You know how some people have a crippling fear of heights, or water, or even darkness? It’s a sensation that sucks, and that fear can keep you from doing things that you really want to or, in worst-case scenarios, things that you need to do. I have a similar fear, but mine is not of standing on a clifftop, or of the bottomless ocean (though I dislike large bodies of water). Mine is of doctors, and specifically going to the doctor’s office.
It’s called iatrophobia (or “odontophobia” for dentists, because everything needs to have a name for some reason), and the TL;DR is that you experience a near-crippling fear of going to the doctor’s office. A unique problem with
iatrophobia being scared shitless of the doctor’s office is that while you can avoid most fears (i.e. if you don’t like heights, don’t go on the roller coaster), you will have to go to the doctor’s office eventually.
Such was my case. As you may recall, I vowed at the start of the year that I would go to the dentist. Recently I made the first of what I quickly learned would be many visits to the dentist, and let me tell you – it sucked.
Oh boy, did it suck.
At the beginning of the year I made the resolution that I would visit the dentist because “It’s starting to become a goddamn train wreck in there.” The last time I went to the dentist was in 2005 to have some cavities filled prior to my joining the United States Army (MPs lead the way). The only reason I went then was because the Army has a policy about not accepting new recruits with dental problems, and to be allowed in I basically had to. I was scared out of my wits for the entire time I was in there, and afterwards I had a panic attack in the parking lot – an especially uncomfortable sensation when you can’t feel your face.
Seven years later I found myself sitting in the sterility of my dentist’s waiting room with only year-old issues of The New Yorker and an elderly woman who kept gumming her mouth like she was applying chapstick to keep me company. On the far wall was a television screen which constantly aired powerpoint slides depicting dental ailments and the many different invasive procedures used to treat them.
Spoiler Alert: They all involve needles, drills, and what amounts to fancy dentist spackle.
Minutes felt like hours as I waited to be called to the back, and like Robert Klein, I couldn’t stop my leg. It felt like a small eternity had passed before the door finally opened and one of the dental assistants led me to a small white room in the back. Once in the room she asked me to sit in the large grey examination chair in the center of the room, for which I complied.
As I laid back in the faux-leather chair, I could feel my heart pounding. I don’t like this, I don’t like this, I don’t like this, my mind repeated incessantly as the dental assistant asked her series of questions. I answered in kind, taking a moment in-between each answer to swallow the lump that kept rising in my throat. If she sensed my tension, she didn’t do a damn thing to alleviate it. Instead she continued to rifle through the questionnaire with an emotionless robotic efficiency, before carelessly tossing my file on the counter, informing me that she’ll return shortly, and walking out of the room.
I sat in the chair with my thoughts to keep me company. I thought about all the things that are probably wrong with my teeth, and all the heinous things that they’ll probably do to my mouth in the name of “medicine”. I also thought about how much it’s going to cost me and, despite my (admittedly righteous) employer-provided insurance, it made my stomach churn.
Before I could build up the courage to run for my life, the assistant returned with a large grey bib. “Sit up, Mr. Jones.” She ordered, her thick German accent inspiring obedience on my part. I went to lean up, but was immediately pushed back down by the heavy lead-lined bib that the dental assistant plopped on my chest with the grace of a feral cat desperately trying to escape a bath tub. No sooner had I adjusted the bib to not choke me (it was riding high), the dental assistant lowered my chair and stood over me, one hand holding my mouth open while the other placed a piece of plastic in the corner of my mouth.
“Bite down, Mr. Jones,” she ordered. “I’m going to take a few x-rays.”
I attempted to bite the plastic, but my efforts were met with razors slicing at my gums. I opened my mouth wider, attempting to adjust my jaw to properly bite down on the plastic.
“Mr. Jones, bite down.”
“I’n y’ing!” I tried to communicate, my mouth still slightly ajar.
I brought my teeth down on the plastic as I fought through the pain of having edges digging into the tender bits of my mouth. The pain, combined with my flaring nerves, saw me clench my fists tightly against my sides. As I fought with the plastic blades in my mouth, the assistant positioned the large
x-ray generator radiation cannon directly next to my skull. I glanced over to see the barrel of this monster pointed directly at my head, and for a moment I envisioned myself as a 40-foot Goliath, smashing buildings with lampposts and crushing California drivers under my feet because, really, they deserve whatever fate they receive.
Once the machine was in place, the wide-eyed assistant backed away before diving out of the room. A moment later I heard the machine buzz and whir, trembling ever-so-slightly under the immense stress of focusing it’s radioactive might into a single focused beam. I closed my eyes, and waited to feel the neutrons flowing through my blood to strengthen my muscles and repair years of liver and kidney abuse.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. In fact, I felt nothing.
It was over as quickly as it had started, and after taking a moment to peek around the corner the nurse came in and pulled the machine back. Taking the piece of plastic from my mouth, she gave me another piece of plastic and told me to open my mouth once more. We repeated this process five more times, each time my gums and jaw hurting more and more as increasingly sharp pieces of medical flotsam were shoved into my gaping maw. But finally, after a few minutes of the worst photoshoot of all time (which felt like hours), the x-rays were over and I was left sitting in the pleather chair with a sore jaw.
At last, after close to an hour in that damned office, my dentist came into the room to look over my x-rays. She looked through them on the computer monitor, one by one, making little “hmm” and “ahh” noises with each one. After she made her way through my visual dental portfolio, she turned to look at me.
“Mr. Jones, please open your mouth.”
Oh Christ, not again I thought to myself as I opened my mouth once more. The Dentist took a small light and shined it in my mouth as she leaned uncomfortably close to assess the damage. She peeled my upper lip back, then my lower lip, before nodding to herself and clicking off the light.
“Mr. Jones,” she began. “You have one of the worst mouths I have ever seen.”
“Gee, thanks.” I said in an unamused deadpan. She shared my lack of enthusiasm.
“You have one tooth that needs to be extracted, and at least two more cavities. However, I can’t actually see how bad the damage is until all the plaque and other grime is removed.” She started to scribble something down on a piece of paper. “Do you consume a lot of sodas or–”
“Colas,” I correct her. It’s a Midwest thing.
“Uh, yeah.” I proceed to tell her about my habits of drinking Mountain Dew like water, eating food that will probably put me in the ground before my 40th birthday (my weight in Taco Bell, basically), and how I’ve recently discovered that Disneyland doesn’t have bad tasting food anywhere in the park. She shook her head, obviously unfazed by my plight.
“Well, for starters you need to stop drinking sodas.” I roll my eyes, but she continues. “I say this to all my patients, but in your case I’m not suggesting. I am telling you that if you want to keep your teeth, you need to cut out the soft drinks completely. Drink tea, drink coffee if you have to, but no more sodas.”
I let out an audible sigh as I turned my gaze towards the ceiling. For many of you, especially the health-conscious, the concept of letting go of soft drinks is nothing. In fact, a few of my closest friends have told me that it’s no big deal, and that it’s something I needed to do anyways because soft drinks are “high on sugars and syrups” and will “kill you” one day.
A few of my closest friends need to shut the hell up and let me mourn.
The Dentist also informed me that one of my teeth at the very back of my mouth has rotted below the gum line, thus requiring the surgery to have removed. However she can’t schedule a surgery right away since it’s highly likely that the tooth is infected, requiring me to take penicillin every six hours for a week. I also learned that I have a rather gnarly (my wording, not hers) gum infection that will require a prescription mouthwash to handle.
Mouthwash and Penicillin. Truly the finest in 1930s medical care.
I take my mouthwash and receipt for my prescription, along with my complimentary toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste, and leave the office. The moment the door closed behind me I lurched over, hands on my knees, and try to gather my breath. I hate the dentist.
As my breath steadied and I started walking back towards where I work, I allow myself a moment of adulation. You did well, I’m proud of you, I say to myself as my back straightens and my walk becomes more of a swagger. I’m feeling good about myself. After all, all they need to do is… surgery… oh son of a–no matter. After the surgery, I’ll go back to the dentist and they’ll be able… to… address the rest of my problems… with drills and dental spackle…