Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I make jokes about being dentophobic because I think the word sounds funny. However, it is not, in my opinion, a true phobia.

Phobia is defined as a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.  My dislike of dentists is not irrational, but is based on more than 3 decades of unpleasantness, pain and blood.

The first time I ever went to the dentist I was 11.  The dentist was a loud, overweight bald guy, who made inappropriate "jokes" about how tight my shirt was and whether or not I had a boyfriend.  He creeped me out in a way that I had never experienced before.  I was also kind of scared, having heard all the stereotypical hating-on-dentists jokes, and he made fun of me for being afraid to have a cavity filled.  I ended up crying the whole time he was filling my tooth.

Then a year or two later that same dentist decided I needed braces, but first he pulled 6 (six) teeth. Then I had braces for two years.  Luckily the orthodontist he sent us to was very nice, so the braces ordeal was about as pleasant as it could be.

I continued going to that same creepy dentist for the next year or so, until we all started noticing that my teeth didn't meet at all except at the very back of the right side of my mouth.  (I wrote about it here.)  There was literally an inch of space between my front teeth when my mouth was completely closed.  This was not because my teeth were growing in crookedly, my actual JAWS were.  So, another referral from creepy dentist, and we started seeing a surgeon to get ready for the surgery.

But first, another year of braces to get everything in place.  Do you know how much fun it is for a teenage girl to have braces TWICE?  No fun at all, that's how much.

So my parents and I met with this surgeon guy, where he repeatedly assured us that the surgery really wasn't as bad as it sounded.  It was similar to having wisdom teeth out.  Sure, I'd have to be in the hospital for a week, but that was just to learn how to eat with my mouth wired shut.

I remember being in the hospital the night before, meeting the anesthesiologist and thinking this feels like a very big deal.  Then in the morning they came to take me to surgery, and gave me an IV that knocked me out.  The next thing I knew I was in Cardiac Intensive Care, with electrodes on my chest hooked up to beeping machines.  Through a fog of anesthesia I was dimly aware of my parents there, very upset (my Mom was crying) and a nurse saying something about trouble controlling bleeding during surgery.  The next day I was a little more conscious, and Mom brought me the newly released Purple Rain album.  I remember the nurse giving me a sponge bath, and trying clean my long thick hair, which was caked with dried blood.

Oh, and learning to eat with my mouth wired shut?  The tips of teeth were enclosed in a plastic tray, my braces were wired together top to bottom, the only space to take any liquid in my mouth was the space between each front tooth.  Basically, I learned that all I could do was suck lukewarm liquid through my teeth.  Fun.  I actually developed a bit bigger space between two front top teeth, which they told me was normal and would go away when I got unwired (it did).

Then a year or so after that I got all four wisdom teeth cut out, which was not pleasant but obviously better than the surgery.  In the meantime I also had a couple more cavities filled, once with no novocaine (the dentist didn't think I'd need it, and I ended up crying all through the procedure while he kept saying we were almost done).  Did I mention that one time, when they did use novocaine, the needle hit a blood vessel in my mouth?  My mouth filled up with blood, my blood pressure dropped, yadda yadda yadda.  That happens to everyone, right?

So, to recap:  before the age of 20 I have had 6 teeth pulled, 3 or 4 cavities filled, braces for two years, braces again for another year, horrible face-bone-cracking-and-wiring-back-together surgery, mouth wired shut for a month, 4 impacted wisdom teeth removed, and much miscelleaneous pain and blood, and creepiness.

I go off into the world as an adult, out of my parent's control, and I think: to hell with this dentist crap.  That is enough of THAT.  And even though I really did understand the importance of taking care of your teeth, somehow 5 years went by without any trips to the dentist.  I moved to a new state and never found a dentist, and time passed without my realizing it, the way it is wont to do.

So in my mid-20's I found a dentist recommended by a friend, and though I was anxious, I made the appointment.  I told them when I made the appointment that I was afraid of dentists and haven't been in a very long time, and the lady on the phone was nice but abrupt.  When I got there, the dentist lady made no attempt to hide her disgust with the kind of person who would go five years without a cleaning. When the x-rays showed no cavities, she was quick to point out how lucky someone like me is to avoid teeth rotting right out of my head, and I would swear that the hygeinist made cleaning my teeth more painful than necessary.

I went home and cried, and felt like I was probably at fault.  I went back to that dentist another time or two, and there always seemed to be an undercurrent of meanness.  They kept telling me that my teeth still looked awful, that it would take years to undo the damage I had done by going so long without cleanings.  When I moved to a different part of town, I decided I wouldn't go back, I'd find a better place.

Of course, you know what happened.  I dreaded it so much I kept putting it off, and then all of a sudden several more years had gone by.  If my teeth had been in such bad shape then, how much worse had they gotten since?   I would lie awake at night worrying.

Two years ago I finally turned the corner where worrying about what would happen if I DIDN'T go became more terrifying than worrying about what would happen if I DID go.  Unable to get any recommendations from friends, I finally just picked a dentist nearby, in an office that looked nice. 

Gee, guess what happened?  The x-rays showed no cavities, but the dentist said I had severe periodontal disease that had eaten away a significant amount of the bone, which meant that my teeth were in danger of falling out.  The only thing that could prevent that was an extremely expensive laser procedure, which my insurance wouldn't cover.  They cleaned my teeth using a process called scaling, with no novocaine, which was literally one of the most painful things I have ever experienced.  And also bloody.  I was in his office for two hours of stomach clenching, tearful horror.

I was still in pain and crying when my husband got home from work.  Why had I even let them do that to me, he asked?  Why didn't I just leave?  After all, I didn't even know for sure what the dentist had told me was correct.

It honestly never occurred to me to leave.  This is what going to the dentist is for me, I sobbed to my husband.  It ALWAYS hurts, it's ALWAYS horrible, it's ALWAYS like this.

I asked around at work, and found several people recommending a dentist right near our office.  Panic and anxiety combined to make me immoble once again, and it took much longer than it should have to make the appointment.  Plus, it was harder to coordinate this time, since my husband would have to come with me for hand-holding/tissue detail.

I went last week, just for x-rays and a check-up, no cleaning or procedures of any kind.  X-rays showed one small cavity, and periodontic disease that had resulted in some bone loss.  They were so nice to me, and very patient, and explained that if I came in for scaling and took good care to get my teeth cleaned regularly I'd be okay.  Yesterday I went in for the first of two scaling procedures and the hygienist was so nice.  She obviously went out of her way to be encouraging, and kind.  My husband pulled a chair close to me and held my hand during the whole thing.  I had to get six shots of novocaine, which wasn't fun, and the procedure took more than an hour, but it really wasn't bad.  The hygienist called me "sweetie", and kept telling me I was doing great, and my teeth were looking beautiful.

Even with all that encouragement and wonderfulness, I still had uncontrollable stomach clenchiness and had to keep reminding myself to breathe.  And, truth be told, I got a little bit teary.  But I feel much less anxious about going back for the second half, and I feel like I have finally found a dental office of people who not only good at what they do, but also are NICE.