From the title, this should be one of my light-hearted, funny, perhaps even a bit aggravated comparative cross-culture posts. But it’s actually not. This is a post about fears and irrationalities and the sometimes bizarre workings of my psyche. It’s weirdly personal, and I don’t share this stuff with hardly anyone. But it has at times played an embarrassingly central role in my life.
I’m terrified of going to the dentist. I know it’s a fairly common phobia, and I can’t go inside other people’s heads to see how you feel about the dentist, or where on the scale of neurotic I fall, but suffice it to say that I think I have it worse than most people. I adored my dentist in Florida (as much as it is even possible for me to adore a dentist) for letting me bring my sugar gliders into his office so I would have something furry and warm to cuddle while I suffered through dentist visits.
If I could somehow pay someone to go to the dentist for me, it would be by far at the top of my list–before paying someone to do my laundry, clean my house, watch my children, or even do my taxes. My version of white coat syndrome wakes me up at night for a week before every dentist visit. When the long-dreaded day finally arrives, I have to leave early, because there’s a high probability I will make a wrong turn somewhere on the way. I walk into the office shaking, sweating, and clammy. I hate everything about the room of death: the oddly shaped chair, all the instruments of torture hanging from the ceiling, the bodily invasion that is someone else’s hands inside my mouth, and most of all the terrible, high-pitched scream of the thing that cleans your teeth.
Worse than all of those, though, is the anxiety over what the dentist will tell me about the state of my mouth. I have a history of hypochondria–that thing where every time you feel a muscle twinge you think you have cancer. I’ve mostly been able to get it under control by religiously avoiding ever looking up any symptoms on the internet. But I can’t at all keep anything under control when it comes to the dentist. You know that dream that your teeth are falling out, that is supposed to mean anything from warning you you’re gossiping too much to fear of loss of something intangible, to (of course) sexual repression? I’m pretty sure that for me, it’s just a prosaically literal fear that my teeth will actually fall out. And I have had the dream more times than I can count.
It’s not all in my head, though. I’m quite an anxious person, whose body just happens to take out that anxiety on my teeth. I grind my teeth at night. Sometimes it’s just a little, sometimes it’s pretty serious. I wear upper and lower mouth guards to minimize the damage. But I’ve had braces (twice!), a gum graft, and maxillofacial surgery to deal with problems caused by the clenching. I have gum recession around several teeth that my dentist monitors every time I come in. There was a particularly bad period six or seven years ago now, where I couldn’t even eat solid foods because my teeth were too sensitive and actually loose from the clenching. I’ve done a lot of yoga and acupuncture and healthy processing and problem solving and arranging my life to make the stress and anxiety manageable. It helps. But I still have anxiety, and I still clench my teeth, and it’s not something that’s going away.
Fun fact: I still don’t eat whole apples or carrots, because I can’t handle the idea of biting into something so hard. Fun fact #2: I hate taking selfies because grinning at myself in a phone a foot from my face makes me think about my teeth, and I don’t like to do that. Interestingly enough, I almost never get cavities. I’ve had one extremely traumatic root canal, but don’t have fillings in any other teeth.
I usually don’t tell anyone about my dentist issues, because then they might start telling me horror stories about their own encounters with the dentist. This sort of thing happens to pregnant women too. I can guarantee that no woman preparing to give birth wants to hear about your second cousin’s horrific experience in the delivery room. And I can’t really handle hearing about other people’s bad experiences at the dentist either.
The other reason I tell no one about the way I feel about my teeth is that for whatever reason, as someone who really tries to take care of my body, I process any health or dental problem I have as a personal failure, whether or not it’s something over which I have any control. It feels like a shameful secret that I can’t tell anyone. I think only Tony knows how much I have worried about my teeth over the time we’ve been married. And when I start talking about them, he gently reminds me that I worry about them when I’m stressed out, and helps me solve whatever problem is really causing the anxiety. The fact that he even still lets me talk about my teeth to him is one of the things that lets me know how much he loves me.
I’ve been trying lately to be more gentle with myself. Sometimes I need to get outside the prison I build for myself in my head and realise that probably if I tell you about my dentist phobia and my mouth full of problems you actually won’t think any less of me. I need to forgive myself and my body for not being perfect. Because hey, I do a pretty good job of taking care of my body. And it does a pretty good job of taking care of me. We’re a good team. And for better or worse, we’re stuck together for life.
Today, as usual, I went to the dentist convinced that she was going to tell me that, just like in my dream, my teeth are on the verge of falling out. And probably full of cavities. Instead, I left with clean teeth and the usual recommendation to get cleanings slightly more often than normal. The plus side of being sure the world will end is the high you get when there’s an unexpected reprieve. I came home and cried in relief and wrote this blog post. So thanks for listening. Now you know the full extent of how crazy I am.