More vulnerable than being naked?
Being in the dental chair.
I don’t talk about this. Is this true for a lot of others? it’s more intimate than sex, it’s more private, more embarrassing perhaps.
Getting dental work attacks each one of our senses: Is there a parallel experience in modern, everyday life I wonder?
First, there’s the pure pain of the shot(s), the pure pinch of the needle into our gums and tissues. Okay, a sharp poke, a little wince and it’s over. For now. If that were the only pain, hey…no big deal really. But the pain continues. The cold air of the suction, blowing onto sensitive molars. The poking and prodding by the various metal instruments in and around the target of the procedure. I close my eyes, wince a little, try to manage the painful sensations that are fairly unpredictable, sometimes shocking and surprising.
Second, the taste—the horrible, bitter taste of the anesthesia dripping down the throat. You try to keep it from going all the way down, and wonder if it might poison you if you swallow…you might try to block it with your tongue, tasting it that much more. You almost gag it tastes so bitter. The assistant tries to suck it all up, but it lingers…the bitter, dark taste of something altogether foreign and repellent to every taste bud.
Third, the smell —even the slightly sweet, chlorine smell of the office itself can trigger fear and loathing. But then there’s the smell of the rotting tooth, the odorous bacteria that gets all churned up to the surface while the sharp silver instruments are hard at work in there. Sometimes you can smell the breath of the dentist or the assistant as they stare down at you 2 inches from your face. Maybe you just smell what you are tasting or vice versa, the senses all getting confused due to the duress.
Fourth, the sound — the drilling, the wheeewhirrrwheeeshrill of an archaic drill, piercing the air with its powerful destructive force. Is there no way they can silence this diabolical, barbaric instrument of torture? Sure, you don’t feel it? But again, the senses are all confused now, and the sound of the drill almost makes you feel the little pieces of enamel being blown away from your molars. And there’s still the cold air making other teeth ache. And then there’s the sound of the muzak, if they use such a thing. I try to like the old, corny songs I hear, but they are drowned out soon enough by the whistle of the drill. Maybe you hear the dentist muttering instructions to the assistant; I listen hard to hear something like, “oh yes, we are almost done here.” But that sweet sentence never comes quickly.
Fifth, the sight: Like I said, I try to close my eyes, but of course, there is a bright light beaming right at your face. When I do I open my eyes, I see one or two faces leaning way over me, like in a movie – or real life – when you’re under the knife or the intense concern of a team of doctors, and you’re supine, just coming to consciousness, a wide-angle lens, distorting the faces hovering over you. They’re not smiling warmly, or reassuring you, they are staring at you like the subject that you are, the subject of some kind of medical torture or experiment.
How do we find a little joy when each one of our senses is under assault?
I imagine it as a kind of modern-day, “ordinary” torture, designed to test our ability to use all those mindfulness exercises, those meditation techniques, those relaxation exercises we’ve been practicing for 20 years.
Okay – breathe and let go, find your center–we’re going to attack all of your senses for an hour or so, not to mention charge you a lot of money for this, and now, try to relax… Go to your happy place…
I close my eyes and try to go to my happy place. I employ all my senses to do this, but they are under heavy artillery attack. I try to rescue them, wrestle them back to my control…which is hardly an exercise in relaxation on its own – everything is running counter to my attempt to relax, even my effort to relax is such an effort that relaxation feels like the last thing I can achieve at the moment. I begin to compose this story in my head, and vow to write it, the only solace I can find.
I’m counting the minutes – I tell myself, “don’t count the minutes, it will only feel longer and longer.” “try to be present, accept it all, work with it.” I squirm like a caged animal. I don’t want my dentist and the assistant to be irritated with me. Why the fuck do I care about what they feel when I am under so much stress? Chalk that up to the power of our social training, eh? Especially us girls—no matter what’s happening to you, try to take care of everyone else in the room. Oh, oh oh, please do that glorious thing Mr. or Ms. Dentist…take that last cotton ball out of my mouth, unhinge my little bib, and tell me it’s all over with. But no… here comes the drill again. What? Aren’t we done with that?
So I want to know everything that’s going on…I want to be kept abreast of it all. I want to learn about the medicine behind all the choices. I want to know if the work is interesting to the dentist, if he/she is engaged, or curious or making some new choices today? I want to know what it’s like to be a dentist, or an assistant, I want to know the level of boredom or repetition, maybe the level of challenge and intrigue. I try to let this natural curiosity distract me from the misery. It does. For a second. But here comes another grinding sound, another set of sharp tools…what the fuck is going on in there?
The worst of it all – the inability to speak. The inability to participate in any of it. The great silencer…that’s what the dentist is. At least if a doc is treating your knee, you can talk to him/her about what’s happening there. As all women know, even during a OB-GYN procedure, you can talk about the local sports team if you want…OB docs try to distract you, asking if you’d traveled lately, all the while putting a speculum in your vagina. And if you have to have surgery, at least they do you the courtesy of knocking you out for the duration, so your inability to participate goes unnoticed. I really do wish my dentist would put me under all together –sigh—they don’t do this – money, time, danger – really? Those seem pretty petty at the moment. For me, being rendered silent might be the worst—give me a voice, a vibration, to help ease my discomfort…I moaned and recited Hamlet like a mad-woman during childbirth. It helped a lot.
The pain of childbirth…I handled that like a pro. I am no pain wimp, trust me on this. I didn’t take so much as a Tylenol when I gave birth…three times I weathered and worked my way through the contractions. But dental work? Does the psychic pain of guilt and shame make the physical pain worse? I was nothing but proud of my fertility, my pregnancy, my “power-woman.” Did this give me more pain tolerance perhaps? Actually, it was back then that I discovered that pain and sound were the same thing…I’ll write more about that another time –but right now, the connection is this – I need to be able to make sound to manage discomfort—and in the dental chair, I am rendered mute.
I want to be fair to my particular dentist and acknowledge my own particular woes with dental work.
My dentist is a good dentist. I think. But what the fuck do I know about this really? Do I shop around a lot? I have seen more than my share of dentists over the years, but not because I’m being an informed consumer, but because of different kinds of needs and insurance situations (BORING). But really, who shops around for the best product here? “hey, let’s do the whole root canal thing, I want to see if you do it well, shall we?” Who does this? Did I miss the memo on this? Are there scores of other dentists doing fillings and crowns and extractions and partials in completely new ways, more efficiently, less painfully, and cheaper? If this is so, why aren’t they advertising on national television or covering the billboards on the highway? My dentist goes about his work with diligence and competency. I try to tell him that it’s time to explore alternative treatments; why don’t they have someone giving patients foot massages during the drilling? Or good ol’ acupuncture? What about image therapy? What about hiring an assistant to stroke your palms, or tell you all about what’s happening, giving you encouraging nods along the way. We could at least try submersion therapy, where’s the hot water?
I try to say to my dentist, “how can I participate more in this? Is there something you want me to do, a direction I can turn, maybe a facial expression to help direct your hands?” My words sound like this, of course: “uuhh hhhrrrhh…hhurr,” I try broken sign language, no one seems to listen.
I confess, and this is not an easy confession people – my teeth have always been problematic. Okay, the hardest part is over, I’ve said it out loud. My teeth are filled with issues … shame, guilt, worry, secrecy…yes, this is more vulnerable than being naked. It’s more intimate than talking about sex after all.
I have a checkered history with dental work. And maybe all this checkered “ness” has led me to these longer, more painful procedures, and okay, okay…yes, it’s my fault maybe, I’ve brought it upon myself, I’m responsible, yes, I’m responsible, I’m taking responsibility here, people, can you see that? Do you hear, are you taking that in? Yes, okay, I’m owning that –
I’m so embarrassed to talk about teeth; I am so conflicted about my teeth…
Did it start with those traumatic, early dental chair experiences, where some strange, unattractive man leaned way too close to me, tortured my teeth and pulled one after two hours of incompetency? Was it the smell of that old office in the 60s? The little lollipops were never enough to compensate for the pain of those office visits. Did it continue with the years of financial hardship, when every trip to the dentist resulted in bills that were difficult to manage and increased an already pressurized monthly budget?
To compensate for dental anxiety in my 20s, I tried to cultivate a crush on my dentist. He wasn’t very good looking or charming, but he wasn’t horrible in these areas, so I conjured a attraction to him, so I might flirt my way through the appointment. Maybe this would bring some kind of pleasure to the experience…any kind of pleasure would bring at least a modicum of relief, yes? It worked. I imagined that he wanted to gently touch my cheek, lean into my face…It didn’t last long.
For many years, I had such anxiety over the dentist that I actually felt faint in the chair. I had to tell the folks, “Look, I’m a little nervous and feeling a little nauseated and panicky right now.” This, too, felt like a kind of weakness—what, I was a chicken shit too? Not only did I have fucked up teeth, but I was a wimp too?
I absolutely hated the judgement I got from the hygienists over the years … every single one, “oh, you should brush more and brush better, let me show you this instruction sheet, let me demonstrate. You should floss more and floss better, you should do this and you should do that, and oh god, you’re a shameful human being, you’re a loser, an indulgent, lazy, worthless, self-destructive…” I’m sorry…you’re right, it’s all my fault, really it is. It’s true, I’m such a loser.
Why do dental offices all have to look so well-scrubbed, polite and perfect? Why do all the people who work there have such sweet, white, straight teeth, and talk so nicely all the time? It’s intimidating and unreal. Okay, I guess I don’t really want medical offices to be dirty, and I don’t want dentists who have rotten teeth staring at me their scalpels hanging over my mouth. But still, my whole body begins to tense up with all those pastel colors and Nature magazines on the racks. And the smell of torture lurking behind the reception desk. Oh yeah, “Whatever doesn’t kill us, makes us…”
I’ve had root canals, crowns, fillings, even extractions… I often wonder if I have the worst set of teeth among all the patients? I want my dentist to see me as an exciting medical challenge. Maybe I just want him to see me , so he’ll do his best not to hurt me. I wonder about the real drug addicts out there and the indigents… are my teeth worse than all theirs too? Of course, I want a decent smile, with no huge gap of missing teeth…I live in America, the land of plenty…I come from California, where everyone smiles like Hollywood celebrities, right? I have told my own kids — look, these days, .if you’re middle class, you have to wear braces. Period. It’s part of the package. You want to get into a good college? straighten your teeth. You want a good salary? straighten your teeth. I stray. Sorry.
So I go to the dentist, trying to keep as many teeth in my head as possible before I drop. Will I have to join Keith Richards and all those other old fogies who wear those false pearly whites? I hope not. But who knows… all my grandparents and my own father lost their teeth, and their lives didn’t suffer too much? Did they? No one ever talked about this. Ever.
So there it is. It’s out. I’ve come out. I’ve come out as a freak about my teeth.
At least here, I can talk about it.
The dentist –the great silencer…
Until I’m home, trying to recover. …oh did I mention the aftermath? The pain of the aftermath? Pain meds and rest. No workouts. Soft food. But at least I can talk about it.