Facing our worst fears: the dentist

Somewhere I read or heard that facing our fears makes us stronger – that every time we do something we’re afraid of, it builds up our courage muscle and better equips us to face other, even scarier things in the future.

I hope this is true, but even if it’s not, facing fears and conquering them feels good. I love the feeling afterwards of “wow, I did it!” And I’ve had that feeling quite a bit this month as I recover from some pretty major dental work.

I used to be absolutely terrified of the dentist. I had a pretty bad one growing up; bottom line, he didn’t seem to care much about pain management or helping patients feel comfortable. He was an older gentleman with old school attitudes and a vintage dental office that basically resembled a torture chamber, with all the old-fashioned dental tools out on horrific display. I remember my friends at school swapping tales about how fun it was to get “laughing gas” at the dentist, and when I asked my dentist about it, he merely scoffed. Not the best early dental experience – so you can understand why I was scared.

In fact, my increasingly awful childhood dental experiences with my parents’ old dentist culminated in my getting so scared in the waiting room sometime in high school that when the dentist came out to get me, I literally screamed and ran out of his office, down the stairs, out through the parking lot and up the street. I flat-out refused to ever see that dentist and as far as I can recall, my mom backed me up and never made me go back there again.

Interestingly, I was fine with my orthodontist around that same time in my life – despite the discomfort he brought into my life via braces! But then, he had a more modern office, young and friendly assistants who put me at ease and a fatherly, if rather patronizing, demeanor.

It wasn’t until the summer I graduated from high school that I needed to see an actual dentist again. I hadn’t been for a few years and I began having severe tooth pain at the site of an old, deep filling on the right side toward the front of my mouth.

I remember that when I got my braces off at 15, that cavity was lurking beneath one of the metal bands that had hidden my teeth for several years. I recall thinking how unfair it was that I had to get a filling as I couldn’t have possibly avoided that cavity in the first place! That was the last filling the awful old dentist ever gave me – and I remember him saying something along the lines of “This was a deep one. Hope it holds.”

Well, it didn’t – the throbbing toothache a few years later was a sure sign of that. This was back in ’87 when I should have been enjoying my last summer at home and getting ready to go off to college – and was doing those things, but the gnawing toothache was ever-present. By the time I went off to start my freshman year at SUNY Binghamton, I was popping Advil on the regular to take the edge off the awful tooth pain I was in.

Early in my freshman year, the pain became too severe to ignore and deny anymore. I dreaded seeking out a dentist, but I knew that at least I could choose this one myself. I looked in the yellow pages (old school, baby – this was pre Internet!) and found a dentist whose ad said he catered to fearful patients and promised gentle, painfree dentistry – my cup of tea exactly. I had to take not one but two buses to get to his office, but I faced my fears and left campus, braving downtown Binghamton and the metro bus system in order to get this aching tooth looked at.

I liked my new dentist right away, but after looking at my tooth he proclaimed I would need a root canal. I WAS HORRIFIED. I remember calling my mom sobbing from the dentist’s office, and begging for an alternative. The dentist told my mom and I that the only alternative would be to pull the tooth, but that he wouldn’t recommend that on someone so young. My mom agreed and talked me into the root canal.

I was SO scared of the idea of pain, of horrible things happening in my mouth and of the unknown. But this dentist was truly gentle and kind – he talked me through everything. He told me that he would give me nitrous to help me relax. He told me it would feel like “a joint and a sixpack” and chuckled – I had never experienced either, but I laughed too because it seemed outrageously inappropriate for a dentist to say that!

Soon enough, the day came for my root canal. The nitrous really agreed with me; I felt relaxed, high and simply unbothered by anything and everything they did. I remember the dentist and technician chatting above me as they worked, totally unconcerned and relaxed, and I felt so comfortable that I literally went to sleep. And afterward the pain in my tooth was GONE! It was truly miraculous. It was a great experience and helped my dental phobia move from “Red Alert” to “Yellow Caution” status.

Ever since, I no longer avoid the dentist. I carefully select a new “phobia friendly” dentist anytime I move to a new town. I go for my twice a year cleanings and ask for nitrous anytime I need a filling or other work done – at my dentist, there’s no added cost for it. You just have to ask!

I love the dentist I go to now – literally known as The Gentle Dentist – and that’s a very good thing because after 45, your mouth truly starts falling apart. I have old fillings, cracking teeth and more. And you guessed it – this year, that old nuisance of a tooth, #5, my right upper bicuspid, started acting up again. Apparently, that deep filling in ’85 and root canal in ’87 weren’t bad enough – this year, I actually had to have it re-root canaled only to discover that the root was cracked and it had to come out. Gulp! Yet another new dental nightmare to face.

Expensive – and scary – dental woes are not something anyone would ever choose to have, but I’m proud of the way I’ve faced them. The old me would have delayed or put off the tooth extraction and bone graft out of fear, but this time, I didn’t. I guess this proves that I’m a real grown-up now. I asked for the first appointment they had, ready to face this unknown terror head on.

I was scared not just of the idea of pain and multiple scary procedures in my mouth again, but also that my vanity was going to take a hit with a sudden gaping hole in my smile where a pretty white tooth should be! But that awful old tooth was hurting me again, and it was cracked at the root and infected. It had to go – it had served its time. I was ready to be done with it, once and for all.

So once again I saddled up at the dentist – lay back in the chair, got the nitrous mask on my face and began to breathe deep to ease my jittery nerves and anxiety. Between the nitrous and the dentist and assistant’s great demeanor, I soon felt at ease. The extraction and accompanying bone graft were “a piece of cake” in my dentist’s words. I was out of their office and back in my car within an hour. The bleeding didn’t last long and the post-op pain was manageable with Advil. All in all, not a bad experience – really, as good as it could be – and I am ready to face the next step in the dental implant process in a few months.

As for my vanity and the gap in my smile – I’m actually okay with that, too. I’m 48 now, and turning 49 in a few weeks. I’m up for having a few battle scars – after all, I’m a warrior and someone who faces down fears! Yes, I’ll be happy once all these dental procedures are complete and I have my pretty new dental implant to round out my smile – but that won’t be for many months. For now, I’m learning to smile even with a missing tooth. I guess on some level, it’s a metaphor for life. Not everything will be perfect. There will always be bumps in the road (or gaps in our smile). We just have to keep smiling anyway. I can even smile when my daughter lovingly calls me “Toothless!

Have you faced down dental – or other – fears and learned to smile through them? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below or over on Facebook!

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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