Sunday, December 04, 2005

Written May 4, 2005

I have a history of being afraid of dental work. I went through a lot of it as a kid, and I never really understood why I needed it until it was all over. All I knew was that this really nice guy (at least he seemed so nice) would torture me about once a month for most of my childhood. I had two sets of braces, a palate expander, and had to wear a headgear for a number of years.

Oddly, the headgear was not the worst part for me. Those things are awful for a lot of kids because they get made fun of for it. But not me. I was already a geek, and the kids had plenty of other things to make fun of me for, so the headgear was pretty much ignored.

The worst part for me was the palate expander. This was a torture device. It's in two pieces, with gears in the middle. It is bonded to your upper molars, and stretches across your upper palate. Every evening, you put a key-like thingy into it, and it pushes the two part device slightly wider in your mouth. You are literally stretching your upper jaws apart day by day, a millimeter or so at a time.

The pain was excruciating. I remember every night I'd get sick stomachs and could barely eat dinner, anticipating it. I'd cry when 9:00 came around, and it was time. My parents would sit on the couch with me and hold me, trying to be supportive, and I'd subject myself to the torture. Often I pushed the key back myself, insisting on at least this measure of control over my fate. It created headaches, which is probably why we did it at bedtime, so I could take Tylenol and sleep them off.

My mother wasn't very good at this. It probably hurt her immensely to see me in such pain, when I was in elementary school, maybe about 9 years old. She wasn't able to calm me down or make the hurt go away, and this probably made her feel inadequate. Maybe she felt ashamed or angry at herself. Maybe that's why sometimes she would get up, disgusted with me, tell me to stop being such a damn baby, scream something like "It's for your own good!" and storm out of the living room, disappearing into the back of the house, where I'd later on hear my parents arguing about me, my mother's voice screaming about "that damn kid acts like we're torturing her."

But Mom, you all were torturing me. At nine, I was incapable of understanding why straight teeth was worth all this. I knew nobody had ever died from an overbite. After years of being picked on in school, my self-esteem was already bad enough that I knew I'd never been or ever would be really pretty anyway. It just hurt so badly, and nobody could give me a good enough reason why I had to endure this. Just to be a little more normal looking? Are they kidding? I'd still have a big runny nose and be socially awkward. This wouldn't make me better at sports or snappy comebacks in the cafeteria. The responsible adults who controlled my life had no idea what I really needed... at least, so I thought... and didn't care to hear me. They dismissed my expressed concerns, and decided this mouth torture was most important. This was more than torture - it was betrayal.

I wore that expander for the better part of a year.

At some point The Device was removed, and I just had plain old braces. Getting them put on wasn't comfortable either. My visits to the orthodontist were relatively minor after that, just random cleanings, which didn't hurt. Sometimes the tartar scrapings got out of hand, but at least they were over quickly. Eventually, one blessed day, the braces came off. I was 17 years old, and I didn't give a damn what I looked like. I just wanted to walk out of that Chamber of Horrors and never, ever come back again.

I was, however, horrified to learn that when the braces came off, the little wire behind my 4 bottom front teeth was left in place... and would never be removed.

How could they do this to me? They didn't understand how psychologically scarred I was, obviously. I needed to have every trace of dental appliances, every last bit of evidence of the years of torture fucking REMOVED from my maligned mouth. I desperately needed to put this behind me... but no. I had to see that wire every day, for the rest of my life, and be reminded. Those sadistic fucks.

Everything dental, in my mind, became associated with people who I am supposed to trust, who claim to care about me, even love me, who get me to relax, let down my guard, and allow myself to be vulnerable, and then proceed to inflict horrific pain on me for hours, showing contempt for me when I cry. It was the ultimate destruction of trust, and it happened when I was a pretty young kid. I would never really trust a medical professional again, and it wasn't so great for my relationship with my parents either. Even the friendly nurses had lied to me, telling me in my most vulnerable early teen years, when I emerged crying into the waiting room, how worth it would be when it was all over, when I had a beautiful smile and all the boys wanted to take me to prom. You don't tell a 13-year-old that. You just don't do it.

I think the most insidious tactic they pulled with me was to tell me that my smile would be so pretty, that I'd get cast in all those Ingenue roles I dreamed of playing in the local community theatre. Boy, they really knew how to push my buttons. They told me I'd never make it to Hollywood to be a star if I didn't submit, because movie stars all have perfect smiles. As a young artsy geek, theatre was all that mattered to me, and I was threatened with the loss of what few dreams I had.

Of course, I never got cast anyway. I was never popular with boys or girls. My life was just as shitty as it had ever been. I don't think I really ever believed that dental work would get me cast, or a boyfriend, but I couldn't stand that those people thought so little of fucking with my head like that.

An even deeper level of cold, hard, black realization came when, as I got older, it became clear that even if I had known everyone was just storying me to buy my compliance, I still wouldn't have had a choice. I was a kid. They would have strapped me to the chair. My consent was meaningless. They fucked with my head not out of concern for me, but because they thought it might make their jobs easier. Their days easier. Their lives easier.

I wonder if I would have been better off strapped to a chair screaming. At least then I would have known who cared about me and who didn't.

Today, I am 33 years old, and haven't been to a dentist in over five years. Likely longer. I've forgotten when I last visited.

I have post-traumatic stress. If I'm watching TV, and there is a scene involving dental issues in any way, my teeth ache. I tried once to go to a dentist in New York City, and simply filling out the intake forms caused such an anxiety storm that I left the office and never went back. They left a message a day later, asking in an irritated tone why I had disappeared. I never called them back. I don't remember what year that was.

During the years I was married, my old dentist back home, who knew me intimately, recommended someone in the city who specialized in people like me. I took me a great deal of courage to call them, and a number of months, but I finally did, and they were wonderful on the phone. They sent me a brochure. I almost made an appointment, but my husband screamed at me not to go, because they weren't in our health insurance plan. Of course I bowed to his will. I may never forgive him for that.

My gums have receeded so much that I can't drink from a cup with ice in it without discomfort. I brush regularly and use antibacterial mouthwash, but flossing has induced nausea on many occasions. I don't know why I get nauseated by flossing, but I do, and my teeth are suffering for it. I've bought every kind of floss on the market. I just can't do it. I watched my Mom floss recently, trying to see how she does it, and I almost threw up. She was disgusted with me. My dad says I need counseling for this. He's right. I've got an emotional blockage that's going to cost me my teeth.

Just a few days ago I noticed that the molar on the lower left side, second from the back, is ultra-sensitive at the gumline. I looked at it, and the gum there has receeded even more. I'm scared.

I'm really scared. I'm crying right now, typing this.

When I was 15, after an overly-enthusiastic dental assistant had given me a tartar-scraping, I told my mother that nothing was worth this, that I didn't care if I never had a date in my life and never got cast onstage ever again. I was willing to sell out every dream a teenaged girl dreams, just to be able to wake up one morning and know that I'd never have to dread seeing the word "Orthodontist" on the calendar again, counting down the days in mounting terror.

Now, at 33... I am sure that I will have to go back.

Goddess, help me. I may as well be nine years old again. I just want someone to hold my hand.


Tuna Girl said...

Oh Sweetie! I had the same palate expander as a child. And it was torture. I remember not being able to turn the key myself because I just couldn't inflict that much pain on myself.

And I remember my father making a folder with "Karen's Pretty Smile" written across the front for all the paperwork. Like that would make a difference.

I thought I was pretty until everyone started telling me that I needed all these years of torture to be acceptable.

And you know where I ended up with all that stuff. You saw me exactly a year ago with my jaws wired shut. Believe me. I understand your fear.

I've been a hand holder for a dentist-phobic person before. You can do it. You can do anything.

Jonathan said...


I recently had the problem of gums recending along both upper rows of teeth. I could feel along the face of my tooth, approaching the gum line until my finger nail would drop into the groove along my gumline. Then the most excruciating pain would erupt in my head. I started freaking.

My dentist told me it happens at our age and it is most likely caused by brushing too hard. It makes the fragile enamel at the gum line crumble away. My hygenist chided me for cleaning my teeth too hard! :) Go figure. So I lessened the pressure along the gum line, blah blah blah. And then I had bondings done to fill in the gaps. No more sensitivity. I'm glad I had the 6 teeth fixed. The bonding was quicker than a filling.

Now I'm working on the color of my teeth. Mmmm, peroxide lightly masked with mint.