This may be one of the stranger posts that I write. For a lifetime, I have been afraid of the dentist; so afraid that for long periods I did not get check-ups or treatment.
This is my recollection of a particular visit to the dentist when I was about 7 years old. I don’t remember this perfectly. Being 7 in a dentist chair can be traumatizing enough, without fear that seems perpetuated by culture and media. But I can say that this was a time that my mother took me. The dentist did a standard check-up and took some X-rays. It seemed that all was well. As I sat in the chair, looking around the room at all the instruments, and the lights, the dentist, and my mother were huddled together whispering. I could feel a sense of dread. After a couple of minutes, they turned around and the dentist explained that from the X-rays, he could see that my bottom front baby teeth had no second teeth to replace them. He muttered something about having long roots and how it would be tough to pull them out (He said I would need to have both teeth extracted.
The 7-year-old me was fine with that. We would just come back another day and I would get that done, probably under a general anesthetic – or so I thought. My mother had other ideas. She said she could not take time off work another day, I would have to have both teeth removed there and then, with a local. I looked at them both in horror. Right then? No way. I jumped out of the chair and ran to the door. My mother strode after me and stopped me running into the waiting room. She tried to explain that we really needed to do it now and that it would not be a big deal. All I could hear is “you have no choice” and “It is not up to you!”
The dentist grew impatient, and my mother took my hand and dragged me back to the chair. I shakily climbed in, knowing that I was powerless to create any other outcome.
I think I remember the very long needle for administering the Novocain. But I don’t remember the extraction. I don’t remember being in much pain. I think I had ice-cream when I got home. but that may have been some other time. I DO remember being painfully aware – for what felt like the first time – that I had no control. It was not up to me whether someone ripped out a part of my body and when they did it. I was too small to do anything about it. I was in the hands of others.
Fast forward to my teens….
My mother at this point had gone through YEARS of quite literally having to drag me to the dentist. I would cry for days beforehand, I would beg her to rearrange the appointments. I would develop a fever, or a cough, or a headache. All to no avail. Right around the time I would have gone to an orthodontist to correct my overcrowded teeth and straighten the ones at the bottom, she declared that she was done. She was done fighting, she was done struggling. If I wanted my teeth fixed it was up to me. If I made an appointment she would take me, but if not, that was my choice.
Guess what choice I made…
I went nearly 12 years without going to a dentist. When I finally did go – as a student in London – it was because I broke a filling and it was painful. I waited days until my husband persuaded I must go. I arrived at the dentist and told him I had anxiety. He said, “me too. I had a terrible commute, I am just going to take my pills” and proceeded to pop a pill that he said – jokingly maybe – was anti-anxiety medication. I gripped the arms of the chair. I have no idea how I stayed in the room. My husband was in the waiting room – it was now his job to drag me to the dentist – and I believed he would not have let me leave. I was that tiny child again, powerless to determine my own choices – at least in my head anyway.
12 years later…
I was living in New York and broke the same tooth. A colleague recommended a good dentist close to the office. This experience was much better, but I was still terrified. I could not go back to work after the appointment because I was so drained. The dentist said I really needed to get regular check-ups. Other old fillings were starting to break down. I needed cleanings. I did make an appointment for the following week to get a cleaning, but of course, I canceled it.
10 years later…
I moved to Massachusetts. About seven years after my move, I started to get a toothache in one of my molars. Initially, it was not too bad, a sort of nagging pain that would not go away. I thought it was just receding gums and tried to clean that tooth more diligently. It was sensitive to cold and heat. I had read somewhere online that sensitivity to heat is a bad sign. I did nothing. Pain meds did not really help, but I took them anyway. The pain continued and I sort of grew used to it. I could not chew on that side. I was careful what I ate. Sugary food exacerbated the pain. Hot tea sent shooting pains into my jaw.
The months went by…
My new husband tried to get me to go to the dentist. I just scoffed and said it was no big deal. Then, after about three years of almost constant toothache, for other reasons (see my previous blog) I went through the Thrive Programme. I was about six weeks into Thrive when I decided to call the local dentist.
They are literally five minutes’ walk from my home! I went a few days later and was referred to a specialist. For the life of me, I could not think of why I had not done so before. I “knew” that I had been scared before, but I could not conjure up the feeling. I did not take medication to go, no one had to go with me, I did not have nightmares before going, I did not have anxiety for weeks or days beforehand, I did not reschedule appointments. I just went. And don’t get me wrong, it was no picnic – as anyone who has had the “cold test” on a tooth that needs a root canal will attest. But it was just uncomfortable, it was necessary and it did not take long.
I did have a root canal – twice in that same tooth (I had a weird hidden extra root)! The treatment went on for several weeks. Each time I went for an appointment, the receptionist would ask “how are you today?” and I would answer with a big smile “I am at the dentist. It’s my favorite thing!” Of course, it isn’t quite true to say that the dentist is my favorite thing, but I was determined to be upbeat. My tooth was going to stop hurting. I would be able to eat properly again! Other patients looked at me as though I was a nutcase – but I didn’t care. I am fortunate to have access to good dental care and it is a privilege that many people don’t have!
I became the fun customer. Let’s face it, poor dentists are greeted every day by people in pain and who don’t want to be there! The Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates that as many as 15% of Americans have a fear or phobia of the dentist. Those people either don’t go to the dentist at all or when they arrive they say something like “hi, I should tell you I am really anxious about being at the dentist”!
Months later, at a regular checkup….
Yes, I get those now! Anyway, at my checkup, my dentist told me that she thought that if I was willing, it would make sense to have the orthodontic work that I had avoided in my teens. She gave me all sorts of reasons, including keeping my teeth into old age and avoiding dentures. She told me that straight and even teeth are not a luxury or vanity, they are an investment. I was sold! And so here I am. The treatment has begun. It started with two extractions on Tuesday. Two extractions I VOLUNTEERED FOR!
So, how was I?
Well here is a little table of differences!
|Would have said no and taken my chances||Said YES. I want my teeth to last a lifetime!|
|Many canceled and rescheduled appointments||NO canceled or rescheduled appointments
|Weeks of anticipation and anxiety||NO anticipation or anxiety
|Anxiety medication the day before and day of treatment||NO anxiety medication|
|Very unsociable for a couple of days prior||Went out for dinner with a friend the night before!
|Would need an escort||I have driven or walked myself to every appointment
|Crying in the in bed, in the bathroom, in the car, in the waiting room||Chatting with the receptionist
|Gruff, complaining greeting to the dentist staff||Happy, cheery greeting
|Driven crazy by the muzak playing||Humming along and tapping my foot to old standards
|Looking for every treatment shortcut||Doing it right
|Only one tooth at a time||Both teeth same day!|
|Lie down and rest or sleep all day after the appointment was over||Get stuff done ALL DAY! Took my dog for a long walk.
|Wishing I had not started the treatment||Looking forward to the next step|
When I say that the change has transformed my life, it is no exaggeration. And it did not just change my life, it changed it for those around me. My husband, trained over years to believe that he would have to miss work to take me to the dentist, almost felt guilty that he was not going with me. My attitude was “it is no big deal”. But what is truly remarkable to me is that I was not going through the Thrive Programme to treat my dental phobia! This was just a by-product. Once you are thriving you are REALLY thriving in all aspects of your life!