question of whether there is a real, practical necessity in taking deep breaths to disarm a panic attack seems to be debatable.
We take breathing for granted. As a former asthmatic, I know this. At our best, we are completely unaware that we are doing it. We are full of a feeling of well-being, free to think our thoughts unimpeded by uncomfortable physical intrusions. When you can’t breathe, or breathe well, it becomes all that you think about. When every breath feels like it is being drawn through a straw, the thought of death creeps in around the edges of the antique photo that is your existence, giving everything a dark and doomed cast.
When we willfully hold our breaths, the feeling of doom is absent, because we are in control. If I fill my lungs up as much as possible and hold my breath in an attempt to stop an attack of hiccups, for a moment the area around my heart and lungs feels super-oxygenated. It seems like my vision becomes clearer, colors slightly brighter. I become aware of the blood flow up and out of my chest and down through my arms and fingers. When I know it’s time to take a breath or else, it’s in my throat and ears that I feel it. Pressure, deafness, desperation. Out goes the breath, in comes more oxygen, and surprise! I have held my diaphragm perfectly still for long enough that it has forgotten to have the hiccups. It’s the same principle at work as when we have an x-ray or a mammogram (although I suspect that they make us hold our breaths during a mammogram so we won’t scream and scare the patients in the waiting room.): holding your breath renders you perfectly still. A perfectly still subject will provide a clear image, in focus.
Imagine being a photographic subject in the early 1800s, when photography was in its infancy. You’ve taken a bath, put on all of the very finest clothing and accessories that you own, labored over the tidiness and fashionability of your hair and/or mustache. . Your corset may be tighter than usual, because you want to show yourself in the most impressive possible light to future generations. You’ve laid out a considerable sum of money to have an image made of yourself by which history and your descendants will remember you....maybe the only such image of you that will ever be made. The shutter stays open for several seconds, anywhere up to a minute, and you must sit or stand completely still. You must be sure to arrange your face in a natural way, severe or pleasant depending on how you want to be remembered. You probably won’t show your teeth; nobody seems to. As you sit or stand perfectly still, you may not be holding your breath, but you will be trying not to blink. And you will be thinking about all of these things for the seconds that the shutter is open.
When the pressure gets to be too much, we need to take a breather. When we remove ourselves from the source of our stress, we can breathe freely. Maybe this is why we love to take vacations in locations that are full of wonderful smells. There’s the ocean, with all of its clean scents tinged with a faint trace of fish and marsh mud: salt water, and the ever-present wind laden with tiny droplets of briny moisture that quickly become an essential part of your hair, skin, and clothes. At night, there are the pine trees that release their sharp fragrance in the wind that is forever blowing through their long, soft needles with a gentle tossing sound, faintly whistling like a breath over the top of a beer bottle. The smell of sun-warmed tar and gasoline hovers around the dock in the afternoon, and makes you think of ropes and planks and sturdy shoes. Or maybe you retreat to the woods on a mountain, where you will sit on a porch, stare at the trees, and enjoy a parade of scents as they waft past your stressed-out nostrils: hidden honeysuckle and glow-in-the-gloom blackberry blossoms, the almost exotic patchouli-like aroma of dark brown humus formed from decades of slowly decaying leaves and bark, the peculiar and unmistakable ozone scent of an imminent thunderstorm. And then there is the clean, woody, rocky, herby, mineral smell of creek water. It smells like turtles and winking sunlight filtered through green leaves.
“Now, breathe.” The orange light speaks again, and the table slowly slides back out of the shallow tube. Only a second or two has passed.
Two days later, I sit with my doctor in front of his laptop as he shows me image after image of my heart, liver, stomach, kidneys, uterus, vena cava and aorta, as they slowly spin in time-stop animation, precisely arranged and coiled around the bright white vertebra, cradled in the sharp- edged frame of the pelvis, perfectly clear, delicately shaded and detailed.