Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Piece of Meat

        I admit that the money mentioned in The Ann Arbor News ad was a big lure: two hundred bucks for eight hours as a guinea pig. And I was curious: What’s it like to go through an extended psychological test? Then Vivian, the very personable woman who questioned me on the phone, seemed sincerely interested in who I was. The study, she said, involves a two-hour interview and then six hours getting my brain and blood examined while I look at upsetting pictures. Sounded like fun to me. The results will help a wide range of people, from war veterans to rape victims. She explained that there are three groups of volunteers: veterans suffering from the syndrome, vets who had been in combat but had not developed the symptoms, and people like me, the control group, whose teaching career kept me out of the war. I joked that if the interview turned up anything weird, they could move me to another group. Vivian didn’t laugh.

I Weep

        I found Vivian’s office at the center of a maze of halls, escalators, and elevators. We met, as instructed, in the Anxiety Clinic waiting room, which I could identify from the guy sitting there tearing up pages of Newsweek.

        Vivian was tall, slender, and dark-haired, combining warmth and professionalism. We started in on the questionnaire—an intimidating stack of papers three inches thick. We went over subjects I expected: alcohol and coffee consumption, pills taken, drug use. Vivian was surprised to learn that I had never used pot. “Really?” she said. “Never?” I explained that I was teaching school in the late 60s, worried about tenure. She listened to my side comments about books on her shelves and my recitation of some lines from Shakespeare triggered by one of her questions. I wanted her to like me. Her learning that I do not return home six to ten times to be sure I locked the door, or vacuum the living room several times a day (my wife would have smiled at my pausing to consider my answer) moved a big chunk of paper. Ditto my disclosure that I had not yet been institutionalized for mental illness. Yet.

        Then Vivian asked me to recount in detail an experience where I felt some sadness or distress, explaining that she would use the story to examine my brain as she told it back to me. No problem. The first was fifteen years ago, six months after my wife surprised me by asking me for a divorce. As I described my sons watching in stony silence as I hauled out my share of the furniture, I started weeping uncontrollably. Where is this shit coming from? I’m a guy! I couldn’t talk, asked if I could pace the room, forced myself to continue. “This isn’t like me,” I sobbed. “I don’t do this sort of thing.” I hadn’t even done it at the time. Do other men react this way? Vivian pointed to the box of tissues behind her on the windowsill. I was reliving my domestic Vietnam, one where the enemy, who I loved, was in the kitchen, and the wounded were watching a videotape of War of the Worlds. Vivian’s compassion had created the ambush.

        I had told my divorce story before, with witty self-deprecation designed to inspire sympathy (you all know what I mean), but I had always avoided this pivotal event. With Vivian asking for details, I stumbled through to the end, and though she sounded sympathetic, she took notes.

        I pulled myself together by narrating a flat daily routine, which she would use to contrast my brain’s response: washing dishes with Kim, my wife of ten years.

        “So that’s my life,” I concluded, thinking of the wars I missed. “Pretty boring, isn’t it?”

        “No,” Vivian corrected. “Lucky.”

        I felt drained, exhausted, and perversely happy after my 90-minute ordeal. I had opened myself to a stranger and walked away intact—still a tough guy, but a sensitive tough guy. I was looking forward with narcissistic pleasure to the six-hour session only three days away.

I Do Nothing

        We started humanely enough. Once I located “Nuclear Medicine” in the hospital’s basement, Vivian greeted me, and people whose accents made me nervous explained the procedures and answered my questions. They were proud of what they were doing, of all the testing and monitoring that would be taking place. They wanted me to understand, so I nodded and smiled. I learned that I was to be given a PET scan, where PET stands for Positron Emission Tomagraphy. Somewhere in my brain matter and anti-matter would be colliding, resulting in radiation that could be photographed. Cool! “The radioactive material to be injected into your bloodstream,” a smiling doctor reassured me, “is well within safety guidelines. It’s about what you get on an overseas flight.” This was not as reassuring as he hoped.

        Then I became a piece of meat—a very special piece of meat, hooked up to expensive machines attended to by five doctors (three introduced themselves to me as psychiatrists, one saying, “I’m a shrink.”) plus assorted technicians, graduate students, and voyeurs who wanted to see the crying guy from Vivian’s office. All wore white lab coats except Vivian, whose black outfit stood out amid the machines and their attendants.

        Three people made sure that I had gone to the bathroom before getting hooked up to the equipment—not a major issue for me since my pre-game instructions included no coffee. I met a beautiful and thoroughly professional young woman who was to be “my captain” during the afternoon’s research, giving me instructions via earphones. I liked that. Distracted by her hair, I failed to catch her name, but I was content to have “my captain” lead me into battle.

        Then the morning session—the one Vivian had described as “lying there for 70 minutes doing nothing”—began in earnest. An IV in each arm (right arm to inject radioactive stuff; left arm to check my blood for cortisol and ACTH—apparently they indicate stress). Black dots drawn on my forehead and under each eye to help aim the PETcamera. A foam pillow under my knees. And then, flat on my back, I was rolled into a metal halo and instructed not to move my head, especially when people were talking to me. While people ignored me to fuss with their machines, it occurred to me that I had ceased to be a human being whose words and feelings mattered. Instead, I had become a piece of meat through which something would pass to be retrieved and measured. The hidden source of my tears would be quantified. I was helping knowledge grow. I was a proud piece of meat. Bring it on!

        But what would it be like to lie there for 70 minutes doing nothing?

        As it turned out, it was little like sitting through boring lectures in college—but without the distraction of the lecturer. I daydreamed. Planned work I would do after 4 p.m., phone calls I had to make in the evening. I drifted in and out of sleep. Thought about my wife at work, about the coffee I would drink when I got out. Spent the $200 on books, a boom box, some work my car needed. Remembered cleverly parking at Fuller Park in order to avoid the hefty hospital parking fee. Away from the mundane world, my mind was recreating it. The injected stuff gave me, as promised, a mild high. Time became fluid—I had no idea if 20 or 70 minutes had elapsed. I sensed people moving in the background, checking equipment, occasionally startling me by asking if everything was OK. It was.

        Then they turned on the lights, wheeled me out of the halo and unhooked the tubes from my arms, leaving the flimsily taped-down shunts dangling. Lightheaded, helped into a seated position, I rested a minute before I could stand. What time is it? Lunch time.

        Lunch “hour’ was about 15 minutes. First I staggered to the bathroom, where I found the mirror strangely tucked behind the door. I examined the black dots on my face (camouflage, I thought) and the tubes dangling from each arm. No wonder they hide the mirrors.

        Lunch was a cafeteria turkey sandwich plus a bottle of apple juice, all served on a windowsill just outside the PET-scan room. “It’s important that you eat something first,” I was told, “but also fill out this questionnaire.” I rated my feelings at the moment, fresh out of Basic Training, from 1-5 on a variety of emotions—angry; bashful; bold; blameworthy, sleepy, ashamed, etc. Dopey and Sneezy were missing. As was hungry.

I Become Disgustable

        Vivian had assured me that my afternoon would be “very active”: responding to a variety of photographs, disturbing ones and neutral ones. I would rate each image’s distressfulness and then evaluate how I felt about each group of images, using the same emotion words I used at lunch. Meanwhile, the PET-scan would photograph my brain activity, sensors check my eye movements, and other sensors (“a lot like a polygraph”) measure skin temperature, perspiration, heart rate, and breathing. So I had a strap around my chest, three sensors hooked up to fingers of my left hand (“Try not to move your fingers at all—it will mess up the results.”), sensors taped near the eyes, a strap to keep my head from moving, an IV in each arm. I felt like Gulliver with the Lilliputians. At least they did not put my feet into stirrups.

        The highlight of the hook-up was when my beautiful captain leaned over me to adjust the strap around my chest, her hair brushing against the inside of my arm. For the first time in my life I understood why some people get turned on by bondage fantasies, and I was tempted to request more adjustments. Then they added Walkman-like earphones so I could hear her instructions, and I was rolled into the PET-scan device. Someone lowered a computer monitor in front of my face and removed my glasses. The meat was in the microwave.

        More scurrying in the room. Then my captain’s faint voice over my headphones. Live voices asked if I could hear her, and I said no. Unplugging and replugging, talk about sending for a replacement, more adjustments. I amused myself by searching for the letters of the alphabet on the monitor (all but Q, Y, and Z) and by adding up the integers (just short of 200). At last my captain’s voice sounded, but only in my right ear. Eager to get started, eager to please her, I said, “It’s good enough.” My back was starting to ache.

        The test was stressful in a variety of ways not part of the research. Since I knew the neutral pictures (fire hydrant, mushrooms, umbrella, old man, young girl) were supposed to be neutral, I gave them all 1’s without much thought, even though some of the sad old men were previews of my old age, and one resembled my stepfather. None reminded me of divorce. The stressful ones (the mutilated face of a child, a woman’s flesh-torn chest, a starved dog) made me swallow and blink, but not cry. How I would have reacted to the real thing in Vietnam? My stomach tightened as I anticipated the next image.

        After the first set, I wondered why I had not given any of them a 5. “How horrible does something have to be in order to totally disgust me?” The next set, probably no worse than the ones I gave 4s, earned 5s. I was thinking that the suffering I was seeing, possibly war-related, was inflicted by human beings, by us. I had to show that as a human being I was disgustable. I felt like a figure skating judge who held back top scores to the first skaters in case he sees something better later on.

I Am Not a Wimp

        The pain in my lower back was becoming intrusive, so I asked for another pillow to raise my knees. It didn’t help.

        “Is that better?” Male voice.

        I lied, not wanting to be a wimp—I had seen Apocalypse Now, and my discomfort was nothing. Almost. My concentration was flagging, my back hurt. I wanted a cup of coffee, but I thought of a Vietnam vet being tested in this same room tomorrow.

        The lead doctor assured me that we would soon finish. The sooner the better, I thought and may have said, though I realized that the point of the research was not to make me feel good about myself. If it were, they would not be paying me $200. So go ahead—harvest your data.

        After the last set of images (some so gruesome I could not identify the ruin I was seeing) I mentally prepared to leave. But the lead doctor cheerfully advised me, “Almost done. We have only the narrative that Vivian recorded based on your interview.” How long would it take? Her recorded voice was faint, and I pictured my weeping as I described leaving my home more than I remembered the original event. I imagined Vivian making the recordings in her home at night. The “How vivid?” score was lower than the photographs of other people’s suffering. I then heard Vivian’s recount of my routines—sitting with my wife for leisurely breakfast conversation, and then doing dishes side by side at the sink. I had related these as routines empty of intense emotion. But tired, sore, and dehumanized as I felt, these memories became wonderfully appealing. I scored them as more vivid than my divorce narrative. I loved my life with Kim.

        I could hardly wait to sit up, rejoin the world, and go home. And get coffee. I waited while people tended to their machines. Did they forget I’m here? At last they came in to methodically but cheerfully unhook me. They apologized for the tape’s pulling at my eyebrows, alerted me to the smell of rubbing alcohol used to erase the dots on my face, told me they would quickly yank the tape holding on the IVs, thanked me, asked me how I was doing. Fine, fine. Vivian watched me protectively from across the room. Angel of Mercy.

        Shoes on, coat in hand, I walked out to the hall and my windowsill for a brief debriefing. The lead doctor thanked me warmly and gave me a souvenir: a transparency containing a series of 20 black and white images depicting my brain at work. Each was the size of a postage stamp, and on several the white areas, indicating blood flow, was shaped like a heart.

        I thanked him and said that my wife would use them in a collage. We joked. I appreciated becoming a human being again. As we talked, I sensed technicians putting equipment away, or perhaps setting it up for someone else. Who would be next? What were his memories, and what kind of life would he return to?

        Soon Vivian and I were almost alone in the hall. She reminded me of the final step: an MRI at Vets Hospital in two weeks. I felt an urge to hug her, but she held out her hand and said she enjoyed working with me.

        The $20 parking ticket at didn’t bother me. I was going home.

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