I made a dental appointment last week because my back molars were hurting me. They had been hurting me for some time-a couple of years at least. In a moment of lucidity it occurred to me that if they were hurting then perhaps not only was something wrong with my teeth, but it could be the sort of something that results in lots of pain—what if one of them cracked? I am terrified of dentists. I’m terrified of doctors too but there’s something about dentistry-perhaps it’s because the mouth is so full of nerve endings and as a result even getting a cleaning hurts.
So I made an appointment. I was okay until last night, when all sorts of things that could be wrong with my mouth started occurring to me. Well, perhaps I’d just cancel the appointment, I told myself. When I woke up this morning (with aching teeth) I told myself that I had to do it. “They’re not cops-they can’t force you to have any kind of procedure done.” I told myself and “I don’t care how scared you are-you have to go because it isn’t going to get any better if you don’t. It can only get worse and how foolish will you feel if you have to make an emergency dental appointment?” The winning argument I believe was “so you are sure that there’s some unknown thing that is dreadfully wrong with your mouth that is going to be expensive and painful to remedy that will involve taking massive amounts of time off of work and will impact your lifestyle and schooling? You were also positive that you’d flailed your Accounting final.” And I was dead sure about that. So sure that I announced it to my parents. But I got out of the course with a B. So the point I was making to myself was that I was just being mentally ill about my teeth. And therefore, however sure I was I was probably wrong. I still felt terrible about it.
When I got to work I looked up wisdom teeth, since I still have all of mine and since it’s back teeth that hurt-perhaps the wisdoms were making a belated entry. I also looked up gum disease on Wikipedia. And then I made myself stop. I believe that some part of my lizard brain was trying to make me have a panic attack—because then I’d defiantly cancel the appointment.
We had a Big Thing to do at work today*. I told one of my colleagues that I had to go to the dentist, but that I could put it off. This was the right thing for me to do, as it turns out. Aside from fear of dentists I’ve a healthy fear of my boss and I didn’t want him blaming me for being out. My colleague assured me that there was nothing the boss could blame me for and pointed out that whenever he put off the dentist he ended up not going. We joked about how I would in a position to verify whether an afternoon at the dentist was still worse than an afternoon at work (oh yes!) So now there was one person who would give me shit if I didn’t go to the dentist. So I had to go.
I went and gave them my name. They took me to a chair and left me in it. I could hear the sounds of dental equipment all around me. I crossed myself as I sat in the chair and then remembered that I’m not really Catholic anymore. And then I hoped that they would hurry up and start hurting me—otherwise I’d bolt because I was so terrified. I told the nice young lady dentist that I’d come in because my back teeth hurt and she said she needed a full set of X-Rays. “I need to see the roots-as you say you are aching.” The roots?!! Good God what will she need to do if the trouble is in the roots? Root canal? Some other frightening procedure I’ve never heard of before?! I went to get X rayed. I noted that dentistry had entered the digital age-once the tech pulled the switch I could see black and white pictures of my teeth on the flat-screen next to the chair (not that I wanted to see them.)
When the tech was done X raying me I went back to the dentist chair I had first sat in. My mouth was shaking. I tried to think of the scariest thing I had overcome in the past year (I took the GMAT. I had to interview 15 strangers Spring term. I took an elective last term-while taking another class this gave me an anxiety attack once a week but I got through it.) Somehow, none of these was any help.
The nice young lady dentist told me that the pain in my teeth was due to my clenching them at night and that she could make me a mouth guard that would deal with that (better than the commercial ones) I had a few cavities which would need filling. I can live with that-I haven’t had a filling in 20 years. It’s unpleasant, but because I know what I’ll be getting into, I could make an appointment for fillings (and a mouth guard fitting.)
I was thrilled when I left. For one thing, the dentist had been nice and had accepted the fact that I was scared of dentistry. She and her assistant treated me like a grown up human. All through my terrified afternoon I’d been telling myself how much good it would do me to do this thing that scared me. Even my co-worker chimed in. When I pointed out that my list of things to do consisted entirely of things I didn’t want to do he said –“Well at least by going to the dentist you’re doing yourself some good.”
But although I’ll go to have my fillings done and my mold made without much fuss, this doesn’t change my fear of doctors or of dentists. Bodies—this carbon and hydrogen substance of which we are made —are mortal and are subject to wear and tear and decay. I can change my diet, and I can floss more often but time wears on the human body. So doctors will always scare me in a way that bosses don’t. I can always take another course in SQL or MS Access, but I can’t take any course that will make my body ten years younger.