I still remember one of my earliest episodes of panic, which happened in a dentist’s waiting room. As I said in the uncomfortable chair, surrounded by Highlights for Children magazines that I had already read, I felt dread moving up my body from my toes. It crept up my legs into my hips and on into my abdomen. I was convinced that when the feeling of terror reached my heart, I would die. I was called into the doctor’s office before that happened.
This is a memory I have shared with only one other person before now. Just thinking about it still brings back a visceral body memory of fear.
It really bothers me that some people think that good teeth are a sign of moral superiority. Some other people, like me, are simply born with bad teeth, or at least weak, cavity-prone little tooth buds embedded in our infantile gums. Brush as diligently as we might, we are never going to have pristine white teeth like the people on TV.
While my dental phobia can possibly be attributed to the general pool of my anxiety triggers, there were also some outside factors that contributed to it.
My parents were never good role models for dental health, as my mother had gotten dentures at age 16 and my father chewed tobacco.
There were also bad experiences with blame-and-shame dentists and hygienists, one of whom scraped a bit of tartar off my teeth, stuck it in my face, and asked, “If I put that on a piece of bread, would you eat it?”
I used to loathe the public school practice of making us chew little purple tablets to see how clean our teeth really were. My teeth were – and still are – considerably crooked, so it was difficult for me to brush in a manner that wouldn’t leave glaring purple spots all over my mouth.
My teeth have only gotten crookeder, since my parents were not able to afford orthodontia for me. When and where they grew up, braces were a luxury for the well-to-do; rural children like they were simply did without. By the time my sister and I came along we lived in the suburbs, but braces had never become a priority for my parents compared, say, to eyeglasses, which were deemed essential.
My last and most recent experience with a dentist was a number of years ago. I don’t remember what prompted me to go, but I did tell the dentist about my phobia and he was very considerate. (I always look for a dentist whose advertising says, “We Cater to Cowards.”)
He did my exam and treatment in the kiddy room with the bright, nonthreatening murals of cowboys and western scenes on the walls. Just the x-rays and routine cleaning proved alarming enough to trigger one of my worst stress reactions – diarrhea. When it came time for the actual procedures the dentist brought in a traveling anesthesiologist so that I could be knocked out rather than conscious and terrified. My husband was there for driving, moral support, and decisions that needed to be made while I was out cold.
I have not been back to the dentist since. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I need to. My teeth ache. My fillings have fallen out. One tooth is broken. Because of that, my teeth are moving in directions they were never supposed to. And that makes my dental bridge (acquired at the aforementioned last experience) fit poorly. I look like the stereotypical Willie Nelson fan. (I am a Willie Nelson fan, but I don’t care to reinforce the popular image.)
This week I was trying to convince myself to call a dentist just for a consultation. I still haven’t managed to do that. Just saying the word “dentist” gave me a spasm in my chest. Maybe I’ll be able to make the call during this coming week.
The only person in the world who is a worst dental-phobe than I am is my sister. She too had childhood dental issues. Once she even bit a dentist and he slapped her. Needless to say, that experience did not improve her attitude toward dental care.
She is also ultra sensitive to (or afraid of) pain and quite terrified of needles. Even as an adult, she has been known to scream so loudly and lengthily that she has cleared an entire dentist’s waiting room. (She then sent the dentist a Halloween card that screamed when you opened it.)
Still, I am a grown up. I need to do this. I cannot convincingly tell myself that waiting will improve the situation. I just have to pick a day for my appointment when my husband is available to take me and I have had my prescription for Ativan recently refilled. And some Immodium on hand.
Wish me luck.
ETA: I now have an appointment with a dentist for some serious work, and with a traveling anesthesiologist for IV sedation. I tried to get the doc to prescribe roofies, but some guys have no sense of humor…