Monday, August 04, 2008

learning to love the dentist (no, not really)

My fear of the dentist is actually more like aichmophobia, an irrational fear of needles, specifically, the injection that deliver the anesthetic. When I was a child, I imagined the needle to around 12 inches long, supported by a huge metallic syringe designed specifically to hurt me. My mother hated taking me to the dentist as much as I hated having to be taken: this involved much weeping, wailing, struggling, imprecations and – when I was at the dentist’s office – kicking. It was kicking the dentist that provoked the most spectacular reaction from my mother, a profound silence that I imagined had the flavor of murder, and from the dentist, a kind of shocked hurtfulness, from a man who had been wronged for simply trying to do his job (I’m so sorry, Mr. Dentist). After the kicking and screaming and braces, the mother-driven dental visits simply stopped, much to my overall happiness and peace of mind. I swore I’d never go again, as long as I lived.

Of course, that was impossible (though I tried, dammit, with toothpaste and floss and toothpicks both wooden and aquatic). As a self-professed dentophobe (believe me, my dental mentality goes beyond mere anxiety), I have managed to somehow limit my visits to the dentist to a handful of tormented instances during my adult life. Those visits, with vast gaps of years in between, were only because I finally succumbed to maddening pain and decided, with the fatalism that accompanies a man en route to the electric chair, that I had no choice.

During those visits, I’d calmly explain to the dentist what I felt was wrong and articulate that unlike other people, pain hurt me. And in particular, injections were my bane. Each dentist would nod, some dismissively, some sympathetically, before asking me to open up. Then they would marvel at the shocking condition of the inner workings of my mouth (and I can tell already, in their heads, that they could hardly wait to recommend with unholy gusto a battery of root canals, deep scaling, realignment surgeries, fillings, gum therapy and whatnot).

The necessary needle or needles would come next. One dentist was concerned that I was having some sort of heart-related condition, given my sweltering state. Another treated me like a little child and chattily told me that it wouldn’t really hurt (not knowing that this little boy knew exactly how much the damn things did hurt, and had savagely kicked a dentist before). Others simply injected.

The topical doesn’t really do anything, as far as I’m concerned. I can feel the painful entry as my entire body stiffens and my neck and shoulders threaten to sprain into knots. I can feel the needle go deeper into my gums, bypassing the pathetic little mental tricks I feeble attempt to rally to reduce the pain. I can feel the liquid force itself from syringe into the impossible spaces inside my gums, and I am, of course, in tears, manfully stifling sobs and my fight-or-flight response.

Things are worse, when, like the last time, I had four injections, a combination of long and short needles, up the roof of my mouth and right in front, above my front teeth, where the needles went sideways.

Everything that happens afterward doesn’t really matter, because I’m already in shock anyway, and soon the anesthetic does its work, so deep scaling, filling, root canals, extractions (though rarer now because dentists nowadays insist on saving every tooth, I had to have an upper molar removed), whatever, go ahead, do it, there’s not much more to bear anyway.

A few weeks ago, I was visited by intense pain that nothing could assuage (in prior times, simply ignoring it for a few days would make it go away). I finally went to the dentist in my office building and begged the receptionist for an immediate appointment on purely humanitarian grounds, since I felt I’d keel over in the next half-hour. After taking my name, she revealed that I actually had a record there, from four years ago: it noted an extraction and a string of dental appointments, all cancelled, until I changed my cell number. Gah. I apologized and waited for the dentist – who actually remembered me as the big guy who was afraid of needles.

I begged her to yank the tooth, bravely saying that I’d take a needle or two, anything, just to live another day. She coolly nodded an offered a deal: she’d help if I promised to let her do future painful things to me (that, of course, is my wording of her offer; everything she said sounded hurtful but… beneficient). With the killer toothache of the century like a cocked gun against my head, I agreed to her terms, defeated.

I’m scheduled for my fifth visit next week, having kept to my word and the schedule and undergone a staggering variety of dental things. She’s working to restore my teeth to the closest possible facsimile of humanity and has her job cut out for her.

I’ve had to be brave, taking in the needles, one, two or four per visit. It’s still painful, and I still feel violated, and my body still tenses up so much that I have muscle pains for days afterwards, but I’ve bought into the preventive aspect of dental care.

Maybe it’s because I’m starting to be a responsible adult, and need to be an example for my kids (I cannot take Sage and Rowan to dentist and then abandon them there when a needle is displayed).

Or maybe it’s because I found a greater pain than my fear of injections that takes my mind of the throbbing areas of my ravaged mouth – the dental bill, presented to me after every visit, is in the thousands of pesos (and the bridgework which I’m looking at costs P15k per tooth).

The pain of my wallet trumps the pain of mouth.

I grimace and take it.

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