When I was about five, my mom took me to see my dad’s family dentist. This man had been working on my dad, his brother, and their parents for decades and my dad insisted that I be taken there, and nowhere else. My mom really didn’t care one way or the other, so off we went.
The guy never seemed to be very nice to me, but at the time I simply assumed that all dentists were hateful people and accepted it. (When I say “accepted,” I do not mean to imply that as a kid I was ever happy to go to the dentist, only that I believed his meanness towards me was normal and never complained about it in particular.)
The last time I ever saw this dentist was when I was thirteen. I remember that because on the way home my mom had the radio on and we found out that John Lennon had been fatally shot. On this particular day it turned out that I had two cavities, my first. The dentist told me to open my mouth and began drilling. When I flinched and asked about Novocain, I was told (get this) to shut up and “be a man” about it. The pain was so intense I remember wondering if I could break my fingers from gripping the chair too hard. I also remember thinking that it would have been a relief to do so.
My dad of course refused to believe that it had occurred, and my mom, as was her wont, demurred to him. But I never went back to that dentist. In fact, it was twenty four years until I had another successful trip to the dentist’s office.
But not for lack of trying.
You see, my “perfectly toothed” wife believed that the dentist was your friend, and that I should be going—and frequently. She set me up with appointments at various offices around town, set the calendar on my computer, called me at work to remind me, and generally did everything she could to get me to go.
To be fair there was very little way she could have anticipated the depth of my fear, now straddling the fence between neurosis and pathology. If someone walked up to me at a party and simply said the word “dentist” my palms would go all clammy and I would break out in a cold sweat. The first two dentist’s offices finally refused to take any more appointments for me, since I never showed up for any of them anyway.
Finally, through a combination of bribery, cajoling, and crying, Lena finally got me to show up for an appointment with the dentist. She warned them over the phone that I was extremely nervous and that they needed to conduct their business as quickly as possible. The hygienist, halfway through the cleaning, got up to chat with someone about something to do with my teeth. My frazzled nerves broke, and I jumped from the chair and ran out the door. The bewildered receptionist called my wife and reported my “escape.” A different tack was obviously called for.
I tried Valium, but that really freaked me out. I got so worried that I wouldn’t be able to leave if they did something horrible to me that I just sat in the parking lot for a half-hour and then went back to work. (By this time Lena was in cahoots with the receptionist at my job and would also get called from there if I didn’t go to my appointment, or if I came back too quickly.) Finally Lena started taking time off from her job to accompany me to myappointments. By this time I had six cavities.
I worked at the time for a small publishing house trying to get their own brand of children’s books off the ground. We had dental insurance, but it wasn’t great. The dentist Lena took me to wanted to make six separate trips out of my six cavities so that he could bill my insurance six separate times. I walked out and never returned.
Lena pre-screened my next dentist and announced her to be acceptable. We were by now both working freelance and it was less hassle to take the time to go together. The two of us went as a couple for my first appointment. The hygienist was calm and straightforward, and exuded a sense of competence and peace. The dentist herself was warm and sweet and knowledgeable, and happy to take the time to share with me.
They both agreed I was the worst patient they had ever seen.
But—I didn’t run away, and by the end I didn’t mind coming back. Nowadays going to the dentist is no big deal, and I’m always happy to visit with everyone in the office. Thinking or talking about the subject no longer makes me jittery and uncomfortable, and I think that the upcoming removal of my wisdom teeth is going to go okay.
Oh, I almost forgot. That dentist my dad insisted on who set this all in motion for me? The next year after my last appointment with him, he lost his license to practice dentistry. Seems he was charging for drugs he never administered to his patients…